Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Concealed Carry Options

Lots of new shooters are interested in guns as a tool to protect themselves from aggressive criminals.  This is a good reason to become a gun owner.  As mentioned in this post, smaller guns are harder to shoot well than larger guns, so it's up to each person to find the balance between ease of shooting and conceal-ability.  It's a compromise and each person has to make their own judgment call.

I'll start off with something that may attract controversy- I typically don't recommend Taurus semi-automatic pistols.  In my experience and research, they are hit and miss enough on quality and reliability for me not to recommend.  They have a good reputation with revolvers (excepting the rimfire models) that I wouldn't hesitate to recommend one to someone looking to save some money.  Their semi-auto pistol offerings have had some rough patches however, and for not much more money you can get something that has a reputation for reliability.  In a carry gun something that is 100% reliable is very important.  Therefore I'll only be recommending manufacturers that have a reputation for quality.

Double stack vs single stack magazine
One of the topics covered here is handgun size.  All 3 dimensions matter (length, height and width), and one of the biggest factors that affects the thickness of a semi-auto pistol is what type of magazine it is designed for.  There are two basic types of magazines, single stack and double stack.  Single stack magazines are like a Pez dispenser, each cartridge is directly above the one below it.  A double stack magazine is wider, and cartridges are staggered side-to-side.  You can see in this photo the difference in width.  The magazine on the left is from a Glock 17, the one on the right from a 1911.  Both are 9mm.  The 1911 magazine is a lot skinnier, but only holds 10 rounds to the 17 rounds the Glock mag holds.  In a carry gun conceal-ability may take precedence over capacity.  In a service gun, like what a cop or soldier would carry, or if you are open carrying, then capacity would probably take priority.

One of these is easier to conceal

Another topic discussed here is what type of trigger system a gun has.  Why does this matter?  I've found that new shooters often struggle with a double action trigger.  So if a guns comes with a Double Action Only (DAO) trigger, that is certainly a consideration.  Lot of guns marketed for concealed carry have a heavy double action trigger in lieu of an external safety.  So if you are a shooter that has a hard time shooting a double action trigger well and don't have the time to practice enough to master it, perhaps a gun with a single action trigger and a safety is a better choice.

As a refresher, a single action trigger does 1 thing, it releases the hammer, which then strikes the firing pin.  Most rifles and lots of handguns have single action triggers.  When you cock a revolver that trigger is operating in single action mode, when you pull it it the only thing it is doing is releasing the hammer.  Because of this single action triggers often have very light and short trigger pulls.

A double action trigger is doing two things.  It is cocking the gun and then releasing the hammer or striker.  Because it is doing a more complex mechanical activity, the trigger is often heavier, meaning it takes more effort or strength to pull, and it has a longer range of motion, or a longer pull.  This gives a person a longer time to flinch or jerk.  It also requires more strength and effort which can distract from a user focusing on the sights.  You can certainly master a double action trigger, but you need to practice it, often practice a lot.

Now that I've covered the background, I'll offer my thoughts on common choices for concealed carry guns.  What fits you and your style of carry is going to be different than what suits me and what suits your friend and what suits the instructor of your Concealed Carry class.  It depends on body shape, hand shape, experience and where you can carry a gun.  A skinny man can "appendix carry", a term describing a gun inside the waistband of a person's pants in that little sexy spot between his gentleman's region and his hip bone.  A fuller figured man with a beer belly can't carry a gun there and would perhaps choose to carry a gun on their side (3 o'clock position) or even a bit behind at the 4 or 5 o'clock position.  If a person has a big butt that affects where they can carry a gun.  If a person dresses in tight clothing their options are limited vs someone who only wears clothes that tent or drape.  So you will need to experiment to find the position and gun that is right for you.

Every gun mentioned here is meant to be carried in a holster.  Don't carry a gun if it's not in a holster.  Ever.  It's a terrible idea.  Don't do it.

Simple and cheap, the snub-nosed revolver
S&W J-Frame, a good choice
Small revolvers have had a resurgence in the last 10 years as more people are carrying concealed.  A revolver is a nice choice as it's very simple to operate.  They offer the lowest capacity of the choices I'll go through here, often holding 5 rounds.  In a defensive situation that may likely be enough, but it's up to you to decide.

Most of the small revolvers sold are 38 specials.  There are also a number of 357 magnums offered as well, but most people will be best served with shooting 38 special +P in a small snub-nose, whether you can shoot 357's or not.

Weights range from 12 ounces to 17 ounces for the ultra-light models.  The gun in the picture to the right is a S&W 442 from their "Airweight" line and comes in at 15 ounces with a barrel just under 2".  It also offers a DAO trigger and a shrouded hammer.  Having the hammer encased in the frame is a good idea, as a hammer could snag as you draw your gun.  The S&W 442 is a good choice in this category, especially considering they sell for $400 or less new.  I'd be willing to bet Smith and Wesson isn't making any profit on these guns as they are well cheaper than any of their other revolver offerings.

Ruger SP101, another good choice
If you step up to an all-steel gun the weight increases to more than 20 ounces.  This makes the guns more pleasant to shoot but less pleasant to carry around.  You have to decide where on the compromise scale fits you.  In this range you should consider a Ruger SP101, which comes in at 25 ounces with a 2.25" barrel.  This is a gun that's much more pleasant to shoot 38 special loads in, and is available in 357 magnum if you'd like to try out hotter loads.  Prices run about $500 new.   I'd suggest the one without a hammer spur to prevent snagging.

Taurus also offers good quality small revolvers, both in light weight and full weight models.  You can find some nice deals on used guns, but if you are buying new they are only $20 cheaper than the S&W 442 mentioned above.  The S&W is an obvious choice for that small of a price differential.  Charter Arms also offers a series of small revolvers in 38 special and 357, but like Taurus the prices are often very close to S&W.  If you aren't going to save $50 or more on a Taurus or Charter Arms, then I suggest you go with the S&W.

S&W Bodyguard 38
Recently Ruger and S&W have come out with plastic framed revolvers.  In the world of semi-autos there have been guns with plastic frames for decades, it's a way to cut manufacturing costs and keep weight down.  Both the Ruger LCR and S&W Bodyguard are DAO and come in at less than 15 ounces.  Many people say the plastic frame guns are more comfortable to shoot than the metal-framed revolvers and they are competitively priced.   The Bodyguard comes with a build in laser for a pretty decent price, it may be worth a look as you choose.

So far I've only covered revolvers in the 38 special and 357 magnum varieties.  These are the most popular and represent the majority of the guns sold.  There are other calibers that may be right for you and I'll discuss those a bit.  First is the 44 special.  The 44 special is a big bullet moving slowly and it has a bit of a cult following.  No one doubts the terminal effectiveness of the 44 special and many people find it reasonably pleasant to shoot.  The Charter Arms Bulldog is a 21 ounce 5 shot revolver with a 2.5" barrel.  It's a good choice for a carry gun.  The down side is the ammo price is almost twice what 38 special costs.  If you want to get good with a gun you have to practice and practice is going to be more expensive with a 44 special.

Another niche choice is 32 magnum or 327 magnum.  (specifically 32 H&R magnum and 327 Federal magnum)  These cartridges offer 38 special levels of energy but can be easier to shoot.  You can also shoot 32 Long cartridges in either for practice loads.  The downside to these cartridges is availability.  They can be hard to find at your local store which means you may have to order them online or place an order with your local shop.  They aren't prohibitively expensive except for the 327 round.  But that can be considered the true magnum round and practice can take place with the 32 H&R magnum and 32 Long cartridges.  But if you are having problems with recoil, finding a revolver in one of these cartridges could be a good idea.  S&W, Ruger, Charter Arms and Taurus all offer a pistol in at least one of the 32 caliber cartridges.  Since the cartridge is smaller in diameter they tend to hold 6 instead of 5.

The new Ruger LCR 22
Lastly you could consider a 22 caliber revolver.  S&W offers one and Ruger recently announced two.  The S&W 317 is expensive ($600 or so) as is the Ruger SP101.  The SP101 isn't really a good carry gun as it is currently only available in a 4" barrel that weighs 30 ounces.  By the time you read this they may offer a smaller one though so it could be worth a look.  The real charmer here is the Ruger LCR, a plastic framed 8 shot 22 that weighs 15 ounces and sells for $450 or so.  The S&W 317 is even lighter at 11 ounces and also holds 8.  You are giving up some power  to 38 special or even 32 magnum but increasing capacity.  If you are recoil adverse or just starting out one of these could be ideal.  You can afford to practice a lot and the recoil will be less than anything else mentioned here.  You can take the time to focus on skills and have a gun you can carry for defensive purposes.

Now, the 22 LR is not an ideal defensive cartridge.  Honestly, neither is a 38 special or even a 44 magnum.  If I know I will need to defend myself from an attacker I'm going to pick a tank as my weapon of choice.  All handguns are a compromise, and hitting your target with a 22 is a lot more effective than missing with any other caliber.  Don't let anyone talk you into buying a more powerful gun than you are comfortable with. 

Ultra-light pocket 380 semi-auto pistols
Kel-Tec's 9oz 380, the P3-AT
This is a category made popular and affordable by Kel-Tec.  Ruger and S&W (and other companies as well) now offer guns  similar to that original Kel-Tec P3-AT.  These guns, the P3-AT, Ruger LCP and S&W Bodyguard 380 all offer weights of less than 10 ounces and capacities of 6 (give or take 1).  You're giving up a smidge of energy to a 38 special but pick up an extra round.  These guns are very small and very light.  You can put one in your pocket and forget it is there.  It's the sort of gun I carry when I can't carry a gun, like if I'm going to be running around in shorts and no shirt.  They are very popular and are not pleasant to shoot.  They have heavy and long DAO triggers.  This is because they don't have manual safeties and a heavy trigger prevents them from catching on something and firing accidentally.  If you are thinking of buying one of these I strongly recommend you try one first.  I know a number of people who bought one and then had a hard time keeping it on target.  They can be accurate in the right hands, but I'd suggest you figure out whether your hands are the right ones before you buy one.

Full weight pocket 380 and 9x18 semi-auto pistols
Walther PPK/S, very sexy
These have been popular for a century.  The 1903 Colt Pocket Pistol is a great example of a gentleman's pocket gun from the turn of last century.  James Bond Carried a Walther PPK which was based on the Mauser HSc which dates back to the 30's.  During the cold war many Eastern Bloc countries made variants or copies of the PPK or Russian Makarov, chambered in the Russian 9x18 caliber instead of the European 380 acp.  These are nice and solid little guns.  Today you have the popular Bersa 380 pistols that sell for around $275, the PPK and PPK/S that sell for $550 and a range of pistols in between.  One of the good deals today is the CZ 82, a 9x18 pistol that can be found for less than $250 and will likely outlast you.  They are durable if not overly pretty, and the recoil is easy to control.  These are shooting the same cartridge as the ultra-light 380's but have twice the weight or more.  They tend to have decent triggers and manual safeties.  You want to try one of these before you buy one though, as several models, such as the PPK, are known for hammer bite.  If you have chubby hands the hammer can actually smack the top of your grip hand when the gun cycles.  I've seen one draw blood in as little as 5 rounds.  But if they fit your hand they can be very nice to shoot and often pretty to boot.   Bersa offers a gun this size in 22, so if you like the size and feel but not the recoil of a 380 or 9x18 it can be worth a look.

Another option is the Sig P238 and Colt Mustang pistols.  These are priced similarly to a PPK but in a form factor that is a bit smaller.  These can be great choices, as they are as small as the smallest 380's but have a bit more weight and better triggers so they are easier to shoot.   Colt only offers one model currently, Sig offers a wide variety of colors and finishes.

Small single-stack 9's
Kahr CM-9
All the semi-auto guns mentioned so far, except the CZ-82, have been single stacks.  This next category is as well.  As mentioned in the beginning a single stack gun is going to be smaller in width than a double stack, which makes it easier to conceal.  The trade off is grip size (narrower, read why that's bad in this post) and capacity.  These have been catching on lately and there are some options in the market.  I just heard Sig announced a single stack 9mm gun at SHOT (Shooting Hunting Outdoor Trade) Show yesterday, so it must be a gun they think people will want.  Kel-Tec makes one, Taurus makes several (although they do not come recommended by me) and Ruger makes one.  The manufacturer that has the most experience in this area is Kahr.  They have been making concealed-carry 9mm handguns for longer than most companies, it is their core product.  They also offer guns in 40 and 45 caliber if you don't think 9mm is enough.  (I do, so I'll focus on those)  You can find used Kahr CM-9's for $350.  I really see them as the best buy in this category.  Perhaps the Ruger LC-9 will impress, but it's too new to judge.  The Kel-Tec PF-9 has been around for some time, but for very little extra money you are getting more refinement and a nicer product overall in a Kahr.  Keep in mind these guns are shooting a full power 9mm cartridge and weigh in around 15 ounces, they are not going to be the most pleasant gun you've shot.  Combine that with a double action trigger and they can be a challenge to shoot accurately.  But with practice you can probably shoot them well. 

Kimber Ultra-Carry II
If you step up a weight and price class you can find very nice single stack 9mm pistols that work great for concealed carry.  Companies like Para-Ordnance with the Carry-9, Kimber with the Ultra-Carry II and Springfield Armory with the EMP make a small 1911 pistol in 9mm.  1911's have a manual safety and a crisper trigger than you'll see on the above mentioned lighter 9's.  These are going to run 20 - 25 ounces and have barrels in the 3 - 3.5" range.  They often have much better sights than you will find on the cheaper 9mm single stack pistols.  The big downside here is price.  The cheapest of these guns go for $700 new and many retail for a grand or even more.  If you want a tool that's also art it could be worth it for you.  I'd suggest you may be better off with a Kahr and a few hundred dollars of practice ammunition instead.  But try one out at a range before you make a decision for sure. 

Small double-stack 9's
S&W M&P compact
This is the largest (in terms of size) class of handgun people commonly carry.  Well, you have your old-school folks that carry a 4.25" 1911 in 45 acp, but if you are one of those people you probably aren't reading a gun blog directed at new shooters.  All the major manufacturers of full-size handguns offer a compact variant.  Glock offers the model 26 which is a cut down version of the Glock 17.  Springfield Armory offers a compact XD pistol and S&W offers a compact M&P 9mm.  CZ, Ruger, and Sig all offer compact versions of full size guns.  These guns can be the easiest to shoot of the guns mentioned here, but also the hardest to conceal.  As mentioned it is a compromise and you have to find the balance that is right for you.  I'm a fan of the M&P compact, I've heard good things about the Ruger SR-9c and the internet is full of people who love Glocks and XD's.  These are going to weigh in around 22 ounces or more and hold 10 rounds +.  The width from the double stack magazines spread the recoil into a larger portion of your hand which makes them more pleasant to shoot.  If you already have a full-size pistol, I'd suggest you get one of the same brand as what you already have, providing you like it.  If not, try them all and see what you like.  If you stick with a major brand you want have any problems with reliability or durability.  Except for finding a new wardrobe to hide a gun that ads an inch and a half to your person that is.

Other options
There are lots of other great options out there.  Just because I didn't mention it here doesn't mean it's not a good choice.  The Walther PPS, CZ Rami and Beretta NEOS all come to mind.  I tried to capture the guns that are currently popular in the marketplace and easy to find from reputable manufacturers.  If you think I've missed something major, please let me know and I'll consider adding it in.  By no means is this intended as a comprehensive list.

I also only included 9mm in the semi-auto guns.  In this post, and pretty much everywhere on the internet, when I say 9mm I mean the cartridge that is known as 9x19, 9mm Para, 9mm Parabellum, 9mm Luger and 9mm NATO (although NATO rounds are often a bit hotter than commercial rounds).  It's the most affordable semi-auto round (other than 22) and most experts suggest it's powerful enough to do the job of self defense.  There are lots of guns in other calibers, but for a person starting out 9mm allows them to practice more on less money than other calibers.  It's the best choice.  Maybe later on they may branch out to other calibers, but for new shooters 9mm is the best way to go.  I don't dislike other calibers, it's strictly an economics thing.  Heck, I'm in the process of making a kilt holster for my new carry gun chambered in 357 sig.  I'm a big fan of other cartridges.

Other considerations
This post so far is a very basic introduction to the type of firearm one should consider when choosing to carry a gun for self-defense.  There are a great many other considerations about the gun itself and other tools.  Here is my Cliff Notes version on some other concealed carry thoughts.

Holsters - You want a good one that's made for your gun and covers the trigger.  This may not be the first holster you buy.  If you have friends who carry ask to try theirs out and see how they fit you.  Never carry a gun without a holster.

Night Sights - Most conflicts happen at night.  Bad guys are more likely to try to mug you, rape you or break into your house under cover of darkness.  All other things being equal I'd rather have a gun that has night sights than one that doesn't.  If you aren't familiar with night sights, they are sights that glow in the dark making it much easier to aim a gun in low light conditions.

Lasers - See night sights.

Gun mounted lights - See night sights.  Being able to illuminate your target is better than not.  However adding a light to a gun can make it harder to conceal and harder to find a holster for.  I recommend anyone carrying a gun at least carries a light as well.  If a shifty drunk is working your way on the sidewalk shining a bright light in their face doesn't break any laws and lets them know you aren't a victim.

Extra reloads - All things being equal, having a reload (extra magazine or cartridges) is better than not.  However, unless you practice reloading I'd suggest you're better off using the reloading opportunity and time to escape the threat.  If you haven't disabled the thread in your first x rounds, it seems unlikely that more will help.  This isn't war we are preparing for, it's warding off an attacker or two.  If you do carry an extra magazine or speed-loader you need to practice reloading in the dark and have it down to an art form if you expect to be able to do it while being attacked.

Bum Money - If a dude is drunk, high or desperate for his next fix, give them $20.  It's not your job in society to put bad people down- if you can resolve a situation without violence that's the best way to go.  So if you can hand a guy $20 and he goes away, that's a good solution.  If you pull a gun you are escalating the situation and increasing the chance someone is going to get hurt, including you.  If you shoot a man who is unarmed you may face charges.  At the least if you discharge your gun in an altercation you're going to be processed at the police station.  Be prepared to fight for your life, but don't view every situation as life or death.  You aren't going to drive away a rapist with cash, but a robber you very well may.

Lastly, carry guns are going to wear.  Just like your shoes, clothes and car wear out because you use them every day, expect for your gun to wear off it's finish.  It may take years, but it's going to ugly up over time.  Picking something pretty to carry every day is a recipe for disappointment.

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