Top 5 Most Popular Handgun Calibers

Top 5 Most Popular Handgun Calibers

The World of Bullets and Ballistics

Over the last 35 years, there are not many handgun calibers I haven’t shot or run across. The world of firearms is vast and complex, but knowing the most popular handgun calibers can be useful for those starting. Today, we’ll cover the SSP Firearms team picks for “Top 5 Most Popular Handgun Calibers”. We’ll review the pros and cons and hopefully shed some light on which ones are best for you.

Understanding Handgun Calibers

Before we delve into the list, we must grasp what we mean by “caliber.” In simplest terms, caliber refers to the bullet’s diameter or the gun barrel’s inside. It’s a key determinant of the bullet’s size, energy, and potential use.

1. 9mm (9x19mm Parabellum)

9mm handguns

The 9mm cartridge is the #1 choice in the top 5 most popular handgun calibers. This position has been secured through various factors that have made it a favorite among civilian and law enforcement communities. First, the 9mm balances stopping power and recoil, making it an accessible caliber for shooters of varying skill levels. Its relatively compact size allows for higher magazine capacities without significantly increasing the size of the firearm. A major consideration for concealed carry and tactical applications. Cost is another significant factor; 9mm ammunition is typically more affordable and widely available than many other calibers. Lastly, advancements in bullet design and technology over the years have significantly improved the effectiveness of 9mm ammunition. Cartridge and bullet design helps diminish the performance gap between it and larger calibers.

  • Characteristics: A versatile round, the 9mm balances manageable recoil and substantial stopping power.
  • Common Use: Due to its balance, the 9mm is a favorite for personal defense and law enforcement.
  • Popularity Reason: Affordability and wide availability make the 9mm the go-to choice for many.

2. .45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol)

Kimber 1911 45 acp's

The .45 ACP, with its history and reputation, has consistently claimed the #2 spot in our lists for good reason. Originating from the early 20th century, the .45 ACP was designed with stopping power in mind. Proponents often cite its larger, heavier bullet as delivering a more decisive impact than smaller calibers. This cartridge has become synonymous with iconic firearms like the M1911, bolstering its legendary status. The .45 ACP, while offering heavier recoil, is frequently described as producing a “push” rather than a “snap,.” This makes it more manageable for many shooters than other high-power cartridges.

Its continued prominence in the firearm community is also due to a blend of historical significance, ballistic performance, and a dedicated following of shooters who swear by its efficacy. This tapestry of factors keeps the .45 ACP firmly embedded as a top choice among handgun calibers.

3. .40 S&W

Glock 22 .40 caliber

The .40 S&W, a relatively younger entrant in the world of handgun calibers, has managed to clinch the #3 spot. It blends characteristics that many find appealing. Designed in the late 20th century to respond to demands for a middle ground between the 9mm and the .45 ACP. The .40 S&W balances stopping power, magazine capacity, and manageable recoil.

This caliber was rapidly adopted by numerous law enforcement agencies across the U.S.. This validated its effectiveness and propelled its popularity among civilian users. The .40 S&W provides a compromise for those who want a bit more punch than a 9mm without the increased bulk and recoil of the .45. With its ballistics profile and the vast array of firearms chambered for it, the .40 S&W it’s an attractive caliber.

  • Characteristics: Bridging the 9mm and .45 ACP gap, the .40 S&W offers power and capacity.
  • Common Use: Initially designed for law enforcement, it’s popular among civilians for self-defense.
  • Popularity Reason: A compromise between the size of the 9mm and the power of the .45 ACP.

4. .380 ACP (9mm Short)

Smith and Wesson .380

The .380 ACP, often regarded as a “pocket pistol” round, has earned its place as the #4, due to its unique combination of compactness and capability. Originally designed by John Browning in the early 20th century, the .380 ACP provides an option for those seeking a more concealable firearm without veering too far into the realm of less potent calibers.

While it doesn’t pack the same punch as its larger counterparts, advancements in ammunition technology have enhanced its effectiveness for self-defense purposes. Its reduced recoil and smaller footprint make it a preferred choice for concealed carry, especially among those who prioritize discretion and comfort. In a world where personal security and the ability to carry discreetly can be paramount, the .380 ACP fulfills a niche role, offering a balance of power and portability that has resonated with a significant portion of the handgun community.

  • Characteristics: The .380 ACP is a smaller round suitable for compact handguns.
  • Common Use: Due to its size, it’s ideal for concealed carry and backup guns.
  • Popularity Reason: The rise in concealed carry permits has made compact guns and the .380 ACP more prevalent.

5. .38 Special

The venerable .38 Special, deeply rooted in American gun culture, claims the #5 position in the top 5 most popular handgun calibers, and its enduring appeal can be attributed to its rich history and versatility. Introduced in the late 19th century, the .38 Special was a staple of U.S. law enforcement for much of the 20th century, establishing a reputation for reliability and effectiveness. This round’s moderate recoil makes it accessible to new shooters, while its adaptability—ranging from light target loads to more potent self-defense rounds—makes it appealing to a wide spectrum of gun enthusiasts. Additionally, the revolver, the primary platform for the .38 Special, is appreciated for its mechanical simplicity and reliability, further enhancing the caliber’s popularity. The .38 Special bridges the gap between historical nostalgia and modern utility, making it a timeless choice for many who appreciate its unique blend of characteristics.

  • Characteristics: A reliable revolver round, the .38 Special has moderate recoil and good accuracy.
  • Common Use: Popular for self-defense revolvers and some old-school semi-automatic pistols.
  • Popularity Reason: Its versatility, manageable recoil, and legacy with revolvers.

Factors Determining Caliber Choice

  • Purpose: Self-defense, target shooting, or competition?
  • Firearm Size: Larger guns can handle bigger calibers.
  • Recoil Sensitivity: Smaller calibers typically offer less recoil, making them more manageable for some shooters.

The vast world of handgun calibers offers something for everyone, from the novice to the seasoned shooter. While the top 5 popular calibers provide a solid starting point, personal preference and specific needs should always guide your choice. Remember, finding the caliber that suits you best is essential, ensuring confidence, accuracy, and safety in every shot.

Which caliber has the most stopping power?

The .45 ACP is often considered to have significant stopping power due to its larger bullet size, but remember, shot placement is equally crucial.

Is a bigger caliber always better?

Not necessarily. A bigger caliber can mean more recoil, which might not suit all shooters. It’s essential to find a balance between power and manageability.

Can I use different calibers in the same gun?

Generally, no. Guns are designed for specific calibers. However, some firearms allow caliber conversions with specific kits, but always consult a professional before attempting any modifications.


  • Michael Hodgdon

    A firearm, shooting, outdoor, and hunting enthusiast for over 35 years. Thank you all for the suggestions on topics you would like to see; we'll keep posting as you keep sending them in. Please comment; we will try to answer all comments quickly.

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