“The problem with small self defense guns”

That’s the title of an article in Shooting Illustrated.  (It’s also a topic I’ve addressed in these pages from time to time, as regular readers will know.)  Here’s an excerpt from SI’s article.

[Some of] the biggest obstacles to shooting subcompact guns well [include] the grip size, recoil control, sight system and trigger system. Some you can improve upon such as the sights or trigger. Subcompacts are notorious for having poor combat-style sights. As these subcompacts grow in popularity, sight manufacturers continue to adapt to consumer trends and offer upgraded options. The trigger is a bit more challenging. Few subcompacts come with a smooth trigger; many have a heavy and long trigger pull that requires a decent amount of time to master. Again, as consumer trends increase so too will aftermarket options for drop-in replacement triggers. A caution on trigger upgrades. Avoid any product that can compromise the internal safeties in any way. Be cautious in your selection. If it sounds too good to be true—you know the rest.

This leaves us with grip size and recoil control. By their nature, subcompacts are small. The smaller size makes them easier to conceal, but hard to hold and shoot well. I find some are better to grip than others.

. . .

Recoil control is a difficult subject to talk about using the printed word. It has to be experienced. The lighter frames and shorter slides will mean the recoil impulse can be more noticeable or pronounced.

. . .

Shooting subcompacts does not have to be fraught with discomfort. The challenges you face are manageable if you take the right steps. The first step is the hardest step, which is practicing more. We can all benefit from more practice, more training and more education … When the whole firing line is shooting subcompacts, you get a great perspective. You can see the recoil impulse more exaggerated in some shooters. As you pay more attention, you begin to see who is applying good technique and who is not.

There’s more at the link.  It’s a good article, and I recommend reading it in full.

I can bring an evolving perspective to this subject, because as I get older and more decrepit (hand strength, eyesight, general flexibility and mobility issues, etc.), I find the smaller handguns more and more difficult to shoot well.  That’s a serious issue, because I’m liable for every shot I fire in a defensive situation.  If I miss my legitimate target (the bad guy) and hit an illegitimate one (e.g. a passing stranger, or a kid on the other side of a house’s wall), I’m legally liable for the consequences of my shot, whether they were intended or not.  The use of lethal force is all on me.  That being the case, I want to be as sure as possible that I don’t expose others to harm, or myself to legal jeopardy.

I think there are several things one can do to minimize the risk.  One is to downsize the caliber/cartridge of one’s carry weapon(s) to something one can manage.  I hate to admit it, but as my back deteriorates, the recoil of .45 ACP cartridges in sub-compact weapons is causing me more and more pain.  (That’s not the case with full-size weapons that fit my hand better and absorb more of the recoil, but I can’t always conceal them very easily in the heat of a Texas summer!)  Therefore, my pocket pistols have been downsized to 9mm Parabellum.  I don’t like that, but reality outweighs my affection for the bigger, heavier bullet.

That’s not the case with revolvers, however, because one can buy (or develop hand-loaded equivalents for) cartridges that recoil less, and are more manageable.  That’s often difficult when shooting semi-auto pistols, because a certain amount of recoil energy is usually required to cycle the slide and load the next round to fire.  In .44 Special, for example, I really like Buffalo Bore’s hard-cast full wadcutter round (and its equivalent in .38 Special).  I have no doubts at all about the effectiveness of that type of bullet (Jim Cirillo proved that the hard way as a member of the NYPD’s Stakeout Squad), and it’s loaded to a level that’s manageable even in a lightweight Charter Arms Bulldog revolver.  I’m therefore able to keep shooting it, and intend to do so for as long as my body will let me control it.

Choosing grips for one’s revolver that fill and fit the hand is another factor;  one can’t always do that with a pistol, but aftermarket grips can make any revolver fit one better than the factory-standard units.  I’ve found that I can continue to shoot even relatively small .38 Special snub-nose revolvers by adding larger grips.  Yes, they make the gun physically larger, and thus more difficult to conceal;  but by choosing my clothing carefully, I can still hide them in a deep pocket, using a suitable holster to keep them in the right orientation for a rapid withdrawal if needed.  (I’ve come to like Pachmayr’s Renegade grips [shown below to fit a S&W J-frame snubby] very much:  they fill my hand nicely, and give me the gripping surface I need to control and make best use of snub-nose revolvers, even ultra-lightweight models.  Altamont‘s snubby revolver grips are another good choice.)

Revolvers also take care of the problem of racking a pistol’s slide, particularly for those with limited hand and/or arm strength and/or mobility.  They hold less ammunition, to be sure, but they generally hold enough to defend oneself, unless one gets into something rather more complicated than the average armed encounter.  Yes, that happens;  and yes, if it does, one’s likely to be S.O.L. – but that’s the case with pistols, too.  One does what one can under the circumstances.

Consider, too, the utility of having one’s defensive weapons worked over by a good gunsmith.  An action job can lighten and smooth the trigger pull of a handgun, making it much easier to get good, accurate, fast hits.  Yes, that costs money;  and yes, while your gun is at the gunsmith’s (which may be the case for several months, if they’re booked up), you’ll need to have access to a second gun to carry.  Borrow one from a friend, if you can’t afford another one of your own.  (I keep a couple available for that very purpose.  What are friends for, after all?  In the same way, if you can afford to do so, keep a spare gun or two on hand.  You never know who might need one – and you might, quite literally, save a friend’s life that way.)

Another very important part of the solution is to practice more.  Far too many people who carry a gun for self-defense shoot it relatively seldom, perhaps no more than once or twice a year.  That’s not enough to master it.  Try to maintain a training regime of at least one visit to the shooting range every month, firing at least a box of ammunition every time.  (If it’s hard to afford that much full-caliber ammunition, consider a cheaper training solution.)  Also, don’t practice bad habits!  If you consistently aren’t shooting well, try to find an instructor who can help you improve, then practice the better techniques you’ve learned.  There’s no point in reinforcing habits that will get you – or, worse, an innocent bystander – killed!  Ask at your local shooting range about nearby instructors, or look online for more information.

Finally, if you just can’t get comfortable with smaller, more concealable handguns any longer, it may be time to admit that you need to carry a full-size weapon.  They’re bigger, fit the hand better, absorb more recoil, and are generally considered more reliable than their smaller counterparts.  Yes, they’re less concealable:  but that’s the trade-off you make to carry something you can control effectively in the heat of the moment.  You may have to accept a different style of dress or mode of carry, or not carry at all if the weather doesn’t allow you to put on suitable concealment garments.  Sadly, sometimes we can’t have it all.  That’s just the way life goes.



  1. All excellent points, and practice, especially with the sub compacts is a necessity! The nice thing, if you will, about getting older is that I care less about how I look, and I'm not embarrassed to have my shirt tail hanging out (and concealing my pistol).

  2. There's a quick fix for carrying full-sized guns in the heat. It's called open carry. Which, even though you may prefer concealed, is really the answer.


    Because full Constitutional Carry would allow you to either carry fully open or wouldn't punish you for exposing or 'printing' your full-sized gun under your lighter summer fare.

    Really. Why should we be constrained by the fainting hearts and zombie brains of our leftist brothers and sisters because it's hot and humid? We should be able to strap on a hog, or full-sized IWB or whatever and not have to worry about shrieking violets and pansies and whatever screaming about us wearing a gun.

    Oh for the days of, when questioned, the correct answer is "Yeah, so?" and the answer is "Oh, okay."

    Open/Concealed Constitutional Carry, it's the only way to go.

  3. I have been under arms for 5 decades and have used, both officially and as a citizen, revolvers and self-loading pistols.

    I am (and my wife as well) at the point whereby revolvers are no longer viable for us. This is due to being unable to finesse the DA trigger pull as a result of decreasing finger dexterity as septuagenarians. This is despite being relatively fit (purposefully).

    Within the context of premises of the topic, I find no diminution of ability with smaller (e.g. Glock 43) pistols.

    Modern ammunition development has put an end to any practical differences (specifically regarding wound ballistics) between 9mm and .45ACP.

    I also have zero plans to involve myself in defense against criminal activity that does not involve my personal family. I do not possess the liberty to insert myself into an affair that places my wife's livelihood or companionship (from me) at a lower priority than that of strangers. Another man's lack of concern for his family's safety imparts no duty or obligation upon me.

  4. Also, while I understand the liberty sentiment expressed regarding open carry, I would only do so if required.

    I have zero desire to eliminate any advantages; the element of surprise is a valuable commodity. Open carry is similar in nature to openly wearing body armor. There is substantive empirical data showing that "when they see the armor, they shoot for the head". Do not give a potential assailant any advantage; in the instant case it is more knowledge to plan an attack.

  5. I carry a Hungarian FEG PA-63 9×18 Makarov Pistol, which is not terribly accurate and kicks like a bitch. It hurts the web of my hand to practice with it, but my thinking is that should shit come to sweat, I'm not going to notice the recoil.

    The only time I likely ever needed to be armed, I displayed an auto loading shotgun and explained that 'Anyone who ever needs a gun on my account will either have all the time in the world to get it out and get it working – or no time at all'. I ran the action, and that was that.

    My thought hasn't changed over the years, and I'd still rather not shoot anyone. My best defense is still staying away from places where I might be confronted.

  6. 9mm has a sweet spot for 124/125 grain bullets. A 38/357 can shoot a wider wight range than the 9mm. A 9mm loaded to NATO specs is in the +P range and outperforms a 38SPL and has similar specs of low end 357MAG.

    I have a Glock 26 with a +2 magazine for a 12+1 capacity of 124gr Hydrashok that I can carry. I also have a Smith & Wesson model 65 that I have 158gr Hydrashok 357MAG that I can carry. With the G26 it is an up close gun. With the 357 I can be 100' away as I am a much better shot wit it.

    In cooler weather it is easier to carry the 357.

  7. I personally like the class of subcompacts that have full-sized or near-full-sized grips and shorter barrels/slides/etc. I was originally a Beretta 92FS person (I still LOVE that gun), but trying to conceal it was a pain and a half. I wish Beretta had made magazine compatibility with the PX4s, because I probably would have bought a PX4 subcompact, even though I really don't like it.

    If I didn't have a personal aversion to striker-fired weapons, I would have bought a Taurus Millennium G2 (Milady has it instead…). I'd have bought the Taurus TH9C if they hadn't dropped to a 1 year warranty on them (way to go Taurus: "We're spending too much on warranty service" "Let's shorten our warranty" Winning!)

    I ended up buying a Bersa TPR9C. A lifetime warranty, 12 rounds of 9mm +P, and if I carry it appendix, it doesn't dig into important parts. I'm still trying to shoot it as well as the Beretta, but I shot that gun for 20 years. It's going to take me a couple thousand more rounds to get the Bersa into the same comfort level…

  8. In my experience, trying different grips on snubbies is important. Changing from the oem plastic boot grips to a more hand filling rubber grip doubled my range for practical combat accuracy. It also allowed a reasonable practice range session of shooting without beating up my hands.

    I should point out I did cut them down in two areas.

    One, I cut them to about the length of the frame, so my little finger curls under the bottom. This seemed to have no obvious effect on shooting ability, but made concealment much easier.

    Two, I cut the backstrap to a flat surface, while keeping the rubber covering the frame, as the original shape tapered to a narrow edge. Seemed designed for style, instead of utility. They basically duplicated the size of the frame's backstrap, which was way stupid.

    The apparent problem with the small grips was the gun squirmed
    during trigger pulling in double action, and also moved during recoil. Gripping harder made no difference.

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