Letter Re: One Common Caliber for Retreat Rifles and Handguns?

In trying to standardize equipment for a retreat, what do you think of .40 S&W in handguns (already own) and the various [semi-auto] carbines that can be purchased that shoot that [same] round .(Like Ruger [Kel-Tec, and Marlin.] )? I know they (.40 S&W) are slower than the .223 or .308, but still effective. I know the smaller magazine capacities (like 10 rounds) might be an issue.
The major “plus” would be a complete compatibility of ammunition for all the guns so that you only have to worry about stocking and carrying one type (except for the .22 [rimfire]s which don’t count for [self defense] planning purposes.) Is this a good idea or bad one? (Assume that we also get one larger caliber gun (.30-30 / .308 / .30-06) for hunting deer, etc., in a bolt or lever action.)
I haven’t seen this [concept mentioned] in your web site, so please forgive me if it is posted somewhere. Thanks, – Mike in “Seattle”

JWR Replies: Thanks for mentioning this idea, because I often hear it suggested by my consulting clients. The only problem is that “one common caliber” sounds like a great idea, but it just doesn’t work in today’s world–at least not for primary defensive firearms. Let me explain my reasoning, starting with a little historical background:

Much of the recurring “cartridge commonality” thinking stems from America’s pioneer Old West experience. In the late 1800s it was popular to carry a Winchester lever action .44-40 rifle or carbine, and a Colt or S&W revolver chambered in the same cartridge. This is just what my great grandfather Robert Henry Rawles did. He came out west by covered wagon in 1857, at age 12. From the late 1870s until his death in 1911, he habitually carried a Colt Single Action Army (SAA), and when on horseback or while hunting he supplemented the revolver with a Winchester Model 1873 rifle. Both guns were chambered in .44-40. (Which at the time was often called “.44 Winchester Center Fire”, or more commonly just “Winchester .44”) One of his cousins did essentially the same thing, but instead carried a Smith & Wesson .44-40 Top Break revolver and a fairly uncommon but highly sought-after Colt pump action .44-40 rifle. Doing so indeed had a big advantage in cartridge commonality. But that was back in the days of blackpowder cartridges, that all had high-arcing trajectories. Today, if you were carrying a carbine chambered in a pistol caliber, and your opponents had a detachable magazine 7.62×39 or .308 battle rifle–with high velocity and flat trajectory–then you’d be badly outmatched.

Typical pistol chamberings (such as 9mm Parabellum and .40 S&W) are not sure and quick man stoppers at two to seven yards (typical combat pistol shooting distance), and they are absolutely pitiful stoppers at 200 or 300 yards. They just don’t have the requisite “oomph” at long range to penetrate and put Mr. Badguy out of the fight. Furthermore, at long range they have a “rainbow” trajectory, which is difficult to compensate for under the stress of combat. For your primary defensive rifle, you are much better off with a flat-shooting high velocity cartridge like .308 Winchester. There is some utility in owning a pistol caliber carbine, but in my opinion that is limited to small game hunting, pest shooting, and training youngsters. But do not make the mistake of thinking that they are fully adequate for self-defense.

The only two possible “one cartridge for carbine and pistol” compromises that I can envision might be either:

1.) Selecting a quite powerful handgun cartridge cartridge like .44 Magnum, .45 Colt, or perhaps a .45 Winchester Magnum. As political pundit (and gun enthusiast) Kim du Toit so aptly put it: “To put it in perspective, a 250 gr. bullet in .44 Remington Magnum arrives with 775 ft.- lbs. of energy; [but] the 260 gr. bullet in .45 Win Mag arrives with 1,300 ft.- lbs. Ouch.” In my opinion, both of these cartridges are slightly over-powered for a combat handgun, but still underpowered and not flat shooting enough for use in a carbine or long range self defense. Because .44 Magnum is a traditional rimmed cartridge, nearly all of the carbines that are available (such as those from Marlin, Puma, Winchester, ) are lever actions with tubular magazines. Ruger does make a semi-auto .44 Magnum carbine ( a complete re-design of their .44 carbine from the 1960s) and a lever action (the Model 96/.44), but unfortunately both use a fairly fragile four round rotary magazine. (Hardly suitable for self defense.) For handguns there are a lot of great .44 Magnum revolvers made (including the S&W Model 629) , and of course the .44 Desert Eagle pistol. But given its clunky ergonomics, I consider the Desert Eagle strictly a choice for advanced shooters. (It would take a lot of training to learn how to shoot fast and accurately.)

The .45 Winchester Magnum is a rimless cartridge, which makes it compatible with a wider range of magazine designs. Three years ago, I read that Collectors Firearms, was doing .45 Winchester Magnum conversions for M1 Carbines. But unfortunately their web site no longer mentions those, so I suspect that they are out of production. (Perhaps they still have a few pieces of old inventory.) But I’m sure that some enterprising individual will soon come up with one on an AR-15 platform. Nor would I be surprised if either Ruger and Marlin expand their semi-auto carbine offerings to do likewise.(Carbines in .45 Winchester Magnum would be a good market niche.) Pistol options for .45 Winchester Magnum include the Wildey and the LAR Grizzly, but given the heavy recoil of the cartridge, I presume that even more training would be required than for mastering the Desert Eagle.

As for .45 Colt, I don’t consider it a serious self defense cartridge for two reasons: First, nearly all of the factory loads are extra mild, for liability reasons–since ammo makers fear that they might be loaded in an early iron-framed Colt SAA. Second, the exposed rim width of. .45 Colt is considerably smaller than the .44 Magnum. In my experience it is not unusual for a fired piece of brass to slip past the revolver’s extractor “star” on the ejection stroke and get jammed underneath. This would be a Very Bad Thing(tm) to have happen in the middle of a gunfight.


2.) Buying both a pistol and a registered (“Class 3”) submachinegun chambered for the same cartridge, preferably .45 ACP. By substituting a submachinegun (SMG) for the carbine, three shot burst capability and 30 round magazine capacity could make up for a pistol cartridge’s lack of power at moderate ranges. (Although the practical accuracy of a three shot burst from a SMG at more than 100 yards is dubious.) And of course you would have to weigh the risk/reward ratio of making yourself “high profile” by getting a registered Class 3 SMG. (Fingerprinting, $200 Federal transfer tax, background check, and the consent of your local sheriff or chief of police.) Other possibilities with the same magazine capacity (but a lower social profile) might be semi-auto SMG clones. These include the HK USC semi-auto carbine in .45 ACP (the semi-auto variant of HK’s UMP SMG), the Rock River Arms or Olympic Arms AR-15s chambered in .45 ACP, or the semi-auto versions of the venerable Thompson SMG. But with any of these guns, you are still limited to the relatively low power and rainbow long range trajectory of .45 ACP.

The two preceding approaches might work if you live in a heavily wooded eastern state (or perhaps a western rainforest such as Washington’s Olympic Peninsula), and all of your anticipated combat shooting will be at less than 120 yards. But I don’t think that if I were in that circumstance that I would be willing to put my life on the line, all for the sake of being able to say that I had achieved absolute one cartridge commonality nirvana. And as for anyone living in open country–like in the Plains states and most of the western states–limiting oneself to only a pistol cartridge–even the whomping .454 Casull–would be absurd.

One other consideration is that even if you were to get a pistol and a semi-auto carbine chambered in the same cartridge, odds are that their magazines would not be interchangeable. Hence, if you needed to “Rob Peter to pay Paul”, then you would have to unload one type of magazine and reload it into another magazine. This doesn’t sound like much fun to do in a hurry, when the air is thick with lead.

All of the preceding discussion of “maybe this” and “maybe that” marginal one-cartridge solutions bring us to the bottom line: In my estimation, the best that you can hope for in terms of maximizing cartridge commonality yet still be able to “reach out and touch someone” is to have all of your handguns chambered in one cartridge, and all of your rifles chambered in another. For example, here at the Rawles Ranch, nearly all of our handguns are.45 ACPs, and nearly all of our rifles–both bolt bolt actions and semi-autos–are .308s. (We do have a couple of .30-06 rifles, but only because we are in elk and moose country.)