Handguns are the go-to self-defense firearms of choice for millions of Americans. If you’re looking for a handgun, here are some tips to find the best self-defense caliber handguns.
In this article:
- Which Handgun is Suitable For Each Situation
- What Matters When Stopping an Assailant/Attacker?
- Master Your Handgun
- Learn the Caliber Differences
- Great Calibers for Self Defense
RELATED: How To Pick the Perfect Small Handgun for Self Defense
Choosing the Best Self Defense Caliber Handgun
Which Handgun is Suitable For Each Situation
Not all handguns are alike, and many folks believe that bullet caliber plays a big role in how suitable a pistol is for a self-defense situation.
But before we get into choosing the best self-defense caliber handgun, here are some things to know first.
What Matters When Stopping an Assailant/Attacker?
To really answer what is the best self-defense caliber handgun ideal for self-defense situations, you have to consider what factors actually matter in such a scenario. Picture the following event:
- an attacker has broken into your home
- it’s a man, and he’s 220 pounds or something similar – likely fairly tall as well
- he is armed with a hand-to-hand weapon (i.e. a knife)
So, there are already a few things to consider if you were to try to stop this attacker or burglar.
Strictly speaking, three things will affect how fast a guy goes down:
- shot placement
- bullet stopping power
- bullet penetration power
The last two aspects are similar but also a little different. Bullet stopping power is more accurately described in this case as destructive damage.
Bullets that spread or shatter on impact will produce more stopping power since they’ll do more immediate damage to the attacker’s flesh upon impact.
They’re also more likely to stay inside your target’s body.
Bullet penetration power affects how well a bullet goes through your attacker.
This does play a role with initial stopping power as well, as bullets that can penetrate more easily might get through a tough leather jacket or other thick materials he might be wearing.
But which of these aspects matters the most? It’s definitely accuracy.
While bullet caliber and other bullet attributes can play a big role in a self-defense situation, accuracy (your shot placement) will matter more than any other factor.
If you can nail an attacker in the head from 20 yards away, it doesn’t matter what type of bullet you’re using – he’ll go down.
Master Your Handgun
So our first piece of advice would be this: become an expert marksman with your chosen self-defense handgun.
This will almost guarantee you’ll be able to drop anyone who gets into your house no matter what cartridges you have loaded into the weapon.
A side note: shotguns and rifles are almost universally better for self-defense in terms of actually stopping attackers.
They carry heavier cartridges on average and produce more stopping power by virtue of their bullet velocities.
However, since we’re focusing on handguns, the emphasis on shot placement matters even more.
RELATED: 7 Tips To Improve Your Situational Awareness | Gun Carrier Self Defense
Learn the Caliber Differences
A bullet’s caliber essentially describes its size and weight.
Larger calibers mean bigger bullets, which mean either more penetration power or more stopping power.
Such bullets may or may not be faster than smaller caliber bullets, depending on the powder loads contained in a given cartridge.
Caliber does matter for stopping attackers, certainly. For instance, if you have a high-caliber pistol, even a glancing shot is likely to stop a burglar and send them running.
A small glancing bullet from a .22, on the other hand, might not even register in your attacker’s mind in the heat of the moment when adrenaline is coursing through their body.
Great Calibers for Self Defense
All this is to say that you should generally stay away from small game or varmint hunting cartridges like .22 or .25 ACP cartridges. Larger cartridges are better for their stopping power and killing potential.
Great examples of the best self-defense caliber handguns include:
- 9 mm. These bullets are typically fast and relatively small but offer good penetrative power. Most importantly, these bullets don’t produce a ton of recoil, so maintaining excellent shot placement is easier.
- .38 special. These rounds are ideal for use in revolvers and don’t affect your accuracy too much.
- 10 mm. This is a great caliber if you can control the recoil of your handgun. The cartridges offer plenty of power and expansion (i.e. damage to your target).
Watch this video from First World Crusader to see their top 5 handguns perfect for beginners:
Ultimately, the best cartridge for your handgun is the one you’re most comfortable with because that’s, in theory, the cartridge you will be most accurate with.
Keep this in mind as you practice and remember to keep your aim sharp – it’s the number one factor determining whether you’ll be successful in a self-defense situation.
- How To Shoot Better With A Handgun
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- The 7 Best Handguns For The New Shooter
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Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on July 24, 2020, and has been updated for quality and relevancy.
“If you can nail an attacker in the head from 20 yards away, it doesn’t matter what type of bullet you’re using – he’ll go down.” Really? A .22, .25, or .32 would more likely bounce off the skull. And there’s a reason, despite your disdain, .45 is still popular.
Which one doesn’t work is the one located in the safe in the basement and the keys located in the safe in other room downstairs.
12 gauge shotgun loaded with double ought buck should do the trick quite well!
I live II live in a townhouse with thin wall. I am concerned about to much penetration, I don’t want to shoot my neighbor. Would a 380 be enough stopping power while reducing the odds of shooting my neighbor?
Use a shotgun. Plenty of stopping power and should not penetrate a houses wall
All this stuff about calibre and “tip” construction is just dandy, but there is a pistol on the market called “The Judge” that is a revolver (5 shot) and will accept either a heavy duty .45 cal. shell OR a 410 ga. shotgun shell (and I prefer the 410 that has not only the pellets in it but also two small serrated discs that will literally saw through cartilage and bone – to say nothing of veins and arteries) BAD??
THAT is an understatement
A revolverl that chambers a .410 shot shell seems very interesting but I’m curious how it treats the shooter. I usually shoot 9mm in a Glock 19 or a Sig 226. I know the only way to really know is to shoot one but can anyone give me some comparisons to help me decide?
I too have the Judge as my nightstand 1st go to andwith backups of 12g 00buck and a 9mm Sig 226. And yes i practice as often as time permits.
No reply today? Sorry???
I’ve never used anything but a 25 Baretta and a 223 ar 15 the 25 because I had to have total concealment the 223 because a border patrol agent gave it to me after we were ambushed. The 25 killed the attacker with 2 hits and 3 pin down shots I don’t think the 223 killed any one but made me feel safer when I was shot at.
While the .40 and .45 certainly hit with more impact… fewer users are going to be able to control them well, and get 2nd or 3rd hits on the target, if needed.
The Other concern — not mentioned in the Article — is over-penetration…
WHAT is BEHIND the person you are shooting..?? You can sometimes ‘control’ some of those things in your home — funneling, and clear knowledge of where your Family members would be, etc — but wall penetration AFTER the bullet passed thru the intruder, or if you Missed them. Is your child’s bed on the other side of that sheetrock wall? And in ‘street’ situations, is your Big Ole 44 Magnum or ,45 ACP going to go Thru the assailant and hit someone across the street waiting for the bus..?
So the question becomes more ‘complicated’ than just what has Stopping Power.
Sure… a .44 Magnum Hollow-Point, or even a .50 cal Desert Eagle, WILL knock an assailant down!
But it may knock YOU down, too! and 5 or 6 More people behind the assailant… And good luck ‘concealing’ a hog leg like that at Wal~Mart or the grocery store.
what. about 22 long I think it will just piss a big guy off 9mm .I
like I’m a short guy & in a wheelchair & marijuana smoker have class 6 feelony what can I do to carry a gun legal again?
Nothing I know of unless there’s some way of getting the Felony off your record? That by itself as far as I know will STOP you from ever purchasing any firearm legally. Better look into stun guns or a less lethal alternative? Maybe talk with an attorney about getting the Felony removed?
I am looking at the glock 19 or the Smith & Wesson .40 cal. I am in a cheep hair permanently. What would be my concerns with shooting one of those from a wheelchair?
I should have went back and read before I hit the post button. It should have read:
I am looking at the glock 19 or the Smith & Wesson .40 cal. I am in a wheelchair permanently. What would be my concerns with shooting one of those from a wheelchair
SMITH AND WESSON GOVERNOR 45 LONG COLT 45ACP’S IN MOON CLIP’S AND 410 2AND A HALF INCH SHOTSHELL’S ,BUCK SHOT OR SLUGS IDEAL HOME PROTECTION GUN URBAN SUBURBAN OR COUNTRY SECURITY BENEFITS!!
Hey John I love my Judge but I have not had any luck finding those triple aught .410 rounds.
I hope you guys are wrong about the small caliber handgun. I bought my wife a .22 magnum with a 26 round clip . I think she will be okay. She is hitting head shots at 50 yards !
ALASKAN .44 MAG is one bad son of B if you can handle it practice makes perfect the more you shoot the more comfortable you’ll be tip from hawaii.
A .380 will Lilly not stop an intruder if you hit them in the torso/limbs. A .380 is adequate if you hit in the eyeball. Shot placement when using a handgun is more critical than caliber IMO. I wouldn’t recommend anything smaller than a .380 with that being said.
Illegal in some states, considered a short barrel shotgun.
As long as you can use your arms and hands, no problem at all. However regardless what you choose I recommend taking a shooting course and train. 9 mm ammo is the cheaper option.
My first choice is a WWII Browning Hi-power in 9mm JHP, my second choice is my Ruger single action in .44 S&W But do not discount a .22 or .22WMR JHP. I have dropped a coyote with one shot from a Ruger SP 101 firing CCI Stingers. Using high velocity .22 HP in a Ruger 10/22 I took out a badger with one round. Modern .22 ammunition is not the same as your Dads .22’s and I can say positively that they will not bounce off of someones skull. Three or four .22 HP rounds center mass will mess up anybodies day and they will not be walking away, or getting up again ever. Actually I would change my first choice to my 1911/22 Browning, it can deliver 4 or 5 rounds in less than two seconds. You must remember that when you are firing a weapon indoors the sound and concussion are are tremendous and you probably won’t have the time to put in ear protection. Also your family members will be subject to the same volume as you and the bad guy which can be very disorientating to all parties in this situation.
I carry a 9 mm S&W model 59. 16 rounds. Have had this gun since I got back from Nam. Yes it is heavy to a point, but, got very good with it. Do have many more, but again with the grain we relod with, and hollow point, don’t think would have a problem. Don
The best gun tom protect yourself is a Charter Arm .32cal H & R magnuim, just saw a new one at gunbroker online $219, low recoil and plenty of stopping power. Even better 3 1/2″ barrel, very small, I can put it in my front pocket or my wives purse. Need to buy ammo online. Don’t spent $1,000 on a 9mm its just a big waste of money. I have many other pistols and rifles, but for personal protection, the 32 maguim is my favorite.
Birdshot from a short shotgun is an effective choice for in home defense. Over penetration is an issue with any high speed projectile.
I prefer my S&W 357revolver loaded with hollow points. Since I’m retired and alone I don’t have to worry about post penetration. Plenty of stopping power. My best hope is that I will never have the occasion to use it for self defense.
40 cal. home defense is a good gun for nightstand , it will not penetrate the wall behind the intruder and will flat out stop anyone no matter size , also I have a 12 guage standing beside the bed with 9 pellet double ought and if need be there is a 38 on wifes side loaded with home defence rounds . These are a little pricy but when your life is on the line cost is no object .
Love my .40 cal.
All of the calibers and types of guns aside. You need to study the way the bullets are engineered and consider that some of the smaller rounds are just as effective as some of the larger rounds with modern engineering. Another big part of the effectiveness of a round is shot placement. If you can’t hit your target, you won’t stop it. Remember, most people hit with a handgun bullet won’t even slow down with their attack unless you can suddenly reduce blood pressure (heart shot) or turn the computer off (headshot taking out the brain stem). Another issue is the availability of a loaded serviceable weapon. Do you have the security and wherewithal to keep a loaded weapon readily available anytime and anywhere you need to deploy it. You mental makeup; ie. your confidence in the round and gun you are shooting is about 90 % of actually shooting; shooting mechanics is about 10 % of shooting. Also are you able to shoot someone to hit center of mass or the head, or will you fall apart as soon as deadly force is required? The reason some guns don’t have front sights is so it doesn’t hurt so bad when the bad guy sticks the gun where the sun doesn’t shine because you couldn’t bring yourself to take the shot for fear of hurting someone. Every gun owner needs to practice combat shooting with simunitions, paintballs, etc. Remember those paper targets don’t shoot back and a tight group doesn’t always stop an attacker, but two bullets spaced farther apart have more effect of imparting stopping energy if the bullet is constructed to expend all of it’s energy inside the target, rather than punching two small holes and making the bad guy leak a little blood. There is so much more to say on this subject, but most importantly, know your weapon, know yourself and know your laws regarding self defense, the defense of others and the defense of you living quarters.
Is the Walthers 380 PPK/S with a 95grain FMJ sufficient for self defense? I was told hollow points are not friendly in this gun ???
I have one and was told it’s ONE of the best for carrying.
I am a 65 year old disabled grandmother. I have arthritic hands and cannot push safety off on Glock. I have a 38 special revolver but I would like something with more shots than 5. Anyone have suggestions for a handgun to carry for protection. I have a license to carry. Thanks!
to SANDY – the Rock Island Armory snub nose 38 special is quite inexpensive and is well tested. holds 6 rounds and fires any 38 special ammo. i have their 4 inch bbl revolver which i carry at times and feel it is worthy. i have 2 of the 3 snub nose revolvers they make. i carry them at times. i have never had an issue with any of these revolvers. i suggest you shop at Buds online if you like. Buds is dependable. just to be responsible have your local gunsmith check your guns wheel and timing!!
carrying in a purse – there are purses made so you can quickly access a gun. you should look into this.
since we all grow older we have personal issues. slowing down being one of mine. as i slow down i must focus on being ready and add to that surprise. this offsets my reaction speed. i am a large guy and have always been very fast. surprisingly fast in fact. but at 74 my days are numbered. i see great advantage for ladies with a gun purse, their hand holding the gun, finger on the trigger, just waiting for some piece of garbage to ”err” : ) my best wishes to you.
i am quite interested in the tech advancements on the 22 magnum. to watch the you tube people use it in various tests the 22 magnum is no toy. i have been satisfied with my handguns in 357 magnum, 38 special, and of course the 9mm hot for many years. i have a 22LR in an AR7 but he was just something to spend money on i guess. put maybe 21 rounds through the AR7 back in the 70’s.
anyway i never imagined i’d deviate from my revolvers and pistols but this recent advancement in the 22 magnum has my complete attention. small, light weight, and an ass kicker out to 2,000 ft is possible.
Colt .45 Three in the chest. If perp is still standing three more in the chest.
What are y’all thoughts on 22 magnum? Hollow point?
Glock 22 .40 cal with Black Talon. I think this has the best stopping power when you consider muzzle velocity/cartridge.
Only drawback is finding available .40 cal ammo and the price. Black Talon is no longer on the public market, but you can substitute other home defense loads.