Handgun Calibers: Types of Pistols and Revolvers

Handgun Calibers: Types of Pistols and Revolvers

Handgun calibers, pistol calibers, revolver calibers, bullet size, bullet caliber, what is caliber, calibers

Learning about handgun calibers is anything but easy for people who have no background knowledge of firearms. To make learning a pleasant experience, GritrSports writes about handgun calibers in the most comprehensible manner to encourage and not frustrate.

In this article, we’ll give correct definitions of the most important words and talk about the popular pistol and revolver calibers and their advantages and disadvantages. Though people love comparisons for obvious reasons and the topic of the best handgun cartridge is still highly debated, we won’t compare calibers. All calibers have weaknesses and strengths that make them preferable to one and unfavorable to another. So let’s begin.

What is Caliber?

Caliber refers to the diameter of a firearm bore. The bore is the interior of the barrel through which a bullet travels. A bullet caliber refers to a bullet’s diameter. Caliber is measured in mm or inches.

The word bullet is often misused. A bullet is a projectile that exits the muzzle of a fired gun. It sits on the top of a round, otherwise called a cartridge. A cartridge consists of a bullet, case, powder, and primer.

Let’s take the most popular pistol cartridges, the 9mm and the .45 ACP. A 9mm cartridge holds a bullet with a diameter of 9.01mm. And the diameter of a .45 ACP cartridge bullet is 0.452 inches.

Let’s take one more example. A .22 caliber firearm can fire bullets with a diameter of 0.22 inches. But multiple cartridges use bullets of this diameter: .22 LR, .22 Short, .22 Long, .22 WRF. The term cartridge refers to a set of characteristics that make it unique, whereas caliber only refers to bullet diameter.

So to decide on what handgun caliber will meet your needs right, you need to know how cartridges perform in general and in particular. So let’s talk about what metrics you should analyze to choose a handgun caliber.

How to Choose a Handgun Caliber


Many factors influence felt recoil. First of all, it’s the size and weight of a handgun. A bigger and heavier full-metal pistol can absorb more recoil as opposed to smaller and lighter polymer pistols, which makes it easier to control.

Another factor is bullet size, weight, and velocity. Velocity expressed in feet/sec is the speed at which a bullet leaves the muzzle. Bullet weight is expressed in grains. Heavy and fast bullets can inflict significant damage on the target, but they give a stout recoil, making your handgun hard to control. Bad recoil management results in decreased accuracy and longer sight recovery.

Terminal Performance

The terminal ballistics of a bullet shows how deep it penetrates and what wound cavity it creates. The results of ballistic gel tests help us compare the performances of different cartridges and loads within the same caliber.

According to FBI standards, a bullet should penetrate in the range of 12-18 inches deep into the ballistic gel. Thus, the load is considered suitable for self-defense. If a bullet penetrates less than 12 inches, it may fail to reach vital organs on impact, and if it penetrates deeper than 18 inches, it can go through the human target and hit an innocent bystander. Overpenetration is what you should avoid.

A bullet also should create a large wound cavity to inflict more damage. It’s achieved by using a hollow-point design. Hollow-point bullets have hollow tips that allow them to expand on impact. Expansion also prevents overpenetration. That’s why full metal jacket (FMJ) bullets are never used for self-defense and hunting. Instead, shooters buy them for plinking and practice.

Magazine Capacity

The logic is simple here. The smaller the cartridge, the more rounds can fit in similarly sized magazines. Feel the difference: 9mm Glock 17 accepts 17 rounds and a comparable .45 ACP Glock 21 only 13 rounds.

Ammo Cost

If you plan to spend much time practicing, you need ammo that won’t break the bank. If the cartridge is in demand, there are more manufacturers that produce it in larger volumes. Larger volumes and more competitors mean lower prices. That’s why the most popular pistol cartridge for self-defense, the 9mm Luger, is the cheapest.

Handgun Calibers

.22 LR (.22 Long Rifle)

Created in 1884, the .22 LR is one of the oldest cartridges in use. Today, it’s definitely not the best choice for self-defense, considering that we have the 9mm, but it offers certain benefits no other cartridge can provide.

Being underpowered and small, it gives the mildest recoil. It makes .22 LR a godsent for beginner shooters, the young, and the disabled who may have issues with control due to the lack of stamina and experience.

The firearms chambered in the .22 LR include revolvers, semi-automatic pistols, and rifles. Besides, the .22 LR ammo is even cheaper than the 9mm. That’s why shooters often choose this caliber for range practice and casual plinking. Your hands don’t hurt from firing guns for extended periods, you don’t have to spend much money on ammo, and you can choose from a broader range of weapons. Excellent choice for target shooting.

.22 LR in numbers:

  • Bullet Weight: 40 gr
  • Velocity: 1060 ft/s
  • Energy: 100 lb/ft

Since both pistols and revolvers can be chambered in the .22 LR, we place this caliber separately from the others.

Pistol Calibers

.380 ACP (.380 Auto)

John Browning designed the .380 ACP in 1908. He used a bullet of the same diameter as in the 9mm Luger but shortened the case length. Since the introduction of the cartridge, it became popular in the U.S. and Europe, and some European countries adopted .380 ACP pistols as sidearms for armed forces and police agencies.

In the 1970s, the 9mm phased out the .380 ACP as the latter lacked power, but many civilians today choose this caliber because it allows pistols to be very small. If you need an EDC handgun for concealed carry, a .380 ACP pocket or sub-compact pistol can be a good option. Few people will argue that having some kind of a pistol is better than not having a pistol at all.

Many .380 ACP loads fail penetration tests, not reaching the 12-inch minimum, but a fluted bullet design can aid in hitting that sweet spot. Unfortunately, fluted ammo is expensive and hard to find.

The .380 ACP has one decided advantage – milder recoil. But it only works with bigger pistols that can absorb much of the kick.

.380 ACP in numbers:

  • Bullet Weight: 90 gr
  • Velocity: 1000 ft/s
  • Energy: 200 lb/ft

9mm (9mm Luger, 9mm Parabellum, 9x19mm)

You can’t go wrong with this caliber. Designed in 1901 by George Luger, the 9mm is the most popular cartridge for self-defense today as it provides a perfect balance between power, control, and capacity.

The cartridge was winning the hearts of military and police users decade after decade. But in the 1980s, the U.S. saw a sharp increase in the popularity of semi-automatic pistols, which made the 9mm what we know today.

If we compare the 9mm to the .45 ACP, probably the second most popular cartridge for self-defense, the 9mm offers a higher capacity (17 rounds for full-size pistols). The recoil generated by the 9mm is limited, which is why the majority of law enforcement agencies use 9mm pistols as standard-issue sidearms. Technological advancements improved the maximum expansion diameter of the cartridge, which allowed it to inflict more damage on impact.

Anyway, 9mm handguns are ideal for self-defense. You can choose from a broad range of pistol sizes. Both CCW and home defense people are welcome. Besides, with a 9mm, you can practice without breaking the bank. As we mentioned above, the 9mm ammo is the cheapest after the .22 LR.

9mm in numbers:

  • Bullet Weight: 115 gr, 124 gr, 147 gr
  • Velocity: 1000-1300 ft/s
  • Energy: 295-384 lb/ft

.40 S&W

This cartridge wouldn’t have seen the light if it hadn’t been for one tragic event in 1986. In Miami, several FBI agents engaged in a gunfight with two criminals. During this gunfight, two agents died, five were wounded, and it took too many bullets to neutralize these criminals. Thus, the Bureau started the development of a new pistol cartridge to replace .38 Special revolvers.

The .40 S&W was derived from the 10mm. However, it propels its bullet at higher velocities, and the case length is shorter.

The .40 S&W is a middle point between its closest rivals, the .45 ACP and the 9mm. The .40 S&W achieves velocities of the 9mm, which makes it faster than the .45 ACP. And it has bullets heavier than 9mm, which makes it more powerful.

The downside is this cartridge is stouter recoil. For that reason, many law enforcement agents that used the .40 S&W switched to the 9mm. The tests of the Ballistic Research Facility showed that participants shot more quickly and accurately with a 9mm caliber pistol than with a .40 S&W. However if you have enough experience and your control is good, you can go with the .40 S&W.

.40 S&W in numbers:

  • Bullet Weight: 180 gr
  • Velocity: 1000 ft/s
  • Energy: 360 lb/ft

.45 ACP (.45 Auto)

The .45 ACP cartridge is another invention of John Browning. Designed in 1904, it became a standard chambering for Colt’s legendary M1911 pistol, a standard-issue sidearm for the U.S. Armed Forces from 1911 to 1986.

The 1911 and .45 ACP are a couple that has many fans today. Though the .45 ACP generates a stout recoil in lighter polymer-framed pistols, a full-metal 1911 can absorb much of that kick and make it manageable. In a heavy .45 ACP caliber pistol, recoil is more like a flat push than a snap because of its slow-moving, big bullet.

The .45 ACP is known for its stopping power, so if you can manage recoil without drops in your performance, go for it.

.45 ACP in numbers:

  • Bullet Weight: 230 gr
  • Velocity: 850 ft/s
  • Energy: 360 lb/ft

Revolver Calibers

.38 Special (.38 S&W Special)

Many police officers used .38 Special revolvers until the mentioned .40 S&W was introduced in 1990. Compared to revolvers, semi-auto pistols offered higher capacity and ease of reloading.

The .38 Special cartridge can’t boast great knock-down power, so many users choose more powerful .38 Special +P loading for self-defense. Also, due to the size of the cartridge, .38 Special revolvers can be light and small, which means you can concealed-carry it with comfort.

One more thing about the .38 Special is noteworthy. The cartridge has dimensions nearly identical to the .38 Short Colt, .38 Long Colt, and .357 Magnum cartridges. Less powerful .38 Short Colt and .38 Long Colt can be fired from a .38 Special revolver, and the .38 Special cartridge can be fired from a .357 Magnum revolver. But not the other way around. Firing a more powerful cartridge from a revolver chambered for a less powerful cartridge is dangerous.

.38 Special in numbers:

  • Bullet Weight: 158 gr
  • Velocity: 900 ft/s
  • Energy: 200 lb/ft

.357 Magnum

The .357 Magnum is a high-velocity and high-energy cartridge, which is why firing it, especially from smaller-sized revolvers, can cost you a lot of effort. Not the best caliber for a beginner. However, if you want to have a .357 Magnum revolver so much, you can master your skills using .38 Special ammo for a start.

Heavier loads of the .357 Magnum are used for hunting deer, elk, and other similar-sized animals, whereas lighter loads can be used for self-defense. A .357 Magnum revolver will become a dependable companion on your hunting trip if you need a sidearm to defend yourself from black bears and other predators.

.357 Magnum in numbers:

  • Bullet Weight: 158 gr
  • Velocity: 1250 ft/s
  • Energy: 550 lb/ft

.44 Magnum

Handgun hunters often choose .44 Magnum revolvers to hunt large game. It’s a good weapon to fight off bear attacks as well. So even if you hunt with a rifle or a shotgun, having a backup .44 Mag. when in bear lands may be reasonable. Compared to the .357 Mag., the .44 Mag. is a more powerful cartridge, and it offers a nice balance between power and recoil.

.44 Magnum in numbers:

  • Bullet Weight: 240 gr
  • Velocity: 1350 ft/s
  • Energy: 900 lb/ft


So this was our list of the most popular pistol and revolver calibers. Based on the cartridge performance, you can pick a handgun caliber that will suit your needs. The 9mm is an all-around choice for self-defense. The .40 S&W and .45 ACP are powerful defense calibers, but they offer a couple of trade-offs. The 357 Magnum and .44 Magnum are capable hunting calibers. And the .22 LR is a great caliber to learn to shoot, and the .22 LR ammo is cheap.