March 07, 2022
By J. Scott Rupp
Here's a roundup of popular revolver cartridges for defense applications. We're going to stick with popular rounds chambered by major makers. No pistol rounds, some of which are found in revolvers today, will not be included.
Except for the .44 Magnum (Hornady Custom), I used Hornady Critical Defense for the muzzle energy figures in an effort to make this as apples-to-apples as possible. The Relative Recoil Factor data are from Bob Forker’s Ammo & Ballistics 6th edition. The factors are calculated based on momentum of gas and bullet for a typical loading. These figures don’t account for gun weight or design, which plays a huge role in felt recoil, but they provide some frame of reference.
.327 Federal Magnum
- Energy: 386 ft.-lbs. (80-grain bullet)
- Recoil Factor: 0.67
The .327 Federal was introduced over a decade ago, and I thought it would take off. So far it has not. It’s a hot little number, running at 45,000 psi—a higher chamber pressure than the 9mm, .357 Magnum, .41 Magnum and .44 Magnum. It’s a bit snappy with that kind of pressure, but the guns I’ve shot have been easily controllable, and by all rights, it should be a capable self-defense round. Plus, while it’s faded from the scene, the .32 H&R Magnum cartridge can be fired in .327 Federal Magnum guns.
Unfortunately, while Ruger offers the .327 in all its self-defense wheelguns—SP101, GP100, LCR/LCRx—no one else does. It’s tough for a cartridge when only one maker is paying attention to it.
- Energy: 249 ft.-lbs. (110-grain bullet)
- Recoil Factor: 0.53
The .38 Special has been fulfilling a defensive and law enforcement role for longer than any of us have been alive. And the reasons for choosing it are legion: It’s sufficiently powerful; its recoil can be managed by anyone; basically every firm that makes a double-action revolver makes one in .38 Special in some configuration; and every ammo maker offers a .38 load—and usually a variety of bullet weights and types.
If you think its ballistics too anemic and you have a revolver that will handle it (check your owner’s manual), you can step up to +P. Comparing apples to apples, that 249 ft.-lbs. of energy listed for the .38 Critical Defense load is handily bested by the +P version with the exact same bullet: 290 ft.-lbs.
Whether your aim is a snubby for concealed carry or a midsize wheelgun for home defense, it’s almost impossible to go wrong with the .38.
- Energy: 624 ft.-lbs. (125-grain bullet)
- Recoil Factor: 0.89
I think it would be hard to argue against the case that the .357 Magnum is the most versatile defensive cartridge we have. Sure, in lightweight, short-barreled guns it lives up to its “magnum” moniker and can be a real handful—literally. In my S&W 640 Pro, an all-steel .357, recoil is tolerable, although it’s not like I can shoot magnums through it all day. But a super-lightweight, alloy-frame gun of the same size? I’d rather pass.
However, the beauty of the .357 Magnum is it’s available in many barrel lengths and constructions/weights, and with a bit of experience, most people can handle at least the longer, heavier guns with .357 loads. I don’t buy into the idea of buying a .357, practicing with .38s and then keeping the gun loaded with .357s for defensive use. However, I know this is a thing, and the versatility of the chambering allows you to do it. (Actually I’m a fan of the converse. I keep my 640 Pro loaded with .38 +Ps most of the time.)
Regardless, it is this versatility that makes the .357 Magnum such an excellent choice. And the world is your oyster when it comes to ammo, with tons of choices of weights, styles and power levels.
- Energy: 297 ft.-lbs. (165-grain bullet)
- Recoil Factor: 0.81
A Ruger GP100 in .44 Special is one of my go-to guns for defense in some situations. I find the Special’s recoil to be easily manageable, and I’m old-school in that I like a bullet with more frontal area—whether at home or on the trail.
Gun choices aren’t huge, but when you factor in the ability to shoot .44 Specials in a .44 Magnum revolver, that number jumps considerably. Doing so leaves you with a gun that’s heavier than it needs to be, but on the plus side, .44 Specials are real pussycats when fired out of most .44 Magnums.
Load options have grown over the years, and you can find defensive-specific options from Hornady, SIG, Speer and more.
- Energy: 966 ft.-lbs. (200-grain bullet)
- Recoil Factor: 1.45
Say it with me: “This is a Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and it will blow your head clean off.” Powerful it is, way more than you need for self-defense—against humans, that is.
It is a popular choice for folks in brown bear country. Options for that sort of task abound, and one of my go-to loads (which, thankfully, I haven’t had to use for real) is a 310-grain hard-cast load from Garrett that is doing only 1,050 fps. I’ve shot it in my five-inch S&W Model 629, and it’s really controllable—while still providing the penetration you would need against a bear.
And as I’ve already mentioned, it’s one of those cartridges that allow the use of a less powerful caliber—in this case the .44 Special—out of the same chamber.
- Energy: 348 ft.-lbs. (185-grain bullet)
- Recoil Factor: 0.76
Until relatively recently, the legendary Colt round had been largely the province of Cowboy Action shooters. Then the Taurus Judge arrived on the scene. This double-action .45 Colt/.410 shotshell revolver sparked a resurgence in a great old round.
In addition to the Judge, today you have the S&W Governor, S&W Model 25 (part of the company’s Classic line) and Ruger Redhawk. These are all larger guns, and in them the good ol’ Colt is a cinch to manage and still as effective as it has been since the late 1800s.