Selecting a Defensive Revolver Caliber

Published by the LearnAboutGuns.com Author on August 3, 2008 at 12:17 am
LearnAboutGuns.com > How-To Guides and Other Info > Selecting a Defensive Revolver Caliber

The question of “which caliber” is one that is asked and debated quite frequently.  This article gives my opinion as to the proper revolver caliber for self defense purposes.
The Taurus Judge - a revolver

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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  • Danny

    I think a .38 special +p would be an effective defense round, maybe even the #1 in this list. First, it has a gentler recoil so it's easier to use and operate rapidly in self-defense scenarios. Second, it has less muzzle flash than the other bigger rounds, which could temporarily blind the user if used in the dark. And lastly, it can be used in the majority of extant revolvers in the market, giving the potential user numerous choices (snubbies, scandiums, j-frames, k-frames, etc.) for every self defense situation s/he can think of. The .45 Long Colt may be a more devastating cartridge, but it's usually used in single action revolvers, not a good choice for self defense.

  • http://www.learnaboutguns.com LearnAboutGuns.com

    You make some good points, Danny, although I remain partial to the .45 Long Colt for a self defense revolver. I guess I just can't bring myself to go for a self defense caliber that doesn't start with the number "4" (or its metric equivalent).

    The .45 long colt recoil seems tolerable: Of the people I've taken to shoot for their first time, no one has been unable to handle the recoil produced by a .45 Long Colt, .45 ACP, or .40 S&W.

    We're in agreement that a single action revolver would probably be a bad idea for self defense, but there are double action revolvers chambered for .45 Long Colt, such as the Taurus Judge.

    I also didn't take into consideration the existing revolvers, since this article focused on choosing a caliber for the purchase of a new gun… But a .38 special with +p ammo might be a good idea if you already have a revolver chambered for it.

    Thanks for the comments, and I look forward to more in the future :)

    [note: there was recently a temporary problem with the comment system that may have resulted in lost comments. sorry for any inconvenience]

  • David

    Can the Taurus Judge shoot .45 Colt +P ammo? I just bought one and want to know. I can't find anything on this subject either way.

    Thanks,

    David

  • http://www.learnaboutguns.com LearnAboutGuns.com

    David: It seems like opinions are split as to whether +P ammo can be fired by the Taurus Judge. An interesting thread on the issue can be seen here: http://www.thehighroad.org/showthread.php?t=28242

    I wouldn't fire +P ammunition unless I was absolutely certain whether it was OK to do so…

  • Arturo Mtz

    Very good points. I agree with your selection. Only that I love the 41 magnum. Down here in Mexico all our homes are constructed with bricks and concrete, we are not afraid about overpenetration; just about noise. Then we have to have ear plugs before been able to shoot indoors!

    Also I love the 38 Spl because is easier to get and: is legal!. (almost anything usefull is ilegal here but anyone could have an AK 47)

  • Erik

    What is your opinion of .22 magmum? I can only afford a single revolver (convertible .22lr/.22mag) and -due to budget constraints- i’d like the affordability of .22lr for regular practice at the range while having the ability to use magnum for self defense. Is this a practical solution? How does the .22mag compare to others in terms me stopping power, overpenetration, etc…?

    • http://www.learnaboutguns.com The LearnAboutGuns.com Author

      I would say that .22 magnum is not much more effective than .22LR, and wouldn’t trust my life to either.

      Also, I have less self defense confidence in rimfire cartridges such as .22LR or .22 magnum than with centerfire cartridges, due to reliability concerns.

      • Harry J Reeves

        For many years I a carried north American arms 22 magnum that folded up inside the grip. I could carry it unnoticed in my top shirt pocket and many times I carried more than one. The point is I was armed and the ability to fire 5 times gave me a leg up on someone who didn't respect my rights. I have stopped 2 humans and a few dogs from interfering with my daily rounds. In our not so polite society more civilians have left this mortal coil due to the 22 round than any other round. Oh yes the difference between racism and bigotry is more than semantics. Most people have never looked up what racism actually means I am sure you have. My ancestors came from Africa but I am sure Al Sharpton would protest if I referred to myself as an Afro American and I think that would be because he is a bigot. I also think that most fervent anti gun people have a genetic defect that will not let them come to grips with their fear of mortality and having to confront violence. Among our feathered friends this is referred to as sticking ones head in the sand. Guns to me are a minor issue, when and where to use one is the key to physical and economical survival.Learning about guns is important but leaning under what conditions to use one and walk out of court a free person with some money left in your bank account is more important. As I said earlier I am an ignorant person who did not manage to graduate High school but am married to a lady with a wall full of degrees who spent many years as a VP of a major oil co and her dad is a retired rocket scientist. So when it comes to scolding me for my moronic statements you are an amateur. My Mexican-American friend thought jumping beans was funny, so there! Humor is the key to stability and happiness.

        • http://learnaboutguns.com Leroy

          I read your comment about the 22 mag. You are right the .22 has killed more people than it is given credit. As far as the 22 mag. goes an old female friend of mine bought a Taurus .22 mag revolver (carries 8 rounds), she loves it because of its capacity, simplicity, low recoil and concealability. I agree with you that guns are a minor issue, but being able to survive a lethal encounter, walk out of court free and with money in the bank is more important. 'Humor is the key to stability and happiness", I like that, may i quote you on that? Have a good one.

          Sincerely,

          Leroy

  • Ricardo

    I have one Sig Sauer Mosquito for my practice and carry one 9mm pistol for my self defence.

  • Robert

    I went with a GP100 .357. That way I can do general practice with the less expensive .38 special and use the larger .357 magnums for defense.

    Obviously I shoot the .357s in practice also so I am used to the larger recoil. Just not as often.

  • Martin

    Well, here in New Zealand it is NOT legal to carry any gun under ANY circumstance. Hunters can transport weapons to fields, but a citizen must go about unarmed. Mind you, there is very little street crime here, but it is illegal to even OWN a handgun unless you spend a year with a pistol club, have intrusive vetting into your personal life by the police, and spend thousands on home security and safes. Not an option unless reasonably well off. Saying that, most of our few pistol murders have been with .22s or ex military .32s… Our police are generally unarmed, but can access Glocks or AR-15s or Winchester rifles.

  • internetsamurai

    According to US government statistics, car crashes are the leading cause of death for 15 to 20 year-old. More 16 to 20 year-old die in auto crashes than by drugs, guns, and violent crimes combined.
    tx defensive driving

  • Kenneth Dawson

    I think people obsess too much about calibers. For example I don't think the creature being shot can tell one bit of difference between one of the .45's or a .40 or a .41or .44 magnum. Find a gun you can shoot well. The caliber is secondary. Learn to shoot well with whatever. I think the ergonomics of the weapon is the important thing.

  • Mark M.

    I recently bought my wife a Taurus revolver chambered in .327 Federal magnum. It is an awesome little round. The round looks like the baby brother of the .357 magnum. It has 20% less kick and muzzle flash than the 357 but holds 6 rounds in the carry size revolver vs 5 in most 357’s. The two great points about this round are that only two common defensive handguns have more energy under 100 yards. They are the .357 and .44 magnums. Other than those, the .327 Federal magnum beats EVERY other round. The other great thing is, since it is technically a 32 cal round, it will also fire the 32 S&W long and the 32 H&R magnum. Awesome round that will only gain in popularity in time.