My Top 11 Criteria for Buying Concealed Carry Guns

My Top 11 Criteria for Buying Concealed Carry Guns

My Top 11 Criteria for Buying Concealed Carry Guns

A common question I regularly get asked in class by students and mostly new shooters is: “I want to get a handgun for concealed carry and self defense. What should I get?” It’s a very personal question, with no one right answer. There is a very good reason there is such a wide selection of handguns on the market, because different people look for different qualities and features in a defensive handgun. Selecting a concealed carry handgun is a highly subjective, individualized and personal process. Certainly what works for one person may not work for another. It is YOUR life that you will be protecting and it is YOU who must live and train with the chosen weapon. Solely YOUR decision. So as a follow-up to my two previous USA Carry articles, here are my specific criteria for buying a concealed carry handgun.

To me the best way to determine which handgun best suits your needs and requirements is for you yourself to do as much first-hand research and reading as possible. This really will improve your understanding of the many factors and alternatives available, rather than being influenced by the latest hype. Then blend your research information and experiences with information gained from other sources to make your decision. Read all you can about concealed carry and various types of handguns, learn the pros and cons of makes, models, calibers, controls, carry methods, belts and holsters, and compare pistols and revolvers. Talk to instructors, other shooters, go to gun shows, but most importantly SHOOT as many different guns as you can before you buy and make your own decision.

Think about your own personal criteria and needs.

Think about your own personal criteria and needs.

You can rent guns to try at some ranges or go to the range with a friend, or make new ones there, and try their guns. I know of several who have bought the latest-greatest carry gun on the market AT ANY GIVEN TIME, only to find after shooting and holding it that it is most definitely not for them… even though it is a great and quality handgun. They get a lot of money tied up in buying guns without taking the time up front to identify and know their requirements and desired features, to be able to find their optimal one. Instructor Bubba carries this gun, so that’s the one for me. Uncle Willie only carries 10mm, so I will too. Si at the gun shop said that most women carry a small, short-barreled, lightweight .38 revolver, so this is what this new shooter should also carry. Sadly, I recall recently a senior-lady student who bought such a new carry gun without shooting one first and could not shoot hers for the first time at the range. She couldn’t press the 10-pound trigger, but it did have cute pink grips and was nice and small. Her money was not refunded. You may find as you throw lead downrange that the pistol that handles so well at the gun shop is uncontrollable, not the right fit for you, and perhaps you can’t even press the trigger or handle its recoil. Just as you would not consider buying a vehicle without a test drive, nor should you buy a handgun without shooting one, if at all possible.

Very often at the range I see shooters and husbands encouraging others or their wives to shoot and try out a lightweight .357 Magnum (or .38) snub-nosed, short-barreled revolver, even with the allure of pink grips for the ladies. Some gun stores also recommend lightweight, small revolvers because they conceal well. I understand that small hammerless large bore revolvers are successfully carried by thousands of individuals including women. Their light weight and small size make them easy to conceal, but they are powerful with a lot of recoil and movement that must be controlled. So I believe that starting a new shooter off with a handgun like this can be a mistake. A revolver is probably the most difficult type of handgun to shoot well with its long and hard trigger press, especially for new shooters. Almost ALL revolvers have a harder heavier press than pistols. I’ll take a 4 or 5 pound press and less movement over an 8 or 10 pound press any day for concealed carry accuracy. The heavier the trigger press, the more force it takes to fire the gun. That increases the chance that you will have movement and pull the sights out of alignment before the bullet exits the barrel.

Also, consider that all revolvers have cylinders that are wider than most pistols’ widths, making them USUALLY harder to conceal. If the student is just learning to shoot and being accurate is the main goal, they don’t need their job made any more difficult by selecting a handgun that has inherent disadvantages to begin with. Again, this is just my opinion. Lightweight, carry-sized, “snub-nose” revolvers sacrifice much to semi-auto pistols, with fewer advantages. Again, Training and Practice are keys. Revolvers have a limited capacity, usually five or six rounds instead of the seven or about 15 on average more rounds carried in a compact semi-auto, are slower to reload, require reloading more frequently, generally have poor sights, deliver much recoil in the +P .38 and .357 Mag loads, and are harder to conceal because of the cylinder width than similar-sized semi-autos.

The bottom line about what matters the most in self defense is that you HIT YOUR TARGET right away and quickly. So, you either hit it and stop the threat or you miss it and keep shooting, relying on sufficient rounds being available.

I believe that if your goal is to learn the fundamentals of shooting for accuracy, a .22LR pistol or revolver is the best choice, particularly the .22LR pistol for a NEW shooter. In class with new shooters (and even experienced shooters in some classes), I start with a smaller-caliber semi-automatic, single action pistol like a Beretta Neos .22LR, a Ruger Mark III or 22/45, or a Browning Buckmark .22LR. This helps students feel comfortable with the gun, more easily practice proper shooting techniques with less recoil movement, and do so accurately. Most major handgun manufacturers produce a good quality basic .22LR at near the $300 price. Handguns are intimidating and starting a new shooter off with a high caliber, high recoil magnum revolver with a 8-10# plus trigger press or a full-size .45 can be intimidating and stressful. Often it does not allow optimal performance, new shooters can be deterred, and conclude that they are incapable of handling a handgun. .22LR handguns are great choices for learning because ammo is less expensive than other calibers, recoil and noise are less than larger calibers, and usually these guns have good sights, longer sight radiuses, and single-action triggers which are short and soft presses. Most are heavier, all-steel, with a long barrel (5″ to 6″) and long sight radius which enhances accuracy, reinforcing confidence for students. However, they are not best for concealed carry. Once the shooter is comfortable with a .22LR, I have them try out various .380, 9mm, and .38 Special handguns, range time permitting. By letting them experience a wide variety of handguns, they can have a small clue start about what they like and what they don’t like, helping them begin to narrow down the many possibilities.

My Top 11 Criteria for selecting a concealed carry handgun are:

1. Accuracy- can you initially hit your target and precisely place your shot with the gun out-of-the-box (without modifications that may affect legal concerns if a carry shooting occurs, etc.); some guns are more accurate than others when made by manufacturers (I recognize training, practice, & experience are major influencers for Accuracy);

2. Reliability– can you consistently, time after time, over repeated trials hit your target; is the handgun made well, fine fit and finish to wood & metal; high quality materials, strength & functional durability mechanically; many handguns are picky about the type of ammunition they will digest and will not properly feed some ammunition, so consider its ability to feed your preferred ammo; some handguns are more reliable at feeding ammo than others;

3. Ergonomics or handgun fit- can you efficiently work the Controls and does the handgun fit your hand and fingers- e.g. can you easily reach the trigger, safety, decocker, mag release, etc. and is it comfortable given your physical (e.g. finger length, hand size) and medical conditions (e.g. arthritis, carpal tunnel); grip size, grip angle, overall weight and balance, muzzle length, caliber & other personal factors should be considered;

4. Trigger Press – what are the pounds required for each press & can you handle it; what is the Trigger Travel distance & will you practice frequently enough with it to adapt to it;  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; Consistency of Press is important so each trigger press is close to the same pressure (e.g. always long and heavy like Double Action [DA] OR always short and light like Single Action [SA]); transitioning between DA and SA & requires much practice;

5. Barrel Length – compact (3.5″-less than 5″- my usual choice), sub-compact (less than 3.5″), full-size (5″ or longer); guns with shorter barrels have more recoil and are harder to shoot because the sight radius (distance between front and rear sight) is shorter- but consider the concealability tradeoff; barrel length affects the speed at which the slide cycles (also affected by ammo, gun cleanliness & recoil spring) and the speed at which rounds come out of the magazine; remember handgun width is more important than length for concealability purpose);

6. Sights: type; quality; and sight radius; the farther the sights are apart, the less small errors in sight alignment affect where the bullet impacts; “3 dot” sights are popular but if you line up the 3 dots the gun might shoot higher or lower than it does if you ignore the 3 dots & align the top of the front sight with the top of the rear sight; some chose to black out the dots and learn to shoot aligning the sights themselves & prefer a solid black rear sight and  either a solid black front sight or a front sight painted a bright color or a fiber-optic front sight (like I do); remember for ME point shooting is used for up to 3 yards, then flash sighting for about 3-10 yards, then sighted shooting for 10 yards and longer);

7. Weight – If the handgun is lighter, the amount of muzzle flip increases with recoil; this then slows down the speed of your follow-up shots, & increases the likelihood for flinch in response to recoil, causing misses; lighter is not necessarily better (train and practice); use a quality belt & holster to support the weight of the gun;

8. Caliber – I recommend starting with a 9mm for carry (see my USACARRY.com related article “What Gun To Purchase: Consider the 9mm Pistol for Self-Defense?“) because it has the most manageable recoil & ammo is readily available at a reasonable cost; remember you are better off with a pistol that you can shoot well in 9mm than a bigger caliber gun that you miss with; my next level carry caliber recommendation is the .45 ACP since it has less recoil than .40 S&W due to its heavier bullets & slower velocities that reduce recoil (even with my carpal tunnel I can handle the .45 better than the .40 S&W for example); shot placement is much more important than caliber; any of the modern hollowpoint designs will do the job if you do your part and I recommend hollowpoints for personal protection and self defense since they are more likely to stop an assailant and less likely to over-penetrate than FMJ “ball” rounds;

9. Availability of Accessories & Ammo – 9mm ammo is readily available now and as of this writing prices have come down considerably since early in 2013; there are more accessories (grips, pouches, holsters, sights, mags, etc.) available for 9mm since it is the most widely-used caliber worldwide;

10. Cost of handgun and ammo – pistols generally cost more new than revolvers, but considering this is a lifetime purchase and for defending your life, maybe gun cost is not the most important or even a top criterion; and

11. Concealabilty – proper size dimensions (width, height, overall length, etc.) and design that allows handgun to be easily hidden; width is more important than length, i.e. pistols are thinner than revolvers with their cylinders; handgun matches your Lifestyle (work, sports, fun & business) dress, attire, physical stature, preferred mode of carry, & demands;

Accuracy trumps anything, in my opinion, and a long and hard press with the added movement from more pounds of force applied detracts from it. To me reliability and accuracy are the most important criteria and are really interchangeable for the top criterion. Ideally we would like it all, but there are tradeoffs and priorities.

The semi-automatic pistol is initially more challenging to manipulate (the slide) than a revolver, but to me and my observations the pistol is easier to master with proper training (which should include handling malfunctions & stoppages.) With training in the correct technique, the slide can be racked by almost anyone without certain medical conditions (see my article “Racking the Pistol Slide: Technique Not Strength“)

I always say in class that the Gold Standard for Concealed Carry for everyone is:

Carry the largest handgun you can conceal in the largest caliber you can shoot effectively. The emphasis is on shoot effectively for ACCURACY, overriding the type of equipment or caliber.

Finally, once your new concealed carry handgun has been purchased… PRACTICE! Practice is critical to being able to properly employ your handgun in self defense situations. If you have taken the time and effort to research and select your handgun that meets your criteria, then get professional training in how to use your handgun, have fun and make practice enjoyable.

Continued success!

© 2013 Col Benjamin Findley. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reprinted or reproduced in whole or in part by mechanical means, photocopying, electronic reproduction, scanning, or any other means without prior written permission. For copyright information, contact Col Ben Findley at [email protected]

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  • 2ndAm

    Check out a few, buy them, shoot them, then sell the ones you don’t like.

    • Trey VonZimmer

      Unfortunately, this is not an economic option available to most people. Just purchasing two decent guns could easily cost over a thousand dollars. The depreciation when selling doesn’t make this a very viable option. A better idea would be to go to a range that has a good selection of rental guns and try out a few. Some friends might already have guns that they may let you try out at a range; doesn’t hurt to ask.

  • bigblue

    Paragraph 7 of this article blends two separate concepts – training new shooters and training for concealed carry – and therefore misses the mark and does not address the premise of the overall article, which is the criteria for purchasing a concealed carry handgun. When the COL referenced starting off newbies with Beretta Neos 22LR, a Ruger Mark III or 22/45, or a Browning Buckmark 22LR, the COL was referencing teaching newbies to shoot with a manageable platform like a 22. OK, fine. But none of these platforms are small, or anything close to a an operational service platform let alone a concealed carry platform. Size, grip angle, ergonomics, and controls are all different. Day and night. They are larger target and bulls-eye shooting platforms. Earlier this year I faced the same conundrum for my own teaching program, and I came up with a nice newbie training gun that models the concealed carry paradigm, and that is the Ruger SR22. Out of the box, the gun had consistent F2Feed problems, but once I dropped in a Galloway Precision replace captive spring and guide rod assembly (available on Amazon for $25 delivered), the problems went away. So now I use the SR22 for newbies who are interested specifically in defensive carry training.

    • Papapav

      Myself I like the .45 but also carry a .380 sometimes. My wife has a nice 22 revolver w/hollow points but it is hammer less and her 380 is the same so there is no hammer to catch on anything. I like the criteria for selecting the right weapon but it really is personnal taste.

    • Col Ben

      Thanks for your opinion and we seem to agree. This article is about criteria for selecting a ccw and I took a broad approach. A new shooter & their decision was just an example to support my criteria. I have found that many new shooters like the .22LR and want it for cc. However, I believe like I said in the article (and like you alluded to) that a .22LR for CC is not appropriate. Caliber is just one of my many criteria, as I mentioned. By the way, like you I also use a SR22 for new shooters during fundamentals training. Continued success & thanks for your comments.

  • MartyGolubow

    WhaWhat would

  • djltx

    I would think reliability trumps accuracy. If the gun does not go bang when you pull the trigger accuracy does not matter and if the bad guy is on top of you, the gun must work and not necessarily be a bulls eye gun.

    • stagarms

      I agree…pull trigger and a loud sound follows. Most encounters are so close, aiming is often not an option. Practice shooting w/o needing to aim. Bottom line is it MUST go boom when needed.

    • Col Ben

      Hello & thanks for your ideas. A good and valid handgun for your purpose must be BOTH accurate & reliable I believe, in addition to other considerations. So, you want your concealed carry gun to be both. It seems to be a matter of of semantics.

      In fields of science, accuracy is the degree of closeness of a measured or calculated quantity to its true value or exactly what is desired and expected per specifications. An accurate result is exactly what you want to accomplish presently, to be true and correct to the true value, standards, specifications without errors. A gun that goes bang when you press the trigger now, the present time, is what you want. This is accuracy. So, the gun is as true as possible or precise and exact to what its suppose to do… go bang precisely… now, the first time you pull the trigger. It is accurate in real time now and gets the hits. Accuracy is the attribute of a device or instrument or tool to measure or generate its intended purpose or parameters with a very small deviation from nominal. A tool or measuring device should indicate a measurement that is very close to the actual value, with a known small deviation or tolerance. Accuracy is the correctness of your result at the present time to what it is suppose to be per the stated standard. To make results more
      accurate, you usually use better quality of instruments and tools and master
      fundamentals.

      In science, reliability is the extent to which the measurements of a test remain consistent over repeated trials of the same subject or what’s being measured under identical conditions. Reliable means that if you performed the action or measured results over several trials, you’d be consistent and get pretty close, but not necessarily precisely the same results, whatever quality level those results are over time. So you could press
      the trigger on your gun 10 times over ten different days and there may be a different trigger press or the sights may be off some, or the grip might loosen… some changes occurred and your point of impact on the target was off some. To be reliable means to be consistent, whatever the desired value for the repeated trials happen to be, which may not be what you want. You could be consistently off of where you wanted to be on the target. Reliability is a measure of how an instrument or device functions in a repetitive and predictive way, assuming that no random and/or unexpected actions, behaviors, or changes will occur. But things are dynamic, rather than static. Usually the trial
      results vary and one may accept average or arithmetic mean values, which may
      not be exactly what is desired or accuracy. Reliability is consistency of results (be they in the bullseye or out of it), independent of whether or not that result is precise or accurate or what is desired, and as affected by the changing conditions. So, something can be reliable, but not always accurate.
      BOTH reliability over time with inconsistencies and accuracy at the present moment according to standard are very important and very much related, so it is difficult to rank one over another in terms of what you want to accomplish. You want your handgun to be both accurate at the time you use it now, as well as reliable or close to what’s desired over time given changes that occur. That’s why I said my accuracy and reliability criteria are interchangeable in terms of importance. I want both! But for that first shot now, no matter what the conditions, I want accuracy. I also want consistent hits over many shots when conditions change or reliability. Semantics.

    • Dave (S.O.S.)

      Additionally, due to the close nature of gun encounters, it is realistic to believe that a struggle may incur. God forbid you weapon is manipulated in such a way during the exchange that you find your gun’s action out of battery when you need it most…this plays into my previous point that a “tap rack” required for a combat semi-auto may not be a possibility or too deliberate an action for the victim; for revolvers, an additional trigger pull may be just what the doctor ordered however. 🙂 End the fight.

  • MartyGolubow

    What

  • chach

    Consider this also. If you can’t pull the trigger on a standard .38 revolver, how do you expect to have the strength to pull the slide on a standard pistol if you decide you want to go with a semi-auto instead?

    • Tsanner

      First off you don’t “pull” the slide…..

      • chach

        Sorry Grammar Officer Tsanner! I meant “rack” the slide. I think most readers knew what I meant. Get off your high horse.

      • 2ThinkN_Do2

        I understand Tsanner; there is a difference between using one finger to squeeze/press the trigger and using two fingers or top of the hand along with a push forward from the other hand to rack the slide.

  • James Van Valkenburg

    I have been approached by several women at work and by some friends wives about what to carry. I always recommend a revolver, an older revolver. For three reasons as described in this article.

    1) Reliability – no magazines, no safeties to figure out and simplicity of operation.
    2) Older weapon, 50’s, 60’s or 70’s. All metal, many S&W I and J frames available at reasonable prices. Colt, if you can find any at an affordable price, D frames – Agents, Cobra or Detective Specials.
    3) Within 25 feet – 38 Special is accurate and deadly, this makes it easy to train a novice.

  • yikesarama

    Out of the 50 or so attempts in gun mags and blogs to tackle this question, this is probably the best set of recommendations I’ve seen. One thing: handling a semi-auto is more than just racking the slide (as you know), but also achieving consistent feed because of proper stance and sufficient strength. That is, no limp-wristing.

    I agree 100% on the recommendation for 9mm for carry. (I have a SIG 220 Carry in .45 ACP and rarely carry it because of my preference for comfort and improved concealability.) 9’s today are superb, with a wide variety of ammo types to choose from, from accurate frangible rounds that limit overpenetration to tipped rounds that penetrate 3 layers of denim to +P rounds with superb accuracy.

  • PreacherPauly

    I think overall the article brings in many good points to consider. Deciding the right gun for CC is not some slam dunk for many of us. I personally believe that if the gun fits your hand properly and feels good, you will learn to shoot it consistantly and accurately no matter what type or caliber. Some may just take more time.

  • SCfromNY

    If you have the money a nice option is a Commander sized 9mm 1911 with a .22 conversion kit. You will learn with the same feel and controls not to mention a quality trigger.

  • 2ThinkN_Do2

    Personally, I find that comfort in my hand is most important first off. Then we move on to, can I conceal it easily and comfortably. If all this seems good, we move on to the shooting test mode. Yes, we may find we are not accurate with the firearm and need to find another. If I am not comfortable holding the weapon or concealing it, I likely will not shoot it or carry; whether I am accurate or it’s reliable does not matter at that point. I may find a firearm that will need to have the grip replaced with something more comfortable. Might need more grip, recoil absorption, or maybe I need a finger extension pad on the base of magazine (for semi-autos). There are a lot of ways to make a firearm that is not quite right, exactly what you might want it to be and often without a lot of expense. The Ruger LCP is a great example. I have zero reliability issues with it, it’s reasonably accurate for a mini-pocket firearm, but it is so light and thin, it delivers a fairly nasty snap and larger hands don’t have much to hold onto. Add a Hogue rubber grip and magazine base pad extender and it’s a whole new experience. Don’t go cheap and don’t listen to just one salesperson; ask people you know that shoot, if you are new to the sport. Sadly like any sales, there are those who are looking to sell you the most expensive thing or anything they can get you to buy; without really being concerned about what is truly in your best interest.

  • Allen Benge

    I think reliability trumps accuracy as well. They say the loudest sound in the world when the SHTF is a click when you need a bang. If it doesn’t go bang, you have an inefficient club. I am a former police officer, was on our department’s pistol team, certified as a Range Master and basic Marksmanship Instructor and amateur gunsmith. After much research and blowing up a lot of ammo, I selected the perfect handgun for me. I carry a Springfield XD-40. It has a grip safety reminiscent of the 1911, a trigger safety, similar to Glock’s, except in metal, not plastic. It uses steel magazines, so you don’t have to worry about working a mag out of the well. The .40 S&W does the job I want done, and a starting capacity of 13 rounds helps make sure I have less of a chance of running dry. It fires like a double action revolver, so it is not really a novice’s gun, but it is reliable and accurate, having passed the famous Glock ‘Torture Test.’

  • Bruce McDonald

    I believe the none of these criteria matter if your gun is left at home because it becomes too cumbersome to carry. The most important criteria is a gun that your are willing to ALWAYS carry.

  • Dan

    I would rather have a gun that fired every time I pull the trigger that I can put most rounds on a paper plate @ 10 paces, than a gun I can hit a dime @ 50 yards, but has a malfunction @ least 1X/mag. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter how accurate it is cause the bullet ain’t going there anyway.

  • Username__already__exists

    I don’t agree that a .45 ACP has less recoil than a .40 S&W. At least not always. I have 2 .45’s and a .40. I’m sure the individual model makes a big difference but my heavy Sig P220 has a “lot” more recoil than my plastic XDm .40. The high axis makes the Sig a real bear to shoot IMO. I barely feel the recoil of my Springfield at all. I have a Taurus .45 that has a good bit of recoil too but it all pushes straight back instead of having barrel flip like the Sig does. It is only slightly worse about recoil than my XDm. I’ve shot lots of 1911’s that had more recoil than my SA also. I love my Sig actually. It’s super accurate and very reliable and durable. But it hurts my hand to shoot it because of the barrel flip (which comes from the high axis of course). I can put rounds on target faster with either of my other autos. I also have a .44 magnum which of course has far more recoil than any of the other handguns I own. I own other handguns but they are smaller. Some of the smaller models will have more felt recoil because of their design. The only way to know for sure how any gun shoots is to shoot it.

  • Dave Windsor (S.O.S.)

    I understand that a 10lb trigger pull on most double action revolvers is a tall order for a person lacking physical strength, likewise, a tights 3inch groups at 30 yards is a very deliberate action for experienced shooters and virtually impossible for the novice. However, at 3 yards (6 Feet), the most common distance gun battles take place, a revolver is arguably the best option for a novice. immediate action, or dealing with a malfunction, is simply corrected by pulling the trigger again, (a natural reaction for anyone in a life or death scenario); unlike a combat semi auto pistol, which requires a “tap and rack” action to clear most malfunctions. This is a difficult task for someone experiencing the physiological effects of a life or death situation. I still recommend a revolver for my novice students for purposes of concealed carry. Great considerations for firearms purchases nonetheless! Thanks for your article…
    Dave
    Sights On Solutions (S.O.S.)

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