Jim-s Gems #3 – Back-Up and “Small” Guns

By September 9, 2017Columns, Jim's Gems
Backup, handgun, pistol, defensive

Choices, Choices

So, we’ve spent all of our money and time picking out the perfect defensive pistol for ourselves.  We’ve agonized over the correct caliber, options, read all of the internet chatter, spoke with “George the Gun Guy” down the street, read the latest “Jim’s Gems” blog article.  We’ve been to the range and tried various models, started our personal training regime and taken into account all of the variables about us and our environment.  Now, we find that carrying a full-size Beretta 92F, Sig Sauer P226, Glock 17, Smith & Wesson M&P, et al, is hard to do when you’re heading for the beach this weekend.

Backup, defensive, handgun

I Do Not Like Them Sam-I-Am

Obviously, you wouldn’t blend in very well in 100 degree weather wearing a jacket.  We have just discovered that it’s hard to conceal our best defensive pistol pick 24/7, 365 days per year.  What is a man to do if he is dedicated to concealed carry and being prepared?

Well, the next logical choice is to select a smaller gun than your primary defensive pistol.  This would be a handgun that can be concealed in light clothing such as a t-shirt and shorts, or could be worn on the ankle with dress pants.  If you have read my first article on selecting a defensive pistol, you may remember that I do not like small guns Sam-I-am.  I still don’t like small guns Sam, but sometimes a small gun is better than no gun at all.

There Can Be Only One… Not!

defensive shooting, backup gun

There Can Be Only One…Not!

You will also remember in my first article “Defensive Pistol Selection”, that I doubted whether you would be able to get by with just one gun.  Generally, most law enforcement officers, armed citizens and other professional gunmen have two handguns that they carry for self-defense use.  In some cases, an officer or armed citizen may need a back-up/hide-out/small gun in case their primary pistol goes down or is no longer in their possession.  Think of it as you would the spare tire on your vehicle.  Even when the four tires you have are new, it’s there if you need it.  In other cases, you may feel the need to have a smaller weapon that can be more easily concealed due to clothing or other issues.

defensive guns, backup guns

Glock Small Guns/Big Guns

As an officer, my rule of thumb is to carry two handguns when I’m working.  Generally, I carry one handgun when I am off-duty, unless there was some reason that I may expect trouble.  For example, dates and events such as 9-11, Christmas holidays, etc., are known to terrorists – ones that may want to harm us and/or send a message.  On these dates, I am probably going to be carrying more than one handgun when I am off-duty.  If I was a civilian working in a jewelry store, I would carry a secondary weapon that could be more easily hidden in case of a robbery.  A suspect may find one handgun and not realize to look for the second.    

The Criteria

My back-up, aka hide-out or “small gun”, selection criteria is practically the same as my primary or “big gun” selection.  Though there are a few exceptions.  Obviously, a smaller, more concealable gun will not have a high magazine capacity.  Let’s look at a few of the other 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:  A term to describe if you can actually hit anything with this pistol.  Hitting at speed and while shooting for precision accuracy.
  3. Reasonable accuracy with defensive hollow point ammunition: Generally around 6″ groups from a rest at 25 yards.
    shooting, defensive gun, backup

    Glock Handguns: Note the grip size difference Left to Right: G42, G43, G26, G19, G17

  4. Pointability:  A term 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. Smooth edges: Does not abrade clothing and skin.
  7. Easy to repair:  Parts and accessories are available in most full-service gun shops, at least nationwide.
  8. CompatibilityWith our primary defensive pistol.  This is part of the overall system.

What Meets The Criteria?

While all of these items matter in a defensive gun, I find that reliability, shootability and compatibility are the main things I look for from my back-up or small defensive handgun.  Now that we have identified the criteria, let’s look at those handguns and calibers we know will perform very well for the majority of end users.  The models I have seen perform the best are as follows:

defensive shooting, backup gun

Revolver Companions S&W on left, Colts on right

  1. Glock models 26, 27, 42, 43
  2. Sig Sauer models P239, P230 and P232…with reservations on caliber and controls (the P230 & P232 both have a “heel” magazine release vs. traditional style behind the trigger guard)
  3. Smith & Wesson M&P Compact and Shield pistols, preferably from the 2.0 series
  4. Smith & Wesson revolvers, J or K frame, with 2-3″ barrels, chambered in 38 Special
  5. Colt D frame revolvers for those carrying Colt revolvers already, chambered in 38 Special

Yet, another short list of suitable guns to get the “Armchair Commandos” all excited.  If your favorite blaster, caliber and/or brand is not listed, there is a reason.  It may be the bore axis is high, making it harder to shoot well.  The pistol may not (generally) be reliable, regardless of what some gun writer or internet expert says.  It may be the pistol has an unusually long and/or heavy trigger pull.  Trust me, there is a reason.  See the listed criteria to discover why.

Calibers Discussed Further

Sig P230/380 ACP & Sig P226/9mm

I would recommend suitable calibers as being: 380 ACP (with reservations due to lack of power), 38 Special, 9mm (9×19) and 40 S&W.  The 45 ACP is not listed due to the length of the cartridge. This causes several issues:  reliable function in small semi-automatic pistols, size of the overall guns, weight in smaller models, limited magazine capacity and heavier felt recoil.  Contrary to popular opinion, I have never found small 45 ACP pistols to be reliable.

The 357 Magnum cartridge is excellent in longer barreled guns.  It has limited performance (velocity) gains in 2-2 1/2″ barreled guns.  You will get the excessive muzzle blast/muzzle flash due to unburned powder and heavy recoil of the 357 Magnum without any gain in performance over the 38 Special +P.  Generally, in 2 1/2″ barreled 357 Magnum revolvers, we have seen velocity differences of less than 75 fps between the 38 Special +P, with the same weight bullets from the same manufacturer.  To me, the minor velocity gain is not worth the obnoxious blast and recoil of the 357 Magnum cartridge.

S&W M&P 2.0 & M&P Shield (both 9mm)

Now, let’s talk about the 380 ACP as a back-up/small gun along with my personal reservations.  First, the cartridge has limited muzzle energy (power).  If we remember from my article “Selecting a Defensive Caliber”, we must have enough penetration (12-18″ needed) to reach our attacker’s vitals. Sometimes even through windshields, doors, clothing, etc.  While I don’t want to get shot with a BB gun, I question whether the 380 cartridge has enough power to finish the job we start through all barriers.  Secondly, many 380 ACP pistols work in a “blow-back” operation.  This gives them as much felt recoil as a locked breech 9mm.  Fianlly, many 380 ACP pistols are not reliable.  All of this being said, some people do not have the hand strength and experience to control the smaller sub-compact 9mm or 40 S&W pistols.  Thus, this being the reason why I recommend the 380 ACP for this limited application. We now go back to “some gun, is better than no gun”.  You need to realize the limitations of the cartridge.

Are They Accurate, Or Is It Us?

You’ll notice that I accept less accuracy from these smaller guns, but not much less.  It is a fact that shorter barreled (more importantly, shorter sight radius) guns are harder to shoot well. This is due to the issue that we cannot see our sight error as easily.  Note that I did not say they were not accurate. They are accurate, but the smaller guns generally have heavier trigger pulls, smaller grips, more felt recoil, heavier recoil springs, etc. Also, I find that the smaller gripped guns will twist in my hand under recoil. Because of the shorter sight radius, I do not see that my handgun is misaligned on target. These things, combined with heavier recoil of the lighter guns, causes us not to shoot these smaller handguns well.

Glock 26 & 17 (note Glock 17 magazine in shorter model 26)

Though it is listed last in the selection criteria, your primary handgun should be compatible or the same type as your smaller handgun.  For example, if you already carry a Glock model 19, look at the Glock model 26 or 43 as a back-up gun.  If you are carrying a Smith & Wesson revolver, you should be looking at the Smith & Wesson revolver in the same platform with the smaller J frame models.  Smith & Wesson M&P pistol owners should look at the M&P Compact and/or Shield series of pistols as a suitable back-up to their primary handgun.  You get the idea.

By sticking with the same type of handgun, the manual of arms, trigger pull, safeties, cylinder release, cylinder rotation, grip angle, etc., are all the same on both guns.  This reduces your reaction time during a stressful event. It increases your proficiency on both guns even when you train with either model. Finally, it makes it easier to keep spare parts since many of the parts on the big gun are similar to that of the small gun.  In some cases, magazines from a larger model pistol will fit into the magazine well of a smaller one. Remember, this is your system.

Final Thoughts

An entire article could be written on the ability of the mind to switch between different weapons systems under stress. Personally, I would like to avoid that in my time of trouble.  If you have carefully thought through what the best “system” is for you, you can avoid this stress too.  By picking a compatible handgun (“big” and “small” gun, as the wife refers to them) and cartridge system, you can limit the amount of ammunition and other gear needed to keep multiple caliber and types of guns running.

So, for you Dr. Seuss fans, I don’t like small guns Sam-I-am.  Not on a bus, not on a train.  Even if TSA says it’s okay!  I still don’t like small guns Sam-I-am!

Try them, try them and you may!


Read other “Jim’s Gems” articles:

Defensive Pistol Selection Thoughts and Experiences
Selecting a Defensive Caliber

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