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Handgun Calibers: Uncover Bullet Size, Types, and More

WriterAubrey McShan
ContributorScott Nixon
16 min read
Handgun Bullet Caliber Size Chart - Pistol calibers are lined up on a table from smallest to largest. A quarter is next to the bullets for size reference.

Before you purchase a handgun, you should understand all the handgun calibers available. There are plenty of options to consider. Each caliber suits different uses and activities. For instance, you may choose the 9mm for everyday carry or self-defense. Alternatively, you could opt for the .44 Magnum for hunting bigger game.

But what exactly goes into choosing a handgun caliber? Factors like ammunition cost per round, terminal ballistics, or recoil are popular considerations to start with. Keep reading this guide to learn all about handgun calibers to choose from for your specific shooting needs.

Key Takeaways

  • What Is a Handgun Caliber? Caliber is a measurement of a bullet's diameter — excluding the casing. When it comes to choosing between calibers, the difference comes down to just a matter of millimeters.
  • Handgun Bullet Caliber Size Chart: Our handgun bullet caliber size chart covers all of the features you need to know for popular calibers like the .22 LR and the .40 S&W.
  • What Is the Main Difference Between Centerfire and Rimfire Ammunition? The primer for centerfire ammunition is located in the middle of the cartridge while the priming compound for rimfire ammunition is found in the rim.
  • Full Metal Jacket (FMJ) vs Hollow Point Bullets: Hollow point bullets expand upon impact, creating bigger wound channels, while full metal jacket bullets are cheaper and ideal for target practice.
  • How to Choose Handgun Calibers: If you’re selecting a handgun caliber, factors like cost, intended use, and recoil need to weigh into your decision-making.
  • Frequently Asked Questions: The 9mm is one of the most popular handgun calibers thanks to its gentle recoil and increased magazine capacity. The .38 Special is used for revolvers while the .380 ACP is used specifically for semi-automatic pistols.

What Is a Handgun Caliber?

Caliber refers to the measurement of a bullet's diameter — typically in inches or millimeters. It denotes the bullet's size and does not include the cartridge casing. Understanding caliber is essential when shopping for ammunition to ensure compatibility with your firearm.

Handgun Bullet Caliber Size Chart

Popular handgun calibers include .40 S&W, .380, .32 ACP, .45 ACP, 9mm, and 10mm. These calibers serve distinct purposes and features, including:

  • The .40 S&W derives from the 10mm — with less powder in the case to manage better-felt recoil. This caliber is more applicable for self-defense.

  • If you want a round that is easier to conceal and handle and priced cheaper than other options, then the .380 ACP is an excellent choice!

  • The .32 ACP is suitable for pocket guns and self-defense.

  • The .45 ACP and 9mm are often discussed as top choices for concealed carry and home defense.

  • While you CAN use the 10mm for self-defense, this caliber is almost exclusively used for hunting.

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Handgun Bullet Caliber Size Chart
Category Bullet Weight (gr) Bullet Diameter (mm) Velocity (ft/s) Energy (J) Price Per Round Uses
.22 LR 30-40 5.7-5.73 mm 1,200-1,600 140-160 $0.08-$0.50 Target shooting, small game hunting
.32 ACP 60-73 7.82mm 800-905 100-129 $0.60-$1.55 Concealed carry
.380 Auto 90-95 9mm 1,000 275 $0.44-$2.00 Concealed carry, self-defense
9mm 115-147 9.01mm 1,000-1,300 500-600 $0.29-$2.25 Concealed carry, self-defense, target shooting
.40 S&W 155-180 10.2mm 1,000-1,200 575-650 $0.44-$2.30 Self-defense, law enforcement
.45 ACP 230 11.4mm 900-1,000 500-700 $0.50-$2.50 Self-defense, law enforcement
10mm 180 10.17mm 1,000 750 $0.60-$2.25 Hunting, self-defense
.38 Special 1120-200 9.1mm 675-989 200-320 $0.50-$2.25 Concealed carry, self-defense
.357 Magnum 125-180 9.1mm 1,200-1,500 700-1,050 $0.60-$2.20 Self-defense, hunting
.44 Magnum 180-340 10.9mm 1,180-1,47t 1,600 $1.00-$2.50 Hunting, personal defense

Not all handgun calibers are created equal. They have a variety of recoil, stopping power, and other features. Learn the key terms of bullet weight, diameter, velocity, energy, and penetration depth so you can make the best decision when choosing ammo caliber and a firearm with a specific caliber.

Expert Tip:

Caliber also determines the frame size of the handgun. 9mm and 40 S&W share a frame size, but 45 ACP and 10mm generally require a larger overall frame, even if the pistol looks the same — comparing a Glock 17 to a Glock 21 for example.

.22 Long Rifle

.22 40-Grain Rimfire Ammunition

The .22 LR caliber is versatile and suitable for pistols, revolvers, and rifles. It's an excellent choice for beginners due to its gentle recoil and affordability.

  • This small but widely used round is known for its low-cost ammunition.
  • It uses rimfire ammunition, which is less reliable and not ideal for self-defense scenarios.

.32 ACP

.32 Auto 71-Grain Centerfire Ammunition

The .32 ACP was developed by John Browning and first manufactured in 1899. Despite its lack of power and limited penetration, it can be used for home defense purposes.

  • The .32 ACP is known for its low recoil — making it easy to handle for beginners.
  • Typically found in compact and lightweight firearms — making it suitable for concealed carry.

.380 Auto

.380 Auto 95-Grain Centerfire Ammunition

The .380 Auto is nicknamed the 9mm short — the difference being its casing length. This caliber has a diameter of 9x17mm. It's a compact handgun caliber created by John Browning.

  • Nowadays, firearm owners more frequently use this caliber for self-defense.
  • This caliber remains a popular option for use in small pocket pistols.


9mm Luger 115-Grain Pistol Ammunition

The 9mm is a military caliber — meaning supply typically stays high. Both law enforcement and the military use this caliber. Beyond being used in the field, the 9mm is a fantastic self-defense option.

  • The steady supply keeps this ammo inexpensive due in part to being one of many military calibers.
  • The 9mm has a gentler recoil than other calibers (depending on firearm size), which is great for beginners shopping for a revolver or pistol.
  • The 9mm comes in a wide variety of weights so you can choose a weight based on your needs.

Expert Tip:

Did you know that grain weight has a significant impact on whether a round is sub-sonic (simply meaning the bullet moves slower than the speed of sound, which is about 1,126 feet per second)? For example, a 9mm round at 147-grain is commonly shot out of suppressed firearms. Sub-sonic rounds help prevent any ‘cracking’ from happening when fired.

.40 Smith & Wesson

40 S&W 180-Grain Centerfire Ammunition

The .40 S&W is seen as a cross between the 9mm and the .45 ACP. It offers faster velocity than the .45 ACP and more recoil than the 9mm.

  • The .40 S&W has a good amount of stopping power — making it reliable for self-defense.
  • The .40 S&W was created for the FBI and is still used by some law enforcement agencies today.

Expert Tip:

The focus for 40 S&W has always been around velocity, but terminal ballistics are similar to modern 9mms. It is being replaced in government agencies by the 9mm.

.45 ACP

.45 ACP 230-Grain Ammunition

The .45 ACP was designed by John Browning and originally debuted in 1911. It was used in both World War I and II — earning some serious bragging rights.

  • Shooters over the age of 55 typically prefer this caliber for home defense thanks to its reduced penetration.
  • Some gun enthusiasts believe the .45 ACP has more accuracy and stopping power compared to other handgun calibers.


10mm 170-Grain Jacketed Hollow Point Centerfire Handgun Ammunition

Created in the 1980s, the 10mm delivers substantial power, and is likened to the .44 Magnum. It has a faster velocity than the .45 ACP.

  • The 10mm is lightweight and features a high recoil — making it ideal for self-defense.
  • It is useful when hunting large game or protecting against grizzly bears.

.38 Special

38 Special 130-Grain Centerfire Ammunition

The .38 Special is a popular choice for revolvers and can be used in a .357 Magnum. When shopping for this ammo, it’s important to differentiate it from .380 ACP.

  • Known for accuracy and versatility, this caliber is suitable for everything from self-defense to hunting small game.
  • The .38 special has a manageable recoil, which is good for beginners.

Expert Tip:

The .38 Special caliber is a popular, cheaper alternative to 357 for training and range days.

.357 Magnum

.357 Magnum 158-Grain Centerfire Pistol Ammunition

The .357 magnum is a revolver round with a high muzzle velocity. The sheer power of this caliber means that firing it in smaller revolvers will sting your hand.

  • When used in larger firearms, this caliber makes for a serious self-defense or even a hunting round.
  • You can shoot a .38 Special in .357 Magnum revolvers, but not the opposite.

.44 Magnum

.44 Remington Magnum 200-Grain Centerfire Handgun Ammunition

The .44 magnum is highly versatile. It can be used for everything from target practice to big game hunting and self-defense.

  • The .44 has a stronger recoil than the .45 ACP — which may make it more unwieldy.
  • The .44 caliber works well for protecting against bears.

Handgun Calibers: Key Terms

  • Bullet Weight: Higher grain (heavier) bullets offer better wind resistance and deliver more energy to the target, but recoil from the firearm is typically greater. In contrast, lower grain (lighter) bullets achieve higher speeds and a longer range with less recoil, depending on the firearm.

  • Bullet Diameter: This measurement refers to the width across the center of the bullet, not including the casing. This is also known as the ‘caliber.’

  • Fragmentation: Frangible bullets are lighter because of the structure and materials required to support fragmentation. In general, bullets are either designed to retain shape (FMJ), expand (hollow point), or fragment.

  • Velocity: Velocity refers to the speed at which a bullet travels after being discharged from the handgun. Bullets with higher velocity offer a flatter trajectory, which is advantageous for achieving longer distances and more accurate shots.

  • Energy: Muzzle energy measures the kinetic energy of a bullet as it exits the firearm's muzzle. It’s also an indicator of its potential power after it leaves the barrel.

  • Penetration Depth: Handgun calibers vary in penetration. Optimal penetration is between 12-18” per the universal standard FBI test protocol. Deeper penetration can increase effectiveness, but shallower penetration reduces the risk of damaging surroundings or harming bystanders.

Expert Tip:

Heavier bullets generally result in more recoil to travel long distances. For example, a .45 ACP does not travel as far as a 9mm.

What Is the Main Difference Between Centerfire and Rimfire Ammunition?

An illustration depicting the difference between centerfire boxer primer, centerfire Berdan primer, and rimfire ammunition.

Centerfire and rimfire ammunition represent two distinct primer-ignited cartridge designs. In centerfire ammunition, the primer is located in the middle of the cartridge, while rimfire ammunition houses the primer in the rim.

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Centerfire Ammunition

  • The firing pin directly strikes the primer in the center of the cartridge to fire the bullet.
  • Centerfire ammo is more expensive than rimfire due to its design and performance.

Rimfire Ammunition

  • The firing pin strikes the base of the cartridge, igniting the primer within the rim to fire the bullet.
  • Rimfire cartridges are more cost-effective and often used in smaller caliber firearms.

Full Metal Jacket (FMJ) vs. Hollow Point Bullets

This illustration features the inside of a full metal jacket round on the left and a hollow point round on the right

Hollow point and full metal jacket (FMJ) bullets are the two most popular types of bullets for handguns. Hollow point ammunition expands upon impact to increase the round’s damage potential. Conversely, full metal jacket bullets have a lead core encased in a harder metal shell.

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Hollow Point vs Full Metal Jacket (FMJ) Bullets
Categories Hollow Point Full Metal Jacket (FMJ)
Impact Expansion Expands Does not expand
Ideal Use Self-defense Target shooting
Cost More expensive due to a more complex manufacturing process Usually cheaper due to a less complex manufacturing process
Ballistic Performance Increased damage potential More consistent and less deformation

A less popular bullet is the expanding full metal jacket (EFMJ). EFMJ is an alternative to hollow point as it expands upon impact when hitting any surface. It contains a polymer insert and pre-scored jacket. This design causes a wider cavity and reduces penetration without fragmentation. In contrast, fragmenting ammo is designed for deeper penetration and fragmentation in fluid.

How to Choose Handgun Calibers

With so many caliber sizes for handguns available, it can be tricky to narrow down the right caliber for your needs. Consider the following factors to pinpoint the right caliber for you.

  • Intended Use: Will you use your handgun caliber for self-defense, concealed carry, or hunting? The 9mm is great for self-defense while the .44 Magnum is ideal for hunting large game.

  • Your Experience: Are you a beginner or more experienced? A .45 ACP is better suited for more advanced shooters due to its powerful recoil. Stick with caliber options like the 9mm and .38 Special if you’re a beginner.

  • Recoil: This affects your ability to handle the pistol, as well as accuracy. Your performance can be negatively affected if the recoil is too strong.

  • Ballistic Performance: Bullet penetration between 12-18” is optimal. This causes an effective strike while minimizing risk to innocent bystanders. Certain bullets increase damage, such as hollow points that expand.

  • Magazine Capacity: If you’re using your pistol for self-defense, pay attention to how many rounds it holds. You might be better off with a magazine capacity of 17 compared to 10 if you want a handgun for self-defense.

  • Cost: The .22 LR offers the cheapest ammunition. Consider the price of ammo if you’re a beginner and want to practice shooting.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is the Most Popular Pistol Caliber?

The 9mm is one of the most popular calibers. A full-size 9mm handgun has a 17-round magazine capacity. Firearms that use this caliber tend to have lighter recoil and offer faster follow-up speed between shots.

Is a .38 Special the Same as a .380 ACP?

The .38 Special and the .380 ACP are not the same type of bullet. The .38 special is used in revolvers while the .380 ACP is used in semi-automatic pistols.

Does Ammo Caliber Affect Recoil?

Recoil is more closely related to the size of the firearm. The Sig Sauer P365 is a micro-compact pistol. It’s very snappy! However, a GLOCK 34 (G34) is a full-size long-slide handgun with a gentler kickback. Smaller-framed pistols usually don’t have the mass to absorb recoil as much as larger ones.

Handgun calibers — like the 9mm — vary in power, which can affect recoil. However, increasing the size of your handgun generally reduces the kickback you experience when shooting.

Expert Tip:

Handgun calibers — like the 9mm — vary in power, which can affect recoil. However, increasing the size of your handgun generally reduces the kickback you experience when shooting.

Have Fun Out There!

Ready to take the perfect handgun home? At Academy, you can shop for handguns by caliber and enjoy top brands like Glock and Sig Sauer. From self-defense to hunting — we’ve got the right caliber for your shooting needs. Don't forget to replenish your ammunition supply for more target shooting practice.