Not all handguns are designed with self defense in mind and some that are aren’t particularly well suited for it. Knowing what qualities to look for in a defensive handgun helps discern the good from not so good.
Over the past few years, I’ve invested a sizable amount of time and money into becoming better versed in armed self defense. As a result, my perspective has evolved and I’d like to believe that my approach to handgun selection has become significantly more objective and less subjective. Given the frequency of questions I receive asking for pistol suggestions or comparisons, I figured this would be a good time to put something together that describes the qualities of a defensive handgun. These are the qualities that one should consider when selecting a handgun that one may depend on in the most dire circumstances. Let’s look at them.
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It really doesn’t matter who you ask about what to look for in a defensive handgun. Virtually everyone, assuming they have some knowledge of armed self defense, will lead off with reliability as the most important quality a defensive handgun has to have. The reason for this is quite simple: the gun has to go bang when one’s life is depending on it. Reliability is also why the same pool of makes and models of firearms are suggested over and over again as a good place to start. That pool is filled with firearms that have a track record for reliability.
A common thing I see, which I think is a mistake, is that many folks who pick up a gun with a reputation for reliability simply assume it will be reliable and don’t confirm it for themselves. I have more than a few problems with this. Here is the thing, manufacturing defects happen regardless of how stellar the quality controls are. Given the important role that this firearm may one day serve, it behooves everyone to put a sufficient number of rounds downrange to ensure their specific firearm will run reliably. How many rounds is sufficient? There is no exact number that I am aware of, but I suggest a minimum of 500 rounds of which 100 are the high quality self defense rounds that have been selected for that firearm. I get that that number seems daunting or expensive to some folks, but it’s not something that has to happen in a single range trip. It can and should happen naturally over time as the gun is taken to the range for practice or to training courses which are necessary to become familiar with the firearm and become proficient with it.
The less discussed aspect of reliability deals with the gun not going bang when it’s not supposed to. In other words, the safety features of the firearm must also be reliable. Safety features vary from handgun to handgun, but for the most part all modern handguns are drop safe and include a combination of passive and active safety mechanisms. Some of the safety mechanisms can and should be functionally tested when performing typical firearm maintenance. Again, assuming the safety mechanisms will work reliably is not a good idea. Other safety mechanisms, such as those implemented to make a handgun drop safe, are not so easily tested. For this reason, I’m not keen on opting for new firearms or firearm variants that have just been introduced to the marketplace since there could be some flaws that have yet to be identified and worked out. A good example of this is the safety issues that were found with the Sig Sauer P320 when it was first introduced and resulted in a voluntary safety recall.
Bottom line is a defensive handgun must be reliable. This quality should be continuously verified and that should happen naturally as part of cultivating proficiency with the handgun and performing regular maintenance. Taking a page out of Tom Givens’ book, Concealed Carry Class: if at any time the handgun exhibits signs of reliability issues, such as malfunctions during practice or safety feature failures during maintenance, it should be either fixed or replaced.
Greg Ellifritz has conducted extensive research regarding the effectiveness of handgun cartridges in stopping attacks from predators of the human variety. There are two interesting measurements for each cartridge studied in his findings that I find very telling. They are the percentage of attackers who continued their attack regardless of how many hits were delivered and the percentage of attackers who stopped their attack after a single hit. The percentage of non-stops was nearly double with smaller less powerful popular handgun cartridges when compared to larger more powerful counterparts. The percentage of one-shot-stops generally trended upwards as the handgun cartridges got larger and more powerful. These numbers tell me that there is a point where cartridges are too anemic to be counted on to reliably penetrate an attacker’s vital anatomical structures reliably to be considered effective for defensive use.
What are good options? Basically, any popular handgun cartridge larger and more powerful than .32 ACP can be considered effective for defense against predators of the human variety since that’s where the non-stop percentage rate is cut in half. Examples of popular options include, but are not limited to:
- .380 ACP (also known as .380 Auto)
- .38 Special
- 9mm Luger (also known as 9x19mm or 9mm Parabellum)
- .357 Sig
- .357 Magnum
- .40 S&W
- .45 ACP (also known as .45 Auto)
- .44 Magnum
There are different terms for this quality used by different folks. Some folks will use the term “concealable” and others will use the term “wearable”. Regardless of the term used, the main point of this quality is that size of the gun should allow for program compliance. That is the gun should lend itself to be carried on one’s person regularly. Ideally every single day as a person goes on about their business since when and where it may be needed is not something that can be predicted.
As straightforward as that this quality may seem, there are some aspects of it that are either overlooked or considered with a strong bias. This is especially true of folks who are new to carrying a defensive handgun. More often than not I see a strong bias for the smallest and lightest handgun with the idea that it will be easy to conceal and comfortable to carry. This bias overlooks that smaller and lighter pistols are generally more difficult to shoot well and are limited in capacity making them far more suitable as a backup handgun rather than a defensive handgun. Perhaps the worst side effect is that most of these guns are unpleasant to shoot and that leads to a lack of developed proficiency.
On occasion I see a strong bias for full size pistols with the idea to maximize capacity and ease of use without considering that their day to day lifestyle doesn’t lend itself to carrying the selected handgun (this is most often an effect of dress code requirements and permissiveness of the environment). This leads to the defensive handgun spending more time in the safe at home than on the person.
There is no silver bullet here. Some folks might be able to find a one size fits all handgun. Others will have to opt for a one size fits most handgun and may have to rely on one or more handguns to deal with the scenarios where the one size fits most option doesn’t work. Either way, the point is to land the best option that enables habitual carry and facilitates proficiency
Ease of Use
The ease of use quality is, in my opinion, the most nuanced quality and the most difficult for newer pistol shooters to discern and evaluate. At its core, this quality is about how well a handgun lends itself to being operated efficiently and effectively under an incredible amount of stress. There are two aspects to this. The first aspect deals with the handguns design. The second aspect concerns how the individual interfaces with the handgun – that is how well the gun fits the individual.
Consider all the possible manipulations a defender may need to perform in a justified self defense scenario. The individual will or may need to:
- Engage and disable all of the passive safety mechanisms
- Manipulate a manual safety
- Clear a malfunction
- Reload the firearm
Depending on the person’s hand morphology some of those tasks might be relatively easy to do with one handgun but difficult to do with another. Another person with different hand morphology might find it more difficult to perform the same tasks on the first handgun and easier to do with the other. Even with similar hand morphology, different handedness can play a role in evaluating a handgun’s ease of use. Other things that may need to be considered include, but are not limited to, an individual’s hand and grip strength and their sensitivity to recoil.
So there you have it. A defensive handgun needs to be reliable, effective, portable, and easy to use. Based on what I’ve seen used by defensive pistol practitioners and what I’ve used myself, here are some of the makes and models I would consider today:
- CZ: P-10 series pistols
- Glock – Pretty much any pistol with the exception of the G44 which is chambered for .22 LR
- Heckler & Koch: P30, VP9, or VP40 series pistols
- Sig Sauer: P320 or P365 series pistols
- Smith & Wesson: M&P 2.0 series pistols
- Staccato: C2 or P series pistols
- Walther: PDP series pistols
There are several other good options in the market, but these are the ones I see often or have direct experience with. I hope this helps those of y’all in search for a new defensive handgun in one way or another.
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