Ammunition > Handgun

The .45 for Self-Defense

More than 100 years after its development, the .45 ACP is still going strong.

1/10/2012

There are a number of reasons the .45 Auto cartridge has become one of the most trusted defensive handgun cartridges of all time. Arguably, the legacy began in 1903 when Army Capt. John T. Thompson and Maj. Louis Anatole LaGarde conducted tests to determine the most effective military handgun cartridge. By shooting live cattle and medical cadavers they developed a rating system for various cartridges and came to the conclusion that the bullet used should not have a caliber of less than .45.

This led to the adoption of the Colt 1911 handgun by our armed forces. This pistol, which was chambered for the .45 Auto cartridge, could push a 0.451-inch-diameter bullet weighing 230 grains out of a 5-inch barrel at a velocity of 810 fps. This same handgun, cartridge and load has served our military ever since.

In 1976, Col. Jeff Cooper founded the American Pistol Institute, which became Gunsite. Here, Cooper preached the Modern Technique of the Pistol and purveyed what might be considered his personal motto: D.V.C. D.V.C. is an acronym for three Latin words; Diligentia (accuracy), Vis (force) and Celeritas (speed). Cooper believed that a balance of speed, power and accuracy defined the Modern Technique of the Pistol, and that the .45 Auto cartridge was the best fit in this formula.

Ballistics support Cooper's theory. In a fighting pistol, sized similarly to a Colt 1911, the .45 Auto cartridge offers a great balance between power and controllability. Cooper's teachings at Gunsite and his commentary in various firearms publications helped give rise to the .45 Auto cartridge and the 1911 handgun. Both of these have now become trusted companions of a 100 years worth of military veterans, countless civilians and many law enforcement officers.

There have been other cartridges that attempted to dethrone the .45 Auto as the premier defensive handgun cartridge. The 77-year-old .357 Mag. was a long-time favorite of law enforcement. But, a full-size .357 Mag. is a big, heavy handgun that is hard to conceal and not very pleasant to shoot.

In the 80s, the 9 mm Luger cartridge—which is seven years older than the .45 Auto—and semi-auto handguns began to gain favor with law enforcement. About this time, the Beretta model 92 in 9 mm replaced the 1911 in .45 Auto as the standard issue military service pistol. Many liked the increased ammo capacity the 9 mm offered, but most agree that the 9 mm FMJ ammo used by the military was not as effective at stopping adversaries as .45 Auto hardball.

The closest contender to the .45 Auto's throne has probably been the .40 S&W cartridge. It sort of bridges the gap between the 9 mm and .45 Auto. Ironically, it is a derivative of the 10 mm Auto cartridge, which Col. Cooper also believed worthy. Law enforcement has gravitated to the .40 S&W due to the balance between power and ammunition capacity, but by and large, the .45 Auto remains American shooters’ favorite.

Some argue this popularity is nothing more than nostalgic history. Others claim it's simply because "forty-five" sounds more convincing or deadly than "nine" or "forty." All of this may be true to some extent, but it's more likely that the .45 Auto remains popular because it works.

Those looking for a defensive handgun today can select between a seven-shot, super compact .45 Auto that's only 6.5 inches long and weighs about 20 ounces or full-size 1911s that will hold twice as many rounds and weigh twice as much. Ammunition options are just as varied. You can choose lightweight, high-velocity loads that will create wickedly wide wound cavities or slower, heavier bullets that will drive deep. Low recoil options are also out there and are very effective from a terminal performance standpoint.

In truth, when it comes to the selection of a defensive handgun, the cartridge is not nearly as important as your ability to handle your gun. Bad guys don't like to get shot with anything. However, the .45 Auto has the most diversified ammo offerings of any defensive handgun cartridge. Versatility is hard to ignore.

Over the last 100 years we have seen major advances in communication, air travel and medicine, but our handgun cartridge of choice is one we were using in World War I. That pretty much sums it up; if something does not work, it won't hang around for 100 years. The .45 Auto cartridge is kind of like a hammer; most often it's the best tool for the job.

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32 Responses to The .45 for Self-Defense

marine777 wrote:
August 20, 2014

ONE SHOT-ONE KILL- bare facts- NOTHING NOTHING under a .45 will KNOCK down a Bowling Pin at the lenght of an indoor range! IF I shoot a Criminal I want to KILL that Person so they can NEVER COME BACK!!!

Blueox86 wrote:
May 27, 2013

I bought my first gun five years ago, a .45/70 Marlin 1895G. since then, I've gotten one gun a year, all .45 colt. The .45/70 proved to be too expensive to shoot, so I now handload .45 Colt. the versatility of the caliber is amazing. I can construct a load to do anything I want. Lever guns, revolvers, rifle/shotgun/revolvers (Circuit Judge), derringers - it doesn't matter - all of them have their own specific handloads for hunting and/or self defense. My rifles shoot flat and penetrate deep, my revolver is accurate and controllable, and my derringer shoots point-of-aim with both barrels at 30 yards. I believe if there is only one caliber you own, it should be .45 colt. It seems to be able to adequately fill any role, but not as well as calibers specifically designed for those roles. The jack of all trades, good at everything best at nothing. Oh, and the hole it makes will kill anything short of elephant and rhino with enough powder behind it, so that's nice.

Donny wrote:
March 31, 2013

I really think we are making more out of this than we should. I agree that the ammo that is available sure is nice and probably works well in real world gunfights. However, practice practice practice and well placed shots are going to save your butt way more than a $60.00 box of the latest and greatest ammo on the market.

Edward wrote:
January 29, 2013

I have personally been shot by the .40 s&w and I was able to continue to fight and then drive to the hospital before shock took control. I believe it comes down too I want the biggest bullet and I want it well placed. I don't believe I would've been able to keep up the fight had I been shot with the .45. I love 9 .40 and the .45 but if I land in the crap I'm Gunna wish I tucked my 1911 in my belt and not my pocket 9 mm

Seamus wrote:
January 06, 2013

Well it was pretty well laid out in the news today as a Georgia mother shot an intruder 5 times in the face and neck with a 38 and he got up and made it to his car was taken to the hospital and will survive. That pretty much says it all. So now I guess the only question is who ya gonna call.

Dan the Swamp Man wrote:
December 25, 2012

I own two .45s and absolutely love them and trust them completely. But with the modern advancement of personal defense ammo, I'd say that the tables have turned. Take the venerable 9mm for example. At one time I would have never considered it as a nightstand caliber, due to the fact that it suffered from a severe case of over penetration. Not good if you have to simultaneously worry about taking out an intruder as well as accidentally hurting or killing a family member. The .40S&W is about the same when it comes over penetration. And the .357Mag, well, at that point you'd need to worry about your neighbors too! For me, a slow moving .45ACP is and always has been safer for home defense, which is what I based my personal decisions on. To each his own. These days however, all of the above mentioned calibers offer specially designed hollow point ammo that not only puts a big hole in the bad guy..but more importantly won't go through him, the sheet rock, and little Suzy in the next room. Like our 69 year old Vet said he uses Air Marshall rounds and High Penetration rounds in his 1911 (those frangibles are top notch by the way). Whatever is needed for the job at hand is available. Now to stir up the pot. I cringe when I see some folks' opinions on what makes a certain caliber more deadly than another. The famous 'knockdown power' argument. Well, in reality, the bigger wound channel wins the day. And in the past this would have gone to the .45 and the Magnum every time..not anymore. Top shelf ammo in 9mm and even smaller calibers can deliver devastating wounds which will put a bad guy on a stretcher, with all or almost all of the bullet mass left inside for the surgeons...or the coroner for that matter. Nice article and I always love reading a bit of gun history!

Bud wrote:
November 03, 2012

I used to shoot practical pistol matches until one day I accidentally put a round thorough my right femur at point blank range. It was a match, not what I would call normal in that up until that fateful morning we never, after starting a match, re-holstered a loaded weapon. You were in a shooting box, shot six shots, reloaded re-holstered and run to another station. Anyway to make a long story short when I went take a step out of the shooting box I remembered to re-holster and when putting my weapon back in the holster, the tip of my index finger caught the top edge of my holster (didn't put the safety on) and put a 185 gr wad cutter thru my right femur. Needless to say you don't run any farther with broken leg. Six weeks in traction and five months rehab. Bottom line is if you hit someone somewhere besides a double tap to the chest and a single tap to the head you can still put someone down rather quickly with well placed shot to the leg. By the way, it really did not hurt that much, sort of like getting hit in the leg with a baseball bat, really no pain until they want to move you. Was lucky no arteries, no nerve damage, no external bleeding. Would not want to get shot with a 45 again. Was 25 years ago.

SSP220Combat wrote:
October 06, 2012

Thanks to all for the comments, especially John H. The information comming from someone who has actually killed a 100 lbs+ animal (deer) with a .45 vs. the 9mm is meaningful and valuable.

Matt wrote:
February 10, 2012

When it comes to caliber selection I have found the basic rule of thumb is to use the biggest caliber the shooter can safely and accurately operate. There are two factors to consider: 1 what you expect the bullet to do on impact and how it will expand, 2 being bullet diameter. The first rule is simple you pick your favorite defensive you expect the bullet to perform as the manufacture has advertised, for most folks this is plain and simple. The manufactures have provided nice glossy photos and other media to show what their product does so we know what to expect from their brand. The second rule is common physics, take a bullet in a handgun caliber say a .38spl, .357mag, 9mm, .40S&W, or a .45acp. All are accepted defensive rounds with defensive loads. What the difference is when the bullet leaves the barrel sometimes things do not happen like the nice colored brochure from the ammo producer. The most common cause is failure to expand, when this is happens the bullet will never become smaller it may become bigger if worked. When using a FMJ bullet like the military, one should not expect. So if the shooter is using a smaller bullet it may seem to have less stopping capabilities. When the shooter does not strike the target in the CNS or a major muscle mass or bone structure. Your mileage may vary Matt

catlow J. Talon wrote:
January 28, 2012

As an ex-cop and police firearms instructor, I have had many situations were a drawn 45 calmed things down. I always remember reading an article back in the 70's I think. Massad Ayoob, then a Chicago cop and aspiring gun writter interview gunshot vic's in the hospital. The one's shot with the 9 said they new they were hit but did'nt really hurt so the kept firing. The one's hit with a 45 said they hurt and did'nt want to play anymore. That's what I want!Keep in mind two 9mm 115gr make one 230 gr 45. The reason nines have to carry so much more ammo is you have to shoot so much more to stop the bad guy! There's also a find of inadequecy for the 9 by Michigan state Police from the 70's, when they switched to the 9 from their .357's

Nathan wrote:
January 26, 2012

Most defensive shooting is all about shot placement. The Army wanted something as reliable as the old 45 Colt, modernized for autos and smokeless propellants. If the gun and cartridge wasn't up to that it would not be around today. But don't forget the 9 has been around longer! I have only had to defend myself once in my life with gun. Luckily I did not have to shoot the turkeys, but that Colt sure calmed the situation. I want to meet the person willing to be shot with any bullet that they think is ineffective. Its gun that you can carry and can hit your adversary effectively that matters.

Shovelhead Dan wrote:
January 24, 2012

How can you argue with the Army? They say the 9mm isn't as good a man-stopper as the .45 ACP.

bph9 wrote:
January 17, 2012

In the late 1980's Pistolero magazine went to Mexico and shot barn-yard pigs at point blank range with the .38 special, 357 magnum, 9x19 and 45acp. The results were that there was absolutely no difference at all in the killing power between those calibers. Bullet diameter is totally inconsequential, rather it is shot placement and penetration that are the key factors. Agnes Herbert, perhaps the greatest of the old time woman hunters noted that she saw absolutely no difference between the killing power of her 6.5x54 and her 45 cal. elephant rifle. None. She came to the conclusion that the gun writers of 1900 new little or nothing of real world hunting. My how little has changed in all those years. Agnes Herbert also taught people to shoot with both eyes open back when the gun writers were preaching the exact opposite. Smaller diameter bullets traveling at higher velocities often out penetrate slower moving larger bullets. P.O. Ackley shot through 1/2 inch armor plate with a 220 Swift while the 30-06 with armor piercing ammo failed in the same test. There are many other examples. Many African hunters were killed with large diameter caliber rifles because of poor penetration of the larger calibers. Most of Africa's big game was killed off with nothing more than surplus military rifles of medium to small caliber proving that bigger is not better except in gun writer's fantasy magazine articles.

Dale Calkins wrote:
January 16, 2012

You have hit the nail on the head or target. The 1911 amd Smith and Wesson 686 357 are the best for the home. Thanks for a great article!!!!

Gary wrote:
January 13, 2012

Everybody has their own personal opinion as to the pecking order of the popular pistol cartridges when it comes to saving your life. This opinion is usually influenced by articles in magazines, ballistic medium tests, and wishful thinking. But how far down can you go in caliber before you give up a serious stopper for a false sense of security? How would you like to look over the shoulder of a Ph.D. as he works on the autopsy table and learn what years of examining gunshot wounds have taught him about what works and what doesn't work? I have posted this article before but for those that haven't read it you should get yourself a tall cool one and settle in for one of the best educational articles you will ever read when it comes to deciding what caliber to trust your life to. After reading it, please post your comments for all of us to read. Thanks.

John H. wrote:
January 13, 2012

Mr. bhp9 I culled many deer on a large ranch years past.We would ride up-on them horse back, pick the old or cull ones. Ever deer I shot with a .45 went down hard and stayed down.One of the game wardens would at times use his 9mm and we would end up tracking them at least 100 yards and usally requireing a follow up shot. I have for many years and still carry a L.C..45 in my truck.If I have to put down a old horse or cow I won't it over quick.I have shot game with about everthing made but in a gun fight I would with-out dought pull out the .45

ED650 wrote:
January 13, 2012

I AM 69 YRS OLD. SERVED AS AN OFFICER IN THE MILITARY POLICE. BEING 3RD GENERATION MILITARY I WAS RAISED WITH THE 1911. I HAVE MY GRANDFATHERS 1911 THAT HE CARRIED IN WW1 AND MY DAD IN WW2. I ALSO CARRIED IT WHILE IN THE ARMY. IT IS A FAMILY HEIRLOOM. IN 1977 MR. L.W. SEECAMP CONVERTED A SURPLUS 1911 I OWNED FOR SEVERAL YEARS TO A DOUBLE ACTION WITH A 3.5" BARSTOW BARREL , LOADED ROUND INDICATOR, ADJUSTABLE TRU GLO SIGHTS, LOW RECOIL GUIDE ROD SYSTEM, ETC. I HAVE SINCE ADDED A CRIMSON TRACE LASER GRIP. THIS IS THE FINEST HAND GUN I HAVE EVER FIRED AND I STILL CARRY IT CONCEALED EVERY TIME I LEAVE THE HOUSE. I HAVE LOOKED AT OTHERS BUT FIND NONE BETTER FOR MY NEEDS. I KNOW THAT IT WILL BE THERE FOR ME IF THE NEED ARISES. I LOAD IT WITH AN 8 ROUND MAG. AND THE 1ST ROUND OUT IS AN AIR MARSHAL ROUND FOLLOWED BY 7 MORE ENHANCED PENETRATION FRANGIBLE ROUNDS. THESE WILL DESTROY THE TARGET WITHOUT FEAR OF A THRU AND THRU OR A RICHOCET. MY NEXT MAG IS A FULL LOAD OF REMINGTON HD ULTIMATE HOME DEFENSE ROUNDS. I ALSO OWN A WW2 COLT ACE UNIT IN THE ORIGINAL GI BOX FOR CHEAP SHOOTING AND YES IT WORKS ON MY SEECAMP CONVERSION. I SHOOT POKER CHIPS AT 35YDS. YES, YES, I TOO HAVE HAD TO SHOW IT ON A FEW OCCASIONS BUT , NEVER HAD TO DISCHARGE IT. THE MERE SITE OF THAT BIG HOLE IN END THE BARREL OF A .45 HELPS MOST PEOPLE MAKE AN INTELLIGENT CHOICE.

Tejano wrote:
January 13, 2012

Wm. Daniel said: "I find the following statement from the article somewhat difficult to understand. "Cooper's teachings at Gunsite and his commentary in various firearms publications helped give rise to the .45 Auto cartridge and the 1911 handgun." I'm sure the cartridge and the gun predated Jeff Cooper by a few years." Mann said: "...Cooper's teachings...commentary...publications helped give rise to the .45 Auto cartridge and the 1911 handgun." . . . "helped give rise" . . . as in "influenced/increased it's already existing popularity" . . . ;>)

CG wrote:
January 13, 2012

Now if only someone would do a concealed carry version for the 7.62x25 my carry world be complete! That aside, there's alot to love about an old steel and wood 45...

Richard wrote:
January 13, 2012

My father was a police officer and was eventually elected police commisioner of Oakland County Michigan so, needless to say, I grew up with a healthy and safe respect for firearms. I have carried a personal firearm since I was 21 yrs. old (yes, even before it was 'legal'). I will be 65 in May, 2012, and in all that time I have carried various 45 acp weapons. Thankfully I have never had to fire in self defence although over the years I have, on a few occasions, had to show the weapon. Bad situation over. I still shoot 3 inch groups at 25 yds. and have no problem with recoil. In my humble opinion the 45 is the only realistic round for personal protection.

JTMcD wrote:
January 13, 2012

And yet - both the gun and the ammunition have evolved over the past 100 years - to the point my grandpa might not recognize the CorBon ammo or the Kimber Custom Shop gun loaded with it. Great cartridges and guns don't die, but they do evolve.

bhp9 wrote:
January 12, 2012

After WWII (see the book the Inglis Diamond) The U.S. military actually got around to testing the .45acp and they were astonished when it failed to penetrate a G.I. helmet over 35 yards away compared to the 9x19 that penetrated the same helmet at an astonishing 125 yards and might have done so even farther but the accuracy of the pistol and the skills of the shooters at over `125 yards cancelled out further testing. In my own testing the .45acp was a massive failure for hunting deer especially with the 185 grain bullets. The 9mm with the 125 grain slugs killed deer with ease. The 9x19 was and is the better pistol and sub-gun cartridge for the military. Better penetration, flatter trajectory, higher capacity and milder recoil and the ability to carry more ammo because of less weight.

James Dulin wrote:
January 12, 2012

Good article, and you mentioned both my chosen self defense calibers, the .45ACP and the .357Mag. Well done sir!

Gman wrote:
January 12, 2012

I had a CHL instructor that, at the time was county sheriff, was in military special forces and spent time in the secret service. He said he's seen people big and small shot with .380, 9mm, 357mag and .38 and said most of those did not stop the perps. They still kept coming. He suggested the .45ACP, which what he carried, is the best round for self defense. He stated that what he seen is that the .45acp takes the fight right out of the perp no matter how big they were. That's why I mostly carry a PARA Warthawg .45/3in. brl that holds 10 rounds in the mag. It took a while to get the right grip for me and find a good defensive round that the gun liked. Even though I carry other caliber protection from .380 to 9mm and 357mag, my PARA .45 is my go to 90% or more of the time

Don M wrote:
January 12, 2012

Great article.

Michel wrote:
January 12, 2012

How does it go? There are few "problems" that cannot be dealt with 8 rounds of 45acp...

mike wrote:
January 12, 2012

I'm sick of .45 ACP articles. Is everyone stuck in a rut? Let's move on to something new.

william Daniel wrote:
January 12, 2012

"I find the following statement from the article somewhat difficult to understand. "Cooper's teachings at Gunsite and his commentary in various firearms publications helped give rise to the .45 Auto cartridge and the 1911 handgun." I'm sure the cartridge and the gun predated Jeff Cooper by a few years.

JackD wrote:
January 11, 2012

Well said Mr. Mann

Gary wrote:
January 10, 2012

Jeff Cooper summed it up perfectly: "This is the biggest of the small-case rimless, smokeless-powder, military type auto pistol cartridges, and it is one of the outstanding developments in small arms. It combines accuracy, stopping power, and mild manners in a way only duplicated by the .44 Special. The military load is both a bit light, at 860(?,810 fps given above) foot-seconds, and attenuated by its Geneva-Convention bullet, but military ammunition is useful mainly for practice. Loaded 100 foot-seconds faster and with a proper combat bullet, the .45 auto comes on like a well-trained rhinoceros. Stopping failures are rare even with the military load; they're just about out of the question with proper ammunition."

Richard Mann wrote:
January 10, 2012

That would be me.

Steve wrote:
January 10, 2012

Question: Is that you in the photo? If so I'd like to ask you a question about your grip technique...one I've been experimenting with which looks similar! Thanks.