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Choosing the Best Handgun Cartridge: Matching the Tool to the Job

Written by Sam Jacobs Subject: Gun Rights

The "best" handgun cartridge is subjective. How you intend to use your handgun is the biggest determinant of which cartridge you should choose. What works best for plinking cans off backyard fenceposts isn't going to cut it for bear defense.

We decided to outline the most popular handgun cartridges in current production to help you pair the right cartridge with your shooting discipline. In this article, you'll find the pros and cons of each option and a description of what each one does best.



.22 LR

The .22 LR (called the "twenty-two long rifle") is the tiniest caliber on this list. This minuscule rimfire cartridge is also the softest recoiling cartridge we'll cover, which makes it a great option for introducing young or new shooters to the sport.

With little power cruising behind the .22-inch bullets, .22 LR really isn't a viable round for personal protection. Even at the muzzle, those meager bullets are only packing a little over 100 foot-pounds of energy.

However, that doesn't mean these rounds can't be deadly. All it takes is a small injury to a major artery or a vital organ to kill someone, and these little boogers have a reputation for bouncing around erratically in soft tissue.

.22LR ammo is super cheap. Even the expensive stuff only costs a few pennies a round. If burning through ammo is your idea of a good time, the .22 LR makes for an affordable and fun afternoon of shooting.

Here are a few mild-shooting options to consider when you're shopping for a new .22 pistol: the Ruger Mark IV, the Browning Buckmark, and the Walther P22.



.380 ACP

The .380 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) is still a relatively small cartridge. However, this option shoots the same diameter bullets as the popular 9mm Luger. The .380 ACP is sometimes called the 9mm Short or 9mm Kurtz.

While the .380 ACP packs significantly more punch than the .22 LR, it is still a little wimpy when it comes to "stopping power." Muzzle energies rarely top 200 foot pounds.

However, this cartridge is a popular option for pocket pistols. A lot of concealed carry gun owners choose this handgun cartridge for their backup guns.

The recoil from this cartridge is ultra-mild making it manageable for older, disabled, or recoil-sensitive shooters.

If you're looking for a reliable, easy-to-conceal pocket pistol, check out the Ruger LCP or Sig Sauer P238.



.38 Special

The .38 Special is the brainchild of firearms powerhouse Smith and Wesson. Introduced in 1899 as an improvement on the .38 Long Colt, this cartridge was a favorite of police departments for over half a century.

The .38 Special is practically synonymous with J-frame revolvers, and your options for handguns are basically limited to wheel guns. However, models like the Ruger LCR, Smith & Wesson M&P Bodyguard 38, and Weihrauch Windicator are not only affordable but also easy to shoot.

Simple to use and insanely reliable, revolvers have a place as self-defense weapons. The main drawback is ammo capacity. Wheel guns typically only hold 5 or 6 rounds, so in a personal defense situation, you'll need to make every round count.

Fortunately, the .38 Special produces minimal felt recoil, which allows most shooters to make quick, accurate follow-up shots.

While the .38 Special does have its perks, buying a revolver chambered for this cartridge may not be a smart idea.

.357 Magnum revolvers safely shoot both cartridges, so buying a sidearm chambered for the bigger cartridge is like getting two guns for the price of one.

It basically doubles your ammo options, too. We learned how important it is to have cartridge options during the Great Ammo Shortage of 2020.

For more on how to choose the best handgun cartridge continue reading here.

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