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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 pocket carry. Some users of the Airweight and Airlite versions - particularly if they have man-size hands - find that it makes those guns easier to control.
Hogue's Centennial/Bodyguard grip - pictured here on Smith & Wesson's Bodyguard 38 - offers a less radical approach to making those two small-frame S&W revolvers more manageable for some users. It is currently offered with the rubber section in three different colors, including pink and black.
This image shows a S&W M&P pistol, one of the larger back strap options and the readily removeable "frame tool" that allows quick changes of the back-strap inserts. This photo shows all three "palm swells" that Beretta furnishes for the PX4 Storm pistol. Note that one extends the distance 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.

5. Hammer-Fired vs. Striker-Fired Pistols

6. Caliber or Power

7. Problems with Lightweight and "Ultralight" Handguns

8. Consistency

9. Revolvers Make Poor Shotguns

  • Over the years that this website has been online, there has been a substantial increase in the number of Americans carrying firearms for personal protection. In recent years, I have seen an increasing number of articles reporting mishaps as dropped-gun discharges, resulting in a spectrum from embarrassment, through legal charges, to injuries and fatalities.
  • Firearms suitable for defensive use are properly considered deadly weapons. As such, their primary function is to launch potentially deadly projectiles. Attempts at mechanical means to make them completely "safe" risk making them useless for that primary role, under emergency circumstances. Thus, safety with firearms is primarily a matter of following The Rules.
  • While the use of a proper holster is a major step in keeping handguns from dropping to the floor or the ground, some guns are still less "drop-safe" than others. For better or for worse, such "drop-resistance" usually comes at a higher price. Most good-quality, modern revolvers and pistols are fitted with passive safety devices that greatly reduce the risk of dropped-gun discharges. One maker of medium-price firearms was forced to recall several models of polymer-frame, striker fired pistols because the firing-pin safety, at best, required engagement of the thumb safety in order to prevent discharges if the pistols got dropped at the wrong angles.
  • When you shop for a firearm - particularly a handgun - be sure to ask what sort of passive safety it has to prevent discharge if it is dropped. It may be worth some further research to determine if that safety system has been reported to have failed.

  • One of the most common problems with revolvers is binding of the cylinder. With double-action revolvers, this is often noticed as resistance in the trigger stroke. Such binding can be caused by one or more high primers, crud under the extractor star or - in S&W revolvers and some copies of them - loosening of the sleeve that forms the forward portion of the extractor rod.
  • A good precaution, after closing the action of a loaded revolver, is to check that the cylinder is not binding. If the revolver has a hammer with an exposed spur, the hammer can be eased back just far enough to disengage the cylinder stop, which rises and falls in a slot at the bottom of the cylinder window. Once it is disengaged, the other thumb can be used to check that the cylinder rotates without binding. If the revolver lacks an exposed hammer spur - such as if the hammer is concealed or the spur has been removed - the tip of the little finger of the non-gun hand can be usually inserted behind the trigger, allowing the trigger enough travel to disengage the cylinder stop without the risk of firing the revolver unintentionally.
  • If binding is detected and is traced to one or more primers that project beyond the head of the cartridge case, those rounds must be replaced. This problem is seen more commonly with reloaded training ammunition but can occur with factory ammunition as well.
  • If no high primers are detected, check the mating surfaces of the underside of the extractor star and the recess in the cylinder in which it seats. This is the most crucial area for cleaning on a double-action revolver and a revolver shooter should always take a nylon-bristle brush - such as a toothbrush - to the range for such cleaning. Accumulation of unburned flakes of powder here can be eliminated by avoidance of oil at this location and by turning the muzzle skyward while ejecting fired cases.
  • On S&W revolvers, there is a tendency for the sleeve that forms the forward portion of the extractor rod to shoot loose - even after the change to a left-hand thread, circa 1960. As soon as you detect this, carefully unscrew the sleeve, degrease the male and female threads with a solvent such as acetone, then apply a drop of a temporary Loctite (e.g., 222) or nail polish to the male thread before reassembly. The other thread that merits this precaution, when it is found to have worked loose, is the one for the slotted nut that holds the thumbpiece (cylinder release) to the bolt. These threaded parts, along with the side-plate screws, strain screw and the screw that holds the rear sight in place if the revolver is fitted with an adjustable sight, should be checked on every cleaning.
  • While revolvers have long been touted as being more reliable than autoloading pistols, this is a handy guide to function testing the more commonly encountered double-action revolvers. Also, this useful discussion of testing revolvers for other aspects of reliability.



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