Pocket pistol power

There have been many debates about pistols’ ‘stopping power’. The venerable .45 ACP and the 9mm Parabellum can be useful in wartime situations. But the Walther PP (Polizei Pistole), the PPK (Polizei Pistole Kurz) and the Colt 1903 among others have been used by police and criminals alike with enough effectiveness to achieve some longevity. Aside from the obvious concealability advantage, is there any reason not to choose .32 ACP for a personal protection firearm?

I’m not an expert on the use of firearms for self-defence, but I will say that the .32ACP cartridge is the minimum I’ve heard recommended by gun writers in the US for a defensive calibre handgun.

My understanding is that potential opponents nowadays are more likely to be on some kind of stimulant/narcotic/alcohol (or cocktail of all three) and a smaller calibre gun just isn’t going to do much to stop them in an unpleasant situation which involve the defensive use of a firearm.

The thing is, nowadays you can get a similar sized gun that will chamber 9mm Parabellum (or even .40S&W or .45ACP), so unless you really want to feel like James Bond or you’re an exceptionally good shot, I’m not sure that picking a .25 or .32 ACP calibre handgun for self-defence reasons is a good idea anymore.

No doubt someone with more experience on the subject will be along shortly to provide a more comprehensive reply, though…

While “stopping power” when referencing to handgun is mostly bunch of hooey (all handguns are lousy stoppers), .32 ACP is suboptimal as a personal protection because it lacks in the guaranteed penetration department. Because of that chances of hitting vital organ are smaller than when compared to full-power handgun caliber (.38 and above), and thus chances of successfully stopping attacker are also a little smaller. It probably would do it’s job, there are just better tools available.

I recently purchased a Ruger LCP. This is a small pistol in .380 ACP caliber. It’s the smallest I’d consider carrying on a regular basis. All my other carry pistols are .40 S&W or .45 ACP. A .32 might be OK in summer when everyone’s wearing light weight clothing, but in the winter you’d best be able to hit the guy in the eye!

YMMV of course.

I will add that if a .32 was all I had or could afford I’d carry it. Better a .32 in your pocket than a .45 in the store.

I’ve heard those arguments before. But it seems the round was very popular for a long time and I thought there must be a reason why. Cost? Colt, Walther, and Mauser, for example, are not usually known for being inexpensive.

Oh, I should note that while I do have CCW, I have not exercised the privilege. No reason to. If I were to carry, I’d probably go with my 1991-A1 in a holster or my PPK/S .380 in my pocket.

The reason I’m asking is that I’m a fan of old movies and it seems a popular choice for final showdowns in them. Of course, that’s the movies. But since it’s been used by police forces (in Europe) I thought it must be effective. The .36 ‘Navy’ caliber as used in the Colt 1851 Navy and Pocket pistols were used to kill a lot of people, and it was the favourite of Wild Bill Hickock. IIRC, this black powder load was similar in power to the .32 ACP.

Are there any sort of statistics available, preferably from the first half of the 20th Century when it seemed to be especially popular, to prove or disprove its effectiveness?

It depends what level you’re looking at.

Strictly Mechanical Level
When it comes to handgun rounds, the most important “mechanical” parameter is depth of penetration.

Holistic Level
“Holistically” speaking (God I hate that word), the most important variable in stopping power is shot placement. Generally speaking, shot placement is more important than depth of penetration, muzzle velocity, ballistic coefficient, and bullet diameter combined.

No-BS/Practical Level
Shot placement can only be improved via training. The more training you have with your weapon, the more accurate your shot placement will be, and the better the stopping power will be.

For most people, the amount of time training with their weapon is inversely proportional to the price of the ammunition. The more expensive their ammo is, the less they tend to train with it, and hence the less effective they will be with it. This simple but ultra-important concept is lost in many discussions on caliber and stopping power.

A 45 ACP, for example, might have an edge on inherent “stopping power” by virtue of its large diameter, but this edge is usually negated by insufficient training time due to the high cost of ammo. On the other end of the spectrum is the 22LR… it’s cheap enough that a person can practice with it a lot, but it might fall short in the “inherent stopping power” category.

So… very small caliber is bad (e.g. 22LR) because it can’t incapacitate a bad guy in a short period of time. Large caliber (e.g. 45 ACP) is usually bad because you probably won’t practice with it enough due to the high cost of ammo. For most people, then, a cost-effective medium caliber is best. The 9 mm is such a caliber. It is cheap enough that you can practice with it on a regular basis, and powerful enough that it can incapacitate a bad guy in a relatively short period of time (assuming good shot placement, which is achieved via training).

I surely do have some personal opinions about stopping power, but they are just that: opinions. The entire subject is fraught with differences of opinion, and it’s a debate I don’t wish to get into.

So just let me take a little different take on this and instead of talking about raw stopping power, I’ll touch on control of the weapon.

One of the worst pieces of advice I ever heard is the thing about a small, light weapon being a “ladies gun.” These little-bitty pieces tend to be barking, jumping monsters. Whatever you pick, get as substantial an arm as you are comfortable with carrying. The weight will help considerably with your being able to control the weapon and hit what you’re aiming at.

Note that small does not necessarily mean light weight. I do encourage you to get the heaviest caliber/weapon/weight/size combo that you are comfortable with.

Addressing your question about the .32, all I can say is that most of what I’ve read says it is inadequate, in general. Other things I’ve read say the .380 is the minimun. Yet others say the .38 special is the minimun. Fortunately, I have no personal experience in this area, but I would consign the .32 and the .22 Lorng Rifle in the area of pro’sweapons. The .25 is pretty much a joke, although you wouldn’t want to get shot with one…one thing I seem to remember from Jeff Cooper is thisparaphrased statement" “You don’t want to shoot at some one with a .25…If you shoot at someone with it, you might hit them. If you hit them, they’re apt to get mad and want to fight.”

Comfort level is something that folks struggle with - I had a very, very hard time picking a 9mm for my CCW, as (almost) all of the small ones had a very high recoil and fierce kick, and I do flinch a lot during firing. Example: At about 10 yards I am continuing to have serious problems with accuracy, with a wide scatter around the target. I start out very good the first 1-3 shots, and then rapidly degenerate from there. However, I rented a Ruger Mark II .22 a couple of months ago at the range just because I remembered the one I used to use, and when I brought the target back Fierra came over from the next booth and said “wow, that looks like you were firing a .22 rifle” - in short, at 10 yards I was keeping all shots within a 2-inch circle. With the 9mm…well, had better days…

So some folks, especially women, do look to the smaller weapons out of a feeling of comfort of the gun. I’ve known a couple of grandmothers who had .25ACP guns in their purse (and my step-grandmother kept a .25 in a sugar bowl in her kitchen; she used it for “killing snakes in the garden”, although I only ever saw her use a hoe). Now all that having been said, I will say that IMO a Beretta .32 (which I test-fired) feels about as hard a recoil as my Glock 26 9mm - the Glock 26 is just such a fine weapon for its size that my accuracy and comfort level markedly improved, and so naturally I slapped down the credit card and bought one. Before that I test fired enough 9mm weapons to write a review on them, and there was a very large difference in comfort level between them. So if someone is struggling with a choice out there and looking to go smaller than 9mm due to comfort, my advice is don’t drop down in calibre too quickly, do your best to try a variety of weapons and see if you can find one that works for you.

And I agree wholeheartedly with GaryM above - a .32 carried is infinitely better than a .45 at home, and folks should ignore the macho online tough-guy posturing of “that’s dumb, you may as well have a BB gun”. Not every defensive use of a firearm comes down to stopping a PCP-crazed 6’8" ex-Sumo wrestler in their tracks. I’ve known folks shot by .22s who said that even though they were reasonably sure they would live, it was a tremendously demoralizing and scary experience, and from a psychological standpoint “definitely made them want to run away as fast as possible.”

Absolutely. The FBI terminal ballistics standards, based upon the work of Dr. Martin Fackler (see a number of citations here and here), regards 14" as being the minimum for acceptable penetration. The .32 ACP just does not make this standard even with hardball ammo and certainly not with hollowpoints (though the round lacks sufficient velocity to reliably expand). The 9mm Parabellum or .38 Special +P is generally regarded as the minimum for effective defensive use, and the FBI criteria reject even these rounds as being insufficient.

On the other hand, the gun you have on your person when needed is certainly more useful in any caliber than one sitting in a save at home. But there is a definite advantage to using a major caliber pistol for defense even at the compromise of ammo capacity. As for size, in recent years all number of pistols in 9mmP, .40S&W, and .45 ACP have been offered in packages the size of a 1911 ‘Officer’s Model’ and smaller, which are not much larger or heavier than a Walther PPK and inarguably more effective provided that the shooter can manage the recoil.

10 yards is really at maximum range for a realistic defensive shooting scenario; most occur within 21 feet (7 meters) or less, and pinpoint accuracy will never be achieved by the average shooter even with substantial training as reports of police shootings will bear out.

I personally prefer the .45 ACP, not because I think it has more “stopping power” than the 9mmP or .40 S&W, but because its balance between speed, momentum, and sectional density will provide reliable penetration to adequate depth, even through heavy clothing, without a great risk of overpenetration as with the heavier 9mmP and .40 S&W rounds. And while it has more momentum I find many .45 ACP pistols more pleasant to shoot than 9mmP +P or .40 S&W (and certainly the 10mm Auto, which is a true monster of a round) because of the slower slide velocity. Straight blowback guns (virtually all .380 ACP and .32 ACP pistols) will by nature have harsher recoil than recoil operated guns, all things being equal, so going up to a 9mmP or above may not be as bad as it seems, especially with an all steel frame like the Kahr K9 or a low bore axis pistol like the Glock.

I also personally can’t stand the PPK, owing to the slide raking of the web of the hand and tendency to hammer bite, plus the indifferent reliability of this pistol.


I’d like to know a reason TO chose a .32. European calibers tend to be on the small side for civilians and even police. But give me a cite showing significant use of them in the USA for law enforcement. I’d also like to see a cite showing police related shootings with such a small round. In a defense situation one might only hit his target with a single round. the .32 just doesn’t have the power to count on.

If one must carry a .32 a good shot placement would be a double tap to the eyes. Little resistance in that area allows the round to travel good and deep into the skull. And if it doesn’t stop the perp, what’s he gonna do? You just took his eyes out.

For summer carry when concealment is more difficult, I have a Kel-Tec .380. it’s the same size as the Kel-Tec .32 but packs a much bigger punch. A .380 is a basically scaled down 9mm, and I consider it the smallest round to be counted on. The Rohrbaugh is the smallest 9mm I’ve ever seen. The Kahr arms PM9 is very small too. The Kahr PM40 is the smallest 40 I’ve seen and is a much better round than the 9. There are some pretty small 45’s too, if concealment is important. Either way, the .380, 9, .40, and 45 are all much better that a .32. I would not feel safe relying on a .32.

In the U.S. police departments traditionally relied on the .38 Special, so I doubt any .32s were ever issued here. As for cites regarding shootings with the .32 ACP (police or otherwise), that’s what I was asking for in post #5.

As an EMT I saw a couple dozen people who had been shot, even a pansy ass .22 still leaves the target knowing they have been hurt and they tend to assume they are hurt badly. Getting shot or stabbed feels wrong wrong wrong. You just know something bad happened. It pretty much takes drugged out, crazy, or highly motivated to continue to attack while being turned into a seive by someone with a .22 .

Firstest with the mostest.

And firstest and keeping on pulling the trigger is way better than the mostest in most civilian shootouts between normal law biding people and the bad guys.


For the ladies and gents that are not ‘gun’ people but have a ccw.f

Get a 5 gal. bucket and fill it 3/4 full of sand and put a towel over the top. Put it in your front room or the nicest room you have or in the hallway just inside your front door. Now, without any ear protection, or any other ‘stuff’ shoot your weapon into the bucket. Now, regardless of the stuff in your pants that is running down your leg, do it again and a third time. If you are unwilling, or unable to do this, you might rethink your ability to defend yourself.

The noise is horrendous and if you have never been through it, you most likely will not do well in a real life and death situation because you will be so startled and in so much ‘unexpected’ pain that you will most likely die from the bad guy.

Don’t worry, your hearing will come back.

If the thought of the mess, (Biggest reason most women fail to fire in defense of themselves, a mess in the room is so against their whole life training) or the noise is too much, well, Houston, we have a problem.

Do all the rest of your training at the range or in a better place with ear protection but you don’t get overs IRL. You really should know what is going to happen if you ever have to really do it.


In this day and age where the criminals get all the breaks from the system and the law full citizens get to pay for shooting a serial killer on their front porch or if he turned at the last second and you hit him from any direction but directly in front with 32 witnesses and 4 video tapes, think on this.

Bad guy trying to come in. You are afraid. Do not shoot through door, scream. “I have a gun and fear for my life.” Then shoot a hole in the floor in the corner behind the hinge side of the door, it is really hard to see there, ( not if you live on the second floor of an apartment, then keep the 5 gal. can of sand handy ) Now, you have not hurt anyone and very very very few bad guys are willing to keep attacking where there is a scared woman who has just proven that yes, she has a gun and is willing, no eager, to shoot. If you remember, after the first shot, scream, "Keep coming “MF”, make my day !!! " then fire a second hole in the floor. You will have the best chance of not going to jail because of a screwed up legal system because you have not hurt anyone and your rep in the neighborhood and the local ‘hood’ will be made.


Not if you are firing a .357 Magnum or 10mm Auto, or any similar magnum-class round. And this is unnecessary, anyway. In first-hand reports of real combat shooting situations, most respondents state that they don’t even hear the gun going off, and the flush off adrenalin in the system is sufficient to overcome any shock. The real problem in such a circumstance, is making rational decisions and maintaining good target and trigger control, which is why forethought, research into the legalities of armed self-defense, and no small amount of training are imperative for anyone who intends to carry a firearm for defense, especially in public.

Not only does MMV, but I doubt you’ll find any criminal defense attorney who will back up this scenario, and I’m damned certain no defensive shooting expert will. What you recommend here is good up to the point of yelling, “I have a gun and fear for my life,” but after which descends into an extreme of bad advice, specifically and in order, a violation of Rule #4 ("Know what your target is and what is behind it), a loss of tactical surprise, a provocative statement, and another ineffective and wasted round. If you genuinely feel the need to draw a weapon and discharge a weapon in fear or anger, you should either legitimately fear for your life and unable to reasonably escape or avert the situation (in which case any legalities take back stage to staying alive) or you are making a terrible mistake. If the former, once you elect to drop the hammer on a living being your only objective should be to stop the threat as quickly as possible and discharging only as many rounds as needed to reduce the hazard to bystanders. If the latter, you need to re-evaluate carrying or even owning a firearm for self-defense.

None of this business of firing warning shots will win you any credence with a prosecutor, and little enough with a jury if your shooting wasn’t otherwise obviously justified. Despite your claims, there are vanishingly few cases where someone has been convicted of a felony crime despite using a legally owned firearm in what a normal person would regard as a reasonable use of force in self-defense. Plenty of people have been sued in civil court, of course, but again, firing warning shots isn’t really going to help you there, either; indeed, a plaintiff may twist it into an example of your inept and bloodthirsty nature, firing off willy-nilly and screaming threats at his poor client who was simply lost and wanted a glass of water.

In short, if you’ve elected to drop the hammer on someone, don’t take any half measures; put the sights on the target and keep squeezing the trigger until the target goes down, runs away, or otherwise resolves into a non-threat. Period. This is what police officers are trained to do, and you should do the same.


Indeed. My take on this is that nowadays there is much more focus on using a handgun to kill people, and the relative efficiency of various weapons at doing this. In the old days, it was more about “look!! I have a GUN!! Behave or I’ll SHOOT YOU!” - for the latter purpose, pretty much anything that looked recongnisably like a gun, made a bang reliably and delivered an ouchie would do just fine for intimidating people. The ‘vest pocket’ automatics popular in the first half of the century were cheap, concealable, convenient and pretty OK on the looks like/sounds like/hurts like criteria. Something like the Browning GP/HP or 1911 would probably have been regarded as excessive for anyone other than the military.

As the media made more and more of the specifics of various fatal shootouts, manufacturers started to play up killing power, and people became wealthy enough to affort full-calibre weapons, the older light-weight calibres became unfashionable. The fact that small pistols were banned from import into the worlds largest civil gun market might also be a contributing factor - it certainly inspired some European makers to enlarge certain weapons.

To back up what you said, my CCW instructor said to us “never mind TV - the Attorney General has told me to tell you that there is no such thing as warning shots. Every shot is either a direct lawful defense, or a direct unlawful use. And you can, and may, be prosecuted for reckless endangerment or worse by firing a warning shot.” YMMV depending upon the State, city, circumstances, and which AG looks over the case that particular day…

The amount of bad advice you’ve offered here is truly impressive. You had to have come up with this on your own. No qualified self-defense instructor would have advised this, nor would any lawyer. If you don’t fear you are in danger of death or grievous bodily harm, you shouldn’t be shooting. If you are in fear of death or grievous bodily harm, you should be shooting the person(s) attempting to inflict it on you. There is no place in a realistic self-defense plan for warning shots.
WRT the OP, European .32acp ammo is loaded somewhat hotter than is common here in the US. American manufacturers, outside of a few specialty makers, tend to load older cartridges rather lightly in deference to all the old guns out there. The .45 Colt cartridge is capable of exceeding the performance of the .44 magnum, but the vast majority of commercial loadings are quite mild lest somebody blow himself up shooting grandpa’s old revolver, for example. The European loads for the .32 I’ve played with don’t turn the gun into a manstopper, but they do get the cartridge up off its face and onto its knees.
FWIW, I’ve also seen it claimed that modern medicine caused the popularity of the lighter calibers to wane. In the past, getting shot with anything was a really serious matter due to the liklihood of infection and the difficulty in locating and extracting the bullet. Thanks to X-rays and antibiotics, most people who are shot with handguns in the US survive.

Either the situation justifies using lethal force or it doesn’t. If you aren’t justified in using lethal force then you shouldn’t be pulling the trigger. If you are justified in using lethal force you shouldn’t be pulling the trigger unless you’re trying to put a hole in the threat.

I understand the desire to post how guns are used in defensive situations, but I’d rather this thread not turn into a debate on the topic. I’m more interested in why the .32 ACP was so popular 60 or 70 years ago vs. today.

I hadn’t thought about medical advances leading to greater rates of survival. But in my mind the purpose of carrying a firearm for protection is not to kill an assailant but to stop him from doing what he’s doing. drachillix points out that even a .25 will discourage most attackers, and slaphead suggests that in the past displaying a gun was enough. (I think that in most cases today it probably still is.)

Scumpup: Do you know the European vs. American loading numbers?