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Training at The Range at Austin, I see many first-time gun owners bringing small handguns to class. Guns like the Smith & Wesson hammerless snub-nosed 642 revolver (above) and Ruger’s LCP semi-automatic pistol. These students believe their pocket pistols are great firearms for concealed carry. I agree. They are great guns. They’re just not appropriate for new shooters.

These small handguns are lightweight and easy to conceal. You can carry one just about anywhere, including the front pocket of your favorite jeans. Unfortunately, the small gun’s inherent benefits come at a high price.

For one thing, a handgun’s size influences its handling under recoil. All else being equal, smaller, lighter handgun generates a more pronounced recoil impulse than their full-figured firearms friends.

Controlling a handgun’s recoil impulse is more challenging when shooting a smaller gun. Simply put, small guns offer less surface area to enable friction (i.e. grip). While a proper grip isn’t the only key to managing recoil, trading purchase for concealability is like trading accuracy for comfort. Exactly like that.

Don’t get me wrong: managing a small gun’s recoil isn’t an insurmountable issue. But proficiency with smaller guns requires hours of practice firing hundreds of rounds downrange. Using a gun that can be cactus comfortable to hold; that may not stand up to the kind of training needed to gain sufficient mastery.

The other difficulty presented by small firearms: establishing a consistent grip. Small guns make it more difficult to maintain the same grip for multiple rounds. Constant “re-gripping” leads to accuracy problems, as accuracy demands consistency.

A small gun is an excellent addition to your everyday carry inventory — once you have skills needed to deploy it effectively and efficiently. But a new shooter is better advised to first develop the confidence and competency of marksmanship using a larger, more user-friendly firearm. Then branch out to try other makes and models to see if they offer improved performance and/or concealed carry benefits.

If you are new to shooting or carrying concealed, consider waiting on carrying a small handgun. Your life may depend on it.

Jeff Gonzales is a former US. Navy SEAL and preeminent weapons and tactics instructor. He brings his Naval Special Warfare mindset, operational success and lessons learned unapologetically to the world at large. Currently he is the Director of Training at The Range at Austin. earn more about his passion and what he does at

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  1. I’m a huge fan of Smith’s Airweights, and I have to agree with this post. A light, little snubby is the province of expert shooters who are willing to put in a lot of time with pocket revolvers. Airweights are not great for noobs.

    • Word. But there is no gun better for an up close and personal encounter. It’s the gun built for knife ranges.

      Only thing better is 2 light snubbies.

      • I also love the AirWeight revolver. The micro .380s are a little hard to shoot well, but I seem to shoot my 642 almost as well as my bigger pistols. Still, something like a Shield might be better for a new shooter. The Shield feels like a bigger gun than it is. My 642 pocket carries better than my Shield, and inspires more confidence than my P3AT.

    • I wholeheartedly disagree. J frames are excellent first handguns whether for carry or home defense. 1st of all I don’t find the J-frame’s small at all. 2nd, Standard 38 special loads and even +p’s can be found with very manageable recoil. The J frame is very simple to use and understand unlike semi’s for the new shooter. I tried a number of pistols to fit a family members needs that new very little, but she shot, understood, and was proficient with the J frame out of them all, no semi’s for her. Now if we were talking micro 9’s and 380’s in semi auto I’m agreeing with the OP’s argument.

      • Are you talking a steel J-frame or an air weight? If a steel one sure I could see that, an air weight on the other hand? I’d rather shoot my 66 with full house .357 magnum loads quite honestly.

        • My 642 felt a lot like my 66 with my full power 158 grain magnums. One thing that actually helped my 642 was getting SMALLER wood grips. The length of pull on the 642 was too short for me with the stock rubber grips. I couldn’t hold the gun correctly, and I was pulling the trigger half way between my first and second joint. The smaller “classic” wood grips reduced the perceived recoil for me.

  2. For snub nosed .38’s, standard pressure wadcutters are the way to go. They are the best balance one will get. The recoil is manageable in aluminum framed guns. In steel framed guns they are a piece of cake.

  3. My wife has a S&W Model 638 (the shrouded hammer version of the Airweight .38 special +p snub nose revolver pictured). I don’t enjoy shooting it. I have about 30 rounds through it myself. I’m confident I could hit a torso sized target every time at 7 yards or less. At 12.5 yards I hit paper ~30% of the time (again, only 30 rounds through the gun with only about 15 of them shot at paper, the other 15 at cans). I did hit a pop can a few times at ~4-5 yards (ha). It’s just not comfortable to shoot so I haven’t worked with it much, so I agree with this article. My EDC is a Springfield XDs-9 3.3. Love that gun, and it’s almost as heavy as a G19 (unloaded) so recoil, even with 9mm +p, is fairly manageable. I agree that for a new shooter, a full size pistol is the way to go for learning to shoot initially (i.e., XD mod.2 9mm, G19, M&P9, etc.). A new shooter is less likely to carry a full size, though, so working them into a compact fairly quickly is ideal, in my layman’s opinion.

  4. The most unpleasant handgun I’ve ever fired was an Airlite Smith in .357 Magnum. 125 grain Remington JSPs were like letting an M80 detonate in my hand.

    • Air weight J frames can be a bit hard to handle, and aren’t encouraging to the sort of round count that inspires good training, however, in competent hands they give up little practical accuracy at SD ranges. Back when I routinely carried revolvers it was a SW MOD 64 backed up by a mod 36 chiefs special. The full size revolver was an excellent training weapon, and has since taught several new shooters the ropes, it’s baby brother is still a bit snappy for long range sessions, but given how alike they are, training on the larger gun translates very well to shooting the smaller. I’m not a FUDD in any sense of the word as I know it, and I still often recommend revolvers, even snubbies, to those who either aren’t up to the challenges of an auto pistol, or who aren’t willing to put in the training time on the auto pistols manual of arms.

      That said though, training on a .22 that is substantially like ones SD snubby is a cheap and viable option, and a heavier, softer shooting snub isn’t bad to train with either. Until we are talking magnums, or shooters with a disability, or perhaps very inexperienced shooters, recoil is largely about perception and tolerance rather than a real stumbling block to good shooting.

  5. I gave my 71 year old revolver toting friend my RIA TAC II 10mm to shoot. She thought it felt better than her LCR in 38 special.

  6. The smallest/lightest revolvers and semi-auto handguns require no more training or practice than any other handgun and are just fine for new gun owners if deployed for their intended purpose: self-defense at zero to ten feet.

    If you want to be proficient much beyond ten feet, then you might need a fair amount of training/practice.

    • +1

      Whether you’re an experienced shooter or a newb, there’s not much point in taking a pocket pist ol out and shooting it more than once or twice a year. Unless you’re willing to do a ton of work to become proficient with the weapon, and then it probably makes a lot more sense to just get a leather belt and carry something that weighs 40 ounces loaded.

      • From what I have read here there are a lot of people who don’t. I have been preaching smaller is not better long before Robert discovered Jeff Gonzoles. A pistol the size of the XD/m compact or P320 subcompact is the optimal size for a carry gun. It is a good tradeoff between size, wright, capacity and ballistic performance.

      • I think we do, for the most part. I’m not a cop. Or a soldier. Or secret squirrel. I have no fantasies about having to retake the Nakatomi towers from a band of super bad guys.

        I need something to make the tweakers back off. A snubbie works better than fine for that.

        • Jwm, you aced the argument for me. Carry is a spectrum running from most likely(never having to use) to most deadly (confronted with multiple trained assailants armed with rifles and body armor). Where I assess i fit on that spectrum dictates what is practical to carry. I have no illusions if the most deadly occurs my goose might be cooked anyway, even if armed with ar15.

        • JWM and Joe: nailed it. Carry what makes sense given your situation. It’s a method of risk management.

  7. I think one of the best pieces of advise I got was learn to shoot on a 22lr pistol. Once you have good habits then move to a gun that fits your needs.

  8. The 642 in my right front pocket is getting pretty well worn from regular carry, but I had to learn the gun. About 200 rounds got me consistent fair groups. Every so often I run a box through it to stay on my game. After learning how to stage the trigger, I sometime impress myself at the range… but that is a range-only limited activity. Shooting for a long while? Give me my CZ75 and a stack of 9mm!

  9. So it would seem you’re saying for them to train on a larger gun that they probably won’t carry.

    I disagree. You may not become an elite “operator” buy someone can easily become proficient enough to defend themselves.

    I’ve trained a lot of folks, especially ladies to shoot a snub or small auto (mostly LCPs). Learning to run the gun and hit the target are more tedious with a small gun but not that difficult. Using light loads like wad cutters or 125 GS makes the recoil manageable.

    The hardest thing for most nooks is racking the slide on an LCP. I guess those muscles of gripping are under developed in modern society. Once they get a grip the can hold without adJustin constantly, they’re good to go.

    I do think a slightly larger gun is easier for most to shoot well. Some end buying larger later but go with small to start.

    Must not be best, but it isn’t that difficult.

    • “So it would seem you’re saying for them to train on a larger gun that they probably won’t carry. ”

      And why will they probably not carry it? Maybe a big part of the reason they don’t carry a larger gun now is because they don’t know how disadvantaged they are by carrying a small one. I see that as the point of this, and other articles like it.

      No, of course it’s silly to train on a large gun and carry a smaller one. But it’s also silly to carry a small one as if it doesn’t have drawbacks. Ideally people would carry a gun with the advantages of both and maybe make an allowance here and there for doing so (wearing a slightly looser t-shirt, etc). At minimum this sort of article should convince people that if they’re carrying a pocket gun they need to be even more careful to keep their skills up. It’s sorta like riding a snappy motorcycle; there’s nothing that says you can’t ride it just as safely and cautiously as another vehicle. It’s just that if you don’t, it’s easier to get punished.

      • A lot of people have one gun. Those new to guns will oftenot buy one gun they keep for defense good or bad….it’s reality

        This type of gun snobbery doesn’t help. Teach someone to use what they have and they may trade up in time. Or not

        This is the same logic of telling some one that thinks all they can afford is a HiPoint that they would be better off with no gun.

        Lots of people have defended themselves with a small gun. If the option was a small gun or no gun, I think I know what they’d choose.

    • My second gen. LCP (the one with the “-” in the serial number) has a much improved trigger. That combined with Hogue grips transformed this tiny pistol into a viable carry weapon. It’s still not a great range-gun but neither is it impossibly snappy. With the Hogue grips, it’s good for 75-100 rounds which is plenty for a decent practice session. No, it’s not a comfortable gun to shoot but comfortable guns don’t fit perfectly into the watch pocket of a pair of Levis.

      • I’m also of the small minority of CCW carriers that accepts the limitations of the Ruger LCP; mine in .380. I’ve trained with much larger semi-autos and calibers, but none can match in comfort or concealability. My personal preference is not with wheel guns, just never took to them. I also don’t like the limitations once you get past the limits of the rounds you have access to. Give me a firearm that I can pack an extra magazine to extend my defensive options. No need for reloading errors or time spent fumbling with loose rounds and such.

        • Love my LCP Custom; ultimate concealable gun. Have a number of Rugers and a bunch for CC, but the LCP is sometimes the only answer for ‘concealed means concealed’. Load it with Ruger/Polycase ARX ammo & you have nearly the performance of 9mm HP’s with measurably less recoil. The ARX ammo really performs, try it if you can.

  10. “All else being equal, smaller, lighter handgun generates a more pronounced recoil impulse than their full-figured firearms friends.”

    It’s not really the quantity of the recoil, it’s the vicious *quality* of it. A 12 gauge scatter-gun has lots of recoil, but it’s spread out over a long enough time frame to be *somewhat* manageable.

    The rise time of a lightweight magnum snubbie recoil impulse is super-short. That translates directly into *pain*.

    The upside to that is, there’s no shortage of used Airweight snubbies for sale with low round counts on them.

    The times when someone has asked me what kind of gun to buy, I make a point to include a magnum snubbie in the mix of guns I bring to the range for them to try. One round in the snubbie usually convinces them they don’t really want it…

    8 PM EST – North Korea just attempted a missile launch that failed. Things may be about to get interesting…

  11. I love my Glock 26. It’s small and concealable, but not too small to shoot accurately. If I’m wearing a jacket, I can throw in an extended mag and have it handle more or less like a Glock 19 with a slightly shorter barrel.

    • +1. Have pocket carried a Gen 3 G26 for years, and have probably put >20K rounds through it in training classes and practice sessions. Shoots just as well as a G19 as far as I’m concerned. EDC loadout is a stock 10 round mag in a DeSantic Superfly, with a G17 mag with grip extender in a weak side pocket. With one in the pipe, I’ve got 28 rounds of +p JHP persuasion readily and easily available.

  12. I start newbies with Polycase Inceptor ARX 65gr 9×19 in my LCR.

    Once they see how well they can hit repeatedly at 7 yards I offer American Gunner 115gr, and later NATO or Win T&D 147.

    Gotta build up the recoil callus.

    I never got the basketball coaches that insisted that pee-wees use a full sized ball and 10 foot goal. Many kids just quit–they probably would have developed with the smaller ball and 8.5 foot goal.

    • I never got this type of additude. When I was a young kid my dad and I would play catch and he’d pitch to me so I could hit with a REAL baseball and bat. When I turned 8 years old I was able to sign up for pee-wee ball…except the year before some snowflakes decided that real baseball was too hard for 8 year olds and decided we needed a year of no pitch T-ball with rubber balls, not so much out of the injury factor, but when the “slower” children hit it…it would actually go farther that two feet. It got to the point where myself and a few other kids from my neighborhood who actually had a clue didnt even want our turn to bat because it was instantly over the fence and there was no effort whatsoever to do so. We all hated it and resented the adults who decided for us what was too hard. The other kids from my neighborhood quit within a couple weeks…i stuck it out because first, thats how I learned my lesson about following through with commitment and my dad and I would go play on the other field after with a real ball for a while once the joke game was over. There is no one size fits all anything. I think it would have been better if they decided to push the other kids to learn and weed out the non-hackers….but society doesn’t do that anymore.

  13. Gee my 1st semiautomatic handgun was a Taurus TCP. Very EZ to shoot and control. Close to nothing in recoil. Unlike the snubby I had. This was several years ago and I’m planning on a small 9 mm for carry. I don’t get all the hard to shoot little guns drivel. If I get in a gunfight I want my 12 gauge. ANY handgun is a tradeoff…deal with recoil. Or carry a rape whistle.

  14. My wife and I both agree that small pocket/micro guns in .380 and above should not be a first choice for a newbie with a handgun. The small grip and snappier recoil will lead to short times at the range and bad habits may be established. If that’s all you are able to afford then obviously it’s better than no gun but if possible get a larger handgun in a manageable caliber first. I have a S&W M&P .22 full size. It is excellent in teaching manual of arms and trigger control to a newbie without the risk of picking up bad flinching habits. A full size in 9mm wouldn’t be a bad choice either. My first handgun was a 642 airweight and while I still own and shoot it I wish I could go back and make my glock 19 the first purchase. I have put maybe 100 rounds through that 642. In contrast I have put over 5k rounds through my glock. I have just recently purchased a M&P bodyguard .380. Great pocket pistol but after 100 rounds at the range I’m done.

  15. To get an increase in power and a reduction in recoil I have found Ruger/Polycase ARX ammo to be very effective. Ammo has made huge advances in just the last few years. While a .380 ACP fired into a 5 quart oil jug filled with water does nothing but 2 holes in it, the ARX .380 round blows it apart; and this is from a Ruger LCP Custom. Big differences in recoil management between guns too. I find the Ruger LCR & LCP very comfortable to shoot, even without using ARX ammo. Everybody shoots where I live with backyard ranges everywhere; we call it ‘music on the mountain’. A big guy was shooting a SW Bodyguard .380 at the neighbors range (I have one too) and muzzle blast/recoil were unreal. I offered him my unloaded LCP Custom to shoot with the same ammo he just used in the SW; everyone at the range was surprised that the LCP generated almost half the muzzle blast/recoil of the SW. I knew my LCP was much easier to shoot, but I wanted to see if it was the ammo he was using or the gun. Interesting to be able to do side by side comparisons.

    • I have a supply of ARX in 380 and 45 ACP but until it gets a history of shooting actual people I use it as an anti critter round for everything except bear.

  16. My experience, holster/ belt combo is of equal to or more important than gun size. I have a cheap holster that makes carrying a shield a pain, but with a Blade tec nano I carry a M&P pro 5″ and I can seriously forget that it’s there.

  17. Maybe you should try a 3″ 686 with an Apex DAO trigger and .38 Special +Ps. It would reduce your pull weight to 5lbs and would require some fitting, but it may help in your situation.

    • You would be walking around with a 1911 sized pistol with half the throw weight. However, it would be a soft shooter.

  18. Personally I’ve never found my LCP to be such a snappy gun as many . Throw on a Hogue Handall grip and that brings up,the ability to grip it a lot better as well .

  19. I carry an Airweight most days, and it did take me a while to get the hang of shooting it. Small size, two finger grip, snappy recoil, nonexistent rear sights and that long DA trigger don’t make for an easy learning curve. That said, the key was low-recoil .38 practice ammo and working up to the full +p monte. It takes several hundred rounds to get proficient and few people are going to do that starting out with full power loads.

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