Carbine around a barricade

Pistol-Caliber Carbines

Pistol-caliber carbines stretch the limits of handgun cartridges, but is that a good thing for self-defense?

By Richard Mann (RSS)
March 4, 2011

Conceptually, a pistol-caliber carbine should be an easy-to-handle, low-recoiling long gun that fires ammunition usually reserved for handguns. One of the most famous dates back to 1873, when Winchester introduced a lever-action carbine chambered for a variety of cartridges that could also be fired in the Colt Peacemaker. It gave cowboys, ranch hands and road agents two guns that used the same ammunition. Another illustrious example was the Tommy Gun immortalized by lawmen and gangsters in the 1920s and ’30s. This heavy-but-controllable submachine gun could lay down a barrage of .45-caliber bullets and shared ammo with the 1911.

A 16-inch carbine barrel—which is the minimum legal length except for registered, short-barreled rifles—drastically increases the muzzle velocity of pistol cartridges. This added velocity, combined with the advantages of a shoulder-fired platform and the resulting longer sight radius, make pistol-caliber carbines easier to hit targets at longer ranges than any handgun.

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But there is more to it than just hitting the target. Bullets are designed to behave within a certain velocity envelope. Drive them too fast, and they come apart or over-expand when they hit things. Fragmenting pistol bullets, especially when driven at carbine velocities, can fail to defeat intermediate barriers. They may leave wicked-looking wounds, but those wounds could be too shallow for fast, fight-ending incapacitation.

On the other hand, a bullet that fails to expand (and sometimes even those that over-expand) can penetrate very deeply, possibly deep enough to pass completely through a bad guy and strike an innocent bystander. Penetration potential is also a concern when shooting inside dwellings. You don’t want to miss the bad guy and shoot through a wall into your child’s room or the coffeehouse next door.

On average, a 16-inch-barreled carbine will give a velocity increase of about 230 fps over that produced from a 4- or 5-inch-barreled pistol. This equates to about 20 fps per inch of barrel. Increasing a pistol bullet’s impact velocity by 230 fps, about 20 percent, will affect the bullet’s terminal performance. How much so depends on bullet design.

Heckler & Koch USC, .45 ACP, rifle rear sight, rear sight, rifle sight

While the author found the USC's rear notch sight too small and positioned too close to the eye, he had no complaints about the hooded front post.

To find out, I tested seven different loads in three calibers from handguns and pistol-caliber carbines. Bullets were fired into 10-percent ordnance gelatin from a distance of 10 feet. The results tell us several things. They give us an idea of how these bullets perform at near point-blank range out of a carbine as compared to a pistol. By looking at the results from the pistols, we can see how the bullets will perform from a carbine at greater distances when they slow to handgun velocities.

With terminal performance, there are two main areas of concern: penetration depth and wound cavity size. A mix of standard, jacketed hollow-points and bonded hollow-points were included in the test along with one specialty round. In all cases, the wound cavities created by the bullets fired from the carbines were much wider. This is the effect of higher impact velocity. With all but one of the bullets, those fired from the carbines also penetrated more deeply. In general, you can expect more penetration with pistol-caliber carbines.

Of the bullets tested, the lone exception to this rule of thumb was Cor-Bon’s 165-grain .45 ACP +P load fired from the Heckler & Koch USC. This is one of my favorite handgun loads because of the massive tissue destruction it delivers, combined with a moderate 10 inches of penetration in ordnance gelatin. Out of the carbine, this load mangled the first 4 inches inside the gelatin block, and the bullet disintegrated. The deepest a piece of the bullet
I was able to locate penetrated 5.75 inches.

If you’re thinking of choosing a pistol-caliber carbine as opposed to a carbine in 5.56 NATO because you believe it will eliminate over-penetration concerns, you’re making a mistake unless you carefully select and test your loads. Most frangible or varmint-type .223 Rem. ammunition actually penetrates less in ordnance gelatin than most of the handgun loads I tested here. Hornady’s 40-grain .223 Rem. TAP Urban load only penetrated 7 inches in the gelatin, and the 110-grain .308 Win. TAP Urban load only penetrated 9 inches.

Bushmaster Carbon 15 Carbine, ammo, ammunition

Bushmaster's Carbon 15's lower receiver is not alumunim or exotic alloy, but a carbon-fiber-based polymer, helping reduce its overall weight.

But, aren’t pistol-caliber carbines supposed to be easier to shoot? A 6.5-pound carbine chambered in 5.56 NATO generates about 3.7 foot-pounds of recoil energy. A carbine of the same weight, firing a 115-grain, 9 mm load produces less than half that recoil, while one in .40 S&W generates only about two-thirds the recoil of a 5.56 NATO carbine. Pistol-caliber carbines should be easier to control, especially during rapid fire, because they allow you to recover and obtain a new sight picture sooner. However, a .45 ACP carbine generates 35 percent more recoil than one of an equivalent weight in 5.56 NATO.

To sort this out in a practical manner, two other shooters and I tested three pistol-caliber carbines in 9 mm, .40 S&W and .45 ACP. We ran each of these and a similar carbine in 5.56 NATO through a series of drills at 7 and 25 yards, and all shooting was conducted with open sights. At 7 yards, the fastest average times were obtained with the 9 mm carbine and the slowest came with the .45 ACP carbine. Time wise, the .40 S&W (tested in the EMF JR Carbine) and 5.56 NATO carbines were right in the middle. The difference in the slowest and fastest times was only .5 second.

At 25 yards the average times for all three shooters with all four carbines were virtually identical, meaning the minute difference in recoil had no bearing on the ability to trigger fast and accurate follow-up shots at that range. Surprisingly, at 7 yards the shooters were as accurate and as fast with handguns as they were with the carbines. The carbine’s advantage over the handgun became apparent only as the range increased. At 25 yards the carbines proved to be 30 percent faster and 20 percent more accurate. There was no contest between the handguns and the carbines at greater distances; however, the pistol-caliber carbines were only half as accurate as the 5.56 NATO carbine at 75 and 100 yards.

At just shy of 75 yards, a bullet fired from a pistol-caliber carbine will hit with the same velocity as a handgun chambered for the same cartridge at about 3 yards. For a home-defense carbine to complement your handgun, one in a pistol caliber seems to make sense because you can share ammunition and extend your effective range. A greater effective range is a good thing, but just how important is the ability to share ammunition between your pistol and carbine?

For home protection, it’s not that big of a deal. You shouldn’t have to carry ammo farther than from the basement to the bedroom. On the other hand, if you are hoarding ammunition for an impending zombie attack, you only have to worry about stockpiling one cartridge. You can always manipulate terminal performance by bullet selection. If you’re heading out into some apocalyptic disaster, you would only need to carry a single type of ammo, but what happens when that becomes the cartridge you cannot find? For surviving bad situations away from home in the wickedness a world like that might present, I believe selecting a cartridge with the ability to reach past 100 yards would be very desirable.

EMF JR Carbine, Picatinny rail, rifle,

With a continuous section of Picatinny rail atop its receiver and fore-end, mounting optics or back-up iron sights on the EMF JR Carbine is easy.

A pistol-caliber carbine does offer increased accuracy and range over a handgun, but it’s still a short-range weapon. Velocity at 100 yards will be below the point most handgun bullets will effectively expand, so for all practical purposes they become FMJ rounds. Beyond 100 yards, a pistol-caliber carbine simply cannot compete with a 5.56 NATO carbine in terms of trajectory, accuracy or wounding capability.

Don’t mistakenly assume that because a carbine shoots a pistol cartridge it will be easier to control or that it will be safer to shoot in your apartment complex than a rifle-caliber carbine. You’ll also find that accessories and extra magazines are not as available as they are for AR-style, rifle-caliber carbines.

Where a pistol-caliber carbine does have a distinct advantage is as a select-fire platform, configured as a short-barreled rifle and used with a suppressor and subsonic ammunition. It’s not an uncommon weapon for tactical teams, but as cool as a carbine like this may be, they are expensive and require a lot of paperwork to obtain, assuming they are legal in your state.

There’s no doubt pistol-caliber carbines are fun to shoot, but are they the right choice for survival or home protection? For some, maybe so. An M4-style carbine in 5.56 NATO on the other hand, is infinitely more versatile in terms of ammunition and accessories than any pistol-caliber carbine. It will also work just as well at short and long range, inside and outside your home.

With the versatility of an M4-style carbine in 5.56 NATO a given, it still may not be as cool as some pistol-caliber carbines. For fighting bad guys at rock-throwing ranges, it may be no better. A gun’s cool factor will not save your life, but nevertheless, a cool, pistol-caliber carbine loaded with the right ammo should work just fine. They are indeed more accurate and easier to shoot than any handgun.

Terminal Performance Comparison

Load Gun MV (fps) EXP (inches) RW (grains) PEN (inches)
9 mm 124-grain Speer Gold Dot Pistol 1,182 (50) .71 124 13.25
9 mm 124-grain Speer Gold Dot Carbine 1,352 .45 107 17.50
9 mm Federal 115-grain JHP Pistol 1,117 (59) .57 114 14.50
9 mm Federal 115-grain JHP Carbine 1,318 .50 70 16.00
.40 S&W 155-grain Speer Gold Dot Pistol 1,222 (58) .72 155 14.00
.40 S&W 155-grain Speer Gold Dot Carbine 1,458 .75 140 14.50
.40 S&W 155-grain Winchester SilverTip Pistol 1,209 (84) .76 155 10.25
.40 S&W 155-grain Winchester SilverTip Carbine 1,459 .82 145 12.75
.45 ACP 185-grain Speer Gold Dot Pistol 1,080 (59) .72 185 14.00
.45 ACP 185-grain Speer Gold Dot Carbine 1,279 .68 160 14.75
.45 ACP 165-grain Cor-Bon +P JHP Pistol 1,264 (89) .78 68 10.25
.45 ACP 165-grain Cor-Bon +P JHP Carbine 1,633 NA NA 5.75
.45 ACP 145-grain Glaser Silver Safety Slug Pistol 1,362 (41) NA NA 7.00
.45 ACP 145-grain Glaser Silver Safety Slug Carbine 1,617 NA NA 8.00

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Comments

46 Responses to Pistol-Caliber Carbines

  1. Pingback: Pistol Caliber Carbines – Are They a Viable Option? | EMPTY CASES

  2. Pingback: SayUncle » Pistol caliber carbines

  3. James Eddings says:

    Great test and I know it was a lot of work but go to the next step for revolvers and lever guns and run .357[my choice], .44 mag and .45 long colt.
    Thanks

  4. That Guy says:

    You forget the #1 bonus aspect of Pistol caliber carbines- They are fun to shoot. This is good for new shooters. Lower recoil, lower muzzle blast, low cost ammo, and still a big hole on the target.

    If you are taking a new person shooting, start off with a .22, then step up to a 9mm carbine. They will have a big grin on their face when it’s over. Making shooting FUN is a big part of making sure new shooters stay with the sport.

    And it will work for home protection as well. Multi-purpose: Fun to shoot, and can be called for serious duty if needed.

  5. settles says:

    Would’ve been nice to see the 10mm thrown in this test. Otherwise, a great read.

    • Richard Mann says:

      I agree but we had a difficult time getting the guns we did test all together at the same time. It seems several companies did not want us to test their guns or they were selling them so fast they did not have one to send us.

    • AuricTech says:

      Purpose-built 10mm carbines seem a bit thin on the ground, compared to 9mm, .40 S&W and .45 ACP. That being said, MechTech Systems produces a drop-in unit that mounts a carbine barrel and action on a Glock or M1911 frame. It’s available in a variety of calibers, including 10mm.

      (No, I have no affiliation with MechTech. Your comment intrigued me, so I did an online search for 10mm carbines.)

  6. Sigivald says:

    You don’t want to miss the bad guy and shoot through a wall into your child’s room or the coffeehouse next door.

    Well, unless you’re using frangibles, you’re going to penetrate a wall even with a pistol-length barrel – and indeed you’re very likely to make it all the way out of the house.

    Walls aren’t armor, after all.

    (And even then, in fact, you’re sure to make it through the first wall and very likely through a second, according to the test data I’ve seen.)

    • Richard Mann says:

      Not all walls are created equal, but, I said, “If you’re thinking of choosing a pistol-caliber carbine as opposed to a carbine in 5.56 NATO because you believe it will eliminate over-penetration concerns, you’re making a mistake unless you carefully select and test your loads.”

  7. Gunnutmegger says:

    I thought 20% gelatin was the standard testing media.

    The ability to add optics & red-dot sights is a big advantage.

    I wonder how the heavier .40S&W and .45acp rounds would do in this comparison.

    • Richard Mann says:

      Most use 10% gelatin for terminal performance testing but there is no standard or board of certified directors to determine a standard. Most folks just reference the FBI tests with 10% gelatin and call that the standard. Thing is, nobody but the FBI made it “the standard”

      The heavier bullets would not show a great deal of performance difference. Their additional weight is off-set by their slower velocity. Check out the Terminal Tuesday section of this web site for information on heavier bullets from handguns.

  8. Pingback: Pistol-Caliber Carbines | USMilitaryLinks.com

  9. Mike says:

    Can you make suggestions for load that work best in carbines and those that work well both in pistols and carbines?

    • Richard Mann says:

      Without set criteria, no. I t would depend on what you wanted to shoot. If penetration is on the top of your list, 9mm FMJ is hard to beat in a handgun or carbine.

  10. Pingback: Pistol-Caliber Carbines | Where to Buy Airsoft Guns

  11. Pingback: Pistol-Caliber Carbines | TMIN.net | Guns Club

  12. Pingback: Real good read considering pistol caliber carbines - Super Off Topic Syndicate

  13. Dave says:

    10% Ballistics Gel is the standard. Also, i am fairly shocked to see that nothing over 185gr was used in .45 ACP, much less any quality round such as the HST or Ranger T-series.

    • Richard Mann says:

      Again, outside of the FBI or other organizations, there is no standard. Bullet manufacturers use a wide variety of test mediates.

      The bonded bullets like you suggest would expand about the same as from a handgun and penetrate a bit deeper when fired from the carbine. That is a characteristic of bonded bullets, they resist high velocity impact better than bullets of standard construction.

  14. Pingback: Pistol-Caliber Carbines | Spring 1911 Airsoft Pistols

  15. Daniel says:

    I too am surprised they only tested 185 grain in .45ACP…interested in how 230 grain would perform

  16. Angus Blackthorne says:

    Another good point is that it indoor ranges will often let you shoot pistol ammo in carbines, but will not let you shoot 5.56. If you live in an urban area and its hard to get to an outdoor range, this can be a huge issue. The best gun is the one you can practice with…

  17. Charlie says:

    Some hand gun caliber carbines, such as the Hi-Point carbines, are much more affordable than an AR-15 or M4 and much more controllable than hand guns when used by the average under experienced home owner/shooter. They are available in 9mm, .40 S&W and .45 ACP.

  18. Sean says:

    Kel-Tec Makes a super cool 40 cal and a 9mm folding carbine that take Glock mags. I carry a G 23 and Have a full sized mag as back up. 1 caliber, 1 mag type. LOVE IT! (With the new 22 round Glock Mag for the 40 even more fun)

  19. Brian says:

    Consider the fact that should you need to fire your carbine indoors, a pistol-caliber carbine will be MUCH quieter than a 5.56. (or most any center-fire rifle cartridge) The report from a 16-inch bbl 9mm carbine, in my experience, is not much louder than the report from a .22 rifle. Not to mention, a 9mm carbine is significantly quieter than a 9mm handgun. I live in a state where civilians can’t own suppressors, and if noise is a concern for you, its worth mentioning.

  20. Carl says:

    Very interesting article, thanks for writing it. I just purchased a .45 Hi Point carbine and it is extremely fun to shoot but I’m looking for the best round to really dial it in without breaking the bank. I know some people scoff at the Hi Points but so far it seems pretty good and at $300 including red dot scope I could actually afford it unlike the AR-15 or M4, etc. The red dot scope is easier for me to use with both eyes opened which I think is important in home defense and low light situations. The gun shoulders very well so I feel more confident controlling it better than a handgun. I am a reasonably good shot with either but in an intense, white knuckle situation for the avergage Joe like me I’m more comfortable with solid feel of the carbine. Also, it is much more intimidating in appearance which might make the difference between a surrendering bad guy and actually have to take him out. I’d much rather have him surrender.

    • Steve says:

      Just bought the 4595 Hi-Point also and accessorized it to be intimidating first. I would rather scare them to an easier target too! And I actually managed to mount both a 4 x 32 scope and a low lite red dot scope at a 45° angle beside it, bipod legs, grip, flashlight, green laser, diffuser and more. I call it intimidate or eliminate. Needed because I am small, essentially one hand and a flipper so this is far easier to aim and control than the 9mm S&W Tactical pistol. Also researching ammo. I am still leaning toward Hornady Critical Defense, it packs a wollop of 3/4′ expansion and good penitration in 45 acp and havr it for the 9mm. The 3 point sling is next so I can combine the Hi-Point 4595 and S&W 9mm. Still I am trying to find good long distance shot for the Hi-Point. Three or four clips of good long shot fired at 100 yards should keep any thugs away. My hoise is too small to let them in the door.

  21. Richard Mann says:

    Brian,

    Good Point.

    Carl,

    We wanted to include the Hi-Point but was unable to get one for the test. A down side to the carbine for HD is trying to search, independently with a flashlight.

    RAM

  22. Zane says:

    I’m in the group with limited budget and limited places to shoot, but I still want a carbine. With my Kel-Tec SUB 2000 in 9mm I can shoot a lot at the local indoor range, and only need one caliber ammunition.

  23. Carl says:

    Good point about the flashlight. I am thinking of getting a tactical light for my carbine which I think will serve the purpose pretty well but I see what you’re saying about having a free hand for a light when only needing one hand for a handgun. I have a small house so hopefully a decen tactical light will light it all up well enough if I ever need it.

  24. Pingback: Taurus CT G2 Carbine | Shooting Illustrated

  25. Bugs says:

    Sean (#18) has the right idea for grab’ngo. I went with a lever carbine and revolver in .357; it’s below the radar in California, and I can almost always find something that will fit the chamber if I somehow get separated from my ammo.

    As far as range is concerned, it depends on location. Lever guns with iron sights are fine for most of Central California. Most shots occur at under 100 yards. That makes a single cartridge viable for me.

    Night is another game. If you can’t see the front sight and the target you can’t hit it.

    Another consideration: Guns and ammo are expensive. If you are new to it and want an arsenal that can be useful for home, personal, bedside, SHTF and survival use, a handgun and carbine of the same caliber are the quickest way to gain decent capability per dollar for all those scenarios, even if not optimum for any.

  26. Pingback: Burglar's Family Wins Wrongful Death Suit - INGunOwners

  27. Pingback: New Guns at NASGW | Shooting Illustrated

  28. Walker Evans says:

    The old cowboys took a lot of game with the .38-40, which has ballistics almost identical to the .40 S&W fired from a carbine. Carrying a handgun and carbine that use the same ammo made sense then, and it still makes sense now.

  29. Pingback: .45 ACP for home defense.... - Hipoint Firearms Forums

  30. Sky Soldier 11th AAD says:

    The Beretta 9MM, .40 and .45 caliber tactical carbine is a really sweet near distance rifle/long pistol. However, only the 9MM has a extra capacity mag. The .40 and .45 have pistol mags. All are great at up to 100-123 yards, but for tactical style carbines you wouldn’t be taking down the bad guys at longer distances.

  31. Jake Hill says:

    Penetration is about sectional momentum. Heavier bullets of the same caliber generally have higher sectional densities and higher momentum than their lighter brethren. Thus, they would penetrate deeper. That is why bullets are cored with high density materials like lead, tungsten, or uranium. And that is why expansion so reduces penetration, because it greatly reduces sectional density after impact.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impact_depth

  32. Rod says:

    Canadian laws limit rifle calibers to 5 rounds/mag wheras with a pistol caliber we can use 10rounds/mag. Also, pretty much anything that fires 5.56 is restricted. Add cheaper cost of ammo and they look like a good choice in Canada.

  33. Larry says:

    I have a Mech Tech in .40S&W. I have shot it 150 yards with surprising results, but I do have a nice 3-9 power Scope on it. I can hit an 8 inch plate at 150 yards 14 out of 14 times no problem. I would say it is capable of 4 inch groups but I have shot 2 inch and less at 100 yards. I still am playing with different loads. I would not be surprised to see those groups shrink once I get a load dialed in and some practice time. I love this thing. It is very well made and very reasonably priced. I had a Sub 2000 in the same caliber, but it was not as accurate as the Glock/Mech Tech combo with a scope. I would highly recommend one for fun and also function. Great for a bug-out duo along with my Glock 27 or my 24.

  34. randall says:

    There are other reasons to purchase a carbine with pistol caliber besides those given in the article. I purchased a Rock River Arms LAR-9 (9mm AR platform). Why? Because 9mm is very cheap, I use it in my pistol also and can buy bigger quantities, saving money. I did not buy this rifle for home defense – I have a pistol and shotgun for that.

    I bought it for shooting fun. Indoor ranges that don’t allow rifle calibers are accessible to me. Could I use it for self defense. Yeah, it could be used for that also.

  35. Terrance says:

    I tried a Mechtech in the 45acp about a year ago. It was pure junk, bad jams, stovepipes the metal looked like old salvage iron cleaned up and machined. The machining was terrible, period. By a full fledged carbine for the money. I sent the thing back!

  36. CV says:

    WHAT ABOUT THE FMJ 30 CARBINE ROUNDS? ARE THEY CONSIDERED ‘HANDGUN AMMUNITION’ IN CALIFORNIA?

  37. Tobin says:

    Very good information brought forward to assist me in deciding between 5.56×45 or my duty carry 40SW
    I am a PA Constible that may find my self pinned down on one of the long driveways we have in the country. My carry round is .40 American Eagle 180 FMJ. I had 22 years in Coast Guard so I know what FMJ and the new hollow PTA can do. I believe a .40 carbine will be my choice. Remember all service Pistals are on target at 50 yards , 1911 and my Beretta Storm

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