When choosing a handgun for concealed carry, the gun must fit the individual, not just the task at hand. Use these tips to find the best handgun for your needs.

A gun is a tool and you need the right one for the job. But, unlike most other tools, guns are made to fit the individual, not just the task at hand. The gun you use to hunt pheasants could be used for self-defense but probably not for concealed carry. Likewise, a gun that might be great for home defense might not be well suited for concealed carry. The gun that a full-grown man can shoot and carry comfortably might not be the right gun for a smaller-stature person.

That said, high-quality firearms can be expensive, and it’s imperative you train regularly with each gun you carry. While it would be nice to have the resources to own a different gun for various clothing options and for all four seasons, and to have the time to train and become proficient in their use, this is not realistic for most people. Most people who carry a concealed firearm stick with one or two guns. What follows are a few basic ideas and suggestions to find the gun that will best suit your needs the majority of the time.

Revolvers

One of the earliest single-barrel repeating handguns was the revolver, so named because the cartridges are stored in a cylinder that revolves to line each cartridge up with the barrel in turn. The oldest self-contained, cartridge-firing revolvers operated in single-action mode, meaning the user had to manually cock the hammer for each shot in order to fire the gun. These types of single-action revolvers are still being made, but are relegated to use by collectors and history buffs, as well as cowboy action shooters. While they can certainly be used for self defense and concealed carry—and many were used that way in the past—they are not ideal for the modern handgun user.

The modern, double-action revolver was developed more than 100 years ago. Pulling the trigger both cocks and releases the hammer to fire the gun. The result is that double-action revolvers are very easy to operate. They don’t have a safety latch you need to disengage before you can fire or a lot of other extraneous controls.

Replacement grips make it easy to adjust the revolver for a custom fit.
Replacement grips make it easy to adjust the revolver for a custom fit.

Advantages Of Revolvers For Concealed Carry

Simplicity is the hallmark and main advantage of using a revolver for self-defense. Pushing or pulling a simple latch can swing the cylinder of the revolver swung open, revealing the separate chambers that each hold one cartridge. To unload it, you just tip the barrel up and press the extractor rod in the front. To load, you tip the barrel down, insert the cartridges and then close the cylinder. The revolver is now ready to fire.

Even those with weak hands or other ailments can easily accomplish this simple operation. Since there are no other buttons or mechanisms, the revolver, now loaded, is always ready to be fired and the user doesn’t have to worry about doing anything other than aiming the gun and squeezing the trigger. If a cartridge malfunctions in an emergency, the user can squeeze the trigger again and the cylinder will rotate to the next cartridge and fire that one. Note: If a cartridge fails to fire on the range, keep the gun pointed downrange and wait 30 seconds before proceeding.

Many revolvers are also more versatile in the ammunition they can use. Since the chambers are individual, bullet shape can be more varied. Also, each chamber is sized primarily for width, so it’s easy to use smaller-caliber cartridges that are the same diameter. The most common revolvers used for personal defense are chambered in .357 Mag. and .38 Special, which have the same diameter. The Magnum is longer and more powerful.

If you buy a revolver chambered in .357 Mag., you have the option of shooting .38 Special ammunition, which is cheaper and has a lot less recoil. A revolver chambered in the more powerful cartridge will have a slightly longer cylinder and is generally larger and heavier than one built for .38 Special ammunition. However, the ammunition versatility enables you to switch among cartridges if ammunition of one type is harder to find. The other advantage is that different people with different sensitivities to recoil can use the same gun by simply changing the ammunition.

Be aware that while you can load the shorter .38 Special cartridges in a revolver chambered for .357 Mag., the inverse is not true and should never be attempted.

You also have much more versatility on grip selection with a revolver. Underneath the grips of most revolvers there’s a small metal frame. The grips simply fit around this, and you can choose between a small grip, which is easier to conceal, or a larger grip, which makes the gun more comfortable and easier to shoot. A grip can be selected to fit the shooter’s individual hand size and shooting preferences.

Revolvers are much less prone to jamming or malfunctioning, and they can be fired through clothing (such as from inside a pocket) if needed with much less risk of the clothing interfering with the operation of the gun. They are easier to clean because there is no disassembly—you just open the cylinder, unload and clean it. Finally, in a worst case scenario, where there’s a struggle and you have to fire at contact distance (the barrel of the gun is pressed against an assailant), this pressure will not stop the revolver from functioning.

Disadvantages

One of the main disadvantages of a revolver for personal protection is its limited cartridge capacity. Revolvers typically accommodate six rounds in the cylinder, but smaller pocket-sized revolvers might have only a capacity of five rounds. There are larger revolvers that will fit as many as eight rounds, but these are generally ill-suited for concealed carry because of their size. The other disadvantage is that revolvers are slower to reload because you have to eject the spent cartridges and then reload them one at a time. A speed strip or speed loader can expedite the process somewhat.

Because of the cylinder, revolvers are also a bit wider, which can make them somewhat harder to conceal. In a double-action revolver the only “safety” is the pull-weight of the trigger and the length of the trigger squeeze. For most double-action revolvers, the amount of pressure the shooter needs to apply to the trigger in order to fire the gun can vary from 9 to 17 pounds and require an inch of travel. For some people, this might be too much to comfortably handle, but even for the most experienced shooters it can sometimes pose a problem.

The more pressure you have to apply to the trigger and the more time you spend squeezing the trigger, the harder it is to keep the sights on target. Shooting a double-action revolver both rapidly and accurately takes a lot of practice, but keep in mind you only need to achieve combat accuracy for self defense, meaning center mass hits at very close distances.

One consideration that applies to concealed carry in particular is with revolvers that have an exposed hammer. An exposed hammer gives the shooter the option of firing the gun in the standard double-action mode or in single-action mode by manually cocking the hammer. In single-action mode, the trigger becomes much lighter to fire and has much less distance to travel. This makes it easier to fire with greater accuracy, but it’s very seldom needed in a self-defense situation. The disadvantage is that the exposed hammer can get caught up in clothing when you draw it from a holster quickly.

While revolvers are generally very reliable, they are not jam proof (contrary to popular perception). Jams or malfunctions can occur as a result of an ammunition issue that can lock up the cylinder and prevent it from turning. Likewise, if dirt or debris gets stuck underneath the cylinder extractor, the cylinder won’t turn and the gun will not fire. Clearing these malfunctions requires opening the cylinder (if you can), dumping the entire contents, clearing the debris and reloading. If you have no spare ammunition, you will need to salvage the dumped rounds that are still good. This will be time consuming.

Semi-Automatic Handguns

A modern semi-automatic pistol is an entirely different animal, and there are several features of note. First, there’s a magazine contained inside the grip that holds the cartridges, the number of which depends on the size of the magazine, the size of the gun and the size of the ammunition. Above the grip and frame is the slide, which operates the gun. Inside the slide is the barrel with a chamber that holds one cartridge at a time located at the rear.

The use of a magazine means the shooter can reload a pistol quickly and easily.
The use of a magazine means the shooter can reload a pistol quickly and easily.

Operation of a pistol is as follows. First, load the desired number of rounds one at a time into the magazine, up to the maximum it will accommodate. The magazine is spring loaded, so the more rounds you load the harder they are to push down. Many people prefer to use a loading tool that makes the job much easier on the thumbs. Also, note that it’s very easy to load the rounds in backward and that the gun won’t work if you do, so pay attention that the rounds face the front of the magazine.

Next, insert the magazine fully into the bottom of the grip until it clicks in place. Chamber the first round by fully retracting the slide and then releasing it. This strips the top cartridge from the magazine and feeds it into the chamber at the rear of the barrel. At this point the gun is ready to fire, and when you squeeze the trigger, the slide will retract on its own, expelling the empty cartridge case, and then go forward to load a fresh cartridge into the chamber. The gun will fire with each squeeze of the trigger until it is empty.

There is significant variety in design for semi-automatics (far greater than for revolvers) and the choices can seem daunting. It’s important to understand the basic design differences and their advantages and disadvantages in order to select the handgun that will best fit your individual needs and preferences.

Advantages Of Pistols

There’s a good reason why police departments across America made a determined switch from revolvers to semi-automatics: firepower. A full-sized pistol can accommodate as many as 17 rounds or more plus one in the chamber. An officer usually carries two spare magazines as well, so he can easily and quickly reload by simply pressing the magazine release button (which drops the empty magazine) and inserting a full magazine.

Of course, most people are not going to select a full-sized pistol for concealed carry. But even with a very compact pocket pistol with only a six-round magazine, when you count the round in the chamber, the carrying capacity is seven rounds—two more than in a pocket revolver. And you can also carry a very flat and compact spare magazine should you need to reload quickly.

Due to their design, semi-auto pistols are flatter and smaller than any defensive revolver, which makes them easier to conceal. The way the slide operates also helps to reduce recoil relative to the cartridge and the size and weight of the pistol. Many pistols will also go to slide lock—the slide locks to the rear and the action is open—on the last shot. This provides immediate visual confirmation that the gun is empty.

Like revolvers, semi-automatic pistols can be had in single-action, double-action or both. The key difference is that a single-action pistol needs only to be cocked for the first shot. The slide operation automatically cocks the hammer for each subsequent shot. A double-action-only pistol might have a hammer (visible or internal) or might be striker-fired. The advantage to both single-action-only and double-action-only pistols is that the trigger pull is the same for every shot.

Singe-action and striker-fired semi-autos also have the benefit of a relatively light trigger squeeze, with a short trigger pull in the case of the single-action and a long trigger pull in the case of the striker-fired pistol. They both also generally have short resets so the trigger doesn’t have to go all of the way forward before it can be squeezed again to fire it. This makes it easier to shoot faster, which is an advantage in a close-range defensive scenario.

Many semi-automatic pistols use both double-action and single-action operation. Typically, the hammer will be in the down position for the first shot, making it a longer and heavier double-action trigger squeeze. The gun will operate in the single-action mode for all of the following shots. The advantage with this system is that you have the safety of a long, heavy trigger pull for the first shot and the accuracy and speed of a single-action trigger squeeze for all of the following shots. You do need to get used to two different trigger pulls, however.

Disadvantages

The main disadvantage of the semi-automatic pistol is that there’s a steeper learning curve for beginners. Each pistol might have controls that are different from others. The magazine release, which allows the user to remove the magazine, might be in different locations and might be located on different sides of the gun. Many semi-automatics (less so on small pocket pistols) will also have a slide lock/release lever that locks the slide to the rear. Each will have its own method of disassembly for cleaning and maintenance, and some of these can be a bit complicated.

Different semi-automatic pistols have different safety mechanisms, ranging from grip safeties that require a firm grip to operate to thumb safeties that must be manually deactivated. Some pistols have trigger safeties that prevent the trigger from moving backward unless squeezed from the middle. Others have various internal safeties that are always in effect until the trigger is squeezed.

The grip size on a pistol is also largely fixed, although there are replacement grips and other accessories that can help adjust the grip to suit the individual better. Many pistols also include replaceable panels, but this is found mostly on the midsize and larger pistols. Operating the slide might also be difficult for someone with smaller hands, hand injuries or poor hand strength, although some manufacturers make pistols with slides that are easier to manipulate. With practice most people can handle slide manipulation.

Reliability can also be a concern. If anything obstructs the movement of the slide, such as clothing, it likely will not cycle properly. Pistols are also much more sensitive to ammunition selection, and some types of ammunition might not function reliably in some pistols. With certain types of pistols, it’s possible to inadvertently hit the magazine release and then be left with the one shot in the chamber and a magazine on the ground.

Clearing jams is typically faster with a pistol, depending on the nature of the malfunction. The types of malfunctions that can occur with a pistol are more varied, although there is a generally accepted standard method for dealing with these quickly. First, slap the base of the magazine to make sure it is fully and firmly inserted. Next, rack and release the slide to clear the malfunction. These steps should be done while maintaining your focus on the threat (and not looking at the gun). If this fails to correct the malfunction, look at the gun to diagnose the nature of the problem and correct it. Note: If possible, taking cover at this point might be a good idea.

Most modern pistols are designed with what is called a hammer drop safety. This is an internal mechanical device that prevents the gun from firing if it’s accidentally dropped. It is unusual, but if you drop a loaded gun at just the right angle on a hard surface with just the right amount of force, there’s a chance it will fire. The hammer drop safety is designed to prevent this.

However, there is no such safety on some pocket pistols and some older pistols. In these cases, the manufacturer recommends carrying the gun with an empty chamber. This means that for concealed carry, you would have a full magazine in your gun but no round in the chamber. If you needed to use it, you would first have to chamber a round, which will slow you down and is not ideal. Most people (myself included) ignore this warning and prefer speed over the very slight risk. The choice is yours, however, and if you opt for one of these pocket pistols, you have been warned.

Editor’s Note: This article is an excerpt from Gun Digest Shooter’s Guide to Concealed Carry, available now at GunDigestStore.com.


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