What is the best caliber?

best calibers

I really like George Hill and have had him on the Podcast talking about .357 Lever Guns, but we couldn’t disagree more when it comes to caliber selection. The caliber debate is always a hot one because everyone has a different use for their guns and demands different performance. This morning George answered a number of Facebook questions on his blog and I wanted to expand on them.

More than likely you are going to disagree with me on at least 1… let me know about it in the comments.

What is the best rimfire caliber?

With rimfire calibers, maybe more so than anything else, what you are going to do with it makes a big difference.  I’m going to specifically address 2 families of cartridges specifically.

22 Long Rifle (#2)

Initially I was going to say if you have 1 gun, that’s not a shotgun it should be chambered in 22LR, but I think that is overstating it a bit. So I’ll just say if you have 2 non-defensive guns… 1 of them should be in 22LR.

Traditionally this was because it was readily available, inexpensive to shoot and a great choice for small game.

Now you can’t find it anywhere, ammo prices have gone up and it isn’t even my favorite choice for this case… but it is still a great training round and it is ubiquitous (sorry I really like that word).

One reason it is so common is that guns of every type are chambered in it. Pistols. Revolvers. Semi-auto Rifles. Bolt Guns. Lever Guns. This allows the shooter to work on the fundamentals without the cost associated with center-fire rounds and learn the fundamentals without the flinch inducing noise, flash and recoil. I have heard it said that shooting a rim-fire will make you a better center-fire shooter, but the opposite isn’t necessarily true.

17 Mach 2 (#1)

My favorite rim-fire cartridge is the 17 Mach 2 and is a member of the .22 LR cartridge family. It is essentially a 22 LR necked down to .17 caliber. With a similar case volume and smaller/lighter bullet it pushed the bullet at almost twice the velocity of the .22 LR.

This gives it more muzzle energy than the 22 LR and more range, but it also permits it to be more accurate.

The 22 LR is fired just above the speed of sound which means as it slows it fairly quickly passes back through the sound barrier which is destabilizing. This is part of the reason that many target loads like the ones I use are sub-sonic. This lower velocity also means that bullets are more or less lobbed at the target and the long flight time makes them susceptible to wind drift. (Its big word day on WTBGU!)

The 17 Mach 2 (and its big brother 17 HMR) fly faster so they don’t pass through the sound barrier as early, they aren’t fired with as much arc and aren’t pushed as much be the wind.

17 HMR (#3)

The 17 HMR takes all of the good things about the 17 Mach 2 and makes them better… but with a little more cost still, more recoil and more noise. The 17 HMR has about 2.5 times the energy of the 22 LR which is both good and bad.

It brings it up to a power where it can be used for coyote sized game with accurate shots… but turns smaller game into soup. The 17 HMR is a decent choice for prairie dogs and other high volume varmint hunting, but it is overkill for squirrels if you plan to eat them.

This sets up the major difference I believe exists between me and George Hill. He is from the west with Prairie dogs, Elk and wide open plains. I am from Ohio/the Carolina’s with tree squirrels, prohibitions on rifles for deer hunting and forests. Range appears to be of more importance to him, after all if you can’t see more than 300 yards why would you plan to shot that far?

22 Magnum (Not Pictured)

The 22 Mag is the parent cartridge of the 17 HMR and is a hunting round for game similar to the .17 HMR although it packs slightly more power. I don’t believe it has the same possibility for accuracy or range of the 17 HMR, but with in its range it would be more effective.

Today the round is often discussed as a back-up, back-up gun cartridge for defensive use.

Other Calibers

The 22CB, 22 Short and 17 WSM also have their place… but aren’t common enough to warrant discussion here.

rimfire_drop_chart

What is the best pistol caliber?

Lets start out with the facts…

  • We carry pistols because they are convenient not because they are effective, there is no such thing as “Stopping Power” from a pistol.
  • Much of the deterrent factor of a pistol is psychological. If an attacker wants to avoid pain and doesn’t want to bleed a .25ACP will be as effective as a .44 Mag. This part of the genesis of “Any pistol is better than harsh language.”
  • If you carry a pistol you should be prepared to use it. This preparation requires the right mindset and training.

I have discussed the 9 vs 40 and 9 vs 45 topics before, but to recap…

Effectiveness - The best analysis of handgun stopping power I have ever seen was done by Greg Ellifritz for buckeyefirearms.org and was titled An Alternate Look at Handgun Stopping Power. In it Greg tracked 8 different metrics for, 12 handgun calibers from nearly 1800 shootings and cataloged his findings.

Among them was the metric “Average number of rounds until incapacitation”

  • The 9mm was 2.45.
  • The 40 S&W 2.36.
  • The 45 ACP 2.08.

Unless you can tell me how to fire a fraction of a round those all equal 3!

Capacity - If the guns are all equal in stopping power for practical purposes the next thing to consider is how many “stops” does it permit?

Well, the 9MM and 40 caliber guns often share a platform so they can be compared directly. 45 can’t but we can get close buy comparing the Compact Glocks with the Smith & Wesson M&P45C.

  • 9mm Glock 19 = 15 + 1
  • .40 Glock 23 = 13 + 1
  • 45 ACP Smith & Wesson 45c = 8 + 1

9mm has the advantage.

Ok, maybe that isn’t fair because now we are talking about averages again.

  • 16 / 2.45 = 6.53
  • 14 / 2.36 = 5.93
  • 9 / 2.08 = 4.33

Alright the 9mm has the advantage and currently many law enforcement agencies switching back to it ( Texas Rangers, FBI)

Training – The effectiveness and capacity of a round aren’t the only reasons to use it and I would likely favor the 9mm if one of the other 2 edged it out because 3 other characteristics.

First, the 9mm is shorter than the 45 and allows it to be shot from a smaller gun frame. This allows it to be short from guns with a shorter trigger reach, making it more accessible to shooters with smaller hands.

Second, the 9mm recoils less making it more pleasurable to shoot.

Third, the 9mm costs less per round making higher volume training more accessible.

There are reasons to shoot the 40 and the 45 though…

I’d shoot 40 if I was a police officer and my department bought my ammo or if I shot mainly USPSA because there is a scoring advantage. I’d shoot 45 if part of my decision making on what to carry was the history of the 1911.

10 MM

George said his favorite caliber is the 10mm and I’d be willing to say it will outperform the 3 mentioned above, but he goes on to say that it is too expensive and I’ll add that it is as long as a 45 and recoils more than the others, so it comes in dead last in the non-performance related categories.

Other Calibers

If you are screaming at the computer saying “I can’t believe he didn’t mention my (380,38 special, 357 Mag, 357 SIG, 9mm Mak, 38 super…)!” trust me you aren’t alone and I invite you talk about your caliber below.

I have nothing against any of those rounds other than the cost to train, availability and/or the capacity of the guns chambered for them. I will say that I still believe that the revolver rounds are actually rifle rounds that can be fired from handguns.

You might even be thinking… “He just hates revolvers.”

Nope.

There are lots of reasons to shoot revolvers. Nostalgia, training a trigger pull, ammo flexibility, need more power than a semi-auto can handle, legal issues, fun (that’s a big one), reliability… none of them work for me though and this is my list of top calibers.  Feel free to let me have it in the comments.

What is the best rifle caliber?

Alright if you thought there were a lot of calibers to choose from in pistols, rifles are going to be a mess.

But you need answer a couple important questions.

  1. What do you plan to shoot? – Your target is going to define how big your target is and how much energy it needs to have when it gets there.
  2. How far do you want to shoot? – The distance and the target size combine to define how accurate the rifle will need to be. As we discussed with the rimfires the speed of the bullet (and the weight) combines to determine how much drop a round will have and how much the wind can effect it. It also is part of the equation on how much energy the bullet will have.
  3. How much recoil will you accept? – Guns kick and some guns kick more than others. In general the amount of felt recoil is a function of the bullet weight, speed of the bullet and weight of the gun. So if you want a gun that can shoot elk at 800 yrds, you need something with MOA accuracy and significant energy.. that is going to recoil. You can lessen the felt recoil with a heavy gun, you can reduce your distance requirement of you can deal with it.
  4. How much are you going to shoot? – Some rounds are harder on a barrel than other. Specifically the more gas forced down the barrel relative to the size of the bore the faster you are going to “Shoot out the barrel.” If your going to shoot 20 rounds a year… don’t worry about it any barrel will last you 100 years, but if you are going to shoot a lot it might be a concern.
  5. How much are you willing to spend per round? –  For most of use ammo cost and availability is a concern and while a .338 Lapua might exactly fit your needs, if you can’t justify $7 a round you might want to reconsider.

recoil-energy-of-various-rifles

The 2 most common rounds in the US are the .223 and the the .308.

.223/5.56

The .223 is sometimes disparagingly called a “poodle shooter” and is often used on smaller game and varmints like coyotes, but in its 5.56 designation it is also the anti-personnel round of the US Armed Forces. Many people will say that the .223 round is good out to 800 yards, but at just 500 yards a 55gr .223 will have 5 feet of drop and have less energy than a 380. For me a .223 is a 300yd gun.

.308

The .308 is often credited for being able to take the largest game in North America. Which is another way of saying “I don’t think I’d shoot a rhino with it, but it will kill a moose.” It is also often credited for being a 1000yd caliber, but for most practical purposes I would limit it to 6-650yds. At that distance it is again dropping about 5ft but it is still bringing considerable energy, due to is 3 times heavier weight.

The .308 is generally considered to have  significant recoil… everything after that is likely to be call punishing by some shooters. But both of these rounds are relatively gentile on barrels, allowing them to last 10,000+ rounds and the commonness of the round and means they are readily available and comparatively inexpensive. (.223, .308)

If you don’t have any special needs… those are likely going to do it for you, but there are other caliber to consider.

Other Calibers

George leaned towards the 7mm, which is again a powerful longer range cartridge. It has a roughly 20% energy advantage and a higher ballistic coefficient than the .308 (that means it doesn’t slow down as quickly) so it has a greater range but comes at a 50% recoil premium and $0.50/round.

Out west one of the most popular calibers is actually the .270 because of its flatter trajectory. In the mid-west the 30-30 because it is completely capable for the local game and likely distances.

What is the best shotgun gauge?

George came down on the side of a 12 gauge in a Remington 870 because of the ammunition variety and the simplicity of the gun.

Honestly that is hard to argue with, but I would feel the same about a semi-auto 20 ga, or semi-auto 12. The only thing I may question is a pump action 20 ga but I think I’d get over it.

With the 12 you get more ammo selection, more payload and more recoil. With the 20 ga you get reasonable ammo selection, reasonable payload and reasonable recoil. Plus it has been said that nothing living can tell the difference.

What is the best Calibers?

For me I always want enough… but no more. Also I want to be able afford to train with it… and not feel like I lost a fight when I leave the range.

  • For people focused on personal defense I’d say… .22LR, 9 MM, .223 and 20 ga.
  • For outdoors man in Ohio that will hunt deer and turkeys with a shotgun… .17M2, 9 MM, .30-30 and 12 ga (they would likely be different guns).
  • For deer hunters that use a rifle… .17M2, 9 MM, .30-30 and 12 ga
  • For hunters in the south that go after hogs… .17 M2, 9mm, .308, 20 ga.
  • For varmint hunters in the west… .17 HMR, 9mm, .22-250, 20 ga.
  • For big game hunters in the west… .17 HMR, 9mm, .270, 20 ga.

The point being the “best caliber” for you is determined by what you shoot, where you shoot, how much you shoot, personal preferences and the effect you need it to have.

Ultimately the question should be… “I live in ________. I want to shoot ________ for (fun/food/fur) out to ________. I am/am not recoil sensitive and my ammo budget is upto ________/ round. What is the best caliber for me.

Ok, now it is your turn. What calibers do you like/not like and how did I offend you in this discussion? What advice would you have for someone picking a caliber?

 

Comments

  1. leupy says

    17m2- squirrels, rabits (nothing larger)
    22lr -mostly just target
    17hmr- target and small varmints (smaller than coyotes)
    Rifle 243 big enough for anything in Ohio and shoots flat great for groundhogs.
    handgun I mostly carry a 9mm but sometimes a 45 1911
    shotgun usually a 12 ga. but sometimes for small game a 20ga. or 410.

  2. says

    Much food for thought; in fact a full meal! Not offended. Offered mainly as an additional data point: live in the SW, carry 45 ACP (1911 variant), have immediate access in home (or car on road trip) to 223 and 12 gauge tactical style firearms (and other pistols/revolvers), have hunted successfully with .223, 22-250, 270 and several 30 caliber rifles; same with 410, 20 & 12 gauge shotguns. Proponent of the ‘practice, practice, practice’ school. Looking to buy a gun? Find one you can borrow, shoot it, then decide. Want to be a hero? Buy extra ammo and take your significant other or any interested mature kid to the range with you. Reloading does not save you money; it gives you exercise scrounging brass, dirty fingers from seating bullets, headaches from keeping records and deciding on components and loads and boxes/bags of ammo that you can take a measure of pride in creating and hours of fun in shooting. It should be tax deductible. Finally, if cleaning a gun is a chore, take up needle point.

  3. JMD says

    I always enjoy reading and thinking about articles like this, even though they rarely seem to change anyone’s mind. I guess I’m just hardwired to enjoy pondering the pros and cons of any decision, and I like to see the factors that affect other people’s decision-making processes. Here are my thoughts:

    Rimfire: This one is easy because I have only ever fired one rimfire caliber. The .22 LR is cheap, abundant and easy to shoot. I’d like to try some of the other rimfire calibers, but right now I have little use for them and even less money to expend on one.

    Handgun: I’m with you on the 9mm. According to everything I’ve read, it’s right up there with the .40 and .45 in terms of effectiveness, and it’s lots cheaper and easier to shoot. Plentiful as well. Being cheap to shoot is important because I’m a fairly new pistol shooter and I need lots of practice, but have limited funds available. I’m not so concerned with recoil hurting my delicate hands, but softer recoil makes for more accurate shots and quicker follow-ups, which could make the 9mm a better man stopper than its big brothers.

    Rifle: I don’t have as much experience here, so my choices are likely to change as I progress. That said, I have an AR-15 in .223/5.56 for general defensive use. I consider it a capable man stopper at any distance I am likely to ever engage someone. I am not a hunter, but have been looking at rifles capable of taking big North American game as a possible next acquisition to round out the capabilities of my battery. I was leaning toward .308 for many of the reasons stated above until I looked closely at local gun stores and found that the selection of .30-06 outnumbers the selection of .308 almost 10 to 1. Since this rifle would largely be for preparedness purposes, I consider local ammo availability to be important, hence .30-06 wins. (It also outpaced .207 by about 4 to 1).

    Shotgun: I only have experience with pump-action 12 gauges and a friend’s old double-barrel 16 gauge. That said, I would like to get a 20 gauge, which I think would be a better option for my wife, who’s not a fan of the 12 gauge’s recoil.

  4. JMD says

    I always enjoy reading and thinking about articles like this, even though they rarely seem to change anyone’s mind. I guess I’m just hardwired to enjoy pondering the pros and cons of any decision, and I like to see the factors that affect other people’s decision-making processes. Here are my thoughts:

    Rimfire: This one is easy because I have only ever fired one rimfire caliber. The .22 LR is cheap, abundant and easy to shoot. I’d like to try some of the other rimfire calibers, but right now I have little use for them and even less money to expend on one.

    Handgun: I’m with you on the 9mm. According to everything I’ve read, it’s right up there with the .40 and .45 in terms of effectiveness, and it’s lots cheaper and easier to shoot. Plentiful as well. Being cheap to shoot is important because I’m a fairly new pistol shooter and I need lots of practice, but have limited funds available. I’m not so concerned with recoil hurting my delicate hands, but softer recoil makes for more accurate shots and quicker follow-ups, which could make the 9mm a better man stopper than its big brothers.

    Rifle: I don’t have as much experience here, so my choices are likely to change as I progress. That said, I have an AR-15 in .223/5.56 for general defensive use. I consider it a capable man stopper at any distance I am likely to ever engage someone. I am not a hunter, but have been looking at rifles capable of taking big North American game as a possible next acquisition to round out the capabilities of my battery. I was leaning toward .308 for many of the reasons stated above until I looked closely at local gun stores and found that the selection of .30-06 outnumbers the selection of .308 almost 10 to 1. Since this rifle would largely be for preparedness purposes, I consider local ammo availability to be important, hence .30-06 wins. (It also outpaced .207 by about 4 to 1).

    Shotgun: I only have experience with pump-action 12 gauges and a friend’s old double-barrel 16 gauge. That said, I would like to get a 20 gauge, which I think would be a better option for my wife, who’s not a fan of the 12 gauge’s recoil.

  5. Dave says

    For me it’s 22 lr, 9mm, 223, and 12 gauge

    Why?

    22 lr, I don’t shoot much of it but I take new shooters out to the range all the time. I always start them with my 22 conversion on my Glock 19 and my Ciener kit in the AR 15.

    9mm I shoot Glocks a 19 for carry and a 34 for games. Cheap to reload for as well.

    223 I live in the southeast, where the deer are small, and the wild pigs are abundant and the ranges are short. I also shoot 2 gun and 3 gun. I stocked up on surplus powder and bullets years ago so I can reload my own for about 1/10th of current prices. Also my ar is my house gun.

    12 gauge for 3 gun basically, I don’t hunt with mine.

    I guess I’m a minimalist….

  6. SinEater says

    .22 from a classic 552 Speedmaster from long ago.
    .45 from an FNP45
    .308 from an FNAR
    12 gauge from Remington 870
    I just like this selection. These are what I can shoot well.

  7. says

    If it goes bang, I’ll shoot it.

    but for me, in Western Ohio, it’s:
    .22lr (Small Game)
    9mm (carry)
    12ga pump (Home D.)
    12ga S-auto (Fun)
    5.56 AR-15 (for everything i missed)

  8. Ardent says

    I was never all that good at math, but when I read your pistol caliber numbers and apply rounding like I was taught in school I come up with 9mm 2.45 = 3, 40 S&W 2.36 = 2, 45 ACP 2.08 = 2. You can’t fire fractional numbers of shots but these are averages and they exist for a reason. What these numbers tell me is that the .45ACP is 17% more efficient at stopping the fight. The same argument that holds that having 15 chances at stopping the fight (9mm) vs 9 chances (.45) has to also hold that not every round will hit the target. With a 17% greater likelihood of stopping the fight per hit with a .45, after 6 hits with a .45 I’ve just more than doubled my odds of ending the altercation over using a 9mm. This negates any follow up shot speed advantage from a 9mm unless the hits are being delivered twice as fast through 12 rounds. Arguably from this, any 9mm holding less than 18 rounds is an inferior weapon to a .45ACP containing 9 rounds. Obviously there is so much more to gun fighting with pistols that direct comparisons such as these aren’t possible. However when it comes to defensive pistol I would suggest using the larger of the common rounds that you can control effectively in rapid fire in a weapon holding at least 9 for a .45ACP or not less than 16 for a 9mm.
    Of course that’s highly generalized advice and really the comfort and skill level of the shooter are the deciding factors.

    • says

      Thanks for ALL the comments today. I am glad you poked around and read so much of my past content. It made me smile when I was notified of each one.

      You are correct about 14% on average which depends on ammo and all kinds of other factors too… however the effectiveness you can dish out is lumpy as in one round at a time and it is measured in yes it was effective or no it wasn’t.

      In any one encounter 1 round may work, 2 rounds, 3, 4, 5, 6 or 17 may not… but according to the numbers, on average, regardless of caliber, the bad guy needs to be shot 3 times. Which at 7 yards and in should take around .5 seconds. Seems like a reasonable standard response.

      If that is the case… 8 + 1 with 80% accuracy is 2 bad guys. A Glock 19 is 4.

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