Jim’s Gems #1, Defensive Pistol Selection Thoughts and Experiences

By July 3, 2017Columns, Jim's Gems

Editor’s Note: This column launches a regular series by a new Contributor here at TheGaGG.com. Welcome Jim Marsal. His column is “Jim’s Gems”. We are very lucky to have Jim at TheGaGG.com and value his contributions. I won’t rewrite his Bio, you can find it here, but suffice it to say whether shooting, competing or building guns – Jim is your guy. Without further adieu, I give you Jim’s Gems #1.

When I was asked to write a monthly column for this blog, I initially turned it down.  Personally, I’ve always been the guy trying to live life and not write about it.  However, the time has come.  I have many students, friends and fellow officers I know, that call on me and want to know what I think.  So, here it goes…some of “Jim’s Gems”.

I find that many people believe, when they first start this quest, that there is “just one” ideal handgun available.  Maybe like, “One size fits all”?  If there is such a Unicorn, I have not found it nor have any of my peers.  All makes, models, calibers and brands have strengths and weaknesses.  Our quest is to find the perfect handgun that meets most of our personal needs, assists or enhances our personal strengths, minimizes our personal weaknesses, and has the ability to deal with our potential threats we may face in our environment around us.

Glock G17, Streamlight TLR-1

“Big Gun” – G17 Decked Out

As opposed to searching for the perfect “one” handgun, let’s be more realistic and look for two.  I will refer to these as your “primary”/duty-carry gun and your “secondary”, or back-up gun.  My wife refers to these as her “big gun” and “small gun”.  This article will deal with the selection of your primary defensive handgun.

Glock G43

“Small Gun” – G43 Backup

If you have made the decision to carry a handgun every day, you will soon discover that it’s hard to conceal larger model pistols year round, especially when wearing different types of clothing.  You will, also, find out quickly that smaller handguns are harder to shoot well, have less magazine capacity and are less reliable.  Obviously, we will have to make changes in our personal clothing, holsters and weapon of choice, to carry year round in all types of climates.

Many start the search for the primary defensive gun by looking for the smallest, lightest and heaviest caliber handgun that is available.  Some (more well-read) start the process by asking “George the Gun Guy” down the street about what he likes.  A few will actually go to a range to shoot several of the latest and greatest pistols that are available.  Usually, they will shoot less than 50 rounds each and make their decision based on this limited experience.  While any of these methods may work and they might get something they can be happy with, generally these methods end in buyer’s remorse.

First, let’s start with some of my selection criteria:

  1. Reliability:  If the handgun will not fire 500 rounds without malfunction, for you, its performance is suspect for working when you need it to work the most.
  2. Shootability:  Technical term I use to describe if you can actually hit anything with this pistol, at speed and while shooting for precision accuracy.
  3. Reasonable accuracy with defensive hollow point ammunition: Generally around 4″ groups, from a rest, at 25 yards.
  4. Pointability:  Another technical term I use to describe if the handgun naturally points, for you, at the target when you have the proper master grip on the handgun.
  5. Easy to use controls: I avoid unusual magazine release systems, strange safety levers and other non-ergonomic controls.
  6. High capacity:  Preferably magazines holding more than ten cartridges.
  7. Smooth edges: Not to abrade clothing and skin.
  8. Easy to repair:  Parts and accessories are available in most full-service gun shops, at least nationwide.

While all of these items matter in a defensive gun, reliability and “shootability” are the main things I look for from my primary defensive handgun.  Now that we know what the criteria is, let’s look at those handguns and calibers we know to perform very well for the majority of end users.  The models I have seen perform the best, are as follows:

  1. Beretta 92/96F or G series
  2. Glock models 19, 17, 23, 22, and 21/21SF
  3. Sig Sauer models P220, P225, P226, P228, and P229
  4. Smith & Wesson M&P series pistols, preferably the 2.0 series
  5. Smith & Wesson revolvers, K or L frame, with 3-5″ barrels, chambered in 38 Special or 357 Magnum

Boy, that’s a pretty short list.  Many are going to start getting all hot and bothered that their favorite blaster, brand, caliber, or model isn’t listed.  I get that.  In fact, I own numerous models of what some consider the best defensive handguns available, yet I do not believe that they measure up to the models I listed.

Top 3 9mms: Beretta 92f, Sig P226, Glock G17

Let’s slay a few dragons.  In my experience, your best success will come from one of the models listed in the following calibers: 38 Special, 357 Magnum, 9mm, 40 S&W and 45 ACP.  We will discuss calibers and actual cartridge performance in another article, if this one doesn’t get me fired first.

For years, I was known in my local area as a 45 caliber, 1911 shooter.  No more, no less.  I carried a 1911, on and off duty, I shot in numerous matches and attended many training classes with the old Colt, Springfield Armory, Les Baer, et al.  I have probably fired more 45 ACP cartridges, through a 1911 pistol, than many have seen.  It is the most accurate pistol platform I own…and I still own several.  However, at the end of the day, grip and thumb safeties cause many shooters problems – they are more sensitive to wear causing reliability issues, they are heavy to carry in the full-size steel frame models, most have sharp edges that abrade skin and clothing and most have reliability issues when “Shawn the Shade Tree Gun Crank” gets a chance to “tune it up”.

Les Baer 1911 Handgun

High-End Les Baer 1911

Now, many people say to just train with the pistol and learn how to “run” it.  Yep, got that – I can run it.  I usually shoot A class scores at the local USPSA matches running a 45 caliber, 1911, using old school leather gear, 8 round magazines and full power ammunition.  However, we are talking about what is successful in the use for the majority of people.  The majority of people are not going to practice each week, or month for that matter, so they will forget the thumb safety or will not fully depress the grip safety.  Don’t believe me?  Go to any local USPSA match and watch the shooters run the 1911 platform guns.  See how many 1911 pistol malfunctions there are and compare that to all of the other models present.  See how many pinned or deactivated grip safeties there are alone.  I wonder, “What would happen in a gun fight if you forgot to take off the thumb safety, or grip the pistol hard enough to depress the grip safety”?

Beretta 92F

Beretta 92F

Beretta 92F pistols are unreliable in the US military.  Well, maybe since I’ve never served in the military and have not used their stuff, but I can tell you they run almost 99% in the civilian/law enforcement world.  In fact, I’ve owned three 92F’s and can’t remember when one has malfunctioned.  Jacketed hollow points, plated flap points, lead round nosed bullets…just didn’t matter.  I’ve carried a Beretta 92F for several years, qualified hundreds of officers with them and had very little issues with this model.  This is true as long as we used quality magazines, kept recoil springs changed periodically around 5,000 rounds and fired decent ammunition in them.  They work.  Same can be said in the Beretta 96F, in 40 S&W.  In one military torture test, they found the mean average rate of malfunction for the Beretta 92F and Sig P226, 9mm pistols, was around one malfunction in 7,200 rounds.  Wow!

Sig Magazine Differences

That brings us to the Sig Sauer models previously listed.  Generally, I have found the best reliability with these pistols is to use the original Sig Sauer manufactured magazines.  Though, recently, I have been having great success with a late model Sig P226, 40 S&W caliber, using Mec-Gar made magazines.  I personally carried a P220, 45 ACP, as my primary duty gun for several years.  I found it to be very reliable, accurate and easy to shoot.  I gave it up due to limited magazine capacity, double action trigger and heavier felt recoil in the lightweight aluminum framed gun.

Sig P226

Sig P226

You will notice that not one of the 2000 series, or the P320 Sig Sauer pistols are listed.  In my experience, I have always found the 2000 series pistols to have very heavy trigger pulls and many do not have the sights properly regulated to shoot point of aim, or point of impact for me.  The recent Sig P320 is now “all of the rage”.  It does have some nice features, but I have fired a couple that are having failure to extract issues in 2,000-3,000 round guns.  Personally, I’ll wait until Sig gets the kinks worked out in those models before I recommend them.   As a side note, I know of few guns that have had as many rounds fired through them in controlled testing as has the Beretta 92F and Sig Sauer P226, 9mm.  Certainly something to think about when making your selection.

Smith and Wesson M&P series pistols have always been hit or miss in my opinion…and that hasn’t changed much.  However, many nationally known shooters and trainers that swear by them.  Personally, I love the grip, the low bore axis and the high magazine capacity.  I don’t care for the poor accuracy of the pre-2.0 models, the complete disassembly is harder than other plastic pistols on the market and the factory trigger pull/pull weight is heavy.  I have seen some models that have had failure to extract issues, even in the 2.0 series of guns.  However, there are enough of these pistols in use that I find the majority of these M&P models to shoot very well and are a Godsend for those of us with smaller hands.  I have found the newer 2.0 pistols to be accurate enough (4″, or less, at 25 yards) for duty use.

Many will be surprised to find that I still recommend the double action revolver.  Well, not everyone is a trained SWAT, Delta Force, Navy Seal, Ninja Warrior, snake-eating kind of guy.  To be honest, the average civilian needs a defensive handgun more than I do, looking at the numbers of mass shootings we have had across the country.  Some people have hand-strength issues due to age and/or injury.  This causes problems for them in pulling the slide back on semi-automatics or, when chambering a cartridge and/or clearing malfunctions.  Some people are just more comfortable with the simplicity of the revolver.

S&W 686 L-Frame, S&W 66 K-Frame

Smith & Wesson revolvers are what I started on.  They are reliable as long as they are cleaned properly and nobody “fixes” them for you.  Down sides are the overall size of the gun, the heavy gun weight, the high bore axis, the limited ammunition capacity, they are slow to reload at times and they have a heavy double action trigger pull.  Heck, nobody is perfect!  However, the Smith & Wesson K/L frame revolver is the easiest to shoot due to the smoother DA/SA trigger pull, as well as the availability of parts and people who can repair it.  Try taking your Colt Python down to the local shop for a tune up.  My guess is that you probably can’t find anyone who is actually qualified to work on one within 100 miles of your residence.  Other than the TV character Rick Grimes, who’s carrying a $3,000 revolver now anyway?

My favorite revolver models are the S&W model 66 for primarily shooting 38 Specials and the S&W model 686 for 357 Magnum use.  I use and recommend four inch barrels of course!  Avoid any Airweight, short-barreled revolvers for they kick too much, they are harder to shoot well and have one less round of ammunition that is available.

Glock G19 EDC

Glock G19 EDC

The Glock.  Ugly as sin, relatively inexpensive as far as quality defensive guns go and as one friend put it when he first saw one, “It has no soul!”  I can’t argue with any of that other than to say, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”.  When I was first issued a Glock around late 1992, early 1993, I thought that it was the biggest piece of plastic junk on the market.  I actually believed the administrators at our Department were trying to get us all killed and the training Lieutenant was in on it!  After shooting one on and off over 25 years, carrying one and working on all of these listed models for years, I can only say that I’m impressed!  Generally, they are easy to shoot, 100% reliable, they have a low bore axis for point shooting and better recoil control, they have high magazine capacity, they are extremely rust resistant and they are the easiest to repair of all of the models known.

Now, all this begs the question of what I carry on a daily basis.  My go-to defensive gun is a Glock model 17 for primary duty use.  I have the Glock model 19 for my concealed carry gun and the Glock 43, for back-up/hide out gun use.  As many may know, these are all chambered in 9mm.  Everything seems to come full circle since the Glock 17 was the first semi-automatic pistol I was issued in 1992/93, after the revolver.

I view this entire process as a system.  If I stick with one type of gun (system if you will), it’s easier to learn the same trigger pull, sight picture, grip angle, manual of arms, stock the same replacement parts, etc.  Obviously, you don’t want to re-learn the trigger pull, grip angles, sights, etc., on your defensive handgun when you are facing zombies.

I like the lightweight and smooth edges of the Glock pistols, the high magazine capacity, the lighter recoil of the 9mm cartridge, the cheaper ammunition for practice, and the reliability as well as the shootability due to the same trigger pull and lack of manual safeties.  While Glock has not been known for match grade accuracy, they will shoot into 4″, at 25 yards, with most any quality made duty ammunition.  If I had to pick one pistol for its all-around use…the Glock model 19 would be it.  Generally, I don’t like small guns because they are hard to shoot well, they have reliability issues and limited magazine capacity.  The Glock model 19 is big enough to shoot well yet small enough to still carry concealed in most climates.

Well, there you have it.  My opinion based on my few years of experience, my experiences in training other new and seasoned shooters, my gunsmithing, as well as my involvement in various shooting sports.  There will be that guy who says I have “X” brand, model, caliber gun and it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread and I can shoot the eye out of a fly at 50 yards.  Right, I understand and I’m sure there are exceptions to everything.  But, that’s just one person with just one gun.  Further, I ask you “How many rounds are you actually shooting in a year”?  Is it 500-1,000 rounds…more?  What I’m talking about here is what the average person can use with the least amount of issues.

Until next month…if there is a next month.  Hopefully I’ll see you on the range!



  • Stan says:

    Great article! Very in-depth and informative. He knows what he’s talking about. I have known Jim for over 25 years. He is my go to guy for firearm advice, he is ny gunsmith and he is a very good Christian man. He is also a very close friend.

  • Bob Peaden says:

    Loved the blog ,you do sound like you may know a little.ha! Great job Jim see you around the corner

  • Allan T. Jackson says:

    Enjoyed reading the article. If I have any questions about guns or ammunition, I always ask Jim. He is the best.

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