Compared: .357 Mag. Revolver, .45 ACP and 9x19mm Pistols for Protection in the Field
By Chuck Hawks
Questions about the usefulness of full size service pistols for protection in the field seem to be a recurring theme in the Guns and Shooting Online e-mail inbox. Recently, Contributing Editor David Tong and I had a rather interesting e-mail exchange regarding the relative merits of .45 ACP and .357 Magnum handguns for protection against both human and four legged predators in the field.
I thought I had rather thoroughly addressed the question in a previous article, Handguns for Protection in the Field, but David is a die hard Model 1911/.45 ACP fan, while I usually carry a .357 Magnum revolver (typically a 4" Colt Python or a 6.5" Ruger Blackhawk) in the Oregon woods when I am not toting a rifle. A direct comparison seemed in order, so David, this one's for you! As the article took shape, I decided to include the 9x19mm (9mm Luger) and make it a three way comparison, as the 9mm is the most popular service pistol cartridge in the world.
Trajectory and Accuracy
In the field, defense against large predators (bears, the big cats and possibly wolves) is a close range proposition, probably 25 yards or less. We are talking about shooting to save your life here, not hunting.
However, should you need to defend yourself against a human predator with a gun, especially a rifle or a shotgun stuffed with slugs, the farther you can hit your target, the better. A .357 Magnum revolver is not the equal of a centerfire rifle in the field, but a good shot with a .357 can sometimes out shoot a mediocre rifle shooter--I have done it myself on occasion. Thus, a magnum revolver serves as protection from both animal and human predators, even if the latter are well beyond the practical range of a Model 1911 service pistol. To consistently hit targets at long range, you need intrinsic accuracy from your handgun and a flat trajectory from your cartridge.
Sure, you can zero any handgun cartridge, even the .45 ACP, for 100 yards, but check the trajectory of the .45 ACP compared to a .357 Magnum. To make a rifle analogy, it is like comparing the trajectory of a .38-55 to a .375 Magnum.
Incidentally, the 9x19mm (9mm Luger) shoots considerably flatter than the .45 ACP, although it is not equal to a .357. I would much rather have a full size 9x19 pistol for long range shooting than a .45 ACP.
Here are the figures straight from Hornady ballistic tables for XTP hollow point bullets, which are available in all three calibers, at standard factory load velocities. All three cartridges can be hand loaded faster (up to a sizzling 1591 fps in the case of the .357/158 grain XTP within SAAMI pressure specs), but this is a fair comparison of standard bullet weights at the most typical velocities for all three calibers.
These ballistics apply to a 5" barrel in .45 ACP (typical for a Model 1911 pistol) and 4" barrels in 9mm and .357 Mag. (the latter a vented revolver barrel). Note that the .45/230 has about twice the bullet drop of the .357/158 at 150 yards! The less drop, the easier it is to hit.
For long range accuracy, a good revolver has obvious advantages over a typical recoil operated autoloader, such as the Model 1911, Beretta 92, et cetera. For one thing, the barrel is rigidly mounted to the frame of a revolver and does not move with every shot, as an auto's barrel does. For another, the revolver's sights are solidly mounted to the barrel/frame and also do not move from shot to shot, unlike the slide mounted sights on an autoloader.
It should be obvious that the revolver's rigidly mounted barrel and sights (in a revolver, only the chamber moves) are more conducive to repeatable, long range accuracy than an autoloader in which the barrel and sights are both moving in relation to each other with every shot. In addition, service autoloaders typically come with fixed rear sights, while .357 Magnum revolvers typically come with more precise, fully adjustable, target type rear sights.
Also consider that, while velocities and trajectories are computed for revolvers with 4" barrels by the ammo companies, 6" barrels are more popular than 4" barrels for .357 Magnum revolvers, particularly in the field where the gun can be carried openly in a proper belt and holster rig. A 6" barrel will deliver higher performance than the SAAMI standard 4" revolver barrel, not to mention that the 6" barrel's longer sight radius allows better practical accuracy than a 5" or 4" barreled service autoloader, or even a 4" revolver. These factors serve to increase the .357 revolver's accuracy advantage and hit potential at longer ranges.
Stopping Power (Marshall & Sanow)
For protection from human predators, Evan Marshall and Edwin Sanow conducted the most extensive study of handgun stopping power to date. Marshall and Sanow investigated in detail thousands of police shooting reports over a period of years and published the results in their seminal study Handgun Stopping Power. (Mas Ayoob has conducted a later and similar study that largely confirms Marshall and Sanow's results.)
Some may quibble with the details of their methodology (defining a one shot stop, the size and mental state of the victim, etc.), but looking at the results of actual shootings was a significant breakthrough in analyzing the effectiveness of various handgun calibers and loads against living human adversaries, rather than animals or blocks of gelatin. Here are some one shot stop percentages for the top JHP factory loads in all three calibers.
Not a dramatic difference here, especially between the 9x19mm and .45 ACP, but what difference there is favors the .357 Mag. Please understand, I am not saying--and have never said--the .45 ACP is not an effective, short range anti-personnel cartridge with good JHP bullets. However, I find the hokum about its vast superiority over all other cartridges spewed by .45 true believers for over a century rather irritating. The .45 ACP is a useful cartridge, but it is not magical and does not suspend the laws of physics that apply to all other calibers.
Almost all of the police shooting results available to Marshall and Sanow occurred at relatively short range in urban settings. At the longer ranges likely in the field, the .357's advantage would increase considerably.
Penetration for Big Animals
While the 9x19mm and .45 ACP are acknowledged short range man stoppers with appropriate ammunition, they are far less useful for stopping a rutting bull moose or large predators. Actually, "stopping power" is an unrealistic concept when considering handguns for protection against large animals. It takes something like a .338 Magnum rifle to generate sufficient stopping power with torso hits on a big bear or bull moose and even a .454 Casull revolver doesn't come close to that.
Relatively fat, short, quick expanding bullets along the lines of the 9mm/115 grain, .357/125 grain and .45/200 grain JHPs provide good stopping power against relatively flimsy human beings, especially in an urban setting where excessive penetration is a problem. However, they are at a disadvantage against large animals, where deep penetration through thick fur and hide, heavy muscles and large bones is the primary requirement.
With a handgun, you must have adequate penetration to reach and disrupt the central nervous system, 'cause you're not gonna blow the socks off a big animal with a center of mass hit. Bears, bull moose and big cats are much stronger and tougher than human beings.
It should be obvious that a longer, thinner bullet should penetrate deeper than a shorter, fatter bullet. Sectional density (SD) is the ratio of a bullet's weight in pounds to the square of its diameter in inches. Given the same bullet construction and other factors being equal, the bullet with the greater sectional density will penetrate deeper.
To maximize penetration, heavy for caliber bullets should be chosen for protection in the field, which would suggest 147 grain in 9mm, 230 grain in .45 Auto and 158 or 180 grain in .357 Mag. Here are the SD numbers.
The inferior sectional density of the 9mm and .45 ACP bullets is obvious. The 147 grain 9mm is somewhat better than the 230 grain .45, but the 158 and 180 grain .357 bullets are substantially better than either of the auto pistol bullets. When it comes to the critical factor of penetration, the .357 easily wins the comparison.
Of course, when comparing the .45 ACP, 9x19mm and .357 Magnum, especially downrange, an important factor that is not equal is kinetic energy. Energy powers penetration (and also bullet expansion). Here are the energy figures, again from the Hornady ballistic tables.
Once again, the .357 has a clear and substantial advantage from the muzzle to 200 yards with either 158 or 180 grain bullets.
The reality is that you will probably only get one shot, or at most two, to turn a charging predator in the field before it is on you, so precise bullet placement is absolutely critical. Center of mass hits are unlikely to stop a charge; the preferred target is the central nervous system (usually the brain). The semi-automatic pistol's greater cartridge capacity and slightly greater rate of fire become largely irrelevant in the field. Peripheral hits will not prevail in a deadly encounter with a large predator, so you must aim carefully. Careful aim and accurate bullet placement are equally necessary if forced to face a human predator at extended range.
For protection in the field, from either human or animal predators, it seems quite clear that a .357 Magnum revolver with at least a 4" barrel is superior to either a .45 ACP or 9x19mm autoloader (4"-5" barrel) in every category. A magnum revolver with the popular 6"-6.5" barrel stacks the odds even further in your favor, especially if a long shot is required.
Copyright 2014, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.