Choosing a Concealed Carry Handgun

In this introductory article, I am going to discuss some attributes that I feel are important when selecting a handgun for the purposes of concealed carry and self-defense. I have been carrying a concealed handgun for most of the past two decades now, and my choice of handgun has evolved over that time according to my experiences and training. While everyone has different perspectives and different priorities, I hope that my experiences may be of benefit to new gun owners or even the experienced shooter looking to buy a new or different handgun for concealed carry and self-defense.

I have identified seven specific criteria that I feel are essential when considering the purchase of a concealed carry handgun. With the exception of the first, all are somewhat dependent on the individual shooter’s experiences and preferences.

  1. The gun must be reliable with defensive ammunition.
  2. The gun should fit your hand.
  3. The gun should be chambered in an adequate caliber and have adequate capacity.
  4. The gun should have no external safeties.
  5. The gun should have a consistent and manageable trigger.
  6. The gun should have functional, durable, and visible sights.
  7. The gun should have adequate aftermarket support.

Now, let me explain the rationale behind each of my criteria.

  1. The gun must be reliable with defensive ammunition.

If you are going to carry a gun to protect yourself or your loved ones, it must be absolutely reliable with your choice of defensive ammunition. Let’s divide this criteria into two separate issues…

First, the gun must be reliable. A good way to ensure this is by practicing with your gun often and by taking some training classes. Bob Mayne of The Handgun World Podcast advocates a “1000 round trigger job” for any new gun. I agree. What this means is that by putting one thousand rounds through your pistol, you will become much more familiar with your gun while the internal trigger surfaces wear and perhaps smooth out over time. These 1000 rounds will also allow you to accurately judge the reliability of your chosen handgun. I should point out that this is not dry fire. While dry firing is excellent practice, it does nothing to establish reliability. Certainly, you can establish a baseline reliability with less than 1000 rounds downrange, but 1000 rounds is nonetheless an ideal goal to aim for in this exercise.

Second, the gun must not only be reliable, it must be reliable with your chosen defensive ammunition. Certain types of ammunition may not feed reliably in all guns. Obviously, this would present a major problem during a gunfight. Thus, when you purchase defensive ammunition, buy extra and shoot a few magazines of the ammunition at the range prior to carrying it when your life may depend on it. While expensive, this is absolutely necessary. In addition, it is a good idea to be familiar with firing your chosen defensive load, as it may have a different recoil impulse or point of impact than your practice ammunition. As a further habit to ensure reliability, I would suggest that you replace your carry ammunition at least once a year, and possibly even every six months, depending on the climate in your area of operations. This practice ensures continued reliability by replacing ammunition that has been exposed to temperature extremes, numerous press checks, and frequent loading and unloading sequences.

  1. The gun should fit your hand.

Before we talk specifically about the gun fitting your hand, let’s briefly discuss the actual size of the gun, since handgun size is going to be relevant to a several of the criteria I discuss. Your handgun should strike the balance of being big enough to shoot comfortably, yet small enough to carry. By investing in a quality holster and belt and potentially making some small changes in your wardrobe, you will be able to carry an adequately sized gun. Why is this important?

As I mentioned above, it is essential to frequently train with the gun you choose to carry. When your life or the lives of your loved ones are on the line, you need to have the confidence and proficiency required to make the shot, whether the assailant is within arm’s reach or across a parking lot. I am not going to argue that training with a full size gun will not benefit your shooting skills with a pocket pistol, but I would argue that the difficult shot will be far easier to make with the adequately sized pistol that you have trained with instead of the small pocket gun. In fact, I would further argue that pocket pistols are really an expert’s weapon, as they require far more practice and proper technique to employ effectively.

A gun that is either too large or too small is going to be difficult or even painful to shoot more than a few rounds. You can probably work around it, but a gun that fits your hand is the ideal solution. This is but one reason that a diminutive pocket pistol is not necessarily an ideal choice.

Fundamentally, a good way to judge whether a gun fits your hand is to make sure that you can easily reach and manipulate all controls on the gun. The gun should also line up with the long bones of your arm when held in a firing grip. You may have to break your grip to depress the magazine or cylinder release, but otherwise, the trigger and any safeties should be within easy reach. A gun that fits your hand will be comfortable to shoot and will make it easier to gain confidence and proficiency. I personally have witnessed this time and time again with new shooters.

  1. The gun should be chambered in an adequate caliber and have an adequate capacity.

As hinted at above, the criteria of caliber and capacity are also directly related to handgun size. I am going to discuss them together in one section since our goal is a balance between the two. I do not wish to delve too deep into arguments over caliber choices, but I will simply say that by adequate caliber, I refer to 9mm, .40 S&W, or .45 ACP. I would classify the .380 ACP as the absolute minimum, with calibers such as .22 LR, .25 ACP, or .32 ACP being insufficient for our purposes.

Consider that statistically it requires multiple shots to disable an attacker, regardless of caliber. Consider also that most firearms trainers, medical examiners, and trauma surgeons have concluded that there really isn’t a lot of difference in the terminal ballistics of modern 9mm, .40 S&W, or .45 ACP ammunition. We do not carry pistols for their impressive terminal ballistics; rather, we carry them as a matter of convenience. With all that in mind, I strongly favor the 9mm for concealed carry. If one accepts the premise that it will probably require more than one shot to disable an attacker and that all handgun bullets suck, then why not carry a gun that you can shoot faster and more accurately due to less recoil? I would also point out that the 9mm is often a more inexpensive caliber to train with and carry, allowing you to get the most bang for your buck, pun intended!

To continue, let’s discuss magazine capacity. Carrying a handgun that is duty sized, rather than a pocket pistol, will allow you to carry a gun that has adequate capacity. There is of course the often touted FBI statistic of “three shots, at three yards, within three seconds,” when describing the typical armed encounter. However, that statistic is from law enforcement shootings, not civilian gunfights. Bad guys often travel in packs, and as noted above, handgun bullets are not inherently and instantly incapacitating. Think about the capacity of a few typical concealed carry choices… Would you prefer to have five shots, ten shots, or fifteen or more shots before needing to reload? Facing multiple attackers invading your home, or a drugged up and determined psychopath, which gun do you want in hand? Invariably, duty sized versions of handguns will carry more ammunition than pocket pistols or revolvers.

To further emphasize why I favor the 9mm, compare similar sized handguns that are available in a choice of calibers from any manufacturer of your choice. Generally, the larger the bullet, the less the capacity, all other things being equal. Again, if one accepts the premise that it may require multiple shots to disable an attacker, regardless of caliber, then why not carry a pistol that carries more ammunition in the same size frame? Not only is more ammunition an asset on the street, it also makes for an easier and more relaxed training experience. Whether you are facing the deranged psychopath that just doesn’t care, the intoxicated attacker who is feeling no pain, or the group of thugs suddenly coming at you from all directions, having more bullets is always a good thing. Always. Yes, you should carry a reload, but reloading is best accomplished after the immediate action is concluded, rather than in the middle of a gunfight. For civilians, I would even go so far as to suggest that the primary reason to carry a reload is to definitively fix malfunctions, rather than to continue the fight. If you truly feel comfortable with 5 or 6 shots in your gun, then I would suggest that you research recent home invasion and violent crime reports or take a force on force class and see if it changes your perspective.

There is one last caveat that I need to mention… If you live in a state that infringes upon your rights by limiting your magazine capacity, then it may make more sense to consider either a smaller and more concealable gun or perhaps a gun that fires a larger caliber. Using Glock’s offerings as only one example, this might be a unique instance where carrying a Glock 26 (more concealable) or Glock 30 (bigger bullet) makes more sense than carrying a Glock 19.

  1. The gun should feature no external safeties.

Let’s discuss safeties. While some are comforted by the presence of external safety mechanisms, the fact is that all modern handgun designs allow for the safe carry of the handgun without fear of accidental discharge. If you employ a quality holster that securely holds the gun and covers the trigger guard, and if you holster the gun with due diligence and caution, then the gun is not going to go off unless you want it to. Therefore, I do not like guns with external safeties for concealed carry. This obviously precludes 1911 style handguns… Quite simply, I do not advocate carrying a pistol that requires you deactivate a thumb or grip safety before firing a shot. For striker fired and double action pistols, external safeties are not necessary. Consider that many times when you may actually need your gun, you are going to be in a literally physical fight for your life. You need to perform as few functions as possible to fire that gun. Adding safeties that prevent you from pulling the trigger may very well prevent you from making the shot that will save your life. For a specific example, when accessing the pistol quickly while under duress and from potentially awkward positions, you may not get the ideal grip on the gun, and not adequately depress a grip safety. This last statement is not conjecture, it has happened in training multiple times. For all of the above reasons, I feel that a pistol that simply requires you to pull the trigger to fire the gun is the best choice for concealed carry.

I should also mention that I am not a fan of magazine disconnect safeties. I want my gun to go bang every single time I pull the trigger, regardless of whether a magazine is inserted and fully seated! Proper training negates the need for any such device.

  1. The gun should have a consistent and manageable trigger.

For this, I need to briefly delve into the different trigger configurations available on modern handguns, and explain some attributes of each. I’m going to categorize the triggers using the following definitions:

  • Single action means that the trigger pull simply releases an already cocked hammer. The 1911 is the prototypical example of a single action pistol.
  • Double action means that the trigger pull performs two functions, it cocks the hammer and then releases the hammer. In a traditional double action pistol, the first trigger pull both cocks and then releases the hammer, but subsequent trigger pulls are single action, as the pistol has already been cocked by the cycling of the slide. Pistols with this type of trigger generally have decocking levers to safely lower the hammer when you are finished firing. There are also variants referred to as double action only (DAO) in which every trigger pull is double action with the hammer returning forward after each shot.
  • Striker fired is a different system entirely, but generally refers to a relatively short and light trigger pull on a hammerless and often polymer firearm.

With those definitions out of the way, let’s examine the options. Choosing between striker fired and hammer fired guns is a personal choice. My recommendation would be a striker fired pistol, yielding a short and consistent trigger pull for every shot. There are others that prefer a traditional double action trigger for concealed carry due to the longer and heavier trigger that requires a deliberate pull for the first shot, with a light single action trigger for subsequent shots. Or, if you choose a double action pistol, you may wish to choose a double action only variant. As with striker fired pistols, a consistent trigger pull allows for consistent results. The only choice I personally disqualify from consideration is the single action pistol, due to the typical thumb and grip safeties that I dislike.

As with safeties, since triggers can be a contentious topic, I’m simply going to advocate that you train with your chosen gun to achieve speed and accuracy. If you are going to carry a double action pistol, then you should plan on a commensurate amount of training to master the trigger!

Further, when I say that the gun should have a manageable trigger, I simply mean that a gun with an excessively heavy or poor quality trigger is going to be significantly more difficult to fire accurately.

Finally, I favor triggers that have audible and tactile reset. I will address trigger reset further in a separate post, but simply realize that trigger reset is the point in the return travel of the trigger at which a subsequent shot can be fired.

  1. The gun should have functional, durable, and visible sights.

The gun that you choose to carry should have decent sights. By this, I mean steel front and rear sights. Whether you choose tritium night sights, fiber optic sights, simple steel sights, or even a mini red dot sight, you need durable and visible sights on your gun. Obviously, the closer your target and the more imminent the threat, the less you need your sights, if at all. However, as target distance increases, so does your reliance on a good sight picture. Many pocket pistols and revolvers have a simple groove machined into the top of the slide or frame that acts as a rear sight. Others may have small sights that are hard to see and use. While adequate for close targets where the sights are irrelevant or the margin for errors in alignment is much greater, these types of sights do not really serve the purpose of making an accurate shot at distance. This is another instance where the size of the gun comes into play, as larger guns often have better and more durable sights installed. Regarding the Glock pistols, I do not consider the factory plastic sights as adequate. Rather, upgrade to a set of steel sights that offer the features and sight picture that you want.

  1. The gun should have adequate aftermarket support.

The gun that you select for concealed carry should have adequate aftermarket support. By this, I mean that there should be several good choices for holsters and sights. Magazines and spare parts should be widely available. Choosing an obscure pistol that fits your hand may not be the best choice if you can’t find a quality holster to carry it in. Likewise, if you ever want to upgrade your sights or trigger components, it will be significantly more difficult and expensive to do so with an unusual, rare, or antique design of pistol.

Taking all of the aforementioned criteria into account, there is one last attribute not enumerated above that I think is vitally important when choosing a carry gun… You have to like it! Just because I or anyone else recommends a gun doesn’t necessarily make it the right one for you. If you are enamored with the 1911 and hate anything plastic, then you might not want to get a Glock or M&P. I would suggest that you try all of the available options with an open mind before ruling them out, but ultimately, you should be carrying something that you believe in and enjoy shooting. If you don’t enjoy shooting it, then you will not be inclined to practice with it. If you don’t trust what you’re carrying, then you may hesitate when the time comes to rely on it. Cast a wide net, but ultimately choose a gun that you enjoy shooting and carrying.

When choosing your gun, I believe you should get as close as you can to the above formula, and that deviations should only be made after deliberate and critical thought. As an example, my wife currently carries a Glock 42. My major criticisms of the pistol are that it has a limited capacity and fires a sub-optimal cartridge. Having said that, the gun is reliable, it fits her hand, she is comfortable with the recoil, and effective quality .380 ammunition is increasingly available. The trigger is consistent and manageable, and the gun has no external safeties. There is already wide aftermarket support for the gun, so quality sights and holsters are available. She is left handed, and the magazine release is reversible. In short, there are some deviations from the formula in terms of caliber and capacity, but it is perfect for my wife.

Having myself carried a few different guns over the years, my current choice is a Glock 19. My pistol is boringly reliable and the size of the gun is a good compromise. The Glock 19 is a mid-sized offering with a four inch barrel and full grip. I can reach all the controls and shoot the gun accurately. The new Gen 4 grip with the Modular Back Strap System allows the individual to further adjust the grip to fit their hand size. The Glock 19 is a 9mm pistol, and has a capacity of 15+1. The trigger is quite manageable with a relatively short pull and has an audible and tactile reset. The trigger pull is the same every time and there are no external safeties that I must manipulate to fire the pistol. Upgraded sights are often necessary, but there are many options. Finally, I have an extraordinary choice of other aftermarket accessories and holsters to choose from. In short, the pistol is near perfect for my needs. So perfect, in fact, that I have three of them!

Quite often, I also often carry a Glock 26. I consider this an acceptable deviation from the ideals I have established because of the caveat mentioned above… I currently live in a state that recently enacted magazine capacity limits, so there are many times that it suits me to carry a smaller pistol that is more concealable. Aside from size and capacity, the Glock 26 is almost identical to the Glock 19 that I favor.

I hope that my criteria and explanations show why I specifically favor polymer striker fired pistols for concealed carry. Beyond meeting the above criteria, they are user friendly, require minimal maintenance, and have become ubiquitous in today’s armed society. There are a few other good reasons to consider polymer striker fired guns over traditional hammer fired guns, but those are specifically related to extreme close quarter confrontations and are beyond the scope of this article.

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