If you are reading this, perhaps you haven’t made up your mind or have questions about your selection of a personal defense handgun. There have been many articles written on this subject, most of which boil down to a discussion of calibers and actions. While the caliber and action discussion is important, I find it incomplete and lacking in some important considerations for a person who carries a concealed handgun for self defense. Hence, my point of departure is what it means to live with a pistol every day.
The paradox of the concealed personal defense weapon is that it is something you hope you will never have to use for its intended purpose, but with which you must achieve a level of mastery and familiarity comparable to the other tools you use to survive and get through your day. You wouldn’t drive to work in a car that you didn’t know how to operate. You wouldn’t wear a coat that was three sizes too small or use a carpenter’s saw to slice up a pot roast. No, you use the tools appropriate to the job and you learn how to work with them competently. The same holds true with a self defense pistol. You should know how to operate it and have the level of skill necessary to use it safely and effectively. It should fit your hand and your lifestyle because you will be spending a lot of time with it. It should be comfortable to shoot and hopefully to carry, although when asked if a carry gun should be comfortable to wear, master trainer Clint Smith said, “Your carry gun should be comforting, not comfortable.” Your pistol should be powerful enough to do the job and accurate enough to hit the target. It should be completely reliable, and its operation should be as familiar to you as riding a bicycle or brushing your teeth. You must also have a clear understanding of the legal issues surrounding the use of deadly force — when you can and when you can’t — and the methods and techniques of using a gun in a self defense situation. Sounds like a lot? You’re right; it is, and if you are unwilling to master the skills and concepts of lethal force, do yourself a favor and just don’t carry a gun. (See also The Psychology of Self Defense and the Force Continuum)
Skill and Familiarity
Handguns are not easy to shoot well. The ability to consistently put bullets into a target quickly and in the places which will stop an attacker is a skill that requires a lot of practice. Too many people have the notion that a pistol is a kind of magical talisman and the user need only take it out and wave it around and the problem will magically disappear. Nothing could be further from the truth. A gun brandished at the wrong time and without the fighting skills necessary to employ it effectively will make a whole bunch of new problems, including getting you killed or arrested and charged with some very serious crimes. Hence, making the decision to carry a gun should be made only with the commitment to practice and learn. This may take the shape of attending classes or participating in a practical shooting sport like IDPA. At the very least, a regular practice schedule should be part of the package. This means that you will be spending a lot of time with your pistol. The gun should be comfortable in your hand, have manageable recoil, and be sturdy enough to stand up to heavy use in practice sessions, matches, and classes. The gun should also have reasonable accuracy. You should be able to consistently put all of your shots in an area the size of a saucer at ten yards quickly.
Types and Sizes: Pros and Cons
When many folks think of a concealed carry gun, they think of little-bitty pocket pistols that will easily disappear into a pocket or purse. While these may be light and convenient, that’s all they are. Aside from that, they’re pretty useless. They lack the power to put down a determined attacker and they lack the accuracy to hit anything at more than spitting distance. But even more importantly, most little guns are unpleasant to shoot. Being very light and having small handles, their muzzle flip is very bad. After a few rounds your hand may begin to hurt. Shoot a match or take a class at Gunsite with one of these pocket guns? Forget it. If you don’t learn to use it, how much good is it going to do you when the chips are down? In this group, I would include the small Berettas, Airweight snubnose revolvers, Seecamp .32′s, Kel-Tek .32′s and derringers. There may be a place for these pistols, but they all suffer from serious inadequacies. (I am particularly fond of the Airweight snubnose .38 Special revolver, but it can be an unpleasant gun to fire.)
Medium Frame Revolvers
Even though they have been around for 165 years, revolvers remain an excellent solution. These pistols are simple to use and accurate. They can handle hot loads and larger bullets making them effective personal defense weapons. Examples of this class of pistol are the Ruger GP Series and the S&W Model 66. The ideal revolver would have a 3″ to 4″ barrel, a six-round cylinder, and a grip that fills your hand. The biggest drawback of these pistols is the speed of reloading, but with practice, a revolver can be reloaded as quickly as an autoloader.
Medium Frame Auto Pistols
The overwhelming majority of professional trainers, operators, law enforcement and military people prefer medium to large framed autoloading pistols. These pistols have the best combination of speed, firepower, accuracy, and power. These pistols will generally load 8-10 rounds in their magazines (or more if you can find the magazines), have full-length grips, and 3.5″ or longer barrels. These guns tend to have adequate accuracy and power, and large enough grips to be comfortable. Examples of this type of pistol would be the Glock 17, 19, 21 and 22, the S&W 39xx, 59xx, and 69xx series, the SIG 22x series, the H&K USP and P7, the Kimber ProCarry and Compact, the Springfield Champion, Para-Ordnance P12, and many others.
Large Frame Pistols and Revolvers
I like big pistols. They shoot more accurately, absorb more recoil, and develop greater muzzle velocity due to their longer barrels. I would include in this group the Beretta 92, the Colt Government Model M1911 (and clones), The N Frame S&W revolvers, Colt Python, Anaconda and their copies. Characteristically, these guns have 5″ barrels and weigh 36 oz. or more. The biggest drawback of these pistols is their weight. They get heavy and small framed people may have difficulty concealing them.
Autoloader Action Types
There are four types of actions around which semi-auto pistols are built. It’s important to understand the differences:
Single Action – M1911 Colt .45 ACP and Browning Hi-Power 9mm
This is the oldest autoloader design still in service, designed by John Browning (with the help of the Army Ordnance Board) during the period between 1905 and 1911. The hammer must be cocked, generally by racking the slide, for the gun to fire. This design in .45 ACP, .40 S&W and .38 Super is favored by competitive shooters, FBI SWAT, FBI Hostage Rescue Team, and many special forces units because it has the best trigger, outstanding accuracy and is very fast. For the gun to be carried in a state of readiness, the hammer must be cocked and the manual safety applied, “cocked and locked” (see “The Conditions of Readiness“). This looks scary and is not recommended for novices or those suffering from attention deficit disorder.
Double Action/Single Action – Beretta 92F (Armed Forces M9), most Smith & Wesson autos, SIG, Walther, and some Rugers.
This has been the standard design for most autos for the last 50 years. These pistols are cocked by the first trigger pull, but subsequent shots are cocked by the action of the slide cycling back. Consequently, the first trigger pull is long and harder (Double Action) since it is also cocking the hammer. Subsequent trigger pulls are easy (Single Action) since the hammer is already cocked. These guns have an external safety lever which puts the gun on safe and de-cocks the hammer. This is generally thought to be the safest design since the long, heavy first trigger pull and the external safety which blocks the firing pin tend to prevent the gun from going off by accident. The criticism of this design is that it forces the shooter to learn two different trigger pulls and accuracy often suffers on the first double action shot. Most accidental discharges with these sorts of pistols are the result of the shooter forgetting to de-cock the hammer.
Double Action/Single Action with De-Cocker Only – Ruger and SIG
This is a variant of the DA/SA which is used by Ruger and SIG. It functions just like a DA/SA except the “safety” lever is not a safety. It only de-cocks the hammer, but the gun will still fire when the de-cocker is applied and the trigger is pulled. I personally do not like this design since the de-cocker looks just like a safety lever but does not put the gun on safe.
Double Action Only – Glock, Smith & Wesson Sigma, some Berettas, some Rugers, Kahr, Kel-Tec, and others.
This is the newest action design made popular by Glock. With these pistols every trigger pull is the same and they have no external safety or decocking levers. The hammers are not cocked by the cycling of the slide (except for the Glocks which are pre-cocked by the slide cycle, and are not true double action). DAO pistols depend on the long double action trigger pull to prevent accidental discharges. In a sense these are autoloaders which fire like revolvers. Triggers vary from model to model. Some, like the Glocks, have very light triggers. Other DAO triggers can be quite heavy and long, and can be very unpleasant to shoot. The advantage of this action is its simplicity and the fact that every trigger pull is the same.
Calibers and Power
Here we get into mysticism and voodoo, and I will just give you my personal opinion and you can take it for what it’s worth. I like the .45 ACP and the .357 Magnum the best. Just under them in effectiveness are the .40 S&W, the .44 Special and the 9mm. Below them are the .38 Special and the .380 ACP. There are other cartridges, but these are the most common for personal defense weapons and the ammunition is readily available.
I wouldn’t be comfortable with anything smaller than a .380 (actually, I wouldn’t be comfortable with anything smaller than a .45 ACP, but that’s a different argument. See also Jim Higginbotham’s “Case for the .45 ACP”). My personal favorite handgun cartridge is the .45 ACP because of its power and accuracy, but smaller cartridges will do the job if you do your part. Like the selection of the gun, the selection of a cartridge should be based on your ability to shoot it well. A good hit with a .380 is better than a miss with a .45. So, as a general rule, your self defense cartridge should be the largest and most powerful load that you shoot well.
The Selection Process
Don’t be in a rush to buy the first gun you see. Give it a lot of thought. Ideally, shoot as many pistols as you can before you make a decision. Most gun ranges have pistols you can rent to see how they feel. If you have friends who own pistols, go shooting with them. Most will be happy to let you shoot their guns and share with you their experiences with them.
Be careful about the advice of clerks at gun stores. Some are very knowledgeable but many others are total idiots. Just because someone works at a gun store doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she is an expert on personal defense pistols. They will all offer an opinion, whether they actually know anything about the matter or not.
I would also maintain a healthy degree of skepticism toward articles in popular gun magazines. They don’t make money by trashing the offerings of their advertisers.
Consider how you dress and your lifestyle. How will you carry the pistol? Can you adjust your wardrobe to accommodate your pistol? Particular body shapes may present special problems. Your physical strength and conditioning may also be a factor, i.e., powerful auto pistols tend to function better for people with strong arms and hands. How much time do you have to devote to practice? As a rule of thumb, autos require more training than revolvers, so don’t pick a single-action .45 auto if you’re not willing to learn to use it.
As important as any other single factor is the size and geometry of your hand. Hand size varies greatly between people and it is very important to handle a gun and note carefully the comfort of the grip and the position of the controls on the pistol. If you can’t easily manipulate every control on the gun with either hand, then find a different gun. People with short thumbs may have trouble with the safety of an M1911. People with short palms may have difficulty with the thick handles of the double-stack 9mm and .40 pistols. People with meaty hands may be “bitten” by the slide of a small auto when it cycles.
Does the gun feel good in your hand? Is the trigger smooth or is it rough and heavy? Is the frame fairly narrow so that it will conceal well? Does the gun have the right balance of power, weight and size? (Remember, bigger is better for shooting and power, but can you carry it for 8 hours if you have to?)
You will notice that I have said nothing about price. I really hate to hear people making a decision on a handgun based on price. No one wants to pay more than we have to or what is fair, but price should be the last consideration. You won’t remember a hundred or so dollars extra you paid for the right pistol, but you will remember the ill-fitting bargain pistol that doesn’t shoot right or feel good.
To summarize, hold it, feel it, fire it if you can, and recognize that you’re going to spend a lot of time with the pistol. Remember also, that it may be called upon someday to defend your life. No, it isn’t easy, and you may end up buying two or three pistols before you find the one with just the right balance of weight, power and comfort.
The selection of a holster which fits the gun you intend to carry is critically important. For a detailed discussion on this matter, click here.
Most of the tactical gurus recommend the carry of at least one reload. If you observe police officers, they often carry 2-4 extra magazines or speed-loaders. If your gun is an autoloader, the second magazine is a good idea for two reasons: (1) you may need the extra rounds (and it’s better to have them and not need them than to need them and not have them), and (2) magazines sometimes fail and having a backup will ensure that you won’t get caught with a non-functioning gun. Hopefully, very few of us will ever need twenty one or more rounds, but the carry of a spare magazine or speed-loader is just a wise practice. One of the reasons I prefer an autoloader to a wheel gun in this role is that the flat shape of a magazine is easier to carry on your belt than the rounded and somewhat bulky shape of the speed-loader used for revolvers.
Summary of Selection Criteria
- Your personal defense weapon should be as large and as powerful as you can shoot accurately and carry with a reasonable degree of comfort and concealment.
- Your personal defense weapon should fit your hand perfectly.
- You should be able to manipulate the controls of your weapon with either hand alone.
- Your personal defense weapon should be of sturdy construction and be able to withstand heavy use and rough handling.
- Your personal defense weapon should be accurate enough to consistently hit a target the size of a saucer at 10 yards quickly.
- Select the largest caliber you can shoot well, and a caliber for which ammunition is readily available.
- A good quality holster must be available for the model of pistol you intend to carry.
What Pistol Do I Carry? Click Here
Pistol Packin by Jim Higginbotham.
Concealed Carry and the ‘Large’ Auto Pistol by Jim Higginbotham.
Custom Auto Pistol Modifications for Serious Duty by Jim Higginbotham
Defensive Marksmanship by Jim Higginbotham
Handgun Power by Jim Higginbotham
Recommended Modifications to the Colt .45 Auto for Self-Defense Use by Les Bengtson
The Case for the .45 ACP by Jim Higginbotham
The Psychology of Self Defense and the Force Continuum by Syd
The .45 ACP Cartridge – Development, Specs, and Performance
Selecting a Holster for Concealed Carry
Comments, suggestions, contributions? Let me know