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Kat Ainsworth

Nigh Uncatchable: The Axelson Tactical Black Pearl

A closer look at the custom-quality Axelson Tactical Black Pearl AR-15.

ARs are not created equally. There are degrees of differences among the various AR-platform rifles from near-indecipherable nuances to impossible-to-miss distinctions; some variations are only Cerakote-deep while others become clear on the range. With the market inundated by black rifles, manufacturers must find a way to stand out. One manufacturer working to distinguish themselves is Axelson Tactical and they’ve reached new heights with the Black Pearl.

Axelson tactical Black Pearl main
The Axelson Tactical Black Pearl Competition Rifle comes chambered in .223 Wylde for superior precision but is also available with a 5.56 NATO barrel for shooters who prefer the latter.

Axelson Tactical may be a relative newcomer to the gun world but in the handful of years they’ve been designing firearms they’ve made an indelible mark on the industry. The company was founded by Jeff Axelson, surviving brother of STG2 (SEAL) Matthew Axelson who was killed in combat during Operation Red Wings, the ill-fated mission made public through the book and subsequent movie Lone Survivor. Jeff Axelson and his family decided to shift their focus solely to firearms in part as a legacy to the late SEAL. To date AR platforms have been their priority.

Secrets Of The Pearl

Since Axelson Tactical began designing rifles I’ve been fortunate to run almost every model they’ve produced both on the range and in the field, dropping everything from hogs to Blackbuck. And while all their guns certainly get the job done with quality and style, the Black Pearl stands out. It was designed as a lightweight multi-purpose rifle with an edge: precision. It’s important to remember that just as there are differences between rifles there is a difference between accuracy and precision: put simply, accuracy is hitting the general vicinity of the bull’s eye with loosely grouped shots while precision is consistently striking an exact spot, creating a tight group. Looking for precision? Look at the Black Pearl.

The Black Pearl is a custom-quality AR-15 built by Axelson gunsmith Dave Bischoff who gives each rifle his undivided attention. Many of its specifications reflect its being designed to be competition-ready out of the box including its .223 Wylde chambering and 16” Proof Research carbon fiber barrel with a 1:8 twist rate. Carbon fiber furniture was used throughout the gun including the company’s own Ultra Lightweight Carbon Fiber Fixed Stock and 15” Carbon Fiber M-LOK Compatible Rail. Its lighter weight is absolutely one of the benefits of carbon fiber but it is neither the only nor the best reason to use it in firearms. Carbon fiber has incredible tensile strength and depending on the composite used can be up to ten times stronger than steel and eight times stronger than aluminum while also boasting superior fatigue properties and corrosion resistance. This means not only does the Black Pearl weigh in at a scant 5 pounds, 4 ounces, it’s tough.

The slim-profile carbon fiber stock is lightweight yet allows a solid cheek weld and nicely balances out the rifle’s equally lightweight handguard and barrel.

Of course, the model includes more traditional metals, too. The upper and lower receivers are 7075-T6 Forged Hard-Coat Anodized Aluminum; forging is believed to increase a receiver’s strength due to its continuous grain structure and the electrochemical process of hard-coat anodizing improves wear-resistance. Other components include a mid-length direct impingement gas system and BCM gas block; the length of the former softens recoil and the latter is manufactured within tight tolerances. The trigger, which is an Axelson Drop-In Adjustable Single-Stage with a slightly curved blade, can be adjusted between 2 pounds, 5 ounces and 7 pounds, 5 ounces.

The Axelson Drop-In Single Stage Adjustable Trigger has a smooth pull and clean, crisp break that continued to deliver at multiple pull weight settings right down to its lightest of 2 pound, 5 ounces.

The high quality of components continues with the Diamond-Like Carbon Coated (DLC) Bolt Carrier Group (BCG). There are a number of BCGs on the market with such a wide variety of finishes it can be difficult to know which is best, and DLC is currently one of the least common. However, it’s a long-established coating in other industries, specifically those where high temperatures and friction are issues. DLC is a nanocomposite coating with properties similar to those of a natural diamond such as high hardness, low friction, and extreme resistance to corrosion. Axelson Tactical chose the DLC BCG for the Black Pearl because it enables the rifle to function at a higher level. The coating is applied to the bolt, bolt carrier, and gas key, and the BCG is HPT and MPI tested.

Testing and Accuracy

“Test to break.” Those were Jeff Axelson’s words regarding my testing the Black Pearl, and I took him at his word. I put the rifle through it all – rain, snow, sun, and the accompanying dust and mud – and fed it ammunition until the crates of spent brass reached astounding heights. It was dragged, carried, and knocked over (the latter being an accident caused by my 90-pound Lab, Puck). It was used until friend and gun store manager Tylar Coe dubbed it “Dirty GaGa”. This is what I found.

At 5 pounds, 4 ounces (empty) the Black Pearl’s lighter weight makes it easier to shoulder and balance for extended periods and significantly simpler to carry on spot-and-stalk hunts.

For the review I mounted Trijicon’s latest, the 1-8x28mm AccuPower, to the Black Pearl’s full-length Picatinny rail. The only downside to this pairing was the scope’s weight of 25 ounces – almost one-third of the rifle’s weight. Shooters interested in taking full advantage of the rifle’s lightweight build should use a lighter optic. Weight aside, the AccuPower is a stellar scope with a first focal plane reticle offering exceptional clarity and nice field of vision.

I shot from various distances but spent the most time at 100 yards. For accuracy testing I shot from the bench, stabilizing the rifle using Brownell’s sandbags, but during my sessions behind the trigger I also shot off-hand, prone, and kneeling. The Black Pearl ate thousands of rounds ranging from Sinterfire Greenline .223 Remington 45-grain Frangible to Hornady Match .223 Remington 75-grain BTHP. To cover my 5.56x45mm NATO bases I used Federal 77-grain OTM and Barnes VOR-TX 62-grain TSX HP.

Who says black guns aren’t hot? The Black Pearl isn’t just a precision performer, it’s a good-looking AR-15.

The Black Pearl’s slim 3/8” thick buttstock mounted snugly to my shoulder although I did have to adjust my usual support-hand grip while shooting from the bench due to there being nothing to rest against the web of my hand. A pad is available as a custom option; the fixed stock can also be ordered with a closed rather than open configuration. The tube has a diameter of 3.5” which facilitated a solid cheek weld and despite my long length of pull I was able to position myself comfortably behind the fixed stock.

Felt recoil was negligible which might not seem noteworthy due to the rifle being chambered in .223 Wylde but is worth mentioning because it was softened beyond what was expected from experience with countless other AR-15s. Zeroing went quickly, as did the moments I needed to re-zero for different loads, the simplicity of which can be partially attributed to the trigger. My Lyman Trigger Pull Gauge showed the rifle shipped with a trigger pull weight of 4 pounds, 13 ounces which is around what many shooters prefer. Since I, myself, enjoy a light pull weight I chose to make an adjustment although I did spend time shooting beforehand.

Making the adjustment was simple: I confirmed the rifle was empty, slid the takedown pins free, set the upper receiver aside, and held the lower receiver in my left hand (a cradle or vise could also be used). A single 1/16” Allen head screw was immediately visible atop the disconnector. Using the corresponding Allen wrench I turned it counterclockwise to lighten the pull weight, periodically using my trigger pull gauge to monitor my progress. At 2 pounds, 5.3 ounces, I stopped adjusting; it’s possible to overturn screws and doing so can cause problems with a trigger’s functionality. At both the aforementioned pull weight of 4 pounds, 13 ounces and the lightest setting the trigger was smooth and had a clean, crisp break with a short reset. One of the greatest benefits of lightening a trigger is increased precision, something the Black Pearl excelled at to begin with.

It was immediately clear the Black Pearl does indeed perform well as a precision rifle. Loaded with Hornady .223 Rem 53-grain Superformance Varmint V-MAX the rifle nailed Shoot-N-C targets with sub-MOA groups with a best five-shot group from the bench of .530”. It didn’t just linger above half-an-inch, though; Browning .223 Rem 50-grain BXV Varmint Expansion delivered numerous sub-half MOA groups with a best five-shot group of .428”. The rifle seemed to like heavier loads, too: DRT .223 Rem 79-grain Elite provided a best five-shot group of .595” and Federal’s latest, .223 Rem 73-grain Gold Medal Berger BT Target did nicely at .619”. Overall, accuracy testing went quite well with the Black Pearl proving itself as a sub-MOA rifle with sub-half MOA leanings.

Axelson Tactical Black Pearl group
A quality rifle is a vital component of truly precise groups but quality ammunition matters, too. Hornady .223 Rem 53-grain Superformance Varmint V-MAX was one of the Black Pearl’s favorites and delivered this five-shot group of .530”.

Through thousands of rounds of various brands and loads the Black Pearl experienced no failures of any kind. My goal to run the rifle to failure failed in itself; the ammo ran out before the gun did. In the end it was filthy and in need of a thorough cleaning but as long as I kept it well lubed with the SEAL 1 CLP Plus I keep in my range bag it cycled consistently. Its precision can be credited to a variety of factors including its Proof Research carbon fiber barrel, light, crisp single-stage trigger, and Axelson ROC Competition 10-Port Tunable Muzzle Brake. With the trigger at 2.5 pounds and the muzzle brake tuned – a task accomplished with an Allen wrench and a little time spent on minor adjustments – the rifle proved itself as a reliable tack-driver. Sub-half MOA groups speak for themselves.

Axelson did solid work with the Black Pearl. According to founder and owner Jeff Axelson, the team “wanted to design a lightweight, strong, deadly-accurate rifle. By combining the Proof Research barrel, our newly-designed carbon fiber furniture, DLC BCG, and single-stage trigger we created an ultra-lightweight speed demon.” Gunsmith Dave Bischoff added that they wanted to create a lightweight race gun. It would seem they accomplished all that and more.

The author ran the Black Pearl in freezing weather, rain, and snow, finding it continued to cycle reliably in spite of the weather.

To paraphrase Captain Jack Sparrow of Pirates of the Caribbean fame – the rifle is, after all, his “nigh uncatchable” black-hulled ship’s namesake – it’s not just a receiver and a barrel and a trigger; that’s what a rifle needs, but what a rifle is – what the Black Pearl really is – is freedom.

For more on Axelson Tactical, please visit axelsonusa.com.

More AR Options To Consider

Gun Review: Remington 870 Tac-14

The new Remington 870 Tac-14 works around NFA regulations and offers a potent defensive option for home defense or as a truck gun — or for just plain fun.

What should you know about the Remington Tac-14?

  • Remington's short and wicked-looking 870 Tac-14 is based on its classic 870.
  • Despite boasting a 14-inch barrel, the 870 Tac-14 doesn't run afoul of NFA regulation.
  • This is due to its factory outfitting of the Raptor grip.
  • The pump gun has a cylinder bore, is topped with a bead sight and has a 4+1 capacity.
  • The author believes the 870 Tac-14 is a highly viable home defense or truck gun.

With its bicentennial in the rearview mirror, the Remington Arms Company opted for a new take on an old classic, the Remington 870. The 870 is the model most often cited by gun owners as their favorite model from Big Green’s vast catalog; it seems more shooters have owned or do own the classic pump shotgun than those who do not.

Remington - 870 Tac-14 -1

The real question was how to make it new. After all, more than 11,000,000 have been sold since the model was launched in 1951, and there are literally dozens of configurations already available. In the end, the answer was simple, really: the Remington 870 Tac-14, a non-NFA shotgun with a 14-inch barrel and a pistol grip.

The key phrase here being “non-NFA.”

Since the National Firearms Act (NFA) was enacted in 1934, buying certain firearms has involved jumping through a variety of hoops, including a lengthy wait period. Shotguns of a certain type fall under the purview of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), the federal agency responsible for enforcing the contents of the NFA.

According to 26 U.S. Code §§ 5845(a)(1)-(2), (d), “The NFA defines shotgun, in part, as a weapon designed or redesigned, made or remade, and intended to be fired from the shoulder and designed or redesigned and made or remade to use the energy of the explosive in a fixed shotgun shell to fire through a smooth bore either a number of projectiles (ball shot) or a single projectile for each pull of the trigger. A shotgun is a firearm subject to the NFA if the shotgun has a barrel or barrels of less than 18 inches in length. A weapon made from a shotgun is also a firearm subject to the NFA if the weapon as modified has an overall length of less than 26 inches or a barrel or barrels of less than 18 inches in length.”

So, how is Remington’s newest model a non-NFA firearm? It has a pistol grip rather than a shotgun stock and has an overall length of 26.3 inches, meaning it’s a “firearm” and therefore not subject to additional Federal regulation. Translation: no tax stamp, no NFA registration, no worries. (Well, state and local laws do apply, but most states are Tac-14 friendly.)

The factory-installed Shockwave Technologies Raptor bird’s head grip helps place the Tac-14 outside of NFA regulations. 870 Tac-14
The factory-installed Shockwave Technologies Raptor bird’s head grip helps place the Tac-14 outside of NFA regulations.

I have a confession. I love all things NFA — SBRs, SBSs, full-auto, the list goes on — and I also have a soft spot in my gun-loving heart for firearms capable of creating bigger booms. This means a non-NFA 12-gauge with a pistol grip and 14-inch barrel was met with unabashed interest. I even treated the selection of test ammunition with the kind of reverence typically reserved for religious leaders. And when the firearm arrived, I opened the green box with glee, sitting down to look it over from grip to muzzle and back again.

From Head To Tail

The Remington 870 Tac-14 features a Raptor pistol grip, which is constructed from glass-filled polymer, a composite with far greater strength and rigidity than straight polymer. The Raptor is manufactured by Shockwave Technologies and has a bird’s head grip that’s designed to maximize recoil control. Also promising improved control is the Magpul MOE M-Lok Forend. This particular Magpul forend is a bit longer than standard and has front and rear hand stops.

The Tac-14 might be smaller, but it’s sturdy; the receiver is milled from solid steel, as expected for a firearm from the 870 line, and has a black oxide finish. The 14-inch barrel is a cylinder bore, meaning it has no choke, and is topped by a bead sight. Capacity is 4+1 when the 12-gauge shotshells in question are the common 2¾-inch length. And again, overall length is 26.3 inches.

Testing And Accuracy

At the range, I decided to bow to the 870 Tac-14’s size and most likely use by firing it at 10 and 25 yards, although mostly at 10 or less. The majority of shooting was done standing and off-hand; however, I did spend some time at the bench and kneeling. Because I wanted to be thorough, I fed the gun everything from Fiocchi’s Exacta target load 2¾-inch 7/8-ounce No. 7½ shot, to Remington’s Managed Recoil buckshot, to Federal’s 3-inch magnum 00 buckshot — for a start.

The author tested a wide variety of defensive and target loads through the Tac-14. A true utility gun must flawlessly handle all applicable types of ammo. 870 Tac-14
The author tested a wide variety of defensive and target loads through the Tac-14. A true utility gun must flawlessly handle all applicable types of ammo.

Starting with a relatively light load seemed wisest, so the first dozen shotshells through the 870 Tac-14 were the aforementioned Fiocchi Exacta target loads. Recoil was negligible — a term sometimes thrown around casually — but in this case, felt recoil was so minimal it was surprising. The Raptor grip allowed for a firm grip even when wet, and the trigger was relatively light with a clean break.

The gun’s initial performance was encouraging, so I promptly loaded it with Federal 3-inch TruBall rifled slugs and blew away a row of Birchwood Casey Shoot-N-C targets. Recoil remained well within my control, which was a pleasant surprise following the sometimes-significant recoil of the half-dozen 12-gauge shotguns I’ve reviewed in the past few months. Even better, I nailed the targets where I was aiming, an important detail given the method of shooting.

Aiming the 870 Tac-14 took some fine-tuning, but I quickly realized shooting off-hand from the hip was best executed by stabilizing the gun against my hip so it bore some of the brunt of the recoil. The upward or downward angle of the gun necessary for an accurate shot changed according to range, but that was easily mastered. The gun can, of course, be raised to eye level and held out so the bead sight can be used, and I did so several times before deciding I preferred shooting from the hip.

The gun ate every standard-sized shotshell I fed it. Remington’s Ultimate Defense 00 buckshot performed well in both standard and Managed Recoil loads, nailing targets with more precision than many others.

The real buckshot front-runner was Hornady’s Critical Defense 2¾-inch 00 Buckshot, a load packed into black hulls that recoiled a little more than the other 00s — although with less muzzle rise than one might expect — and patterned quite well considering the gun’s cylinder bore. At 10 yards, Critical Defense consistently struck the bull’s-eye with an average spread of 2.75 inches. At 25 yards, that spread broadened to 12 inches, reinforcing this gun’s close-range specialty.

Its short overall length makes the Tac-14 compact and highly maneuverable — perfect qualities in a truck gun.
Its short overall length makes the Tac-14 compact and highly maneuverable — perfect qualities in a truck gun.

If recoil is a concern, there are a number of workable options. I’ll preface this by saying there was only one load with recoil that got my attention — No. 4 buckshot, across the board — but even that was not a problem.

For slugs, Fiocchi’s Low-Recoil 2¾-inch 7/8-ounce Aero slugs were softer-recoiling and made follow-up shot placement simpler (the tightest group with slugs was created with these). Remington’s Ultimate Defense buckshot in managed recoil — eight 00-buck pellets rather than nine — checked the boxes for a lower-recoiling 00 buck option.

The shotshells the gun didn’t enjoy cycling were Aguila Minishells. Although it would fire them without hesitation, it seemed no amount of finessing the pump action would consistently chamber the next Minishell. If you’re shooting for fun, a few hiccups aren’t life-threatening, but if you’re using this gun for self-defense it’s another story altogether.

Real-Life Use

Remington officially launched the 870 Tac-14 at the NRA Annual Meetings 2017 with the prominent tagline, “The shortest allowable distance between powerless and prepared.” This brings up an important point: Is the 870 Tac-14 for fun or self-defense?

My first thought upon seeing the 870 Tac-14 was that it would make an excellent truck gun, and it does. However, it’s also a viable option for home defense. It has one significant benefit a full-size 870 doesn’t have: greater maneuverability, which is something you should never discount when it comes to close-quarter shooting like you’ll find in a house packed with furniture. The gun’s size also makes threat-focused shooting — also known as point-shooting — quicker and likely more accurate, not to mention flat-out doable when the threat moves from social to personal space.

While I don’t recommend shooting the 870 Tac-14 single-handed unsupported unless you absolutely must, it’s reasonably accurate with one hand as long as it’s supported. That said, the recoil creates enormous muzzle rise without the use of your off hand. Its weight makes it unwieldy and difficult to aim with nothing beneath it, but if you rest the forend on a surface it gets the job done. You can even cycle the pump with a sharp motion against said surface.

The Tac-14 is all utility and features a Magpul M-Lok forend and a fixed cylinder bore barrel with a simple and effective front bead sight.
The Tac-14 is all utility and features a Magpul M-Lok forend and a fixed cylinder bore barrel with a simple and effective front bead sight.

One caveat: Take care which load you use for self-defense. As awesome as it is watching 00 buck utterly annihilate a watermelon, it’s also eye opening watching it blow through multiple sheets of drywall. There’s a reason our service members use 12-gauge shotguns to breach doors and walls; this is a load capable of incredible destruction, and it neither knows nor cares what lies beyond said door or wall. Stick to loads less likely to over-penetrate, such as No. 4 buckshot — which, yes, did recoil more noticeably — and practice. Find out what your chosen load can do before you make a long-term decision.

Bottom Line

870-tac-14-specsOverall, the Remington 870 Tac-14 seems to be a well-made, resilient firearm. It brought a smile to my face and, I’m not ashamed to say, more than one exclamation of “Sweet!” to my lips. It ate every 2¾- and 3-inch shotshell I fed it without a single failure, and when I was done, the pile of spent shotshells was quite substantial. It delivered solid accuracy with a broad range of loads, even when firing the Federal Black Cloud 3-inch 1¼-ounce BBs I ran through it just because. And while it was fun, it was also reliable. It’s my new truck gun, and there’s every reason it should be yours as well.

This article originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

7 Great Defensive Handguns For Women

The best handguns for women often land outside the pink-it and shrink-it category.

What are some great general handguns for women?

Confession: My name is Kat, and my hands aren’t small. My fingers are longer than those of many — most — men, in fact. My palms are too wide for women’s gloves. My hands engulf sub-compact guns but fit full-size double-stack 10mms. I am a woman who shoots, and my hands are neither small nor weak.

Men frequently ask me what handgun I recommend for the female in their lives. My standard response: Let them choose for themselves.

With that said, here’s a list of top handguns for women. And keep in mind: Many of the top choices don’t sport pink grips or purple slides.

handguns for women - SW MP45 ShieldSmith & Wesson M&P45 Shield
When Smith and Wesson launched the M&P45 Shield in 2016, I was immediately intrigued. The M&P Shield is a striker-fired model offered in multiple calibers — 9mm, .40 S&W, .45 ACP — that’s earned a well-deserved place at the self-defense table. The .45 ACP chambering is interesting, partly due to the challenge of controlling its recoil in a compact model.

The 45 Shield was designed with an aggressively textured grip to combat slipping; even pouring water over the gun didn’t lessen its effectiveness. It has an overall length of 6.5 inches — 0.4 inch longer than the smaller caliber models — and weighs 20.5 ounces empty. As a single-stack, it’s easier to conceal and simpler to grip with smaller hands while remaining comfortable for larger hands. On the range, its design proved solid by recoiling rearward with minimal muzzle rise. My average five-shot groups at 10 yards hovered at 1.5 inches and expanded to 2 inches at 25 yards.

Why conceal carry (CC) a .45 ACP? Because its bullet diameter is .451 inch prior to expansion, after which it’s even larger, and sometimes those extra two millimeters are the difference between hitting and missing vital organs or arteries. Many carry advocates shy away from recommending .45 ACP handguns for women because they believe they recoil enormously, which isn’t true: The .45 ACP recoils more than some, but it’s far less than most people expect. It’s easily mastered, and when you do, you might find yourself not only carrying the 45 Shield, but also loving it like Gollum loved the One Ring.


Smith & Wesson M&P45 Shield
Frame Size: Compact slim
Caliber: .45 Auto
Action: Striker-fired, semi-auto
Capacity: 7+1 and 6+1
Barrel Length: 3.3 in.
Front Sight: Steel, white dot
Rear Sight: Steel, white two-dot
Overall Length: 6.5 in.
Frame Width: .99 in.
Frame with Slide Stop: 1.05 in.
Height: 4.88 in. with flush magazine
Grip: Polymer
Weight: 20.5 oz. (empty)
Barrel Material: Stainless-steel, 
Armornite finish
Slide Material: Stainless-steel, 
Armornite finish
Frame Material: Polymer
Finish: Black
MSRP: $479

handguns for women - Ruger SR1911Ruger SR1911
The Ruger SR1911 in 9mm is a Series 70 Lightweight Commander-style 1911; this variant has an aluminum frame and 4.25-inch barrel. At 29.3 ounces, it’s somewhat heavier than the original Colt Commander of 1949 and longer, too; its overall length is 7.75 inches. Even so, it can be concealed — yes you can conceal a full-size pistol — even as a smaller-framed woman.

Slinging lead, the SR1911 excels. It ships with Novak Low-Mount three-dot sights; sights are drift adjustable and provide a clear sight picture. But its true test wasn’t at my hands but those of my then-13-year-old daughter, Grace. She was a 1911 newbie, and her first five-shot group at 10 yards neatly obliterated the 1-inch bull’s eye on the Shoot-N-C target.

Grace’s hands are much smaller than mine; her fingers are 1.75 inches shorter and narrower, too. Despite that, we both found the Ruger SR1911 offered a positive grip, natural trigger reach and fantastic accuracy. At 25 yards using Hornady American Gunner XTP 115-grain ammunition, the gun nailed a best five-shot group of 1.41 inches. It’s a dependable, accurate gun, and Grace claimed it as hers.

Oh, the SR1911 is also available in 10mm. The 10mm model has a longer barrel and is difficult to conceal, but it’s a superb choice for open carry or handgun hunting. It’s awesomely precise — my first five rounds of Polycase yielded a one-hole .538-inch group — and it feels natural. Also, its greater recoil is blunted by its design. My first range session with it involved 100 rounds of Hornady and 200 rounds of Polycase. There were no failures, just pure precision and bliss.

If you’re interested in the SR1911, be aware that it comes chambered in 9mm, .45 ACP and 10mm.


Ruger SR1911
Model Type: Lightweight 
Commander-style 1911
Caliber: 9mm
Action: Recoil-operated, 
hammer-fired, semi-auto
Barrel: 4.25 in.
Twist: 1:10 in. RH
Width: 1.34 in.
Overall Length: 7.75 in.
Height: 5.45 in.
Weight: 29.3 oz.
Capacity: 9+1
Trigger: Aluminum, skeletonized, 
with adjustable over-travel stop
Trigger Pull: 
4 lbs., 5 oz.
Slide: Stainless-steel
Slide Finish: Low-glare 
Grip Frame: 
Gray anodized aluminum
Grip Panels: Black rubberized
Sights: Drift adjustable Novak 
LoMount 3-Dot
Safeties: Ambidextrous extended 
beavertail grip safety
MSRP: $979

handguns for women - SIG P320SIG Sauer P320
The SIG P320 received attention after being selected as the winner of the Army’s XM17 Modular Handgun System (MHS) competition. It then failed a drop test done outside U.S. testing parameters; basically, it might fire if the trigger has a heavier pull and it’s dropped in a specific way. SIG announced it will offer upgrades, but here’s the bottom line: The P320 has been reliable not only for myself but other long-time gun owners, meaning it’s highly recommended.

There are multiple P320 variations, one of which is the P320 Compact. This is the gun carried concealed by competitive shooter Annette Evans. Evans carries the compact model partly due to familiarity: “It’s the baby version of my match gun, meaning it’s nearly identical to the gun I’ve shot tens of thousands of rounds through.”

She went on to attest to the gun’s performance: “I’m completely confident in the gun’s reliability, in how well I can run the gun, and in how effectively I shoot the gun — qualities I demand of my carry gun.”

During trigger time, the striker-fired P320 shines. It has a wider double-stack grip that fits both large and smaller hands — mine larger and Evans’ smaller — and texturing assists a firm grip, making it one of the best handguns for women available, or anyone for that matter. There’s some take-up ahead of the break; the trigger breaks at a measured 6 pounds, 3 ounces. At 25 yards, the best group was with DRT 9mm 85-grain Terminal Shock, a five-shot 1.11-inch group.

The P320’s modularity is one of its greatest features: Grip modules come in small, medium and large; it has an interchangeable trigger group; and calibers include 9mm, .357 SIG, .40 S&W and .45 ACP. The full-size P320 has an overall length of 8 inches and an empty weight of 29.5 ounces; the Compact model has an overall length of 7.2 inches and an empty weight of 25.8 ounces. Whether for open carry, concealed carry or range time, SIG has you covered here as a woman who shoots.


SIG Sauer P320
Caliber: 9mm/.357 SIG/.40 S&W/.45 ACP
Action: Semi-auto
Frame: Full-size (or compact)
Finish Material: Stainless-steel 
Slide Material: Stainless-steel 
Accessory Rail: M1913 (M1913)
Trigger: Striker (striker)
Trigger Pull: 6 lbs., 3 oz. 
(6 lbs., 4 oz.)
Barrel: 4.7 in. (3.9 in.)
Overall Length: 8.0 in. (7.2 in.)
Height: 5.5 in. (5.3 in.)
Weight: 29.5 oz. empty 
(25.8 oz., empty)
MSRP: Starts at $679

handguns for women - Remington RP9Remington RP9
Big Green recently celebrated its 200th anniversary, and with it came the RP9. There might appear to be similarities to the aforementioned P320, but there are reasons to mention it. In just a few short years, Remington jumped in the deep end of the handgun pool, launching the R51 — twice — the RM380 and the RP9. Of this trifecta, all of which I’ve fired at length, the RP9 stands out as the model of choice when it comes to handguns for women.

It takes more than going “boom” for a gun to win me over. So, although its aesthetics are noteworthy — it looks cool — it’s the trigger that makes this gun. The RP9 has a safety blade trigger with a steady, smooth pull and clean break. The reset is short, simplifying follow-up shots and increasing accuracy. My Lyman Trigger Gauge measured its pull weight at 5 pounds, 10 ounces, and though I do enjoy lightweight triggers, the RP9’s does nicely. Five rounds of Polycase Inceptor 9mm 65-grain ARX pierced a target at 25 yards with a best group of 1.67 inches.


Remington RP9
Caliber: 9mm
Action: Semi-auto, striker-fired
Capacity: 18+1
Barrel: 4.5 in.
Trigger Pull Weight: 5 lbs., 10 oz.
Sights: Drift-adjustable, three-dot white sights
Frame: Polymer
Slide: Stainless-steel
Finish: Matte black
Overall Length: 7.92 in.
Width: 1.3 in.
Height: 5.5 in.
Weight: 26.4 oz. (empty)
MSRP: $489

handguns for women - Kimber Amethyst Ultra iiKimber Amethyst Ultra II
Its bold purple slide grabs your attention, but the accuracy of the Kimber Amethyst Ultra II keeps it. The Amethyst is a compact 1911, and if you doubt the platform’s efficacy, consider that a 1918 Colt M1911 was self-defense expert Massad Ayoob’s 12th birthday present. If a 1911 can win the attention of 12-year-old Mas, it can have yours, too.

The Amethyst comes in 9mm and .45 ACP, so I, of course, chose .45 ACP. I ran 10 different brands of ammo through the pistol at various distances and experienced no failures of any kind.

It’s a single stack, so it’s slim for small hands, but the G10 grip panels broaden the gun for a concrete grip. Even better, it’s tall enough to prohibit dangling pinkies; it has an overall height of 4.75 inches and a 3-inch barrel, but it manages to retain enough bulk for comfortable and decisive shooting.

The solid aluminum trigger has an extremely abbreviated measured pull weight of 4 pounds, 10 ounces, and a glass-sharp break. At 10 yards with Snake River Shooting Products Team Never Quit 155-grain HP Frangible rounds, my best five-shot group — offhand — was 0.58 inch. At 15 yards, I had no problem drilling the bull’s eye consistently with a single-handed grip.

The Amethyst is a reasonably light 25 ounces, empty, and it’s highly concealable. My one issue was the beavertail grip safety, which began pinching the pesky skin between my thumb and pointer finger during extensive shooting. Otherwise, it’s a well-made, high-quality pistol.

At the range, several men referred to it as “cute,” which they quickly swapped with “amazing” and “I want one” after I let them try it. There’s nothing cute about a precise compact 1911; it might be purple, but it’s a stellar self-defense weapon. Kimber also offers it as the bright-blue Sapphire.


Kimber Amethyst Ultra II
Type: Compact 1911
Caliber: .45 ACP (tested), 9mm
Capacity: 7+1
Barrel: 3 in., stainless-steel
Overall Length: 6.8 in.
Overall Width: 1.15 in.
Overall Height: 4.75 in.
Weight: 25 oz. empty
Construction: Aluminum frame, stainless-steel slide
Grips: Purple and black G10
Sights: Tactical wedge three-dot tritium night sights, fixed
Safeties: Ambidextrous thumb, grip and hammer safety notch
Trigger: 4 lbs. 10 oz.
MSRP: $1,652

handguns for women - Glock 27Glock 27
What’s a gun list without Glock? Sadly lacking, in my opinion. Eleven years ago, when my daughter was three years old, my concealed Glock 27 saved both our lives. I still own that gun, a little pistol that’s proven its reliability through thousands of rounds and concealment in a long list of states throughout the country. It cycles in sub-zero weather, rips out the bull’s eye whether I’m 15 yards away shooting one-handed or firing prone — and feels good in my hands.

There are several versions of the sub-compact, or baby, Glock. The more popular models are the 9mm 26, .40 S&W 27, 10mm 29, and .45 ACP 30S. The .40 S&W is losing popularity partly because ballistics has improved the 9mm’s capabilities but also due to a lack of knowledge. No matter how you slice it, the .40 S&W has an edge in velocity, energy and, subsequently, a bigger wound cavity over 9mm. As mentioned earlier, one millimeter could be the hair’s breadth to drop your attacker. I would be remiss not to address this cartridge.

Glocks are striker-fired polymer pistols, and the majority are double-stacks. The 27’s overall height of 4.17 inches leaves my pinkie hanging; Pearce Grip Extensions on magazines solve the issue without interfering with concealment. Hornady Critical Defense 165-grain FTX fired offhand at 10 yards produced a best five-shot group of .49 inch with the 27, and I shot a .53-inch group with the 26. The sub-compact 27 recoils more than full-size pistols, but it’s still negligible, and muzzle rise is easily managed. The stock safety-blade trigger has some take-up and a clean, firm break. It has a tactile reset; if you pay attention, follow-up shots are fast, without take-up.

There’s no arguing the reliability of Glocks, and if there’s one thing required of a self-defense gun, it’s that. There are numerous options for caliber and size. If you prefer single stacks, there’s the .380 ACP 42 and the 9mm 43. There are sub-compacts, compacts and full-size models; Gen 4 Glocks ship with interchangeable backstraps. Glocks might be plastic, but they’re plastic I trust with not only my life, but also my daughter’s.


Glock 27
Caliber: .40 S&W
Action: Semi-auto, striker-fired
Frame: Polymer
Capacity: 9+1 (13/15/22 optional)
Barrel: 3.42 in.
Overall Length: 6.49 in.
Height: 4.17 in.
Width: 1.18 in.
Weight: 21.89 oz. empty
Trigger pull: 5 lbs., 2 oz.
Trigger travel: .49 in.
Barrel rifling: Right-hand, hexagonal
Length of twist: 9.84 in.
MSRP: $549

handguns for women - Republic Forge Defiant LightweightRepublic Forge Defiant Lightweight
If the name doesn’t get you, this custom 1911’s performance will. Republic Forge is known for its high-end 1911s, which are handmade one at a time. I’ve had the pleasure of using various models for hunting and self-defense, and I consider the Defiant a must-mention. Yes, it’s an expensive pistol, but it’s also an impressive weapon.

The .45 ACP Defiant is a Commander-style 1911 designed to become the classic in your gun family. Don’t misunderstand; this is no safe queen. With a barrel length of 3.6 inches and an overall height of 5.25 inches, it can and should be your EDC. Its skeletonized trigger has a measured pull weight of 3 pounds, 1 ounce and offers a consistent pull and crisp break. Muzzle rise is minimal, and it provides a positive grip; all controls are within reach for shooters with smaller hands, and the grip safety functions well. It ate everything I fed it from hollow points to frangible ammo, and it produced a best five-shot group of 1.22 inches at 25 yards with Polycase Inceptor 118-grain ARX.

If you want a custom-made 1911, Republic Forge gets it done with Made-in-America style. The Defiant is one of many outstanding options.


Republic Forge Defiant Lightweight
Caliber: .45 ACP
Action: Single, semi-automatic
Weight: 30 oz. empty
Frame: Full-sized commander
Frame Material: 7075 T-6 aluminum
Slide: 4340 carbon steel, heat-treated
to 38-41 Rockwell
Barrel: 416 stainless-steel
Barrel: 3.6 in.
Trigger: Skeletonized
Trigger Pull: 3 lbs., 1 oz.
Sights: Republic Forge Night Sights with
straight-eight Tritium configuration
MSRP: $2,995

Handguns for women - Ruger LCP II 380The .380 ACP For Women
You probably noticed these guns are all 9mm and larger. Despite advances in ballistics, tests — including my own — show .380 ACP doesn’t meet FBI standards for penetration. This doesn’t mean it should be discounted, but that it’s best as a BUG (backup gun). In fact, the Ruger LCP II is one of the more impressive pocket pistols of recent history with its vastly improved trigger and surprising accuracy. It’s a great boot gun and executes tight groups at close range. The .380 ACP is a snappy little cartridge meant for close-range use; the belief that .380 ACP, .38 Special and other small calibers produce less felt recoil is patently untrue.

The Handgun Bottom Line
There’s a gun for everyone regardless of hand size, stature … or gender. Try different models before choosing one — let the lady of your life try them for herself — and don’t restrict her to smaller calibers. Handguns for women do not automatically translate to micro-sized .380s. Buy the gun she’s comfortable shooting and willing to carry, then get proper training.

As the late Col. Jeff Cooper said, “The first rule of a gunfight is having a gun.”

Get a gun.

Editor's Note: This article is an excerpt from the September 2017 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

Concealed Carry: Is The .380 ACP Enough For Self-Defense?

Pistols chambered for .380 ACP have grown in popularity due to their compact size and concealability. But does the round bring enough to the table to be viable for self-defense?

Should you trust your life to the .380 ACP?

  • When John Moses Browning designed the .380 ACP in the early 1900s, he built it for the era’s blowback pistols.
  • The different .380 ACP rounds tested had vastly different penetration capabilities, and a number of them were unable to defeat various barriers, let alone reach FBI penetration minimums.
  • Wound-cavity analysis tells a similar story concerning the .380 ACP, with individuals shot by the round able to function seconds to minutes after being shot.
  • As might be expected, larger-diameter bullets produce more devastating wound cavities and have a greater likelihood of striking vital organs.
  • While any gun is better than no gun at all, it is the author's contention pistols chambered in .380 ACP are best served as backup guns and not primary self-defense handguns.

Nearly three-quarters of a century ago, on January 30, 1948, Hindu nationalism advocate Nathuram Godse carried out an assassination. At 5:17 p.m., he used a possibly stolen Beretta M1934 to shoot Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi three times in the chest, point-blank. In doing so, Godse sealed his own fate — he would be hanged in 1949 — and made Gandhi a martyr to his cause. The Beretta used was chambered in 9x17mm Corto, another designation for the cartridge more commonly known stateside as the .380 ACP.

Gandhi’s assassination is just one of many instances — famous and otherwise — where the cartridge has been utilized with deadly results. Does this mean the .380 ACP is a powerful round, or is it only fatal in rare instances?

Three pistols chambered for .380 ACP
When John Moses Browning designed the .380 ACP in the early 1900s, he built it for the era’s blowback pistols, specifically the Colt Model 1908 Pocket Hammerless. Blowback-operated pistols lack a barrel-locking mechanism; the combination of the slide’s mass and the recoil spring’s strength bear the brunt of recoil.

Arm Yourself With More Concealed Carry Knowledge

Today, many pistols chambered in the cartridge follow the original blowback design, but others use a locked-breech action in which the slide and barrel initially recoil in tandem, but then the barrel stops moving while the slide continues rearward (of course, variations abound). Browning’s design might be more than one century old, but it continues to influence the firearms world to this day.

When it comes to the .380 ACP, gun owners tend to love it or hate it — middle ground is uncommon in the “great caliber debate.” Many claim it’s too small, and it is, indeed, a diminutive cartridge. It has an overall length of .984 inch, a bullet diameter of .355 inch and a maximum pressure of 21,500 psi.

More information on the .380 ACP:

When compared to a cartridge such as the 10mm with its SAAMI overall length of 1.250 inches, bullet diameter of .400 inch and maximum pressure of 33,000 psi, it appears even smaller. However, the .380 vs 9mm, with its matching bullet diameter of .355 inch, the issue becomes more complex.

So, what it comes down to is real-life performance. In the gun world, ballistic knowledge is power, so let’s take a look at how the .380 ACP performs in gel tests and wound studies.

Ballistic Gel Testing

.380 ACP round penetrating 10 inches into ballistics gel.

Ballistic gel is the medium used by manufacturers and writers to test the terminal ballistics of various bullets. Protocols for its use are typically based on the FBI’s ammunition test, which the agency undertook almost 30 years ago following the Pyrrhic victory of the 1986 FBI Miami Shootout, during which two agents were killed and five were wounded in a firefight against a pair of serial bank robbers. The shootout brought up questions regarding caliber capabilities, and the ammunition testing protocols the FBI created a few years later remain the guidelines to this day.

According to the protocol, bare gel or gel covered by heavy clothing, automotive sheet metal, wallboard, plywood or automotive glass is shot from a distance of 10 feet. Bullets must then penetrate to a minimum depth of 12 inches to be considered effective, a number based on anatomical averages and the belief that erring on the side of too much is better than too little. When the FBI performed their tests in 1989, they used 24 tons of gel, and measurements were made blind — agents didn’t know what caliber they were measuring — for statistical accuracy.

As for ammunition, there are untold numbers of manufacturers in the United States, thanks to startups and relatively unknown or new companies, but there are only a few dozen that are well established and even fewer well-known manufacturers. For the purposes of this test I used defensive .380 ACP loads from Federal Premium Ammunition, Hornady, Barnes Bullets, Dynamic Research Technologies (DRT) and Snake River Shooting Products (SRSP) Team Never Quit. The variation of loads among these established brands made them ideal for comparison. Handguns used included the Ruger LCP II, Kimber Micro Advocate, Remington RM380, Glock 42 and Browning Black Label. Some data was supplied by manufacturers.

.380 ACP penetration table.

In bare gelatin, the most impressive performance came from DRT’s 85-grain Terminal Shock JHP with an average penetration depth of 11.40 inches, although the SRSP Team Never Quit 75-grain Frangible HP was right behind it at 10.90 inches. Conversely, the Barnes 80-grain TAC-XPD penetrated the shallowest, with an average penetration depth of 7.75 inches.

Of course, the average assailant will be clothed, meaning further testing was required. With heavy clothing over the gel block, Hornady’s Critical Defense 90-grain FTX reported the greatest average penetration of 10.25 inches; Federal Premium’s Personal Defense 99-grain HST was fairly close at 9.325 inches.

So, what do all these numbers mean? Going by the FBI’s protocol requiring a minimum penetration depth of 12 inches, frangible HPs such as DRT and SRSP Team Never Quit come close — but not quite — while rounds such as Barnes’ TAC-XPD fall noticeably short.

Analyzing Wound Cavities
Although ballistic gel is designed to simulate the density of human tissue and potential resulting wound cavities, nothing beats going to the source. Numerous gunshot wound studies have been done by surgeons, coroners and, of course, the FBI. This means there’s a decent amount of data readily available.

As reported by Dr. Andreas Grabinsky, the program director for emergency and trauma anesthesia at Harborview Medical Center, which is the only Level I trauma center in Washington State, approximately 76 percent of gunshot wounds are from handguns. Dr. Grabinsky also states relevant wounding factors include bullet diameter and penetration depth, both of which correlate to tissue damage. Tissue damage refers to the temporary and permanent wound cavities a bullet creates; the immediate, temporary cavity occurs when the bullet enters, but it quickly collapses, resulting in the permanent cavity.

Ruger LCP II in .380 ACP

Dr. Grabinksy repeatedly states the significance of penetration, saying even millimeters matter when it comes to damaging vital organs, blood vessels or arteries. He references experiences of gunshot wound victims shot by calibers 9mm and smaller — which includes the .380 ACP — having had no problem walking around and functioning anywhere from seconds to minutes after being shot.

In 2006, a coroner wrote a report titled, “Terminal Ballistics as Viewed in a Morgue.” He stated he performed an average of 8.2 autopsies a day and chose to be blunt in his findings. “I absolutely despise a 9mm for defensive situations … and a .380 ACP as well,” he wrote, adding he will “take a slow-moving .45 ACP to a gunfight any day.” In addition, he stated that when a gunshot wound victim crossed his autopsy table with multiple rounds in their bodies, those bullets were typically .380 ACP or 9mm, while single-shot gunshot wound victims were usually shot by .40 S&W or .45 ACP.

Finally, there’s the real-life experience of now-retired police Sergeant and US Army veteran Tim Crawford. Sergeant Crawford made his feelings immediately clear: “Never .380 ACP as a defensive round. I made a run one night on a guy who had been shot 7 times with a .380 ACP. It was a drug deal gone bad. [After being shot] the guy whooped the shooter’s ass and took his gun away from him. Made my mind up on it. And the guy lived.”

.380 Handguns In Stock:

The Bottom Line

Remington RM380 in .380 ACP

So, is the .380 ACP a viable self-defense choice?

From a medical perspective — and here I delve into my own relevant experiences in my past life in emergency veterinary medicine — there’s no denying that a bigger hole drops an assailant faster, as they lose vital fluids. Hydrostatic shock is an oft-argued reality influenced by factors such as velocity, proximity, placement and bullet diameter. Larger diameter bullets also mean a better likelihood of striking vital organs and breaking through bone, rather than potentially ricocheting harmlessly away. Other factors also come into play, such as psychological state and the ingestion of drugs capable of spiking adrenaline and strength.

Ballistics has come a long way in recent years, with vast improvements in propellants and bullet designs. But even with those improvements, some things haven’t changed. For example, bullet diameter for a given round hasn’t suddenly increased. From a self-defense perspective, the .380 ACP performs to its greatest ability at close ranges, and by close I mean less than 3 yards — closer is even better.

And, as always, shot placement is king.

.380 ACP Ammo In Stock:

Trauma center studies report cranial shots to be the deadliest, with multiple close-range center mass shots —those striking vital organs or arteries — being second deadliest. In short, a .380 ACP is best served as your BUG (backup gun), the pistol you pocket or ankle carry as insurance.

Pistol in .380 ACP ready for ballistics testing.

This is not to disparage the .380 ACP, but it’s simply to state the facts medically, in terms of ballistics and based on the personal experiences of law enforcement officers and doctors. It’s enjoyed popularity for some time now based largely on affordability and concealability — which are undeniably fantastic — but where gun owners tend to go wrong is in utilizing it as their EDC (every day carry). There are situations where a pocket pistol is the only option due to legalities or other matters, but throughout our 50 states, those scenarios are the exception to the rule.

The late Col. Jeff Cooper once said, “The first rule of gunfighting is to have a gun.” It’s a good rule to follow, meaning any gun — even one of a smaller caliber — is better than no gun at all. A gun collecting dust in your safe does you no good, so get the gun you’ll actually train with and carry. Of course, Cooper also said, “Perhaps the first thing you should demand of your gun is that it be unfair.” Do you think a .380 ACP gives you an “unfair” (read: good) advantage over an attacker? Based on the aforementioned facts, I don’t think it does. Not at all.

And I, for one, want that unfair advantage.

Table of .380 ACP ballistic data.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Concealed Carry 2017 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

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