This article is in response to a common question I am asked, “What is the best firearm for concealed carry?” There is no one best concealed carry answer but in my mind there are definite criteria that should be considered prior to a handgun purchase. But first:
How not to choose a carry gun
Here’s the normal way people buy guns which all too often can result not only in waste of money but more importantly, intended use and safety problems. They let someone else make the choice for them. They know a gun owner whom they consider reasonable, ask that person for an opinion, get one and are sold on that model. Or, they visit a gun dealer and ask. After all, you can trust a gun dealer whose job it is to sell as many of the models they make the most on. Right?
How I choose a carry gun
Since the advent of modern and recent concealed carry laws over 20 years ago we’ve had a flood of small, light, powerful, and mostly improved handguns come on the market. Hundreds if not thousands of choices. How does a person outside of an industry professional reviewer know which is best?
Instead, from my experience and time as a gunsmith, as a person who carried a gun professionally for over 20 combined years, as a firearms instructor which allows me to see many guns being put to test, over 30 years combined concealed carry, my faith in the FBI’s testing of handgun rounds, from all of this I’ve learned what’s important TO ME me for concealed carry, as a backup, home protection, and professional carry. Hopefully my experiences will be helpful to you.
The next stage is a critical review of th e firearm itself, its history including the available experience of others, current revisions, and finally my own experience with this firearm which I must build myself. As you can imagine this leaves many handguns that might have made the cut but I just haven’t had time to examine further.
If you’re looking for and Google a light bulb that puts out 65 watts, must last two years, and it must turn on every time you flip with switch with a zero failure rate, its easy to surmise that 2-3 out of the first 30 results you look at might qualify, but that there might be 10 results not even looked at.
I look for many things in a concealed carry gun:
1. Ability to stop a threat
5. Engineering and history
6. Reputation amongst professional institutions
8. Warranty & Service
9. Aftermarket support
WHOA! That’s a lot to look for when you’re considering hundreds if not thousands of available handgun models which I hope enables you to see that anyone claiming to know it all, or to have all the answers, or is telling you “this is the only gun…” most likely does not. Let’s take a look at each of these ten areas:
1. Ability to stop a threat. Traditionally the FBI is the national entity tasked with examining data collected from our countries unfortunate shootings and completing an analysis of the pertinent facts such as which handgun caliber performs the best and by that which handgun round stops a threat the fastest. This report would also release a list of the best or top handgun rounds for each caliber. On May 6th 2014 the FBI has been purported to give us something different in the FBI 9MM Justification, FBI Training Division report. A copy of this report is provided as a handout to all of my students and can be read any number of places on-line.
This latest FBI report on handgun calibers was a revelation to most. In the past they always picked a round as being the most powerful based on testing and that was the one. Finally they had enough data to do this differently and they did. Available data on shootings shows that while a handgun caliber must be sufficient to stop a threat, what really results in stopping a threat is shot placement in a vital area, followed by fast follow-up shots to the same.
So, virtually any centerfire handgun caliber, and I’m going to pick 9mm as the bottom of my personal bucket with the caveat “‘some’ modern .380acp rounds also qualify but you must choose these very carefully”, any quality defensive handgun round (9mm and greater) accurately placed and quickly followed up on with fast follow up shots will better stop most threats. This is contrary to what many have believed over the years so I encourage you to read the FBI’s latest report yourself and understand it. But at the same time it is what I and many other professionals have always believed but couldn’t quantify.
2. Reliability. A properly functioning and maintained handgun most go BANG each and every time the trigger is pulled without exception. The less it takes to keep your choice of weaponry properly functioning and maintained the better. Once you choose your weapon, you’ll be the one maintaining it on a daily basis. It must go BANG every time you pull the trigger. NO EXCEPTIONS.
3. Ruggedness. The chances you’ll be involved in a scuffle or fight immediately before needing the firearm are pretty good. You might fall on it, it might hit something solid, and don’t forget you’ll be carrying it on your body which is notoriously a pretty dirty place. And your body is only part of the handguns new environment. What if you live in an area high in salt content like next to an ocean? Might you find yourself near the fine abrasive grit of certain deserts? I’ve had to clean weapons with this grit so it is important to me.
How long will the finish last and is the finish designed to add lubricity to the weapon by design? Some of the newer coatings on my personal weapons are multilayered and it might take years to work through the outer layers, and then you’re left with the inner different colored coating which wears hundreds of times longer than that first coat. Consider everything. Will your weapon be sliding around inside a kydex or leather holster, a briefcase or a voluminous purse?
4. Concealability. How will you carry this firearm, are you big or small, dress or casual clothes, active outdoors, are you a sportsman, look over your life carefully and be sure your choice of handgun can be concealed as required. You might and often will find one handgun isn’t going to do it all, all the time. Sometimes you’ll need a very small handgun, other times you’ll need a larger handgun. Or a backup handgun. Consider what you’ll be wearing and always, absolutely consider risk.
5. Engineering and History. How the gun is fired speaks volumes as to its intended market. The vast majority of handguns marketed to police departments and the dedicated individual will be striker fired with the modern version of light or “safe” double action triggers. Niche markets which is what the 1911’s have become will be hammer fired and have single action triggers. Older designs will have a double action first pull and single action follow up pulls.
Consider if it fits your hand and how well. If the weapons will be shared say between members of the same household, is this model adjustable for different size hands? Properly held is the web of the firing hand allowed to be as high as possible in relation to the bore axis? Does the trigger finger fall on the pad of the first joint without having to reach or stretch your hand or finger?
Remember we said one gun might not fill all our needs? We might need a little gun, a medium size gun, and a full size gun. Consider your entire personal protection plan: A bedroom or house gun(s), a car gun(s), gun(s) other family members carry, and of course my own carry requirements. We normally start with one gun thinking it’s the only gun we’ll ever need, but time will teach us we need either more or bigger/smaller guns. Ask yourself, if you were starting from scratch wouldn’t it be ideal if all your handguns had controls in the same locations, like triggers, as many of the same characteristics as possible, total familiarity and cherry on top would be if two or more of the handguns could share the spare parts you’re sure to collect with experience. What I’m talking about is a complete “family” of handguns that would include different sizes, and all should be the selected primary caliber with a .22 caliber for inexpensive practice of drills and to teach other family members with.
How a gun is made, its materials, history of service, if it’s been picked up by law enforcement or military agencies and if so which ones and how many, and it’s history of revisions. This is far beyond the average person’s scope of knowledge, but if you can find they’re on their 5th or 6th “generation” or model designator or something of that nature, at the very least it shows a continuing interest by the company. This is where you might want to listen to experts to make your determination.
6. Reputation amongst professional institutions. While it’s not concrete, if 9 out of 10 professional trainers recommend X handgun then X handgun has for whatever reason captured their attention and recommendation and that by itself is valuable information. Some of your information will be empirical in nature, other anecdotal , and more will be opinions of experts. Weigh them all carefully, but be cautious of getting lazy and skipping over your personal due diligence.
7. Availability. Can you get the model you need and can you get enough of them? I remember one handgun years ago was considered by most to be the best backup gun anywhere. This was the excellent Seacamp .32acp. Everyone wanted one, but few could get their hands on one. So was it really the best? And how much of the reputation was brought on by people thinking they were great because of the waiting list to get one and not a thorough examination of the gun itself?
And what if you need 3-4 of them to complete your personal protection plan but can only get one for now. Will that really fit into your needs? Personally I’m not into vaporware. But if it’s a new model like the recent Glock G43 and Glock has a history (not a reputation, but actual history) of bringing out new models in a timely manner and enough of them, then I might consider it in my plans. Otherwise, there’s enough other choices to just move on to another selection. I’ve had more than a few people tell me “I want to take these classes, but I’m waiting for the right gun to come out..” These are just words of someone who hasn’t fully committed..
8. Warranty & Service. These days you “should” expect a lifetime warranty. If you don’t work in the handgun yourself, and you’re having an issue with it, then the company should make good on it forever. But nothing is ever black and white.
One of the companies I respect the most only offers a one year warranty. And this is the type of handgun people shoot tens of thousands of rounds through so you should expect issues with them. In fact I use them in my business and have worked out a schedule of maintenance for them. At so many rounds I replace this set of parts and clean others, and at this many rounds I do another set. It’s also a company who offers a one day armory course and their handguns are very easy to work on, only require a few simple tools, and if you take their armory course they open up all their parts to you and offer technical assistance if you can’t fix an issue.
It’s a very simple and easy gun to work on. So, if you wanted to work on it yourself you certainly could. If you didn’t want to be bothered you could easily find a dozen qualified gunsmiths to work on it for you in your immediate area. So it’s not like with many other guns where if it breaks finding parts of a qualified gunsmith is next to impossible.
So while I say we “should” expect a lifetime warranty, sometimes for reasons not readily apparent certain companies do not. Yet, if it does or not, should be weighed in your decision.
9. Aftermarket Support. Invariably you’ll want a different set of grips, sights, a smoother trigger, or any number of aftermarket improvements the company doesn’t offer. Holster choices, repair parts, custom work, and who knows what else. A strong aftermarket presence speaks volumes on a guns popularity and place in the market. And of course a strong presence didn’t happen by accident.
10. Value. All guns go bang. Or they should. Ultimately a handgun that meets all of your requirements at the lowest possible price point bears serious consideration.
What do we do with all this information once we’ve done our homework? If it were me and I didn’t have the experience I do, I’d use Google and find how many of each handgun in the “family” were made and I’d total them up and see how popular they are. Starting with the most popular I’d google the model numbers looking for reviews. I’d carefully note each reviewer, and the high and low points of each and if any information stood out. By the 4-5th review you’re probably not going to get any more useful information and you’ll have a good feeling for the models in question.
At this point go to a local range, or take a concealed carry class where different models are available for use, and ask the range or instructors what they think of them. Shoot them, see if a holster is available and try on the holster and see how it feels. Bring a strong belt since it makes all the difference. Sit, stand, knell, get in/out of your car while wearing it, walk, and do other activities. If all is good so far shoot the different models side by side and see how they shoot for you. Go to Youtube.com, make some popcorn, and enjoy a few hours of reviews and the opinion of others.
I know, by now you’re thinking all this gun selection stuff sounds like a lot of hard work. Isn’t there a magazine or website somewhere that can just tell you what to get? Sure, they all tell you what THEY think is best. And I could have started this article with that information. But then you wouldn’t have known what mindset, experience, and critical thinking goes into such a selection. Maybe you’ve went out and felt and touch them, which frankly would put you way out in front of most.
Choices I made
I will now share the choices I have made and why.
Glocks: I started carrying Glock pistols in the middle 90’s and if they were the only gun available today I’d be very well served and wouldn’t need to make other choices. Today Glocks hold a solid 65% of the police and law enforcement market and its well earned. Glocks unfortunately only have a one year warranty, but they are exceptionally easy to work on, parts are cheap and available everywhere, and their model line-up fills every niche me and my son desire. Since we live and work together that’s important. We have Glock G19’s, a G19 with the grip cut to a G26 length, G17’s, G17L’s, and a new G43 spanning several generations. We maintain a bunch of G19’s and G17’s for use in our advanced classes and they always go BANG. I think a G19 is a great first/only gun choice. If a small size was high on my list of wants the G43 is great. Notice these are all 9mm Glocks, but we also have Advantage Arms .22 conversion kits for our G17’s so we can do manipulation and other drills using inexpensive .22 ammunition.
Is that it? Was that one paragraph all you really needed to read? I hope not. And no, that’s not it. Having admired the LockGlock engineering for so long and each generations (they’re currently on their 4th generation) improvements, I’ve been bemused watching major gun companies try to equal or exceed Glock. Until recently none have. They’ve tried and failed, usually because they missed their mark in an important way. But one company decided they weren’t going to follow that route, Smith and Wesson.
Smith & Wesson: As an instructor with both an operator and gunsmith background once introduced to Smith and Wesson’s Military and Police (M&P) line of semi-automatics I was impressed with their improvements on what some might think is Glock engineering. Their triggers are capable of a higher level or refinement, their front sight is dovetailed, the striker channel is grooved so water can easily pass (no more maritime Glock cups needed to shoot 007 types under water), and how about those nifty scalloped serrations that work so well.. I could go on, after al I’ve been bitten by the M&P bug and discovered they probably rate behind only one company in overall number of police and other agencies using their handguns. That other company? Glock. (who did you think?)
And the Smith and Wesson M&P line is more complete. They go smaller and larger and there’s no need to get .22 conversion kits because they make their own .22 called the MP22 and a more compact .22 model called the MP22c. I have a MP9, MP9c, M&P Shield, and several MP22’s. I carry the MP9c (12+1 rounds) most of the time as my primary and I love the Shield when lightly dressed. Because I do this for a living and have Glock’s filling other holes in my personal protection plan, the MP9, MP9c, and M&P Shield all have Apex custom triggers, ejectors, and other bits and pieces that make them both more reliable under duress and much more pleasant to shoot. Are the Apex parts necessary? Not at all. But they do make a significant difference.
The Smith and Wesson M&P’s and Glock’s share a lot. They both have interchangeable back straps to fit the grip size to the individual hand, both are rugged ultra-reliable striker fired, and both have attractive Melonite type finishes. I would be hard pressed to find one feature better than the other which would be strong enough to influence my decision to buy. They are both so reliable that I don’t really care much that the Smith and Wesson has a lifetime no questions asked warranty, and Glock only gives me a one year warranty. From experience I know that for both I will make enough modifications to at least confuse the warranties anyway.
My Glock and The Smith and Wesson M&P’s modifications
Sights All of my Glocks and Smith and Wesson M&P’s have 10-8 performance rear .156 U-notch rear sights in plain serrated black for the fastest possible threat acquisition. Most have Trijicon .115 HD Orange tritium front sights or .115 fiber optic front sights for one each G17 and MP9 that might be used for competition. All also have polished feed ramps. I use a rubberized grip tape for both my M&P Shield and my Glock G43 (both small single stack 9mm’s) which is adequate and will probably end up stippling both for a better and more permanent grip. In addition:
· Glocks: One of the Glock G17’s had Apex ejectors for a more controlled and sure ejection during competition. The others all have improved triggers by way of different connectors, and heavier springs throughout. I never put a lighter spring of any type on a carry or training gun, but handguns I use for competition both have lighter springs.
· Smith and Wesson M&P’s: the MP9, MP9c, and M&P Shield all have Apex custom triggers, ejectors, and other bits and pieces that make them both more reliable under duress and much more pleasant to shoot. Are the Apex parts necessary? Not at all. But they do make a significant difference. The M&P’s ALL have carry trigger packages including aluminum flat triggers, regular aluminum triggers, their tough as nails ejectors, sears, and springs. . I’ve stippled my M&P’s to a medium texture while I’m okay with the Generation 4 Glocks as they come.
Using different Brands of handguns
I would recommend you NOT go with different brands like I did. I shoot 3-4-5 times a week, I use both brands that I carry in my classes, and I have decades of experience which I think aids in me going back and forth between the two very like models. Most wouldn’t bother to mention they use/carry two brands because in a way it’s contradictory. But I’ll own it and if you have decades of experience you won’t need my advice anyway.. J
This is the third article I’ve written about choosing handguns. this one by far is the most comprehensive. The others have much to offer as well and you can read Priorities For A Sub-Compact Concealed Carry Pistol, What Handgun For Practice and Defensive Purposes, a three part series “A Instructor Chooses A New Backup Carry Gun Parts One, Two, and Three.
This is the most asked question in our classes by a large margin. We routinely bring 20+ concealed carry handguns and matching high quality holsters from Contact Concealment, and others, so our students can look, feel, manipulate, and ultimately choose one if they wish for the qualification. We go to this expense and effort because we realize it’s a major purpose for many as far as costs, but really because they realize it shouldf be done right
As important a question as it is, it’s not the most important question and never will be. A gun is just a tool and there are hundreds of different hammers on the shelves of gun stores every where. Eventually you’ll pick the one you think best for you.
But the most important question we can face is about training. How do we use this weapon for best effect? How to use it inside our home when loved ones are a thin wall away? How do we use it if we’re caught up in a armed robbery? What if we’re car-jacked. Home invasions are on the rise, does everyone in your home know their role and are they well trained to perform that role?
Choosing our handguns is important and I’ll continue to spend as much time as asked for on the subject. But our training is much more important . I encourage you to form a realistic training plan for you and your family and give the topic the attention it deserves.
Thank you for staying with me this far. I hope I’ve been able to impart something useful and if I see you wearing a new Glock or M&P into one of my classes please excuse me for asking. I’ll be curious..