The laws of physics can’t be cheated. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The more muzzle energy your handgun generates, the more recoil you will experience. Citizens looking to carry a handgun for personal protection try to find a balance between compactness and power. We could all carry a small .22-caliber handgun and recoil would not be an issue, but not many of us are comfortable relying on a .22 to stop an attacker.

A large part of the research I conduct is related to the terminal performance of various defensive handgun ammunitions. Generally, this involves shooting into 10 percent ordnance gelatin. Granted, 10 percent ordnance gelatin is not a bad guy, but it is a very consistent medium that allows us to examine the ways in which different cartridges and bullets perform. After many years of doing this type of testing, one thing is obvious: more velocity equals more tissue damage.

This postulate is not something that all agree on. Those that like the big, slow-moving bullets will argue that velocity is not the determining factor in the performance of defensive handgun ammunition. To some extent, they are right; with certain bullets, high velocity can cause limited penetration due to over-expansion. However, few will argue that a .38 Special is more deadly than a .357 Magnum and the only real difference is that the .357 Magnum has higher velocity.

Why is this relevant to the effectiveness of compact handguns and your ability to control them? Partly because compact handguns have shorter barrels and shorter barrels cause a loss in velocity. And, partly because cartridges with higher velocities often generate more recoil and this makes compact handguns harder to control.

It’s easy to sit in front of my computer and pronounce absolute truths based on my experiences shooting various handguns chambered for various cartridges. The reality is that all humans are different. What I might consider controllable others may find objectionable. So where should you start when it comes to selecting a subcompact handgun?

Choosing the Gun

For starters, forget caliber. Also forget all the stories you have heard about this or that cartridge’s ineffectiveness. The first rule of a gunfight is to have a gun. This means you need to select a handgun that is small enough and light enough for you to carry on an everyday basis. A full-size 1911 in .45 ACP might be the best defensive handgun option out there, but if you leave it at home, it’s no better than a personal bodyguard that calls in sick.

Through some experimentation you need to determine how big and how heavy of a handgun you can comfortably carry. The answer is not the same for everyone. Next, you need to determine how much recoil you can withstand and still get good hits, fast. The only way to do either of these things is to actually handle and shoot various handguns. You wouldn’t purchase a new car without a test drive. The same methodology applies here.

Some time ago, I developed a shooting drill that would allow me to evaluate my ability to shoot a particular handgun. I’ve also used it with students in concealed carry classes and when I was a police firearms instructor. It’s an easy drill to set up but one that requires command of your handgun and basic marksmanship principles to master.

Set a silhouette target at 5 yards and draw a 5-inch circle over the kill zone. Then, while drawing from concealment, attempt to fire five shots into the 5-inch circle in five seconds or less. The drill is called the “Forty-Five Drill” because it has four elements of five: five shots at 5 yards, into a 5-inch circle in five seconds.

I use this drill when testing any defensive handgun because it will quickly highlight any problems with the speedy operation or controllability of the pistol. If I run over time, the handgun probably has too much recoil or maybe the controls are not easy to manipulate. If I’m within the limit but my shots are wide of the 5-inch circle, this can be an indication of controllability issues or maybe that particular handgun and I just don’t jive.

To illustrate how this drill can be used to determine your ability to effectively interact with a compact defensive handgun, I subjected five different subcompact defensive handguns to it. I think you’ll find the results interesting, but keep in mind: they are nothing more than how the test guns and I got along. Your mileage may vary.

Smith & Wesson Bodyguard 380

I tried the Forty-Five Drill five times with the Smith & Wesson Bodyguard but was never able to complete the drill in less than five seconds. This was primarily because of the safety. I started the drill with the pistol in my pocket and with my hand on the pistol. The Bodyguard has a thumb safety, but I had trouble deactivating the safety without substantially repositioning the gun in my hand. As you would expect, this increased my times. My average time to get the first shot off was in excess of three seconds. The good news was that I could control the recoil of the little S&W very well and my target showed that. Of the five attempts at this drill—25 shots—I only had three shots outside the 5-inch circle and all were on the first run.

Sig Sauer P238 .380

The little Sig is very similar in function to the single-action 1911. The main difference is that the thumb safety does not lock the slide. The safety was very easy to operate and did not hinder me getting off a fast first shot. The average time for the first shot was 2.5 seconds and it took me about five seconds to fire all five shots. Overall, accuracy was good, too. Out of the 25 shots fired, only one landed outside the 5-inch circle.

Diamondback DB380

The Diamondback is a super small, lightweight handgun tipping the scales at only 8.8 ounces unloaded. You feel it when you fire the handgun, but the high grip helps to manage recoil. Since there is no safety to fumble with, the gun is also fast to get in action and rapid follow-up shots are easy with the smooth trigger. However, I struggled to get hits. Not because of excessive recoil, but because of the miniscule sights.

My average time for a first shot on target with the DB380 was just shy of 2.5 seconds and the total time for five shots averaged about five seconds. Times were very similar to the Sig P238, but accuracy was not. This is not to say the DB380 is inaccurate—the small sights slowed down my ability to reacquire the target after recoil. Six of my 25 shots were outside the 5-inch circle by several inches.

Diamondback DB9

The DB9 is essentially a slightly larger version of the DB380, but it fires 9mm rounds instead of .380. As with the DB380, you feel the recoil, and the rounded backstrap of the DB9 intensifies the felt impulse in your hand. Given that this gun weights only 3 more ounces than the DB380, I expected it to be very uncontrollable. This was not the case, however. My average time on the Forty-Five Drill was 5.04 seconds, which I considered good for an 11-ounce 9mm. But, like with the DB380, some shots went wide as I struggled to get the smallish sights on target.

Sig Sauer P290 9mm

Before embarking on this test, I suspected my best performance on this drill would be with one of the heavier, lighter recoiling .380 Auto handguns. I was wrong. Even though the Sig P290 had noticeably more recoil than any of the .380 handguns tested, I performed better with it on the Forty-Five Drill than I did with any of the other handguns. In fact, my average time was similar to my times with the Colt Lightweight Commander I generally carry. Why? Primarily, two reasons. The Sig P290 does a good job of filling your hand even though it is small and it’s also twice as heavy as the DB9. The Sig P290 also has a very good set of easy-to-see sights. This made reacquisition of the sights after recoil easy, and the target showed this with only one miss in 25 shots. Sights do matter!

Interestingly, I struggled a bit getting a good firing grip on the handgun for the first shot, and my average time for a first shot showed this. It was almost a half-second slower than my first shot times with the DB9. However, because of the Sig P290’s increased weight and good sights, follow-up shots were faster.


Make what you will of these results. What they do not illustrate is how easy any of these guns are to carry. There is no question that the two Diamondback handguns would be the most comfortable because they are the lightest. Depending on your size, the way you dress and your carry method, this may or may not matter to you.

Lethality was mentioned earlier and aside from how well I was able to accurately shoot these handguns, the tests tell you nothing about their bad-guy-stopping potential. So, if you are trying to choose between a .380 and a 9mm, how should lethality play into your decision? Let’s look at some facts.

Based on my testing and depending on the ammunition used, you can expect between 7 and 13 inches of penetration in 10 percent ordnance gelatin from a .380 Auto. A 9mm Luger will penetrate between 9 and 17 inches, again, depending on the ammunition. Ideal penetration depth is debatable, but something between 8 and 16 inches is probably optimal.

But here’s the thing: Bullets of any caliber that offer the deepest penetration also often provide the least tissue damage. On the other side of the spectrum, the bullets that show the least penetration often make wickedly wide wound cavities. From a lethality standpoint, a .380 Auto bullet that penetrates 8 inches could very well damage more tissue than a 9mm bullet that penetrates twice as far.

How does this come into play when it’s time to select a subcompact handgun? Let’s assume, like me, you shoot the Sig P290 the fastest and the most accurately. But you also feel that, at 20 ounces, it’s not a handgun you will carry all of the time. An option is the DB9 at half the weight, but maybe you find it uncomfortable to shoot. That leaves you with one of the .380 Auto handguns which shoot the same caliber bullet as a 9mm Luger but at a slower velocity. Remember what we said about velocity at the outset?

So what’s the answer? You might opt for a faster or even +P .380 Auto load. Sure, it will have more recoil, but it can balance out the difference in terminal performance between a 9mm and a .380. Buffalo Bore’s +P 90-grain JHP .380 load has a muzzle velocity of 1,129 feet per second (fps) when fired from a Smith & Wesson Bodyguard. Of course, you could also opt for a lighter recoiling load in the DB9. Federal’s 115-grain 9mm Luger JHP load only generates 1,050 fps out of the DB9. Ironically, these two loads penetrate to almost exactly the same depth.

In the end, it all comes down to personal preference. Pick a subcompact gun that you can and will carry and one that you can shoot effectively. You can use the Forty-Five Drill or something similar to help you sort this out and you can even tune the controllability and lethality of the handgun with the ammunition you choose.

Up Next

North American .22s and Guardians

The laws of physics can’t be cheated. For every action, there is an equal…