Ammunition Demystifier - Types Of Handgun Ammo

What Rounds Do You Need For Your Handgun?

That depends on the caliber of your firearm along with the rounds recommended by the manufacturer. The calibers listed below certainly are not all of them, but will give you an overview of each of the most popular and recommended calibers for personal self defense. As the .22, .25 ACP and .32 calibers are common, they are generally not considered powerful for self defense, so are not addressed here. Much of the information and images used here were supplied by Genitron, where you will find complete listings for all caliber rounds.

.380 Automatic

The .380 Automatic was introduced by FN of Belgium about 1912 and was designed by John Browning. One reason for the rounds success is that it is the largest practical cartridge that can be easily adapted to small automatic pocket pistols. Is considered adequate for most self-defense situations and is the smallest caliber recommended for defensive ammunition.

.38 Special or Colt Special - .38 Special is designed for revolvers. Revolvers designed to fire .38 Special should never be used to fire .357 Magnum ammunition.

.38 Special

.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. The .38 Special comes in standard and +p variants. Not all .38 revolvers and some older revolvers are not designed to handle the more powerful +P ammunition, so check to verify your firearms ability to shoot it. Also known as the .38 Colt Special, this cartridge was developed by Smith & Wesson and was introduced in 1902. The .38 Special is considered one of the best-balanced, all-round handgun cartridges ever designed. It is one of the most accurate and widely used for match shooting.

9mm Parabellum or 9mm Luger or 9mm Para, or 9x19mm, or 9mm NATO

The 9mm Parabellum ( is perhaps the least expensive of all self-defense rounds. It is more powerful than the .380 ACP, but like the .380 ACP it easily lends itself to firearm designs which are small and light enough to carry comfortably. 9mm is one of the most popular calibers for concealed carry.

This cartridge was introduced in 1902 along with the Luger semi-automatic pistol. The pistol and cartridge was first adopted by the German Navy in 1904 and then by the German Army in 1908. This cartridge has since been adopted by the military of practically every non-Communist power. It has become the most popular and widely-used handgun cartridge in the world. Performance wise, the 9mm cartridge has somewhat more power than the .38 Special but falls well short of the .357 Magnum.

.40 Smith & Wesson (S&W)

This cartridge was developed as a joint venture between Winchester and Smith & Wesson in 1989. It was an effort to to create a cartridge with the same power as the 10mm Norma round that the FBI had just started using, but in a shorter case. The shorter cartridge would facilitate accuracy and allow use of a smaller, more comfortable grip frame. The .40 S&W has become the cartridge of choice for many law enforcement agencies in the United States. Typical bullet weight for this cartridge ranges from 135 to 180 grains with an average muzzle energy that approaches 500 ft-lbs.


.357 Magnum - Revolvers designed to fire .357 Magnum can also shoot .38 Special ammunition

This cartridge was introduced in 1935 by Smith & Wesson for its heavy-frame revolver. Using a lengthened and strengthened version of the .38 Special case, the .357 Magnum was rapidly accepted by hunters and law enforcement. At the time of its introduction, it was claimed to easily pierce the body panels of automobiles and crack engine blocks. While it has less power than .44 Magnum, it compares favorably to the 10mm Norma and .45 ACP, but with better armor penetration. Today factories offer over fifty different loadings in this caliber. Bullet weights range from 110 to 200 grains with an average muzzle energy exceeding 500 ft-lbs.

.44 Remington Magnum

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. This cartridge was developed by Smith & Wesson and Remington, and was introduced in 1955 for a new heavy-frame 44 Magnum revolver. Today Ruger, Colt, Smith & Wesson and others make revolvers for this cartridge. This is a high powered pistol cartridge designed primarily for hunting. The .44 Magnum offers much more power than .357 Magnum. The average bullet weight of this cartridge exceeds 200 grains, and the average muzzle energy easily approaches 1000 ft-lbs.

.45 Glock Automatic Pistol (GAP)

Developed in 2003 by Glock and Speer the 45 Glock Automatic Pistol (GAP). The cartridge was designed to be used in the medium frame sized GLOCK 37 semi-automatic pistol. Typical bullet weights now range from 185 to 230 grains.



.45 Automatic Colt Pistol (ACP)

You'll find the ACP used to designate many different cartridges which were originally designed to be fired through semi-automatic or automatic firearms

This cartridge was developed by John Browning in 1905 and adopted by the United States Ordnance Department, along with the Colt-Browning automatic pistol, in 1911. It has also been made the official military handgun chambering by several other governments, notably Argentina, Mexico and Norway. The 45 Automatic is the most powerful military handgun cartridge in use today. This is a heavy and powerful sub-sonic round with bullet weights from 185 to 260 grains.


Note: There is an old round designed for revolvers: the .45 Colt (sometimes incorrectly called the .45 Long Colt). 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.

Different Types of Ammunition

Self Defense Rounds

Self defense rounds must be quality rounds. These are typically more expensive, but when my life is on the line - lower quality, cheaper ammunition is not what I want between myself and an attacker. So, for the rounds that you keep in your concealed carry firearm or your home protection firearm every minute except for practice time should be the best. There are variations, which are described below. Manufacturers continue to innovate and improve the high performance self defense round.

Two simple guidelines:

  • American ammunition is justifiably the best, as a general rule: Buy American. Recommended American manufacturers are Federal, Cor-Bon, Hornady, Remington, Winchester or CCI ammunition. Of course there are many who have different favorites for a variety of reasons - but to keep it simple, these are recommended for self defense round manufacturers.
  • Never use hand-loaded or re-loaded ammunition for self-defense. Use factory-loaded cartridges only. For the same reasons mentioned above. Nothing but the best will do for your personal safety.

Fire at least 100 - 150 rounds through your semi-automatic firearm to ensure reliable feeding and make sure the self defense round you have selected shoots smoothly in YOUR firearm. This doesn't really apply to revolvers, but you should still fire the ammunition you intend to carry to assure yourself of its accuracy.

Hollowpoint bullets (handguns) usually expand and stop in the human body, and thus the attacker absorbs much more of the bullet's kinetic energy. Innocent bystanders are considered safer because hollowpoint bullets are less likely to exit the attacker's body and go on to injure anyone else.

Standard Ammunition- Standard ammunition is just that standard. Less expensive than self defense rounds and best used for practice.

Note: There are many inconsistencies in ammunition manufacturing so this number does not always reflect the actual diameter of the bullet and in some cases the metric scale is used. In some cases a second number is given usually representing the bullets length and letters (abbreviations or words) will then follow to complete the name of the cartridge. This entire "name" is important and you will need to know the entire description, including the letters.

Another Note: Another 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.

There are some rounds which, based on caliber, seem as though they should be identical -- but they are actually different as they are designed for either revolvers or semi-atomatic pistols.