Issues with smaller handguns

I said some years ago:

… smaller handguns are more difficult to shoot well than larger handguns. A good example may be found in the Glock handgun series. The Glock 17 is a full-size handgun; the Glock 19 is a compact version; the Glock 26 is a sub-compact, highly concealable version; and the Glock 34 is an extra-long-slide competition version, with the same frame and grip as the Glock 17.

. . .

Obviously, one’s hand can grasp the full-size grip of the G17 or G34 better than the slightly shorter grip of the G19, and any of those three better than the severely abbreviated grip of the G26. That, plus the longer sight radius of the larger models, makes it easier to shoot them more accurately than the small G26. On the other hand, the latter’s shorter grip and slide make it much easier to conceal than its larger siblings. If concealment is a priority, one has to live with the disadvantages of smaller size.

There’s more at the link, including photographic comparisons.

The size factor in handgun controllability is very real.  During our recent Blogorado weekend, I had with me several revolvers, including two snubnose versions, one in steel, one in a much lighter material.  Several shooters tried them.  The universal finding, without exception, was that the small snubbies were much more difficult to aim (due to their diminutive sights), and control in rapid fire (due to the greater recoil transferred to the shooter’s hand), than larger, heavier, full-size revolvers or pistols.  I’d go so far as to say that shooters were only half as good with the snubbies as they were with larger handguns (“good” meaning the ability to rapidly and consistently hit their targets).  The lighter snubby also proved slower and more difficult to control in rapid fire (i.e. recovering from recoil, getting the sights back on target, and firing another round) than the heavier, steel gun, because the former moved more under recoil.  Effective range was halved compared to full-size guns;  to get good results, the shooters had to be within 5-7 yards of their targets.  Longer ranges degraded shooter performance very noticeably with the small guns.

That lesson applies to small pistols, too.  Tamara has just addressed the subject for Shooting Illustrated.

So, … what are the downsides to carrying one of these handy single-stack 9mms?

Well, for starters, they’re harder to shoot well than their larger kin, and for numerous reasons. The shorter sight radius is one, but probably the least significant. More importantly, the stubby, small-diameter grips of these guns generally mean a two-finger grip with the dominant hand and the support hand is unable to provide as much clamping force as it would on a larger gun. With less grip on the gun, small errors in trigger-finger placement can be dramatically magnified.

. . .

The small grip on a single-stack 9mm also affects recoil control, obviously, as do the lighter weight and shorter barrel. Multi-shot strings are going to be noticeably slower because of this. I’ve seen shooters turn in amazing performances with little guns like these, but much like the J-frame revolver, a mini-nine is not an easy gun to run well without a lot of practice.

. . .

In reality, the [Glock 43] is a lot closer, capability-wise, to a J-frame revolver or a pocket .380 ACP, and that is going to drive my tactics and decision making. In a scenario such as one with a lunatic in a movie theater or mall, the little G43 can’t engage from ranges where I’d be perfectly comfortable making a shot with a G17. They may both say “Glock 9×19” on the slide, but the gulf in capability between duty size and pocket size is broader than some people realize. The armed citizen who carries a single-stack 9mm owes it to him or herself to know exactly what can or cannot be done with it.

There’s more at the linkHighly recommended reading.

I entirely agree with Tamara.  I, too, pocket-carry a small single-stack pistol on occasion (either a “micro”-sized Ruger LCP, or the somewhat larger Springfield XDS in 9mm. or .45).  I don’t like the recoil of the LCP at all – despite its low-powered round, its diminutive size and weight make it a handful to control.  The XDS is, in my hands, very ergonomic, much more so than its competitors (although others prefer them – it’s all about how the gun fits you).  However, I’m under no illusions that the relatively small XDS will be as easy to handle in a gunfight as a larger handgun, such as a Glock 17 or 19.  As with snubbie revolvers, with the XDS I’ll need to be closer to my target to be sure of my shot, due to the greater difficulty in handling and controlling the smaller, lighter weapon.  I might take a head-shot at 15 yards, if I had to, with a full-size handgun;  but I wouldn’t be nearly as confident with a pocket model.  Half that range would be more like it.  (Yes, I used to make such shots on paper targets at double those ranges, without difficulty;  but age catches up with one’s eyes and reflexes . . . )

That factor also explains why I like a pocket pistol in .45 ACP, as opposed to 9mm.  Sure, the .45 recoils more, and is harder to control;  but in that size of pistol, so is the 9mm., compared to a full-size gun.  If I know I’m going to be slower in recovery from a shot, and slower to make a second accurate shot, why not hit my target the first time with a bigger, heavier round that may do more damage?  That way, I may not need a second shot quite as badly!  Yes, I know that in terms of modern ammunition, the performance of .45’s and 9’s is relatively close;  but there’s still the factor of bullet momentum (scroll down at the link to find the relevant section), which favors the .45, plus the fact that the technology making 9mm. bullets more effective does precisely the same for those in the .45.  To my mind, if I know I’m going to experience controllability problems with a smaller pistol, I’d rather fire a round that will do the most harm on the other end, giving me more time to regain control and be ready with a follow-up round.  YMMV, of course.

If you choose to carry a small handgun as your primary weapon, you should be aware that you need to practice more often with it than a larger weapon would require.  Without such practice, your skills with it will deteriorate more quickly, because of its inherent control issues.  I’m not knocking small handguns in the least.  They have a very valuable place in our battery.  However, we shouldn’t be blind to the skill and consistent training needed to use them effectively.



  1. My fave carry piece is a Ruger SP101 with the slightly longer than 3" barrel. Small enough, light enough, yet heavy enough, long enough. I can shoot it quite accurately, at the range at least even with .357 ammo. One time a fellow shooter next to me on the range and I traded pistols for a couple cylinders. His was a Ruger snubbie polymer revolver. Shooting standard 38 SPL was PUNISHING, comparatively, and one cylinder was all I needed to squelch any notion that I might want one. I am not a wimp…..

  2. Everything in life is a trade off. Short sight radius versus better grip. Concealablity versus accuracy.

    As usual Tam spells it out in very understandable terms.

    Surprisingly my scores in GSSF matches are better shooting a G26 than either my G19 or 17. I shot the P239 much better than the M11/P228 with my rather beat up hands.


  3. Small autos in the .380 and 9mm categories are also particularly subject to the limp wristing phenomenon in which the lack of a stiff secure grip will cause the firearm to fail to properly cycle resulting in either failures to eject the fired case or feed the new round fully into the chamber.
    And the cure is of course practice, practice, practice until you become confident that the gun will function properly every time you choose to send a slug down range.

  4. "it's all about how the gun fits you"

    Top of my list. If the gun doesn't naturally point at the intended target, you'll just be making noise.


  5. An interesting aside:
    I had a buddy who was the qualifying officer for one of the local SOs.
    When they transitioned from their S&W .357 magnums to Glocks (yeah, we are that old) the folks on patrol were issued the G17.
    Detectives were issued the G19.
    At the same time that they changed over to the Glock, the distance at which qualifications were shot were reduced by about half.
    The interesting thing was that everyone who shot the G19 qualified and not all of the G17 shooters qualified.
    Out of curiosity my buddy had the G17 shooters try the G19 and they were able to shoot a qualifying score (which, of course, did not
    abrogate the requirement to qualify with their duty weapon).
    Intuitively, the longer sight-radius and full-size grip on the G17 should have produced higher scores.
    He never came up with a reason that this was not the case.

  6. "…a lunatic in a movie theater or mall…"


    Are you telling me that there sane people who still frequent movie theaters and malls?

    Avoid the high risk venues and mostly avoid the risk.

    No malls, movies, concerts, sporting event etc, and none for more than 20 years.

    Not my circus, and not my monkeys. Stay away from crowds.

  7. Ditto to your thoughts on a single stack .45 vs. 9mm. I changed my regular carry pistol from a S&W Shield 9mm to the newer .45 version, and found it to be much more "shootable" in my hands. The grip is slightly longer, especially with the extended magazine, and the grip surface has more texture to secure the grip in my hand. I also find the .45 trigger to be better. I understand that S&W has improved the grip texture and trigger on the Shield 2.0 in 9mm, so there may not be that much advantage over that model. I believe the .45 will still be slightly larger, providing more real estate for finger gripping.

  8. My daughter is looking for a concealed carry firearm. She's maybe 5ft, 100lbs. She's tried the S&W Airweight and my Bodyguard .380 but doesn't like the recoil. And while I'm of the opinion that it's better to carry something rather than nothing, .380 is pretty much the smallest size that I would consider. How does the XDS compare recoil-wise? And, any other suggestions?

  9. @joekr: I find the XDS very manageable, but again, it all depends how it fits the individual shooter's hands. Good fit = more manageable recoil. Bad fit = less manageable recoil.

    There are a lot of smaller pistols out there: the Kahr range, S&W Shield and Bodyguard, Springfield XDS, Glock 42/43, Ruger LCP, Kel-Tec P32, P3AT, PF9 and P11, and others. I can only suggest trying as many as possible in her hands, and seeing which she prefers. Out of all of them, the ones I've found generally accepted by most shooters are the XDS, the Glock 43 and the S&W Shield. YMMV, of course.

    1. Thank you for your suggestions. There's a nearby gun store with an indoor shooting range that will let you test fire (for a small fee) anything you are thinking about buying. I'll probably take her up there next week.

  10. My hands are quite large and I find the crop of tiny pistols uncomfortable and sometimes simply unusable for defensive purposes. Luckily I also have a large build and conceal a larger pistol. I'm able to carry a full sized pistol in a shoulder rig and do so pretty much every day.

    I've noticed when working with a couple of females they really liked the idea of something like a Ruger LCP until they actually had to shoot the thing. Also once they start thinking about how they have to alter their clothing choices and start living with actually carrying concealed on their body they quickly start considering purse carry options. While not the best option it does let them carry a larger pistol that they
    1.will actually carry.
    2.Can actually shoot well.
    3.Will actually practice with.

  11. My experience with snubbies is that the single biggest problem is the lousy grip designs the makers inflict on them. Even most of the aftermarket grip makers miss the boat in this area. The overriding criteria seems to be how small they can make them. The only improvement ever seen is the "boot" grip, with the filler that goes behind the trigger guard.
    Even when they forgo concealment, they screw it up. I see full, three finger grips, with a backstrap that narrows down to something akin to the actual frame backstrap width. Idiots.

    What they need, is a grip that ends near the bottom of the frame, as long as you have the full two fingers surface, so the little finger can curl under the bottom. The backstrap must be as wide as possible, made of rubber, that is deep enough to cushion the frame. It must fill in behind the triggerguard. It can be a little fatter as it gets higher on the gun, but should be cut to clear speedloaders.

    For me, the difference in performance is a target dispersion that is half what I can do with boot grips. In addition, I can target shoot boxes of ammo, versus half a box with boot grips.
    This is with an Airweight J Frame (442) .38spl

    Ultimate concealment is not quite as good, but whacking off that bit that hangs below the frame makes a huge improvement.

  12. You are on point, as usual, Peter. One other factor that Tam (also on point, as usual) addresses in her article is that the reduced muzzle velocity from the shorter barrels generally favors less expansion than even slightly longer barrels, even with modern JHP bullet design. Given that, I agree that it's better to punch .45 holes into someone needing to be shot than 9mm holes, as long as the shot placement is adequate with the generally more energetic recoil.

  13. Which is why I carried a G20 Way Back Then, and still do – more BBs than a .45, hits way harder than a 9MM. Pro Tip: Your wardrobe requirements may not be conducive to it, but consider a good shoulder holster as a better way to carry a full-size handgun; it transfers the weight from the hips to the shoulders, which many find more comfortable. 2nd Pro Tip: A spare mag carrier on the off side helps balance the shoulder rig, and some outfits – mine's a Galco Miami Classic II, with the SSH harness – have options for the mag carriers (mine holds 2 mags plus a Surefire light, don't know if that's still available).

  14. I also agree with your opinion – the minis require more familiarization and practice to be effective.

    I have a Star PD .45ACP (smaller single stack design) that required changing the wood checkered grip panels for smoother Pachmayrs for more comfortable shooting. It is a relatively lightweight pistol and the synthetics tamed down recoil to manageable levels.

    Thanks to you and Tamara Keel for the post. You don't often read much about this topic.

  15. I like my XDS for daily carry, but I'm under no illusions: if I pointed it into the air and pulled the trigger, I might still miss the sky. It's absolutely a bad-breath distance weapon for me, but its' advantages are elsewhere.

  16. I want a handgun in a caliber that performs "as seen on TV": a single round knocks back the goblin ten feet as if he got hit by an invisible freight train!

  17. 1- The G19 size doesn't seem to have people performing in a significantly different way than it's full sized 17 brother at least in 9mm.

    2- There are inherent trade offs. A compact sized pistol is generally the sweet spot between conceability and shootability.

    3- A single stack 9 is a great summer option but better compared to say a .380 or snubby .38 than it's compact double stack big brother.

    4- Anecdotal observation shows most average shooters handle/ shoot subcompact .40/.45 pistols like shit. The can't hit with them mostly because they are afraid of the recoil and don't practice. Also split times are absolute shit. Almost universally they would be better off with the same gun in 9mm.

  18. Grips.
    An adequate revolver with factory grips can be vastly improved with aftermarket grips.
    Two areas of concern are the space behind the trigger guard, and at the bottom of the grip frame.
    Tyler's T Grip addresses the first, filling that space to take advantage of the strength and length of the second finger.
    A Bantam Grip adds a place for the little finger. (Obviously a tradeoff in concealability.) I have modified boot grips on my snubbies with notches at the butt to allow purchase w/ my pinkie.
    On semiauto pistols I find the backstrap shape of the CZ75, BHP and XD accommodates the web between my thumb and trigger finger a better fit than those of the Glocks.
    Round or square butt? It's up to you. But note the pad at the heel of your hand when you make your choice.


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