What are your personal choices for self-defense handguns? More than once I've stated that my choices don't have to be your choices. While we all are probably better served with input from others on a topic, in the end, we have to make our own decisions. If the following information is of some use, that's good, but in the end, go with what works best for you.
.22LR or .25ACP: None. I do not trust the caliber at all for these purposes. If forced by circumstances to use a .22, I'd go with a target size automatic if at all possible as accurate, rapid-fire could be more easily achieved. In the .25, I'd go with a pistol that was reliable and do my best to get very exacting shots.
From left to right: .32 ACP, .380 ACP, and 9x19mm. I do not trust any of these using FMJ ammunition. In the .32 and .380, some recommend FMJ over JHP's as they give deeper penetration. The "problem" with these calibers seems to be that when they expand, penetration's limited to around 7 to 9" in tissue and when non-expanding ammo's used, wound channels are fairly small. Likewise, in FMJ, the 9mm is capable of excessive penetration and smallish wound channels. It has not performed well for me on even small varmints and there's been enough written on its failures that I do not trust it in this form.
.32 ACP: If I just had to use this caliber, it would be in a Walther PP or something reliable of similar size. The larger pistols are easier for me to get the hits with and you don't sacrifice velocity with an already light bullet of small diameter.
.380 ACP/9mm Makarov: In the first caliber, I'd go with the Bersa Thunder lightweight pistol. They've proven to be exceptionally reliable and have unexpectedly good mechanical accuracy. They have 3.5" barrels and get pretty decent velocities within the .380 ballistic envelope. Flat, light, and reliable add up for a pretty decent carry gun…if you trust the cartridge. It's right on the line for what I consider "viable" or maybe a bit below. For straight-on, unobstructed shots it probably has adequate penetration with expanding bullets. Let an arm or other barrier get in the way and I'm not so sure. For me, the few Bersa Thunder .380's I've shot have had usable sights and pretty decent trigger pulls. At present, the roughly $200 they command make them "best buys" in my estimation. Unlike the Walther pistols, I find these exceptionally comfortable to shoot.
The Bersa has proven reliable and accurate for me. The aluminum frame forms part of the feed ramp and I'd go with something like Federal 90-gr. Classic JHP, Winchester's Ranger SXT 95-gr. JHP (RA380T), or Remington 102-gr. Golden Saber.
In the 9x18 Makarov, I'd go with a Makarov pistol. The vast majority are utterly reliable and the gun has a reputation for such. My preference would be a Bulgarian or East German gun. The sights are miniscule so if that's a problem for you (as it is for me), aftermarket sights might well be in the picture. The pistol's round is a bit more potent than the .380's. The gun is all steel and weighs more, but I have found them comfortable to shoot and quite capable of very good groups. While the Bersa could easily be used with a pocket holster, the Mak is a bit heavy in my opinion.
This Bulgarian Makarov has had Novak fixed sights added. I do find them much easier to use than the smaller sights from the factory. First choice in this caliber would be Hornady 95-gr. XTP for me.
For the same reasons as the .380, the Makarov round is not at the top of my defense caliber list. Between a .380 and 9mm Makarov, the gun might very well be the deciding factor on which I chose. (These pistols are more thoroughly discussed in the "Other Handguns" section.)
.38 Special: This caliber is usually considered for snubs. I primarily use this caliber in one and find it about the least I'm willing to go with. While I don't care for stainless handguns, in this case, my pick of the litter is the S&W Model 642. Part of this is because I tote one 24/7 in a pocket holster. It's relatively "closed" to lint and other pocket debris, but is still cleaned at the end of each day. If being able to go to single-action for a greater than expected shot, the shrouded Model 638 might be a better choice. If you opt to try a lightweight snub, do not expect it to be the most pleasant gun in the world to shoot. Recoil is noticeable, but controllable with practice. I prefer the "Airweight" S&W revolvers to the newer ultra-light scandium revolvers as the latter are restricted in the ammunition that can be used in them. Other than jacketed bullets will unseat themselves in the cylinder from recoil. This does not happen with the aluminum-framed Airweights. I continue to use 158-gr. LSWCHP's in mine despite the calls from some to use the lightly loaded target 148-gr. wadcutter. Out of my gun, the former hits 800 ft/sec while the latter is well under 600 ft/sec. There is more on this under "Other Handguns" in a post called "Feeding the Snub .38" if interested.
This is my pick for a 24/7 pocket gun. For the 5-shot .38 to be a viable performer, the owner must practice with it. While true for any defensive pistol, these do not lend themselves to "quick marksmanship" without quite a bit of practice.
In a 4" barrel for belt carry or home defense, my pick would be the S&W Model 10 (or the stainless M65) with the heavy barrel. These have usable sights, are reliable, and have proven themselves very well in one version or another for more than a few years. My choice of ammunition would be the same as for the snub although there are viable alternatives in the longer barrel.
In a .38 Special for belt carry or home defense, this is my first choice.
.357 Magnum: I'm not a fan of the small J-frame revolvers in this caliber. My hands seem to get cut frequently when shooting full-house loads. For carrying concealed, the S&W K-frame Model 19/66 in 4" is my choice in a gun with adjustable sights. If one hit point of aim with fixed, I'd go with the Model 13 4" or Model 65 in 4". The blue version (Model 13) can be had in 3" or 4" barrels and I'd go with the latter length in a belt gun, but wouldn't complain much about shorter barrels. Second choice would be a 2 1/2" Model 19 or 66 in a belt gun. If concealment's not an issue, I'd go with an S&W Model 28 w/4" barrel if I could find one. The N-frame revolvers are considerably more pleasant to shoot rapidly with full-house loads. Right now, my .357 revolvers are loaded with Winchester 145-gr. Silvertips. If recoil were a concern, I'd suggest Remington 125-gr. Golden Sabers. This is a medium power load in the 9mm +P ballistic range.
The 4" S&W Model 19 (top) is not that hard to carry concealed while the easier to shoot, but larger N-frame Model 28 is more pleasant with full-house loads. For open carry, I'd go with the larger revolver.
9mm: In the small versions, I'd go with a Glock 26 even though I'm not the greatest Glock fan in the world. My experience with them has been that they're exceptionally reliable and pretty easy to get good hits with out to about 20 or 25 yards. They handle +P or +P+ ammo with ease. Better sights are readily available for those seeking them. I can carry them concealed via pocket holster carry, but they're at the extreme upper end for me. They do make for an extremely easy to conceal belt gun.
In the small 9mm pistols, my pick is the Glock 26. With the right ammo, velocities are surprisingly high.
In the service size pistol, it will come as no surprise that I'd pick the Browning Mk III Hi Power w/o hesitation. My reasons are explained in several places on the site for those interested. If cocked-and-locked was not an option or I couldn't get a Hi Power, I'd go with a CZ-75. Third choice would be a SIG-Sauer P225.
In 9mm, the Hi Power remains my first choice. While this one has Novak sights and a few other custom touches, I find that I do no better than with a Mk III using the factory fixed sights.
I am comfortable with the 9mm for self-protection. Mine are loaded with Winchester RA9TA, the 127-gr. +P+ law enforcement ammunition. If that was not available or not reliable, I'd go with Speer 124-gr. +P or Remington 124-gr. +P Golden Sabers. If those were not available or none reliable in my gun, I'd take Corbon 100-gr. PowRball or Remington 125-gr. JHP +P. (If you have concerns about using +P or +P+ ammo, I still think that Federal 115-gr. JHP is a decent load and believe that the standard velocity 124-gr. Gold Dots and Golden Sabers are not much less potent than their +P counterparts.)
.45 ACP: In this caliber, I prefer the full-size 5" barrel. Pick the 1911 that you like best and make sure it's reliable. Right now, my primary carry gun in this caliber is a slightly modified Norinco. The pistol's reliable, reasonably accurate, and with the addition of high-visibility fixed sights, easy to get hits with at speed. I don't carry a "big gun" much. My orbits are quite tame now compared to days past and I do find the steel 1911 pistols easier to get accurate repeat shots with. Were I carrying one 24/7, I'd most likely go with something like a 5" lightweight from Springfield Armory. If Condition One carry is not an option, the SIG-Sauer P220 (aluminum frame version) would be my unhesitating choice.
This lightly-modified Norinco is my current "carry gun" in .45 ACP. The gun's proven reliable and more than sufficiently accurate. Even with the low-end customization, I have considerably less invested in this 1911 than others. (Keep in mind that in the event of a shooting, your pistol will be taken temporarily by law enforcement for examination. Pick a reliable pistol for carry, but not necessarily your "pride and joy".) These are very durable copies of John M. Browning's classic design. That said, most any reliable 1911 will serve and I'd be just as confident with my Kimber, Colt, STI, or Springfield Armory. This is one design that there are a plethora of choices for. Pick the one that suits YOU should you go this route.
My first choice in ammunition is Winchester RA45T, the 230-gr. law enforcement standard pressure load. My second choice is Remington 230-gr. Golden Sabers. Third choice: Hornady 200-gr. XTP +P. All have proven reliable in a wide variety of 1911's for me. IF they feed in your gun, Federal's 230-gr. Classic JHP and Speer 230-gr. Gold Dots are very viable.
There are other guns I'd certainly consider for protective use, one being the S&W Mountain Gun in .45 Colt as well as the same company's Model 58 (if one can be found) in .41 Magnum, but I've not done enough testing of commercial ammunition to offer load suggestions. I skipped .44 Special as most of the loads for it are a bit light in my view and the smaller versions (essentially K-frame size) from Taurus may not hold up to much shooting of the warmish +P loads. Not having that much long-term shooting experience with mine, I cannot say.
Narrowing down the above for strictly self-protection, I'd go with an all-steel 1911 in .45 ACP for the belt gun and the Model 642 for back up or for 24/7 carry with the loads mentioned. Though I am comfortable with the 9mm, I do think that with the better loads, .45 ACP does offer a bit "more" at the receiving end. I do not believe that the difference is as significant as some opine when the better loads are used in 9mm.
My choices might very well not be yours, but I hope they're of some use. Over the long-term, the guns chosen are the ones that have been most satisfactory in my experience. Whatever you might end up choosing, make sure it's utterly reliable. Make sure that you understand its manual of arms and are competent to be able to get it into action quickly and accurately. Once you get up into the .38 Special and "bigger" range, I submit that you have sufficient power if you have sufficient ability to get accurate hits.