Handgun Fit and Carry
By David Tong
It is no surprise that the hottest part of the current handgun market is the sale of smaller, more concealable pistols and revolvers, because over 40 of our 50 states have indicated some level of trust in its citizenry and “shall issue” a concealed carry permit. This is all to the good. Robert Heinlein, the famous science fiction writer, once wrote, "An armed society is a polite society" and while the gun-banners would cry in horror about a return to a "Wild West" mentality, they should be reminded that this was largely a fiction created by their beloved Hollywood.
The mechanics of handgun fit are, compared to caliber or action preference, relatively straightforward, although somewhat related to them. Fit concerning one’s reason and method of carry is another matter. Essentially, each of us learns to prefer a particular grip feel as we gain experience. However, as even someone with very little experience knows, some pistols or revolvers just don’t have that intrinsic feel in their hands that says, “Yes, I can use this.” When we pick up a handgun, we note whether the grip is too large or small, whether the reach to the trigger is too long or short, whether we can easily manipulate its controls without shifting the grip and whether we think that it would be portable enough to carry in the manner envisioned.
Some people prefer pocket guns, whose design is dictated by the dimensions of the space. These would be the smallest .22, .25, and .32 caliber pistols and revolvers that would likely NOT be in a holster of any kind.
Others who prefer harder hitting calibers, such as .38 Special, 9mm Parabellum, .357 Magnum, .40 S&W, .44 Special, .45ACP or .45 Long Colt, would choose commensurately larger arms and trade some portability for power. Such weapons will usually be carried in a holster, fanny pack or something similar. I would typically carry such a pistol in a quality leather holster made to fit the particular handgun.
On the Guns and Online Shooting Staff, our esteemed Managing Editor prefers revolvers for most handgun purposes. His favorite handgun hunting revolvers are Ruger single action (SA) models, while for protection in the field when not hunting, he normally carries a double action (DA) Colt Python .357 Magnum revolver with a 4" barrel. His house gun is a 4” Colt Diamondback .38 Special and his favorite carry gun is a 2” Colt Cobra, also in .38 Special.
Senior Editor Randy Wakeman, although he owns a dozen or so handguns, generally uses a 9x19mm Glock 19 for all self-protection purposes, as does Women's Editor Maria Williams. Editor Gordon Landers prefers Kahr autoloaders in .40 S&W for general defensive purposes.
Rocky Hays, our Gunsmithing Guru, uses 9x19 caliber H&K USP pistols for carry and protection in the field and relies primarily on a Glock 22 in .40 S&W for home protection. Rocky's wife Kathy, our Shipping and Receiving person, uses a 9x19mm Glock 17 as a house gun and often carries a .38 Colt Detective Special.
Jim Fleck, our Chief Technical Advisor, usually packs a 6-1/2” Ruger Blackhawk .357 Mag. for both handgun hunting and protection in the field, while a 4-5/8" Ruger Blackhawk in .45 Long Colt serves as his house gun and a 9x19mm Glock 19 as his carry gun.
Nathan Rauzon, Technical Assistant, uses a Glock 20 in 10mm Auto for his field and house gun, while resorting to a Baikal IJ-70 .380 ACP for a carry piece. Technical Assistant Jack Seeling uses a CZ-85 9x19mm autoloader for all protection purposes, while Technical Assistant Bob Fleck prefers a 6" Colt Python .357 in the field, a Glock 19 at home and a .38 Spec. Colt Cobra snubby revolver for concealed carry.
Your author uses his Kimber 1911 TLE/RL autoloader as a house and carry piece, while a 6" Smith & Wesson M29 .44 Magnum revolver is the field gun.
Handgun fit, for any type of pistol or revolver, can be quickly evaluated as follows. Grasping the handgun by its grip as intended, try to hold/aim the pistol so that its barrel is in line with the long axis of your forearm, which is the base of recoil support. This allows you to see whether the weapon’s grip is the right size, too big, or too small.
Do this (checking first to insure that the handgun is UNLOADED) by placing your finger on the trigger. If you can easily wrap the index finger beyond the first joint with the pistol situated in the hand properly, the length of pull may be too short for good shooting and the finger may be pinched against the frame or trigger guard when the trigger is depressed.
Conversely, if you have to turn the pistol off the long axis of one’s arm just to reach the trigger, either a thinner or narrower trigger should be installed or, if possible, smaller grips. Otherwise, a smaller pistol should be selected. You can see if the gun is aligned with the arm from above.
If the muzzle of the pistol points to the right (for a right-handed shooter) with the index finger’s first pad on the trigger, the grip is too large. In general, the more shots a semi-auto contains, the more pronounced this problem might be. My recent experience with a SiG P-226 illustrated this nicely for me. Revolvers are usually more forgiving, within reason, and grips of different sizes are usually available to correct misalignment.
One important thing to remember with a very small revolver is that they often come with small grips to aid concealment and these are usually not the best for shooting. Replacement grips that better fit one’s hand can vastly improve the revolver’s controllability and fitness for shooting, something that only a few manufacturers of service semi-autos have recently marketed. Typically, the automatic pistol’s stock grip is what one is stuck with, as the outline of the frame is dictated by the width and breath of the magazine inside. Some newer pistols, such as the Walther P-99, Smith & Wesson Military and Police and Springfield XDm are customizable by interchangeable grip or backstrap inserts, while Model 1911 type pistols probably have more options than other self-loaders.
With either a pistol or revolver, here is one classic test of how well a pistol naturally fits. First, check to insure than the gun is not loaded. Focus your eyes on an object or spot on the wall, then close your eyes and bring the pistol to approximately eye level, blindly pointing it at the spot on the wall. Open your eyes and see if the pistol "points naturally" for your arm and wrist angle. Although rather general, these are quick and easy ways see if a handgun’s physical size and shape works for you.
Comfort is another matter, beyond the basics of physical fit. Some shooters find "plow handle" type SA revolver grips, popularized by Colt SA guns, most comfortable. Others find that double action revolvers generally feel more natural in the hand and, if so, they will find considerable differences between the basic grip shape of Colt, Ruger and S&W DA revolvers. Autoloading pistols are very popular today and come with diverse grip angles and shapes. Two of the most widely seen (and copied) are the Colt 1911 grip angle and the Luger/Glock grip angle, but there are many others and countless variations.
I mentioned earlier that how one intends to carry a handgun is also a consideration. Someone who wants maximum convenience and is willing to compromise somewhat on accuracy, power, number of shots carried, or simply doesn’t want to use any sort of holster, will prefer something smaller and lighter. Such a pistol can be carried in a jeans, jacket, or vest pocket. In terms of convenience, small handguns allow one to be very discreetly carried, especially if climate or choice of clothing does not permit the carrying of a larger pistol. If pocket carry is chosen, a purpose-built pocket holster should be used. These are available for most pocket pistols. Of course, I have carried a full-sized Colt Government Model .45 for years during the summers wearing a decent pair of belted shorts and only a dark colored T-shirt as a covering garment.
Pocket pistols are subject to, well, pockets. If used to carry a handgun, the pocket must be kept free of lint, dirt and other objects that may impede the fast retrieval of the pistol or subject it to debris that might affect its reliability. A revolver is somewhat better than most automatics in this regard, but it still does not take much dirt ingress to stop a revolver’s cylinder from rotating or block the firing pin from striking the primer.
Smith & Wesson was possibly the first manufacturer to build a concealed hammer revolver, back in the 1880s, and their double action only Model 442 Centennial Airweight is among the best selling of the type today. Weighing but 14 ounces in .38 Special caliber, its snag free design (no hammer spur to catch on pocket edges) and superior sealing of its inner workings from lint or dirt make it a popular choice.
The very popular North American Arms SA mini-revolvers, particularly the .22 Magnum Black Widow, probably represent the practical minimum in revolver size and weight (8.8 ounces). The Black Widow comes with decent sights, a useable grip and (in our testing) is more accurate and reliable than any of the tiny pocket autos. NAA offers a wide variety of concealable holsters for their mini-revolvers, including pocket, wallet, IWB, ankle and belt models.
Beretta makes small .22 LR and .25 ACP semi-autos as well as the slightly larger .32 ACP Tomcat. These Beretta pocket models feature a tip-up barrel system for easy loading/unloading of a cartridge directly into the chamber. North American Arms offers their 12 ounce Guardian pistol in .32 ACP. Ruger and Kel-Tec have been selling bucket loads of the 9.4 ounce LCP .380 and 6.6 ounce P-32 respectively, as they are very small and ultra light. None of these pocket autos has anywhere near full size grips and they are typically fired while holding the gun with two fingers. Nor are their miniscule, non-adjustable sights conducive to accurate bullet placement, which is paramount with a low powered pistol.
"What the cops use" might not be the best choice for the armed citizen, as these service pistols are usually heavy, bulky and designed for carry in dedicated belt/holster rigs, but they are among the most tested and trusted of pistols currently available to civilians. The Austrian Glock G22 and G23 in .40 Smith & Wesson caliber are the most prevalent side arms in American police holsters at present, with over 70% of all agencies now using them. Both have rather larger butt sections, mitigated by their relatively short length of pull and trigger stroke length, and are eminently shootable. Also popular with military, police and civilians are similar Glock models in 9x19mm and .45 ACP calibers.
.38 Special or .357 Magnum double action service revolvers with 4” or 6” barrels are also solid choices, but watch the frame size and trigger reach. A pair of grips that perfectly place one’s finger for shooting the piece single-action might not be the best choice for shooting double-action, so a compromise might have to be made. Most folks with average sized hands will prefer a medium-sized frame, represented by Smith & Wesson’s "K" or "L" frames, Ruger GP-100 or older Security/Speed Six (the latter two are discontinued), "D" or "I" frame Colts (also discontinued), as well as the Taurus Model 66.
If one is blessed with larger paws, the medium framed revolvers can have stocks installed to fit the gun to your hand and Herrett’s Stocks of Twin Falls, Idaho offers a fitting service that requires you to trace your hand to ensure proper sizing.
The big Colt 1911 Army .45 pistol is actually among the most slender service pistols, fitting the smaller to average sized hand better than most modern competitors, and is more customizable to boot. They are also available in shorter than standard issue 5” barrel lengths as well as in aluminum alloy framed models that reduce the very considerable weight. The flip side is that the 1911 often doesn’t work so well for large-handed people, as the trigger reach is actually too short for many and the fitting of a long trigger might not cut it.
I should comment a bit about fit for purpose. While I personally believe that a service grade semi-automatic pistol is the best choice for a shooter of average size and strength for self-defense against bad people, I also think that a good double-action revolver is better for outdoors use. The reason I say this is that they are typically chambered for more powerful cartridges, are more accurate at longer ranges (which I’d define as beyond 50 yards) and have the flexibility to shoot rounds as diverse as CCI/Speer #12 snake loads all the way up to heavy soft point or hardened lead bullets for hunting the largest and toughest game.
These revolvers and pistols must properly be carried in holsters, fanny packs or something similar. For men, the most typical location would be the so-called “FBI” carry, behind the strong-side hip. This allows a fast master hand draw and is reasonably comfortable.
A worthwhile alternative to strong side hip carry is a cross-draw belt holster. Cross-draw is equally concealable, possibly more comfortable (particularly when sitting or driving a car), almost as fast and, in an emergency, it allows the gun to be drawn with either hand.
Inside the waistband, or “IWB” carry works if your gun and body type are sufficiently slender to accept it comfortably. Generally, it does not work well for those whose waist size is larger than chest size, and even then, it might not work while seated in a car with the restrictions of seat belts, seat bolsters, etc. IWB can be employed with the gun carried either strong (FBI style) or weak side. It is usually slower to draw a gun carried inside the waistband than from an outside holster.
For women, who constitute an ever-increasing percentage of the concealed carry population (a fact to be applauded), strong side, behind the hip carry is ofter nearly impossible and quite uncomfortable. Women typically have larger hips and shorter torsos, so the typical high-ride concealment holster puts the pistol’s butt squarely in their ribs.
Some sort of shoulder holster is popular with many women and some men. Shoulder holsters come in horizontal and vertical carry styles, with many variations. The horizontal models are usually chosen for concealed carry of small, short-barreled handguns. The so-called "appendix" inside waistband carry in one’s groin area might work if the weapon has had its sharp edges removed (melted).
Made-for-purpose purse holsters are available from De Santis Leather of New York and others. Well designed purse holsters incorporate a holster pouch and can be worn with the strap diagonally across the chest to avoid snatching. They should also have steel reinforced straps to prevent cutting by would be purse-snatchers. Working women sometimes have little choice but to adopt purse carry, as their employment demands stylish attire not well adapted to other concealed carry options.
Galco and many other manufacturers offer fanny packs designed for concealed handgun carry. A properly designed fanny pack should have a separate gun area with zipper closure that can be opened quickly (usually by means of a rip-open tab) and nearly silently. Inside should be a holster or some method of positively holding the gun in place. The fanny pack's belt should be wide to help support the weight of the pistol. The back of the fanny pack should be stiffened to keep the pack's shape and allow a smooth draw.
My own view is that I do not favor either handbag or fanny pack carry, as they are both obvious places for a sidearm, as well as the first target of a mugger or assailant demanding one’s valuables. In addition, if a pistol or revolver weighing over two pounds is carried in one, the fanny pack will sag noticeably. (If a pistol weighs that much it probably wasn't designed for concealed carry in the first place. -Ed.) Chuck Hawks has written rather extensively about concealed carry in his article "Concealed Carry Methods," which can be found on the Handgun Information page.
Carrying a handgun openly, as in the field, is a different matter. Here a larger gun can be carried more comfortably in a made for the purpose belt and holster rig. The usual options are strong side carry, cross-draw and a fully supported shoulder holster with front and back straps.
In the field, a cross draw rig is particularly appropriate, as it allows the wearer to sit down or drive a vehicle while packing a long barreled revolver. The gun should be carried at belt level, in front of the hip, with the butt sharply angled toward the strong hand. This also allows carrying a long gun in the strong hand, or slung over the strong side shoulder, without interference.
A strong side handgun hunting rig is also good in the field if you will not be carrying a long gun, or anything equally bulky, in your strong hand. Make sure that your gun belt positions the pistol high on your waist for comfortable long-term carry. Western movie "gunfighter" rigs with low-slung holsters are a poor choice for practical field use.
The third common field alternative for carrying a large handgun is the vertical shoulder holster. This is not the compact, concealed shoulder rig of the sort described in Ian Fleming's James Bond novels and favored by gangsters, but a comfortable holster for a full size pistol supported by wide, visible straps. In inclement weather, a large hunting coat can be worn over the holstered revolver, keeping it warm and dry. Shoulder rigs also work well for scope or optical sight equipped handguns.
In writing this piece, I wanted to bring to the attention of the reader all the factors that make a pistol or revolver a good fit, for one’s hands, clothing, lifestyle, purposes and even body structure. I hope that it has been of some benefit.
Copyright 2009 by David Tong. All rights reserved.