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  • New models of handguns - mostly autoloading pistols - are introduced to the market at a fairly rapid rate. Not only is it impractical for me to keep up with all of them, the new pistols tend to get reviewed - often prematurely - across a broad range of print and online media. Most of this page concentrates on general principles rather than on specific models.
  • One reason that this page devotes as much space as it does to revolvers is that revolvers do not usually receive as much attention elsewhere as do the pistols.
  • I am a proponent of what Evan Marshall dubbed the one-year rule: When a new gun hits the market, allow at least one year for debugging before gambling your money and your life on it. While a new barrel length on a revolver is not likely to affect function, changing the length of the barrel and slide on a pistol may affect the dynamics of its function.

Priorities in the Selection of the Defensive Handgun

1. Reliability

2. Ergonomics

3. Other Size Factors

4. Revolver vs. Semi-auto (Autoloader)

Three generations of Smith & Wesson Centennial revolvers - with blued or stainless-steel frames - from top to bottom, wear the original factory grip with a Tyler T-Grip Adapter, hand-carved Boot Grips from Craig Spegel and the Pachmayr Compac Professional Grip. (Photo from Defensive Use of Firearms: Revised and Updated, copyright © 2010, by Defensive Use of Firearms, LLC.)
The Delta Grip from Ergo Grip extends beyond both the back strap and the bottom strap of a round-butt, J-frame S&W revolver, making it less suitable for carry in some pockets. Some users of the Airweight and Airlite versions - particularly if they have man-size hands - find that it makes those guns easier to control.
This version of Hogue's Tamer grip, for S&W Centennial and Bodyguard 38 revolvers, offers a less radical approach to recoil attenuation as well as fit to a larger hand. Most of the grip area is "soft rubber," with an extra layer of softer cushioning over the back strap to dampen recoil.

Compare these two similar grips from Hogue for the ultralight Ruger LCR revolvers. Some grip makers are sensitive to the fact that male-size finger grooves are not suitable for all users and offer models without them.
This photo shows all three back-strap inserts that Beretta furnishes for the PX4 Storm pistol. Note that only one extends the distance from the back strap to the face of the trigger. This photo shows a Walther PPQ pistol, and all three of the back-strap inserts. Note that they offer both different shapes and different distances from the back strap to the face of the trigger.
  • Some pistols, including most versions of Smith & Wesson's discontinued metal-frame, double-action models, incorporate a safety mechanism that prevents firing if there is not a magazine inside the magazine well. Ruger actually offers its small, striker-fired LC9s in a standard version that includes both a thumb safety and a magazine-disconnect safety and a Pro version, that lacks both.
  • Magazine-disconnect safeties may be viewed as desirable by users who want to be able to disable the pistol by simply removing the magazine. One such group that comes to mind is mothers and grandmothers who will not commit to holstered carry, on-body, and may perceive a need to disable the gun when children are present and the gun may be out of sight and reach of the adult.
  • The crucial issue is that safety with firearms is primarily a matter of following The Rules, not relying on a mechanical safety. Further, those who do opt for a pistol that incorporates a magazine-disconnect safety must remain mindful that that feature is not present on all other pistols, including some which may appear to be the same model as one that does incorporate that device.

  • As the US prepared to enter World War I, it lacked the capability to manufacture enough of the newly adopted M1911 pistol. In 1916, someone at Smith & Wesson figured out that the rimless .45 ACP cartridge could be made to function reasonably in the firm's large-frame revolver by inserting three of the rounds in a stamped-steel half-moon clip. The Army adopted that revolver as an expedient and Colt created a similar one on their large frame. This resulted in the rare case of two mechanically distinct handguns sharing the same designation - M1917.
  • The three-round half-moon clip was so named as it had a semicircular shape, with the cartridges inserted from the "inside." The concept was not all that popular with early Border Patrol agents who were issued surplus M1917 revolvers and M1917 rifles - another expedient to deal with the inability to produce enough of the relatively new M1903 Springfield. Then came the sport of timed bowling-pin matches and someone started making full-moon clips that revolver competitors felt gave them a faster reload with the rimless .45 ACP round than using a speedloader with rimmed cartridges. The full-moon clips - generally referred to simply as moon clips today - have a star shape, with an opening for the center of the extractor star - and cartridges inserted from the "outside."
  • Today, revolvers are made to handle such pistol calibers as .380 ACP, 9x19mm, .40 S&W, 10mm and .45 ACP with the use of moon clips. Because some shooters value what they believe is a faster reload with a moon clip, some .38/357 revolvers are manufactured to allow their use and others - typically in other chamberings - are so modified. These work by cutting a recess in the center of the rear of the cylinder, to accommodate the moon clip while leaving enough of the outer contour for the rim of the case to headspace, whether or not the clip is used. Unlike with the rimless pistol cartridges, the rimmed revolver cases will also extract with the extractor star without the use of the clips.
    • For as little enthusiasm as I have for designing or modifying revolvers chambered for rimmed cartridges for the use of moon clips, I am unable to validate a claim in at least one online forum that the use of rimmed revolver cartridges, without the moon clips, in such guns increases the risk of cases getting trapped under the extractor star.
  • Moon clips are susceptible to bending and breaking - the latter particularly with the relatively flimsy clips used for five-shot 9x19mm and .38/.357 revolvers. Bent clips - just enough to keep them from lying flat - may not only slow the claimed faster reload, they may also absorb some of the energy of the hammer strike, hindering reliable ignition of the primer. In the worst-case scenario, they may even hinder rotation of the cylinder. An additional issue with moon clips for revolver cartridges is whether their thickness matches the brand of ammunition that you intend to use.
    • Original Precision offers users of .38/.357 J-frame S&W revolvers heat-treated, stainless-steel CCW-HD Moon Clips that address several issues: They are sturdier than earlier offerings for these guns. They are designed to allow easy insertion and removal of cartridges and cases without any tools. There is no need to select a thickness specific to the brand of ammunition used - one size fits all. Original Precision also offers conversion of the cylinder assembly for the use of moon clips if that modification was not already performed at the factory.
    • Ez Moon Clips has introduced a line of moon clips for pistol cartridges made of a slightly flexible polymer. In addition to making the cases easier to insert and remove from the clips, the company claims that this also allows them to spring back to their flat configuration should they be bent. If true, that's a significant consideration in the selection of moon clips.
  • Around the 1980's, French police used revolvers chambered in 9x19mm, both with and without moon clips. (Smith & Wesson's Model 547 was specifically designed to extract that rimless case without the use of moon clips for such a contract.) It is worth noting that those French units who continue using revolvers - typically SWAT-style entry teams - have transitioned to France's own Manurhin .357 Magnum revolvers.
  • If you've got the spare funds, I have no objection to seeking out an out-of-production S&W Model 547 or a currently produced Charter Arms Pitbull revolver, for the expedient use of 9x19mm ammo when it is more readily available than the traditional, rimmed revolver rounds. Dependence on moon clips, however, negates one advantage of the revolver - the ability to keep loading with loose rounds when magazines, clips, speedloaders and similar devices are not available. Double-action revolvers generally function more reliably with the rimmed cartridges around which they were designed. Those concerned with saving a second or two in reloading time may be better served by a so-called "New York reload" - transitioning to a second revolver.

  • The two key issues with speedloaders are choice of type and how to carry them.
  • There are two basic types of speedloader - twist-release and push-release. The choice is somewhat like a man's choice between briefs and boxers - folks tend to fall into two camps and to adhere strongly to their preferences. Admittedly, I was trained with twist-release loaders - specifically HKS brand - and am most familiar with and partial to those.
  • Twist-release loaders are pretty simple. The body has openings for the cartridges, appropriately spaced so that they will align them with the chambers of the revolver for which the loader is intended. A knob turns a "star" clear of the openings for insertion of the rear of the cartridges, then turns it in the opposite direction, to engage the rims. When it's time to release the cartridges, the knob is turned back. On HKS loaders, the knob turns clockwise to accept and to release the cartridges and counter-clockwise to secure them. On the twist-release Pachmayr and 5 Star loaders, it's the opposite.
    • At the expense of a longer length, the Speed Beez speedloader operates very much like a twist-release loader except that rather than twisting the knob, it is pressed to release the cartridges. One review, however, suggests that this design may not reliably retain the cartridges if dropped.
  • A significant concern with speedloaders is the potential for an ergonomically shaped grip stock to interfere with the optimal alignment of the loader with the cylinder. This can be an issue even when the grip is shaped with a so-called speedloader clearance. Pachmayr uses a rounded hexagonal shape and 5 Star uses a scalloped shape to minimize that potential problem.
  • Some people dislike the fact that twist-release loaders depend on gravity to seat the cartridges in the chambers. While I recognize the potential for the chambers to get a bit "sticky" after a few loaded cylinders have been fired, I see that as more of an issue in a match or in training than in an actual gunfight. I prefer to look at the other side of the coin. The ability to release the cartridges without having all of them already partially chambered offers a few options:
    • Cartridges whose bullets don't present a rounded ogive or taper, allowing easy, simultaneous alignment with all the chambers - typically low-recoil loads with target-style wadcutter bullets or Federal's similarly contoured +P HST Micro load - can still be loaded from a speedloader by indexing two of them at the outer edges of two chambers and twisting the knob.
    • When revolvers ruled the roost, some officers who carried a K-frame S&W revolver in the duty holster found that, in a pinch, they could use the same technique to reload a backup D-frame Colt revolver (e.g., Detective Special or Cobra), with its slightly smaller cylinder. I'm under the impression that this also applies to twist-release loaders sized for the five-shot S&W J-frame and Ruger SP101 revolvers to reload Ruger's LCR/LCRx revolvers, with their slightly smaller cylinders, and vice versa.
    • In fact, this last technique can even be used to reload - at least partially - a five-shot J-frame revolver with the loader for a six-shot K-frame revolver. With no intervening practice, I demonstrate this from time to time. I can usually get four of the six rounds chambered and, on a good day, five of them.
    • (Inasmuch as I've got some photos of the process of a normal reload with an HKS loader, they've been posted on a separate page.)
  • Push-release loaders require the cartridges to be inserted far enough into their chambers to depress the release button at the center of the body of the loader. The push-release SL Variant has its body scalloped, to reduce interference with grip panels. This feature seems to have been incorporated in relatively new QuickLoad speedloaders. Some users who prefer the push-release concept have found it necessary to deepen the speedloader clearance on the left side of the grip, in order to use the loaders with round bodies smoothly.
  • At that, Safariland's more compact Comp II loaders still depend on gravity - or finger pressure - to finish seating the rounds. Others, such as the SL Variant and Safariland's Comp III loaders use a spring to drive the rounds out of the body, allowing a reload while the revolver is held horizontally.
    • While such occurrences are certainly rare, I have reports of the yolk/crane on which the cylinder swings in and out of the frame being pushed free of their retention mechanisms on both a J-frame S&W and a Ruger SP101 revolver during reloading with push-release loaders.
  • Speaking of gravity, reloading a revolver generally requires the muzzle to be pointed at least partway below horizontal or the cartridges will start sliding out before the action can be closed. That's just part of the price of using a revolver. Of course, as mentioned above, a faster alternative that is not dependent on position is a so-called "New York reload" - transitioning to a second revolver.
  • Speaking further of gravity, in a fight, the loader itself is expendable once the new rounds are chambered. Whichever type of loader is used, once it's performed its job, it is simply released so that that hand can reacquire the firing grip and the action closed as quickly as possible. Let gravity take the loader to the ground by whatever course it chooses - don't waste time tossing it aside. On the range, empty loaders can be recovered when it is safe to do so. On the street, they're likely to end up in evidence bags.
  • (If some cartridges fail to drop out of a twist-release loader when the knob is turned, that's probably because of some interference between the grip and the body of the loader. One or two spins of the cylinder with the thumb already on the cylinder should let the remaining cartridges drop into place and allow the empty loader to find its way to the ground.)
  • For the sake of completeness - and with a caveat emptor - Zeta6 offers a hybrid between a speed strip and a speedloader. The "clip" positions the cartridges in a pattern to fit the chambers of the revolver - as in a conventional speedloader - but the release, once the fresh rounds are chambered, is effected by peeling off the flexible carrier.
    • While these "clips" may offer a slightly shorter package than some conventional speedloaders, they add a tab on the side. Among other issues, the tab must be oriented oriented away from the frame of the revolver to chamber the rounds. Further, the release of the rounds is easier if the tab is pointed upward, in the direction of the sights, or downward, toward the butt of the grip. Assuming that the clip is carried in a pocket, it may be difficult to achieve the preferred orientation of the tab under stress.
    • These "clips" may require a larger speedloader recess or relief on the grip panel than some speedloaders. At that, they are probably slower to use than a conventional speedloader. I don't know how long the tab will stand up to the stress of peeling it free from a full load but, unlike a straight-line speed strip - which some of us charge with spaces to offer alternative places to grasp under stress - the "clip" will be more challenging to pull free if the tab rips off.
  • Out of uniform or off the range, one challenge of speedloaders is carrying them discreetly. Add to that the fact that most users find it more ergonomic to align the cartridges with the chambers by holding the body of the loader rather than by holding the knob. (Tip: Once you've got the loader positioned at the rear of the cylinder, it's easier to use the thumb holding one side of the cylinder to rotate the cylinder than to rotate the loader for the final alignment.)
  • Cartridge spacing and belt thickness allowing, I like to carry the loader straddled vertically over the belt, with half the cartridges inboard and half the cartridges outboard of the belt. (That's usually three inboard and two outboard when the loader only holds five rounds.) With my experience limited almost entirely to HKS loaders, the two carriers that I prefer are the Second Six pouch from DeSantis and the Speedloader Clip from Ted Blocker Holsters. The former will work with both the J-frame and K-frame .38/.357 HKS loaders and provides the security of a snap while still allowing acquisition of the body of the loader with thumb on one side and middle and ring fingers on the other. It is adjustable for use on 1¼", 1½" and 1¾" belts. The latter is a spring clip, available in two versions for use with 1½" or 1¾" belts, and gives the fastest acquisition of an HKS loader, in the preferred grasp, of any system that I've seen.
  • Several makers produce pouches suitable for the more compact Safariland Comp II loaders, typically of ballistic nylon with a Velcro closure or of leather, with a snap closure. I see two problems with them: First, they place the entire bulk of the loader outboard of the belt. Second, they usually require that the loader be grasped by the knob, not by the body.
  • There are a few offerings made of Kydex, which may or may not offer the preferred grasp. I recall seeing one that places the loader horizontally, over the belt. A major concern of mine is that Kydex is not tolerant of flexing. I have no reports on the durability of the section that holds the loader but I'd be very wary of any Kydex belt attachment that would be susceptible to flexing from the wearer bending over or from the belly hanging over the belt.
  • Most people can reload more efficiently by transferring the empty gun to the non-gun hand for the reloading process and handling the loader in the dominant hand. Thus, loaders are typically worn on the gun side - if the gun is worn on the dominant side - or at the front of the body. With some holders that position the loader vertically, it may be possible to wear one loader just forward of the holster so that the two bulges blend into each other, making for easier concealment than two separate bulges.
  • Some people carry speedloaders in pockets. If you do so with a five-shot .38/.357 loader, here's a "hack": You can cut or grind down a 13- or 16-dram prescription vial (look for the number 13 or 16 on the bottom) so that the body of the loader just barely sits on the new rim and the bullets are protected from such things as pocket lint plugging the cavities. (The same concept can be used with a moon clip of the same size and will also reduce the risk of bending the clip.)
  • Possibly a better option for pocket carry of speedloaders is the Aholster Bactrian. Similar to a Kydex pocket holster, this device positions two speedloaders partway down the pocket and allows the preferred grasp in acquisition. It is offered in right- and left-hand versions, for the more common loaders for J-frame or K-frame S&W revolvers. (A piece of styrofoam packing "popcorn" at the bottom of each section may work better than the furnished Velcro strip to muffle the rattle of cartridges against the Kydex.)

5. Hammer-Fired vs. Striker-Fired Pistols

6. Caliber or Power

  • "Mouse gun" is an admittedly derogatory term for a small-caliber pistol intended for carry in a pocket rather than in a belt holster. (Historically, such guns have also been carried in purses or kept in nightstand drawers although neither practice is recommended.) The term implies that the cartridge fired is only powerful enough for use on animals the size of mice.
  • Opinions vary as to whether the term includes pistols chambered in .380 ACP but it would certainly seem to include most pistols chambered in .32 ACP, .25 ACP and those pistols chambered in .22 Short and .22 LR that are not intended for sporting use. That last qualification raises the additional issue beyond power of relying on such guns for defensive use - their size. As noted above, small size may be as much an impediment to effective use of a handgun as large size.
  • While some users - particularly those with limited strength or arthritis - may need to settle for small-caliber guns due to intolerance for recoil, felt recoil will be intensified by small size of the gun and improper fit to the hand firing it.
  • Historically, many of the sales of these guns has been to people particularly concerned about concealment in prohibited venues such as work environments where otherwise lawful carry is banned by an employer. Some have sought them as "last-ditch" backup guns that would only be used in extremely close quarters, such as when an assailant has managed to mount the defender and access to another, more powerful gun carried is not feasible. That is certainly a plausible argument for such a gun but its limitation for delivering low-power shots beyond arm's length must be kept in mind.
  • Admittedly, we now live in a world with recurrent ammunition shortages, often including of the once ubiquitous .22 LR. With the caveats about rimfire ammunition expressed elsewhere, a traditional argument for the .22 LR for those who must use a low-power round for defensive purposes is that its relatively low cost should encourage frequent practice. If that's the route that you or a loved one must go, at least select a pistol that is both practical and fun to shoot.
  • Note that, while this discussion has focused on pistols, many of these same comments apply to mini-revolvers and to derringers. In fact, with the latter, poor ergonomics become an even bigger issue as power and recoil increase.

7. Problems with Lightweight and "Ultralight" Handguns

8. Consistency

9. Revolvers Make Poor Shotguns