The question is often asked, “what is the best handgun for concealed carry?” There are many valid answers to this question and they usually begin with, “well, it depends on a number of factors.” However, in my humble opinion, there is one universally valid answer, and that is, “it is the gun that you have on you when you need it.” With that said, the purpose of this brief article is to make you aware of twelve handguns that are so easy to carry, that there is no excuse to ever go unarmed – never ever. This list of handguns spans a range of calibers: .22 Long Rifle, .22 Magnum, .32 ACP, .380 ACP, .38 Special, and .357 Magnum, and includes revolvers (single action and double action) as well as double action semi-automatic pistols. They range in size from small to palm size, and they all come in under 12 ounces in empty weight. Thus, every one of the guns on this list is easy to carry in a jacket or pant pocket. In addition, every gun I have selected has proven ease of handling in reasonably trained hands, reliability, accuracy for the distance within which the gun is designed to be used, and ease of maintenance (i.e., field stripping and cleaning). There is a gun here for just about everyone.
I myself enjoy shooting small pocket pistols, so I shoot them often and as a result have gotten good at shooting them. However, here stands one essential caveat. Ultra-compact .32 and .380 ACP pocket pistols are not easy to shoot well. They require training and practice. One cannot escape physics. Tiny light guns bark and buck. People with big hands often complain that they cannot get a good grip on them given the fact that the grips are short and thin. Also, the sights on most of these pistols, if they even have sights, are tiny and difficult to use in the reactive situations for which these defensive pistols were designed. Once again, training and practice are the orders of the day.
.22 Long Rifle
#1. The Beretta Model 21 Bobcat is an ultra-compact double action/single action .22 LR semi-automatic pistol that features a 2.4 inch tip-up barrel, fixed sights, a frame mounted manual safety, and a magazine capacity of 7 rounds. It weighs about 11.5 ounces empty. This gun is easy to shoot and the tip-up barrel is a nice feature for those who have difficulty racking the slide to chamber or eject a round. This little gun is maximally effective with good quality high velocity .22 LR ammunition such as CCI 40 grain Mini-Mags, CCI 32 grain hollow point Stingers, or Aguila 30 grain Super Max hollow points. Hammer down, manual safety on carry gives you a double action first shot and single action subsequent shots. This makes this gun relatively easy to shoot for people who do not handle long and heavy double action triggers very well. Street price new: Around $300.
#2. The Smith and Wesson Model 317 AirLite Revolver is a 9.9 ounce 8-round snubby with a 2 inch barrel, chambered for the .22 LR cartridge. It has an abbreviated hammer that does not snag, so it can be fired in either single or double action. I have owned mine for years and have shot all types of .22 LR loads out of it. It has always gone bang when the trigger is pulled and is low maintenance. By that I mean it just goes and goes in between cleanings. This gun is combat accurate in rapid fire out to 15 yards. The trigger is smooth and light, and the gun is easy to handle and shoot – perceived recoil is a non-issue. The serrated ramp front sight and fixed notch rear sight are small, so outfitted with a pair of Crimson Trace Laser Grips, this gun makes a very handy personal defense package. Street price new: Around $600.
#3. The North American Arms .22 Magnum Pug Mini-Revolver is a 6.4 ounce single-action 5-shot ultra-small revolver that packs a big fist. Squat and sturdy with a 1 inch barrel and a highly visible XS Tritium Big Dot front sight, the guns pebble texture rubber grips allow its owner to keep a firm leash on this puppy. Nevertheless, this gun is surprisingly easy shooting and accurate out to 7 yards. The single action trigger is light but not too light. Given that this gun is single action, and designed to be carried hammer down on one of five safety slots on the cylinder, this little pocket protector can be safely carried without a holster. Thus, the Pug truly can go anywhere with you – in a pair of gym shorts, a shirt pocket, or pant or jacket front or rear pocket. However, be careful if you also carry your keys in the same pocket. You do not want to snag the hammer. When the hammer is cocked, the cylinder revolves onto a live chambered round. This is the ultimate deep cover hideout gun. At close range, with proper shot placement, the .22 Magnum can probably get the job done. However, in Condition Black, this gun can only give you 5 shots and cannot be reloaded during the fight, as the gun has to be partially disassembled to reload. If you own this sturdy little Pug, there is just no excuse ever to go anywhere without a gun. As North American Arms, also known as NAA says, it really is “convenient, reliable and effective.” Street price new: Around $325.
#4. The Smith and Wesson Model 351PD AirLite Revolver is a 10.8 ounce 7-round “Chiefs Special snubby with a 1.875 inch barrel, chambered for the .22 Magnum cartridge. It has a small external hammer that is relatively snag free, but which enables the gun to be fired in single or double action mode. With its HIVIZ Fiber Optic Red front sight, blackened aluminum alloy frame and cylinder, and wood grips, the gun is pretty. This gun is also very reliable – it goes bang whenever the trigger is pulled, and like the Smith Model 317, is low maintenance. However, this gun has a very heavy trigger with a fair amount of creep. This affects one’s ability to engage in accurate rapid fire, especially at distances past seven yards. Perceived recoil is a non-issue. Street price new: Around $625-650.
#5. The 6.6 ounce Kel-Tec P-32 is a double action only, locked breech semi-automatic pistol with a polymer frame, steel slide, 2.68 inch barrel and a 7 + 1 capacity. The lightest .32 pistol ever made, the P-32 is thin and attractive and a trend setter; it is the first of a line of ultra-modern, ultra-compact ultra-light polymer .32 and .380 semi-auto pistols. It has low perceived recoil, a light smooth trigger and excellent accuracy at 7 to 10 yards and in. This little gun even locks open on an empty magazine and magazine changes are easy to accomplish making emergency reloads possible. My extensive experience with this gun is that it is very robust, reliable and fun to shoot. I have not had a hiccup out of two of mine after 500 rounds spent with each without any cleaning – not that I recommend not cleaning your guns. Street price new: Around $260.
#6. The 11.5 ounce Seecamp LWS .32 ACP is dimensionally the smallest .32 ACP on the current market. It is a double action only, flush hammer fired, fixed barrel, retarded blowback, all stainless steel semi-automatic pistol with a magazine capacity of 6 rounds. The gun is a literal work of art – a family heirloom. It is precision designed like a piece of fine jewelry, a fine Swiss watch. But, it isn’t just beautiful. It packs a wallop and shoots with reliability and accuracy. However, this gun is not for everyone given its unique features. But tell me, what gun is? The Seecamp has no sights. It is designed for very close-in point shooting. It also has a magazine safety; that is, it will not fire with the magazine removed, nor can the slide be retracted without the magazine in place. The magazine release is European style, at the bottom rear of the grip. It does have a rather limited diet however – it is ammunition finicky. My .32 caliber Seecamps reliably handle Winchester Silvertips, Winchester Q4255 71 gr. FMJs, Hornady 60 grain SJH/XTPs, Speer Gold Dots, Federal Hydra Shoks, and Magsafe frangibles. The Seecamp is smooth, consistent and pleasant to work. It needs to be kept clean and well lubricated. Street price new: Around $525 to $550.
#7. The 8.3 ounce Kel-Tec P-3AT is a double action only, locked breech semi-automatic pistol with a polymer frame, steel slide, 2.7 inch barrel and a 6 + 1 capacity. This pistol was developed by Kel-Tec from their highly successful P-32. The slidestop was eliminated and the magazine capacity reduced to 6 rounds due to the slightly larger .380 cartridge. Like the P-32, the P-3AT is thin and attractive and a trend setter; again the first of a line of ultra-modern, ultra-compact ultra-light polymer .380 semi-auto pistols. Almost exactly the same size as its older sibling, the P-32, the P-3AT has slightly greater perceived recoil, a slightly heavier but roughly equally as smooth trigger as the P-32, and good accuracy at 7 to 10 yards and in. Sans slidestop, the P-3AT does not lock open on an empty magazine, but nevertheless, magazine changes are easy to accomplish making emergency reloads possible. My extensive experience with this gun is that it is very robust, reliable and fun to shoot. Its little white sights are visible and usable, and this gun will eat anything in .380 ACP. As is the case with my P-32’s, my P-3AT’s keep working even without cleaning – not that I recommend not cleaning your guns. Street price new: Around $300.
#8. The 11.5 ounce Seecamp LWS .380 ACP is dimensionally the smallest .380 ACP on the current market. Like its older sibling the LWS .32, it is a double action only, flush hammer fired, fixed barrel, retarded blowback, all stainless steel semi-automatic pistol with a magazine capacity of 6 rounds. Like the LWS .32, this pistol is precision designed like a piece of fine jewelry, but it packs a larger wallop with the larger .380 cartridge. Perceived recoil is stouter than with the .32 and the trigger feels slightly heavier. This pistol has the same unique features as its .32 caliber sibling (no sights, a magazine safety, and a European style heel magazine release. The ammunition finicky .380 Seecamp seems to prefer Winchester Silvertips, Speer Gold Dots, and Federal Hydra Shoks. It needs to be kept clean and well lubricated. Street price new: Slightly pricey and hard to get at around $850.
#9. The 9.4 ounce Ruger LCP .380 was one of the biggest hits when it was first introduced at the 2008 SHOT Show. The LCP which stands for "Light Compact Pistol” has a glass filled nylon frame, a blued steel slide and a magazine capacity of 6 rounds. It is similar in size and appearance to the Kel-Tec P-3AT, equally as attractive, but somewhat more rounded at its edges. The LCP adds a manually operated slide stop so the slide can be locked open, although the slide doesn’t lock open on an empty magazine. In April of 2010, Texas Governor Rick Perry brought spotlight to this weapon when he used it to bring down, with one .380 ACP hollow point, a coyote that was menacing him and his daughter’s Labrador retriever during a morning jog. So much for those who disdainfully minimize the immediate effectiveness of the .380 ACP cartridge. My two personal LCP’s are ultra-reliable, accurate, and easy to learn to shoot effectively. Like the Kel-Tec P-3AT, they will eat anything in .380. Their trigger is easy to learn to control – slightly longer and lighter than the P-3AT’s trigger. Street price new: Around $310.
#10. The Smith and Wesson Bodyguard .380 is an 11.9 ounce trigger cocking, double action only, hammer fired .380 ACP semi-automatic pistol with a 2.75 inch barrel and a 6 + 1 capacity. It has a polymer frame, a matte back stainless steel slide with a melonite protective coating, and sights that are actually usable. In addition, this state of the art ultra-compact pistol has a frame mounted manual safety and an integrated laser sight operated by an on/off button on the right side of the frame in front of the trigger guard. The gun also has a slide lock lever and the slide does lock back on an empty magazine. This is a lot of gun in a very small package. I have not had my copy long. Heck, the gun just debuted. Thus far, this pistol has proven reliable with different types of hollow point and FMJ .380 ACP ammunition. The trigger is smooth but long. It takes some getting used to, but when you do master the trigger, this gun is an accurate shooter. I really like this gun. Street price new: $425. to $450.
#11. The Kahr Arms P380 is an 11.3 ounce double action only, slide cocking, striker fired locked breech, .380 semi-automatic pistol with sights that are actually usable. It has a 2.5 inch Lothar Walther barrel, a black polymer frame, a stainless steel slide, and has a 6 + 1 capacity. This gun is an excellent shooter with the smoothest trigger of all of the guns reviewed here. That is not surprising – it is a Kahr Arms. The P380 is pleasant to shoot and very accurate out to 15 yards. Perceived recoil is manageable. This ultra-compact pistol handles smoothly and on point in rapid fire – more like its larger caliber, larger sized Kahr cousins (e.g., the P9). However, this gun, like Kahr’s other pistols needs a break-in of at least 200 rounds. This pistol also needs to be kept clean and well lubed. It is also more ammunition finicky than its competitors, the Kel-Tec P-3AT and the Ruger LCP. Price is on the more expensive side. Street price new: $550. to $600.
.38 Special and .357 Magnum
#12. The Smith and Wesson Model 340PD and its sibling, the Model 360PD, are 1.875 inch barrel, 11.4 ounce, scandium frame snubnose revolvers chambered for both the powerful .357 Magnum cartridge and the .38 Special +P. The only difference between the siblings is that the “Centennial” Model 340PD has an internal hammer while the “Chiefs Special” Model 360PD has an external hammer. These snubbies hold a special place in my heart and a regular spot in my pockets. These are the ultimate concealed carry handguns in terms of fulfilling all of my criteria: powerful caliber, not ammunition sensitive, light weight, small profile, fits in a pocket, a pleasure to carry, ergonomic, natural pointers, good shooters, very reliable, accurate in trained hands, easy to maintain, long lasting, and pretty. Street price new: $815. to $850.
My Three Personal Favorites
You cannot go wrong with any of the 12 guns we have discussed. I recommend all of them, but which ones you may wonder are my personal favorites? I own all of them and I even have multiple copies of the ones I like best. So, which do I like best? Here are my “Top 3 Picks.” Please understand that it was hard for me to pick a “Top 3.” My selection criteria are a mix of objective and subjective factors. My objective factors included: caliber, reliability, trigger characteristics, and the gun’s handling and accuracy in my hands. My subjective factors included: my desire to own more than two copies of a gun, my frequency of actually carrying a gun, as well as perceived recoil, ease of carry and concealment, ease of maintenance, and beauty in the eyes of this beholder. Also subjective was my algorithm for combining these criteria to choose my “Top 3 Picks.” The truth is I like all 12 guns, or else they would not have been included in this article.
#1. Well, by the sheer number I own, my frequency of every day carry, and my love for these guns, I give the #1 spot in “my book”, and in my pocket, to Smith and Wesson’s Models 340PD and 360PD scandium AirLite snubnose revolvers. It’s a beautiful thing to carry in your pocket five .357 Magnums, or five 38 Special +P’s, in a reliable 11.4 ounce gun that always goes bang when you pull the trigger (and six reloads in a Bianchi Speed Strip), and to be able to forget it’s there. These pretty guns just want to be in your pockets. With no external hammer to snag on clothing, the 340PD (one of S&W’s “Centennial” models), if need be, can be fired from one’s pocket – quite a handy feature to have for self defense in a close-in lethal force confrontation. I have owned my 340PDs and 360PDs for years and have shot all types of .357 Magnum and .38 Special +P loads out of them. They have always gone bang when the trigger was pulled and they are low maintenance. By that I mean they just keep shooting without even a hiccup in between cleanings. These guns are combat accurate in rapid fire out to 15 yards. In fact, they are more accurate than the shooter. The gist is that their owner must practice with them. As with any gun, especially these little ones, you must learn the trigger, the use of the sights, and the gun’s handling characteristics and recoil pattern.
#2. I give the #2 spot in my book to the Kel-Tec P-32 – 6.6 ounces of personal protection smaller than my loaded key ring. This accurate, reliable, sweet shooting little piece puts 8 rounds of .32 ACP at your immediate service as soon as you need them. With a spare magazine, that’s 15 rounds – not bad for a 6.6 ounce gun that is utterly reliable, accurate, and easy and fun to shoot.
#3. I give the #3 spot in my book to the NAA .22 Magnum Pug Mini-Revolver. With this gun, you do not even need a holster. You can totally hide the gun in your hand, which can be a great tactical advantage in certain situations. Also, it is safe to carry this gun in a jacket side pocket, pant back pocket, or in your gym shorts, at the ready in any situation. I really like that. Given the existence of this little jewel, there really is NO reason to ever be unarmed.
So there you have it from me, the “mousegun guy.” Watch your 360 and stay safe.
Bruce N. Eimer, Ph.D., is a licensed and board certified, clinical and forensic psychologist, NRA Certified Law Enforcement Firearms Instructor, and professional writer in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The author of Concealed Carry Magazine’s ‘Armed Senior Citizen" column, Dr. Eimer provides private shooting instruction to law abiding citizens in the defensive use of firearms. Through his company, Personal Defense Solutions, LLC, Dr. Eimer teaches the defensive handgun classes required to obtain the Florida, Virginia, and Utah non-resident, multi-state CCW permits. Dr. Eimer has provided expert witness testimony in numerous court proceedings, and is the founder of www.DefensiveHandguns.net, the online forum for everyone interested in defensive firearms. He can be reached at [email protected]
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