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Small handguns: Choose your loads carefully

Mouse gun calibers lack the oomph to give both expansion and adequate penetration


With marginal loads like the .380 Auto or .38 Special from a two-inch snubnose barrel, expansion generally only comes at the expense of penetration.

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We can’t all be Dirty Harry, easily packing a 6-inch .44 Magnum revolver for concealed carry. With the plethora of small, quality 9mm pistols, it is easy to pack a serious caliber. However, many individuals want smaller, more easily concealed hardware.

Here’s the problem: Mousegun calibers lack the oomph to give expansion and adequate penetration. The FBI’s eight-part terminal ballistics test stems from the failure of their 9mm load to give adequate penetration in the notorious 1986 Miami shootout. The bullets exactly met the expansion and penetration design criteria, but reaching the nine inches of penetration criteria failed.

The current standard for self-defense loads specifies 12 to14 inches of penetration in bare 10 percent ballistic gelatin and as much expansion as possible without compromising penetration. With marginal loads like the .380 Auto or .38 Special from a two-inch snubnose barrel, expansion generally only comes at the expense of penetration. There are loads that expand reliably to create a larger wound path, but with marginal to substandard penetration.

Small caliber pocket pistols
Some individuals opt for even smaller caliber pocket pistols. In my opinion, the .25 and .32 auto cartridges are merely toys that might give you a false sense of security and are unlikely to stop a determined adversary. If you carry these popguns, a full-metal-jacket load is the only type that may penetrate deep enough to find something vital on your enemy.

Long rifles
The .22 long rifle is the one small round that has limited usefulness. There are reliable pocket pistols and flea-weight revolvers made for the .22 and even folks with very limited hand strength — from injury or arthritis — can fire them effectively.

The low price and slowly increasing availability of .22 ammo allows you to practice enough to deliver the kind of short-range precision you need. I suggest 40 grain or heavier loads with a solid point — not hollow point — to give the best possible penetration. Your target area should be the triangle formed by the bad guy’s eyes and nose.

Train to fire a flurry of several rounds into a small target at short range. With practice a little .22 handgun might just keep you above ground.

Choose your loads carefully for small handguns.

Dick Fairburn has had more than 26 years of law enforcement experience in both Illinois and Wyoming. He has worked patrol, investigations and administration assignments. Dick has also served as a Criminal Intelligence Analyst, and as the Section Chief of a major academy’s Firearms Training Unit and Critical Incident Training program.