Caliber Battle: 10mm vs. .45 Auto
The 9mm Luger may be the king of modern handgun cartridges, but it is far from the most powerful. If you want to start handgun hunting or want something with a little extra juice for bear defense, the 10mm Auto and .45 Auto are two popular options.
In a first for this series, we run these two semi-automatic handgun cartridges through the Caliber Battle gauntlet. These might not be the best cartridges for handgun hunting or bear defense, but if you have to choose, which is better?
If you did a random poll of gun owners, the majority would probably say the 10mm is more powerful than the .45. In this case, the masses are more or less correct. The average 10mm cartridge will launch a 180-200 grain bullet faster than the average .45 Auto. (Note: The .45 Auto and the .45 ACP are the same cartridge. “ACP” stands for “Automatic Colt Pistol”.)
But modern powder and bullets allow ammo makers to power older ones like the .45, and some loads can compete with the faster 10mm. This .45 Auto from Federal, for example, launches a 205-grain bullet at 970 feet per second (fps) for an energy output of 428 foot-pounds (ft.-lbs.) at the muzzle. This 10mm Auto is also marketed for personal defense and fires a 180 grain bullet at 1,030 fps for a power output of 424 ft-lbs.
The .45 can compete with the 10mm in some matchups, but the 10mm has a higher ceiling. In “Cartridges of the World”, Frank C. Barnes lists the hottest 10mm as producing 680 foot-pounds. of energy, 146 ft-lbs. more than the most hard-hitting .45. The .45 Auto linked above seems to be Federal’s most powerful option (428 ft-lbs), but the company’s hottest 10mm is this 180-grain load designed for hunting, which produces 650 ft-lb. energy to the muzzle.
It’s also worth pointing out that “stopping power” is not limited to projectile energy. A bullet must travel fast enough to reach an animal‘s vital area, and the 10mm velocity helps ensure that this happens.
You don’t have to be a handloader or shoot +P+ loads to find a .45 that can compete with a 10mm. But at the higher end of each cartridge’s range, the 10mm Auto hits harder than the .45 Auto.
If you’re familiar with our Caliber Battles rifle, you’ll know that we define “shooting capacity” as recoil impulse plus cartridge cost and availability. This metric is even more important when considering handgun cartridges.
Your shoulder won’t hurt firing either of these rounds in pistol caliber rifle setups, but handgun recoil is harder to control than rifle recoil. It’s also more subjective. Some people claim to enjoy shooting wrist-breaking cartridges while others are incredibly sensitive to the pop and rattle of a handgun’s report.
Anticipating palm pain may cause some flinch when gun hunting, but at least one whitetail deer won’t turn around and eat you. For bear defense, getting multiple shots on target quickly can mean the difference between life and death. This is partly why MeatEater’s Clay Newcomb chose 9mm over .45 and .44 Magnum. Controlling the kick of a handgun can be tricky, and two shots with a smaller caliber are almost always better than one shot with a bigger one.
It’s also worth mentioning that handguns that are painful to shoot aren’t fun to practice. Your bear defense weapon won’t do you much good if you’ve only fired a few bullets because it hurts your hand too much.
In this category, the .45 Auto beats the 10mm hands down, at least on paper. According to Chuck Hawks recoil chart, a 10mm Auto firing a 180 grain bullet at 1,295 fps kicks with 11.4 foot-pounds. of force while most .45 Auto options land within 7-8 ft-lbs. interval.
Of course, this comparison is highly dependent on the weight of the handgun. A heavy 10mm handgun can dampen the recoil impulse and can feel like a .45 Auto from a lighter pistol. But since every action should produce an equal and opposite reaction, a 10mm will generally be harder to control than a .45 for most people.
The .45 also beats the 10mm in cost and ammo availability. The .45 has been around since 1905, has been adopted by militaries around the world, and is commercially popular. These advantages mean that .45 cartridges will be easier to find and available in cheaper bulk options from nearly every major manufacturer.
Federal, for example, offers 27 varieties of .45 Auto, the cheapest of which is $0.75 per round. In 10mm, they offer nine options, the cheapest of which is $1.80 per round.
The .45 Auto wasn’t on our list of handgun hunting calibers, and its curved trajectory certainly limits its effective range (it drops about 5 inches at 75 yards but a full foot at 100 yards). But this does not mean that it is incapable of taking small and medium game. Modern soft-point and hollow-point bullets increase efficiency, and Ryan Callaghan of MeatEater once told me about an outfitter he knew who had taken a nice white-tailed deer with the .45 handgun. who was “clicking in the door of his truck”.
The .45 Auto can also be an effective bear defense cartridge. In a recent survey of 93 bear attacks, the .45 Auto was used eight times (tied for second), and all defensive attempts were successful.
Still, it’s hard to deny that, like ballistics, the 10mm Auto has a higher ceiling for bear hunting and defense. Superior ballistics allow the 10mm to take larger animals than the .45 Auto or to take animals of the same size more reliably.
Federal does not offer any .45 autoloads for hunting, but three of its nine 10mm autoload options are marketed for hunting and bear defense. This 180-grain load uses a jacketed Bear Claw bullet designed to take medium-sized game like white-tailed deer; this 200-grain option includes a Swift A-Frame bullet for deer-sized animals; and this 200-grain cartridge uses a polymer-jacketed hard molded bullet specifically designed for bear defense.
When I spoke with Todd Orr, a prolific handgun hunter from Montana, he assured me that 10mm is good for hogs, deer, antelope, and bears. He even caught an elk with one, although he advised to keep shots within 100 yards.
And the winner is…
Skill and comfort matter more in pistol shooting than in rifle shooting. A brand new hunter who can hit a target with a rifle might have a really hard time with a handgun. That’s why, unless you’re looking for big game like elk, it’ll be better to use a .45 Auto you’re comfortable with than a 10mm you just bought at the store.
But if you’re new to both calibers, the 10mm’s superior ballistics and versatility make up for its loss in the shot capability category. Most gun makers offer 10mm handguns, so you won’t have too much trouble finding a gun you can comfortably shoot. Some are also optics ready, allowing you to easily mount a red dot for more accurate shots.
The .45 Auto may have won a world war, but for hunting and bear defense the 10mm is the better option.
Overall winner: 10mm automatic