Everyone has favorites — and I’m no different — but I do get to shoot and evaluate a lot of different semi-auto pistols. Here are my favorites by category.
Sub-Sub-Compact: Ruger LCP II
Of the tiny guns, my hands-down favorite is the Ruger LCP II. It was a good pistol to begin with, and they fixed everything I complained about on the original. It’s very affordable, and it’s as easy to conceal as any gun on the market. While I’d prefer a larger caliber, modern .380 ammunition is more effective for defense than the standard .38 Special round-nosed load most law enforcement carried until just a few years back. The trigger replicates a striker-fired trigger even though it has an internal hammer, the slide is easy for weak hands to operate, and it locks back on the last round. For its diminutive size, it’s reasonably easy to shoot well.
Read More: Ruger LCP II Full Review
Low-Effort Defense: S&W .380 Shield EZ
I had to create this category specifically for the Smith and Wesson .380 Shield EZ because it’s the gun I’ve been crying for. There are so many older people, especially women, who simply don’t have the hand strength to operate most guns. People with low hand strength need personal defense and they need a gun they can operate.
Read More: S&W .380 Shield EZ – Smooth Operator
Based on the popular M&P .22 Compact from Smith & Wesson, the .380 EZ is easier to operate than many .22s. The slide is well shaped for grip, the recoil spring is light, the magazine has a loading assist button and there’s a grip safety. I’d suggest the version without a manual safety because those likely to purchase this gun probably aren’t going to do the training required to operate a manual safety under duress.
Sub-Compact Single-Stack: Sig P365
There are a lot of great pistols in this category. It’s the largest category of defensive guns and it’s dominated by the Smith and Wesson Shield. This is a crowded field and it’s really hard to find a bad gun in the lot. Besides the Shield, Ruger’s excellent EC9 is a great gun at a great price. The Glock 43 is the most graceful and handy of these. The Springfield Armory XDs has a grip safety, and I really like that, but I have to give the nod to the P365.
Read More: Sig P365 – Small Package, Big Performance
The SIG P365 has every feature a subcompact single-stack should have, except it isn’t a true single-stack. It isn’t a double-stack either. I’ve put it in that class because its width is just 1 inch, as narrow as other single-stacks. The remarkable thing is the capacity of 10 + 1, giving it the capacity of some double-stack pistols and a weight of just 18 ounces.
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It also has a trigger style I like. The trigger is a long, sweeping pull that’s light in weight but with a long enough stroke to make it safe to carry without a manual safety. It’s been my experience that most novices shoot better when they don’t know the exact instant the trigger breaks, preventing recoil anticipation. The price is also reasonable for the class at $599 and will likely settle down a bit more once demand catches up.
Sub-Compact Double-Stack: Springfield XD Mod 2, 3.3
This one has to go to Springfield Armory and their excellent XD Mod 2, 3.3. With a grip that offers enough surface for sweaty hands and a passive grip safety, the shorter Mod 2 is a great pistol. The trigger is good, the passive safety makes it a great choice for less experienced shooters, and the shape of the slide makes it easy to charge and clear. I like grip safeties because defensive guns are hidden away under clothing, and inserting a pistol into a holster surrounded by loose clothing is a great way to generate an accidental discharge. It’s easy to teach new shooters to place their thumb on the rear of the slide when holstering, serving not only to help get the index finger further away from the trigger, but also assuring that the slide is in battery by press checking as the gun is inserted. The Mod 2 is easy to shoot well with great sights and a good trigger.
Compact: Glock 19
There are a lot of great double-stack compact pistols at the gun shop, but I’ll probably get hate mail if I do this rundown without mentioning Glock. The Glock 19 is everything a defensive pistol should be: It’s reasonably priced, more reliable than a Ford F150 and easy to shoot well. It’s been proven since it was introduced, and the only people who say bad things about Glocks do so for emotional reasons rather than functional ones.
See Also: The Top 5 Glock Pistols For Anything
They’re not pretty, there’s no effort spent on bells and whistles, but they do everything they were designed to do … and the G19 is my favorite of the bunch.
Service-Sized Pistol: Smith & Wesson M&P 2.0
Once again, there are a lot of great choices in this category, but my choice of the best service-sized pistol is Smith and Wesson’s M&P 2.0. The improvements to the trigger and grip surfaces bring the M&P to a level of function that deserves note in a field of excellent pistols. With multiple grip inserts that are easy to change, functional sights and an aggressive grip texture that’s the best yet on a production pistol, the M&P 2.0 checks all the boxes. It also benefits from an extensive range of holster and aftermarket upgrade options.
You might notice that I didn’t include a single 1911-style pistol in my picks. Before you push the send button to tell me I’m an idiot, please take into consideration that most people who purchase defensive handguns spend almost zero time on real training and practice. While they’re great guns, 1911s and similar designs require extensive practice and training to handle effectively.
Read More: S&W M&P 2.0 Full Review
Law enforcement officers are required to train and qualify on a regular basis — and yet only a handful of departments issue traditional single-action semi-autos to their departments. This is based on painful experiences of officers having trouble operating a more complicated weapons system. In the hands of a trained up individual, these guns are wonderful and that’s why you see them in competitions, but most civilians simply aren’t proficient enough to be safe and competent with them.
While these are my choices, you likely have different preferences. We all like different things, otherwise, there would only be one gun in each category and I’d have nothing to write about. For that matter, I guess there’d only be one category.
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Shooter's Guide 2018 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.