For many of us, the emergency gun is a 5.56mm carbine backed up by a polymer-frame 9mm. Practically every police and military organization in the free world (and most third world countries) deploy this standard. Yet, there are those who prefer another combination — often as a result of long experience.
Some go so far as to suggest that a 9mm carbine or .357 Magnum lever-action gun may be superior to the AR-15 for home defense use. I agree that each is a formidable tool in trained hands. As a home defense gun, riding on an ATV, or guarding a camp, a light, handy carbine is a neat trick.
They are also useful serving as a truck guns. Not everyone likes the AR. Not on a political basis, mind you, but on a shooting basis. I love the AR but have other firearms superior for certain uses. The performance of the lever-action carbine is worth exploring. Availability and economy are also important.
Accuracy, reliability, and real-world ballistics are also important. The debate between the 9mm carbine and .357 Magnum lever-action rifle had no cheap answer, so I fired 480 cartridges in resolving the issue to my satisfaction. In the end, I am glad I have both carbines.
An issue that had to be addressed was the handgun. I would own either of these carbines, even in the unlikely event that I did not own a pistol in the caliber. Sure, the .357 carbine and handgun are a handy combination, but not necessary as a combination.
A 9mm carbine and .45 pistol are fine, a .357 rifle and 9mm backup are good. But then, it is a handy combination to have on hand a single cartridge for both the carbine and the handgun. The desire for this setup never dies.
I elected to test these firearms in several roles. I fired the 9mm carbine and the lever-action .357 in typical home defense and combat firing situations to 15 yards. Each was useful. I extended testing to 100 yards as the carbines may be useful far past handgun distance.
At a football field range, the differences in ballistics are well defined. A 9mm +P between wind and water is a formidable home defense loading. For long range use, not so much. However, the .357 carbine did not lord all over the 9mm in accuracy, as one may think. There were issues with bullet weights and accuracy that deserved some attention with equations that would have given Pythagoras a headache.
The side issue of handguns and carbines in the same caliber was brought up by every participant in the test crew. Many still deploy a .357 Magnum in the wild country and for home defense. I get it.
For many shooters a revolver is in the realm of the familiar. I may question the revolver’s role in a true SHTF emergency fighting against the odds. While a need to bugout is unlikely, preparation isn’t a bad idea. After all, look at the unfortunate tragedy in Maui followed by the usual looting.
A shutdown in social civility may not be easily handled by a handgun with a great deal of recoil and limited capacity. The .357 Magnum rifle, on the other hand, isn’t so bad a choice. The Magnum hits hard and is a joy to fire in a carbine. Recoil isn’t a consideration, as it may be with a handgun.
If you think a lever-action carbine is equal to an AR or 9mm carbine in tactical drills, try it at a 3-Gun competition one day. Your ego will not survive the first run. On the other hand, as a home defense gun (for those who wish to defend themselves with a minimum of well-placed shots) the .357 Magnum carbine has merit. Against animals, both the .357 Mag revolver and carbine beat the 9mm hands down in the real world in wound ballistics.
The bottom line is: have you trained, really trained, or just practiced? I put together a splendid .357 Magnum revolver and carbine combination to test out the thesis. As a home defender and for use around the farm or ranch, each has great utility.
I chose the Rossi Model 92 .357 Magnum lever-action rifle. This is a standard carbine with 16-inch barrel. I also used two revolvers, one was a favorite carry gun, a Smith & Wesson Magnum 2.5-inch barrel Combat Magnum. Then, I added a 4.75-inch barrel Pietta single-action. The single-action revolver isn’t a practical defense gun for most of us, but for ballistics and long-range testing, it is as good as any we are likely to find. More accurate than cheap guns, not as accurate as the Ruger GP100 — a good place to be.
A counterpoint to the 5.56mm carbine is the 9mm carbine. A 9mm carbine is relatively quiet, and ammunition is pleasantly plentiful and affordable. A 9mm carbine is much easier to handle quickly, and fire accurately, than a 9mm handgun. It is a force multiplier.
Perhaps you may be twice as effective with a carbine as a pistol. While the actual increase in velocity is modest (compared to a pistol), the accuracy improvement is much greater (comparatively speaking). I feel the 9mm is — at its best — at no more than 50 yards. You can hit further than you can inflict a lot of damage. Just the same, some loads got the 9mm into hot .38 Super territory.
I used the Smith & Wesson FPC 9mm carbine out of familiarity for some testing and based my results on firing a wide spread of 9mm carbines. I think the KelTec 9mm carbine (or S&W FPC) makes more sense than a 9mm AR. The FPC folds easily and offers easy optics mounting.
The KelTec is affordable and proven. The pistol for test firing was easy, any number of good-quality 9mm handguns would serve. The Springfield Echelon is a nice-shooting pistol with modest recoil and good accuracy. It is fast becoming a favored carry gun and perfect for this shoot out.
First, let’s look at combat shooting. The Smith & Wesson Combat Magnum revolver is an old friend. I am familiar the action and find it exceptionally accurate. The revolver offers good first-shot hit probability. Fast follow-up shots with Magnum ammunition are very difficult.
You must really like the revolver, and have a strong reason, to deploy this handgun. The 9mm Echelon simply ate the revolver for lunch in speed, accuracy, hit probability, and follow-up shots. Not to mention, 3x the ammunition capacity — important in a handgun that will carry all the ammunition you are likely to have on hand in a defensive situation in the home.
Fighting commando (in your boxers), leads many to the 9mm when awoken in the dead of night. Moving to carbines, the lever-action was a bit different. Quickly racking the bolt was simpler with the lever-action than racking the self-loaders bolt. Hit probability for the first shot is excellent. Quickly levering another round isn’t difficult.
While limited by magazine capacity, if you deploy a stock band with ammunition you will be able to top off the magazine one round at a time.
But then, the stock of the Smith & Wesson FPC carries two spare magazines. The Rossi 92 proved formidable. For the first seven or eight rounds, it isn’t far behind the 9mm carbine. The ammunition is very powerful.
The 9mm carbine, however, offers low recoil and real speed. The lightweight, 9mm carbines are easily handled and make for easy speed when addressing multiple targets. Most who fire the 9mm carbine are surprised at the power they are getting — the carbine is so light kicking. In the combat shooting/home defense part of the comparison, there is no room for a split decision. The 9mm wins hands down.
Next, ballistic testing and 100-yard testing. I collected a good supply of ammunition and ran the loads over a chronograph. I limited the 9mm to six loads for economy. After all, we are looking at broad issues and generalizations. You will have to test your own loads to be certain of the result.
The .357 Magnum was also tested with six loads. The 9mm has a relatively small charge of fast-burning powder and burns efficiently. A heavier charge of slower-burning powder in the magnum really generates energy in the longer barrel. I fired perhaps a half-dozen other 9mm and .357 loads in Chronograph testing and firing offhand, but the loads in the table were tested under controlled conditions.
Firing the carbines at 100 yards was very interesting. I perfected the art of missing a large target and then putting several bullets in the same hole with a different load, surprising all who attended the event. I qualified a trend.
Pistol cartridges, fired from a carbine, tend to be more accurate with heavy bullets. As an example, hard cast, lead bullet handloads using a Matts Bullet 173-grain SWC at 1,100 fps muzzle velocity, proved very accurate at 100 yards in the .357 carbine. So did Buffalo Bore 180-grain hard cast. (Never call Buffalo Bullets lead. It is not the same as hard cast!)
Satisfying enough, the little carbine put three Buffalo Bore 180-grain bullets into only three inches at 100 yards. The Buffalo Bore .38 Special Outdoorsman at 1,240 fps was nearly as accurate. Several .38 Special loads were also accurate. The drop at 100 yards with a .38 Special 148-grain wadcutter that slowed down to 500 fps was interesting.
The .357 enjoys a great boost in a rifle barrel. 125-grain JHP loads clocks nearly 2,000 fps with factory loads, and considerably over 2,000 fps in carefully developed handloads. That is more than 500 fps faster than recorded in the revolver. A 158-grain load gained a startling 1,000 fps.
I clocked the load three times, over two different chronographs — the information is solid. Unfortunately, 125-grain loads were not very accurate. Groups of 6 to 8.5 inches at 100 yards were common. These are pistol bullets and don’t buck the wind very well.
I think the 125-grain loads were still transonic at 100 yards and perhaps unstable. The 158-grain loads were not ‘rifle accurate’ but useful with 4 inches as the average group. The 180-grain loads were the most accurate overall.
Standing offhand and using the Rossi’s buckhorn sights, I was able to hold the front sight .650-inch high with most loads and get a hit. A 9mm 124-grain bullet is probably around 1,000 fps at the same distance.
The .357 Magnum carbine will put three bullets into two inches at 50 yards (with the load it likes), making it a powerful problem solver. For man or beast, this is plenty of power, and that power is easy to deliver accurately. The most accurate loads in the carbine, are also accurate in the revolver. Likewise, they tend to be heavy bullets.
The 9mm carbine will put five bullets into three inches at 50 yards on demand (with good ammunition). At 100 yards, this standard falls apart with the FPC being considerably more accurate than the KelTec. With 147-grain loads, which have the least wound potential, at 100 yards a 6-inch group is possible with the FPC. This accuracy is easily delivered, and recoil is never a factor.
As for the revolver, at 50–100 yards, it wasn’t as much more accurate than the 9mm pistol — as you might think. Muzzle flip must be accounted for though. Get on target, take your time, and you may hit a man-size target at 100 yards. Just hold on the neck, and you will connect in the mid-section.
The Springfield Echelon 9mm shoots flat with little muzzle flip. Holding on the brow accomplished good hits on 100-yard silhouette targets. Neither handgun is a great shooter at 100 yards (compared to the carbines), but for combat use, the 9mm definitely walked ahead of the revolvers. Remember, any flaws in marksmanship will be magnified at 100 yards.
Let’s look at a good mix of tables to illuminate the results further.
9mm Velocity Testing
|Lehigh 90-grain all copper
|Remington 115-grain JHP
|KelTec Sub 2000
|Hornady 115-grain XTP
|Hornady 124-grain XTP +P
|Buffalo Bore 124-grain JHP +P
|Speer 147-grain Gold Dot
.357 Magnum Velocity Testing
Barrel Length (inches)
|Federal 125-grain JHP
|Handload, 125-grain XTP H110
|Handload, 140-grain XTP W296
|PMC 158-grain JSP
|Buffalo Bore 158-grain JHP
|Buffalo Bore 180-grain JHP
If I set the leaf rear sight for two inches high, using the 140-grain load at 25 yards, I was only a couple of inches low at 100 yards and three to five inches low at 150 yards. The fastest loads were almost exactly a foot low at 200 yards.
With the 9mm and 124-grain bullets at 1,200 fps, the load is breaking 1,000 fps at 100 yards. JHP loads have a different nose profile and do not all buck the wind equally. The 124-grain Speer Gold will break 1,100 fps in a pistol and about 1,340 fps in a carbine. A 50-yard zero will result in any of these loads going six inches low at 100 yards.
Let’s makes a comparison to the .30-30 Winchester. Some of the .357 Magnum loads appear to be nipping on the heels, even equaling .30-30 loads. They are quite impressive. But the .30-30 has a superior bullet that bucks the wind and retains energy much better.
.30-30 WCF Velocity Testing
Barrel Length (Inches)
|190-grain Buffalo Bore JSP
|150-grain Winchester Power Point
Each should be about 6 inches low at 200 yards, if sighted for 100 yards. But then, we don’t use the .30-30 for home defense…
As far as pistol cartridge go, the .357 Magnum is useful for defense against animals in the field. It is by far the better choice against feral dogs, dangerous big cats, and perhaps small bear. If you care, the .357 Magnum will do for deer at moderate range.
For home defense, most will load the magnum revolver with a medium-velocity load, perhaps even a .38 Special +P. Given the efficiency of modern 9mm JHP +P loads, not to mention higher hit probability and a greater ammunition reserve, the 9mm wins by no small margin for personal defense use.
In carbines, while the magnum is an awe-inspiring loading with superb ballistics, the 9mm offers much easier control. The choice isn’t as clear in a home defense situation, as a minimum of well-placed hits with the magnum carbine will offer real effect on target.
In the end, unless large animals are in your threat profile, the 9mm wins in most categories. For home defense, I would rather have the .357 carbine than any pistol. The same goes for the 9mm carbine. In the end, these are good firearms, with good ammunition to feed them. For home defense the 9mm wins hands down. For outdoors use, the .357 Magnum lever gun is a light and useful choice.
Are you a fan of lever-action guns for home defense? What’s your favorite pistol/rifle combination (and calibers) for home defense? Share your answers in the Comment section.
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