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.
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.