I’ll soon be doing a review and torture-test of a pistol optic, and this prompted some thoughts on my part. Painful perhaps, but necessary. I have fired a number of pistols with optics mounted since the 1990s. I’ve watched these sights go from bulky, impractical things to small, svelte and reliable systems. Now prices are dropping and more and more manufacturers are offering standard slide-cuts for them as stock on new pistols. Some even offer guns with them factory-mounted.
These were first popularized in IPSC and similar pistol disciplines. They were found to convey such an unbalanced advantage that their use was restricted by class. Over the decades they have gotten smaller, more robust and less expensive and are now practical for duty and even concealed carry, and are being used more and more often by civilians.
I write Science Fiction. I was an early adopter of personal electronics, cell phones and eBooks. I follow a lot of science and tech online. Nonetheless I still don’t have an pistol with an optic. Why not? It’s not because I disdain them, doubt their utility or effectiveness. It’s because on my limited income they are expensive, or at least the ones I would trust my life to are. Even relatively inexpensive ones can come down to a choice of buying an optic or buying ammo to test one or more guns.
Here’s What I Think
They have significant advantages for a duty weapon for police and military, reducing the chance of tunneling in on your sights, allowing freer peripheral vision and better situational awareness. That being said they do require specific training and familiarization to use effectively, especially for people highly trained to fire under stress with iron sights. They can be very, very fast but you have to train to take advantage of that speed. I have often said if by some catastrophic failure of judgement I wound up back on the street on duty I want a polymer-framed, high-capacity pistol with a red dot.
In action-shooting competition they offer real and substantial advantages. With training they are very, very fast and precise. They are also useful in hunting as they offer good precision even in low-light conditions.
They are neither useless nor Absolutely necessary for the average civilian concealed-carry user. In typical self-defense scenarios they offer no real advantage to the average modestly trained user. Most encounters happen at such close range that under stress these people tend to point-shoot, rendering the sights irrelevant.
This is not to say they don’t have utility; Their low-light utility can be excellent. Also in those rare scenarios that occur at extended ranges they can be a decisive advantage if the user has trained well with them.
Let’s talk a little about those scenarios. In a mall shooting last year an armed civilian was forced to engage at extended range, and his training allowed him to do so effectively. A red dot sight would definitely make this easier. Remember that civilians do in fact interrupt mass-casualty shooters. Imagine you are in a department store and an Active Shooter event occurs. Many of these have sight-lines of a hundred feet or more. If I were forced to engage at this sort of range I would probably prefer to have an RDS over iron sights.
In general there are few instances where it is likely to be useful, but on the absurdly small chance you find yourself in such a situation you might regret not having one.
The Bottom Line
Whether you opt for iron sights or a red-dot training is key. As always. You need to evaluate your own needs based on a realistic threat profile and an accurate estimate of your abilities. You might find that a red-dot sight offers a decisive advantage. Or not.
In recent decades 9 x19mm has come to dominate other calibers for civilian, police and military handguns, and it’s fair to ask why? What has caused this? Some maintain it’s a bureaucratic decision made by bean-counters with a depraved indifference to the lives and safety of troops and officers (we call these people idiots. It’s a technical term.) But it really, really isn’t just bean counters and bureaucrats. It’s a practical decision firmly based in reality.
Famously during the Philippine Insurrection the US Army’s .38s failed to stop the enemy. So did British pistols and .30-40 Krag and .303-caliber rifles. In a desperate move the Army pulled .45-caliber revolvers out of storage and began to issue those, but the conflict ended before meaningful numbers of these guns re-entered service and no useful data was generated. Modern gun mythology is that the .45s stopped the baddies cold, but I have been unable to come up with any substantive evidence of this or even that these weapons were widely distributed before things wrapped up.
As it turns out one of the reason it was so hard to stop these attackers was that they were Committed Attackers, suicidely determined to take as many enemies with them as possible. They were also drugged to the gills. Subsequent experience has shown that absent a hit that causes catastrophic damage to the central nervous system such people are very difficult to stop with any handgun of any caliber.
Subsequently when the Army was looking to adopt a new, modern service pistol the Thompson-La Garde study was undertaken. This used a variety of means to determine the potential stopping power of proposed service calibers using a variety of mechanisms including momentum transferred to the target. This resulted in the recommendation that the army adopt a weapon of .45-caliber with a 200gr. bullet with specific characteristics, and given the technology of the time and the thinking involved this was not an unreasonable conclusion. Many gun enthusiasts are aware of this without knowing the specifics of the study, and they miss or gloss over one of the central conclusions of the study: Hit location is of critical imp0ortance.
Their conclusion was that if you are going to put a service pistol in the hands of people with minimal training you cannot assure good marksmanship, so one should arm them with what seemed to be most effective cartridge and bullet absent that quality. Not at all unsound reasoning.
Then as Othias is fond of saying, ‘War were declared.’ In WW1 pistols of calibers ranging from .32 ACP to .455 were widely deployed and after-action analysis reached a startling conclusion: Militarily speaking the effect of pistols was negligible to virtually non-existent regardless of caliber.
In the interwar period most European powers adopted the 9mm Parabellum, and there is little evidence that they found this caliber wanting in actual battle in WW2. After the war 9mm became the most widely adopted military handgun cartridge in the West and became the NATO standard round. The US resisted changing for decades, not because of any inherent belief in the superiority of .45 ACP however. It was because we had millions of leftover 1911A1s and enormous stockpiles of .45 ACP ammo left over. Changing to a new service pistol and caliber would be expensive and given the increasingly unwieldy and corrupt procurement practices it was going to be a huge pain in the ass for something that was of comparatively little military significance.
Meanwhile on the civilian side a combination of anecdotal evidence and resulting hype in gun media combined with a cult of personality or two and caused the .45 ACP to be touted as the only worthy defensive cartridge. Period. Efforts were made, not to determine if this was true but rather to support this conclusion, and any evidence that did not support this conclusion was disregarded. This is not at all to say that .45 ACP is not a good, effective cartridge. It was and still is.
But time marches on and fashion changes. The broad introduction of high-quality, reliable high-capacity 9mm pistols in the US in the 1980s started a sea-change in the caliber debate. A number of famous police shooting incidents caused renewed study of the relative effectiveness of service calibers, resulting in the adoption of 10mm. But this was determined to be problematic as a general-issue cartridge and the .40 S&W was widely adopted. It was The New Hotness and the best thing since sliced bread.
Except it wasn’t, actually. It was in fact a perfectly good cartridge, but it was the answer to the wrong question. Long-term studies by the FBI and others revealed that, wait for it…
… Hit location is of critical importance.
Analysis of actual shootings also revealed that within limits caliber was of less importance than previously believed. There was in fact of no quantifiable difference in effectiveness between service calibers in real-world shootings. A bullet needed to penetrate deeply enough to disrupt critical structures in the human body, and it needed to hit those structures. Oh, and a larger permanent wound cavity was better than a smaller one.
The conclusion that this third factor meant bigger bullets should used was rapidly pounced upon by large-caliber advocates, but in fact to some degree bigger bullets don’t produce bigger permanent wound cavities because human tissue is elastic. It stretches and rebounds. A .45 caliber bullet does not normally leave a notably larger permanent wound cavity.
OK, stop for a minute. I think it is very likely that in absolute terms some calibers are objectively better with all things being equal. But in a gunfight all things are never equal. There are simply too many variables to concretely quantify this based on real-life shootings.
What bigger bullets indisputably do produce is more recoil. Most people that are issued a duty weapon are best termed casual shooters. On average they qualify a time or two a year and practice very little. Recoil is an issue for a number of reasons, mainly that it makes it hard for casual shooters to reliably get good hits with rapid follow up shots. This matters in a gunfight because you need to hit those important bits in the human body and in the chaos of the moment more chances to do so is better. Which brings us to capacity. If more hits are better it’s good to have more bullets to make those hits.
You simply cannot put as many .40 or .45 caliber bullets in a service handgun as you can 9mm, especially not if that gun is going to be manageable for people of all shapes and sizes. Because reality.
9mm is the most common service caliber in the world and is immensely popular with the civilian market, so ammo is comparatively inexpensive. It is easier to train casual shooters to employ it to a minimum standard of effectiveness. It is effective enough and the guns hold more shots. These all make it not necessarily the best possible defensive pistol cartridge but arguably the best compromise for an issue weapon and as such it has been almost universally adopted for that use. By and large it has proven as good as anything in that role. The reasons for military, Law Enforcement and civilians all standardizing on the 9mm are based in reality and pragmatism, though elements of fashion are definitely involved.
There’s pushback, of course. I mean, have you met people? There are still die-hards that insist .45 ACP, 10mm or whatever is the best, ultimate and only worthy choice, and you are a moron if you think otherwise. Fewer than there used to be, but they are definitely still making themselves known. See the earlier reference to ‘idiots.’ By and large we can ignore them.
OK, it makes sense as a service cartridge but what about us civilians? Is 9mm the best choice for us? Maybe, maybe not. Depends on the individual. Certainly from a logistical standpoint it’s a good choice; availability, cost and load development are all very much in it’s favor and you certainly won’t be starved for practical, high-quality handguns for almost any self-defense need and most budgets.
But in the end your best choice is not caliber, bullet design or logistical issues. It’s you. Hit location is of paramount importance, and training is the best way to insure effectiveness.
OK, first thing first is always training. Being able to deploy your weapon in a timely manner, getting solid hits rapidly and knowing the manual of arms like it’s second nature. That’s a given, but it’s not the topic of this article. This is about selecting the weapon to get that training with.
The criteria we’re discussing are, in strict order: Reliability, Comfort, Precision and Power. Let’s address these individually.
This is the single, absolutely non-negotiable quality a carry-gun needs to posses. You are very unlikely to need it, but if you do you’ll need it very badly. It needs to work, and it needs to work with your carry ammo. 100%. Period. Everything else is the icing on the cake. The icing is important, but without the cake it just isn’t going to get the job done.
Part of reliability is that the gun needs to stay reliable over time and through all of that training you’re going to need. This doesn’t mean you need to spend a lot of money, but thousand-round reviews are good to see and take note of. You also need to pay attention to your gun to make sure it keeps working.
There are guns across the entire spectrum of price that will exhibit the desired durability; don’t make the mistake of thinking that throwing money at your choice is a guarantee, or that an economical option is necessarily not going to be up to the task.
This matters. A gun you can carry comfortably in a variety of situations and seasons is a gun you are more likely to carry. Some folks can carry a full-size steel-frame service pistol in most situations without wrecking themselves. Some can’t. If you live in a place with seasons you may need to be able to carry under very light garments in the summer, so for many a smaller gun may be a necessary compromise.
In regards to weight most people will be more comfortable more of the time with a light-weight gun. But whether your final choice is light or heavy a quality gun-belt can be a life-changing experience, and a good holster is a must. That holster needs to be comfortable too. For IWB carry I am a big fan of Kydex holsters. I find them more comfortable and I like that they don’t collapse when the gun isn’t in them; makes re-holstering easier and arguable safer. YMMV; find a holster or holsters you can wear comfortably for as long as needed.
There are people that maintain that it isn’t important that a gun be comfortable to hold. that it doesn’t matter if it is unpleasant to shoot. ‘You won’t care in the moment,’ they say, and they are correct about that, but they are otherwise absolutely wrong. Training is important, and most people are unlikely to train with a gun that is unpleasant to use.
Find out what works for you. You may need to experiment and perhaps even change your choices.
A great many people feel that a carry gun doesn’t need to be particularly accurate. I disagree. Time and again it has been proven that hit location is vital in stopping a determined attacker. There have been people dropped in their tracks by a single hit from a .22 and others not stopped by multiple hits from .44 Magnum hollow-points. The difference is hit location. Hit location means accuracy under stress and in a hurry. A self-defense gun needs to be capable of accurate rapid-fire because that’s what you need to do.
In most instances of civilian armed self-defense the baddy will flee if hit anywhere, but you cannot afford to count on that. The ability to get multiple bullets hitting where you need them in a hurry is critical. Historically speaking repeated center-mass hits is the recipe for success, whether you are at point-blank range or forty feet. A gun you shoot easily and well is important.
Against a determined attacker you need to place shots with reasonable precision. The fewer shots your gun holds and/or the smaller the caliber the better you need to be. Most weapons are more accurate than the person shooting them, but some guns are notably easier to rapid-fire accurately than others. This is variable to a degree on an individual basis, but I don’t know of anyone that shoots and Airweight .357 Magnum J-frame as fast and as well as they can shoot a similarly sized semi-auto pistol.
Sights matter. Decent sights make it easier to get good hits even at close range, though sometimes things happen so close you may not have a chance to use them. Red dots can be useful, especially at extended distances. But practical testing has shown that at very close range they are neither faster nor better than iron sights. They can be a good thing for a variety of reasons but they are not, strictly speaking, vital.
Obviously training is crucial, but not every gun works equally well for every person. Yes, you can overcome a lot with training, but why select o gun with qualities you need to overcome? There are a lot of very good guns out there. Find what works best for you.
This is listed last for a reason; while it matters it is less important than the previous qualities. A gun/bullet combination needs to meet certain criteria to be effective under less-than-ideal circumstances. It has to have the penetration needed to reach the things you need to break so it can break them, and it should be able to do so under a variety of conditions and from any angle.
Cartridges like .25 ACP, .22 Long Rifle and .32 ACP can do this, but they are sub-optimal because they create small permanent wound cavities and can sometimes be deflected by bone. Yes, larger calibers can experience deflection too, but it’s significantly less likely.
So, more power is better, right? Only to a point, and that point is where recoil interferes with accurate rapid-fire. In the right gun I would be happy with .380 ACP if it gave me greater precision in rapid-fire. It has adequate penetration and with the right ammunition can be quite effective.
Typically the best choices are in the range of service calibers, those being .38 Special, 9mm, .40 S&W, .45 ACP, .357 Magnum and calibers in the same size and power range. Statistically speaking none of these cartridges are significantly more effective than the others in real-world gunfights. In absolute terms I am certain that some are better than others, but there are so many variables in a gunfight it’s difficult to demonstrate this statistically. All of them, however, have proven adequate when using modern defensive ammunition.
For the average shooter using modern defensive ammunition 9mm seems to be in the sweet spot, balancing power and shootability. Ammos is also cheaper than the others, meaning practice will be more affordable and thus is more likely to happen.
It is not bad advice to use the most powerful caliber that meets the first three conditions I discussed here, but don’t get hung up on that. Reliability, comfort and precision matter more, and if you need to accept a ‘lesser’ caliber to get those then do so.
In designing a Main Battle Tank you need to balance Protection, Mobility and Firepower. Sacrificing any of these qualities compromises the usefulness of the vehicle. With a concealed-carry handgun there is a similar balance needed, but on an individual basis there is less flexibility.
An MBT works a a piece of a larger formation with support from infantry, artillery, smaller AFVs and airpower. This can offset the disadvantages of a compromise. But in a civilian self-defense shooting you and your weapon are all you’ve got. You simply cannot afford too many compromises. If I had to compromise on any of the qualities I have discussed the most negotiable one is Power. I will accept less power to optimize Reliability, Comfort and Precision. Within reason. I have a large-ish .25 ACP that I can shoot 1-1/2-2″ rapid-fire groups at 7 yards all day long, but that doesn’t mean it would be a rational decision to EDC it. Most people will not need to compromise Power that much. There are many, many genuinely compact firearms with significantly more power.
Most of us will need to make situational compromises. It is unlikely that any single gun will fill every possible need for all or even most of us; there are times when more or less gun is mandated by circumstances. If you can only afford a single gun then you’ll probably need to get something smaller than you might prefer to meet the broadest possible spectrum of needs.
There is no single answer for everyone. Fortunately we live in a veritable Golden Age of concealed-carry pistols, and likely with a little due diligence you can find what you need.
My primary EDC is a sub-compact 1911 9mm. Why? Because it meets the criteria for me. It doesn’t sacrifice Reliability, Comfort or Power and it absolutely shines in Precision. The compromises are in other areas; Capacity being the main one. It holds 7+1, but I feel that this is offset by the precision and familiarity with the platform. Over the last four decades I’ve put tens of thousands of rounds through 1911-based guns. The manual of arms is practically hard-wired at this point and I can reload on autopilot while my attention is elsewhere.
My secondary EDC is the Taurus G2C I purchased for the $200 Defensive Pistol challenge that I documented on You Tube. It has proven ultra-reliable, and while it is only a 1/2″ shorter than the SC 1911 even with the light mounted it is over a quarter-pound lighter. It is also thinner and as I am a large man it can be pocket-carried in a surprisingly discreet manner. It gives up less in the way of precision than you might expect too. It makes a very good alternate in specific circumstances.
I seldom need to carry less gun than the G2S, and while my smaller options are seriously compromised in one way or another it’s axiomatic that any gun is better than no gun. Anyway, these two guns fill 95% of my needs on a daily basis between them.