Don’t Underestimate These Pistol Calibers: Five Underrated Cartridges You Should Consider

by Allen Forkner, Editor

While these five cartridges are often underrated, they provide power, speed and a way to break from the norm.

Half-a-dozen handgun cartridges worth consideration

It’s a simple fact: We live in a 9mm world, and all other calibers are just paying rent.

Not surprising, as the 9mm sits in that Goldilocks zone of bullet weight, muzzle velocity, expandability, economy and magazine capacity. Add in the fact that as the NATO standard, there are plants around the world churning out millions of cartridges.

But does that mean it’s the one true round to rule them all? C’mon, how boring would the world be if everyone shot a nine and nothing else?

And while the 45 ACP, 38 Special and 380 ACP are still popular, let’s take a look at six underrated cartridges that stand out in a world full of the same ol’, same ol’.

50 Action Express

In Guy Ritchie’s masterpiece “Snatch,” movie (and real life) tough guy Vinnie Jones gives the 50AE round it’s due.

“… The fact that you’ve got ‘Replica’ written down the side of your guns, and the fact that I’ve got ‘Desert Eagle, point five oh, written on the side of mine…”

There may be no more movie-famous firearm than the Desert Eagle and no round is more synonymous with that Israeli hand-cannon than the 50AE.

With its origins found in the legendary 44 Remington Magnum (Dirty Harry, anyone?), the “fiddy” is loaded to bring the same ballistics to an autoloader. With a 300-grain bullet travelling in the 1,400 feet-per-second range, the 50AE brings a boatload of kinetic energy to any party.

Uncase a Desert Eagle at the range, or light off a 50AE revolver from Freedom Arms, and you’ll have the attention of the entire range. Just be prepared for the inevitable request to try it out. Unfortunately, ammo is not inexpensive.


38 Super

Introduced in 1929, the 38 Super was the hot-rod round of its day. This fast cartridge could be chambered in the 1911, which had already caught on as the king of the pistols by the late 20s. It brought supersonic speed to the party, outpacing the slower 45 ACP by as much as 500 fps in some loadings.

The early adopters of the 38 Super were the motorized bandits of the era, who felt the smaller diameter bullet and higher velocity gave them a leg up on rudimentary body armor and heavy steel police car doors. That perception, plus the higher magazine capacity, led the 38 Super to be a popular choice among the more discerning gunsel.

No more famous bandit than John Dillinger himself had a 1911 in 38 Super customized by Hymen Lebman. This handgun was converted to full auto, fitted with a Cutts compensator to control recoil and had the vertical foregrip from a Thompson submachine gun added.

These days, the 38 Super is the caliber of choice for the world’s best competitive shooters. The combination of low recoil, bullet weight, muzzle velocity and capacity make it the perfect round for open division shooters in IPSC or USPSA competition.

Most shooters see a 38 Super at the range and automatically assume the owner knows what they are doing. The main downside is that the burden is now on you to shoot like you rub elbows with Doug Koenig or Max Michel.

357 SIG

Picture if you will, the power of the 357 Magnum, whose 125-grain load was THE standard for law enforcement for more than half of the 20th century. Now, imagine that ballistic bark in a 13-round semi-auto.

That was the challenge SIG Sauer engineers put to the ballistic world when the 357 SIG was launched. The idea was pretty simple, take the newer 40 S&W case, neck it down to fit a .358-inch 9mm bullet and stoke it full of fast pistol powder. The result was a 124-grain load that mirrored the legendary Magnum revolver round, but you could stuff a baker’s dozen into a SIG P229.

The additional benefit of the bottlenecked round was enhanced feeding in a semi-auto. The lighter bullet gave a slightly reduced felt recoil impulse than the .40, but with higher velocities.

Deer hunters also adopted the round as a viable handgun cartridge where legal. As an added bonus, if you already owned a .40-caliber handgun, you could almost certainly swap it over to a 357 SIG with a simple barrel change.

The 357 SIG was a handful then and now. The 357 Magnum was a stout round to shoot in full-house defensive loads, and if you match the ballistics going down range, you’re going to have to match them in recoil. This means once you light off one or two shots at the range, expect all eyes to turn your way to see what the heck you’re shooting.

45 Colt

This may seem like an odd addition to an underrated list seeing as one of the most famous handguns in the world is the “Colt 45”, or as we know it, the Peacemaker.

Of course, for many decades now, the term Colt 45 has become more associated with the 1911 in 45 ACP than the old cowboy cartridge.

While the 45 Colt (sometimes erroneously called the 45 Long Colt) won’t win any ribbons for fastest round or most powerful cartridge, it still gets the job done more than 100 years after its introduction.

A 250-grain bullet at 850 fps is on the big and slow side, but supersonic speeds can be had with 200-grain loadings. But at the end of the day, the 45 Colt is not about performance. It’s about history, romance, heritage and America.

The 45 Colt, and the firearms chambered in the round, are iconic. From the Colt Single Action Army revolver to the Winchester 94 lever gun to the modern day Ruger Super Blackhawks, the 45 Colt is the original red, white and blue load.

327 Federal

Meet the newest member of the underrated family. The 327 Federal Magnum came to be in 2007 and has started to catch on, but still qualifies for this list.

What makes the 327 Federal such a cool round? In a word, pressure. In two words, good pressure.

Unlike the 32 H&R Magnum from which its based, the 327 stokes a much higher pressure ceiling. How much? More than double, surpassing the H&R’s 21,000 psi top end with a massive 45,000 psi limit.

More pressure means more velocity. More velocity means more energy. More energy means more downrange thump on target.

But the lighter 100- to 115-grain bullets in the 327 Federal also means less felt recoil. So now you can stuff those loads into a small-frame revolver like a Taurus 327, Ruger LCR or any of several brands and have a very viable, yet small and easy to carry package.

The bonus? Thanks to the smaller diameter of the .32 caliber compared to the traditional .38, those little five-shot revolvers are now six-shooters.

Odds are no one will even notice you’ve got a 327 Federal and will just assume you’ve got a 38 Special. So, if you are the type that likes to color outside the lines, but not make a big show of it, the 327 Federal may be the right choice for you.

Feeding the beasts

One commonality of all these underrated calibers is that sometimes availability of ammo at your typical big box can be a bit sparse. With limited offerings, they can also come at costs higher than keeping your 9mm or 380 ACP fed.

Fortunately, ammo shopping on is a great way to find deals on hard-to-find calibers, underrated loads, and even bulk deals to make sure you’re always ready for the range.

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