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What handgun should you choose for your CCW self defense pistol?

Updated: Mar 26

There is no perfect everyday concealed carry pistol for all people but there are definitely some that rise to the top above others. Why is this? What characteristics drive these decisions?

Many new concealed carriers think that they may need to use a different or beginners pistol based upon their limited experience level. I don't find this to be true. Generally "good" shooters have preferences that help them perform to a high level with their pistol. These same preferences will help an inexperienced shooter perform better as well. Please understand that this doesn't mean that you can simply buy performance or that you should dramatically tweak your CCW pistol. As a matter of fact some of my top picks for CCW pistols are not very expensive or customized at all.

So before I start naming names let's discuss the characteristics that we find most successful for concealed carry while maintaining practical effectiveness.

  1. Size - the smaller the pistol the easier to conceal but the harder it is to shoot well. I suggest carrying the largest pistol that you can shoot well and reasonably conceal while wearing your normal daily attire unless your specific circumstances require a deeper level of concealment. The pistol does not need to be tiny to be effectively concealed especially when using a well designed concealment holster. Many find that they can effectively carry and conceal a full size 1911 5" Government Model which is a large pistol due to it's ergonomic design and thinner profile. So small isn't necessarily required.

  2. Caliber - using modern defensive ammunition the caliber question is far less important that it used to be. For semi-automatic pistols I would recommend a 9mm but a 40SW or 45acp are great as well. The 9mm performs well while having the lightest recoil impulse of those listed making it the easiest to shoot well quickly. I do not suggest .380acp be used for defensive work. When compared to micro-compact 9mm pistols that are easily small enough to conceal well there is no need to go to the smaller .380 and accept its lessor ballistic performance. For revolvers the go to caliber is the .38 Special followed by .357 Magnum in a medium velocity load. Yes I know that other calibers can be used for personal defense but we are looking for options in the center of the bell curve not on the edges.

  3. Trigger Action Type - Single Action (SA) at 4-5lbs, Double / Single Action (DA/SA) and Double Action Only (DAO) trigger mechanisms at 8-12lb are very popular and workable however, the most common is the current drop safe Striker Fired Action (SFA) at 5-8lbs with more trigger pull length (slack) than the SA but less than the typical DA/DAO trigger and a lighter trigger pull weight than the DA or DAO but slightly heavier than the typical SA trigger. This gives us a good combination of safety and ease of use. It is possible to smooth out the factory trigger travel with quality after market parts. A "good" trigger makes it easier to shoot the pistol accurately which is an important consideration but any changes to the factory trigger should be carefully considered and the work performed by a qualified gunsmith or armorer. All personal defense pistols should have what is commonly referred to as a "duty grade" trigger rather than a very light competition trigger. Generally duty triggers have a pull weight of 4lbs or more and competition triggers may be lower than 4lbs.

  4. Manual Safeties - depending on the trigger action of your pistol a manual safety may be a default design feature. For example a SA pistol will always have a manual safety that should be used. DA/SA pistols often have a combination safety and decocking mechanism but may have only a decocker. SFA pistols may have a manual safety but often do not. All modern defensive pistols have some internal safety mechanism that makes them drop safe. SFA pistols usually have a safety built into the trigger to ensure that it cannot fire without direct trigger engagement.

  5. Sights - the sights should be robust, easy to see, and align quickly for practical shooting. Although many combinations of sights exist I recommend something with a clean all black rear sight and a front sight with a high visibility insert. Night sights are popular but largely are not necessary. When it is dark enough to see the glowing night sight it is likely too dark to positively threat ID your target. If you are using white light to threat ID you will see a clean outline of your sights without needing night sights. Night sights often have dots in both the front and rear sight which can complicate your sight picture unnecessarily. My personal favorite pistol sight design is the Hackathorn combat sights produced by Ameriglo but these are replacement sights you would have to add to your pistol after purchase. Having a ridge or notch on the front side of the rear sight is beneficial if you need to operate the pistol one handed or while injured.

  6. Construction - the polymer framed pistol has taken the gun market by storm. Every major manufacturer as multiple polymer framed models to chose from. The polymer frame makes the gun lighter, allows for a slimmer grip with a higher capacity magazine, and reduces the cost of the firearm. The polymer is also very resistant to weather and corrosion. As such the polymer framed pistol is not only here to stay it's likely one of your best choices.

  7. Pistol to Hand Fit - the way that your pistol fits your hand is critical to being able to operate it well. You wouldn't wear a pair of shoes that is too small or too large for your feet. You shouldn't carry a pistol that doesn't fit your hand. You must be able to hold the pistol in the web of your hand and have it line up with your forearm. If you cannot hold the pistol the grip is too large for your hand. Once you can hold the pistol inline with your arm you must be able to properly reach the trigger with your index finger. If you cannot reach the trigger to at least the center pad of your finger the pistol is too large. It is not a problem if your finger reaches deeper into the trigger area even as far as the first finger joint. You must be able to pull the trigger cleanly straight to the rear. If the trigger reach (distance between the back of the grip to the front of the trigger) is too long you may pull the pistol offline while firing affecting your accuracy. You should also be able to effectively reach all of the controls of your pistol. If not this may impact your ability to safety and properly operate the pistol one handed which is a requirement for a personal defense pistol.

Now that I've outlined the considerations for your defensive pistol I'm going to make some recommendations that in my professional opinion are pistols that you should consider. There are of course other good personal defensive pistols that I may not mention here but the goal of my recommendations are to fast track readers toward solid choices if they don't already own a pistol that they are happy with and/or don't have the opportunity to shoot a lot of different pistols to come to their own conclusions.

Micro or Sub-Compact Pistols

  1. Springfield Armory Hellcat 9mm

  2. Smith & Wesson MP9 Shield Plus 9mm

  3. Glock G43 or G43X 9mm

  4. Sig Sauer P365 9mm

Compact Pistols

  1. Smith & Wesson MP9 Shield EZ 9mm

  2. Smith & Wesson MP9 Compact 3.6" 9mm

  3. Glock G26 9mm

  4. Sig Sauer P364 XL 9mm

Mid-Sized Pistols

  1. Smith & Wesson MP9 Compact 4" 9mm

  2. Glock G19 9mm

  3. Sig Sauer P320 X Compact 9mm

Full Sized Pistols

1. Smith & Wesson MP9 4.25" 9mm

2. Glock 17 9mm

3. Sig Sauer P320 9mm

4. Springfield Armory Echelon 9mm

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