Guide for Buying and Carrying
a Self-Defense Handgun
President, Citizens of
Acrobat (.pdf) Version
This article is for
novices... and for long-time gun-owners.
You might be a woman looking
for your first self-defense handgun. Or you might be a lifelong "gun
person" that people come to for advice about guns. Either way this
article is for you.
Every day, people who have
never owned any sort of gun — perhaps have never even shot one —
decide to get a self-defense handgun. They aren't gun people, they
aren't going to become gun people, they aren't going to hunt or target
shoot, they aren't going to practice a lot. But they want a
home-defense handgun, and they want one suitable for concealed carry
if they decide to go that route. In other words they want an
effective, easy to use, easy to carry, all-around self-defense
After all the pluses,
minuses, caveats, ifs, ands, and buts are factored in — this is my
bottom-line gun recommendation, along with the reasons for it. This
article presupposes that the prospective gun owner is healthy, of
normal intelligence or better, and has no inherent fear of guns.
Long-time gun users will
undoubtedly find the selection process interesting, and may wish to
use this article as a basis for their own recommendations.
In any case, don't be put off
because I start with some basics — it's only a few paragraphs, and
they're necessary for clarity.
First, Get the Terminology
A bullet is the actual
projectile that shoots out of a gun. Bullets are usually made of lead.
They may be covered with a thin copper-alloy jacket that serves
Cartridges are the
individual complete units of ammunition. A single cartridge consists
of a bullet that is set tightly into one end of a powder-filled
metal case. Cartridges are what you load into a gun. Handgun
cartridges are commonly sold in boxes of 50.
Caliber, in everyday
usage, refers to a particular cartridge configuration. This
configuration consists of bullet diameter, case size, and case shape.
Examples are the .38 Special, .44 Magnum, or 9 millimeter Luger. Most
rifles are designed to shoot only one particular caliber, but some
handguns can shoot cartridges of two or more different calibers.
With this in mind, you should
know that bullets — the actual projectiles — come in many
weights and designs, even for one particular caliber. These different
weights and designs allow bullets to be custom-tailored for particular
applications, such as target shooting, hunting, self-defense, etc. A
well-stocked ammunition dealer will have several bullet options
available for each caliber, and all of them can be shot in any gun of
Handguns come in two basic
types. The first type is the revolver, which has a visible
rotating cylinder that holds the ammunition. Double-action revolvers —
the type we're interested in for self-defense — require a
comparatively long, firm trigger pull to fire. A single pull of the
trigger rotates the cylinder (putting a fresh cartridge in position)
and fires the gun. Revolvers typically hold five or six
The second type is the
pistol (or semi-automatic). Pistols hold ammunition in an internal
magazine. Pulling the trigger on a pistol fires the gun. The gun then
uses the energy of the "explosion" to automatically load a fresh
cartridge in position, ready to fire. Currently available pistols can
hold up to eighteen (or more) cartridges.
Finally, a round
refers to either a complete cartridge or to just the bullet,
depending on the context, which will generally make it clear. Let's
Get a revolver.
Why? Because revolvers are
rugged, simple to operate, easy to maintain, will function with any
commercial version of its proper cartridge, and are forgiving of
grime, lack of lubrication, and other neglect. Furthermore, if you
pull the trigger on a revolver and it doesn't fire, you can pull the
trigger again and bring an entirely new cartridge into firing
position. Incidentally, this is exactly why policemen, hunters,
campers, and other experienced folks (including myself) frequently
carry revolvers. Because revolvers are simple and rugged, a used
revolver is fine if it's in good condition.
If you're not going to train
regularly, do not buy a semi-automatic handgun (a "pistol"),
and don't let anyone talk you into getting one. Although there are
many excellent and reliable semi-autos available nowadays (Glocks
being a prime example; I own several), their comparative mechanical
and operational complexity and their potential failure modes are
simply not compatible with use by inexperienced or untrained people.
Let me repeat: if you aren't
a gun person, or if you don't trust yourself to regularly maintain or
train with your gun, you should not carry a semi-automatic
handgun. Get a revolver.
What features should a
revolver that is suited to both home defense and concealed carry have?
Get a quality,
short-barreled, spur-less or concealed-hammer revolver.
Get a name-brand revolver
(Smith & Wesson, Colt, Ruger, Taurus, perhaps a couple of others).
This is your life you're talking about, so don't be a fool by pinching
pennies. The gun you buy can easily continue to function for literally
a hundred years or more, so get a good one the first time. I think the
best manufacturer of small revolvers is Smith & Wesson, but the others
are also very good.
Get a revolver with a barrel
no longer than 2 1/2 inches, because that size handgun can
easily be carried concealed by just about anyone, in any normal
concealment manner. If you're a larger person, or have good reasons
for buying a particular revolver, the maximum barrel length can be
extended to 3 inches.
Don't be concerned about the
reduced aiming qualities of a short-barreled handgun in comparison to
a long-barreled handgun. This isn't a target gun, it's a self-defense
gun, and precision aiming features are not necessary. Why? First, if
you're under attack there's little chance that you'll actually aim the
gun in the conventional sense. You will instead point it at
your attacker and pull the trigger. You'll never see the sights — a
phenomenon often reported even by trained police officers. Second, if
you do pull the trigger on an attacker, the overwhelming probability
is that he'll be at most seven yards away — and quite likely
just a few feet away.
Get a revolver that has no
exposed hammer spur. The hammer spur is the curved metal piece
that extends from the back of the gun and is used to cock a revolver
for single-action shots. But you should never cock a revolver in that
manner for self-defense use because it makes the gun too easy to
discharge by accident. Therefore you won't need a hammer spur anyway.
Furthermore, and quite important, the hammer spur can catch on
clothing at the worst possible moment.
I highly recommend special
lightweight revolvers, such as those made with titanium or
aluminum alloys. Examples are the Smith and Wesson "AirLite" or
"Scandium" models and the Taurus "Ultra-Light" and "Total Titanium"
models. Why lightweight? Because they are more comfortable to carry if
you decide to carry. Five-shot revolvers are usually somewhat smaller
and lighter than six-shot revolvers, but both are suitable for our
What caliber of name-brand,
short-barreled, spur-less (or concealed-hammer) revolver should you
buy? Read on.
Get a .38 Special or .357
Magnum caliber revolver.
Guns in .38 Special caliber
were the standard law enforcement caliber in America for over half a
century, and they are still used by many law-enforcement officers and
citizens. A .38 Special revolver is not so large that it's hard to
carry or shoot, and not so small that it's ineffective at stopping
attackers. Furthermore, any place that sells ammunition will sell .38
Special cartridges. In sum, do not buy a gun that shoots a smaller
diameter or weaker caliber cartridge than the .38 Special, period.
The .357 magnum caliber is a
significantly more powerful version of the .38 Special. The case of a
.357 Magnum cartridge is slightly longer but otherwise identical to a
.38 Special cartridge case. Because of this fact, you can shoot the
shorter .38 Special cartridges in a .357 magnum revolver. The reverse
is not true; that is, .357 magnum cartridges are too long to fit into
a .38 Special gun.
What this means is that you
can load a .357 Magnum revolver with cheaper, milder-recoiling .38
Special cartridges for practice shooting. When you load the .357
Magnum revolver for self-defense, you can use either .38 Special
cartridges or high-powered .357 Magnum cartridges.
If the above confuses you,
read it again. If that doesn't help, find someone who can show you
what I'm talking about. If in doubt about any aspect of this, simply
get a .38 Special. You'll be well-armed.
A final note: don't concern
yourself about recoil of a lightweight .357 Magnum. If you ever have
to shoot your gun in dire circumstances, it's likely that you'll only
have to do so a couple of times. You'll never feel the recoil. In
fact, because of the way the human body works under stress, you may
not even hear the gun fire. In any case, if you do get a .357 and
decide it kicks too much, you can always load it with .38 Specials.
Speaking of firing the gun —
what ammunition should you use? Read on.
Load your revolver with
jacketed hollowpoint bullets.
Above, I explained that
bullets come in many different designs. One such bullet design is the
hollowpoint. Hollowpoints are sold in different weights, with
and without jackets, but all of them have a cavity in the tip which
helps them expand when they hit a human or an animal. This expansion
serves two important purposes in a self-defense gun: it causes more
energy transfer and more damage to the attacker (which helps to stop
him quickly) and it keeps the bullet from passing through the attacker
and hitting an innocent person (which has happened many times with
other types of bullets).
Jacketed hollowpoints of .357
Magnum or .38 Special caliber are generally heavy enough, strong
enough, and fast enough to penetrate leather, thick clothing, minor
obstacles, or a substantial layer of body fat and still do their job.
They may even penetrate or break bones. If reading this makes you
squeamish, then you're normal. But if you are being attacked by
someone trying to strangle you, slash you, or shoot you, you won't be
thinking about any of this. You'll simply want to stop him, right now.
For the given reasons, when you load your gun for self-defense use,
load it with jacketed hollowpoints. (NOTE: Reportedly, hollowpoint
ammunition is illegal for law-abiding citizens in New Jersey, giving
criminals the advantage in a gunfight.)
A note: the bullet weight
printed on an ammunition box has nothing to do with whether the
bullets are hollowpoints, jacketed, unjacketed, solid, or whatever.
The printed bullet weight is the total bullet weight, period.
Which particular hollowpoints
should you use? Read on.
Use only name-brand
This is another area where
it's stupid to pinch pennies. Again, it's your life we're
talking about. Don't use cheap commercial ammunition or reloads. They
may have low-performance bullets, light target-shooting powder
charges, or substandard cases or primers that could cause misfires or
Don't use your neighbor's
special extra-deadly self-defense handload. First, hand-loading by
fallible humans means you might have split cases, loose crimps, high
powder charges, low powder charges, zero powder charges, loose
primers, or oil-contaminated primers — any one of which could spell
disaster in a moment of crisis.
Bottom line: get name-brand
jacketed hollowpoint ammunition designed for self-defense, such as
Federal Hydra-Shok, Remington Golden Saber, Speer Gold Dot, or
Winchester Silvertip. That way there's a virtually 100% chance that
when you pull the trigger, the gun will fire and the bullet will
Note: if you want to
practice shooting with cheaper ammunition, that's fine, but it's best
to use the same weight bullet as the ones you will use for
self-defense. That way the recoil and target impact point will be the
same. This is not absolutely essential, but recommended.
Taking care of your gun.
Revolvers are pretty easy to
maintain. Keep them dry and lightly oiled on the exterior. Keep them
out of dirt and lint, and learn to clean them properly after shooting
by asking someone you trust how to do it. This could include your gun
One thing, however: DO NOT
put a lot of oil on your gun, especially in or around the chambers
(the holes where the cartridges go). The oil can seep into the
cartridge primers and make them fail to discharge.
I advise against shooting
unjacketed ("lead") bullets in your gun, even for practice, because
(depending on the particular gun or which cartridges you buy) you may
have to work to get lead deposits out of the barrel. I'm afraid you
just won't do that. Fortunately, inexpensive jacketed .38 Special
cartridges suitable for practice shooting are easy to find.
How do I carry my gun?
This section is a bit long
because how you carry a self-defense gun is generally more
important than the kind of gun you carry. In most self-defense
situations, if you can't access your gun cleanly and instantly, you
may as well not have it.
Keep in mind that, depending
on the situation, you may use all of the carry methods below. I
Holsters — The Best Method
In terms of quick, easy
access, waist holsters are generally the best way to carry a handgun.
I don't recommend shoulder holsters because they are harder to put on,
harder to conceal, harder on the gun due to moisture and salt from the
armpits, and are often less comfortable when compared to waist
Waist holsters come in two
main types: inside-the-pants (which provide better concealment) or
outside-the-pants (which are more comfortable but require a longer
outer garment for concealment).
Inside-the-pants holsters fit
inside the pants waistband, against your body. They are attached by
loops through which your belt passes, or by a clip that grips your
pants waistband and/or belt.
fit completely outside your pants. They are attached by means of loops
or slots through which your belt passes, or by a "paddle" system.
Paddle holsters have a
largish curved plate (the paddle), usually made of plastic, and a clip
that grips your belt. The advantage of these holsters is that they can
be slipped on and off without undoing your belt or pants, and the
paddle keeps the holster properly positioned. Current versions
generally are comfortable and work well.
Holsters often come with a
strap that passes over the top of the gun. The straps (which are
called retention straps, security straps, safety straps, thumb breaks
or thumb snaps) are fine for law enforcement carry, hunter carry, and
military carry — that is, when used by people who are well trained in
disengaging the strap, or who generally know in advance when they must
draw their gun.
However, for most folks
carrying a concealed gun, a retention strap will hinder rapidly
drawing the gun. So whether you buy an inside- or outside-the-pants
holster for self-defense carry (either is fine) you should definitely
get a holster designed to hold the gun securely in place without a
retention strap. These holsters work by being closely molded to
the shape of the gun, or by having an interior projection or squeezing
device to hold the gun. They are called strapless or open-top
holsters. That's what you want.
Many people carry their guns
in fanny (waist) packs. This can be a good method, especially for
motorcycle or bike riders or hikers, but only if the gun can be
quickly accessed from the fanny pack. (By the way, a gun in a back
pack is very hard to get to quickly, and backpacks are often easy to
steal. Do not carry your gun in a backpack unless you have absolutely
no other choice.)
A warning: if you live where
politicians believe you have no right to defend your life with a
firearm, be aware that police officers will automatically assume that
large fanny packs, especially black ones, especially if
carried by a man, have a gun inside.
For both men and women,
depending on the weather and situation, a gun can be carried in a coat
or jacket pocket. Make sure the pocket is empty of dirt and other
objects, and make sure that the gun can't fall out under normal
movement. Also make sure that the gun isn't obvious to people standing
nearby — which usually rules out the front pockets of light pants and
the back pockets of almost all pants.
It is probably impossible to
prevent women from carrying guns in their purses. This is unfortunate
because for many reasons purses are generally a bad place to carry a
First, purses are the targets
of thieves. If your purse is stolen, you'll lose your expensive gun
and it'll likely end up on the black market in the hands of some
Second, unattended kids get
into purses (though they should be taught NOT to — see section below
Third, purses are filled with
other objects that impede quick access to your gun. If you need your
gun, you're going to need it quickly, and you won't have time to paw
through notebooks, cell phones, compacts, etc. to find it. Nor may you
have time to unzip that little side pocket to get it. You'll need it
Fourth, purses are full of
tiny objects like pins, coins, lost beads, lint, and other debris that
can work their way into a gun and keep it from functioning. A gun that
doesn't function is just a piece of metal.
clothing styles often dictate that a purse is the only realistic place
remaining for women to carry a gun. So if you're going to do this,
get a purse designed to carry a gun! You can find one through an
internet search, by asking gun dealers, or by buying gun magazines and
reading the ads.
For men or women, I also
recommend buying and installing a set of Barami Hip-Grips if they're
available for your model. Hip-Grips are similar to regular grips, and
don't prevent you from carrying your gun in a regular holster. But
they also have an integral lip that will catch on your belt or
waistband, allowing you to simply stick your gun inside your pants
waistband, leaving the grip still projecting and easy to grab. This
means, for example, that if you want to walk to the corner convenience
store, or need to make a nighttime walk to your car or a motel ice
machine, you can poke your gun in your pants, pull your shirt over it,
and go — nothing else to mess with.
These grips have other
characteristics making them good for concealed carry. They are smooth
and won't catch on clothing; they're black and therefore unobtrusive,
color-wise; and they're small and make a minimal bulge, even under
lightweight shirts. For women, this latter quality makes them fit
You'll have to search around
for Barami grips. Try your local gun dealer, Shotgun News at your
newsstand, or get them directly from Barami (www.baramihipgrip.com)
or from Ajax Grips (www.ajaxgrips.com).
If you like the grips you already have, there is an add-on clip
that fits under one existing grip panel and serves the same purpose as
the Hip-Grip. It's called a Clipdraw, is made in different
configurations to fit various guns. I haven't tried them, but the
concept seems valid. Find out more here:
When should I carry my
First, remember that the gun
I have recommended is perfectly suitable for a home defense gun as
well as a carry gun. You may or may not wish to carry it.
In some states, politicians
(almost always Democrats) believe that only the lives of "special
people" — usually the politicians themselves, friends of these
politicians, celebrities, or people who carry money/valuables — are
worth defending with guns. They have issued unconstitutional edicts
making it a crime for their constituents (people like you and me) to
carry guns to defend against vicious criminals (who carry any gun they
want, any time they want). Yet almost all of these politicians are
protected by armed guards at work and at home, usually 24 hours a day
— just like COA says in its national pro-gun radio and print ads (www.citizensofamerica.org).
I say to hell with them and
their edicts. These politicians are immoral, unethical, hypocritical,
elitist, and control-obsessed. They clearly don't care about your
life, or the lives of your family members. I would describe them as
evil. No politician will ever prevent me from carrying a gun to
protect myself, my family, or my neighbor with a gun. I carry a gun
whenever I feel the need to do so, which is frequently.
You must decide if and when
you carry a gun. You may decide, as many people have, that you should
carry it every day. The bottom line: It's your life (and/or your
spouse/children's lives). You have the right to defend these lives.
And you have the right — not just morally, but Constitutionally — to
carry the most effective and convenient tool to effect this defense —
A final thought on this
subject: simply owning a gun will not protect you from violent
criminals; you must have the gun with you when they attack.
What about my children?
It is better to gun-proof
(educate) your children than try to child-proof your guns. This means
teaching your children what a gun is, what it can do, and that they
should never touch it without your permission.
From personal experience,
empirical historical evidence, and overwhelming anecdotal evidence, it
seems far better to go a step further and familiarize kids with
guns. That is, let them look at and hold your unloaded gun. This
satisfies their natural curiosity and indicates on a fundamental level
that you trust them — and most kids will try not to abuse such adult
Even better, let your child
watch you shoot a cantaloupe, honeydew melon, or watermelon so that
they can experience the noise and damage a gun can do. When they are
mature enough (probably around eight years of age for most kids) teach
them how to load and shoot the gun.
DO NOT trust "secret" hiding
places or trigger locks, especially with older children. Such
"secrets" tend to be uncovered when you aren't around, and many
trigger locks can be taken off or otherwise defeated with a little
effort. Even gun safes can be left open by accident, or your children
may find the safe's keys or combination and open it.
Again, educate your
kids rather than attempt to outsmart them. If you do this, a lapse of
safety on your part need not lead to tragedy.
· If you absolutely
can't afford a gun precisely like the one I recommend, get one as
close to it as possible. In this article the desirable qualities of a
reliable, simple, effective, easily-carried self-defense handgun have
been arranged in order of importance, topmost (revolver) being the
· Shoot at least
twenty-five rounds (half a regular box) from your gun every six
months. It keeps you familiar with its operation and your own
· Put fresh (but not
necessarily brand new) cartridges in your gun every six months.
· Take basic gun
safety and shooting lessons. There are NRA instructors in just about
every city, and many shooting ranges offer lessons, or can put you in
contact with instructors. This is the smart and responsible thing to
do, so do it.
· Learn about the laws
regarding self-defense. An excellent and very readable book on this
subject is In the Gravest Extreme, by Massad Ayoob. Find it at
your local gunshop, or try Amazon.com or other online booksellers.
This is the smart and responsible thing to do, so do it.
· Work to elect
politicians who trust you to carry a gun and believe your life is
worth as much as their own.
Brian Puckett is a hunter,
hiker, and big-city dweller. He has written for numerous gun magazines
such as Guns & Ammo, Handguns, American Handgunner, Combat Hanguns,
and SWAT. He currently serves as president of Citizens Of America (
which runs a national pro-gun rights advertising campaign.