How To Pick the Best Defensive Handgun

I believe that right now we are living in the golden age of defensive handguns. There are so many options available to the modern-day defensive handgun owner that it would seem that you just can’t go wrong.

That isn’t quite the case, however.

All the choices can actually make selecting the best defensive handgun significantly harder than it might appear.

The fact is, not all handguns are created equally. Of course, you might not realize that if you chose a defensive handgun based on marketing… According to the folks that build handguns, every gun is just the gun you need to save the day.

The best defensive handgun. My daily concealed carry handgun is a full-sized M&P 2.0 9mm.
My daily concealed carry handgun is a full-sized M&P 2.0 9mm. A full-size gun won’t work for everyone, but it works for me.

The reality is different. Some guns are better than others when it comes to defensive use just like some guns are better hunting, target shooting, or competition guns than others. If you are picking a hunting, target, or competition pistol it can be more forgiving if you make a mistake. Missing that deer, the shot, or the match might hurt your ego, but those misses are all survivable. But if you pick the wrong defensive gun and it fails you? Well, that could be devastating to yourself and those that you love. This is why selecting the best defensive handgun is such an important decision.

Your life literally depends on picking the best defensive handgun.


If you are in a hurry to make your choice or don’t really have an interest in all the fine details I can make two simple suggestions of defensive handguns that you can count on. The GLOCK 19 and the S&W M&P 2.0 Compact.

These guns are both reliable, simple, tend to fit most users well, and check lots of other boxes as well. The GLOCK 19 mags and M&P 2.0 Compact mags both hold 15 rounds. If nothing else, these guns will be an excellent starting point in selecting the best defensive handgun for you and will not leave you with buyer’s remorse.

For those that want to understand why these guns are a good choice for defensive use, read on.


Best defensive handgun - Glock 17 bedside
This “vintage” GLOCK 17 serves as a bedside defensive tool.

The best defensive handguns have attributes that make them more desirable than other handguns. These qualities are a result of intentional design to help the gun and the user (that’s you) excel in a surprising, chaotic, close distance, violent confrontation.

Over the years those that encounter violence and the people that build their guns have learned through trial and error what works best. I think it makes sense to profit from those that have gone before us and take advantage of the lessons they can provide. Those lessons can be broken down into a short list of priorities that should be used to select a defensive handgun. In order of importance, you should be looking at reliability, simplicity, fit, and then everything else.


Your defensive handgun needs to work every time you press the trigger. When you draw your gun to defend your life or the life of another innocent person you need to be confident that your gun will function as intended. If your gun goes click instead of bang the consequences can be severe.

Of course, all mechanical devices have a duty cycle and will eventually fail. The best defensive handguns have a longer duty cycle. The result is that they perform reliably and consistently. With minimal proper maintenance, the best defensive handguns will run when you need them to most.


Your defensive ammunition is as important as your gun. I chose Federal HST.
Your defensive ammunition is as important as your gun. I chose Federal HST.

Mechanical failure isn’t the only kind of failure you need to be concerned about when deciding which defensive handgun is best for you. If you understand violence you realize that the stress of a violent encounter makes user error a possibility. A defensive handgun needs to be simple to operate. Anything that makes the gun more complex to operate increases the likelihood of you making a mistake at the wrong time.

I suggest avoiding guns with extra levers and functions like handguns with manual safeties or decocking levers. I want my defensive pistol to have a trigger, a magazine release, and a slide stop lever. That’s it. I don’t want there to be anything else that I could screw up.


Defensive handgun - Springfield Hellcat.
Smaller guns are often easier to carry, but in trade, they tend to be more difficult to shoot with more recoil. This Springfield Hellcat is a capable carry piece.

Different handguns fit, well, differently. Again, when it comes to fit I have some priorities.

I want the gun to sit with the back of the gun centered on the web of my hand. At the same time, I want my index finger to easily reach the trigger and easily defeat the trigger safety if there is one. It would be great if I could reach the magazine release and the slide stop lever without having to adjust my grip.

A defensive handgun needs to fit your hand, but it also needs to fit its station in life. The size of the gun needs to fit the role it is intended for. If the gun is for home defense, the larger overall size (while still fitting the hand) is a bonus as bigger guns are easier to shoot. For concealed carry, the best defensive gun for you might be smaller. Keep in mind that it isn’t always true that smaller guns are easier to conceal and smaller guns are rarely easier to shoot. Finding the right carry position and holster can make carrying even large guns relatively simple.

Other Considerations

Once you find a selection of guns that are reliable, simple and fit your hand and your purpose, you can select among those guns based on other factors. Brand preference, color, looks, etc. Unfortunately, these are the attributes that many people begin with when they make their selection.

You may find this offensive, but I call it how I see it. If the color is your highest priority when you select your defensive handgun, make sure to pick up a matching rabbit’s foot to go with it because you’re picking a good luck charm, not a defensive handgun. A defensive gun is a tool and should be chosen so it helps to get the job done.

The List of Reliable, Simple Defensive Handguns

Stage your defensive handgun - quick access safe
Make sure that you have an appropriate way to stage your defensive handgun. This is our kitchen gun in a quick-access safe.

I can’t select guns that fit your hand, because it’s your hand, but I can list some of the guns that are reliable and simple. The list won’t be exhaustive, but it is a place for you to begin when selecting the best defensive handgun for you.

This list is not necessarily in order of preference. If you have smaller hands or a more restrictive wardrobe consider the guns in the single stack list.

Full-Size Handguns

These are typically for home defense:

  • GLOCK 17
  • S&W M&P 2.0 Full Size
  • HK VP9
  • Sig P320
  • FN 509

Compact Handguns

Typically, these offer a good balance for home defense and concealed carry.

  • GLOCK 19
  • S&W M&P 2.0 Compact
  • Sig P320 Compact
  • FN 509 Compact
  • Single Stack Handguns

These are often better for people with small hands and can make concealment and daily carry easier for some.

  • GLOCK 48
  • S&W M&P Shield M2.0 4”
  • S&W M&P Shield EZ 9mm (if you have weak or arthritic hands)
  • Sig P365
  • Springfield Hellcat
  • XD-S 9 4”


For me, there really isn’t much to talk about these days when it comes to caliber in defensive handguns. 9mm strikes the best balance between terminal performance shoot ability and capacity. For home defense and concealed carry pick a 9mm and load it with Federal HST, Winchester PDX1 or, Hornady Critical Duty

The Big Caveat(s)

There have been times in recent history when guns were scarce. We are experiencing one of those times now. You may have a difficult time locating the best defensive handgun for you. In that case, you may need to settle on the best available defensive handgun. Realize that if you find yourself in that position, a gun is better than no gun. Make the best choice you can and be prepared to upgrade when the opportunity presents itself.

Also, know that the best gun is virtually useless unless you know how to use it. Training should be part of your plan. Responsible gun handling is the most critical aspect of your training. If you handle your gun irresponsibly, you have actually introduced a liability to your life.

Other Resources

This isn’t the first time I have considered this topic. When students attend my courses they often lament that they wish they had heard this information BEFORE they purchased their gun. If you are interested in more details on this topic you can find an expansive post on the topic here.

Paul Carlson, owner of Safety Solutions Academy, is a Professional Defensive Shooting Instructor.  He has spent the past decade and a half studying how humans can perform more efficiently in violent confrontations and honing his skills as an instructor both in the classroom and on the range. Through Safety Solutions Academy, Paul teaches a variety of Critical Defensive Skills courses in more than a dozen states annually.  Courses range from Concealed Carry Classes to Advanced Critical Defensive Handgun Courses and include instruction for the defensive use of handguns, rifles and shotguns.  Safety Solutions Academy regularly hosts other industry leading experts as guest instructors to make sure that SSA's students have the opportunity for quality instruction across a broad range of Critical Defensive disciplines.

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