I have said it before and I’ll say it again: get the best gun you can afford, and if you can’t afford a good one save your money. There is no saying I hate more upon hearing it casually rolled out than, “Yeah, but it is just as good as…” Drives me crazy.
Putting my own eccentricities aside for a time, if you have made the decision and taken on the responsibility of carrying a handgun concealed for protection, you should make it a point to ensure you are carrying the best possible tool.
It is easy to blame poor performance on a poor tool, and though it may indeed be a poor worker who blames the tool in this case the tool really helps, and had better damn well work when it is time to get to it.
A quality pistol is in actuality cheap insurance and though there are more truly excellent handguns on the market than literally at any other point in history, there are still plenty of mediocre option and even straight-up turds that just suck.
Getting saddled with one of those toasters is a travesty, and just would not do in this Golden Age of handguns. So in this article I am going to be dropping some knowledge on you so you will better be able to tell these good guns from bad, and in keeping with many of my other articles offering up some of my favorite pistols for concealed carry.
Table of Contents
Understanding Criteria for a Good Concealed Handgun
Many of the most important criteria that constitute a good carry handgun are completely objective, meaning that these are largely quantifiable metrics that care not one lick for you preferences or feelings on the matter.
Things like mechanical reliability, parts availability, aftermarket support (important for things like holsters and such), size, shape, capacity and so forth are all easily enough identified and compared to other competitors.
Even so, there are still subjective criteria that must be considered and could even be unique concerns to the user.
It is easy to say that, on paper, a fullsize handgun blows a little bitty mousegun .22 or .25 out of the water, but if your specific situation calls for a supremely concealable pistol in a zero-tolerance environment, the mousegun may very well be the ideal choice if your other choice is effectively a deal-breaker.
Now, in a similar vein, let’s say our theoretical pistol-packer is not carrying in a no-fail environment, and furthermore also enjoys broad latitude on concealability thanks to jackets and other bulky outer garments being the usual apparel for their locale.
In such an instance, the ideal would be a larger handgun that will confer the most possible advantages if it is needed for a fight.
Let’s say this person is just plain lazy, and does not want to strap on a large, heavy uncomfortable pistol all the time, damn the consequences. They will stick with the tiny pocket pistol also. Is that an optimal choice? Probably not.
The point of all this is simply to get you to consider context. Context is the magic ingredient missing from so many discussions and assessments of firearms for self-defense.
We can argue the merits of a set of pistols in a vacuum all day and all night, but without the context of where and how the shooter will be employing it, we cannot be assured that we are going with the best option.
At any rate, those objective merits are important, and no amount of context will make a pistol lacking too greatly in any one category a good choice. We’ll discuss these below.
In my opinion, this is the single most important attribute a defensive firearm can possess, for without it, without total confidence in the mechanical function of the gun in any conditions, all its other attributes count for naught.
Now, the obvious question for the thinkers out there is “how reliable is reliable?” How do we measure it? This is a subject of intense debate even among serious professionals and pro-am rabble-rousers like your author here.
There is no decisive body of tests that pronounce guns “reliable” with a golden seal of approval. There is no single authority that conducts such tests.
Instead, we generally rely on what I have infuriatingly dubbed semi-scientific anecdotal fact finding. That is a pretentious way of saying that a given handgun’s reputation is usually a composite of several factors.
Published and verified testing by factories is one part, as is any 3rd party reliability testing performed by major outfits like the military or large agencies.
The opinions of professional shooters, be they teachers or competitors, are often one of the most valuable sources since these individuals fire tons of rounds every month and also see a great number of guns “in the wild.”
New designs are often treated with skepticism where more mature or even vintage designs will be declared good to go or not based on their general consensus to this point in the present. As you are probably coming to realize, this is more pronouncement than scientific deduction, but nonetheless one that is valid for determining what’s what among handguns.
In general, the popular models from Big Name manufacturers are almost always good to go, whereas your middle-of-the-road makers are usually not as good but still mostly adequate for the average user.
Where you must be cautious is if you ever have the temptation to buy from bottom of the barrel manufacturers; opt for a reliable dealer such as gunbroker instead.
No matter how slick the marketing or how comfy or cool or pleasing to the eye these low-end guns are they are likely to let you down in short order if you put any kind of round count on it.
Any gun can work fine for a couple of hundred rounds, and though you may not be planning on getting into a big gun battle, you should be planning on practicing, and that means “mileage” on your gun.
It will not do to have your pistol malfunction or break on you when you need it most. You can help ensure that will not happen by buying a really nice one.
For a carry pistol, you generally want to stick with a 9mm or .38 Special or larger for general purpose defense. .40’s, .45’s are just fine in semis, as are .357’s and .44 Specials in revolvers. Don’t go too big!
You don’t need a .454 Casull, .500 Magnum or some other titanic round and they don’t necessarily work drastically better on people anyway; they just penetrate a lot more tissue and you’ll be paying the piper in size, weight and truly brutal shooting and handling characteristics.
In general, your “middleweight” rounds often have the best possible combination of traits and shooting characteristics, and that is why those rounds are the current best in show among handguns.
A fullsize or compact 9mm will have plenty of ammo onboard, is certainly effective against attackers and is easy to shoot well rapidly.
Smaller calibers have their merits in the right situations. Some .380’s are leaner and slick guns ideal for close concealed carry. Even the tiny cartridges like the .22 LR and .25 ACP make sense for a gun that must be deeply concealed or carried in a pocket when no other option will work.
Though their ballistics leave much to be desired compared to the larger and more potent calibers, they are all capable of inflicting lethal wounds with good shot placement, and a nasty wound MAY be enough to drive off an attacker.
For a do-all handgun, you should be looking at a compact size, either in a semi or a revolver. These intermediate handguns as I mentioned above often have the best possible combination of traits for concealed carry, being easy and comfortable enough to hide while still being of adequate caliber and easy to shoot well. Most contain plenty of ammo on tap, also.
If you can conceal it and your risk of discovery is relatively low, a fullsize handgun offers even more advantage, especially in the handling department. As always, a good gunbelt and a good holster make all the difference for effective carry of any handgun, but very especially for fullsize guns.
I urge you again to think carefully about your specific requirements: don’t flop on the idea of carrying a better tool to save your own life with just because you love the grab-and-go accessibility of a pocket gun.
Little guns are never easy to shoot well without tons of practice, and drawing them from your pocket or some other hiding place that is not on your belt can be slow and cumbersome.
No one in a gunfight has ever complained about too much ammo onboard.
Though to be honest, the chances that it will take you, as a civilian involved in a “statistically typical” self-defense use of your gun, more than a handful of rounds to solve your problem one way or the other means capacity is not the most critical item on our shopping list. Six rounds is likely plenty.
That being said, you should also know that, statistically, you will likely be facing down multiple assailants that you may need to shoot multiple times to halt their attack. That makes a pretty good case for ample capacity.
No matter what you carry but especially if you are carrying a lower capacity handgun make sure you carry additional magazines, speedloaders or ammo strips as appropriate.
Parts, Support, Holsters, etc.
This might not seem like a deal-breaker to some, but this is a factor you must consider. You will need all kinds of things for your trusty pistol in order to carry it, use it and maintain it effectively.
You’ll need a holster. You’ll need parts and perhaps support if something breaks, or it just needs a tune-up. You will certainly need magazines or other loading devices for it.
Popular handguns will have all of the above in abundance pretty much anywhere. Rare, exotic, vintage or unpopular guns, not so much, and perhaps not at all, practically.
If you need to spend a lot of time searching for parts, service or ammo, you are burning time that you could be using to train or work on other prepping concerns.
There are a few oddball guns that are not particularly popular but remain well supported by both their manufacturers and aftermarket concerns. Something like this, if you really, really like it would be acceptable.
My Top 5 Concealed Carry Pistols
In no particular order, the below guns are some of my favorites in their respective categories. There is something here for everyone and every need.
For All Seasons – Beretta APX Centurion, 9mm
I am not a big fan of wrenching on my guns to improve performance if I can avoid it. Some modern striker guns seem to be lacking when it comes to the factory options that I want, but for a perfectly sized striker-pistol with a good trigger that is certainly reliable, the APX is a winner.
I especially like the deeply grooved slide serrations front and rear. It looks a little like a castle wall, but considering more traction no matter how you grab the slide is a always good this seems to be a smart upgrade to me.
Additional perks like interchangeable backstraps and factory optics compatibility just sweeten the deal.
For Low Profile Carry – Walther PPS M2, 9mm
When I want a lot of gun in a very slim and small package, I reach for the PPS. This is without question the best shooting polymer compact single-stack I have ever handled. The M2 retains the nice trigger from the earlier version but ditches many other, ah, questionable features, questionable at least to American shooters.
Gone is the paddle mag release so common on new generation Euro service guns, as is the odd interchangeable backstrap that also functioned as a locking system when removed. Finally, the entire gun has benefited from an ergonomic makeover that has massaged the texture and slide dimensions somewhat.
This is one of the thinnest and lightest handguns on the market, and a wickedly good shooting 9mm. A favorite.
For Pocket Carry or Deep Concealment – Beretta Tomcat Inox, .32 ACP
If I need to go smaller still, like, way small I will pocket my second favorite Beretta. The little Tomcat in .32 is a legendary mousegun for good reason. Despite its odd tip-up barrel, squashed shape and puny round it is a reliable and good shooting pistol (at least good shooting in its category).
The ability to safely carry it pocketed with a round chambered is guaranteed by its robust safety systems and heavy, long DA pull, though you can also choose to carry it with the hammer cocked and safety on, though I would really have to insist on a top-quality holster if you wanted to do such a thing.
For deep concealment or for carry in clothing that cannot support a holster (trunks, shorts, etc.) the little Tomcat has plenty of growl; don’t let the small package fool you.
For Quick Trips – Ruger LCR, .327 Federal Magnum
For light work or impromptu trips where I don’t want to thread on my full carry rig, I will use a snubbie revolver in a clip on holster. My choice is Ruger’s popular LCR for its awesome trigger and barely-there weight.
Even better, the sights on this gun are excellent as far as the average snubbie revolver goes, and the hotrod .327 Fed. Mag is a deeply penetrating .32 on a combination of steroids and straight tiger shark testosterone.
Where most guns in this class carry 5 shots of .38 or .357 Mag, the .327 carries 6. Call me traditional, but that sixth round gives me warm and fuzzies since I am carrying something with significantly reduced capacity compared to my semi’s I named up above. The revolver might be fading but the fire is far from out!
For Deep Country Carry – Glock 20, 10mm
Sometimes the situation might call for a lot of gun, simple as that. If I am hunting or doing anything in an area where dangerous animals are not uncommon, I will usually saddle up with a 10mm. A 10mm, stoked with the right rounds, is a deeply penetrating and powerful handgun round that is not too awfully far from the .41 Magnum in performance.
Unlike that sweet and now cult classic cartridge, I can fit fifteen of the badass 10mm’s into a magazine that rides in fullsize pistol that is still reasonably easy to conceal should the situation call for it.
A very niche gun of mine, but one that serves its specialized purpose perfectly.
Which One is Right For You?
It is easy to wind up paralyzed by choices in today’s pistol market since there are so many great handguns to choose from, but even now there are some really rubbish guns that you don’t want to wind up stuck with.
Using this article and its info as a guide, you can be sure that you will know enough to steer clear of those and take home a winner.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.