Comparison of common handgun rounds


Modern ammo is available in many variations within the same caliber.  Bullets are nearly always made of lead, a soft but very dense metal with a low melting point. Its weight, ease of molding, and quality of mushrooming, or flattening out on impact to expand 1.5 to two times its prior diameter, maximizing terminal performance, has made lead the best choice for bullets for hundreds of years. Mushrooming, or expansion,  delivers more energy to the target, and also creates a larger wound channel. The major differences within a caliber will be in the weight of the bullet, the amount of powder it is backed by, and the type of bullets available:

  • Lead round nose– a plain lead bullet. This ammo tends to be cheapest, and mushrooms well, but it is also the dirtiest, and fouls barrels.
  • Jacketed, aka hardball, aka FMJ (Full Metal Jacket)- The entire lead bullet is encased in a harder metal shell, usually copper or brass, to control mushrooming and allow for maximum penetration. It is also much cleaner to handle and keeps your barrel cleaner.
  • Hollow point– the tip of the bare lead bullet is indented or dimpled, and the rest of the bullet is partially jacketed, to facilitate maximum expansion.
  • Wadcutter– the bullet is cylindrical, and truncated flush with the casing. Wadcutters are designed primary for target shooting, as they make a neat hole (a. , n.d.). Semi-wadcutters have a closed, short nose, and prominent shoulder, and are intended to combine the best features of round nose with a wadcutter. They are suitable for hunting as well as target shooting, though some shooters  employ them for self-defense by loading them backward  in the casing, with the hollow end of the cylinder forward,  as they will mushroom well, but not over-penetrate.
  • Frangible– the bullet is designed to fragment upon impact, creating secondary entrance wounds at right angles to the main wound channel to maximize trauma to the target, and minimizing penetration to prevent harm to bystanders behind the target, or wall penetration in an urban environment. A specific type of frangible round are Glaser safety slugs, which are polymer tipped bullets holding lead shot.


Some of the most popular options for handgun rounds are:

.38 (S & W) Special

The .38 Special has been around since 1898  (, 2015) and was used by most US police departments until the 1980’s (Hawks, 2014 ).There is also the .38 +P, which is backed by a little more powder to provide some extra energy (Cunningham, 2013 ). It is available in an average bullet weights of 138 grains, has an average MV (Muzzle Velocity) of 876  fps, and it delivers an average ME (Muzzle Energy)of 235 foot lbs.  (, 2015). The .38 Special is designed to be fired from a revolver, limiting the capacity to five or six rounds.

.357 Magnum.

The .357 magnum could be called the .38 Special’s big brother. The name can be misleading, as the .38 is actually three hundred and fifty seventh of an inch in diameter West Groton Co. , (2009). The difference is in the length of the casing. The .357 casing is      longer, allowing for more grains of powder, delivering substantially improved terminal performance. The difference in report and recoil between the .38 and the .357 is noticeable. The advantage of owning a .357 revolver is that you can run much cheaper .38 ammo through for it practice. (Hawks, 2014). It is available in an average bullet weights of 142 grains, has an average MV velocity of 1294 fps, and it delivers an average ME of 528 foot lbs. (, 2015a).

.380 ACP

It is available in an average bullet weights of 91 grains, with an MV of 980 fps, delivering 194  foot lbs. of kinetic energy upon impact (, 2015b). The .380 is designed to be fired from a semi-automatic pistol. Ellifritz (2016) notes problems of reliability with semi-autos chambered for the .380, indicating that the round does not always have the power to consistently cycle the action.

9mm parabellum, aka 9mm Luger, aka 9 x 19 MM

The 9mm also has a long history, designed in 1902 by Georg V. Luger. The 9mm and the .38 bullets are nearly the same diameter- .355 vs .357 of an inch in diameter.  (Ballistics 101, 2013).  It is available in average bullet weights 124 grains, has an average MV of 1138  fps, and delivers an average ME of 357 foot lbs. (, 2015c), and is designed to be fired from a semi-auto handgun. The typical magazine capacity can be 16 or more rounds.

.40 S & W

The .40 is a cut down casing of the 10mm cartridge. The 10mm was originally developed for use by the FBI following the disastrous 1986 gun battle in Miami with two bank robbery suspects armed with rifles, which killed  FBI agents Benjamin Groger, and Jerry Dove, and wounded five other agents. The agents eventually shot both suspects to death (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2011) but they were outgunned, and the FBI realized they needed to put more power in their agent’s hands. The initial choice was the 10mm Auto. It was learned that the 10mm round had too much recoil for control by female agents and smaller men, so a compromise between increased power and recoil management was reached with the .40 Smith and Wesson, which was made available in 1990 (, n.d.).  It is available in an average bullet weight of 165 grains, with an MV of  1074  fps, delivering 423 foot lbs. of ME (, 2015d), to be fired from a semi-auto, also with a high capacity magazine; 16 or more rounds.

.45 ACP

The .45 ACP, designed by John M. Browning,  (, 2015e), has been around  since 1911, and was the standard handgun caliber used by US armed forces from World War I, World War II, Korea, to Vietnam. It is available in an average bullet weight of 207 grains, with an average MV of 937 fps, delivering an average ME of 403  foot lbs. (, 2015e), and is intended for semi-autos. The .45 is a fat, wide bullet, and the magazine capacity is more limited than the 9mm or .40.


All if the ammo described here has advantages and shortcomings. Choices will depend on whether you are looking for sheer stopping power, or a balance of power with recoil management.  Weight, size, and load capacity of  the models of guns available  for the caliber, and cost of ammo are additional considerations.

Stay Safe.  – DAP


Ballistics 101. (2013). 9mm vs. 38 special. Ballistics 101. Retrieved February 12, 2016 from

Cunningham, G. (2013 ). Ammo & Gear Reviews. Concealed Carry: What about +P ammo? Daily Caller.  Retrieved February 12, 2016 from

Ellifritz, G. (2016).  Is the .380 ACP an Adequate Caliber for Defensive Use? Active Response Training. Retrieved February 12, 2016 from

Federal Bureau of Investigation (2011). A Byte Out of History:
Fatal Firefight in Miami. FBI.Gov. Retrieved February 16, 2016 from (2015). .357 Magnum Ballistics. Retrieved February 12, 2016 from (2015a). .38 Special (.38 Smith & Wesson Special) Ballistics. Retrieved February 12, 2016 from (2015b). .380 Ballistics. Retrieved February 16, 2016 (2015c). 9mm Luger (9mm Parabellum) (9x19mm) Ballistics. Retrieved February 12, 2016 from (2015d). .40 Smith and Wesson Ballistics. Retrieved February 16, 2016 (2015e). .45 Auto (.45 ACP) Ballistics. Retrieved February 12, 2016 from

Hawks, C. (2014). Most Versatile Handgun: The .38 Special/.357 Magnum Revolver. Retrieved February 12, 2016 from

Mattioli, S. (2011). .45 Auto Cartridge History. Retrieved February 16, 2016

Mr. (n.d.).  History of the .40 S&W. Mr. Retrieved February 16, 2016 from

n.a. (n.d.). What is a wadcutter bullet. The Big Game Hunting Blog. Retrieved February 16, 2016 from

West Groton Co. (2009). Why do they call it a .38 when it’s actually a .357? Vintage Pistols. Retrieved February 12, 2016 from



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