Choosing the Right Self Defense Handgun Caliber for You

It’s the self-defense question that never seems to fade and one I seem doomed to get asked over and over and over again: What caliber handgun is best for self defense?

Well I’m here to tell you that before you ask this question, you have to answer these three: Do you consider your life under threat? Second, what are the circumstances under which your carrying a sidearm? And, third, are you trained, do you train, and are you proficient as a shooter?

Do You Consider Your Life under Threat?

I met with a good friend of mine recently who is doing some private security consulting for a wealthy client who is going through a nasty divorce. Her soon to be ex-husband has threatened her and she feels her life is in serious danger.

Home protection gun.

Heading up a bodyguard detail for this lady is probably going to require something a bit bigger than a .22 long rifle, don’t you think? Well, it doesn’t matter whether you’re armed because you’re an off-duty cop or an average citizen who enjoys the legal right to carry a concealed weapon, when considering what sidearm fits the job, you need to conduct a personal threat analysis.

Ask yourself: Do you frequent rough neighborhoods?  What is the likelihood of someone trying to kill you or commit armed robbery against you? Will you have enough rounds for the firefight, should one occur?  These questions should start to whittle away at the seemingly boundless number of carry options available to you, bringing into better focus the perfect type of handgun and caliber for you and to combat any deadly situations you’re likely to find yourself in.

Realistically evaluating the potential for violence in your life is a decisive ingredient to effectively arming yourself. The last question alone should determine whether you go with a revolver, a small concealable single-stack magazine (e.g. .32 or .380) or something a little less subtle with a few more extra rounds to it and the questions you use should account for all of your daily realities, pursuits and habits.

What do you do for a living?  Does it require you to carry a lot of cash you don’t necessarily want to announce to the world you’re carrying?  In that case, a snub-nosed revolver might fit the bill.

Revolver home protection.

Do you work or otherwise have to pass through neighborhoods with high crime rates where the potential for muggings and sexual assaults is higher?  In this case, a small concealable single stack will allow you to carry comfortably and discretely while still taking the day in any extreme close quarters combat.

Where do you live?  For example, if you living in the Phoenix area you’re living in an area that is rated second in the world in kidnappings behind to Mexico City.  Because of this, you might want consider having enough rounds for multiple kidnappers/kidnapping-escape attempts in any single day.

Okay, maybe I’m being far-fetched with the last one, but could it happen? Do the stats inform us that this was a reality for somebody and may well become a reality for us? Yes, absolutely. Will it happen to you? Most likely no, but don’t think it won’t.  If you want to protect yourself start by believing it can happen to you. Then, like the Boy Scout Motto says: Be Prepared.

Why Are You Carrying a Gun?

Beyond assessing your likelihood of being attacked, you have to ask, why are you carrying a handgun? This is a more complex question than perhaps it lets on because, though many will quickly retort self-defense without thinking, this is not detailed enough of an answer to be useful.  There is generally a very specific reason why folks decide to get and carry a handgun and one must look at this reason to accurately gauge the best caliber choice for them.

Concealed carry.

Are you carrying a gun to stop a rushing attacker?  If so you will need something with some stopping power like a .45 ACP.  Are you carrying a gun for piece of mind or just to exercise the right?  A smaller caliber might give you that and make carrying much more comfortable.  Are you looking for a handgun strictly for home defense?  Indoors, you have to consider over-penetration meaning even a 9mm make be too much bang (though hollowpoints should be okay).

Do you live next to a zoo and need to protect yourself from large primates that may escape and go ape? You might find that comical (not the pun, per se, but the example), nonetheless, that has happened before and if that was your reasoning behind buying your gun, then you should have used it to reason out which gun to buy.

Gorillas have tough webbed muscles. A .454 Casull might do the trick, but the likelihood of running into an angry gorilla seems remote. On the other hand, guerrilla’s (insurgents and thugs) are built more like you and me. A .44 magnum would of course work but seems like overkill to me.

How “Trained” are you?

Okay, so here’s the bottom line. You’ve parsed out which type of gun you’re going to carry and you have an idea of the caliber size you need for the job.  Now think Goldilocks and the Three Little Bears.

I tell my students this all the time: just like some bowls of porridge are too hot, some too cold and others just right, when considering handgun calibers for self defense, you have to use the gun and caliber combination that works “just right” for you.  The above questions will point you in the right direction, but until you take a bite, you’ll never know how hot or cold the thing is.


If you don’t have experience shooting handguns, get some. Train with what works best for you and always stick to the gun you can handle best regardless of the caliber.  This is the luxury of training and if you find the gun you want packs too big of a wallop for you to hold on to the target during multiple lethal hits, you may want to consider another caliber.

If you’re not trained in using an auto-loading (a.k.a. semi-automatic) handgun or feel too uncomfortable with  the mechanics and possible malfunctions associated with a semi-auto, get a revolver. Offerings in practically any of the .38 Specials and .357s are great defensive revolver calibers.

So with all that said, I know someone out there missed the point of my little story here and is still itching to ask: what caliber handgun is best for self defense?  Well, if you’re going for a semi-automatic defensive handgun round, I think a 9mm is really a fantastic choice.  Some may balk at my suggestion, but in the “game” of self defense, wise men don’t say things like “go big or go home.” No, wise men (or women) recognize that (1) multiple shots on target and (2) shot placement are much more critical than a slightly larger round (e.g. .40 S&W or .45 ACP). Like when sizing up an opponent for hand-to-hand mortal combat, you never should underestimate the little guys. They’ll surprise you most when you least expect it.

Our resident tactical guru gave us a lot to think about when choosing a suitable carry gun and fingered 9mm as his choice for best all around defense caliber.  What’s your choice for the best defense caliber of all time?

Photo Credit — Oleg Volk

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