There are many schools of thought when it comes to which gun, and which caliber of ammunition, is best for concealed carry purposes. Some say that larger calibers, such as .40 S&W or .45 ACP are best, because you can stop a potential attacker with a single shot, eliminating the threat quickly. Others take the opposite approach, opting for a smaller caliber like 9mm because they can carry a higher number of rounds on them, good in case you need to fend off a group attack. Still others subscribe to the notion that the best gun is the one you wear every day and larger, bulky guns tend to be left at home. For them, a smaller .38 Special or .380 is the most comfortable gun, and the one that gets carried everywhere.
In this article, we will examine the different sizes of concealed carry guns and ammunition, as well as different philosophies taken by gun owners.
Concealed Carry Handgun Sizes
Firearms manufacturers don’t standardize the terms they use when naming their guns. There can be a significant size difference between “compact” handguns from one maker to the next. In fact, even within a company, the word can seem to be applied randomly. Take Ruger, for example. The Ruger SR9C (C for compact) is a full size pistol with a double stacked 17+1 capacity that has had its barrel and height reduced slightly from the larger SR9. Juxtapose that with the Ruger LCP (Light Compact Pistol), which is one of the smallest, lightest pocket pistols ever made. Ruger seems to use the word compact liberally.
For the purposes of this article, we will classify carry guns into four size categories: Micro, Small, Medium, and Large. Examples of each category are:
Micro: NAA Mini Revolver, Derringer, Phoenix Arms Raven
Small: Ruger LCP, S&W Bodyguard, S&W J Frame Revolver
Medium: S&W Shield, Sig Sauer P365, Glock 23
Large: 1911, Glock 17, Beretta 92F, Sig Sauer P229
The Micro category of firearms is mostly a novelty, so we won’t spend much time on them. They consist of mostly .22LR, .25 or .32 caliber guns that fit into the palm of your hand. The Derringer is a two shot gun, the rounds being stored directly in the two barrels. The North American Arms Mini Revolver is, you guessed it, a revolver. It’s a shrunken down version of a full size revolver, with interchangeable .22LR and .22 Magnum cylinders. I personally own one, and I must admit it’s a neat little gun to show your friends. But that’s about all it’s good for.
Versatile, concealable, and extremely lightweight. That describes handguns in the small category. They are small enough to be carried a number of different ways; waist holster, belly band, pocket or ankle holster. Most of the guns in this category are small calibers, such as .380, .38 Special, or .357 Magnum. They generally have a smaller capacity because of their small size, usually around 6 to 8 rounds. Because of the small size and small caliber, they are a favorite amongst new gun owners. Smith & Wesson, in fact, caters to women shooters with its lightweight Ladysmith .38 Special revolver. Experienced gun enthusiasts, however, tend to stay away from this category. There is a standard equation that most concealed carriers stick to that goes something like this:
Higher Caliber = Less Rounds
Lower Caliber = More Rounds
Explained, it simply means that shooters are willing to sacrifice capacity when they carry a larger caliber, or sacrifice large caliber when they can carry more rounds. This equation is mostly applied to our next category, Medium. The reason most experienced carriers stay away from the Small category is they generally have lower calibers AND less rounds. Most carriers are not willing to sacrifice both. (.357 Magnum is an exception. High velocity round in a small diameter.)
The area where Small really excels is concealability. Because of their small size and lightweight, these guns are easily concealed and comfortable to wear all day, every day. It’s often said that the best gun is the one you carry every day. This means that all the research into calibers, capacity, holsters, etc., is for naught if you don’t actually carry the gun. Large, heavy guns can be hard to conceal and can be uncomfortable, especially when sitting. That’s why large guns tend to be left at home, even by the most ardent carrier.
Medium is the group that gets the most love from concealed carry enthusiasts. Many of the most popular carry guns fall into this category. These guns offer a wide variety of calibers and capacities. According to a 2016 report, the top five selling handguns all come from this category. The most common calibers for concealed carry are 9mm, .40 S&W, and .45 ACP. These three, in fact, have been the subject of much debate. With Medium carry guns, you have traditionally gotten either large caliber (9mm, .40, .45), or large capacity (12-15 rounds), but not both. Recently, however, several new guns have been introduced that offer large capacity in large calibers. The P365 from Sig Sauer, for example, is a 9mm with a double stacked, 12 round magazine. Sig has managed to design a double stack magazine while keeping the frame 1-inch thick for maximum concealability. They did this by first designing the magazine, and then designing the gun around it. The Glock 23 Gen 4 similarly holds 13 rounds of .40 S&W, with a thickness of just over 1-inch.
Everyone loves big guns. Big calibers, large capacities. However, these guns are significantly harder to conceal than their smaller brothers. Full size pistols give you the peace of mind of knowing that you are well armed to respond to any threat you might face. The Glock 17, for example, offers 17+1 capacity of 9mm. The 1911 boasts the largest caliber commonly concealed, the .45 ACP.
For diehard carriers of large handguns, concealment is often an issue. Many concealed carriers change their EDC (every day carry) gun as the seasons change. In the fall and winter, when baggier clothes and jackets are common, they can carry larger guns. In the spring and summer months, they transition to a smaller gun that conceals better in shorts and a tee shirt.
One way that you can get around the predicament of concealing a large gun is to not conceal it at all. Where legal, open carrying a full-size pistol makes a definite statement. 1911s are the most frequently open carried firearms. Because of their single action, 1911s should be carried with the hammer back and the safety on.
There is no right answer to the question, “What is the best concealed carry gun?” The right gun is one that you know how to use safely and that you are comfortable carrying. Many beginners feel more comfortable with revolvers because they are less prone to misfires or negligent discharge due to mishandling. Similarly, there is no best caliber when it comes to concealed carry. Everyone has different priorities that dictate what gun and what caliber they carry. Some want more rounds at their disposal, while others prefer the stopping power of a larger caliber. Whatever gun you choose to carry, be sure that you do so in a safe manner.