pistol accuracy

Caliber Is Fine...But Accuracy Is Final

What caliber you carry does kind of matter, but not nearly as much as accuracy. Go on a few websites and read some comments, or find a few gun forums and you'll hear people argue all the time about how the caliber they like is better than the one other people like.

Then again, humorist Patrick F. McManus once wrote that people that are obsessed with ballistics and calibers were usually something that one had to endure to go on a hunting trip.

The point is that while there are some instances in which caliber matters, the truth is that putting a bullet where it will do the most damage is far better than just having a bigger, faster bullet.

WDM Bell And His Elephants

wdm bell

A great example of why accuracy matters more than caliber, one of the best examples is that of WDM Bell. Bell was a "great white hunter" type from the late 19th/early 20th century, leaving his native Scotland initially for the high seas and later to Africa, finding work as a professional hunter.

What set Bell apart was his work as an ivory hunter. Bell harvested more than 1,100 elephants in his lifetime, but what set him apart is that he eschewed the large-bore double rifle in lieu of a bolt action rifle in 7x57mm Mauser aka .275 Rigby.

You see, Bell figured something out.

The surest way to stop an animal dead in its tracks is brain trauma and specifically, trauma to the brainstem. Instead of shooting the head from the front, Bell would get behind the target, and thread the bullet through the neck into the base of the skull, an oblique shot from the rear that some still call the "Bell shot," as it remains a viable shot to drop game animals.

His secret to accuracy? Bell advised dry firing for keeping the shooting skills sharp.

Bell also knew that the right bullet does the job better than the wrong one. His method required deep penetration through tough tissue, which is why he preferred military full metal jacket rounds to the soft points that many other hunters used for elephants. (Though he frequently used soft points on other game.) Granted, he wasn't the only hunter of the era to perform this shot (others predated him) but he is famous for it. Later on, gun writer Jack O'Connor defied popular conventions by doing a lot of his hunting with .270 Winchester, likewise favoring placement and bullet design - Nosler Partition and Remington Bronze Pointe were among his favorites - over blunt force trauma.

Point being: a well-placed bullet, of good design for the task it's being used for, beats a big bullet.

Handgun Caliber Performance Doesn't Vary As Much As You'd Think

handgun caliber performance

What some people imagine is that if you measured handgun caliber performance in defensive shootings, it would climb steadily from .22 LR on up.

In some respects it does...but a lot less than you might think.

Greg Ellifritz, a trainer and police officer published a study of 10 years of data from police, civilian and military shooting incidents in "American Handgunner," which you can find now on Buckeye Firearms. Among other points of data, he looked at caliber, number of overall people shot with said caliber, percentage of fatal hits, average rounds until incapacitation, percentage of shootings where the perpetrator wasn't stopped, accuracy (defined as head and torso hits), percentage of one-shot stops and percentage of one-shot stops made by a hit to the head or torso.

As to one-shot-stops to the head or torso, meaning when the aggressor was shot in the head or torso once and stopped what they were doing.. The .22 calibers (long, long rifle and .22 Short) achieved a one-shot stop to these areas in 60 percent of instances where the shooter placed a round in the head or torso. 9x19mm achieved the feat 47 percent of the time, .38 Special did so 55 percent of the time, .45 ACP at 51 percent and .44 Magnum did the trick 53 percent of the time.

Granted, 31 percent of aggressors shot with .22 caliber rounds weren't incapacitated, compared to 16 percent of those shot with .380, 13 percent with 9x19mm, 9 percent with .357 Magnum, 14 percent with .45 ACP and 13 percent with .44 Magnum.

More shots were fatal with .22 caliber rounds; 34 percent of hits were fatal, compared to 24 percent of shots with 9x19mm, 29 percent with .38 Special, 34 percent with 357 Magnum, 29 percent with .45 ACP and 25 percent with .40 S&W. Even the mighty .44 Magnum was only fatal 26 percent of the time.

More goes into it, of course. What matters as much as placement and quality of ammunition is the will to fight of the attacker. If they are bound and determined to win, even to die trying in the process, they will find a way to do so unless they run out of blood or are dropped by a head shot. The psychological effect of merely being shot - regardless of caliber - also plays a role.

But with that said, what's clear is that a well-placed small bullet is about as effective as a large one.

What Stops An Attacker

weapon accuracy

What stops an attacker is trauma. Trauma that stops a hostile person is either physical - meaning the injury they suffer is sufficient to incapacitate them - or psychological, meaning that being shot sufficiently frightens them so they either flee or stop threatening the shooter.

With accurate fire, incapacitating and indeed even fatal trauma is possible with any caliber of handgun. Granted, some are better at doing the trick than others, as Ellifritz's study found as well as others. That said, with accurate placement a very small bullet is capable of incapacitating or killing a hostile person; caliber doesn't matter all that much.

As to psychological shock, caliber again doesn't matter all that much. The shock of being shot can be enough to cause a hostile person to stop, but it might not. It all depends on the person, and in such a moment, they will hardly be paying attention to the size of the bullet. A robber, home intruder or crazed person on the street doesn't care if you carry a .357 Magnum, a .45 ACP or even a .380.

If the latter doesn't work, the former comes into play, and what guarantees sufficient trauma to incapacitate or kill a person or game animal is correct placement of quality bullet. Whether it's a big magnum or what have you...doesn't matter nearly as much.

Caliber is fine...but accuracy is final.

Sam Hoober 

About The Author


Born in southeastern Washington State, Sam Hoober graduated in 2011 from Eastern Washington University. He resides in the great Inland Northwest, with his wife and child. His varied interests and hobbies include camping, fishing, hunting, and spending time at the gun range as often as possible.

purchase gun belt