We are enjoying what may be the golden age of concealed-carry handguns. Features that required expensive custom work just a few years ago are now available from the factory. Carry guns are, for the most part, better made, more reliable and often less expensive these days thanks to advances in manufacturing technology and the ever-growing demand for daily-carry models.
But some handguns are not the best fit for first time concealed-carry practitioners or those who are new to the shooting sports. I'm not saying the following guns are “bad” or “wrong” to own and enjoy. Instead, they are a better fit for other pursuits or those with more experience. But just in case one of the guns below is “whatchagot” to work with for now, I'll share some tips on how to make the most of it.
Duty Size Semi-Automatic Pistols
Purchasing a standard or duty-size semi-automatic pistol as a first handgun or as a home defense gun is a solid choice. With barrel lengths between 4" to 5" and an overall height of roughly 5.5", they have several advantages that make them the popular option for those who carry a side arm while in uniform. Duty guns have a barrel length that squeezes more performance out of pistol cartridges, a longer sight radius and room in the grip for double-stack magazines that can hold 17+ rounds of 9 mm ammunition or 13 rounds of .45 ACP. The longer grip frames and heavier slides make duty-size pistols some of the most comfortable pistols to practice with.
Full-size 9 mm pistols, like the Taurus G3 (left) are more comfortable to work with. But more compact models, like the G3c (center) and GX4 (right) are sized for more convenient concealed carry.
However, the size and weight of duty pistols makes them more difficult to carry concealed, especially for those who are not used to wearing a gun all day. The longer grip frames are more likely to produce a telltale outline against shirts and jackets, also known as “printing.” Folks usually have to modify their wardrobes to fit a larger gun, and this type of pistol is more likely to dig into sensitive places while sitting down or driving. As for purse carry, the majority of concealed-carry bags are designed to accommodate smaller handgun models.
All too often large handguns are left at home. The remedy is to select a smaller pistol in the compact, subcompact or micro 9 size range. They are outfitted with shorter barrels (3" to 3.75") and trimmed down grip frames that take abbreviated double-stack magazines with 10- to 15-round ammunition capacities. The levels of felt recoil will vary by model but they are definitely more comfortable to carry.
If a duty size gun is what you have to work with for now, then the key to carry comfort is investing in a high-quality holster system paired with cover garments that will conceal the gun completely, or a larger carry purse.
Handguns Loaded with Birdshot Shells
Before the folks who are fans of handguns that can fire .410-bore shotgun shells start penning angry letters to the editor, let me explain. I've spent years patterning every .45 Colt/.410 bore revolver, derringer and single-shot pistol that I've been able to lay my hands on. I've also sought out and shot several .410 bore shotguns. I respect what these dual-caliber handguns can do but I also recognize that they are not a good starting point for new shooters.
The Smith & Wesson Governor is a well made revolver but it’s a better fit for more experienced wheel gunners.
Revolvers like the Smith & Wesson Governor (shown) and the Taurus Judge are relatively large, especially when compared to double-action revolvers designed for daily carry, like the Ruger LCR, Smith & Wesson's diverse J-frame options or the Taurus 856. Whether the Judge or Governor is stoked with.45 Colt revolver cartridges or .410 shot shells, they tend to produce stout levels of felt recoil. Although more experienced shooters can manage the recoil it can cause new shooters to develop a flinch.
But the number one concern regarding these guns are outdated conversations floating around the web recommending the use of birdshot shells for defense against carjacking or muggers. The short-rifled barrels of .45 Colt/.410 handguns cause lead birdshot pellets to spread apart very quickly. When patterning sporting .410 shotguns with smooth bores and full chokes, the targets are posted at 25 yards. When testing .410-compatible handguns with birdshot, the targets are set up at distances of 2 to 3 yards, depending on the model. Because of this rapid spread, the chances of birdshot pellets missing an intended target and causing unintended damage are too high for use in urban settings.
Tiny lead birdshot pellets spread apart rapidly when fired from short barrel revolvers.
Birdshot shells should be reserved for up-close pest control and protection from aggressive poisonous snakes. If a .45 Colt/.410 bore handgun is what you have to work with, then load it with defense-grade .45 Colt cartridges for use around town so as to launch just one projectile at a time.
Exotic or Oddball Calibers
A few years back, a couple my wife and I were friends with decided to invest in their first defensive pistol. It was a top-of-the-line SIG Sauer pistol they purchased from a neighbor at a great price. It had all the bells and whistles. it was a good size for carry and it was chambered for the effective .357 SIG pistol cartridge.
But what our friends didn't know at the time (and their neighbor “forgot” to mention to them) was that the .357 SIG cartridge was on its way out. Developed for use by law enforcement, the .357 SIG garnered a reputation for producing bright muzzle flashes and excessive levels of felt recoil. The high pressure levels of this bottleneck cartridge have been known to cause excessive pistol wear and breakages. Law enforcement agencies dismissed the .357 SIG. in favor of pistols chambered for .40 S&W and 9 mm. As a result, finding ammunition for their new defensive pistol was next to impossible (this was before online ammunition shopping was common). When we did finally find some .357 SIG ammunition for it at a local gun show, the prices made their jaws drop.
Stick with popular, readily available handgun calibers to avoid getting stuck with a gun in a caliber that’s rare, hard to find or more expensive.
The moral of the story is this: There are several effective handgun cartridges to choose from, but the less-popular options can be more difficult to find and more costly to purchase. This is especially true during ammunition shortages driven by high demand. Folks who are new to concealed carry will benefit from sticking to mainstream cartridges to start with and wait to explore more exotic cartridge options down the road. As of this writing, .380 ACP is the typical caliber for pocket-size semi-automatics. Compact size carry pistols chambered in 9 mm are selling like hot cakes with .45 ACP pistols still going strong. Defensive double-action revolvers are most commonly chambered in .38 Special and .357 Mag.
If the gun you've got is chambered in an oddball caliber then be prepared to do some foot work to find ammunition and to pay more when you do find it.
Antique, Curio and Relic Handguns
Years ago I read a magazine article in which the author essentially said the following: Why go buy a new or used handgun at the local gun shop when grandpa's war relic is gathering dust up in the attic? Just grab a box of ammo for it, load it up and you're good to go!
Reading this article was the print equivalent of nails on a chalk board. There are so many reasons why just pulling a mystery gun out of moth balls and staging it for self defense is a bad idea. I could write an entire article on the subject but I'll focus on just two reasons here. First off, that gun may be a genuine antique or rare collectible that’s worth a good deal of money. Firing it with modern ammunition may well damage it or decrease its value.
This Chinese Norinco Type 54 is in great shape for a 70-year old military surplus pistol. But guns like this make better collectors items than concealed-carry guns.
Secondly, and more importantly, old guns that have been stored improperly can be dangerous to shoot. Modern ammunition that generates higher levels of pressure may cause the gun to literally blow up like a hand grenade causing serious injury or death. Other aging firearms are simply unreliable due to wear, corrosion, weak springs or damaged components. If you can afford a factory fresh handgun, then that’s the best option.
There are older pistols and revolvers out there that are ship shape and ready to use for self defense. LE trade-ins, military surplus and used handguns can be a terrific value for those on a budget. If an older gun is what you have to work with then seek out the services of a qualified gunsmith. Do not fire or stage the gun until it’s been properly vetted for age and value, a gunsmith has verified that it’s safe to use and you know for certain which type of ammunition to use.