Written by ILya Koshkin, 2/24/2014
Before I get started with this, I have to make a confession: I do not know all that much about pocket guns. I live in California and getting a concealed carry license where I live is about as likely as winning a lottery. Now that I think about it, winning the lottery is more likely. In order to get a concealed carry license in this state you either have to be the local sheriff’s favourite cousin or a politician or a major campaign contributor. Everyone else in this state, apparently, is presumed to only need to defend himself in his own house. As far as the State of California is concerned, if you venture outside your house, you basically forfeit your right to defend yourself.
Now, I am, of course, being facetious, but unfortunately, accurate as far as my chances of getting a CCW are. There were some recent court decisions that might change things eventually, but chances are I will leave the People’s Republic of Kalifornia and move to the United States well before then (and to answer a rather obvious question: no, I can’t quite contain the sarcasm. Gun laws in this state are silly).
There are some situations where I am allowed to carry a concealed weapon (on my property, for example), so I have looked at it in some detail and did a bit of a survey of suitable firearms.
Not too long ago, a friend of mine asked me for some recommendations for a deep concealment handgun, hence this blogpost.
Up to now, his deep concealment firearm has been an old Beretta 950BS Jetfire chambered for 25ACP. He had some reliability issues with that gun, I think, and when I looked at it carefully I also found some significant cracks in the slide. With that in mind, he asked me for recommendations.
There are a few things to consider when choosing a deep concealment gun:
1) What is the minimum (or maximum) size gun are you willing to put up with?
2) How sensitive to recoil are you?
3) Are your hands strong enough to cycle the slide?
4) Are you looking for ammo commonality with your primary self-defense firearm?
5) What operating principles are you comfortable with?
Let’s tackle these one by one.
1) The smaller the gun the easier it is to conceal. However, the smaller it is, the harder it is to control. Overall, size of your pocket gun is a compromise. I am a big guy and I have big pockets, so with most pants I can comfortably carry my 3″ barrel S&W J-frame in a pocket holster. However, for people who are a little smaller and have smaller pockets, this is not an option. Also, very small guns often do not allow your pinky to find any purchase on the grip. That makes the gun decidedly more difficult to control, unless it is chambered in something fairly soft shooting. This, of course, depends on the size of your mitts. I have rather average sized hands, so the guns that do not offer enough purchase for the the three fingers for me are unlikely to do so for most people. The compromise, of course, is to add a magazine with a small extension that gives the pinky finger something to rest against. That makes the gun marginally larger, but it also gives you some additional options.
2) Recoil sensitivity is a big deal. If the gun is painful to shoot, you will never practice with it. A pocket gun is not something you will ever fire a lot, but you should not dread practicing with it
3) Many people have a hard time cycling the slide on compact guns that have direct blowback operation. When chambered for the same caliber, locked breach guns have softer recoil springs and are easier to operate. Some guns do not require manually cycling the slide at all. Most notable of those are Beretta Tomcat semiautos and compact revolvers. For people with weak or arthritic hands, those guns offer a good alternative.
4) There is a lot to be said about using the same ammunition in your pocket gun as you do in your primary handgun. Logistics are simpler and switching ammo between guns in a pinch is also a possibility. Now, if your primary handgun is a hand-cannon chambered for 44 Mag, it is not really feasible. However, for most common calibers it is an option.
5) A deep concealment gun is something you will use for only two types of occasions: sporadic practice or emergency self-defense. For occasional practice, it makes no difference how the gun operates, but in an emergency when adrenaline is screwing up both your fine motor skills and your ability to think clearly, you want your pocket gun to work in the same general manner as you primary handgun. For example, if your primary handgun is a Glock, consider a pocket gun that is striker fired, has no external safeties to disengage and preferably offers a similar trigger feel. If your primary handgun is a double action revolver, consider getting a small DAO revolver. If you primary gun is a 1911 that you carry cocked-and-locked, get a backup gun that works the same way.
Before I mention a few specific guns that are worth considering, I figure I should talk a little bit about the choice of the caliber. For a deep concealment gun (or pocket gun, whichever term you prefer), the terminal effectiveness of a particular round is rather secondary. You want this ammo to be two things: reliable and controllable. Everything else is either secondary or unimportant.
Now, for a primary handgun caliber, the choice is pretty simple: if you are a gun nut with a collection of firearms that rivals some Central American countries, enough ammo in storage to last your family for eight generations and enough OCD to recall every design John Moses Browning ever came up with together with dates, I am sure you can figure out what works best for you. For everyone else, there are really only three choices that make sense:
1) If you like 1911-style guns, use 45ACP
2) If you like other non-1911 semi-autos, use 9mm
3) If you like revolvers, use 38Special/357Mag
With modern bullet design, there is no practical difference between terminal effectiveness of any of these rounds on humans, no matter what crusty old gun aficionados tell you. There is plenty of statistics on this.
Whatever caliber you choose, consider using subsonic ammunition, i.e. heavy-for-caliber bullets. If you happen to have to pull the trigger indoors you will understand what I mean.
All four of the calibers I have just mentioned are available in such a great variety of makes, speeds and bullet weights that you are bound to find something that is reliable and effective in your gun.
With all this in mind, I spent a little time surveying the available subcompact handguns and tried a few of them at the range. I walked away with a few conclusions.
First of all, the sheer number of tiny handguns available at the moment is rather large and quite a few of them are pretty new to the market. It seems to be a growing market segment. Because of that, many of the more interesting designs do not have any significant reliability statistics behind them.
Most of the new semi-auto designs are chambered for 380Auto or 9mm. The bulk of them have polymer frames which make the guns very light and give them thin profiles aided by single stack magazines. The guns that I have tried had somewhat snappy recoil, but nothing that I would find particularly distracting.
If I were choosing a pocket semi-auto gun for myself, I would likely go with one of the designs that are chambered for 9mm. 380Auto does kick a little less, but not enough so to make a huge difference.
I like the quality of Kahr handguns, so two Kahr handguns would be at the top of my list: polymer-framed PM9 and steel-framed MK9. These guns are a little more expensive than some of the newer firearms like Ruger LC9, but Kahr subcompacts have been around long enough to have a reasonable idea of their build quality and factory support.
Kahr PM9 weighs in at 14 ounces, while the MK9 weighs 22 ounces. For pocket carry, MK9 is a bit on a heavy side, but it can be done. PM9 is definitely easier to pack with you, but it does have a bit more recoil. The polymer frame absorbs some of it, but there is not way around the laws of physics: lighter gun means more recoil. Both Kahr pistols come with two magazines: 6 round flush fitting one and a 7 round mag with an extended floorplate that allows some purchase for the pinky finger. Of all of the subcompact semi-auto guns, Kahr easily has the best trigger feel I have seen to date. I also like the fact that there are no external safeties on the Kahr, but that is a personal preference.
There are of course quite a few other tiny 9mm guns out there: Ruger LC9, Springfield XDS, Walther PPS, Sig P938 and S&W Shield. I think there is also a Bersa that plays in this field, but I have never seen it in person. I am sure there are others. Not all of these are the same size and the Kahr PM9 and MK9 ar eon the smaller side of the spectrum. In principle, all of the subcompact guns are more finicky in terms of reliability than their full size brethren, so break-in period is important. Similarly, making sure that the manufacturer stands behind the gun is important.
If you desire an even smaller semi-auto than one of these, I suggest skipping the next smaller caliber, 380Auto, altogether and moving on down to the diminutive 32ACP. There aren’t all that many modern production firearms chambered for the 32ACP with the ones I can think of being Seecamp, NAA Guardian, Kel-tec P32 and Beretta Tomcat. The first three are nice little guns, but the slides are quite hard to manually cycle, so if you have hand issues, consider getting a Beretta Tomcat with its tilting barrel. Early samples, were not particularly reliable, bur recent production guns seem pretty good and if something is off, Beretta supports them quite well.
Lastly, I think it is worth mentioning the tiny revolvers, since they offer a viable option. The smallest and lightest viable defensive carry revolvers are polymer-framed Ruger LCRs. S&W came out with a competing design called the Bodyguard that is similarly-sized.
The S&W offer more for the money since it has a built-in laser, but I did not like the grip. The LCR is available with a Crimson Trace laser grip if you must have a laser, but more importantly, you can get it with a soft Hogue grip that really helps with recoil control. I need to get a little more hands-on time with the S&W Bodyguard to form a better opinion, but I have had enough hands on time with the LCR to like it. Small metal frame revolvers of similar weight tend to kick quite a bit unless chambered for some very small cartridge (not necessarily a bad idea, by the way). Perhaps more importantly, most small revolvers have sub-standard double action triggers, while the one on the LCR is not half-bad.
The Ruger LCR comes in two basic flavors 38Special and 357Mag, with the 357Mag version having the metallic part of the frame made of steel while the same pieces in the 38Special version are made of aluminum.
If I were going for a 38Special revolver, I would get the LCR357 with the soft Hogue Monogrip. It is a touch heavier than the regular LCR which helps with recoil and has the same 5 shot capacity. Now, despite the fact that it can fire a full power 357Mag load, I would never attempt to do so. That is more recoil than I ever want to deal with. However, there are plenty of mild 38Special loads that are much more pleasant to shoot out of this gun.
For the minimal of recoil, the LCR is also available as an 8 shot revolver chambered for 22LR. While it is indeed a pipsqueek of a caliber, I would not want to get shot with one and as a last ditch gun for the recoil sensitive, it is a good option.