Gun sales in the United States have hit record-highs in recent years – and the increase appears to be driven, at least in part, by concerns over personal safety. According to an October 2021 Gallup poll, 88% of gun owners in the U.S. have a firearm for protection against crime – up from just 65% in the year 2000. The evolving consumer market has brought meaningful changes to the firearm industry.
Pistols have been the top-selling firearm type in the U.S. nearly every year since overtaking rifles in 2010. American gunmakers produced over 6.5 million handguns in 2020, up from less than 1.3 million two decades earlier.
More maneuverable and easily concealed than a rifle or shotgun, handguns – including both pistols and revolvers – are well suited for both home defense or personal protection in public. But while there are many factors to consider when choosing a handgun, many prospective buyers want the most power that they can comfortably handle. (This is how hard it is to buy a handgun in every state.)
Using ballistics data compiled by outdoor gear retailer Sportsman’s Warehouse, 24/7 Wall St. identified the most powerful handguns. We ranked all 25 calibers with available data on the foot-pounds of energy delivered at 50 yards. For each caliber, we selected the bullet weight, or grain, that delivers the most force at 50 yards. This ranking does not account for variations in barrel length and is based on a limited, and not necessarily comprehensive, list of available bullet weights.
The power delivered by a bullet fired from 50 yards ranges among the calibers on this list from over 1,800 foot-pounds of energy – enough to take large game like black bear and elk – to only about 50 foot-pounds of energy.
It is important to note that handguns are rarely used at ranges exceeding 50 yards, particularly in self-defense situations, and that these calibers deliver far more power at closer range. Nearly every caliber on this list is a suitable self-defense weapon, though some are also appropriate choices for hunting. (Here is a look at the law for carrying firearms in public in every state.)
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