June 26, 2020
By David M. Fortier
I was quite surprised by Ruger’s sudden embrace of the 5.7x28mm cartridge with the launch of their Ruger-57 pistol this January. A company the size of Ruger getting behind the 5.7x28mm cartridge is big news, and will have an effect on the market, especially future ammunition offerings. As interesting as the Ruger-57 pistol is though, it’s really the cartridge it’s chambered for which contains the magic. The 5.7x28mm is a small bottleneck cartridge known for its relatively high muzzle velocity. People who have shot a 5.7x28mm pistol typically comment on its mild recoil, allowing very fast follow-up shots, and its flat trajectory aiding hits past 50 yards.
The question many shooters have though is, “How does the 5.7x28mm stack up against the 9mm?” Basically, should you consider buying a 5.7x28mm over a 9mm for recreational shooting, training, and personal protection? That is a good honest question for someone considering laying out their hard-earned money for a pistol chambered for this cartridge. Other questions I am frequently asked are: Is the 5.7x28mm a good cartridge? Is it expensive to shoot compared to the 9mm? Is it easy to reload? Are there drawbacks to the 5.7x28mm I should be aware of?
While the 5.7x28mm cartridge may be new to you, it has actually been around for quite a while. It is significantly older than such popular cartridges as the 300 AAC Blackout, 6.5mm Grendel and 6.5mm Creedmoor for instance. The design was patented back in 1989 by FNH. It was originally developed as part of a military Personal Defense Weapon (PDW) project undertaken by FNH for NATO. In a nutshell, the 5.7x28mm was originally designed to replace the 9mm cartridge in NATO service. This never happened, and eventually, it was released onto the US commercial market.
Click here to learn about the history and development of the 5.7x28mm cartridge.
The 9mm Parabellum
Before we continue though, let’s consider the other cartridge in question, the 9mm. Also known as the 9mm Luger, 9mm Parabellum and 9x19mm, this handgun cartridge has surged in popularity over the last decade. Designed by Georg Luger and introduced by the German firm of Deutsche Waffen und Munitionsfabriken (DWM) in 1902, the 9x19mm is one of the oldest auto-loading pistol cartridges in existence. It predates almost all the popular handgun cartridges currently on the market including the 10mm, .40 S&W, .44 Magnum, .357 Magnum, .38 Super, .380 ACP and even the .45 ACP.
Since 1902 the 9mm has gone on to become the world’s most popular handgun cartridge and has been adopted around the globe. Today, it is standard issue not only to NATO and the US military, but also Russia and even China. It is also widely used by LE agencies. This widespread adoption has also led to it becoming hugely popular with civilian shooters, for recreation, competition and personal protection.
5.7x28mm vs. 9mm: Cost
Let’s start with the cost of ammunition in our comparison. This is an extremely important factor to consider. Let’s face it, if the ammunition is very expensive the amount of shooting you will actually be able to do will be restricted. If, on the other hand the cost of ammunition is relatively economical then you will be able to spend much more time enjoying your firearm on the range.
Here there is no contest. The 9mm easily trounces the 5.7x28mm in regards to price. 9mm ammunition can be had at significantly cheaper prices, both in brass case and even more economical steel case loads. Due to the sheer volume of ammunition loaded in 9mm it is much more economical. What about the future introduction of inexpensive 5.7x28mm ammunition? Are there inexpensive loads on the horizon? You will not see 5.7x28mm offered in steel case, due to the design, which I will get into later. So, that takes cheap steel case ammo off the table. I highly doubt you will see 5.7x28mm brass case ammunition ever approach the cost of 9mm in the near future. So, if cost is a factor to you, go with 9mm.
5.7x28mm vs. 9mm: Availability
When it comes to walking into your local store and finding either 5.7x28mm or 9mm on the shelves, again there is no contest. You will find 9mm everywhere, both online and in stores. This is not so with 5.7x28mm. Up until Ruger’s introduction of their 57 pistol the 5.7x28mm was slowly fading away. There were relatively few loads available for it and demand was low. For example, while writing this I checked Midway USA’s website. They list only three 5.7x28mm loads and all were out of stock. While 5.7x28mm availability is slowly improving, 9mm will always be significantly easier to find, both online and in stores.
5.7x28mm vs. 9mm: Offerings
When it comes to diversity of loads, the 9mm puts the knuckles to the 5.7x28mm, badly. Since 1902 there has been a steady flow of new and interesting loads developed all over the world for the 9mm. Light bullets, heavy bullets, subsonic loads, AP, Tracers, frangible, and expanding bullets of all types. 9mm has also been loaded into brass, steel and aluminum cartridge cases. If it’s possible to do, someone has done it with the 9mm. On Midway USA’s site you will find nine pages of 9mm loads offered. There are only a relatively few loads available for the 5.7x28mm, and the more exotic ones are very expensive. So, if you like choices and options, the 9mm is by far the better way to go.
5.7x28mm vs. 9mm: Reloading
What about if you enjoy reloading your own ammunition? Can you dramatically cut costs by simply reloading 5.7x28mm like you can with other cartridges? Actually, it is not recommended. Why? Many do not realize that in order to ease extraction of the small bottle-necked case from a delayed blow-back gun the cartridge case is coated with a dry lubricant. Lubricated cartridges are a bit of a dinosaur which largely fell out of use in small arms post-World War II. A variety of pre-World War II Italian and Japanese machine guns utilized lubricated cartridges, typically via an oiler on the weapon, for proper function. In the case of the 5.7x28mm it adds both complexity and cost to the cartridge’s manufacture. It also hampers the ability to reload 5.7x28mm fired cartridge cases. Is it possible to reload 5.7x28mm? Yes, but it is not recommended. So, if you want to reload, the 9mm is the girl you want.
5.7x28mm vs. 9mm: Velocity
OK, here is where we start to get to the fun part. For you die-hard speed freaks out there, which is faster when run head to head? Obviously the 5.7x28mm will always be faster, right? Well, the answer to this is a bit more complicated than first meets the eye. While the 5.7x28mm is marketed as a blisteringly fast cartridge, the 9mm can indeed give it a run for its money. Heresy you say? No, the 9mm has simply been around for so long that it has been loaded in a wide variety of bullet weights and velocities. While standard 5.7x28mm ammunition will indeed be faster than standard pressure 115-, 124- and 147-grain 9mm loads, there are other 9mm loads to consider.
For example, MagSafe’s 9mm 50-grain Mini-Glock load averaged a blistering 2,242 fps from my old Walther P1. That will show the taillights to most 5.7x28mm loads fired from a handgun. Liberty’s 9mm +P 50-grain fragmenting HP is advertised at 2,000 fps. Underwood Ammunition’s 9mm +P 65-grain LeHigh Xtreme Defender has an advertised velocity of 1,800 fps while their +P 65-grain Xtreme Defense is rated at 1,700 fps. NovX’s 9mm +P 65-grain ARX load is advertised running at 1,800 fps. Inceptor Preferred Defense’s 65-grain ARX has an advertised velocity of 1,695 fps. So, if you drop some bullet weight the old 9mm still has the cubic inches to put on a good show when it comes to speed.
OK, now what about the 5.7x28mm? I recently did some testing with four loads from a Ruger 57 pistol. American Eagle’s 50-grain FMJ averaged 1,689 fps. FNH’s SS197SR 40-grain V-MAX averaged 1,784 fps. So, both of these are indeed slower than some 9mm loads mentioned above. Stepping up to some boutique specialty loads, Elite Ammunition’s 27-grain T6B averaged 2,472 fps while their 28-grain DevastaTOR averaged a smoking 2,475 fps. So, yes when push comes to shove the 5.7x28mm is faster than the light bullet 9mm loads. The downside? Accuracy from both of the Elite Ammunition loads was relatively poor, 4 to 6 inches at 25 yards. If you want sheer velocity the fastest 5.7x28mm load proved 233 fps faster than the fastest 9mm load I tested, with both fired from handguns.
5.7x28mm vs. 9mm: Recoil Impulse
What about recoil? How hard does the 5.7x28mm kick compared to the 9mm? Does the 5.7x28mm recoil harder? Actually one of the original design criteria’s for the 5.7x28mm was to reduce the recoil impulse compared to the 9mm NATO. This indeed it does, and shooters typically comment on the relatively light recoil of the Ruger 57 and how smooth shooting it is. Follow-up shots are very fast. So, comparing standard ammunition in each caliber, the 5.7x28mm does have noticeably softer recoil than 9mm 115-, 124- and 147-grain loads. Drop the bullet weight in the 9mm though and recoil also goes down. The ultra-lightweight 50 to 80 grain 9mm loads are very soft shooting. Even so, I give the edge to the 5.7x28mm.
5.7x28mm vs. 9mm: Magazine Capacity
When it comes to magazine capacity comparing standard length magazines the 5.7x28mm has the advantage due to its smaller case diameter. For example, the Ruger 57’s standard magazine holds 20 rounds. This is a win for the 5.7x28mm.
5.7x28mm vs. 9mm: Soft Body Armor Penetration
This can be a touchy subject which I will not delve too far into. I will just say that the 5.7x28mm was originally developed to defeat Soviet body armor. With the right loads, the 5.7x28mm is fully capable of defeating Level IIIA soft body armor. Clear win for the 5.7x28mm again? No. While the vast majority of 9mm loads are not capable of defeating Level IIIA soft body armor, there are indeed some that easily will. With the right bullet design and at the right velocity the 9mm, despite its age, is a very capable cartridge. The difference is the 5.7x28mm will do it at a greater distance. I’ll call this one a draw with the edge given to the 5.7x28mm. However, AP ammo is not readily available in either caliber on the US commercial market, so it’s really just a hypothetical question.
5.7x28mm vs. 9mm: Terminal Performance
Here is the question you all have been waiting for. How does the 5.7x28mm stack up against the 9mm when it comes to terminal performance? The original 5.7x28mm loads were actually designed to offer similar terminal performance as 9mm NATO ball. This really isn’t something to aspire to. When it comes to terminal performance the 5.7x28mm has velocity on its side, and that is about it. The projectile is small in diameter (.224-inch) and very light (27 to 50 grains). So you have neither size nor mass.
Sheer velocity can be very effective when it comes to terminal performance, but it must be high enough. Generally, most wound ballisticians agree that hydrostatic shock begins to come into play when velocity gets above about 1,800 fps. So, with certain loads at or above 1,800 fps hydrostatic shock may come into play with the 5.7x28mm. A good example would be the Elite Ammunition 28-grain DevastaTOR at 2,475 fps. Velocity wise this load is 145 fps faster than a 7.62x39mm fired from a 16-inch AKM. Loads below 1,800 fps, you only have as much tissue damage as the small projectile can crush during its path through the target. Yawing can aid terminal performance. Depth of penetration is very important, with a minimum of 12 inches in 10-percent Ordnance gel desired.
The issue with the 5.7x28mm is to find a load that expands reliably and yet will also provide a minimum of 12-inches of penetration. Or, if it doesn’t expand that it offers enough velocity and an early yaw cycle to provide sufficient terminal performance similar to a rifle. One load on the horizon that looks well suited for personal protection is Speer’s soon-to-be-released 40-grain Gold Dot load. This should offer a good combination of expansion and penetration. The question I have though, is how much will it expand? Will it expand to .30-caliber, .32-caliber, .35-caliber? I think you can see my point.
When it comes to terminal performance I would go with a modern expanding 9mm load. There is a huge amount of investment and testing done, with decades of data on 9mm expanding loads. 9mm loads are available to meet the needs of both armed citizens and LE. They expand reliably, penetrate well, even through intermediate barriers, and are readily available at reasonable prices. The 5.7x28mm is a very interesting cartridge, and current loads can be improved upon, but for right now I will stick with a 9mm for personal protection.
Now this doesn’t mean the 5.7x28mm is a bad cartridge. It’s a very fun cartridge to shoot, has impressive velocity and can be used effectively for personal protection with good shot placement. Its light recoil makes it very easy to shoot well and quickly. I just would not take one over a 9mm if I could only have one pistol. If I already had a 9mm though, then that is another story.