Thursday, May 31, 2012

Revisiting the "first carry gun" question, 5 years or so later

So a few years back, I wrote several different pieces about concealed carry for first timers; both gun newbies, and carry newbies, though surprisingly enough, never in a single post for just the "first carry gun" question precisely.

A few days back, I got a question from a German immigrant to Washington state, who has been asking a lot of "newbie" type questions lately:

"I am planning to get me a concealed carry license. Being from Germany almost everything regarding carrying a gun is new for me, I have read about it though. My question is now: I am a fan of big caliber. In some states you have to do your "training" for the license with an automatic to be allowed to carry both types of actions. Which gun is good for a newbie like me? It should have man-stopping power, so should be more than a .38/9mm.
Thank you"

I figure now is a good time to address the question again; as so many people are starting to carry concealed, since the 2008 elections, and in preparation for the 2012 elections.

The first thing for our questioner, is that in Washington (and most other states) you don't have any qualification restrictions. Once you're licensed, it's for any firearm that is legal to carry.

The rest of the answer is more complicated however... much more complicated.

So, the basic rules for choosing a carry gun...

  1. 1. The first, and most important thing to deal with; you shouldn't carry any gun, until you are completely comfortable with shooting, you are safe and proficient with firearms in general, and you are ABSOLUTELY SURE you are mentally and emotionally prepared and able, to shoot another human being in self defense. Otherwise, you are a danger to yourself and to others.
  2. You should only a gun that you are completely comfortable with. You must be completely familiar with your guns characteristics, manual of arms, and in particular the failure modes and recovery drills for that weapon, before you carry it for self defense.
  3. You should only carry a gun that you have tested extensively, using the ammunition and holster(s) you intend to carry it with; and wearing the clothing you intend to wear while carrying. Things that seem like they will work, often don't. The time to find out is on the range, not when someone is charging at you with a knife. Extensively means hundreds of practice draws from concealment, and hundreds of rounds fired (I personally consider 500 rounds an absolute minimum).
  4. Carry a gun that you can and WILL carry; all day long, every day, no matter the weather or the occasion (this is why most most folks serious about self defense with firearms have multiple carry guns... different guns for different conditions and situations).
  5. Carry a gun that you can shoot, and WILL shoot, regularly, with the ammunition you intent to load while carrying it. By regularly I mean at a minimum several magazines worth or cylinders full, once per month... and preferably more.

Now... as to specifics, that's a little more difficult.

As I said above, you need to carry a gun you are comfortable with, that is reliable, that you can shoot, that you can carry well...

What that is, is very different for everyone. What works for your body, your lifestyle, your work, your choice of clothing... It's unique to you.

My general recommendation, is that you try out a lot of different guns, and see what feels good. Rent them at a range, borrow friends guns; shoot as many guns as possible, as much as possible.

The "default" recommendation is that you buy a Glock, M&P, or XD; because they are relatively inexpensive, reliable, easy to shoot; all are available in three frame, barrel, and grip sizes, with common ergonomics, controls, and manual of arms; and all are available in the three most common defensive chambering selections in the U.S. (9mm, .40s&w and .45acp) in all three sizes.

In general, I think the "default" recommendation is a good one. I usually own at least one or two of those three types of guns at any given time (if not all three... or even multiples of all three in different sizes and chamberings).

... and I always end up selling them, because I just don't like them all that much. They don't "speak" to me on an emotional level, or interest me esthetically. I appreciate them all mechanically, and as a gunsmith and an instructor, I recommend them to friends, customers, students; and to you, my readers...  I just don't like them that much

My personal preference for double action semiautomatic pistols, are SIGs (in particular, I prefer the SIG P220 carry elite in .45acp, and the P229 elite, in .40, 9mm, or .357sig); but they are considerably more expensive than the big three striker fired options (none of the three "default" guns is a traditional double action. All have some variant of the "safe action" concept, which is functionally similar to double action). I just prefer the ergonomics, feel, natural point, and looks of the SIG.

Also, I generally carry 1911s (in all three common sizes - 5" "government", 4" "commander" and 3" "officers", and in .45acp or 10mm) as my primary sidearms; however, I don't recommend them as carry guns for anyone other than experts, or at least those who will train every week (this applies to single action firearms in general. They have a more complicated manuals of arms, and additional failure modes, which beginners shouldn't have to try to worry about under stress).

As to chambering... I really see very little reason for a beginner to chose anything but 9mm or .45acp. Yes, there are plenty of other chamberings to choose from, that are effective for self defense; but for a beginner, it's generally best that you choose a common chambering. 9mm and .45acp are the most common centerfire handgun chamberings in the U.S. and more defensive and practice loadings are factory available (and generally at a lower price) in them, than any other.

As I said above, I personally like 10mm and .357sig ( in addition to 9mm and .45), but as with single action handguns, I think both chamberings should only be considered for self defense by experts. Both have quite sharp recoil, muzzle blast, and report; and they are both extreme penetrators.

.40 S&W is also very popular (third in the U.S. behind 9mm and .45acp; and second in law enforcement behind 9mm... in fact by now, it may be more popular for LEOs than 9mm). It is marginally more effective than high pressure defensive loadings of 9mm, and marginally less effective than high pressure defensive loadings of .45acp. You generally gain one or sometimes two rounds capacity over .45 or you lose a round compared to 9mm. In exchange for that, you get sharper recoil and muzzle blast than either, and generally a higher price than either.

My personal opinion... Unless you want to shoot .357sig as well (.357sig is based on the .40s&w cartridge. In general, guns chambered in .40, can be easily converted to .357sig with a barrel and spring change), there is little reason to choose .40 over either .45 or 9mm.

Alternately, a medium frame revolver in .357 magnum can be an excellent carry choice; if you are physically comfortable with carrying a revolver of that size. Some peoples bodies work well with concealing revolvers, some don't. In general, you want more than a 2" barrel (because 2" barrels cut the effectiveness of the load greatly) and at most a 4" barrel (because anything longer is difficult to draw from concealment).

Some medium frame revolvers even have 7 round cylinders now. 7 rounds of .357 magnum is going to be just as effective (or possibly moreso) as 7 or 8 rounds of .45acp.

Actually, I'd say that in general, 6 or 7 rounds of .357 magnum are just as good for self defense, as 10 or 12 rounds of .45acp, 9mm, or .40... Even 5 or 6 rounds of .357 are pretty strong medicine for discouraging unpleasant people from doing unpleasant things; and frankly, as a non LEO civilian shooter, if you need more than 5 rounds of .357 magnum to address your immediate problems... well, you've got worse problems than a handgun can handle.

I generally don't recommend a large frame revolver (any revolver in .41 magnum or larger is going to be large frame) for concealed carry, because most people can't comfortably carry them concealed (I can just barely do so, and I'm a VERY large man... and it takes a particular choice of holster, cover garments etc...). You are better off with a smaller gun, that you can carry in more situations, with more clothing variations etc...

The absolute best piece of advice I can give you once you've selected a couple options is, BUY GOOD BELTS AND HOLSTERS.

A good belt or two, and several good holsters, can make carrying almost any reasonably sized gun, relatively easy and comfortable. Even slightly mediocre belts or holsters will make carrying any gun, an uncomfortable chore.

For a backup, deep cover, or otherwise "the gun you carry when you can't carry your bigger gun"; the conventional recommendation is a compact .38spl or .357 revolver (like the S&W J frame) or .380 auto (like the KelTec p3at).

We call them pocket guns, because they slip into your pocket; preferably first thing in the morning, every morning, not coming out until you get undressed for bed. That way you always have a gun when you need one.

That's why I have a pocket gun... actually I have several.

As it happens, I own, and recommend, both of the guns above; particularly with the option of adding a laser sight. Although you should train to use your sights as much as possible; there are some situations where sights aren't all that useful... as it happens, those are often the situations you really need your backup gun in. And even if you have a chance to use your sights, on most backup guns the sights are barely there, or at best hard to see, anyway. Laser sights help compensate for all of those factors.

So... confused yet?

Once you actually buy a carry gun (or peferably at least two carry guns) I  want you to do two things:

First, Shoot them... a lot. As much as you possibly can. Shoot them two handed, strong handed, and weak handed. Shoot them at very close range, as well as at medium range. Shoot them at moving targets. Shot them while on the move. Shoot them in defensive pistol competiton... just shoot them as much as possible.

Second, CARRY THEM. Carry them all day, every day, everywhere you legally can.

CARRY THEM all the time... because you don't need a gun most of the time, but when you need one, you REALLY need one.