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Defensive Handgunning Myths

Don't base your training and equipment on outdated information. Recognize these defensive handgunning myths before kitting yourself out.

Defensive Handgunning Myths

Smith & Wesson Model 340PD, .357 Magnum. (Guns & Ammo photo) 

One of the funnier internet-­age meme templates is an older gentleman behind the gun counter wearing his fishing vest and handing out bad advice to first-time gun buyers. It’s funny because, like most good humor, there’s an element of truth about it. I did my time behind a gun-­counter in the early 1990s and I still cringe at some of the myths that I passed off as fact because I didn’t know any better. There was also some information that was good at the time that really isn’t useful now. Products, tactics and techniques all evolve, and beliefs that were true 30-some years ago might not be today. Let’s have a little fun and take a look at some of the bad information that “Gun Store Gary” is still dispensing.

“I carry a .45 because they don’t make a .46!”

This one’s been around in some form as long as guns have. In 1991, there was an some truth to it. In the early days of defensive semiautomatics, ball ammo was most common because it was difficult to find a pistol that reliably functioned with anything but full-metal-jacket (FMJ) rounds. When limited to non-expanding ammo, sure, a .45-­caliber bullet is a better choice than a .355-diameter 9mm. However, capable defensive ammo is available. That mindset needs to pass.

Modern 9mm ammunition has closed the gap with .45 ACP performance. The statistical difference in effectiveness between the two cartridges is almost nil. Take into consideration that 9mm is cheaper to shoot, lighter on recoil, and allows for larger payloads in the gun and on the body, the pendulum swings decisively toward the Parabellum. Cost and recoil also influence many shooters’ decision to practice and subject themselves to training, which leads us to our next myth.
“Stopping Power” In the world of defensive handgunning, there’s no such thing as “Stopping Power.” Rather, there are only varying degrees of ineffectiveness. The truth is that there is no good defensive ammunition or load, there are only less-­bad options. Handgun ammo moves too slowly to be effective at immediately immobilizing a hostile threat. Among ammunition options that are capable of consistently penetrating at least 12 inches into such a target, shot placement always trumps caliber selection. 

When I was a kid, I used to love reading about “stopping power” and the legendary “one-­shot stop.” I also used to love reading about other myths and fairy tales, such as Christmas elves and sorcerers, but then I grew up. The “one-­shot stop” is a statistical anomaly; do not make your defensive handgunning choices based on one of these examples. Stopping a threat or changing the intent of a determined attacker generally requires multiple mid-­thoracic hits — regardless of caliber choice.

Handgun Myths
Shooters in 2022 have many great options for defensive handgun ammunition that reliably expands and penetrates deep enough to be effective. Despite improvements, the guaranteed “one-shot stop” is still more myth than reality. (Guns & Ammo photo)

“The revolver makes a great first gun because it never malfunctions!” 

How’s this for a hot take, but one influenced by experience: The revolver is a terrible option for the novice shooter, and they can malfunction. Factory revolvers have longer and heavier triggers than factory semiautomatic pistols. Revolvers hold fewer rounds and are slower and more onerous to reload. Sure, these things can be trained around, but why? Why would you give a novice shooter a gun with a more difficult trigger to manipulate, less ammunition and a slower loading procedure?

Another issue are the lightweight Scandium-­ and aluminum-­frame revolvers too often sold to novice shooters. To my previous list of issues, these lightweights add an unusual amount of felt recoil. You’re not helping new shooters by steering them to a lightweight revolver, and you’re not setting them up for success. The revolver has its place, but the hands of new shooters ain’t it.

“Mix ball and hollowpoints for penetration and expansion!” 

A better idea here is to simply purchase and use a modern, high-quality defensive load that does both. Mixing ammunition types can result in inconsistent point of impact, unpredictable recoil impulses, and malfunctions. In fact, I use mixed magazines to test a firearm’s reliability because doing so can give a gun fits. Mixing ammunition within a magazine is always a bad idea. Don’t do it! If you are concerned with deep penetration, look at bonded hollowpoint offerings. If you carry mixed mags for different circumstances, consider keeping a separate magazine strictly for that purpose, rather than risking your defensive readiness.

"The .40 S&W is the best of both worlds. It offers capacity and performance!” 

No, it’s not. Statistically it doesn’t perform any better (or any worse) than the 9mm or the .45 ACP. It does produce more felt recoil than a round of 9mm, and it has a nasty habit of beating its host gun harder than a .45! I keep one on hand simply because I have to test different ammunition for my job, and it affords me another option should 9mm and .45 ammunition become scarce.

Handgun Myths
The performance gap between 9mm, .40 S&W and .45 ACP isn’t worth debating when comparing modern defensive ammunition such as Hornady’s Critical Defense. Shot placement is more important than caliber choice, so training matters more than bore size. (Guns & Ammo photo)

If you’ve reached this point of the article, and you still believe one common caliber trumps another, refer to the beginning for remedial training.

“Short-­barreled pistols are less accurate than long-barreled pistols.” 

Nonsense. They’re more difficult to shoot well, but not less accurate. Shorter barrels have a shorter sight radius and are usually attached to guns with smaller frames and less area to accommodate a good shooting grip. A short sight radius and poor grip are the reasons you’re not as accurate with a small gun — not barrel length.

Likewise, longer-­barreled handguns are not inherently more accurate. Springfield Armory’s XD-M 5.25 is not more accurate than the XD-M 3.8; the former has a longer sight radius. If you install a red-­dot optic to eliminate the sight radius difference, you would not see a difference in accuracy.

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