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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Trackback from your site.

The mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, "The Shooter's Log," is to provide information-not opinions-to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (80)

  • Marc Micciche

    |

    Preaching to the choir here. Retired 3 years now and still carrying an unmodified Glock 27. This was my duty carry for my last 9 years as a detective commander. Now that my eyes are aging, I’ve selected an XS Big Dot sight for rapid sight picture acquisition. Our retiree (and 2nd weapon) course of fire has always emphasized instinctive point shooting within 7 yards (only one stage at 15 yards). As when I was working, I carry 9-round mags with pinkie extension and have access to unmodified Glock 23 mags exchangeable with my partners if the SHTF.

    It is a little chunky inside the waistband (so am I !), but I have too many years of muscle memory invested above to transition now to the differing mechanics of my preferred slim “comfort” carry Sig P232.

    Stay safe, all.

    Reply

    • Doug

      |

      Smart man. And a good plan.

      Reply

  • Matt Man

    |

    Easily settled…who trains the most, is more than likely to need a reliable combat firearm, and who have been in arguably the most self defense, tactical, ‘combat’ situations? Yes, the Navy Seals! I trust what they trust and what they have trusted in the past. Look no further.

    Reply

  • Jack Johnson

    |

    This article was a piece of garbage. “Negligent discharge” because of a 3.5 lb connector???? Get real and remember your firearms safety rules!!

    Reply

    • WR

      |

      Well, gee, Jack all I know is what I learned earning my degree in Criminal Justice (Actually it was Police Science ) at the time and studying The Liability Reporter, a professional legal magazine, for firearms related court cases that ACTUALLY OCCURED, no bs. This case did occur and it cost the agency millions. That is about as real as it gets. I do not stand corrected by your half cocked comment.

      Reply

  • Bushk Ewing

    |

    The stock out-of-the-box shield 40 good enough and small

    Reply

    • Dale2

      |

      That is what I carry9

      Reply

    • Dale2

      |

      The 9 is a typo error.4

      Reply

  • Firewagon

    |

    WR, Huggy musta liked ur article, wrote a book on it. 😉

    My only ‘slight’ push bak: “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.” Vision comes to mind of that police woman pointing her weapon at two of her PD types, handcuffing an ‘under control’ perp. Her “negligent discharge,” by God’s own intervention, failed to kill anything except the concrete a foot or two in front and slightly to the side of her pals and the perp! I can almost guarantee that this officer’s(?) Glock was unmodified as issued, and that 5.5lb trigger managed to “negligently discharge” anyway, no 3.5lb disconnector required. I can accept the underlying point to your claim that ‘modifications,’ even ammunition choice can give you headaches, even prison time, when offered to some jury adjudicating why/how you killed someone with your smoke pole. That said, “negligent discharges” are just that, mindlessly ‘negligent!’ As with that PO, she’s standing there, not only with her weapon pointed at something she ‘definitely’ DOES NOT want to destroy, the video shows she has her ‘finger’ on that bullet launcher’s trigger, disconnected (pun intended) from ANY firearms handing instruction she received, or shudda! That is NO negligent discharge, that is negligently discharging someone into the population ARMED that should not be there! Do I hear unarmed desk jockey position for her? Additionally, those 3.5lb disconnectors, by themselves, will only reduce that factory 5.5lb pull to somewhere around 4-4.5lb – have installed too many and compared trigger pull weights to not be mistaken. You need to also mess with spring weights, and other things NOT recommended for personal defense, in order to achieve those 3-3.5lb (competition/target) pulls! “Negligent Discharges?” Can we rename that to “Brain Dead Discharges?” No need to go into the loss of minor motor skills over gross motor skills in “fight or flight” situations, although relative, that too can be somewhat mitigated with proper ‘training.’ Enjoyed your article, good stuff!

    Reply

    • WR

      |

      Well, gee, Jack all I know is what I learned earning my degree in Criminal Justice (Actually it was Police Science ) at the time and studying The Liability Reporter, a professional legal magazine, for firearms related court cases that ACTUALLY OCCURED, no bs. This case did occur and it cost the agency millions. That is about as real as it gets. I do not stand corrected by your half cocked comment.

      Comment from above.

      Yes, that was a God Awful stupid thing. The Sgt should have taken her gun immediately. What in the hell were they doing pointing a gun at an unarmed man that was being handcuffed? Where in the hell do they get these people? I served for some time and have been hurt on the job and served as a Patrol Lt.

      Here is what they told me at the academy and I cannot give better advice
      That gun is a last resort to save your life or someone else life. It isn’t there to save a few bruises or keep you from getting your ass whipped.

      When you wave it around at every control situation it doesn’t mean anything anymore.

      Reply

  • paul

    |

    I have always trained with each hand and both instinctive and aimed shots. At the fight distance of 20 feet I do not believe that anyone has time to aim beyond the bounds of an instinctive shot, maybe two, THEN possibly aim for placement. I presented this to my SWAT captain CCW trainer and he agreed. Why does instinctive shooting seem to be a forgotten art?

    Reply

    • Ding

      |

      Instinct shooting isn’t necessarily a lost art…the lawyers have beaten it right out of any official training schedule… “So officer are you saying you didn’t know exactly where your shot was going to go when you fired at that spithead?”…instant settlement

      Reply

    • Dan

      |

      I practiced instinct shooting by rapid firing at six soda cans sitting on a board and then firing at one I tossed into the air with a nine shot, double action .22 revolver. I got where I could knock all six off and put two holes in the tossed one without reloading.

      Reply

    • wr

      |

      Well said.

      MAKE TIME to aim.

      Reply

    • Bob Campbell

      |

      Ding you are right

      Never will I be the instructor that taught a student not to use his sights!

      Except at contact range it is ridiculous. Even at a few fee you can aim with the slide, it is called meat and paper. instinct shooting on a flat range firing at the same thing time and again is a trick.

      Reply

    • Firewagon

      |

      I think I read somewhere that FBI stats, or some other, give the distances from which ‘most’ gun fights occur, at least with the police. They aint across some canyon of 20 feet, or even ten. Many PO’s are shot with their own weapons. Remember that Brown character, reports indicated that he started his “bull rush” from around 35 feet – after five shots, he was still coming, until the sixth shot to the head – I have a vision of Brown laying right at the feet of that officer! Police encounters with the “public, bad or otherwise,” are way closer than any 20 feet. Anyone, other than someone encountering an ongoing situation, are going to discover the ‘bad guy/s’ at their elbow. Having some plan/skill/training to enable you just to get to your gun may be more important than simply being over confident about having one!

      Reply

  • Alan Albright

    |

    Hi guys, I have an fnx tactical 45 I thought that would be one of the guns on top of the list.

    Reply

  • Meathead

    |

    Most of us will experience a “close quarters” incident, from about 10 to 35 feet, so being able to hit a target at 100 yards (300 feet) is nice, but not necessary. Learn to use the “front sight” for rapid target acquisition (aim) with both eyes open and you will stand a greater chance of survival.

    BTW, if you hit the target with two rounds “center dead” and the target doesn’t drop, the target is probably wearing a vest, so make the next two rounds to the head. Keep pumping additional rounds into a vest will ensure that you run out of ammo and are an easy kill for them. (Happened outside the court house in Tyler, Texas a few years ago).

    Reply

    • Firewagon

      |

      “….make the next two rounds to the head.” Pretty much the ‘normally’ suggested progression. One ‘outside the box’ thought, not mine, is, rather than attempt the ‘small’ head shot (greater acc required, in a hurry), think LOWER, as in the hip area, much larger zone, and incapacitating, as far as someone continuing to come at you. Not necessarily stop the fight, so that head shot may still be needed, but at least the target won’t be moving! As demonstrated, sadly, by our representative Scalise, just a hip shot will send you to the ICU with life threatening injuries.

      Reply

  • BUURGA

    |

    Interesting that the photos and article seems to focus the 1911-type pistol. I would think the polymer compact and subcompact pistol types would be more representative of the guns that will be in civilian ‘combat’. The 3″ barrel pistol is much more likely to be used than the 4″ or 5″ by the average civilian for self defense.

    Reply

    • Bob Clevenger

      |

      How interesting that one complains that the original article was too CZ75-centric and now another voice claims that it is too 1911-centric.. Could it be that JM Browning defected to what then was Czechoslovakia and lived until at least 1975? No, I am not serious about that.
      My CZ and CZ clone pistols all have 3.6″ barrels and that is what I practice with and what I carry. If you prefer a 2″ snubbie, that’s cool, but don’t try to tell me to carry one because it’s just not for me. OK?

      Reply

    • WR

      |

      The CZ is easily one of the most reliable handguns in the world. I had just as soon have a CZ as a SIG.

      Reply

  • Hav Bauer

    |

    Over the last 55 years I have carried a number of different pieces from .38 revolver, 9mm and .45s. I agree that target shooting is definitely different that self-defense. Although I carry different 9s and 45s from time to time, I seem to carry my 1911 w/TRU-GLO fixed sights 8 rnd. mags w/.38 6 rnd. backup most of the time. I have had a CCW since the mid-1970s. God Bless.

    Reply

    • Firewagon

      |

      Hopefully, all your ‘carry’ pieces operate the ‘same’ way? Just a humble thought, but when, God forbid, life and death arrive in split seconds, do you think you will be able to ‘unconsciously’ operate the piece you have on you? Differing safeties/location, double action first shot, single after, revolver @ DA only, carry “cocked and locked,” or rack and roll? For me, one gun carry, practice ‘primarily’ with carry, play with others – ONLY safety is on the trigger! To each his own, but knowing how the body, in some adrenaline dump, life or death incident, will default to ‘survival mode,’ I want a, pretty much no thinking required, ‘instant’ response.

      Reply

    • Dale2

      |

      Dear Firewagon, I would be willing to bet that Hav Bauer has at least 30 years of shooting and carry experience on you. So I am sure he will appreciate your input. Please school us on your life and death situational experience?

      Reply

    • Jasper

      |

      FW likes to talk. :)
      If one actually practices, your hand knows which piece it is touching! Seems he is much more of an armchair warrior than anything else. :)

      Reply

    • bob

      |

      Exactly

      Reply

Leave a comment

Your discussions, feedback and comments are welcome here as long as they are relevant and insightful. Please be respectful of others. We reserve the right to edit as appropriate, delete profane, harassing, abusive and spam comments or posts, and block repeat offenders. All comments are held for moderation and will appear after approval.

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.

%d bloggers like this: