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Best Cartridge for Concealed Carry: Keeping It Under Wraps

Written by Sam Jacobs Subject: Gun Rights

While every cartridge has the capability to stop a dangerous threat, some are just better at it than others.

In the end, the best caliber for concealed carry is one that does enough damage to quickly eliminate a threat. It also needs to be loaded in a gun you can shoot well when you need to, but keep reasonably hidden under clothing until you do.

Choosing the Best Cartridge for Concealed Carry

Finding the right cartridge/handgun combo for concealed carry isn't as easy as you might think. What works well for one concealed carrier may not work at all for another.

Choosing a CCW is mostly about finding the right balance of power, shoot-ability, and concealment. That balance point is influenced by the individual shooter's body type, strength, experience level, and even personal wardrobe choices.

The 9mm Luger is currently the most popular cartridge for concealed carry in the US. It is also our top pick. Although 9mm Luger works well for the vast majority of shooters, it doesn't work for everyone all of the time.

We decided to dive into the most popular cartridges used for modern concealed carry. Self-defense is a very personal issue, and no one other than you should decide which cartridge you should use. This article will help you weigh the pros and cons of each option and get you one step closer to making an informed decision about what to carry.

9mm Luger - Our Top Pick



Although it was once considered "too little gun" for defensive shooting, modern technology has brought the 9mm Luger a long way in just a couple of decades. Today, 9mm is the most popular CCW cartridge on the market. It is widely used by law enforcement and civilians alike.

Energy and Penetration

Advancements in bullet and ballistics technology have moved the 9mm Luger from the "underpowered" category and made it a viable option for eliminating bad guys.

Although the 9mm shoots a smaller projectile than larger calibers like the .40 S&W and the .45 ACP, the differences in wound diameters between these three cartridges are nominal. Many 9mm home defense loads feature hollow points that expand up to twice their original diameter.

9mm is sometimes criticized as a self-defense load because larger calibers shoot heavier projectiles and carry more kinetic energy (which is often construed as "stopping power"). What the smaller 9mm lacks in weight, it more than makes up for with velocity.

9mm bullets zip from the muzzle at around 135 fps faster than projectiles fired from a .45 ACP. Velocity has a major effect on kinetic energy. If you double a bullet's velocity, its energy quadruples. The extra speed behind the 9mm doesn't quite even the energy score, but it definitely improves terminal performance.

The real question here isn't whether 9mm has more "stopping power" than larger calibers. That answer will always be "no."

But does the 9mm have sufficient energy for self-defense? Absolutely.

Recoil

Perhaps the 9mm's best selling point is its relatively light recoil.

The effects of recoil on shooter accuracy, especially in a high-adrenaline, life-or-death situation shouldn't be overlooked. Because the 9mm's recoil is relatively easy to control, shooters can get more rounds on target faster, which is essential to eliminating bad guys who are hellbent on destruction.

Shooting 115-grain loads from a 1 ½-pound 9mm pistol produces a relatively mild 5.2 foot-pounds of recoil. All but the most recoil-sensitive shooters should be able to handle this mild-mannered cartridge.

Concealment

9mm handguns come in a variety of shapes and sizes, ranging from subcompact to full-size. Smaller pistols are obviously easier to conceal. However, the recoil on the lightest handguns can be a bit on the snappy side, which can make follow-up shots more problematic.

Magazine Capacity

Because there is so much variety in the world of 9mm handguns, magazine capacity also varies greatly. Choosing a smaller model will always cost you a few rounds of capacity. However, smaller models are obviously easier to conceal.

Cost and Availability

Because 9mm is the most popular concealed carry cartridge on the market today, there are tons of gun and ammo options to choose from.

Every major ammo manufacturer produces multiple 9mm loads in all their popular target and self-defense lines.

There is also a vast selection of firearms chambered for this popular handgun caliber. You can choose from easy-to-conceal subcompact options (like the single-stack Glock 43) to full-size pistols (like the Springfield XD) that are easier to shoot but much harder to conceal.

The polymer Glock 19 is currently the most popular 9mm pistol in current production. Although this model is considered a compact pistol, its size can be difficult for smaller-framed shooters to effectively conceal.

Other popular 9mm concealed carry handguns include the Smith & Wesson M&P Shield, the Sig P365, and the Springfield Hellcat.

.380 ACP



Designed by John Moses Browning in 1908, the .380 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) cartridge is basically a shorter version of the popular 9mm Luger. A standard 9mm round measures 9x19mm, while the .380 ACP is one millimeter shorter.

Energy and Penetration

Because the .380 Auto case is shorter than the classic 9mm, there is less room to pack in propellant. That means the .380 has a lot less oomph behind it.

The .380 ACP pushes 90-grain hollow points from the muzzle at an average velocity of 1000 fps with 200 foot-pounds of energy. That is extremely modest when compared to the 9mm's muzzle velocity (around 1135 fps) and muzzle energy (332 foot-pounds).

Critics of the .380 ACP claim it doesn't have enough "stopping power" for personal defense. However, with modern defensive loads and careful shot placement, the .380 Auto can be a highly capable round.

Because 9mm and .380 shoot the same diameter projectiles, the widths of the wound channels they create are comparable.

Recoil

Compared to any of the other cartridges on this list, the .380 ACP's recoil is an absolute pussycat. With only the mildest felt recoil, this cartridge is often the best option for weak, disabled, or recoil-sensitive shooters.

Concealment

Smaller calibers are genuinely easier to conceal, and the .380 Auto is one of the smallest self-defense options on the market today. Pistols chambered in .380 ACP are generally compact, lightweight, and perfect for all-day EDC.

The .380 Auto is a popular chambering for pocket pistols, so if you're looking for an option for spy-level deep concealment, this is it. The perfect size for an ankle holster or pocket carry (for safety, always use a proper holster), .380 pistols make a great backup partner for full-size pistols.

Magazine Capacity

.380 ACP pistols are small guns, which means they don't hold a surplus of ammo. Most models only hold 6 or 7 rounds, which means you'll need to make every round count.

The low round count is another reason many defensive shooters consider .380 ACP as a backup option rather than a primary weapon.

Carrying an extra magazine (and having the skills to change it under duress) is just a smart idea.

Cost and Availability

Because .380 Auto rounds are usually harder to find than 9mm, expect to pay a few extra pennies per round.

Popular concealed carry guns chambered in .380 Auto include the Glock 43, the Walther PPK, the Sig Sauer P238, and the Ruger LCP.

.38 Special



Developed by Smith & Wesson in 1898, the .38 Special was the standard law enforcement cartridge for more than 60 years. Although this cartridge has been largely usurped by newer options engineered for semi-automatic handguns, the .38 Special remains the default cartridge for self-defense revolvers.

Energy and Penetration

9mm Luger and .38 Special cartridges are both topped with the same diameter bullets. However, there's a lot less power behind bullets coming from the .38 Special.

Because the .38 Special's case was originally designed to hold black powder, it isn't safe to handle the higher pressures a full dose of modern propellant would produce. For that reason, these wheelgun cartridges have a SAAMI pressure specification of 17,000 psi. Meanwhile, the 9mm Luger has a SAAMI rating of 35,000 psi.

The .38 Special is a low-pressure, low-velocity cartridge, so it doesn't carry the same kinetic energy or penetrate as deeply as 9mm loads. While wound channels will be shallower than those delivered by 9mm, the .38 Special rarely over penetrates, which is a good thing if you have to draw your snub nose in a populated area.

Recoil

The .38 Special produces even less recoil than the 9mm Luger, which is why it is a popular option for women, new shooters, and people who are recoil-sensitive.

Concealment

A small, lightweight J-frame snub nose revolver chambered in .38 Special is one of the easiest handguns to conceal, especially if you opt for a snag-free "hammerless" model.

One of the main drawbacks to small revolvers is that they are difficult to reload, especially in a high-adrenaline defensive situation.

Magazine Capacity

Because most .38 Special CCWs are wheel guns, capacity is limited to five or six rounds.

Cost and Availability

The .38 Special is almost exclusively a revolver cartridge, which seriously limits your handgun selection. In some cases, your options may be limited to secondhand firearms.

.38 Special ammo can also be hard to find and the selection is usually pretty limited. However, it tends to be significantly more affordable than larger calibers like .45 ACP.

.357 Magnum



The .357 Magnum was designed by packing more powder into the case of a .38-44 Smith & Wesson cartridge. Sometimes called a "hot 38 Special," the .357 Magnum was engineered for outdoorsmen, although it quickly caught on with law enforcement officers.

Energy and Penetration

Shooters sometimes snub the .38 Special claiming it is underpowered for today's self-defense needs. The .357 Magnum addresses those concerns by adding an extra 400 fps and 150 foot-pounds of energy behind the same size bullets.

When loaded with quality hollow point loads, the .357 Magnum not only works well for home defense but also for hunting small to medium game animals.

Recoil

That extra power comes at a price. No one would classify the .357 Magnum as a mild-recoiling cartridge, and the smaller you go in gun size, the harder the recoil is to control.

Choosing a lightweight, snub nose with a barrel length under 4 inches is something akin to recoil torture. Unfortunately, larger revolvers are much harder to effectively conceal.

Concealment

Full size .357 Magnum revolvers are big and bulky and hard to conceal. Unfortunately, the smaller you shrink these revolvers, the more difficult they are to shoot.

Magazine Capacity

Revolvers chambered for .357 Magnum are usually limited to five or six rounds.

Cost and Availability

Like with .38 Special, your handgun options for .357 Magnum are limited to revolvers.

.357 Magnum ammo runs on the pricey side, so you may want to buy your rounds in bulk.

If you want to practice on the cheap, .357 Magnum wheel guns can also safely shoot less expensive .38 Special loads. However, the reverse is NOT true. You can not safely shoot .357 Magnum cartridges in a .38 Special revolver.

Continue reading our top picks for best concealed carry cartridge here.

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