It is true that bullets of every caliber are deadly if placed correctly, however some calibers are much more effective than others. For example, a .22 caliber bullet is a deadly object worthy of respect, but I would not want to trust my life to a .22 caliber bullet during a home invasion. Similarly, a .500 Smith & Wesson is a devastatingly effective round – but the large size of the cartridge and significant recoil make it a less attractive option overall, compared to other cartridges. Below is a list of commonly available revolver cartridges, and my opinion as to their desirability for self defense, in the order which I prefer them.
1. .45 Long Colt
The .45 Long Colt cartridge is about 100 years old, and still going strong. Loaded with a 255 grain bullet, this cartridge will provide performance similar to that of a .45 ACP, which should be quite satisfactory for most self defense purposes. Recoil is quite manageable, too. This cartridge seems to strike the proper balance between recoil, effectiveness, size, etc. One rather interesting revolver chambered for .45 Long Colt is the Taurus Judge, which can also fire .410 shotgun shells.
2. .357 Magnum
The .357 Magnum was developed in the 1930’s, and is regarded as an effective caliber for self defense. Propelling a 130 grain bullet to over 1400 feet per second, the .357 magnum packs over 500 ft-lbs of energy, which closely matches that of the .45 Long Colt, but in a smaller diameter bullet. The .357 Magnum can have a greater tendency to over penetrate than the .45 Long Colt, which is why this cartridge is listed in second place.
3. .41 Magnum
The .41 Remington Magnum was designed in the 1960’s, as a cartridge with more stopping power than the .357 Magnum, but with less recoil than the .44 Magnum. Driving a 220 grain bullet to nearly 1500 feet per second, the .41 Magnum produces over 1000 ft-lbs of energy; nearly twice that of either the .357 Magnum or .45 Long Colt. While the .41 Magnum offers rather impressive performance, its recoil is in excess of what some people can effectively handle. Over penetration and injury to bystanders is another concern too.
4. .38 Special
The .38 Special has been around for over 100 years, and has been used by many police departments over the years. Propelling a 110 grain bullet at just under 1000 feet per second provides 235 ft-lbs of energy, which is far less than any of the above discussed cartridges. On the plus side, the recoil from a .38 special is quite light, and may therefore be a good choice for recoil sensitive individuals. That said, I would personally be more comfortable with a .45 Long Colt, .357 Magnum, or .41 Magnum.
5. .44 Magnum
The .44 Magnum was developed in the 1950’s, and remains popular today. Touted as “the most powerful handgun in the world” by the movie Dirty Harry, the .44 Magnum is indeed a formidable cartridge, albeit no longer the most powerful one in the world. Pushing a 300 grain bullet to nearly 1500 feet per second, the .44 Magnum can generate about 1500 ft-lbs of energy. This makes the .44 Magnum an incredibly effective cartridge – but one with rather heavy recoil. Some people are unable to handle the recoil at all, while other people are considerably less effective with the .44 Magnum than they would be with a softer recoiling revolver. For that reason I would generally suggest against the .44 Magnum for self defense.
There are many other revolver cartridges not discussed in this article, as I do not find them to be generally suitable for self defense. For example, the .22 long rifle cartridge is simply too small for effective self defense against a human attacker, and the .500 S&W has recoil that is too heavy for an average person to handle effectively. That said, each person who is considering a revolver for self defense should select the gun that is right for them, taking into account the size of the gun, the recoil, the ammunition capacity, etc.
The following articles on selecting a gun for home defense, choosing between pistols and revolvers, selecting a defensive pistol caliber, home defense ammunition, home defense handgun accessories, other self defense tools, the basics of gun safety, and safely storing guns may also be helpful.