When people ask me what type of gun they should purchase for concealed carry I tell them they need a pistol that is concealable, that affords sufficient firepower for most self-defense scenarios, that is reliable, and that can be fired accurately by the carrier. Unfortunately, no pistol is perfect in every one of those categories. Although advances in firearms technology have allowed us to get closer to having our cake and eating it too, the sad reality is that tradeoffs have to be made. With that in mind, let’s look at each of the factors listed above…
1) Concealability. Ask yourself where you plan on carrying, and I don’t mean where on your body do you plan on carrying your gun — we’ll get to that in a second. Are you living in an area where people are supremely uncomfortable with guns? Do you mind making significant changes to your wardrobe? What kind of climate do you live in? Do you plan on carrying everyday? A big guy who normally wears loose-fitting clothes and who lives in a gun-friendly community in a cool climate might want to wear a full-frame 1911; whereas a person who lives in a hot climate and/or in a community where people don’t typically carry firearms might want to go with a pocket pistol. Whatever you do, don’t run out and buy a Glock or XD or any other pistol for that matter without first thinking about how you’re going to hide the thing. Read what other folks have said about carrying a particular pistol and try to imagine how carrying that gun would affect your lifestyle. After all, the odds that you’ll ever need to pull your pistol in a self-defense scenario are very low. They’re certainly not zero, which is why you want to carry in the first place, but they are low, so think practically. Do you really want to carry a Glock 19 with you everywhere?
2) Firepower. This category boils down to the power of the cartridge and the capacity of the gun to carry rounds. I think it was the great Massad Ayoob who once stated that “friends don’t let friends carry mouse guns.” There’s some truth to that, but the reality is that technology has significantly increased the effectiveness of cartridges that were at one time just a step above a slingshot. Today cartridges like the .380, the .38 Special, and the 9mm Para are respectable manstoppers thanks to more powerful loads and better designed bullets. But if you still can’t bear the thought of carrying a 9mm, then you’ve got plenty of other choices. There are lots of concealable firearms chambered for popular cartridges like .45 ACP, .45 GAP, .357 Magnum, and .40 S&W. That said, you won’t find a firearm chambered in one of these more powerful cartridges that will be as concealabled as a small .380. If concealability is a major priority for you, but you still want to carry a more powerful pistol, then you may need to think in terms of an inside the waistband holster, which is fine if you don’t mind going up a size or two in jeans.
When considering which cartridge to go with, try to keep in mind that shot placement is even more important than cartridge power. A 9mm can be just as effective as a .45 if the shots go where they are supposed to. On the issue of capacity, more is always better, but more also means the gun will be larger or the cartridge will be smaller. Personally, I don’t like the idea of carrying around a bulky gun with a doublestack magazine. However, if you can stand to carry a wider gun then by all means go for it. Just remember that while it is unlikely that you will ever find yourself in a situation where you actually need to fire your gun in self defense, it’s even less likely that you’ll be in a bona fide shootout where you’ll need a gun capable of holding 17 rounds. But then again, it does happen. Just last week a store in Tucson was assaulted by three armed men trying to rob the place. Fortunately the owner of the store and one of his employees were armed. They fought the guys off — killing one and wounding the two others. Clearly, in that kind of scenario you don’t want a Ruger LCP. Then again, 99% of the time, that tiny LCP is probably good enough.
3) Reliability. This is pretty self-explanatory. You should carry a gun that goes boom when you want it to. Fortunately, most of the time this isn’t too much of a problem if you buy a gun from a well-known manufacturer. That said, you don’t need to break the bank to buy a reliable firearm. For example, Taurus makes some excellent carry guns that will fit the budget of anyone who isn’t living in a cardboard box. I’ve heard a lot of people say that Taurus’ are prone to malfunction, but I never actually heard that from anyone who owns a Taurus. I’m not saying that there aren’t lemons out there, but in my experience, and yes I do own a Taurus, they work just fine. Indeed, I’m very happy with my PT1911, which I’ve found to be extremely reliable. All that said, even big-name, big-dollar manufacturers produce crappy guns sometimes. I purchased a Para GI Expert last year and I hated the thing. I’ve heard that some people like them, but mine just plain sucked when it came to reliability. I don’t own any Kimbers, but I’ve heard that they have produced some losers in recent years too. The moral of the story is do some research and don’t assume that just because a gun costs more that it’s better.
One last thing, a lot of folks carry revolvers because they don’t have confidence in autoloaders. I can understand where they’re coming from, but there are autoloaders out there that are probably just as reliable as a revolver — Glocks and XDs come to mind. For my part, I do carry a revolver with me when I hike because I want a gun that is light, conceable, and can take a lot of punishment. A Glock would probably fit the bill too, but for some reason I still think revolver when I think woods gun. I guess there’s an example of one of my biases right there. Anyway…
4) Shootability. As noted earlier, shot-placement is even more important than cartridge power when it comes to stopping threats. That means you’ll need a gun that is reasonably accurate and that you can shoot comfortably. If you find a .357 too punishing to shoot, then try a .38. If you can’t hit the broadside of a barn with your baby Glock in .40 S&W, try a Springfield EMP. You don’t need to be able to pull head shots at 25 yards with your carry gun, but you do need to know that you can hit what you’re aiming at within… say… 25 feet.
There’s one final question that I feel I should address that relates to shootability; should you carry a single action autoloader or a double-action? Personally, I don’t care for double-action pistols. Their triggers usually feel like doo doo to me. I grew up shooting single action pistols like the 1911 and for me a double action feels like a major strep backward in terms of shootability. That said, I do have a double-action Diamondback .380, which I don’t totally hate, but I chose it in spite of of the fact that it’s a double-action and not because Diamondback managed to create a double-action trigger that doesn’t feel like crap. If money were no object, I would have purchased SIG’s single action .380, because single action pistols, simply put, allow for better marksmanship. There are some pretty good double action triggers out therem (e.g. Glocks feel OK to me), but even the best double action trigger doesn’t feel as good to me as a well tuned single action.
All that said, there are reasons to go with a double-action. 1) Some folks, including Massad Ayoob, have pointed out that you might be accused of using a gun with a “hair trigger” if you ever use a single action in self defense. Of course, such an allegation is total nonsense, but there are some very unscrupulous prosecutors out there who have tried to play that card for the sake of getting a conviction. 2) There may be a greater risk of accidental discharge in a stressful situation. Single actions are more sensitive, so you can’t paw the trigger and not expect the thing to go off. 3) You have to carry a single action locked and cocked for it to be useful. The idea of carrying a 1911-style pistol with the hammer back, a round in the chamber, and safety on is enough to make some folks cringe, but that is the accepted way to carry a single-action autoloader for self-defense.
So what’s the answer to the double vs. single-action question? If you’re new to guns, stick with the keep-it-simple-stupid principle, which means you should probably go with a double action. As you become more proficient in firearms handling, then think about a single action.