People often wonder what is the most powerful handgun. The answer is… it depends. You can’t simply say that any specific handgun, like the Concussive Detonation Eardrum Buster 9000 is the most powerful gun because the power level depends on the ammunition you can safely load in it. To split hairs, you can say which gun is capable of firing the most powerful cartridge. So here, we’re going to talk about the most powerful handgun cartridge. When talking about production guns and the cartridges they fire, the clear winner of that distinction is the Smith & Wesson 500 Magnum.
If you want to know how I arrived at that conclusion, I did some research and opened an actual book. My man Andrew Chamberlain is an engineer by trade, but you may know of him as the author of the Cartridge Comparison Guide books. He’s melted at least 57 slide rules compiling data that slices and dices things like kinetic energy, momentum, and recoil energy for something like 94 billion different handgun, rifle and shotgun cartridges. When you flip to the section that lists cartridges ranked by Bullet Energy, you’ll find the end of the list predominantly filled with Smith & Wesson 500 Magnum loads.
As a side note, if you want to know the absolute most powerful 500 Magnum load in terms of bullet energy, it’s a hand load recipe published by powder maker Vihta Vuori. Using N110 powder, this load launches a 300-grain bullet at 2,140 feet per second, thereby generating 3,050 foot-pounds of energy. OK, so that’s a hand load, so it might not be a “fair” comparison. No worries, we’ll get to a number of factory loads in a minute that are close runner-ups to those energy figures.
So how much energy does the Smith & Wesson 500 Magnum cartridge generate? First, let’s define a what we mean by “energy.” Here, to keep things simple, we’ll look at two different measurements.
Bullet energy, the most common measure of bullet “oomph” is measured in foot-pounds and represents the destructive power of the projectile. Think in terms of a hand saw cutting a 2×4 board compared to a V-8 engine powered chainsaw doing the same.
Momentum is a measurement of the ability of a bullet to penetrate or move whatever it hits. It’s calculated by multiplying its mass times its velocity and is shown in units of pounds-feet/second. I might visualize a baseball bat hitting a ball as more of a momentum thing.
First, let’s consider bullet energy. Let’s look at some “average” bullet energy figures for common handgun calibers. These numbers reflect the sweet spot, and there are examples in each caliber that are more or less than the range shown.
.22LR: 75 – 130 ft-lbs
.380 ACP: 160 – 230 ft-lbs
9mm: 350 – 450 ft-lbs
.38 Special: 260 – 380 ft-lbs
.357 Magnum: 350 – 630 ft-lbs
.40 S&W: 410 – 520 ft-lbs
.44 Magnum: 760 – 1,200 ft-lbs
.45 ACP: 410 – 510 ft-lbs
454 Casull: 1,700 – 1,900 ft-lbs
Oh, and the Smith & Wesson 500 Magnum? The lowest power load I found measures 1,692 ft-lbs while the biggest delivers 3,050 ft-lbs.
If we take a look at momentum figures, we observe the following:
.22LR: 0.5 – 0.8 lbs-ft/sec
.380 ACP: 10 – 14 lbs-ft/sec
9mm: 16 – 22 lbs-ft/sec
.38 Special: 13 – 22 lbs-ft/sec
.357 Magnum: 16 – 32 lbs-ft/sec
.40 S&W: 20 – 28 lbs-ft/sec
.44 Magnum: 30 – 55 lbs-ft/sec
.45 ACP: 24 – 32 lbs-ft/sec
454 Casull: 56 – 75 lbs-ft/sec
Oh, and the Smith & Wesson 500 Magnum? The load with the lowest bullet momentum I found measures 65.4 lbs-ft/sec while the biggest delivers 107.1 lbs-ft/sec.
At risk of making the momentum figure sound unimpressive, that 107.1 lbs-ft/sec figure is about the same as getting whacked with a 16-pound bowling ball moving at just 4 ½ miles per hour or 6.7 feet per second. That’s why you can’t look at just one energy measurement to determine what a bullet will do. You certainly can’t equate the damage caused between the .50 caliber 500-grain slug moving at 1,500 feet per second and a slow-moving bowling ball.
Oh, just in case you were wondering, that bowling ball moving at 4 ½ miles per hour delivers just 11.2 foot-pounds of “bullet” energy if we do the same calculation that yields the 3,050 ft-lbs figure for the Smith & Wesson 500 Magnum. Isn’t physics weird?
As you might expect, the Smith & Wesson 500 Magnum Cartridge generates just a bit of recoil. Quantifying the “amount” of recoil gets a bit tricky, in part because felt recoil depends on many factors including the speed of the recoil pulse and the weight of the gun.
To keep things simple, we can look at the basic recoil energy, which doesn’t account for the recoil acceleration. A 9mm handgun, weighing 2.5 pounds, might generate between three and five foot-pounds of recoil energy. A Smith & Wesson 500 Magnum cartridge, if fired from a 2.5-pound gun, will generate a whopping 75 to 100 foot-pounds, give or take. Fortunately, a large Smith & Wesson 500 Magnum weights closer to five pounds, so the recoil energy works out to somewhere between 35 and 50 foot-pounds depending on the specific cartridge you choose. In any case, it’s a major handful compared to your typical 9mm pistol.
Ammo on the market
The good thing about a gun built to handle maximum power loads is that you can shoot lower-energy cartridges out of it too if you want a little more civility in your life. Whether your preference is massive energy or just huge, there are several factory loads available on the market. Here’s a quick look at a few of them.
Hornady FTX: This 300-grain polymer-tipped bullet is designed to expand. Its rated muzzle velocity is 2,075 feet per second which develops 2,868 foot-pounds of energy.
Hornady XTP: The XTP bullet weighs 500 grains and leaves the muzzle at 1,425 feet per second, delivering 2,254 foot-pounds.
Buffalo Bore: This long flat nose lead bullet weighs 440 grains. Its rated velocity is 1,625 feet per second which translates to 2,579 foot-pounds of muzzle energy.
HSM Bear Load: Another 440-grain lead flat nose bullet, the Bear Load moves at 1,500 feet per second and unleashes 2,199 foot-pounds of energy.
HSM Jacketed Hollow Points: If your shooting needs call for a jacketed hollow point rather than a hardcast bullet, HSM offers 500 loads in 300, 350, and 400-grain options.
Federal Vital Shok A-Frame: This bonded lead hollow-point bullet is designed to stay together and penetrate. It weighs in at 325 grains and starts off at 1,800 feet per second. That translates to 2,338 foot-pounds of muzzle energy.
Federal Vital-Shok Barnes Expander: Federal loads a lead free bullet for the Smith & Wesson 500 Magnum using the Barnes Expander bullet. It weighs 275 grains and travels at 1,660 feet per second, delivering 1,682 foot-pounds of energy.
So there you have it – the most powerful production handgun cartridge. If you feel the need for raw power, check out the Smith & Wesson 500 Magnum.