Choosing a Defensive Handgun

By Bob Campbell published on in Firearms

Part 6 in our concealed carry series.

Choosing your personal handgun is just that—a personal choice. While individual preference is important, you should not select a poor quality or ineffective handgun on a whim. Once a certain level of quality is met, the differences in handling matter most. While quality handguns differ in features, most handguns in a particular class are tactically similar, with the final determiner of survival being your skill. When you are a student, you are human and often make poor choices.

Dark gray SIG P220 .45, barrel pointed down and to the right on a light tan background

A quality handgun, such as the SIG P220 .45, is an ideal defensive handgun, with accuracy, power and reliability.

Choosing what is available or what you can afford is not always a bad idea, although many choose a handgun that is too large or too small. Either end of the spectrum may be a problem when it comes to mastering the handgun. Occasionally, you will choose a handgun that is too powerful for your current level of experience.

I have seen students show up for class with handguns that would tax the ability of any burly instructor.

In the beginning, you do not need to master a highly specialized handgun, such as an ultra-light .357 Magnum revolver or the very smallest lightweight .45 automatic.

Many of the sub-compact .40 caliber pistols are difficult to handle. With 40 years of shooting experience under my belt and more than a few shooting trophies (plus hard-won experience and scars), I do not choose such difficult-to-master handguns for myself. Not that I cannot shoot them as well as anyone given sufficient range time and practice; I simply prefer a handgun I can use well and use to high personal standards of accuracy and control.

Poor choices originate from inexperience or poor advice. We have all made the wrong decision at one time or the other about handgun choice, tactics, holsters and ammunition, and the instructor’s job is to challenge and teach you. I will discuss the most appropriate handgun choices and share a program that lets you develop a good understanding of how well you are suited to a particular handgun.

Two men, one a young blond in grey t-shirt, the other gray haired in a green tshirt, use a Commander .45 to practice, practice, practice.

These shooters prefer the Commander .45 and practice often.

I have developed a 50-round drill that reveals a lot about your skills and ability with the chosen handgun, caliber and ammunition. Those are useful as entrance drills for advanced courses and to evaluate a handgun before you make your final choice. Expending 50 rounds of ammunition is much easier than spending more than $500 for a handgun that is not suited to your ability. The handgun may not be reliable or it may be too powerful for you.

This relatively simple range test is an excellent evaluation of the student and handgun. We allowed a rather generous score when evaluating the test. A perfect score is 500, with 50 in the X-ring. As a baseline, the instructors and I fired the course with a Beretta 92 9mm, Colt Government Model .45 and Smith & Wesson M 65 .357 Magnum revolver loaded with .38 Special +P loads. Instructor-level shooters cleaned the course. While you, as a student, would not be able to do the same, the test makes evident a poor choice.

As an example, a young student came to my course with a compact .40-caliber pistol she received as a Christmas gift. The pistol is a good example of the breed, although she preferred the snub-nose .38 with which she had grown up. To cut to the chase, she did poorly with the .40 pistol. Switching to the snub-nose Smith & Wesson .38 Special (loaded with +P loads), she fired the single best score of the class during qualification. The class included students of varying experience firing full-size 9mm and .40-caliber handguns.

You must know your limitations, preferences and the action type and size of pistol best suited to your abilities.

A Testing and Qualification Drill

Two pistols in holsters, the one on the left is a medium brown concealed carry holster, the one on the right is a black concealed carry holster.

Quality holsters are important. The shorter handgun does not demand as great a cant or angle for concealed carry.

Hopefully you live near an indoor range with a good choice of handguns to rent by the hour. It is less expensive to rent a handgun, fire a box of ammunition and evaluate the piece than to buy the wrong handgun. The drill involves firing 10 shots at each step.

  1. Fire 10 rounds at 7 yards with one hand.
    During this drill, you are encouraged to discard area aiming and aim for a finite point on the target. This drill demonstrates your control of the handgun and grasp of the basics.
  2. Move to 10 yards and fire 10 rounds again, this time also with one hand shoulder point.
    The handgun is loaded and you carefully fires 10 rounds. There is no time limit.
  3. Fire 10 rounds at 10 yards with the two-hand hold. The groups will tighten up considerably, illustrating the superiority of the two-hand hold. At this range, you should be able to hold all shots in the X-ring.
  4. Move to a long 15 yards and fire 10 rounds with any stance. Some prefer the isosceles; others prefer the Weaver stance. There is no time limit.
  5. Move to a braced barricade position and fire 10 rounds. There is no time limit. At this range, faults, such as lingering on the sight picture too long and then jerking the trigger by rushing to break the shot, are common. The instructor should be aware of those problems and offer remedial instruction.

It is a good idea for you to run this course with a .22-caliber rimfire handgun before progressing to full-caliber pistols. Running a combat course with the .22 accomplishes many things.

  • The low recoil of the .22 is encouraging.
  • It stresses marksmanship.
  • You learn the basics without the distraction of flash, blast and recoil.
  • For advanced shooters, firing this course underlines the choice of the combat gun, whether the choice is good or bad. A handgun that is too powerful for you (such as a .40 compact or snub-nosed .357 Magnum) may strike far from the point of aim and will scatter the groups on the target.
White haired man in green shirt and bluejeans fires his gun to master the piece, with wooded area behind him.

Whatever handgun you choose, take it to the range and master the piece.

You may do well with the first few drills, then fall apart at longer range as recoil becomes tiring. That is why it is important to fire the short-range drills first. If you do fine at short range and then a problem becomes apparent at 15 yards, you have accomplished the goal. You are not firing to beat the qualification course; you are firing to learn—there is a substantial difference.

This course is useful when checking your ability to use and control a certain handgun well and when checking a new technique.

For example, you use the one-hand shoulder point in the basic course. If the you are indoctrinated in the Stressfire technique, rerun the course using only the front sight as a reference at the close ranges. A variation may involve firing from cover using a range construct instead of the barricade. Variations are allowed, as long as the course is consistent, and the results may be compared at a later date.

For instance, if you run the course with the a GLOCK 19, keep the course consistent so you can compare against results with the GLOCK 26 sub-compact later so you may choose the handgun that serves you best.

The highest score is 500, with 50 in the X-ring. If you achieve that standard with a full-size service pistol, give some thought to the concealed carry handgun. It is not unusual for a skilled shooter to fire the same score with a Colt 1911 and Colt Commander or a GLOCK 17 and GLOCK 19. But when you move to the sub-compacts, such as the Colt Defender or GLOCK 26, the score inevitably falls.

If you run at about 75 percent with the sub-compacts, you are still in good shape. But consider the drop in score when using a Kel-Tec PF 9 or GLOCK Model 27 in .40 caliber.

  • Can you really control these light handguns well in all situations?
  • How about that ultra-light .38?
  • Are you well armed or do you have a false sense of security?

This is a simple drill that does not lie and tells a lot about your ability.

NOTE: Shoulder point is the style; we are using the sights.

Distance Rounds Fired Style
 7 yards  10 rounds  One-hand shoulder point
 10 yards  10 rounds  One-hand shoulder point
 10 yards  10 rounds  Two hands
 10 yards  10 rounds  Any style
 10 yards  10 rounds  From braced barricade/cover

Top Handgun Choices

Personal defense handguns are different from service pistols. A carry gun must be more compact and does not have to handle the same situations as service pistols. A personal defense situation at moderate range is the usual problem. If you are willing to learn to conceal a larger handgun, then you will be better armed, although most of us will use a handgun with more compact dimensions. The compact versions of service pistols are often the most reliable and useful for personal defense. The SIG P250 compact, Smith & Wesson M and P compact 9mm and Glock 19 are among these. Those pistols build on the reliability and ergonomics of the larger handguns while the shortened slides and frames make them more concealable.

Black GLOCK 19 9mm in black holster with red accent on light gray background

If there is any better-balanced polymer frame handgun than the Glock 19 9mm, the author has never handled it.

You can go too far and have a handgun that is too small and too difficult to manage. For example, while many shooters deploy the Mini Glock (and it is a good pistol), the Glock 19 handles better and shoots better for all of us. The full-size GLOCK 17 9mm is too large for most.

  • My other half uses a full-size 9mm SIG P250 as a house gun, and it is just that, a house gun. The dimensions are such that it would be too large for her to conceal on her small frame, and the advantages are great in a home defense situation. Seventeen rounds of the Federal HST 9mm in a low recoil, manageable pistol are appealing.
  • The compact P250 in .45 ACP I sometimes use is concealable yet effective. It simply takes more concentration to make a hit at longer range, and you have to resign yourself to greater effort in controlling recoil. The SIG P250 and the Glock 19 are excellent, all-around, compact pistols, perhaps unequaled in performance. The Smith & Wesson Military and Police self-loader is also a credible choice. For those who prefer a double-action, first-shot trigger, the Beretta Storm line is attractive, with typical Beretta reliability and function. Those pistols are reliable and close to the ideal size for comfort and concealed carry. Self-loaders offer the advantage of an instant second shot, a good reserve of ammunition and high hit probability.

For those willing to master the demands of the single-action pistol and carry the pistol properly at ready cocked and locked, there is no handgun faster to an accurate first shot than the 1911 handgun. The idea is to choose a good-quality pistol without issues, beginning with the affordable Remington R1 and moving up from there. A service-grade pistol, such as the Springfield GI or Springfield Mil Spec, is a good pistol for all-around personal defense.

For those who want the 1911 to be all that it can be, the Kimber Custom shop pistols, such as the CDP, are an option. The Kimber Pro Carry is perhaps the best mix of value and performance. With a lightweight aluminum frame and 4-inch barrel, the 1911 is not just manageable, it is comfortable to carry. My experience indicates that 3-inch pistols are not as reliable in the long run as 4-inch-barrel carry pistols, and I have owned both Kimber and Para Ordnance that were completely reliable in the 3-inch-barrel versions.

The Sig series, particularly the Carry Stainless, are also excellent examples of the 1911. The 1911 is a great handgun with excellent features, including a low-bore axis, short, straight-to-the-rear trigger pull and good hand fit. But never carry a 1911 because it is cool or expected of you. Only carry it if you are willing to master the demands of cocked-and-locked carry and learn to handle the recoil of a .45 ACP handgun.

Black handled, silver barreled compact 9mm, barrel pointed to the right on a white-to-light gray background

A compact 9mm handgun has much to recommend, including a good reserve of ammunition, good accuracy and high hit probability.

Good, Inexpensive Guns

  • TriStar’s CZ 75 clones, manufactured in Turkey, are good, inexpensive guns. I find the T100 an attractive, reliable and accurate handgun, comparable to the original in every way. My affection for CZ pistols has grown with this handgun.
  • Another inexpensive 9mm self-loader is the Stoeger Cougar. Also made in Turkey, that handgun represents Beretta’s attempt to produce an inexpensive option to the original Cougar. While the new Cougar is a good handgun that has proven reliable and accurate during testing, it is not as well finished as the original. The newest versions feature a light rail that the original did not.
  • Perhaps the most interesting new handgun I have tested in some time is the Taurus PT 111 Millennium G2, a compact 9mm handgun that features a 12-round magazine capacity, good sights, well-designed grip, good shooting characteristics and a light rail. Yet, it is just a little larger than the 19-ounce Shield at only 22 ounces. This is a formidable handgun well worth a hard look.


Black handled Taurus 605 in a black holster with American flag, barrel pointed down on a white-to-gray background

This Taurus 605 is brilliantly fast from leather and that means a great deal.

When choosing concealed carry revolvers, the most common type is a five-shot revolver known generically as the J frame, including the following:

Those revolvers comeframe revolvers the easiest to fire and use well. With proper grips and attention to detail during practice, you can fire them accurately, and they frame revolvers are meant to beframe revolvers are even lighter. Most of th0se chamber for the .38 Special revolver cartridge. Loaded with +P ammunition, such as the Federal 129-grain Hydra Shock +P, a .38 revolver has authority.

There are also .357 Magnum versions of the five-shot revolver. The Taurus 605 is surprisingly easy to fire and use well when loaded with the Federal 130 grain .357 Magnum Hydra Shock. The modern rubber grips that offset your hand from any steel are one reason they are comfortable to use and fire. However, with the same revolver in an air-weight version, things get hairy. Those revolvers have plenty of kick and blast and instigate flinching quickly. Flinching is anticipating recoil, producing an involuntary muscular reaction.

The .357 Magnum is simply too much in such a light revolver. The doctrine of those who subscribe to the Magnum snub nose is simple. They believe in one hard hit, delivered accurately, rather than several lighter blows. There is some merit to that, although few achieve real proficiency with such a difficult implement. It is a good idea to load those revolvers with +P .38 Special loads.

The steel frame 605 is another matter, and with reasonable loads, it is a formidable option. The Smith & Wesson five-shot revolvers are excellent choices. The Taurus Model 85 is affordable, usually has a smooth action and offers broad, easy-to-pick-up sights.

House Guns

No gun is too big to defend the home. For most of us, a home defense handgun is the piece we have carried during the day. I realize all of you may not carry handguns concealed and primarily may be interested in house guns. Some may carry light handguns during the day and keep formidable pistols ready at home.

All of those are good choices that handle quickly, have excellent hand fit with less recoil than lighter handguns and the highest reliability, such as the following:

  • GLOCK 17 9mm
  • Beretta 92
  • Kimber Eclipse .45
  • Beretta Storm in .45
  • Four-inch barrel .357 Magnum revolver

Consider every option. The bottom line is if you use more than one handgun and more than one action type (or even a self-loader and a revolver), be certain you are familiar with each handgun and know how to use each well.

And buy quality. Quality remains after the price is forgotten.

My Personal Choices

Dark haired woman in yellow shirt practices with her .45 by shooting into a wooded area.

The next time a burly guy says the .45 is too much for girls—do not tell this young lady. She has never heard of anything she cannot do.

I am certain someone will ask what handguns I carry, and that is a fair question because it is important for me to practice what I preach. I rely on first-class concealment leather to achieve concealment with my handguns. That makes a difference when deploying a credible defensive pistol. I test and evaluate many handguns and try to do so thoroughly since personal defense is a serious business. I carry what works for me.

  • A frequent and favorite carry gun is the stainless version of the Colt Commander .45.
  • A strong second choice I often carry in the appendix position is the SIG P229, .40 caliber.
  • I seldom carry a Smith & Wesson 442 as a primary handgun, although there are times when that .38 Special revolver is the best choice due to local mores and a need for deep concealment.
  • When I can wear a covering garment, such as the Kakadu vest, I carry a Colt Series 70 1911.

In outdoor situations, when traveling backroads and while hiking, a revolver seems appropriate. The Smith & Wesson Model 13 .357 Magnum with a 4-inch heavy barrel is a good fit. Currently, I am evaluating a Taurus 627 SS seven-shot Tracker. So far, it seems to be a very good handgun.

The choice is yours. It is your hide.

Have you tried the Range Test in this article? What were your results? If not, when are you going to test that handgun you have been eyeing? Share in the comments section.


Bob Campbell is a former peace officer and published author with over 40 years combined shooting and police and security experience. Bob holds a degree in Criminal Justice. Bob is the author of the books, The Handgun in Personal Defense, Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry, The 1911 Automatic Pistol, The Gun Digest Book of Personal Protection and Home Defense, The Shooter’s Guide to the 1911, The Hunter and the Hunted, and The Complete Illustrated Manual of Handgun Skills. His latest book is Dealing with the Great Ammo Shortage. He is also a regular contributor to Gun Tests, American Gunsmith, Small Arms Review, Gun Digest, Concealed Carry Magazine, Knife World, Women and Guns, Handloader and other publications. Bob is well-known for his firearm testing.

View all articles by Bob Campbell

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Comments (26)

  • Al Robbins - Firearms Instructor


    Good article, good advice and a good tactical course. FAMILIARITY with one’s firearm and PRACTICE and PROPER TRAINING are essential. One thing I feel should be added: How can you shoot in the dark? (That’s when many situations occur.) Ordinary gunsights are next to useless in the dark but a laser sighting device will put you right on target. Also, there is the intimidation factor, possibly making it unnecessary to fire your weapon. My bedside gun and carry gun include laser sighting devices. I highly recommend them.


  • Tom K


    What size target did you use? What is the diameter of the x ring?


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