A re-evaluation of the pocket pistol

Like many armed citizens, I have in my collection of firearms several that can be described as ‘pocket pistols‘.  Most of them are chambered in smaller, lighter, less powerful cartridges, such as .32 ACP, .380 ACP or 9mm. Parabellum for pistols, and .38 Special for snubnose revolvers.  A good example of this category of weapon is the diminutive Ruger LCP pistol, shown below.

Such weapons are often used as a backup to a larger, heavier firearm, and as their designation suggests, they’re often carried in a pocket.  I prefer to do so using a pocket holster, because I’m nervous about anything else in that pocket interfering with the trigger and possibly causing an accidental discharge.  I’d hate to shoot myself through my own negligence!

Some people rely on such pocket pistols as their sole or primary armament.  They may be in a work environment that’s not conducive to being armed, for any of a number of reasons, and therefore find that they can only carry small weapons like that because anything larger would be too noticeable.  Others have suffered injuries that make it difficult or painful to carry a larger weapon in a belt or shoulder holster for extended periods, but they can tolerate a lighter weapon in a pocket.  Be that as it may, such pocket weapons have become very popular, and are carried by many people for self-defense.

However, such handguns do have drawbacks.  For a start, they tend to have tiny, even vestigial sights, making it hard to achieve accuracy over anything more than point-blank range.  This is complicated by their small size and light weight, which means that users feel the recoil of the cartridge more than those shooting larger, heavier weapons.  The smaller guns are generally much harder to control in repeated, rapid, accurate fire.  Their smaller-caliber rounds also inflict less damage on an attacker than those fired from larger pistols;  and even if they fire the same round as the latter, it typically develops less energy out of the smaller weapon’s shorter barrel, reducing its terminal effectiveness.  Finally, again due to the limitations of their size, such weapons usually have relatively small magazine capacities.  Five or six rounds is common, whereas full-size handgun magazines can carry up to sixteen or seventeen rounds.

In the light of the increased danger of urban terrorism, many are re-evaluating whether or not such firearms deserve their place in our defensive battery.  I believe they do, because they can be concealed and carried where larger firearms can’t;  but at the same time I think it’s worth highlighting their limitations in the light of the increased threat, and perhaps switching to a more powerful weapon in the category to make up for them.

A pistol or revolver in a pocket is usually more difficult and, critically, much slower to draw than one in a holster on one’s belt.  In an emergency, the delay thus imposed may be crucial to your survival.  There’s also the factor of being close to one’s attacker.  Any delay in producing one’s weapon allows an attacker to get even closer.  Witness, for example, the Palestinian terrorist stabbing attacks in Israel over recent weeks – there are many videos of them on Youtube.  Note how quickly the attacks happened, and how little reaction time was available to the victims.  Some could not react in time to defend themselves.  In those respects, the Palestinian attacks are similar to many criminal attacks in the USA, particularly in an urban environment where criminal ‘flash mobs’ may spring up seemingly out of nowhere with little or no warning, or the ‘knockout game’ (a.k.a. ‘polar bear hunting’) may become a popular pastime among gang-bangers and thugs in your city.

If I’m subject to a close-range attack of that sort, I need to have a weapon that will stop the attack as quickly as possible.  The energy-limited, lower-power cartridges of the typical pocket pistol are less than optimum in such a scenario.  Furthermore, the smaller weapon is usually slower and more difficult to produce and use to maximum effect.  Those problems add up to a serious handicap in such a situation.

I want to improve my chances of survival.  I’ve therefore decided to carry a more powerful pocket pistol, chambered for the venerable .45 ACP cartridge, to give myself more of an edge in such situations.  The advantages of the bigger, heavier round have been discussed before;  see in particular Jim Higginbotham’s excellent perspective, quoted in this article.  Here’s the gist of his findings:

I can find no real measure – referred to by some as a mathematical model – of stopping power or effectiveness. And I have looked for 44 years now! Generally speaking I do see that bigger holes (in the right place) are more effective than smaller holes … There are dozens of modifiers which change the circumstance, most not under your control. My only advice on this is what I learned from an old tanker: “Shoot until the target changes shape or catches fire!” … With handguns, and with expanding bullets … through years of study I have developed a general formula [of what it takes to stop an attacker], subject to the above mentioned unpredictable circumstances.

  • 2-3 hits with a .45;
  • 4-6 with a .40;
  • 5-8 with a 9mm.

There’s much more at the linkHighly recommended reading.  For what it’s worth, I agree with Mr. Higginbotham, based on my own experience of urban crime and violence in South Africa over an extended period.

There are two pocket-sized .45 ACP pistols that stand out on the market at present.  One is the Kahr CM45 (shown below) and its more expensive sibling, the PM45.

The other is the Springfield Armory XD-S, shown below.

All are so-called ‘single-stack’ weapons (i.e. using a magazine that holds the cartridges in a single vertical row, rather than a double ‘staggered’ row), holding five rounds in the magazine plus one in the chamber for a maximum ammo capacity of six rounds.  All offer extended magazines that can hold additional rounds at the cost of increased weapon size and bulk, and hence decreased concealability.

I’ve tested both the CM45 and the XD-S .45.  Neither is as easy to control in rapid, repeat fire as a weapon chambered for a less powerful cartridge generating lower recoil;  but both are manageable with practice (the latter being essential to first master them, then to ensure that one’s skills remain current and up-to-date).  I find the XD-S to be more controllable, more comfortable to fire, and generally easier to handle than the Kahr pistol, and I prefer its bright, glowing fiber-optic front sight for rapid acquisition of a sight picture.  However, to be fair, others have the opposite preference.  Every shooter will have their own opinion.  Be that as it may, I’m going to standardize on the XD-S in .45 ACP as my heavier-duty pocket pistol from now on.  I hope and pray I never have to use it;  but if I do, I want the maximum possible bullet energy and terminal ballistics on my side.

There are those who argue that the 9mm. equivalents of those pistols (e.g. the Kahr CM9 or PM9, or the XD-S 9mm.) can hold an additional one or two rounds of ammunition in a standard-size magazine, offering greater flexibility at the cost of only minimal loss of ‘wounding power’.  They’re right, of course;  but in the light of Jim Higginbotham’s comments and my own experience, and the slower reaction time (and thus probably much closer engagement range) with which I might have to contend while carrying only a small pocket pistol, I’d rather have the greater power of the bigger cartridge on my side.  I reckon, with 6 rounds of .45 ACP in the gun, I can be reasonably confident of stopping two to three attackers, provided I put the bullets where they need to go.  With 7-8 rounds of 9mm., I may only be able to deal with one or two.  (In a full-size handgun, where magazine capacities are much higher, the calculation changes, of course – there, I’m comfortable carrying a 9mm. with appropriate ammunition, as discussed earlier.)

Others will doubtless disagree with my perspective here, and that’s fine.  It’s for each individual to form their own opinion in the light of the evidence available to them.  I recommend to all my readers that they perform a similar analysis, re-evaluate their carry weapons in the light of the current threat, and take action accordingly.



  1. I use the XD-S in 9mm for the compromise between size and punch, plus, with the extended mag, it's very comfortable as a range gun for my 12-year old. Thus far, I've got no real complaints about it for what it is, but it absolutely lacks the punch of something with a bit more ass.

  2. Apparently a lot of us have been thinking along this line. I've retired the S&W model 638 and replaced it with a Glock 43. I put a Pearce plus 1 extender on all magazines, use a DeSantis Nemesis pocket holster and a Sticky single mag pouch in the opposite pants pocket. Carry load is Gold Dot 124 GR +p.
    We'll all disagree about caliber,but ultimately this is an individual decision and it works for me.

  3. I usually carry an LCP in a Desantis Nemesis in my support side pocket as a backup to my primary. And while starting from zero I can draw my primary faster, one advantage to pocket carry is that I can already have my hand on my gun…without looking like I have my hand on my gun.

  4. I've got an M&P40C and a Tok. Although the Tok is 'full size' it's very slim and easy to conceal. The M&P really on works for me in armpit or IWB.

  5. In the summer I was looking for a subcompact to replace another I'd sold off. I hemmed and hawed between the XDS45 and XDS9. I eventually went with the 9. Like it a lot, and may yet get the .45 version.

  6. David, above, hit on a very important subject. When pocket carrying, especially in a loose coat pocket, your hand can be on the gun and ready, with no visible overt indication.
    I do not know about others, but many of the times I have wanted a gun available on short notice, the situation was ambiguous- something was strange, did not feel right, but was not yet at the point of attack, and distances were getting shorter. Now some would say to pull back the coat and draw on the potential assailant. But this chances drawing on an innocent party who was just acting weird, and who will immediately call the police on you- a guy could spend a lot of time and money explaining his way out of that.

  7. Peter, the most current data I have heard from people "in the business"(
    the business of delivering damage to people) is that with modern defensive ammo the .45 offers an 8-10% advantage in "stopping power" over the 9mm. When asked the "9mm vs. .45" question they answer SHOT PLACEMENT. Accurate, rapid, shot placement is the key here.

  8. I carried a Glock G21 concealed in a shoulder holster daily for close to 15 years. Only in the hottest weather when a thin t shirt was necessary did I switch to a pocket pistol. I have a large frame and tend to wear my clothing loose and in layers which helps to hide a large gun. A .45 glock is large and with +2 baseplates on the gun mag and two +2 spares it makes a large package and a heavy one. 46 rounds of .45 acp is heavy itself let alone the gun, mags and holster. I carry a Sig 226 9mm in the same set-up and it feels substantially lighter even with full metal gun and 20 rd mags. My next shoulder carry gun is gonna be a G20 10mm. Because glock. Because 10mm.

    I've got large hands and I hate shooting pocket guns. I've got a G30 for when I absolutely can't hide a shoulder rig. I do like the ability to have hand on pistol in threatening situation though which usually isn't possible with my shoulder rig without crossed arms and a cover garment. That G21 was heavy and it took dedication to wear every day especially in the beginning but it sure felt reassuring when the hair stood up on the back of the neck or danger presented itself. I never felt undergunned even when I was once facing multiple potential attackers some of whom were likely armed in some capacity.

  9. Here in Oz, I can't buy a handgun in .45 unless I join a club shooting Cowboy Action or Metallic Silhouette.

    For me that would be a burden of 4 weekends a year shooting a sport I don't much like to satisfy the "for competition purposes" restriction. If I were not already competing in IPSC it would be 6 weekends.

    That leaves me with a competition model (read "long slide") Glock in 9mm or an STI Edge in .38 Super as a possible (but illegal) carry piece. Both are limited to 10 round magazines.

    Neither is particularly concealable, but for me 10 rounds of hot-loaded .38 Super trumps 10 rounds of 9mm of any persuasion. The projectile is the same, but the Edge sends it Express Post.

  10. My wife, thinking much the same thoughts, bought a Sig P-938 this weekend to replace the Firestorm .380 she's been hauling around. 7+1 of 9mm in 16 oz pistol.

  11. I never recommend a pocket semi auto as a first pistol.
    They are hard to control, and with the blowback .32 and .380s are notorious for failure to feed, fire, or eject from a limp wrist grip.
    that said, and gun is better than no gun, and their one saving grace is concealability.
    I'm partial to the Kel-Tec P3AT myself, same form factor as the Ruger LCP.
    Sole purpose is up close self defense and to buy time to reach my .45acp or long arm.

  12. Forgot to add:

    Any pistol I can legally buy has a barrel longer than 120mm (about 5").

    Concealable pocket pistols are simply not available in the legal civilian market.

  13. Long discontinued, the Star PD .45ACP is a compact 6 shot pistol that flat out works. A little larger than the pocket gun but smaller than the full size – just a great carry gun.

  14. I tested a Ruger LCP yesterday with both Remington 95 gr FMJ and the new Polycase Inceptor rounds. A few friends including some women joined in the test.

    The Polycase ammo was considered about 20% lower recoil than the lead bullet. A decent improvement for those who are sensitive to recoil. In a decent compact pistol such as an LC380 or a G43, I recommend it highly.

    Either way the LCP was a thoroughly unpleasant gun to shoot. Poor sights, long, heavy trigger pull, and zero mass to resist recoil all contributed to the negative impression. Recoil from the Remington actually stung the hand. Recoil from the Polycase did not sting, but definitely snapped the gun well off target. I highly recommend going to at least the LC380 or G43, or Kahr CW, if one wants a single-stack, subcompact pistol.

  15. My brother Big Mike bought an LCP and likes it. If you're so inclined, you can read my extended range report about the LCP here. Basically, it's small and kicks like a mule, but it's a whole lot better than nothing. I was able to hit stuff with it.

  16. I just bought my Christmas present SIG Sauer P250 Compact 45 with a small grip frame and is 9+1 shots and 3.9 inch barrel. It has a longish DAO pull like a Ruger LCR but I believe is better and lighter. I shoot more DA revolver so I hope the transition is easy. I have yet to shoot it. If it shoots well it will become my EDC. You can find these retail at 400.00 most often in 9mm. For about 100.00 one can buy the a sub-compact grip frame and magazine (6+1) and cut off 2.5oz of weight and about .5 inch of frame height. Basically the difference is pinky or no pinky. The P250 Subcompact in either 9mm (12rnds), 40S&W (10rnds) or 45acp (6rnds) is 3.6 inch barrel, 6.7inch long, 4.7inch height, 1.06 width, 25oz weight. Made in USA
    DAO pull is listed at 5.5 to 6.5 lbs. This seems right to me and has been consistent from example to example. Nope, don't work for them and is my one and only SIG. I had a P220 years ago that I hated. The P250 is a different animal.

  17. The Boberg XR9 and XR45 are interesting choices for pocket pistols as well. They are pocket pistols with an interesting loading mechanism that allows much longer barrel lengths than you would expect for such a tiny gun.

  18. Peter, I'm currently using a 3.3" XDs9 but am very interested in the 4" XDs45. I'll probably be purchasing one fairly soon. Is your XDs45 the 3.3" barrel version?

  19. @Sport Pilot: Yes, I have the 3.3" XDS .45. I prefer that barrel length precisely because I pocket-carry it. However, I've shot the 4" model as well, and like it very much. I think you'll enjoy it.

    If you plan to dispose of your 3.3" XDS in 9mm, please contact me before I leave for Texas! I'll gladly trade for it or buy it from you. It's a useful training gun to go with the .45 version.

  20. One of the better comparisons of different calibers I've ever seen. Nay-sayers are hard to convince and it is hard to get volunteers to prove to the nay-sayers that it might be so.

  21. I've been using a P3AT for several years now. I carry it in a home made flat shoulder-holster completely enclosed.
    'Course back when I bought it I also scored a 1000 rounds of flat-tip exposed lead Spanish subgun ammo in .380(for use in their MAC-12 subguns apparently). And another 1000 rounds of Dynamite-Nobel .380 HP.
    Both work well in my KelTec and also in my STAR Model D. Don't know about other .380s. But I feel confident that a wrong-doer would probably lose interest in his wrong-doing upon encountering seven of these in an alternating pattern grouped around his nether regions…
    But the gun – equipped with laser – is definitely a belly gun in the true meaning of the word.

  22. Things I've heard:

    The new ammo in 9mm, like Hornady's Critical Defense, performs as well as .45acp. No idea if it's true.

    ER doctors hate dealing with gunshot rounds from the small stuff, like .32acp or 380, because it tends to bounce around inside the body and damage multiple organs.

    Shot placement trumps caliber.

  23. @c w swanson: Yes, the new 9mm. ammo performs very well indeed – that's why I carry it with confidence, as I've mentioned before.

    The critical difference is between ammunition performance as a wounding object and its performance as a stopping object. The momentum factor comes into play here. It remains true that a bigger, heavier bullet, carrying more momentum, penetrates deeper and has more of a "slamming" effect than a smaller, lighter bullet, even though both may be comparable in their wounding effect. At very close range, or in an unexpected attack where you don't have much time to react or respond, that "slamming" effect can make the difference between survival and the alternative. That's where the bigger, heavier round can still outshine the smaller one, and that's why I'm moving back to .45 ACP for my pocket pistols. I'd feel just as comfortable with 9mm. in its modern versions, except for the absence of size, weight and momentum, where the older, slower .45 still shines.

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