(EDITED TO ADD: I've posted an update here to follow this article. After you've read this, please click the link (repeated below) to go to the update.)
Following my series of articles on firearms for home defense, which concentrated on a low-cost, effective weapon for that specific environment, I've had a number of queries and e-mail conversations with some readers. They asked specifically about handguns, rather than long guns, and raised a number of points.
Specifically, the discussions resolved to the following issue: what handgun is suitable for use both in the home, and for concealed carry in all seasons?
The following restrictions were agreed among all respondents:
- The handgun could not be so large and/or heavy that it could not be easily concealed, even beneath light summer clothing;
- It had to be small and compact enough to carry in a pocket or handbag, as well as in a holster, because not everyone wore clothing suitable to conceal a holster;
- Because cost is an issue for many people, it couldn't be too expensive;
- It had to be in a caliber sufficiently powerful for defensive use;
- It had to be of quality manufacture and very reliable. Since its owners might have to stake their lives, and the lives of their loved ones, on this weapon, it couldn't be something 'cheap and nasty' that might malfunction at the critical moment;
- It had to be useful in the home, and in the car, and on the street. Many respondents said frankly they couldn't afford different guns for different purposes, and so wanted a 'one-size-fits-all' approach.
In this article, I'll try to respond to these points, and offer suggestions. However, before I do so, they raise a number of problems that must be addressed.
First, a handgun is inherently more difficult to shoot well than a long gun (rifle or shotgun). The sight radius is much shorter, there's no shoulder support for aiming and to absorb recoil, and a great deal more practice is required to obtain and maintain competence with a handgun. Where one can become reasonably proficient with a shotgun or low-power rifle (like, for example, a lever-action .30-30 deer rifle) with the expenditure of one to two hundred rounds, one will need five hundred to a thousand rounds to achieve even a basic competency with a handgun. It's even more difficult to achieve this on one's own. To attain competence in defensive shooting with a handgun, one will usually have to attend at least one shooting school, preferably more than one. This can get expensive - but, for most shooters, it's indispensable.
Second, handgun skill is very perishable. It takes more practice to maintain it than skill with a long gun. Therefore, unless a person is prepared to put in the required practice, in terms of initial and ongoing time and effort, third-party training, and expenditure on ammunition (ideally, several hundred rounds per year), a handgun is not a good choice for defense. A long gun will be simpler, easier and cheaper to learn and use effectively.
There are two ways to reduce expenditure on ammunition for training. One is to reload your own, although this is normally only practicable for those who shoot a lot, enjoy it, and can invest their time and money in the necessary equipment. The other is to buy a rimfire [.22] weapon, or a rimfire adapter for one's primary weapon, to use for practice. .22 ammunition is vastly cheaper than centerfire. For example, this afternoon I went shopping at my local Wal-Mart. A box of 100 rounds of Winchester 9mm. Luger practice ammunition was $19.97. A 'brick' of 500 rounds of Winchester .22 Long Rifle ammunition was $14.95. That's an approximate cost per round of 20c and 3c, respectively. Clearly, it's a lot cheaper to shoot .22 rounds than heavier calibers!
Rimfire adapters are available for several pistols, typically costing $200-$300. An Advantage Arms conversion kit for Glock pistols is shown below, both in its case, and mounted on a Glock 26, replacing the original slide and barrel assembly. Other suppliers offer similar kits for different models of pistol. (Click this and all images for a larger view.)
Such an adapter has the advantage that one is using the frame and trigger of one's defensive weapon, so there's minimal difference in handling the weapon with either a rimfire or centerfire slide and barrel (except, of course, for the recoil).
Alternatively, a complete rimfire pistol or revolver can be bought for a reasonable amount of money, typically $300-$400 new, or less used. Two that I recommend are the Walther P-22 pistol:
or the Taurus Model 94 revolver:
Both are much the same size as a comparable centerfire handgun, such as the Glock 26/27 or Smith & Wesson 642. I can buy either rimfire handgun locally for $320-$330. That much money will buy you only 16½ boxes of the 9mm. ammunition referred to above. However, shooting the same quantity of .22 Long Rifle ammunition will cost you less than $50. The savings soon pay for the separate rimfire gun! Obviously, the low-power rimfire ammo doesn't have the same recoil as the heavier centerfire rounds, but you can fire enough of the latter to remain familiar with them.
The third problem is that smaller handguns are more difficult to shoot well than larger handguns. A good example may be found in the Glock handgun series. The Glock 17 is a full-size handgun; the Glock 19 is a compact version; the Glock 26 is a sub-compact, highly concealable version; and the Glock 34 is an extra-long-slide competition version, with the same frame and grip as the Glock 17. Here are all four in the same picture (photograph courtesy of Ken Lunde). The top row, from left to right, shows the G17 and G34; the bottom row, left to right, the G26 and G19.
Here are the G17, G19 and G26 laid on top of each other, in that order from bottom to top. The longer slides and grips of the full-size and compact models are clearly visible beneath the much smaller sub-compact model.
Obviously, one's hand can grasp the full-size grip of the G17 or G34 better than the slightly shorter grip of the G19, and any of those three better than the severely abbreviated grip of the G26. That, plus the longer sight radius of the larger models, makes it easier to shoot them more accurately than the small G26. On the other hand, the latter's shorter grip and slide make it much easier to conceal than its larger siblings. If concealment is a priority, one has to live with the disadvantages of smaller size.
The fourth problem is that safe handling of a handgun is inherently more difficult than a long gun. Remember the Four Rules of gun safety, that we discussed last time?
1. All firearms are always loaded.
2. Never point the muzzle of a firearm at anything you are not willing to destroy.
3. Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target.
4. Be sure of your target and what is beyond it.
Under US law, a rifle must have a barrel at least 16" long, and a shotgun, 18", unless it's specially registered with the authorities as a short-barreled weapon. A barrel that long is much easier to keep in one's field of view, and one can be constantly aware of where it's pointing. This makes violations of Rule 2 much more difficult. However, a handgun barrel is typically only 2" to 6" long. It can easily be outside one's field of vision, and one can thus point a handgun at another person or vulnerable object much more readily - and inadvertently - than a long gun.
This applies to one's own safety as well. There are any number of firearms owners who've shot themselves by negligently pointing their handgun at a portion of their own anatomy while handling it without due care and attention. In the most recent example of which I'm aware, just last week, a police chief in Middletown, Ohio shot himself in the leg. It's a never-ending risk. One must be constantly aware of, and apply, the Four Rules if one's to avoid such dangers.
OK, we've discussed the problems. Let's have a look at the intended purpose of this handgun. It's a defensive weapon - not a target-shooting or hunting device. That means it has to fulfil a basic purpose: to inflict enough damage on an attacker to make him stop his unlawful assault on you. He may be hopped-up on drugs, drunk as a skunk, or mentally 'not all there', any of which may mean that he'll feel less pain or suffer less reaction to your shots than a normal person. In such a situation, you want to clobber him with the most powerful round that you can control. A light, weak, relatively ineffective round simply can't be relied upon to save your life.
Remember, too, that we want to stop our attacker. We aren't worried about whether or not we kill him in the process, just so long as he stops attacking us and we succeed in saving our lives, or the lives of our loved ones. Any bullet can kill. There are verified cases of the lowly .22 Long Rifle rimfire round killing an elephant, after penetrating a major blood vessel and causing the beast to die from blood loss over an extended period. However, no-one's saying that if the elephant had located the shooter, he wouldn't have been fully capable of stomping him flatter than the proverbial pancake before expiring!
Incapacitation of an attacker may occur through one (or more) of four mechanisms.
- The central nervous system can be shut down, preventing nerve impulses from reaching the limbs. A shot to the brain or spinal cord can accomplish this: but those organs are 'armored' beneath layers of bone, and are also relatively small targets. It's not easy, in the heat of a fight, when both you and your opponent are moving, to hit them.
- The blood supply can be drained, preventing oxygen reaching the muscles and the brain. This typically takes time. Even if an attacker is shot through the heart, or through the major blood vessels immediately above it, he may keep moving for twenty to thirty seconds. That's long enough for him to stab you multiple times, or beat your head level with your shoulders using a baseball bat or other club. This is generally considered by the cognoscenti to be Not A Good Idea.
- The bone structure of the body can be broken down. If an attacker's thigh-bones or pelvis are broken by your bullets, he's not going to reach you. I don't care if he's Superman in disguise: without the support of the skeleton, he won't move very far or very fast. On the other hand, a flesh wound, or a fracture in a minor bone, may not even slow him down.
- Finally, there's a psychological and/or physiological reaction to being shot. I put these together for good reason, because they both work in and through the brain. The psychological reaction can be horror at the sight of his own blood, or the sudden awareness that he might be facing death, or something like that. The physiological reaction is, of course, pain. If he's hurting badly enough, and every movement causes him further pain, that's a strong disincentive for him to continue attacking you. (However, bear in mind that if your attacker is hopped-up on drugs, or mentally disturbed, he may not be capable of thinking straight or feeling much pain - so don't rely on this reaction alone to stop him!)
To achieve any or all of these effects, one's bullets must be of sufficient power to penetrate to bones and internal organs and blood-vessels; sufficiently damaging to break bone, or cut open organs and blood vessels, once they get there; and cause sufficient pain and disruption to the attacker's physical systems to disrupt and terminate his attack. That means that the lighter, feebler calibers simply can't be trusted to do the job.
There are various schools of thought arguing velocity versus diameter, or bullet energy, or bullet shape, or other factors, as being determining factors in how effective a round may be for defensive use. I don't propose to waste time going into them here - I'll probably do another complete article on bullet and ammunition selection. For now, I'll give you a simple, very basic test. The police in the USA face armed opponents as a routine matter. They have to rely on a handgun to protect the public they serve, and to save their own lives if necessary. That being the case, what handgun calibers do the police carry on duty to get their job done? What have they found to work 'on the street'?
No matter where you look, at local, State or Federal law enforcement agencies in the USA, you'll find that four pistol rounds and two revolver rounds completely dominate the scene, to the virtual exclusion of all others. In pistols, they are 9mm. Luger (also known as 9mm. Parabellum); 357 SIG; .40 Smith & Wesson; and .45 ACP. In revolvers, they are .38 Special (usually emphasizing so-called "+P" or high-pressure ammunition) and .357 Magnum.
That's it. If your preferred caliber is smaller or less powerful than those six, the odds are pretty darn good that it's not powerful enough to get the job done. The only possible exception is the .380 ACP round, which is (on paper, at least) roughly equivalent to the .38 Special in performance. I personally don't trust it for primary defensive use, but there are a number of good handguns available in that caliber, and many people have decided that their light weight and low recoil make them suitable carry weapons. I wouldn't do so, but it's your choice. I'll reluctantly add .380 ACP to my list of acceptable defensive calibers on that basis - but rest assured that I'll carry something more powerful myself!
I'll add another caveat to that. I worked as a prison chaplain, both part-time and full-time, for over a decade. During those years I saw a large number of bullet scars on the bodies of incarcerated felons as they played football or other games, taking their shirts off to do so. I took the opportunity to speak with many of them about their wounds. The number who'd been shot with 9mm. or .38 Special rounds, or lesser cartridges, and recovered, was quite high. Those shot with .357 Magnum, .40 S&W or .45 ACP were relatively few - largely because fewer of them had survived wounds from those calibers.
That tells you a lot, right there. 9mm. and .38 Special are marginally effective rounds. They'll get the job done, if you put them in the right place: but a bigger, more powerful round will probably do a better job, and do it more quickly, all other things being equal. That's why I prefer to carry .357 Magnum or .40 S&W or .45 ACP handguns, if at all possible.
Another factor for consideration is that, virtually without exception, law enforcement agencies issue hollow-point ammunition to their officers. This is for two reasons. First, such ammunition causes more damage in the body of the felon, and is more likely to cut through organs and blood-vessels. Second, such a bullet is less likely to over-penetrate the body of the target and endanger innocent people behind him, because it slows down more rapidly. Those are pretty good reasons for you to carry hollow-point ammunition as well. The high-quality ammo offered by all the top US manufacturers (Remington's Golden Saber, Winchester's Ranger and SXT, Speer's Gold Dot, and Hornady's XTP and TAP/FPD ranges) is pretty good, and it's hard to say for sure whether any one brand is better than another. I'll carry any of them with confidence.
If you want a quick-and-easy rule of thumb, find out what your local PD or Sheriff's Department use, and buy the same brand of ammo in your caliber. This has an added advantage. If you have to shoot Joe Scumbag to stop him assaulting you or raping your wife, he may later try to sue you, alleging that you deliberately used brutal flesh-ripping blood-sucking inhuman torturing bullets on his miserable carcass. If that happens, you can politely point out to the Judge and jury that you were using precisely the same ammunition as your local law enforcement agency(ies). If it's good enough for them, why shouldn't it be good enough for you? If they can legitimately use it in their (and your) defense, why can't you do the same?
Another thing. If you're carrying a pistol, it has to be able to reliably feed your defensive ammunition. If it jams after a round or two, you could find yourself in a world of hurt! I apply Massad Ayoob's 200-round test to any carry gun and ammunition: namely, that gun, and the magazines I use in it on a daily basis, have to feed and fire 200 rounds of my chosen carry ammunition without a single malfunction of any kind. If they experience even one failure, the 200-round test starts all over again. If they malfunction more than two or three times, I discard that ammunition from my carry rotation and choose another brand, putting it through the same 200-round test. If that gun and its magazines fail that test with two or more different brands of ammunition, I discard them, and buy something more reliable. I can't recommend too strongly that you follow the same testing procedures. After all, it's your life at stake!
(A revolver, of course, isn't as ammunition-sensitive as a pistol. It doesn't have to feed the round from a magazine into a firing chamber before each shot. However, revolvers have other mechanical issues, so it's not a bad idea to put several hundred rounds through any carry gun, pistol or revolver, without any malfunctions, before deciding to trust your life to it.)
Well, after all that, what about the handgun itself? Here, I'm afraid all I can do is list most of the handguns of which I'm aware that meet the criteria with which we began this discussion. The requirement to carry them in a pocket, if necessary, means that full-size and mid-size handguns are excluded from the list below. If you don't plan on carrying your gun in your pocket, by all means look at larger weapons - they'll be easier to control.
In the table below, sorted in alphabetical order by manufacturer, you'll find a list of handguns that are likely to meet your needs, in appropriate defensive calibers, and in sizes small enough and weights light enough for concealment beneath almost any clothing, in any weather. Click the table for a larger view.
Those handguns marked with a ++ symbol before their names are weapons that I've owned personally, and can therefore recommend from my own experience. The others aren't necessarily inferior - it's just that I won't actively recommend a gun unless I've had a good deal of experience with it. YMMV. Also, this list is not exhaustive. For example, Smith & Wesson and Taurus make literally dozens of different models of revolvers, similar to those shown in the table. I've simply chosen the most common and the lowest-cost, based on their MSRP figures. You can look on their Web sites (linked below) for more information. Finally, there are some manufacturers not listed because their quality is abysmal, and I don't regard their products as sufficiently reliable for defensive use. I won't give their names here, for legal liability reasons, but if a manufacturer's name isn't on that list, you might want to find out why not. Talk to other (experienced) shooters to get an idea.
There are many smaller handguns in minor calibers that aren't on this list. Remember what I said above - there are only so many effective defensive calibers. I do not use and will not recommend any primary defensive weapon in a caliber smaller than .380 ACP (in pistols) or .38 Special (in revolvers). That's why there are none of them listed in the table. Personally, I won't use .380 ACP either, preferring 9mm. Luger as a minimum pistol caliber, and carrying something still larger if given a choice. Also, you'll notice I haven't listed any snub-nose revolvers in .357 Magnum. That's because the recoil of this cartridge in a small revolver is almost unmanageable, except for very proficient and experienced shooters. I don't recommend it in that platform for the average shooter.
The MSRP, or Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price, is a bit higher than the actual 'street price' of most of these guns. You should be able to buy most of them for at least 10% less than the quoted figure, sometimes as much as 20% less.
As for choosing one: I suggest that you go to a gun range that rents handguns, and ask which of these they offer. Ask your shooting friends if you can try their guns. Try as many as possible before buying. Pick one that you can control in accurate, rapid fire (bearing in mind that training and practice will improve your skills), and, if possible, pick one for which a .22 adapter is available, for low-cost and more frequent practice. If an adapter isn't available, consider a second .22 handgun of similar size, such as the Walther or Taurus models mentioned above.
To learn more about the specific weapons listed above, here are links to their manufacturers' Web sites, where you'll find more information.
Finally, a few words on methods of carry. A holster, attached to your person, is by far the best way to carry a handgun. It's far more secure there than in a pocket or purse or handbag. Remember - a thief will often try to snatch a handbag or purse. If your gun's inside it, you've just been left defenseless as well as victimized! If you can't carry your gun in a belt or shoulder holster, at least try to do so in a pocket, where the gun's still on your person and less vulnerable to theft.
About pocket carry. Many pockets in modern clothes are too shallow to properly conceal a handgun. That's not a major problem. Simply cut open the bottom of the pocket, attach an inch or two of extra material, then sew it closed. That'll make almost any pocket deep enough to take a handgun.
Also, if possible, keep other items out of the pocket containing your handgun. That prevents things getting tangled up with it. There's nothing worse than having to draw your weapon in a hurry, to save your life, and having a wallet, or keyring, or tube of lipstick, or something else come out attached to it!
Finally, consider using a pocket holster. I always do, usually something in the DeSantis Nemesis range, which I particularly like (although there are many other good ones out there). These will keep the gun vertical in your pocket, easy to grasp in a hurry and draw smoothly, and will prevent anything getting into the trigger guard and perhaps causing an accidental discharge. They're a very worthwhile investment.
I hope this discussion has helped you. If you have any questions, feel free to e-mail me (the address is in my profile). Please refer to my earlier articles (linked in the first paragraph of this one) for discussion of safety issues and other points.
(EDITED TO ADD: I've posted an update here to follow this article. Please click the link to go to the update.)