When I was challenged to come up with the best, concealed carry handguns of the past 20 years, I set down with a pencil and tablet and began making a list. This seems like an easy task, but there are many good handguns.
The bad ones were easy enough to keep off the list. I could not choose a handgun I had not personally fired—extensively—and had much experience with.
I have tested most of the concealed carry handguns introduced during the past three decades, and in some cases, I have seen these pistols go through my training classes.
I have seen many poor choices. I have learned to gauge a student’s progress in an inverse ratio to training and quality of training. Just the same, a quality handgun is also important. A poor choice holds a student back.
Excess recoil, sharp edges, a heavy trigger action and poorly designed sights all keep a student from being all they can be. We have seen poor pistols come and go and second rate choices that have faded away.
Recently, I saw a roundup of concealed carry handguns on a popular internet site. It was obvious the author had never fired the pistols included, and most of them were included on a basis of size.
I would never consider nine out of 10 of the pistols listed. Complete reliability is one baseline. Another is wound potential.
By the same token, those handguns that are uncontrollable in rapid fire—to my standard—are not useful for personal defense. The subcompact .40 caliber pistol and lightweight .357 Magnum revolver are among these.
A balance of control and power is needed. After much reflection, what follows is my choice for the best concealed carry handguns for the past 20 years.
1. CZ 2075 RAMI
The CZ 75 pistol is a durable and accurate service pistol. The CZ 2075 RAMI is a considerable redesign. The RAMI features the trademark CZ slide design.
The slide rides low in the frame by the use of reversed slide rails, with the slide running inside the frame rather than upon it. The result is a low bore axis and greater contact with the long bearing surfaces.
The pistol recoils straight to the rear with less muzzle flip—accuracy is enhanced as well. The Rami is a double-action, first-shot handgun.
The pistol is offered in two versions: one with the traditional CZ 75 safety that allows cocked and locked carry and the other with a decocker. The pistol is supplied with a flush-fit 10-round magazine and also an extended 14-round magazine.
The Rami exhibits European quality at its best. The sights were good examples of combat sights and the pistol has proven reliable with a variety of defense loads. Attention-to-detail was evident in the Rami pistol.
The double-action first-shot trigger was smooth, and the single-action press was clean and crisp. While the pistol handled best with the extended magazine, it was controllable with the flush-fit magazine as well.
There are tradeoffs in such a compact handgun, but these are minimized by the CZ design. The slide is a little difficult to rack, as it rides low in the frame. The short sight radius means attention to detail is needed to secure good accuracy.
This is a tradeoff that Rami shooters adjust to. My personal example will fire a two-inch, five-shot group at 15 yards with the SIG Sauer 124-grain V Crown JHP. The Rami is a first-class option among concealed carry handguns.
2. CZ 75 D
The CZ 75 D is perhaps the least-known of CZ Variants. It is a highly desirable pistol that has proven accurate and reliable. When the Czech police were searching for a compact alternative to the standard CZ 75, the P-01 was introduced.
This is an aluminum-framed handgun with a shortened butt, slide and barrel and a monolithic dust cover that mounts a combat light.
The P-01 has been widely accepted. The pistol features a frame-mounted decocker rather than the CZ 75 manual safety. The CZ 75 D is a handgun similar in size and weight to the P-01, but without a light rail.
Let’s face it, many concealed carry permit holders carry a pistol with a rail, but do not carry a combat light. The CZ 75 D also features a unique loaded-chamber indicator.
The CZ 75 D compact 9mm also features good combat sights and a smooth trigger action. The P-01 is often regarded as more accurate than the parent pistol, the CZ 75, and this is a fair appraisal of the CZ 75 D in my experience.
The CZ 75 D also has the advantage of a unique set of personal defense sights that offer snag-free carry.
My CZ 75 D will group five-shots of the Winchester 124-grain PDX +P load into 1.25 inches at 15 yards. For those favoring the double-action first-shot pistol, it doesn’t get any better than the CZ 75 D, yet the pistol has no extraneous features.
It is a straightforward design with much to recommend for those considering concealed carry handguns. My example has been fitted with Hogue grips.
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3. Colt 1911 Series 70
Some may dismiss the Government Model 1911 as too large for concealed carry. Yet, many shooters, including myself, often carry the steel-frame 1911. I have done so for more than 35 years.
The Colt Series 70 does not have adjustable sights or a target trigger, nor does it have an ambidextrous safety. The Colt doesn’t have any of the target gun features that have crept into personal defense handguns over the past decade.
The pistol is flat and concealable and faster to an accurate first-shot hit than any other big bore self-loading pistol. The Colt Series 70 is beautifully finished and the fit is excellent. I have used the original Series 70 and find the modern pistol a better handgun.
Even compared to 1950s and 1960s guns, a high point of Colt production, the Series 70 is a superior handgun. A solid option among concealed carry handguns.
Feed reliability and combat accuracy are excellent. There is no Series 80 firing pin safety, but the Series 70 relies upon a heavy-duty firing pin spring for safety. The trigger breaks at 4.5 pounds.
The sights are good examples of combat sights. With the Federal 230-grain Hydra-Shok load, this pistol will fire a 1.0-inch 15-yard group. This handgun combines excellent combat ability with considerable pride of ownership.
4. GLOCK 19
I have fired many GLOCK 19 pistols since their introduction, and all are remarkably consistent in accuracy and reliability. The GLOCK is a baseline for combat pistols.
A cheaper handgun may not be reliable, and if you spend more than you pay for a GLOCK, you need to be certain you are gaining good features.
Only a handgun that offers an advantage should be chosen. I do not agree with GLOCK perfection, save when it comes to reliability—and reliability is, after all, most important.
You can work with a hard trigger, or less than ideal sights, but not a handgun that isn’t as reliable as a machine can possibly be.
The G19 compact is slightly shorter than the G17 9mm and features a shortened butt. The result is one of the best-balanced and most-useful handguns on the planet. In most regards, the GLOCK 19 makes an excellent holster or service pistol.
It is a great all-around, 24-hour pistol for working cops or concealed carry permit holders. There is a significant difference in recoil between the 9mm and the .40, and the GLOCK 19 9mm handgun is controllable and accurate.
For the average shooter with overwhelming demands such as a job, family and other pursuits, the 9mm is a reasonable choice and the GLOCK 19 an excellent choice.
How accurate is the pistol? First, learn to control the trigger, but as an example, my personal GLOCK 19, fitted with TruGlo night sights, will group five rounds of Gorilla Ammunition’s 115-grain JHP into 2.0 inches at 15 yards.
It is remarkably consistent from one load to the other. The G19 is the choice of many well-trained individuals. It is an affordable and uncommonly reliable handgun.
5. GLOCK 43
The GLOCK 43 is a single-column magazine 9mm sub compact pistol. I find it a better choice for deep carry than the GLOCK 26 and similar handguns. The pistol has excellent features and performance.
A good example of special variants is the Halo edition with a bright orange front dot and special rear sight.
The GLOCK is a good combat pistol but superior sights add to the handguns’ hit probability. The GLOCK 43 was a long-awaited addition to the GLOCK line and swayed many first time shooters to the GLOCK line.
The pistol isn’t as controllable or easy to fire as the GLOCK 19; it cannot be in its size and weight class.
The real advantage of the GLOCK 43 (in my opinion) is that the pistol is slightly larger than the typical .380 class handgun, yet much more powerful and reliable.
The GLOCK 43 features GLOCK reliability and chambers a reasonably powerful cartridge. With the Hornady Critical Defense 115-grain FTX load, this pistol breaks a two-inch group at 15 yards from a solid benchrest.
Offhand performance depends upon the will of the shooter to practice, but overall, a great option among concealed carry handguns.
Check out our updated list of the best concealed carry handguns on the market right now.
6. GLOCK 36
The GLOCK 36 was a sensation when introduced and remains so today. GLOCK designed a reliable compact single stack .45 and gave defensive shooters something lacking in the past—a completely reliable, truly concealable, compact .45 caliber handgun.
The pistol features GLOCK’s world-class reliability, a controllable trigger action and a grip frame that doesn’t overly stretch most hand sizes. The pistol features a six-round magazine. The GLOCK is chambered for the .45 ACP cartridge.
This cartridge gives shooters the advantage of wound potential in a cartridge that does not rely upon expansion for effectiveness.
The . 45 ACP cartridge operates at low pressure and features a limited muzzle signature. Recoil isn’t harsh, but rather a push compared to the sharp recoil of the .40 caliber cartridge.
The GLOCK 36 is an excellent option among concealed carry handguns for those who prefer the GLOCK handgun and .45 ACP cartridge.
This isn’t as much a pistol to load with +P loads as it is a lightweight carry pistol, however. The Hornady 185-grain FTX load is ideal. The GLOCK 36 I have on hand features a Bar Sto barrel and will deliver a 1.5-inch group at 15 yards.
7. Remington 1911 R1 Commander
The 1911 R1 Commander was introduced in 1950. The slide is ¾-inch shorter than the Government Model, and in the original version, the pistol featured a weight-saving aluminum frame.
The original Commander, like the Government Model, featured small GI sights and a heavy trigger.
Many versions have been produced over the years. Some have full-length guide rods and adjustable triggers—target gun features that have no place on a service grade handgun. A good development was the introduction of the steel-frame Commander.
This resulted in one of the best-balanced concealed carry handguns every manufactured.
A few years ago, Remington introduced its R1 pistol. This is a well made and finished 1911 offered at a fair price. The R1 Commander, introduced some months later, has received little notice or acclaim.
Yet, this handgun is among the best choices in a modern 1911 carry gun.
The sights are superior to the GI-type. The front sight is dovetailed in place, curing a problem with staked in GI sights. The ejection port is lowered for superior function and administrative handling.
The R1 Commander features a spur hammer rather than the typical rowel hammer of the Commander, making it easier to lower the hammer.
The trigger action is smooth and crisp and the safety positive in indent. The barrel bushing is tight, but not so tight it cannot be field stripped by hand. The R1 Commander has proven reliable with all loads I have tested and more than accurate.
The carry load, the Gorilla Ammunition 230-grain JHP, has demonstrated a 1. 2-inch group at 15 yards. I keep the spare Mec Gar magazine loaded with the Gorilla Ammunition FBI spec loads.
This no-frills 1911 has everything needed in a 1911 and nothing I do not need. It is faster from leather than the full-size 1911 and hits hard.
8. Ruger SP101
The Ruger SP101 is a product of the type of design and engineering that has earned Ruger a great deal of respect in the professional field. When five-shot .38 Special revolvers were first introduced, they were built on the .32 frame.
Upping the ante to .357 Magnum isn’t the wisest choice.
The Ruger then introduced in .38 Special, featuring a newly designed frame. When you start with a clean slate, wonders happen! This heavy frame not only is well suited to the .357 Magnum cartridge, it features a slightly lower bore axis compared to most revolvers.
The result is a heavy-duty revolver that is controllable even with Magnum loads for those who practice.
The rear sights are broad, and the front post is easily picked up for personal defense shooting. The trigger action is smooth. I normally load the Ruger with the Hornady 125-grain Critical Defense—a useful Magnum loading that offers excellent wound ballistics.
While I am primarily concerned with personal defense against our protein-fed ex-con criminal class, I am also concerned with defense against coyote, feral dogs and big cats when I visit the great outdoors.
The Ruger is dirt tough and never gives trouble, and may be pressed into an opponent’s body and fired, time after time, without fail.
This makes it a good choice against the usual attack, as well as when you are on the ground as could occur with big dogs and mountain lions. For this duty, I change to the greater penetration of the Hornady 125-grain XTP.
The Ruger SP101 is tough, reliable, and more accurate than you would suppose.
From a solid benchrest with select loads, this revolver is the most accurate handgun tested for this report with a one-inch 15-yard group for an average of three groups, with some smaller, with the Hornady XTP load—at well over 1,200 fps!
Another fine choice among concealed carry handguns.
9. Smith and Wesson M&P Shield .45
Smith and Wesson’s Military and Police series represents an important step in polymer-frame handguns. The pistol places ergonomics first, and the pistol fits most hands well. The M&P features good sights and is overall a credible service pistol.
I tested one of the first Smith and Wesson Shield 9mm handguns, a subcompact M&P with a single column magazine, and found it good.
The pistol is controllable and reliable. I have seen several Shield pistols in training and reliability is good. When Smith and Wesson introduced the .45 caliber Shield, I obtained one of the first. I have fired the pistol extensively.
I find it reliable, accurate enough for most uses, and ergonomic. I like the hinged trigger and excellent combat sights.
The pistol is more comfortable to fire than expected due to good grip design. I also like to have a manual safety on my handgun and the Shield provides. If you chose, you may simply ignore the safety.
10. Smith and Wesson 442
The final choice is, in my opinion, the best all-around snubnose .38 Special revolver available. I seldom, if ever, carry the Model 442 alone, but I deploy it nearly every day as a backup, save when I am carrying two heavier handguns.
The Smith and Wesson double-action aluminum-frame .38 has been my backup for over 30 years, in some form or the other. A great option among concealed carry handguns.
The 442 is controllable, due in part to the humpback frame design that conceals the hammer. Unlike revolvers with an exposed hammer or the self-loading pistol, the 442 may be fired repeatedly from the pocket, which I practice occasionally.
The 442 is affordable, and the highest-quality revolver in this frame size. The 442 is indispensable as a backup and travels with me a great deal. I have considered ammunition carefully. I most often deploy the Hornady Critical Defense 110-grain FTX.
At seven yards, firing double action, I am able to group five shots into three inches—all we can ask from a snubnose revolver.
From a solid braced position, I am able to make center hits to a long 25 yards. However, this is a stunt with this type of revolver and takes time and concentration. The 442 offers a lot of protection, ounce for ounce.
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Which choices do you agree or disagree with and why? Which concealed carry handguns would make your top list? Share your answers in the comments below.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in October of 2018. It has been republished after being updated for clarity and accuracy.