Choosing a Defensive Handgun
As I've mentioned in a couple of other posts, I'm a member of a shooting group called the Utah Polite Society. Each month we run an event where people can come and practice self-defense shooting. We also regularly run new shooter classes to teach people some basic concepts of how to use a handgun in self-defense. Particularly in the new shooter classes, we've noticed that quite a few people show up with handguns that are either unsuitable for self-defense use or that just don't fit the person who's using them very well. So I wrote this primer in an attempt to educate some of these folks before they go out and buy a handgun that's not going to work for them. The article's on our the Utah Polite Society blog, but I thought I'd post it here as well. I'm sure some of the things I say below are going to make some waves, but I hope that at least some folks here will find it useful, or at least interesting. I'm also sure that it will provoke some disagreement (if so, feel free to fire away in the comments).
Choosing a Defensive Handgun
In the previous article on What to Bring to a Utah Polite Society Event, I wimped out. Rather than delve into the potentially controversial topic of what sort of handgun is best for self defense, I just talked about what makes and models we commonly saw at our events. This post is intended to address choosing a defensive handgun more thoroughly.
Before we begin a couple of caveats: Which gun and caliber are best for self-defense is a controversial topic. Everyone from true high-speed low-drag operators to armchair commandos has an opinion. The advice in this article is based on my opinions. These opinions stem mostly from shooting at Utah Polite Society events, taking some classes from Gabe Suarez, and perhaps most importantly, watching other people, particularly novice shooters, at our monthly events.
The advice in this article is intended for novice shooters. I’d like to think that even some more experienced folks may be able to get something out of it. However, if you are an experienced shooter and you find something you disagree with, keep in mind just be something that doesn’t apply to you.
Second, this article is intended for folks who haven’t yet bought their first defensive handgun. If you have a handgun please don’t go run out and buy another gun just because your original choice runs contrary to the advice in this article. You will probably be better served bringing your current gun to a few of our events before making a decision. The gun you have may end up working fine for you. If you do decide to go out and get a different gun, having a bit of shooting experience under your belt will help you make a better choice. Reading this article is not a substitute for actual experience.
What Are You Buying a Defensive Handgun For?
A defensive handgun is not a magic talisman that will keep you safe from harm. Nor is it a magic wand that will force a bad person to do what you say. A handgun is a fighting tool, a killing tool, a tool of last resort which you may someday have to use to save your life or the life of a loved one. The ultimate question when trying to decide on a defensive handgun is, “Which gun will do the best job of keeping me alive?”
A lot of folks, particularly those who are new to concealed carry or who don’t have any practical shooting experience, seem to loose sight of this. Rather than thinking about a pistol’s fighting qualities, they concentrate on comfort or concealability. “How many rounds are shot in the average gunfight” is a perennial question on internet gun forums. The people asking it generally want to know the absolute smallest, least capable gun they can get away with carrying. This makes about as much sense as buying the minimum possible airbag, fire extinguisher, or parachute. A defensive firearm is a vital piece of emergency equipment, your life will depend on if you ever have to use it. Comfort and concealability are important, but they pale in comparison to a handgun’s fighting qualities. As Clint Smith says, “A handgun should be comforting, not comfortable.”
What’s Important When Choosing a Handgun?
If you frequent gunshops or internet discussion boards on the subject, you will be bombarded by opinions about what sort of pistol is best for self defense. Some folks will tell you that if your pistol isn’t a .45 you might as well be armed with a sharp stick. Others say that you need at least a dozen rounds before you can even begin to consider defending yourself. Every make and model has its own cheerleading squad trying to convince you that their favorite gun is the best.
The truth is the most important thing to look for when choosing a defensive handgun is a pistol that you can shoot well. Caliber and magazine capacity are important features, but the biggest hip howitzer in the world isn’t going to do you a bit of good if you can’t hit your assailant with it. Unfortunately, personal fit is where most gun buying advice, particularly on the internet, falls short. As I said in the equipment article, most people who tell you which gun you should buy are telling you what works for them, which may or may not have any relevance to what will work for you. That’s why this article is titled “Choosing a Defensive Handgun” rather than “What Defensive Handgun You Should Buy”.
The best pistol buying advice comes from someone who has some experience, and who has seen you shoot a pistol. If someone who knows what they are doing watches carefully while you are shooting, they can give you a lot of good advice. They can tell you how well your current gun is working for you, and where it may be falling short. They may be able to point you in the direction of some better options. This is another reason to hold off on buying a new pistol until after you’ve come to one of our events, since we have quite a few folks who can give you very good advice.
So what qualities are important in choosing a defensive handgun? Most importantly, you need to be able to shoot it accurately, misses don’t stop an attacker. It needs to work absolutely reliably, if it jams or breaks in a fight it could get you killed. Similarly, you need to be able to operate it in what will probably be the most stressful situation of your life, with a full fledged fight or flight reaction and adrenaline coursing through your veins. Finally, the rounds it fires need to be powerful enough to stop an assailant and the gun needs to hold enough rounds to disable all of the assailants.
Personally, I carry a Glock 21. It’s big, heavy, and ugly as sin. It has no character. It’s not going to impress firearms aficionados the way a high-end 1911 or a fine revolver might. No matter how long I carry it, it’s not a gun I’m ever going to love. None of that matters. What matters is that I shoot it well, it’s extremely reliable, and it carries 14 rounds of .45 ACP. I have concluded that it’s the handgun I want to have in my hand if someone is trying to kill me.
Finding a Pistol that Fits
The two most important parts of choosing a gun that will shoot well for you are getting a gun that fits your hand, and choosing a gun and caliber combination with recoil you can handle.
In finding a gun that fits your hand, the most important feature is the trigger reach. Trigger reach is the distance between the back of the grip and the trigger. When gripping the gun with your index finger held straight and resting on the trigger guard, the trigger should be next to the index finger’s middle knuckle. If the trigger reach is much too long, a shooter often tries to correct this by holding the gun incorrectly. When a pistol is gripped properly in one hand, the barrel should be in line with the bones of the forearm. If the trigger reach is too long, the shooter may grip the gun so that it ends up to one side of the forearm bones, rather than in line with it.
Proper Grip: Gun is aligned with the forearm.
Improper Grip: Too long a trigger reach means the gun is to one side of the forearm (exaggerated for effect).
While an inability to grip the gun properly is the most dramatic result of too long a trigger reach, there can be more subtle effects as well. If the trigger reach is too short, or slightly too long (but not long enough to force an improper grip) it can lead to “pushing” or “pulling”. When firing a handgun, it is important to pull the trigger straight back. If you pull to one side or the other, the act of pulling the trigger is going to push or pull the gun out of alignment with the target, moving the point of impact.
When shooting a gun with a single-action trigger (see Operating Systems, below, for a discussion of single vs. double action) the trigger should touch the pad of the trigger finger. A heavier, longer, double action trigger should touch the finger at the first joint. If the trigger reach is too long, the contact point will move towards the tip of the finger, pushing the gun to the left (for a right handed shooter) when the trigger is pulled. If the reach is too short, the contact point will move away from the tip of the finger, and a right handed shooter will pull the gun to the right. This is a much more subtle effect than an improper grip. One way to check is to “dry fire” the gun (pull the trigger when the chamber is empty and the gun is pointed in a safe direction). When dry firing, the sights should stay in alignment and not move as you pull the trigger. It is also possible to spot the results on the range. If you are consistently shooting to one side or the other, then your trigger reach may be too short or too long.
While the trigger is the most important control, you also need to be able to reach the gun’s other controls with your shooting hand. On a revolver, the cylinder latch should be within easy reach. On a semi-automatic you should be able to activate the magazine release and slide lock lever easily. If the gun has a decocker or a manual safety (see Operating Systems, below) you need to be able to reach those without moving your hand. When shooters with small hands are using a gun with a large grip, they are often tempted to activate these controls using their support hand, rather than the hand that’s holding the gun. This should be avoided, because the circumstances of a confrontation may require you to run the gun one-handed. Your support hand may be occupied carrying a baby, or holding onto a child, or it may have been disabled by injury earlier in the fight. One-handed operation is a critical skill that my not be possible if the gun is too big for your hand.
On the subject of magazine releases, some pistols come with a “heel” magazine release (sometimes called a “European style” mag release). Rather than being located near the base of the trigger guard, the magazine release is on the butt of the gun, near the bottom of the magazine. This position complicates the reloading process because you have to use the support hand to activate it. Pistols with this style of magazine release are not recommended.
Left-handed shooters face particular challenges in reaching the controls because, as with everything else in the world, most guns are set up for right-handers. Accommodations for southpaws come in three flavors. Left-handed controls are on the opposite side of the gun from their normal positions. Reversible controls can be placed on either side of the gun, allowing it to be set up for either right-handed or left-handed users. Ambidextrous controls are on both sides of the gun, allowing both right-handed and left-handed shooters to use the gun without requiring any conversion. Safeties and decockers are probably the most important controls that need to be set up for left-handers. Thankfully, ambidextrous and left-handed safeties are becoming increasingly common on modern pistols. Ambidexterous slide locks are available on some pistols, but unlike an ambidexterous safety or decocker, their absence is not a deal breaker. Whether you’re right or left handed, it is generally better to train to release the slide by pulling back on it, rather than using the slide lock lever. Some pistols also sport reversible or ambidextrous magazine releases. While convenient, these are not really necessary. Most right-handed magazine releases can easily be activated using the tip of the left index finger.
While the primary problem for people with smaller hands is reaching the trigger and other controls, the biggest problem for people with larger hands is having enough gun to hold on to. This problem comes in two distinct flavors, the length of the grip, and the circumference. It is far easier to shoot a pistol when you can wrap all of your fingers around it. However, some subcompact autoloaders leave the pinky finger dangling below the butt of the gun. Some guns come with finger rest extensions which attach to the bottom of the magazine to give your little finger a place to sit. In my opinion, if you need a finger rest to grip the gun properly, you might as well get a gun with a longer grip, since this will probably get you a higher magazine capacity as well as giving you someplace to put your little finger.
It’s usually quite obvious if a gun’s grip is too short. If the grip has too large a circumference the problem is more subtle. The best test of a handgun’s grip circumference is how well the support hand fits on the gun. If the grip is big enough, there should be a gap between the tips of the fingers and the base of the thumb. This gap is where the base of the support hand’s thumb should go in a proper two-handed grip. Fitting the base of the hand into that gap locks the support hand into your grip and helps it control the gun’s recoil. If the gun’s grip circumference is too small, there won’t be enough room to fit the support hand in there. The support hand may not have any direct contact with the gun at all, which means it isn’t contributing that much to handling recoil.
Too small a grip: Not enough room for the support hand between fingers and the base of the thumb.
Correct size grip: Room for the support hand between fingers and the base of the thumb.
This is actually a problem that I ran afoul of. My first defensive handgun was a Heckler and Kock USP Compact .45. The USPc is a fine gun, but it has a fairly narrow grip, especially for a .45. Since I didn’t have a lot of experience shooting other firearms, it took me several months to even realize a bigger grip might suit me better. I think that a big part of the reason I can shoot my Glock 21 better than my HK is that it has a nice fat grip, rather than the USPc’s slim one. This is a good example of how personal the fit of a gun is. Someone with smaller hands would find the USP compact’s grip just fine, but they might have trouble with the fatter grip of the Glock 21. This is why you need to find a gun that fits you, rather than a gun that fits someone else.
It is also possible for a guns grip circumference to be too large, but this is usually associated with too long a trigger reach or difficulty reaching other controls. It would be quite rare for a person to find a gun with a short enough trigger reach that also has a grip fat enough to give them difficulty.
Finding a gun that fits your hand is a lot like trying on clothes. With clothing, however, there is a standard sizing system that will at least put you in the ballpark. There isn’t really anything similar with handguns. Most manufacturers don’t even publish the length of the trigger reach for their firearms. I can provide some general advice so you don’t have to try out every gun in the gunshop to find one that fits you. If you have large hands, you’d be best off looking at pistols with high capacity “double stack” magazines. These generally have beefier grips with large circumferences. If you have very small hands, your best bet will be to look for guns with single stack magazines. You may also want to stay away from .45 caliber handguns, because the length of the round contributes to a relatively long trigger reach. If you have average size hands, you have the biggest range of options, since all but the biggest and smallest grips will probably work OK for you.
Several manufacturers have introduced pistols with replaceable backstraps. These are plastic inserts that attach to the back of the grip that can be switched out to accommodate different sized hands. They primarily alter the trigger reach, but adding a bigger backstrap will also increase the circumference somewhat. Currently, the Smith & Wesson M&P and the Heckler & Koch P2000, P3000, and HK45 pistols are available with interchangeable backstraps. Most gunshops display these guns with the medium size backstrap. If you are looking at one of these pistols and it seems too large or too small, ask which backstrap is on it at the moment, and if they could let you hold it with a larger or smaller one attached.
Handling a gun and seeing how well it fits your hand is a good way to tell if a gun isn’t going to work well for you. If you know what to look for (which you hopefully do after reading this article) it’s easy to tell whether the grip is too big, or too small, or it’s too difficult to reach the trigger or other controls, just by handling the gun. However, the only way to really know if a gun is going to work for you is to shoot it. If you know a friend who owns the same gun, ask if you can put some rounds through it. Otherwise, try to find someplace that rents the gun you want to buy and try it out. Popular guns are usually fairly easy to find. Almost any place that rents guns will have Glock and Springfield XD pistols available. However, if the gun is an uncommon or niche model, it may be difficult to find someplace to rent it. This is another argument for following the crowd when it comes to handguns. I would recommend putting at least 50-100 rounds through the rental gun before you decide to buy. In the Salt Lake City area, you can rent pistols at Impact Guns (4075 W 4715 South in Salt Lake City and 2710 S 1900 West in Ogden) and Doug's Shoot'n Sports (4926 S Redwood Rd in Salt Lake City).
The biggest things to look for when test-shooting a pistol are how accurately you can shoot the gun and how well you can recover from recoil. Determining how accurately you can shoot is fairly easy, the target will tell the tale. If you are new to pistol shooting, it may be worthwhile to attend a basic class, like the NRA’s First Steps or Basic Pistol courses so you can learn enough fundamental shooting technique to compare different firearms.
Recovery from recoil is a little more subjective. The biggest factor here is generally not the rearward force of the recoil, but muzzle flip. Muzzle flip is how high the muzzle of the gun rises during the recoil. With the proper stance, the entire body can absorb the rearward recoil force, but absorbing muzzle flip is largely dependent on how well you can grip the gun. With a high muzzle flip, it will take longer to get the sights back on target for the next shot. The amount of recoil depends on both on the characteristics of the caliber and the characteristics of the gun.
In general, larger, more powerful cartridges will produce more recoil (see Caliber below for a discussion of different cartridges). However, the feel of the recoil can vary with different calibers. High velocity cartridges like the .357 SIG, .357 magnum, and .40 S&W tend to have a very sharp, “snappy” recoil. Lower velocity rounds like the .38 Special and .45 ACP have more of a push. Because of this many people find the recoil of a .45 easier to handle than the .40, despite the .45 being a bigger, more powerful round.
The most important feature of the gun itself that affects recoil is its weight. A heavier gun will help absorb the cartridge’s recoil better than a lighter one. Some manufacturers make essentially the same gun in a variety of frame materials, which can substantially affect how much they weigh. 1911s and revolvers are available in both steel and aluminum alloy frames. Kahr makes most of its pistols with a choice of steel or polymer (plastic) frames. The alloy and polymer-framed guns are lighter and easier to carry, but more difficult to shoot. Barrel length also has an effect on recoil (in addition to the heavier weight of the longer barrel). Longer barrels help soak up recoil and reduce muzzle flip by moving the gun’s center of gravity further forward.
The other big factor that affects a gun’s recoil is its bore axis. Bore axis is the vertical distance between the top of the shooter’s hand and the centerline of the barrel. Guns with a high bore axis have a lot of muzzle flip. While guns with a lower bore axis tend to have less muzzle flip, they have more of a direct backwards “punch” into the web of your hand. Revolvers tend to have a very high bore axis, as do some models of autoloader, like the Heckler & Koch USP. Glock pistols are known for their low bore axis.
Finally, semi-automatic pistols have less recoil than revolvers, because some of the recoil energy is used to cycle the slide. Effectively, the slide functions as a shock absorber.
All of these factors combine to produce a gun’s felt recoil. There is a tendency to focus on the cartridge when talking about recoil, but you cannot look at it in isolation. For instance, the .45 ACP is a much more powerful cartridge than the .38 Special. However, a .38 fired from a snub-nosed lightweight alloy revolver with a high bore axis will have a much more punishing recoil than a .45 fired from a long barreled, steel framed, semi-automatic. If you find the recoil on a gun that you’re test firing too severe, consider moving to a larger gun or a smaller cartridge (see Handgun Sizes below for a discussion of different size handguns). The best case for recoil is a full-size steel-framed 9mm semi-automatic like the Beretta 92FS or the Browning Hi-Power. The worst case is a snub-nosed, alloy-framed .357 magnum revolver with a high bore axis. Shooting a box of full-power ammo through such a gun can even leave the web of your hand bloody. One additional thing to keep in mind if you’re a novice shooter is that your ability to handle recoil is going to improve quite a bit with training and practice.
In an effort to reduce muzzle flip, some shooters use compensated handguns. A compensated gun has holes or slits drilled or cut in the top of the barrel near the muzzle. When firing, some of the hot gasses escape through these openings and help reduce muzzle flip. While they can be effective at reducing recoil, compensated guns are not recommended for defensive use. If you have to shoot from with your gun close to the body, you’ll catch your own muzzle blast from the ports. The flash from the compensator ports can also interfere with your night vision.
One of the most important characteristics of a defensive handgun is reliability. A defensive firearm is a piece of lifesaving equipment. It is absolutely vital that it works properly every time. If you are in a self-defense situation and your pistol fails to function properly it could well get you killed. You are betting your life on this gun, reliability is important! In fact, the only reason I didn’t list reliability first is that there are so many reliable handguns on the market today. It’s not difficult to find one. While certain brands, like Glock, have a particularly solid (if not legendary) reputation for reliability, a modern gun from almost any major manufacturer is probably going to be quite reliable. Manufacturers like CZ, FN (Browning), Glock, Heckler & Koch, Ruger, SIG, Smith & Wesson, Springfield Armory, Steyr, Taurus, and Walther all produce highly reliable firearms.
However, even the best manufacturer turns out the occasional lemon. This is why it’s important to test your carry pistol before trusting your life to it. It’s not enough to know that Glocks are reliable, you want to know if your Glock is reliable. To this end, I would recommend shooting several hundred rounds of practice ammunition and at least 50 rounds of your chosen self-defense ammo before trusting your life to a pistol. These rounds should be 100% malfunction free. This may seem like a very high standard, but it is your life that’s potentially at stake here. If there are any malfunctions, either figure out what the problem is and fix it, or if you think it was some sort of fluke, fire several hundred additional rounds (or another 50 rounds self-defense ammo) before deciding the gun is ready for service. Some manufacturers recommend a break-in period. Malfunctions during break-in are not necessarily cause for concern (that’s why there’s a break-in period, after all) but you should still fire several hundred additional rounds after the break-in is over.
As mentioned in the equipment article, magazines are the number one cause of malfunctions in semi-automatic pistols. Damaged or improperly manufactured mags are the quickest way to turn a reliable pistol into a jam-o-matic. Don’t buy cheap aftermarket magazines for self-defense use. Stick with factory magazines or a high-quality aftermarket manufacturer like Mec-Gear. If you are having trouble with a semi-auto, mark your magazines so you can tell them apart and keep track of which ones are in the gun when you have problems. If a magazine keeps giving you trouble, get rid of it.
Semi-automatic pistols can also be sensitive to ammunition. If the ammunition is too weak, it may not fully cycle the slide, causing feeding or ejection problems. Hollowpoint ammunition can cause feeding problems as well. Certain pistols just don’t seem to like certain brands of hollowpoints, which is why it is so important to test your carry ammo in the gun you are going to be carrying. If you have reliability problems and have eliminated magazines as the culprit, try switching to a different brand of ammunition
The one exception I would make to the general statement that most handguns are reliable is 1911 style pistols (the classic Colt .45 automatic, clones of which are now manufactured by many different companies). This is not to say that 1911s cannot be reliable; a great many of them are. However, the 1911 is an older design that demands more care and precision from the manufacturer than more modern designs. There are many different manufacturers of 1911 pistols and not all of them produce a gun with the same level of care and quality. The 1911 was also designed long before the advent of modern hollowpoint ammunition and was intended to feed round-nosed bullets. The feed ramp needs to be modified to feed hollowpoints well. Most current production 1911s come this way from the factory, but if you buy one that doesn’t, or have an older gun, you’ll need to take it to a gunsmith if you want to shoot hollowpoints through it. In addition, the 1911 is probably the most popular pistol for shooting competitions, which has created demand for very accurate pistols. That accuracy sometimes comes at the cost of reliability. Highly accurate pistols are generally “tight” with little clearance between moving parts. This is fine for competition, but the standard of reliability for self defense is different. If you pistol jams up in competition you may loose the game, if it jams up in a self-defense situation, you may loose your life. If you want to carry a 1911 for self defense, get one from a manufacturer with a good reputation for producing reliable, high quality pistols like Kimber or Springfield Armory. Buy high quality magazines from Chip McCormick or Wilson Combat. Shoot at least 500 rounds to break it in and test it rigorously with your carry ammunition before trusting your life to it.
While reliability is largely independent of the shooter, there is one type of reliability problem that’s going to vary from person to person. This is called “limp wristing”. For a semi-automatic pistol too operate, the frame of the pistol (the lower half, including the grip and trigger) needs to be held steady enough while the gun recoils so the energy of the bullet can cycle the slide. If you have a weak grip or weak wrists, you may not be able to hold the frame steady enough during recoil. This can be a particular problem with very small semi-autos, which don’t have as much mass to help you hold it steady. If limp wristing is a problem, you may need to develop more strength in your hands and forearms or get a bigger handgun. In extreme cases, switching to a revolver may be warranted.
Systems of Operation
So far, this article has talked mostly about what qualities a good defensive firearm should have. It should be reliable and it should be something that you can shoot well. Both of these are important, but also fairly abstract. You can’t look at a gun’s specifications on the internet and figure out whether it would be reliable or shoot well for you. Now, we’re going to get into more concrete characteristics. We will eventually get around to talking about caliber and capacity, but for the moment I’m going to focus on a gun’s system of operation.
Most defensive handguns can be divided up into four categories: double action revolvers, point and shoot semi-automatic pistols, semi-automatic pistols with decockers, and semi-automatic pistols with manual safeties. These four categories differ primarily in how complex the controls are: revolvers are simplest while semi-auto pistols with manual safeties are the most complicated.
Double Action Revolver – Double action revolvers are the simplest and most reliable type of handgun. Every pull of the trigger will fire a bullet until the cylinder is empty. There are no other shooting controls to worry about besides the trigger. If a revolver malfunctions, all you have to do is pull the trigger again and it will fire the next round. This simplicity makes the revolver a good choice for self-defense, but it comes at a cost. Most obviously, a revolver’s ammunition capacity is strictly limited. Most revolvers are limited to five or six rounds, while semi-automatics are available that can hold double or triple that (see below for a discussion of ammunition capacity). Revolvers also take longer and are more difficult to reload than a semi-auto. Finally, while learning to use a revolver is simple, the trigger of a double-action revolver is difficult to master. A double action revolver trigger has to raise the hammer, rotate the chamber, and release the hammer. In order to accomplish all this, the trigger pull has to be long and heavy which can reduce accuracy, especially for the novice shooter. Despite these drawbacks, they are still a good choice for many people.
There is one other type of revolver, the single action. Single action revolvers require the shooter to cock the hammer between each shot. They can be quite accurate, beautiful, and are historically interesting. However, there are much better options available for self defense. I would not recommend anyone rely on a single action revolver for protection. If you want to have fun shooting your old west style gun, take up Cowboy Action Shooting. Leave personal defense to more modern designs.
Point and Shoot Semi-Automatic Pistols – There is no established term that covers all the pistols in this category, so I’m going to call them “point and shoot” pistols because that’s all you’ve really got to do. Like a revolver, the only shooting control is the trigger. The first guns in this category were Double Action Only (DAO) semi-autos. DAO pistols operate just like double action revolvers, all you have to do is pull the trigger. Unfortunately, most DAO autoloaders have a very long, heavy trigger pull, which makes them difficult to shoot accurately. Long heavy triggers are necessary because the trigger pull has to cock the hammer, rather than just releasing it (a double action revolver trigger does the same thing, but due to mechanical differences between a revolver and a semi-automatic, revolvers are generally smoother and easer to shoot than DAO autoloaders). True DAO semi-automatics never proved all that popular, except with some law enforcement agencies which felt that the heavier trigger pull was better from a liability perspective (never mind that most of their officers couldn’t shoot well with it).
Rather than making the trigger do all the work, newer pistols in this category use the cycling of the slide to cock the hammer or striker most of the way. Pulling the trigger accomplishes the last little bit of cocking, then releases the hammer or striker. This gives these pistols a trigger pull somewhere between a double action and a single action. The first pistol with this sort of trigger was the Glock, but today it’s also available in on all Smith & Wesson M&P and Springfield XD pistols. SIG and Heckler & Koch also offer some of their pistols with this sort of trigger, under the names DAK and LEM, respectively.
Semi-Automatic Pistols with Decockers – Semi-autos with decockers, also called Double Action/Single Action (DA/SA) autoloaders, are somewhat more complicated to fire than point and shoot semiautomatics. These pistols have a double action trigger pull on the first shot, similar to a DAO pistol. For subsequent shots, the action of the slide will recock the hammer, giving a much lighter single action trigger pull. Jeff Cooper called these pistols “crunchentickers” because of the hard “crunch” of the first trigger pull, followed by the much lighter “tick” of subsequent shots. This difference between the first and subsequent shots makes DA/SA pistols somewhat more difficult to master than point and shoot handguns.
The single action trigger pull is light enough that it’s dangerous to carry a holstered pistol in this condition, so DA/SA autoloaders all come with a decocking lever. The decocking lever lowers the hammer, returning the pistol to its double action state with a long, heavy trigger pull. The need to operate this decocking lever adds an additional layer of complexity to the pistol’s operation. However, this doesn’t require quite the same level of practice that disengaging a safety does because you don’t have to deal with the decocker until after a deadly force confrontation is over. For safety reasons decocking the pistol needs to become an automatic part of your holstering process.
Semi-automatic pistols with decockers are available from SIG, Beretta, HK, CZ, and a variety of other manufacturers.
Semi-Automatic Pistols with Manual Safeties – All of the previous categories had one thing in common, if you need to shoot the pistol, you just point it at the target and shoot. With a semi-automatic pistol with a manual safety, you must disengage the safety before firing. It takes a lot of practice to be able to do this reliably in a stressful situation. The benefit of all that practice is a much lighter, crisper trigger pull than any of the other systems of operation. Autoloaders with manual safeties are Single Action (SA) pistols. All the trigger does is release the hammer, so it doesn’t need to travel nearly as far or be pulled with as much force. These pistols are carried in what’s called “Condition 1” or “cocked and locked” with the hammer back and the safety engaged.
By far the most popular SA autopistol is the classic 1911. Other pistols of this type include the Browning Hi-Power (a kissing cousin of the 1911) and some models from HK, Taurus, and other manufacturers.
One last type I should mention are pistols that have both a manual safety and a decocking lever. These come in two different types. Heckler and Koch and Taurus make pistols that allow you to activate the decocking and safety functions separately. If you move the lever one direction (down) it acts like a decocker. If you move it the other direction it acts like a manual safety. These guns are quite versatile. They can be carried cocked and locked like a 1911 or decocked and unlocked like a SIG. It is also possible to carry them decocked and locked, but, like wearing both suspenders and a belt, this is rather redundant. If you buy one of these pistols I highly recommend picking one way to carry (cocked and locked or decocked and unlocked) and sticking to it.
The other combination of safety and decocker is seen on some Berettas (including the current U.S. military service sidearm, the M9), older Smith & Wesson autoloaders, and some pistols from other manufacturers. On these pistols the safety/decocking lever has only two positions. In the up position, the weapon is ready to fire. The down position decocks the weapon and engages the safety. Thus the gun cannot be carried cocked and locked. Your only choices are decocked and unlocked, and decocked and locked. As mentioned earlier, having both a stiff double action trigger pull and a safety is redundant. These pistols should be carried with the safety/decocking lever in the up position. As Jeff Cooper put it, “Don’t get caught with your dingus down.”
This is one place where I’ll give a more definite recommendation, rather than general guidelines. For defensive use, particularly for the novice shooter, I recommend either a double action revolver or a point and shoot semi-automatic pistol. For a new shooter who’s planning to come to a Utah Polite Society event, I would recommend a point and shoot autoloader. Despite a challenging trigger, the simplicity of a revolver makes it a good choice for someone who’s not going to put a lot of effort into learning how to run their gun. However, if you have enough interest in learning to defend yourself that you’re going to show up for one of our events, you are probably willing to put in the extra effort to learn to operate a slightly more complex firearm.
I’d like to emphasize that this doesn’t mean that guns with safeties or decockers are bad. Any of these systems can make a fine defensive pistol. However, pistols with decokers and safeties require more training and practice than revolvers or point and shoot autoloaders. If you carry a pistol with a manual safety, you need to be able to disengage that safety every time you draw, even when your heart is pounding, adrenaline is flowing, and you are in fear for your life. If you carry a DA/SA pistol, you need to learn to shoot with two completely different trigger pulls and transition between them under extreme stress. Building up your muscle memory to this sort of level requires thousands of repetitions to develop and regular practice to retain. Before deciding to carry a pistol with a manual safety or a decocking lever, be realistic about whether or not you are willing and able to put in that much time. In addition, keep in mind that until this becomes automatic, while you’re shooting you’ll have to devote more attention to running your gun and less attention to shooting skills, tactics, movement, and other skills that we try to develop at our events. This is why I recommend one of the simpler options for novice shooters.
Caliber and Capacity
The fundamental truth is that handgun bullets are wimpy. Regardless of what you see in the movies or on television, one shot is not going to catapult someone across the room and drop them dead in a heap on the floor. A rifle or a shotgun stands a pretty good chance of taking down an assailant with one shot, but with a pistol, physically stopping an assailant with one hit is unlikely. One bullet may be enough to discourage them from continuing to assault you, but unless you hit them in the head (a tricky proposition against a moving target in the stress of a gunfight) it isn’t going to physically stop them immediately. Stopping an assailant with two hits is also unlikely. A more realistic assessment is that a determined assailant may soak up 3-6 hits before he stops.
A second factor to consider when deciding how large a magazine capacity you want is the possibility of multiple assailants. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey more than a third of all robberies involve two or more robbers. The need for multiple shots against each attacker and the threat of multiple attackers combine to make large magazine capacities seem like a really good idea.
The width and length of the magazine (and thus the width and length of the grip) and the caliber are the main factors in determining how many rounds a handgun can hold. The traditional pistol magazine is what’s called a ‘single stack’ mag. The rounds are stacked one directly on top of the other in a fairly thin magazine. Most modern pistols use a ‘double stack’ magazine. In a double stack magazine the rounds alternate between being offset to the right and left. Double stack magazines hold more rounds, but require a fatter grip on the gun, making them difficult for people with small hands to use. Recently some pistols have been introduced that have staggered rounds, like a double stack, but are narrower than a traditional double stack. These are found in the S&W M&P .45, and the HK USP Compact .45 and HK45. They can be a compromise between capacity and grip size.
While all handgun bullets are wimpy, some cartridges are less wimpy than others. Larger bullets will create bigger wounds, increasing blood loss and making it more likely that they’ll clip something vital. Faster bullets will penetrate more deeply and are more likely to reach an assailant’s vital organs, particularly after passing through cover.
The most popular personal defense cartridges for revolvers and autoladers are listed below. Each list is ordered from least powerful to most powerful.
When using modern hollowpoint ammunition, any of these calibers will serve acceptably for self defense. In an autoloader, the 9mm, .40 S&W and .45 ACP are by far the most popular self-defense calibers. In my opinion one of these is probably the best choice. There’s nothing wrong with the .357 SIG or the .45 GAP. Either round provides perfectly acceptable performance for personal defense. However, the fact that these cartridges are less popular means there is a smaller selection of self-defense ammunition available and practice ammo costs considerably more than the more common calibers. How much practice you get has a much larger effect on how well you’ll do in a defensive encounter than which caliber you choose, so unless your ammunition budget is very large, you’re probably better off with one of the more popular calibers. This goes double for even more niche calibers like 10mm or .41 Magnum.
Some people feel that the .380 ACP is an acceptable self-defense cartridge. However, the .380 isn’t a very fast round, and hollowpoints in this caliber often fail to expand or, of they do expand, fail to penetrate deeply enough. I wouldn’t recommend it. I definitely wouldn’t recommend any smaller caliber (.32 ACP, .25 ACP, or .22 LR). None of these is powerful enough to perform reliably in a self-defense situation.
Larger calibers, such as the .44 Magnum, certainly pack enough punch to be an effective personal-defense round. However, these powerful cartridges have considerable recoil, slowing follow-up shots. Most shooters are probably better served by a less powerful round that can be shot more quickly.
The 9mm, .357 SIG, .40 S&W and .45 GAP all have the same overall length. This allows most manufacturers to use the exact same frame for pistols in all four calibers. If a pistol in one of these calibers fits your hand, the same model in another caliber will probably fit the same way. Their recoil characteristics do differ, so the main factor is going to be how each round shoots for you. A .45 ACP cartridge has a longer overall length, requiring the pistol to have a bigger grip and a longer trigger reach.
While more powerful calibers are better, there’s always a tradeoff between caliber and capacity. If you can wrap your hand around a double stack .45 and a double stack .40 and can handle the recoil in both calibers, the .45 is probably the better choice, even if it carries a few less rounds. Similarly, if your hand size limits you to single stack pistols, a .45 is probably a better choice than a 9mm (again, assuming you can handle the recoil). However, if the choice is between a double stack .40 and a single stack .45, I would take more rounds in the smaller caliber. A .40 may not be as powerful as a .45, but 15 .40s will probably serve you better in a gunfight than 10 .45s.
One topic that hasn’t been covered yet is how big a gun you should buy. Autoloaders are generally grouped into three size categories. Full size guns have a barrel around 5 inches long and full length grips. Compact guns have a barrel around 4 inches long and may have a somewhat shorter grip. Subcompact guns have a barrel length of around 3 inches and often have grips so short that they cannot accommodate most people’s little finger. These days the size of the gun and the size of the grip are somewhat independent of each other. It’s possible to find a full size gun with a small grip and a subcompact gun with a fat one, so most people will be able to find a gun that fits their hand comfortably in whatever size they want.
In general, large guns are easier to shoot. A longer barrel allows for a longer sight radius (the distance between the forward and rear sights), and their greater weight helps soak up recoil. A fullsize gun may also carry more ammunition than a compact, and the compact almost always has a bigger capacity than a subcompact. The grip on a subcompact may be short enough to make it difficult for a person with large (or even average sized) hands to keep a good hold on.
Many people feel that a smaller gun is more comfortable to carry and easier to conceal. While there is some truth to this, it is possible for most people to carry a fairly large gun, provided they are using a good holster and gunbelt (see the Equipment post for recommendations in this regard). If you can “dress around the gun”, concealing a fullsize weapon is quite doable. If your job or other activities don’t allow you to wear a good cover garment (a jacket, vest, or untucked shirt), then a smaller gun may be your only option. The other part of this equation are the consequences if someone spots your gun. If your employer has a strict no-gun policy and getting “made” means being fired, then a smaller pistol may be advisable. If having your gun spotted will prompt nothing more than some good-natured ribbing for carrying so obviously, then erring towards a larger gun could be the better choice.
Finding the Perfect Gun
At this point, I’m sure a lot of the novice shooters reading this are thinking, “Enough already! Can’t you just tell me what to get?” (the more experienced shooters are probably thinking, “This guy is an idiot! Why am I reading this?”) Because what pistol will work for you is such a personal thing, I’m still not going to tell you what gun to get. However, I do have a plan for deciding what gun would be best for you:
Go to a gun store. Ask to handle a variety of models of the following types: Glock, Springfield XD, Smith & Wesson M&P, Heckler & Koch pistols with the LEM trigger, and SIG pistols with the DAK trigger. These are all point and shoot pistols and are all good choices for a defensive handgun. Don’t forget to ask about different backstraps for the M&P and HK P2000 and HK45 models. Figure out which of these pistols fit your hands well (use the advice I gave above to figure out whether a pistol fits your hand or not). Once you know which pistols fit your hand best, find a friend with one or a place that rents them and shoot each pistol in as many different calibers as you can. Figure out which pistol and caliber you shot best. Find someplace that has that gun in that caliber for a good price and buy it. Fire a few hundred rounds of practice ammo and at least 50 rounds of self defense ammo through it. Buy a holster and magazine carrier (see the Equipment post for recommendations). Come to a Utah Polite Society event with your new pistol!