Handgun cartridges are relatively straightforward, compared to the unbelievable things that the shotgun and rifle ammunition manufacturers have done to us. But there is still plenty of opportunity to get mixed up.
One important thing to remember about handgun ammunition is that ammunition designed to be fired in semi-automatics is generally different in shape from ammunition designed for revolvers. What this means is that there are some rounds which, on paper, seem as though they should be identical -- but they look different when seen up close, and are designed to fit in different types of guns.
The main difference between handgun and rifle ammunition is simply that rifle rounds are usually (but not always) more powerful than pistol rounds. They usually have longer cases, and the cases often hold more gunpowder.
Starting with the lowly .22, then, let us begin. The three .22 rounds discussed below are all rimfires.
The most common .22-caliber round is the .22 Long Rifle, which is often abbreviated to .22 LR. Don't let the word "rifle" in the name confuse you, because this ammunition is fired from both handguns and rifles. When someone refers to shooting a .22, they will usually be talking about the .22 LR. This ammunition is plentiful, easy to find, and very inexpensive. It has very little recoil and isn't as loud as many other cartridges so it is very comfortable to shoot. All of this makes it an ideal round for beginners who wish to learn to shoot well.
Ammunition in which the primer is located in the bottom rim of the case. Typically, rimfire rounds are smaller calibers than centerfire rounds. Rimfire is often used in casual conversation to refer exclusively to the .22 Long Rifle cartridge or to guns which fire it.
Next up -- but actually a step down in power -- is the .22 Short. This one is the same circumference as the .22 LR, but comes in an even shorter case. There's not a lot of power behind the .22 Short, but it's a fun one to shoot. When first writing this page, I commented that I'd never seen a rifle which uses this round. An alert reader, Tom Holiday, sent me the following:
"When I was a kid, (50's 60's) the shooting gallery at the state and county fairs would use guns chambering .22 shorts. These were pump guns. My mother has a .22 crack shot single shot carbine that shoots all .22 rounds. Mom's gun is at least 80 years old. I would imagine that any single shot breech loader would be able to fire the .22 short. They may not be able to eject them, but the spent cases can easly be removed by hand or with a knife blade."
The .22 Long Rifle and .22 Short are both the same diameter.
Ammunition in which the primer is located in a small cup in the bottom center of the case.
Larger in diameter than the .22 calibers, but less powerful, is the .25 Auto Colt Pistol, usually called .25 ACP or .25 Auto. The .25 ACP is a centerfire round unique to handguns. If you're looking for a defense round, stay away from this one. Although quite common in cheap handguns, it really isn't powerful enough to do what you need it to do.
Of the .25 Auto, firearms great Jeff Cooper once famously quipped, "... carry a 25 if it makes you feel good, but do not ever load it. If you load it you may shoot it. If you shoot it you may hit somebody, and if you hit somebody - and he finds out about it - he may be very angry with you."
The .32 ACP or .32 Auto was among the many cartridges developed and popularized by John Moses Browning and the Colt company back around the turn of the last century. In
Designed for revolvers, the .32 H&R Magnum round was introduced in 1983. It isn't the same thing as the .32 ACP. A handful of firearms manufacturers produce revolvers chambered for the .32 H&R Magnum.
With the .380 ACP or .380 Auto, we enter the realm of truly confusing caliber facts. Remember that the cartridge numbers often, but not always, indicate the diameter of the bullet? The .380 Auto is one of the exceptions. Its bullet actually measures .355" (9mm) in diameter. Because its bullet diameter is 9mm, but the overall length of the cartridge is shorter than other 9mm ammunition, .380 ACP is sometimes called the 9mm Short. Other names for it are 9mm Kurz (kurz means short in German), or 9mm Corto (Corto means short in Italian). It's also sometimes called the 9mm Browning because its inventor was John Moses Browning. The .380 ACP round is widely believed to be the minimal round acceptable for self-defense, and it was the favored police round throughout Europe for most of the 20th century.
Good Grief! How Many 9mm Cartridges Are There?
Good question! Generally speaking, if you hear someone refer to a 9mm, they will mean the 9mm Luger round.
Another round in this size class is the 9x18mm Makarov, often simply called the 9x18. This one was pretty rare in
Despite the incredible number of cartridges which fire bullets 9mm in diameter, most of the time, when someone refers simply to a 9mm, they are talking about the very common 9mm Luger round, so named in honor of its inventor, Georg Luger. Other names for this same round are 9mm Parabellum, or 9mm
Is .38 Super the same as .380 Auto?
No. These are entirely different rounds. Although both are intended to fire in semi-automatic handguns, .380 Auto has an overall length of slightly under an inch, while a .38 Super cartridge usually measures over an inch long. Even more confusingly, although they begin with the same numbers, they aren't the same diameter, and neither actually uses .38"-diameter bullets.
To avoid further confusion, I'm not even going to talk about the 9mm Largo cartridge, a Spanish round rarely seen in
We still haven't yet left the realm of the 9mm calibers. Next up is the .357 Sig, a young cartridge which was first introduced in 1994 and designed by SIGARMS (the folks who produce Sig Sauer pistols) in partnership with Federal Ammunition company. Created to fire in semi-automatic handguns, it is intended to mimic the ballistic performance of .357 Magnum revolver ammunition. Despite its name, the .357 Sig does not use .357" diameter bullets, but rather uses 9mm / .355" diameter ones. It still remains to be seen whether .357 Sig is a permanent fixture on the defensive handgun market, or just a flash in the pan -- but it does have an enthusiastic following.
.38 Super Auto, commonly called simply .38 Super, was introduced in 1929 and was popular for many years. However, it was steadily diminishing in popularity and perhaps on the edge of extinction when a new shooting sport called IPSC revived it and gave it a place in history. Now it is once again among the most popular cartridges. The .38 Super is widely used in competition firearms to provide power nearly equivalent to a .45 ACP, but with the lighter recoil and magazine capacity more typical of the 9mm. Despite the name, .38 Super does not fire bullets .38" in diameter. The bullets it uses are .355" or .356" across.
Revolvers designed to fire .357 Magnum can also shoot .38 Special ammunition. But it doesn't work the other way around. Even though .357 Magnum ammunition will fit into some older .38 Special firearms, take note:2
Revolvers designed to fire .38 Special should never be used to fire .357 Magnum ammunition.
This is because .357 Magnum ammunition is much more powerful than .38 Special, and therefore requires a sturdier gun for safety's sake.
While the .38 Super is a semi-auto round, .38 Special is designed for revolvers. It is probably the most popular revolver cartridge ever produced, and is easily found in most parts of the world. Despite the name, this caliber actually uses .357" bullets. While any short-barreled revolver may be called a "snubby" by aficionados, most folks immediately think of a .38 Special caliber revolver when they hear the word snubby.
As with many other rounds, the .38 Special comes in standard and +p variants. The .38 Special has a long history, which means there are a lot of revolvers out there which were produced to fire this round in the days before modern metallurgy. These older revolvers are not designed to handle the more powerful ammunition called +p (think, plus power) which became available in the early 1970's. As a result, older .38 Special revolvers should fire only the standard rounds, and steer clear of ammunition marked +p. Even some modern revolvers, most notably the super-lightweight alloys, are not designed to handle large volumes of +p ammunition. If in doubt, read the owner's manual or call the manufacturer before using ammunition marked +p.
The nice thing about the .357 Magnum round is that revolvers designed to fire it can also fire .38 Special ammunition. What this means is that gun owners who purchase a .357 Magnum revolver will be able to use the less-expensive .38 Special as a practice round, while reserving the more powerful and more expensive .357 Magnum rounds for self-defense. Be aware, however, that repeatedly firing .38 Special ammunition through your .357 Magnum frame requires a special emphasis on regular, deep cleaning. Otherwise, a ring of lead residue will build up within the chambers. If enough rounds are fired between effective cleanings, the residue may become so stubborn as to be considered permanent, and its presence will prevent the ability to chamber the longer .357 Magnum round in that revolver.
.40 S&W and 10mm Auto have an interesting relationship.3 The idea of a .40" / 10mm diameter semi-automatic cartridge had been around for many years, but it wasn't until 1983 that a commercial version of the 10mm appeared -- and it was another five years after that before handguns designed to fire it became widely available.
During this time frame, many law enforcement agencies issued 9mm Luger weapons for their departments. Following a disastrous shootout in
In part because of the FBI's search for a less-powerful 10mm (or at least a reliable semi-auto in that caliber class), Smith & Wesson introduced the .40 S&W cartridge in the early 1990's, using a shorter case but a bullet the same diameter as the 10mm Auto. This allowed pistols designed around the .40 S&W cartridge to be somewhat smaller and more concealable than those designed around the 10mm Auto. As soon as the .40 S&W was introduced, the FBI adopted it and many other law enforcement agencies swiftly followed suit. Today the .40 S&W may be the most commonly used police round in
These are all revolver cartridges.
First came the .44 Russian, a very old cartridge developed back in the 1870's by Smith & Wesson for the Russian Army under the czars. Initially developed as a black-powder round, it successfully made the transition to smokeless powder and today is very popular for Cowboy-Action Shooting.
Revolvers designed around the .44 Special can also fire .44 Russian. Those designed around the .44 Magnum can also fire both .44 Special and .44 Russian.
Introduced around the turn of the last century, the .44 S&W Special (commonly called simply .44 Special) uses a somewhat longer case than the older Russian round. When carried in a compact revolver, .44 Special can be a good choice for concealed carry. Like the .44 Russian, .44 Special is also very popular in the Cowboy Action sports.
"This is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world ... Do you feel lucky, punk?" Despite the claim in Clint Eastwood's famous lines, the .44 Magnum (its full name is .44 Remington Magnum) was not and is not the absolute most powerful handgun cartridge.4 It is, however, a very powerful round and the popular mystique surrounding it makes it even more so. Though it is an excellent hunting round, .44 Magnum is really too powerful to use for self-defense: it is difficult to shoot rapidly, and there's a high possibility of the bullet going straight through the intended target to hit innocent passersby.
No matter what the old guys in the gun shop tell you, .45 Auto or .45 ACP will not send an assailant flying across the room if you hit him in the pinkie finger. It is, however, a very good defense round which makes satisfyingly large holes in the target.
ACP means "Automatic Colt Pistol." You'll find it used to designate many different cartridges which were originally designed by the Colt Firearms Company to be fired through semi-automatic or automatic firearms.
The .45 ACP was among the many cartridges first developed by John Moses Browning for the Colt Company around the turn of the 20th century, and has become one of the most popular and successful rounds ever invented. In part this is because of the tremendous continuing popularity of 1911-pattern pistols designed to fire .45 ACP. Even though there are 1911 variants which fire other calibers and even though there are many other handguns designed around the .45 ACP cartridge, the .45 ACP and the 1911 pistol are closely linked in the minds of most shooters.
Introduced just a few years ago, the .45 GAP or .45 Glock was designed to achieve similar ballistic performance as the .45 ACP, but be fired from smaller, more concealable pistols. To achieve this, it uses a somewhat shorter case than the .45 ACP. Guns sized for .45 GAP are thus generally more suitable for shooters with small hands than guns sized for .45 ACP ammunition. A few other companies have picked up the cartridge and designed firearms around it, so chances are that it will remain on the market for at least a while.
An old round designed for revolvers, the .45 Colt (sometimes incorrectly called the .45 Long Colt) is still popular today. In fact, it is the oldest centerfire handgun cartridge still in regular use. It's most commonly found at Cowboy-Action games, but can also be found in several more modern revolvers. It is not the same as the .45 ACP: the case is longer and has a higher volume, making it potentially a more powerful round.
The .50" calibers are all outside the realm of reasonable defense weapons, mostly because of controllability and follow up speed. These really aren't for beginners in any case.
The only thing it seems necessary to point out here is that the .50 AE (or .50 Action Express) designed for handguns is radically different from, and weaker in power than, the .50 BMG round designed for rifles. The recently-introduced .500 Magnum S&W is a revolver round in the same caliber class, but packs considerably more power than the shorter .50-caliber semi-auto rounds.
Note: If you are looking for a little more information about handgun ammunition sizes and types than this article provided, Genitron's ammunition page is definitely the next place you need to look. The page contains excellent pictures of various rounds, on a measured background grid for easy size comparison.