Handgun Ammo

Handgun Ammo: In Depth

It’s safe to assume that when someone made a thing in the past, someone after them made the thing smaller. We tend to like portability, after all; especially when it comes to defending ourselves. When it comes to weapons, small enough to hide on the bodyhas been the benchmark since humans started making tools . So, it’s interesting that some of the first medieval examples of portable firearms –called “handgonnes”–didn’t exactly check that box. They were pretty big. It took a while for guns to get to a shape and size that were both concealable and functional. Basically, it wasn’t until they did away with match locks.

Wheel lock pistols were not especially concealable or functional, but at least you could fire one without a smoldering cord flopping around! However, even when flint-lock guns come around, we’re still talking about an era when pistols were for dueling, shooting at/by pirates, highway robbery, and other 17th and 18th century stuff. Also, not dependable at all. Arguably, you need to fast forward to the middle of the 1800s before they start to make much sense for widespread use. In the 1830s, Colt’s Manufacturing Co. released their first revolvers, which, though they were cumbersome to load, gave you six shots instead of one. For this generation of black powder firearms, that made all the difference. One of those six shots was bound to a) actually fire, and b) get somewhere in the vicinity of your target if you could aim. 

Cartridge revolvers would kick things up a notch a few decades later. Loading from the breech was quick as lightning compared to cap-and-ball systems. The only problem remaining was the filthy, smokey, and sluggish propellant. To vanquish that villain, smokeless powder would ride to the revolver’s rescue in the late 1880s. By the early 1890s, .38 Special had already been retooled as a smokeless cartridge, and 9mm Luger was only a few short years from being invented. 

Although the 19th century gave us most of the monumental handgun ammo milestones, the 20th century wasn’t far behind. .45 ACP and .380 Auto were conceived before the first decade was up. Big boys like .357 Magnum , .44 Magnum , and 10mm Auto were all 20th century rounds, as were .40S&W and .357 SIG . Modern handgun theory and technique was also born of this era. Before the likes of Col. Cooper, Jack Weaver, et.al, we were all still blading our bodies toward the target with one outstretched hand, or hip shooting from a half crouch like Jelly Bryce

By the end of the 90s, the most popular cartridge for law enforcement and civilian carry was changing, too. .40 S&W had mostly edged out the revolver cartridges, and Glock pistols were seeing adoption by agencies across the country. By this time, polymer guns were slowly gaining the trust of normal folks, too.

Luckily for handgun enthusiasts, the arrival of the current millennium hasn’t seen the end of cartridge development. .460 and .500 S&W Magnum, .45 GAP, and .480 Ruger all arrived on the scene in the early 2000s. More recently (2022), a far more practical round called .30 Super Carry hit the market. This introduction of this round is a good indication of where the handgun business is focused. Concealed–and to a lesser degree open–carry is a principal driver for the firearms industry now. On a related note, modern bullets and defensive loads have substantially leveled the playing field for competing carry cartridges. Never have consumers been in a better position to choose a caliber and a handgun that will fit their specific needs, limitations, and wants.  

Handgun Ammo: Handgun Choices

Depending on how your handgun will fit into your day-to-day activities, there are some different considerations. Will this be a gun you’ll carry? Think about weight and size. Are you potentially hunting with this gun? Caliber, cartridge, and a strong frame are important factors. Here are just a few things to consider about pistols, revolvers, and rimfire handguns when you’re shopping for your next one:


  • These days, most manufacturers refer to semi-automatic, magazine fed handguns as pistols.
  • Modern pistols, especially polymer-framed models, are lightweight, reliable and affordable. 
  • For similarly sized calibers, you get many more rounds in a pistol vs. a revolver. Twice as many if you compare 9mm Luger vs. .38 Special, for instance. 
  • On the other hand, with a pistol, maybe the mag gets lost, broken, or induces malfunctions. Though nowadays, you won’t typically have a broken or malfunctioning mag if you stick with reputable manufacturers.


  • Except for a few outliers, revolvers hold between five and eight rounds, with the majority holding six (as is tradition). There is no mag to lose or break.
  • Revolvers have some advantages over magazine pistols when shooting from deep concealment–like inside a purse or a heavy coat. This is especially true of hammerless or shrouded hammer revolvers. 


  • Rimfire pistols are incredibly fun to shoot, but lose out by a large margin when it comes to reliability. 
  • If you’re looking to defend yourself with a handgun, look elsewhere! 
  • For target shooting, introducing a new shooter to guns, or the occasional pest control, these are hard to beat.

Handgun Ammo: Why Choose a Handgun over a Rifle or Shotgun?

The answer to this question is pretty obvious on its face: because you need to have it with you. However, there are some not-so-obvious reasons to stick with a handgun even if you’re not limited in this way.  

Concealed Carry / Self Defense

  • Most folks aren’t massive enough to conceal a long gun on their person. Even if you could do this, it’s unlikely to be accessible under duress.
  • Handguns are very capable tools at self-defense distances, which tend to be short (three to five yards).
  • Certain types of handguns or specific models can have distinct advantages. For instance: folks that can’t get to the range often enough to practice loading and unloading their semi-automatic pistol, rifle, or shotgun can buy a revolver instead. It doesn’t get much simpler. S&W’s M&P Shield EZ series of pistols feature a slide which is easy to rack, even if you have reduced hand strength. 
  • Sub-compact pistols and the smallest snub nose revolvers are even easier to conceal. Make sure your caliber / cartridge choice is somewhat appropriate for the weight of the gun–as in don’t go for the tiny airweight .357 Magnum–unless you’re a fan of punishment. 

Target / Competition

  • Target shooting with handguns is far cheaper per round than shooting rifles or shotguns. The only issue is you tend to shoot more rounds at a time! If you’re really worried about cost, and just want to target shoot / plink, a .22LR pistol is a great choice. Just don’t expect it to work flawlessly!
  • USPSA , Steel Challenge , and IDPA are great organizations to look up if you’re interested in competitive handgun shooting.
  • Speaking of steel, you don’t have to back up to 100-yds. to shoot steel with a handgun like you do with most rifle cartridges..


  • Some folks enjoy the challenge of hunting with a handgun. It can also be worn on the hip at all times vs. slung over the shoulder like a long gun.
  • For varmints, predators, and hogs, self-defense loads in common handgun calibers are often powerful enough.
  • A large-framed steel revolver like a Ruger Blackhawk chambered in .44 Magnum or .45 Colt , combined with a low power optic is a formidable hunting machine for larger game.

Handgun Ammo: Brands and Loadings

Choosing the right handgun ammo is not complicated. Whereas rifle and shotgun ammo come in a million different flavors, handgun ammo tends to stick with just chocolate and vanilla. Two load types dominate the market: JHP for carry and self defense, and FMJ for training. As with rifle and shotgun ammo, there’s also specialty loads for hunting and punching paper that feature other bullet styles, but they aren’t nearly as popular as the big two. The great news is that here in the US we have access to dozens of domestically produced handgun ammo as well as the imported stuff. The not-so-great news is that sometimes people want handgun ammo really, really badly–especially 9mm Luger and .22LR. A recent example: prices went up significantly during and immediately after the pandemic. This is just one of many demand spikes over the years; it’s just a fact of life that we have to live with these every once in a while. If you want to be able to shoot consistently, the lesson here is: buy it cheap, and stack it deep

Popular Handgun Cartridges

  • 9mm Luger - The most popular centerfire handgun cartridge by far. This round is able to check off all the boxes for most folks. 
  • .45 ACP - America’s beloved pistol cartridge, to go along with America’s beloved pistol - the Colt M1911.
  • .357 Magnum - The first magnum handgun round. Many concealed carry guns are chambered in .357 Magnum which allows the user to shoot .38 Special ammo through the same gun.
  • .38 Special - Popular for concealed carry and used to be a top LE cartridge.
  • .44 Magnum - Intensely powerful round often used for hunting or critter defense.
  • .22LR - Yes, this is a handgun cartridge, too. Fun factor=off the charts. Stopping power=not so good!

Centerfire vs. Rimfire

  • Centerfire ammunition has a primer set into the middle of the case head. This is the more reliable of the two ignition methods.
  • Rimfire ammunition has a priming compound spun throughout the bottom of the case head. It is generally cheaper and less reliable than centerfire ammo.

Caliber vs. Cartridge

  • Caliber is a measure of the projectile’s diameter as a % of 1 inch. Therefore, a .30 caliber handgun shoots a projectile that’s a little less than ⅓ of an inch in diameter. For the most part, handguns shoot projectiles between .22 and .50 caliber (or metric equivalents).
  • A cartridge is generally a caliber (or metric value) followed by a name or another descriptor: .38 Special, 9mm Luger, .44 Magnum, etc.

Jackets and Bullet Material

  • To prevent deposits from accumulating in the barrel, lead bullets are covered in copper jackets.
  • Depending on the bullet construction, there may be some lead exposed at the tip, or it may be fully jacketed.

Bullet Types 

  • Jacketed Hollow Point - Common in defensive ammo. Designed to expand forcefully upon impact.
  • Full Metal Jacket  - Target, practice and plinking ammo.
  • Fluted - Often a solid copper or alloy bullet for hunting or self defense
  • Frangible - Designed for close-in training practice. Will disintegrate upon impact more easily than other bullets.
  • Lead Round Nose - Older style of unjacketed bullet, still common to some revolver cartridges.
  • Semi-Wadcutter / Flat Nose - Multipurpose bullets for target shooting and sometimes hunting / defense. 

Bullet Weights

  • Handgun bullet weight is measured in grains. 
  • Bullets weigh anywhere from 35-gr on the low end (.25 ACP) to 700-gr. or more (.500 S&W). 
  • Most handgun cartridges have a standard weight bullet or several common weights. 
    • 9mm ammo is typically 115-gr., 124-gr., or 147-gr. 
    • .357 Magnum ammo is often 125-gr. or 158-gr.
    • .45 ACP ammo is usually 230-gr.


  • Unlike most rifle ammunition, handgun ammo is frequently not supersonic. For example, 230-gr. .45 ACP is traveling well below that, at approx 850/fps. Normal weight .38 Special is also not supersonic.
  • On the other hand, 115-gr. and 124-gr. 9mm Luger ammo is supersonic. 
  • Most centerfirehandgun rounds are traveling somewhere between 750/fps and 1,600/fps. 

+P Ammo

  • This is ammunition loaded to a higher pressure than normal. Defensive ammo is often +P. 
  • Recoil is a bit stiffer than with regular pressure ammo.
  • It’s not advisable to run +P in antique handguns.

Subsonic Ammo

  • Handgun ammo is already much closer to subsonic vs. rifle ammo . Manufacturers often load a heavier bullet to reduce velocity below the subsonic threshold. 147-gr. 9mm Luger ammo is a good example of this.
  • When combined with a suppressor, subsonic ammo is close to or completely hearing safe, depending on the load. 

Bulk Ammo

  • “Bulk ammo” for handguns is a beautiful thing, and it usually sells at a slight discount in half case or full case lots. Just be advised, this is FMJ ammo for the most part, so it’s better for practice at the range rather than hunting or other serious work.

Aluminum and Steel-Cased Ammo

  • Aluminum cased ammo is usually fairly high quality. The cases are not recommended for reloading, if that’s your thing, but this is great training ammo if that’s not a concern.
  • Steel-cased handgun ammo can be a great bargain, or extremely frustrating (steel .357 Magnum ammo is one to avoid).

Handgun Ammo: Frequently Asked Questions

Of course!

At the range, sure!
Don’t carry it with FMJ. Just…don’t.

For those that don’t know, setback is when the bullet sinks down lower into the cartridge case, which makes the overall length shorter and reduces the round’s case capacity. It’s caused by chambering the same round multiple times and never firing it.

Significant setback can lead to an extremely high pressure situation. If you notice a particular round has gotten a lot shorter, it’s best not to shoot it. 

First decide whether you want a pistol or a revolver.
Stick with a common caliber so you’ll have more ammunition choices. 9mm Luger is the obvious choice here for pistols, and .357 Magnum for revolvers.

If you intend to carry it some day, make sure it’s not too big and heavy!

It’s never a bad idea to pick from one of the top manufacturers (Sig, S&W, Glock, CZ, Ruger, Beretta, HK, FN, Walther, Springfield Armory) for your first handgun. Handguns from these companies are extremely reliable with quality ammunition.

For very small framed individuals, or those that are sensitive to noise or recoil, starting with a .22LR pistol or revolver can help build the fundamentals without being “scary”.

Luckily for us, there’s dozens of guns that are a) dependable b) affordable c) comfortable to carry and shoot d)still made.

Sig’s P365 series, S&W’s M&P Shield EZ series, Glock 43X and Glock 19, Walther PDP, Springfield Armory Hellcat just for starters. For women an interesting choice is also Sig's P365 Rose Version.