Intimidating Criminals at Gunpoint: Does Gun Choice Matter?

It may not be the gun that scares the Bad Guy…

Over at the GATE (Go Ask The Experts) section at, a fellow wrote in to ask, “Does gun size matter?”

He went on to explain, “Many, many years ago my brother joined a police department. Shortly afterwards he was recruited to undercover narcotics for a new face on the street, he was issued a S&W Chief Special five shot snub, (as I said this was many years ago) it was easy to hide and carry. Later I seen he was carrying a much larger gun and asked him why he switched. He had found that some of the times when he drew his 5 shot snub to initiate an arrest he was often challenged and had to go hands on. Eventually some of the more seasoned officers advised him to carry a larger gun, after doing this when he drew his gun the bad guys were much more compliant. I have read that more often than not in self defense situations just the display of a gun ends the encounter. So that has me wondering, do you feel that for a civilian does gun size matters?”

muzzle of a 1911
The silvery stainless steel muzzle of the 1911 makes it look even larger than its .45 caliber bore.

I’ll share with you the opinion I shared with him. BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front): It may matter, but don’t count on it.

In an adult lifetime spent studying armed encounters, and taking my share of criminal suspects at gunpoint along the way, I’ve become convinced that much, perhaps most of the criminal element does not fear guns per se. For the most part, they are an (unlawfully) armed subculture themselves!

They don’t fear the gun. What they fear, when they fear anything at all, is the resolutely armed man or woman who is obviously prepared to shoot them if they continue their violent transgression!

Opposite Examples

We keep hearing the advice, “Get a pump action shotgun! When you rack it, the Bad Guy will evacuate his bowels and freeze!”  Well, maybe.  Or maybe he’ll just think to himself, “My opponent is so far behind the curve, he just now realized he needed a loaded gun. I can handle this!”

Massad Ayoob shooting a 12g shotgun
A 12 ga. pump gun can be intimidating, but…

Let’s go back to a chilly day in 1974, and meet a 25-year-old cop with two years behind the badge, who might just be a little overconfident because a few months before he won his state’s championship in police revolver shooting. He and his senior partner have closed in on an armed robbery suspect. The older cop has his .38 out, and the younger one levels the department issue Ithaca Model 37 12 gauge shotgun on the suspect, a round of double ought Magnum buckshot already in the chamber.

The suspect begins shouting, defying commands to raise his hands. As the senior officer moves toward him, the suspect reaches for his waistband as if for a gun. The young cop barks a sharp command and takes up slack on the trigger as the older jumps back. At last, the suspect freezes. He very slowly raises his hands and obeys the command to put them flat on the vehicle he’s standing next to.

He turns out to be unarmed. He had believed that because he was unarmed, the police couldn’t shoot him and he could feint going for a pistol to demonstrate that he wasn’t scared. “I had to show you I was a man,” he explained later.  Only when the older officer jumped out of the line of fire did he realize, “OMG, the other cop doesn’t know he can’t shoot me,” and finally submit to arrest.

Now, let’s look at another case involving the exact gun the reader’s brother found unimpressive on his job, the little Smith & Wesson Chief Special, a five-shot .38 revolver on a .32 frame with a barrel length of just under two inches, this one a Model 36 made of blue steel. On the night in question, a young off-duty cop came upon a suspect trying to jimmy open the front door of an elderly widower’s home. In a moment, the would-be home invader was looking down the barrel of the Model 36 and hearing a command voice yell “Police! Don’t move!”

The suspect froze, immediately thrust his hands skyward, began to shiver, and bleated like a sheep: “Mneeaahh! Mneeaahh!”

What was the difference? This suspect went “zero to sixty” from “I’m gonna have my way with a feeble, deaf old geezer” to “OMG, a cop is ready to kill me!”

They fear the wielder, not the gun.

Silhouette of a revolver and 5 cartridges
S&W Model 36 5-shot .38 Chief Special.

Where Gun Choice Makes a Difference

The old cops who advised that reader’s brother to get a bigger gun spoke from experience. All other things being equal, a person you feel will hurt you worse than someone else is more intimidating, and it follows that a gun you think is going to blow a bigger hole in you may be more intimidating, too, so long as the Good Guy or Gal has made it clear that they’re willing to fire.

First, the Bad Guy has to know that the Good Guy or Gal has a gun. A larger gun is more obvious than a smaller one, whether the comparison is long gun to handgun or .25 Auto versus .45 Auto. A shiny silver-colored gun shows up better in poor light than a black or blue steel one, and may actually even appear larger depending in part on lighting conditions. In the lead photo to this article, notice that the silvery stainless steel muzzle of the 1911 makes it look even larger than its .45 caliber bore.

Two snubbie revolvers, one stainless and the other blue
A silver-color gun shows up better in poor light than a blue or black one, and may even appear larger.

Second, consider wounding effect. Suppose you were into urban “thug culture” where the toughest criminals in the neighborhood proudly show their bullet scars and rap stars brag about being shot for “street cred.” Notice also that none of them have taken a load of buckshot to center chest, a fact probably not unnoticed by those who consider them role models. Yes, shotguns can be particularly intimidating.

Consider also the AR15. American news media recently carried the story of an “expert” testifying that these rifles should be banned because one 5.56 mm bullet can cut a human body in half or completely decapitate a victim. That’s BS, of course, but some people believe it, and that may well add value to the AR15 rifle as a component of a home defense system. In my house, we keep more than one AR15 available. If asked why, one honest answer would be, “If this gun is so intimidating that an entire political party and two sitting Presidents want to ban it, we figured it would be intimidating enough that if we pointed it at a dangerous intruder, he would flee and no one’s blood would be spilled.”

an AR-15 rifle
If an AR15 like this one from Wilson Combat is so scary that two Presidents wanted to ban it, might it be scary enough to intimidate a violent criminal? (Photo credit: Steve Wood, Wilson Combat)

In the end, though, never forget that it’s going to be your body language, your command voice (and proper commands!), and your overall presence which intimidates a violent criminal sufficiently to end the confrontation without bloodshed. Criminals are predators, and one definition of “predator” could be “expert in prey selection.” If you know in your heart that you can and will apply deadly force lawfully if you must, your opponent may well intuit your resolve. That will probably go further than your choice of gun in making the confrontation end with the criminal’s flight or surrender, and prevent anyone from being shot at all.

Massad "Mas" Ayoob is a well respected and widely regarded SME in the firearm world. He has been a writer, editor, and law enforcement columnist for decades, and has published thousands of articles and dozens of books on firearms, self-defense, use of force, and related topics. Mas, a veteran police officer, was the first to earn the title of Five Gun Master in the International Defensive Pistol Association. He served nearly 20 years as chair of the Firearms Committee of the American Society of Law Enforcement Trainers and is also a longtime veteran of the Advisory Bard of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association. A court-recognized expert witness in shooting cases since 1979, Ayoob founded the Lethal Force Institute in 1981 and served as its director until 2009. He continues to instruct through Massad Ayoob Group,

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