Mouse Guns: Myths, Mysteries & Histories

Editor’s Note: The following is a syndicated article by author Tamara Keel that first appeared in USCCA’s Concealed Carry Magazine Volume 15, Issue 7 October 2018 under the title, “Mouse Guns: Myths, Mysteries & History.” 

This being a column about mouse guns, let’s open it with a definition of what, exactly, constitutes a “mouse gun.”

Broadly speaking, it refers to a handgun that fits in a pocket and is chambered for cartridges smaller and less potent than standard service handgun rounds. It usually (but not always) means a self-loading pistol, since derringers and snubby revolvers sort of fall into categories of their own. Back in the early days of the smokeless powder era, cartridges such as Browning’s 6.35mm and 7.65mm pocket-pistol rounds (known as the .25 ACP and .32 ACP on this side of the pond) were seen as high-tech innovations, with their metal-jacketed bullets and velocities that seemed very speedy given the diminutive size of their cartridge cases. In fact, .32 ACP was seen as a suitable round for law enforcement and military service in some parts of the world.

A third Browning-designed round, the .380 ACP or 9x17mm, shortly joined these cartridges. In the interwar period, the .32 and .380 found a home in what was seen for many years as the pinnacle of the mouse gun: the Walther PPK.

In the years following World War II, with restrictions clamping down on the ownership and carrying of firearms by private citizens in many countries, the little guns seemed to become less prolific. The USA was one of the last big markets for them, but laws were tightening here too.

The passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968 marked a definitive end to that first golden age. In an attempt to control what anti-gunners called “Saturday night specials,” restrictions were placed on imported handguns that weighed heavily against small size, light weight, small calibers, blowback operation and a host of other features that defined the pocket pistol.

Ironically, domestic companies sprang up to fill the void at the bottom of the market, but it would take time for domestically produced variants of the nicer mouse guns, like those from Beretta and Walther, to reappear.

The spread of concealed carry reform in the 1990s brought a resurgence of interest in these little guns. The next watershed was the introduction of the inexpensive, polymer-framed Kel-Tec P32 around the turn of the millennium. Hot on the heels of that gun came a variant in .380, followed by a host of clones and similar pistols.

Popular to the point of ubiquity among concealed carry permit holders, the mouse gun has only recently started to wane in popularity in the face of increased sales of new single-stack subcompact autos in service calibers, such as the Shield from Smith & Wesson and Glock’s Model 43, that are only marginally harder to conceal than their .32 and .380 kin.

SEE ALSO: Drumroll Please: The Case for High-Capacity Magazines

With pocket pistols and their associated cartridges come a number of myths. The most persistent is the idea that the cartridges for which they’re chambered are somehow not worth being taken seriously as defensive rounds. Make no mistake about it: Even the lowly .22 LR and .32 ACP are absolutely capable of penetrating deep enough to hit vital structures in the human body. These are not just jumped-up BB guns with delusions of relevance.

The biggest drawback to mouse-gun rounds is that they have very little to spare in the way of energy and momentum. They are more easily deflected off bone or hard obstacles than service-caliber handgun rounds. Further, some manufacturers offer hollow-point loadings for these smaller cartridges, which, in the unlikely event they expand, reduce the chances of the bullets penetrating deeply enough to reach the vitals. Penetration and expansion are great, but if I am forced to pick between one or the other, I’ll be loading a mouse gun with FMJ and hoping for enough of the latter.

Last among the mouse-gun myths are the weird street legends of extraordinary lethality attributed to the .22 LR round. Yes, .22 probably kills as many or more people every year than any other chambering, but only because it’s far and away the most common round in use. There’s also a popular bit of ballistic lore that claims a .22 bullet will penetrate one side of a bad guy and then, lacking the energy to make it out the other side, ricochet around the inside and puree the innards into something like a felon-flavored Jamba Juice smoothie. Stop spreading that myth. Bullets don’t work that way.

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{ 10 comments… add one }
  • LouisianaMan July 13, 2019, 12:31 am

    Pull on regular shorts and a regular t-shirt. Not 5.11 Tactical. Now step outside in the blazing summer sunshine and smoking hot 95° temps. Oops, get those sandals or flip flops in before the patio scorches the soles of your feet.

    Unfold a card table and erect it. Reach into your ditty bag and remove your Glock, Shield, and LC9s, loaded and with spare mags, arranging them on the table for comparison. Place them in their custom leather holsters. Heft them. Stick them into your clothes and see how things go. You’re sweating by now.

    Reach back into your ditty bag and remove your Baby Browning, P-32, and LCP. Loaded and with spare mag, plus an Uncle Mike’s $10 pocket holster. Check ’em out. Stick them in your clothes somewhere that works. Sun, humidity…you’re sweating freely now.

    Right about now, your significant other opens the door and calls, “Hey, party at Bob and Lisa’s house! Grab your wallet and let’s go–they’ve got burgers on the grill already. Beer’s cold! To the fairgrounds afterwards!”

    So, turn back to your card table and take your pick.

  • Michael July 12, 2019, 8:01 pm

    I have a close friend who negligently shot himself in the stomach with a 22 short from a rifle. The bullet broke into 3 pieces one piece was removed from his stomach another stuck so close to his spinal cord they left it. The third hit his liver of which he lost a third of. He almost bled to death and spent 2 weeks in the hospital. He was very lucky 22s are very nasty little bullets and do bounce around when things get shot.

  • C. Curtin July 12, 2019, 7:18 pm

    .22’s can do some strange things. Years ago I worked in a large county morgue. We had a dead adult male come in without a mark on his body. He was X-rayed and there was a bullet in the middle of his chest. Every square inch of his body was re-checked and nothing was found, not even a drop of blood. The autopsy revealed that a .22 rimfire bullet went right up his nose, without touching anything, entered his skull, skidded around the inside of the cranium and then traveled down his neck into his chest. It reminded me of a spiral bullet trap. Weird case.

    My LCP mouse gun is with me when my Colt Commander is home. I know a lot of people who buy big guns and then don’t carry them.

  • MORRIS GRAHAM July 12, 2019, 11:26 am

    22LR can be very bad. Back in the 50’s in my hoe town in IN, guy tried robbing the bank. Here came a cop and shot him with his 38. Before the guy went down he shot the guy with 22 and hit his arm. The bullet went in his vein and traveled to his heart and died as did the other. So some times it does happen. We lost a very good police officer.

  • Willie-O July 12, 2019, 9:41 am

    My 1st handgun purchase when I turned 21 was a Beretta 950 in .25acp, which is probably the most ridiculed round out there. I didn’t care then and I sure as hell don’t now, 32 years later. We all know the shortcomings of the .25acp, BUT the capacity of this little gun is (9)….NINE rounds. Would it ever be my 1st choice for a deadly force encounter ? Absolutely not. That said, I can carry it with ease very discretely just about anywhere and anytime. I do and I have all these years. I’ve run several hundred rounds thru it and never had a single issue of any kind. In addition, it is an incredibly accurate little pistol, although it’s designed for close work at contact distance. I trust this gun completely and even though it has been relegated to a “back-up” role, I still carry it daily and will continue to as long as I’m able.

  • Mike on a Truck July 12, 2019, 9:38 am

    “Starting to wane”? Yeah no. Tamara needs to do a little more research. The Ruger LCP is a big seller. I just added another Talo LCP to the collection. You can only make the 9mm Parabellum only so small before it becomes ridiculously snappy. My limit tops out at the Sig 938. It’s still not as compact as the LCP. The Pico is even smaller. Keltec got the size right with P3AT. Everything is a compromise- an LCP works with beach attire this time of year.My 1911 dosnt. “Hey is that a 1911 in your trunks or are you just happy to see me?”

  • Wood Reaux July 12, 2019, 8:59 am

    BS, Tamara Keel….Have you ever worked in an emergency room? I did for about 17 years. Bullets DO work that way, BTW. Check out the pathway of a 22 or 25 caliber head wound.

  • Chris Baker July 12, 2019, 8:39 am

    I’ve been carrying a Beretta Tomcat, 32 ACP for ages. It fits my lifestyle quite nicely and I can hit what I shoot at with it. I have carpal tunnel issues and it doesn’t hurt my hands to shoot it.
    It also has the extremely useful tip up barrel that allows you to remove the round from the firing chamber without removing the magazine from the well. I had to laugh at myself the first time I used this feature, no one said it would fling the cartridge across the room.
    One thing though, I prefer not to think of it as a mouse gun. It’s at least a Rat Gun.

  • W Clardy July 12, 2019, 8:38 am

    One tidbit about the .22LR’s lethality is that it was usually not tactically significant, and I would even wager it has been going down with improved ammunition.
    As one doctor put it a half-century ago, the shootee usually died a week or two later from the inevitable infection that arose from all the pocket lint and grime which the bullet carried into the wound, and which was virtually impossible to clean out. That was back in the days when .22 rimfires were almost universally loaded with cast-lead greased bullets. Today’s cleaner .22 rounds, with hollow points and jackets instead of that sticky lube, almost certainly carry less infectious debris into the wound, which is why I would wager that the ultimate lethality rate for .22 rimfires has probably been dropping slowly for a decade or two.

  • Will Drider July 9, 2019, 5:45 pm

    You seem to have missed the inclusive Vest Pocket variety, Colt Sterling,FN/Browning to drop a few names. They all fit within the loose paramiters of the Article. Seacamp, IWI/AMT Backup too.

    Mouse gun become the “choice” when concealment requirements are a priority above cartridge power. Any deep cover cop would rather pack a mouse than nothing. Too often the Liberator .45 history lesson is ignored and can be achieved at contact distance.

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