CARRY: PORTABLE PROTECTION IN YOUR POCKET
Not long ago, I was looking at the display case in a gun store. In the section containing used handguns, there were some almost new models, mostly large autos in 40 S&W and 45 Auto calibers. I made some comment to the dealer about the handguns and was told most had been traded in for something smaller. The dealer’s comment was that “everyone wants one of these until they carry it for a while and then reality sets in and they want smaller handguns.”
The truth is that unless the handgun is part of the gear required in a job description, most people do not want to carry a two-pound handgun on a regular basis. Moreover, a small handgun fits better in concealed carry, an emergency kit, or a backpack. The desirability of a small handgun is based on practical considerations, and the same characteristics that make a pocket handgun a good choice for carry also make it a good choice for nightstand duty. Whether an autoloader or revolver is the small handgun chosen depends on the personal preference of the user.
THE SMALL HANDGUN
Having concluded a small handgun is the right tool to have available, what are some of the practical considerations? The first is the choice of type of handgun because that will dictate the choice of caliber. Assuming an autoloading handgun is being chosen for its defensive capability, the logical caliber choices are the 380 Auto and 9mm Luger. A recent FBI report based on analysis of a lot of data obtained from cases in which a handgun was used concluded the 9mm fared about as well as the 40 S&W and 45 Auto. The conclusions were based on the effects produced by the bullets and the controllability of the handguns.
Having tested some of the modern 9mm defense loads, the results came as no surprise to me. However, the same high tech principles that have elevated the performance level of the 9mm Luger have also been applied to the 380 Auto making it far more effective than it was a few years ago. My wife and I tested some of the premium 380 ammunition and it provides impressive performance. The 380 Auto today is probably as effective as the 9mm was a generation ago. A 380 Auto represents about as much recoil and blast as many shooters will tolerate and control, and those attributes are significant when shooting some of the tiny 380s.
THE RIGHT AMMO
Of course there are other possible calibers for both compact revolvers and autoloaders, but those mentioned are encountered in the vast majority of compact handguns that are of a size that allow them to be carried in a pocket. One reason is the wide range of handguns in those calibers. The number of models available in 380 Auto is very large and it seems that new models are introduced frequently. Most are fixed barrel models operating on a simple blow back design. Pistols more powerful than the 380 (such as the 9mm Luger, 40 S&W, and 45 Auto) are designed so the barrel and slide are locked together at the time of firing. The result is that a 380 Auto pistol is not simply a scaled down version of a more powerful pistol.
Small 38 Special revolvers have been around for a very long time. For many years, the small frame Smith & Wesson Model 36 Chief’s Special and the Colt Detective Special were popular sidearms for off duty officers or civilian defense. Although Colt is out of the business of making small revolvers, such guns are still produced by Smith & Wesson, as well as by Charter Arms, Taurus, Rossi and others. Models are available in both 38 Special and 357 Magnum calibers holding either five or six cartridges. The S&W Model 36 has been discontinued, but the stainless steel Model 60 is a similar gun with a three-inch barrel, and it can be obtained with other features such as adjustable sights, target hammer and target trigger. The current S&W Model 60 is chambered for the 357 Magnum, but it also works well with all 38 Special loads.
Although a three-inch barrel is more versatile, a wheel gun with a two-inch barrel is also suitable for short range defensive situations. Numerous models are available from the major manufacturers. My current compact gun is a Taurus Model 85UL rated for +P 38 Special loads but weighs only about 17 ounces. Not an accurate target arm, the 85UL is nevertheless sufficiently accurate for defense use and it has proven to be completely reliable.
DOUBLE ACTION VS. AUTO
When it comes to compact autoloaders, my preference is for one of the double action models that has an external hammer so it can be cocked manually for single action shooting. The most common calibers for such guns are 380 Auto and 9mm Luger. In order to function reliably, most autoloading pistols must be used with essentially full power loads. As a result, my preference is for a 380 Auto because the 9mm operates at a pressure of approximately 35,000 pounds per square inch so it generates a lot of blast from a short barrel. Pistols chambered for the 9mm are available with barrels as short as three inches. My own 9mm pistol has a four-inch barrel and I would not want to shoot full power loads from a shorter barrel.
“EVERYONE WANTS ONE OF THESE UNTIL THEY CARRY IT FOR A WHILE AND THEN REALITY SETS IN AND THEY WANT SMALLER HANDGUNS.
As mentioned earlier, the choice of pistols chambered in 380 Auto is very large. At the top of my list is the famous Walther PPK, primarily because of the overall style and the fact that it is very comfortable in my hand. However, pistols of the same basic configuration are available from Bersa, and the one that my wife has functions flawlessly while costing less than half as much as the Walther. A less expensive option is the Walther PK 380, but all major manufacturers produce pistols in 380 Auto caliber. Glock recently entered that market and Ruger offers some diminutive 380 pistols. Colt produces the tiny Mustang autoloader in 380 caliber. In order to make an appropriate choice, the shopper should visit a dealer with numerous models available and see what feels good in the hand with conveniently operated controls. Many 380 Auto pistols have no hammer and have a striker firing mechanism that operates simply by pulling the trigger.
Recently, I have been reading a book called Gun Talk, edited by Dave Moreton (Winchester Press, 1973). The book is an anthology consisting of 17 articles written by noted firearms authorities. An article on handguns was written by the late Major George Nonte and deals with numerous aspects of handgun use. At one point (page 144), when dealing with selection of a handgun for protection, Nonte states “…I’d give him (her?) a Smith & Wesson Model 36 … with a three-inch barrel, and loaded with 38 Special 148-grain wadcutter ammunition. As a second choice, I’d make it a 380 Walther Model PP and standard factory ammunition.”
“…I’D GIVE HIM (HER?) A SMITH & WESSON MODEL 36 … WITH A THREE-INCH BARREL, AND LOADED WITH 38 SPECIAL 148-GRAIN WADCUTTER AMMUNITION. AS A SECOND CHOICE, I’D MAKE IT A 380 WALTHER MODEL PP AND STANDARD FACTORY AMMUNITION.”
More than 40 years later, that is still good advice with respect to the types of firearms and calibers, but there are currently many more models from different manufacturers to choose from. For defense situations, it is hard to select more appropriate handguns than those recommended by Nonte.
Editors Note: A version of this article first appeared in the April 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.