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Filtering by Tag: Foundations of Pistol Gunfighting

Caliber and Terminal Ballistics

Chris Upchurch

Introduction

Debates over caliber and terminal ballistics seem to be one of gun guys’ favorite pastimes. If you hang around any gun shop you will find guys debating the merits of 9mm versus .45. If you examine any online gun forum, you will find countless posts devoted to the minutia of terminal ballistics. I can tell you the core of what you really need to know in three words:

Pistol bullets suck.

The truth is for all the energy expended on these debates the truth is none of the realistic options are very effective. We carry pistols because they are handy and easily concealable, not because they do a very good job at stopping an attacker. If you want something truly effective, get a rifle or a shotgun. Since most of us cannot carry a rifle or shotgun around all the time, keep in mind the following corollary to the fact that pistols bullets suck:

Repeated application may be necessary.

That’s all you really need to know. Of course, I’m not going to stop there, but that is the gist of it.

Before I move on, I do want to explain one thing: Terminal ballistics are not terminal in the sense of a terminal disease or Arnold Schwartzanegger saying, “I'm a Terminator.” They are actually terminal in the sense of a bus terminal or an airport terminal. As in place where a journey ends. Ballistics can be divided up into three phases: internal, external, and terminal. Internal ballistics describes the behavior of the bullet inside the firearm as it accelerates down the barrel. External ballistics describes the behavior of the bullet in flight. Terminal ballistics describes the behavior of the bullet inside the target.

Fundamentals of handgun terminal ballistics

In many of the gun store and internet debates you will hear people talking about things like energy dump, hydrostatic shock, and knockdown power. These range from irrelevant to complete bullshit.

‘Knockdown power’ falls on the bullshit end of the spectrum. As Newton’s Third Law states, “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” If the bullet has enough force to knock the target down, that same force would be applied to the shooter as recoil. To oversimplify a bit, if you didn’t get knocked down from firing the shot, don’t expect the bullet to knock your target down simply because of it’s impact.

Hydrostatic shock, on the other hand, is a real phenomena. It just doesn’t have any application to handgun rounds. In order for hydrostatic shock to have an effect on tissue you need a very fast projectile, one traveling at least 2000 feet per second. This is far faster than any of the handgun rounds we’ll be discussing here, but it is something that we’ll return to in the future when we discuss rifle terminal ballistics.

The truth is pistol bullets are like a long range drill. They are a means of boring holes through a target. The key to incapacitating an assailant is putting these holes in the proper places.

Methods of stopping an attacker

There are four main methods for stopping an attacker using a firearm: fear, pain, lowering the blood pressure to the brain, and severing the central nervous system.

Inducing fear in the attacker is actually by far the most common way firearms are used to stop a criminal attack. Most ‘uses’ of firearms for self defense don’t actually involve any gunfire. The intended victim produces a handgun and suddenly the attacker decides this all was a very bad idea and he needs to leave as quickly as possible. This happens hundreds of thousands of times a year.

This is all well and good. Actual gunfights are dangerous and have financial and legal consequences afterwards, so if we can get out of a situation without shooting it’s all for the better. The problem is that fear is not a reliable method of stopping an assailant. While it works most of the time, it does not work all the time. Fear tends to work best on criminals motivated by financial gain, rather than those who act because they enjoy having power over others or have a specific grudge against their intended victim. Many criminals have had guns pointed at them before, they’re used to it. Finally, fear requires that the criminal not only see the gun, but perceive your willingness to use it. Criminals know that many people are not willing.

Pain, on the other hand, certainly gets past the question of your willingness to use the gun. Getting shot does take the fight out of a lot of people. Unfortunately, it’s not completely reliable either. Many criminals on the street may have been shot before and survived. The attacker’s sense of pain may be impaired by drugs or alcohol, or they may just be hopped up on adrenaline a fight or flight reaction. They may not even realize they’ve been shot. They may simply be very determined and willing to fight through the pain. Whatever the case, while pain may stop some attackers we cannot totally rely on it.

Moving into the realm of physically incapacitating an attacker, the most common way to accomplish this is to lower the blood pressure in their brain to the point that they loose consciousness. One way to do this is simply to let enough blood out that the heart cannot keep their blood pressure high enough to maintain consciousness. The problem is that this takes time. Even if you completely sever a major artery like the femoral it can take over a minute for them to loose consciousness. They can do an awful lot of bad things to you and your loved ones in that minute.

A faster alternative is to stop the pump by destroying heart, although even this won’t lead to instant incapacitation. With the blood supply to the brain completely cut off there is still enough oxygen in the brain tissue for 10-15 second of useful consciousness. The heart is also not the easiest target to hit, being fairly small (about the size of a fist) and protected by the ribcage.

The only way to instantly stop an assailant is to destroy or sever a critical part of the central nervous system. The main target for an instant ‘lights out’ stop is the brain stem. Simply hitting the brain is not always good enough. A surprisingly large portion of the human brain isn’t necessary for simple mechanical tasks like pulling a trigger (see for example a hemispherectomy .

The brain stem is not a very large target (it is about the same size as the thumb). It is deep within the skull, the bones of which are thick and sturdy enough in places to deflect handgun rounds. Compounding the problem is the fact that the head moves considerably more and quicker than the body, making an accurate shot even more difficult.

If we cannot destroy the critical part of the brain, we may be able to cut it off from the rest of the body by severing the spinal cord. Again this is not an easy target. The spinal cord is about the diameter of your little finger, placed near the back of the body, and armored by the surrounding bones of the vertebral column. When severing the spinal cord to stop an attacker, higher is better. A shot directly below the brain stem is, for all intents and purposes, as good as a brain stem shot. Generally a hit above the shoulder level will paralyze the hands, leaving it impossible to manipulate a weapon. Spinal cord damage lower than this will eliminate mobility, but the assailant may still be a threat if they are armed with a firearm.

This may seem rather depressing for someone looking to defend themselves. Given the inadequacy of handgun bullets and the sheer difficulty of quickly physically incapacitating an attacker, how can we effectively stop an assailant? The solution, as mentioned earlier, is repeated application. A single shot may be unlikely to produce instant physical incapacitation, but five shots in the chest or the face are much more likely to have the desired effect. Multiple shots make it easier to hit small, difficult targets and increase the odds of getting through bone and other biological armor that protects the heart, brain, and spinal column.

Target areas

Our primary target zone is the upper chest, the ‘Golden Triangle’ between the nipples and the base of the neck. This contains not only the heart, but also many major arteries and, at the back of the body, the spinal cord (though a hit at this level will only eliminate mobility, not necessarily the ability to use a weapon).

Our other major target zone is the face. Because of head movement this is more difficult to hit. If hits to the torso are not doing the job, if the torso is not visible, or if you are close enough and confident enough in your marksmanship that you can hit the face as quickly as you could hit the upper torso, shoot the attacker in the face.

Specifically, we want hits between the mustache and the eyebrows. This is at the right level hit the brainstem, and we also benefit from three large openings in the front of the skull (eyes and nose). Above the eyebrows, the forehead is one of thickest and strongest parts of the skull. Below the bottom of the nose, the teeth are the hardest objects in the human body. Both of them can do strange things to the trajectory of handgun rounds (remember, pistol bullets suck).

One thing to keep in mind is that unlike the flat targets we practice with on the range, the human body is three dimensional. The real target is not the bridge of the nose or the second button on their shirt, those are just reference points that work when the target is squarely facing you. If the target is not facing you, you need to pick a different reference point.

The brainstem is essentially directly between the ears.

(Wikipedia)

(Wikipedia)

The heart is located in the middle of the chest, centered in the body front to back.

If the target is behind cover, sometimes only part of the target will only be visible. In that case, we need to take what we can get. Shoot the center of whatever part of his body is visible. Any shot on an adversary, even if it’s just an elbow or foot, is good for you and bad for him. It may successfully stop him through pain, it may diminish his fighting ability even if it doesn’t stop him, or it may distract him enough for you to get a more conclusive shot.

Some firearms trainers advocate the pelvic shot as an alternative to the head shot, a few even claim it is superior. The idea is that a shot that breaks the pelvis will destroy their mobility and prevent the assailant from walking. The problem with this is that the pelvis is a very heavy, solid piece of bone. It is not likely to be broken by a pistol bullet (remember, pistol bullets suck). Furthermore, the pelvis is a ring structure, in order to completely eliminate the target’s mobility it must be broken in at least two places.

None of this is to say the pelvis is a poor target. It hosts several major arteries, the nerves that control the legs, and some significant organs. However, the instant destruction of a target’s mobility by a pelvic shot as promoted by some instructors is not very realistic.

(Wikipedia)

(Wikipedia)

Choosing a caliber

As we have established, pistol bullets suck. Some would argue that given their suckage, you should choose the largest, most powerful round available. The truth is all pistol bullets suck about the same.

Gun store groupies and keyboard commandos will go on and on about energy and knockdown power, but remember, pistol rounds are like a drill. They make holes. To physically incapacitate an attacker, the hole needs to intersect a major artery, the heart, or the central nervous system.

When we are choosing a caliber, we are choosing the width and depth of the hole. The bigger the caliber, the wider the hole. The faster and more massive the bullet is, the deeper the hole.

There is a point of diminishing returns to the mass and velocity of a handgun round. If the hole is deeper than the target, the bullet will keep going out the other side. We want sufficient penetration to reach the vitals, but lots of extra penetration does not do us a lot of good.

In terms of width, all of the realistic choices are between .35 and .45 inches in diameter. That’s a difference of one tenth of an inch. Will that tenth of an inch really make a difference? Probably not. A hit to a major artery, the heart, or the central nervous system will not be significantly more effective. A larger round might convert a near miss on one of these into a grazing hit, but that would require you to miss by less than 1/20th of an inch.

Any marginal difference a larger caliber round might make has to be weighed against the disadvantages. Larger rounds mean fewer rounds in a pistol of the same size. It may seem like six or seven rounds would be plenty, but remember the advice given above regarding multiple shots. We’re talking about shooting an attacker five times in the chest, followed by another five in the head if the shots to the chest didn’t do the job. A seven shot pistol might not even suffice for one guy! Combine this with the fact that more than 50% of robberies involve 2 or more attackers, and 24% involve 3 or more (National Crime Victimization Survey) and a 7 round handgun quickly begins to seem inadequate.

The other disadvantage of the larger, more powerful calibers is their greater recoil. This also relates back to the idea that repeated shots may be necessary. How quickly can you deliver that burst of five rounds? Keep in mind that in a dynamic situation like a gunfight you may not have a chance to get a full two-handed grip on the gun, properly brace yourself, etc. You may be firing those rounds one handed, using your non-dominant hand, from an unusual position or while moving. How quickly can you shoot a larger caliber in those conditions?

So, we need a round that provides sufficient penetration to reach the target’s vitals, but excess size, mass, and velocity doesn’t do much, and the extra recoil and lower capacity make them a poor tradeoff. That round is the 9mm. It occupies the sweet spot between excess power and insufficient penetration.

For a fuller discussion of the available options, see the companion article on Handgun Calibers.

Self Defense Ammunition

In many ways, the equipment we carry for self-defense isn‘t that modern. We use cartridges that go back over 100 years and the handguns we use today aren’t that different from those in use decades ago. However, one area of fighting with firearms that has seen substantial improvement in recent years is ammunition. We have gone from hollowpoint bullet designs where, if you’re lucky, you might get some expansion to bullets that will expand with monotonous regularity.

Earlier I said that a handgun acts like a long range drill, the bigger the caliber the wider the hole, and the faster and heavier the bullet the deeper the hole. Expanding ammunition essentially lets us trade off depth for width. As the bullet expands, it’s going to slow down quicker, but it will make a wider hole. All of the service pistol rounds mentioned above have considerably more penetration than necessary when fired with non-expanding full metal jacket (FMJ) ammunition. Using expanding bullets allows us to trade away some of this penetration for a larger hole, without reducing capacity or increasing recoil.

Almost all expanding ammunition works the same way: when it hits the target the open tip of the bullet gets filled with flesh, which forces the outer edges of the bullet to open outward, like a blossoming flower.

These days, almost all expanding ammunition is designed to meet the same specification: a series of tests promulgated by the FBI where the bullet must achieve 12" of penetration in ballistics gelatin under a variety of conditions. Any self-defense ammunition from a major manufacturer (Federal, Winchester, Speer, Cor-Bon, DoubleTap, Hornady, or Remington) should meet this spec.

Don't buy gimmick ammo. Anything with “Extreme” in the name is probably a bad idea. Stay away from super high velocity ammunition. Every few years, someone gets the idea of using very lightweight bullets for a given caliber to achieve very high velocities. Light, fast bullets have very high energy, and the manufacturers will often brag about how much energy their ammunition produces. Remember what I said earlier, energy by itself doesn’t mean much for pistol rounds. The critical thing is the ability to penetrate deeply enough to reach the vitals. Thanks to their light weight, these high velocity rounds don't do a very good job penetrating compared to more conventional ammunition.

Second, stay away from frangible ammunition. Frangible bullets are designed to break up when they strike a target. They can produce some truly horrific wounds, but these small pieces don’t penetrate as deeply as a single, larger projectile. Frangible bullets often fail to penetrate deeply enough to reach the vitals.

+P

One disadvantage of using calibers designed over a century ago (.38 Special, 9mm, and .45 ACP) is that they were designed to operate at relatively modest pressures. Modern firearms are stronger and can take more pressure, thanks to the better designs and metallurgy that are possible today. To take advantage of these advancements ammunition manufacturers make +P ammo that operates at higher pressures and achieves somewhat better performance. Because +P ammo operates at higher pressures than the caliber was originally designed for, you should only use it in firearms that the manufacturer specifically rates for the use with +P.

Going to +P ammo is kind of a halfway step. It’s not going to provide all of the benefits of going to a more powerful caliber (9mm to .357 SIG or .38 Special to .357 Magnum), but it doesn’t have all of the drawbacks either. +P ammunition will not reduce the capacity and any increase in recoil will be fairly modest compared to stepping up to a bigger caliber. In a full size or compact pistol there are few drawbacks to using +P ammo. Smaller semi-autos are already pretty snappy and going to +P will only exacerbate this. .38 Special is already fairly mild even in smaller, lighter guns, so using +P ammunition does not produce excessive recoil.

Summary

While I have delved quite a bit into the minutia of terminal ballistics, anatomy, cartridges, and ammunition, the basics of caliber and terminal ballistics are pretty simple: Pistol bullets suck, repeated application may be necessary. A pistol is like a long range drill, it makes holes. Beyond a certain point, wider and deeper holes aren’t that useful against a human target, meaning all pistol calibers from 9mm up suck about the same. The key is making sure those holes intersect something vital.

Handgun Calibers

Chris Upchurch

As a companion to my article on Caliber and Terminal Ballistics, I'd like to present a brief overview of common handgun calibers.

Common service pistol rounds

9mm

The 9mm Luger (also known as the 9mm Parabellum or 9x19mm) is one of the world’s most widely used handgun cartridges. It is the standard handgun round for all NATO nation’s military forces. More than 60% of U.S. police firearms are 9mm.

I won’t beat around the bush here, I recommend the 9mm. It is sufficiently powerful to reach the vitals reliably, but not so powerful that it suffers from excessive recoil. The caliber is small enough that a compact or full size pistol can hold 15-17 rounds.

9mm (Wikipedia)

9mm (Wikipedia)

.40 S&W

The .40 Smith & Wesson is a popular round with many police agencies. It is often seen as a compromise between the 9mm and the .45. Guns chambered in .40 don’t give up much in terms of capacity (double stack magazines usually hold 2 fewer rounds than 9mm). However, the recoil of the .40 S&W is quite snappy, slowing follow up shots and making one-handed shooting more difficult.

.40 S&W (Wikipedia)

.40 S&W (Wikipedia)

.45

The .45 ACP is the classic American handgun caliber. Despite being larger than the .40 S&W, the .45 actually has a milder recoil (often describe as more of a push in contrast to the snappy .40). Where the .45 really suffers is the size of the round. Not only is it bigger in diameter, it is also substantially longer than a 9mm or .40. This means a larger magazine and a larger grip. Most people with average size or smaller hands are going to have a difficult time gripping a double stack .45. These pistols are often described as having a grip like a 2x4. This leads many people attached to the .45 to use to a single stack pistol, severely limiting capacity.

.45 ACP (Wikipedia)

.45 ACP (Wikipedia)

Less common service calibers

While the 9mm, .40, and .45 make up the vast majority of service caliber pistols in the U.S., there are several less common alternatives. In addition to their individual quirks all of these calibers suffer from some disadvantages associated with their relative rarity. Practice ammo in these calibers will be more expensive and is usually less likely to be in stock at your local gun shop or big box store. Self-defense ammo probably won’t be more expensive than the more common calibers, but it will be harder to find. That said, during the recent ammo shortage, it was sometimes easier to find ammo in these calibers. While there was less of this ammo out in the marketplace, demand for these niche calibers was also a lot less.

.357 SIG

The .357 SIG is based on the .40 S&W case necked down to accept the smaller .357 caliber bullet. With the larger powder charge of the .40 driving a 9mm bullet it can produce some very impressive velocities (though keep in mind that higher velocities don’t necessarily improve terminal performance in a human target). The .357 SIG was intended to duplicate the performance of the .357 Magnum revolver round. It doesn't quite achieve this level of performance, but it’s still quite impressive for a pistol round.

Being a derivative of the .40 S&W, it suffers from the same disadvantages: a slightly smaller capacity and quite snappy recoil. It is also noted for being one of the loudest pistol rounds on the market.

While the extra velocity of the .357 SIG is not necessarily all that useful from a terminal performance standpoint, it does have some benefits against certain intermediate barriers, such as auto bodies. This is more of a benefit in police use and several law enforcement agencies have adopted the .357 SIG for this reason.

Left to right: .357 SIG, 10mm, .40 S&W (Wikipedia)

Left to right: .357 SIG, 10mm, .40 S&W (Wikipedia)

10mm

The 10mm Auto suffers from many of the same size issues as the .45 ACP. Indeed, most 10mm pistols are built on the same frames as their manufacturer’s .45s. The recoil of full power 10mm loads is quite substantial, even more so than the .40 S&W. Many ammo manufacturers download their 10mm ammunition to more modest velocities, roughly equal to the .40 S&W, in which case you might as well be carrying a .40 (indeed, this is exactly why the .40 was developed, to duplicate the light 10mm loads in a smaller package).

With full power loads, the 10mm is a good choice for defense against dangerous animals, but against human predators the extra size and recoil is unnecessary.

10mm (Wikipedia)

10mm (Wikipedia)

.45 GAP

The .45 GAP (Glock Automatic Pistol) is an attempt to attain the performance of the .45 ACP in shorter round (the same length as the 9mm and .40). This allows a .45 caliber round to fit in a more manageable handgun. While the .45 GAP is shorter in length than the .45 ACP, it is still .45 inches in diameter, which limits the number of rounds in the magazine quite significantly.

.45 GAP (Wikipedia)

.45 GAP (Wikipedia)

Smaller rounds

.380

The .380 ACP is basically a shorter, less powerful version of the 9mm. Indeed, in Europe it is known as the 9mm Kurz or 9mm Short. In the past the .380 has received much criticism for it’s lack of power. While I’ve repeatedly warned against excessive power in a handgun round, the .380 is definitely pushing the lower bounds of what will be effective on a human target. However, newer ammunition has remedied these shortcomings somewhat.

The bigger issue with the .380 is not the round itself, but the small keychain guns that it tends to be chambered in. Any lack of power in the round is irrelevant if a gun is so small it is difficult to shoot effectively.

One other issue anyone contemplating a .380 should be aware of is availability. .380 ammunition was difficult to find even before the recent ammunition shortage, largely because the popularity of small .380 handguns outpaced production of ammunition for them.

.380 ACP (Wikipedia)

.380 ACP (Wikipedia)

.32 ACP

The .32 ACP or 7.65x17mm Browning was a popular cartridge earlier in the century, though it has largely fallen out of favor. The .32 ACP is definitely below what I would consider an acceptably powerful cartridge for self defense. Even more than the .380 it suffers from being chambered only in the smallest and most difficult to shoot pistols.

.32 ACP.(Wikipedia)

.32 ACP.(Wikipedia)

.25 ACP

The little brother of the .32 ACP, the .25 ACP is among the least powerful cartridges out there. It is even less powerful than the .22LR. Compared to the .22 it does have the advantage of more reliable feeding in a semi-auto. Not only is the .25 ACP less powerful than any of the alternatives, its smaller size doesn’t even really provide any advantages in terms of the size of the pistol. At this point the size of the gun is limited by the size of the human hand, not the the cartridge.

.25 ACP (Wikipedia)

.25 ACP (Wikipedia)

.22LR

The .22 Long Rifle differs from the other cartridges mentioned here in that it is a rimfire cartridge. Rather than having a primer embedded in the center of the cartridge the priming compound is embedded in the thin rim of the case and ignited by being crushed between the firing pin and the chamber.

The .22LR has killed a lot of people over the years. Despite this it is not a very good self defense caliber because it seldom kills quickly. It lacks sufficient penetration to reach vital organs and is easily deflected by bone. This ease of deflection can actually enhance lethality as the bullet tumbles through the body. However, it detracts from the ability to stop an assailant by keeping the bullet from reaching the vitals that you were aiming at.

In the event you must use a .22LR for self defense, keep in mind it is really an ‘EENT’ gun: eyes, ears, nose, and throat. We want to shoot for the head or neck rather than the body. We want to aim not just at the head, or even the face, but at the soft tissue openings in the skull that provide unimpeded access to the interior. Needless to say, having to hit such small targets in a self-defense situation is undesirable, which is why I recommend calibers with better penetrating power.

22LR (Wikipedia).

22LR (Wikipedia).

Revolver

.38 Special

The .38 Special can be thought of as the revolver equivalent of 9mm. It has sufficient penetration without excessive recoil. .38 is generally slightly slower than an equivalent 9mm load, ranking somewhere between 9mm and .380.

38 Special.

38 Special.

.357 Magnum

.357 Magnum is basically a longer version of the .38 Special cartridge capable of considerably higher velocity (.38 bullets are actually .357 inches in diameter). This, of course, increases recoil. While the .357 is manageable in a full size revolver in smaller, lighter guns it becomes downright painful to shoot.

Because the .357 Magnum is just a longer, faster version of the .38 Special, it is possible to shoot .38 Special ammunition in a .357 Magnum revolver (but not vice versa). Many people use the lighter .38 loads for practice and .357 Magnum loads for self-defense.

.357 Magnum (Wikipedia)

.357 Magnum (Wikipedia)

.44 Magnum

Made famous by Dirty Harry, the .44 Magnum is no longer the most powerful handgun cartridge in the world. It is still rather overpowered for human targets, however, and recoil is substantial even in a large revolver.

The one exception would be if you’re in bear country and are concerned about defending yourself from larger, 4-legged predators. Then .44 Magnum is the minimum, rather than the maximum.

.44 Magnum (Wikipedia)

.44 Magnum (Wikipedia)

Choosing Your First Handgun

Chris Upchurch

Introduction

There is no perfect handgun. We would all like something that's light, compact, and easy to carry, has enough power to stop an assailant in his tracks, and holds an infinite amount of ammunition. Unfortunately this gun does not exist. Any firearm is a series of compromises and tradeoffs. One gun might be very powerful, but it’s large, heavy, and doesn't hold much ammo. Another might be small, light, and easy to carry, but with a low ammunition capacity and difficult to shoot well. The key is to select the right set of tradeoffs for your application.

If you’re buying your first handgun for self-defense, it needs to serve two purposes: it should be suitable for defensive use and it also needs to be a good learning and training tool. I see many people who either buy their first handgun either without giving any thought to the latter, or who simply don’t know enough about what makes a good training handgun. They often get frustrated and come to the conclusion that learning to shoot a pistol is a lot more difficult than it really is. The obstacle isn’t their own abilities, or even the general difficulty of pistol shooting, it’s the tool that they’ve chosen.

My bottom-line recommendation for most people is to buy a compact or full size semi-automatic pistol without a manual safety or decocker in 9mm. If the previous sentence sounded like greek to you, read on for an explanation of what all that meant. If you understood it and think I'm wrong, read the rest of this chapter for an explanation of why I believe this is the best choice.

Semi-Automatic Pistol

A semi-automatic pistol is one that uses the energy of firing a round to eject the spent case and feed a new round from the magazine into the chamber.

Most semi-automatic pistols that are relevant for self-defense are recoil operated. When you fire a round the force of the recoil pushes the barrel and slide back. The barrel will stop after traveling a short distance, but the slide keeps moving to the rear. As it does so, it drags the fired case of the previous round out of the chamber and ejects it out of the gun. Once the slide has traveled as far to the rear as it can, the recoil spring forces it forward. As it travels forward the underside of the slide runs up against the back of the next round in the magazine, pushing the round forward and into the chamber. Once the slide has traveled all the way to the front, the gun is in battery and ready to fire again. See the video below for an animated illustration of the process:

While most self-defense pistols are recoil operated, there are a few other operating systems that you will see in self-defense pistols. Some pistols, generally those firing low powered cartridges, use blowback operation. This is similar to recoil operation, described above, but the barrel is fixed and the slide is pushed back using the pressure against the cartridge case rather than the recoil. There are a few other methods of operation for semi-automatic pistols, including gas operated, and roller or gas delayed blowback but these are very uncommon, each appearing only in a small number of designs.

Semi-Auto Action Types

Semi-automatic pistols can be grouped into several categories, based primarily on their trigger mechanisms.

Single Action

In a single-action semi-automatic pistol, the trigger only has one job. That is to release the already-cocked hammer, initiating the firing sequence. Because it only has one job, the trigger can be very light and short (it does not require much force to pull it and you do not have to pull it very far). Both of these factors are a boon to accuracy, but they are somewhat problematic from a safety perspective. Because the trigger doesn’t require much force to pull and doesn’t have to be pulled very far, it is potentially quite easy to pull the trigger accidentally.

Accordingly, most single-action semi-autos are equipped with a manual safety. This is a lever or switch somewhere on the gun that mechanically keeps the gun from firing until it is disengaged. Generally, the safety will remain in the “safe” position while the gun is in the holster. As the shooter draws the gun, they move the safety to the “fire position”. When they are done shooting and ready to reholster, they move the safety to the “safe” position again to avoid the possibility of the gun discharging unintentionally as they put it back in the holster.

The problem with single-action semi-autos is the need to disengage the safety on the draw. I have seen highly skilled shooters, who have practiced disengaging the safety on the draw thousands or tens of thousands of times fail to disengage the safety when placed in a stressful situation, even if it’s just in training. Second, for a new shooter to get up to that, fallible, level of skill requires a lot of time and effort. The time and effort spent learning to disengage a manual safety is time and effort that could better be spent on other skills.

The classic example of a single-action semi-automatic pistol would be John Browning’s designs: the 1911 and the Browning Hi Power.

Browning Hi Power (left) and Colt 1911 (right) (Wikipedia)

Browning Hi Power (left) and Colt 1911 (right) (Wikipedia)

Double Action

In a double-action semi-automatic pistol, the trigger has two jobs. As you pull the trigger to the rear it raises the hammer to the cocked position. When the trigger gets all the way to the rear, it releases the hammer, initiating the firing sequence. Because it needs to raise the hammer, opposed by a fairly stiff spring, the trigger is generally long and fairly heavy (it has to be pulled a longer distance and requires quite a bit of force to pull it). The long, heavy trigger pull makes it much less likely that the trigger will be pulled accidentally than on a single-action pistol, so it does not require a manual safety.

If the hammer of a double-action pistol remains down after each shot, requiring the same long, heavy trigger pull for ever round it is called Double-Action Only or DAO. However, in most double-action semi-automatics only the first shot requires the double-action trigger pull. For subsequent shots the cycling of the slide recocks the hammer, giving it a lighter, shorter single-action trigger pull. These are called Double-Action/Single-Action (DA/SA) pistols. The long, heavy first round trigger pull gives you the advantages of a double-action pistol (no need for a manual safety) while the shorter, lighter trigger pull on the second and subsequent shots gives you the advantages of a single-action pistol (easier to shoot more accurately).

With a DA/SA pistol, the user needs some way to lower the hammer and return the trigger pull to double action. Manufacturers have recognized that manually lowering a hammer to decock a pistol is fraught with peril, so almost all DA/SA pistols are equipped with decocking levers. The decocking lever safely lowers the hammer. When you release the decocking lever, it springs back to the firing position, returning the trigger pull to double action. The classic example of a DA/SA pistols with a decocker is the SIG P226 series (the P226 is available in other configurations, but DA/SA with a decocker is by far the most common).

SIG Sauer P226 (Wikipedia)

SIG Sauer P226 (Wikipedia)

A pistol with a double-action trigger pull is sufficiently safe with just it’s long heavy trigger pull. Nevertheless, some manufacturers have insisted on equipping their DA/SA pistols with a manual safety. Generally, this is integrated into the decocking lever so that moving the lever from the fire position both decocks the gun and engages the manual safety. This is a “suspenders and belt” approach that appeals primarily to bureaucrats who think that gun safety is the product of mechanical devices rather than good training. With this type of firearm it is perfectly fine to move the decocker/safety lever back to the fire position and carry it with the manual safety disengaged, relying on the double-action trigger pull. The classic example of a DA/SA pistol with a decocking/safety lever is the Berretta 92F.

Beretta M9 (Wikipedia)

Beretta M9 (Wikipedia)

Finally, there are some pistols that leave the choice of action to the user. They have one lever that acts as a safety and a decocking lever, but unlike the pistols described above, the safety and decocking functions can be activated seperately. Generally, if you push up on the lever, it acts like a mechanical safety, putting the pistol on safe while retaining a single-action trigger pull. If you push down on the lever, it acts like a decocker, lowering the hammer and engaging a double-action trigger pull. Thus the user can run it “cocked and locked” as a single-action pistol with a manual safety, or decocked and unlocked, as a double-action pistol without a manual safety. One could also run a gun like this with the hammer decocked and the manual safety, but such a suspenders and belt approach is unnecessary. An example of a “user’s choice” semi-auto would be the HK USP series.

HK USP (Wikipedia)

HK USP (Wikipedia)

From a gunfighting perspective, a decocking lever is less problematic than a safety because you only have to operate the decocking lever after the fight is over when you’re ready to reholster. This makes a DA/SA gun more reliable under stress than an SA gun with a manual safety. The disadvantage of a DA/SA pistol is the need to learn two seperate trigger pulls: the long heavy double-action pull for the first round, and the shorter, lighter single-action pull for subsequent rounds. With practice you can learn to master both trigger pulls and shoot quite well with a DA/SA gun, but the time and effort required could be spent learning something else.

DA/SA guns with a combined safety and decocker lever are more problematic. If you run the gun with the safety lever engaged you get the disadvantages of both a DA/SA gun and a manual safety. It makes much more sense use the lever only for decocking, manually moving it back to the fire position after lowering the hammer. The danger from doing this comes not from the prospect of an unintentional discharge, but from the possibility that the decocker/safety lever might accidentally get knocked back to the “safe” position, leaving you with a gun that won’t go off when you need it. As you have probably gathered, I am not a fan of this particular system.

A “user’s choice” gun might seem like the best of both worlds, allowing the shooter to choose how he wants to use the gun. This choice is actually rather problematic. Under the stress of a gunfight, you don’t want to be trying to remember what condition you are carrying the gun in today. If you have one of these pistols, I would recommend picking a carry condition and sticking with it. Either always carry with the hammer cocked and the manual safety engaged, or always carry with the hammer decocked and without using the manual safety.

Point and shoot pistols

The third major category of semi-automatic pistols doesn’t really have a standardized nomenclature. Ever manufacturer has their own name of this type of setup. Glock calls it the “safe action”, Springfield calls it the “ultra safety assurance trigger system”, other manufacturers have different names. I call them “point and shoot pistols” (by analogy with point and shoot cameras).

These pistols are in many ways a compromise between the single-action and double-action. Rather than having the trigger pull do either all the work of cocking the gun, as in a double-action, or none of the work, as in a single-action, they split the difference. The hammer or striker spring is partially compressed by the cycling of the slide. Pressing the trigger finishes cocking it and then releases it, starting the firing sequence. This provides a trigger pull that is somewhat longer and heavier than a single-action pistol, but nowhere near as long or heavy as a double-action pistol. Unlike a DA/SA pistol, they have the same trigger pull every time. Unlike single-action pistols, point and shoot pistols do not have a manual safety. The Glock is the classic example of a point and shoot pistol.

Glock 17 (Wikipedia)

Glock 17 (Wikipedia)

I think that a point and shoot pistol is the best choice for a fighting handgun, particularly for a new shooter. They don’t have manual safeties that can be forgotten under stress, they have an easily managable trigger pull that’s the same every time. This simplifies training and allows new shooters to concentrate more of their time and effort on learning how to shoot and fight with their handgun, rather than on learning how to run the gun itself.

Size

Pistols come in all sorts of sizes. Those suitable for self-defense can be grouped into three broad categories: full size, compact, and sub-compact. Many pistol designs are available in a variety of different sizes, to ensure that no niche goes unfilled.

Top to bottom: Full size (Glock 17), Compact (Glock 19) Subcompact (SIG P290)

Top to bottom: Full size (Glock 17), Compact (Glock 19) Subcompact (SIG P290)

Full size pistols have a barrel in the 4.5-5" range and a grip that will easily accommodate the entire hand. Some manufacturers will refer to these as “Tactical” models. Examples of full size pistols include the Glock 17, the SIG P226, the Beretta 92, and 5" versions of the 1911.

Compact pistols have a barrel around 4" long. The grip is usually shoter than on a full size pistol, but still long enough to accommodate the entire hand (though shooters with larger hands may find it just barely does so). Examples of compact pistols include the Glock 19, SIG P229, and the Springfield XD Service Model. Compact 1911s are often referred to as “Commander” models.

Compact pistols are generally the most popular size, as many people see them as a good compromise between ease of shooting and ease of carry. In the past handgun manufacturers often came out with a full size gun, then shortened the grip and barrel to create a compact variant. Now, many are introducing a design as a compact and then lengthening the barrel to create a full size model (both the S&W M&P and Springfield XD started out as compacts).

Sub-compact pistols are the most varied size category. They range from heavily cut-down versions of full size pistols to tiny “keychain guns”. They generally have barrels of 3.5" or less. Their most distinguishing feature is a very short grip, so short they leave the pinky finger hanging in space below the gun. This makes shooting these small pistols considerably more difficult. It also substantially reduces their magazine capacity. Many subcompact pistols offer the option of either a pinky rest attached to the magazine that extends below the grip to offer someplace for your little finger to go, or an extended magazine which provides both a place for the pinky and additional ammunition capacity. While they make the gun more shootable and allow it to hold more ammo, these give up the concealment advantages of the shorter grip.

We live in a golden age of small semi-automatic pistols. Ten years ago, most subcompact models were either cut down versions of full size pistols, or cheap unreliable junk. Since then there has been a renaissance of small pistols, leading to a much wider selection of higher quality guns. Individuals looking for a concealed carry gun tend to gravitate towards these very small pistols. They often can't imagine carrying a full size, or even compact firearm.

The downside of this is that these very small pistols are quite difficult to shoot well. The smaller and lighter a pistol is, the sharper the recoil is going to be. Larger, heavier guns do a much better job soaking up recoil. This is compounded by handgrips that don't allow you to get a full grip on the gun and narrow frames that concentrate the recoil on a smaller part of your hand. They can be downright punishing to shoot, which leads people to be reluctant to practice with them. This is doubly unfortunate, because you really need more practice with them, in part because the short sight radius (the distance between the front and rear sights) also makes them more difficult to shoot accurately. These difficulties combine to create a substantial obstacle for a new shooter trying to learn how to shoot well.

I recommend either a compact or full size pistol as your first firearm. It will be easier to shoot and a lot less frustrating to learn the fundamentals of handgun shooting. Even if you end up buying a smaller pistol for concealed carry, the larger gun will make good nightstand gun for home defense. However, you may discover with the right holster and clothing you can carry a larger pistol than you thought.

Grip

When we get to the fundamentals of marksmanship in a later chapter, I'm going to tell you that the most important of these fundamentals is your grip. Your grip on the gun is your interface with the firearm; a poor grip will make shooting a lot more difficult than it has to be. I mention this now because process of developing the correct grip begins with selecting the right gun.

The most important characteristic for a proper grip is the gun’s trigger reach: the distance from the backstrap (the back of the handgrip) to the trigger. If the trigger reach is too long, you will have to compromise their grip to operate the trigger.

In a proper grip, the backstrap should be in the web of the hand and the barrel of the pistol should be in line with the bones of the forearm. When the pistol is in this position, it should be easy for the trigger finger to reach the trigger and place the pad of your index finger on it.

Proper grip (left) compared to an improper grip caused by excessive trigger reach (right)

Proper grip (left) compared to an improper grip caused by excessive trigger reach (right)

With an excessive trigger reach, you will will not be able to keep the backstrap in the web of their hand and the barrel parallel to the forearm. The backstrap will migrate from the web of the hand towards the second joint of the thumb, taking it out of alignment with the forearm.

A trigger reach so long it requires you to compromise your grip on the gun is the most obvious issue, the most severe, and the hardest to train around. However, a trigger reach which is slightly too long can cause more subtle issues. When you place your finger on the trigger, the pad should be perpendicular to the face of the trigger. This makes it much easier to press the trigger straight back without disturbing the alignment of the pistol. If the trigger reach is too long, a right-handed shooter will tend to push the pistol to the left when operating the trigger.

On the other hand, if the trigger reach is too short, it will lead a right-handed shooter to tend to pull the gun to the left when operating the trigger. Unlike the issues with too long of a trigger reach, this generally shows up towards the end of the trigger pull, rather than right when you place your finger on the trigger.

Gap between trigger finger and frame (left) versus no gap (right)

Gap between trigger finger and frame (left) versus no gap (right)

Finally, the only part of the gun your trigger finger should touch is the trigger itself. If the base of your trigger finger presses against the frame of the gun, it can push on the gun as you operate the trigger. Whether or not the base of your trigger finger contacts the frame is a combination of the trigger reach, and the width of the gun’s grip.

Gap for support hand.

Gap for support hand.

Thus far we’ve been talking primarily about difficulties that face people with smaller hands when trying to operate a gun with a larger grip and long trigger reach. However, there are difficulties that can face shooters with larger hands when trying to operate smaller guns. Sometimes there’s just not enough gun to hold on to. In particular, you should be able to fit the base of the palm of the support hand between the fingertips and the base of the thumb of the shooting hand.

Although lack of space for the support hand is not optimal, it's not as big of a problem as the trigger reach issues described above. If a pistols needs to work for two people with different sized hands (a home defense gun for a husband and wife, for example) then the gun should be sized for the person with the smaller hands. Of course, his and hers pistols are a better solution.

While the trigger is the most important aspect of getting a properly fitting gun, the you need to be able to reach the other controls as well. If the gun has a safety, it must be easy to reach without shifting the grip on the gun. Magazine releases, decocking levers, and slide releases need to be reachable as well, though it is OK if these require some shifting of the grip.

In the past decade or so manufacturers have gotten much better at supporting left-handed shooters. Now almost every design offers some accommodation for southpaws. Generally these accommodations come either in the form of reversible controls, or ambidextrous controls. With reversible controls, a gun can be set up for either a right or left handed shooter, but not both. Generally a gun has to be at least partially disassembled to change it from right-handed to left handed operation. Ambidextrous controls, by contrast, allow operation from either side without any modification.

As a lefty myself I certainly appreciate some attention being paid to left-handed shooters. That said, I don’t think that left handed magazine or slide releases are really all that important. A left-handed shooter can easily adapt to a gun with a right-handed magazine and slide release (and vice versa). Moreover, every shooter should learn how to operate their gun with their non-dominant hand, so unless a gun has fully ambidextrous controls, you’ll be operating the gun “wrong-handed” with one hand or the other. The only control that absolutely needs to be set up for a left-handed user is the manual safety (if a gun has one).

Given how important a well fitting gun is, how do you find the right one for you? Unfortunately, unlike clothing or shoes, there is no system of designated sizes for firearms. The only way to figure out if a gun fits your hands is to try it. At the very least you need to handle a gun you are considering in the store. Optimally, you should shoot a gun before buying it. If you have a friend who owns a gun you are considering, ask them to go out shooting with you. Some shooting ranges offer guns for rent, though these are usually limited to the more common models.

Interchangeable backstraps of a Beretta PX4 (Nazarin's Gun's Recognition Guide)

Interchangeable backstraps of a Beretta PX4 (Nazarin's Gun's Recognition Guide)

As described above, this is a bigger issue for people with smaller hands. Those with average or large hands will find that most handguns will fit them fine. For those with smaller hands, the good news is that there are more choices available for them than ever before. Many manufacturers have begun offering guns with interchangeable backstraps. These are add-on pieces of varying thickness that attach to the rear of the grip to change the grip size and trigger reach. Notable firearms offering interchangeable backstraps include the Smith and Wesson M&P, the Springfield XDm, and 4th generation Glock pistols. When you see these on display in the store, they usually have the “medium” backstrap installed. If the gun doesn’t feel right to you, don’t be afraid to ask them to install a different backstrap for you to try.

Another option for guns with polymer (plastic) frames is a grip reduction. This involves removing some of the plastic material to reshape and resize the grip of the gun. This is an option for guns that don’t have interchangeable backstraps. Obviously it involves a much greater investment before you can see if you like it, in both the gun and in having the grip reduction done.

Left to right: Double-stack magazine (Glock), ammunition arranged as in a double-stack magazine, ammunition arranged as in a single-stack magazine, single-stack magazine (SIG P290)

Left to right: Double-stack magazine (Glock), ammunition arranged as in a double-stack magazine, ammunition arranged as in a single-stack magazine, single-stack magazine (SIG P290)

If your hands are small enough that even the smallest interchangeable backstrap on a S&W M&P is too large for you, another option is to go with a single-stack magazine. Most pistols today have what is called a double-stack magazine. These hold ammunition it two staggered columns. This allows the magazine to hold much more ammunition, but at the cost of a wider magazine, and thus a wider grip. A single stack magazine holds less ammunition, but allows a much narrower grip. If you have small hands, this may be a good tradeoff. More ammunition is good, but an 8-shooter that you can shoot well is better than a 17-shooter that you are marginal with.

The most popular type of single-stack firearm by far is the classic 1911 design. However I do not recommend these because they have a manual safety (see above). Kahr Arms makes an extensive line of high-quality single stack pistols that are good options for shooters with smaller hands. Many of the small semi-automatics that have proliferated in recent years are single stack guns and have very narrow profiles. As explained above, smaller guns are generally more difficult to shoot. However, for individuals with small hands, getting a gun with a grip that fits their hand may outweigh this. Some of the guns towards the larger end of the sub-compact range like the Walther PPS and S&W M&P Shield are good choices in this situation. If you are getting one of these because you are looking for a gun with a single stack magazine, I would recommend running them with the extended magazines that have a pinky rest to allow a full grip on the gun.

The minutia of handgun grips may seem like a lot of effort to spend on some very minor details. They are minor, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important. Accurate marksmanship is about getting all the minor details correct.

Revolvers

While many people push revolvers for self-defense they are largely obsolete except for a few niche applications. Because they can chamber more powerful cartridges than semi-automatics, they are useful for defense against dangerous animals. However, these more powerful cartridges do not offer significant advantages against human assailants.

Smith & Wesson 642

Smith & Wesson 642

The other main area where the revolver has endured is as a small, discreet carry gun, including as a back-up gun. While the small revolver has been the traditional weapon in this role the recent boom in small semi-automatic pistols (described above) poses a serious challenge to the revolver. The one application where the small revolver is still clearly superior is the jacket pocket gun, since a hammerless revolver can be shot reliably from inside clothing.

Colt Single Action Army revolver (Wikipedia)

Colt Single Action Army revolver (Wikipedia)

Much like semi-automatic pistols, revolvers come in both single- and double-action varieties. On a single-action revolver, the shooter must manually cock the hammer for every shot. Cocking the hammer also rotates the cylinder, bringing the next chamber into alignment with the barrel. Single action revolvers have a historic charm, but the need to manually cock them for every shot makes them unsuitable for self-defense use.

Smith & Wesson Model 10 (Wikipedia)

Smith & Wesson Model 10 (Wikipedia)

On a double-action revolver, pulling the trigger cocks the hammer and rotates the cylinder. This requires a long, heavy trigger pull. On a good revolver, the trigger pull will be smoother than a double-action semi-automatic. Unlike a DA/SA semi-auto, a double-action revolver will have the same trigger pull for every shot. Many revolvers give the shooter the option to cock the hammer manually (which also rotates the cylinder), giving it a much shorter, lighter, trigger pull for that shot.

As with semi-autos, revolvers come in a variety of sizes. However, the sizes and their names are not quite as standardized as semi-automatic pistols. One difference between revolvers and semi-automatics is that the length of the barrel can vary independently from the size of the rest of the gun. Generally speaking, larger framed guns will have longer barrels, but it is possible to have a large revolver with a very short barrel or a small revolver with a longer one.

Given their traditional role for backup and discreet carry, the most common self-defense revolvers are the smallest. Many only carry five shots, rather than the traditional six, and they have very short barrels, usually 2" or less. Their grips are usually short enough that the pinky hangs down below the bottom of the gun. The Smith & Wesson J-frame revolvers are a classic example of the small revolver, while the Ruger LCR is a more recent, but popular, addition.

The maxim that smaller guns are more difficult to shoot holds true for revolvers as well. If anything, a small revolver is more difficult to shoot than a similarly sized semi-auto. They often have heavier trigger pulls and due to their design the sight radius will be shorter. Many small revolvers are made from very lightweight materials, like titanium, scandium, or polymer. These make them very light and easy to carry, but the recoil is proportionally greater. This is compounded by the fact that small, lightweight revolvers can be chambered in more powerful cartridges than a similarly sized semi-auto. Hot .357 Magnum loads in a scandium J-frame are a downright painful combination.

Smith and Wesson Model 15 K-frame (top) and Model 442 J-frame (bottom)

Smith and Wesson Model 15 K-frame (top) and Model 442 J-frame (bottom)

Medium sized revolvers are a bit easier to handle. The generally have grips long enough for all the fingers to gain purchase and they are seldom made out of the extremely lightweight materials seen in the smaller guns. This makes them heavier to carry, but much more pleasant to shoot. They usually carry a full six rounds, and their barrels are generally longer, in the 3-6" range. Examples of medium size revolvers include the Smith & Wesson K- and L-frame revolvers and the Ruger SP101.

Smith & Wesson Model 625 N-frame (Wikipedia)

Smith & Wesson Model 625 N-frame (Wikipedia)

Unlike semi-automatics, where larger guns tend to carry more ammo, larger revolvers generally stick to the classic six rounds, instead chambering more powerful cartridges. These large, powerful revolvers are often used for hunting and defense against dangerous animals, but much of their extra power is wasted when it comes to self-defense against human opponents. There are some exceptions that increase the number of rounds in the cylinder to 7 or 8 rather than chambering a more powerful round. Examples of large revolvers include the Smith & Wesson N- and X-frame revolvers and the Ruger Super Redhawk and Alaskan.

There is one more type of revolver that bears mentioning, if only for cautionary reasons. In the past few years there has been a boom in large revolvers that can fire .410 shotgun shells and .45 Colt pistol cartridges. This trend was led by the Taurus Judge and recently Smith & Wesson has gotten in on the action with their Governor model. I do not consider any of these shotshell revolvers good tools for self-defense. The .410 bore shotgun is not particularly effective against human assailants (regardless of what it does to watermelons on youtube videos), particularly when fired through the short, lightly rifled barrel seen on these revolvers. This leaves .45 Colt as the most suitable self-defense load, but if you want to defend yourself with .45 Colt, you would be better served with a more conventional revolver chambered in that caliber.

Many people recommend a revolver for a new shooter, usually on the grounds of “simplicity”. As Gabe Suarez says, “A revolver is only simple for the first six shots.” Revolvers take as much, if not more, training to use well than a semi-automatic. Their heavier double-action trigger pull requires more time and effort to master than a point and shoot semi-auto. Reloading a revolver is a much more fiddly process that requires extensive practice to get right under pressure. All of this is doubly true for the small J-frame revolvers that are most commonly recommended. Their small size, short sight raidus, and heavy trigger pull make them guns for experts, not beginners.

If you insist on getting a revolver as your first handgun, I recommend a medium sized one: a K- or L-frame S&W or a similarly sized gun from another manufacturer like Ruger or Taurus.

Reliability

The fact that I have waited this long to mention reliability is not an indication of its importance. Indeed, reliability is the most important quality of any firearm you intend to use for self defense. The main reason I did not mention it sooner is that we live in a golden age of reliable handguns. Most firearms manufactured today are made on computer controlled machinery, capable of far greater precision and consistency than older manufacturing processes. Modern designs tend to be simpler and more robust. Finally, the internet has provided forum for feedback on firearm quality. If a manufacturer turns out junk, it won’t take long for everyone to know about it.

These days, you almost have to go out of your way to buy an unreliable gun. Almost all of the major manufacturers are putting out reasonably well designed and made products (all of the manufacturers I have mentioned by name in this article produce quality firearms). As long as you’re not buying complete, bottom of the barrel junk, it will probably be reliable. The one area where this may not be true is actually at the higher end of the market. Some guns made specifically for competition use tend to prize accuracy over reliability. If you’re shooting a competition, a malfunction might mean loosing the match. If you’re in a gunfight, a malfunction might mean loosing your life. Don’t assume that a gun made for competition is suitable for self-defense.

While most modern firearm designs are generally reliable, even the best manufacturer turns out a lemon now and then. If you’re going to trust your life, and the lives of your loved ones, to a particular gun you need to test it first. I want to have a minimum of 500 rounds through a firearm without any malfunctions before I trust my life to it. At least 50 of those rounds should be the ammunition I am planning on using for self-defense. To quote President Reagan, “Trust, but verify.”

Specific Pistols

Thus far I’ve mostly been speaking in terms of general characteristics like the type of operation and different sorts of controls, using a few specific pistols as examples. Lets get down to some actual recommendations on specific pistols. We’re looking for a compact or full size 9mm* semi-automatic pistol without a manual safety or decocking lever that fits your hand well (*I'll talk more about caliber in the next installment).

The canonical example of the point and shoot semi-auto is the Glock pistol. There are many models, but the two that fit our size and caliber criteria are the Glock 17 and Glock 19 (the full size 9mm and compact 9mm, respectively). Glock pistols are simple, inexpensive, and have an extreme reputation for reliability. These features have led the Glock to become by far the most common handgun for police in America today. The pistol I trust my life to is a Glock.

The Glock’s weak point is the size of it’s grip. It generally works fine for people with average or larger sized hands, but some with smaller hands the Glock grip is just too large. Glock recently came out with their new 4th Generation models, which feature an interchangeable backstrap. While this helps, due to the design of the magazine even the smallest backstrap available is still too large for many people’s hands.

Glock 17 (top) and Glock 19 (bottom)

Glock 17 (top) and Glock 19 (bottom)

For those with smaller hands, the Smith & Wesson M&P semi-auto is an excellent choice. It popularized the interchangeable backstrap and with the smallest backstrap installed it is noticeably smaller than the Glock. The M&P is available with an external manual safety. For reasons explained above, this is undesirable on a carry gun, get the point and shoot version. Note that the “Compact” model of the M&P is actually a subcompact pistol. For most people I would recommend a model with a 4.25" or 5" barrel.

Smith & Wesson M&P (Wikipedia)

Smith & Wesson M&P (Wikipedia)

The other major competitor to the Glock is the Springfield XD. Springfield actually sells two distinct lines of pistols, the original Springfield XD, and the newer XDm. While they may appear similar, parts, including magazines, are not interchangeable between the two lines. Either model would make a fine pistol for self-defense. For our purposes, the biggest difference between the two is that the XDm has an interchangeable backstrap, making it a better choice for shooters with small hands.

Springfield XD (Wikipedia)

Springfield XD (Wikipedia)

Springfield XDm (Wikipedia)

Springfield XDm (Wikipedia)

The Glock, M&P and XD/XDm are the big three when it comes to point and shoot self-defense pistols. Anyone selecting their first pistol should examine these three at the very least. However, there are more options out there. Two in particular that I would mention are the Walther PPQ and the Steyr M9 and L9 pistols. Both of these are very nice, high quality pistols. In many ways they are arguably better than the Glock, M&P, or XD, though they are also more expensive. The other disadvantage is that it can be harder to find parts, magazines, holsters, and magazine carriers than for the more common types.

Walther PPQ (Wikipedia)

Walther PPQ (Wikipedia)

Steyr M9-A1 (Wikipedia)

Steyr M9-A1 (Wikipedia)

In addition to the point and shoot pistols listed above, there are also other manufacturers that offer a point and shoot action as one of several options on their pistols. Beretta sells a point and shoot version of their Px4 Storm pistol (the Px4C) along side DA/SA and DAO models. SIG offers the DAK trigger as a substitute for the standard DA/SA action on their classic line of pistols (P226, P228, and P229). The HK equivalent is the LEM trigger, available on their USP, P2000, and P30 pistols. Being modifications of more traditional designs, the trigger feel and operation of the DAK and LEM triggers are not quite as consistent as guns designed for point and shoot operation from the ground up. All three are high quality handguns. Like the Walther and Steyr, they are harder to find accessories for than the big three (with the SIG suffering from this a bit less than the Beretta or HK).

Beretta Px4 (Woodbury Outfitters)

Beretta Px4 (Woodbury Outfitters)

HK P30 (Wikipedia)

HK P30 (Wikipedia)

All of the pistols mentioned above have double stack magazines. For shooters with smaller hands who find even double-stack pistols with interchangeable backstraps too large, I would recommend a single-stack pistol. There are not as many good options for good single stack pistols, but there are some high quality pistols out there. For many years Kahr Arms has been producing very nice single-stack pistols. Their CW9, K9, P9, TP9, and T9 pistols are excellent choices. Another pistol I have successfully recommended to shooters with smaller hands is the Walther PPS (one of the few single-stack pistols with interchangeable backstraps).

Kahr K9 (Kahr Arms)

Kahr K9 (Kahr Arms)

Walther PPS (Wikipedia)

Walther PPS (Wikipedia)

Summary

This has been a long article (longer than I anticipated when I started writing it). While I’ve gone into quite a bit of detail to explain the reasoning behind my recommendations and lay out the different options available, my advice to someone looking to buy their first pistol for self defense can be summed up fairly simply:

Buy a compact or full size point and shoot semi-automatic pistol in 9mm. Choose one from a major manufacturer that fits your hand well, without having to reach excessively to get your finger on the trigger. Don’t choose your first pistol based on size or weight or how easy it will be to carry, get a gun that will be a good learning and training tool and make it as easy as possible for you to acquire the skills you need for self-defense.