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A couple other pistols I inherited from my father included two vest pocket .25’s, a Bernardelli-Gardone and a baby Browning. He was a retired Denver cop, and I remember him saying “I’d never shoot an unarmed man” which makes me think these were “throw away” guns more than an emergency option. Or not. He kept one strapped to his ankle for a few years.

These little beasts are no fun at all to shoot. If I grip too high, the top of my hand is in line with the slide and I get bit. Beyond five feet I have better chance of throwing it at a target and doing more damage, let alone the discussions on the stopping power of a .25. However, for concealed carry, they’re damn easy to hide.

I’m still shopping for the ideal CCW, preferably 9mm or .38 so that I don’t have to buy too many different kinds of ammo. I have a snub-nosed S&W .38, but it’s heavy for such a small frame.

I know there’s a lot of debate over “stopping power,” vs. the age-old saw “the best gun is the one you have,” but I still want to know what TTAG’s Armed Intelligentsia considers the minimum caliber for effective concealed carry self-defense.

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  1. I can shoot a P3AT reasonably well, I can carry it in almost any clothing, and a physically smaller gun would be difficult for my large hands to operate. As a result, the .380 is the smallest caliber I will carry for self-defense, and it is reserved for when discretion is the biggest priority. If that size was not available in .380, I would likely move up to .38 as my minimum caliber rather than down to .32.

    For everyday use, J frame is the minimum. I shoot better with a semiauto, but I believe that 95% of the problems that can be solved with any carry gun can be solved with a J frame. Although it isn't what I carry most often, if I could only carry one gun that would be my choice.

    9mm and up, caliber is less important. Pick the gun first, then the caliber. I liked the XD subcompact, and at the time the choice was between 9 rounds of .40 or 10 rounds of 9mm–I went with .40. Now that the 9mm has 13 round short mags, I'd probably go with that.

  2. Stopping is a myth of sorts. A .22 can kill if you hit directly in the eye. However a .45 ACP will put someone down fast. There are several ways to kill someone. Blood loss. IE put enough holes in someone so they bleed out. Massive damage, IE a bullet or two to the brain or the central nervous system. What it boils down to is shot placement. Either way big bullet massive blodd loss, or small bullet with shot placement, any gun will do. Hope this helps.

  3. I'm not a fan of revolvers, but Sevesteen (above) is quite right about the J-Frame being more than adequate for most situations.

    I don't care for really light firearms (< 20 oz.), like Kahr Arms polymer framed carry pieces. Don't get me wrong, they're fine guns, and nicely sized for concealment.

    Maybe learning to shoot 1911s has ruined me for life when it comes to light handguns. It seems that in a 9mm or more powerful cartridge, a light gun is tough to shoot. Now a 1911 in 9mm with an alloy frame like the – EMP reviewed here – sounded appealing.

    Please note my carry expertise is limited. I live in NY state, in a legally unfriendly carry county.

  4. You have to be able to shoot the first magazine or cylinder from a carry gun with acceptable speed, accuracy and reliability. As long as that goal is met, comfort while shooting a carry gun is almost irrelevant compared to comfort while carrying it–you carry far, far more than you shoot. I'm fine with a gun that is unpleasant to shoot if it is pleasant to carry (which includes easy to conceal), otherwise I would not own a P3AT.

  5. I'm still working this one out. My current thinking: 9mm or better. And full-size, near-as-dammit. What's the point of having a gun if you can't hit and hit hard? A small gun is better than no gun if you need a gun, but who said you have to choose?

  6. Patrick, here are my choices and some reasoning why…

    #1 CCW (for me) is my SIG P220R Elite loaded with Speer Gold Dot 230-gr. It's big and thick, and somewhat heavy (then again, not nearly as heavy as the P229Elite Stainless that I traded in for it). But for me, I like em' "heavy", and I truly feel that the right holster can melt any gun away. I am getting ready to do a write-up on CrossBreed Holsters and I would recommend them for anyone looking for the best IWB holster around. The SIG is reliable (to Hell and Back after all!), easy to shoot, and in .45ACP there is little doubt about stopping power. Sure, people can talk what they want about a 9mm being "just as powerful" as a .45ACP, but if this were the case, you wouldn't be seeing the FBI, Special Ops, Delta Force, Hostage Rescue, etc trading in their 9mms for .45ACP chambered 1911's.

    #2 CCW (#1 in the summers) is a S&W Model 60-14 (J-frame) Stainless .357 revolver loaded with Hornady 158-gr XTP JHPs. It is “heavy” by small gun standards, but I can easily hide this gun in my cargo shorts and no one (including me) notices it there. People who shoot the lightweight J-frames are crazy in my book. I tried it, just to say that I did, and will never do it again! The slight weight gain of a stainless or standard carbon-frame J-frame is nothing when the gun is in my pocket. Some people notice the differences, but I don’t notice it enough to sway me towards a gun that I will dread to shoot. Don’t get me wrong, the full-load 357 Magnums are a “hot” load, but easily manageable with the proper grip and practice. If I find some quality data (or if I have to run my own tests) that shows a .38+P load that is as effective as a .357 on human-sized targets, I will switch.

    For me, the modern “pocket pistols” are no different than the pocket pistols of the early 20th century. The .25 Auto, .380 ACP, etc are too questionable for me. As Robert says, who said that we have to choose between a small gun or no gun? The J-frame is the smallest gun I will comfortably go with. This isn’t necessarily about “stopping power” (although I choose more when available) but reliability. In 14 years of gun handling and 4 years of pistol handling, I have never heard, read, or said to myself “man, if this J-Frame were more reliable, I’d carry it more”. The same applies to the SIG. These are big and heavy, but I know they’re going to shoot when I pull the trigger and I know they’re going to shoot when I pull the trigger again. I’ve had too many FTF’s and FTE’s with modern (and vintage) pocket pistols to trust my life to them.

    To each his own…

  7. Patrick – thanks for the all the input, great info – I look forward to reading your CrossBreed review. I didn't see anything from them for my S&W, but it looks like they have good options for my Browning Hi-Power.

    Do you have a recommendation for the S&W snubby?


  8. For the "snubbie" I'm using 2 holsters right now – a DeSantis Nemesis ITP (in the pocket) holster for my cargo shorts. I just purchased a used Galco "Ultra Deep Carry' holster, but haven't used it yet. I'll post my reviews after a few months of trying them out. So far so good on the Nemesis. I pretty much love everything Galco, so I suspect I'll like it as an IWB holster.

  9. As for the ability to stop an attack, I’d say .380 at a minimum; 9mm is better. A gun that is too large to carry comfortably will be at home instead of with you when you need it. .380’s are generally small and light, with my PPK/S about as large and heavy as I’d want, although my current choice, a Millennium G2, carries a lot of 9mm firepower for its size and weight.

    Concealability is important for both the element of surprise and elimination of apprehension in others you may be with, and DA/SA pistols are more easily concealed than revolvers, generally. While I agree that .45 ACP makes a bigger hole, the large cartridge diameter limits magazine capacity, and in a firefight you are agitated and focused on not getting killed. More rounds means a higher probability of a hit that incapacitates your attacker (even well-practiced and trained police generally land only 2-3 shots out of 5), and the objective is not to kill – it is to dissuade (chase off) or incapacitate so that you can get away safely.

    In the woods, it’s a double action .44 magnum in a leg holster – but urban carry demands concealability, and 14 rounds of 9mm hollow points in a small and light pistol is a very good, practical choice. In a larger gun, .40 S&W in a S&W 4006-sized pistol is a good choice, balancing weight and size with firepower and capacity – but 9mm ammo is cheap, and expensive ammo means less practice. Less practice means less effectiveness, and more recoil means slower follow-up shots.

    Pick the largest caliber you can shoot effectively and train with frequently and affordably; bullets that miss don’t protect you from a determined aggressor.

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