When my dad and granddad were carrying guns in America, the choices were starkly simple. You could have a big, heavy gun that was hard to conceal and less comfortable to carry, but was more powerful and easier to shoot swiftly and accurately. Or, you could have a smaller, lighter pistol or revolver that was easier to carry and to hide from view, but it would be less powerful and harder to shoot with accuracy. It was a pretty stark choice. Today, we have more good people legally carrying concealed handguns in America than in the long-closed 20th century.

We also have the best “concealment rigs” ever. And “weak and hard to shoot” are no longer the prices you pay for ease and comfort of concealment.

In the late 19th century, Eastern cops’ service revolvers were generally chambered for the short, feeble .38 S&W cartridge, or even the .32 Long. In the mid-1890s, when he was commissioner of the NYPD, Theodore Roosevelt armed all the city’s cops with the .32-caliber Colt New Police. When such officers wanted something smaller as a hideout,it was likely a five-shot, top-break revolver in the same caliber. Western lawmen wanted something with a bit more smack to it. The Colt Peacemaker was generally preferred, usually in .45 Colt or .44-40 calibers. If they carried a top-break Smith & Wesson on duty, it was likely a Schofield .45 or a .44 Russian. A hideout gun might be one of those small “Eastern” revolvers, or perhaps the little “cloverleaf” Colt revolver chambered for the feeble .41 rimfire. That cartridge was probably more often seen in a two-shot Remington derringer. None of those little guns earned a reputation for great accuracy.

S&W Centennial Airweights
Three generations of S&W Centennial Airweights (top to bottom): The original from 1952, the Model 442 from the 1990s and the 21st century M&P340 in .357 Mag.

Fast-forward to the first half of the 20th century. During that period my grandfather used a Colt 1903 Pocket Model .32 to shoot an armed robber and save his own life. It was slim—“flat as a book,” according to the Colt ads. Designed as its name implies to fit a man’s pocket for daily carry, its slim profile allowed the user to tuck it very comfortably and discreetly into the waistband. In 1908, a .380 version of the same gun was introduced. The .38 Special rose to prominence in revolvers during that period, which also saw the rise of the full-size “service automatic.” A generation of Americans came back from World War I convinced of the 1911 .45’s “man-stopping” ability after savage close-range gun battles in the trenches, and from the Texas Rangers to Charles Winstead, the Federal agent who killed John Dillinger with one, the .45 ACP became a favorite of serious pistol-packers. World War II created another generation of American men who came home trusting the Colt .45 automatic to defend their homes—and sometimes realizing that it wasn’t all that hard to carry and conceal, either, thanks to its flat profile. However, by now, the double-action .38 Special “snub-nose,” typified by the Colt Detective Special introduced in 1926, had become the classic concealed-carry revolver. Production of the Colt Pocket Models had not been resumed after WWII.

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In the second half of the 20th century, there were other advances. In 1950, the first aluminum-framed defensive hand-guns, light enough to constitute a sea change in the comfort level of concealed carry, were introduced. Colt’s Commander semi-auto, a shortened and lightened 1911 in .45 ACP, .38 Super and 9mm, was recommended in the former caliber as a concealed-carry gun in the 1950s by WWII combat vet Jeff Cooper, who would come to exert enormous influence among armed citizens. The year 1950 also saw a lightened aluminum-frame Detective Special, which Colt dubbed the Cobra. It proved so successful that S&W followed with its Airweight revolvers, which soon dominated the market and remain hugely popular to this very day. It was during this period that hollow-point ammunition became the new paradigm, so much more efficient that it was seen as taking the historically weak .38 Special and 9mm off their knees and making them much more viable as “man-stoppers.” The 1980s saw the rise of polymer-framed pistols, and the 9mm Glock 19 of late in that decade, the .40-caliber Glock 23 circa 1990 and finally the subcompact “baby Glocks” of the mid-1990s turned out to be huge game-changers. As the century turned and the new millennium was upon us, “light and strong” took on a new dimension in revolver manufacturing with the introduction of titanium and scandium by Smith & Wesson.

Now, well into the 2000s, those technologies are mature. The 21st century has brought us a new generation of powerful handguns that are more “shootable” yet more concealable than ever.

Micro .380s

Concealed carry Luger LCP
Ruger offers the easy-to-conceal LCP in .380 ACP with a Crimson Trace Laserguard for fast target acquisitions.

In the spring of 2013 at the NRA convention in Houston, I got to examine the Beretta Pico, the latest manifestation of one of the hottest new trends in defensive handguns, the miniature .380 ACP semi-auto. Among gun experts and police departments, the .380 ACP is generally the smallest caliber recommended for personal protection. Some draw the line just above there with the .38 Special revolver cartridge. Many years ago the late, great Charles “Skeeter” Skelton determined that with the ammunition of the time—95-grain, full-metal-jacket (FMJ), round-nose .380 ACP and 158-grain, round-nose, lead .38 Special—the two calibers were equal. The coming of high-performance hollow-point ammunition benefited every caliber, including both of these. It made the .380 better, but it made the .38 Special dramatically better. This means that with today’s ammunition, a .38 Special snub-nose is going to give you more “stopping power” than a .380 ACP.

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That said, the new breed of .380s is distinctly easier to hide than J-frame revolvers, and they carry seven cartridges instead of five. This evolution tracks back to the sleek little Seecamp .32, which would be followed by a .380 model. Next came the polymer-framed, super-light Kel-Tec P32 in .32 ACP. Kel-Tec’s natural follow-on was the cleverly named P-3AT, chambered for the .380. This pistol became hugely popular. Ruger followed with a remarkably similar gun, the LCP, which became hugely, hugely popular, so much so that it was responsible for a temporary drought of .380 ammunition.

A genre had been borne. Today we have other interpretations on this theme from S&W, Kahr Arms, Taurus and most recently that smooth little Beretta Pico. While I’m in the camp of those who find .38 Special +P ammunition acceptable as to power level and .380 below that line, no one can avoid the fact that these new .380s—comparable in size to some .25 ACP-chambered pistols—allow some good people to carry a gun in places where they couldn’t manage to discreetly conceal any other firearm.

Modern Snubbies

Smith & Wesson Model 642, smith & wesson
Smith & Wesson Model 642

In the 21st century, led by the Ruger LCR (Lightweight Compact Revolver), the classic old .38 Special snub has reached new heights of popularity. That gun is now chambered for the .357 Mag, .22 LR and .22 Mag as well. Smith & Wesson’s use of Scandium has allowed super-light, pocket-size .357 Mags as well, though their recoil can be truly vicious.

Interestingly, S&W’s bestselling revolver today is the Model 642, an aluminum-framed .38 Special snub-nose. Its lineage tracks back more than 60 years, to the aluminum-framed Centennial Airweight of 1953. It worked then, and it works now. The new version, unlike the old, is rated for hot “+P” ammunition.

Slim Nines

The striker-fired S&W M&P Shield features a 3.1-inch barrel, three-dot sights, an unloaded weight of 19 ounces and a quick-reset trigger.

The pistols I call “slim nines” are compact pistols with single-stack magazines chambered for full-power 9mm ammunition. The smallest is the high-quality Rohrbaugh R9, the most truly pocket-sized of the 9mm pistols.

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The first popular slim nine was the S&W Model 3913 and its variations, introduced circa 1990. Holding eight to nine shots depending on the size of the magazine you chose, it delivered service-pistol accuracy or better, often printing five-shot groups in the 2-inch range at 25 yards. Like its sister “Third Generation” pistols, the 3913 has been phased out of the S&W catalog, but its fans are consoled by the excellent polymer-frame M&P Shield series introduced in 2012. The Shield is treated more fully in a separate, dedicated article in this publication, but suffice it to say that while it can fit in a pocket, it is ideal for carry in an inside-the-waistband (IWB) or “tucked under the shirt” holster.

Sig Sauer’s answer to the 3913 was the P239 pistol, which the company brilliantly advertised as “personal size.” It was an apt description. Still in production and still relatively popular, the P239 is most often encountered in 9mm, but is also available in .40 S&W and .357 SIG.

Kel-Tec’s PF9 double-action-only (DAO) pistol fits this category. So does the similar Ruger LC9, and Taurus has an analogous model, too. All three have polymer frames. Kahr Arms entered the slim-nine market in the mid-1990s with its all-steel P9 pistol, and has long since offered them with light polymer frames. The 9mm Kahrs in various sizes have proven themselves to this writer to be both reliable and accurate. They are famous for their smooth DAO trigger pulls.

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Springfield Armory’s successful XD series was recently expanded to include the little slim-line XD-S 9mm. Almost everyone I know who has shot one is very happy with it. Kimber offers the Solo, a slim-line 9mm with a sleek “hammerless” silhouette, designed for cocked-and-locked carry. Slim, super-compact 9mm autos also exist in the single-action 1911 format. The most proven—going on a decade at this writing—is the Springfield Armory Enhanced Micro Pistol, or EMP, with a 9+1 capacity. The genius in this design is that the entire gun is scaled around a 9mm-length cartridge, solving the notorious problems of getting a full-size 1911 to feed a cartridge shorter than what it was designed for. Remarkably accurate and very “shootable,” its grip frame is proportionally reduced from front to back, making it eminently suitable for smaller hands. Sig Sauer has since released its P938, a similar scaled-down 1911 in 9mm.

Sig’s double-action P239 is not the only slim-nine pistol that is currently available in cartridges more powerful than the 9mm. The Springfield EMP is also offered in .40 S&W, and so is the Smith & Wesson M&P Shield. The Springfield XD-S was actually first introduced in .45 ACP, which has met with great success. Which leads us to…

Big Bores

Glock 36
Glock 36

Subcompact (with a 3- or 3.5-inch barrel and a short butt) 1911 pistols are now offered by almost all of the many manufacturers of full-size 1911s.

Glock’s one and only single-stack pistol is the subcompact G36 in .45 ACP. Like most subcompact .45s with single-stack magazines, it offers a 6+1 capacity with those fat cartridges, but also, as with 1911s, magazine options exist that up that round count by one shot. The single-stack configuration allows the smallest grip circumference of any handgun in the Glock line and, therefore, the shortest trigger reach for small- handed shooters. Recoil is softer than most people would expect when launching 230-grain bullets.

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For those who prefer a longer DAO trigger stroke, Kahr Arms has offered multiple subcompact, polymer-framed .45s. I can point you to more than one shooter who carries these baby Kahr .45s with confidence born of thousands of rounds of shooting. As noted earlier, the Springfield XD-S is also available in .45 ACP. A couple of months before writing this, I taught a MAG-40 class in Utah where the top shot among the students was Mark Housekeeper, shooting his little XD-S .45 against people who for the most part had pistols with longer sight radii, including multiple students with high-end, full-size 1911 pistols.

Double-Stack Compacts

Glock 33 and 31
The .357 “baby” Glock 33 takes the same magazines as the larger G31.

A staggered magazine requires a thicker grip frame, but many will pay that price to have more cartridges on board in their loaded defense pistol. In the 1990s, Glock set the pace for this genre with its “baby Glocks,” the G26 in 9mm, the G27 in .40 S&W, the G33 in .357 SIG and, later, the G39 in .45 GAP. These stubby guns, particularly the G26 and the G27, have been popular ever since. In .40 and 9mm, in my experience, they’ve actually been even more accurate off the bench at 25 yards than their big brothers, the full-size service models, and of course each will take the higher-capacity magazines of their larger brethren in the same caliber. The G26 is particularly shootable: Alone among guns of this type, the Glock 26 has repeatedly won Matchmeister (top score overall) titles against the full-size service guns in Glock Sport Shooting Foundation (GSSF) matches in the hands of such master shooters as Bryan Dover and Mike Ross.

Smith & Wesson, with its Military & Police series, and Springfield Armory, with its XD and XDM series, have followed suit with compact models that hold a remarkable amount of cartridges for their size but are still easy to shoot and easy to carry concealed.

High Points

10 commandments of concealed carry

There is only enough space in this article to hit the high points of recent trends in practical concealment handgun design. Just as gun design has brought us into a new dimension of powerful rounds in small packages, holster designers have also given us the best and widest choice of concealed-carry methods and options that we’ve ever had. They allow us to carry full-size guns with a hitherto unknown level of concealability and comfort. As I write this, I’m wearing a full-size, factory-stock Springfield Armory XDM loaded with 20 rounds of potent 127-grain Winchester +P+ Ranger-T 9mm hollow points. I’ve had nothing to complain about in terms of either comfort or concealability in the two training tours, encompassing two months and a national championship match, and never scored less than 300 out of 300 when shooting a pace-setter qualification course before my students did. This pistol is big, but light and round on the edges, and it’s carried comfortably and concealed “24/7” in an IWB holster by Elmer McEvoy at Leather Arsenal in Middleton, Idaho.

In the mid-20th century, when I was born in the same year my grandfather died, neither my granddad nor my dad would ever have imagined that the guns they carried would morph into what we have available now. “Futurists” at that time had been expecting us to be driving flying cars, and that we would have robots to cater to our every whim. None of that came to pass. But, for Americans who carry concealed handguns to protect themselves and their loved ones, the future that is now is better than what our forebears might have realistically predicted.

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