Selecting a Handgun

One of the principal questions you will have to answer should you decide to carry concealed is: what handgun do I carry. This section describes the various choices available and makes suggestions about how you can make the choice that works for you.

Here are the suggested criteria for selecting a handgun for concealed carry. We will discuss each of them in turn:

  1. Type—revolver or semi-automatic
  2. Caliber
  3. Ergonomics for YOU
  4. Ease of concealment

Type of Handgun

Both revolvers and semi-automatics have their advantages and disadvantages.

The principal advantages of a revolver are simplicity of operation and maintenance. You pull the trigger. It goes bang. In an emergency, you do not have to remember to take off safeties or to rack a slide. In addition, it is very hard to discharge a revolver accidentally because of the hard trigger pull.

The principal advantages of a semi-automatic are:

  1. A lighter trigger pull;
  2. A narrower profile than a revolver for concealment;
  3. A wider range of calibers for self-defense; and
  4. A semi-automatic can often hold more rounds than a revolver.


You should shoot the largest caliber gun that you can safely and effectively handle. If that is a .357 Magnum, so be it. If that is a .22, so be it. Larger calibers tend to have more “stopping” power. But if a .357 has so much recoil that you cannot put rounds on target, you are more dangerous to innocent people than you are the bad guy.

Generally, research suggests that the following rounds have adequate stopping power to generate a reasonable probability that the bad guy will be so injured as to not be able to continue acting against you. Thus, they would qualify as a mainstream carry rounds. Larger calibers (.44 Magnum, for example) are excluded because they require such a large gun with such substantial recoil so as to make concealed carry with those calibers uncommon.

Semi-Automatic Calibers

  • .380 ACP
  • 9mm Luger
  • .40 Smith and Wesson
  • 10 mm
  • .357 Sig
  • .45 ACP

Revolver Calibers

  • .38 Special
  • .357 Magnum

Some of the research results about stopping power may surprise people. For example, there is little demonstrable difference between the stopping power of 9mm, .40 S&W and .45 ACP, measured by the percent of times an attacker is completely incapacitated by a series of shots of this caliber.

On this list, the.380 and the .38 Special are the most suspect calibers in terms of stopping power. In a study of 1,800 street shootings, about 83% of attackers were completely incapacitated by a series of self-defense shots using these calibers. (The even smaller calibers, such as the various .22 calibers, .25, and .32, are less likely to incapacitate an attacker. But they are still surprisingly effective. So if these are the largest calibers you can shoot safely and effectively, they are far better than being unarmed.)

From this list, the .357 Magnum and the .357 Sig have the best documented stopping power in actual street encounters—more than 90% of attackers are completely incapacitated by these rounds. Measured by how many attackers are incapacitated by a single shot, these two calibers plus the .40 S&W rank highest.

One final note on this subject, if you are going to buy a .38 Special, it would be a good idea to consider buying one that will handle +P pressures. Some research indicates that there may be a substantial difference between a standard pressure .38 special load and a +P load in short-barrel, concealed-carry revolvers. The difference is that +P hollow point ammunition shot through a two inch barrel is much more likely to expand than are standard pressure loads. Bullet expansion increases stopping power.

If you are interested in more stopping power information, we recommend the following article. It summarizes a ten-year study of the results of 1,800 shootings that occurred over a ten-year period:

The author’s conclusion:

“The results I got from the study lead me to believe that there really isn’t that much difference between most defensive handgun rounds and calibers. None is a death ray, but most work adequately…even the lowly .22s. I’ve stopped worrying about trying to find the “ultimate” bullet. There isn’t one. And I’ve stopped feeling the need to strap on my .45 every time I leave the house out of fear that my 9mm doesn’t have enough “stopping power.” Folks, carry what you want. Caliber really isn’t all that important.”

So while there are differences in different calibers (you can see them in the above link), they are not as important as shot placement, skill in getting your handgun out of your holster quickly, situational awareness, and your comfort with the handgun. So don’t obsess about caliber when you are selecting a handgun.


This is a big deal in selecting a handgun. It includes a number of issues, all related to how well that gun works for you. Is the recoil too great? Is the slide too hard to rack? Is the gun too heavy? Can you field-strip the gun easily? Can you see the front sight without your glasses? Is the trigger pull too much for you?

In other words, does the gun work for you?

The only way to find that out is to try out different guns before you buy them. That is not hard to do. Most shooting ranges will rent guns to you for a small fee. And, if you have friends who are shooters, you will find that most of them would love to take you shooting and show off their guns.

Ease of Concealment

The smaller the gun, the easier it is to conceal. But as the gun gets smaller, you give up other things:  (1) Number of rounds it can carry; (2) accuracy; (3) and ease of shooting. As a general rule, the smaller the gun, the more recoil it has. So you may be able to shoot a .38 Special round just fine in a full size gun. But when you try to shoot one of the very small .38 specials that are on the market, you may find you cannot easily control the gun.

You need to find the right balance for you.