Choosing your defensive pistol.


Ask any firearms instructor what their most commonly asked question is, and they will more than likely tell you it’s what pistol they would recommend for defensive carry. While it’s a common question, it’s akin to asking someone to pick a wife for you.

The simple fact is that there is no perfect handgun for defensive use. By their nature, handguns aren’t what you want when it comes down to a situation where you have to defend your life. However, since belt-fed weapons like the Browning .50 machine gun are incredibly heavy to carry around, are difficult to conceal, and nobody makes holsters for them, a handgun is what you’re going to have on you the majority of the time when things go South. So, you dance with who ya’ brung.

Now, your choice of weapon is up to you. Recognizing that a handgun is a tradeoff for portability and concealability, you start your independent research into the perfect carry gun. You can then branch off into the topics sure to set firearms forums ablaze; revolver vs automatic and caliber choice. After wasting several days of your life reading exchanges between the various and sundry keyboard commandoes that inhabit the internet, often with those making their important points in ALL CAPS because they want to ensure you understand them, you’ll probably be no further ahead than when you started. (You’ll also doubtlessly lose many irreplaceable hours watching YouTube videos.) The guy who claims to carry the Smith X-frame in .500 magnum or a Desert Eagle has as many valid points as to why their choice is the best as does the guy who regularly totes the Freedom Arms belt buckle .22.

What to do?
Conventional wisdom is to recommend the biggest gun that you can accurately and effectively use. This is because it’s the easy way out of the conversation, and you can never really be wrong in this recommendation. But the way I see it, any recommendation you make is potentially the wrong one. As instructors, we need to deal in facts and data and leave opinion at the curb. So what is the proper answer?

An individual’s choice of weapon is a very personal thing. (See my picking the wife analogy above.) There are a lot of factors that have to be taken into account. My approach is to point these out to the student, and tell them to take their answers to a range that rents guns and shoot as many as they can that fit their criteria.

What are the criteria?
What is your lifestyle. How do you normally dress? Do you have a sedentary desk job, or are you scaling roofs doing construction? What is your exposure to threats? This will help you determine if you can effectively conceal a full size revolver or auto, or if a compact is more suitable.

What is your skill level? Are you more familiar with the manual of arms for a revolver or an auto? Can you effectively score hits with a compact weapon, or are you more accurate with a full size gun? Do you react to stress well enough that you will be able to manipulate external safeties, or do you need something simpler?

Once you’ve established the personal criteria unique to you, it’s time to start looking at the guns themselves.

Budget & Availability

Realistically, if you can’t afford the gun, there really isn’t much point considering it. When establishing your budget, remember that it won’t be just the gun you’ll be buying.

  • Defensive Firearm (Is it legal where you live? Check your state laws. Do any of your area gun shops sell them?)
  • Holster (Don’t be surprised when down the road you have to dedicate an entire dresser drawer to holsters. They’re also a compromise, and will be the topic of a separate blog post.)
  • Spare Magazines (I recommend at least 2 spares)
  • Defensive Ammo (You’re going to need at least 300 rounds to ensure the gun functions reliably with it, plus enough to load the gun and 2 spare magazines)
  • Practice Ammo (Be sure this approximates your defensive ammo as closely as possible. Match bullet weight and velocity)
  • Training (Whether it consists of actual instruction, buying DVDs, whatever your choice is)

Once you’ve established your budget, you can start narrowing your choices.

A defensive firearm that doesn’t go bang every single time you pull the trigger instantly becomes a very short, lightweight club. Currently the most reliable guns out of the box are double action revolvers and striker fired pistols. (These also happen to also be the easiest to operate.) While I won’t recommend any specific manufacturer, look for those that have proven track records. This is important not only from a reliability standpoint, but also one of customer service. Everything wears or breaks eventually, even guns.

Accuracy & Fit
A defensive gun that doesn’t put bullets where you want them every single time is a liability. Remember, you own every single bullet you send downrange. A miss that strikes a bystander is your responsibility. The good news is that most modern firearms are inherently far more accurate that the shooter. Exceptions to the rule exist though. Just make sure you don’t buy an exception.
You need to make sure the gun fits your hand, that you can control it while firing it, and that you can work any of the controls with the gun in a normal firing grip. If the gun is too big or too small for your hand, you won’t be able to properly pull the trigger, control recoil, or manipulate a safety when the time comes.

Different people can effectively conceal different guns. Your build, dress, and activity levels will determine what you can conceal. Just as important as your ability to conceal the gun is your willingness to carry it. Be sure when choosing a gun that it is one you will carry every day whenever and wherever it is legal. A carry gun that sits in a glove compartment or a desk drawer instead of on your person does you no good when you really need it.

Ammunition Performance, Recoil, & Capacity
Fortunately, caliber choice isn’t the concern it was in recent years past. Developments in modern ammunition have produced proven performers in just about all of the common defensive calibers. Sadly, what has to be taken into consideration currently is availability and cost of your selected ammunition.

Don’t let the Gun Counter Guy trap you into something with claims of “knockdown” or “stopping” power. Nothing that you can hold or fire can guarantee a one shot stop on an attacker. The myriad amount of variables involved in a shootout, cover or clothing your rounds have to penetrate to reach your attacker, your shot placement, the willingness of your attacker to give up the fight and fall (yes, your attacker has a say in this) have proven the mightiest of projectiles ineffective. As a general rule, bigger is better, and more is best. You have to balance your ability to conceal and control the gun with its’ caliber and capacity. So, bigger rounds = less capacity, smaller rounds = more.

Now, armed with this knowledge, sally forth to your range, rent guns that fit your criteria, and find the one that you’re comfortable with. Most importantly, find one you will carry all the time!


The Tactical Pirate

View posts by The Tactical Pirate
President and lead instructor. Follow me on Twitter, and check out our blog.

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