The cost of ammunition: consider this when choosing your first handgun
"Shooting is expensive!" I hear this sometimes when students or new shooters get a bit of sticker shock upon seeing the cost of a box of .45 ACP, .38 Special, or even .40 S&W. While the people shooting 9mm can usually find a box of 50 rounds for under $14 (early 2019 range retail price), the people with larger or less popular calibers are spending substantially more, sometimes double or even triple that, for the same number of cartridges. And with target rounds available for around $3 per box of 50, the people with .22LR seem to be shooting for free in comparison.
Welcome to the strange and sometimes confusing world of ammunition pricing. The availability and cost of ammunition is a complex topic and based on a number of disparate factors: pending or even rumored future legislation that regulates ammunition production and sales, the cost of the raw materials to make the product, demand for certain brands over others based on legacy brand recognition, poor quality control trashing the reputation of said legacy brands and leading to hot new competitors, unexpectedly great quality control making unheard-of brands suddenly more popular, and more.
The raw numbers are not easily available, at least to a humble gun blogger like yours truly, but from multiple sources the best estimates I can find put annual ammunition production in the United States at around 2 billion rounds per year. The process of creating ammunition has been streamlined quite efficiently, which allows ammo manufacturers to churn out eye-watering numbers of rounds every day. Naturally, some ammo makers are going to be better at this than others and quality control can vary wildly. Consistently better ammunition tends to be slightly pricier, but then again, sometimes not. Sometimes the cheap stuff in the nondescript box is the best ammo in your armory. The only way to know for sure is to read the reviews and/or shoot it yourself.
As mercurial and unstable as ammo prices can be, there are a few things we can consistently count on, at least right now in today's political and economic reality:
1.) Larger rounds usually cost more than smaller rounds. The caliber of a cartridge, if you didn't know, refers to the diameter of the projectile (bullet), not the casing, and only determines how big of a hole the bullet will make. Bigger projectiles require more propellant (gunpowder), which means they require a fatter and/or longer casing (and usually a bigger gun from which to shoot them comfortably). All of this adds up to more raw materials used for larger rounds, increasing their cost.
2.) Larger rounds don't always cost more than smaller rounds. .380 ACP rounds are smaller than 9mm rounds, but usually cost noticeably more. Today on Ammoman.com, which is one of my favorite online bulk ammo suppliers, 1000 rounds of bulk .380 Auto rings up at just under $300, with shipping. 1000 rounds of 9mm from the exact same brand, in the exact same packaging, costs exactly $100 less. This is because .380 is not seen as an adequate defensive round for law enforcement or most serious shooters, as Greg Ellifritz explains here, so it's not nearly as in demand around the country. (It's still better than nothing, but so is .22LR, which most experts would agree is not an ideal caliber for defensive carry.) My general rule for picking your first defensive handgun caliber is the "Rule of C's": Carry the biggest gun you can competently, comfortably, and consistently conceal. This often translates to a 9mm for new shooters.
3.) Ammo shortages will cause even the cheapest ammo prices to skyrocket. Just a few years ago, .22LR was nearly impossible to find at any price. Panic buying during the Obama years coupled with uncertainties about future legislative efforts to restrict our 2nd Amendment rights led to shortages, price spikes, and a general sense of doom and gloom in the gun world. (This sentiment led to record-setting gun and ammo sales and unprecedented growth in the gun industry, so it wasn't all bad.) Things have since settled down and .22LR is once again one of the cheapest and most plentiful rounds on the market, but it serves as a great example of how ammo prices are sometimes reflected in the political circumstances surrounding our right to keep and bear arms.
4.) Demand for a caliber is often predicated on what new product has been recently released by a popular gun maker. If two gun makers are racing neck-and-neck to create the next most popular 9mm carry pistol (i.e. the S&W M&P Shield versus the Glock 43, or the Glock 19 Gen 5 versus the Sig Sauer P320), 9mm ammunition will become more popular and, in theory, cheaper and more easily available.
5.) Hollow point defensive ammunition will always cost significantly more than target (ball) ammo. Where one box of 50 rounds of 9mm target ammo might be $14 at the range, a box of 25 rounds of high quality defensive hollow point 9mm could retail for $25 or more. Defensive ammunition is more powerful and made using a more complex process, with much better quality control. It's designed to save your life in a defensive encounter, rather than just putting holes in a target, and tends to do so reliably and consistently.
In the context of concealed carry, we only carry hollow point because it is likely to cause far more more damage to our attacker while being far less likely to over penetrate (go through) the person trying to kill us and into the innocent bystanders standing a few blocks behind him. Carrying anything other than hollow point in your defensive carry gun is a recipe for disaster, and the consequences could easily include jail or the morgue. No matter how much money it might save you in the short term, don't do it. You will spend far, far more on legal fees or funeral expenses.
So what does all this ammo price information have to do with buying your first handgun? I won't jump into the swamp of arguing about which defensive calibers are best for everyday concealed carry (a subject of endless debate among tactical experts and gun enthusiasts alike), but realistically the "Rule of C's" I posted above is a good place to start: Carry the biggest gun you can Competently, Comfortably, and Consistently Conceal. And I'll add another "C": try and keep your practice ammo Cheap.
While dry-fire practice at home is a free and easy way to dramatically improve your shooting fundamentals, you must still practice with live rounds at the range on a regular basis, and as often as your schedule, budget, and endurance will allow. This means you will be going through many rounds, sometimes hundreds, in one long range session. And your ammo costs will quickly add up.
Unless you are one of the fortunate few who sincerely don't need to worry about what things cost (and good for you if so!), ammunition prices should be at least a small determining factor in your choice of guns. 1000 rounds of .45 ACP from our friend Ammoman, same brand and packaging as the other two examples above, costs $310 with shipping. You will pay significantly more to shoot larger and/or less popular calibers. 1000 rounds of .40 S&W costs $230, currently on sale down from $250. Meanwhile, that 1000-round case of 9mm can be delivered to your door the day after you order it for less than $200, and even significantly less than that if you go with the cheap steel-case stuff. (Not all firing ranges allow steel cases, so be sure to check with yours before you buy.)
Shooting is a perishable skill, requiring regular practice to maintain. Be sure that you can afford to shoot the ammunition for the gun you plan to buy. Otherwise, you've invested in an expensive paperweight that is too costly to use for regular training--what a waste! I can't make a blanket recommendation for which caliber to choose for your carry guns (and as you gain more experience, your tastes and preferences may change as your collection of handguns grows), but 9mm is a safely inexpensive yet effective place to start. Is it the best carry caliber? Maybe, maybe not. Is it one of the cheapest "serious" calibers available? Definitely.
Dry fire every day, shoot often, and stay safe out there!