A while back, Kenny posted a hickok45 video comparing handgun ammo:
And his more recent post on “mouse guns” got me thinking about carry guns.
I spent some time collecting thoughts to present here.
Selecting a Defensive Sidearm
Standard duty/service sidearms at one time were usually .38 caliber double action revolvers. 1911s and some large bore revolvers were also common. For backup or undercover a .38 snubbie was considered adequate.
(It is worth noting that .38 SPL ball ammo was deemed ineffective by the military. The .45 ACP 1911 was selected as a replacement. “Victory” model military revolvers were also produced in .45 cal.
It may be no coincidence that .45 ACP ballistics are similar the .45 “Long” Colt.)
The 4″ L-frame S&W .357 might represent the best evolution of the service revolver. It has much to recommend it but it is not particularly concealable.
High capacity “wondernines” became popular but fell out of favor after the Miami shootout.*
A search for more effective duty weapons and ammunition ensued. The FBI developed protocols to define ammo performance. Those test procedures have resulted in modern handgun cartridges that are far superior to older defensive ammo.
It may be impossible to state for certain which is the best. In general, it may be safe to say that bigger is better, and one should be well served by any premium cartridge provided it functions reliably.
The increased availability of Carry Permits has created a large market for self-defense handguns, and manufacturers have responded with many new models to fulfill the demand.
For personal protection tradeoffs will have to be balanced. Among these are concealability, action type, carry method, capacity, reliability, caliber and threat level.
Selection of a suitable holster is a related subject that must be based upon one’s individual needs. Features to consider include concealment, security, comfort and access, and will require some trial and error.
To avoid mishandling one will want a sidearm that is simple to operate and safely carried with a loaded chamber.
The decision might break down to a choice between a .38 Spl revolver or a .380 ACP semiauto.
The S&W 640 is a stainless DAO J frame snubbie with a 2 1/8″ barrel. Concealed hammer with fixed sights so it’s not snaggy and can get into action quickly. Chambered in .357, it accepts a wide variety of ammo. But at only 5 rounds capacity is limited and reloads are slow and fumbly. Full power magnums are snappy but recoil can be tamed somewhat with aftermarket grips. Some ammunition designed to reduce flash is marketed for use in short-barreled guns. There is little one can do to reduce muzzle blast.
More on this subject here:
There are other similar revolvers, including J frame Smiths, Colt’s Detective Special and Ruger’s LCR snubbies. The 6 rd Kimber K6s has an innovative design that significantly reduces cylinder width. The new Colt Cobra might catch on, too soon to say. K and L frame Smiths, and Ruger GP and SP models have larger frames and are more difficult to conceal.
The Interarms PPK/S .380 is a reasonable choice. (I wouldn’t recommend those produced by S&W or Umarex.) Narrower than the J-frame and the doublestack Beretta 84, so easier to conceal. Hammer drop safety allows safe carry on a loaded chamber. DA first shot, same as the snubbie. Capacity is 7+1. Slide locks back on empty and mag drops free. There is no mag disconnect. Since I found the right grips this pistol fits my hand perfectly and points better than the 640.
Other .380s include Colt Mustang/Pony and derivatives, SIG P230 and P238, Kahr, Ruger LCP, Bersa Thunder, Mauser HSc, Beretta/Browning BDA .380 and S&W Shield.
An extensive test of .380 ammo here:
The handgun must be a personal choice. Reliability, durability, and simplicity should be key considerations when choosing a defensive handgun.
Beyond its design and execution is how it fits the operator. One that feels “right” will instill confidence. Instead of adapting to a pistol that does not fit, select one that suits you.
The 1911 is the yardstick by which combat handguns are measured. A testament to its enduring design, it remains hugely successful a century after its introduction. A large aftermarket has grown in support of this legendary platform.
1911s are available in many variations and price points, too many to list.**
Dan Wesson 1911s seem like a good value- quality build, sensible features and priced appropriately.
Kimber has a couple of suitable pistol lines in .380, 9mm and .45 ACP, and several other companies make subcompact 1911s.
Glocks and Springfield XDs are offered in multiple calibers and configurations. A glance at some of the other poly-framed semiautos will suggest they are based on Glock designs.
Kahr, CZ, Walther, FNH, S&W M&P, Springfield’s 911, and SIGs (the 365 looks promising) are popular.
Tri Star, SCCY and the Bond Arms Bullpup have been making a splash lately.
Ruger has a generally well-regarded product in nearly every market niche.
Those with injuries or other physical limitations might find the S&W .380 Shield EZ, or a tilt-barrel Beretta 86 easier to operate than other semiautos.
Any of these might be satisfactory, and many are priced well under $500.00.
Do your research and buy the best you can afford. Some brands have spotty reputations for quality. It may be prudent to wait until a new model has been on the market long enough to demonstrate its reliability.
Do not overlook pre-owned guns.
Police trade-ins and some surplus military guns are worth considering. SIGs, Glocks, S&W revolvers and Gen3 semiautos are occasionally available.
Best to avoid cheap junk and obviously damaged or neglected guns. If possible, try before you buy.
Be aware that replacement parts for discontinued models may be hard to find.
Desert Eagles, Lugers, Nambus, Broomhandles, Nagants, Webleys, Enfields etc. are not ideal choices.
Makarovs might suffice, with some reservations regarding ammo.
Don’t bet your life on a gun made of pot metal.
Tiny .22, .25 ACP and .32 guns may be better than nothing. Derringers, Heisers, NAA mini revolvers and semiautos, Seecamp, Beretta Tomcat and AMT Backup pistols might fall into this category.
Get to know the weapon. Read the manual.
Learn how it works and how to maintain it.
Test for reliability and accuracy with different types of ammo.
Practice until you can handle it with confidence.
Seek qualified instruction and training if necessary.
Educate yourself about legal matters relating to carry and use of firearms.
Always practice safe handling.
You will notice a lot of misses by the agents. (This was also true in the 1996 North Hollywood incident.) Draw your own conclusions.
See part 2 for the survivors’ reflections:
Their comments about weapons and tactics are especially valuable.
** If you are burdened with too much money look to Wilson, Baer, Brown or Nighthawk.
If you have plenty of time and money, check here:
I am a machinist with a lifelong interest in firearms and related subjects, what you might call a dedicated student. I try to stay abreast of developments and innovations in the industry. (They come fast these days)
I have managed to accumulate a respectable collection of weapons produced within the last 100 years or so. I find the technical advances and design evolutions fascinating, especially those of John Browning.
I am impressed by old-school gunsmiths- Armand Swenson, Frank Pachmayr, Bill Wilson and Jim Clark Sr.
Some opinions, based on considerable research and examination of a wide variety of firearms:
There is no ideal weapon, perfect for every occasion. (This applies to knives and holsters as well.)
A simple, robust design will pay off in reliability.
Reliability is more important than match-grade accuracy. (But special purposes will dictate specialized tools.)
A small gun is easier to conceal but harder to control.
Sturdy fixed sights are best for carry guns. Choosing a favorite type will take some trial and error. (This applies also to grips.)
Best action type for a defensive carry gun may be DAO. (DA/SA and SA demand more attention from the shooter.)
Striker or hammer-fired action type is about a toss up. But a hammer can eliminate some guesswork.
I shy away from pistols equipped with trigger safeties only.
I prefer the S&W cylinder latch to those of any other DA revolver.
Speed strips are easier to carry than speedloaders.
When in a hurry, a quick mag change is your best bet.
When comparing ball ammo, bigger is better; flatpoint better still. (That advantage decreases with expanding ammo.)
Overpenetration is a waste of energy. Insufficient penetration might be worse.
Regardless of ammo choice, a miss is worthless.
There is no such thing as a magic bullet.
Plastic guns have proven durable and are reasonably priced. But I prefer machined metal.
Rather than applied finishes such as Teflon or Cerakote, I prefer hard anodize on aluminum, and nitriding or plating on steel.
Blued steel is pretty, Parkerizing is probably more durable.
Matte stainless seems a happy medium.
MIM parts are tougher than most people think. If one should break, by all means replace it with a machined part.
I prefer gimmick-free guns, mildly upgraded to suit myself.
I don’t like finger grooves on handguns.
I don’t like forward slide serrations either. Best to keep fingers away from the muzzle.
I doubt flattop slide treatments significantly reduce glare.
1911s have enough safeties; S 80 “improvements” are unnecessary. (A lightweight firing pin couldn’t hurt.)
I won’t have a keyed safety lock mechanism.
I’m no fan of mag. disconnects but wouldn’t bother to remove one.
All guns are always loaded. So treat them that way.
I prefer guns that can be field stripped without tools.
Any advantages of an FLGR are offset by more complicated disassembly. One might try a flat-wire recoil spring instead.
Buy quality mags.
If a 1911 doesn’t run, check the mags.
If that doesn’t work, consult your Kuhnhausen manual.
Still in doubt? Let a pro work on it.
Buy plenty of ammo.
Test it in your gun.
Then buy more.
You can learn a lot from old-timers. Read Rex Applegate, Bill Jordan, Elmer Keith, Skeeter Skelton, Massad Ayoob and of course, Col Cooper.
See if you can get veterans to talk about their experiences before it’s too late. (RIP, Dad.) Some stories might surprise you.
The internet is full of ignorant crackpots posing as experts. It also serves as an echo chamber that magnifies some issues which then become common “knowledge.” It is useful to read any comments to help sort out the nonsense.
Below are sources I have found trustworthy.
A wealth of info here:
including Cooper’s Commentaries:
(scroll down the sidebars for various topics.)
Nice collections here, with some descriptive text:
Also worth mention are Forgotten Weapons, AR15.org, CalGuns, Ammoland, and S&W, 1911, and other forums for specific subjects.
I glance at TFB and TTAG from time to time as they can react to current developments faster than print media. I comment at TTAG occasionally in spite of some flamers and trolls that infest the comment section.
Just for fun- a huge inventory of small arms video reviews here:
Entertaining and informative, includes test firing and commentary.
Some YT reviewers are worth a look, no doubt you have favorites.