Self-Defense: Caliber or Capacity?


Tangentially related to discussions concerning self-protection handguns is the ammunition capacity question: Should I go with larger caliber or more shots? Is higher magazine capacity and greater "firepower" more important or does everything pale when compared to caliber?


With the trend strongly favoring autoloaders now, the comparison frequently centers on .45 ACP vs. 9mm. It sometimes includes other calibers such as the .40 S&W, which was supposed to give us the best of both worlds: higher magazine capacity than the single-stack .45 with more punch than a 9mm and in a similar size pistol.


Evidently the creation of this new "middle caliber" did not supply the answer for a goodly number of shooters.


Let's take a look at the varying positions on this issue. This article will try and provide alternate points of view and I'll certainly interject my own subjective views but understand that it is not my intention to "convert" anyone to any position.  I will attempt to provide at least some food for thought and interested folks can make their own decision.


The choice between caliber and capacity is neither new nor limited strictly to handguns. Do you favor a greater number of shots on tap before reloading is a must or do you perceive more "power" per shot as being more important.  The right answer for you might be your view of "stopping power" combined with envisioned possible deadly force scenarios.


This discussion must include handgun "stopping power".  Understand that I claim no expertise at being a ballistician, pathologist, or "expert" at anything, merely an interested shooter who hunts and when a full-time peace officer, observed the results of several shootings with different calibers…and with very differing results. I offer only my opinions and observations.  Whether folks agree or pay them no heed at all is their business and their decision.  As another fellow wrote concerning this subject, "We must work out our own salvation". (I will do a separate article explaining my thoughts on this issue.)


Why do some prefer high capacity while others do not? I think the answer might hinge on several issues:


·         The type of self-protection scenario envisioned

·         The individual's personal belief on what constitutes an effective defense caliber

·         The type handgun they prefer or trust

·         The type handgun they can actually shoot best


(Sadly, I think that the last consideration should be higher on the list but it seems that being able to accurately shoot a prospective defense gun might not be deemed quite as important as it should be.)


Let's take a look at possible life-and-death deadly force scenarios.


If you are in areas heavily infested with violent gang activity where several actors routinely attack, assault, or rob their victims, the 5-shot snub toted by many might not inspire the confidence of a pistol capable of more shots before running dry.  For myself, the snub would definitely take a back seat to another handgun of greater capacity and more "power". Then would come the issue of caliber? Do you believe that the .45 is potent and that 8 or 9 shots are enough?  Do you think that it's potent enough but more shots are a necessity and go for a double-stack in that caliber or do you go with a 9mm or other smaller diameter round where a greater number of choices can be found? If it's strictly "firepower", the highest capacities are probably either in 9mm or double-stack 1911-type pistols in .38 Super.


But it's often not just about capacity…


Those who favor defense calibers starting only with a "4" probably won't trust the smaller diameter choices and we see the stopping power issue blending into the mix. They might want more shots but are unwilling to go with a caliber they see as lacking.


People trusting 9mm with selected loads might opt for the handgun holding the greatest number of rounds if the pistol is approximately the same size as others holding fewer.  For example, a fellow happy with 9mm might opt for a Glock 17 with 18 shots on tap as opposed to a Browning Hi Power with 14.


Here are two 9mm double-stack handguns. Both are reliable with about any available 9mm load but the Hi Power holds a total of 14 rounds when the standard 13-shot magazine is used. The Glock 26 is slightly more compact.  It holds 10 +1 in normal trim. If you are happy with 9mm, are the extra shots important enough to go with the larger and heavier Hi Power? Does your ability to possibly shoot one better than the other play a role?


Or do you anticipate fewer aggressors such as the lone psychopath or a couple of toughs willing to rob and/or murder you or your loved ones? The capacity issue is not one for those already choosing to tote a "high capacity" handgun. The five or six shot revolver may very well have enough ammo capacity assuming that the shooter can get the hits and that it's of adequate power. Here we get into the "stopping power" issue again. Some people do not trust the automatic and stick with the wheel gun. While the compact .38's and .357's are certainly popular, many simply prefer larger diameter and heavier bullets. The route chosen here will probably depend on that person's beliefs concerning stopping power as the "firepower" available is about the same, 5 to 6 shots.


Getting back to automatics where capacity differences can be significant and the deciding factor for many, what about the single-stacks?  With them, differences are usually between a 7 or 8-shot .45 ACP magazine or an 8 or 9-shot 9mm. Which is your choice? Here the answer probably stems from the person's view on whether or not 9mm has enough for the job or if they shoot the single-stack 9mm better than the 45. Some offer that since "firepower" is limited anyway, the best choice is the heavier caliber. Others counter that there's not much difference in "stopping power" with "good loads" and that they shoot the 9mm better. My thought is that the last reason is more important than the perceived power issue.  I've said on more than one occasion "power is placement." In the right hands a lowly 22 rimfire is probably sufficient but for most of us, a more potent load is a good thing and possibly allows for a little less precision.  The question is how much? Here we find the stopping power concept again.  Is the .45 twice as good as the 9mm? Do they possess equivalent potency with placement causing different results on the street? At this juncture I suggest that you go with the gun/caliber you shoot best at speed and trust.  If that happens to be 9mm at present, go with it.  If you shoot the nine best but don't rate it as a satisfactory defense caliber, practice with the caliber/gun combination that you do trust until you are competent with it.


It is no secret that my favorite all around automatic remains the Browning Mk III in 9mm. This is not due to its 14-shot capacity. That is incidental. The reason is that I like and trust the gun is simply because I can shoot it to standards I deem satisfactory for defense use. That it holds a pretty high number of shots is icing on the cake but not my primary reason in favoring this handgun. I believe that in its better loads, 9mm is a satisfactory man stopper, assuming placement. It is also no secret that I rate .45 ACP in better loads as probably a bit more potent shot to shot than 9mm, but that I do not believe this gap to be as wide as do some others. When carrying a belt gun for self-defense you are as likely to find me carrying a 9mm as a .45 ACP.


That I'm happy with my decision does not mean that you are with yours? If your choices are mandated by law or policy, I cannot help you, but I offer these suggestions and ideas if you are not.


Are you satisfied with 9mm or must it be .357 SIG, .40 or 10mm, or .45 ACP?


If you just do not have faith in 9mm, don't use it unless you are unable to handle the caliber/pistol combination having what you consider adequate power. I submit that you gain nothing in going to a caliber that cannot be shot accurately at speed. If the upper limit is 9mm, go with it even if you do not trust it as much as a .45.  Power is placement. If you are serious about the issue, you will seek training and/or practice until you are competent with your caliber of choice.


If you do trust 9mm, make sure that you remain practiced and skilled with it…as with any other caliber. If you handle the single-stack 9mm significantly better than the double, go with the single-stack. Hits count and misses not only do not, they are a liability and endanger unintended people. We are responsible for each shot we fire.


What if you a concerned with firepower but just cannot be confident with other than .45 ACP?


I see a couple of options here. You can go with a double-stack as is found in some 1911 pattern pistols or the Glock 21. This assumes that you can conceal them (if that is an issue as in non-uniformed carry) and shoot them well; many simply find the girth of the higher capacity forty-fives too large for a proper grip. But what if you do noticeably better with a single-stack forty-five like the traditional 1911 type gun or a SIG-Sauer P-220? Go with the single-stack. I suggest we practice reloading as part of our practice regimen and still believe that we will solve our problem(s) with our first few shots or we will be defeated. In other words, I believe that we will probably run out of time before we run out of ammunition.


The single-stack .45 1911-type pistol remains very popular with people having a choice in defensive armament. Some like the gun and prefer the caliber but are concerned with its magazine capacity. If you prefer this pistol/caliber to all others and this is the combination that works best for you, go with it. Confidence is an underrated component in situations where it is just us, our firearms/ammunition, and skill. Being able to control the mind, think, employ sound tactics, and being skilled in reloading are more important than the number of cartridges a particular pistol holds in my opinion.


What I am trying to say is this: High capacity can be very useful in some situations but I think it is somewhat overrated. I liken it to perceived differences between 9mm and .45 ACP. A greater number of shots or a more "powerful" caliber might very well be factors in a deadly force scenario's outcome, but is it as great a one as the clear-headed shooter who is skilled at shooting quick and straight…and willing to do so. 


The determination, mindset, and skill of the individual shooter is probably more important than a particular handgun in the 9mm to .45 ACP power range.


Some antagonists will cease and desist if they even see a weapon and a would-be victim ready to fight.


Some will "stop" if shot with anything, regardless of where it hits them.


Even a group will often scatter if they see some of their ilk being shot by their intended prey.  I bet the majority will not take the time to try and determine the shooter's pistol and how many shots it holds. If facing an armed crowd that will not retreat to save themselves, we're probably in a situation that cannot be adequately handled with any handgun.


And then there are the aggressors who simply will not stop until physically unable to continue. They are the stuff of nightmares and a major reason for concerns about stopping power. These monsters may be deranged on drugs or both. Their brains may have dropped massive doses of adrenaline and endorphins so that even decent hits are just not enough.  Yes, it is difficult but here we find that with any commonly-used defensive caliber precise shots become a must, especially if we cannot get away and give them time to go out from blood loss. Some might suggest that this is just the place for high capacity as we can just keep shooting at center mass. Maybe, but I will cast my lot with getting a hard pelvic hit to break them down or a brain shot.  That this is difficult to do under stress and in compressed time frames doesn't make it less necessary in my opinion. This is why I continue to stress that we actually be able to competently shoot our defense guns accurately; placement is power.  I suggest that the heavy caliber shooter who cannot get repeat center hits is not going to fare as well as the fellow able to accurately shoot a lighter one or who can get the brain hit.


Each of us is a most important part of our individual handgun's effectiveness. We are a major component in the equation of whether we live or die, regardless of if our pistol holds 9 or 17 rounds.


I am sure that with research a person can find situations in which either highest capacity played a vital role in a situation's outcome, but I also suggest that in a majority of defense situations, a handgun of lesser magazine capacity served quite well. Either situation's outcome was probably influenced to a greater degree by skill and competence than magazine capacity and caliber.


There is a place for high capacity handguns but I see it as secondary to mindset and skill at arms coupled with the determination to actually shoot.