Optical Aiming Systems

Actually, that should say “Aiming Systems for Pistols”, but if you followed a link to get here, you are expecting to read about optics.  Technically, not all aiming options for handguns are optical, but more on that later.

Ten years ago, it was rare to see any kind of sights on a pistol besides the built-in ones, called “iron-sights” (no, they are not made of iron, and haven’t been for a very long time. Sorry.)  These days, not only is it not rare to see a handgun with alternative sights on it, more and more models are coming with them pre-installed.  New gun owners are often confused by this proliferation, and sometimes make mistakes in choosing a gun, so I thought it was time to write a post about this new paradigm.

First, let’s define what we are talking about.  All handguns have built-in sights.  Most rifles do as well, but not all, as it is often assumed that the owner will install another option.  It is worth noting that we won WWII with iron sights, and old-school riflemen often think optics are for weenies, but I digress.  The types of sighting systems (besides iron sights), in chronological order, include Telescopic, Laser, and Electronic.

As the name implies, this is a tube containing magnifying lenses that magnify the target.  Extremely common on rifles (hunting and target shooting), these are seldom seen on handguns.  When they are, they are usually special-purpose guns, used for hunting or target shooting.  The magnification varies from 1-4 power up to 9-12 power or above.  The greater the magnification, the greater the cost.  Inexpensive ones will often leak, and allow moisture inside.  That will fog the lens, and ruin the scope.


This is a device installed on a gun, that projects a beam of light out to the target.  Ten years ago, this was the hot ticket.  Some guns came with them from the factory, but the Crimson Trace company pioneered the process of adding laser capability to almost any handgun.  These are not as common now, although every crime-drama on TV uses the imagery of someone realizing there is a red dot on their chest, from a sniper on top of a building 300 yards away.  It is good TV, but lacks some realism.  In the real world, lasers have to be zeroed for the distance used, and, when used on a pistol, the red dot often can’t be seen further away than 25 feet, and never in daylight.  Another problem is that shooters have to focus their vision on the target, not the gun, so it is like driving a car by remote control.  It is harder than it looks, and is of questionable value for a new shooter, as they never learn to use their sights.  When the battery goes dead (which it will), you are stuck.

These are, today, the most prolific types of non-iron-sight sighting devices in use on pistols.  They are also often used on defensive rifles, though not as much for hunting or target shooting.  As the name implies, these are, like lasers, battery-powered.  Electronic sights fall into two categories: red-dots and holographic sights.  Both types have to be turned on and off.

  • Red-dot
    Similar in appearance to a very short telescopic scope, these devices do not magnify, and do not project anything to the target.  You look through them, and a red dot is superimposed on an image of the target inside the device.  It takes less battery power, the dot is visible day or night, and at any distance.  Note that for people with cataracts or astigmatism, the dot may look like a star-burst, and not be precise.

Don’t confuse the red-dot with a laser, which projects a red beam through space to the target.

  • Holographic sights
    These are known by several names: reflex sights, RMR sights, and red-dots.  They have a different appearance, although they do a similar job.  The difference is that the image superimposed on the target will be a 3-dimensional object, like a dot in a circle, or a reticle.  Having depth to it, it is less affected by vision abnormalities.  These are more expensive than other types of optics for handguns.


Installation issues
Lasers, if they are aftermarket, are often attached to the grips, and activated by either an on-off switch, or a button under the middle finger.  Scopes and traditional red-dots are usually fastened to a mounting rail on top of the gun.  .22 pistols, and most rifles, often come with a rail, or have provision to easily add a rail.  Note that these kinds of guns do not have a slide that cycles, as red-dots are heavier, and would be thrown off after a few shots.  Holographic sights are lighter, have a lower center of gravity, and are attached by machine screws, to withstand the violent forces of a cycling slide (on handguns).  These require that the slide be machined to accept a mounting plate, on which the sight is mounted.  If the handgun comes to you Optics Ready (OR), the slide will be machined already, and a cover plate installed.  Here is the catch: the slide cut on the pistol has to match the mounting plate, which has to match the optic.  There are at least three different standards, so make sure you have a plate that fits the slide underneath, and the optic on top.  If you want to install a holographic sight on a pistol that does not have the slide machined, there are services that will do that work for you.  Buy the optic first, so the shop can make the cut to match the plate.

Co-witness sights
When an optic is set up to co-witness, that means that you can see both iron sights through the optic.  You would not actually use both options, but if your battery is dead (very common), you still have a way to use the gun in a crisis.  Sometimes the rear sight has to be removed to install the optic.  In many cases, the iron sights are too short to see through the optic.  Sometimes, the iron sights can be replaced with taller sights to fix this problem, sometimes not.  If you want this type of optic, it is probably worth the money to buy a gun with the optic installed at the factory, with the understanding that the iron sights will co-witness.

Battery issues
The top makes of modern holographic sights have very long battery life, sometimes a year.  You will still lose track of it, unless you make a note on your calendar.  In any event, if the optic has to be manually turned on, and you are in a crisis, you are hosed, unless your sights co-witness (and you have practiced that way).  There are some optics now that contain motion sensors, and will turn on as soon as the gun is moved, and will shut down automatically after the gun is still for a time.  For a gun destined for self-defense duty, this feature is not optional.

Training issues
The process of quickly acquiring a sight picture, firing, and follow-through, is quite different with any type of electronic sight versus iron sights.  They can be a benefit in slow fire, but a drawback in rapid target acquisition, or in target transitions.  For many of the reasons listed in this article, I don’t recommend any of these options for a self defense gun, especially considering that self defense usually happens at 5 yards or less.  There is a law of diminishing returns.  Pushing your defensive skills out to 10-15 yards with stock sights is not that hard, with the right fundamentals, the right training, and practice.

However, electronic sights are fun to use, and are very useful for target shooting.  Within a few years, I expect that most semi-automatic handguns will come from the factory with slide cuts and cover plates.  It will then be up to you to decide if those devices fit your needs.



AR-15 Pistol

A Viable Home Defense Option?

In the last few years, an unusual variant of “pistol” has developed, the AR-15 Pistol.  This is a very short version of an AR-15 rifle, often called a Modern Sporting Rifle (MSR) (and incorrectly called an Assault Rifle).  The pistol variant is shorter, and is distinct in having an arm brace.  By slipping your forearm through the brace, this gun can be fired by one hand, which is what makes it, legally, a pistol.

Really, a pistol?  Not what I call a pistol.  Here is the catch.  The ATF defines a pistol as any firearm that is designed to be fired one-handed, AND is not designed to be fired from the shoulder.  That doesn’t mean it can’t be.

A rifle, on the other hand, IS designed to be fired from the shoulder.  However, a rifle has to have a barrel at least 16 inches long, and have an overall length of 26 inches.  Any rifle shorter than that is designated a “Short Barrelled Rifle” (SBR).  SBRs are restricted by the terms of the National Firearms Act of 1934, the same as machine guns and suppressors.  NFA items are legal, but require a lot of paperwork, a $200.00 tax stamp, and an approval wait time of typically 8-12 months.

So, what is this thing, and why do I care?  It is a device that gets you around the SBR loophole in the law.  In the image above, the shooter is using the arm brace (which is shaped like a stock) as a stock, which is perfectly legal.  If he takes off or modifies the arm brace, he is now in violation of Federal law.

Think of this as a large capacity, easy to shoot, home defense rifle, adapted to an urban environment.  Easy storage, and easy to manipulate through rooms and doorways.  With a scope installed, it could even be used for hunting, or as a bug-out gun.  Besides the normal rifle calibers (.223, 5.56, .308, .300 Blackout), they are also made in pistol calibers like 9mm.  Some versions even take Glock magazines, and Glock makes a 31 round mag.

So there you have it, another option for home defense.

2020 Ammo Shortage

The date today is Aug 9, 2020.  We are in the midst of a critical nationwide ammo shortage, and industry insiders predict it will last 6-12 months.  To the extent that you can find ammo (availability varies by caliber), prices are at least double what they were last January.

The reasons are complex, but involve a perfect storm of circumstances: a pandemic leading to civil unrest and uncertainty about the future, and then race riots (hijacked by Communists) in places like Portland, Seattle, New York, and other cities.  There are millions of new gun owners now, and hoarding of ammo.   Besides the insane demand from the public, manufacturers have long-standing contracts from Federal, State, and local law enforcement, plus the U.S. military.  The major manufacturers (Federal, Speer, Magtech, Hornady, CCI, Remington, and others) are already running 3 shifts, and making ammo around the clock.  They can’t increase production.  The smaller companies (Freedom, Defender, Black Hills, etc.) can increase, but that would still be a drop in the bucket.

What to do?  It is still possible to get ammo, but it will take time, patience, and money.  The time is past for you to stop by Cabela’s or Walmart and grab a few boxes of ammo.  It will likely be a year before that comes back.  Here are some suggestions:

  1.  Go to a gun show.  Those are starting up again, and there will likely be some vendors there with ammo, although there may be quantity restrictions.
  2.  Go to a gun range.  They buy ammo in large quantity, as they cannot operate without it.  They will not sell it out the door; you have to be using their range to shoot.  Check in, and buy whatever amount they will sell you, probably 1-2 boxes.  It will cost you whatever it costs to shoot there, plus the ammo.  If you have a membership where you can shoot for free, there is no overhead, and you usually get a discount on the ammo.
  3.  Use these websites:  ammoseek.com and ammobuy.com.  These are search engines for ammo, and display the current inventory of about 75 online retailers.  They are updated several times each day.  That is the best way to get ammo (but expensive), but you may have to check them for several days to find a price you can live with, and it will often take 3-10 days to get it. 

At this time, you can’t be too choosy about brand names; take what you can get.  Right now, the best prices are on Russian ammo (Tula, Wolf, Barnaul).  Lesser-grade ammo is not dangerous, it just may not be as accurate, and may include a dud now and then.  It is what it is.

In terms of calibers, it appears that .380 ACP is completely gone, except at unbelievable prices.  All other calibers appear to be available, at inflated prices.  The most popular ammo in the world, 9mm, is in short supply, but because they make so much of it, it is being restocked, but at very high prices.  It will get higher before it gets lower, so you should buy as much as you can afford, ASAP.  Besides range ammo, don’t forget some hollow point.



Fine-tuning Your Handgun

Many people think that learning proficiency with a handgun is as simple as

  • buy a gun
  • buy some ammo
  • start shooting

While that will work, up to a point, the optimal accuracy is achieved by fine-tuning the performance of your gun.  This will almost always involve ammo choices, and may involve upgrades to the gun itself. Let me discuss those in a little more detail.

Choosing the right ammo for your gun is very effective, and very easy, although a little tedious.  A semi-auto only fires whatever caliber it is designed for, so you don’t have any choices there, but those cartridges come with bullets of different weights (usually at the same cost).  Depending on your gun, the caliber, and the length of the barrel, different weight bullets can have a significant impact on accuracy. Here is how you can resolve that issue:

I will explain the process for a 9mm handgun, but it would be similar for other calibers.  9mm ammo comes in bullet weights of 115 grain, 124, and 147.  Grain does not refer to gunpowder, but is a unit of weight.  A heavier bullet will typically travel slower, and a lighter bullet faster. A lighter bullet will often wobble or tumble in flight, which has an effect on accuracy, while heavier bullets tend to stabilize better.  Buy one box of each bullet weight.  If they can be the same brand, that is a plus, but not required.  Use a target with multiple circles or bullseyes, set out to 10 yards.  With your hands resting on a bench or sandbag, fire 3 shots of each weight, using a different circle/bullseye for each group of 3.  Take your time, and get the best group you can.  Repeat the process, but make sure you know which ones are which.  By this time, you should be able to tell which bullet weight works best for your gun.  Note that self-defense (HP) ammo does not usually come in multiple weights, so this process would involve different brands.

Upgrades to the gun may involve sights, grips, triggers, or other internals.  Some of these are relatively easy, and some more complicated, so I will discuss them in the order of increasing difficulty/expense.

Grips.  Some guns have easily replaceable grip panels or backstraps.  Changes here can have a small effect on accuracy, as the guns will fit your hand better, and you may have better recoil management.  A more common and serious problem is when you cannot get your little finger on to the grip.  In that case, you can buy magazine base plates that extend the magazine further down, to solve that problem.  It is very important that you can get your little finger on the grip.

Sights.  Most non-competition pistols do not have sights that are adjustable for elevation.  If you really need that, there are aftermarket sights available.  Usually, the only adjustment you might need is windage.  The rear sights can be moved (not easily) with a drift punch, or easily with a sight-mover tool.  Even if the sights are correct, everyone’s eyes are different, so if you consistently shoot a little left (or right) (and this is not a flinching issue), adjust the sights so that you can consistently shoot to Point-of-Aim (POI).

Other internals.  Every time you clean your gun, you have to remove the guide rod and recoil spring.  If the guide rod is plastic, replace it with stainless steel.  That keeps the parts from moving laterally during cycling, and will make a huge improvement in accuracy.  If the guide rod and spring are one unit, it is easier to replace the whole thing.  This is especially an issue with Glocks.  In addition, replacing the safety plunger with one that is chrome-plated will remove some friction from the system, and help the trigger action (and accuracy) slightly.  The difficulty of doing this depends on your make of pistol, but there are many videos available to help.

Triggers.  Most semi-autos under $1000.00 have mediocre triggers, but these can be improved considerably.  There are trigger kits available for most popular makes of pistol, like the Apex Tactical kit ($150+).  These are quite easy to install on Glocks, but often a little trickier on other makes.  The kit manufacturers will have videos available to help you.  Some of these kits will include a new connector and safety plunger (referenced above), and will reduce the trigger pull by 1-2 lbs.  This helps accuracy a good bit, because you are not having to pop the trigger to get it over the break.

NOTE: if you take any actions resulting in a “hair-trigger”, that could be viewed as reckless in a legal setting, like a jury trial.

Attention to ammo choice and some other features of your gun can make a big difference in baseline accuracy.  Don’t forget to practice!


Getting Results at the Range

I have taught hundreds of people how to shoot a pistol, and thousands have gotten their Concealed Handgun License under me. Many of those people were very good shooters, but many of them, possibly a majority, would have difficulty defending themselves in a crisis. Why is that?

Many people make the mistake of thinking of shooting a handgun as an activity that is learned once (driving a car, painting a wall), instead of a skill that depreciates (playing a musical instrument, surgery, golf). Shooting well requires practice, focus, and attention to detail. It has a short shelf-life. If one is going to develop those skills, one should get a membership at a local gun range, and go often. Every two weeks is good; every week is better, at least for a few months.

Now that that is settled, and the motivation is set, how do we get results in our range trips? If you have never had private instruction, do that first, so you know what to work on. It is well worth the modest cost. Next, start building a library of targets. While local ranges will have a few for sale, there is not enough variety, and they are marked up 200-300%. Get these online. When you buy 25 of each, the cost comes down dramatically. I buy targets from two sources:



Here are some targets I like to use, with comments:

6 or 7 inch circles, for precision shooting. Use this at 3-5 yards, slow fire. Develop focus and consistency.
The same usage. These are a little larger, colored, with an aiming point, so these can be used at a little more distance. Also switch between targets during the same string of fire.
This NRA B-8 target is used at all distances out to 25 yards. At 10 yards or less, rapid fire can be tested. Don’t stay too long in the aiming position.
This QIT target is used by the FBI and other Federal agencies for training. There are no scoring zones, but the two small boxes can represent head and body shots.
This is a competition target, commonly used by organizations like IPSC, IDPA, and others. Interior zones score higher. Used with a shot timer, these are used to develop both speed and accuracy, as one without the other might get you killed in a self defense situation.
This FBI B-27 is the type of target usually used by states for handgun license qualification. Again, interior zones score higher.

People often start with the last target above when preparing to take the Handgun License Proficiency, but that is counter-productive. In reality, for that situation, the scoring zones are so big that passing that test doesn’t prove anything. Instead, work on small targets at slow speed, working up to larger targets at faster speeds or longer distances. Remember that the most important of the fundamentals is working the trigger slowly and easily, without changing your grip strength. Always keep your goals slightly above your skill level, and you will see your confidence and skills improve.

Handguns For the Physically Challenged

Out of the hundreds of students I have taught, there have been a few I have taught for whom shooting a handgun was a challenge. Shooting is, after all, a physical endeavor, requiring a certain level of aggressiveness and stamina. One is holding in their hands a heavy metal object that contains explosions and directs the output of same downrange. In addition, there are certain actions involved that relate to the operation of that gun, like racking the slide, or loading a magazine, that require a minimum amount of strength.

Some people find those activities difficult, often because of grip strength. While many people could have these difficulties, it seems to be more of a problem for ladies, seniors, and senior ladies. Racking the slide on many semi-automatics can be very difficult, but pulling the trigger on a double-action revolver can be even worse. What to do?

A common choice is to just struggle with a gun you can’t manage. That person will almost never practice, and is unlikely to ever be able to defend themselves if the need arises. An alternative is to use a gun that you can manage, but that has significant drawbacks in a defensive situation. A typical example of this approach is to use a pistol chambered in .22LR. These could be either revolvers or semi-autos. While it is possible to kill someone with a .22, it would be mostly luck if you did so. Even if you cause a fatal wound, it is likely that he will not succumb for an hour or more, during which time he may kill you. If you could shoot him 8-10 times, that would likely make him change his plans, but revolvers and pocket-sized semi-autos just don’t carry enough ammo, especially if there are two home invaders. Pocket guns are also difficult to shoot accurately, due to the short barrel.

Beretta Bobcat (.22LR)

Imagine, if you will, a gun that is absurdly easy to load, rack, and shoot, accurate at longer distances, has ballistic penetration equal to a .380, has hardly any recoil, and holds 30 rounds in the magazine. Too good to be true? Meet the PMR-30, made by the Kel-Tec Corp. (No, I am not a dealer, don’t sell these or any other firearms, and am not compensated for this article. In fact, they don’t even know about it.)

Kel-Tec PMR-30 (.22 WMR)

The PMR-30 is a full-sized, but lightweight, semi-auto handgun chambered in a caliber that many people have never heard of, .22 WMR (Winchester Magnum Rimfire), AKA .22 Magnum. This is a .22 caliber bullet in a much longer case, with more gunpowder, which pushes that bullet out to the target at insane rifle speeds. Nevertheless, the recoil is very mild, hardly more than a .22 target pistol. Since it holds 30 rounds in the magazine, you could put 10 shots on that intruder and still have 20 left.

There is a long history of guns that fire a very small bullet very, very fast. Most handguns used for combat or law enforcement have used bullets with a diameter of approximately .35-.45 inches. In 1930, the Soviets introduced the Tokarev pistol (TT-30, later TT-33), that fired a .30 inch bullet fast enough to penetrate body armor. In recent years, the .22 TCM cartridge pushes a .22 bullet to very high speeds. It should be noted that the venerable M-16 rifle also shoots a .22 caliber bullet. In all these cases, the designers have opted to trade bullet mass for velocity. After all, the speed of the bullet has more effect on stopping power than the size of the bullet.

Unlike the Tokarev, TCM, or M-16, which are very powerful center-fire cartridges, the .22 Magnum is still a rimfire cartridge. It is not as powerful as the others, but is substantially more powerful than a standard .22. In FBI ballistics tests, it has exhibited penetration of 10-11 inches, where the standard for FBI agents is 12 inches. This puts it in the same category with the .380 ACP, but with less recoil. Speed is enhanced by a longer barrel, so the PMR-30 has another advantage there, in addition to the large capacity.

This pistol is arguably a bit big for concealed carry, but would be suitable for home defense or to keep in a vehicle. It is not the perfect solution to all situations, but for people who cannot get past their intimidation by recoil, or don’t have the strength to work a revolver trigger or rack a slide, this can be a solution that, while not as good as a .45, is much, much better than throwing a rock.

Train With Your Carry Gun

As of this writing, there are just over 1,000,000 Texans who have a License to Carry (formerly Concealed Handgun License).  It is not known how many of them carry a firearm daily.  Of those that do, some of them carry a full-size handgun, like a 1911, Glock 17, or CZ 75, but most people probably carry something more concealable, especially women.  Manufacturers use different terms to describe their products, like compact, sub-compact, or micro-pistol, and everyone has a different opinion about what constitutes a “concealable” pistol, but the handguns typically in use as a carry gun can range from moderately large (Glock 19, CZ 75 Compact) to tiny (Ruger LCP .380, S&W Bodyguard .380, Beretta Bobcat .32 or .22).

As a general rule, the bigger the gun, the easier it is to handle and shoot.  The longer it is, the easier it is for accuracy at 10 yards.  According to the FBI, most self-defense happens at 5 yards or less, so even a person with limited skills can probably save their life with a small or tiny gun, right?

Doubtful.  That does not take into account the Panic Factor.  In a true emergency, due to physiological changes to the body brought on by fear, people will typically lose half of their skills.  This also happens to police officers, who typically miss their target 75% of the time.  This is not a knock on police, as their is no training that will solve that problem.  There are ways to mitigate those effects, but the best solution is to simply set a higher standard for yourself.  Police officers sometimes come to me for training, not because I know tricks that their trainers don’t know, but because they can progress faster in a 1-on-1 session than they can on a firing line with 29 other people firing.

Add to that the fact that carry guns are often not much fun to shoot.  People often get in the habit of carrying a gun they can slip in a pocket, but go to a range and practice with a Glock 40 (large 10mm bear gun) or 1911 .45.  The theory is that one can develop skills with a bigger gun, and apply those skills to a tiny gun for up close and personal events.  I don’t disagree with that, but at some point, you need to face the fact that you may need more skills with that little gun than you possess.  Can you draw from concealment and hit the Bad Guy with one shot at 10 yards, in 3 seconds?  Without a warm-up?

My suggestion: train with your carry gun.  Go online and print out some drills, ranging from easy to quite challenging.  I like the Winchester Series of self-graded skills tests, the FBI Agent Qualification, and the 5×5 Handgun Skills Test (IDPA).  Before trying these, use the Texas LTC Proficiency.  When that is easy, do it one-handed.   Then do it with the support hand.  Some of these call for special targets, but you can find those online.  If they call for drawing from a holster, and your local range doesn’t allow that (most don’t), then start from low ready, or from the mid-stroke of the draw.

In all cases, you probably won’t do as well as you good with a bigger gun.  The point is, can you do well enough to save your life in a parking garage?  That is the goal.  Fun has nothing to do with it.

Buying and Selling Firearms

I am often asked about the details around buying or selling firearms in Texas.  While there is a lot of uncertainty among native Texans, that is even more true among among the many people who have recently moved here from out-of-state, refugees from gun-unfriendly locations like California and New York.

Buying a gun:

There is no license required, and no waiting period.  You must be 21 (18 for long guns), have a TX driver’s license, and be able to pass a background check (Google that for details).  The process takes about 20 minutes, less if you already possess a TX License to Carry.  You can often get even better deals buying through an online retailer.  In that case, you have to have it shipped to a local gun dealer (FFL) for pick-up.  They will run the background check, and charge you a small fee.  Of course, you don’t get to handle the gun first, so know what you want before going this route.  Gun shows are a good way to handle a lot of guns in a low-pressure situation.  While their prices are not necessarily lower, they will often bargain near the end of the show, as they don’t want to pack them all up again.  Wherever you pick it up, it is legal to transport it to your vehicle, and in your vehicle.  Just keep it out of sight.  In your home, it does not have to be unloaded or locked up, except that you must ensure that children under 17 cannot get to it.  Get proper training before doing anything at all with a new gun.

Selling a gun:

In Texas, there is no gun registration, so selling a gun does not involve paperwork, fees, or background checks, as long as the sale is local, face-to-face, and between individuals.  The buyer must have a TX driver’s license, and be at least 21 (18 for long guns), or you could be in legal jeopardy.  I recommend you fill out a Firearm Bill of Sale for your protection (2 copies),  and complete the sale in a public place, like inside a gun range.  Many police depts have a designated area for private transactions.

People often find out that their first gun was not the best choice, so after awhile, they will buy another (with advice), and sell the first one.  Sometimes they will do that again, as their interests change (fun, home defense, carry).  A carry gun is seldom fun to shoot, and a home defense gun is seldom practical for carry.  You are allowed to have more than one, and a surprising number of people have more than 5.  Or 10.  Have fun with this.

Thoughts about the .380

Ah, the ubiquitous .380!  They seem to be everywhere.  The firearms industry is seeing enormous growth with this little pocket gun.  That growth is driven, in large part, by the ever-increasing numbers of people, especially women, getting a Concealed Carry license, and wanting a small, light, easy-to-conceal firearm for personal protection.  But is the .380 really a good choice?

In the 1950s, most police in Europe carried sidearms chambered in either .32 Cal (AKA 7.65 Browning) or its big brother, the .380 ACP (AKA 9mm Short, 9mm Browning, and others).  As the name implies, the .380 was a scaled-down 9mm.  The diameter of the bullet is the same, but the cartridge is shorter, which means less gunpowder, less muzzle velocity, and less energy transfer to the target.  Police would not consider carrying a gun like this today, but 60 years ago, men weighed 160 lbs, and were seldom in the psychotic condition caused by today’s drugs.

Fast forward to today.  Clearly the .380 will cause fatal wounds, as they are often carried by street criminals and drug dealers.  There is considerable debate about whether the .380 will stop someone quickly enough, but good shot placement will mitigate that.  A bigger question is whether someone who is not an expert can handle one of these well enough to protect themselves in a crisis?  Both handling and accuracy are issues with smaller guns.

Handguns are built in various sizes, or form factors, often described by names like Duty, Compact, or Subcompact (Micro).  Sizing is usually relative to the caliber, but you can find exceptions.  Most people understand that a Micro .45 will require strength and experience to handle, while a Duty-sized .380 doesn’t make much sense.  Nevertheless, most people who carry a .380 do so either because they are pocket-sized, they should have less recoil, or both.  But do they have less recoil?

Larger/heavier guns exhibit less felt recoil than smaller/lighter guns.  In the image above, all the guns on the top row have polymer frames, while the two on the bottom are all steel.  The S&W .380 and the SIG are similar in size, and the same caliber, but the SIG, being heavier, will appear to be softer shooting.  The Glock and the S&W Shield are similar in size, and both polymer, but the Shield is 9mm, so it will seem to have more recoil.  The Glock and the CZ have the greatest disparity; the CZ has an advantage in both size and weight, and the Glock, for reasons known only to Glock, will only shoot reliably the lightest of bullets, which minimizes stopping power.

The easiest of these five to conceal are the S&W .380 and the SIG.  The easiest to control are probably the Glock and the CZ.  The most stopping power is the Shield.  The fact is, there is an inescapable trade-off between concealability and usability, based simply on physics.

There is yet another factor to consider here.  The cycling action in a semi-automatic is driven by the rearward force of the cartridge firing.  In a .45, this force is so powerful that hardly anything can stop it, but with a .380, the performance margins are much thinner.  Depending on the make, these guns will sometimes be susceptible to variables like bullet profile, bullet weight, good grip, or lubrication.  “Limp-wristing” malfunctions are not uncommon, and sometimes hard to avoid, based on the size of the grip.

Users often think that a smaller gun is just like a larger gun, except smaller, and that is a huge over-simplification.  Many experienced shooters consider the .380 to be not a serious gun.

This should not be taken to suggest that a .380 is not reliable, but rather to suggest that a user should opt for the largest gun they can conceal (which is not always important, anyway), or the smallest gun with which they will actually practice.  Several companies make a small 9mm which is almost as small as a medium-sized .380, so in that case, there is no benefit to using the .380, unless you absolutely have to have a gun you can fit into a shirt pocket.

If it is small size and high reliability you seek, don’t overlook the 5-shot .38 revolver (I prefer those with a hammer).  The learning curve is a little longer, but they are very safe to carry, as powerful as a 9mm, and, if you pay close attention when loading, they are off the charts in reliability.  While it is true they only carry 5 rounds, most pocket .380s only carry 6-7.  If you are going to be limited to 5-6 shots, they should be as hard-hitting as possible, in order to disable the threat.  The revolver also eliminates the grip-strength problem faced by many women.

When choosing a handgun for personal protection, don’t go overboard making it easy on yourself.


Understanding the Handgun Manual of Arms

I have written before about action types and trigger types, but now we need to discuss the Manual of Arms.  This refers to the actual operation of a gun, sometimes called “running the gun”.  While this relates mostly to someone who carries a gun on their person, it also applies to someone who stores a gun at home.  More than one person has retrieved a gun in an emergency, only to discover that it was not immediately dischargeable, and they weren’t sure how to recover.  There are two questions, the answers to which will vary depending on the type of gun:

  1.  in what condition should this gun be carried (or stored)?
  2.  what steps are necessary to make it dischargeable?

I will start with the simplest type, and move toward the more complex.

Revolver.  Most are double-action (DA), which means they can be fired cocked (single-action) or uncocked (double-action).  It is a common convention to only fire them in DA mode, and they must never be carried or stored in single-action.  Some revolvers are double-action only (DAO).  There is no safety, so running the gun simply means point and shoot.

Revolver (SAO).  It would be uncommon for someone to have a single action revolver (which can only be fired when cocked), and not know this, as these are typically used for competition, but these guns should never be carried with a round under the hammer.

Semi-automatic (striker-fired).  These guns do not have an external hammer, and often do not have a safety.  They should be carried with a round in the chamber, and safety off.  On presentation, take off the safety (if on) and press the trigger.  In a crisis, if you forget the safety, or cannot take it off in less than 1 second, you are in trouble.

Semi-automatic (hammer-fired, SAO).  Many hammer-fired guns are single-action only.  When you rack the slide to charge the chamber, the hammer is cocked, and the gun will not fire if it is decocked.  These are carried “cocked-and-locked” (safety on).  On presentation, take off the safety and press the trigger.  Another option is to not have a round in the chamber (only advisable at home).  Yet another option is to rack the slide and manually decock the hammer (this is dangerous).  On presentation, cock the hammer with your thumb.

Semi-automatic (hammer-fired, DA, with safety and no decocker).  Same as above, except that, when decocked, it is not necessary to cock the hammer.  The trigger will do that.  On presentation, (if safety on), take off the safety and press the trigger.  If decocked, just press the trigger.  It cannot be decocked with the safety on.  **

Semi-automatic (hammer-fired, DA, with decocker and no safety).  Same as above, except there is no safety.  After racking the slide, you must carry the gun decocked.  On presentation, just press the trigger.  **

Semi-automatic (hammer-fired, DA, with both safety and decocker).  Some Beretta models have this odd combination.  After racking the slide, when you put on the safety, it automatically decocks the hammer.  On presentation, you must take off the safety first.  **

**  When firing a decocked, double-action gun, the first pull of the trigger is long and relatively heavy, by design.  Since the gun always resets itself on firing to single-action (cocked), all subsequent pulls will be short and easy.  It takes some training to get used to this, and many people will prematurely discharge the second round.  It is due to this training issue that most police departments use striker-fired guns, where every trigger pull is the same.

It is important that you train around the proper operation of your gun so that you don’t fumble in a crisis.  A drill I recommend is loading your gun, and putting it in the condition you would carry it (safety on, decocked, etc.).  Place it on a bench (on in a holster, if that is allowed), and put a silhouette target at 3 yards distance (later, at 5 yards).  Track the time it takes to retrieve the gun, make it dischargeable, and put two good shots in center mass.  The goal is three seconds.  Repeat as necessary.