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)

  • onebareleven


    Stick to bone stock handgun you feel comfortable with. If you walk your block with a gun modified in any way to make it race ready you do so at your own peril. If you end up on the wrong side of a courtroom as the target of a “good” lawyer, he or she will end up making you look like a blood thirsty maniac. Not that that lawyer isn’t going to try and do it anyway, but why give them more ammunition to work with?


  • John


    When I first acquired my CCW, I quickly discovered that my P226 and other large frame pistols were too large to conceal unless wearing a baggy jacket, etc. To remedy this, I purchased a Walther PPK .380 and an IWB holster. I did however find that being limited to 7 rounds is a little disturbing. Since then, I discovered and purchased the Bersa Thunder .380 Plus. This Argentine made double/single action pistol is a clone of the PPK, except that it employs a 15 round double-stack magazine and it is just as concealable under a hoodie or light baggy shirt in my IWB holster as the PPK was. I recommend the Bersa as a “combat arm” to anyone carrying concealed.


  • Dan McNeely


    If power couldn’t make up for accuracy then all any of us would ever need is a .22 and lot of practice. However, I think that most of us intuitively recognize that our ability to hit the 10 ring when our lives are on the line will be dramatically impaired. I carry a .45 because I expect to suck if the moment comes, and I know it will still deliver a lot of energy to the target. Additionally, most of us do not have the time or money to perform the necessary repetitions that would guarantee a 10 ring shot under duress. So, I say carry the biggest caliber you can shoot and carry comfortably, and keep it simple. Practice as much as you can–even dry fire. Repetition is tedious, but it saves lives through muscle memory.


  • Phil


    I alternate between a Ruger Redhawk and a Colt 1911 Model 80. I’m in a wheelchair, so I could easily conceal,a small Howitzer if I wanted. And because of the chair, weight is also no problem. But the gun has to be large enough for me to find without a lot of fumbling around, and the Ruger and Colt both satisfy that criteria. Printing? Nobody stares at the cripple in the wheelchair.


    • rick


      I’ve read about crooks stealing wheelchairs. Wow! What a surprise if they pick on you! Way to go!


  • Norm


    My EDC is a springfield mod 2 in 9mm 13+1 striker fired no manual thumb safety . Those of you concerned of the lack of firepower my truck gun is my Ruger alaskan 6 rounds of .44magnum.


  • Greg H


    I love the design and feel of the 1911. I don’t believe anyone will EVER design a better, pound for pound, combat handgun. It just FEELS perfect in your hands and the weight, not TOO heavy, makes the .45 round feel like a 9. However, my EDC pistol is a Sig p320 subcompact model. It is easily concealable, can hold 12 + 1 rounds of hornady ftx 9mm, but most importantly it is accurate as HELL. Only upgrade was a set of Snake Eyes night sights and Talon grips(which are awesome btw). You’ve gotta carry a handgun that you trust life with, and I do.


  • Louie


    I carry a Taurus P III Gen.2, soon to be replaced by a Walther PPS M2 as summer carry and a Sar B6P (CZ75 clone) in a vertical shoulder rig in winter. On a range I practice shooting AT the 10 ring. In combat drills I concentrate in putting shots on target – forget the 10 ring, put the “target” down, period.


  • Brad


    I normally carry a subcompact XD mod 2 .45, 10+1 in the flush mount mag or 13+1 with the extended mag. I like this piece because it has a grip safety as well as a trigger safety and it is striker fired. I practice shooting both dominant and non dominant hand, two handed and one handed.




    I carry a S&W SD 40 VE in the winter in a vest or coat and a Ruger 380 LCPII in my pocket in the summer. What I like about the S&W 40 are the white dot dovetailed (adjustable with a brass punch) sights and the double stacked 14+1 rounds. The fat grip fights my large hands. I installed a 5# vs. 8# trigger pull action. The LCPII is a little small for my hands but ideal for my pants pocket and the fixed sights are adequate. Neither pistol has ever miss fired or jammed during practice.


    • rick


      I have one of the original SW40VE pistols. I’ve run over 1000 rounds through it, mostly reloads, not 1 jam or problem. It is totally reliable, but the accuracy sucks. Because the slide is sloppy, I sent it to S&W and they sent it back stating great accuracy. I then read about the lousy trigger being the problem. I decided to get a Walther PPQ in .40 cal but I can’t buy it in my over controlled dem state – CA. I can’t even get the M&P 2.0 in my state. We need a solid law suit against CA for infringing 2nd amendment rights!


    • Josh Valdez


      You need to move to Texas. If you are serious. I would.


    • Dean


      Utah is really the place to be if you want firearm “friendliness”. Utah’s CCW permit is the most reciprocated of any in the country and it is the only state to have an official “state gun” (the 1911).


  • Tony


    My most often carried piece is a Sig P220 SAS compact. It was well designed for carry. Completely de-horned, low profile tritium combat sights, bobbed hammer and spur. The only consession is the six round capacity. Small enough for comfortable appendix carry, but full .45 power.


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