Are Smaller Calibers Reliable for Defensive Shooters?
For a lot of concealed carriers, there is the impression that a larger caliber bullet is more effective than a smaller one. The concept of “stopping power” has been dispelled over and over again. A .45 ACP round is no more effective than a .32 Auto if they're both placed poorly on target.
There is a psychological aspect to carrying a larger caliber handgun. The impression seems to be that one is more or less capable of stopping a threat immediately. The truth is, this is far from the case.
In fact, small caliber handguns have been carried for self-defense since the mid-1800s and are suited to the task. We'll go over why they shouldn't necessarily be overlooked - though come with caveats - and what to look for if considering a small caliber pistol for self-defense.
The Truth About The Caliber Wars
What stops a lot of people from carrying a small-caliber pistol is the caliber wars. The endless bickering about how much the size of the bullet matters. Without getting bogged down in details, doing a bit of research into self-defense and police shootings, most people will come away with the following conclusions:
Placement matters more than caliber. What bullets do is punch holes in things. In a defensive scenario, the goal is to punch a hole in something vital, which will hopefully cause the bad person to stop whatever they're doing. A big hole in a non-vital area doesn't do as much as a small one in a vital spot.
A quality hollow point of a small caliber is better than a big FMJ round. A .32 JHP of good construction is going to expand and do it's job; a cheap 9x19mm steel case FMJ only good for the range will just punch a small hole in someone.
The shock of being shot counts for so much more than anything else. The only anatomical off-switch that humans have is the brainstem; hit that and lights out. Everything else, even hitting the heart with a handgun round, can take minutes to have an effect. What caliber a person is shot with won't matter; police have put round after round of .45 ACP, .40 S&W and 9x19mm into suspects, only for them to keep fighting until a headshot put them down, blood loss took effect or successive hits sapped their will to fight.
Grizzly bears have been killed by .22s, and .44 Magnums have failed to stop people. There are accounts of entire .38 Special revolvers being emptied into people at point-blank range to no effect.
However, if there is one corollary, it's that small calibers do have a slightly worse track record of stopping people than the established calibers. To sum up, it matters less than people insist it does, so a small caliber pistol is good for self-defense provided you carry quality ammunition and can shoot it accurately.
So, let's go over some appropriate small calibers.
Small Calibers For Self Defense
First of the small calibers for self-defense is the .22 rimfires, specifically .22 Long Rifle and .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire, also called .22 LR and .22 WMR/.22 Magnum.
These rounds have a tiny bullet (.22 inches in diameter) and send them at moderate velocities (around 1200 feet per second for a 40-grain .22 LR round; .22 Mag is closer to 1900 fps) and are classic small-game and plinking rounds. The larger case of the magnum means few semi-autos will chamber it. The .22 family isn't thought of as a viable carry round, but you'd be surprised how many people have successfully defended themselves with one.
One of the smallest centerfire pistol rounds is .25 ACP. Few pistols are made in this caliber anymore and little ammunition is made to go with it. More defensive loadings are made for it than .22 LR, but is small and slow-moving. Like many small calibers, it's best use is up close and personal.
A recent curiosity is the 5.7x28mm cartridge, developed by FN Herstal in the 1990s for use in the P90 submachine gun. Later they released the Five-seveN pistol. It's roughly equivalent to a .22 Magnum, and is a viable defensive round…if you can get any ammunition for it. The gun and a box of 50 practice rounds require a second mortgage. Want some JHPs for it? Get a second job.
.32 ACP - also called 7.62mm Browning or 7.62mm Browning Short - like the .25 ACP was formerly more popular than today. Many compact pistols were chambered for this round well into the 1980s. Popular guns offered in .32 ACP included the Walther PPK, Sig Sauer P230, FN Model 10, Remington Model 51, CZ 83 and many more. The .32 ACP has a long history as a capable service round - though usually a 3.5-inch barrel is needed to get the best of it - and quality ammunition is a bit more obtainable than .25 ACP. However, in short barrel pistols it's still best-suited working closer in.
A curious small caliber from Russia (with...oh, nevermind) is the 7.62mm Tokarev, a neck-down cartridge similar to the (now defunct) 7.62mm Mauser pistol round. The Tokarev produces .357 Magnum-level velocities, and was actually the standard Soviet sidearm from WWII to the early 1960s so it's a viable self-defense round. In fact, 7.62mm Tokarev is capable of piercing body armor, precluding some ammunition from being imported due to federal regulations. Rounds are scarce (though there are a few JHP rounds made for this caliber) and so are guns that chamber it. Basically, you better like the Tokarev pistol (the TT-33) or else forget it.
A few .32 caliber revolver rounds have existed as well, such as the .32-20 (a popular small game round in its day) and the .32 S&W Long, formerly a popular police round. However, the .38 Special pretty much put these cartridges out of business. However, Harrington and Richardson - along with Federal Ammunition - developed the .32 H&R Magnum in the 1980s by lengthening the .32 S&W Long case and adding more powder. In the early 2000s, Federal upped the ante by lengthening the case again to create the .327 Federal Magnum.
The .32 H&R is roughly equivalent to a slightly warm .38 Special and the .327 Federal Magnum can reach power levels of light .357 Magnum loads. Both, with good hollowpoints, are viable defense rounds, but like most revolver rounds require a short-barrel loading to work in a carry gun. (Good luck finding them; only a few revolvers are made in these chamberings.) Otherwise you need a longer barrel for the best performance. The benefit, however, of both is fitting six rounds in snubbies that normally carry five.
The kings of the small caliber rounds, of course, are .38 Special, .380 Auto and (the much rarer) 9mm Makarov. Each are proven defensive calibers in compact pistols, and - unlike some of the previously mentioned rounds - you can actually find ammunition for them on many store shelves. Finding Makarov rounds may take some doing, but it's not impossible.
Now that you have an idea of what small caliber rounds are out there, what should one look for in a small caliber pistol?
This aspect...for most small calibers...is actually made easy for you. With certain exceptions (which we'll get into in a second) most small caliber pistols are already made small to begin with. Very few service-size guns, after all, are made in .380...though a few are! For the most part, a compact caliber comes with a compact size.
However, as with any pistol, you're better off carrying with a quality holster for daily carry. Pocket carry can present some serious dangers, so it's best not to engage in it unless you're doing so with a pocket carry holster.
That said, some .22 pistols are not compacts, so a Browning Buckmaster, old Colt Woodsman or Ruger Mark IV won't make the best CCW gun. However, a Walther PPK, Bersa Thunder, Ruger LCR in .327 Federal or Makarov pistol will do nicely.
Obviously, reliability and accuracy are expected of any carry gun, especially small caliber pistols. This is also where things can get a wee bit dicey.
You see, a lot of small caliber guns that are made today - especially tiny autos in .25 ACP or .32 ACP - are often made by barely-known brands of varying quality. Small caliber guns were often the "Saturday Night Specials" of decades past, and not all were of the best construction.
Some of those brands survive.
While you may be tempted by perceived savings, you don't want to necessarily skimp on something you're going to depend on what you may have to trust to save your life.
Therefore, it would be recommended to get a small caliber handgun from a reputable maker and provenance.
For instance, if you want a .25 ACP or .32 ACP pistol, Beretta still makes the Tomcat in both chamberings. Plenty of quality .380 pistols are available, as are a number of compacts chambered for .22 LR. There are also a number of .22 Magnum snubby revolvers, and a couple of .32 H&R and .327 Federal Magnum snubbies from reputable manufacturers as well.
In short, when looking for a small-caliber gun, make sure to procure one from a reputable manufacturer.
Put In The CCW Practice
However, just as with any gun, you're going to need to put in the requisite CCW practice with a small caliber pistol as with any other. This is another aspect in which things get a little more complicated.
Thing about small guns with short barrels is they aren't the easiest to shoot, and not the easiest to shoot accurately. Plenty of gun writers have opined that the J-frame revolver is a master's weapon, as the 1.8-inch barrel and lighter weight than a service pistol makes it harder to consistently punch cloverleafs than with, say, a Model 10.
Granted, a compact like a PPK, Ruger LCP, Bersa Thunder, Hungarian FEG or Makarov is going to shoot just fine and will be plenty accurate at short range. They are/were designed to be sidearms for police and military personnel.
That pocket .32 you've been eyeing in the bargain case? That may be a whole other ball game.
Naturally, you should fire a pistol before you buy it to make sure you can put up with the thing. If not, don't buy it. Once you've bought it, you need to put in the range time to make sure you can hit with it.
Most small caliber pistols are intended as last-ditch or backup guns. Don't expect to make 50-yard shots. Instead, practice close - within 4 or 5 yards. If you can get groups down to about a 4-inch circle at that range, you're doing pretty well.
When carrying, make sure to select a quality carry load. There are even hollow point rounds for .22 LR (CCI Stingers are pretty highly regarded) so there's little excuse for not doing so. A big FMJ round isn't great for defensive purposes; a small FMJ may be next to useless.
Again, quality ammunition and placement are more important than caliber. While small caliber guns may have a slightly worse track record than the traditional carry calibers (and by less than you'd think) in terms of stoppages, they are proven to work as long as you use good bullets and place them accurately. The former requires you to do your homework, the latter depends on doing the practice.
That said, there's no need to think you can't concealed carry with a smaller caliber pistol.
What do you think of carrying a small caliber CCW pistol?
Share your thoughts in the comments below.