The task of selecting a handgun for everyday carry (EDC) is one that is hotly debated online and at gun counters everywhere, with no shortage of strong opinions. The question of “What should I carry?” has an answer that is simple and complex at the same time: It depends. When I evaluate what handgun I should carry, or what I recommend to specific individuals, the choice depends on budget, reliability, caliber, size and capacity, and aftermarket support. Let’s examine each consideration in turn.
Stated simply, buy what you can afford… but look for new handguns with MSRPs at or more than $300 before taxes. Most serious handguns to which I would trust my life start in the middle to high $400 range new, with most ideal options sitting somewhere in the $500-$1,000 price range. The good news is you can often find handguns from that price range at many gun counters being sold as police trade-ins or used in the $300-$450 price range. Again, if all you can afford is a $200 budget pistol, that’s better than having to rely on harsh language in a criminal attack, but cheap pistols often have quality-control and/or reliability issues which are best avoided if at all possible.
Reliability Is King
Reliability is the most important factor of choosing a modern self-defense handgun. I need it to go bang when my life or the lives of my loved ones are in danger. The first step in selecting a reliable gun is to avoid inexpensive handguns with less-than-perfect reliability unless you literally cannot afford anything else. Buying a quality handgun from a reputable company with a well-earned track record for reliability is step one. Step two is to take your particular handgun and practice and train with it to make sure it is mechanically sound and functional. My personal standard for reliability is no more than three or four malfunctions out of 800-1,000 rounds (a common round count in many two to three day pistol courses). This excludes non-gun related issues such as bad ammunition or faulty magazines, and allows for periodic addition of lube and minor cleaning. If I experience a significantly higher percentage of malfunctions than that, and I personally will not trust my life to that handgun.
However, in these times of increasing prices and ammunition scarcity, we realize that 1,000 rounds might be a tall order. More simply, if we cannot get through three or four magazines without the gun malfunctioning, and have ruled out maintenance, lubrication, and magazine issues, that gun may well fail us in a real world self-defense fight, where our chances of malfunctions increase due to often compromised grips, having to shoot one handed, and other unpredictable variables. So make sure to put a few boxes of ammo through your gun, to include your chosen carry ammo, before you decide to trust your life to it.
People love debating caliber choices, but here I am going to keep it simple: The difference between common self-defense calibers such as .38 Spl., 9mm, .40 S&W, and .45ACP simply isn’t that great, and what counts with all those calibers is quality shot placement into the vital anatomical structures of your attacker. Choose a caliber (and carry ammunition) that consistently penetrates within the FBI’s recommended calibrated ballistic gelatin depths of 12 to 18 inches and that you can easily control. Caliber choice is of vastly lesser importance than the ability to place shots precisely where they need to go to stop a lethal threat.
After reliability, the next-most important consideration in choosing a carry handgun is size. For concealed carriers, there’s a friction involved. The tiny pocket pistols that are most easily concealed are typically more difficult to shoot well than their larger counterparts. Conversely, the medium and full-sized service pistols and revolvers that we shoot the best, thanks to their increased weight, contact area, sight radius, etc., can be difficult to conceal well depending on our size, body types, and the wardrobe our lifestyle requires. So finding the right balance will require some nuanced thought and evaluation. If you are a large-framed male living in a pro-2A environment, who can wear whatever you like and can “dress around the gun” with loose fitting clothing, un-tucked shirts, etc., then you might be best served by the medium and large service handguns with generous ammunition capacity. Conversely, if you are small framed or your lifestyle requires you to wear clothing that prevents carrying a compensated full-sized pistol with red dot optic and 20-round magazine, or you live and work in an area or environment where printing could cause problems, you perhaps need to compromise with a smaller pistol or revolver. Choosing a large carry gun that is uncomfortable and difficult to conceal that causes you to often leave it at home is self-defeating. Likewise, it’s wise to carry as much gun as you can, and not handicap yourself with a derringer if you don’t have to do so.
Capacity: How Much Ammo Is “Enough?”
This is another controversial subject that, at least for private citizens, isn’t quite as important as many people make it out to be. It is nice to have it and not need it, rather than need it and not have it. However, civilian self-defense shootings tend to be very intense but very brief affairs. As I heard the excellent firearms trainer Wayne Dobbs once say in a class, “Before you run out of ammo, you’re more likely to run out of time.” Overwhelming evidence shows us that civilian self-defense shootings typically do not last long enough to involve reloads, so the more ammunition in the gun the better our chances. That said, with adequate skill, one can absolutely successfully defend oneself with a revolver or micro-9mm or similar semiautomatic pistol with five to ten rounds in the gun, provided they can achieve rapid, quality hits.
Perhaps the most underrated aspect of selecting a carry pistol is aftermarket support. When I teach classes and private lessons, there are a number of pistols I see that, in a vacuum, are totally up to the task of self-defense, and yet I do not recommend them. The reason is that rare and obscure pistols, even when high quality, typically do not have quality aftermarket support, which leads to all kinds of headaches. The most important piece of support gear for a carry pistol is the holster, and if you decide to carry a unique snowflake of a handgun, finding a quality holster can be very difficult. Carrying a gun for which it is difficult to find quality holsters, affordable training magazines, magazines pouches, and aftermarket sights or optics mounts is rarely worth the trouble. So before you go by the unique, aficionado status-symbol pistol none of your friends have for EDC, do some homework on availability of aftermarket support.
So the best carry gun for you depends on a number of factors unique to you, and there is no singular correct answer. If you select a handgun that is within your budget, reliably functions, is large enough you can shoot it well and small enough to conceal sufficiently for your needs, and has quality options for aftermarket gear support, then you’re much more likely to be satisfied with your choice over the long-term. Then, most importantly you can work to build your skill with your chosen gun having the peace of mind you’ve chosen wisely and thoughtfully. That way, the next time you encounter a “What Gun Should I Carry?” debate, you can rest easy knowing that, at least for you, your strong opinion is the right one.