Defensive Firearms Priorities: How To Choose a Personal Defense Handgun

One of the things I do most frequently as a defensive firearms instructor is give advice on which gun a person should choose to own for personal or home defense. Over the years, I have even made video clips and written several essays and articles on that topic. Appropriately, my opinion on which types of guns people should choose and how they should go about choosing them has evolved over the years. It recently occurred to me that my own opinions on this topic have developed significantly over the past couple of years since the last article I published on the issue. So much so, in fact, that it’s time for another article!

I have been in the industry long enough now that people sometimes try to use me to refute me. It can be awkward to have to point out just how wrong I now believe I was about something in the past, but it needs to happen from time to time to maintain integrity. Over the years, I have met many instructors who hid behind a shallow interpretation of “integrity” which dictated to them that they never admit they were wrong. This type of instructor, luckily, is a dying breed. The man who would tell you that what he learned or did 20 years ago was exactly what you should do today and that no one, himself included, has evolved the art or science of defensive shooting has a hard time being taken seriously in the modern age of information sharing.

Over the past few years, it has been gratifying to see so many instructors, including some who have been teaching professionally in the private sector for two or three decades, acknowledging significant evolution in their thoughts … for example, embracing modern 9mm and striker-fired guns after a long-time devotion to the 1911 and/or the “bigger is always better” theory of defensive ballistics. When I am confronted with something I said often enough, I realize that I need to update the official version of what I am saying.

So, if you’ve been following my work since the 1990s, you can consider this an(other) update. If this is the first time you are reading my opinion on which guns you should own for personal defense, take it for what it’s worth. It is an opinion based on a lifetime of study of defensive shooting, over a decade of full-time teaching, thousands of students, hundreds of classes, and thousands of hours of my own personal time as a student. Either way, you can expect more evolution in the future.

Reliability

The most important issue with a defensive firearm is reliability. You need a gun that will work and that is likely to keep working when you need it most. In my experience, there are two choices at the top of the list: Modern Striker-Fired Semi-Automatic Pistols (MSFs) and Double-Action Revolvers (DARs). It is important to note that when I am speaking of reliability, I am not just talking about the mechanical functioning of the gun, but also about the practical ability of the shooter to be able to rely on running the gun properly. These two types of guns offer the highest potential for reliability on both counts, and are the types of guns I carry myself and recommend to family and friends.

I put MSFs above revolvers as better choices for most people because of their simple designs and means of operation (pull the trigger and they go “bang,” don’t pull the trigger and they don’t); consistent, moderate trigger pulls; higher capacity; and the ease with which they can be reloaded. DARs, while incredibly reliable and convenient to carry (in small-frame “snub nosed” models), do have a significantly heavy and long trigger pull and very low capacity. These two factors combine to make carrying them a significant compromise. One key factor to accepting those detriments to the DAR is the ultimate reliability of the system, and since reliability is our most important factor, one can certainly understand the decision.

Shootability

The next most important factor we need to look at is shootability. As defensive firearms ownership grows (returns?) in our society, look for this word to make some magazine’s list of new words added to the English language. Shootability is the measure of a firearm’s ability to be used across all plausible circumstances one could be faced with. In regard to a defensive firearm, the most important aspect of shootability is the fit of the gun to your hand. If the gun does not fit your hand well, it is going to be difficult to use. The less optimal the fit of the gun, the less likely you will be able to use the gun intuitively, without great concentration. In some cases, fit can be so bad that it keeps the gun from being usable in any practical sense.

The first thing you want to look for is the ability to get the center of the back of the gun’s grip aligned with your wrist in the web between your thumb and forefinger, when the gun is extended in your line of sight and your finger is comfortably on the trigger. While in this position, be sure there is no gap above the web of your hand and the bottom of the beavertail (area above the back of the grip, meant to touch your hand to help with consistency and managing recoil). It is also vital that the knuckle at the base of your thumb be beside the gun, not under it. If you are holding the gun and find that the top of the grip area is above your knuckle, you need to move your thumb around toward the weak side of the gun. While in this position, your index finger should contact the trigger with its last pad.

After ensuring you can get the minimum aspects of a good grip on a firearm, next look to see that you can manipulate any levers or buttons beside the trigger without shifting your grip. Optimally, the only other button you’ll need to use will be the magazine release. Decockers and manual safeties decrease the practical reliability of the gun and/or the shootability of the gun by making them more complicated than they need to be. Most people benefit from an oversized or extended magazine release in order to be able to eject the magazine as efficiently as possible. It is not vital that you can eject the magazine with no shifting of the hand, but you should look for a gun that requires as little movement of the hand as possible.

One factor many overlook before shooting their firearm is the amount of surface area available for both your strong and weak hands on the gun. The more surface area, the more friction. The more friction, the easier it will be to manage recoil and fire follow-up shots. Also, the more contact you have with the gun, the more consistency you will be able to maintain.

Carryability

Carryability is another word that should become part of your lexicon if you are going to carry your gun for defensive use. How easy is it for you to carry a given firearm comfortably, in a concealed manner, given your normal style of dress? Once seen as a very superficial concern, the reality is that most people will not dress around their gun. Choosing a gun that is a size and shape — and has appropriate holster options — that allow for comfortable carry is very important. Going armed in public is a significant choice. Making that choice as low impact as possible on the rest of your life makes it easier to follow through and actually have the gun on you when you need it.

Size is the most important factor when it comes to carryability. Many find that width is more important than length, while others focus on the contours of the gun as being the highest priority. Some guns, especially new ones, might be perfect for you in many respects, but the holster options currently on the market fail to meet your needs.

Balancing Power, Recoil and Capacity

I firmly believe that 9mm is the best choice for a personal-defense caliber. This belief comes from an understanding of the need to balance three things in order to have the highest potential for putting the number of rounds necessary to stop a threat into the threat in as short a time as possible. You cannot count on stopping a threat with a single shot, regardless of the caliber. So worrying about maximizing potential damage from a single bullet is a waste of time. I believe that the empirical and testing data show us that 9mm is the weakest widely available caliber loaded with modern hollow-point ammunition that will consistently create an acceptable amount of damage to your attacker under the most plausible set of circumstances. The reason that it is important to be interested in the weakest caliber that meets the standard is because the weakest round will give the least recoil and therefore offer the fastest opportunity for an accurate follow-up shot.

This concept is counter to the clichéd concept of choosing the largest caliber that you can “shoot well.” I actually used to subscribe to that idea, but the problem is that “shoot well” is only relevant to objective measures on a range. In the real world, you always want to shoot as quickly as possible under the given need for precision, and you can always fire multiple shots faster with a weaker round, so choosing the weakest round that meets the minimum standard is the best way to approach caliber selection.

Also, the smaller the round, the higher the capacity in any given size gun, affording more opportunities to put rounds into any given threat or multiple threats without reloading. A failure to look at all three factors — power, recoil and capacity — can easily result in chasing extremes and hypothetical arguments about what firearm would be best if you only needed one hit on target or if you had to engage 10 attackers. You must make your choices taking all factors into consideration and looking at the most likely defensive shooting circumstances. You are most likely to need to deliver a rapid string of rounds into your threat. You want those rounds to be capable of 12 to 15 inches of penetration in ballistic gelatin (a standardized testing medium) after penetrating through light and/or heavy clothing.

Accuracy

Much space is given in articles about defensive firearms regarding “accuracy” or their capability, often specific to certain ammunition, for precision. In this day and age, given the most likely circumstances for defensive shooting, this is usually over-thought. Any firearm that meets your requirements in the other areas discussed in this article is likely to be far more capable of precision than you will be capable of during an actual fight, Your most likely target is a human chest within 21 feet. If you come across a gun that is not capable of that level of precision with appropriate defensive ammo and yet meets the other requirements set out herein, please let me know. I have not encountered such a gun.

Aesthetics, Availability and Budget

Some guns will not be available in certain areas due to legal restrictions. Most notably, Massachusetts is a state that restricts the availability of firearms beyond the national standard. Other restrictions on availability may be caused by store selection or a manufacturer’s inability to keep up with demand. Budget is always a concern, but the good news is that the best guns available today for personal defense are very reasonably priced and priced below the average cost in most gun shops.

For a “new in box” personal defense handgun that meets the requirements I’ve set, you should not be spending more than $600. In fact, $500 is a very fair price for a new or almost new defensive gun. There is no reason to consider spending more. Keep in mind that you will need to purchase spare magazines, a good holster (or two), both defensive and practice ammunition, and possibly invest in professional training to go along with your purchase. You should still be able to purchase everything you need for under $1,000:

  • Defensive Firearm: $500 – $600
  • Holster: $50 – $75
  • Spare Magazines: $50
  • Defensive Ammo: $75 – $100 (reliability testing and two to three magazines for carry)
  • Practice Ammo: $100 (minimum!)
  • Training: Varies (books and DVDs, CCW permit, defensive training)

Aesthetics do play a role. As I have said in the past, if you like your gun, you are more likely to carry and practice with it. But I caution you strongly to make this the very last factor you use to determine which gun you will count on to save yours (or your family’s) life in a worst-case scenario.

Specific Recommendations

  • My company currently recommends the following firearms, in 9mm, as the first places to look when choosing a defensive handgun. In alphabetical order, they are:

  • * Caracal — C & F models without the “quick sight” option.
  • * Glock Models 26, 19 or 17. If you choose a 4th Gen, ensure you have the currently recommended springs. This specific model was plagued with problems when first released.
  • * Smith & Wesson M&P — models without a manual safety or magazine disconnect.
  • * Springfield XD. This model is suggested with one caveat: the grip safety presents a failure point that is most significant when clearing complex malfunctions or shooting in unorthodox positions. But it is recommended particularly because of its better fit for many shooters with small hands.
  • All of the above MSFs have been observed to be reliable under a variety of circumstances with a variety of shooters.

  • Handguns that get Honorable Mentions as defensive choices:

  • * Snub Nosed Double Action Revolvers, such as the S&W 642, for the reasons spelled out above.
  • * Walther PPS. This slim MSF is currently going through an extended reliability test and has performed very well to date.
  • * Ruger LCP. This reliable gun is an extreme compromise to carryability, is chambered in the less-than-optimal .380 ACP round, and has relatively low shootability. But it has proven reliable and is extremely convenient to carry because of its small size.

Conclusion

Any defensive firearm is a compromise of reliability, carryability, capacity, shootability, fit, comfort and several other factors. No single firearm is likely to max out in every category for any given person. Choose your compromises carefully and keep in mind the order of priority suggested here when you make your next defensive firearm purchase.

Discussion
  • (will not be published)

17 Responses to “Defensive Firearms Priorities: How To Choose a Personal Defense Handgun”
  1. DustinAaron

    I think you can’t over stress “carryability.” If you aren’t wearing the gun when you need it, then none of the other factors matter. I recently switched from Glock 19 to Glock 26 for everyday carry and there is a big difference in my desire to wear the gun every day. It’s just more comfortable.

    Reply
  2. Snarky357

    Any updates to recommended firearms? Shield, XDs, how is the Walther doing, Caracal was recalled and is out again?

    Reply
    • whw

      The XDS doesn’t suffer from the complexity associated with the grip safety that was mentioned in the article. It is the next evolution in the XD line.

      whw

      Reply
  3. Carole

    Hi my family member! I want too say that this post is amazing,
    nice written and come with almost all significant infos.
    I’d like to look more posts like this .

    Reply
  4. Alfred

    Exceptional ost but I was wanting to know
    if you could write a litte more oon this subject?

    I’d be very thankful if you could elaborate a little bit more.
    Kudos!

    Reply
  5. FMJ

    A safety and mag dis have saved a lot of LEO PERIOD!

    Never had any issues when I carried a M5906 and M6906.

    Also never seen any reports on 3rd gen S&W Pistols failing and killing officers because of the safety or mag dis.

    I wonder why that is??

    Caracal& XD No thanks!

    I don’t hate SFP but prefer Hammer DA Pistols

    Reply
  6. martman300

    What about the Ruger lc9 pro & the Kahr cm9? These are both striker fired 9mm, that his the price range & reliabilty, as well as being a good size. Just curious as I am looking to get a single stack 9, or the 380, to go with a converted Glock 27.

    I just really want a 9mm though, actually leaning towards the Kahr, and keeping the Glock 27 converted to a 9mm.

    What are your thoughts?

    Thanks

    Reply
    • Customer Service Techs

      If only given the two choices listed I would choose the Ruger LC9 Pro. The trigger pull on this gun is closest to that 5 to 6 pound pull and has shown to be generally reliable when students have brought them to class. The Kahr has a much longer and heavier trigger pull as well as hasn’t impressed when it comes to reliability. If you are in the market for a single stack 9mm MSF handgun I would highly recommend adding the Springfield Armory XDs model to your list of potential purchases. SA has been a PDN tour sponsor for the last two years and has supplied XDs handguns as loaners all of which have performed excellent.

      Reply
  7. Josh

    Excellent post. I live in an area which has been undergoing personal attacks on civilians, leading to myself and many of my neighbors to carry arms as a personal and neighborhood defense. This article addresses a lot of the real concerns a civilian has when thinking about incorporating a handgun into their everyday lives. I have served in the army and am comfortable carrying when on duty, but it is different when thinking about “being on duty” fulltime. Issues or wearability and the minimal caliber needed are a refreshing change from other posts I have come across.
    I wonder if you have thoughts or articles regarding the proper level and type of training suitable for personal use (again, not everyone can commit to full military training with a handgun and even it we did, it is a different set of goals for personal protection).
    Can you elaborate on why a safety is not necessary? That seems very unsafe, no? In military service, safeties are used all the time.

    Reply
    • cst

      When it comes to firearms training I recommend “Counter Ambush” training, meaning your training should incorporate the processing of information prior to executing a complex motor skill. Here at the PDN site there is a wealth of information covering this topic.
      As for manual safety on personal defense firearms. It isn’t that I advocate handguns with no safeties but safeties that are automatically defeated when a proper firing grip is attained and the finger is put on the trigger. The guns I recommend (MSF), Glock, Spring Field Armory XD line, Smith & Wesson M&P, all have safeties but don’t require the use of a manual safety. These manual safeties require a person to dedicate additional resources to training to be able to run the gun properly. Also, The types of guns that have manual safeties are DA/SA guns. These require additional training time to be dedicated to learning the two very different trigger pulls. If a person properly trains to keep their finger somewhere other than the trigger (high index) until ready to shoot the safeties found on the MSF guns are sufficient. If you are a premium member here is part 1 of a 4 part series on the guns I recommend and why.
      http://www.personaldefensenetwork.com/video/advantage-of-striker-fired-pistols-000737/ < http://www.personaldefensenetwork.com/video/advantage-of-striker-fired-pistols-000737/>

      Reply
  8. Kevin

    Hi, I wanted to put this idea in “alternate shooting” video but there was no place to comment. Here it goes. When carrying a small gun like a .380 I was at my wife’s doctors office and was looking at one of the body system posters they have on the wall. It was of the area from the stomach and below and showed the Superior Mesenteric artery http://www.healthline.com/human-body-maps/superior-mesenteric-artery (see link) which is just above the belly button and below the stomach. I was thinking if you aimed at this area armed with say a glaser safety slug the perp would bleed to death in seconds. What do you think of my hypothesis?

    Reply
    • cst

      Hello Kevin, your feedback has been forwarded to the proper department. Your comments are important to us and help with the development of new programs. We will continue to listen and work hard for your complete satisfaction. If you have any other questions, please contact us at 1-855-231-0650. Thank you!

      Reply
  9. Richard

    You article is well thought out. I understand your selection of handguns by focusing on the striker fired. Those don’t generally fit my hands well. Ergonomics of fit is so important and that is why i prefer the PX4 storm .40, large hands, good fit and points well for me. Of course the .40 is not for everyone but I am able to get multiple shots in the right area quickly. As you identified, if you like it and it fits you, you will use it, carry it and practice often with it.

    Reply
  10. Larry Cotner

    While I agree with most of your article, I was trained to use a gun with a deco key and a manual safety. I agree most people would do better with the type of guns you suggested, I was trained to draw and release the manual safety in one smooth action, no I’m not in any way involved with law enforcement. I was however trained by a former secert service agent and like him I carry a sig. I carry either the sig p226 mk25 in 9mm or thr sig p226 in 357 sig. I in fact prefer the one in 357 sig the recoil is close to the 9mm and holds 12 rounds. There are some mags available that hold 15 rounds. I’d like your opinion in my choice, and training on release of safety in a single motion.

    Reply