Top 5 Handguns for Campus Carry

Despite data to the contrary, many of us believe higher education is a ticket to a better life. As long as that lie continues to be parroted and as long as employers insist on degrees, the college campus is a place where many Americans will find themselves at one point or another.

To go to college is to be immersed in a segregated and special culture. The programs of study, extracurriculars, and customs create a culture, while the landscape and architecture become markers of distinction that mark the boundaries of the college campus from the outside world. This insular state even features its own dedicated campus police force and the creation and enforcement of laws that are more stringent than on the outside.

Despite all of this, crime is ever-present. Assault, robbery, and murder still occur despite all these on-campus protections, and college students make easy marks when they leave the bubble. There is also the ever-present fear of mass shootings.

Although mass shootings in school zones are exceedingly rare, they do show how the criminal element can take advantage of so-called safe spaces to accomplish their grim goals. Most college campuses completely ban the possession or use of OC spray, batons, knives, and firearms, even though those items are perfectly legal off campus.

The debate over these outlying events has led to eleven states legalizing campus carry in some form. But if you are legally able, is campus carry right for you and if so, what handgun should you choose? As a holder of undergraduate and graduate degrees, an academic researcher, and a concealed carrier, I wanted to discuss some of the limitations of campus carry for the new carrier as well as my top five campus-carry handguns.

The Limitations of Arms

A Smith & Wesson 442 revolver lying on top of a black robe and mortar board.

The practical realities of concealed carry-on campus are little different from those in the real world. For example, there are still places where carry is off-limits and you may be subject to penalties for breaking these stipulations. In the real world, carrying a handgun into a federal building is still illegal even if you have a carry permit. Campus carry laws are generally flexible enough to allow the administration to designate certain places on campus as gun-free zones. At my first alma mater, campus carry was valid just about everywhere except the testing center and in laboratories. It is on you to be aware of those limitations within the law.

The next practical limitation of campus carry is budget. For some of us, the choice of a concealed carry handgun is limitless. For others, there is only a fixed amount of money available, if concealed carry is a financially valid option at all. The budget of a faculty member might be more generous than your typical college student and, if you are in that position, plan accordingly.

I am going to go out on a limb and assume the average college student for the sake of this discussion is not Thaddeus Winthrop IV getting his BA in Fluffy Bunny Studies at Harvard in order to work at Wall Street. Real college students tend to scrape by at some point in their undergraduate careers. It gets worse when you are a graduate student. A lot of good concealed-carry handguns are going to be out of reach. But on the other hand, you can’t buy too cheap. Some guns are affordable for a reason and it has nothing to do with altruism. The cheapest guns also tend to be the hardest to use. For your average professor, staffer, or student with little or no previous trigger time, a cheap handgun can be a showstopper. Prices will vary with location and time, so when I speak of money spent, the dollar signs for a given pistol are relative.

The final limitation of campus carry is not a practical but a social one. The college campus is its own environment, and it is easy to assume the politics of those who attend. While there are some rabid activist types promoting their own social causes, they are far outnumbered by those who are fresh to life and impressionable. The nuances of personal protection are as lost to them as how to cook. Most students would never think of it because they were never confronted with it. If you are a student or faculty member looking to concealed carry, you may open yourself up to criticism and social ostracization if anyone were to discover you were carrying a pistol. Ideally, we would want them to ask questions and become enlightened. But acting irrationally is also on the table and it opens you up to problems I cannot begin to elaborate on.

All things considered for the average student or faculty member, my preferred concealed carry pistols for campus carry have to be moderately priced, easy to use, and easy to conceal.

An Honorable Mention: NAA Mini

A North American Arms mini revolver next to a five-shot group.
The NAA Mini Revolver is a niche gun that can be pocketed just about anywhere.

Although some will dismiss the North American Arms Mini Revolver as a well-made novelty, these revolvers have been in production for over three decades and remain among the smallest handguns you can buy.  While the little five-shot 22-caliber Mini Revolver is not high-capacity, nor are they the easiest handguns to draw in a hurry. NAA Minis also can’t be reloaded in a hurry. But as a five-and-forget deep cover or hideout gun, they are hard to beat. 

Most versions of this gun can be had for under $300.  In undergrad, I carried an NAA Sidewinder in the magazine sleeve of a belly-band holster when the dress code was athletic. While the 22 LR or 22 Magnum standard Mini can suffice, the ultimate versions of the platform are the Pug and the Black Widow. Both are slightly bigger and more forgiving to manipulate and shoot, but still small enough to never leave home without.

5. Taurus Model 85/856 All Steel

Taurus 327 Revolver in .327 Federal Magnum SHOT Show 2022
Although Taurus automatic pistols can be problematic, the firm has made serviceable revolvers for decades.

For a good portion of my college years, I carried a Smith & Wesson Airweight of some kind. These five-shot revolvers are reliable, light to carry, and blend organically under clothing. But they are so light that, the relatively sedate 38 Special cartridge they fire, can render them hard to control. Further, Smith & Wessons and their Ruger counterparts often start at $500 on up, brand new. More controllable all-steel versions of their guns like the S&W Model 60 or the Ruger SP101 double that take-home price.

With that in mind, Taurus has been making a solid revolver for decades in the Model 85 and the new Model 856. Like any double-action revolver, these guns have swing-out cylinders and can be fired by simply pulling the trigger. They’re easy to diagnose whether the gun is loaded or not and easy to operate for the rounds that are in the gun.

The Model 856 is a small-framed two-inch barreled revolver with a six-shot cylinder, while the old Model 85 holds five rounds. It is rated for 38 Special +P ammunition. It is available with a lightweight aluminum frame, but the all-steel version is preferred as it soaks up the recoil of any given load you put through it. Holster options are good. Some Smith & Wesson and Ruger leather holsters will fit, but dedicated leather and Kydex options are also out there. This revolver can be had for under $400.

4. Smith & Wesson M&P 22 Compact

smith & wesson m&P compact 22, campus carry handgun
Yes, a .22 makes the list.

Some will emphatically reject the idea of using a pistol chambered in 22 Long Rifle for personal protection, while others would give it a soft yes if the circumstances dictated it. The 22 Long Rifle round when fired out of a handgun is certainly on the low end of the power spectrum compared to larger rounds like the 380 ACP, 38 Special, or 9mm Luger. 22 LR ammunition is rimfire and more prone to dud rounds than their centerfire counterparts. But when paired with good ammunition and a quality pistol, the 22 LR can be used effectively. The lack of noise and recoil helps prevent bad shooting habits from cropping up in the first place and the 22 LR is still ballistically capable of a stopping wound.

If I had a choice, a 22 LR double-action revolver would be my pick. In the event of a dud, all you have to do is pull the trigger again. Unfortunately, a quality 22 revolver can be prohibitively expensive for those of us who are campus bound. 22 LR semi-auto pistols can be finicky, but they can be had for much less.

The Smith & Wesson M&P 22 Compact is one 22 autoloader that I can wholeheartedly recommend. This hammer-fired pistol has the same slim, single-stack polymer frame and a light-racking slide that would later be echoed by the S&W EZ 380. On the whole, the EZ 380 is the better option in a better caliber, but the M&P 22 is equally easy to manipulate and has virtually no recoil or blast—and it is largely indifferent to the type of ammunition that you run.

I initially bought the M&P Compact as a fun gun, but I did carry it on occasion loaded with CCI Mini Mags. On the range with the same ammunition, I never had a malfunction. Even with bulk pack ammunition like Remington Golden Bullets and Winchester Western, I had surprisingly few bobbles compared to other 22 pistols on the market. The M&P Compact is an ideal trainer and they can be had for around $300.

3. Glock 42

Glock 42 budget pistol in .380, campus carry handgun
The Glock 42 is a ubiquitous pocket pistol that is on the larger end of its class. (photo credit: us.glock.com)

My first campus-carry handgun was a Ruger LCP. Light, handy, priced at $200, but not the easiest handgun to shoot. Many small pistols chambered in 380 ACP like the LCP have long, gritty triggers, low sights, and very little to hang onto when firing. This is a class of guns that is hard to shoot and easy to induce malfunctions without textbook mastery of the pistol.

If a smaller 380 pistol is the ticket for you, consider the Glock 42. Like other pistols in its class, it holds six rounds in its magazine and is light enough to pocket. But it is the next size up from guns like the Ruger LCP and the S&W Bodyguard. The grip and slide are slightly longer. The sights are a traditional but visible three-dot variety, and the Glock safe-action trigger is lighter and shorter than its competition.  While the 380 ACP’s power is mediocre, the Glock 42 is easier to shoot and a bit more forgiving on recoil.

The Glock 42 is also a Glock, but also the most affordable Glock. Even in these inflationary times, it is not uncommon to find one at $400. Holsters and magazines for the Glock 42 are readily available and made by various manufacturers to suit different carry and capacity needs.

2. Ruger Security-9/ Security-9 Compact

Ruger Security 9, campus carry handgun
Ruger makes some of the best budget pistols on the market and the Security 9 takes the cake.

If you are on a budget but looking for quality, Ruger is a brand that punches well above its weight. The Ruger Security-9 Compact is not the smallest 9mm handgun they offer, but one with the right mix of compactness and price. Micro-compact pistols like the Ruger Max-9 and the Sig P365 allow for a trim belt gun with 9mm power. They, like their smaller 380 counterparts, can be taxing to shoot. Further, $500 would be on the low end of what you can expect to find given how popular this class of pistol is.

The Ruger Security-9 Compact is the conventional double-stack, hammer-fired Ruger Security 9 with a shorter grip, barrel, and slide. Although thicker to carry over a micro-compact, the bulkier grip and somewhat larger dimensions make the Security-9 Compact easier to shoot—at least from the start. In this case, it can pay off to go with a slightly larger gun that has the same capacity as a micro 9mm. The Security 9- Compact uses flush-fitting ten-round magazines but will also use fifteen-round magazines that will fit the full-sized Security-9. 

The Security-9 Compact may be the most challenging handgun to conceal on our list, but it is a solid handgun that can easily be had for under $400.

1. Smith & Wesson Shield EZ

SW 30SC pistol, best campus carry handgun
The Smith & Wesson EZ is a quality handgun that is both easy to use and priced within reach of most. While 30 Super Carry and 9mm Luger options will work, the original 380 is perhaps the best of the bunch.

When Smith & Wesson debuted their Shield-EZ 380 in 2019, it triggered a new interest within the gun community to cater to those who are often left behind in the then-current field of concealed carry handguns. For novice shooters as well as those with health problems or limited strength, there were few good options. The EZ is a hammer-fired single-stack pistol that is touted for its easy-to-rack slide, easy-to-load eight-round magazines, and the option of a manual thumb safety in addition to a passive grip safety. When paired with the 380 ACP cartridge and a light single-action trigger pull, this thin, but otherwise full-gripped pistol is pleasant to shoot and easy to shoot well in a way that is impossible with smaller 380s and micro 9mms.

Since its introduction, the EZ has become available in both 9mm and the new 30 Super Carry. Although these are valid chamberings to consider, the EZ pistols that use them have tighter springs and command a premium over the original. The 380 EZ is the friendliest of them all and you can get one in the $400 range.

The EZ is a quality pistol at a reasonable price and its mix of features is ideal for campus carry. Thin enough to conceal without printing, yet large enough to shoot without a sting. It has safety features that offer some forgiveness as you learn your way around the pistol, and ergonomics that make sure you are not deterred from shooting and carrying in the first place.

Terril is an economic historian with a penchant for all things firearm related. Originally a pot hunter hailing from south Louisiana, he currently covers firearms and reloading topics in print and on his All Outdoors YouTube page. When he isn't delving into rimfire ballistics, pocket pistols, and colonial arms, Terril can be found perfecting his fire-starting techniques, photographing wildlife, and getting lost in the archives.

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