Is Your Handgun a Combat Gun or Target Gun?

By Wilburn Roberts published on in Competitive Shooting, Firearms

Marksmanship can make up for power, but the reverse is seldom true. In a gunfight, shot placement is everything. Unfortunately, when choosing a handgun for combat, we risk becoming too interested in absolute accuracy and forget combat accuracy. A fascination with firing small groups on the target, even in combat courses, is counter intuitive to true combat practice.

CZ 75 B pistol left profile on a custom holster

The CZ 75 B is devoid of extraneous features. This is a great combat gun.

Hitting targets, including small targets at known and unknown ranges, is a test of marksmanship. Combat shooting should involve a mix of speed and precision. In combat situations, the marksmanship problem isn’t severe. The real problem is crisis control and keeping a level head. You cannot simply lay down fire and get the hell out; there is no carpet-bombing equivalent with a handgun—although spray and pray is common.

I want to hit the threat, hit it hard, and very fast where it will do the most good. I believe many of the handguns chosen for personal defense have target features that may work against us in trying to use the handgun with combat ability. I am not advocating a return to embryonic sights and an 8-pound trigger action, but I think a clearly defined notion of combat guns and target guns may be wise.

A combat gun must be aimed if you wish to hit the target, but it must be aimed with rapidity. A target gun will feature well-defined—even high profile—sights. The target gun may possess a light trigger action with a break of 2.5-4.0 pounds. There may be a grip shape that aids in perfect control of the trigger in slow fire. The combat gun features sights that are adequate but not likely to snag during the draw. The trigger will be smooth but not so light that it is prone to mismanagement during the fear of the moment. The grips will be useful for firing with either hand.

Springfield TRP pistol with slide locked to the rear

The Springfield TRP is a great combat gun. The sights may be adjusted with proper effort.

A couple of generations ago, several peace officers carried the Smith and Wesson Combat Masterpiece of Combat Magnum revolver with adjustable sights. These were accurate handguns but it wasn’t unusual to see the micrometer sights broken off by contact with car doors or doorjambs.

All you really need is a sight you can see. For example, an important step was taken about 1921 when Tom Threepersons, a noted American lawman, ordered a special tall square front sight for his Colt. When the powerful .357 Magnum revolver was introduced, due to its power and range, the pistol demanded fully adjustable sights. The Smith and Wesson .357 Magnum revolver set long-range accuracy records to 600 yards. At about the same time, Army gunsmiths tightened the Colt 1911 .45 ACP and fitted both high profile fixed sights and eventually fully adjustable sights.

All of this effort was in the stunt category without relation to combat shooting. These handguns exerted considerable influence among shooters who were interested in the latest developments and in accurate shooting. While accuracy is interesting, all of these handguns were not proper service pistols.

Barrel bushing on a 1911 pistol

This well used 1911 features a barrel bushing that is tight enough for reasonably good accuracy—closer than the shooter can hold.

Smith and Wesson also introduced a new short action after World War II that improved lock time and made for a faster double-action press. The action improvements by Smith and Wesson were good; Colt took it a step further by introducing the .357 Magnum Colt Python. The Python is a great target revolver. However, on at least two occasions I am aware of, the Python locked up during a critical incident. The trigger was pulled and the Colt fired normally, but the shooter did not quite allow the trigger to reset, attempted to pull the trigger again, and bent the double hand. Knowing what I know about the Python I would prefer a tour of duty with the reliable Model 10 .38 Smith and Wesson.

When the Smith and Wesson Combat Masterpiece was a common issue revolver many agencies qualified to a long 50 yards. Few do so today. Quite a few unfortunate incidents that left the police helpless could have been quickly addressed with long-range gunfire from the Combat Masterpiece or better still the Combat Magnum. Just the same, the Combat Magnum—while a fine revolver—was issued with coke bottle type grips that were not ideal for fast double-action trigger work.

Many of these revolvers would place a cylinder of ammunition into four inches on a 50-yard silhouette. A counterpoint to the target gun argument was realized when an agency I served with transitioned from the Smith and Wesson Model 66 revolver to the Model 59 9mm pistol. We had to drop the 50-yard qualification as hopeless. The Model 59 Smith and Wesson did well to keep 10 shots in 8 inches at 25 yards, much less 50 yards.

Springfield Operator 1911 pistol and Gorilla Ammunition

The Springfield Operator and Gorilla Ammunition are plenty accurate for any conceivable chore.

The hit probability in actual incidents was terrible. About one hit for five shots was the average. We traded a fine revolver with target features for a poor self loader. A counterpoint at the time was the standard issue revolver of the New York State Police. The Model 13 .357 Magnum was basically a heavy barrel .38 Military and Police revolver with a long cylinder. So, historical precedent is mixed up in regard to combat and target guns for personal defense.


High profile sights are good for combat shooting, but all you really need are sights you can see. The factory SIG, Beretta, and Colt sights are good. Adjustable sights are not as robust in action. I have seen too many such sights lose screws and get out of zero. High-visibility fixed sights, such as the Novak, are ideal for all around combat shooting.

As an example, a young man that is arguably worthy of our respect adopted a Springfield GI pistol as his personal pistol. The military intelligence Captain added Novak Lo Mount sights with a gold bead front sight insert. Otherwise, his Springfield with the short trigger and arched mainspring housing is stock. If it is good enough for him, it is good enough for the rest of us. A good set of high visibility sights are needed on a combat gun. They are found on the Springfield Mil Spec and Colt Series 70. The CZ 75 pistol also exhibits among the best combat sights available. And these sights are adjustable—with a brass punch. This is as it should be.

Colt Gold Cup pistol on a bullseye target

Federal Gold Match and the Gold Cup are a great target combination. It isn’t a holster gun.

The Trigger

Those who have not used it extensively often condemn the Colt 1911 trigger. The World War I and World War II 1911 handguns I have fired have exhibited a trigger action demanding from 6 to 7 pounds of pressure. They are smooth and the trigger reset is rapid. For fighting versus target shooting they are good actions. The control a person is a good shot is able to demonstrate in rapid fire is surprising. A Glock with a 5.5-pound issue trigger offers good control and a rapid reset.

It is reckless to fit a 3.5 pound disconnect to a Glock that will be carried for personal defense. You are asking for a negligent discharge. It has happened, and an agency paid more than you probably have in discretionary funds. A manual trigger stop, such as the one built into the trigger and frame of the Smith and Wesson Military and Police self-loader, is fine. However, an adjustable trigger really isn’t service grade. Besides most ‘target’ triggers on the 1911 are set by the factory, and Loctite holds them in place. The only acceptable trigger action for a defensive handgun is the action it left the factory with. A smooth and repeatable trigger action with 5 to 6 pounds of compression is important for combat ability.


1911 pistol set up for target shooting

A great target gun, but the huge magazine funnel and high profile adjustable sights are too much. This isn’t a combat gun!

When training with the handgun, the hands are referred to as the firing hand and the support hand. Train with both hands, and if one hand is wounded you will be able to fire accurately with the other hand. Any type of grip modification that prevents the shooter from using either hand with the handgun is a mistake. Extended magazine release buttons are likely to dump the magazine when you need the ammunition. The load in the gun is what is important, not the speed of the load, and if the magazine release has dumped your magazine you are in that stinky creek.

Modified slide locks are terrible. (They are most common with the 1911 and the Glock.) The slide lock is supposed to be unobtrusive, so it will not meet the firing hand in recoil. An extended slide lock will do just that. When the pistol recoils, and the firing hand or support hand contact the slide lock, the pistol will lock open during a firing string. This is bad news. A heavier slide lock is sometimes capable of locking the piece open in recoil under its own inertia. These things must be avoided like the plague.

Take a hard look at your handgun. If there are extraneous features or add ons that are not service grade, dump them. It is better to bite the bullet—figuratively—and lose money now than bite the bullet for real due to a defective handgun.

The author has chosen to feature mostly 1911s here, but what do you carry? Do you have any enhancements or target components on your carry gun? Share your answers in the comment section.

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Comments (81)

  • Rick


    This has been great read. I think we can all agree no one gun is right for all, just know how to use what you carry. I don’t think I am an armchair commando, I am a retired Police Officer and still work part-time as a Deputy Sheriff (yes I know, it’s that in the blood thing). I have carried several issued weapons in my career the longest of which was a Beretta 92FS. Liked that gun very much but didn’t like the 9mm so much (my opinion) but the gun was great. At that department we were incouraged to make use of the range. The instructors would work with you one on one to correct any problems you encountered, you just had to show up. We quailified twice a year day, night and combat and still people failed because they would not take advantage of an open range and good instructors. I loved to shoot (and you can’t beat free) so I was there as much as I could manage. I learned my weapon front to back and inside out, how in reacts and what did and did not like. And yes the 92s had a slide mounted safety but I NEVER EVER carried it on safe, if you had to draw you gun it was for a reason. Training and knowing your carry gun will stop the, IT MIGHT GO OFF, bullshit. I trusted my gun through training, training and more training and it kept me alive. I was able to earn “EXPERT” status but that was due the great instructors and my time spent on the range.
    Because I carried a 92FS on duty I bought a Beretta Cougar in .45 for off duty. While smaller and in .45 it had all the same features and controls and was easy to master due to my training with the 92FS. I still carry it to this day it came with great sights and good grip and feel. It has very soft recoil for a .45 due to it’s twin captured recoil springs and rotating barrel lockup which keeps the barrel on axis with your line of sight and sight picture. Great for making follow-up shots and staying on target. All my carry guns have been stock because if you pick a good gun, most will have what you need like good sights. You will notice I said a “good” gun not high dollar “trick trap”. It is up to you to train with what you have and learn how to use it. Most stock guns will shoot better than the people shooting them because they will not train with them. However, they will buy a truck load of stuff to put on them they don’t need and still don’t shoot any better.
    We were one of the first departments in our area to use Simunitions in combat training. That was some of the most real training I have ever experienced. All you had to do is change your barrel and you were ready. You trained with your gun, your holster and your mags. When you fired your gun cycled and you could and did run your ammo dry when stressed. This training was very real because there is a pain factor, you did not want to get shot with these things. They hurt like hell and would draw blood (I still have the scars to prove it). You treated the bad guys like real bad guys because you did NOT want to get shot. There were no training Rambo’s in these classes.
    Sorry I went so long. I said all that to say this, It’s not the fancy gun, it’s the shooter. I am not a “John Wick” but I you make yourself put in the time you will get good and be ready when the time comes. And training does not mean drop a lot of cash on ammo there are all kinds of training systems that cost nothing. Dry firing for trigger control, draw practice from different clothes and holsters to acquiring your sights and sight picture when dry firing. All these things will make you a better no matter what you shoot. TRAINING, TRAINING and more TRAINING then go to training. Thanks Rick.


  • bennett young


    I have had professional firearm training with the Model 10 S&W, many years ago at Quantico, still one of my favorite home defense weapons. While in the army and reserves, always had the 45 semi-automatic 1911A1. I learned to shoot that weapon quite well on the pop-up targets ranges that were being used in Army pistol training, although we had a few reservist officers that should have been issued a sling shot, due to their incompetence in pistol handling and shooting.. I am retired from everything now, but still carry a heavy pre-World War Two 1911A1 most the time for concealed carry and open carry. A fine combat weapon with sights used only for alignment, and not for squirrel shooting. Very dependable and made not to hang up on clothing.


    • WR



      I appreciate your service.

      Thanks so much for your comments, and also thanks for reading.

      I have good memories of Smith and Wesson revolvers.

      My favorite go anywhere do anything handgun is the 1911 .45 and always will be.

      All the best.



    • Jasper


      First revolver I owned was surplus Mdl. 10 4inch, fixed sights.
      Easy to shoot, if a bit worn around the edges! Pretty much as accurate as one needed when taking the time to use the sights carefully. My Polish Radom Vis 35 9mm, was more accurate and I did use it with the original military sights, very similar to the 1911A1, used it for squirrel hunting all the time. Actually used both for hunting out to about 35 yards, more can be done with those sights than many would have you believe!! :)


  • Michael


    As a police officer I have carried a S&W model 59 which was reliable but it would not be my choice.
    We later change to a Glock 22 which is an excellent pistol on all counts, but I was able to carry a Sig 229 which I could shoot better, and after getting into a fight with a burglary suspect with my pistol in my hand I had pulled the suspect off of some stairs and could feel my finger on the trigger while landing on top of the suspect. If it had been a Glock or any single action pistol a accidental discharge would have occurred.
    In 2009 I was involved in a shooting and fired one shot after being shot at five times and even with the double action trigger I hit the suspect exactly where I aimed. You will go back to the way you train all I can remember is thinking rear sight, front sight, then I saw the Crimson Trace dot and thought smooth trigger pull. Pistols equipped with Crimson Trace grips have a calming effect on a suspect when they see the light, and may have saved me from having to shoot other suspects.
    As I have aged I now carry a Glock 23 with a RMR, attached stream light, and yes Crimson Trace, and off duty without the light. This was a major learning curve, but worth the transition.
    The best shooting pistol I carry on occasions is a CZ75 Tactical 40 S&W, but the weight is about a pound more than the Glock. With about 20 pound of gear every pound counts.
    Off duty during the heat of summer I will always have a S&W titanium 340 357 Magnum it weighs 11 ounces empty with Crimson Trace grips. It kicks like no other pistol I have ever shot, but is surprisingly accurate.
    Other carry options are my Glock 43, and Glock 27, but the Glock 23 is carried more off duty. The 43 and the S&W 340 are carried as back up while in uniform.


  • Matt Steger


    I have Glock19 and have all the bells and whistles on my gun you said not to have. I have had and carried this gun for over 15 years with no problems.I shoot this gun in competition and never have had an accidental discharge. Practice,practice,practice and with training so you know your firearm you shouldn’t have any problems.I disagree with your article.


    • Jasper


      I agree with you Matt, think it is because the author largely has little practical experience, the same with some of the armchair commandos that like to tell people what is best!
      If the sights don’t break off, if the weapon operates 100% reliably and has enough horsepower to do the job, then it will work just fine!


    • WR


      Competition isn’t a fight but you guys must not have seen handguns fail in competition. They certainly do and they still do. The only malfunction I have seen with a Glock has been with aftermarket parts. Many with the 1911.
      I guess I need forty more years experience to add to the forty I have, much of that as a trainer and peace officer.


  • Hugh Walker


    My primary carry is the 9mm Springfield 1911 Range Officer Compact. It’s the ideal size for my hand and has a solid construction. The front sight is fiber optic and rear sight is adjustable. I practice with both hands as the article suggested and loading and firing the weapon is easy. The trigger pull is perfect for me and I haven’t made any modifications to the weapon. Right out of the case, it’s the easiest 1911 style firearm for my personal preference.


  • Don Heater


    Hi Steven, Just getting a better set of sights for my Glock 19 and getting work done on the trigger to make it more comfortable.


  • John


    My carry is a Kimber Ultracarry in .45 ACP. Love the comfort for my not-so-large hand and firing. Do wish for more magazine capacity but this is a tradeoff of slim build for concealed carrying.


    • Jim


      The Springfield 1911 extended will fit your Kimber, I have the same, and mine does.


  • Steven Scott


    Anyone know of a case where gun mods or accessories made the difference between winning or losing a fight? Most of us will never even USE our guns, never mind needing them “improved”. I personally know 11 civilian CCW’s, and the total criminal activity they’ve experienced comes to one house break-in (nobody home), one attempted break-in (scared off without any display of weapons), and one ‘suspicious following’ (scared off by angry rant and hand reaching to draw). I know two cops, and they’ve never had to go beyond pointing their factory-stock Glocks at people. Seems to me there’s just no point in putting money and effort into anything other than a reliable standard pistol, of which there are plenty for sale. Any extra toys smell of machismo and fantasies about being John Wick.


    • RK Campbell


      I don’t think a lot of Black Belts think that they are Chuck Norris, it is about being all you can be and doing the dead level best you can. My circle of friends include LEOs and soldiers that have been in a LOT of fights over the years. We worked high crime areas and I think that we earned our right to an opinion. However– you are right, about 100 per cent of the fights were won with pretty ordinary gear. Revolvers with Hogue grips that actually fit the hand were important. Glocks need night sights and that is about it. Good post. I have a healed bullet pucker and three knife scars as well as scars on my knuckles, and certainly not all were from police work, and all did not occur this country. Just when you think it will not happen It will. Never forget how violent a place the world really is.


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