Underrated Defensive Cartridges — Ammo For All

It seems we, as a shooting world, are set on the 9mm and 5.56. Not that there is anything wrong with that. Both calibers perform admirably, and both are affordable, easy to find, and common in modern firearms. However, a number of calibers and options never really get a fair shake, especially in defensive roles. Today we are going to look at five underrated defensive cartridges.

Not all calibers can succeed. Sometimes it’s an effort to find the right compromises, and sometimes we are stuck with established standards rooted too deep into logistical concerns to ever take a new caliber seriously. Other times a round simply doesn’t get the attention it deserves upon release and fades away slowly. There are handfuls of reasons why a caliber doesn’t succeed, and they often make sense.

That doesn’t mean we can’t show some love to the calibers that could have been. Let’s look at some of the more modern failures in the world of cartridges and defensive ammo.

.41 Magnum

When the three biggest names in revolvers and magnum cartridges get together, you know something good will come of it. Bill Jordan, Elmer Keith, and Skeeter Skelton all got together and petitioned S&W, Remington, and Norma to create a revolver and cartridge using a .41 caliber bullet that fell between a .357 Magnum and a .44 Magnum in power.

The ole .357 magnum was great, but JHPs didn’t exist, so its terminal effectiveness wasn’t top-tier. On the flip side, the .44 Magnum had great terminal ballistics but had too much recoil to be a fighting cartridge and was big, heavy, and bulky. The idea was that the .41 Magnum would be just right for police use. Elmer Keither envisioned a load designed for police use but also loaded hotter for hunting.

S&W .41 M7P vintage ad
The ads looked great. (S&W)

Sadly, Remington didn’t pay close attention or chose to ignore the specs provided by Elmer Keith. They chose to load both rounds hotter than what he advised, creating excess recoil even for the police load. S&W produced a revolver but didn’t address weight or bulk issues and used the N frame. Remington and S&W are more or less responsible for the failure of this round.

10mm Automatic

The FBI Shootout and their response are probably one of the most-told stories in gun lore. Two men nearly won a firefight against eight FBI agents. The FBI took major steps to ensure their agents would be better gunfighters—or well, they tried to. Outside of the HRT guys, the FBI isn’t really a gunfighting group. They are lawyers and accountants and crack investigators, but not gunfighters.

That happened in 1989, but the 10mm Automatic came to be in 1983. It was a product of Norma and jeff Cooper aiming to design a modern fighting cartridge to unseat the .45 ACP and .357 Magnum. The 10mm Auto was a hot and heavy round for the era, and it produced more energy than a .357 Magnum. Yet, it could be loaded into automatic handguns.

The Glock 20 is one of the best 10mms on the market.

One only has to glance at reloading manuals from the 1980s to understand why cartridges and projectiles like 9mm were somewhat ignored by serious defensive shooters of the era. The FBI Adopted the 10mm in the S&W and shortly after began downloading it. FBI agents couldn’t handle the 10mm, and these downloaded rounds eventually became the shorter .40 S&W.

This resulted in law enforcement embracing the .40 S&W round wholeheartedly until only recently.

16 Gauge

In the shotgun world, the discussion for defensive shotguns is built around the 12 gauge. Admittedly, 12 gauge is a great round that’s plenty powerful. If you want something with less recoil, a lot of shooters will suggest a 20 gauge. Most people probably don’t even know that 16 gauge is an option.

The 16 gauge offers less recoil and a lighter frame, with substantially more power than a 20 gauge. One gun writer described the 16 gauge as a gun that carried like a 20 gauge but hit like a 12 gauge. A 16 gauge load of buckshot can carry 12 pellets of No. 1 buckshot in a 2.75-inch shell, more than enough for two-legged vermin intent on causing you harm.

Browning A5 16 gauge underrated defensive cartridges
16 gauge packs a great compromise of power and low recoil. Browning still makes the A5 in 16 gauge, but like most 16 gauge guns it’s a sporting arm. (Browning)

Sadly, in the 1920s, the 16 gauge saw a significant decline, especially when the 16 gauge wasn’t included in the official rulebooks for skeet shooting. Skeet shooters shoot a lot, and this forced ammo manufacturers to focus on skeet rounds and sideline the 16. From there, it was a steady decline in popularity.

.32 ACP

In America, we like calibers that start with four. Call it the frontier mindset. It’s true that from the age of black powder revolvers, calibers that started with four were preferred for their power and ability to kill not only a man, but a horse, bear, or bison with the right shot placement. However, in Europe, they were more partial to small calibers like the .32 ACP.

The little .32 ACP was good enough that it did become popular in the states with compact pistols like the Savage M1907 and the Colt M1903. However, its decline has been sharp and fierce. That’s sad to say because it’s a great caliber for pocket pistols. The American mindset of bigger is better is why we have guns like the LCP and Bodyguard in 380.

Beretta Tomcat 32 ACP underrated defensive cartridges
The Tomcat is a handy little .32 ACP pistol (Beretta)

Alongside .380, we get tons of recoil without great performance. These little .380s are just poking holes with limited to no expansion. The .32 ACP can poke those same holes with half the recoil and often a round or two more in the magazine. In a Beretta Cheetah or Walther PPK, the .380 ACP makes sense. In anything smaller, the .32 ACP is likely a better choice.

.30 Carbine

How can a round used by the US Army during the biggest war of all time be underrated? Well, after the war, it wasn’t a superbly successful round, and to this day, it’s a bit of a niche cartridge. The .30 Carbine sits between a rifle and a pistol round and was a powerful little cartridge for close-range fighting. Sadly, not many companies made .30 Carbine rifles outside of the M1 Carbine and its replicas.

M1A1 Paratrooper, .30 Carbine underrated defensive cartridges
This little rifle is light, handy, and easy to use. (Auto Ordnance)

The .30 Carbine could be tailored for different uses easily. You could load heavy projectiles and use them from short barrels effectively. Or you can go the Buffalo Bore route and produce a 125-grain bullet moving at 2,100 feet per second. Either way, you’d have a soft recoiling, low concussion round perfect for home defense. You’d have it in a lightweight platform as well.

In the move from full-powered cartridges to intermediate rounds, the .30 Carbine got lost. It would be a great option if a 5.56 rifle fell too large and bulky for you, but you wanted something better than a PCC.

Boom and Bang

There are tons of rounds out there that have failed, even though they might have been the best-performing choice. It’s oftentimes due to the price of ammo, guns, and magazines. Sometimes a small increase in performance doesn’t justify completely retooling from one caliber to another. Other times the cartridge can never get the footing it needs to succeed. For every .300 Blackout, there is a 6.8 SPC.

Speaking of other underrated defensive calibers, which ones did I miss? Let me know below!

Travis Pike is a former Marine Machine Gunner and a lifelong firearms enthusiast. Now that his days of working a 240B like Charlie Parker on the sax are over he's a regular guy who likes to shoot, write, and find ways to combine the two. He holds an NRA certification as a Basic Pistol Instructor and is probably most likely the world's Okayest firearm instructor. He is a simplicisist when it comes to talking about himself in the 3rd person and a self-professed tactical hipster. Hit him up on Instagram, @travis.l.pike, with story ideas.

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