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9mm vs. 10mm – Which One is Better for You?

9mm vs. 10mm – Which One is Better for You?
March 22, 2023 Edited April 5, 2023 639 view(s)
9mm vs. 10mm – Which One is Better for You?

I’m old enough to remember when cigarettes were advertised on TV. Being a life-long non-smoker, I watched them anyway… I was too lazy to get up and change the channel. (My remote control was my feet).

One of those commercials for a brand of smokes that I can’t remember claimed to be “a silly millimeter longer”. Maybe some of you out there who are my age will remember. I don’t remember the brand, but I remembered the slogan. The purpose of this is to look at the difference between 9mm and 10mm. If the 10 had a publicity department, it could adopt that “silly millimeter” slogan… it fits here. But what’s the difference, and is that one millimeter worth it? Let’s look.

History

9mm

9mm ammo on table

The 9mm came about in 1901. It was designed by Georg Luger, of Luger pistol fame, to use in that gun.

Georg Luger posing for photo
Georg Luger image: wikipedia

In 1903, he showed the 9mm to the British Small Arms Committee. The next year, he provided three guns to the Springfield Arsenal to test for possible adoption by the U.S. In 1904, the German Navy adopted it with the Army following suit four years later. It really gained in popularity after WWI, as many countries adopted 9mm pistols and submachine guns. We all know how popular it is now. Part of that popularity has to do with advances in ballistics and bullet technology.

The 9mm is used by about 60% of U.S. law enforcement agencies, having overtaken the .38 Special starting in the 1980s. The adoption of the S&W 39 by the Illinois State Police in 1968 sort of sealed the deal. With the ability to have 10, 12, 15 or more cartridges in one magazine (and with several magazines available on your duty belt), the LEO revolver as the main sidearm was mostly relegated to history.

The adoption of the Beretta M9 by the U.S. military in 1985 ensured that the 9mm was here to stay, and modern ammunition has helped to keep it going strong. The F.B.I.’s 2014 research into modern combat effectiveness of three cartridges – 9mm, .45 ACP, .40 S&W – didn’t hurt the 9mm at all. It put the 9mm, the .45 ACP and the .40 S&W all in basically the same basket where effectiveness is concerned (notice I didn’t say stopping power… I’m not sure how to define that).

The 9mm has been credited with single-handedly pushing semi-automatic pistols over revolvers in terms of sales. It’s cheap, it’s easy to carry, it has a zillion pistols chambered for it, and it works. What’s not to like?

10mm Auto

10mm ammo on table

The 10mm is one cartridge that has come back from the edge of obscurity to become really popular, after a fashion. Where did it come from?

As with the 9mm and the Luger pistol, the 10mm was introduced alongside the pistol designed for it, the Bren Ten.

It started with this guy:

Jeff Cooper posing for photo
Image: Wikipedia Col. Jeff Cooper.

If you don’t know who he was and you call yourself a shooter, shame on you. Click on his link and then come back. We’ll wait……

Col. Jeff Cooper is the guy that popularized the “modern technique” of pistolcraft. His work with the 1911 in .45 ACP is the stuff of legend. He founded the American Pistol Institute in Paulden, Arizona. You may not recognize that name, but you might know this one: Gunsight Academy. A WWII and Korea Marine veteran (Lt. Colonel), he began to formulate how he might teach the proper use of weapons after he got out. He wrote for Guns & Ammo magazine and published several books. I have, somewhere, a copy of his book Cooper on Handguns. I wish I could find it… it still contains relevant information, even though it was published in 1974. He passed away in 2006.

Col. Cooper wanted to have a pistol produced that would yield greater power than the .45 ACP, in effect becoming a semi-auto version of a magnum revolver. He began work on such a gun. Another company was working along the same lines at the same time – designing a gun to be used by law enforcement and hunters that bridged the power gap between revolvers and semi-autos. They sought advice from Col Cooper. So, he partnered with the Dornaus & Dixon company (becoming Dornaus & Dixon Enterprises) in 1981.

They used a modified CZ-75 pistol as the basis for what became the Bren Ten – Bren, an Anglicization of the Brno, Czechoslovakia factory where the gun was made and Ten, for the caliber. Cooper wanted to design what he called a “.40 Special”, but it ended up being the 10mm Auto, even more powerful than he originally envisioned. The gun was produced from 1983 - 1986, with orders being taken starting in 1982.

They were always behind in orders, so they started shipping guns before all the testing was done. Magazines were a specific fail point – you couldn’t get them. They were forced into bankruptcy in 1986. The guns are still popular – my friend, a former deputy, asked me if I knew where he might get one – it’s on his bucket list.

That’s the original 10mm gun. The ammo was produced by Norma in Sweden. Originally, they shortened .30 Remington rifle cases to use before Norma came on board. The round would have most likely been relegated to the dustbin of history were it not for Colt bringing out their 10mm Delta Elite 1911 in 1987, and then the F.B.I. adopting it and the S&W 1076 pistol in 1990.

Even though the F.B.I.’s usage of the 10mm (except for specialist teams) was later ended in favor of the 9mm after complaints by field agents that the gun was too hard to handle, the cartridge was here to stay. Today, the 10mm pushes a 180-grain bullet right at 1300 f.p.s. – that is nipping at the heels of the .357 Magnum (not to mention the old .41 Magnum – remember that one?).

Ballistics

These two calibers are really popular right now, with the 9mm wearing the crown. Are they close in ballistics? Here’s a chart from snipercountry.com that shows energy levels to 50 yards for some popular loads in both calibers:

9mm vs 10mm Bullet Energy Comparison

After a quick glance, we see that even the lightest 10mm load has more energy than all of the 9mm loads. At the top ranges of the energy chart, the 10mm is pushing 700 ft./lbs, whereas the 9mm doesn’t quite reach 400.

Granted, different shooters using different guns on different days may come up with different numbers (did I use “different” enough?), but the basics will remain the same… the 10mm just dumps more energy than the 9mm does. That’s why folks use it for hunting and defense against tooth-and-claw critters like bears.

If there would be one single “representative” load for each of these cartridges, it would probably be these two:

9mm: 115 grain bullet at 1150 f.p.s.

10mm: 180 grain bullet at 1300 f.p.s.

Of course, there are many loads out there for each, but especially the 9mm. You would most likely carry a JHP bullet for self-defense, but that might not work against a bear – a hard-cast SWC or FMJ would probably be the ticket there. We’ll look at the uses in a second. The point is that you recognize the difference between the two in terms of velocity and bullet energy and use the appropriate cartridge.

What’s Best For…?

Here’s where we’ll look at each cartridge’s best uses, and also some not-so-good uses.

Usage 9mm 10mm
Self-Defense, overall  
Pocket Carry  
Target/Plinking
Home Defense  
Hunting: Small Game  
Hunting: Large Game  
Competition  
Hiking Backwoods  

Now, let’s look at generalities. The 9mm will be better when you need a smaller gun that might fit in a pocket for concealed carry. It also excels at competitions and, in a carbine, would be a good home defense round.

The 10mm is a big boomer that is great at hunting deer-sized game, carrying in bear woods and punching paper with lighter loads. Lighter loads? The benefit of the 10mm is that companies make what I call “10mm Lite”, or target-oriented loads that don’t have the blast and recoil of the full-charge loads.

I know that some 9mm loads come in target guise, too, but I haven’t really noticed that much difference between those and the defense loads in terms of recoil. There IS a difference in 10mm loads.

[Check out our 10mm Carbines if you're interested in less recoil while enjoying the benefits of 10mm!]

10mm carbine

Some Things To Consider

Before we close this comparison, I thought it might be best if I looked at some other factors that the 9/10mm exhibits. After all, you need all the information you can get before you plunk your money down and walk away with one or the other of these calibers.

Gun Selection

Let’s start with gun selection. This is pretty much a no-brainer… the 9mm wins by a landslide. There are more 9mm pistols (and revolvers, believe it or not) made on a bad day than there are 10mms made on … well, every day. But, that is slowly changing as more and more companies make 10mm handguns.

I used to be able to count new-manufactured 10mm pistols on one hand. Those days are thankfully gone, but still, there is not the selection of 10mm guns out there that there is with the 9mm. (And, you can buy 10mm revolvers, just like their 9mm cousins!). I tried to look up the numbers of guns made but all I did was confuse Google, which is hard to do but I did it. Suffice it to say that if you want a 9mm, you’ll have an easier time finding one than if you want a 10mm … especially one that isn’t a budget-buster.

Ammo Selection

Again, no-brainer applies here, too. When you take into account all the quantity buys that are available for the 9mm – you know, a case of 1000 for like, $300 – then it really gets lopsided. 10mm ammo tends to be more specialized and more expensive. Yeah, you can buy 10mm “target” ammo – the ramped-down, lower velocity stuff.

But, just as a leopard can’t change its stripes… or spots, or something… 10mm is still gonna be 10mm no matter what version you buy. It’s still going to kick, belch fire and jerk the pistol upwards upon firing.

The thing is that you can buy specialized ammo for both calibers but the 9mm is going to win the availability contest every time. It’s just so much more prevalent than the 10mm.

Recoil

I’ve fired some pretty stout 9mm ammo, mostly through a subcompact or micro 9 pistol. It can get your attention, but nothing like the 10mm. The 9mm generates around 4 ft./lbs. of energy .. ok, maybe up to 6 or so depending on the load and the weight of the pistol firing it.

The 10mm starts at around 10 ft./lbs. and can go up to 12 or more. That’s double the felt recoil of the 9mm. It was for this reason that the F.B.I. switched back to the 9mm after they’d adopted the 10mm … some of their agents couldn’t handle the recoil, which led in turn to S&W bringing out the .40 S&W. (Or, as some witty shooters call it, the “40-short-and-weak”).

This was basically a downloaded 10mm, stuffed into a shorter case in order to take advantage of smaller pistol sizes. Here’s but one of many videos that demonstrate the 10mm’s recoil. This one is interesting in that it shows the Inceptor load, a 90-grain bullet moving at 1700 f.p.s. Interesting, to say the least.

If you have the need for a 10mm, you will adapt to the recoil. I’ve shot it out of a Colt Delta Elite 1911 and other striker-fired guns and must say I prefer the plastic wonders over the 1911… I love 1911s, don’t get me wrong, but the 10mm seems easier to shoot for me at least out of a poly pistol in terms of recoil.

Versatility

Versatility. Which one of these two is the most versatile caliber, the “do-all’ cartridge? The 9mm. Period. You can get loads ranging from light target loads all the way up to heavy defense loadings. And, some of the newer defense loads take a very light bullet and move it along at 1400 or so f.p.s., thereby cutting down on felt recoil.

I have to mention that the 10mm is zipping right along in cartridge development… if you buy one and want to go to the range for a fun afternoon without dislocating your wrist, you can do that. There are target loads for the 10mm as there are for the 9mm, but as I said above, it’s still gonna be 10mm and have more recoil. If you’re one of the Tarzan variety who enjoys a thumping gun, then go buy a 10mm but for most shooters, the versatility of the 9mm will sway the gun purchase that way.

Which One is Better?

9mm vs 10mm ammo on table

Which one is better? Hmm… let’s see… I’ll answer that question with another question. What do you want to do with your new pistol? You might review the Usage check-marks above to get an answer to that question. I won’t re-state them here.

Let’s look at it from another angle. Let’s say you already own a 9mm (or two, or ,,,) and you are looking for something different, something that is a cut above the 9 in terms of power. There’s always the .45ACP, a grand cartridge on its own merits. Ammo is plentiful as are guns. There’s also the .40 S&W – don’t want to disregard that caliber. But… what if you wanted something that you could take afield during deer season? Here in the Hoosier State, the .45ACP is not deer-legal … but the 10mm is.

You might consider adding one to your collection in order to have something a bit more powerful than either the 9mm or .45ACP. I would love to add one to my gun safe – with the growing abundance of 10mm loads, I’d surely find something I’d like. And, yes, I do “do” the 9mm – I own three of them. I carry it, shoot it, reload for it. But … that 10mm … it’s just something else! With AR carbines in the caliber that truly have a place in the deer woods coming out all the time, you can wring even more foot-pounds out of the double-nickle. That increases its versatility and gives you more reasons to buy one. Add in reloading dies and bullet molds and you’re set.

So… which do you choose? How about one of each? Get the best of both worlds!

[While you're at it check out our guide to the best pistol caliber carbines and take a look at our awesome AR-9s, AR-45s, and AR-10mms!

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