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Caliber Wars, Revisited…

Last week I shared a post on Facebook by Massad Ayoob in which he stated that your choice of defensive handgun caliber does matter.  I strongly agree with Mas on this, and said so, which caused heads to explode all over the interweb… so as promised, here’s the full explanation.

First, this is what I have been saying in my lectures/classes/training (and in my book) for 16 years: “If you are putting your bullets into your adversary’s critical anatomy, it doesn’t matter whether you’re shooting a 9mm or a 45.”  This is NOT THE SAME THING as saying, “a 9mm is as good as a .45 any day, any way,” which some people claim I have said.

I’ll tell you how this misunderstanding came about.

In the late 90’s, most PD’s were transitioning from 9mm handguns to .40 caliber or even .45 caliber. The thought process was that bigger had to be better, because the results in officer-involved shootings with 9mm handguns were so appallingly poor. Rather than blame bad shooting–which comes from bad training–these departments blamed the 9mm cartridge, and hoped to fix the problem by changing hardware. Such thinking is sheer lunacy, and the results have been predictably poor! 

I have always maintained–and the data bear me out–that the caliber you shoot the bad guy with is far less important than what part of the bad guy you shoot. Shot placement trumps caliber, when we’re talking about service caliber handguns. Rather than investing in new guns chambered for a bigger cartridge, I have continually advised PD’s (and civilians) to invest their money in better training so that the guns and bullets you’ve already paid for will be more effective. Unfortunately, the general mentality among PD’s and most gun-carrying civilians fails to acknowledge the need for good training.

In other words: if you are highly and effectively trained, it doesn’t matter a whole lot what caliber of handgun you’re required to carry for duty or personal use. Unfortunately, a whole bunch of people have ignored the first half of that statement: “if you are highly and effectivley trained…” The corollary is this: if you are lazy and untrained, your performance in a gunfight will suck no matter what caliber you’re using.

Anyways, the upshot of all this nonsense is that now we have folks saying that the experts (which apparently includes me) say there’s no difference between a 9mm and a 45 ACP bullet/handgun. Which is a huge misrepresentation of the case!

Look:  there are very real differences between the more powerful handgun calibers and guns and their less powerful brethren, and if you ignore those differences, you may do so at your peril. It is simply nonsense to say that a 9mm is equivalent to a 45 ACP, or vice versa. The physics alone should tell you that. And there are significant differences in performance between them which are very real.

For example, I have known for years that, generally speaking, a heavier .45 caliber bullet will perform much better than a lighter caliber/bullet after passing through a hard intermediate barrier than will a lighter 9mm bullet. The greater momentum of the heavier 230 gr bullet, among other things, is the main reason for this performance difference. This is one of the reasons I hunt deer, feral hogs, coyotes, and other critters with a .45 caliber handgun: they punch through hair & hide better than lighter, smaller bullets. I’ve proven it to my satisfaction on game, and on the firing range, shooting water jugs through windshields, and paper targets through automobile doors and windows in law enforcement firearms training.  And I’ve seen it demonstrated by ballistics experts in the lab, too.

A few years ago I was at the annual SOTA (Special Operations Training Association)  conference in Minnesota. Federal/ATK had sent their ballistics testing guru, Johann Boda, to offer a class in ballistics testing, and the conference organizers asked me to sit in as adjunct instructor. We had a lot of fun busting caps into gelatin blocks, and more than a few eyebrows were raised by some of the results. (Just as an aside, I refuse to recommend any 380 ACP pistol at any time for personal defense, largely on the basis of the appalling performance of EVERY factory round I’ve ever tested, and all of those we ran in that class.)  We shot gelatin blocks under all manner of circumstances that day, including intermediate barrier tests. By the end of the day, it was readily apparent that while some smaller caliber bullets will pass through tough intermediate barriers and still do the necessary ballistic work on a gelatin block on the other side, all .45 caliber projectiles tested (200 gr and 230 gr) performed to the FBI standard every time.

This is a very real difference in performance, my friends. It’s not made-up internet mall ninja bullshit. It’s real, it’s verifiable, it’s reproducible. But the crucial question that begs for an answer is this: will it make a difference to you should you get into a real-world deadly force situation?

And that, my friends, is anybody’s guess.

Because, as a friend of mine who has been to “the dance” more than a few times, you get the gunfight you get, not the gunfight you’d like to have. You have to fight with what you’ve got, no more, and hopefully no less.  

There are obvious advantages to carrying a 9mm pistol rather than a 45 caliber pistol. A small 9mm pistol can be really, really small, and really, really concealable. My teeny-weeny 9mm “always” gun is a Kahr PM9, which is so small and light I don’t even pay attention to it, the same way I don’t pay attention to my belt or my shoes after I put them on in the morning. Also, the 9mm will hold more rounds in the same weight/size gun as a larger caliber pistol, which means you can fire more times without reloading if necessary. This won’t matter in the “average” defensive shooting, which supposedly involves one good guy, one bad buy, fewer than 5 bullets, and elapses in about 3-5 seconds. Under such circumstances,  just about any ol’ gun will do. The problem is that in this day, the age of terrorist action,  the likelihood of having to defend against multiple assailants, at variable distances, with the possibility of having to fight through intermediate barriers, is a lot higher than it used to be. So most of us are making the decision to carry something better suited to a complex tactical situation than a 5-shot pocket revolver.

Whether you choose a hi-cap 9mm, a single-stack 1911, or something else in between (or outside the box entirely!) is, in the year of our Lord 2016 in America entirely up to you. It’s up to you to know the strengths and weaknesses of any weapon system or ammunition you might choose to carry, and since it’s your life on the line should the flag go up, I strongly urge you to study hard and choose wisely. Pick a platform that works for your real or anticipated mission profile, then train to use that platform/system to the highest standard of proficiency. Whether it’s 9mm, 40 S&W, or 45 ACP, take your pick and live with it.  

So let’s recap.

The most important weapon you have is your defensive mindset. Second priority is to ensure you’re trained to a level of at least conscious competence with your chosen defensive weapon(s). Choice of weapon and caliber is your third priority.

The first and second priorities boil down to training. You need to be trained at the beginning of your defensive life, and you need periodic retraining to stay current & proficient. Know the circumstances under which you might anticipate an attack, and have a pre-planned defense in place to meet it. Know your adversary’s vital target anatomy, so you know where to place your bullets. And be proficient with your firearms, so you can reliably place your bullets where they count.

Only after these priority challenges have been met should you concern yourself with what firearm, caliber, or ammunition you will carry.  






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