Choosing a Primary and Concealed Carry Handgun
There are many handgun models on the market in a wide variety of sizes, calibers, barrel lengths, action types, finishes, and other mechanical features.
Some have safeties, some do not!
There is good reason external safeties are not included with a lot of self-defense handguns. Studies have shown that under the duress of a life or death incident, many people including police officers don’t think (react) in time to ‘flick’ them off. Your mind is not thinking about fine-motor skills, only gross-motor skills.
Modern day handguns do have safety features built-in like a grip or tang safety, and a double-stage trigger that must be engaged properly for the trigger to work. If your main interest is recreational shooting or learning to shoot, a .22 caliber pistol or revolver is a great choice. All of the gun safety rules apply to .22’s just as much as the larger caliber self-defense guns. Favorite .22 pistols are the Ruger Mark III, the Browning Buckmark and a new, very popular semi-automatic, the Smith & Wesson M&P. However just about every major gun manufacturer produces a good quality .22. These guns are great choices for learning because ammo is inexpensive, recoil is light and noise is much less than the larger calibers Starting with a .22 will build good shooting habits.
Generally Self-Defense Handguns can be grouped into three categories –
- Primary Guns
- Concealed (Compact) Carry Guns
- Backup Guns
A Primary Gun is a gun primarily used for home defense. Although depending upon your mode of carry, it can be carried concealed (outside the waistband with a coat, in a purse, every day carry bag, etc.). Ideally it’s the ‘no compromise’ gun: the one that you shoot well because it’s got all the right features – size, caliber, capacity, etc. With a primary gun, I can wrap all my fingers around the grip and get an excellent hold. I can also swap out magazines without fear of pinching my fingers.
A Compact (Concealed) Carry Gun is typically the ‘smaller brother’ of the full size gun. It has a shorter grip which lends to better concealment but less ammunition capacity. Whereas the full size gun (9mm) might have 17 or 19 rounds in the gun, the compact version would have 12 rounds or less.
Sub-Compact Guns are even smaller than compact carry guns and of course they have even shorter grips. Where the concealed carry gun would hold 12 rounds, the sub-compact version might only hold 7 or 8 rounds. A Backup Gun is the pocket or ‘mouse gun’ that you carry as a backup to your primary gun. As stated to me by a police officer, “Your primary gun is there to protect you; your backup gun is there to protect your primary gun”.
The Backup Gun can also be carried as a primary gun when it’s more comfortable or you need better, deeper concealment. You need to keep in mind that when carrying a backup or ‘mouse gun’ as a primary gun, your defense options are very limited. The distance limitation of small guns is arms length only and maybe the width of a car. There is a reason they are called ‘Get off me guns!’
If you are buying a first handgun, start with the primary gun because it’s much easier to learn to shoot with a good primary gun. Starting out with a smaller gun in the same caliber is very hard and most people that try it typically never learn to shoot well.
If you pick the right equipment, becoming proficient with a handgun and using it effectively will be much easier. When most people go gun shopping or get advice from gun salespeople or gun owner friends, typically they get the following advice. Beware of sales people that just want to make a sale of a certain type or brand of handgun because it’s been on the shelf for a long time. Get as much advice from as many people before you head to the gun store.
Below are by ‘reality checks’ on what advice you might get and what the reality is –
Size – small is good. Reality – Only in backup guns or ‘BUGS’.
Weight – light is good. Reality – This will cause the pistol kick harder and throw the shot off.
Cost – cheap is good. Reality – I can’t tell you on how many levels why this is wrong.
Caliber – bigger is better. Reality – It’s all about accuracy and shot placement.
Magazine Capacity – bigger is better. Reality – not for concealed carry, too heavy.
Night-sights – good. Reality – Only useful sometimes and mostly unusable.
Laser sights – You don’t have to aim. Reality – Still not very useful during daylight, hard to see the laser. Go Green!
Color – blued, stainless, green? There’s also dark earth, desert tan, etc., etc. Reality – color does not matter, but finish does.
If your like me, my guns stay stock and I’ve rolled in the desert with them and dragged them through the mud. If they can’t take that and still shoot, they don’t deserve to be on my side!
What really matters when you try to hit a target is –
Gun Fit – can you reach the trigger?
Trigger Pull Weight
Trigger Pull Distance
Gun Weight Proportional to Caliber
Practice and Training
Let’s put this in perspective. The whole point of shooting is to hit your intended target quickly. If you miss or you are too slow, the consequences could cost the life of a loved one or yourself. Choosing the right equipment could get you to a higher level of skill in less time, and whether you only shoot 50 rounds every four years because the state requires it for your carry permit, or you shoot multiple days a week with dreams of winning the Nationals, Practice, Training and Equipment will make a difference.
Features that make a gun easy to shoot
A frame that lets you reach the trigger properly – this means a narrow grip for the majority of people. Ideally, when you put your finger on the trigger, the trigger contacts your finger in the middle of the first pad or at the first joint. More importantly you want your trigger finger to make a right angle with the trigger and you want the inside of your trigger finger away from the frame and not lying along the frame all the way to the trigger guard. Why? Because every time you flex your trigger finger to manipulate the trigger, you will be moving the frame (and thus the sights) as you move the trigger. That can cause you to pull the sights off target and cause a miss, typically a left or low-left miss for right hander’s and opposite for left-handers.
If you are a trigger-jerker or trigger-slapper, contact with the frame only magnifies this problem. Many high capacity, large caliber semi-autos have very fat frames, and those with double action first shot designs typically have triggers with long reaches. If you pick up one of those guns and cannot reach the trigger without rotating your grip on the gun — get a different gun. The gun is too wide for your hand and you’ll never shoot it well, at least not for self-defense. If you have short fingers a ‘single stack’ (lower capacity) pistol is probably the best answer for you.
Additional information about gun fit from a well known pistol expert.
Many newer pistol models (Springfield XDM / XD-S, Smith and Wesson M&P, Gen 4 Glock’s, and others) come with grip inserts to let you customize the gun to your hand size. In order to correctly evaluate whether a gun will work for you or not, you need to try all the different grip inserts. The floor models of these guns that you’ll handle in gun shops almost always have the “medium” grip insert installed, and you’ll be lucky if the shop can find the other inserts and/or if the person behind the counter knows how to install them. You should still ask to try them all anyway, because it’s critical to gun fit.
A frame you can get all your fingers on
It makes it much easier to hang onto a handgun if you can get all your fingers on it. It absolutely makes a difference in how well you can shoot the gun, so buy a gun you can get all your fingers on. For many of the compact and sub-compact guns, this will not be the case. Your pinky and half of your ring finger will hang below the grip. This is reality and you should practice with the gun to become proficient at its use.
A trigger pull of 6 pounds or less
The heavier the trigger pull, the more force it takes to fire the gun. That increases the likelihood that you will pull the sights out of alignment before the bullet leaves the barrel. Nearly all ‘striker fired’ self-defense pistols (XD, Glock, M&P) come with trigger pulls of 5.5 to 7 pounds and I’ve never heard of anyone complaining about a ‘stiff’ trigger on these types of pistols. This is not true with the traditional double-action / single-action pistols – Sigs, Beretta’s, CZ’s. They have a long initial heavy–trigger pull and then subsequent shots are fired in the easier single-action mode.
A trigger that has a short distance of travel
The shorter the distance the trigger has to move, the less likely you are to move the sights out of alignment before the gun fires. But, just as with the light trigger pull the factors that make a gun easier to shoot also make it easier to have a negligent discharge with. You can get the over-travel of triggers reduced but you should only do this if you are experienced at shooting a handgun. Shooting when you didn’t mean to shoot could cost you everything. Practice and training can help greatly with trigger over-travel.
The same trigger pull for every shot
Some handguns are designed to have a long, initial heavy trigger pull for the first shot (double action) and then a shorter, lighter trigger pull for the subsequent shots. Striker fired (hidden hammer) handguns have the same trigger pull for every shot which makes them consistent and easier to train with. There is nothing wrong with double-action / single-action types of handguns (I own several) just remember they require more practice and training to become proficient with. The Sig Sauer line of handguns are of this type and are some of the best handguns in the world! The Sig Sauer P226 is used by U.S. Navy SEAL’s
Barrel length of 4″-6″
In general, guns with shorter barrels have more recoil and are harder to shoot because the sight radius (distance between front and rear sight) is shorter. The geometry of sight alignment is simple: the farther the sights are apart, the less small errors in sight alignment affect where the bullet goes. Concerns about concealment often lead people to short barreled handguns. This is a false assumption. Generally, the only thing that has to be covered by a concealment garment (for IWB – ‘inside the waistband’ carry) is the grip. This allows for greater flexibility in choices of concealment garments and allows easy carry of a pistol with a barrel length that makes it more reliable and more ‘shootable’. Men almost always carry ‘inside the waistband while women use different carry methods like a purse, ‘inside the thigh’, or ankle. With the right setup, many women also carry inside the waistband.
Sights that are crisp and simple
“3 dot” sights are standard equipment on guns you purchase, but they are not necessarily the best idea. Most top competitors prefer a solid black rear sight with either a solid black front sight, or a front sight painted a bright color or (more common in recent years) a fiber-optic front sight. They are now making ‘high-visibility’ sights that have a round hi-vis rear sight that you line up with the front sight.
3-dot sights can often fool the user, because if you line up the 3 dots the gun shoots higher or lower than it does when you ignore the dots and align the top of the front sight with the top of the rear sight. That is because the placement of the dots within the sights is not always correct.
Some people like night sights because of the hype surrounding them. They are told by both inexperienced home owners and store salesman that in subdued light or in the dark, they will allow you to see the sights. It’s not the sights you need to see, it’s the target/threat and a flashlight allows you to see the target. When you do use a flashlight with night-sights, they will ‘black out’ – you won’t be able to see the night sights. Night sights are not an essential item. Between bright ambient light and flashlight/gun techniques commonly taught at most schools, you will have sufficient light to line up your sights. If you want to spend money improving the sights on your gun, consider a narrow fiber-optic front sight or large high-visibility sights. Manufacturers like ‘Sure Sight’ and ‘Speed Sights’ are good companies to look to for in high-visibility sights.
Sufficient gun weight for the caliber
Many people mistakenly think that lighter is better in a handgun. This could not be farther from the truth! As the gun gets lighter, shooting full power loads can be very uncomfortable to shoot and even practice rounds can be enough to make your hand hurt and this causes people to not practice with the gun as much as they should let alone carry it. The amount of muzzle flip also increases during recoil with lighter guns and this slows down the rate at which you can make follow up shots, and perhaps more importantly increases the likelihood that you will flinch in response to the recoil, which causes missing. With a heavier gun, if you have a good quality belt and a good quality holster, gun weight is not an issue for carry. A ‘solid platform’ is essential and can make carrying a heavier gun so comfortable you ‘don’t even know it’s there’. Do not buy the cheapest belt and holster you can find at the gun show or at the “big box” sports store. A good pistol costs $500 or more. A good belt and holster combined will likely cost you $100 – $200 or more but it is absolutely worth the investment in comfort, concealment and draw speed. I have a gunbelt from ‘The Beltman’ (http://www.thebeltman.net/) which is a double steer–hide belt that when combined with my Crossbreed Supertuck Holster, is a solid, stable platform that affords me complete comfort and concealment of my compact .45 XD and a 13-round reload not to mention everything else I carry.
Final thoughts on carrying a lighter gun
There is a saying – “The first rule of a gunfight is to have a gun!” I couldn’t agree more. A .22 caliber handgun in my pocket is worth more than the full size .45 ACP handgun sitting at home in the safe. If carrying a small lightweight .38 Special +P handgun in your pocket means you’ll carry the gun more often than not, this is what you should do. Practice with it enough to become proficient in its use. Get used to the recoil and learn how to manage it.
9mm is the best place to start. It’s the minimum caliber deemed acceptable by law enforcement and military and the caliber with the most manageable recoil of all the defensive calibers. Ammo is easy to find and cheap and you are better off with a pistol that you can shoot well in 9mm than a bigger caliber gun that you would miss with. If you want something bigger than 9mm, I recommend a .45 ACP as the next step, not the .40 S&W. On a scale of perceived recoil, the .45 ACP actually has less recoil than a .40 S&W, because .45 ACP uses heavier bullets at slower velocities and typically the guns are a little heavier which dampens recoil. The downside to a .45 ACP is its weight and capacity. If you decide to carry a .45, get one of the ‘compact’ versions. The compact version has a short grip which conceals well. They will still take the full magazines using an ‘extension’. The general rules about gun fit always apply. If it doesn’t fit your hand, don’t buy it assuming you can work around’ that problem. You can’t.
For all guns & calibers, it’s usually best to try one (rent) at the range or try one that belongs to a friend. Think you might like an XD sub-compact? Try it at the range first. Sub-compacts are excellent for carry but most have stout recoil when compared to the big brother of the handgun. For backup guns I still recommend a 9mm or .38 special at a minimum.
Specific Gun Recommendations
For concealed carry, the best models are the compact or sub-compact version of full size guns. Keep in mind the ‘sub-compact’ guns might have more recoil and be a little harder to manage due to the smaller size. Want to find out? Rent one at the range.
Good choices for a primary ‘house’ gun
Glock makes many full size guns in 9mm, .40 and .45ACP. The ‘standard’ full size gun would make a good ‘house gun’, but might not be the best choice as a concealed carry pistol unless you can conceal it well. Their ‘compact’ and sub-compact versions would work well as concealed carry pistols. Remember to choose the gun that you can shoot well, not the one with the biggest caliber or best looks.
The same goes for the Springfield XD or XD(M). Their standard full size gun makes a good house gun, but their compact and sub-compact models are better for concealed carry.
‘Top of the Line – ‘Brand name’ Manufacturers
Springfield Armory – Makers of the XD, XD(M) or the new slim frame XD-S
Smith & Wesson
All of the above manufactures have many different models that are carried by military and police worldwide.
1911 style pistols from Springfield Armory, Kimber, Para Ordinance, Wilson Combat, etc. are excellent guns and they do have carry models but they can be a little heavy to carry as most of them are made completely of metal. 1911’s can also be finicky on the type of defensive ammo they will feed. Check them out on the web.
Asking other people for recommendations on a concealed carry handguns and equipment is not a bad thing. If there is one thing that will weed out bad equipment from good equipment, it will be someone who carries daily.
Smith & Wesson, Ruger and Taurus make the best revolvers on the planet. Most people don’t carry revolvers as primary concealed carry guns any longer, but they do carry the sub-compact ‘mouse’ version’ as backup guns. As a backup gun, revolvers are an excellent choice. They are very reliable, can be fired while pushed up against the body of an assailant and can be fired from inside a coat pocket, etc. When it comes to a house gun, Revolver’s are known for their reliability and simplicity to operate.
All of the pistols mentioned above are the more popular pistols in today’s market. These families of guns are supported by the widest aftermarket accessories, holsters and are well proven and capable designs. There are other designs that are OK but less popular. Glock has the largest accessory market on the planet, and many of the brand name handguns have plenty to go with them as well. The biggest names in training facilities and concealed carry share the following recommendation – “Carry the largest caliber handgun that you can shoot well, and carry comfortably”. It’s all about shot placement, not caliber. If you can’t hit anything with that big .44 Magnum, than it’s useless as a defensive tool.
For some people starting out, the one thing you don’t want to do is have someone talk you into a small, lightweight gun in a primary caliber that will hurt your hand the first time you shoot it. This is exactly what they do because the gun is light and the rounds are powerful. Choose at minimum a mid-size gun and work your way up from there.