There is a reason that you see so many armed professionals and in-the-know civilian shooters choose their handguns from what seems to be two or three major makes. Call it herd mentality, group-think, or whatever you want, but pistols that just plain work while offering a high degree of worry-free performance are what shooters all over the world want.
Even though pistols like the ubiquitous Glock and Smith & Wesson’s stellar M&P are so good, so well-rounded, that there exists a legitimate school of thought asserting one is better served by trying to come up with a reason one should not choose one or the other. The dominance and resulting preponderance of both guns is not just marketing hype.
Nonetheless, there are other no less stellar pistols on the market, and for those with special requirements or just discerning tastes one of these lesser known or just less popular pistols might be just the ticket. And, yes, if you just plain have to be different, you can still have a good, hard-running gun while scratching that itch.
In this article, we’ll look at several viable alternates to the reigning champions of the pistol world.
Special or just Different?
For some shooters, there is a never ending quest to find the One True Pistol, the singular rarity that will solve all of their problems, let them shoot at a grandmaster level, and make them feel 18 again. This is not a new phenomenon: Westerners and Americans in particular are obsessed with hardware solutions to software problems. No matter how much you try to explain it to them, the intoxicating allure of a wonder-gun that can beat all comers, at least on paper, is too much to resist.
While all guns have their own unique advantages, perks and flaws, and every shooter has a gun or two that they objectively shoot the best, the fact of the matter is that most high-quality pistols on the market today are really damn close in overall performance, a few outliers notwithstanding.
You can hand me (or most serious and skilled shooters) a Glock or an M&P or a P320 or an FNS and we can shoot to a high level with it. The guns themselves will also be very comparable in all major metrics to boot.
So why then is there so dang much discussion and arguing and yapping about Brand X vs. Brand Y vs. Brand Z? Why do shooters care so much? Simply stated, part of the matter is that shooters often times tie up their identity, or at least a fraction of it, in their gun and gear choices.
It’s a tribal thing. The other part is that shooters treat anything to do with a potential defensive shooting situation as Serious Business, and in that context no detail is unimportant, no data point or performance increase too small to not warrant analysis.
Is it a waste of time? Probably. 70, 80 or 100 years ago we could decisively point to guns in all classes that were flat-out superior compared to their contemporaries. Paradigm shifts and quantum leaps actually happened back then.
Today, not so much: we are living in a 2nd Golden Era of firearms, but it is one of nearly molecular refinement, not necessarily innovation which flips the table on design criteria.
What Brand Selection Means to You
That’s getting a little far afield, but my point is this- Most pistols from known high-quality major manufacturers are good-to-go today, or at least acceptable. Your performance with a given gun will boil down to how much time you spend practicing and training with it, not that you chose a particular brand or model.
Make no mistake, some guns flat out suck and you’ll be swimming uphill if you choose one of those toasters, and your choice of model will affect your trajectory as a shooter, even if it is only logistically; the most popular models on the market enjoy far greater availability of parts, support gear, service and enhancements than the “also-rans”, even the ones on the B-List
While your “also-ran” may be a legitimately terrific gun in every essential category- accuracy, reliability, size, etc.- you should consider if the time and effort you may have to spend tracking down holsters and magazines for it is worth hassle compared to a boring, basic Glock 19.
But even so, if you fall in love with one of these unusual or just unpopular guns, and it does in fact meet all of the criteria for defensive firearm selection, you should give it a whirl. Even I, someone known for remorseless practicality when it comes to “working” guns, have had my fling with oddball or unpopular pistols that served me superbly and I don’t regret it.
Every once in a while you run into a pistol that just seems like it is made for you. Against all reason and common sense, it speaks to you. You shoot it like a house on fire, it runs like a loud, violent dream and your confidence level with the gun is through the roof.
You keep waiting for the spell to be broken, for the honeymoon period to end and your senses to come crashing back into sharp relief when this dark horse pistol finally manifests its fatal flaw or endemic defect.
And yet… It does not happen. For me, that gun was the SIG Pro 2340, in .357 SIG.
Compared to SIG’s then flagship classic P-series pistols, the SIG Pro was an ugly duckling: a polymer SIG (gasp!) that only mimicked its older siblings in control configuration and aesthetics, not internals. And it was half the price of the P-series pistols! Yuck! Argh!
A bargain-bin offering from an esteemed maker! The gun, while successful overseas, never quite took off in the U.S. even though it has seen issue with several major law enforcement agencies over the years.
One magazine and it was love, though: I was instantly comfortable with the controls. The trigger was better out of the box than my well-seasoned and twice-the-price 226. It was smaller and lighter by a large margin.
The capacity was ample. I shot it wonderfully with seemingly zero effort. On a whim, I bought one, smugly masochistic and positive that this cheap SIG was not a real SIG and would be belly-up inside of a thousand rounds.
Six years and tens of thousands of pounding .357s later, I finally sold it, and had in the interim enjoyed a supremely reliable and eminently carry-able pistol that was a worthy heir to the SIG heritage.
That was one oddball that punched way above its reputation for me. There are doubtless pistols out there that will do the same for you.
The Best Pistols You Have Never Tried
Below is a list of some of my favorite handguns that, for one reason or another, have not quite garnered the recognition and popularity that they deserve with mainstream shooters. In keeping with my usual preference for pistols that are easy to own and maintain as well as use, all of these guns are either from domestic manufacturers or foreign makers that have a strong domestic presence.
You can buy any of these with confidence that you’ll be able to get parts, service and mods when you need them, and not struggle through the Seven Steps of Denial and Grief that often accompany buying a true exotic.
And most importantly, all of the guns below are well-made and reliable. Like all of my recommendations for serious social guns, if it does not work you don’t want it, period.
Beretta is a nigh-legendary gunmaker with a reputation for turning out solid guns, even if they do so at a snail’s pace and with perhaps a bit too much attention paid to aesthetics. Hey, if you were a 500+ year old Italian concern who has been in business since muzzle loading cannons were the superweapon of the day, you’d be entitled to do things your way, too.
Beretta does not always turn out winners, and some of their best guns have earned both adherents and detractors (M9, anyone?) but by and large the Big B knows how to put together kick-ass firearms, even if they cannot market them that well.
One such line of pistols is their PX4 series, DA/SA rotary breech dynamos that are one of the best shooting and most reliable guns in the increasingly thin category of polymer hammer-fired guns.
The PX4 series is not new, having been introduced way back in 2004, but this pistol is only now just starting to gain some recognition for its chops among hammer-fired aficionados. The Compact version of this gun is damn near perfect as far as concealed carry guns go: about the same perfect size as a Glock 19, a great out of the box trigger (that takes a wicked trigger job), ambi controls and plenty of OEM factory parts for tuning and customization.
Don’t like the wide, “gull wing” safeties? Beretta has you covered with three different sizes. Mag release too big or too small? Change it yourself in a jiffy. You can get different sights, delete the right-side slide release to make the gun slimmer and even pop in a complete trigger-job-in-a-bag thanks to the superlative work of Ernest Langdon’s LTT.
I still scratch my head over how this pistol failed to gain even a cult following until recently, but I am glad to see it finally getting the fanfare it deserves. If you need a do-all compact handgun and want a DA/SA gun, put the PX4 Compact at the top of your list.
The current target of good-humored ribbing (or otherwise) as purveyors of hipster guns, C.Z. is another vaunted manufacturer from Europe who has a distinguished history of turning out solid heavy duty guns.
Their iconic and rightly famed CZ-75, itself a gun having cribbed some of the best notes from the legendary Browning Hi-Power, is one that has been a favorite the world over for its accuracy, dependability and user-friendliness, and for being one of the progenitors of the double-stack high capacity pistol craze back in its era.
That one gun has been refined and modified into well over two dozen factory variants over the years since its introduction in 1975, but a few of those variations stand out. My favorite, and the subject of this entry, is the P-01, a variant of the compact CZ-75 intended for police and military use.
The P-01 ditches the sometimes cumbersome manual safety of the original models for a smartly positioned decocker-only arrangement and further adds an accessory rail on the frame for a light or laser.
The frame is alloy, saving weight over the beefy all-still siblings in the line while still taming more recoil than the latest polymer guns. A rounded “commander” style hammer, trademark slide-within-frame construction and overall design contribute greatly to this gun’s slim, slick feel, making it a snagless joy to carry.
Issued to the Czech national police, the P-01 underwent and passed rigorous NATO testing protocols, seeing it certified for service. The CZ-75 family has always been a good one, and the P-01 is one of the best in its class. If you are sick of polymer framed striker guns, the P-01 has the heft and performance to scratch your itch; an excellent handgun in every respect.
3. – Smith & Wesson SD9VE 9mm Para.
I have written here and elsewhere about Smith & Wesson’s superlative M&P pistols, and the long and sometimes cratered road that led to them. The grandpappy of the M&P’s was the Sigma, a pistol that way back when tried to out-Glock Glock’s own pistols and did such a good job at it that Glock sued S&W successfully. The Sigma lived through it, but was only a “meh” gun at best with bar of soap ergonomics and heavy, uncertain, spongy triggers. Those guns remained in production throughout the years in various models and calibers, but were always treated with step-child disdain among Smith & Wesson faithful.
That is until a redesign in recent years saw the Sigma rise like a phoenix. Now simply redubbed the SD series, these new pistols are S&W’s entrant into the budget-priced striker pistol market already teeming with makes both foreign and domestic.
Keeping the Sigma’s workable design ethos- simple manufacturing, minimal options, good materials and good workmanship- while enhancing creature comforts and shooter interface features like sights, texture and trigger quality.
Unlike so many other striker-fired pistols in the high $300 price bracket, the SD guns are reliable and made in America. Surprisingly so, as examples I have encountered in the wild have performed admirably with no malfunctions and no surprises. The aggressive texture and good sights are major improvements over the slippery, early Sigmas.
If you are looking for a pistol on a budget you needn’t give up reliability or performance in the bargain. Put the S&W SD at the top of a very short list.
I didn’t forget about the wheelgun guys and girls out there, and I am presenting my 4th entry and second offering from Italy: the Rhino, by Chiappa Firearms. A wild and innovative design and major departure from traditional revolver layout, this fantastical revolver is rich with the hallmarks of famed Italian designer Emilio Ghisoni who also designed the Mateba autorevolver, a favorite of sci-fi movie propmasters the world round.
Being unique does not make you good, or even desirable, and the Mateba was a very quirky gun not destined to be anything except a collector’s piece. Taking some design cues from his previous creation and ditching the rest, Ghisoni has crafted a revolver uniquely suited for concealed carry: the Rhino guns flip conventional revolver barrel-cylinder arrangement, literally, on its head with the Rhino’s barrel placed in front of the lower (6 o’clock) chamber nearly perfectly in line with the web of the shooter’s hand.
The cylinder is distinctively flattened to form a hexagon. Far from a low stylistic choice, this serves to significantly flatten the gun making it easier to carrier compared to old-school round wheelguns, especially inside the waistband. The hammer is no less unique as it is not a hammer at all, rather a cocking lever that places the internal hammer into full cock with an accompanying raised indicator to show the status of the weapon. Internally, you will recognize little compared to one of the usual S&W or Ruger suspects but it works well.
Shooting the Rhino is a breeze. The trigger is a little on the stiff side but very manageable, and the subterranean bore axis greatly reduces muzzle flip, even when firing full house .357 Mag loads. Various models of this gun have rails top and bottom for mounting optics, lights or lasers, fully embracing modern equipment doctrine.
My sole reservation with these revolvers seems to be their need for somewhat more frequent than usual maintenance. While made from good materials and from a good company, these spacey wheelguns require care more regularly than traditional revolvers we are used to.
Don’t get me wrong; in my time with a few examples I experienced no failures to function or breakages, but high round counts, hard firing schedules and full power loads over the course of a day or two saw them becoming noticeably gritty and stiff. A routine clean up and lube session solved these issues without fail.
All together, this makes the Rhino a great choice for concealed carry if you don’t mind being a little more diligent on your cleaning and inspection protocols.
5. – Ruger LCR .22 LR
This entry might strike you as a little odd considering how popular Ruger’s LCR is; it has after all taken the snubbie world by storm since its introduction. You are right, but I am including this particular chambering, the DAO 2” barreled .22 since it fills a niche role like no other before or since.
.22 handguns in general and revolvers in particular make for ideal concealed carry or BOB guns. With minimal recoil, low blast and typically light weight, they can be carried easily with little concern, even in a pocket. As a BOB gun, a .22 afford you GTFOM capability and a positively enormous reservoir of ammo since .22 LR’s are so small. No, it isn’t going to set hair on fire with its ballistic performance, but it will inflict a lethal wound and put dinner on the table.
The biggest problem with .22 revolvers, despite their greater capacity compared to more powerful chamberings, is the smart shooter has been marooned for a time: large revolvers shoot great and have ample ammo, but are heavy, have “meh” triggers and are inefficient compared to other, full power offerings. Small .22’s, snubbies, have abysmal triggers and often give up a few rounds in the bargain. Despite its other perks, a snubbie revolver that is even harder to shoot than a normal .38 is no joy.
All this went away with the advent of the .22 LCR: featherweight, 8-shot capacity, good trigger, good sights, reliable. This is, in my opinion, the ultimate expression of the .22 revolver as a kit gun, backup gun, or BOB gun to keep tucked away in a backpack. It is just that good. To round things off, you can have it in a classic 2” barrel or a slightly longer 3” barrel with an exposed hammer if you want to go the kit gun route.
Adaptable, versatile, and a terrific shooter at any size. The LCR in .22 is one special purpose handgun you simply must check out.
You might be served just fine by going with the crowd on handgun selection, but if you use a little care you may discover an oddball gun uniquely suited to you as a shooter or your requirements. Don’t be afraid to take one of these guns for a test shoot next time you get the chance, you might just find your next favorite among them.