An estimated 638,900 Americans are confronted each year by criminals carrying handguns, including 9,200 people who are killed and 15,000 who are wounded, according to a report released yesterday.

A Justice Department study covering 1979 through 1987 showed that 44 percent of all people murdered during the period were killed by assailants wielding handguns.

Such guns were used in 7 percent of the rapes, 18 percent of the robberies and 22 percent of the aggravated assaults during the period considered by the department's Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The study was based on victims' reports taken by the department's annual National Crime Survey.

There are about 9,200 murders, 12,100 rapes, 210,000 robberies and 407,600 assaults committed by criminals armed with handguns each year, the department said.

In an average year during the period, the Justice Department said, 27 percent or 629,700 of the 2.3 million crimes involving weapons of any sort were committed by people with handguns. Other types of guns accounted for 8 percent or 180,100 of such crimes.

Seventy-two percent of the handgun crimes were committed by people who were strangers to the victim, the department said. Acquaintances carrying handguns committed 17 percent of the crimes. Relatives of the victim committed 5 percent of handgun crimes. The other 6 percent were in the "unknown" or "unreported" categories.

City dwellers, particularly black men between 16 and 24, were more likely to encounter criminals armed with handguns, the study said.