Handgun Size

By David Tong

Should handgun size be proportionate to cartridge power? In a word, yes. Here's why.

To an extent and like all firearms, the size of the round fired dictates the form of the arm. No one is likely to purchase a .25 ACP auto pistol with a 6" barrel and adjustable sights. No matter how long the tube, the .25 is a weak cartridge and its ancestral home is a tiny pocket pistol.

Conversely, a subcompact handgun chambered for powerful cartridge, such as a .357 Magnum pocket revolver with a 2" barrel, can be literally painful to shoot and is very difficult to control. The muzzle blast is (literally) deafening, the muzzle flash is blinding and much of the cartridge's power is wasted in the short barrel.

Both the big .25 auto and small .357 revolver in the above examples are what might be called "unbalanced" firearms. The size of the gun is inappropriate for the power of the cartridge.

Here are four common handgun size delineations, which we will examine in more detail:

  1. Subcompact autos and small frame revolvers.
  2. Compact service pistols.
  3. Service autos and revolvers.
  4. Large autos and large frame revolvers.

Subcompact autos and small frame (snub-nose) revolvers

The first group, subcompact autos and small frame, snub-nose (2"-3" barrel) revolvers have the advantages of being easy to carry concealed on your person and they allow a more versatile dress code than larger handguns. However, they are among the hardest handguns to shoot accurately, especially without lots of practice.

Handguns in this category these days include such revolver stalwarts as the Smith & Wesson Model 36 Chiefs Special, Taurus 856, Ruger LCR and Ruger SP101. Examples of popular autoloaders include the Beretta Tomcat, Glock G26, Ruger LC9, SIG-Sauer P238, Kahr PM9 and the Walther PPK. Barrels run between 1-7/8" and 3-1/4" in length and the weight is generally between 11 and 22 ounces.

This is the class of handgun most often chosen for concealed carry by civilian shooters. They are also popular for off-duty carry by police officers. They are often carried in small fanny packs and purses, as well as inside-the-waistband holsters, pocket holsters and other discreet carry methods.

The single stack magazine autoloaders (example: LC9) are considerably thinner and easier to hide than models with double stack magazines (example: G26). Of course, the double stack magazines carry more cartridges, on the order of nine or 10 rounds, rather than six in a typical 9x19mm single stack magazine. Small frame .38 revolvers usually have five or six shot cylinders.

A variety of cartridges, ranging in power from .22 LR to .357 Magnum are available in these small handguns. However medium bore, medium power cartridges, such as the .380 ACP, 9mm Luger (9x19mm) and .38 Special, are probably the most appropriate choices in terms of a reasonable balance between stopping power and controllability in small frame guns.

The purpose of such handguns is ostensibly personal defense and they can fill that role reasonably well at short range. However, their short sight radii, light weight and (often) undersize grips conspire to inhibit accuracy and control, while the short barrels degrade ballistic performance.

Compact service pistols

The next step up in handgun size would be the compact service pistol, a category that today is dominated by autoloading pistols. These autoloaders are usually based on full size service models with a 3.5" to 4" (instead of 5") barrel and a slightly shortened grip.

Most of the major autoloading pistol manufacturers offer compact models. This includes, but is not limited to, Glock, Ruger, Beretta, SIG Sauer, H&K, Taurus, Colt, Kimber, CZ and others. The classic Colt Commander and the popular Glock 19 are examples of the type.

Revolvers of this type are not common today, but the Ruger SP101 models with 4.2" barrels would qualify. These are available in .22, .32 and .38/.357 calibers. The classic Colt .38 Police Positive (23 ounces) and S&W .38 Regulation Police (18 ounces), both with 4" barrels, would be examples from the past.

Modern, polymer framed compact pistols generally weigh in the vicinity of 21-26 ounces in 9x19mm caliber. All steel models will be considerably heavier. For example, a polymer framed Glock 19 weighs about 21 ounces, while a steel frame CZ 75 Compact weighs about 32.5 ounces. The stainless steel Ruger SP101 revolver with a 4.2" barrel in .38/.357 Mag weighs 29.5 ounces

Compact autoloaders are generally chambered for the same cartridges as full size service pistols, the most common being 9x19mm Luger, .357 SIG, .40 S&W and .45 ACP. Most, but not all, offer high capacity, double stack magazines. The G19, for example, holds 15 9x19mm cartridges, only two rounds less than its full size G17 counterpart.

Compact service pistols with 4" barrels provide ballistics close to their full size cousins, but are easier to conceal. They handle much like a full size service pistol and, with their longer sight radius and full four finger size grips, are much easier to shoot accurately than a subcompact pistol.

Service autos and revolvers

These are full size autoloaders and revolvers. Typical revolvers would include medium frame models with 4" to 6" barrels, such as the Ruger GP100 and S&W K and L-frame models. Typical autoloaders would include large frame models with barrels around five inches long, such as the Browning Hi-Power, Colt 1911 Government Model, Glock 17, Heckler & Koch USP and the SIG-Sauer P226.

The weight of a typical service automatic can run between two and three pounds loaded, with overall lengths between 7" and 8.5". The weight of a service revolver also runs between two and three pounds, with more falling at the lighter end of the scale, roughly in the upper thirties in ounces.

Service revolvers are usually chambered for .38 Special and/or .357 Magnum. Service autoloaders are typically chambered for the same cartridges as their compact cousins (9mm Luger, .357 SIG, .40 S&W and .45 ACP), with the possible addition of 10mm Auto. The latter is a fine choice for a full size service autoloader and the only reasonably common auto pistol cartridge that approximates the ballistics of the .357 Magnum revolver cartridge.

I think many of the service automatics, particularly the heavy all steel models, are unnecessarily large for the 9x19mm cartridge. I believe this round, despite its high capacity potential (the G17, for example, boasts a 17 round magazine capacity), is best suited for compact autoloaders with barrels between 3.5" and 4" long.

It is possible to carry a full size service pistol concealed, depending on your style of dress and tolerance for the extra weight and bulk. However, service pistols are intended to be carried in gun belt and holster rigs, as are typically used by uniformed police and the military. A sturdy hip holster with a dedicated belt makes carrying these large and (often) heavy pistols relatively comfortable.

A plurality of people buying handguns these days for defense against human aggressors are buying subcompact/lightweight models for convenient concealed carry. However, there remains a devoted coterie of folks, including yours truly, who prefer the power, longer sight radius and improved controllability of a full size service pistol. It is a trade-off many of us like.

Large autos and large frame revolvers

The Glock 40 Long Slide and Desert Eagle would be an examples of a large autoloaders and the Ruger Redhawk and Super Redhawk, Taurus Raging Bull and S&W N-frame and X-frame models would be examples of large frame, double action revolvers. The Ruger Super Blackhawk and Freedom Arms Model 83 are examples of large frame, single action revolvers.

Such handguns can be pressed into service for defense against predatory humans, but their most common and reasonable application is handgun hunting and protection against large predators in the field. I suspect that most folks will carry such a large handgun while hiking in bear country, or salmon fishing in Alaska (same exposure).

Revolvers dominate this segment and they are typically chambered for powerful, magnum cartridges. Calibers include .357 Magnum, .41 Magnum, .44 Magnum, .454 Casull, .460 S&W, .480 Ruger and .500 S&W. The big Desert Eagle autoloader is chambered for the .357 and .44 Magnum revolver cartridges, as well as .50 AE. The G40 Long Slide is available only in 10mm Auto.

These are generally big, heavy handguns, typically with barrels 6" to 8" long to maximize sight radius (for best accuracy) and downrange ballistics. For example, the Redhawk weighs 54 ounces and the Super Blackhawk weighs 48 ounces, both in .44 Magnum with 7.5" barrels. The massive Desert Eagle gas operated autoloader with a 6" barrel weighs 70.6 ounces (!) in .44 Magnum.

Something of an exception in terms of weight is the polymer framed Glock 40 Long Slide 10mm Auto with a 6" barrel. This pistol weighs only 28.15 ounces empty, but (due to its 15 cartridge capacity) 40.14 ounces loaded.

Their long barrels mean that exterior and terminal ballistics are about the best that can be extracted from a repeating handgun chambered for the powerful rounds they fire. Their heavy weight helps control recoil for a modicum of shooting comfort. Sometimes (depending on the cartridge and load) the big guns are not too much more annoying than less powerful rounds in some of the subcompact guns mentioned above.

Comfortable carry requires a specialized shoulder holster rig or a wide, dedicated gun belt and hip holster worn high and tight around the waist. The cross-draw position allows easy sitting and keeps a big handgun away from a rifle carried in the strong hand when hunting.


In some ways, one can see that the small and light crowd and the huge and heavy crowd at the other extreme have cartridges that generally match their chosen handguns and their purported purposes. At both ends of the scale, we have similar problems of controlling recoil. However, one of the great things is that we have a plethora of choices; you just have to decide what you want.

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