HOW DOES THE POPULAR 9MM LUGER STACK UP AGAINST THE LEGENDARY ,45 ACP?
How does the popular 9mm Luger stack up against the legendary .45 ACP?
By Chuck Taylor
Few controversies are more intense than the question of whether the 9mm is a good as the legendary .45 ACP.
“The Nine,” as some call it, first appeared back in 1902 and the .45 ACP in 1911, so both cartridges have been around for more than a century, which is plenty of time to evaluate their capabilities.
With its .355 diameter bullet, the 9mm quickly garnered several additional designators—9mmP, 9x19 and, of course, 9mm Luger as well. Being an American invention, the .45 ACP has pretty much always been called that, but in Europe, its metric designator, 11.43x23, occasionally surfaces.
The career paths of the two cartridges were a little different.
The original Luger pistol was chambered for a 7.65mm cartridge that quickly showed itself to be a poor man-stopper, so improvements were quickly instituted. Those involved in the project quickly discovered that the largest bullet that could be placed in a necked-up 7.65mm case was .355, or 9mm. Anything larger would have necessitated a complete re-designing of the Luger pistol, which by then had been sold internationally by the thousands, so it was 9mm or nothing.
Conversely, the .45 ACP was designed specifically as a result of the famous 1908 Thompson-LaGarde tests dealing with stopping power and was quickly utilized in the now-legendary M1911 Colt pistol.
From an historic standpoint, the 9mm was pretty much a European cartridge until about 30 years ago. Returning veterans from World Wars I and II brought back war trophy Lugers and Walther P-38s by the thousands, but even as late as the 1960s, the 9mm’s popularity was minimal.
Although they tested various 9mm handguns after World War II, the U.S.
military opted to stay with the M1911 and .45 ACP, which, by then, had amassed an excellent reputation for stopping power.
That all changed in 1985, when the U.S. military adopted the 9mm Beretta M-9. Police departments by the thousands quickly dumped their .38 SPL revolvers and embraced the 9mm. Self-defense-minded civilians, who had always paid close attention to what kind of guns and calibers the police and military used, did likewise.
And by the mid-1990s, the 9mm had achieved not only complete acceptance in the U.S., but was growing more popular every day. The reason for this is simple—it’s easy to shoot. And, as its popularity grew, more and more types of ammunition for it became available. By the end of the 20th century, it had become one of the most popular handgun cartridges in America.
Meanwhile, the .45 ACP continued to be thought of as the ultimate man-stopper and its most common host-weapon, the M1911, as the best fighting handgun ever made. This was largely due to the efforts of the late Jeff Cooper, who had long championed both.
Still, as time passed and new generations of shooters emerged, the 9mm’s popularity continued to grow. Mostly because of the myth among police departments that the more bullets you
“...BECAUSE...NO QUANTUM LEAP IN CONVENTIONAL JHP TECHNOLOGY HAS TAKEN PLACE, THE .45 ACP IS STILL THE BETTER OF THE TWO.”
fire, the better your results, by 2010, its use in the plethora of pistols with large-capacity magazines that had appeared caused it to supplant the .45 ACP and M1911.
Yet, throughout the entire time both the 9mm and .45 ACP have existed, there have been questions about their actual efficiency. In the case of the M1911 and the .45 ACP, vets returning from multiple wars emphatically stated that in close-quarters combat, nothing could put down an adversary more quickly.
Conversely, regardless of what kind of handgun in which it was utilized, the 9mm was thought of as being a poor man-stopper, with many documented cases of failure.
The key to this comparison lies with the fact that the Hague Accords prohibited the use of any kind of frangible bullets by its signatories. The U.S. military load for the .45 ACP virtually throughout its lifetime has been a 230-grain, .452-diameter FMJ bullet, driven at 800 fps +/- 10 fps.
The standard military load for the 9mm has nearly always been a 124-grain, .355-diameter FMJ bullet at around 1,100 fps. On living targets, the 9mm military load has indeed demonstrated poor stopping power, whereas the .45 ACP received nearly endless accolades for its ability to quickly put down an adversary with a minimal number of hits.
However, with the increased adoption of 9mm pistols by American police agencies, the commercial ammunition companies quickly began a quest to develop more effective 9mm ammo. This resulted in a huge variety of JHPs weighing from 90 to 147 grains and driven at velocities from 1,000 to 1,350 fps.
Sensing a vibrant commercial market,
“ANALYSIS OF ACTUAL GUNFIGHTS HAS SHOWN US THAT JHPS, INCLUDING THE 9MM, EXPAND IN HUMANS ONLY ABOUT 50 PERCENT OF THE TIME...”
they simultaneously began to produce JHP loads in .45 ACP as well. From the 1960s until just a few years ago, while 9mm JHPs expanded well in artificial test mediums like gelatin, oil or water-based clay and water, they continued to perform poorly in living targets. In gunfight after gunfight, those same JHPs that had looked so good in gelatin, failed to expand in humans.
A host of reasons for this were postulated. Cocooning, the filling of the hollow cavity by the target’s clothing, was quickly presented as the cause of the problem. Yet, no one seemed to realize that a human adversary represents one of the most difficult targets in the world to quickly incapacitate.
First of all, while they’re composed of a significant amount of water, they’re not made of gel or clay. Second, they’re not made of any one substance. Instead, they’re composed of various substances—skin, fat, bone, muscle and internal organs. And as if this weren’t enough to complicate things, humans aren’t universally the same. Each one is uniquely different, making bullet performance virtually impossible to simulate or predict. This is why observed history—what has actually happened in real gunfights—became the definitive means by which bullet performance.
Proponents of the 9mm have never disputed that the .45 ACP is a better man-stopper if military-type FMJ bullets are utilized. However, they vehemently claim that a 9mm JHP that expands has a larger cross-sectional area than a .45 ACP that does not, and that as a result a larger permanent wound cavity is created.
In short, the JHP makes the 9mm equal to or better than, a .45 ACP. Their argument is supported by the fact that the vast majority of .45 ACP JHPs don’t expand to any significant degree in either artificial mediums or people, in essence making them little different from FMJ “hardball.” The problem with the argument is that from an historic standpoint, 9mm JHPs don’t either, leaving the controversy deadlocked.
From a kinetic energy standpoint, the .45 ACP produces a bit more ME than the 9mm and, regardless of what kind of bullet design is utilized, this fact in inarguable. What can be successfully argued is that while bullet design cannot produce more energy, it can influence how efficiently a bullet’s energy is dispensed into the target.
Various attempts to make a 9mm
JHP expand to as large a diameter as possible in living targets is certainly a worthy goal, but has thus far been sabotaged by the laws of physics. This is why .45 ACP aficionados typically postulate that a .45 is already a large diameter bullet and thus punches a larger hole than a 9mm that doesn’t expand.
Analysis of actual gunfights has shown
us that JHPs, including the 9mm, expand in humans only about 50 percent of the time, giving rise to the question of how one can determine which side of the 50-percentile your particular gunfight falls within.
Lately, a 147-grain JHP called the G2 has been developed by Speer and is claimed to expand so reliably that it’s fully equal or better than the .45 ACP. However, even in gel-testing, much less human adversaries, the G2’s performance has been widely criticized as being erratic. Some say it doesn’t expand at all, while other claim it sheds its JHP petals during bullet passage.
Either way, it appears that the age-old problem of making a traditional JHP upset in a human target remains unsolved, at least with conventional bullet designs. Nonetheless, the FBI has adopted it, as have several other U.S. government agencies.
.45 IS STILL BETTER
So, is the 9mm truly really as good or better than the .45 ACP? Nope, not with conventional JHP bullets it isn’t. That it expands only about 50 percent of the time in living targets and is dependent upon what kind of mass it encounters during passage through the target is troublesome, to say the least, since we cannot tell which side of the 50-percentile line our particular gunfight will fall within.
In other words, because it appears that no quantum leap in conventional JHP technology has taken place, the .45 ACP is still the better of the two.
Right: For many years, U.S. Spec Ops units have used both the 9mm and .45 ACP. Those that prefer the 9mm cite worldwide logistic convenience, while those who use the .45 ACP point out its superior stopping power with FMJ military ammo. USMC photo
Above: The 9mm Luger first appeared in 1902 and was the result of an effort to upgrade the stopping power of the original 1900 7.65mm Luger.
Since then, it’s been in continuous use and many handguns are chambered for it, including the SIG P-320 and Browning P-35.
Below: The .45
ACP was adopted in 1911 and has been in continuous use ever since. It was used in the legendary Colt M1911 pistol from 1911 to 1985, when it was replaced with the 9mm Beretta M9. However, the U.S. Marine Corps recently re-adopted it in the form of the M45A1.
Right: The U.S. military adopted the 9x19 for general use back in 1985, but a few years ago, the U.S. Marines went back to the .45 ACP and M1911 in the form of the M45A1. However, even though the Army just adopted the controversial SIG P-320, it decided to remain with the 9mm, claiming that there are now many more women and smaller-statured men in their ranks who cannot handle a more powerful cartridge.
Below: Side by side, a 9mm pistol (left) and one chambered in .45 ACP. The author believes the .45 ACP still has the edge.
Above: It’s true that .45 ACP expansion with conventionally-designed JHPs has long been poor, even in gelatin. This has given fuel to the arguments that when a 9mm JHP actually expands, its cross-sectional area is equal to or larger than a .45 ACP that does not, thus giving it equal or better stopping power. However, it must also be said that the premises of both factions are mostly based upon gelatin testing, rather than actual shooting of human targets.