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.

Sights

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.

Incidentals

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 (80)

  • Dennis Collins

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    I have always believed that the right carry handgun is the one you want to be in your hand in a gunfight.

    Reply

  • Robert

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    I have two go to, EDC pistols my Glock 19 and my M&P 9C. Glock 19 needs no explanation, carry it in a gcode incog with an X300. Carry 15 rounder and a 21 round pmag. My M&P 9C, has all the enhancements APEX offers, trijicon HD sights, and a viridian CTL light/green laser combo, carried in a hidden hybrid holster. Carry a 12 rounder mag and 17 rounder mag with a neomag mag holder.

    Reply

    • Firewagon

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      You’re the guy I want backing me up! 😉 Just hoping you can keep up packing all that ammo – 36/29 rounds on tap! We gunna be taking on the Hell’s Angels outfit with no ammo worries. 😉 I’m almost as bad, 10mm G29, 10 rd mag w/one in the pipe, and a G20 15 rdr mag reload w/grip spacer.

      Reply

  • Cyberat

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    Everyone is talking about everything else but over penetration. As the most likely self defense situations are in public or at home. Some nuts even seek the +P or ++P ammo while not going to actual combat (war, battlefield) where the enemies’ location is clearly defined and there is little chance of collateral damage.

    Reply

    • wr

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      I think having an enemy with a clearly defined location with little chance of collateral damage went out with the Napoleonic wars——

      As for civilians +P loads enhance expansion of the hollow point bullet which limits penetration. They are less likely to ricochet due to the velocity and expanding bullet. Over penetration is far less of a concern than missing. A miss carries the full power of the load far past the area of the ;problem.

      Reply

    • Bob Clevenger

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      In case you have never noticed, the fact is that overpenetration is largely a boogey man. ANY round that has enough power to be a good defensive load will penetrate enough to be a problem. Take your pick: “too much” penetration or not enough power to stop the bad guy. You can’t have both.

      Reply

    • Firewagon

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      Sorry Cyberat, if I or mine are not the target of the assault, “IF” I determine that the life expectancy of the actual person/s in danger ‘might’ be extended by my intervention, I will consider the “background” and move, if necessary, before launch. On the other hand, however, IF it is me or mine under that assault, katy take the hindmost, and hit the dirt, ’cause the ‘background’ just became a blurry object, and I WILL have penetration!!

      Reply

    • Jasper

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      People talk about perpetration, but does it ever really happen???
      The problem I have seen and read about were from blatant misses, not over penetration!
      As far as I am concerned, one cannot have too much penetration, but it is easy to have too little penetration!
      If I see blood spray out both sides from a hit, then I know it was a good hit! Otherwise it may not have done the job!

      Reply

    • WR

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      We are in accord on the basics.

      Reply

  • James C Robinson

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    I enjoy reading as many firearms related articles as possible. The firearms I carry are big bore only. My EDC is 1990 Glock 22 that is converted to 357 Sig. I keep sweet and simple

    Reply

  • Huggy

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    Cheese and RICE!
    What the HELL is going in here?!?
    I have, for SO long, advocated PRECISELY what is written in this article on EVERY. SINGLE. COMPONENT addressed that it is as if someone reached into my brain, pulled out all the data and put it down on paper (electons, actually) for all to see and partake of.
    Now I know nothing of the author of this article but if I had to make an educated guess, he ain’t a Young ‘un, and more likely in his early/mid/late 50’s like myself. Maybe younger, maybe older.
    One who has been around a while to see trends, experience some of the seedy things humans are capable of, participate in the handling, shooting and (where appropriate) modification of several shooting platforms to learn what does work and what doesn’t.
    More importantly, the author knows WHY those modifications will/won’t work and has the background to back it up.
    This has gotten longer than I intended it to but I must give a standing ovation to the writer and (in a roundabout way) myself as we’ve walked the walk and didn’t get to where we are by buying into the latest fad and doodad in an effort to have the latest and greatest Super Bitchin’ thingamabob dangling off our shooting iron.
    No, our (mine in this instance) is decidedly bland, and devoid of much of anything that isn’t absolutely MANDATORY to allow me to rain Pain Pills upon some cretin intent on my demise.
    I do make just a couple concessions due to my own personal biases and physical conditions and they are night sites on ALL my pistols and a laser/light module hung under the dust cover of my home pistol for those Bump In The Night investigations should the need arise.
    That’s pretty much it.
    I’d carry my personal handgun with the laser/light attached as part of my CCW ensemble IF I could find a QUALITY holster that costs less than my monthly mortgage because I carry a full-sized pistol regardless of brand 24/7 with a compact version as a backup, REGARDLESS of the weather.
    Those, and at least two spare magazines, go with me wherever I can (legally) be and be armed. (PS, if I can’t go “there” armed I DON’T GO THERE! F’em! But that is a topic for another day.)
    I should mention that I live in the desert southwest and almost always can be found wearing jeans as part of my attire, and I’m out of shape (dammit) and on the precipice of 60 years of age, so I’m no sissy who cannot tolerate an uncomfortable, bulky, heavy pistol like so many cannot seem to adjust to these days.
    Read that to mean whatever you think I’m implying. I don’t GAF really, but it speaks volumes as to why folks feel the need to eschew training, a quality firearm and appropriate ammunition (some of which border on ludicrous and NOT the rock band) and clothing appropriate to allow for the carrying of same in an effort to return home at the end of the day to those I care about.
    The latest and greatest doohickey strapped on the shooting platform is what seems to be important these days. Keeping up with the Jones’s and being able to say you spent X number of dollars to have a pistol/rifle/shotgun/bazooka that is just like some world class shooting competitor.
    Why?
    Buy a QUALITY gun. Spend plenty of money on training and break in ammo and self defense ammo and a quality holster. Get some decent sights installed if said Boolet Launcher didn’t come with them already. Seek out QUALITY and COMPETENT instruction and then practice until it all becomes second nature.
    And when you achieve that stature, practice some more, reoeatedly, and on a regular basis.
    STEP AWAY from all the BS being sold under the guise of “MUST HAVE” because I’m here to tell you that a good percentage of that stuff is marketed by genius sales people who are very good at their jobs and those jobs are to separate YOU from YOUR money!
    Sure, some of the stuff may be helpful but certainly not ALL of it.
    Get back to the basics. LEARN how to “SHOOT” and not rely on a host of add-on crutch pieces of dubious merit.
    Teach the guy behind the trigger how to SHOOT and the rest will fall into line, but if you rely on “stuff” installed on your pistol to save your ass when the chips are down and it has come time to sling lead, you could find out what it’s like to be on the short end of the pointy stick.
    And as the saying goes, and doubly so when discussing gun fights, there is NO Second Place Winner. Period.
    And just to be clear here, I am NOT trying to belittle those with Purty guns. If you feel you need that stuff, hey, knock yourself out. But, again, like the old saying goes: “Beware the man with only one gun as he surely knows how to use it.” Think about it.
    No need to Flame me for my post.
    If the shoe fits, strap that bitch on and wear it proudly! Don’t mean a thing to me.
    But take to heart what the article author writes about and, maybe, a few points I made as well.
    I (we?) didn’t get to be as old as I (we?) am/are by making too many stupid mistakes.
    Think BASICS.
    It is all about the BASICS.
    Good Luck and God Bless.

    Reply

    • WR

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      You are correct on every count including my age and experience –

      Thanks so much for a lively, entertaining and intelligent post.

      We are in embassy on all.

      Best to you

      Reply

  • Dark Angel

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    My carry gun, most of the time, is a Rock Island Armory 1911 A1 in .45 ACP, all factory, no frills. Just as John Browning meant it to be. The only concession to ‘modern’ is the 8 round mag. that it comes with, from the factory. Combat gun, YES. Target gun, not just no, but; HELL NO! Guess, I’m not just ‘old school’, but old, too. Like my self-protection hardware basic and dependable, with no frills and gee-gaws to complicate things.

    Reply

  • Doug

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    I started carry with a Beretta PX4 Compact, .40 cal. because it carried 12+1 and I added tritium night sights. It was a good combat gun that I tested and practiced with in IDPA competitions. It comes from the factory set for a combat sight picture which doesn’t cross over to target shooting that well. Now, I carry the CZ P-01 with tritium sights with 14+1 in 9mm. The trigger work I had done lightened the SA but kept the DA pull at 9.25 lbs. to avoid ND’s. Neither of these guns is a winner in competitions but I feel that they were meant for self defense and concealed carry.

    Reply

    • Spencer

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      Like you I purchased a CZ after extensive research over a couple of months. I finally decided on a CZP-07 in 9mm. 16+1 capacity. I prefer a pistol with a hammer myself so I can always cock it for that wonderful, unbelievably smooth smooth single action at 4.5 lbs. It shoots anything I’ve put thru it so far, including light loads “3.5 gr Bulleye w/124 grain bullet. Has never refused to function perfectly. It weighs almost exactly the same as my Model 39 S&W empty, which doesn’t handle everything.
      I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t like it unless they prefer a ‘Striker fired pistol”. The centerline of the barrel is 1/8″ lower than most others which decreases the barrel lift less during recoil. It can be field stripped very fast after some practice.
      I love this gun.

      Reply

  • Bob Clevenger

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    I clicked on “send” too quickly. I intended to add that while the extended mag releases are good for match use where fast reloads are mandated by the course of fire, I agree with you after using them for a fair amount of time now that they offer little to no advantage on a combat pistol and can cause the mag to release without intention — that could be anything from embarrassing to fatal.

    Reply

  • Ira

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    I have never had my Glock lock open during firing except when empty. My first gun was a Stoeger 9mm (Beretta design, Turkish manufacture), when I was still hesitant to carry and insisted on a mechanical safety. After training at Front Sight, I became confident and switched to the Glock so a to avoid drawing or reaching at night for a gun whose safety was on. Neither do I particularly like an exposed hammer. I think your recommendation of a CZ is an extremely poor choice.

    Reply

    • RKC

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      Ira,

      Perhaps we need to let the Czech Army and police and the Turks and the Russian Special forces know their CZs are no good.

      Reply

    • Firewagon

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      I know not of the CZ; however, the arming of some military of PD is not very relevant to “personal protection.” As with our own military, even SNCO’s and officers are not “primarily” armed with any handgun – their “go to” weapon of choice/issue is much more efficient at the job of killing or keeping their handlers alive! The other issue, with both military and police, is logistics. Allowing the “more skilled,” as in less recoil sensitive, to choose their own ammo slinger is untenable! Check why the FBI moved from the .38/357 to the 10mm and back to the 9mm! Nor would those folk desire such, for when their 40/10mm/357 runs dry there isn’t any ammo to be “picked up” in the field. Safeties are mandated for the lower denominator of the handgun handling military, and even the rifle toters, – because they don’t want some 18 year old, joe schmuck, doing some “accidental discharge” through about three of his fellows in line. Even at that, “AD’s” (I call them MD’s – Mindless Discharges) have occurred in both military and PD’s – something to do with “forgetting the thing was loaded, and/or remembering to put the ‘thing’ on safety!” Hated phrase, bottom line reads, NO matter the brand, NO matter the caliber, carry the most gun YOU can handle and PRACTICE to be efficiently able to NOT just shoot effectively, but do so SAFELY! If you are not willing to put in the time to be safe and efficient, do yourself and others a favor, CARRY something NON-LETHAL!

      Reply

    • Jasper

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      You speak with a fair amount of ignorance, but then that is your choice!
      An exposed hammer is never a poor choice, it is just a choice! If it is more than you are able to learn how to handle then that is your choice.
      The CZ is always and excellent choice, but it may take more training than you are able to achieve, kind of sad.
      As for ADs or MDs, they are always a result of poor training or lack of training, mostly stupidity!!
      As for the FBI going from .38 to 10 to 9, you really need to learn something before you start to just jabber! The reason for going from the .38 to 10 was more capacity and the general trend from wheel guns to autos! The reason going down to 9s was most of the FBI are pussies when it comes to shooting and kept whining about the recoil, so they went to soft recoil of a 9! The FBI seldom shot any .357!
      My favorite 9 is the Browning HiPower, which worked extremely well for me a few days ago when I had to quickly take a shot to save one of my family! Only an idiot thinks hammers or safeties are a problem. It is simply a matter of training, muscle memory and knowing the weapon one has will do the job! Most people just are too lazy to do the training, but that is another story!!

      Reply

  • Bob Clevenger

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    This is a very good article. I have no complaints with it. You ask what guns I carry and what enhancements I have on them. OK.
    I have three main pistols that I carry and they are:

    1. A CZ-75 Compact in 9×19 mm that dates from shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall.The only enhancements to this pistol are aftermarket wood grip panels, fibre optic sights, and a DPM “Recoil Reducer” that serves to mitigate frame-to-slide hammering with heavy loads — yes, it still functions reliably with light loads. I might add an ambidextrous safety lever at some point in the future, but that’s not a priority as this pistol gets the least carry use of the three.

    2. An EAA Witness semi-compact chambered in 10×25 mm.

    3. An EAA Witness semi-compact chambered in .38 Super +P and used with both .38 Super +P and 9×23 Winchester ammunition.

    The enhancements to both of the Witness pistols consist of TruGlo TFX tritium/fibre optic sights primarily due to my eyes that keep reminding me that they, too, are 74 years old, ambidextrous safety levers, DPM “Recoil Reducers,” and extended magazine releases (which I am seriously considering returning to the original ones). The extended mag releases are fine for use in matches (I consider combat matches to be additional training/practice and so I use my carry pistols for them).

    That’s about it

    Reply

    • WR

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      Bob

      Excellent gear!

      Reply

    • Dale2

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      I guess no one here believes in buying American!

      Reply

    • Bob Clevenger

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      I don’t believe my pistols know where they were made.
      “Buying American” is a fine thing, but not if no American company makes what you were trying to buy.
      Yeah, back in the 1980s I tried to buy an American-made Bren Ten. and lost my $400 deposit when Dornaus & Dixon went under.
      I’ll buy what I wish, no matter where it is made.

      Reply

    • WR

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      I feel your pain. When we were issued the wonderful SW .38 and .357 revolvers no one questioned the quality. Next we got the horrible SW Model 59 9mm pistols. Remember the Colt 2000? SIG and Beretta were adopted ( pre Glock) because they not only worked they were fantastic quality. American makers abrogated the field to the Europeans.

      Reply

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