I wrote about holsters for concealed carry in this post. An empty holster won’t do anyone much good, though. I had promised some friends to write about pistols as well, but haven’t had the time to wrap it up until today. This post turned out much longer than originally intended, but I included a lot of information in it. That said, a great deal more could be added, but I’m tired of writing and want to get this out. I welcome corrections if anyone finds an error in this post.
Caveat up front: Just as with holsters, the choice of firearms is very personal and the right answer varies for each individual. I will offer some thoughts based on personal experience. As always, YMMV.
A few primary rules apply across the board. First, the best firearm for you is one that you shoot well. That sounds trite, but a lot of folks seem to think that they need to fit some magic “self-defense mold”. If you don’t shoot a particular firearm well, then you are unlikely to practice much with it and practice is key to proficiency. So, if the recoil of a 10mm causes you to, well, recoil, then don’t buy or carry one.
Second, buy something that you will carry. A .22 LR on your hip is more useful for personal defense than a .50 BMG in the safe. I’m not advocating carrying a .22LR for defense, but even that would be better than nothing, which is what you’ll be carrying if you don’t like your carry firearm.
Lastly, as firearms expert Clint Smith once said, “The only purpose for a pistol is to fight your way back to the rifle you should have never laid down.” Pistols serve only as backup weapons in the military for good reason. The best pistols in the largest common calibers pale in effectiveness when compared to a rifle. The idea that pistol shots result in people being violently thrown backwards through the air belongs solely to the entertainment industry. Leave the Dirty Harry syndrome to the movies.
This is generally where the religion starts to creep into a discussion. Accuracy and terminal effectiveness provide the goals here. With that in mind, two schools of thought compete for attention in defensive firearms. One school prefers small and fast rounds, the other larger and somewhat slower rounds. The first purports to rely on shock and temporary wound cavities. The second pushes penetration depth and larger permanent wound channels.
While I wouldn’t want to be shot by anything, even a .22 LR, the physical evidence from combat, street shootings, and hunting all favor the second theory. The greatest amount of permanent tissue damage that causes maximum rate of blood loss provides the greatest and quickest effectiveness against the target. So, the larger the permanent wound channel, the greater chance of causing the greatest amount of blood loss.
That’s not just my opinion, but the result of real-world experience and research. The foremost expert in wound ballistics is Dr. Martin L. Fackler, MD, COL, US Army (Ret.) and later of the FBI. The findings of his ground-breaking work can be found through the link provided. Dr. Gary Roberts, with whom I have the honor of being personally acquainted, has also put together some excellent data (PDF file) on the effectiveness of various rifle calibers, but the same basic principle flows down to handgun ammunition.
Here’s another trauma doctor’s view of this issue. The video is just over 30 minutes and a bit gruesome in places, but is well worth the time to see all the way through:
Poor terminal effectiveness led the FBI abandoned the 9mm round for its agents after the 1986 Miami shootout. The book by Dr. W. French Anderson, MD, remains the definitive reference and analysis of that shootout.
Hollow point and some frangible ammunition seem to alter the equation, but not really. Hollow points expand on target entry, making a larger permanent wound channel than their caliber would indicate. Hollow points, however, can be rendered less effective or ineffective by plugging their point cavity with heavy clothing, dry wall, etc. Although a 9 mm hollow point bullet will usually expand beyond 9 mm, a .45 ACP will never get smaller and its hollow point ammo will expand even larger.
Frangible ammunition deserves its own discussion, so I’ll do another post on ammunition types later.
So, what does all this mean to you? It depends. Remember the first rule – carry what you shoot well. If you have small hands and are recoil-sensitive, then a 9mm may make sense for you. On the other hand, if you are average sized, you should look to a .45 ACP, or at least a .40 S&W. My personal choice remains the .45 ACP because of its moderate recoil and legendarily high effectiveness in combat. It remains a popular choice for military special units and police SWAT teams. The .40 S&W remains popular for general law enforcement use, though it’s high chamber pressure and higher muzzle velocity produce a sharper recoil and louder report.
Reduced magazine capacity (fewer rounds available in the pistol) provide the main disadvantage of larger caliber pistols. Whereas a full-sized 9mm pistol will hold 14-15 rounds in a double-stack magazine, a full-sized .45 ACP single-stack magazine will hold 7-8 rounds, though there are some .45 ACP double-stack pistols that will hold 15 rounds. The narrower width of single-stack pistols makes them easier to conceal, though – another trade-off.
The .380 ACP (also called a 9 mm kurz) maintains a following in the carry world. The pistols are generally smaller, even down to pocket size. They are less powerful than a full 9 mm, occupying the boundary between serious defensive firearms and mouse guns. I’d carry (and have carried) a .380 ACP rather than nothing if a situation required it, but I haven’t encountered such a situation in well over a decade.
A narrower firearm provides better concealability than a wider one. The width of a semi-auto pistol with a double-stack magazine will be greater than a single-stack. You’ll have more ammunition but lose some concealability. Revolvers also come in large and small varieties. Unless your body type is particularly well suited for the task, your chances of concealing Dirty Harry’s S&W Model 29 .44 Magnum stand as slim indeed.
With the growing popularity of concealed carry, the firearm industry has stepped up to the plate with a host of good choices. Consider your body type and what you can realistically conceal with proper clothing choices.
In addition, large double-stack pistols may be too large for smaller or even medium hands. This can be mitigated with a shorter backstrap or other grip modifications, but if you can’t comfortably attain a good finger position on the trigger, you will not shoot well.
Here’s another religious argument, but one that largely depends on your carry style. As I discussed in my holster post, there are many choices available as to how to carry a firearm. If you carry inside the waistband (IWB), then the barrel length is almost irrelevant because it will be hidden inside your pants. If you carry outside the waistband, your cover garment must be long enough to conceal the length of your carry firearm when you are reaching over your head (like for an item on the top shelf of a grocery store).
Also, a longer barrel provides a longer sight radius – the distance between the rear and front sights. This provides greater inherent accuracy at longer ranges with a human in the loop. The relative size of the rear sight notch and front sight blade also plays in this equation. About 80% of self-defense shootings occur at distances less than 15 feet, so the differences in sight radius don’t affect performance all that much for most people, if at all.
A full-size semi-auto pistol or revolver usually comes with a four inch barrel, except for a M1911A1-based pistol which sports a five inch barrel. These full-size pistols provide ammunition performance as advertized by manufacturers. For every inch of barrel shorter, ammunition loses between 50 and 100 feet per second in performance depending on the firearm. That’s not much unless it drops the ammunition below its performance minimum, for instance a minimum speed for reliable expansion of a particular hollow point bullet.
Pocket pistols deserve some mention. These invariably involve smaller calibers, usually .25 ACP or .380 ACP. Tiny .380 ACPs tend to punish the shooter’s because of their very light weight and tiny grips. Their short sight radii and small sights tend to make them difficult to shoot well. I view these as a last resort or backup gun (BUG) for defensive situations, but some folks carry these exclusively.
For concealed carry, pistols and revolvers with 2 – 3.5 inch barrels abound on the market. While early examples earned a poor reputation for reliability, the current crop seem to be just as reliable as their full-sized cousins. I carried a three-inch barrelled M1911A1 .45 ACP for over a decade and still do occasionally. Mostly I now carry a four-inch M1911A1. Both have been perfectly reliable. The three-inch barely extends below my belt, making it a good choice for OWB carry.
A pistol’s grip presents the greatest challenge to concealment for IWB and appendix carry. The longer the grip, the more likely it will “print” or present its shape through your cover garments. Bending over at the waist provides the greatest chance of revealing your carry firearm for IWB or OWB carry. An appropriate holster choice can also help.
The ammunition capacity of the pistol provides the flip side of this coin. A longer grip holds more rounds than a shorter one, all else being equal. For example, for a M1911A1, a full-size pistol holds 8 rounds with newer magazines. The shorter gripped ultra carry/officer and compact models hold 7 rounds in the magazine. The trade-off for that one round is about an inch of shorter grip. That can make a significant difference in concealability.
This hits the comfort factor pretty heavily. Heavier firearms can be more tiring to carry all day, especially in a poorly thought-out equippment arrangement. A good holster and gun belt make carrying a heavier firearm more comfortable, but don’t generally include anti-gravity features. Back to trainer Clint Smith who observed that: “Your carry gun should be comforting, not comfortable.” The practical flip side is that if your firearm is too heavy and uncomfortable, you won’t carry it much or at all.
They myth is that polymer firearms are inherently lighter than metal ones, but that’s not always true. After all, even polymer-framed firearms must have steel slides, barrels, and metal internals. Titanium firearms can be incredibly light, as well as expensive. Aluminum alloys make both durable and light frames for significantly less cash. The only way to see how competing firearms fare in weight is to read their specifications.
Recoil lives on the flip side of weight. Newton’s third law in physics dictates that lighter firearms experience more recoil force than heavier ones for the same ammunition. So, a titanium .357 Magnum will kick way more than a steel firearm of the same size. Before you pick the lightest firearm that you can find, shoot it. You may find a bit more weight makes the difference between a burdensome pistol and a fun one to shoot.
Semi-auto vs. revolver
This really comes down almost entirely to personal preference. Revolvers are simpler in construction and generally simpler to operate. There is also less to go wrong. However, they hold less ammunition than all but the smallest semi-autos – usually only five or six rounds. Back in the day, snub-nosed revolvers with two-inch barrels held sway as the police concealed firearm of choice. Some still swear by them.
Semi-auto pistols dominate military, police and civilian carry. Though they have more moving parts, the reliability of most modern semi-auto pistols rivals that of revolvers. One should still practice malfunction drills as a precaution, but you can use them with confidence.
Semi-auto pistols have flat sides and generally conceal more easily. Some revolvers like Ruger’s SP101 sport a 5-round capacity that permits a smaller cylinder and easier concealability.
Another important difference involves the trigger mechanism. I’ll cover this next.
Clever designers provide us with a variety of trigger action types. I will list them in order of desireability in my opinion.
Single-action triggers provide the lightest triggers with the best feel for the shooter, as well as the best opportunity for accuracy. For defensive pistols, the trigger pulls generally run between 3.5 and 5 pounds. The best triggers lack any creep and provide a crisp break – often compared with breaking a glass rod. M1911 models exemplify this quality.
The disadvantage of single-action triggers is that they must be cocked before firing the first time on semi-autos, or every time for revolvers. The M1911 solves this by being carried in Condition 1 – a round ready in the chamber, hammer cocked, safety on. This is how they were designed, so every shot is single-action.
In a double-action revolver or double-action-only (DAO) semi-auto, the trigger pull must cock the hammer and then release it. This makes the pull both longer and harder – up to 12 – 18 pounds, and thus requires more training for proficiency and accuracy.
Double-action/single-action (DA/SA) hybrid system on semi-autos provides a compromise. The first trigger pull is double-action, cocking the hammer and releasing it with a long, hard pull. After this first shot and subsequent ones, however, the slide motion leaves the hammer cocked and provide a lighter single-action trigger pull. An example of this system is the Beretta 92 (military Mark 9). The disadvantage of DA/SA is that the trigger pull isn’t consistent for the critical first few shots, requiring regular practice to be able to smoothly make the transition while maintaining accuracy. One can manually cock the hammer on some pistols like the Beretta 92, going right to single-action on the first shot.
Striker-fired pistols don’t use hammers at all. The trigger either cocks the striker or finishes cocking the striker depending on the pistol, then releases the striker to fire the pistol. Although some consider or sell this as a new system, it actually dates to the early 20th century. Glocks provide a prominent example of this system. Trigger pulls can vary from 5 all the way to 18 pounds, but the triggers still require a significant pull length to work the action.
Although this post ran much longer than I intended, it is in no way comprehensive. Entire books have been written on this topic. The last decade or two of civilian concealed carry has produced an explosion of firearm options to meet the demand. A good first step in making a firearm choice would be to attend a large gun show and handle as many pistols as possible to find what you like. Then find a friend with one or a range that rents them and shoot it. The proof is always in the shooting.
I have fired almost all the military and police pistols currently used in the free world, so have a firm basis on which to make a choice for myself. I remain a strong proponent of the M1911A1 in .45 ACP. I find the 3″ ultra carry and 4″ compact models easy to conceal, a good fit for my medium-sized hands, accurate to shoot, and the caliber combat proven. As they say: