There are differing schools of thought as to what constitutes and ‘adequate’ or even ‘ultimate’ concealed carry pistol. People are different; they have different ages, sizes, physical abilities or limitations. The places they live are different, as are the type and level of threats they face. People’s situations vary, with differing levels of income, job requirements, whether they have children in the household or not, relations with family members etc. Then there are local laws and ordinances… It makes it hard to advise someone as to what the best choice for them is.
For the purposes of this article we’re going to assume that the reader lives in a place where there is a legal mechanism for concealed carry, and that the weapon will be carried legally.
People are all created equal, but their needs and situations aren’t. Likewise not all guns are created equal, and what works for one person isn’t necessarily going to be ideal for another. In practice there are few universal rules about concealed carry pistols (CCPs) but there are some:
*It has to be with you and accessible
It’s axiomatic, even a cliche, that the gun you have with you is better than the gun you don’t. A gun that you left at home is useless for self defense. Depending on your individual circumstances this can have a significant effect on your choice for a CCP; size, weight, even shape can constrain your choices. A gun that is uncomfortable to carry is very much more likely to be at home when you need it.
*It has to go bang when you pull the trigger
Seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it? A reliable gun is essential, and this can affect your choice not only in terms of quality, but in the configuration and safety features of your CCP choice. Also- the less you are willing or able to train the simpler the gun’s operation needs to be.
*You must be able to reliably hit the target with it.
As addressed in a previous blog, being able to hit a stationary target doesn’t mean you’ll be able to hit a target under self-defense conditions… but not being able to makes it a certainty that you won’t. If you cannot put in enough practice reliably shoot a good group at 5-7 yards the chances of failure, or worse, damage to innocents, are simply too great to risk carrying a gun in public.
OK, that’s the basics. Every CCP is a compromise, but none of these things matter if your choice doesn’t meet these three standards. I’m going to limit the scope of this article to, as the title says, things you need to consider, but I think those three rules are absolutes.
There’s a lot more to think about, of course, and we’ll address some of those concerns now.
It’s easy to say, “What’s your life worth?” when encouraging people to spend a disproportionate amount of their income on a gun or training, but this disregards the needs and considerations of real life. What is it worth to not disappoint your children, and to build memories that will last a lifetime? What is it worth not to watch your child go hungry? What is it worth to be safe, warm and well fed? For most of us affordability is an issue, and it needs to be considered.
Yes, you should buy the best-quality gun that you can reasonably afford, and it’s pretty easy to watch reviews on YouTube to see what works, and what might work for you. You absolutely should, if it’s possible, go to a local range that rents guns and fire a variety to see what works in a hands-on situation. A gun can be fantastic, but not good for you.
A gun is a capitol purchase; once you have it you don’t need to spend the money again. But you need to bear in mind that you will need to practice, and that the affordability of the ammunition to do so may also be a consideration. A 9mm is relatively cheap to shoot. A .22 LR is really cheap to shoot, but unarguably less effective and arguably less reliable. You might find comfort in the large bore and heavy bullets of a .44 Special… but at $35-$60 a box can you afford a reasonable amount of practice?
A Gun For All Seasons
This is another area where affordability enters the equation; can you afford more than one gun? People dress differently in different seasons and different social settings. If you can afford only one gun that needs to cover everything from heavy winter clothing to shorts and a t-shirt at the beach, it’s going to limit your options to the lowest common denominator. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that the market is flooded with different types, styles and sizes of guns. With modern defensive ammunition the gun that works at the beach can still work in the dead of winter, even if it’s not ideal. A good quality sub-compact .380 will get the job done, even if there might be better choices for the particular circumstances.
You know your finances and situation. It might be better to to spend less on each individual gun so you can afford multiple guns for different seasons or settings. You need to balance whether you will be better served by a single, expensive gun that does everything well enough, or two (or more) somewhat lesser guns that do specific things very well.
In this day and age we are fortunate that there is no dearth of guns that work very well indeed. But how they operate varies wildly. Running any of them isn’t rocket science, but how much effort you are willing to put into training matters.
Revolvers are about as simple as it gets. Fill the holes with cartridges, aim and pull the trigger. Take the empty cartridges out. Repeat. But… while revolvers practically never jam, if it does you have a blunt object until you get it home or to a gunsmith. Another consideration is how easy it is to fire; some people find it difficult to reliably get good hits with a double-action revolver without extensive practice. Revolvers generally hold fewer shots, and are slower and more difficult to reload. Learning to reload efficiently, even with speed loaders, will require more dedication than shoving a magazine into the handle of a semi-auto.
Semi-automatic pistols are pretty damn good these days, and are pretty easy to operate at the basic level. They reload faster and easier than revolvers, and generally hold more shots… but they do jam. Not often, but often enough that you’d be a fool to carry one without extensively practicing clearing jams. Malfunctions, rather than capacity, are why it is essential to keep an extra mag handy, because the fastest way to clear a jam is to drop the magazine, clear the chamber and reload. Another advantage of the auto is that jams can usually be cleared on the spot, fast enough to keep you in the fight.
In terms of carry, autos are flatter and in some ways better suited to discreet carry. On the other hand a revolver’s more rounded shapes can be more comfortable to wear, and less obviously a gun than the angular shape of most autos. It’s a balance, and one that is strongly individual.
Lastly we’re back to affordability. Both revolvers and autos have their good and bad points, but if we’re talking about buying new there’s a real difference in the entry price, especially if we limit ourselves to options that are generally considered viable for self-defense. A good, reliable entry-level semi-automatic pistol can be had for $200 if you shop around. A good, reliable entry level snub-nose revolver (which will be more difficult to shoot well for most people) starts at about $300 if you hit a good sale. Across the board, these days new revolvers cost more than semi-autos of comparable quality… just another of many compromises you need to consider. You can, of course, buy used, but you’d best be well informed and know what you are looking at if you do.
The average defensive use of a handgun by a civilian generally requires 1-3 shots. Cases where a civilian in a self-defense shooting needed, and had the opportunity, to reload are vanishingly rare. Most agree that the minimum capacity of a defensive pistol should be five shots, and having more isn’t likely to be worse. A reload is a good idea if you are carrying a revolver, and essential if you are carrying an automatic (as stated above.) Given that multiple center-mass has has historically been the best way to stop an attacker, you might want to consider the likelihood of multiple attackers when selecting your CCP.
I’m listing this last because it is literally the least important consideration. Stopping a fanatically determined attacker with a handgun, any handgun of any caliber or bullet type, is a pretty dubious proposition. The main advantage of pistols is that you are likely to have it when you need it, and it’s better than throwing rocks. Yes, good quality, modern defensive ammo increases your odds and should be employed whenever possible. But the simple fact is this: if someone wants you bad enough and all you have to defend yourself is a handgun, if you don’t hit the central nervous system (brain or spine) there’s a good chance they can get you, regardless of the caliber of your weapon or the type of bullets used. They might not live to bask in the glory of their victory, but that’s not going to help you. Fortunately most people that instigate criminal attacks are not fanatically dedicated to taking you with them.
People have been dropped in their tracks by a single hit from a .25 ACP. Others have failed to stop after taking multiple torso hits from hollow-point .44 magnums. These are outliers of course; people don’t like being shot, and experience suggests that in most cases it is likely that getting shot three times with anything will make an attacker reconsider their life choices. But there are always exceptions. Taking out the spine or brain is the only sure thing.
Head-shots being difficult to reliably achieve in self-defense scenarios, the best, most reliable method of stopping a determined attacker has proven to be hitting them multiple times in their center of mass. Not only the spine, but all sorts of other stuff people can’t live without are clustered there. Things that bleed a lot, and running out of blood does stop people. Not super quickly, but it works.
I’m not saying caliber is irrelevant; statistically a .22, .25 or .32* is significantly more likely to fail to stop an attacker regardless of the number of times you hit them. It’s possible that they just don’t reliably have the penetration and damage potential to rapidly incapacitate a truly determined attacker. While an argument can be made that these smaller calibers allow you to put more hits on target quickly, If you can reliably put hits on target reasonably quickly with a larger caliber in a gun you will routinely carry you’d be well advised to do so.
*This statement is limited to .32 ACP and .32 S&W long; the .32 Magnums, with modern ammunition, are likely to be considerably more effective, but there is insufficient data to say for certain.
Not for nothing, but decades of law enforcement experience has shown that, with modern defensive ammunition and for the average person, 9mm Parabellum provides the best compromise of effectiveness, capacity and ease of shooting accurately. Recoil can be prohibitive in the smallest CCPs in this caliber for some people, but it’s a pretty good place to start. Even in bear country 9mm has proven effective with the correct bullet choice and good shot placement. .38 Special occupies a similar niche on the revolver side of things (though maybe not for bears!)
In the End…
..there are always other things to consider. CCPs should always be carried in a secure holster that covers the trigger- even when pocket-carried. The Kydex vs. leather debate rages on, but since I make all of my own holsters I’m ill equipped to weigh in on that.
You may need to shift your manner of dress to accommodate a CCP. You may even need to decide where you will or will not do business based on whether they allow concealed carry. It would be prudent to obtain a safe to secure your weapon in a vehicle for those instances you can’t avoid going to into places that don’t allow it.
The choice to carry a weapon for self defense is an individual one, and the choice of what to carry is equally so. Put some thought and research into it before you spend money on something that might not suit your needs in real life.
Michael Tinker Pearce, 25 January, 2020
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