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Five Forgotten Self-Defense Cartridges

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The first dedicated carry gun I ever shot was my father’s Raven .25 ACP, a pint-size pistol made from zinc alloy that sold for under a hundred bucks. It wasn’t much for accuracy, and firing the short-barreled .25 was rather like pulling the pin on a hand grenade, but in the days before polymer-frame striker-fired carry pistols became popular it was a suitable — if not ideal — self-defense handgun.

The .25 ACP is one of a long list of handgun cartridges that aren’t as popular today as they were in years past. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t still fans. Firearms chambered in .25 ACP, .32 ACP, .32 H&R Magnum, .357 SIG, and .44 Special are still in use for self-defense, and the cartridges aren’t any less potent. The biggest impediment these cartridges faced was a lack of new, modern loads with sophisticated defensive bullets designed to perform in the worst situations.

Raven Arms Model MP-25 .25 ACP Pistol (Shooting Times photo)

There are, however, some improved options for anyone who relies on these rounds for personal protection. Federal, Hornady, Winchester, and other brands are now offering modern loads for the “Forgotten Five” that incorporate today’s best components.

Note: if you’re using a classic handgun chambered in any of the following cartridges, make certain that the modern ammunition’s pressure levels do not exceed safe operational levels for your firearm. If you are unsure, seek the advice of a competent gunsmith.


.25 ACP

Federal Punch 25 ACP
Federal Punch .25 ACP (Photo courtesy of Federal)

The .25 ACP cartridge was developed by John Browning and released in 1905. From its inception, the .25 ACP was designed with small, easily concealable “pocket pistols” in mind. Originally, FN produced the Model 1905 chambered in .25 ACP, a design that would later be refined and become the “Baby Browning” that served as the archetypal pocket pistol for years. Accordingly, companies including Colt, Walther, and others offered .25-caliber pocket pistols. In the years following the Gun Control Act of 1968, rules against importation of inexpensive pint-sized .25s prompted folks like George Jennings of Raven Arms to produce small, lightweight .25 ACP pocket pistols domestically.

The .25 ACP was not (and still is not) a powerhouse round, only producing somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle. Still, it was viewed as a step up from rimfires and was diminutive enough to be chambered in very, very small pistols. The knock on the .25 ACP, of course, was that it could not be reliably counted upon to stop a violent attacker, a bad rap that was exacerbated by a shortage of quality self-defense ammunition. But that has changed, and recently Federal began offering a .25 ACP load in its Punch line of self-defense ammo that pushes a 45-grain FMJ bullet at 825 feet per second. The bullet is optimized for maximum penetration, improving the .25 ACP’s potential as a personal defense cartridge.

.32 ACP

Federal Hydra Shok Deep 32 ACP
Federal Hyrda-Shok Deep .32 ACP (Photo courtesy of Federal)

The .32 ACP predates the .25 ACP, and it is another John Browning design. First released in 1899, it became available in FN’s M1900 semi-auto pistol and later Colt’s 1903 Pocket Hammerless, Savage’s 1907, and the Walther PPK. The .32 ACP has enjoyed more widespread acceptance as a self-defense cartridge than the .25 ACP, and it produces somewhere between two and three times the muzzle energy of the .25 ACP cartridge. It’s also being produced by more manufacturers than some other cartridges on this list. KelTec offers its P32, which weighs in at a scant seven ounces unloaded, and Beretta’s tip-barrel 30X Tomcat (which replaces the 3032 Tomcat) is another popular pistol available in .32 ACP. The cartridge produces minimal recoil compared to 9mm pistols of similar weight, and there are a fair number of modern self-defense loads. The most recent addition to the ammunition listed below is Federal’s new 68-grain Hydra-Shok Deep load which produces 151 foot-pounds of energy.


Keltec P32
KelTec P32 .32 ACP Pistol (Photo courtesy of KelTec)

.32 H&R Magnum

Federal 32 HR Mag
Federal Personal Defense Revolver .32 H&R Magnum (Photo courtesy of Federal)

As a revolver guy, I really like the concept of the .32 H&R Magnum. This round was released by Federal in 1984 in conjunction with Harrington & Richardson, who produced revolvers chambered for the cartridge. This rimmed round was capable of producing substantially more energy than contemporary .32-caliber cartridges like the .32 ACP and .32 S&W Long. With relatively hot 85- and 100-grain loads it could surpass 300 foot-pounds of energy, and the smaller cartridge diameter improved capacity compared to .357 Magnum /.38 Special revolvers. But the .32 H&R was not a huge hit. It arrived on the scene at a time when revolvers were quickly being replaced by semiauto pistols, and those who stuck with wheelguns were more than happy with the performance of existing .357/.38 revolvers. The selection of .32 H&R ammo received a boost in 2008 when the .327 Federal Magnum arrived on the scene. The .327 Federal certainly offered substantial energy to classify as a self-defense cartridge, but some shooters found it too much of a good thing — recoil and muzzle blast could be daunting, especially in snub-nosed carry revolvers. Many .327 Federal owners founds the sweet spot by running their guns with milder .32 H&R loads, which function in .327 Federal revolvers. Today there are still a handful of ammunition makers offering .32 H&R ammo, including Federal and Hornady, and new-production revolvers are available from companies like Ruger and Charter Arms.

Charter Arms 63270 revolver
Charter Arms Model 63270 Professional .32 H&R Magnum Revolver (Photo courtesy of Charter Arms)

.357 SIG

Hornady .357 SIG
Hornady Critical Duty .357 SIG (Photo courtesy of Hornady)

The .357 SIG is the new kid on this forgotten cartridge block, having first been offered in 1994 as a collaboration between, then, SIG Arms and Federal ammunition. It was developed with law enforcement agencies in mind by necking-down a 10mm Auto cartridge to accept .355-inch bullets. Based on that recipe it should come as no shock that the .357 SIG is a potent round that produces substantial energy — 500 to over 700 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle — but it also produces recoil and muzzle blast that some shooters find daunting. If you can handle the .357 SIG’s setback, though, it’s an impressive cartridge and a capable defender against both two- and four-legged predators. It’s the only bottleneck cartridge on the list, and the .357 SIG isn’t cheap to shoot, but there’s an impressive selection of ammunition available from Federal, Winchester, Fiocchi, and Hornady. Glock offers their G31/G32/G33 pistols in .357 SIG while other companies, including SIG Sauer, offer barrels and kits that allow for the conversion of 9mm or .40 S&W handguns to .357 SIG.

Hornady .357 SIG Rendering
Note the bottleneck design of the .357 SIG cartridge. (Rendering courtesy of Hornady)

.44 Smith & Wesson Special

Federal .44 Spl Punch
Federal Punch .44 Special (Photo courtesy of Federal)

Here’s another one for revolver fans. While the .44 Special has enjoyed more popularity than most of the other rounds on this list — and is supported by a cadre of gun owners who believe it to be the ultimate self-defense round — the .44 Special has largely been overshadowed by the .44 Remington Magnum. While the .44 Special can’t match .44 Magnum ballistics, there are several self-defense loads available from 165 to 200 grains which produce between 260 and 340 foot-pounds of muzzle energy. The .44 Special is chambered in wheelguns from companies like Smith & Wesson, Ruger, and Charter Arms, and muzzle blast and recoil are substantially lower than .44 Magnum loads. The .44 Special appeals to those who appreciate large-diameter self-defense bullets fired at modest (under 1,000 fps) velocities, a recipe that has worked well for the .45 ACP for over a century. And, of the cartridges on this list, the .44 Special offers one of the best selections of modern defensive loads. Federal recently added a 180-grain .44 Special load to their Punch line of self-defense ammo, and CCI even offers shotshell ammunition that make the .44 Special suitable for pest control. The .44 Special can also be loaded into revolvers chambered for .44 Magnum, adding to its versatility. A few years ago I tested Smith & Wesson’s Model 60 Combat Magnum, and while it’s very light for a .44 Magnum and produces substantial recoil and muzzle blast, that gun was a pleasure to shoot with .44 Special ammunition.

S&W Model 69 Combat Magnum
Smith & Wesson Model 69 Combat Magnum .44 Mag. Revolver (Photo courtesy of Smith & Wesson)

Sound Off

Did we miss and fighting calibers that don’t get the love they used to? Are there any defensive cartridges you think deserve another chance? Let us know by email [email protected] and use “Sound Off: Forgotten Five” in the subject line.

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