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What is the best caliber?

People argue endlessly about what caliber is best. The fundamental fact is that all pistols, rifles and revolvers are lethal. The 380acp, 45acp, 12 gauge, 357, 7.62×39, 308 (7.62×54) and even the lowly 22LR are all lethal.

Is one better than the other?  The simple answer is the best caliber is the one you can hit your target with.

What is caliber?

Caliber refers to the shape/size/weight of a bullet (ammunition) for a firearm. Ammunition is also referred to as “ammo”. The individual type of bullet can vary with the amount of lead, steel or other projectile and the amount of gunpowder.  Ammo has variables like hollow point, full metal jacket (solid or round nose). We are focusing on which “type/caliber” of bullet might be the best.

Just the Facts.

Greg Ellifritz reviewed 1800 shootings and determined that there are some differences between the calibers. The facts prove that accuracy is far more important than caliber. The graph below shows a comparison of various types of  ammunition.

The numbers prove that ALL these calibers can kill. Comparing the best to worst, shows there is not much difference between a 22LR and a 308 round.  The lowly 22LR does kill people.

The numbers prove that rifles and shotguns are more likely to stop a bad guy but the numbers are not significantly different.

The pistol caliber with the best statistics is not much different than the worst pistol caliber. The exception is the 22 being roughly 2x as likely to NOT incapacitate the bad guy.  But even the 22 isn’t a horrible choice, 154 people were shot 213 times in the data Elfritz found, and 31% were one shot stops.

Stopping Power Conclusions

The best one shot stop, are the shotgun at 1.22 shots and the rifle at 1.4 shots. All the the pistols vary from 1.3 to 2.45 rounds (bullets) to incapacitate. That means on average 2 to 3 rounds from ANY handgun.

The number of shots required to incapacitate is shown below this is the same information from Elfritz, but note it takes multiple shots for EVERY ammo type. 

Round (Bullet) Ammo TypeAverage Rounds to Incapacitate
22LR1.38
9mm2.45
45ACP2.08
38 Special1.87
380 ACP1.76
.40 S&W2.36
Rifle (556, 7.62 etc)1.4
Shotgun (90% 12gauge)1.22

Conclusion

For many people it feels like 9mm or 45ACP or .40 is “better”. But the facts do not generally match our assumptions. Any firearm from a 22LR to a 7.62 (308) and up will kill.

Make your decision about the caliber of your weapon based on:

  • weight (how much can you comfortably carry and store)
  • standardization (do you want a rifle and pistol to use the same caliber ammo)
  • range (how far you need to shoot)
  • under or over penetration (going through walls in an apartment building is not good)
  • accuracy
  • cost
  • ammo availability

If you hit your target measurably better with a 22 pistol than a 9mm pistol or 380acp – you should probably pick the 22 (everything else being equal).

The arguments against 22LR

The lethality of a 22LR revolver is similar to a 357 revolver. So why wouldn’t we standardize on just 22LR? T

he arguments against 22LR are:

  • Lower reliability
    • Rimfire: The 22LR (and 22short) ammunition is rimfire, meaning you clip the edge to fire the bullet. This process makes the bullet slightly less reliable.
    • There is a higher chance of a 22LR firearm fail to fire (FTF), Failure to Eject (FTE) or other malfunction.
    • The higher failure for “one shot stop”
  • Range: The ammo does not have a lot of powder and mass so it loses power over distance quickly.

The alternative is any centerfire ammo (380acp, 38special, 357, 9mm or 45acp). Centerfire ammo is more reliable, has longer range but weighs more.

You can “load your own” centerfire ammo – you cannot load your own 22LR.

Recommendation

For pistols, if you can hit consistently with 9mm use that. If not drop down to 380acp or 38special. If you are inconsistent with those try the 22lr. Use the one that you can HIT THE TARGET THE BEST WITH.

For a rifle and shotgun, try out the various calibers to find what you can fire accurately and go with that. If you get blown over by the 12gauge try a 20gauge or even the 410gauge.

If the 30-06 or 308 is too much, and even the 556 is trouble, consider a 9mm carbine.

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