Handguns are the weapon of opportunity. Not as powerful as a long gun, they are portable and may be carried with us always. The handgun demands plenty of practice to master. The rub is that handguns kick a lot in some calibers and in lightweight handguns. Until the laws of physics changed, this is a reality. It is also a reality that the more powerful cartridges have greater wound potential and are more likely to stop a felonious assault with a minimum of well-placed shots. Some of the more popular defensive handguns, including the snub nose .38 and the compact 9mm handgun, have more recoil than some are willing to master. Others such as the .357 Magnum are a bear to fire in lightweight handguns. Load selection is critical. A heavy bullet load at +P pressure is not a desirable choice for a lightweight handgun. Rather a functional load with decent ballistics is best. The single most crucial component of stopping power is shot placement. The single most important cornerstone of combat ability is to be able to control the handgun. There are calibers I do not enjoy firing. I have been at this a long time and I avoid the heavy kickers except when necessary. I make a smart choice and shoot straight.
Anatomy of a Reduced Load
The means of achieving low recoil varies. Some loads use the same projectile but a smaller powder charge. Others achieve high velocity by using a lighter bullet that generates lower felt recoil. A high-velocity service load often uses a bonded core bullet to achieve penetration. A fast expanding bullet is fine for personal defense and doesn’t have to be driven as fast. Hornady achieves good results with their Lite loads by reducing bullet weight but maintaining good velocity. The .38 Special and 9mm Luger Lite loads are reliable, accurate and offer good expansion. These low recoil loads do not offer the balance of expansion and penetration of +P loads designed for service use. Their range of penetration is adequate, but they may not be effective against vehicle glass and light cover. Against lightly clad threats they will deliver superior wound ballistics. Be certain of your needs and consider the likely threat.
Low Recoil Handgun Loads
The Hornady Lite uses a 100-grain bullet with a pink tip. It is a Critical Defense bullet loaded to over 1,000 fps and specially designed to expand at modest velocity. I have gauged performance in my Honor Defense Honor Guard handgun and find it good.
The .357 SIG is a powerful cartridge. I would not consider this cartridge in a compact pistol. For a mid-size handgun such as the Springfield XD this is an acceptable caliber. Most loads jolt a 125-grain bullet to 1350 fps some of the 115-grain loads are at 1500 fps. This is a difficult cartridge to master. A lighter load that also offers excellent wound ballistics is the Hornady Critical Defense 115-grain load. Sensibly downloaded the Critical Defense sails over the Competition Electronics chronograph at 1203 fps. No hotter than a warm 9mm this load offers good control. As an example, the full-power .357 SIG Hornady 147 grain XTP breaks 1200 fps—ideal for service use.
The .38 Special is a mild cartridge in a four-inch barrel revolver with steel frame. Load a .38 +P in an aluminum frame two-inch barrel handgun and recoil is brutal. Good grips are an aid but snub nose .38 geometry being what it is there is a tendency of the cylinder release to put a bloody notch in the knuckle of the thumb. Hornady offers the Hornady Lite 90 grain .38 Special low recoil low. While lightweight sometimes means under penetration, this isn’t the case with the Critical Defense bullet.
The .357 Magnum revolver has a well-earned reputation as the most effective handgun caliber ever deployed. The Magnum is a great stopper, but it also exhibits a great deal of muzzle blast and recoil. It is a daunting proposition to master the revolver without extensive training. The rub is prolonged firing with full power loads is also hard on the small parts to the revolver. An alternative is to deploy the most powerful .38 Special loads, which work well and function in the Magnum cylinder. The Hornady Critical Defense 110-grain load is one choice.
In the .357 Magnum, we have the Hornady Critical Defense 125-grain load at 1380 fps from the four-inch barrel revolver. While you need an intensive practice program to control this handgun and load, it isn’t as harsh as some of the loads that break 1400 to 1450 fps in .357 Magnum. I would avoid lightweight aluminum frame compact Magnum revolvers for personal defense.
Modest operating pressures for the .44 Special and the presence of the lightweight Charter Arms Bulldog means that the ammunition companies must load this cartridge light. Hornady 165-grain Critical Defense loading offers good expansion and lower recoil as a result of a lighter weight bullet. At over 900 fps, this load offers good expansion. A full weight load is the SIG Sauer 240 grain JHP at about 750 fps. This load is mild and controllable and suitable for use in the lightweight five-shot .44 Special revolvers. These loads offer less recoil in a steel frame .44 Special revolver than most .38 Special +P loads in the .38 revolver by comparison. Those needing more power should look to the .44 Magnum. The .44 Special is a mild shooting big bore cartridge with good properties for personal defense.
Recently a student showed up with two inherited revolvers. One was a four-inch barrel .38 and the other a 1970’s Model 29 .44 Magnum with a four-inch barrel. She was leery of firing the .44 Magnum. I supplied a box of ‘cowboy loads’ and we tried out the Model 29. It recoiled less than the .38 Special and was more comfortable, accurate, and easier to use well with these 750 f[s loads. The .44 Special loads mentioned are ideal for personal defense use with this powerful hunting handgun. The heavy barrel really dampens recoil. Winchester and other makers offer a light .44 Special with good accuracy.
In the .45 ACP, you must maintain a certain balance to ensure that the firearm functions. A self-loading handgun requires a certain amount of recoil force. +P loads are not needed in the .45 ACP. Even a lightweight hollow point may exhibit a good balance of penetration and expansion with the .45 ACP. The Hornady Critical Defense 185-grain load, the Hornady 185-grain XTP or the SIG Sauer 185-grain JHP are all good choices with good wound ballistics.
Among my favorite calibers is the .45 Colt. I prefer the .45 Colt to the .44 Special and even the .44 Magnum revolver cartridges. Even the cowboy action loads, loaded light for good control and economy, are fine for home defense. A 250-grain .45 caliber bullet at 750 fps is a huge chunk of lead for a handgun bullet. If you are familiar with the handling of your cowboy action revolver there is no reason you cannot count on it for home defense. An expanding bullet load that outstrips the .44 Special in wound ballistics is available from Hornady. When I use the .45 Colt for home defense, the Hornady 185-grain Critical Defense is a first choice. This load offers impressive wound ballistics and excellent accuracy.
These loads allow the use of handguns that may have seemed too painful or hard kicking to fire with good control. Yet, they offer good wound ballistics and predicted effect. Make a wise choice and concentrate on accuracy and control.
Would you use a Lite load? Why or why not? Share your thoughts with us in the comment section.
Bob Campbell is a former peace officer and published author with over 40 years combined shooting and police and security experience. Bob holds a degree in Criminal Justice, and is the author of the books, The Handgun in Personal Defense, Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry, The 1911 Automatic Pistol, The Gun Digest Book of Personal Protection and Home Defense, The Shooter’s Guide to the 1911, The Hunter and the Hunted, and The Complete Illustrated Manual of Handgun Skills, and others. He is a regular contributor to Gun Tests, American Gunsmith, Small Arms Review, Gun Digest, Concealed Carry Magazine, Knife World, Women and Guns, Handloader and other publications also. Bob is well-known for his firearm testing.