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I’m the guy who said long ago, “Friends don’t let friends carry mouse-guns,” and got tagged with that as a “signature phrase” as surely as my old friend and colleague Clint Smith got tagged with his famous statement, “You use your handgun to fight your way back to the rifle you never should have left behind.”

That said, sometimes a small gun is all you can carry.

Those of us who advise carrying a full-size combat handgun all the time tend to be fortunate enough to have jobs, working contracts, and dress codes that allow us to “dress around the gun.” Yes, I generally do have a full-size pistol under my un-tucked shirt (one size larger than I’d wear without the gun), or under my “Yuppie vest,” or under a sport coat. The latter is about as formal as my dress code gets, when I’m on my own time.

However, there are times when that’s not true. On Court Days, I might wear a full-size pistol under a blazer with tie, or one of my suits that was tailored to cover a full-size 1911 pistol. But if I’m wearing a fitted suit that wasn’t cut with big pistols in mind, don’t be surprised if the gun I put in the lock-box before I head for the courtroom is a compact pistol like my Nighthawk T3 or Colt CCO .45s with shortened butts, or a “baby” Glock. I’ll even confess to the occasional day where that gun was a snub-nosed .38, such as the Colt Detective Special or a J-frame Smith & Wesson.

I take comfort in the fact that I’m not the only one to practice this. Long before, circa 1960, Col. Jeff Cooper wrote that his repertoire of carry pistols included a full-size, all-steel Colt Government Model .45 auto for duty carry, a lightweight Colt Commander with barrel and slide three-quarters of an inch shorter and an aluminum that took three-quarters of a pound off the weight, but kept a full-length grip frame and full magazine capacity when concealment was important in casual clothing, and a 2-inch barrel J-frame Smith & Wesson .38 for wear with a business suit.

Why the change in guns? Let’s examine the rationale.

Dress Around the Gun

Veteran Detroit homicide investigator and gunfight survivor Evan Marshall may have been the first to use the phrase “dress around the gun” to describe picking a gun you would want to have in your hand if you were actually involved in a shootout, and then making the commitment to buy clothing that allowed you to comfortably and discreetly conceal that handgun and its spare ammunition in a wardrobe that worked for you “24/7.” That means a size 42 suit coat if you normally wear a size 40 if you are going to carry a full-size gun on your hip in an outside-the-waistband holster (or a shoulder rig). It means pants that are size 38 in the waist dimension instead of your usual size 36 if you’re going to carry inside the waistband. It may mean wearing an outer garment to cover the gun when you just want to wear pants and a tucked-in shirt.

Some people don’t want to make that sacrifice. I live in a world where cops have died because they didn’t want to wear concealed body armor under their tailored uniform shirt, fearing it would make them look fat or break up that buffed “V” body shape they had worked so hard to achieve in the gym. Some people don’t want to spend the money to buy a new wardrobe of clothes when they start carrying a concealed handgun.

Dress Code

When people demand all or nothing, they usually end up with nothing. I’ve been teaching police since the early 1970s, but only began teaching civilians in 1981. Some of my police students worked undercover, and were issued tiny .25 autos that hopefully wouldn’t be found when dope dealers they were hunting patted them down before the “deal.” With civilians, the perceived need for a super-small gun was much more widespread. For occupational reasons, there are people who want to be armed, but their employer cannot know. I lost count of how many surgeons and other medical professionals I steered into elastic belly-bands (they came out in the 1960s) with snub-nose .38s, that would conceal at centerline under their scrubs. I steered business executives toward the same gear, or pocket-holstered .38 snubs, because they would have lost their jobs if their suit coat came off in the office and everyone could see their hip-holstered pistol.

Finding the Balance

Modern technology has given us small handguns that are much more powerful than that size allowed in the old days, yet are sometimes much more “shootable under stress.” Chambered for the full-powered 9mm Luger, capable of handling hot loads that approach .357 Magnum ballistics, the Kahr PM9 is both smaller and lighter than most of the .380 automatics of yesteryear that are “on the edge of adequacy” for power. Tiny .380s like the Kel-Tec P3AT and the Ruger LCP, in turn, give us guns nearly as small as old-fashioned, impotent .25 automatics. Sixty years ago, the smallest .357 Magnum revolver you could buy was S&W’s 3.5-inch barrel N-frame six-shooter, weighing 41 ounces. Today, modern metallurgy has given us S&W five-shot .357 Magnums so far under a pound in weight that they ride in a trouser pocket as if they aren’t even there. Thirty years ago, you’d have to carry a six-shot Colt .38 snub and a five-shot S&W to equal the 11-shot capacity of today’s Glock 26 or Kel-Tec P-11 9mm, which equal the weight of one of those former guns and are arguably more powerful shot for shot.

Smaller guns are harder to shoot well, particularly under stress. They have a shorter sight radius. A shorter barrel loses some velocity, and therefore, some power. With less mass to absorb recoil, they kick harder. You often can’t get all your fingers wrapped around the grip-frame to stabilize a relatively light handgun against a relatively heavy trigger pull. Using them well demands more training.

With a smaller gun, the grip-frame may be so short that you have to tuck your pinky finger under the butt. That’s OK; squeezed tight in that position, the bottom finger sympathetically strengthens the rest of your hand’s hold, and prevents a revolver’s butt from sliding down on recoil and changing position in your hand. Hold your small gun particularly hard—you have to stabilize it, not just against more recoil due to its lighter weight, but to allow for a trigger pull that is much heavier than the weight of the gun.

Technique is important. Often, firing with the primary hand’s thumb curled down will strengthen your grasp and improve your shooting, particularly one handed … but with a big hand and/or a very small gun, that thumb might block the trigger finger. Try and find out: if that’s the case, simply raising the thumb will solve the problem. With auto or revolver, get your firing hand as high on the backstrap as possible. It will lower the bore axis, therefore reducing the muzzle flip and increasing your speed, shot to accurate shot.

If you choose a subcompact handgun, take the time to train with it. It’s amazing how well these little pocket guns can be shot.

Bottom Line

We are a convenience-loving breed, and the temptation to go to a “cute, tiny gun” that’s easy to carry is a strong one. It’s understandable that some situations and dress codes will make it impossible to carry a full-size combat handgun. But when you make your choice, don’t go any farther down the ladder in size or power than you have to.

Good luck. Choose wisely. Build and maintain your skill.

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