Today, we’re diving deep into the world of pistol caliber carbines (PCCs), discussing their strengths, weaknesses, and why you might want to consider one despite the disadvantages.
Details are in the video below, or keep scrolling to read the full transcript.
Hey everybody, I’m Chris Baker from LuckyGunner.com and today I’m going to tell you why pistol caliber carbines (or PCCs) are silly and pointless. And then I’m going to make a case for why you might want to consider one anyway.
The Rifle-Pistol Performance Gap
In our last video, we looked at the basics of terminal ballistics and the huge gap in effectiveness between rifle and pistol cartridges. That’s mostly due to the large temporary cavity created by a rifle. There’s just no contest. If you need to take down an animal, or you need to make a human stop doing bad things right now, you’re going to get more reliable results with a rifle (or a shotgun).
Even if all you care about is target shooting, rifles are still superior. Rifle cartridges have much longer usable range than pistols. And they’re inherently more accurate, even at short range.
The only reason pistols exist at all is because they’re more portable and concealable than rifles. They are a compromise solution. Long guns are easier to shoot than handguns. They’re quicker to learn how to shoot well. They require less practice to maintain a decent level of proficiency. That goes for rifle or pistol caliber carbines.
But if you’ve already decided to use a long gun, why would you get one chambered for the weaker cartridge of a pistol? Pistol caliber carbines are the worst of both worlds. They are feeble and anemic like pistols but carry the size penalty of a rifle.
Pistol Caliber Carbine Barrel Length Misconceptions
You might argue that a carbine-length barrel grants the pistol cartridge some additional velocity, thereby increasing its effectiveness on target beyond what is capable with a handgun. And I would argue that you’re wrong.
Well, maybe not 100% wrong. A magnum revolver cartridge fired from a lever action rifle can gain significant velocity. For example, we’ve measured some .357 and .44 Magnum loads at over 2000 feet per second out of 17.5-inch barrels. That was roughly 50% faster than what those loads were doing out of a 4-inch revolver. That’s not quite true rifle velocity, but it’s probably close enough to make that extra barrel length worthwhile.
But usually, when we talk about pistol caliber carbines, we don’t mean lever actions. We’re talking about 9mm semi-automatic carbines. Or maybe .45, or something weird like 10mm. Ballistically speaking, these cartridges benefit a lot less from the added barrel length.
Going from a full size handgun to a 16-inch carbine, semi-auto cartridges see an average velocity gain around 100 to 200 feet per second, which is 10-20%. You get severely diminishing returns with anything longer than about a five inch barrel.
That 100 to 200 feet per second is simply not enough to make the pistol bullet do anything remarkable. It’s still just a pistol round. And hollow point loads are not typically designed for those increased velocities anyway. Most modern loads will still do okay, but in some cases, the bullet might actually perform worse out of a carbine than it would out of a handgun. It might expand too much and under-penetrate.
Occasionally someone will suggest that pistol calibers are better for home defense because they’re less likely to penetrate through interior walls compared to a rifle cartridge. Actually, the opposite is true, at least in the case of 5.56.
Some 5.56 loads will tumble or fragment after going through a couple of walls and quickly lose velocity. Most pistol bullets will sail right through ten or more layers of drywall before stopping. Any projectile that’s capable of reliably stopping a human attacker will also penetrate at least two or three interior walls, and that’s enough to be a danger to anyone else in your home. There are other ways to mitigate that risk besides ammo selection. But if wall penetration is a major concern, a pistol caliber is among the worst possible options.
So why do pistol caliber carbines even exist? We’ve got a plethora of AR, AK, and other carbines chambered for intermediate rifle cartridges like 5.56 NATO, 7.62×39, and 300 Blackout. They are affordable and come in all shapes and sizes. They have proven, time and again, to be more effective on target than anything chambered for a pistol cartridge. What good is a PCC other than as a range toy?
Well, it’s because terminal performance isn’t everything. What PCCs lack in that department, they make up for in several other areas. Today, I’m going to focus on four of those advantages.
First, it costs less to feed a pistol caliber carbine. Right now, .223 range ammo costs roughly 75% more than 9mm.
Ammo prices fluctuate quite a bit over time, so that price difference might grow or shrink, but historically, 9mm has always been at least a little bit cheaper. Depending on how much you shoot (or want to shoot), that might be a major advantage.
Second, pistol caliber carbines are less noisy. This is an easily overlooked advantage. It might even seem like a non-advantage, assuming you always wear proper hearing protection at the range. But less noisy guns have a few side benefits.
Intermediate rifle cartridges, especially 5.56, deliver very little felt recoil to the shooter’s shoulder. The difference between an AR-15 in 5.56 and a 9mm carbine is negligible. However, 5.56 is much louder and that can create the perception of recoil, especially for a novice shooter, or for anyone at an indoor range. Even with decent hearing protection, it’s a less pleasant experience, and has the potential to induce a habitual flinch response.
Gunfire Noise and Home Defense
I also would not totally disregard the advantages of using a quieter gun in a home invasion emergency. If you’ve ever been exposed to gunfire indoors without hearing protection, then you know any caliber is extremely loud. Under life-threatening stress, you may experience the phenomenon known as auditory exclusion – the gunshots will sound muted, or you may not notice any noise at all. But whether or not you’re conscious of it, that noise is 100% guaranteed to permanently damage your hearing. Possibly severely.
Exposure to loud noises doesn’t affect every individual the same way. A mild case of noise induced hearing loss and tinnitus might end up being merely inconvenient. A moderate case will cause a significant reduction in your quality of life. It’s a gamble, but the less loud gun will tip the odds in your favor a little bit. I’m not saying it’s the first thing you should consider when choosing a gun for home defense, but it’s probably worth factoring in.
Of course, if you really want to avoid damage to your hearing, you can always keep a set of electronic earmuffs next to your gun, and hope that you have enough time to put them on. Or, if they’re legal in your state, you could use a silencer. That opens up a whole can of worms about how a silencer might be perceived by law enforcement, prosecutors, and juries. But that’s a discussion for another day.
We’re still just on advantage number two. All of that falls under the heading of “less noisy.”
Let’s move on to number three. And I kind of alluded to this one a minute ago: pistol caliber carbines are more shooting-range friendly. Especially indoor shooting ranges. That’s partly because of the noise thing. Nobody likes to be next to the guy shooting 5.56 or an AK at the indoor range. Because of that and, I’m sure, other reasons, lots of indoor ranges prohibit the use of rifle cartridges altogether. I’ve even seen some outdoor ranges that only allow pistols and shotguns, or restrict rifles to certain designated areas. A lot of outdoor gun clubs are run by angry retired guys who still look down their noses at evil black rifles. But usually, if they have an area where pistols are allowed, pistol caliber carbines also get a pass.
I know plenty of shooters who own rifles, but have had a really hard time finding a range where they’re actually allowed to shoot them. A pistol caliber carbine can go a lot of places other long guns cannot.
Ideal SBR Option
And the fourth and final advantage of pistol caliber carbines is that they are fantastic candidates for registered SBRs (or short-barreled rifles). Thanks to the ATF, the pseudo-SBR pistol brace party is over, so this might not have as much appeal as it did a couple of years ago. But if you’re willing to jump through the hoops and get a tax stamp, SBRs still have advantages. They are more portable, more maneuverable indoors, and balance better with a suppressor attached.
SBR barrel lengths typically range from around eight to twelve inches. The downside is that those reduced barrel lengths also reduce the bullet velocity, and for a rifle cartridge, that can really tank your ballistic performance. You have to be a lot more picky about caliber and load selection. SBRs are also significantly louder with more muzzle blast. And they have a bit more felt recoil.
Technically, you get the same disadvantages with a short-barreled pistol caliber carbine – decreased velocity, increased noise and recoil – but on a much smaller scale. You don’t lose much, if anything, in terms of terminal ballistics. The bullet will actually be closer to the velocity window it was designed for. You can go all the way down to a five-inch barrel without giving up much. A rifle cartridge out of that barrel length is really going to struggle to perform.
What’s Best for Home Defense?
We could go around in circles all day about what type of firearm is best for home defense. There’s really no right answer. But I think PCCs often get left out of that discussion. One case where I do think they are often the best option is for the inexperienced shooter who is unlikely to pursue regular training and practice. I have often suggested the Ruger PC Carbine in particular. It’s not necessarily the best PCC on the market, but it’s affordable, reliable, easy to use, and widely available.
One other advantage that I didn’t really talk about is that pistol caliber carbines are a whole lot of fun to shoot. Whether you pick up the Ruger or some other PCC, you’re going to have a blast with it at the range. But only if you have enough ammo. So when the time comes, be sure to get that ammo from us with lightning fast shipping at LuckyGunner.com.