Concealed carry is now legal in all fifty states; there is no longer any reason for law abiding citizens to not have the means to defend themselves and their loved ones. As Colonel Jeff Cooper put it, “Weapons protect the weak from the strong, not the other way around.” The firearms industry has responded to unprecedented demand (1.76 million sold in September, 2015 alone) with handguns in all sizes and calibers, but which gun is the best for concealed carry?
The answer is as varied as the Americans who exercise their constitutional rights, and is a personal choice based on many factors. Defensive handguns come in two basic configurations: semi-automatic pistols and revolvers. Each has strong points and drawbacks for concealed carry.
Concealed carry handguns follow trends just like clothes and cars, most often based on the current law enforcement issue weapons. The snub-nosed revolver ruled the concealed carry roost for over a century. When people thought “carry” they imagined a Smith and Wesson five shot Chief’s Special or Colt’s six shot Detective Special. This made sense to average gun owners who saw plain clothes and off-duty police carry such weapons. These revolvers were small, light, and chambered for the ubiquitous .38 special. Unfortunately, their small grips, short sight radius, and snappy recoil made them difficult to shoot accurately. Combat effectiveness took a back seat to convenience.
Matters got worse when the FBI adopted the S&W K-frame revolver in .357 Magnum, and civilians just had to have one. The most street proven defensive handgun cartridge (95.8 percentage one shot stops), turned short barreled revolvers into fire breathing dragons. However, this did prove one revolver advantage; they can fire more powerful cartridges than most semi-automatic pistols.
A snub-nosed revolver, or “snubby” as they’re often called, is not always the best concealed carry choice: an easier to shoot four inch barreled duty revolver is easily concealed with proper holsters and clothing.
The revolver’s other, and primary, strength is reliability; they seldom, if ever, malfunction, and they can digest any bullet type in their caliber. They can also use reduced loads if full power ones prove too difficult to handle.
Revolvers are bulkier than pistols. For best concealed carry results, the revolver’s butt should have a rounded contour and the grip panels made from smooth wood or synthetic material. Rubber grips tend to catch on clothes, and can impede the draw or reveal the gun to observers.
More semi-auto pistols were manufactured than revolvers between 1986 and 2010 by a ratio of nearly six to one (Brauer, 2013), again driven by trends in the military and law enforcement. They are more comfortable to wear, especially with inside the waistband holsters, and as a rule, easier to conceal because their grip to frame ratio is shorter and they do not have the revolver cylinder’s pronounced bulge. Cartridge developments, such as the .357 Sig and 10mm, have also closed the power gap with revolvers. Pistols can hold many more rounds as well, and most people who’ve been in a protracted gunfight state there is no such thing as too much ammunition.
The best concealment pistols are not only relatively compact, they have rounded contours and few if any exposed pieces such as hammers or safeties. The newer, striker fired designs from Glock, Smith & Wesson, and Springfield Armory are big sellers for this reason. Plus their polymer frames are much more comfortable next to the skin in hot or cold weather, and will not corrode from sweat. Stainless steel and alloys such as aluminum are the best material for full metal carry guns, again for corrosion resistance.
Semi-autos require more training than revolvers, particularly for novice shooters. Contrary to popular belief, the revolver is not inherently better for beginners; their long double action triggers require significant practice to master. A semi-auto, such as the Glock, is suitable if one receives appropriate training. The Glock is also easier for people who transition from revolver to pistol.
So what are some basic guidelines for selecting a concealed carry handgun? Before making a purchase, examine as many different makes and models as possible; some gun ranges offer “rental” guns which can be test fired on site. Consider the threat environment the gun will be carried in. Is high ammunition capacity a priority, or is a powerful cartridge more important? It is best to match the gun’s power with its size and weight. There are many powerful, diminutive guns on the market, but most are difficult, or impossible, to shoot accurately. A well placed small caliber bullet could end a fight but a miss with a larger caliber certainly will not.
Narrow the field to the guns which felt and shot best in your hands, don’t worry about what others say you should like, then revisit those models again at the gun store to confirm your original observations. Purchase the one which best fills all the pertinent criteria, then get competent, realistic training with it. At any time in the process, if a gun does not satisfy, trade it or sell it, and get another which does.
When shopping for a carry handgun, also shop for holsters; holster fit, both to the gun and the body, is as important as the gun itself. It is common to go through four or five different holsters before one proves the best. When it comes to holsters remember master holster maker John Bianchi’s advice, “The same gun, in the same holster, in the same place, every time, all the time.”
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