The 5 best cartridges for CCW

There are so many different cartridges on the market, it’s not uncommon for new shooters to end up with decision paralysis when trying to figure out what their new defensive cartridge should be. There are lots of choices, from tiny mousegun calibers like the .25 ACP all the way up to ridiculous wildcat cartridges and boutique magnum rounds. But what’s the best? Here are our top 5 choices.

5. .40 S&W
The .40 S&W smashed on to the gunscene in the early 1990s as a replacement for the FBI’s downloaded 10mm cartridge. Once the FBI adopted it, it became one of the most popular cartridges for law enforcement use on the market, and the Glock 22 became one of the most common handguns in the world. The .40 S&W is a cartridge of compromise, however. It offers no ballistic advantage over a .45 ACP, and no capacity advantage over a 9mm. With modern JHP rounds, it doesn’t even offer a terminal ballistics advantage over the 9mm. It makes this list simply because it is so common that even during the ammo crisis it was easy to find .40 S&W at a reasonable price.


4. .380 ACP
Here we have the King of the Mouseguns. While I tend to actually prefer a .32 over the .380, there is no arguing that the explosion in popularity of small, pocketable .380 carry guns has led to a simultaneous ballistic revolution for the .380 cartridge. DoubleTap, Hornady, CorBon, and many others are now making rounds for the .380 that provide a decent combination of penetration and expansion. While it’s not a proper service cartridge and won’t meet FBI standards, it certainly meets the first rule of a gunfight: have a gun.

380 acp

3. .38 Special +P
The .38 Special +P is the Jack of all Trades of defensive pistol cartridges. If you want a light shooting round that won’t bother the recoil sensitive, you can get this. If you want a heavy shooting hardcast bullet that will shoot clean through a deer, you can get that too. There are jillions of wheelguns on the market that are chambered for or can accept .38 Special rounds, and it is still one of the most popular self defense rounds ever. There are entire graveyards full of guys that have been killed with .38, and you won’t go wrong if you opt for this as your primary self defense round.


2. .45 ACP
While the phrase “they all fall to hardball” is total bullshit, the .45 ACP makes the list in the number 2 spot for a number of reasons. If you absolutely must have a defensive pistol cartridge that starts with the number “4” than .45 ACP is for you. While it doesn’t have the capacity of .40 S&W, it is generally regarded as more pleasant to shoot than .40. I’d agree with that assessment, and add another reason for it to hit the list in the #2 spot: if you carry a 1911, this is basically your default cartridge. It works better with the 1911 platform than any other round, and when using 7 round magazines with careful bullet selection is generally reliable in that platform.


1. 9mm Luger
You’re the best around nothing’s gonna ever keep you down /karate kid
In all seriousness, the 9mm has been putting people in the dirt longer than .45 ACP (even if not by much). In the modern era of ballistic goodness, it offers the same terminal ballistic performance you get from the .40 or the .45 ACP, as its service loadings will all meet the FBI standards. But you get that terminal performance with roughly double the capacity of a .45 ACP, and its much easier to shoot well than a .40 S&W. In the last four years, pocket pistols in 9mm have taken off, with every major brand (except for one) producing a single stack, slim framed pistol in 9mm for concealed carry. Its very popularity is why it was hard to find during the ammo crisis. However, with the perfect butter zone combination of capacity, shootability, and terminal performance, the 9mm is definitely king of the hill for CCW cartridges.

9mm nato ball

The best cartridge is the one that’s loaded in the gun you’re carrying when you really need it. Like every says, having a gun is the most important thing. Knowing how to use it well is second, and third is having it loaded with one of the rounds on this list. It’s important, but not as important as some people think.


  1. Nice article. I’d expect comments following a “best of…” or “worst of…” article to include:

    1. You are so right! You’re a genius and we love you!
    2. Yeah, you’re right, but for all the wrong reasons…dumbass!
    3. You are so wrong! You’re a dumbass for even bringing it up!
    4. Yeah, you’re wrong, but for all the right reasons…you’re still a genius!
    5. Why did you leave out (my favorite)? Everyone in the real world says it’s the best.
    6. Why did you include (the one that I hate)? Everyone in the real world says it’s the worst.
    7. I don’t actually have my own opinion, but I heard/saw/read a story about this once and they totally agreed with you!
    8. I had my own opinion, but then I read this other (article, blog, forum) and they were 180 degrees from what you are saying. Now, I’m more confused than ever and it is YOUR fault.
    9. On the whole, I really prefer (a completely different gun-related subject), which is WAY more relevant in the real world.
    10. On the whole, I really prefer pistachio ice cream.

    One of the main reasons I come here is that you can put up with all that malarkey in a good way, and generally have some thoughtful, helpful, well-written stuff. Thanks for your work.

  2. The best thing the .40 S&W has going for it is that police trade-in Glock 22s and 23s are chambered in it and available for around $3-400.

  3. During the Great Ammo Crisis of 2013/14, I did see .40 S&W, .17 HMR and 20 gauge on the shelves. Perhaps not your first choice in brand, load or whatever, but they were there. I already have a Glock in .40 S&W so maybe it’s time to pick up a semi shottie in 20 gauge…just for kicks (and for future crisis).

    1. 20 gauge is no slouch. Defensive 20ga loads are every bit as good as their 12ga big brothers. I have never heard of anyone with a 20ga shotgun complaining about not having enough gun in a gunfight.

    2. I was able to keep a steady supply of .410 buckshot for my S&W Governor and both of my mossberg pump shotguns through the entire length of “The great frenzy”

  4. Caleb–I know this (9mm > Everything Else) is your sacred cow, but, after reading your blog for a long time and refraining from commenting on this topic, I have to ask: what are your criteria for stating that the modern 9mm offers the “same” terminal performance as a .45 or .40? Yes, I get that they meet FBI standards (though, note that meeting a minimum is NOT the same thing as being equivalent). And, yes, I get that in terms of mono-dimensional figures, an expanded 9mm round isn’t that much smaller than an expanded .45 round, but there IS a difference once you start multiplying things out. Total wound channel volume is a three-dimensional metric, easily classed as a cylinder. Volume of a cylinder is calculated as π(r^2)h, so, assuming the same penetration, the size of a wound cavity will vary with the square of the radius. So let’s say that the diameter for an expanded .45 is 0.9″ and is 0.7″ for a 9mm. That means the cross-sectional area of the .45 is 0.2025″ and the 9mm is 0.1225″, meaning the wound channel volume is 65% larger for the .45. You can play with the numbers if you’d like–if you assume 0.7″ expanded diameter for the 45 and 0.6″ expanded diameter for the 9mm, the difference drops to 36%.

    And I assume we all at this point agree that “stopping power” and “hydrostatic shock” are silly terms for a handgun round and all that REALLY matters is whether the round hits something vital, yes? If that’s the case, then doesn’t the round with a 36% larger wound channel have a 36% greater chance of hitting something vital? I may just not be considering a variable, but this is the argument that has always bothered me when you do make the “9mm = .40 = .45 when it comes to terminal performance” argument.

    Folks, apologies if my math is off–I don’t think it is, but feel free to check.

    1. I don’t think your math is off, but it’s also sort of missing the point. I don’t think that the 9mm is any better when it comes to terminal ballistics than a .40 or a .45. They’re all going to do roughly the same thing. What the 9mm does that neither do is give me a huge capacity advantage over a similarly sized .45, and give me a much more shootable cartridge than a .40 or a .45. That means I’m more likely to get hits, and I can get multiple hits faster with a 9mm than I can with a .40, and I have lots more bullets before I have to reload like in a .45.

      I will say that if I lived in a stupidass freedom hating state that limited magazine capacity, I’d probably not ride this one as hard. Because without the capacity advantage, it’s certainly more shootable, but I also kind of like .45. It’s not logical, but those big stupid bullets make me FEEL better.

      1. I have no quibble with the statement that if you factor in capacity it’s a different animal. In fact, if you assume a value of 1 for the wound channel from a 9mm and assume that the .45 has a 36% larger wound channel, and you assume Glock 17 vs Glock 21 for capacity, then the aggregate wound channel volume is almost exactly the same per magazine.

        My question is with the statement that “they’re all going to do roughly the same thing.” In my mind, a difference of anywhere between 36% and 65% is pretty significant, UNLESS you are taking into account magazine capacity. If you are taking magazine capacity into account, then, yes, I agree with you. However, you can’t THEN claim the added magazine capacity as an advantage–because that would be double counting. It seems to me the real advantage we’re talking about here is shootability, and I don’t quibble with that. I do, however, absent a coherent argument to the contrary, quibble with the idea (and maybe you didn’t mean to imply this) that on a per-round basis they do the same thing. Because, if judged by wound channel volume calculations, they don’t SEEM to do the same thing.

        My argument is summed as follows for self defense purposes: Fully Loaded Glock 17 = Fully Loaded Glock 20 + Enhanced Shootability.

        1. Err. Fully Loaded Glock 17 = Fully Loaded Glock 21 + Enhanced Shootability. Didn’t bring to bring the 10mm into this…

        2. Just a note, the average expansion for a recovered Winchester ranger is 0.75 for a .45 ACP and 0.65 for a 9mm.

          1. Which is, I believe, a 33% delta for wound cavity (assuming a cylinder approximates wound cavity size, which, I know, is not a fully correct abstraction).

            Through heavy clothing (per ATK’s website) Tactical HST for 9mm (147g) vs .45 (230g +P) is 0.69″ vs 0.89″, or a cylinder differential of nearly 60%.

        3. “aggregate wound channel volume is almost exactly the same per magazine” This is assuming all rounds find the target. A miss with a 9mm isn’t as costly of a loss if you will as a loss with a .40 as a single round of 9mm represents a smaller percentage of your total power. Also consider the fact that people generally find 9mm easier to shoot accurately, especially with follow up shots. So, by that logic there is a lower probability of a miss, further skewing the numbers in favor of the 9.

    2. One metric that really matters is how many times do you have to shoot someone for them to stop attacking you? Latest info says that a .45 is 1.2 and a 9mm is 1.6 (these numbers aren’t perfect but they are both greater than one and less than two). I own guns in all three but the 9mm offers me the greatest versatility. More practice for less money. Easier shooting. Good choice for the competition divisions I shoot. What’s not to like? If you’ve invested in .45s, shoot .45s. Same for .40.

      On the other hand, if you’re buying your first defensive pistol, why not go with the easy, cheap, and effective option? If you’ve got an emotional attachment to .40 or .45 because your parents shot it or gramps handed you a loading bench all set up for a different caliber, good on you!

  5. 38 S&W,44 SPC, The first is much easier shooting than any other cartridge just no commercial support, 44 I don’t have personal experience with but I don’t think capacity rates much for ccw. Just my contrary opinion.

  6. Shot placement should be the #1 factor. As the old saying goes “a direct hit with a .22 beats a near miss with a .45”. I have always been a big fan of the .45, but with age is coming arthritis, and the lower recoil 9mm is getting more practice time than the big bore. If I can more accurately fire the 9mm over the .45, bullet expansion becomes less of a factor, and the 9mm will one day replace the .45 as my defensive caliber of choice. I am thankful I have choices, and thankful manufactures are producing better performance ammo for us. FWIW, I wouldn’t own a .40 if you gave it to me.

  7. Loki et al, I think Caleb’s point — one that has been trumpeted across gun boards everywhere — is that the terminal ballistics of modern 9mm loadings are so close to .40 and .45 that there is statistically no difference. When you factor in: 1) capacity; 2) shootability; 3) ammo prices, the 9mm gains the advantage. All this quibbling about a 1/10 inch larger wound channel or +20 joules of muzzle energy is academic. If you like the .40 (and I do), carry it and be awesome. I’ll carry my 9mm and do likewise.

  8. Hate to be pedantic, but you cannot speak of self-defense cartridges and fail to mention the .357 Mag. The younger generation seems to have forgotten it, but the 125-gr. .357 remains the gold standard. Recoil stiff in J-frames, but quite manageable in, say, a Ruger GP100.

  9. I do like the 9mm, but I must agree, that if I lived in an anti-freedom state, the .45 would be the first gun I’d pick up to carry….

    Or maybe a 10mm 😀

  10. My question is with the statement that “they’re all going to do roughly the same thing.”

    People don’t stop from numbers, stats or advertising.
    They stop from hits to important stuff or more often than not, because they want to.
    Hitting something important is the key, not the caliber stamped on the weapon.

    Shooting a friends G36 side by side with my G27, I could not tell any difference in recoil, speed or accuracy.
    I did notice that one has nearly twice the number of rounds than the other.
    G26 vs 27 or 36, yes – big difference in felt recoil and speed.

  11. Lets go with the simple. The FBI was carrying 9mm (45 were to big for them) Then a little incident happened in Fla. Two guys killed like 4 or 5 agents. The two guys were shot numberous times with the 9mm but kept firing. After that the FBI said they needed something bigger. They couldn’t go back to the 4 to much embarrassment. So they put out a bid and along came the 40 more powerful than the 9mm less recoil than the 45. That is what brought about the 40. As far as the 45 during the Philippians war officer were carrying a 38 special but it wouldn’t stop a drugged up Filipino, so the brought the SAA 45 back. After they wanted a new cartridge that would work in a semi automatic frame of large caliber. John Browning came up with the 45 ACP. Now the 45 ACP is not the do all weapon but it sure does more to deter an attacker do to one fear of that great big whole, propaganda, and it just hits damn hard. The 9 is so popular because has less recoil holds a whole bunch of shells and the use it in the movies. Remember Dirty Harry and the fact S&W was 3 yr behind in orders for the model 629. Some one who is proficient with a 45 will kill his target as fast it not faster than a person proficient with a 9mm the 9 will just get there first.

  12. Being GI Joe with Kung Fu grip, I have no issue EDC a doublestack .45ACP, which is 12+1 in a very concealable size, and placing my shots. Best of both worlds.

  13. I’m not omniscient, but I’ve never seen a pistol chambered for .38. It’s mostly seen in revolvers.

    1. Like, maybe, the Coonan semi-auto pistol? It says .357 on the box, bit the ones that I have seen handle .38 Special just fine.

  14. A list like this should include Taser and Pepper Spray. For many folks, the best CCW is what they can carry legally.

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