Choosing a Pistol

There is no one answer for everybody. Choosing a pistol for every-day-carry is as personal a decision as buying a pair of shoes. You have to choose what is right for you. I'd like to share some of my opinion regarding choosing a pistol, and explore some of the myths and realities of defensive pistol use. First, let's look at some of the terminology and some of the assumptions regarding what defines a good carry pistol.

The essential characteristics of a good pistol are: Reliability, Controllability, Carryability. While price may be a factor, there are so many pistols that meet these criteria at many price points, that I don't recommend starting there. Once you've found the pistol that is reliable, controllable, and you are willing to carry consistently, everywhere legal to do so, the price of one pistol will pale in comparison to the money you'll spend on ammunition, range fees, instructors, holsters, etc. over the serviceable life of your pistol (many, many years).

"You gotta buy a Glock."
"Get the Beretta's what the military uses."
"Revolvers are more reliable than semi-autos. If it doesn't go BANG, then just pull the trigger again!"
     I'm sure you've heard (or maybe even said) these all before. Reliability has two essential elements. First, reliability means the pistol will go bang every time you pull the trigger. More on this in a moment. Second, reliability means that the pistol is in a major caliber than can be counted on to do the job it needs to do.

1. The gun must go bang every time.
     All mechanical things fail. At some point or another, either because they've been neglected, abused, or most likely, not oiled, any pistol can and will fail. I've been on the range enough to see just about every major brand, including the venerable Glock, fail. Most often this has been because the pistols were not well cared for, and lacked necessary lubrication. Most guns will run dirty, almost none of them will run without oil. Yes, I believe you should buy a reliable, time-proven pistol, whether proven by your time or by someone else's (including at least some of your own!), you should buy a gun with a good reputation for reliability. The brands I have the most and best experience with are (in alphabetical order): Beretta, Bersa, Browning, Colt, Glock, Kahr, Ruger, Sig Sauer, Smith & Wesson, Springfield Armory. With that said, I have personally seen every one of these major brands fail on the range, save for one (here's a hint: it's south-american).As I said, all mechanical things fail (and typically for a lack of oil), but these have been the most reliable pistols I and my students have taken to the range over the years. There are many reliable pistols made by other manufacturers such as CZ, Kimber, Kel-Tec, and Taurus, but these brands have not been as consistent from one pistol to the next, in my experience. Many other national brands I haven't had enough hands-on experience to comment on, so I won't.
     Maintenance, practice, and good quality ammunition go a long way to getting the highest level of performance out of your pistol. Properly cleaned and oiled guns malfunction far less than neglected pistols. Good technique can make a real difference in the way a slide cycles (a poor grip can cause many good pistols to not function properly, such as when your thumb is riding the slide lock, and the slide fails to lock back when it's supposed to). Finally, good ammunition tested in your gun is of utmost importance. There is no reason to not spend the extra $15 per box to get good defensive ammunition. You must test your carry ammo to make sure that it will feed properly. Good ammo plus a good gun and no trial could mean failure at the worst possible time.

2. The gun should be in a major caliber
     Many people will tell you why a pistol isn't worth-while unless the caliber "begins with a 4." Others will tell you about how far bullet design has come and how 380 is essentially just as good as 9mm. Still others will quip "a 25 in your pocket is better than the 45 you left at home." There is an element of truth in each of these arguments, but there are also logical errors in each way of thinking. Generally the power from a .40 caliber or larger round will be greater than the power of smaller rounds (though sometimes only marginally). This argument falls flat on its face looking at the time-proven fight stopper .357 Magnum. And while bullets are much improved, greatly increasing the serviceability of the 380, that same improved bullet technology is being used in modern 9mm rounds. The 380 will never catch up to the 9mm. And if you can find a practical, reliable, manageable .25 caliber semi-auto that you want to carry every day, and can find reliable ammunition to feed it, be my guest. I have come to the conclusion that 380 is the minimum caliber for reliable self defense. Round placement, and the number of holes you can put in your target will do a lot to end fights quickly. Heavier bullets carry much greater momentum, and will have better terminal performance than lighter bullets. Carry the most gun you can handle in the largest caliber you can accurately shoot. I've never heard of anyone fighting for their life, wishing they had a smaller gun with fewer rounds.

     Carry the most gun you can handle. That sounds like a challenge. Truthfully, you should carry the gun that fits your hand the best. It's as simple as that. You should carry a gun that you shoot well, and typically that gun is the one that feels best in your hand. Go to your local gun store and hold every gun you can. They all feel different. You'll know when a gun feels right in your hand. The grip should be long enough to get a good, firm grip with all of your strong-hand fingers getting good contact with the frame. The gun shouldn't be so heavy that you can't stand to carry it for many hours on-end, but don't forget that the heavier the gun, the easier it will be to control the gun while firing. Try the gun. You will learn more about a gun by firing a few rounds than by all the gun-store/internet/magazine advice in the world. Choose the gun that fits you. Nobody knows what will fit you better than you. Don't let somebody talk you into buying what they bought "because they did all their research" and they "know what they're talking about." Try them all on, go with what fits. Remember that smaller frame pistols are more difficult to shoot, because every action results in an equal and opposite reaction.

1. Size does matter
     Handguns are a compromise. A rifle is a far better choice when you really need a gun. However, carrying a rifle is impractical and may be illegal in certain places or circumstances. Handguns are a practical compromise, allowing a reasonable level of comfort along with the necessary ability to conceal while carrying. I won't venture into the merits of open carry versus concealed carry. I will say that the practical ability to conceal your firearm should be considered when selecting your daily carry gun. Select a handgun (assuming the above criteria of reliability and controllability are met) that has overall dimensions and is light enough that you can carry the gun consistently, and conceal when necessary. While a full-size 1911 with a rail-mounted light may be the most comfortable and reliable gun you can imagine, adding more than 3 lbs. to one side of your belt is not going to be bearable for most people. Far too many 1911's wind up riding around in truck consoles, waiting for the next vehicular break-in to find a new owner. Carry a gun that you will actually carry.
2. Use a gun belt
    A decent sized handgun (see above under Controllability) is not going to be comfortable as much as it will be comforting. Don't expect to get to a point where you don't even notice the gun is there any more. You will always know it's there (I certainly hope so!). Beyond choosing a firearm of reasonable size and weight, you should use a belt designed to carry the weight of a gun, and possibly spare ammunition. Remember the 3 lbs. 1911? Even the light-weight 5-shot revolvers weigh nearly 1 lb., fully loaded. Most guns fall somewhere between these extremes, and very few belts not specifically designed for carrying a gun are up to the task. In addition to being more comfortable, lasting longer, and ultimately being more concealable (the gun doesn't move around as much with a good holster), there is a significant safety aspect to using a gun belt. You need a gun belt to help maintain control of your firearm. Don't let the failure of a cheap belt mean losing control of your firearm.
3. Quality holsters will be designed for your gun
    Do not use universal holsters. Universal holsters, designed to fit "most semi-autos" or "most revolvers" are a recipe for problems. They are cheap, and they seem like a one-size-fits-all solution, but they are a plethora of hidden problems, not solutions. Material used to make these is not as durable as hard plastics molded to fit your gun, or a well crafted leather holster, again specifically designed for your gun. They will also have a tendency to allow foreign objects into the holster, along with your gun (think coat draw-strings, shirt tails, etc) due to the loose fit around your firearm. This poses a significant safety risk. These holsters also do not hold your gun securely, making it more difficult to conceal, and making it easier for your gun to come out of the holster, unplanned.
    A good holster should (1) be designed specifically for your firearm, (2) positively retain the firearm, (3) allow nothing into the trigger guard of your gun while it's holstered, (4) allow you ready access to your gun, and (5) remain open for reholstering. For inside the waistband (IWB) holsters, this last point is very important. You should never use a holster that collapses on itself when the gun isn't holstered. This can create an unsafe situation when reholstering.
    Finally, even good holsters can go bad. High quality holsters will still have a limited lifespan. Take care of your holster to ensure the leather and/or plastic components don't wear out faster than they have to, and inspect your holster regularly for any signs of excessive wear or damage. If leather is getting too soft, folding in on itself, replace the holster, or have it repaired by a competent leather worker. If plastic is showing signs of stress or fractures, replace your holster immediately. Many manufacturers will repair or replace their holsters at little or no charge.

Only you can choose the every-day carry gear that is right for you. If you have questions, ask! Reach out to a competent instructor, and get some training. You will be much better prepared to select the right gun for you once you've built a foundation of first-hand experience through training.

Stay alert, stay safe.

Zac Sterling
Owner of Guns & Roses CHL, LLC