The Best Handgun Calibers
The Best Calibers for Handguns
The handgun world is full of pistols and revolvers in a bewildering array of chamberings. Generally referred to as “caliber,” a handgun’s chambering refers to the cartridge it fires. This article will discuss some of the best calibers for handguns. Any time the word “best” is used, you can pretty much count on seeing a subjective treatment of whatever topic follows. This one is no different – it is our opinion on “the best.” Since handguns are such a huge topic, however, there is no one, single best caliber. Instead, there are a bunch of bests, depending on what you need a handgun to do.
So, what exactly is caliber? In the purest form it refers only to the diameter of the bullet. This is usually expressed in fractions of an inch (i.e., .357) or millimeters (9mm). This is one measurement, but there are many cartridges that fire a .357-inch diameter bullet, so some sort of qualifier usually follows. In this case it is .357 Magnum and 9mm Luger. These qualifiers specify a very specific cartridge beyond just the bullet diameter and ensure you get the correct cartridge.
Again, since there is no “best” handgun cartridge, we are going to offer several bests. These are the cartridges best suited for an array of given purposes.
.22 Long Rifle
No list of best or favorite cartridges would be complete without at least mentioning the .22 Long Rifle. This diminutive rimfire has been around since the 1880s and remains one of the most popular cartridges in existence. Both revolvers and semi-autos are chambered in .22 LR.
The .22 Long Rifle serves a number of niches. It’s quiet report and lack of recoil make it an outstanding teaching tool for bringing new hand gunners into the fold. A .22 makes an excellent kit gun for taking small game. It also makes a great vermin control handgun; the author’s Ruger Wrangler has culled several dozen rats from the barn and chicken coop without disturbing the whole neighborhood. And though it wouldn’t be our first choice or recommendation, the .22 LR can certainly suffice for self-defense.
The pros of the .22 are many. The guns themselves can be very lightweight. Pistols typically hold a pretty decent capacity, and revolvers generally hold a few more rounds than comparably-sized centerfires. Ammunition for the .22 Long Rifle is about the cheapest ammo money can buy, letting you shoot to your heart’s content. Because ammo is so cheap and the .22 Long Rifle is such an approachable cartridge, you can also get really good with and use it as a training adjunct for bigger cartridges.
The .22 Long Rifle also has some cons. Rimfire cartridges just aren’t as reliable as centerfire rounds. Functioning is also sometimes an issue, especially with autoloaders, which can be notoriously finicky with .22 LR. Finally, the .22 is just a small cartridge. It’s great for small game and poking holes in tin cans, but for anything bigger than squirrels, something a little bigger is called for.
Originally designed as a military cartridge, the 9mm Luger has become the darling of American pistol shooters. It was originally designed for the WWI-era German army. Later it made inroads into the US, and since the mid-1980s has been the standard issue handgun cartridge of the U.S. military. The 9mm Luger is not only one of the most popular cartridges on the U.S. market, it is one of the most common cartridges on the planet.
When loaded with high-quality defensive ammo, the 9mm Luger is an excellent self-defense cartridge. The 9mm is the preferred defensive handgun cartridge of most, including law enforcement at local, state, and federal levels, the U.S. military, and just about all top-level firearms trainers. There are a lot of reasons 9mm gets top billing among defensive pistol chamberings.
First, it is cheap. OK, maybe it isn’t cheap, but it’s the cheapest, duty-caliber ammunition available. This means you can get a lot more practice for your buck. 9MM is also approachable – recoil is manageable even in relatively small-framed guns. This makes it suitable for a wide array of shooters with disparate sizes and experience levels. With the 9MM you also get a capacity edge of a round or two over similarly-sized guns in .40 and .45.
One of the most versatile calibers on the table of handgun calibers is the .357 Magnum. Introduced by Winchester and S&W in 1935, the .357 is the original magnum cartridge. Though it is chambered in a couple oddball semi-autos, the .357 is undoubtedly a revolver cartridge, and the author’s bar-none favorite revolver round. Loaded properly it can do just about anything a handgun cartridge can reasonably be expected to do.
The .357 Magnum is known for its versatility. When loaded with a jacketed hollow point the .357 it is a very effective manstopper and was almost a universal law enforcement cartridge for the better part of a century. Heavier bullets like a 158-grain JHP are amply capable of taking whitetail, feral pigs, and similar-sized game. Heavier bullets, like the 180-grain WFNGC (wide flat nose, gas checked) can penetrate deeply and create a caliber-wide wound track, making it suitable for even larger game and dangerous animal defense.
A huge advantage of the .357 is that it can also fire .38 Special cartridges. This lets you load it down to soft-shooting, powder-puff loads like the 125-grain lead bullets, suitable for plinking, practice, or even small game. Loaded with 125-grain hollow points, the .38 Special almost makes a potent defensive cartridge all of its own, without the recoil, blast, and flash of .357 ammo. The .357 Magnum truly is a do-it-all handgun.
The 10mm Auto was born in the late-80s. A lot of stars aligned to bring this cartridge into existence, involving a pet project of Col. Jeff Cooper (yes, that Jeff Cooper), an FBI shooting, and subsequent adoption of the 10mm by the FBI. The 10mm gave birth to .40 S&W but has recently come back into its own with factory-chambered 10mms from more manufacturers than ever. The 10mm is ideal for those who want Magnum ballistics but in a semi-auto pistol, and the 10mm more than delivers on that.
Though usually compared to the .41 Magnum, the 10mm Auto competes really well with the .357 Magnum, with both cartridges batting roughly in the same weight class. The difference? The 10mm Auto can hold 15+1 in a Glock instead of 6 rounds of .357 in most revolvers. The 10mm is fairly versatile as well, and performs as a hard-hitting defensive round with 180-grain JHP ammo. When loaded up with heavy, flat-nose lead bullets like the 220-grain lead flat nose the 10mm is an extremely capable hunter, and many Alaskans carry a 10mm as a bear-defense piece.
Like the .22, no article on the best handgun cartridges would be complete without mentioning the predominant caliber on the other end of the spectrum: .44 Magnum. The mighty .44 Magnum came along in 1965, courtesy of Remington. Though there are certainly bigger handgun cartridges out there, the .44 Magnum is still a true big-bore.
The .44 Magnum is an outstanding hunter. Everything on North America has been taken cleanly with one. The .44 Mag is an admirable bear defense gun, as well, and many guns have been produced over the years exactly for this purpose, like S&W’s Mountain Gun and the Ruger Alaskan. Bullets like the standard 240-grain JHP will stop medium-sized game with power to spare. Heavy bullets like the 320-grain WLNGC if bullet placement is correct. It will crush bone and stop a charging grizzly in its tracks.
The 44. Magnum also fires .44 Special ammo (like .357 Magnum and .38 Special) and this does add some versatility. Jacketed hollow point loadings in .44 Special, like the 240-grain JHP make excellent self-defense rounds. The offer plenty of power on target, while skipping the heavy recoil and deafening muzzle blast of .44 Magnum rounds.
Shop Grizzly Cartridges today for High-Quality Handgun Cartridges
Your choice of handgun cartridge and what you perceive as “best” is largely up to personal preference and use-case. We have a soft-spot for all of the above, but we aren’t going to pack a .44 Mag around town any more than we’re going to go into the backcountry with a just 9mm. We’ll pick the right tool for the job, and recommend you do the same.
We also recommend you pick the right ammo for the job. Whether plinking, practicing, hunting, or using a gun for defense against two- or four-legged predators, you need to load the gun correctly for the intended purpose. Grizzly Cartridge has what you need, from 115-grain 9mm JHPs to 320-grain .44 Mag WLNGCs, and everything in between…and beyond!
Grizzly Cartridges are built from the highest quality components to give the ultimate performance, each and every time. Consistent, reliable, and made-in-the-USA, trust Grizzly Cartridge for your handgun ammo, regardless of the purpose.