How to Choose a Concealed Carry Handgun – The Basics

Choosing a concealed carry firearm can be a daunting task, often involving trips to various gun stores, consultations with friends that own firearms, late-night internet forum browsing, and possibly asking a spouse how much money one is allowed to spend. Along the way, various rules might be set – “it has to be in a caliber starting with 4,” or “only a revolver is always reliable,” or “You can’t spend more than $300 on something silly like that.”

When I worked in a gun store (there’s a phrase I don’t like to repeat often), I encountered this all the time. I would often have to help someone select a firearm based on arbitrary rules that Uncle Jerry had set forth – despite Uncle Jerry’s complete lack of knowledge.

With those experiences in mind, I’ve decided to write a primer on the subject, being as brief as possible while still explaining my opinions. Keep in mind that they’re opinions – feel free to seek out other advice – just take Uncle Jerry’s with a grain of salt.

I’m going to avoid recommending specific firearms in this article. Here are a few basic considerations that should be taken into account. They’re in a rough order, from most to least important:

  • Usefulness/Needs
  • Proficiency
  • Budget
  • Platform/Caliber


Needs

First and foremost, the weapon you purchase to carry concealed should meet your specific needs – chief among them is your ability to carry the firearm, on your person, at all times. A hand cannon that’s too heavy or large will not be carried often, making your purchase - and efforts – a waste. The concept of a small handgun being easy to conceal doesn’t escape many people, but what does escape people who don’t shoot much is that tiny handguns in big calibers are difficult, even sometimes painful, to shoot.

Perhaps I should write a separate article on myths, but erase the concept of the “one shot stop” from your mind right now. Being forced to rely on one shot stopping a threat – especially after that balsa wood derringer chambered in .50 BMG breaks your wrist – is a very poor choice to make. No handgun caliber is a magic wand, and you might not be facing just one opponent.

When you first start looking at carry handguns, you’ll probably gravitate toward the smallest ones in the case or on the wall, because you’re thinking in terms of the clothing you wear now, which is probably not exceptionally conducive to carrying a sizable handgun. However, while minor wardrobe changes might be undesirable, they’re worth it in the long run, for both comfort and the more capable firearms they might allow you to carry.

As a side note, the general population is oblivious to many things, concealed carry being one of them. The only person “freaking out” about the fact that you’re carrying a concealed weapon the first time you carry will be – you.

Proficiency

There’s absolutely no substitute for being proficient with your firearm – caliber, manufacturer, etc. are absolutely irrelevant if you have no idea how to safely load, operate, and fire it under all conditions. You become proficient by properly learning how to do all of those things (often via competent instruction), and you remain proficient through regular practice. If the bulk of your shooting budget goes to one or two training courses per year, but you rarely shoot otherwise, you’re only proficient for a maximum of 1-2 months out of the year. By all means, attend shooting courses if possible, but don’t let those skills become dormant.

Beyond that, you should choose a handgun with which you can easily become proficient and easily maintain said proficiency. I’ll go back to the “hand cannon” analogy, but the same could be said for someone with huge hands trying to operate a tiny .22 revolver – whatever weapon you choose should not fight you in your efforts to load, operate, or fire it.

Budget

Whether limited by personal finances or a controlling spouse, budget often plays a role. This doesn’t mean that you have to buy a crappy gun – you can save your money over time and look for deals. Also keep in mind that having, say, $800 budgeted for the task does not mean that you should go to the nearest gun store and look for pistols priced at $799.95. You’ll need ammunition, a holster, range time to practice, and, preferably, some professional training. Your current belt is probably not sufficient for the purpose, and you might need to buy some different pants or shirts- just don’t buy a khaki concealed carry vest, for Browning’s sake.

These other items are going to eat into your budget. It might be a good idea to allocate roughly half of your budget to a firearm, and the other half to the items mentioned above.

Don’t feel bad about not being able to afford the nicest pistol in the display case – as they say, it’s the singer, not the song. Just keep in mind that there are a few crappy songs out there.

Platform/Caliber

I deliberately put this last, because it’s almost always the first thing that people think of when buying a handgun, despite the fact that it’s not as important, in my mind, as the above factors. Caliber itself, once we are in the major caliber realm of .38 Special to .45 ACP, plays almost no role in the decision-making process I use to choose a firearm. I’m far more concerned about the platform being adequate for the caliber.

What I mean by this is not just “big bullet + small gun = bad.”

I prefer a firearm that was designed for the caliber, not adapted for it – examples of which I’ll provide in another article, or perhaps a video, because they’d be too voluminous for the purposes of this article, which is already longer than I wanted it to be.

Final Thoughts

If you already own a handgun with a barrel length under 5″, chances are that it’s at least a semi-decent choice for concealed carry. You might be able to save yourself time and money by using what you already have.

Beyond that, purchasing or carrying a firearm, in and of itself, will not make you any safer. Evaluating and avoiding potential dangers, being aware of your surroundings, and maintaining proficiency with your carry firearm can increase your chances of survival. Only you can prevent forest fires – and only you are ultimately responsible for your safety.

15 thoughts on “How to Choose a Concealed Carry Handgun – The Basics”

  1. Good job hitting the important considerations of a concealed carry pistol while staying neutral with the wildfire topics of model and caliber.

    Shooting as many of the potential choices will help one to be happy with their first purchase. And, be ready to have a drawer full of holsters you’ve tried out and disliked.

    Your very final paragraph is more important than all the above. Having good situational awareness at all times and avoiding or deescalating dangerous encounters will help you whether or not you’re armed. The Outdoor Channel’s “The Best Defense” series is a great primer on the subject, if you can forgive their cheesy enactments.

  2. I have just recently found your website and really enjoy reading your articles.

    Your article has many good points, but i can really relate to your statement about making sure the platform being adequate for the caliber.

    Several years ago I was in the market for a specific pocket pistol in 9mm. I went to my LGS and they had the pistol, but they only had the .40 model. When I asked about ordering the 9mm they told be they would make me a deal on the .40. I bought the .40 and left the store thinking how this was my lucky day. Boy was I wrong, that pistol actually hurt to shoot.

    Needless to say I no longer own that pistol.

  3. Very timely article as I’m considering CC’ing sooner or later myself. I’m in the research phase now, closely reading articles about the subject.

    Thanks for your hard work!

  4. Not that you aren’t competent to write it, as a shooter and a writer, but it does seem outside your comparative advantage in blogging.

  5. As a, “gun guy,” among my peers I get asked about this topic often from hopeful future gun owners. Generally, they’re usually all under the impression that simply owning a gun is the first and final step and are awestruck when I start talking about training, proficiency, ammo, accessories, and *gasp* spending money regularly for such things. As they say, owning a piano alone does not make a pianist. This article is a great start I can link to anyone who asks me again. Thanks!

  6. One factor on caliber that I often see overlooked is cost of ammunition. Right now .45 caliber ammo is about 40% more expensive for factory practice ammo over 9mm. Now if you are only buying a couple of boxes a year, ammo doesn’t matter much. But it matters a lot if you are spending just one range session a month going through 100 rounds. You can mitigate the cost of ammo by reloading, but only at the expense of time.

  7. Excellent advice. I would like to emphasize one hyper-critical bit of gear – the holster. When I started to carry, I used a relatively inexpensive nylon IWB holster with a steel belt clip. At home I cleared my gun, put in a few dummy rounds, and practiced my draw. What a horrible experience. The holster wiggled, came part way out, and generally caused all manner of difficulty.

    I did some research and picked up a kydex/leather hybrid IWB holster. It has two plastic clips instead of the single steel clip. I repeated the same exercise and it worked like a charm. I have been wearing it nearly everyday for close to a year and I love it.

    Thing is that it was close to $100 just for the holster. Folks may balk at spending that kind of money on a holster, but your gun will do you little good if you can’t draw it when you need to.

    1. Great advice. A proper gun belt plays just as much an important role for comfortable concealment and proper support for a draw. Unfortunately, the belts also run around the $100 range.

      1. True. I wear a heavy duty nylon belt from 5.11 everyday, and use it for IDPA as well. It hasn’t given me any problems, but I do like the idea of a kydex & leather belt too.

  8. I would add a key ingredient, especially for people with small hands/short fingers: “trigger reach”. I have seen a lot of men try to buy a handgun for their wife/girlfriend based on what fits the guy’s hand, and have it turn out that the smaller-handed woman lacks the leverage to pull the trigger easily. The key dimension is the distance from the backstrap of the handgun to the face of the trigger when it is in double action mode and fully extended. If you are not able to easily reach the trigger with at least the first crease in your index finger when you are holding the handgun correctly in the V of your thumb/palm area, you will have a hard time correctly manipulating the trigger.

    I once saw a woman trying to qualify for a CC permit with a Ruger SP101, who had to use both her right and her left index fingers on the trigger at the same time just to be able to pull the trigger in double action mode. At 3 yards, her “group” was about 18″ diameter. She needed a S&W J-frame with a Pachmyer Professional Compac grip, or some other grip that leaves the backstrap exposed, in order to reach the trigger with enough leverage to pull it smoothly. Or a smaller semi-auto (Star Firestar 9mm would have worked), if she had been willing to learn how to operate a semi-auto. The plus side of a double action revolver is the clearance drill for a dud round: pull the trigger again. Anyway, if you have small hands or short fingers, be sure your trigger finger will reach the trigger at the first joint, without having to take a weird/awkward grip on the firearm.

  9. Great article, thanks for the writeup. You may want to consider putting a link on the front page, as it is such a frequently researched and discussed topic.

  10. Good article.

    When teaching people to shoot, I try to emphasize to them that the handgun they pick should be the one that fits *them* the best. I have a Glock-shaped hand. I know someone for whom Glocks are painful to shoot (she carries a USP Compact). Springfield XDs, CZ75s, and Hi-Powers don’t point well for me; but other people love them. Some people need a flat mainspring housing on their M1911; some need an arched one. There’s nothing for it but to try a bunch of guns and see what you like.

    One of my local gun clubs is having a ‘try a gun day’. If you’re female, the 2nd Amendment Sisters group offers a way to meet fellow female shooters and see what works for them (and try it yourself). Sometimes gun stores host shows where you can try guns for the cost of ammo. Sometimes NRA classes have instructors who let you try a bunch of their guns. Opportunities are out there if you ask around for them. You may even find some new friends to go shooting with. :)

    Beyond the gun tho; the points about belt, holster, and mindset are critical. I’ve got a big box full of holsters, and I’ve given away a bunch more. The hard nylon belts from Wilderness and 5.11 are great – not too expensive, support a holster well, and if you need to rack the slide one-handed they’re a lifesaver.

    Don’t neglect pocket carry as an option. It requires a smaller gun, but is terribly convenient. Also, it allows you to unobtrusively put your hand on your gun in case you think you’ll need it.

    These are good quality pocket holsters:
    http://armory.jsholsters.com/shop/category.asp?catid=50
    These look good, but I haven’t tried them.
    http://www.pocketholsters.com/

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