Choosing a Defensive Pistol: Individual Requirements
It is a pretty safe bet that one of the most cussed and discussed topics on-line and in print concerns choosing the “best” defensive handgun extant. People putting forth arguments for high-dollar selections frequently get labeled “snobs” while those fervently supporting any brand handgun are labeled “fanboys”, though I see this term used more with Glock aficionados who are accused of “drinking” the company’s “Kool-Aid” of “Glock Perfection”. Miraculously, some useful information actually does manage to evade being smothered by an avalanche of BS, but much of the time that which is espoused amounts to little more than dogmatic opinion.
I have returned to this subject because I continue to get email requests for information on choosing an appropriate defensive handgun from folks who’ve grown weary of terse forum replies like, “Use the search function” or informative little gems like, “Get an XYZ. It’s the best. ‘Nuff said.” While I heartily support the idea of trying to help one’s own self before just posting questions, some folks seem in a quandary concerning what to use the search engine for or how to actually use it. Perhaps this article can be of at least some service in helping them make up their own minds. I hope it will be a step up from the gurus of the “’Nuff said, commentaries” or either being coaxed to purchase a gun you’re not sure about at the gun shop while sometimes being simultaneously talked down to by store employees.
I have touched on this subject before and for those who might find them of interest, here are the links:
In my opinion, the most important single question that must be answered before obtaining a defensive arm, has nothing to do with the weapon. That question is, “Are you prepared to use deadly force if necessary to save your own life?” It has been postulated that we really will not know until we are at the abyss and we either do or don’t. I am not really sure that I buy into that 100%. Some may in fact not know but I believe that just as many or more have a pretty good idea of whether or not they’ll shoot to live if no other reasonable alternative exists. (This assumes that we have the mental alertness to be aware of our surroundings as well as the competence to actually get the firearm into action quickly.) What do you think? Do you believe that you are mentally prepared to use deadly force if backed into a dangerous corner or not? I cannot help anyone here other than to suggest that you sincerely consider the proposition and make an honest decision for yourself. If the true answer for you is “No,” then there’s little point in reading farther, but if it is “Yes,” read on.
Let’s consider various aspects of choosing a defensive handgun based on your own personal parameters. Understand that this is not necessarily complicated and that an honest assessment or your own unique situation will go a long way in keeping it so.
If you truly plan to incorporate regular handgun practice into your regimen, your choices remain very open. If not, I strongly suggest going with a quality double-action revolver. My choice would be a pre-lock Smith & Wesson or a Ruger. In my experience, the revolver will abide neglect, which is not the same thing as abuse, quite well. One can be untouched for years and still be fired by merely pressing the trigger should push come to very hard shove. Some of today’s autoloaders can too, but some do handle dried or evaporated lubricants and lint better than others. I truly believe that a quality double-action revolver still makes a very, very trustworthy and reliable defensive arm for both novices and experienced shooters alike. My primary personal defensive handguns are revolvers even though I own many semiautomatics.
This S&W Model 10 is on constant “house duty”. Some may scoff as it is “only a 38”. I suggest that with practice and appropriate ammunition, it can serve quite well. Once common, these service sidearms along with their stainless counterparts now command a premium. In my opinion, these medium-size (K-Frame) revolvers just have a certain something (size, weight, feel?) that is “right”. While competence with one’s chosen defensive hardware is essential in my opinion, the double-action revolver’s operation is simple and easy to understand. It is certainly not too complicated for newer shooters. At the same time, it is frequently the choice of experienced shooters as well. There is a reason for that; they work and are usually capable of much greater mechanical accuracy than is humanly possible to wring out of them, but mainly, they work. S&W offered the same size and style revolvers in .357 Magnum and while it is a more potent round, my preference remains the .38 Special. In that caliber the guns seem to last forever while still delivering an effective blow with expanding bullets having at least adequate penetration, and recoil is easily managed by most people. For a “house gun” small size is not essential and the medium-size K-Frame’s all-steel construction offers a very nice size, long-lived revolver with enough weight and size to effectively dampen felt-recoil and yet small enough to be carried concealed without undue effort. While most of my K-Frames are .38 Specials, I do have a few chambered in .357 Magnum. In these I prefer to use either medium-level handloads with 158-gr. bullets or mid-power factory expanding ammunition. For frequent full-power magnum use, my preference remains S&W’s L and N-Frames or Ruger’s GP100.
More on this specific revolver can be found here:
If interested in K-Frames in general:
Also extremely popular are small, easily concealable snubs from practically all revolver manufacturers, but typified by the Smith & Wesson J-Frames. Lightweight and compact dimensions attract many folks seeking a small, reasonably potent, reliable and easy-to-conceal “carry gun”. Understand that these same attributes make these diminutive shooters harder to shoot well and significantly increase felt-recoil. The same load may be comfortable from a medium or large-frame all-steel revolver but painful to fire from the smaller, lighter compact snub. Magnified recoil coupled with lighter weight and a shorter sight radius does not usually enhance effective shooting. It is my observation that necessary frequency of practice increases as the gun’s size and weight decrease. Possibly the best use for the lightweight small-frame revolver is as backup to another firearm.
In my opinion, the double-action revolver’s “weak point” is that compared to the semiautomatic using a detachable magazine, they are slower to reload; they just are, but note that I did not say “slow”. With speedloaders or speed strips or even practiced hands loading two-at-a-time, the things can be recharged quicker than some might think. Still, the equivalently-trained automatic shooter will achieve faster reloads.
Some folks express concerns over the revolver’s “firepower” or lack thereof since most hold but 5 or 6 shots, though there is a model of two holding seven or eight. In the majority of instances, “matters” were “settled” with less than six shots from what I’ve read and heard from survivors. At the same time, I am personally aware of a situation in which the sixth shot was the essential one and more importantly, the last one fired; cases were stuck in the cylinder and the revolver couldn’t be reloaded! One pistol fight survivor told me that he never loaded “like in matches out in the open” but only from behind cover or concealment. He opined that unless suffering a “banzai charge” situation, there would be time for a trained revolver shooter to reload.
Still, it remains an unchallengeable fact that the revolver simply will not hold as many shots as a comparable-sized autoloader in similar caliber. If this is a major point in your personal guidelines for your defensive handgun, I suggest that the revolver will probably just not be satisfactory. You will probably have a nagging feeling about it so it might be best to look elsewhere. The revolver brings many positives with it, but its relatively limited cartridge-capacity is simply going to be a deal-breaker for some.
If you prefer the operational simplicity of the DA-revolver but just feel uncomfortable with its ammunition-capacity, perhaps a double-action-only semiautomatic is a more satisfactory choice. In either single or double-stack designs, cartridge capacity will almost always be greater than the revolver’s, sometimes over double!
Unlike the traditional double-action autopistol, the DAO requires a long trigger-pull that cocks and releases the hammer for each shot fired; trigger-pull is the same from the first shot on. The same can be said for single-action automatics, but they need to be carried “cocked-and-locked” for quickest response and that simply makes some people uncomfortable. Others fear possibly failing to disengage the external manual safety on these pistols under stress. Modern DAO semiautos usually have much improved trigger-pulls than those of earlier examples of the breed. One would be SIG-Sauer’s DAK (Double-Action-Kellerman) trigger system. For those interested in this smooth and light version of the DAO semiauto, here’s a link to an article on one of their P220’s with it:
The predominant complaint I hear about DAO semiautomatics is that while they do offer a consistent trigger-pull for every single shot fired, the longer DA-pull just doesn’t lend itself to precision shooting at longer distances and makes trying to hit smaller targets such as a partially-concealed opponent more difficult. In my opinion, this is just not true with some of the smoother DAO’s currently available and particularly SIG-Sauer’s DAK versions. If fact, some shooters advise being able to shoot quite well at distance because they are less inclined to flinch since the longer pull tends to “disguise” when the break occurs, firing the pistol. You really do need to handle and preferably shoot one of these DAK’s to better decide if it is right for you and how difficult it may or may not be to master.
Split-times do tend to increase in my experience with the DAO, but only by miniscule amounts of a few thousandths of a second. This might be a disadvantage on a static competition line, but in my view it is very debatable if the same holds true in the unpredictable, dynamic and hectic movements of a real world gunfight. The only increased times between shots that I’ve seen consistently via electronic timer are when firing on a single target. If engaging multiple targets, it’s just not there. Moving from one to the other seems to just “absorb” any such minute increased split-times. In the end, it remains up to you to decide if this system best meets your perceived requirements for a defensive pistol.
Improved double-action trigger-pulls can be found on traditional DA-autos these days as well. These pistols are typified by a long double-action trigger-pull firing the first shot with subsequent shots being fired in single-action mode. If desired, one can fired the first shot single-action by manually cocking the hammer before pressing the trigger. It is my observation that the generally better double-action trigger-pulls makes the transition from the DA-first shot to the SA ones that follow less of a bugaboo than in years long past. I am not sure that the change from DA to SA was ever quite the monster described by some single-action automatic fans. No, you don’t get the same trigger-pull from first shot to last, but only for the first shot. Having seen a great number of these designs on police firing lines over the years, I can attest that the system can be learned and used with telling effect in real world confrontations.
Both of these 9mm pistols are traditional double-actions, i.e.: the first shot can be fired by simply pressing the trigger to cock and then drop the hammer. Each shot thereafter is fired in single-action mode. The double-action trigger-pull on the older Walther P38 (left) is just not as refined as on the much newer Beretta PX4 (right), which made the change from DA to SA-firing more pronounced. Both the single-stack Walther magazine and the Beretta’s double-stack hold more rounds than the traditional 5 or 6-shot revolver.
Some suggest that the double-to-single-action transition condemn the traditional double-action to lower status as effective defensive arms. This may have been truer with earlier traditional double-action auto designs, but I just do not see it as some sort of insurmountable hurdle to overcome and definitely do not see the design as “the badge of the incompetent” as was sometimes opined in the past.
I respectfully disagree with those insisting that traditional DA-autos somehow second-rate weapons but I do believe that a potential problem can result from this design’s having two distinct trigger-pulls if in a terror-laden deadly force situation. Trying to gain any perceived “edge” when the “wolf is at the door” it is not uncommon for a person to unconsciously cock their traditional DA-automatic (or revolver) which results in a considerably lighter and shorter trigger-pull. This phenomenon seems to occur more often with less-experienced, less-practiced shooters so it follows that if they’ve cocked the handgun out of fear, there’s a better than good chance that they also have their finger on the trigger without yet being ready to engage a target! The stage is set for a dangerous negligent discharge. At the same time, some find the ability to cock the hammer for a single-action pull offers more precision should that be necessary. Who is right? In this instance I believe that there is merit in both viewpoints and see the problem areas as training issues.
On the plus side, many of automatics of this design either offer dedicated decocking levers or have them incorporated in the manual thumb safety. This means that the trigger never need be touched other than to fire the weapon. Some of these devices are slide-mounted but my preference is for them to be on the frame such as on SIG-Sauer handguns, the Taurus PT92/99’s, or FN’s FNP and FNX line of traditional DA-autoloaders. Some designs allow engaging the thumb safety with the hammer all the way forward while others do not. If you find yourself leaning toward the traditional DA-automatic and favor being able to carry or store the pistol with the safety engaged, this might be something to consider. It might foil a gun grabber’s attempt to you in a struggle but it also mandates that the user practice disengaging the safety during the presentation until it becomes second nature and done without conscious thought.
A minority of traditional DA-automatics offer what is sometimes called “selective double-action”. This simply means that the pistol can be carried with the hammer down for a double-action first shot or the pistol can be carried “cocked-and-locked” with the hammer rearward and the external thumb safety applied. One of the more popular pistols having this feature is the CZ-75 family.
This Pre-B CZ-75 is capable of being carried with the hammer fully down for a DA first shot or “cocked-and-locked” for a single-action shooting when the frame-mounted safety is pressed downward to disengage it. If you want to carry this gun with the hammer forward and the safety engaged, you are out of luck. The safety cannot be applied with the hammer forward. Because this pistol does not have a decocker, the trigger must be pulled and the hammer held back and then gently lowered to achieve double-action mode. The potential for a mishap is obvious but not necessarily a foregone conclusion if the user is diligent. CZ offers variants that do have decocking levers but these are not capable of Condition One (cocked-and-locked) carry. Either approach has pluses and minuses. We must decide for ourselves which carries the greatest importance to us as individuals.
Another commonly-seen semiautomatic offering selective double-action would be the Taurus PT-92. This is an early version (PT92AF) in which the ambidextrous thumb safety can be applied with the hammer fully forward or at full-cock. It does not also act as a decocking lever as do later versions of this pistol. While the safety lever also capable of decocking is probably a safer approach than manually lowering the hammer over a chambered round, it is not necessarily a case of “having your cake and eating it, too”. If the pistol is in Condition One and the safety is disengaged with too much “vigor”, it can inadvertently be pressed passed the “fire” position to decock the pistol for a possibly unintended longer double-action pull. In my opinion, this doesn’t automatically exclude the pistol from serious consideration as a defensive arm. It does exemplify a characteristic better known and consciously considered than being a potential disappointment later.
Some selective-DA devotees have told me that they prefer this action because they can use the “superior” Condition One carry mode but retain “second-strike” capability. What they are saying is that should they press the trigger to fire the gun and nothing happens due to the primer not going off, they can immediately try again via the pistol’s double-action capability. Other shooters suggest going immediately to a failure-to-fire drill to rectify the situation rather than (probably) “wasting” precious time with another trigger-pull on the same defective primer. How necessary do you see second-strike capability?
The single-action semiautomatic’s fans are legion. This type of pistol in general and the 45-caliber 1911 in particular have been greatly revered and promoted by many shooting gurus as premier defensive arms. I fully agree that this type handgun can be shot with both extreme speed and accuracy in skilled hands. If ones only requirement for a defensive arm is the speed at which it can put shots on a target, a tuned single-action automatic like the 1911 is the one to beat. It can be had with an extremely crisp and light trigger-pull and sports probably the shortest reset of any semiautomatic. In other words, the distance that the trigger must be released before being pressed for the next shot is very small with this design. In any event, 1911’s remain one of the most popular if not THE most popular handgun in the US.
John Browning’s 1911-pattern pistol has served well in the US military for decades. It is still a sales leader among both private citizens and law enforcement officers allowed to carry single-action automatics. Some special response teams such as the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team and others specifically chose this design. Shown on the left is an STI Legacy in .45 ACP. On the right is a slightly customized Browning 9mm Hi Power. This one was my last duty pistol before retiring from police work. The 1911 and the P35 are probably the most popular of the single-action autoloaders.
Proponents of this design cite their advantages as a light, short trigger-pull that is consistent for any and all shots fired and praise the ease with which these guns can be used to make quick and accurate shots due to their practical accuracy, i.e.: their physical characteristics that seemingly make it easier to shoot the gun well. Built-in mechanical accuracy is quite satisfactory in most examples and can be extremely good in tuned examples of the breed. In short, I believe that fans of the single-action autoloader have quite a lot of legitimate positives to “crow” about. Though I am certainly one of these fans, I no more believe that the single-action autoloader is the “best” choice for all individuals than I believe in “Glock Perfection”.
Here is why.
Though not relatively complicated, disengaging the thumb safety while scared to death just may not happen among users who have not made this action second-nature. It only has to happen once under the right circumstances to be final.
Among some shooters (not all by any means), the single-action automatic and especially the 1911 bears some sort of mystique that somehow anoints them as “combat masters”. You get the idea. That some true masters choose this type handgun over all others speaks to the design’s capability to be sure, but just owning one won’t quite turn the trick…or even come close. Jeff Cooper noted that owning a pistol no more made one a good shot than owning a Stradivarius made one a violinist. He was very right in my view. Under stress, it is very easy, too easy unless we’ve diligently practice, to fail to disengage the single-action’s thumb safety.
Some folks are fearful of carrying a cocked hammer despite engaging a manual safety and in a holster covering the trigger. Some admit it and move on to other designs. Others do not and carry a design that in reality they do not trust. I have seen some carry their single-action autoloaders in Condition Three (hammer down on an empty chamber but with a loaded magazine) for this reason. I suggest that since the handgun is for unexpected threats probably in very close proximity, having to depend on using two hands to get the pistol operational is not a good thing! From my own personal experiences as a peace officer, I can assure you it is not…at least in my view, but in the end we each must make our own decisions. Others suggest storing single-action automatics doing “house gun duty” in this manner so that a drowsy homeowner must be fully awake before being able to fire the gun or to make it more difficult for a child to accidentally injure themselves or others. I see a more merit in this but only if the house has better than average locks, door jambs, windows and/or an alarm so that they threat is most unlikely to be inside before the snoozing homeowner becomes fully awake and alert. This also assumes that the homeowner engages the thumb safety upon chambering a round unless having to fire immediately.
I am aware of some who insist on carrying the single-action automatic in Condition Two: hammer manually lowered over a chambered round. Lowering the hammer to achieve this “safer” mode does offer the chance for a negligent discharge, but in my opinion it also unnecessarily and unsatisfactorily slows one’s response to an immediate threat.
It is not unusual to see some single-action pistol carriers frequently (possibly unconsciously) checking to be sure that their guns’ thumb safeties are engaged. Anyone who has carried the SA-auto in Condition One has probably done this now and again, just “to be sure,” but I’ve witnessed some who do it very, very frequently and never miss a word while simultaneous speaking. I believe that they really do not trust “cocked-and-locked” in their heart of hearts or have holsters that perpetually wipe their gun’s safety into the “off” position. If carrying concealed, this will give that fact away in due course for anyone having half an eye. Regardless of why, I suggest that this is just not satisfactory and that a better choice for these people can be had. This may be a good spot to re-emphasize the point of this article which is trying to provide information to better serve the individual in making his/her own independent choice in defensive handguns based on his or her personal preferences. It has long been my opinion that faith in one’s defensive firearm is too often underrated. It is one reason why I have never favored law enforcement agencies issuing but a single duty sidearm. A corollary of that belief is not to let choices that are popular with others but not with you make your decision. In other words, choose what you believe works best for you, not what is more likely to impress others.
Striker-fired pistols from Glock, Springfield Armory, S&W and others have never been more popular than today and use spring-loaded “firing pins” called “strikers” rather than a hammer striking a firing pin. Chambering a round fully-retracts the spring-loaded striker on some of these pistols and pressing the trigger simply releases it. Since the trigger performs but one function, it might be thought of as the striker-equipped pistol’s version of a single-action automatic. Others have partially-retracted strikers that are drawn completely rearward and then released by pressing the trigger, a parallel to the hammer-equipped DAO autoloader. (That’s how I see it but some insist that striker-fired pistols are neither single nor double-action but are instead an entirely separate class of pistol. I am not too concerned with the semantics of this issue and leave it for someone else to worry about.) Glock’s success popularized this type handgun but striker-fired pistols are by no means new. Early examples would include the P08 Luger and Browning 1910. Today’s examples almost always have a lightweight polymer (plastic) frame.
It has been noted by many that the Glock has been proven extremely durable as well as reliable, particularly in the original 9mm chambering. Having seen untold numbers of these on police firing lines as well as when qualifying private citizens for their concealed carry licenses, they almost always work. I admit that I doubted their longevity and plastic frames way back when, but over the years I have come to both respect and trust these pistols. Some of the most “serious” handgunners I know carry Glock automatics by choice.
If interested, here are some Glock-related links:
For those wanting more on this line of pistols check for more articles on them under “Other Handguns” and “FAQ’s”.
For those considering the Glock for carry or home defense, questions concerning the pistol’s safety record frequently arise and there does seem to be quite a number of negligent discharges associated with this particular brand pistol.
My observations on this topic are here:
This Glock 17 is the Generation III version of the original Glock 9mm pistol introduced in the 1980’s. This one has fired several thousand rounds resulting in zero “kabooms” or negligent discharges. It is intended as a service size pistol and would make a very effective home defense gun for practiced individuals. In normal trim it sports about a 5 ½-lb trigger-pull that Glock refers to as a “safe action”. To me it is a very short DAO having its external safety on the trigger and not having second-strike capability. Its design also results in a short and positive reset. I believe that Glocks are mechanically safe but I am also convinced that like single-action autoloaders, they do not tolerate improper handling well at all. I see this primarily being due to violations of Rule III (See below) coupled with these designs’ short and light trigger-pulls. With the single-action, the safety being applied may allow a little more of such foolishness but not the Glock. Its safety is deactivated just as easily when negligently placing the trigger-finger on it as when doing it on purpose. In my opinion, the Glock can be a most capable defensive arm for serious users but I do not recommend them for people not really into shooting. That they are so very easy to get into action can be either a curse or a blessing…depending upon the user!
One of the Glock’s competitors is the extremely popular XD-line of pistols imported by Springfield Armory. Some prefer this design’s less-rakish grip-angle and appreciate the additional grip safety. The XD shown is a .45 ACP Tactical Model that is carried daily by a rancher I know. It is also his regular concealed carry and home defense pistol. When the trigger is pressed while holding the XD, it simply releases the fully-compressed spring-loaded striker. Because of this, some prefer its trigger-pull to that of the Glock, which is sometimes described as “spongy”. Where the Glock normally has received accolades for it corrosion-resistance, there have been complaints on XD finishes (at least early ones) not holding up as well when exposed sweat, inclement weather, etc, and not cleaned. (This may have been corrected by now, but I just have not checked.)
Taurus as well as Smith & Wesson offers similar designs as well. S&W’s is dubbed the “M&P” and can be had with or without an external thumb safety or magazine disconnect. I believe that this style of handgun is here to stay but cannot hope to declare which will best suit your needs. Parts, both factory and aftermarket, are more readily available for the Glock than any of the others. For me, this is a very positive point in favor of the Austrian pistol. The Glock is also simple enough internally that detail-stripping for cleaning, parts inspection or replacement is just not difficult. (The same is also true for the 1911 and Hi Power single-actions due to these designs’ relatively few internal parts.)
Some folks seem to shoot better with one brand over the other, though all have more than enough built-in accuracy for their intended anti-personnel purposes.
My main concern with striker-fired handguns, regardless of manufacturer, is how hard they strike the primer. Using a major American ammo maker’s factory-loaded ammo resulted in numerous failures to fire from a Glock 17 and an M&P. A couple of days later, I tried it in friend’s XD with the same results. Yet this same lot of ammunition fired flawlessly through a Hi Power, STI Trojan, Star and FNP9 pistol. I believe that the “cleanfire” primers were the culprits and that they just were not as sensitive as “regular” ones. (This lot of ammunition was several years old but had been bought new and has been stored inside my home. I suspect that the manufacturer has since quietly tweaked their primers so that they are reliable with as many handguns as possible by now…but cannot prove this.) I recall a warning in print concerning how some foreign 9mm surplus ammunition should NOT be used in Glocks. The reason was that it had “hard primers”.
When I mentioned this on one gun forum in particular, I was “informed” that it was an “ammo problem” and not a “Glock problem”. I really was not concerned with which “problem” it was other than I did not want it to be my “problem” in a deadly force situation. That was my point in mentioning it then as well as now. That said, I have not suffered any problems at all with the following: Speer Gold Dots, Remington JHP’s and Golden Sabers, Hornady XTP’s, any of Corbon’s ammunition, or any Winchester JHP’s or Ranger line of LEO ammo. Fiocchi, DAG, S&B, and Federal have all fired without fail in my Glocks.
This article was never intended to cover each and every make or type of handgun available that might be suitable for self-defense. Its purpose was merely to provide hopefully useful personal observations made over the long-term with more than one example of the handgun types discussed in an effort to help those looking for a defensive arm. I hope that it has done so or at the very least been entertaining.
PS: None of us (including myself) can be too safe when handling firearms. As a reminder here are Jeff Cooper’s Four Rules of Safe Firearm Handling:
RULE I: ALL GUNS ARE ALWAYS LOADED (Treat them as such until you personally confirm otherwise and the gun has not left to immediate possession.)
RULE II: NEVER LET THE MUZZLE COVER ANYTHING YOU ARE NOT WILLING TO DESTROY
RULE III: KEEP YOUR FINGER OFF THE TRIGGER UNTIL YOUR SIGHTS ARE ON THE TARGET
RULE IV: BE SURE OF YOUR TARGET (and what is beyond)