Tactical Pistols

Two stacked revolvers, a four inch .38 on top and a 1930s Colt Tactical on the bottom. Both have black grips and a dark charcoal-colored body, barrels pointed to the right

The term tactical pistol is used a lot without real understanding. A tactical pistol is a different breed than some, and to earn the term tactical, a pistol should show good performance. I think a good definition is a pistol that features certain enhancements designed to give the user every advantage. When we call a pistol tactical, we should use that term in roughly the same way as when describing handgun classes.

Gray haired man with navy sweater and red ear protection shoots a handfun, facing you
The tactical handgun offers the shooter every advantage.

A defensive handgun class focuses primarily on the likely scenario and defensive situations while covering the laws and situational awareness. Combat training focuses primarily on running the gun. We are concerned with the students being all they can be. I am a great believer in handgun competition for its own sake as well as training, and a good combat training course prepares you well for running a gun in IPSC or IDPA. Tactical training involves shoot-and-don’t-shoot drills plus firing from cover and working over difficult courses. An important part of tactical training is learning to shoot the other guy without being shot. The better the gun, the better a good shot will run the course.

History of the Tactical Pistol

There is little point in debating which tactical pistol was the first, and much profit in studying why there was a need. The Gene Autry museum houses a Colt single-action revolver with a special squared-off-post front sight. That revolver belonged to Tom Threepersons, a noted lawman. The implication is that Threepersons wanted to hit what he was shooting at, and the sight gave him an advantage.

After World War I, Colt introduced the National Match. The original National Match featured a superbly fitted barrel and high-visibility fixed sights. Not a delicate target gun, the National Match was the finest self-loader of the day. About the same time, service-grade revolvers with adjustable sights became popular. The Colt Officer’s Target was a 6-inch-barrel Official Police with special sights. Arguably, it is among the finest revolvers of the period. By the 1960s, officers wanting every advantage carried a Smith & Wesson K38, a 6-inch-barrel revolver with adjustable rear sights and a ramp front sight. When tactical teams first assembled in the 1960s, the K38 was a common sidearm.

Today, the tactical pistol seems defined by a rail for mounting a combat light or laser. The handgun usually has extended controls, high-visibility sights and textured grips, offering enhanced adhesion and abrasion to keep the pistol solid in the hand. Considerable development of the tactical pistol resulted in a high level of reliability. The tactical handgun is built on a solid base, making it a handgun of proven reliability. The 1911 SIG P-series CZ 75 and GLOCK are likely candidates as tactical pistols.

Black SIG Navy Model, barrel pointed down and to the left on a white background
The SIG Navy Model is a legendary tactical handgun.

Previously, I have discussed the SIG P226 Navy Model at length. The P226 is a great service pistol, and with the addition of tritium sights and an accessory rail, makes tactical status. Some tactical pistols follow the tradition of the K38 revolver, with a longer barrel and adjustable sights. The GLOCK 41 is among those; it is a hard-hitting, accurate handgun offering easy acclimation for those who have fired standard-grade GLOCK pistols.

The 1911 is my favorite handgun and makes a first-rate tactical handgun for all uses. The SIG TACOPS is among the best all-around, go-anywhere, do-anything handguns. With tritium night sights, a rugged accessory rail and SIG reliability, the TACOPS is a first-rate tactical handgun.

An overlooked, usable handgun is the tactical version of the CZ 75 which is easily one of the best shooting and most reliable military handguns. The original pistol was a bit short on sights, although they are comparable to other 1970s military designs. The CZ 75 tactical model features a light rail plus much, much more.

  • High-visibility sights with tritium inserts
  • Elongated grip tang for a better hold and control
  • Slightly extended magazines with bumper pad, giving it an 18-round magazine capacity (as in my example)
  • Proven, brilliant accuracy with the Winchester +P+ 127-grain SXT (the service load I deploy)
  • Easy control and excellent handling in rapid-fire drills

Overall, you would be hard-pressed to choose a better tactical pistol.

While the combination of light rails, self-luminous iron sights, magazine wells and extended controls make the pistols more formidable in trained hands, the trick is training the hands. There is little point in expecting state-of-the-art handguns to perform well if the you are not also state of the art. These handguns invite practice, and it is a challenge to shoot up to their accuracy potential. Tom Threepersons recognized the need for a better handgun almost 100 years ago.

Today, we have a great crop of superior handguns.

Feeding the Tactical

Gray-haired man in gray two-toned sweater and jeans with red ear protection shoots a CZ-75B with a wooded area in the background.
The author finds the CZ-75 B an impressive handgun on every count. Of all the 9mm pistols in the safe, it is the one he would deploy for critical use.

If you are deploying a tactical handgun, practice ammunition is just fine—use whatever works. For personal defense, make no compromises. Law enforcement widely uses the Winchester PDX line; it strikes a good balance between penetration and expansion. The 230-grain .45 ACP is a particular favorite. However, the highly developed 9mm loads provide a measure of confidence in that caliber. The Winchester 124-grain JHP +P is widely available and accurate.

Do not ignore the necessity for personal research when making an ammunition selection.

What is your personal preference for a tactical pistol? Tell us in the comments section.

About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.

Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Rifle Magazine
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns

Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
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 (3)

  1. talking about the old target pistols 1930s colt i have a offical police 22 cal bulit on a 38 frame deadly . and the k 38 yaw talking about is a combat masterpiece with 24 k gold finger guide ser nu start (K38) they were pilots side arms got one of those two and the hammer and trigger springs are lite from factory there ye go (RAs RECONDOS)

  2. Well,theres Les Bauer,Wilson Combat,Kimber,Sig,Springfield,Glock; the list of quality,uber reliable firearms available for our selection is durn near endless.
    If it fits your hand,you can hit what you shoot at with it ,it will stop an enemy from further attacks/mischief and it can be expected to function on demand; what else is there?
    Select carefully.You get what you pay for.
    ‘Nuff said.

  3. Bob, just a note of thanks on info about feeding my G36 from the magazine. Fired 100 rounds last Friday nada on problems. I do extra cleaning on the slide rails after each firing. After cleaning Friday I was just about to lube and I found a small speck of brass on each rail. I use Hopp’s #9 for cleaning with small bristle brush, Q-tips and patches with fingernails before lubing. All signs of powder has to be gone before a small amount of lube is applied. Oh great one any suggestion on the procedure? Thanks again, J.

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