The Drawbacks of the Sub-Compact Auto Pistol

By David Tong

In my previous article, The Drawbacks of the Snub-Nose Revolver, I discussed why I consider the snub-nose revolver mainly a back-up firearm for the police and the concealed carry license holder. This article discusses why I have nearly equal disdain for the sub-compact semi-automatic handgun.

The sub-compact auto is comfortable to carry, if not exactly comforting to use. The ways in which their diminutive dimensions make them convenient to carry also make them harder to use than larger pistols.

When you shrink a handgun, you make it that much harder to manipulate. Controls are smaller, sights are generally smaller, trigger pulls are heavier or longer in relation to the size/weight of the pistol and the butt section is shorter. The last point is particularly important, since felt recoil increases greatly as the grip's contact area with your hand decreases.

Most subcompact autos require an exceptionally stout recoil spring, which you must compress to rack the slide. Some people with less hand strength, especially women and seniors, cannot do this, even with practice and training. Even under the best circumstances, it is certainly harder to do if you choose to carry your pistol with an unloaded chamber.

Many of the very small autos are chambered for relatively small (and weak) rounds, such as .22 rimfire, .25 Auto and .32 ACP. None of these have the minimum power required to ensure either expansion or penetration from short barrels, although any firearm is better than nothing. Pistols such as the Beretta Jetfire 950, 21A and Tomcat are examples of the breed.

More capable and slightly larger sub-compacts, such as the SIG P238, SIG P938, Walther PPK and Ruger LC9s, are chambered for the more effective (with good JHP ammo) .380 ACP or 9mm Luger (9x19mm) cartridges. These are the cartridges that are generally most suitable for use in sub-compact autos. The recoil of even larger and more powerful cartridges (.357 SIG, .40 S&W, etc.) becomes very unpleasant and difficult to control in a sub-compact autoloader.

Most of these sub-compact pistols work well and have fairly acceptable single-action trigger pulls, but their sights may be microscopic and the sight radius is very short. Remember, hits are what count.

Compounding the problem is that many of the smaller autos lack an external slide stop (hold-open lever) that allows for a faster reload. For example, both the popular SIG P232 and the Walther PPK of James Bond fame require the shooter to rack the slide after inserting a loaded magazine to recharge the chamber.

The recoil spring's poundage is directly related to the type of action of the particular pistol. Blowback actions, which are used by almost all pistols chambered for the .380 ACP and smaller cartridges, use only the spring and the mass of the slide to hold the breech closed during discharge. Recoil springs for such pistols must be extraordinarily stout, as there is no positive mechanical lock to delay opening of the slide until pressure drops to a safe level.

To add fuel to that fire, if the pistol is hammer fired, the additional weight of the hammer mainspring is added to the weight of the recoil spring, making these small semi-autos the most difficult of all handguns to manipulate, let alone under stress. Examples of such pistols I have recently experienced include the AMT Backup, Kimber Solo and SIG P232. All three required proper technique, coordination and considerable hand strength to operate with authority and speed. I ended up using a scissors method, grasping the slide with my left hand and pushing backward while my shooting hand on the grip pushed forward to rack the slide.

In the days, say the 1970s and earlier, before the advent of quality JHP ammo for semi-autos and reliable pistols to shoot it, one was left with hardball. Small caliber hardball, at that. In those days, the two inch snub revolver at least could be loaded with better ammo without worrying about feeding issues.

Nowadays, of course, you do not have to worry as much. Bullets are designed for both better feeding and expansion and you need not spend $800 for an omnivorous auto. Guns and Shooting Online Owner/Managing Editor Chuck Hawks has waxed eloquent about the Russian IJ-70A (Makarov) .380, a compact service size (not sub-compact) autoloader, which may be the point. The inexpensive Argentine-made Bersa Thunder .380 is equally reliable. Either might serve your purposes.

These larger, fixed barrel blowback autos can be quite accurate, although several of the tilt-barrel autos, such as the SIG-Sauer P238, Glock 26 and S&W Shield have proven themselves to me.

Compact service size autoloaders, about 6.5 inches long and weighing 22+ ounces, such as the Glock 19, are nearly as easy to use as a full sized service pistol, although you still have to contend with greater levels of recoil. They are much easier and more enjoyable to shoot accurately and quickly. Such pistols are a better choice for both beginning and experienced shooters, although correspondingly more difficult to conceal for daily carry.

Of the sub-compacts, I am most favorably disposed to the SIG-Sauer P238 .380 and its 9x19mm stablemate, the P938. These use short recoil operated, not blowback, actions. They both have decently acceptable single-action-only triggers, a 1911 style control layout and service pistol size sights (albeit a short sight radius). However, the recoil of these relative powerful cartridges is such lightweight, diminutive pistols is unpleasant.

A sub-compact is not going to work as well as a compact service pistol, but that is not their reason for being. They are for discreet carry.

Being flatter than a .38 Special snub-nose revolver, they often are carried in pockets, where a revolver might print. Sub-compact autoloaders with single stack magazines usually have a magazine capacity of six rounds (plus one in the chamber), while many snubby revolvers have five shot cylinders. Subjectively, semi-auto grips typically fit my hands better than revolver grips; your experience may vary.

I would still prefer something larger and easier to control. The Kimber Solo, in particular, was fairly punishing to shoot and I think the short barrel sacrifices too much ballistic potential. These are legitimate concerns about sub-compact, semi-automatic pistols.

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Copyright 2015 by David Tong and/or All rights reserved.