Before you can begin selecting a gun, you have to choose a cartridge.  The cartridge refers to the bullet itself, plus the casing (what holds the powder and primer).  The amount and type of powder, and the weight, design, and material of the bullet can all be tweaked or changed (within reason), but the cartridge usually can’t.

So, why should you choose a cartridge before choosing a gun?  Because not all guns may come in the caliber you want, so if you fall in love with a gun based on some other factor, you may find that it does not suit your needs.  This article will only deal with handgun cartridges, and only the more popular ones.

The general issues to be considered regarding cartridge selection are:

  1. Purpose of the gun (self-defense, hunting, target shooting, plinking, etc.)
  2. Amount of recoil
  3. Availability
  4. Cost

Before we get started, a word about terms.  Caliber is simply the diameter of the bullet measured in either millimeters or decimals of inches.  Of course nothing is truly simple, and cartridges often lie.  For example, the .357 magnum and .38 special both fire .357 inch diameter bullets.  Gotta love it.


I’m really only going to talk about common cartridge choices in the United States.  (Availability in other locations selection may be different.)


You should really decide what you want the gun for before you decide on a cartridge and gun.


For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  By firing a gun, you are creating a controlled directional explosion that propels a bullet.  Just as the explosion pushes the bullet out of the barrel, it pushes the gun toward you.  Moreover, the gun will also tend to rise (sometimes called muzzle flip).  The more recoil, the harder a gun is to shoot: 1) it fatigues you physically and mentally; 2) anticipating recoil is a major cause of inaccuracy.

Recoil can be lessened by the individual design of a gun, but every cartridge will have an inherent amount of recoil energy.


What’s the good of a gun you can’t shoot because you can’t find ammunition?  All of the cartridges discussed here are readily available either locally or on the internet.


This is one of the most important factors in your selection.  If you intend to shoot frequently (which you should) the cost of ammunition will quickly become the most important cost factor.  For example, .22LR in bulk costs about 2 cents per round.  .40 S&W costs about 22 cents a round.  After shooting 500 rounds of 22LR, you’ve saved $250. 

This is an excellent argument for having two guns–a 22LR for cheap practice, and another for defense.

22LR (Long Rifle)

This .22 caliber cartridge is probably one of the most versatile out there.  It can be used in both rifles and pistols  And unless you’re in a pinch (think your’e in immediate danger) should generally be your first gun.  It combines these wonderful characteristics:

  • It’s an inherently accurate round
  • It’s dirt cheap (~2 cents per round in bulk)
  • It has very little recoil (fun and easy to shoot)
  • Available in both revolvers and semi-automatics

It’s a great cartridge for learning how to shoot while you consider your next gun.  It can be used for hunting small game, target shooting, and plinking.  However, it is a bit underpowered for self defense.

9mm (Luger or 9×19)

The the 9mm is used by all NATO armies, and thus is one of the cheapest cartridges out there.  It’s recoil is relatively light, and the cartridge is suitable for self defense.  (Most of the world thinks it’s adequate, although in the United States, many people think that bigger is better.)

Personally, I think this is the best choice for the bang for the buck.  You’ll have the most selection of weapons with the biggest variety of ammunition choices at the cheapest prices.  When you move up from 22LR to your next gun, you should certainly consider 9mm.  One of selling points is that because of it’s relatively small size, pistols with 15 and even 19 round magazines are possible.  This is comforting, but should not be a substitute for training.  After all, you cannot miss fast enough or often enough to win a gunfight.

.45 ACP

The .45 ACP is probably the most popular cartridge in the United States.  It was developed for the army after the .38 special was considered underpowered in the Phillipines.  In the United States many consider it the ultimate self-defense cartridge.  It’s recoil is reasonable, it is inherently accurate, but ammunition is quite a bit more expensive.  There is a rabid following for this cartridge (in part because of the legendary 1911 handgun), and it’s nice to jump on the band wagon.  Because of its large size, however, the magazines tend to hold fewer cartridges, which means that training is that much more important.  You can’t go wrong by choosing this round unless it’s just too expensive for you to shoot often.

40 S&W

The .40 is an interesting cartridge that has gotten a lot of good and bad press.  It was originally made my shortening a more powerful cartridge, leading many people to call it, 40 Short & Weak.  However, it has proven itself to be a very good defense cartridge.  It is rapidly becoming one of the most popular cartridges with U.S. law enforcement agencies.  It has quite a bit more recoil than both 9mm and .45.  It’s not as inherently accurate as either (but more than adequate for self defense).  It’s price is in between, but closer to .45.  It’s usually not recommended for novice shooters for these reasons.  Really, the only reason to get a gun in this caliber is self defense.

.32 ACP and .380

These are both considered weak rounds compared to 9mm, 45 ACP, and 40 S&W.  However, the guns that use them tend to be smaller, lighter, and easier to conceal.  The ammunition is not cheaper than 9mm, so really the only reason to get one of these is 1) You just love the gun that shoots it, or 2) You want a gun small and light enough to carry everywhere (perhaps a pocket gun).  There’s a saying, “When you need it, the .32 in your pocket is better than the .45 in your house.”

Makarov (9×18)

The Soviets seemed to have a knack for designing simple, reliable weapons, that just work.  The Makarov is one such weapon.  They were manufactured in several eastern bloc countries, and for years epitomized the cheap gun with plentiful ammunition for the shooter in a pinch.  Unfortunately, because of the time that has lapsed since the Soviet Union’s demise and their popularity, neither the gun nor the ammunition is nearly as inexpensive as they once were.

Still, if you can find a deal on one, you should certainly consider it.  The cartridge is inherently accurate as are the guns.  The recoil is modest.  You can sometimes still find great deals on the ammunition.

(The wonderful CZ-82 is another gun chambered for the 9×18 Makarov. The civilian version (CZ-83) can also be had for .32 and .380.)

.38 Special and .357 Magnum

These fire the same sized bullet but the magnum has a longer casing so that you can’t accidentally blow up a 38 special revolver with the higher pressure magnum round by mistake.  You can however use the 38 special cartridges in a .357 magnum.  The .38 special was designed before the advent of smokeless powder, and that is why the cartridge is so huge (most of it is empty space). 

If you like revolvers, .38 special is similar in size, although not energy to the 9mm.  The .357 magnum is, of course, one of the most renowned “man-stoppers”.  The recoil from a .357 magnum is quite strong, and the lighter the gun, the worse the recoil.  Prices are higher for both cartridges than 9mm, and .357 is similar to .45 in price.  The .357 is an excellent defense cartridge against predators both human and four-legged.

.44 special and .44 magnum

This is pretty much ditto for for the .38 special and .357 magnum, except that more so.  The 44 magnum is the preferred handgun if you go up against a grizzlie.  There are also rifles that use this cartridge.