The ammunition that a handgun fires, called a “round” in the singular, is the most important variable in how capable the weapon is. There are no “high/low” switches on firearms, and frankly, no reasonable person would use such a switch. In a SD scenario the goal is to stop the threat as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Various .40SW loads; 135gr JHP, 165gr JHP, 165gr BJHP, and 180gr FMJ
It should be assumed that jacketed hollow points (JHP) is the best SD load available and full metal jacket (FMJ) ammo, which is cheaper, should be reserved for the range.
I believe the three most important measures of overall round capability are opportunity for shot placement, lethality, and capacity.
Opportunity for shot placement is the shooter’s ability to hit the “center mass” of a bad guy at an appropriate distance for SD. As a general rule, more powerful rounds are more difficult to keep on target while less powerful rounds have less recoil and easier to keep on target.
Lethality determines the odds of stopping a bad guy with center mass hits and is highly subjective. There is tons of information on round lethality on the internet, and unfortunately, very little of it is objective.
Capacity is the ability to carry enough ammunition to end a threat scenario and enables the shooter to make follow-up shots. In real world gun fights, a 15 round magazine can be exhausted before a single shot hits its target!
Capability is the intersection of these three things. If shot placement was the only important measure, shots may hit their target but fail to stop the threat. If lethality was the only important measure, you could carry a .50AE Desert Eagle “hand cannon” and achieve a kill shot every time. If capacity was the only measure, you could carry a .22LR with a 20+ round magazine. Do not focus on just one of these measures—think about them all when selecting a round.
Common Production Rounds
In order for a SD weapon to be useful, you must have ammunition for it. This means you need the ammo to be available to you both now and in the future. If you buy a weapon that fires a “boutique” round, you risk losing use of that weapon if the round is discontinued.
In the gun world, availability also often determines price.
Higher ammo price = more expensive range sessions = fewer range sessions = less proficiency.
Here are the commonly produced rounds, in order of capability, and my thoughts on them…
.380ACP (9MM short/”kurz”)
The .380ACP is a 100 year old round that fires a 9MM (.355 inches) projectile just like the 9MM but shorter. This is a shorter range round and lacks stopping power because of its lighter load.
.380ACP was created for full size automatics but is kept alive by subcompact, small capacity pocket guns. It is available in FMJ and JHP from 85 to 95 grains.
I would avoid this round completely unless you find that you cannot handle 9MM, in which case, .380ACP is the least capable round I would consider for SD.
Again, 100 years old and the round selected for the venerable M1911/A1 side arm.
This round was selected for the 1911 because the .38LC wasn’t enough to put down the natives in the American-Philippine War. The natives would chew on the coca leaves (source of cocaine) and became difficult to stop. .45ACP was the answer.
This is a slow and heavy round available in 165gr to 230gr that puts less energy into a target with less penetration. This wasn’t an issue when it came to the early 20th century third world.
I do not consider this a good SD round for most shooters and it makes little sense given the other options available today.
Also 100 years old (see a trend?), a European round rejected at the time for military use by both the US and the British. After WWII, the round became popular with police and was used in small capacity automatics. Keep in mind, Europe is a place that abhors guns and many police forces don’t even carry weapons—it is not a round designed to solve American problems.
Many shooters hang their hats on the fact that the 9MM NATO was selected as the primary side arm round by the US military (M9, Beretta 92F) and is therefore somehow superior. The round was chosen with heavy influence by the UN and NATO (i.e. Europe) and was an attempt to apply the advantages of the 5.56MM NATO rifle round to handguns. The only problem is that handgun rounds lack rifle round ballistics.
One advantage that the US military saw in the 9MM NATO was the higher capacity in contrast to the 7+1 limitations of the M1911A1. This is worth considering. Most 9MM semi automatics will hold 15+1 rounds at a minimum.
The 9MM is one of the most versatile rounds with respect to load and bullet grain. 9MM is available in 115gr to 147gr projectiles. 9MM can also be loaded with hotter loads called “+P” and “+P+.” These hotter loads make a better SD round; more energy and more penetration. If considering 9MM, find a gun that is rated to handle these hotter loads to increase the capability of the weapon.
Finally, the best SD round available and the only modern offering in the list of commonly available handgun rounds.
(The above statement will have internet commandos up in arms, but it’s the truth)
The .40SW was created in 1990 from collaboration between the FBI and Smith and Wesson. The FBI had learned its lessons in a series of high profile shootings in which 9MM and .45ACP had proven to be lacking.
This round wasn’t created with European influence or to comply with the Geneva Convention. It was created to solve American problems for American law enforcement (LE). It was created with the benefit of modern technology and over 100 years of data. And it was the first popular round created with the expectation of firing JHP projectiles.
The .40SW is the most commonly issued handgun round among American LE agencies. This is the round that the people who are in harms way on a daily basis trust the most. That should be the #1 most compelling reason to select the .40SW as a SD round.
Internet commandos will also say the .40SW is a fad. It is not. There are simply too many departments using this round for it to go away (i.e. lots of contracts and lots of $$$).
.40SW is by default a +P load—hence there is no +P or +P+. Because this is a high pressure round, there have been issues firing it in unsupported chambers (Glock G22). The .40SW is available in 135gr JHP all the way up to 180gr FMJ. New shooters will report that the .40SW feels “snappy” or has high recoil. Much of this has to do with the weapon itself (balance and trigger) than the round.
1. Pick the most capable (shot placement, lethality, capacity) round that you can handle
2. Pick a commonly produced round
3. The .40SW is the best commonly produced SD round available