Best Handgun Calibers For Survival

Is there really a “best” of anything?  Well, yeah, I think A-1 steak sauce is the absolute best.  I love St. Pete’s Best SHTF pistolSignature blue cheeseDiamond D Leather in Alaska makes the best across the chest crossdraw handgun holster on Earth.  I am a huge fan of Kimber 1911 pistols, Smith and Wesson heavy revolvers and ARs in 5.56 and 300 Blackout, and my Ruger SR556-6.8 SPC AR (just try to find one of those left on the shelf), which I clearly think are the best.  Well, at least those are the best for me anyway.

A Commonly Posed Question

When I work the gun shows with the Glock armorer guys, I usually get many of the same questions at our show Best Survival Handguntables.  “I want to buy a first handgun for my wife.  What caliber should I buy?”  That question is often quickly followed by the No. 2 question, “Should I get a revolver or a pistol?”  Several other questions almost always follow that.  I try to offer the best council I can based on what I know about their situations, conditions, and experiences.  I’ve done this for over 40 years now.

I get nearly the same series of questions from people inquiring about the “best” caliber for survival prepping.  These questions are more difficult to comprise to offer individuals specific recommendations.  Many factors go into the decision to pick a handgun caliber for survival work and then to pick the platform to fire it.  Let’s explore some of the possibilities.

A Chart of Common Handgun Calibers’ Power Ballistics

Caliber           Bullet Weight      Muzzle Velocity      Muzzle Energy
22 LR                 40                           1150                           117
25 ACP               50                           760                            64
32 ACP               71                            905                            129
380 ACP            95                            955                            190
38 Special         158                         755                            200        
357 Magnum    158                         1235                          535
9mm Auto         124                        1100                         339
40 SW                 180                        990                           392
10mm Auto       180                        1150                          529
41 Magnum       210                        1300                         788
44 Magnum      240                        1180                          741
45 ACP                230                        835                           356
45 Long Colt      250                       860                           410

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As it is with spotting a seemingly attractive woman at a distance, looks can be deceiving especially upon closer examination.  It is much the same with factory ammunition ballistics charts as well.  Unfortunately these listed factory muzzle velocities and energy ratings are about all we have to go on when it comes to comparing one caliber against another.  It does at least offer us a baseline for comparison.  Reality in the field is something entirely different.

Know, too, that this list contains only the most basic bullet and power level for each caliber.  Many, many other choices are available in bullet types, and power capacities.  Get yourself a factory ammo catalog from Remington, Winchester, or Federal to begin to understand the other options available in each caliber.

Decision Making Time

First, as you make the ultimate decision to arm yourself, your immediate family and/or your survival prep team, Survival Pistolask yourself exactly why for what purpose(s).  I will presume the No.1 reason is for self-protection, as well as defensive protection of family, home, and property.  Other reasons could be for foraging for wild game food, or offensive actions to secure goods for yourself under the most dire straits of circumstances.  For whatever reason you buy a gun(s) for a prepping assignment do not take the purchase of weapons lightly and be fully prepared to accept all the consequences.  This includes safe handling, learning to shoot properly, practicing to shoot, and maintaining your tools in top operating condition.

Related: Survival Shotgun

You may have already settled on some prejudiced decisions about what handgun caliber you want to obtain for prepping use.  They may be right on or not for you or others in the immediate circle you intend to arm.  Seek as much input as possible from people who should know what they are talking about.  Good advice on guns does not always come from behind the counters at a gun store, in particular the big box retailers where gun sales people are rarely well trained on guns or ballistics.

Try a shooting range, a shooting course, or a concealed weapons course.  Walk around a gun show and ask several vendors as you check out their wares.  That is a next step anyway once you finally (maybe) settle on the caliber(s) you want then go shopping for and the handgun models to deliver them.

Apples and Oranges

Meanwhile study these ballistics numbers and try to make some obvious judgments.  I am guessing you have Best TEOTWAWKI Pistolprobably done some preliminary reading or research on line, from contacts, at gun shops or shows, books, magazines or other resources.  If not, then you definitely need to build an elementary foundation of knowledge on these subjects enough to know on what to spend your hard earned prepper money.  If you make a mistake, you waste money.

If you need a hint, then take this one.  If your primary purpose for obtaining weapons is to protect yourself, family, friends, or others, then you obviously need a handgun shooting a caliber as capable as possible in stopping an adversary. Be honest with yourself.  While a .22 LR rimfire handgun may be ideal for taking small game for the meat pot or taking out small nasty vermin around the Bug Out camp, it is not a realistic choice for self protection.  It is better than nothing, but not for your primary defensive handgun.

Also Read: Best Survival Carbine

I will be so bold as to suggest the same for the .25, 32, and even the .380.  Once you acquire a more prominent Survival Pistolcaliber handgun for defense and become proficient with it, then you can branch out to consider acquiring other calibers and guns as your budget allows.  These three could make decent back up calibers with proper ammunition.  Now we have arrived at a “Y” in the road.  Whether or not you want a revolver or a pistol?  I won’t discuss those merits or distracters here, but may at another time review those points.

At the low end of the revolver caliber considerations is the .38 Special, but why buy a handgun only for this cartridge?  The .357 Magnum revolver will also shoot the .38 Special so you essentially get two guns in one.  The .357 Magnum will stop an opponent, but you may be limited to six shots.  This revolver caliber is formidable.  Reloading takes more skill and time.

Generally speaking the .41, .44 and .45s are not considered for personal protection though they could be.  Eventually if you are settled on revolvers, then consider stepping up to a larger caliber.  By the way, the .44 Magnum will also load and shoot the .44 Special.  Remember these calibers are more difficult to shoot well, costly, and the ammo is heavier to deal with for storage and carry.

The other pathway in the “Y” considers the semi-auto pistol calibers.  These are the 9mm, .40 Smith and Wesson or “40 cal”, the 10mm and the .45 ACP.  The 9mm is basically a .38 caliber suited to the pistol platform.  The .40 and the 10mm are similar though the 10mm is considerably more powerful, expensive and has more recoil.

The .45 ACP is the “King of the Hill” for most pistol shooters.  Obviously it was picked by the military early in the 1900s for a reason.  There are rumors now the .45 ACP may be coming back to service use, but somehow I suspect it will only be relegated to specialty team use.  The .45 ACP has more recoil, more noise, but the 45 caliber is a serious man stopper.  It takes a lot of practice to shoot well, as frankly does any handgun in any caliber for that matter.

Narrowing the Choices

An ideal method to settle on a choice on a handgun caliber is to visit a shooting range or gun shop that has a wide Self Defense Pistolvariety of gun models and calibers to actually shoot.  This way you can evaluate your comfort level in shooting different calibers and the types of guns available in those caliber choices.  It would be akin to test driving new cars.

Now, here I go out on the limb by suggesting my own recommended choices.  If you favor the revolver action because of its simplicity in use without mechanical safeties to deal with, then I would opt initially for a .357 Magnum, but not a lightweight, short-barreled gun model.  Pick a good steel gun with a six-inch barrel and adjustable sights.  If you learn to use this well, then you might consider adding another bigger caliber much later.

For pistol operators, the base choice is the 9mm.  It is very universal in all regards, and widely available both in gun models and ammunition types.  Practice with ball ammunition, but carry in Condition One with a serious self-defense round of which there are many new ones on the market now.

Personally, I am not a big fan of the .40SW.  It has more recoil, and muzzle blast.  Ammo is more expensive.  However, the .40 is an effective pistol caliber for personal protection.  I do like the 10mm but it is a significant step up in skills to shoot well.  It is a good defensive people stopper using the right ammo.

Also Read: SIG Sauer P227 Nitron Review

The .45 ACP is my No.1 personal choice.  That big .230 grain bullet packs a wallop on its opponent especially in a defensive round with expanding bullets, not the ball ammo.  The .45 takes much practice to shoot really well, but in close quarters it is a deal changer.  It is not a first caliber choice for uninitiated neophyte shooters.  If I were starting afresh to build a self-defense survival handgun arsenal, then I would have a 9mm and then a .45 ACP.  If I had multiple guns, they would all be the same brand and model for uniformity of training, and use as well as exchange of magazines, parts, cleaning supplies and carry holsters.

Is there a best handgun caliber for survival prepping?  Yes there probably is for you, but it may not be the same one for me.  What is really best is what you can shoot really well.  Obviously one or more well placed rounds are better than making a bunch of noise and missing the target.  Study hard, pick carefully, and then become extremely proficient with your choices.  That will be what is best for you.

All Photos by Dr. John J. Woods



John J. Woods
Written by John J. Woods

John J. Woods, PhD, has been outdoor writing for over 35 years with over 3000 articles, and columns published on firearms, gun history, collecting, appraising, product reviews and hunting. Dr. Woods is currently the Vice President of Economic Development at a College in the Southern United States. Read his full interview here. Read more of John J.'s articles.

24 thoughts on “Best Handgun Calibers For Survival”

  1. Personally I've found that a revolver in whatever caliber one chooses is the most dependable. However, I'm a great believer in the 1911 Colt in .45 ACP. It was developed for one purpose. The big slow moving lumbering 230 grain round was developed for one purpose. To stop a person in his tracks. With it one doesn't have the bullet flying around killing innocent bystanders like some of the more powerful rounds.. However, my wife carries a .38 revolver and I carry a Desert Eagle 1911U in you guessed it. 45 ACP

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  2. Great atrial. My understanding is some military units are going to carry JHP in their 9mm. In none WAR combat. No uniform on the bad guys side, not a war. This I feel will help the 9mm perform up to it potential. IMHO. No I do not carry a 9mm. I have been a 45acp shooter for over 45 years. For me, picking out your wife's handgun for self defense! Would be like picking out a pair of dress shoe's for her to ware. Don't think that is going to happen! Not with any success!!!
    If you can get beyond stereotype of what you think you need. Move onto what will work for you! Then time is your main enemy.
    I have hunted Gun Shop and Gun Shows for months/years look for that GUN!!! That I wanted and at the price I was willing to pay.
    Some do not have that capability! This will do! This is in my price range! I would like a larger caliber, but…..
    So if it does not sound like it, sorry. But I do agree with you!
    Hope you do an atrial on revolver/autos. That I like to read.
    Thanks!

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  3. .41? Your age is showing Dr.

    .45s are for old men. 10mm are for early adopters who got screwed by the FBI. .40S&W is a fine round when you can't aim or afford good ammo.

    And the 9mm is the right choice. Ballistically. Weight. Size. Everything. And not to miss insulting everyone, all revolvers are great for those AARP cards and/or movie fantasies.

    The deal is that rounds on target is all that matters so if you cannot hold your lead, or you use dry fire to practice, then your cost savings is at your peril. Might as well set yourself on fire when threatened. 9mm puts holes in targets. Those with big calibers can hit paper on a range in small numbers. Get yourself a gun you can afford to practice with whether .22 or 9mm. Skip the big guns. Get a real gun.

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  4. Great article I like the ballistics information included.
    For defense a 45 ACP is fantastic but if its scope of work includes hunting 45 ACP would not be my choice.
    For utilitarian use 9MM only because it is so prolific and Semi Auto most of the time except a few revolvers and derringers.
    My true all around caliber is 357 in a 3 or 4 inch up north in big animal country heavier magnum is required.
    Chances are almost equal that in your lifetime you will encounter a dangerous animal or person if 5 to 6 shots is not sufficient may should examine your tactics and readjust your threat level.
    Should thing go wrong and we all need a semi auto, the 9MM only because of ammo availability.

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  5. In my time I have owned, carried and been quite happy with several different pistols. The decision as to which one was/is "best" depended on what one was planning to use the weapon for.

    When I lived in Florida, I was quite happy with a .357 magnum revolver as I could shoot it well and it had the power level to deal with the threats I was likely to face.

    When I moved to the Pacific Northwest I stepped up to a .44 magnum revolver as some of the potential threats in the area are more serious. I found the various .44 magnums that I used through time to be quite accurate. Unfortunately carrying them concealed on one's person was not their strong suit. I tended to prefer revolvers in that caliber with rather long barrels to take advantage of the ballistic potential of the cartridge, but concealability went out the window.

    I have used compact semi-autos for concealed carry. At one point in time I was using a Springfield Armory compact model, then later went to a compact Taurus model. Both were in .45 ACP and I was reasonably happy with both of them.

    Economic hard times hit, a bunch of my stuff got sold, and now I am using a Smith and Wesson Governor (.45 ACP/.45 Colt/410 2.5" bore). It gets the job done and is just barely concealable on me. I like the ease with which one can keep this weapon fed, though I would be reluctant to depend on it for use against some of the more serious threats one could run into (grizzlies, for example).

    Comments on revolver vs. semi-auto.

    Both have their strong points. If you think that you are going to be facing *serious* WW III level action … what you want is a battle/assault rifle clone not a pistol. If you want a pistol for backup in that scenario then you want a semi-auto for greater magazine capacity and ease of reloading rapidly with extra magazines.

    If the way that you carry your weapon, the places you go to and the things that you do have you constantly unloading and reloading your weapon, then the revolver has an advantage. You can take the bullets into and out of a revolver a theoretically infinite number of times with no problem. With a semi-auto on the other hand, unless you normally carry it in "Condition 3" (loaded magazine in the weapon, empty chamber) then each time you cycle a round into the chamber you will be putting stress on the round that could cause the bullet to change its seating depth within the cartridge. Obviously if you only do this once or twice with a specific round then there should be no problem. But if you are constantly cycling the same round into and out of the action on a regular basis for an extended period of time then it may not function as you need it to in an emergency.

    So your potential remedies for that situation are to carry the semi-auto in Condition 3 as described above, keep track of how many times you cycle a specific round through your weapon and after it has been cycled twice put it aside to be used at the range, or switch to a revolver.

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    • Now, let us assume that you take up your pistol, point it at the target, and it goes "click" when you KNOW it should have gone "bang". In the overwhelming percentage of cases you are dealing with a misfire. In a very tiny percentage of cases what you have is a "hang fire". The only way you will know for sure which of those situations you are dealing with … is to wait.

      If you are dealing with a scenario where safety is your paramount concern (practicing at a range, plinking in the forest or other such scenario) then you wait at least 7 seconds. If the round was a hang fire then it should have cooked off in that period of time. If it did not then it is a misfire. It may go off if it is struck by the weapon's firing pin/striker again though.

      So, if you have a revolver after the wait time has passed pull the trigger again as normal. Cycle through the rest of the ammunition in the weapon and keep pulling the trigger until the misfire comes up again. Odds are it will go off when you pull the trigger on it a second time.

      Semi-autos are somewhat different both from revolvers and from each other. Some semi-auto pistols have an exposed hammer. If you have such a pistol then you have the option of manually cocking the hammer and pulling the trigger again to get the firing pin to hit the round in the chamber a second time. If it works, great. If not wait some more and then cycle that round out of the action. Some semi-autos are set up with a "second strike" capability where you can simply squeeze the trigger again to get the firing pin/striker to hit the round again. Yet still other designs are such that your only option is to manually cycle the round out of the weapon. NOTE THAT THERE IS NO SUBSTITUTE FOR GETTING FAMILIAR WITH THE WEAPON YOU ARE USING, AND THIS APPLIES DOUBLE TO SEMI-AUTOMATIC WEAPONS. There are simply too many different ways that different manufacturers have set their weapons up. For some semi-auto pistols you move a large, obvious safety lever down to fire them. For others you move the safety lever up to fire them. Others have no safety lever or have a decocker instead. LEARN THE SPECIFICS OF YOUR WEAPON!

      Where it gets "interesting" is where the threat to a person's life and limb potentially exceeds the threat to you caused by mishandling a hang fire. For a double action revolver simply pull the trigger again. The next round in rotation will come up and you should be able to fire normally. Though bear in mind that the cartridge that may be a hang fire is no longer in line with the barrel, and if it cooks off in that position it will be nasty.

      For a semi-auto you potentially have several things you can do. However, the usual teaching method for such things is to use the "Tap, rack, bang" method. Hit the magazine with the heel of your off hand to ensure that it is properly seated. Rack the slide back and forth to manually cycle the action getting rid of the bad round. Then pull the trigger again to fire the next round. Note that if you are dealing with a hang fire and the round cooks off while you are manually cycling the action you too will have a nasty time of it.

      That's about all I should say right now lest I go on forever. 🙂

      Reply
  6. Back when gunpowder came in a cow horn, big projectiles were the only solution. But now with optimal barrel length, twist rate, chamber pressures, and advanced bullet designs, the 9mil is plenty for anyone who can keep sights on target. And honestly, I'd guess that when the dust settles on the recent FBI RFP for a new 9 bureau-wide, we'll all be going back home to nines with no regrets and certainly less wrist fatigue.

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  7. Have you considered that the reason that 'old men' prefer larger calibers such as .45 ACP is that those calibers probably helped them to become old men? For me, the .357 mag. in a 6 inch barrel is my go-to handgun because the accuracy, power and reliability is IMHO the best possible combination for the widest range of uses! A shotgun is probably the best up-close firearm, but messy. A handgun is a backup for a high powered rifle and a knife is a back-up for the pistol, caliber is somewhat unimportant; even a good air rifle can kill if needed. Good Luck!

    Reply
    • I had a friend who had worked as a mercenary in the Belgian Congo way back when. He carried a Colt Officer's model in .45 ACP with him everywhere he went. When I asked him about it once his reply was, "I've shot people with 9mm. That's why I carry a .45."

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      • Was that the first Congo or Biafran war ? as that was in 66 and the 45 Officers model was not to be until 80's unless he got a earlier adaption from Rock Island from 70's.
        The Congolese / Congo / Biafran war kinda petered out in 69 70ish although fighting in that strip of ground never finished from Senegal to Egypt and Somalia.
        During both Congo wars the Tokarev using the 7.62X25 was easy to get and is far superior to either the 9mm or the 45 little hole in squirts your insides out like tooth paste.

        Most people in any African campaigns were arrested jailed or held at some point so weapons were tossed lost or confiscated and passports were marked so they could not reenter Africa. back then no big deal just get another passport the government you worked for would supply of course if something went wrong they would pull it or send a redress order.
        those engaged were not what they seemed to be most worked for governments agencies and corporations with their own ends that is why none ever sat in prison for any duration the only rule was do not bite the hand that feeds you in a war zone friendly fire is common,

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  8. I agree but I like to have a larger .45 colt or .357 magnum for dangerous animals and a .22lr for hunting if I don't want to carry a rifle.

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  9. My friend got the Colt Officer's model after he had done his work as a mercenary. IIRC he was active in that regard some time in the late 60's to early 70's. He had originally done a stint in the U.S. Army, and with the Vietnam war winding down he wanted to go see some action. The rifle that he carried as a mercenary was an HK-91 and I believe the pistol he was using then was a Browning High Power. He had somehow managed to keep the rifle with him and still had it when I knew him in the 1990's.

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    • yea that fits most carried the FN-FAL the Hi-Power or the Brigadier / Helwan the one sub gun was a Barretta model 12 all of Europe dumped their pre nato stuff there lots of Bren's and Vickers logistics a nightmare.

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      • For what anybody thinks it's worth, my friend was of the opinion that the HK-91 was the most reliable of all the .308/7.62x51mm NATO battle rifles that were available at the time. I'm not sure how the HK-91 would compare to the AK-47 in that regard though. While the AK-47 has a well deserved reputation for ruggedness and reliability, it also has a gas system. The HK-91, being essentially recoil operated, does not.

        Personally I liked the fact that the HK-91 basically had no felt recoil. There are two caveats though. It was designed by German armaments engineers and they do/did things differently over there. The first caveat is that if you go to establish a proper "cheek weld" on the receiver like almost anybody who has been trained with rifles here in America would, you won't like it. As the action cycles the bolt carrier comes ramming back into the rear of the receiver like a miniature jack hammer. If your face is in contact with the receiver you WILL feel that and you will not enjoy it. You need to find some other way to index your head with relation to the weapon for a proper/consistent sight picture. Once you do that the problem goes away and you can enjoy shooting a .308 battle rifle for an extended period of time without getting a sore shoulder.

        The second is that if you use the collapsible stock designed by HK to go with that weapon, you need to know that it locks in two and only two positions. Fully open and fully closed. I had read one review of the HK-91 written by an alleged "professional gun writer" who did not know that and panned the weapon because of felt recoil (he had his cheek against the receiver) and the fact that the collapsible stock would not hold in the position he wanted it to. Both were arguably the problems of the end user and not the weapon itself.

        Reply
  10. The best "survival" caliber is the .22 long rifle.

    It can be used to kill small game without the destruction of much tissue. It can be used to kill big game if the shot is close and placed in the head. It can stun fish in shallow water. It can provide self-defense; no one will pull out a micrometer and measure the diameter of the hole, they will just be concerned about the blood leaking out. A person can carry about 500 rounds in nearly the same space as 50 to 100 rounds of 9mm, 38/357, 40 S&W (take you pick).

    Survival is about long term (number v. weight) and versatility. The .22LR certainly provides it.

    Reply
    • 22 is always first on my list but recent stock on the shelf of "quality" ammo is almost non existent in large lots..

      The only real personal defense 22 LR round is copper plated 40 grain high velocity app 1250 FPS.
      standard velocity looses its edge quickly looking at ballistic tables IMHO.
      Hyper velocity is not always best as most takes a shortcut to get there more powder less bullet weight
      some have slightly longer brass and that extends into the chamber in some arms.
      weight is potential energy down range there is always a tipping point to light or too heavy for the arms barrel twist rate,

      Consistent means accuracy from shot to shot and even year to year CCI CPHV 40grn was my go to.
      lead heads are nasty as they count on external lube / wax high volume fire makes for increasing mess and then failure to feed or leading effects accuracy I use SWEETS bore cleaner for CP and mop and dry wipe until clean.
      Lube is very important any synthetic lube that does not gum over time or freeze in cold weather.
      This info is for any serious owner shooter, accuracy is knowledge, maintenance, experience equipment and being methodical each system has its crud points that need to be watched and extra care in cleaning.
      you must have the cleaning accessories like a SS wire brush dental pick with the right angles for your arm one size does not fit all.
      bore brushes wear out have enough and use patches with a jag I like to use a non marring rod or bore snake.

      I do agree with all you say but having a 9MM is also long term as 9MM will be with us for a while yet,

      At some point barrel length effects ballistic enough to turn a 9MM to a 380 or 380 to 32 ballistics some pistols use tricks in barrel ID or chamber to reduce recoil increase reliability and effectively neutering the round used.
      The shorter the barrel the less velocity more muzzle flash that can create night blindness (at night) you do not get something for nothing, and personal testing break in and ammo are up to the user.

      There is a distinct difference between the dog walker, body guard, policeman, professional soldier / officer.
      there threat level response to possible number of assailants will dictate the climate they may have to work in and be aware of.

      Plinking ammo ? IMHO there is no such thing same mfg bullet velocity means same accuracy day in day out
      sights adjusted accordingly or else whats the point grind off the sights and point shoot any ammo in fact I just saw a new pistol that is predicated on that with batteries a flash light and laser multiple switch mode LMAO
      If you do not stand for something you'll fall for anything—- batteries in survival REALLY….

      Reply
  11. First comment did not post….
    I would carry a revolver over a 1911. "Same power" but the risk of jamming for one or two extra rounds in a 1911 is not worth it to me.
    Now the risk of jamming for an extra 11 rounds in a 17 round glock 9mm b/c I see the jamming issue from glock to 1911 as equal and the extra rounds worth the "less power".

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  12. Bottom line is that at the end of the day its bullet placement regardless of the caliber. Some calibers are more forgiving that others for substandard shot placement and less than effective marksmanship.

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  13. The BEST pistol is the one you already own and plenty of ammo for it—if you're looking' for something new, a 9mm or 45 ACP will do the trick nicely (most any modern quality gun)—if you favor a revolver, 357 + 38 Special is the way to go—again, plenty of ammo, a decent holster, magazine carriers/speed loader carriers for wheel guns—that's about it…

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  14. my w ife has bad hands so i got her a 38 cal revolver with speed loaders she can load this gun with ease she could not pull the carriage back on a 9 mm it may be not as powerful but she can load it and fire it with ease what ever it takes

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  15. I thought the S&W Airlite 357Magnum 5 round was the ultimate conceal carry ( UNTIL), practicing recently with this pocket canon. The issue is the pistol is so light the recoil actually pulled the 158GRN bullet out of the case enough that the cylinder would not revolve. WOW !! I talked to the folks at the gun shop and they said they had heard of this. WHAT?? They recommended loaded with 38's, BS!!
    My thoughts were a revolver as a NO FAIL shooter! DAMNIT! I now carry H&K P2000SK 40cal ,9+1,which is 5 times the weight of the Airlite,yet twice the capacity. I really liked the Airlite even though the recoil was brutal. I chose the H&K cause I already had 2 USP Compact in 40s with lots of ammo. Others Preferred 357SIG, Kimber Ultra Carry 45

    Reply

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