I’ve always found that becoming proficient with pistols takes more practice than doing so with a rifle or shotgun.
This makes sense because handguns lack the shoulder stocks and cheek rests that give long arms their stability.
Whenever I take rifles and pistols to the range, I always put more rounds through the smaller gun, whether for practice or fun.
And this causes the cost to add up quickly!
So, what’s the cheapest pistol caliber to shoot?
For people who only want to shoot paper, the .22 Long Rifle is the cheapest pistol round. 9mm Parabellum is the least expensive full-power pistol caliber for most uses. .38 Special is the least expensive revolver cartridge.
The Cheapest Pistol Cartridge
|.22 Long Rifle
|.40 Smith & Wesson
*CPR = cost per round
Prices are from early 2022, aggregated from many websites and excluding remanufactured ammo.
For most people, there is one single cartridge that’s perfect for almost anything they want to do.
Rifles have several classes of calibers, from varmint to belted magnums, which means there’s not really a single jack-of-all-trades rifle round.
Handguns, on the other hand, do not have this weakness.
If you want just one pistol, get it in a 9mm Parabellum.
9mm Parabellum, also called 9mm Luger or 9×19 (not to be confused with 9×18 Makarov), was invented in 1901. Modern innovations in powder and bulled design have kept 9mm at the front of the cartridge wars for a century despite this ancient heritage.
Multiple cartridges have been invented to edge out 9mm, most notably .40 S&W and .45 ACP, but today’s 9mm will perform just as well as those bigger rounds while costing less and having a higher capacity.
Recommended: Best .45 ACP Pistols for Every Budget
And, because it’s used in high volumes by militaries and police forces worldwide, production capacities are high. This drives the price down.
You can buy dirt-cheap 115gr FMJ training ammo in white boxes, +P+ ultra-advanced loads, and everything in between. 9mm is versatile.
This means that 9mm is the cheapest practice handgun caliber to shoot. It’s also the cheapest self-defense handgun caliber to shoot.
Not bad for a single caliber, eh?
The Real Cheapest Pistol Caliber
Of course, .22 Long Rifle is far cheaper than even a 9mm Luger.
This comes with several drawbacks.
The first is power. .22 LR is much weaker than even the weakest 9mm load.
I’ve knocked a squirrel down but not out by shooting it with .22.
So, you don’t want to use .22 against anything except paper or metal targets, with the exception of .22 snakeshot.
And even then, I’d go for a bigger cartridge.
Also, .22 LR is a rimmed cartridge. This means the rim extends around the outside diameter of the case.
This is a downside because improper loading can cause one case’s rim to be on the wrong side of the rim below it, causing a situation known as rim lock.
This jams the gun.
Also, .22 LR is both dirty and weak.
This increases the chances of a malfunction, such as failing to eject.
Finally, .22 LR is a rimfire cartridge, which means the primer is around the rim.
This has two effects:
- Rimfire firing pins can be damaged if you fire without a round in the chamber
- Rimfire primers are less likely to go off properly
In short, the .22 Long Rifle is a weak round with reliability concerns.
The lack of recoil and extremely reduced expense make .22 perfect for new shooters and high-volume trigger time, but it’s not a caliber with many real-world uses.
By all means, get a .22 pistol for your first pistol or as a target practice pistol. But if you want a handgun that can do more than shoot paper, get a 9mm pistol.
The Cheapest Handgun Caliber to Shoot for Hunting
However, I don’t quite award 9mm the title of being the cheapest handgun hunting cartridge.
Sure, some people have taken hogs and deer with specialty hunting 9mm at ranges up to 100. However, this isn’t legal everywhere.
Some states prohibit 9mm due to being underpowered or due to not fitting the minimum caliber.
Iowa, for example, requires handguns to have a minimum muzzle energy of 500 foot-pounds, a target 9mm rarely hits.
And even if you hit that line, well, do you really want to hunt deer with a marginal weapon? It increases your chances of wounding instead of killing your target, harming the animal, and letting it get away.
This is where .357 Magnum becomes my selection for the cheapest handgun hunting caliber. It’s still a bit weak, but .357 Magnum loads astart at about 540 ft-lbs and go up from there.
However, my preferred pistol hunting caliber is 10mm Auto. It’s roughly as powerful as a .41 Magnum round but in a smaller case, letting you get revolver power in a semi-auto pistol.
In fact, 10mm is used in Alaska as a bear-defense cartridge!
What About Revolver Ammo?
Most revolvers take rimmed cases, which take 9mm off the table when you want an economic wheelgun.
.38 Special is the cheapest revolver cartridge because it’s one of the most commonly bought and shot calibers.
However, unless you need to shed every last ounce off your revolver, you should opt for a .357 Magnum revolver.
Because you can load .38 Special into a .357 Mag revolver but not the other way around!
This lets you plink and practice with the cheap stuff so you can save money for the occasional powerful load. This is the tactic I use with my .357 revolver.
A word of warning, though:
Keep track of what ammo you’re using!
Cheap .38 Spl and expensive .357 Mag have such different amounts of recoil it’s easy to misidentify what happened to the gun when you pull the trigger on the wrong cartridge.
If you’re expecting a .357’s oomph and get the pop of a .38 Special, it can feel like you just let off a squib. And firing .357 when you’re expecting .38 can be, ah, surprising.
A Word on Caliber vs. Cartridge
You may have noticed how I’ve used “caliber” and “cartridge” near interchangeably in this article.
Caliber and cartridge are not the same things. The short of it is that “caliber” refers to the bullet’s width. There are multiple 9mm rounds out there. 9mm Parabellum, 9mm Makarov, and 9×25 Dillon all share the 9mm caliber but are not compatible.
Did you know that .38 Special and .357 Magnum are also 9mm caliber cartridges?
The difference in bullet diameter between 9mm Luger (0.355″) and .38 Spl (0.357″) is a scant 0.02 inches. This is small enough for those cartridges to get lumped together in the same category.
Whether you’re shooting a pistol or revolver, and regardless of whether or not you’re pedantic, 9mm is the cheapest handgun caliber to shoot.
Excepting .22 Long Rifle, of course.
.22 LR always wins!
Does Reloading Affect Which Caliber is Cheapest to Shoot?
Market oddities can sometimes affect whether or not reloading a particular cartridge saves you money. For example, in years past, it used to be cheaper to buy new 7.62×39 rounds than to load your own.
However, most handgun loads use straight-wall cartridges with small powder loads and common bullets.
In other words, reloading 9mm is cheap and easy. Same with .40 S&W and any other common pistol round.
Because so many 9mm caliber bullets are produced, though, 9mm Para still maintains its cheap edge.
Tips and Tricks to Save Money Shooting Handguns
So, you have a 9mm Parabellum pistol and want to put as much lead downrange while also trying to save as much money as possible.
Here are some tips and tricks to help your bullet budget go further.
As I mentioned above, rolling your own loads will save you money in the long run, provided you shoot enough.
Since the 9mm case has a straight wall, you can skip the neck sizing step required of most rifle cartridges.
This makes progressive presses a fast and reliable method for producing large amounts of reloaded ammo without spending a lot of time at the reloading bench.
Even in these turbulent times, you can find 9mm bullets at a price down to $0.10 per bullet. Put 5 grains of Winchester Auto Comp behind it for $0.03 and some heavily marked-up primers for $0.10 each and you’ll be at under a quarter per bullet.
This is $0.10 cheaper per round than cheap Blazer ammo!
(Provided you reuse your empty cases, of course!)
Also, if you just want to poke holes in paper, you don’t need to push the pill with as much power as the case will handle.
You can develop a reduced-power load that’s powerful enough to cycle your pistol, saving you gunpowder. Commercial reduced-power loads are specialty items that don’t save you money.
Dropping to .380 ACP can save you money because that cartridge uses 9mm bullets but a little bit less gunpowder, though you will lose any advantage the moment you buy commercially loaded ammo.
Don’t Be Afraid of Aluminum Cased Ammo
Years ago, ammo with aluminum cases hit the scene, and they were regarded as cheap and unreliable.
Today, these issues have been resolved. And hey! Aluminum is still cheaper than brass.
Today, there’s no reason to ignore aluminum-cased ammo when you’re trying to save money.
Buy Another Barrel
9mm is the cheapest caliber to shoot. Most of the time.
Occasionally it isn’t.
I’ve lived through several times when political and economic pressure has caused the demand for popular cartridges to skyrocket. This inevitably caused their prices to rise as well.
This means I have bought .357 Sig and 10mm Auto for a cheaper cost per round than 9mm Parabellum or .40 S&W.
Thankfully, I had the pistols to take advantage of this odd case. Well, more accurately, I had the spare barrels available.
If you have a pistol such as a Glock, you have access to aftermarket or surplus barrels. Swapping the barrel is easy and, depending on your gun’s configuration, may not even need different barrels.
For example, I build a pistol with a compact-longslide Polymer80 frame and a police trade-in Glock 22 parts kit. I then bought a 9mm barrel and a .357 Sig barrel.
All three of those cartridges have been “the cheapest” at some point over the past couple of years, letting me save money at the range even when prices jump!
Note that this won’t apply to all pistols, unfortunately. And while I know that Glock’s .40 S&W magazines can be loaded with .357 Sig and 9mm Parabellum just fine, I cannot guarantee any other magazine cross-compatibility.
Don’t Mag Dump
Look, we all know it’s fun to fire as quickly as possible and watch those dirt tufts pop up all over the berm.
This is literally turning money into smoke, however. I know I’m not rich enough for that!
Instead, try to sate that rapid-fire urge by turning it into a practice session.
Specifically, practice returning to target as quickly as possible while pulling the trigger right as the sights align with the target.
Start slow, then speed up naturally as your sight alignment smooths out.
Once you get the knack of firing right as the sights hit the target, you’ll be just as fast as those random mag dumps, but every round will be on paper!
This is even more fun than mag dumping because you get the satisfaction of actually hitting your target. Plus, you’ll be practiced at rapid, accurate shooting if you ever need to draw your handgun in a life-or-death situation.
9mm is the cheapest caliber to shoot with any full-power handgun.
Those who want just one pistol should buy a 9mm gun.
If you’re carrying a semi-auto pistol, then the 9mm Parabellum is a capable, reliable, versatile, and relatively cheap cartridge that belongs in any gun enthusiast’s collection.
If you prefer going old school with a revolver, well, .357 Magnum and .38 special are both 9mm caliber cartridges, so buying a .357 Mag gun gives you capability, reliability, and versatility for less than other revolver calibers.
Of course, .22 Long Rifle is cheaper still. However, it’s not nearly as reliable or powerful, relegating it to target practice.
But target practice is important and fun! If all you want to do is poke holes in paper, then a .22 LR pistol will be the cheapest handgun for you.