When choosing a firearm for concealed carry purposes, there are several factors to consider. This article will explore some of the characteristics, and explain the thought process behind prioritizing many of them.
Unfortunately, choosing a concealed carry pistol is not necessarily as simple as starting with many models and simply filtering things away based on undesired characteristics, and mostly, it’s not even talking about the firearm itself. Many of these characteristics are weighted, rather than simply being an eliminate/retain decision in typical data filtering (for instance, if you wanted to buy a blue car, you could filter any car that was not “blue” from your list and end up with only blue cars. But, some cars may be a shade of blue like aqua or turquoise that may or may not be readily filterable. A particular model you may like the looks of in silver more, so can’t filter this particular one away by simply selecting “not blue”). The characteristics below, and their priority, are explained, but they should be considered as a weighted factor rather than an eliminate/retain factor in decision making.
The next thing before exploring the characteristics is that a firearm selection is based on many non-firearm factors. The firearm, its holster, ammunition, your body shape, wardrobe, and intended carry method all act as a system to determine the viability of a firearm selection. In the explanations below, the term “system” will be used to reference the firearm and these non-firearm factors.
The wearer’s mindset is actually the biggest factor in choosing a concealed weapon. If the wearer is concerned about his safety enough to wear a firearm, will he be willing to strap a full framed pistol to his side every day, every time he leaves the house? Or, will he decide he only needs the firearm on certain trips to certain areas or for certain functions, and not be a full-time concealed carrier?
Frankly, it is better to have the firearm available at all times it’s legal to do so. That means not necessarily picking out a full framed handgun that will “get the job done”, but picking out the handgun that will actually be carried throughout a person’s day.
My first concealed carry handgun was the Beretta Tomcat 3032 in .32 ACP. A work associate, a die-hard Colt 45 ACP enthusiast, lambasted the decision for such a weak firearm in a weak caliber. It was the middle of summer, where carrying concealed was difficult with wardrobe consideration. I asked him “It’s hot out, and you’re a sweaty mess after mowing the lawn. You go up to 7-11 and get a Slurpee, but didn’t strap the gun on you because you hadn’t changed yet and had nowhere to stow it in your t-shirt, Bermuda shorts, and flip flops. What’s more powerful, the 32 Tomcat in the pocket or the 45 back home on the dresser?
Admittedly, the little 3032 is underpowered, but it was a firearm I would be able to carry, and would carry, at all times I was legally able to.
When choosing a concealed carry firearm, pick one you WILL carry, day in and day out. One you will carry long after the “novelty” of carrying wears off and the firearm goes from new and exciting thing to have on you in public to the trusted friend you barely notice there; until you need it.
The reason this article is being written is for a concealed carry handgun. That means conceal-ability is really one of the biggest factors in choosing a handgun for this purpose. Many people will state reliability is the absolute most important factor bar none, yet these people are not carrying the famed-for-its-reliability AK-47 rifle around with them each day.
Conceal-ability is a function of the system including intended placement, wardrobe, body style, holster, and handgun. Because there are so many factors, conceal-ability can be a difficult characteristic to address, and it can change based on seasons (clothing). In fact, many people choose to have to concealed carry handgun choices because of clothing.
Intended placement will dictate a great deal of conceal-ability, because it affects what clothing is applicable and what type of holster will be selected. Options include shoulder holsters, in the waist belt (IWB), outside the waist belt (OWB), pocket carry (in a pants pocket), or on the ankle. Females have the option of a new bra mounted holster, too.
The holster is a big factor in providing firearm conceal-ability. A well designed holster can allow the wearer to accommodate a larger handgun than a more poorly designed one. This is not just due to weight, but due to how the holster mounts and how it allows a firearm to be carried. An uncomfortable holster may affect the mindset to actually carry the handgun.
I had heard good things about the Crossbreed Supertuck holster, a kydex/leather hybrid. My daily carry handgun at the time was an H&K USP Compact 45. But, I didn’t have a holster at all for my large framed Beretta 92FS. I decided to get a Crossbreed Supertuck for that pistol just so I’d have the means to carry it if the need ever arose. The Crossbreed Supertuck allowed me to carry this full framed pistol comfortably and easily concealed. It was still a heavy pistol and I knew it was there, but it was very manageable.
When one conceals a handgun, it is typically clothing that will do the concealing. How much is a person willing to adjust their wardrobe to accommodate the firearm? Men can typically untuck a shirt to achieve better conceal-ability, or dress up more with a suit coat to obscure the waist line or underarm area. Women often choose to wear more form fitting clothing, making concealing a firearm with clothing more difficult. The willingness to make accommodations for clothing will affect the size and geometry of what firearms are appropriate to meet the characteristic of conceal-ability. Darker clothes actually hide the “print” of a handgun better than lighter clothes, and clothing with a busy pattern can help break up the print of a handgun more than a solid color can.
Body style is another factor in conceal-ability. Slender or lithe people will have a harder time concealing on their waist than someone with some “on-board fuel reserves” around their middle. This is largely overcome with wardrobe, but for many that work hard at being able to present a fit and attractive appearance, they can be reluctant to cover up all the evidence of their hard work.
Once these many factors are addressed as a system, the relative size of a firearm can be determined. Will it be a full frame, high capacity pistol, a compact but still quite effective pistol, or even a subcompact “something is better than nothing” selection to address specific requirements?
Reliability is often touted as the number one factor in choosing a handgun. While it is VERY important, I hope it’s been adequately explained why some narrowing down of selection must occur before reliability is considered. In truth, these should be given equal weight in the decision making, because it is vital the handgun work when the trigger is depressed.
“Click” is the loudest sound in a gunfight.
Reliability is a function of the holster, firearm, and ammunition system. Reliability in this case is defined as the ability to deploy the firearm from its stowage and discharge projectiles at a target (which may include training targets or The Bad Guy). Furthermore, reliability also includes the firearm not going off except when it is intended. Looking at aspects of this system, there are a few factors to consider.
Many holsters offer retention mechanisms, whether they are straps to hold it in place or a retention mechanism requiring depressing buttons to release the firearm. All mechanical devices have the potential for failure, so introducing these in critical, life dependent system warrants serious consideration. Most modern holsters offer decent retention through tension on the firearm. And if the firearm is concealed, there may be little need to worry about The Bad Guy seeing it and grabbing it before your hands are already on it. If one is choosing an open-carry method of carry, mechanical retention features may make more sense, but this still warrants the consideration of mechanism failure.
Most recognizable brand name firearms feature high reliability (this assumes the firearm and original manufacturer magazines). This article cannot cover every brand, much less every model. For reliability, it is best to read many reviews of the firearm, and if possible, find some high round count testing. Another great source of reliability reviews are the “After Action Reports” people write on forums and blogs for the training they’ve attended. These multi-day and high round count sessions often bring out the strengths and failure points in firearms (and equipment) designed for this purpose. Be aware that for every negative review on the internet, there are likely many satisfied customers. But if there is a design problem with a firearm, it will generally turn up in a diligent Google search.
For a time, my summer carry was my Walther PPK/S in .380ACP. It was small enough for summer carry, and was as effective as the venerable 38 S&W used in service revolvers for almost a century. (This was before the proliferation of concealed carry intent pistols currently on the market.) Doing my research, I noted that the firearm was rather unreliable out of the box, and required several hundred rounds of break in shooting. It took time and money to make this pistol a good choice, but the research performed meant I knew what to do.
When researching my current primary carry pistol, the H&K P30 in 9mm, I ran across the following life test:
These tests are common in the market, and many are even performed by the manufacturer when testing for reliability (to enter the military or law enforcement markets with that product).
Going back to the idea that all mechanical devices have the potential for failure, some modern firearm selections for concealed carry are not equipped with a user-operated safety. The safety mechanism is just one more sub-mechanism that can fail when the firearm is needed most. In this case, the firearm and holster system work together to provide trigger protection to avoid negligent discharge.
Ammunition is another factor in firearm reliability. Most modern firearms will reliably feed, fire, and eject properly manufactured ammunition. Some may a bit finicky over some brands or even bullet geometry. The aforementioned Walther PPK/S never handled hollow point ammunition well; it was designed before hollow points were invented.
We ask a lot of ammunition. Its primer must ignite when the proper force is applied, and must not ignite due to bumps and jostles. When it does ignite, it must send the bullet down the barrel and fly true into the point of aim. The expended energy must be sufficient to cycle the firearm’s action (assuming a semiautomatic is being used), and eject the spent casing. The results of the discharge must not be so dirty as to excessively foul the firearm mechanism, and the ammunition must be free of things that will cause build up or contamination in the barrel and feed mechanism. With all we ask of the ammunition, it should be clear that the firearm and ammunition act closely as an interdependent system.
Choose an ammunition that will cycle properly in the firearm being considered, and test it thoroughly.
Cartridge selection (Stopping Power, Capacity, Control)
The days of believing that handguns are all-powerful life-ending tools are long gone in the professional community of protection specialists. (Sadly, it still exists in the anti-gun mainstream media.) It is known that the handgun is a poor choice for stopping a determined assailant, and in the modern civilian world of reasonably quick medical response, handgun wounds are not as fatal as they once were. They are a convenience, and a way to ensure some level of adequate protection is present.
There are a couple schools of thought on stopping power, involving bullet mass and bullet speed. These factors have been analyzed at length in the protection community with no clear winner. The biggest debate is between the .45 ACP, .40 S&W, and the 9x19 mm.
The trade-off to large cartridge stopping power is ammunition capacity, and vice versa. Regardless of choosing a heavy cartridge or lighter one with more capacity, shot placement remains the biggest factor in effectiveness.
A factor to consider on capacity is reloading. Having more shots in the magazine means that you can get more shots towards the target before having to take time to reload. The counter to this argument is that if you have enough stopping power, you may not need to reload. This all comes back to skill and training.
For my part, I’ve decided the 9x19 mm is the best choice for concealed carry. Getting defense intent 9mm cartridges offers acceptable stopping power with shot placement, and the capacity makes downtime due to reloading more minimized. The cartridge has its drawbacks, but these were acceptable in consideration of the advantages of capacity.
In general, most handgun rounds equal to or greater than the .380 ACP are adequate for concealed carry. The .380 ACP in a personal protection intent load has about the same stopping power as a .38 S&W revolver round, which is a proven cartridge for personal protection. Some believe the 9x19mm is the absolute minimum that should be considered.
Control of the firearm is a function of the caliber chosen, the strength and technique of the shooter, and to some extent the action type of the firearm. Heavy hitting rounds like the powerful 10mm cartridge are not easily managed by many shooters, and may not be effective in their hands. When determining which calibers to be considered, the shooter’s ability to mitigate the recoil of the discharge in that firearm is an important factor to consider in the system.
Ergonomics include the form of the firearm, where its controls are located, its applicability to its carry intent, and how well the shooter can handle the recoil. Because size is often the biggest trade-off with a concealed carry firearm, many compact size firearms will use a smaller handle to make conceal-ability greater. Ergonomics help with controlling the firearm, so this factor can be associated with cartridge selection too.
A person should NOT pick a firearm based on how fun it is to shoot at the range. A large, comfortable handle on a heavy frame that mitigates the recoil through inertia is generally the antithesis of conceal-ability. Concealed carry handguns are often uncomfortable to shoot, recoil harder than full framed counterparts, and leave the shooter’s hands tired after a seemingly low round count at the range. Add in the extra recoil of defense intent cartridges, and this effect can be exacerbated.
A concealed carry firearm should address the many factors above before mere comfort is considered. If it’s needed, comfort will be the last thing on the mind of the shooter.
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