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Concealed Carry Pistols
Handguns are a personal choice, and what feels good to one person may not appeal to another. The heavier and bulkier a gun is, the more trouble it is to carry all the time and the harder it is to conceal. Unfortunately, it is also true that the lighter a gun is, the harder it recoils (with any particular load). These facts are frequently overlooked in the many magazine articles I have read on this subject, which tend to emphasize stopping power. I have had a concealed carry permit for decades, long before it became common and I have condsiderable personal experience with several categories of guns for concealed carry.
In the deep concealment or mini-gun category (see the "Deep Concealment Pistols" chart), my first choice is the North American Arms Black Widow. This is a single action 5-shot mini-revolver with a 2" heavy barrel and suprisingly comfortable rubber grips. It is made of stainless steel and chambered for the .22 WMR (Magnum) cartridge. An extra cylinder for .22 LR is also available. It is a very small gun, weighing about 9 ounces. A big plus is its excellent fixed sights, rare in this category of firearm. It can even be had with adjustable sights, but I find them too bulky for this tiny gun. There are other mini-revolvers on the market, but the .22 Mag. Black Widow is my favorite.
I prefer it to the tiny .25 ACP and .22 LR auto pistols because of its ballistic superiority (around 42% one shot stops for the .22 Magnum, as compared to around 25% for the .25 and 34% for the .22LR). In my experience, it is more reliable than even the best mini auto pistols. It is also much easier to hit what you shoot at with the Black Widow, because of its aforementioned excellent sights and decent grips. Decent quality mini autoloaders in .22-.32 caliber are offered by Walther, Seecamp and Beretta, among others. However, if you can manage a slightly larger semi-auto, the standout for deep concealment is the SIG SAUER P238 in .380 ACP. This pistol will be discussed in more detail shortly.
I do not favor any of the various derringer type of pistols in the deep concealment category. I find two shots inadequate, the birds-head grips awkward and the lack of sights deplorable. After all, if you only have one or two shots, they must be delivered perfectly.
All of these guns are pocketable and can be carried in a pocket holster. They can also be carried in an ankle holster, vest pocket, tiny belt holster, belt pouch (my favorite carry), small purse, belly band, or other inconspicous manner. .22, .25 and .32 pistols may be called "mouse guns", but because they are easy to carry in a very wide range of circumstancs, the deep concealment pistols fufill the first rule of gunfighting (ie: bring a gun).
The next viable step up from the mini guns are the small frame .380 ACP semi-auto pistols. (For a chart detailing these and subsequent guns discussed, see Concealed Handgun Comparison.) These pistols are available in both single action (SA) and double action (DA) style. The most famous of the breed is the German Walther PPK. The PPK is available in .380 ACP and .32 ACP. (Buy the .380 version.) It is a conventional DA/SA, blow-back operated pistol with a six round single stack magazine, a 3.35" barrel and weighs 21 ounces in either blue or stainless steel. Some years ago, Walther licensed the production of the PPK to Smith & Wesson in the U.S. and they immediately screwed-up this 70 year old design, producing it with a defective safety/hammer drop. My advice is to buy only a used, made in Germany, PPK. Eschew all S&W produced PPK pistols.
The other compact .380 that I particularly like, and the one I believe is the best of the breed, is the aforementioned SIG SAUER P238. This is a recoil operated (not blow-back), 1911 style, single action pistol that is as small as some of the deep concealment pistols. It has a 2.7" barrel (3.8" sight radius), excellent SIGLITE night sights, a six shot magazine and weighs only 15.2 ounces with magazine. The finish is either blue, stainless steel or rainbow titanium. Designed and formerly made by Colt as the Mustang PocketLite, SIG SAUER bought the rights to the pistol, as well as the machinery to produce it, from Colt. The only significantly redesigned part is the slide, which now has a traditional SIG shape and (wide) serrations.
Like the .38 snub nose revolvers (see below), the small .380 auto pistols are best carried in a conventional holster (shoulder, belt, and inside the belt styles are all common), holster shirt, fanny pack, purse, daily organizer, briefcase, photographers vest, or suitably large pocket. I find a small fanny pack both comfortable and convenient. The .380 ACP is about the least powerful cartridge (along with the .38 Special) considered suitable for service use by many experts.
About the same size as the .380 autos are the compact, small frame revolvers. My favorite is the discontinued Colt Cobra. This was a traditional double action snub nose revolver with a 2" barrel. It was an alloy framed six-shooter, chambered for the .38 Special cartridge. It weighed 16 ounces. The otherwise identical Detective Special with its blue steel frame weighed 22.5 ounces and the externally similar, but mechanically different, stainless steel SF-VI weighed 21 ounces. All of the later Colts came with excellent Pachmayr rubber grips. These small frame Colt revolvers are stronger than their S&W Chief's Special counterparts and are rated for limited +P use, although I prefer to shoot standard velocity ammo in any snubby. All of the small frame Colts are discontinued, but they can be found on the used market. They are the best concealed carry revolvers ever produced.
If I were in the market for a concealed carry revolver and could not find a used Colt in good condition to buy, my next choice would be a Ruger LCR, introduced in 2010. The LCR is the latest incarnation of the snub-nosed revolver and it is a considerable departure from the earlier Colt and S&W designs and their clones. It is a concealed hammer (DAO) design with a polymer frame. It weighs only 13.5 ounces, yet is rated for .38 Special +P ammunition without restriction. The trigger mechanism is a departure from other snubbys and its DA pull is the lightest and smoothest I have ever encountered in a snubby. Since there is no way to manually cock the hammer for SA shooting, the DA trigger pull is critical and Ruger has gotten it right. Naturally, in such a lightweight revolver even standard pressure .38 Special loads kick pretty hard and +P ammo kicks like the devil. This is not a fun gun to shoot! However, for short range use it is utterly reliable and strikes a powerful blow.
For 2011 Ruger announced a .357 Magnum version of the LCR, presumably to compete with S&W and Taurus magnum snubbys. All of these lightweight revolvers kick so hard with magnum ammunition as to be virtually uncontrollable and the performance of the .357 round is dramatically reduced in such a short barrel. At night the muzzle flash is blinding and the report is deafening anytime. I definitely do not recommend any sort of .357 Mag. snubby for concealed carry or any other purpose. Such revolvers are truly "white elephants."
The best .38 snubbys are fine concealed carry guns, but normally require some sort of holster, small fanny pack (my favorite), holster shirt, purse, daily organizer, briefcase, or large pocket. A photographers vest works well. I have read of carrying this type of gun in a front pants pocket or ankle holster, but have found such suggestions impractical, at least for me. An inside the pants holster will work if you are slender and wear your pants a waistband size too large.
The snub-nosed .38 revolver makes an interesting comparison with the subcompact .380 ACP and 9x19 semi-auto pistols. They are similar in size and weight. I found that I can carry a Colt Cobra interchangably with a .380 or 9mm autoloader. I can shoot the Cobra better and it has proved to be absolutely reliable. ("Six for sure" with a revolver is no idle boast.) For the person who prefers to carry a revolver, a .38 Special snubby is hard to beat.
Similar in size to a .38 snubby or most .380 autos is the new generation of subcompact 9x19mm autos. My favorites are the DAO Kahr PM-9 and the Glock 26. The U.S. made Kahr PM9 weighs 15.9 ounces with magazine and it comes with two magazines, a six-shot flush bottom type for maximum concealability and a 7-shot extended version with rest for the shooter's little finger. This pistol has a 3" barrel and is only 5.3" in overall length. Its slide is 0.9" wide. The G-26 has a 3.5" barrel, and weighs 19.7 ounces. It uses a 10 round, double stack magazine. It will also accept the longer magazines from Glock models 17, 18, or 19, in a pinch. This means the 26 is, unfortunately, as thick as the larger Glocks through the slide (1.18"). The Kahr's big advantage is its single row magazine that allows it to be thinner and easier to conceal.
Although their internals are entirely different (the Kahr is NOT a Glock clone), both are "safe action" type 9X19 caliber pistols. Safe Action is a term Glock coined to describe their semi-DAO, striker fired design that does not require any sort of manual, external safety and, although different, the Kahr mechanism achieves the same practical result. Neither of these pistols have true double-action trigger mechanisms, as there is no second strike capability. Once loaded, these pistols are as simple to operate as a DA revolver and they are very reliable. They come with good sights and night sights are available. Their "safe action" mechanism makes them the simpliest of all semi-auto pistols. For many civilians who carry concealed, the 9x19 subcompacts have made the .22, .25, .32 and .380 autoloaders obsolete.
The 9mm Parabellum (another name for the 9X19 cartridge) is somewhat more powerful than even the best loads for the .38 Special or .380 ACP. (See the "Handgun Cartridge Power" chart for details.) It is probably as powerful a cartridge as you need for civilian concealed carry. The 9x19 kicks noticeably less than .40 and .45 cartridges in subcompact autos and hits almost as hard.
Carry modes are the same as for the .38 snubby or .380 auto pistol, with the probable exception of an inside the pants holster for the G 26. I think the G 26 is too thick for these, although some slender folks do carry it this way. I prefer a small fanny pack for a sub compact auto.
Larger and somewhat heavier than the subcompact autos are the compact service pistols. These are typically supplied with 3.6"-4" barrels and are usually chambered for the .380 ACP, 9mm Mak., 9x19mm, .357 SIG or .40 S&W cartridges. These are service pistols with a shortened barrel and grip. The wide range of guns of this basic size include SA, DA, and DAO models. This class includes about the largest guns most people can, or are willing to, carry concealed. This is the type of pistol I would carry if I had to go into a higher-than-normal risk area, or if longer range shooting might be called for.
The Walther PP .380 was probably the first commercially successful compact service pistol and the PP-based Russian Makarov pistol was almost certainly the most widely produced. (The Baikail IJ-70A, now discontinued, was the civilian .380 ACP version of the Makarov). Both were and are fine compact pistols.
Popular contemporary examples in .380 include the Glock 25 and SIG SAUER P232. Representative 9x19 compacts include the Kahr T9/TP9 series and Glock 19. .40 caliber models include the Kahr T40/TP40 series and the Glock 23. Any pistol designed for the .40 S&W cartridge could alternatively be chambered for the .357 SIG, as this is based on a necked-down .40 case; the Glock 32 is one example. Other good compact service pistols are made by H&K, Beretta and SIG SAUER.
My favorite cartridge for compact service pistols is the 9x19mm (9mm Luger). The Glock 19 is the best known and most popular 9mm compact today and it is my first choice among such pistols. This is a safe action pistol with a 4" barrel. Its magazine holds 15 rounds and it weighs 21 ounces. It is about 1/2" longer and 1/2" taller than a G 26 subcompact. It is therefore harder to conceal, but much easier to shoot. The G 19 is not more accurate than a good .38 snubby, but with its large grip and long sight radius it is easier to shoot accurately at a distance. There is a full length review of the G 19 on the "Articles and Reviews" section of the Handgun Information page.
The other gun I would specifically like to mention in this category is the SIG SAUER P232, chambered for the milder .380 ACP cartridge. This is available with an aluminum alloy frame at 18.5 ounces or with a steel frame at 23.6 ounces, both with magazine in place. This is a true SA/DA autoloading pistol with second strike capability and it comes with excellent SIGLITE night sights. Its designers eliminated the need for a manual safety, making it very simple to operate. The P232 is very similar in size to a Walther PP or Makarov pistol and about the same overall length and height as a G 19 or G 25, but thinner than the Glocks due to its single stack, seven shot magazine. (However, it has considerably less firepower.) With an aluminum alloy frame, it is lighter than a Glock, Makarov or Walther PP. It kicks less than a G 19 and is easier to conceal, but its blow-back action is probably not quite as reliable as the recoil operated Glock. (All life is compromise!) There is a full length review of the P232 on the "Articles and Reviews" section of the Handgun Information page.
I recommend carrying any of the compact service pistols in a medium to large fanny pack. Other satisfactory methods include a belt or shoulder holster, purse, daily organizer or briefcase. For me, they are too large for comfortable carry in an inside the pants holster, although I have read articles touting that method of carry. The compact service pistols are the first choice of many knowledgable shooters.
All of the above guns are as good for a woman as for a man. There is no difference between a man's gun and a woman's gun. There are strong women and weak men, and anyone can pull a trigger. The important thing is that the gun feel good and point naturally for the shooter. Plus, of course, that it can be worn comfortably concealed.