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.
Stay safe and take care,
Michael Tinker Pearce, 30 July 2023