Editor’s Note: The following is a syndicated article by author John Caile that first appeared in USCCA’s Concealed Carry Magazine Volume 11, Issue 1 January 2014 under the title, “Your Personal Carry System.”
Your gun is just one part of a system that must work smoothly with every other part. People vary dramatically in body type, hand size, and physical strength, not to mention lifestyle, clothing, weather where you live, and so forth. Consider all of these elements.
For starters, there is no single “best gun” for self-defense. The size, weight, and ease with which it can be carried are important aspects of a firearm that you must consider if you intend to carry regularly. If it is comfortable to shoot but too big or heavy to carry easily, it might not be the best choice. If it is small, light, and easily concealed, but kicks like a mule, you may not shoot it well or even practice with it as often as you should.
Beyond being suitable for carry, I recommend a set of basic parameters to keep in mind when choosing a defensive firearm: Reliability, Fit, Simplicity, and Power.
Reliability – A defensive firearm must be absolutely reliable, meaning you can count on it to go “bang” every single time you press the trigger. Working “most of the time” may be acceptable in a plinking gun, but not in a gun you carry for self-defense.
When it comes to reliability, revolvers have numerous advantages. They are utterly simple, and have an external power source (your finger). Even a dud primer is less disastrous—you just pull the trigger again. Ask any Alaskan guide what he carries on his hip in the wild.
That being said, today’s auto-loading pistols can match revolvers in reliability, far more than early pistols that functioned only with round-nosed, jacketed ammunition. But whether revolver or auto-pistol, stick with quality, name brand guns. A good gun is worth it.
Fit – This is critical, and how the grip fits your hand is critical to whether or not it’s right for you. Handle as many guns as you can.
Many companies offer after-market replacement grips for popular revolvers and steel-framed auto-pistols that can significantly change the feel of a gun. Don’t immediately write off an otherwise outstanding gun just because the factory grips don’t feel right. Check the options.
In general, rubber grips are preferred for self-defense. Wood grips may look pretty, but in lighter guns, especially revolvers, rubber grips help absorb recoil, and provide better slip resistance in sweaty hands.
The first polymer-frame pistols did not accommodate custom grips (other than grip “sleeves”) but today, many popular polymer-framed auto-pistols (M&P, XD-M, Glock Gen-4, FN, etc.) come from the factory with interchangeable grip inserts to tailor them to different sized hands. Nice feature.
Simplicity – Ease of use. Here again, revolvers have the edge, as they have no manual safeties to remember. You simply point and press the trigger. Revolvers are also easy for even a novice to load.
But older men or women, or those with weak finger strength, often have trouble with the relatively heavy trigger pulls of double-action revolvers. If you are unable to easily press the trigger, the gun is virtually useless.
Most modern auto-pistols, especially striker-fired guns, have comparatively light trigger pulls. However, certain pistol magazines (especially double-stacked) are difficult for some people to load, and slides can be almost impossible for them to operate.
There’s a reason that newer defensive auto-pistols have no manual safeties (except where required in law enforcement applications). Experience has shown that in the chaos of a gun fight, many people (even highly trained professionals) simply forget to click the safety off.
Like most “gun guys,” I love my (multiple) 1911 pistols, but my normal carry gun is an M&P (for the reasons stated above). But if you do carry a 1911, make sure it’s “cocked-and-locked” and practice your draw from concealment relentlessly, until clicking off the safety becomes second nature.
Power – Adequate power is important, but caliber should not be the preeminent element in selecting a handgun for self-defense. Most “studies” of “stopping power” are so flawed as to be useless. People survive being hit multiple times with a .45, while others drop after one shot from a .380. Shooting well, with a gun you will actually carry, is more important than some “energy number.”
Now, like you, I want as much power as practical. Just don’t ignore other factors. For example, after shooting both, I opted for a Kahr MK9 over an MK40 (both steel-frame guns). The lower recoil of the 9mm allows me to shoot more rapidly and accurately, and provides an extra round in the bargain. On the other hand, an all-steel MK40 might kick less than the lighter, polymer-frame PM9. Consider these factors.
And a little tip from an attorney friend of mine: Avoid carrying any gun that you wouldn’t want a state’s attorney to hold up to a jury. In court, a basic SIG P229 is just a gun, but a Sig P229 “Scorpion” with a threaded barrel could be portrayed as vaguely “sinister.” Avoid carrying a prosecutor’s dream.
Now let’s discuss how to carry the gun. The holster is perhaps the most important part of your Personal Carry System other than the gun itself. A good holster can make even larger handguns pleasant to carry, while a poorly constructed one can be uncomfortable with even a relatively small gun. Also, a quality, sturdy belt is essential (pocket and paddle holsters excluded). Even dress slacks and many skirts can accommodate a suitable belt. Don’t skimp on this important piece.
There are plenty of choices, especially for popular guns from major manufacturers. If you have an unusual or relatively rare gun, you may need to have a holster custom made. Also, depending on changing circumstance and seasonal fluctuations, you may require more than one mode of carry. I will cover the basic choices for civilian carry (not military rigs, ankle holsters, etc.):
Strong-side belt-slide (pancake) hip holster: My primary method of carry, and the design favored by most law enforcement professionals. Example: Galco Concealable Belt Holster. Leather, usually molded to specific guns, with or without retaining snap (I prefer without), available for both revolvers and auto-pistols. Fits close to the body, smooth draw, well-made, and long-lasting. Easy to conceal, even in summer beneath a light shirt. Note: Inexpensive vinyl and fabric versions also available, though less durable.
Strong-side, clip-on rigid polymer holster: Example, Safariland ALS 6379. Intuitive locking system, gun-specific. Less concealable than a pancake holster, but excellent for full-size guns.
Strong-side paddle holster: Easy-on, easy-off, in leather, polymer, or hard ballistic fabric. With or without retention devices. Good for women who wear skirts or slacks that don’t have a belt, or those who must frequently disarm (detectives often like them).
Pocket holsters: First, never, EVER carry a gun in your pocket without a holster. It keeps the gun upright, protects the trigger and helps reduce “imprinting.” Not my first choice (difficult to draw) but pocket holsters do have a place. Last year in Florida I carried a Bodyguard 380 in a suede model, comfortably sitting in the front pocket of my cargo shorts.
Inside-the-waistband holsters: Can go from expensive leather with complex attaching mechanisms to inexpensive synthetics with a plastic retaining clip. Although popular with a lot of folks, I’m just not a big fan, other than occasionally using a soft nylon version to carry a subcompact gun in the one o’clock position under a T-shirt. But if you are dead-set on an IWB holster, you might want to consider a synthetic model, as body sweat can destroy a leather holster in short order.
Cross-draw: A good choice for those who spend significant time in a vehicle, as it allows easier access from a sitting position, which is why many Air Marshalls favor this method.
Shoulder holsters: Fine for toting big, heavy guns while hunting, but they are often complicated, flop around a lot, and can be difficult to conceal. While appropriate in some cases (Miami Vice notwithstanding), there are usually better options.
Fanny Packs: Not the best way to carry, but preferable to having no gun at all. If absolutely necessary, at least pick one designed specifically for a gun.
Purses: The least desirable way to carry. But if you insist, at least make sure the purse is designed to accommodate a firearm and uses Kevlar-reinforced straps, worn across the chest (purse snatchers often use knives or box-cutters to slice the strap from behind and yank it away before you know what happened).
“Stealth” Carry: The “hide-in-plain-sight” principle. Best example is the Sneaky Pete line of clip-on or belt loop holsters. They look like a leather “smartphone” holder when hanging on your belt. Size limits them to subcompact and micro-compact guns.
Finally, remember that your wardrobe significantly affects your ability to draw your gun rapidly. Choose clothing that allows you to carry safely, securely, and ready to defend yourself quickly and effectively. Then practice drawing the gun over and over, dressed exactly as you most often are when you carry.
Your Personal Carry System must work for you and your lifestyle. Be safe.
Discover how you can join nearly 300,000 responsibly armed Americans who already rely on the USCCA to protect their families, futures and freedoms: USCCA.com/gunsamerica.