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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


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,


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.


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...

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...

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...

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...

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