“Trying to stop a bad guy with a nine mm is like trying to stop a charging buffalo with a twenty-two. Might as well use a fly-swatter”. Such statements were common when I was a kid, and at the time there was some truth to them. Many experienced shooters, veterans, and L.E. officers still preferred the hard-hitting .45 ACP, (Automatic Colt Pistol) to the 9mm with its smaller, lighter and more streamlined projectile. Their opinions were founded on the battlefield and in the streets, and it was hard to argue with them.
My first real shooting mentor was an old retired Major who had spent much time training marksmen for the army. He was a veteran of the Korean war, and I still remember his brief account of stopping an enemy soldier that charged him from spitting distance. He used a .45 to do it, and his point was that he disbelieved that a 9mm would have stopped the attacker in time. Back then, he was probably right.
But do those sentiments still carry water? Let’s take a good look, and I’ll leave that decision up to you.
HISTORY: .45 ACP
The .45 Automatic Colt Pistol cartridge was designed by Jonathon Browning for use in his fledgling semi-auto pistol design. Browning was working toward building a better fighting handgun and given his record as the most influential firearm designer in world history one would have been a fool to doubt his ability to it. For the last couple decades U.S. soldiers had experienced doubtful performance in battle conditions while using smaller cartridges (mostly .38s) in double-action revolvers.
They found that the smaller and lighter cartridges simply weren’t as effective at stopping determined adversaries as the .45 Long Colt had been. In 1904 formal testing was performed, with the result that the army and cavalry decided to implement a minimum caliber of .45 for future military handguns. The .45, of course, refers to the maximum diameter of the pistols bore – meaning the inside diameter is forty-five one-hundredths of an inch. The cartridge can also be termed the 11.43x23mm, designating a nominal projectile diameter of 11.43 millimeters.
In 1906, Colt submitted Browning’s model 1905 pistol to the U.S. Military for testing. Five other makers submitted their own bids, with three being weeded out almost immediately. Another withdrew for unknown reasons, leaving only Savage and Colt in the race. Extensive testing happened in round two during the year 1910, with the Browning-designed Colt experiencing not a single failure, while the Savage had thirty-seven failures in total. Needless to say, the Colt was adopted. A few design modifications were made to suit military purposes, and the legendary 1911 was born.
HISTORY: 9MM LUGER
If “Legendary” fits the .45 ACP 1911, then “Popular” is the perfect moniker for the 9mm Luger. Born during the same early years of the 20th century, the 9x19mm Parabellum was designed by Georg Luger for use in his 1898 Luger Pistol. The German military wanted a larger caliber military handgun cartridge so Luger took his current 7.65x21mm Parabellum and removed the bottleneck from the case, leaving a straight-walled 9mm rimless cartridge. SAAMI, by virtue of the cartridge being chambered originally in Lugers’ pistol, designated it the 9mm Luger.
During the first years of the 1900s, Georg Luger presented models to the British Small Arms Committee and the U.S. Army for testing. In 1904 the German Navy adopted the cartridge, and in 1908 the German Army followed suit. A 1910 adjustment to the shape of the bullet made it more streamlined for better feeding. The cartridge acquitted itself suitably during the First World War, with military and police in many countries later adopting it in handgun and machine-gun configurations. Eventually, the 9mm went on to become the most popular pistol caliber among U.S law enforcement agencies.
During the early, battle-torn days of both cartridges, the .45 ACP outperformed the 9mm by a significant margin in terms of sheer man-stopping ability. The reason for this was that the standard bullet used in the .45 was a round-nosed 230-grain FMJ (Full Metal Jacket) projectile, while the 9mm featured an FMJ bullet that was much more streamlined and around 100 grains lighter. Neither bullet would expand on impact.
The sleek profile of the 9mm projectile combined with its smaller frontal diameter meant that more often than not a bullet would whisk right through a bad guy, leaving him capable of venting his wrath upon whoever just perforated him. In contrast, the .45 with its greater frontal diameter, blunt-ish round nose, and heavier weight would usually dampen the enthusiasm of an attacker rather effectively. These tendencies became obvious on the battlefield. More than a handful of decades would pass by, with their accumulative stories of people charged up on adrenaline or narcotics soaking up 9mm bullets and keeping coming. But then something changed. Bullets.
With the advent of well-designed expanding projectiles, the 9mm became a very viable means of stopping a nasty person bent on doing nasty things to you. Bullets no longer zipped through bad guys; instead, they spent much or all of their energy in their target. Superior firepower in the form of high-capacity weapons gave 9mm chambered pistols a decided edge in prolonged fights, and their mellow attitude while shooting rendered them easier for many folks to shoot accurately and with greater speed.
The .45 ACP didn’t lose any ground with the advent of high-performance projectiles, indeed, if anything it became even more capable of changing bad-guys attitudes. It still hits just as hard, and now the bullets do even more damage. But a .45-chambered pistol simply can’t contain a double hand full of rounds without becoming obese.
FULL-SIZED SELF DEFENSE PISTOLS
To my way of thinking today’s self-defense hand gunner who wants a full-sized pistol has two great options. I personally consider the two best semi-auto battle handguns to be the 1911 style .45 ACP with an 8-round magazine, and the high-capacity polymer-framed 9mms such as Smith & Wesson’s M&P 9, stoked with a 17-round mag.
1911 .45 ACP
Rugged, handsome, historic, and balanced like a fine Toreador, 1911-style handguns usually feature good accuracy, superb handle-ability, a crisp trigger, and a capacity of 8+1. They are usually carried “Cocked and locked,” meaning there is a round chambered and the thumb safety is on. A fine 1911 has more panache than a polymer-framed pistol can ever hope for. For the shooter who can handle recoil and has a taste for class, they are perfect.
Smith & Wesson’s M&P 9 is lightweight, sturdy, capable, and very good at putting a lot of accurate rounds downrange in a hurry. It’s striker-fired, meaning the trigger can never hope to compete with a fine 1911 trigger. But it’s good enough for accurate shooting. The safety is contained in the trigger, rendering a thumb safety moot. The pistol can safely be carried with 17 in the magazine and one in the chamber. It’s well balanced and deadly. Carry two extra mags on your belt and you have over 50 rounds along – more than enough to change the minds of a whole gang of bad guys.
And the Winner is…
The .45 hits harder. The 9mm has greater firepower and capacity. Both are durable as a deckhand. If going to a classy event I’d carry my 1911. If expecting the need for a lot of ammo to send someplace I’d take the polymer-framed high-capacity pistol. I love them both and use them both. And I would feel confident defending self and family with either.