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I am a small gun guy. I mean, I’m a normal-sized guy who likes small handguns. I have tried to love them. I’ve bought, fired and carried a range of diminutive pistols. I’ve enjoyed shooting and pocketing them. But I’ve come to the conclusion small semi-automatics suck. Let me walk you through it . . .

My first experience with a small pistol: shooting dad’s “Ring of Fire” Jennings J-22 [above]. The striker-fired mouse gun points great and it’s fairly accurate. But what do I know? wikipedia:

The pistol has been claimed to be flawed because of its soft material. Another frequent claim is that the gun malfunctions more often than should be expected. It has also been criticized for its accuracy, with some critics claiming that it could only hit a dinner-plate sized target at about 10 yards at best.

About those malfunctions: I never made it through a magazine without some sort of jam—until I cleaned the J-22, ran 500 rounds through it, and generally tweaked/massaged the thing. Then I finally got through a string of seven several times in a row. I’m surprised it’s never broken; I believe the life of these pistols is less than 1000 rounds.

I have documented my travails with the Kel-Tec P3AT [not shown] previously. The replacement pistol Kel-Tec sent me is not faring much better. Judging by the complaints on the interwebs, my FTF (Failure to Fire) issues are not an isolated occurrence. Sooner or later, small, light, semi-automatic pistols with hot rounds seems to lead to trouble. To wit: TTAG correspondent Tim McNabb dead-in-the-water Diamondback DB9.

Small semis are generally cheap, small, and designed to appeal to the first-time self-defense gun buyer (“Oh, it’s so cute!”). In reality, mouse guns and pocket 9s are best suited as deep concealment or a back-up gun for more experienced pistoleros. Thanks to the small grip, small site radius, light weight and greater recoil, they’re a bitch to shoot.

Notice the shooter of the Rohrbaugh R9 in the video above (not me) eventually stops staging the trigger (i.e. he pulls the lever all the way through in one motion). Notice that even then he can’t put two shots together without adjusting his grip. The R9 is so difficult and painful to shoot that it makes rapid follow-up shots a big, why-is-the-bad-guy-still-standing question mark. And that’s without a discussion of “stopping power.”

Even high-end small guns such as the Rohrbaugh R9 can be . . . finicky. I hear all kinds of warnings from other owners, and the factory. Don’t run too much ammo through it in any one session (or ever). Let it cool between strings. Replace the spring every two hundred rounds. Strip it and clean it every fifty. Oh, watch out for ammo sensitivity.

True story. My Rohrbaugh R9 recently choked on some budget Mexican ammo (hard primers/light strikes). The hecho en Mexico stuff gummed-up the R9’s uber tight tolerance slide. It took a bit of lube and cleaning to get the thing running again.

I know, I know: that’s like putting cheap gas in a Ferrari and bitching when a cylinder gets hung up. Would you drive a Ferrari every day? Would you designate a tiny semi as your every day carry? Point taken?

In my CCW class, there were several diminutive, inexperienced women trying to run Ruger LCPs. The things jammed like crazy on them. None of the LCPs had been previously fired. Who knew if they were lubed?  In other words, the guns were as you’d find them in the drawer, pocket or pocketbook of an average owner. And yes, limp-wristing (not holding the gun properly) accounted for at least 100% of the FTFs.

Does that matter? As I said, these pocket semis appeal to newbies who want to carry a gun that’s not too big or scary (for them). A small gun may be better than no gun (and it may not if it stops you from running away when you have the chance), but once the instructor set-up the ladies with revolvers, all was well. They started to shoot consistent groups on the bull’s eye.

I originally titled this “Small Guns Suck.” But honestly, I’ve never had a lick of trouble out of my NAA mini revolver, which is about as small as it gets. It runs like a top, but at least it’s inaccurate . . .

In short: small semis are finicky beasts of compromise. If you choose one for self-defense (and why else would you choose one?), test it, practice with it (low pain threshold shooters need not apply) and be sure you can be confident in it. Or just pay your money and take your chances.

Personally, the more I shoot small pistols, the more I want a bigger pistol (say Glock 26 size) or a revolver in my pocket for when it really counts. Then again . . . Beretta Bobcat in .22LR and a Boberg are both on my wish list. Danny?

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  1. Eric,
    A couple of things:
    Your observation: “small, light, semi-automatic pistols with hot rounds seems to lead to trouble”, is so true. Most of my mice like to eat plain ole ball ammo. Which is not a bad thing considering lack of penetration of light rounds.

    The Beretta .22 is the Bobcat. The Tomcat is the .32 ACP.

  2. Your conclusion is flawed.

    You cannot condemn small pistols as a whole because 4 off-brand guns (Jennings, Kel-Tec, Rohrbaugh, Diamondback) were sub-par. And you clearly observed that the Ruger LCP issues were user-induced, but still appear to have lumped it into the “sucky” category.

        • Jason,

          If I drive a Porsche into a tree, is it the car’s fault?

          Products can’t control who buy them. User failures are only peripherally related to hardware failures in this case.

          • The price of a Porsche, and the fact that it’s not all that large and comfortable, generally means that only those with an appreciation of automotive performance will buy one. Trust-fund kids aside, by the time you’re ready to buy one, you probably know what heel-and-toe shifting is. If small semi-autos all cost as much as a high-end target pistol (say, $1,000+) I don’t think you’d see too many problems with user error either. But as it is, the low price and small size make them very attractive as a first gun. That’s a recipe for trouble.

            On the other hand, it’s often possible to pick up small guns cheap on the used market as people learn the hard way that they’re not prepared. All my J-frames came used, and barely shot. I’m the Sir Mix-a-Lot of pocket pistols.

            Some brothers wanna play that “hard” role
            And tell you that the butt ain’t gold
            So they toss it and leave it
            And I pull up quick to retrieve it

  3. Nice to find someone who agrees with me on mouse guns. I literally hate the things.

    I got that way from newbies showing up to my NRA Basic Pistol class with brand new Ruger LCP’s or Kel-Tec .32’s with which they could not hit a pie plate at 5 yards. One of the things I want to accomplish with a new shooter is that they experience some success firing the first shots. Their newly-purchased mouse gun usually meant they went home from my class having experienced mostly frustration and failure during the live fire session.

    That’s not the worst of it. Too many times on the firing line I would see finger tips protruding in front of the muzzle. The whole thing became a nerve wracking experience for me and a danger to the students. Sooner or later I feared those bloody small guns were going to cause blood to flow.

    Now I require all students to have a full size semi-auto for their first time shooting experience, and if they don’t have one I rent them a Glock 19, which I consider to be the best gun in the world for learning to shoot. It’s an especially fine gun for newbies to learn proper gun handling, grip and stance, sight alignment, trigger press, trigger trap and reset, clearing stoppages, field stripping, gun cleaning, etc. The best part is that it is also much easier for me to run a safe firing line and for the student to learn how to be safe with a gun.

  4. I couldn’t agree more on small autos. Anything much less then a 4″ barrel is inadequate at best and near useless at worst. My primary is a full size 1911 and I just recently purchased an XDm compact 9 for one handed shooting when I am out with the dogs. (The first shot is likely to be one-handed and hopefully one shot is enough to end the threat one way or another.) It is a myth that a full size pistol is hard to conceal in all but the hottest weather.

      • I live where it goes over 100 regularly and carry a full size 1911. I won’t claim it’s comfortable but it can be done.

      • I carry a full-size 1911 in VA all year long, it’s all about picking the right holster and clothing.

  5. Small semis fit a need, but they are far more sensitive than larger guns. Even more than the close tolerances, the short travel and light weight of the slide make the operational envelope much smaller than larger guns, and easily exceeded. Without the extra mass in the slide to regulate its speed, they are very dependent on spring strength, so that becomes far more critical as well. Both the design and execution must be flawless, or you will find yourself outside the envelope, where failure lives. There is also very little room for user error.

    This is why S&W still sells the hell out of the J-frame.

      • Small Kahrs suffer from the same reliability problems as other small guns.
        Kahrs reccomendation to shot 200 rounds before serious use is nothing more then-
        “Hey we’re not going to do our final quality checks, but you might want to.”

        • Nah, that’s just break-in, something you should do even with full-size guns. It’s not really a matter of quality (wandering tolerances or cheap materials) just a matter of they don’t hand-finish them. But very few guns are these days, and if they are, you’ll pay for the privilege. I can either pay someone to hand-lap the parts, or buy four boxes of ammo and do the job myself. I’m going to shoot a new gun anyway, so why not?

          My MK9 was a used range gun, and feeds a variety of hollow points perfectly reliably, and with a great deal of accuracy. A genuinely poor quality gun wouldn’t be worth buying after that much use and abuse. But the Kahr is still solid, and just smoother than it was when new.

  6. The Thunder is a .380, a pound and a quarter, simple blowback operating mechanism, and a clone of the established Walther PPK. Well within the acceptable design parameters for the cartridge. It should be reliable and easy to shoot. These days it’s common to get a 9mm or even a .40 in the same weight. 20 ounces will get you a Glock 26 or 27.

    • I wouldn’t want to try shooting 9mm or .40 on the same size frame.

      Maybe I’m a little old fashioned, but I think caliber should fit the size of the gun.

      • I like innovation, so I’m glad some people are willing to go out to the bleeding edge, but I can’t fault anyone for sticking with the tried-and-true. That’s probably the smarter way to go when selecting a tool to defend your life with.

  7. Alternate Headline: Dont believe every blanket statement that you read on the Internet

    *No offense, Eric

    I personally have had really good success with mouse guns over the years (as have many of my shooting buddies) and I carry a P32 as my primary in the hotter than hell summer months. It is indeed true that as guns get smaller they get more finicky, but unless you are only going to carry around full size 1911s everywhere you go, you have to understand that the blanket statement you are making does have exceptions.

    I know that you are only voicing your opinion, Eric (and given your experiences I really dont blame you), but I just wanted to say to everyone out there in Internet land who are reading this that its not 100% true. If you need a mouse gun in your concealed carry tool box, do your homework. There are many quality pocket guns out there that will run like a champ. I have a few.

    • No offense taken. It’s just the internet after all.

      I love the things, I really do. I just think they are probably inappropriate for their target market, and Farago makes me use provocative titles:)

      Tongue in Cheek…sorta, but there is truth in the article..

  8. I think a more accurate title to this piece would be “Small Semi Suck for Beginners”. That said, I agree with you that small semis are not fun to shoot.

    My own (probably mildly offensive position):
    If you cannot conceal a firearm unless it’s mouse gun size / weight, you should re-think your overall concealment strategy.

    There are good choices in single stack 9mm pistols. And revolvers. I find the heavier, thin, 9mm ACP animals very nice to shoot.

  9. If I need to go really small, a Smith & Wesson 642 or 638 Airweight in the pocket is always my personal choice. When I can wear proper clothing for coverage, a compact .40 (not a subcompact) in a Remora holster works just fine for me. I can understand the allure of tiny nineys, but won’t carry one. I’m not afraid that they might fail when I need them most; I just don’t see the need. YMMV.

    • The Smith Airweight is what I am carrying with my DB9 back at the mothership. I am a good shot, though God spare me a trial where I have to prove it in combat. If the new gun gives me any shit, I may be off small semi’s altogether and either carry the revolver or carry my Compact .40 Smith, which is a damn fine piece.

  10. If a Sig P230 qualifies as a small semi, I’ll respectfully beg to differ; small being subjective to both men and women with vastly different interpretations. Granted, I’m not willing to go smaller (rifle or gun, using R. Lee Ermey’s definitions, or handgun); however, I couldn’t be more pleased with the performance of my P230. It is accurate. It has a real set of sights. Crimson Trace makes grips for it, which I own. I’ve haven’t experienced 1 failure after testing a multitude of brands & bullet types. It’s been limp-wristed, fired correctly, and generally put through the wringer as an attempt to induce a failure and I haven’t yet succeeded. I highly recommend the new P230/P232 magazines, however. The old ones suck. I’m a happy “Sig P230 with news mags” owner and would highly recommend one to my friends, but not my enemies.

    • The SIG P230/232 is a truly great gun. But I don’t think it qualifies as a small gun by these standards. It’s the perfect size and weight for the .380 cartridge. It’s not pushing the limits nearly as hard as the newer pocket pistols that try to wedge a more powerful cartridge and more complex Browning short recoil mechanism into an even smaller, lighter package. It’s all a tradeoff. Going for reliability is rarely the wrong side of the trade to take. Plus, y’know, SIG.

  11. Been very happy with my Sig238. About 300 rounds through, and with the exception of FTF issues with the original mag during the 1st 25 rounds, no issues whatsoever. IMHO, this is one gun that does not suck.

    • The 238 gets great reviews, but notice its weight. Not exactly heavy, but definitely heavy compared to its pocket 380 competition. Perhaps that is the reason for its reliability.

      • Boris the blade from Snatch said it best ” Heavy is good, heavy is reliable. If it doesn’t work you can always hit them with it.”

    • I agree! The P238 is a great CCW. Never had a problem out of mine. It cost about twice as much as the Kel-Tec, LCP and other small polymer guns. The gun is worth the price.

  12. Waiting for a trade in guns for money locally, they can have my Jennings 22 for $100, $50 ?
    Bought a pistol cheap and got a cheap pistol, never did it again.

  13. Mouse gun it is. Pocket carry is my only way. Some of us poor schlubs out here in America have a very unique set of circumstances/requirements for concealed carry. #1 as always is $$$$$. Or in my case the lack thereof. My budget,and midwest summer climate reduce me to wearing $8 Wal-mart tank tops and cheapie Wal-mart $10 Hanes men’s drawstring shorts and sandals or deck shoes. It can get so damn hot here in St. Louis that going to hell would be a reprieve. I can’t afford nice,pleated,business casual men’s dress shorts with deep cargo type pockets and belt loops. And they’re simply just umcomfortable to me. So,I have to have a firearm that I can slip into my cheap shorts’ smallish pockets and not weigh them down. Same basic theme in the winter. I usually schlub around in sweat pants unless I’m at work;and the mouse guns are the only thing I can carry efficiently. I only own 1 dress outfit for funerals,weddings etc. The rest of my life consists of wearing jogging pants or shorts. Being comfortable is up to the individual and for me,that’s comfortable. So my carry options have to fit within how I live. Of course being 6′ 1″ and 360lbs doesn’t allow me to find much that IS comfortable. A pair of nice “dressy” shorts would cost me anywhere from $30 to $50 at a specialty Big&Tall men’s store and they won’t be nearly as comfortable to sit around the house or do yard work in. So, why bother? So unless someone out there has a better idea for me,it’s my S&W bodyguard .380 in a pocket holster in my strong side pocket. If I’m going into a particularly bad area of St. Louis (like the north side or east St. Louis) then I also drop my Taurus PT738 TCP in my left pocket to transition to faster than a reload or malfunction drill,with backup magazines for both.

    • If I knew that I was going to be in a gunfight (and I could not avoid it) and I had the option of a 15 round, 4″ 9mm/.40/.45 Glock/XD/M&P in a fanny pack, or a couple of .380s in my pockets (and no other options), I’d pick the fanny pack option. My draw will be faster, my bullets will hit harder and hit in better locations, I’m way less likely to have a malfunction, and I’ll have ammo left over when the fight is done. Speed, power, accuracy all matter. Even the best shooters with the little guns simply can’t match the speed and accuracy an average shooter can achieve with a 4″ semiauto.

      • Yea. I’ve thought of that too, problem is, I’m having a hard time finding a fanny pack that fits around my girth. I have a 55″-56″ waistline these days in my old age (actually quite embarassing for a 0311 Marine infantry rifleman). I’m still open to that option if I can find one that fits and I can afford. I don’t want to pay more than around $30 or so. I’ll keep looking.

  14. Ruger LCP and Kahr PM9/CM9 are fine pocket 9s.

    But it’s good to get the word out that small guns are much harder to shoot, and that a “women’s gun” should be a small caliber in a heavy gun.

    • I agree that Kahr makes a good gun. I have a Kahr CW9 and a CM9. I have had no problems with them at all…even during the so called “break-in” period. I have fed them everything from 115 gr to 147 gr in both ball and hp and +p. Not a single failure. Some people don’t like the lack of round capacity of a small nine, which I understand. But, one of the cool things about Kahr is that all of their magazines in the same caliber are the same dimensions (except for length). So the CM9 on my ankle might only be a 6+1, but I can easily carry two to three 7 or 8 round back-up magazines. I use a Galco ankle holster w/ a calf strap and the thing just disappears. Desantis makes a double magazine holster for the other leg that fits the Kahr 9mm magazines perfectly. Both the CW9 and CM9 disappear quite nicely on the hip and the CW9 is large enough for me to get my pinky on. The CM9 goes everywhere with me. If I carry the CW9 on the hip at the same time, I have two very small concealable guns with interchangeable magazines…and the best part of these “mouse” guns is that I can easliy make a 10″ group with both of them at 10 yds. I’ve handled and fired a number of other small 9mm and .380 pistols and Kahr’s have the best trigger, except for the Sig P238, but that introduces a safety into the equation and I don’t carry guns with manual safeties.

      I am not exclusively a small gun guy, though. I also carry a Glock 19 and Sig P226. I also have a S&W 642, but that is mostly for my wife.

      • Also, depending on where you go, you can pick up both guns for $375 – $415. And Trijicon makes night sights that fit both models…I like the way the look on mine.

  15. Walther PPS, an excelent “pocket pistol” choice…..My PPS .40 is currently residing in my front pocket as I type this. Available in 9×19 as well.

  16. My worst pistol is a Kel-Tec .380. The trigger pull can be measured in cubes I think and it will shred whatever little bit of grip you might have on it. And although I can’t tell if it’s accurate or not because I’ve only shot it a couple of times, I do keep it cleaned and oiled because it gets carried. It’s by far and wide the most convenient carry gun I own and it has never failed to fire (knock on wood).
    I have a selection of nice carry weapons with very good leather to take them along for the ride and I do, but when it’s a quick trip to the store or other minor errand it’s just too easy to stuff my little pocket rocket in a pocket and dash.
    I always feel a little under gunned with it but it’s also likely that I wouldn’t have any gun on me the times I carry the .380. Kind of a necessary evil in my case.

  17. The Jennings is like the Yugo.
    A high qualiy semi like a Walther PPK also sucks-it bites your hand and it’s overrated.
    I do have a Springfield Armory EMP 9mm which is OK.
    Personally I prefer a Browning HP for 9mm-slim and concealable and really reliable with any ammo.

  18. As usual the threads on the balsawood microguns is all about “convenience”, and the issue of being fast enough on the presentation and getting powerful hits to vital organs quickly enough to survive is ignored. Anyone that carries a pocket gun should at least know how much speed/accuracy/power you are giving up by “giving up” on the idea of carrying something better. Next time you practice, take your pocket gun and a real carry gun to the range. Run a basic drill, like “draw from concealment and fire 3 shots, at a target 3 yards away, in 3 seconds or less (late shots don’t count)”. Imagine yourself in a parking lot, between two parked cars, in low light, running the same drill, with your life at stake, and then consider which gun you’d prefer to have in that situation.

  19. My dislike of the Rorbaugh is two fold, first its too small for a 9mm and seems to want to bounce out of your hand. Second, for 1000 dollars I can own a G26 and two TCP or one TCP and one LCP if Ruger is more your speed. I can’t see what would make that gun worth that kind of money unless you got a couple of high priced call girls for an hour that went with it. Money is better spent elsewhere.

  20. What an education this has been. I have a Ravin PC P25. I’m sure you woul all have a great deal to say but I am willing to be educated in going forward with the good and bad about weight, safety, accuracy, and practice and care of whatever I have in the longrun.

  21. My carry is a Kimber ultra carry 45 because I like 45’s. I also have a Walther TPH22 that was a favorite back-up for LEO’s untill unc-sugar decided it was too small to import. It goes bang quite reliably thank you.If you can find a German made one for less than $1000,buy it. If you have a spare mag,I’ll buy it.

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