Most Versatile Handguns
When you talk about the versatility in handguns, there are several factors to consider. They would be the availability of the guns themselves and ammo. Another factor is what possible uses that can be utilized with your choice. The more uses the more versatile the handgun is. Versatile handguns have the ability to shoot different cartridges for example the 357 magnum can shoot the 38 short and long Colt as well as the 38 special and 357 mag rounds. One might ask why not the 357 maxi as it can digest all of the above rounds plus the 357 maxi chambering. All of that is true but getting guns and ammo for the maxi may be a bit of a challenge. If you have a revolver and cases then you can reload that ammo and if you want to carry, it around then it can be very versatile. For the average shooter the 357 mag would be a better choice. The versatile handgun should be made by more than one maker and should be in a price range that most people can afford. Ammo at least some types should be easily available for the non handloader. Handloading components should be easily available which includes cases and bullets. Also the versatile handgun should be available for various uses depending on the load. This leaves out the semi autos because they are usually limited to one specific caliber and a few loads. The load has to function the action and the bullets have to be shaped to feed through the gun they are intended for.
If you include multi caliber revolvers, the smallest is the 22 magnum. You can shoot various other 22’s in it including the long rifle and short though it isn’t a recommended practice. The case is slightly smaller and accuracy may suffer. In a pinch, however you can do it. There are some single action revolvers that have both cylinders and you would be better served by using the correct one for your application. Ammo is generally available but due to recent events prices have skyrocketed and there is no sensible way to load your own.
from Left 38 short Colt, 38 long Colt, 38 special, 357 magnum and 357 maxi
The smallest usable centerfire is the 327 Federal. It is an elongated version of the 32 H & R mag and the shorter 32 rounds such as the 32 short and the 32 S & W. The older rounds are underpowered but usable if nothing else is available. They beat a sharp stick but not by much. The 32 auto can be safely fired in the 327 but don’t expect too much or you will be disappointed. The 32 short and long were used for many years for small self-defense guns and were popular due to that small size and inexpensive guns that were available. The long has a good reputation for accuracy and was used in matches over a period of time. Ammo and loading components are still available today. The 32 H & R mag is supposed to be a step up from the long but due to relatively low pressures, it doesn’t impress very many folks. Still it is a little better then the long. The 327 is a real step up in power. The 32 mag case is lengthened and pressures are increased to equal a 357 mag. You can shoot bullets up to 150 grains though velocity will be sacrificed. It is a legitimate self-defense and hunting round. Due to its high velocity and flat trajectory it can be effective out to a hundred yards or so. It would be a bit light for deer size game but in the hands of an adept it can be made to work. It will work great on small game and varmints with the good selection of bullets. All of the 32’s can be loaded with lead bullets and light loads which will reduce the cost of shooting. Jacketed bullets should be used in the 32 H & R and the 327. The smaller rounds can’t fire them fast enough to expand and they don’t offer any better accuracy. Of course they are more expensive which is another downside to using them. That would apply to the 32 auto round also.
With little doubt the 357 mag is the most versatile handgun available. The 357 maxi case is longer and can fire the 357 mag but guns are not easily available nor is the ammo so except for someone who has a 357 maxi and handloads I will stick to the 357 mag. Besides the 357 round it will chamber the 38 special and the 38 short and long Colt. The short and long are long past their prime but ammo is still available and cases can be loaded with light loads for target practice. The older rounds were popular at one time for self-defense and the long was a military round at one time though it was too anemic to be useful. The 38 special can be loaded with countless bullets and loads and is an excellent target round. With lead bullets, small game is a great option as they won’t ruin much meat if you want to eat it. Modern +P loads makes it a useful self-defense round. There is an endless supply of bullets and cases for the reloader. If more power is desired then the 357 should be considered. It is loaded to higher pressures and velocities then the 38 special. Naturally, the recoil and muzzle blast can be unpleasant in a small frame revolver. Coonan Arms offers the 357 in a semi auto pistol. How well does it work? Since I have never fired one I won’t comment on that. Small game and varmints can be harvested with the 357 with various loads. While it will work on deer, it would be on the lower end and shot placement would be critical. Anyone who makes a revolver has them chambered for the 357. They can be purchased in single or double action with various barrel lengths and frame sizes. Another nice thing about the 357 is there are rifles available for it. As with the other combos a rifle will add 3 to 400 FPS which can make a real difference in performance. A rifle with a good 357 load would make a creditable woods deer gun. One of my carry guns is a S & W model 19 with a 2 & ½” barrel and round grips. It is small enough to drop into my pocket but is controllable with good working loads. I have other 357’s for other purposes both single and double action. Bullet weights up to 200 grains can be utilized for various purposes. For 98% of your shooting various lead bullets can be very well utilized. For someone who has only one handgun this would probably be your best bet.
If you don’t mind the extra weight and recoil the 44 magnum might be a good choice. There is a longer case the 445 super mag but guns and ammo are very uncommon so it won’t be included. Besides the 44 mag round you can shoot the mild mannered 44 special and 44 Russian rounds. They can be loaded with lead bullets and light powder charges for target or small game work. The magnum can be utilized for almost any large game animal using the correct bullet. If you hike in bear country it would be a much better choice then any 357. Bullet weights usually go from 180 to 325 grains though there are some lighter and a few heavier slugs available. An LBT type of bullet weighing 300-325 grains would suffice for almost any situation. With the special and Russian cases, lead bullets can be used for inexpensive target loads. With the light recoil available extended shooting sessions are realistic. Like the 357 both single and double actions are available. With a lever action rifle, you would have a fine rifle-handgun combo. Guns, ammo and reloading components are readily available.
Colt 45 is versatile to handle many situations and is very accurate
With the 45 calibers you have some thinking to do. If you want the ultimate power revolver then the 460 S & W. The problem is the revolver by necessity is very large and cumbersome. The 460 round is very intense and not everyone can handle it. Therefore, unless you expect to encounter a large bear or similar animal it isn’t for you. The 454 Casull also falls into that category. It is large and the full power round is brutal to shoot. Both ammo and guns are expensive for both rounds. However, you can shoot 45 Colt and Schofield round in them which will tame them down a lot. You can also load the 454 and 460 rounds down to make them more pleasant to shoot. If you shoot full power loads be sure to use the proper bullets, as the lighter ones will come apart. The high intensity rounds will strip the jackets off some of the lightly constructed bullets. The jacket could stay in the bore which could cause a dangerous situation. For the average shooter the 45 Colt would be more practical. Guns are more normal in size and price. Factory ammo is available in a few loads and in a modern gun high power ammo can be safely utilized. In a heavy 45 Colt load you have a splendid large game load not to mention self-defense. The old black powder load that fired a 255 grain bullet at 850-to 900 FPS served and still serves as a good self-defense load. If you want lighter loads handloading can accomplish that and even better a 45 Schofield case can be used. With less airspace it is easy to load down to levels that would approach a 38 special wad cutter in mildness. The nice thing about a large caliber handgun bullet is it doesn’t have to expand in order to be effective. It already leaves a large hole in anything it hits. A full power 45 Colt load is very similar to a full 44 mag load in performance meaning it will handle almost anything. When you utilize very light loads it is easier to use a short case with less airspace. There are rifles for the 45 Colt and 454 Casull which will increase the velocity quite a bit. A 460 rifle would be like having a 45-70 loaded pretty warm.
If you handload & have a knowledge of brass forming you can make any revolver more versatile. For instance, the 41 mag has a spin off round known as the 41 special. It is nothing more then a 41 mag case that is shortened. I don’t see much use for it unless you are interested in very light loads.
The 475 Linbaugh is a monstrosity with full power loads but you can use a 480 Ruger case to tame it somewhat. Of course, you can shorten a case to fit your needs. However, bullets are not real common unless you cast them nor are they inexpensive. Guns are expensive and not common not to mention brass or ammo. For an all-around gun it isn’t a good choice.
The 500 S & W is the most powerful commercial revolver and is meant for the largest and most dangerous game. With full power loads, it is very intimidating to anyone but the most seasoned shooter. A 500 Linebaugh case will tame it a little but you would have to trim the cases a lot to easily obtain really mild loads. You still have the problem of a large gun and expensive components so like the 475 it is a poor choice for an all-around gun.