The debate between 9mm and .45 has raged for years, and I am not foolish enough to think that I can settle it for everyone, but I would like to weigh in. Some of you may be complaining already ‘Not this again,’ but from the point of view of a former .45acp-only guy, let me tell you where my experiences have led me and why I’ve changed my opinion on the matter completely.
I carried full size Colt 1911 .45acp pistols exclusively for most of my armed history. That was the round my Dad said was the best, so that was that for me. Over the years whenever the 9mm was mentioned as a defensive round, my position was always: “If you have nothing else, a 9mm is better than nothing. However, 9mm is the weakest round I recommend for self- defense.” This was based mostly upon what I’d always believed and the stories from GI’s reporting multiple shots needed to bring down an enemy combatant when using the Beretta M9 9mm pistol. What more do you need? Actual battlefield reports brought the matter to a close as far as I was concerned.
When Trigger Time with Joe Barrett was born I began working on a list topics of conversation for the show. I thought the 9mm debate would be a good one. However, since I knew I would actually be talking on air and not just at my kitchen table, I wanted to do some up to date research to support my .45 acp superiority, just in case I met with any opposition. And, I did just that, I researched and right about the time this research was all but complete I enrolled in Handgun 1-5 at Tactical Defense Institute in West Union Ohio. There I was able to use my 1911 .45’s and Glock .40 cals in actual real-world shooting scenarios to see how they would perform for me when and if I ever needed them.
One thing I learned quickly is that when you are under stress and shooting, you tend to fire more rounds. In fact, many people forced to defend themselves with a gun empty their first mag in the initial exchange. My 8 round 1911 had me making mag changes nearly 3 times as often as others shooting alongside me. I didn’t like that at all, so I switched to my .40 caliber glock for the next two days of class. That took care of the frequent reloading, but I noticed a difficulty in staying on target with rapid follow-up shots. I found that most .40 cal pistols are just frames for a 9mm with a barrel that allows for the larger round. So, unlike the heavy 1911, you have less weight to absorb the added recoil you get with a .40 over a 9mm.
This training taught me that you need to shoot fast and accurate under less than perfect conditions, such as moving, with a flashlight in hand to see, and with people shooting back. They don’t call them “desperate circumstances” for nothing. A well lit firing range is probably not where you’re really going to need your pistol skills and the training I took foccused on preparing me for things like moving through my house at night and dealing with armed intruders. My goal during these exercises was to get as many rounds into vital areas as I could. When you consider that the average gunfight is over in less than 3 seconds, how many ½ seconds can you to lose to re-acquiring your sight picture? More recoil means more time re-acquiring your sight picture. Math has never been my strong suit but it didn’t take me long to realize that fast and accurate is easier with less recoil. So, when I finished Handgun 1-3 and returned a couple of weeks later for Handgun 4 and 5, I brought a 9mm.
My eyes were opened. I found I could fire faster and keep all my rounds in a very confined space much better with the 9mm than I could the .40 or the .45. No doubt, as far as performance went, the 9mm was the gun for me. The only problem was that voice in the back of my mind, my voice saying, “But what about the weaker stopping power of the 9mm?” I spent a lot of years listening to that voice and shooting .40 & .45 almost exclusively. I was a firm believer in the notions that “With a .45 or .40 you only need to hit once,” and “You want to stop an aggressor, not just make him angry.” Besides, would Harry Callahan’s words “Go ahead, make my day” have had the same impact if he had been holding a 9mm? If you’re a .45 or .40 cal person you probably have a similar voice that’s been keeping your hands off the 9mm for protection.
Well, I decided to do a strange thing; I decided to ignore that voice for long enough to listen to the men who actually rely upon their guns to stay alive. SWAT operatives and Police trainers had actually done a considerable amount of research. I took advantage of their research based upon hundreds of autopsies attended, hundreds of interviews with persons who’ve actually been involved in shootings, and studies done where various rounds were fired into animals with similar tissue and bone density to humans. It was more than talk, it was real-life experience, I just needed to listen.
Then I did my own research and found something amazing: A 127 grain Winchester Ranger +P+ fired into bare ballistic gelatin will impact at 1210 feet per second, penetrate 12-14 inches, and expand to right around .70 inches. My favorite .45 ammo, Federal Hydra-shocks, will impact the same gelatin at a slower 800 feet per second, penetrate 12-14 inches and expand to right around .70 inches. Wait a minute, it sounds like these two rounds would pretty much cut the same wound path, right? This information supported what I’d been told by another group that conducted ammo test of pigs: You cannot tell a decent 9mm wound path from a decent .45 wound path.
If the rounds are going to do the same damage, why not use the one that affords me 19 pulls of the trigger without a reload instead of 8? As it turns out, those battlefield reports from ex-military guys using the 9mm in combat actually tell me more about military pistol training than the power of the 9mm. The Army does not give the soldier nearly the pistol training that they do the rifle, so the problem is that many of these reported hits are not in vital areas and that is the problem, not the size of the ammunition itself. On top of that, the standard military 9mm ammo is what you and I use for target practice, NOT self-defense. That’s right, soldiers are issued standard FMJ hardball; now the clouds are really beginning to part!
The fact of the matter is that the 9mm vs .45 debate will rage on because we have science battling tradition, and neither will ever give up. For me, I concluded that it just comes down to a question of ammunition and shot placement. If you use the right 9mm ammo, you’ll get as much tissue damage as you would from a similar .45acp. That means my 9mm, if used correctly, will have the same stopping power as my old .40 cal. In fact, since I now know that I can shoot faster and more accurately with my 9mm, my stopping power is greater with a 9mm and that is what I really care about. But, if you are most comfortable and can perform to your satisfaction with a .40 or.45, then use them. Both are a fine round. For me, I found that I could do better with a 9mm, have more rounds at hand and expect the same results with well-placed shots, so I made the leap.
Maybe it’s just that there is no “better” round in the 9mm vs .45 arenas, and we all just love a good debate. But, one thing we all know for sure is that if you’re ever in a position to have to defend yourself or others you’re going to have seconds to respond and there will be no time for debate. So, get the training necessary to allow you to get your rounds, whatever they are, on target fast. Do that and the caliber of your pistol really won’t matter as much as you think.