Is .45 ACP a Good Self-Defense Round?

The .45 ACP cartridge was designed in 1904 by John Moses Browning as the next great thing for military use. This was a time when heavier bullets were seen as superior, and the use in the M1911 made it even better. It was ballistically ahead of its time—or at least a legitimate advancement in technology—and it’s no surprise it caught on fast.

As time passed, other, faster bullets were designed, and the .45 ACP has since been seen as flat, slow, and too heavy to carry. However, the .45 ACP still has a place in the self-defense realm, and we’re going to tell you why.

double stack 1911
Do you carry a .45 ACP for self-defense? Is yours a single stack or a double stack? (Photo: Kat Stevens)

When it comes to .45 ACP, the reality is that it can be a good self-defense option under the correct circumstances. It’s easy to say that it worked just fine in combat a century ago, so it’ll work just fine today, but that’s not a realistic or logical approach. Penetration matters, as does the wound cavity size.

Thus, the .45 ACP cartridge is great for self-defense in the correct load. It’s a larger bullet that can create a bigger wound cavity, assuming it’s traveling at high enough velocities to carry that energy into the target. This means it’s not a good idea to select your defensive ammo based on bullet weight alone (and that’s true regardless of caliber).

Is the .45 ACP a good self-defense round?

We’re going to consider .45 ACP on its own, not in comparison to other cartridges. One popular defensive load for the cartridge is made by Federal Premium. The Federal Premium Hydra Shok .45 ACP 230-grain JHP cartridge is a round the company has fine-tuned to deliver solid ballistics specifically for self-defense use. It has a muzzle velocity of 900 feet per second and a muzzle energy of 414 foot-pounds. By 25 yards, velocity is at 882 feet per second and energy is at 397 foot-pounds. But what does that really mean?

Numerous studies have weighed how much energy a bullet needs to produce to be an effective defense option. Among them was one by the Department of Defense in which the DoD decided 300 foot-pounds was the minimum amount of energy desirable for a handgun round used in combat/for defensive purposes. The .45 ACP certainly does that at what are considered typical defensive distances.

As for velocity, it does matter. Bullets delivering less than 1,000 feet per second simply don’t create the same devastating wound cavities as bullets that move more quickly toward—and into—their targets. So while energy over 300 ft-lbs is a given for the .45 ACP, velocity is a bit of an issue thanks to its heavier bullet.

The above details don’t render .45 ACP useless for self-defense. On the contrary, they suggest two things: if you want higher velocity, it might be wise to start looking at a variety of loads, and you simply need to be realistic about the performance of what you’re using. I wouldn’t count the .45 ACP out just yet.

hornady critical defense ammo
Hornady Critical Defense is a good .45 ACP load for self-defense use. (Photo: Hornady)

What’s a good .45 ACP self-defense round?

Let’s start this by saying that there are a lot of good, effective self-defense rounds. For example, the Federal Premium Hydra Shok round is well-made and a solid performer. Of course, some loads are a bit better if you’re concerned about that combination of velocity and energy.

One brand and load that shines is the Hornady Critical Defense .45 ACP 185-grain FTX. Yes, this round is loaded with a lighter bullet than some, but there’s good reason for that. When tested from a gun with a three-inch barrel, Hornady’s load produced 1,000 feet per second from the muzzle along with 411 foot-pounds of energy. At 50 yards, velocity had dropped to 936 feet per second, meaning it didn’t lose velocity precipitously. And since most self-defense encounters are at much closer range, you can be sure your velocity will be at a higher speed than many other loads.

What are we getting at? If you want to use .45 ACP for self-defense, you can, but it’s wise to stop gravitating toward the heavier, more sluggish bullets. Go for the lighter loads that offer all the benefits of modern technology.

super vel 45 acp
Super Vel, pictured here, is an ammo brand many gun owners prefer. (Photo: Super Vel)

Should you use .45 ACP for self-defense?

The choice of self-defense gun—and caliber—is a personal decision. Hopefully, it’s a decision you make based on research and, eventually, experience. Just because a gun or caliber looks cool or is carried by someone you respect doesn’t mean it’s right for you.

Do your homework. Find out how the ammo you’re considering performs in ballistic testing, and remember to consider details like barrel length. Then, try the ammo for yourself. Aside from the fact that you need to familiarize yourself with how the ammunition recoils and how accurate it is, you need to be sure it meets the requirements for self-defense use.

If you’re going to use ammo for carry, it must be reliable and accurate—meaning you need to be able to control it and get back on target for follow-up shots quickly. If felt recoil and muzzle rise are so significant you’re having trouble re-acquiring the target or only your first shot is very accurate, that’s a problem. And while some of that comes down to skill and practice, some loads are simply more difficult to manage than others. You want your self-defense gun and ammo to perform at superior levels, across the board.

When it comes right down to it, .45 ACP can be a great defensive round. Yes, other cartridges outperform the cartridge, but that doesn’t mean it should be ignored entirely. Choose wisely, train, and carry your gun.

Kat Ainsworth Stevens is a long-time outdoor writer, official OGC (Original Gun Cognoscenti), and author of Handgun Hunting: a Comprehensive Guide to Choosing and Using the Right Firearms for Big and Small Game. Der Teufel Katze has written for a number of industry publications (print and online) and edited some of the others, so chances are you've seen or read her work before, somewhere. A woman of eclectic background and habits, Kat has been carrying concealed for over two decades, used to be a farrier, and worked for a long time in emergency veterinary medicine. She prefers big bores, enjoys K9 Search & Rescue, and has a Master's Degree in Pitiless Snarkastic Delivery.

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