Ammo Capacity: How Much is Enough?

There is an old saying that says, “There is no such thing as bringing too much ammo to a gunfight!” Those concerned with personal protection and concealed carry seem to have accepted this as fact. Yet, FBI statistics indicate that on average most violent encounters are over within a few seconds and that if gunfire is involved, only 2-3 shots are fired. If this is true, then why is there so much concern about ammunition capacity in firearms used for self-defense in the United States?

Prior to the 1970’s, most American law enforcement agencies carried 6-shot revolvers and even the military carried 7-shot semi-automatic pistols or 6-shot revolvers. In Europe, revolver and pistol capacity was similarly in the 6-8 round range. The standard centerfire revolver cartridge in the U.S. was the .38 S&W Special with some agencies using the .357 S&W Magnum, while the .45 ACP was the predominant centerfire semi-auto pistol cartridge. In Europe, semi-automatic pistols were much more popular than revolvers were. The standard pistol chambering was 9 x 19 mm (aka 9mm Luger or 9mm Parabellum); although in most countries the use of this cartridge was limited to the military. For civilian and law enforcement use, the 7.65mm (.32 ACP) or the 9mm Kurtz/Corto (.380 ACP) were the standard. The high-capacity handgun of the day was the 13+1-round 9mm Browning Hi-Power that came onto the market in the mid-1930’s.

The 1970-1980’s was also the timeframe in which firearms manufacturers were coming out with new 9mm pistols in anticipation of a change in the U.S. military from the 7-shot Colt Model 1911 in .45 ACP to a pistol chambered for the NATO standard 9x19mm cartridge. With several false starts — the decision to change to the 9mm cartridge/pistol combination was not finalized until 1985—the manufacturers turned to the law enforcement and civilian markets to sell their new generation of higher capacity, double-action service pistols. During this timeframe, the most popular of the new generation of 9mm semi-auto pistols were the S&W Model 39 (8-shot) and Model 59 (14-shot), the Beretta Model 92 (15-shot), and the Glock Model 17 (17-shot). Still, acceptance of these new, high-capacity semi-automatic pistols did not really take off until the U.S. military decided to adopt the 9mm Beretta Model 92 as the replacement for the venerable Colt Model 1911 in 1985. Demand for these new pistols took off as the losers in the military pistol competition needed to recoup their R&D costs by selling their products on the civilian market. The high ammunition capacity of these new pistols was one of the primary selling points they used because the public needed a reason to accept the smaller 9mm cartridge as most American firearms experts like Colonel Jeff Cooper believed that the .45 ACP was all anyone needed for self-defense applications.

Still, the market for high-capacity semi-automatic pistols was largely limited to law enforcement and that segment of civilian users that were involved in the new action shooting sports. It was not until states began enacting broader concealed carry laws that the demand really grew. Accepting the premise that high capacity was good, the demand was now for smaller handguns suitable for concealed carry that also had large ammunition capacities. This first manifested itself with the downsizing of full size service pistols to “Commander”-size versions. The Glock Model 19 is probably the primary example of this.

There were still advocates that said the .45 ACP was the only real self-defense cartridge that should be considered, but there was just no way to make small, high capacity .45 pistols that had a grip that a normal person could comfortably hold onto. And, the 9mm’s ability during some high-profile shootouts between law enforcement and criminals was calling that cartridge’s stopping ability into question. One result of this was the development of the 10mm and .40 S&W cartridges. The .40 S&W was especially popular because pistols for this cartridge were the same size as those built to chamber the 9mm cartridge. Glock adapted their Model 19 to .40 S&W. The result was the 13-shot Glock Model 23. Except for caliber, it is exactly the same size as the Model 19.

To correct the perceived deficiencies in the 9mm cartridge, ammunition manufactures focused on improving its performance. New powders and bullet designs resulted in performance that rivals that of much more powerful cartridges. Because of lower costs and less felt recoil, these new 9mm cartridges have been targeted at the civilian market which has largely stayed with that cartridge, while most law enforcement agencies have transitioned to the .40 S&W cartridge.

The demand for higher ammunition capacity was not lost on traditional revolver manufacturers either. Companies like Smith and Wesson have recently come out with wheel guns accommodating 7-8 rounds instead of the traditional 6. However, this results in the cylinder being larger in diameter and thus even more challenging for concealed carry than the 6-shot revolvers are. Other companies like Ruger worked with ammunition manufacturers to develop smaller, more powerful revolver cartridges and designed pistols for them that are the same relative size as the 5-shot S&W J-frame revolvers, but instead hold 6 rounds of ammunition. The primary example of this is the .327 Federal Magnum cartridge which is more powerful than the .38 S&W Special, and approaches the performance of the .357 Magnum, but in a much smaller cartridge.

Even the “Commander”-size pistols were deemed by many to be too large for concealed carry. For a long time the only other viable alternative were the small, S&W J-frame revolvers in .38 Special, .38 Special +P, and .357 Magnum. However, these revolvers typically only accommodate 5 rounds and this was felt to be too few for serious concealed carry use. So the focus more recently has been on the .380 ACP caliber pocket pistols. The somewhat anemic performance of the ammunition held these pistols back from widespread acceptance until ammunition manufacturers once again stepped in to up the round’s performance. The latest .380 rounds rival the performance of the original 9mm cartridges and a plethora of small pocket pistols are now on the market. Perhaps the most popular is Ruger’s LCP and the similar Kel-Tec .380 pocket pistol. These small, light-weight polymer frame pistols typically accommodate 6 rounds of .380 ACP ammunition in their magazines.

So, what is the right answer to the question, “How much is enough?” I guess it all depends. If you think the biggest threat you will face comes from a single assailant, then one of the small .380 caliber pocket pistols or .38 caliber J-frame revolvers is probably adequate. However, if you think you might be confronted by multiple assailants — something that seems to be occurring with increasing frequency, especially in urban areas — then a handgun with a larger ammunition capacity might be more appropriate. Because they tend to be faster to reload, semi-automatic pistols are the preferred option. They are also flatter and thus easier to conceal. Handguns with 10-15 round capacity, yet small enough to be easily carried seem to be the “sweet spot” that the firearms industry is targeting right now. One such model that I’m particularly fond of is Ruger’s 10-shot SR9c 9mm pistol. While larger than their LCP model, this gun is smaller than the “Commander”-size semi-autos. The SR9c will also accommodate the larger 17 round magazines used in the full-size Ruger SR9 pistol.

Gary Evens is an NRA-Certified Instructor and Range Safety Officer.

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