What’s the best defensive handgun? While the debate over that topic has raged for as long as handguns have existed, the answer is actually quite simple. The best defensive handgun is the one you’re actually carrying when you’re attacked.

The logic of that statement is not only irrefutable—it’s also the inspiration behind the most popular category of defensive firearms today: pocket pistols. Although small, highly concealable pistols have been around for a long time, recent advances in materials, manufacturing methods, and ammunition have made modern pocket pistols more capable than ever before. And in a world obsessed with small, portable and extremely convenient devices, the pocket pistol fits right in.

The simplest logic dictates that the first rule of gunfighting is to have a gun; however, pistols are defensive weapons, not magic charms. While the mere act of carrying a gun may make you feel safer, it does not ward off evil spirits. To actually be safer, you need to be able to shoot it competently and employ it with a sound system of tactics. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the practicalities of pocket pistols and the performance criteria you and your equipment need to meet to keep yourself safe.

Picking Pockets

Most people choose to carry pistols in their pockets because they do not want the commitment or the bulk of carrying the gun on their belt or inside their waistband. That’s fine, but while a good gun belt and holster are compatible with almost any pair of pants, not all pockets are created equal. As such, your first step in choosing a pocket pistol—or even considering pocket carry—should be a long, hard look at your wardrobe.

Open your closet and take a look at how you really dress on a regular basis. Look at the types of clothes you wear and, very importantly, the consistent features of those clothes. Pay close attention to the type, style and location of the pockets and try to come up with a common theme that supports a consistent method of carry. If most of your clothes are pretty similar and have pockets in the same general place, you’re in good shape. Donate anything that doesn’t fit the theme to Goodwill and drive on.

Top Guns & Holsters

Now that you literally know where you’re going to carry, you should look for a gun that fits. More accurately, you should look for a gun that fits in a holster that fits in your pocket. Yes, pocket pistols should be carried in purpose-designed pocket holsters. A holster not only protects the trigger—it also protects the rest of the gun’s moving parts from pocket lint and other trash that could adversely affect its function. Just as importantly, a good holster keeps the gun consistently oriented for a reliable draw and breaks up the outline of the gun to keep it from “printing” through the pocket.

As for the gun itself, it’s largely a matter of personal preference and personal physique. In general terms, you want to carry as much gun as you possibly can—not necessarily in terms of size, but in terms of potency. Again, thanks to advances in design and materials, there are pocket pistols in .40 S&W and 9mm that are every bit as compact as the .380s, .32s and other smaller, traditional pocket pistol calibers. While the smaller calibers can and have been used effectively, when bad things happen, you’ll want as much ballistic performance as you can get, so plan and choose accordingly.

Your body also has a lot to do with what’s reasonable for you. The bigger you are, the bigger your clothes are, and the more you can stuff in your pocket without attracting undue attention. Similarly, big people tend to have big hands—the kind that make operating and manipulating tiny handguns difficult. Choose something that fits your hand well and allows you to manage recoil and perform necessary gunhandling skills—including the operation of any safeties—safely and reliably.

Test Drive

Once you’ve settled on your basic pocket-carry configuration, the real work begins. That work consists of tuning your skills and tactics to support your choice of equipment and validating the entire package in the context of realistic self-defense.

The first step in this process is to actually carry your gun in all the clothes you wear. Start by wearing it around the house to get comfortable with it and sort out any conflicts with your wardrobe. When you’ve confirmed that it carries well, start working on your drawstroke. Make sure the gun is unloaded and practice getting your hand in the pocket, assuming a sound grip, and then getting your hand out of your pocket with the pistol. Although this may sound simple, it may be harder than you think. Like the monkey grabbing peanuts out of a jar, once the gun is in your hand, the resulting package may be too big to clear the pocket smoothly. One trick to overcome this is to place your thumb on the top of the frame or slide to flatten your hand and allow it to clear the pocket more easily. This technique also “shrouds” the gun’s hammer—if any—to keep it from snagging.

As you develop your draw, make sure that it can be performed with one hand only. Pocket pistol confrontations are by nature close-range affairs, so your other hand is likely to be doing combative things while your gun hand is accessing the pistol.

Once you can get your gun out of the pocket reliably, move on to dry-firing with the pistol unloaded completely. Observing all the proper dry-fire safety protocols, work on getting the gun out, immediately transitioning to a sound firing grip, and operating the trigger. Then check your grip to make sure that it will allow you to manage recoil well and, very importantly, that no fleshy parts will get in the way
of the gun’s moving parts. This is of particular concern with semi-autos, where a hasty grip could put the web of your hand in the path of the slide.

Only when you’re comfortable with all your skills in dry-fire should you graduate to live-fire practice. That practice should emphasize shooting the gun in conditions appropriate to its purpose. Forget the 25-yard groups and focus on 0 to 10 feet.

Making an Impact

As you develop your shooting skills with your pocket pistol, you should also be developing realistic tactics for its use. Focus on fast, close-quarters shooting and define the limits of the gun and your skills with it. You should also incorporate a guard with your non-dominant hand, one-handed shooting and evasive movement.

Very importantly, you must also develop a backup plan to your pistol tactics. Even full-sized handguns are uncertain stoppers, so you must have a plan in the event your rounds don’t do their job or there are more bad guys than bullets. With a full-sized pistol, the traditional answer is a reload. However, the small size of pocket pistols and their magazines makes this challenging and also requires you to incorporate an extra magazine (or more) into your concealed carry strategy.

While reloading is definitely a worthwhile skill, don’t make it your only option. Explore using the empty gun as an impact weapon, training in unarmed skills and consider the carry and use of other weapons like knives and pepper spray. As you sort through these options, continuously develop, refine and validate your tactics. It’s not enough to think that you’ll transition from a pocket pistol to a knife; you must practice to make that concept a reliable skill.

Pocket pistols are tremendously useful personal-defense weapons, but only if they are powered by the right skills and tactics. Get the equipment that’s right for you, and then get to work.

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