Is the Handgun You Carry Comfortable or Comforting?

By David Tong

The title of this article is a quotation attributed to Mr. Clint Smith, a retired Marine and firearms trainer who owns Thunder Ranch, his training facility here in Oregon. While the comment is quite pithy, in that he draws a distinct line between a handgun that can be considered larger and more effective, versus one smaller and easier to carry concealed. While I agree with his basic premise, I think that the answer for each of us is where that line is drawn.

For most of the 20th Century, the question centered on a discussion about caliber and bullet weight and I am pretty firmly in the camp that the primary issues about a defensive pistol are: First, is the cartridge adequate based upon observable statistics of unimpeachable quality? Second, is the platform which fires it of generally observable reliability? It really boils down to these two premises and all other considerations are secondary.

The questions that follow from Clint’s original statement though roll around in my mind something like this:

  • Can people trust the statisticians who claim their “stopping power” or “terminal ballistics” results are beyond reproach?
  • Is it comforting enough to think that a “one-shot stop” claimed for the various calibers is so valid that one can use the smallest possible barrel length for the ammo listed and believe it will work as stated?
  • Do the latter day bullets and powders, which allow greater velocities and consistent bullet expansion, work so much better in the medium bores that the large bores have little left to recommend them?
  • Are five, six, or seven rounds of ammunition enough?
  • Is the trade-off of convenience and portability worth (possibly) clumsier handling and/or less potent ammunition?
  • Are you willing to wear an appropriate belt, trousers, holster and covering garments to carry a service or compact service type handgun?
  • No matter what size firearm or caliber you carry, are you practicing enough with the ammunition you carry in it to retrieve the arm from its place and quickly produce well placed hits on demand? Do you have a method to quantify this success?
  • Are you able to produce these well placed hits from three feet to 25 yards with this arm?
  • Do you have a larger and more effective arm for home defense than the one you actually wear daily? If so, why?

As you can see from the foregoing questions, there probably aren’t many black and white, right or wrong answers. Capitalism is great in that our market is nearly saturated with good choices that address all of these concerns. However, it can be a bit intimidating for the beginner to navigate, so I will try to provide some guidance.

Everyone’s tolerance for the size and weight of an everyday carry firearm varies. I have long carried a full sized 1911 .45 pistol and still believe it remains a viable option. I find it easy to shoot well, accurate in my hands and the .45 ACP cartridge provides good stopping power with appropriate loads. 1911's are at the upper limit of carry options for concealment, however. Some people shake their head at this, both agreeing and disagreeing.

The weight is a bigger factor than size, to me. When loaded, a full size 1911 pistol exceeds three pounds. Since the wise pistolero carries at least one (and preferably two) spare loaded magazines, this can be too much for many people, although some of us have done it for decades. One must also be willing to purchase the specialized accoutrements necessary to make carrying a full size service pistol possible (belts, pants, holsters, etc.), thus it does require some dedication.

As pistols have become lighter, due to the use of aluminum and polymer in their construction, I have watched the willingness of most people to carry traditional steel (and consequently heavy) handguns diminish. However, there are trade-offs. As firearms get lighter and smaller, felt recoil increases and one’s ability to accurately and rapidly fire multiple shots diminishes.

My recent experiences with the Ruger LCR .38 Special +P revolver and the Kimber Solo 9x19mm semi-auto pistol were illustrative. Both of these rounds are considered moderate recoil cartridges in standard size handguns. However, both of these handguns were difficult to hit with reliably at distances beyond 20 feet, slow fire on a well-lit range. They were very difficult to control in the rapid-fire, dynamic scenarios that a self-defense encounter might entail. I found the LCR borderline painful to shoot with 125 grain +P rounds and the Solo’s recoil with similarly loaded ammo made re-acquiring the sights for a second shot very slow. Though the Kimber Solo’s semi-automatic action meant that the recoil pulse was not as brutal, it was definitely not easy to control. Both of these arms weigh about a pound.

Yet, both of these firearms are currently very good sellers and you will hardly find either available at your local shop. Mind you, I am not recoil shy, having enjoyed firing magnum revolvers and elephant rifles for decades. I am just stating facts about how the kick of two popular small handguns translates to a control issue.

My conclusion is that, for most people, a concealable handgun should weigh at least 20-25 ounces to be truly controllable and to enable relevant practice levels. Otherwise, I think you are kidding yourself.

I also think that there is a “size efficiency” question that gets little play in the popular gun press. Most buyers of concealment handguns tend to look for the smallest arm firing the largest caliber that can be designed into it. However, how well does the human being wielding such a gun interact with it? Does he or she dominate it, or does it, through diminutive overall size, a small grip with no space for one or more fingers and super light weight cause the shooter to wonder if the gun is in charge?

Another pistol I’ve recently shot briefly was my friend’s Smith & Wesson M&P Shield in 9x19mm. Yes, it is larger in every dimension than the Solo and weighs about two ounces more. Yet, it is much narrower and thus easier to carry than a Glock 26 and it carries seven or eight rounds.

How did this pistol shoot and how well could it be controlled? A session of shooting falling metal plates at seven yards indicated that it can be controlled in rapid fire with standard pressure 9mm ammo very well. I also managed two hits out of four rounds fired (50%) at a 200 yard steel impact plate at our club rifle range, shooting hand held, not from a bench rest. Mind you, this was the first time I’d ever laid hands (or even eyes) on one of these pistols. My friend, who is much more a rifle shooter than handgunner, also took to it quite well and is pleased with his purchase.

Moving on, lethal force encounters are dynamic and no two are exactly alike. One does not know whether one is going to be at arm’s length or 20 yards away when violence visits. Whether it will be in good light or dim light, involve one or more assailants, if you will be able to anticipate danger or be taken almost completely unawares. These are all factors to consider in the type and quality of practice one undertakes.

Many of us live in suburban or rural environments, away from major cities and their higher crime rates. You may not have neighbors close by, which can be good or bad. One should be cognizant of the flight of your bullets and understand one’s responsibility for each one fired.

My own city is considered about average for crime. Mostly it is drug or alcohol related, although some burglaries occur here. One would think that the average burglar would demur if he considered that armed people are around (about 1/7th of our county population has a concealed carry permit), but it still happens.

I am one of those who think it isn’t a particularly good idea to have one handgun as a house gun and one strictly for concealed carry. There are several reasons for this. First, it does not foster the consistency of practice, the memory of a correct sight picture, trigger squeeze, grip feel, or recoil level.

Second, if one is not practicing with both pistols to the same level, there will always be one that he or she is going to be better with, and I dare say that will be the larger and heavier one. This is not to say that this larger and heavier pistol need be a full sized steel handgun. It might be the difference between a 26 ounce (loaded) Glock 26 and a 32 ounce (loaded) Glock 17.

If the home defense and concealed carry pistols are different in function, controls, trigger, sights, caliber and feel, say a .38 revolver and a 9mm autoloader, the problem is magnified. Yet, there are a lot of folks who don’t understand the implications of this under stress, time constraints and in dim light where most defense situations occur. They’ll just presume that they will operate each as calmly as they do on a target range.

If you recognize that a larger and heavier arm that fires more effective ammunition is a better deal when you are at home, yet decide that something small and light to carry is a trade-off you are willing to accept, you had best practice with it a lot more to overcome the loss of control and power.

Third, the folks who can shoot a small handgun as well as a larger one are pretty rare birds. I know of some who can shoot a snubby .38 revolver quite well on a well-lit range, slow fire, on bull’s eye targets, from a bench rest. How much this level of competency or technical shooting skill matters in a potential self-defense situation is an open question.

I know myself very well in this particular regard. While I have managed 2”-3” hand held groups at 50 foot indoor ranges with a .32 Walther PPK, I’d be significantly challenged if asked to do this with a .38 snub revolver. For whatever reason, I do not have the same level of shooting ability with a small revolver as I do with (most) small autos. This is not to say that others cannot have the exact opposite success, as do some members of the G&S Online staff.

Two recent medium auto sessions were illustrative to me. The first one occurred a week ago with a high capacity Makarov pistol in the original 9x18mm caliber and the second happened earlier this afternoon with a SIG-Sauer P230 in .380 (9x17mm). Two shooters were involved each time, my father-in-law and I. Neither of us could hit worth a tinker’s darn with the Makarov, we both scattered our 20 shots around a fallen log at approximately 30 feet.

While firing the SIG, however, we both managed hits out to 30 yards. Both handguns have small sights and roughly the same single action trigger pull quality, yet one was head and shoulders better. We both drew the obvious conclusion that, while we both thought that the SIG might make a good carry pistol, neither of us desired this particular Makarov. More to the point of this article, both of us preferred the ergonomics of the SIG product, the finish quality and the superior regulation of sights to point of impact.

I do have more than cursory interest in the results of those who attempt to quantify the real world capability of the various handgun cartridges. I favor neither Evan Marshall's or Martin Fackler's position on the stopping power debate.

Generally speaking, I think most people look to what either the military or police are using and choose what they can afford. This has remained a constant in the American market for over 100 years. It’s also not a bad idea from a liability perspective. This generally means .38 Special, .357 Magnum, 9x19mm Luger, .40 S&W or .45 ACP. Other cartridges may work, but will likely be harder to obtain, more expensive and possibly not incorporate the benefits of the most recent R&D.

I do fervently believe that one is going to do well in at least the shooting portion of a self-defense situation if one practices at least several hundred rounds per year, shooting at silhouettes that mimic the torso of a human being, so that one understands the proper spatial relationships needed.

After a lifetime of shooting handguns as my primary interest, I think that the general specifications for an “ideal” carry pistol should look something like this:

  • Length: 6” – 8”
  • Height: 4” – 5.5”
  • Width: 1.0” – 1.25”
  • Weight: 20 – 32 oz.
  • Caliber: .38 Special to .357 Magnum for revolvers and .380 ACP to .45 ACP for autoloaders; depending on one’s ability to control the chosen cartridge in rapid fire

Reserve ammunition to be carried: two speed-loaders (for revolvers) or two magazines (for autoloaders) would be ideal.

Training sessions should include some in dim light, to teach the shooter how different things look when one cannot easily see one’s sights or the target. Hits are the only thing that matters and most altercations take place after dark, so does your practice have the requisite relevancy?

This article assumes the shooter is a reasonably accomplished handgunner who has his or her fundamental slow fire skills down pat. This does NOT presume that they will be able or willing to engage in the rapid-fire practice that some self-defense scenarios require.

I think you can glean from this that I am not in favor, generally, of the sub-compact handgun, as I believe that one gives away too much in recoil control, practical accuracy and power. I suppose if one trains extensively with a “deep cover” type gun, it might suffice, but most do not.

Selecting a pistol or revolver of these general dimensions and power levels will provide one with an arm that will be relatively easy to control from muzzle contact to reasonable distances, chambers a serious cartridge, can be carried concealed by most, will be easy to shoot and should be sufficient to get one home safely.

While I am in tacit agreement with Mr. Smith’s comment, I do find myself wondering more these days about size efficiency and morphing downward in both caliber and weapon weight. However, it doesn’t change my approach to how and what I carry, based upon the above criteria of accuracy, power and speed.

However, as previously noted, the firearm and its accessories is the easy part. One pays your money and takes your choice. The dynamic nature of self defense means that I will try to cover, with practice and handgun selection, the worst-case scenario, rather than the best one. I think this is the wise course of action.

What you can actually do with your handgun is the $64,000 question. It would advance the discussion greatly if people would truthfully ask themselves if they are as good as the gun they rely on and whether the equipment they rely on is adequate for the likely defensive scenario?

Back to Handgun Information

Copyright 2012 by David Tong and/or All rights reserved.