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The Complex Truth: There Is No ‘Perfect’ Defensive Caliber For Everybody

Given this data and my experience in both law enforcement and as an instructor, I’d argue that the better results in police qualifiers with 9mm isn’t due to an inherent advantage of the caliber. The sad truth is that the average cop doesn’t have nearly as much training as people think. There are many, many officers who barely pass, and their shooting fundamentals aren’t very solid.

Recoil doesn’t create problems with shooting. It only amplifies them. If you suck and can barely pass an easy shooting test with 9mm, you can’t blame recoil from .40 S&W or .45 ACP ammo for your problems. In most cases, it’s probably that you need better fundamentals — better grip, better stance, and better trigger control — assuming you’re not a five-foot-nothing 98-pounder or don’t have problems with age or disability, of course.

Like clothing, vehicles, and just about anything else in life, you have to go with what fits the situation. The truth is that you should probably choose the most powerful caliber you can shoot well that also fits your defensive and carry/concealment needs.

That can and sometimes does change over time as you gain skill or lose ability with age. It could also vary depending on what situations you’re carrying into on particular day. So in the end, even an individual may not be able to settle on just one caliber that works for them in

When You Don’t Score That Perfect Hit

Another key finding in the study isn’t great for the 9mm “one size” theory. While shot placement isn’t better in the real world for lower-recoil rounds, the real world end results of 9mm tend to be inferior to more powerful choices. While the study could only focus on lethality (investigations only look at things after the fact), greater lethality should correlate well with ability to incapacitate.

As you’d expect, rounds like .38 Special, 9mm, and .380 ACP are vastly superior to rounds like .22 (short or long), .25 Auto, and .32 ACP. The study shows lethality is 2.25 times greater. But, more powerful rounds, like .40 S&W, .45 ACP, and 10mm are even better, with more than double the chances of lethality compared to the 9mm and .380.

Personal Defense Ammunition hollow points
(Photo credit: Kat Ainsworth)

We can probably argue all day about why real-world shootings with higher calibers are far more deadly on average (BIGGER HOLES!), but I think this article at American Handgunner sums up a great possibility.

When you can score a perfect hit, the chances of even .25 Auto are probably about as good as a rifle round. A perfect hit to the CNS is a perfect hit to the CNS. But, when you can’t hit the proverbial X-ring, having those imperfect shots count for a little more seems to make a lot of difference in the real world.

After all, the improvements in bullet technology that made the 9mm more effective have also made .40 S&W, .45 ACP, 10mm more effective, too. all situations.

Does Less Recoil Mean Better Shot Placement?

The central argument behind choosing 9mm over larger and more powerful defensive handgun rounds is that shot placement is key. The biggest, most powerful round that doesn’t hit anything vital (or doesn’t hit anything at all) doesn’t do you much good in a fight. Lower recoil rounds are a lot easier to shoot with greater accuracy and speed on the range, so it makes a lot of sense to use what works best, especially with advances in ballistics that make for some very effective lower-recoiling ammo choices.

But, this isn’t the whole truth.

handgun ammunition ammo
Common handgun ammunition (Dan Z. for TTAG)

First off, the range isn’t a great analog for a real defensive encounter. Adrenaline levels, the need to move to avoid danger, and the complexity of the environment all make for far less accurate shooting when you’re being attacked than we see on the range.

That doesn’t mean we can skip range practice (because you don’t want to start out inaccurate and then get worse under stress), but it does mean that the accurate shot placement you got on paper or steel is going will be harder to repeat on the street.

A 2018 study bears this out. The sad fact is that there’s no correlation between caliber and shot placement away from the shooting range or plinking in the desert or woods. Or, as the study of hundreds of shooting says, “Firearm caliber had no systematic association with the number of wounds, the location of wounds, circumstances of the assault, or victim characteristics.”

I know that a study of shootings, including criminal activity, defensive gun use, and professional law enforcement shootings leaves some room for argument (pretty much everything involving caliber comparisons does).

If we’re going to include gang bangers who don’t bother with sights, a good guy spending time on the range and getting professional instruction should get better results, right? But, if that were the case, there’d be at least some statistical clustering in the data caused by police, who get, er, “professional” training.

No, 9mm Is Not A ‘One Size Fits All’ Defensive Caliber

There’s a tendency among gun owners to follow whatever law enforcement does when it comes to selecting a firearm for defense. When the police carried revolvers, many civilians had a revolver (yes, that’s mostly what was available at the time). When police departments  switched to semi-auto pistols, the civilian world largely followed over time (with a few really obsessive holdouts, like these guys). We can see a similar thing with shotguns gradually falling out of favor for home defense in favor of the AR-15 in recent years

Calibers are the same way. Many people carried .357 Magnum or .38 Special when the police did. Later, 9mm was the thing, followed by .40 S&W when it became a popular law enforcement round. Now that the FBI and many state and local cop shops have moved back to 9mm, the civilian CCW market is following (resulting in some sweet deals on lightly used police guns if you’re still into .40).

There are some obvious drawbacks to the approach of following cops around. One’s defensive needs will obviously differ from that of someone who’s job entails being out and looking for trouble.

The 9mm caliber may be too much for some shooters (especially in micro compact pistols). I have a relative with a serious wrist condition who loves to carry and shoot .380, and no amount of “But the cops carry 9mm!” is going to undo the cumulative effect of several injuries and surgeries.

I know that 9mm fanatics and advocates understand that there are unusual circumstances, like someone who can’t handle 9mm, or someone who lives in the woods and needs to defend against bears. I’m not going to raise a straw man here.

Absent unusual circumstances, they’re still arguing that 9mm is the superior choice for most urban and suburban defensive needs (“nine in the hoods, ten in the woods”). Not only are the cops carrying that now, but gel tests show little advantage to .40 S&W or .45 ACP these days, while the disadvantages of those larger bore calibers (recoil and capacity) are still present.

So you’re probably a “boomer” if you carry “.45 AARP” or you’re a 90’s kid if you’re packing something chambered for .40 S&W or .357 SIG. It’s time to live in 2022 and carry Parabellum.

But, as a writer, it’s never interesting to feed the sacred cows. Plus, we need people to question those dogmas to keep ourselves from falling into a rut or making bad decisions. So, I’m going to present some alternative data and ideas on the idea that 9mm is a good “one size fits most” round. I’m not going to argue that 9mm isn’t a great choice for many shooters (it obviously is), but I am going to argue that we shouldn’t discourage people from looking at other calibers and making different choices.

Winchester Data Shows Hunters and Target Shooters are Increasingly Shooting AR Pattern Rifles

The time has come for President Joe Biden and the rest of the gun control politicians to pack up the worn-out line that “no one needs an AR-15 to hunt deer.”

Turns out, recreational target shooters and hunters do want modern sporting rifles (MSRs). That’s the family of AR-platform [semiautomatic] rifles that come in many calibers. According to the 2022 Ammunition Consumption Study by Winchester Ammunition, more than half of recreational shooters firing a centerfire rifle used an MSR. Of those who hunted with an MSR, 40 percent chose the MSR as their firearm of choice.

Winchester Ammunition conducted a survey of 1,600 hunters and recreational shooters in the first quarter of 2022 to better learn which firearm recreational shooters and hunters were using. Turns out the most popular selling centerfire rifle in America is the rifle of choice.

That might come as a surprise for Capitol Hill lawmakers, especially for the 217 Members of Congress who voted to ban MSRs and some semiautomatic shotguns and handguns when they passed H.R. 1808, the Assault Weapons Ban of 2022. The argument made that MSRs serve no practical purpose for hunting is false.

It Will Hunt

Currently, 10 states restrict hunting with .223 or 5.56mm. Three of those states only allow shotguns, or straight-wall cartridges. New Jersey has an outright ban on MSRs. Even those states with caliber restrictions allow for MSRs that fire larger calibers. It’s not just deer, though, and not all in Washington, D.C., buy the line that AR-15s aren’t good for hunting.

U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy defended using an MSR for hunting hogs when asked by Vice News. “I’m law abiding, I’ve never done anything, I use it to kill feral pigs,” Sen. Cassidy said in a People Magazine report questioning lawmakers why Americans choose this rifle in the wake of the tragedy in Uvalde, Texas.  “The action of a criminal deprives me of my right,” he added about proposed bans.

U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) told CNN, “In my state, they use them to shoot prairie dogs and, you know, other types of varmints. And so I think there are legitimate reasons why people would want to have them.”

That might not mean much to Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) who held hearings to castigate MSR manufacturers. Nor would it earn consideration from Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) who ushered the bill through the U.S. House of Representatives to ban MSRs. No one expects Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to recognize the utility from her gated San Francisco estate.  South Dakotans, however, see it differently. Controlling varmints and predators is a necessity to ranchers.

A Third Primer Manufacturer Now Tooling Up For Production in Texas in 2022

While lots of calibers of ammunition are slowly returning to many store shelves, primers haven’t really reappeared in any meaningful numbers since The Time Before. The two major players in the market, Olin (Winchester) and Vista Outdoor (Remington, CCI and Federal) have maxxed out their production with most of the output going to loaded ammunition.

This seems like a very good time to add a third producer and more capacity. Good news: investors are doing just that, starting up a new company in the great state of Texas dedicated to making primers by the truckload.

This new company doesn’t appear to be vaporware. It’s very real and they have money behind them. Expansion Industries, with a hundred million in capital, has secured a location and is advertising for staff to run the production lines it has planned to open later this year. In fact, they’re holding a job fair to staff the facility at the end of this month.

Ammo Shortages: What’s Really Happening?

Standing in a warehouse, I was looking at 2½-million rounds of 5.56 NATO. Unfortunately, none of it was for the commercial market; those stacks of banded wooden crates were headed to U.S. Special Operations. The ammunition company I was visiting requested anonymity. Despite having drums of powder and a quantity of primers, none of it could be used to manufacture commercial ammunition. Those components were U.S. government property.

Due to the military’s order, no employees had been laid off or shifts canceled as a result of the shortages resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Like a lot of ammunition brands, however, this company outsources components. They had plenty of projectiles and cases to resume commercial production, but were waiting on powder and primers. The military’s ability to supply its own components meant that this company continued to operate.

Since the pandemic began, the market has demanded 14 billion rounds of ammunition. The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) estimated that typically 12 billion rounds are sold annually. Increasing production to match such increased demand is difficult. Even if a manufacturer acquires more machines and hires additional staff, most ammo makers are dependent on outsourced components such as gunpowder and primers. As reloaders have experienced, gunpowder and primers can be difficult to obtain and command three times the money. CCIFederalRemington and Winchester are the four major producers of primers in the U.S. Since a 2019 acquisition, Vista now owns three of those brands: CCI, Federal and Remington. Alliant Powder (also owned by Vista Outdoor), Hodgdon and Winchester are the primary distributors of St. Marks’ domestic-made gunpowder. The defense contractor General Dynamics owns St. Marks commercial Ball Powder plant in Florida, while BAE Systems is contracted with the U.S. military to operate the Radford Arsenal plant in Virginia. Winchester operates Lake City in Missouri.

Ammo Shortages: What's Really Happening?

Who is controlling ammunition prices? We do. The NSSF estimates that 8.4 million first-time gun owners joined our ranks in 2020, and nearly 4 million more in 2021. The FBI reported more than 12 million background checks in the first quarter of 2021 alone, which doesn’t account for multiple gun sales. There were already an estimated 50 million active participants in the U.S., which means that number is now higher than 62 million active gun owners. If every one of those new shooters bought just 50 rounds of ammunition for one new gun, the increased demand amounts to 420 million rounds.

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There was also some hoarding and a lot of panic buying. Some were caught unprepared and became anxious about the Biden administration’s threat to increase gun control amid the televised social unrest. Combine fear with a scarcity mentality, and the result is a spike in demand. Did you ever enter a gun store and only see a few boxes on the shelf? Did you purchase a box or two just in case?