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CCW Ammo: Ammunition Selection For Concealed Carry

What is the best caliber for concealed carry? There's no one best...though some are arguably much better than others...so it ultimately becomes a matter of figuring out which is best for you.

We'll go over the popular concealed carry calibers used in most concealed carry handguns and how they compare to each other.

So tune in, buckle up – let's crack into ammunition.

The Most Common Ammunition Used For Concealed Carry

calibers for ccw
    Let's take a look at some of the most common types of ammunition used by concealed carry handguns:
  • .22LR
  • .380 ACP
  • 9mm
  • .38 Spc
  • .40 S&W
  • .45 ACP

We've omitted a few, as some of you might notice. Calibers such as 10mm Auto, .357 Sig, .38 Super, .32 ACP, .32 H&R and .327 Federal Magnums, .41 Magnum, .44 Magnum and .45 Colt are all viable and fairly popular defensive calibers. The reason why we're going to set them aside for the moment is these calibers - while well-known enough - is that they aren't common enough or aren't available in an appropriate pistol for concealed carry.

For instance, you can find .44 Magnum, .41 Magnum and .45 Colt fairly easily. However, you can't easily conceal a Smith and Wesson N-frame or Ruger Blackhawk with nearly as much ease as, say, a Smith and Wesson M&P Shield.

.22 LR - The Lightest of the Light

.22 long rifle cartridge

One of the lightest possible rounds is .22 LR. Though some people would opine that .22 Long Rifle is not a viable carry caliber, but the truth is that plenty of defensive shootings have b taken place where an attacker was downed or even killed by a .22 LR.

There are some incredible virtues to this round. It's easy to shoot, and therefore very easy to be accurate with. Quality hollowpoints are available, and both carry and practice ammo is exceedingly cheap, at least compared to any other caliber.

For the novice shooter, .22 LR is a great starter round. You can learn marksmanship and it's passable as a defense round. However, it does leave something to be desired compared to the more traditionally-carried defensive calibers, so that is something that should be borne in mind.

In other words, it's a whole lot better than nothing. If it's all you can handle, it's still good, but if you can handle a bigger round...you should carry the bigger round.

.380 ACP - A More Compact 9mm

Hornady .380 cartridges

The .380 ACP is actually just a shorter version of the 9mm. Whereas a standard 9mm Luger round is 9x19mm, the .380 ACP is 9x18mm. A lot of concealed carry guns are made in this caliber because it's highly manageable with light recoil, and less magazine space is required to hold a good supply of rounds.

Some people object to the .380, saying that it doesn't have as much "stopping power" as the 9mm Luger. However, the truth is that .380 Auto is actually a very capable defensive round provided good placement and a quality hollowpoint. Good marksmanship and a good bullet have far more to do with stopping a threat than the size of the bullet, so don't get sucked into pointlessly fretting over caliber.

Because this round is not as common as the 9x19mm, it tends to be slightly more expensive than the 9mm unless bought in bulk. That said, it is common enough that a good supply can easily be obtained, including a good supply of decent carry ammo.

9x19mm Parabellum - One Size Fits All Ammunition Solution

9x19 parabellum cartridge

The 9x19mm round, also called 9mm Parabellum, 9mm Luger, 9mm NATO or just 9mm for short, is the most common pistol round in the world at this point. It is the epitome of ubiquitous. Law enforcement agencies and militaries the world over carry this round for most common pistol applications.

It has a reasonable stopping power, comes in many varieties for defensive gun purposes, and is extremely affordable. Almost every major gun manufacturer produces a wide range of concealed carry handguns chambered in this caliber.

While many concealed carriers will swear by larger calibers or smaller calibers, the 9mm has proven itself through time to be the “one size fits all” of ammunition. Provided a good choice of carry round, the moderate recoil and accuracy of the 9mm round is such that it is the default choice and for good reason.

.40 S&W – 9mm's Bigger, Meaner Brother

.40 S&W cartridges

In the late 1980s, the FBI started looking for a new carry round to replace their then-standard issue .38 Special and 9mm duty rounds. Initially, they turned to 10mm auto but found guns wore out quickly and many agents had problems shooting it.

Smith and Wesson came up with a round in between, the .40 S&W, by shortening a 10mm cartridge and reducing the powder charge until they had come up with a bullet that was larger than 9mm, but could fit in a pistol frame that was designed for the 9mm cartridge. The idea was better ballistic performance than the 9mm ammunition of the day, but that could also easily be adopted by gun manufacturers.

The .40 has remained a popular round ever since, in law enforcement and as a self-defense round for concealed carry.

There is a cost, however, to sizing up from 9mm. In concealed carry applications, carrying capacity of magazines is reduced. Ammunition is also a bit more expensive, and recoil in a compact or subcompact is noticeably sharper than 9mm or .380. That said, if you get used to the recoil, you'll discover that the .40 is the best of both worlds: you get big-bore performance (or at least close to it) but without needing to carry an enormous pistol for it.

Those attributes have made .40 S&W a perennial favorite for law enforcement use and also self-defense. Some people argue that you can't do any better for a concealed carry caliber.

The Default Wheel Gun Cartridge: .38 Special

The .38 Special cartridge was developed by Smith and Wesson in 1898. It was the standard service round for many police agencies for over six decades and is most commonly used in a revolver platform.

Though law enforcement agencies and the military have moved on, .38 Special remains a popular self-defense caliber. Ballistically, it has a lot in common with 9mm. Recoil is slight enough that almost any shooter can handle it. With good hollowpoints or other carry ammo (lead semi-wadcutter hollowpoints or LSWCHP rounds remain popular) the good ol' .38 Special is a very capable defense round. However, load selection is critical, as revolver rounds usually require 4 inches of barrel length or more for optimum performance, so look for short-barrel loads if carrying a snub.

There is a trade-off, however. Your carry options are limited to revolvers as case length (and the rim) prohibits using the .38 Special in semi-autos. That means you're limited to (for most revolvers) 5 to 6 shots. The most easily concealed revolvers - snubnose or "snubbies" - can also be difficult for beginners to shoot accurately. Easily learned, but some dedication is required.

.45 ACP - Arguably The Best Of The Big Bores For Carry

the biggest and baddest: .45 ACP

The myth, the legend: the .45 ACP. It was the carry round for the US military for almost a century, and is descended from the .45 Colt, which also was for several decades. The defensive potential and pedigree is all there.

There's also something of a mythos around the .45 ACP. Talk to some hard-bitten .45 carriers, and they'll inform you that all of the stopping power is belong to them. (It isn't.) They'll say that carrying capacity doesn't matter because they'll "only need one." (It just isn't true.) They also point out that the recoil isn't that bad (that's actually true) and the rounds aren't as expensive as the big revolver bullets, which is also true.

Still, the demand is there and with good reason. The .45 ACP is the easiest big bullet to shoot well and the only one that can be easily concealed. The magnum revolvers just aren't, outside of .357 Magnum, and a compact .45 is much easier to shoot than a compact 10mm. That's why so many gun makers produce a compact .45 for concealed carry.

There are some trade-offs, however. Ammunition capacity is reduced, as most compact .45 ACP pistols are single-stack or double-stacks that don't appear to hold many. Even the 1911 - which 1911 guys insist is the holy grail of pistols - only holds 7+1 or 8+1 in most magazines. Recoil is not as sharp as other powerful rounds, but is still ample, especially in compact pistols.

Don't believe anything about "stopping power," but do believe that a quality .45 ACP hollowpoint expands out to nearly an inch in diameter, which can do a lot of damage to a bad person bent on harming you or others. With good placement and good hollowpoints, the .45 ACP round expands more dramatically and effectively than almost any other round, and offers good penetration.

The .45 ACP isn't necessarily good for game, but is inarguably one of the best defensive rounds. Don't believe ALL the hype...but definitely believe a little bit.

.357 Magnum: Perfection Achieved?

The .357 Magnum was devised by jamming a bit more powder in the case of the .38-44 or .38HV, a hot .38 Special devised for outdoor use back in the early 1930s. It quickly caught on with law enforcement as well as outdoorsmen and quickly became a dominant defensive handgun caliber.

The .357 Magnum can add an additional 400 feet per second and an extra 150 foot-pounds of muzzle energy over a comparable .38 Special round, meaning penetration is never an issue. With good hollowpoints, it's more than adequate for defensive purposes and heavy loads can also be used for hunting small to medium game.

However, capacity is limited due to this round being a revolver round. However, a compact .357 Magnum is not the easiest pistol to shoot. Many shooters do not care for the recoil, and short barrels tend to reduce performance almost to the point of negating most advantage over .38 Special. Experts have opined for decades that any magnum revolver round needs a minimum barrel length of 4 inches to get the most out of it. Short-barrel loads do exist, however, so choose carry rounds carefully.

That said, you can practice for cheaper since .357 Magnum revolvers can shoot .38 Special. The reverse is not true and DO NOT attempt it, but that said, a lot of people consider it the best defensive round there is.

Magazine capacity for CCW

Magazine capacity or carrying capacity is something else to bear in mind. Are you the type of person who always carries a good magazine holster or even a double mag carrier? If you are – caliber can be largely irrelevant. However, if you're not – then size does matter. Namely whether or not your preferred carry choice is a full size, compact, or sub-compact. Each situation dictates a slightly different model. In warmer weather, it's easier to conceal a sub-compact than a full size pistol. With the right inside the waistband concealed carry holster, nearly any pistol can be camouflaged well enough on the body.

With smaller sub-compacts – like the new Glock 43 – caliber selection begins to come front and center. For a 9mm, most sub-compacts average in the “6+1” variety for magazine capacity. When it comes to the larger .40 S&W, magazine capacity drops capriciously. It's common to get down to the “5+1” and lower.

CCW comfort level and training

Don't let lower magazine capacity dissuade you!

It comes down to comfort level with the ammunition and how often a person trains in a specific caliber. Smaller pistols in a higher caliber generally have more kick. If that's what a CCW permit holder uses regularly in training – not a problem. If, however, a person is used to their 1911 .45 ACP and then slides down to a XD® MOD.2™ – 3.3″ Sub-Compact Model in .45ACP for warmer weather, that could make things a bit warm for them, so to speak.

Fight sustainability – 9mm, .40 S&W, or .45 ACP

Why do we put on our concealed carry pistols?

Because we all know intrinsically there may come a time where we have to use them to defend our lives. When it comes to caliber selection, a big consideration is which one promotes fight sustainability.

When dealing with one or more armed combatants, the first person who runs out of ammunition arguably loses the fight. In the hectic environment of combat, tensions are high and people are prone to fire faster and with far less accuracy. It's one of the reasons that the Government Accountability Office regularly showcases how many rounds of ammunition the U.S. military and law enforcement have to expend in order to get an effective result.

It's not the number of bullets or the caliber – it's the ability to stay in the fight until help arrives or the situation is resolved. It's also a great reason that no matter which caliber your preferred CCW pistol is in – it's always a good idea to carry one or more spare magazines.

Are You a CCW Pistol or Concealed Carry Revolver Type?

Concealed carry pistol or revolver?
When it comes to warmer weather, if magazine capacity is already being sacrificed to carry a favored caliber of ammunition – why not consider using a revolver?

While it sounds simple on the surface, revolvers are generally more reliable but have longer reload times than their sub-compact pistol counterparts, which also reduces rate of fire in unpracticed or less-practiced hands. (Moon clips help a lot...if you can use them.) When it comes to putting that sub-compact into a concealed holster, there's a bit more security in knowing it can put all its rounds down range with tight precision and accuracy. Revolvers require a bit more time, especially those models with short barrels.

If it's a revolver you train with for CCW, use a revolver. If not – stick to pistols.

Picking The Right Concealed Carry Caliber For You

Which one is the right concealed carry caliber for you? Only you can answer that. If you're a seasoned gun owner and shooter, you probably have an idea of which rounds you tend to shoot best. For some people it's 9mm, for some people it's .45 ACP, and others it's something else entirely.

The first thing to do is get to a range and do some shooting. Rent a few guns in different calibers, preferably guns you would actually carry. Large service pistols, therefore, are out. Stick to compacts or even subcompacts, if one can be rented.

Try one in 9mm, one in .40 and one in .45 ACP. Try a revolver or two. This will give you an idea of what caliber or calibers will work better for you, and that is the one you should carry.

The conventional wisdom is to carry the biggest round you can shoot well. Whether you balance that with carrying capacity...is a personal decision. Some people will go down to a smaller caliber to get more in capacity, others won't. Again, it's all up to you.

James England
 

About The Author

James England (@sir_jim_england) is the contributing editor for Alien Gear Holsters. He is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and private defense contracting in Afghanistan.