GunMag 101: Finding the Best Concealed Carry Gun

“What is the best concealed carry gun?” This question is common amongst newer inductees to the armed citizen collective. Occasionally, this question manifests as, “What gun do you recommend for concealed carry?” The answer, depending on the recipient of the query, can be helpful – or brutally misguided.

When approached by someone seeking out a concealed carry gun, I shy away from directing them to a specific make or model. This is highly dependent upon the individual’s stature, how they intend to carry the firearm, and what their expectations and anticipated needs are for concealed carry. I felt it appropriate to share what I consider when choosing a concealed-carry gun.

The Non-Negotiables of a Concealed Carry Gun

Concealed carry gun selection has many subjective elements. Those elements – size, feel, operation, and sights – are partly user preferences. I’ll discuss those later. However, some more objective elements are non-negotiable and take priority when selecting a concealed carry gun. Here are a few of the factors deemed non-negotiable.


If there ever was a never-ending debate in the world of firearms, it’s caliber. Ultimately, the debate centers around what the threshold is for a suitable personal defense caliber. I’ve argued against using rimfire calibers in the past and remain steadfast in that position. Would I want to be shot by a .22? No, I don’t. However, it doesn’t matter whether or not the threat wants to be shot. I think most reasonable individuals want to avoid that experience. However, criminal behavior is rooted in unreasonable thinking fueled by drugs, alcohol, mental health issues, or a combination thereof. Caliber selection should come from applying reasonable thinking to unreasonable circumstances.

No one wants to get shot by a bullet, but .380 Critical Defense (L) and Federal HST 9mm (R) are far more potent when compared to a Winchester .22 LR (C).

If I were to apply a hard line in caliber selection, the bare minimum is .380 ACP with a quality defensive cartridge. Modern defensive ammo has given that little cartridge better performance than it once had. Nevertheless, the selected caliber for your concealed carry gun should include a proven and reliable cartridge. Examples include, but aren’t limited to, 9mm, .40 Smith and Wesson, .357 Sig, and .45 ACP. For those in the market for a wheel gun, .32 H&R Magnum, .327 Federal Magnum, .38 Special, and .357 Magnum are all capable revolver cartridges.

Ultimately, I recommend carrying a handgun chambered in a proven self-defense cartridge such as Federal HST, Hornady Critical Duty (or Defense), Speer Gold Dot, or Winchester Ranger. Handguns, and their associated calibers, are convenient to carry. Unfortunately, handguns aren’t magically inclined to stop a threat with one round. It happens, but not as often as some think. Maximize your odds with a quality cartridge in a consistently proven caliber.


We’re all on a budget, and many of us shop for the best deals when searching for our latest firearm addition. However, when seeking out a concealed carry gun, how much is your life worth to you? By no means do I suggest you spend $3,000 on the latest and greatest custom 1911 or 2011 for a concealed carry firearm. However, I recommend purchasing a firearm predicated more on its reputation and quality than “it was a good deal”. Good deals don’t matter in a gunfight. Reliable and durable firearms do.

Belgian pocket pistol next to HK VP9
While this late-19th-century Belgian .25 ACP revolver might be convenient and exceptionally cheap, it’s nothing compared to the reliability, accuracy, control, and power of a full-sized HK VP9. Price shouldn’t fundamentally govern defensive firearm purchases.

So, what is a reliable concealed-carry gun? Arguably, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of proven makes and models available on the market today. Fortunately, the days of many of the cheap Zinc-alloy semi-autos have gone by the wayside. In turn, they’ve been replaced by many more reliable firearms than those of yesteryear. However, reliable is a relative term and subject to the eye of the beholder. For some, acceptable reliability is a malfunction every 100 rounds. For me, that is an abject failure. While I won’t explicitly name any manufacturers, do your due diligence and read reviews, not just those in publications, but feedback from actual consumers before purchasing a concealed carry gun. The end user’s experience – good or bad – is worth its weight in gold.

The Negotiables of a Concealed Carry Gun

Now that I’ve knocked out the introductory elements to selecting a concealed carry firearm, what should be considered negotiable? Earlier, I mentioned some factors such as size, feel, operation, and sights. Let’s delve into why these are important.

Feel and Fitment

This element of choosing a concealed carry gun is highly subjective and in the eye of the beholder. Some folks like the feel of a 1911 while others prefer an XD, Glock, or other reputable firearm. The feel of the gun in your hand is very important. When you pick it up, does it feel natural? Does it point appropriately when you present the firearm? Can you manipulate the firearm’s controls (e.g. trigger, slide release, cylinder release, etc) easily? All these questions should be answered before making a final selection.

Concealed Carry Gun Size

A frustrating theme played out within the gun community is to recommend a small handgun to a potential buyer. Let me set the scenario: a female walks into a gun store and, almost immediately, the clerk suggests a snub nose .38 or pocket semi-auto .380 because it’s “perfect” for a female. In just as bad of a scenario, gun manufacturers market these pistols in feminine colors to attract prospective female buyers. Shortly after the purchase was completed, I was horrified to see these shooters on the range getting brutalized by the recoil of a small handgun.

Sig 1911, Sig 938, and Ruger LCP
From top to bottom: Sig 1911 Nightmare, Sig 938, and Ruger LCP. A smaller gun isn’t always controllable. The LCP is difficult to handle with its minimal grip but capable chambering (.380ACP). Meanwhile, the Sig 938 remains compact and controllable for a 9mm because of the ample grip. The Sig 1911 Nightmare in .357 Sig is surprisingly controllable due to its weight and size.

Gender aside, small guns in small calibers aren’t necessarily a good idea. For example, my Smith & Wesson 642 in .38 Special is miserable to shoot for extended periods with +P ammunition. I don’t mind recoil, but it’s not my go-to for training. Now, let’s put that gun in the hands of someone a foot shorter than me (I’m 6’ 04”) and about 80 pounds less. The experience is not conducive to learning.

Small handguns are compact and convenient to carry. However, when selecting a concealed carry gun, carry the biggest gun with the highest capacity you can conceal on your person. A 9mm single-stack compact will be nowhere near as controllable as a full-size single or double-stack 9mm for most adult shooters. The increased weight and greater grip purchase allow shooters to manage recoil more effectively. Thus, smaller isn’t always better. Before settling on that tiny pocket pistol or snub nose revolver, it’s worth it to try out a few compact to full-size handguns from your local range or on loan from someone with a diverse collection.


For most semi-automatic handguns, sights are easily exchanged for different ones. Furthermore, handgun red dot optics are prolific and most, if not all, manufacturers offer some kind of optics-ready carry pistol. However, some sights are easier to change than others and some manufacturers offer fantastic sights from the factory.

sights on different pistols
The sights on these pistols all have their benefits and drawbacks. From left to right, Glock 40 with Trijicon RMR and sights, HK VP9 with Trijicon HD sights, and Smith and Wesson 642 with fixed factory sights.

Personally, I’m a fan of Trijicon HD sights or Ameriglo Hackathorn-style sights. My eyes are sharp, but the beach ball orange or green front sight is great for point shooting and still allows for precision marksmanship with a fighting handgun. With revolvers, not all sights are interchangeable. If looking at a revolver, carefully consider if fixed sights will work for you or if you want to upgrade to one with adjustable or aftermarket sights. While some traditionalists are adamantly against red dot sights, I see them as a force multiplier, not a crutch, to defending yourself with a handgun. Ultimately, train on both as no sighting system is 100% reliable.


I’ve interchangeably discussed revolvers and semi-autos throughout this article. Some folks argue revolvers are inherently more reliable than semi-autos. Anyone who has run a revolver through 500 rounds in a class knows better. Screws work loose, and the ejector rod can back out, seizing the cylinder in place. Carbon builds up on the forcing cone and makes the cylinder nearly impossible to turn. The crane can get bent and cause the cylinder to seize or, worse, not open. There’s a litany of issues unique to revolvers, just as there are with semi-automatic handguns. Ultimately, handguns are mechanical devices and, as with any mechanism, can fail if not properly maintained. Furthermore, a reputable training class on your chosen concealed carry gun is worth the price of admission.

Each of these pistols has a slide and magazine release. Some features, like takedown levers and safeties, are also featured. Not everyone can manipulate the controls on these pistols. It’s important you can adequately operate the pistol.

For many shooters, working the slide or controls on a semi-automatic pistol is a valid concern. If you can’t reach the controls, such as the slide or magazine release, maybe a slightly smaller grip or frame is worth considering. Firearms like the Walther PPK are notoriously difficult to operate the slide because of the direct blowback action. A tilting barrel design may be easier. Some manufacturers, like Smith and Wesson’s EZ pistol series, make it exceptionally easy to manipulate the slide. While technique is a factor in operating these pistols and training should be sought, some of us don’t have the grip strength to manipulate certain pistol slides. This is a case-by-case and trial-and-error experience that individual shooters need to iron out before making a final purchase decision.

Final Points on Choosing a Concealed Carry Gun

Choosing a concealed carry firearm is a highly personal decision. This article is a primer to get you thinking about what may or may not be conducive to your lifestyle, experience, and capabilities. The foremost consideration in choosing a concealed carry gun is whether or not you can depend on it to maximize your chances of surviving a violent encounter. Furthermore, can you effectively use the firearm to do so? Ultimately, that choice is upon you. Read more on the topic beyond just this article. Seek reputable training. Shoot a variety of handguns. Most of all, make a decision you’re comfortable, and proficient, with carrying every day.

Tom Stilson began his firearms career in 2012 working a gun store counter. He progressed to conducting appraisals for fine and collectible firearms before working as the firearms compliance merchant for a major outdoor retailer. In 2015, he entered public service and began his law enforcement career. Tom has a range of experience working for big and small as well as urban and rural agencies. Among his qualifications, Tom is certified as a firearms instructor, field trainer, and in special weapons and tactics. If not on his backyard range, he spends his time with family or spreading his passion for firearms and law enforcement.

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