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Ammunition Demystifier – Types Of Handgun Ammunition


What Is The Right Handgun Ammunition For you?

Handgun ammunition comes in a variety of types and sizes. The one you need for your handgun 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.  Of the numerous calibers of handgun ammunition, the .22, .25 ACP and .32 calibers are generally not powerful enough for self-defense, so I do not address them here. Much of the information and images I use for this article were supplied by Genitron, where you will find complete listings for all caliber rounds.

.380 Automatic

380auto-new handgun ammunition

John Browning designed the .380 automatic and FN of Belgium introduced the .380 in about 1912. One reason for the success of the round is that it is the largest practical cartridge that you can easily adapt to small automatic pocket pistols. It is adequate for most self-defense situations and is the smallest caliber that most recommend for defensive ammunition.

.38 Special or Colt Special – .38 Special is specific to revolvers. Never use a revolver designed to fire .38 Special to fire .357 Magnum ammunition.

.38 Special Handgun Ammunition

38spl-new handgun ammunition

.38 Special is revolver-specific. It is probably the most popular revolver cartridge in production and you can easily find this caliber in most parts of the world. The .38 Special comes in standard and +p variants. Not all .38 revolvers and some older revolvers cannot handle the more powerful +P ammunition. 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. Many consider the .38 Special to be one of the best-balanced, all-around 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

9mm-new handgun ammunition

The 9mm Parabellum (et.al) 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 the cartridge were first adopted by the German Navy in 1904 and then by the German Army in 1908. The military of practically every non-Communist power have adopted this cartridge. 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) Handgun Ammunition

handgun ammunitionThis 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

357mag-newThis cartridge was introduced in 1935 by Smith & Wesson for its heavy-frame revolver. Using a lengthened and strengthened version of the .38 Special case, hunters and law enforcement rapidly accepted the .357 Magnum. At the time of its introduction, creators claimed that this handgun ammunition easily pierced the body panels of automobiles and cracked engine blocks. While it has less power than .44 Magnum handgun ammunition, 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

44remmag-new handgun ammunition

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 power pistol cartridge hunters primarily use. 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) Handgun Ammunition

45gap-new handgun ammunition

Glock and Speer developed the 45 Glock Automatic Pistol (GAP) in 2003. Glock designed this cartridge for use 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

45auto-new handgun ammunitionThis 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. Many governments have made the .45 ACP the official military handgun caliber, 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 Handgun 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 I describe below. Manufacturers continue to innovate and improve the high-performance self-defense round.

Two simple guidelines:

  • American handgun ammunition is justifiably the best. As a general rule: Buy American. I recommend American manufacturers 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, I recommend 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. 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. The attacker absorbs much more of the bullet’s kinetic energy. Innocent bystanders are safer because hollowpoint bullets are less likely to exit the attacker’s body and go on to injure anyone else. A few examples of these are jacketed soft point (JSP) or jacketed hollow point (JHP). Read more about ammunition definitions HERE.

Standard Ammunition- Standard ammunition is just that standard. Less expensive than self-defense rounds and best used for practice. A good example of this type of ammo is full metal jacketed (FMJ). Read more about ammunition definitions HERE.

Note: There are many inconsistencies in handgun ammunition manufacturing so this number does not always reflect the actual diameter of the bullet. In some cases, manufacturers use the metric scale. In some cases, manufacturers give the cartridge a a second number to represent the bullet’s length. 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:

Semiautomatic ammunition is generally different in shape from revolver ammunition.

Some rounds which, based on caliber, seem as though they should be identical. However, they are not the same and will fit into either revolvers or semi-automatic pistols.

Read the Gun Glossary for more ammunition and firearm definitions.

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3 thoughts on “Ammunition Demystifier – Types Of Handgun Ammunition

  1. It’s fascinating how there are different types of ammunition for firearms that also dictate their stopping power. I wanted to learn more about firearms after learning that my friend is interested in getting a handgun for self-defense. I’ll be sure to let him know about these so he’d know which one to use in the future.

  2. kunkun Dimah Ernest says:

    I am somebody who like guns so much but, i did not know anything about the different types of guns. I am very happy that, i have some small knowledge about the different types of pistols. I will want to learn more about them. Thank you.

  3. Taylor Bishop says:

    I wanted to thank you for helping me learn about different types of ammunition for handguns. It’s interesting to learn that the .40 S&W is the cartridge for many law enforcement agencies. I’m kind of interested to learn of other situations where this ammunition can be typically used.

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