Above you’ll see a portion of my pocket gun collection. I thought it would be interesting for others (and entertaining for me) to write up a quick comparison. Before we start, a few caveats and disclosures: first, keep in mind that when I discuss accuracy, I fire my pocket guns at targets at a distance of five yards. Massad Ayoob would disagree with that. He’s made clear in his gun reviews that he tests handguns at 25 yards, but he’s a cop and that makes his requirements different from a citizen’s. John Q. Public would have a very hard time justifying a self defense claim shooting a handgun at someone who’s 75 feet away . . .
Second, this is a pocket gun roundup, not a debate on the best caliber for handguns. I’m not interested in comments about how the puny pistols in this post don’t live up to someone else’s opinions on the best self defense caliber. The best caliber depends on what your requirements are.
Lots of folks like to point out the 1986 Miami FBI shootout as evidence that one should carry the most powerful handgun available. And I sort of agree with them, if their recommendation is for cops who must interdict and apprehend criminals, instead of just protecting themselves and getting their family to safety. In the Miami case the FBI rammed the suspects’ car to apprehend them and ended up in a gunfight that didn’t go well. Again, a private citizen would have a hard time making a self defense case getting into a gunfight in similar circumstances.
The best guns for police (or military) requirements are irrelevant for citizen defense. No handgun is suitable for military service except as a back-up weapon, because no handgun has the power and range of rifles and machine guns. An M4 with an M320 attached isn’t suitable for civilian concealed carry even though it is vastly superior to ANY handgun caliber.
Police requirements would (or should) be less than those of the military, but more than civilian self defense requirements. Police work involves forcible apprehensions and the possibility of shooting through cover such as windshields. So while the .380 round may be inadequate for police service, I believe it is sufficient for self defense at realistic self defense distances of five yards and closer. In fact, even a .32 might be a good choice for some because the best gun for citizen self defense is the one you’ll have with you.
Finally, your mileage may vary. I am providing data from my experience, which may not match yours, so use your own critical thinking skills as you read my post.
I started the process of acquiring pocket guns when I decided to get a concealed carry permit and wanted something more concealable for warm weather than my two smallest “real” guns at the time, a Bersa Thunder and a Ruger SP101 with a 3″ barrel. I also have the .25 pictured in the photos, but IMO it is a novelty – easy to shoot, but not reliable and too low powered for even a pocket gun, so it is not even considered as a contender.
The Bersa is an excellent gun with very nice sights (not all Bersas have nice sights, apparently) but it’s too big to conceal in a pocket. The SP101 has given me trouble since the day I bought it; sometimes it works great and other times the cylinder won’t turn properly making it extremely difficult to shoot. I took it to a gunsmith a while back but he couldn’t replicate and did not solve the problem, although he certainly did a great job of smoothing the trigger out.
So I started the search for a concealed carry pocket pistol with a Kel-Tec P3AT for two reasons: first, the trigger pull was much better than the Ruger LCP I was comparing it to at the gun store. And Kel-Tec products are inexpensive and some folks had good things to say about them. The Kel-Tec is a lightweight, polymer frame double-action-only pistol.
My experience was mixed – it’s small, thin, and light and it’s plenty accurate for its purpose. However, the trigger pull is only OK – it’s long and uneven. Worse, it just wouldn’t run reliably. It didn’t like hollow points of any brand and sometimes puked on ball ammo.
I sent it back to the factory and they worked on it for free, but even after that it still would occasionally stovepipe. Maybe it’s me “limp wristing” the gun, as some folks say the Kel-Tec is sensitive to how firmly it’s held, but I don’t think so. I’m a fairly decent shot and don’t have this problem with other guns.
Next I picked up a new model Colt Mustang Pocketlite. I was actually looking for a SIG P238 but retailers only had P938s at that time, although now I see P238s every time I go to the gun stores. Anyway, the Colt Mustang Pocketlite is awesome so I am very happy with my fortuitous inability to find a P238 at that time. Shooting the Mustang Pocketlite is just like shooting a little tiny 1911 with the recoil scaled down commensurately. It’s really easy to rapidly empty a magazine into the head of a silhouette at five yards, although obviously that’s just for fun and not good practice. It’s never jammed – in fact, it operated flawlessly with some old, oxidized Sellier and Bellot that made my Kahr P380 puke on its shoes. The Pocketlite is the best shooting pocket gun I have ever fired.
However, the Pocketlite is thicker than the Kel-Tec, and in my quest for pocket gun perfection, I wanted everything: great shooting, light weight and super thinness. Plus, my wife was going to get her own concealed carry permit and she wanted a gun that was tiny, had no recoil, aimed itself and had massive knock down power. Since I couldn’t find any Star Trek phasers for sale, I picked up a couple of tiny .32s just to try, a Seecamp LWS and a Beretta Tomcat.
The Tomcat is relatively easy to shoot, reasonably accurate, and has the great advantage of a tip-up barrel for people who have trouble racking the slide. My wife was able to shoot the gun just fine and put all of her shots into a silhouette at five yards (she doesn’t really like to shoot for fun).
One odd thing happened the second time I shot the Tomcat – it jammed, and of course since it doesn’t have an extractor, you tip the barrel up to clear a jam. I cleared the jam and the barrel would not go back into battery. There was something jamming the little spring that barrel closes onto. When I got it home and cleaned it again, the problem seemed to disappear, but I need to shoot it again to see if this is a recurring issue. I’m currently undecided about the Tomcat due to the jam.
The Seecamp is really tiny and very, very concealable. It’s all stainless and heavier than its small size would indicate. It appears well engineered and well machined, like a nice heavy Omega Seamaster watch. To keep the gun small, it uses a fixed barrel and blowback action. Using recommended ammo types (Federal Hydra-Shoks and Hornady XTP in my case), it has been 100% reliable so far, but readers have to understand that it only has about 50 rounds through it because shooting it is like sticking your hand in a mousetrap.
For comparison, it’s more comfortable to shoot full-power .357s through my 3″ SP101 than to shoot .32s through my Seecamp. It’s also very hard to shoot with any accuracy because it has no sights, a minuscule sight radius, a long (but smooth and even) trigger pull and a kick totally out of proportion to the size of the bullet it fires. That brings the “sight picture” off the target for follow-up rounds. On top of that, the trigger kicks the trigger finger when firing. The shooter sights the gun down the barrel, which isn’t easy to do under low light.
The first time I fired the Seecamp I actually put fewer holes in the silhouette than the number of bullets I had just fired – a major shooting faux pax. After a few practice magazines I can get all the bullets into the silhouette at five yards with no problems, but shooting the gun hasn’t become any more comfortable.
I respect Larry Seecamp for his innovative design and quality manufacturing, but I disagree with him about the sights. I think the Seecamp would be much better with a trench sight cut into the slide, sort of like what Colt does with the new agent. It’s just too hard to quickly line up the barrel because it’s so short. That won’t make the Seecamp into a target gun, but it will let you know if you’re dropping the muzzle down while lining up a shot. Certainly one could learn to group the Seecamp much better than I have, if one was willing to shoot it enough. I’ll keep it handy, though, because it’s tiny and it works.
Finally, I acquired a Kahr P380.The Kahr is a polymer frame pistol similar in size and weight to the Kel-Tec P3AT, but higher in quality. The double-action trigger pull is excellent, second only to the single-action Colt Mustang Pocketlite. There’s no safety that a shooter must remember to turn off – just point and shoot like a revolver.
My Kahr came with a 7-round extended magazine and a 6-round flush mag. I picked it up at the store and immediately went to their range to shoot it. The 7-round mag didn’t feed correctly; the slide did not strip rounds off of the magazine – a bad omen. I started to wonder if I could still get a refund, but I didn’t want the 7-round mag anyway because it stuck out from the bottom of the gun and would make it harder to conceal.
The 6-round magazine worked fine. I expected a few hiccups because Kahrs have a recommended break in period of at least 200 rounds. I shot the Kahr alongside the Pockelite and was pleasantly surprised by how nice the gun was to shoot – almost as good as the Pocketlite. Therefore, I decided to withhold judgement until cleaning it and feeding it more ammo.
I bought another 6-round mag and went back to the range to again shoot the Kahr side-by-side with the Pocketlite. The Kahr choked on some oxidized Sellier and Bellot, which the Pocketlite ate with no issues. However, during the break-in period it functioned perfectly for the next 90 rounds: a 50-round white box of range ammo, a 20-round box of Hornady Critical Defense, and a 20-round box of Magtech First Defense. It appears very reliable now.
So, how do these guns stack up? Her’es how I rate them:
1. Mustang Pocketlite and Kahr – tie
Accuracy – reasonable groups at five yards, rapid fire (~2 rounds per second)
1. Mustang Pocketlite
4. Kel-Tec – accurate at slow fire, but the long jerky trigger pull make fast follow-up shots difficult
5. Seecamp – almost impossible for me to shoot accurately at ~2 rounds per second
2. Kahr and Kel-Tec – it’s a tie here
3. Mustang Pocketlite
4. Tomcat – it’s small enough, but too thick. It would make a great purse gun, however.
1. Mustang Pocketlite
2. Kahr – after break-in period
3. Seecamp – zero malfunctions but small sample size
4. Tomcat and Kel-Tec – it was a tie
Cost (price paid, from cheapest to most expensive)
1. Kel-Tec P3AT
2. Beretta .32 Tomcat
3. Seecamp LWS .32 (note, the LWS 380 was selling for almost 3 times the price of the LWS .32, so if this was an LWS 380 it would have scored the worst)
4. Kahr P380
5. Colt Mustang Pocketlite
The overall winner for concealed carry: the Kahr. While it wasn’t the best in any one category, it’s very good and has the best combination of attributes. Primarily, it’s almost as good as the Pocketlite and is smaller and thinner.
Overall winner for pure shooting: the Mustang Pocketlite. It’s just plain fun.
[ED: TTAG’s securing some GLOCK 42s for testing and evaluation. We shall send Aron a 42 to go head-to-head with his top two pocket guns ASAP. Watch this space.]