Concealed Carry

Choosing the Right Size Handgun

Six handguns of various sizes

I left the gun range disappointed in my performance and frustrated that I couldn’t do better. The purpose of the range trip was to do a comparison of three handguns I had recently reviewed with the idea of deciding which, if any, of them would become my new EDC gun. I had done better with each of them before, so I knew it wasn’t the guns.

The guns shot well. I just couldn’t shoot them well — at least not that day. I felt like I owed you guys, our readers, an explanation, because I probably told you that at least one of these guns was something I would be comfortable carrying as my primary EDC. Based on today’s experience, I’m reconsidering.

handgun atop two green and white bullseye targets with bullet holes
The author spent 30 minutes shooting targets like the one on the left at 7 yards until he finally shot the target on the right. In his book, he’s got to do better before deciding to use this as his carry gun.

Are you carrying enough gun?

We used to call pocket pistols “mouse guns.” I’m talking about guns such as the Bersa Thunder, Kel-Tec P3-AT, Ruger LCP, Smith and Wesson BodyGuard, and Taurus 738. These guns might be okay for a backup gun carried in your pocket or hidden elsewhere on your body, but many of my clients were under the assumption that carrying one of these little guns was all the gun they needed. Now that we have so many new offerings in a category being labeled Micro 9s, it might be time to consider whether one of these is all the gun you need to carry.

First, let’s consider three situations, and for each situation two possible tools for getting out of the situation. You figure out which tool you think would be the most effective. First situation, your car is stuck in a deep, muddy ditch. Do you want a Volkswagen Beetle or a four-wheel-drive Chevy pickup to pull it out? Next, you have a flat tire. Do you want the bumper jack that came with the car or a hydraulic floor jack to hoist the car so you can change the tire? In the third situation, you’re doing some landscaping and need to fasten some railroad ties together with spikes. Do you go to the tool shed for a sledgehammer or tack hammer?

I think you get the point. You need enough tool for the job. So, when an armed robber is trying to steal your car, which gun would you rather have with you? A Taurus 738 .380 or a Springfield XDm .45 ACP? Everyone wants to concentrate on how easy a gun is to carry. It’s not how easy the gun is to carry that’s important but how effective it is when you have to put it to work.

Handgun Size Matters

The industry has given us full-size guns, mid-size guns, compacts, and subcompacts. Then came the single-stack 9s. All the major manufacturers, and many of the lesser-known manufacturers, have a candidate — Smith and Wesson Shield, Glock 43, Springfield XD-S, Bersa BP-9C, Kel-Tec P11, Diamondback DB9, and others.

The limited capacity of the single-stack 9s has always been an issue for many. A couple of manufacturers, SCCY (with its CPX and DVG series) and Taurus (with the G2C followed by the G3C and G4X) built guns that were approximately the same size yet had double-stack magazines, allowing them to hold 10 or 12 rounds. When Smith and Wesson, Ruger, Kimber, and Springfield launched new models with double-stack magazines that expanded the capacity of their small guns, someone started calling them Micro 9s to delineate them from the single-stack 9s.

two thumbs forward grip on a Taurus handgun
A big part of knowing whether a gun is for you is how it fits your grip.

I can think of five or six existing models that compete for these guns in size and capacity, and we now have so many of these to choose from it could make a gun buyer dizzy trying to decide which one is right for them. I’ve shot and even carried most of them. They’re all well-built with the features you need and want. These guns all shoot well, but as I mentioned previously, we as shooters may not shoot them well, especially under stress.

Under stress, you lose a lot of the physical coordination that you would normally have. Fine movements of the fingers and hands are degraded most of all. When a defensive technique requires you to perform finely coordinated movements with your fingers, such as locating and operating small buttons and levers, that procedure will probably break down under combative stress.

Stress will distort your perception of time and space. Events will appear to take place in slow motion, making you think you have more time than you do. Be aware of this. For instance, you may think you shot only three bullets, but you actually shot more. If you think you shot only three rounds, it’s very possible you can multiply it by three and that is approximately how many you fired under stress.

Snub nose revolver in a pocket holster
A revolver in a pocket could be a good backup gun. It should be carried in a holster.

Due to space–time distortion, your weapon could be out of ammunition. Reload not when you have to, but when there is a lull in the battle. Do not drop a partially loaded magazine. Retain it in case you later need those rounds.

There is much more to it than this, but with just this small look at things that will most likely affect you during the need to deploy your pistol, can you see how the size of the gun might affect your ability to deploy it effectively? I see it even when not under stress. My normal, smooth trigger press sometimes lets me down, and I find myself pushing sideways on the trigger rather than pulling it straight back. This results in holes all around the target, but not where I intend them to be. Most of these guns have great sights, and I can line them up with the target. However, the darn trigger press gets me, and I’m an experienced shooter who shoots a lot.

Walther Q5 on a paper target with five bullet holes and a box of SIG Sauer Elite Performance ammunition
In the author’s experience, he can consistently shoot full-size and most mid-size handguns well as evidenced by this 10-yard target shot from a Walther Q5.

Everyday Carry

Carrying a small gun is not the same as carrying a 5-inch 1911, SIG P226, SIG P320, or any of the full-size guns you may own. If you have decided to carry a single-stack 9 or a Micro 9, it is imperative that you practice, practice, practice, and not just standing at a firing line and aiming at a stationary target. Just doing that will present challenges, but as you become consistent at putting your rounds where you want them, add drills to your range practice. At home with a triple-checked unloaded gun, and all ammunition removed from the room, practice drawing the gun from concealment. Dry fire like crazy, but of course, practice good safety by removing all ammo from the gun before any dry-fire practice.

There is no requirement that you buy a Micro 9 except perhaps as a backup. With a proper belt and a good holster, you can carry and conceal a full-size gun. I recommend that you do. Professionals (people who make their living carrying a gun, teaching others to carry a gun, or writing about carrying a gun) generally don’t carry small guns as their primary. That should tell you something.

A full or mid-size gun has more surface area which means better recoil control. The extra weight helps keep the muzzle on target. Full-size guns have a longer sight radius which helps with accuracy, and they have more ammo on board.

If you are carrying a full or mid-size gun and have a rig that’s comfortable and easy to wear, keep it. If you’re just starting out and looking for a carry gun, look at the full- or mid-size guns for that purpose. As far as carrying it goes, IWB usually works best.

Get a good gun belt, a holster made for your gun, and you should be ready to go. If you want a Micro 9 because they’re cool, make it your backup gun. Even as a backup gun, please make the commitment to learn to shoot it well — especially under pressure.

Crossbreed SuperTuck holster in the waistband with a handgun
With a good holster such as this Crossbreed SuperTuck, you can carry a handgun of any size.

Conclusion: Handgun Size

So, what have I decided to carry? My EDC before all the Micro 9s were presented was a Mossberg MC2C. The SIG P365 and Hellcat Pro are similar in size to the Mossberg, so I could carry either of them, but I see no reason to abandon the Mossberg. I’ve added a new backup gun; however, and that’s the Smith and Wesson CSX. The CSX is very easy to conceal, and I found I could shoot it pretty well. Being the gun guy I am, with the choices I have available, don’t be surprised if I vary from this selection from time to time.

I’d love to get your take on what I’ve outlined here, and if it’s an excuse for why you can’t carry a full-size gun, go ahead, and put it out there. Bet I can help.

What handgun size do you carry and why? Share your answers in the comment section.

  • Ruger LCP pistol in a pocket holster
  • Six handguns of various sizes
  • Snub nose revolver in a pocket holster
  • two thumbs forward grip on a Taurus handgun
  • Walther Q5 on a paper target with five bullet holes and a box of SIG Sauer Elite Performance ammunition
  • Crossbreed SuperTuck holster in the waistband with a handgun
  • handgun atop two green and white bullseye targets with bullet holes
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 (35)

  1. As a retired LEO I have decided that for my EDC a compact version of a full sized duty pistol is best for me. By that I mean pistols that have a slightly reduced barrel length and possible a slightly reduced grip frame. An example being a Commander style 1911, a CZ 75 Compact or a S&W M&P 4″ 9mm.

  2. As a retired LEO I have decided that for my EDC a compact version of a full-sized duty pistol is best for me. By that I mean pistols that have a slightly reduced barrel length and possible a slightly reduced grip frame. An example being a Commander style 1911, a CZ 75 Compact or a S&W M&P 4″ 9mm.

  3. Shawn, the PDP has one of the best triggers of any gun I’ve tested. I bought one with a 4″ barrel before they made the Red Dot Ready version available. I’m not surprised your wife likes it, too. Everyone who shoots mine comes away impressed.

  4. Keith, my stand on the full-size is to stress that you can carry one if that’s what you are most comfortable with and I have carried several. Being both an instructor and a writer presents me with the opportunity to experience a lot of firearms and the challenge to understand and present them to our readers and my students means I need to carry them, shoot them clean them. I’ve carried the Mossberg MC2C more than any other gun for the past year or so, but recently have tried the Sig P365 and Springfield Hellcat Pro, both of which are similar in size to the Mossberg. I thought the industry was calling these micro-nines but they’re not very micro. Most of the guns labeled subcompact like the Glock 26 or Beretta PX4 Subcompact have shorter barrels and grips on a frame the same width as the larger versions of the guns. I have not carried one of those guns. I consider the S&W GSX a micro nine and I’ve advocated carrying it as a backup.

  5. I am glad to know that there are others who prefer to carry full sized guns. I started out with a compact and hated to shoot it. I now have a full size frame 5″ Walther PDP that I carry and I am much happier. I can shoot it much more accurately than the S&W Shield ok have and it is much more enjoyable to shoot. Much less recoil, much better trigger and a whole lot more rounds. The S&W had a maximum of 8 rounds where as my Walther is 18. Also with the longer slide and serrations I get a better grip for easier racking and better sight picture. I am in an open carry state but I do not carry that way. I also don’t worry about being completely concealed either. To me if you suck using a tool you will not use it so get a tool that you can use. I used to let people’s comments about how it doesn’t make since to carry such a big gun or I am just trying to play Dirty Harry bother me. Now I don’t give a crap. Although I hope I never have to use it against another human being or any living thing I have it to protect myself and my family. I will also say that my wife who has very small hands and has trouble racking the slide on 99% of guns was able to reasonably work the S&W Shield 9mm so that is what she went with. After firing the Walther PDP she doesn’t like hers anymore. It looks massive when she is holding and firing it but she is a lot more accurate with it and she enjoys shooting it a lot more. Great article.

  6. You’re right, size matters. My wife has tiny hands. Her mother the cattle baroness also has tiny hands, and she has a Ruger Bearcat, a tiny .22 revolver that looks more like a cap gun for a 6-year-old than an actual firearm.

    My wife spent a few years with me at gun shows looking for a handgun that fit her hand, to no avail. Then she and some coworkers had a team building exercise at a gun range, and she found a little .380 auto that fit so well that after a few clips she was shooting as well as or better than all her coworkers. Success!

    For me, I have more normal sized hands and a Taurus 9mm that’s a clone of the Beretta that was the US mil standard issue for a while. It fits nicely, but more importantly, it has a good balance for me. Perhaps the best feature is the 17+1 clips that I can empty as fast as I could put in a new one, and a rugged enough design to go through three clips without malfunction. In a real world shooting incident, I’d never do that but it’s nice to know that the gun will do that.

    For what it’s worth, my friend Old Blind George (who really is blind, not just legally blind) has a .380 auto and is perfectly happy, if he needed to, to go outside with his blind cane and gun, and shout at the top of his lungs “I’m blind and I have a gun” and then unload in the direction of the loudest noise. Then reload.

    Parts of Austin TX sometimes require that kind of behavior. We’re not ALL rainbows and unicorns here….

  7. I’m in very restrictive and anti-2A L.A. County. I prepared an EDC pistol several years ago and naively applied for a CCW. I thought a perfect record would favor me but I was denied a permit. Now I’m preparing to finally carry concealed regardless of permit schemes. I subsequently had three incidents at home where a gun was necessary but thankfully not used. One of the incidents involved 4 ex-cons, 3 who tried to break and enter while my handicapped mother and I were home. Staging my shotgun was a sufficient deterrent. I immediately enrolled in one of USCCA’s insurance programs after that incident. I’m more concerned about threats outside of my home requiring a gun to deter them. I just purchased another Shield chambered in .40 cal as a stand by for my EDC (also a Shield in .40) if it ever gets confiscated by authorities after a self-defense incident. The fist Shield was difficult to handle because of the caliber but I stippled it, replaced the guide rod and spring, ported it, and added a Crimson Trace laser-light combination. I don’t plan on doing any upgrades or modifications to my new Shield. I plan to keep it in the box as new until I need it, if ever. My first pistol was a Springfield XD9102, full size. It has a separate light and laser but it’s too big for EDC, so it’s my home defense gun. I plan to buy an M&P compact 2.0 that I’ll practice with for my EDC, but I’ll probably try other guns at a range before buying it.

  8. My EDC is a Glock 19 in a Blackhawk Serpa retention holster. I’ve upgraded the fire control system to Apex throughout. I have Hi-Viz sights, green front, red rear. This works for my aging eyes. I also use Talon Grips. I run Hornady Critical Duty ammo. This gives me 15 +1 with two spare mags.
    My Backup is a S&W Bodyguard with Hogue grips in a pocket holster. I shoot both, well within Minute of Bad Guy.

  9. I don’t get it. The author recommends carrying a full size but then indicates he Carrie’s a subcompact. What am I missing?

  10. A missing thread that seems to be consistent with all these comments is the simple fact that most shooters buy a gun, maybe 50 – 100 rounds of ammo, and then shoot about 20 – 30 rounds at the range. No proper training, no repeat practice at the range, and several times I have seen shooters wonder why their gun doesn’t work – i.e. So dirty that it jams. As to proper fit, Dirty Harry sold more S&W model 29s than any gun clerk ever. Soon after, these S&W 29s would show up on the used gun counter, often with an almost full box of .44 mag ammo. As I have small hands, a change of grips and a box of .44 spl ammo, the S&W 29 is now a wonderful handgun to shoot. NOTE – Most “J” frame S&W revolvers have grips that are too small for almost anyone over the age of about 12 years old. Thank goodness for the CT replacement (large) laser grips.

  11. As far as how a gun “feels”, newer shooters will have a hard time with this. Until you have spent significant time at the range, different aspects of the firearm will remain unnoticed. I have carried and trained with Glock exclusively for years. In the beginning, when picking a primary EDC, I handled many weapons, not sure what I was supposed to be “feeling”. The Glock model 22 fit my hand perfectly, so that is what I went with, and never gave it a second thought. Recently, I had the opportunity to handle a Sig P320, and my world changed. The main reason was grip angle. It has less of an angle than Glock. While not huge, it “feels” way better. That few degrees of angle has made all, the difference in my wrists, elbows, shoulders, draw, grip, recoil management, and natural point of aim. The point is, it’s not how well the gun fits your hand, but how well it works with your whole body. Something that as a newer shooter, I did not understand.

  12. I carry either a Smith & Wesson Shield Plus 9mm or a Kimber Super Carry Pro .45ACP. Both IWB at 4:00 position. I participate in ISPSA as often as I can. It’s amazing how beneficial the competition is, I would highly recommend it to anyone wanting to improve their skills.

  13. I EDC my Ruger LC9s Pro (with a Big Dot front sight I added) in a Galco IWB holster with a spare 7 rd. mag in my pocket. I have trained extensively with that pistol and practice often. I’ve thought about going bigger but the Ruger is thin and easy to carry and I’m comfortable with it.

    I have thought about carrying a second gun on the ankle and own a Ruger LCR in .38 and a Kel Tec P3-AT to consider from. I don’t mind the back up being smaller than my EDC because I would only use it if my EDC was gone. Another idea is to buy another Ruger (the EC9s) and use that because of it’s thinness and same manual of arms and magazine as my EDC.

  14. My EDC is an XD subcompact 40 loaded with 180 gr Golden Sabers in an old style Galco Tuk-N-Go IWB appendix carried. I’m a fan of big holes with proven loads. 9mm is fine for backup but not primary carry. As I don’t believe in safe queens the XD is occassionally replaces with an STI Spartan 1911 45 ACP loaded with 230 gr Golden Sabers carried OWB at 3-1/2 o’clock. When I’m horseback the rig is a Dan Wesson 715 357 loaded with 125 gr HPs in a Galco holster on a custom 20 loop cartridge belt. Rides so comfotable that Iforget it’s even there.

  15. The number one issue for buying a handgun is how it fits in YOUR hand. I have a size 13 hand and
    small guns do not work. I realized everyone is concerned about concealment size but make sure your
    fingers are not hanging over the grip so much as aim and control is a problem.

  16. For years I waist carried, inside the pants, and rotated between my Sig 226, a Beretta 92F and a HK VP9. With the predominant carry the Sig followed by the Beretta. Primary reason for that being the “de-cocking” feature of the two handguns. While I enjoy the feel and accuracy of the HK, I am strongly of the mind that probably 95% of the folks that conceal or open carry really have no need for a gun that always probably 5-7 pounds and a finger away from discharge. As you stated, time and perception get all distorted in the onset of pressure brought on by the need for “pulling” and ready to shoot. Many many hours of practice and situational awareness while practice can mitigate some of that, bottom line it boils down to the two things I mention above. With the many hours and rounds of not just practice but situational awareness practice I have had, I still like to “de-cock” the weapon, for no other reason than returning it to double action status. Absolutely, Police and Military, need the weapon “cocked, locked and ready to rock” but with practice my time from realizing I need to pull my weapon, acquire target and prepare to fire are as good as most First responders in similar situations. Back injuries and surgeries have forced me to go to a shoulder carry which with a cover shirt that buttons up front have not caused any problems with drawing my weapon and ready to fire. Again, this is because of practice “trigger time”, something everyone should do more or. My backup piece is a Beretta Model 85 (.380)

  17. I carry a S&W M&P Shield 9mm EZ and a S&W 380 EZ backup. I am a senior citizen with arthritis in my hands so the EZ handguns work well for me. I go to the range weekly and practice with both guns. My 357 Python and XDM 45 re getting a little harder to use now so the smaller handguns now fill the bill for me.

  18. Stumpy, I chose an XDM for my one and only 10mm. Mine has the 4.5 inch barrel and it is an excellent gun.

  19. To Richard Summers I would comment – I agree with you on the Commanders. For many years and before the wheelchair, I carried a 1911 Commander in .45 ACP every day. I still strap one on occasionally. Two of my favorite guns are Commanders – one a Sig Scorpion and the other a S&W scandium frame fastback. But my job has me changing from time to time and some of these newer guns are decent carry guns.

  20. What constitutes the right size handgun to carry will depend upon two primary factors, your purpose for carrying it and what you consider ergonomically practical. Ask yourself when, where, and how you will carry a sidearm. In many cases, such as around the home, business, or other personal property, you may find it more logical to carry a full size pistol of a preferred caliber. When driving or moving about in public places you may determine a smaller sidearm of lesser caliber is more desirable. Whatever you pick, I would place reliability above all other considerations, followed by ergonomics (comfort and good handling qualities). Accuracy would be my last consideration. I have rarely fired a handgun that lacked acceptable accuracy at seven yards, but they do exist. The bottom line is all of these factors are important, so none should be disregarded.

  21. As I often stated, I prefer a “J” frame S&W, mainly a 3″ model 60. I do admit that I bought a 70’s series COLT 1911 in 1972, and it was 1986 before I got my first “J” frame. With that background, and having added a 9mm (RUGER) to the mix, Recoil Management and “FEEL” should be the biggest consideration when purchasing any firearm. Before I got my first “J” frame, I also had a STAR BK in 9mm. (I think SIG now has a micro 9mm almost the same size as the STAR.) Years ago, one could go to a gun show, and were allowed to pick up guns that were on display to find a handgun that had the right “feel”. Now a number of pistols have interchangeable Backstraps, and the options for replacement revolver grips are too numerous to count. New shooters now have a much better chance of getting a handgun that has the right “feel”, regardless of caliber, or change out the backstrap/grips to get that proper “feel”. When it “feels” right, Recoil Management becomes so much easier.

  22. I carry an RIA 45 ACP Tac Ultra CS – their designation for an Officer’s Model OWB. Also for ranch work an XDMe compact in 10mm. The XDM is the same overall dimension as the Officer’s and weighs less with 16 rounds of 10mm as opposed to 9 rounds of 45 Super. I just shoot the 45 a little better. I really, really like the XDM – much preferred to my Glock and just as reliable. However being an old 1911 guy, I LOVE the 45 Super.

  23. Not buying into the gun industry line into fear and panic that you need a AR or at least 10 rnds to defend yourself.
    The chance of you needing a gun to defend yourself is infinitely small.
    The FBI statistics show just showing a gun will by far stop most attacks
    Of those attacks that go forward to a actual shooting, 99% are stopped by 2 shots.
    Spend your time and money on ammo and practice instead of throwing 10+ shots around. They bystanders you hit will remind you of this post.
    I’m from NYC. I’ve seen what NYPD did when they got high capacity autos.
    I also have shot with family that were NYPD. They could hit what they shot at. With revolvers

  24. Now, I live in SoCal and can’t get a CCW in my county, so I have only carried a few times where it was legal. I obviously am not a LEO, so it does feel different to carry the few times I have.
    Carrying is a responsibility and it is a PIA. The smaller, the better, for someone like me(as long as it is large enough to get 3 fingers around the grip). They don’t usually print and the fact that they can be conceal carried more comfortably than a full size handgun, means it is one that I would carry more often.
    That is me,, but I think I represent the normal handgun owner that live in a “may issue” state or county. The gun you carry every time is the one you should carry.
    Just because a handgun doesn’t have a stock, doesn’t mean it is really a hand gun, it could be too larger to carry, just as some are too small to carry and use.

  25. Agree, don’t bring a pocket knife to a gunfight. My primary EDC is a Rock Island Armory 1911 45ACP (OWB hip). Backup is SIG P365 (IWB appendix). “Backup” backup is a Ruger LC9S 9mm (ankle). I need stopping power in my hood. In-home protection with a Diamondback AR15 and a handful of small handguns scattered here and there in-home and in-vehicles.

  26. My problem with full size handguns is that my hands are small (no jokes please…I’ve heard them all). For example, a K frame S&W revolver isn’t as comfortable as a D frame Colt and a J frame or Ruger SP fit me even better. Any 1911 pattern pistol is just not a good fit, and double stack, high capacity nines or forties are uncomfortable and impossible for me to shoot accurately.

    The first group of compact single stack nines were colloquially labeled Slim-nines, probably by gun writers. Of those, the S&W Ladysmith and the Sig P239, both with short DAO triggers, fit me best, though not perfectly. Then came Kahr! The first time I picked up a K9, I was in love with the fit. I bought it immediately, even though it was an unknown quantity at the time. I’ve added several more models since; they all function very well, are more accurate than I will ever be and, most importantly, THEY FIT MY HAND! Their largest model is the TP9, which is the only size I haven’t yet fired.

  27. Great article. If I were writing this 10 years ago I would have just said “Bigger than I’m currently carrying” is the right size. Now it’s a little bit more realistic.

  28. I also carry the Hellcat Pro, but rotate with the MC2C and the CZ P10c. Prefer to carry OWB with a jacket (I’m clergy), so a jacket is not unusual for me. Am interested to see what the new Masada Slim will be like

  29. My right size handgun is my 25″ 300 BLK AR Pistol. It shoots groups like in this article at 100 yards plus and with appropriate ammo can do many things. Yes I have a backup Springfield XD pistol. Its tactile features are special. I can concealed carry my AR. And it can be fired from its concealment. What is really nice is the M-LOK bipod which can be legally used as a pistol grip. How does that grab you?

  30. I carry the Hellcat Pro in an appendix carry OWB holster. I also carry a Ruger LCP MAX in my support side front pocket.

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