Read my latest article, “Drop the Ball,” on USACarry.com!
Read my latest article, “Drop the Ball,” on USACarry.com!
I am pleased to announce that my articles will now be featured on USACarry.com!
You can read my latest article, “Continuing Legal Education for the Concealed Carrier,” by following this link to USACarry.com.
Concealed Carry Insurance is a topic that gets discussed in concealed carry circles and online quite a lot. A lot of this discussion focuses on whether or not it is worth the money, necessary at all, or just some kind of scam. The opinions vary considerably, with the general consensus seeming to be “it doesn’t hurt to have it.” Some “entry level” plans can be as low as around $10 a month, with prices going up to around $30-$40 a month for a higher level of coverage. Recently, the NRA announced that it is entering the concealed carry insurance market, which is what prompted me to write this article, as all indications are pointing toward this sort of insurance becoming more and more mainstream.
As a practicing attorney, though, it is another interdisciplinary topic for me. I’m familiar with the costs of litigation, the potential criminal and civil liability, and in dealing with insurance companies generally. So I’ve usually got something to add to the frequent conversations about concealed carry insurance coverage, and I would be remiss not to repeat my recommendations on my own blog.
Whenever someone asks whether or not they should get concealed carry insurance, I always ask them this: How much uninsured motorist (UM) coverage do you carry? This might seem like a completely unrelated issue, but stick with me for a minute. I work on a lot of plaintiff personal injury cases and I constantly run in to the same problem – the client is hurt in a car wreck, and the person who hit them has little to no insurance. Then we find out that the client also has a little to no UM coverage (the insurance companies often try to convince you to waive the coverage to save on your premium, and many people don’t realize how terrible of an idea this is). So client is hurt, and can’t get any money. Sucks to be them, and sucks to be me, because I can’t make any money on the case, either.
This happens all the time, every day. A huge number of drivers out there, if not the majority, carry no more than state minimum coverage. Chances are, the person most likely to be driving irresponsibly and causing a wreck is also pretty irresponsible about having a lot of insurance coverage, or any worthwhile assets to even bother suing over. On the other hand, the only insurance you can guarantee is available to you if you are hurt in an accident is your UM coverage.
Here are some stats:
On an average, there are more than 6 million car accidents on the roads of the US, annually.
More than 3 million people get injured due to car accidents, with more than 2 million of these injuries being permanent.
There are in excess of 40,000 deaths due to car accidents every year.
Every 12 minutes, one person dies because of a car accident. Every 14 seconds, a car accident results in an injured victim.
For those in the age group of 1 to 30 years, the leading cause of death is due to being involved in a car accident.
By car insurance industry estimates, you will file a claim for a collision about once every 17.9 years. That’s if you’re an average driver, which, whether you’re willing to admit it or not, you likely are.
The point is, you will almost certainly be in a car accident in your life, perhaps several. You also stand a very substantial chance of being injured very seriously. This can be extremely expensive (follow up question – how much health insurance do you have?) and permanently debilitating.
But here are a bunch of people who just started carrying a gun, worried about the super rare occasion of facing prosecution for shooting someone, and willing to pay money to insure against that, though they probably haven’t given any thought to their UM coverage since buying their policy. They may have even waived UM coverage. I recently found out that my own mother had a state minimum, 15/30 policy. She was paying around $600 (six month premium, I believe) for this. I convinced her to raise her coverage. For a $900 premium, she now has a 300/500 policy. So for a 50% increase in premium, she has a 2000% increase in coverage. That same day, we almost got T-boned by a car going 55 mph.
Back to concealed carry insurance, I think it is probably a good thing to have. I would generally subscribe to the “it doesn’t hurt” line of reasoning. I’m a fan of insurance generally. But if you’re willing to spend X dollars a year on insurance, you should really be spending it first on insurance you are most likely to use, like UM.
I personally don’t have concealed carry insurance, and wouldn’t bother buying it, until I at least had half a million in UM coverage. Maybe even a million. (I don’t have that level of coverage yet, but a man can dream). The chances of getting in a car wreck with 6 figure medical bills is much more likely than the chances of being prosecuted for shooting someone in self-defense, especially because you can limit your exposure for a defensive shooting with good training. If you make sure you don’t shoot anyone under questionable circumstances, and that your actions are justified, your chances of prosecution or civil liability are very low.
Concealed Carry insurance policies often also come with an attorney referral service, or the insurer will provide an attorney for you (as your car insurance company would). However, I think it would be much better to go ahead and independently establish a relationship with a criminal defense lawyer. Make sure it is someone you like and can trust before you actually need him. There is no guaranteeing that your lawyer from the concealed carry insurer is any good or cares much about your case. There are very few lawyers with a lot of experience in self defense shootings anyway, because such shootings are reasonably rare, and prosecution for them is rarer still. There are a ton of experienced car wreck lawyers, though, because like I said before, car wrecks happen constantly. But a good criminal defense lawyer would be the best person to consult with regarding how to behave after shooting someone, and it is generally a good idea to have a relationship with one anyway. When you’ve been arrested and you’re asserting your right to an attorney, you at least want to know who that is. You don’t want to have to go shopping around for lawyers while you’ve got pending charges. You won’t be in the best state of mind at that point. So pick a lawyer, maybe have a meeting with him, which should only be a fairly small consultation fee, about how to act if you shoot someone. Keep his number in your phone, so you know who to call.
If you’ve done all these things, you have great uninsured motorist coverage, and you already know who your criminal lawyer is, by all means, buy concealed carry insurance if you want it. After all, the monthly premiums start at about the same price as a single box of ammo.
The topic of “what to wear” while carrying a concealed handgun is discussed pretty frequently, especially here in the South. Garments must be sufficient to keep your gun concealed, and hopefully still be comfortable and look decent. In colder climates, where it is possible to wear layers and jackets for most of the year without sweating too badly, this is less of a concern. However, here in Louisiana, and as of this writing, it is the middle of February but already 80 degrees outside. Few people are willing to wear anything more than they have to when it gets above 80 and stays there for 3/4 of the year. As a fan of both carrying guns and dressing well, this is a fun interdisciplinary topic to write about.
There are plenty of small, lightweight guns on the market today, which is great. It is easier to comfortably conceal and carry these small firearms, and many of them can be carried in a pocket. But not everyone wants to carry a pocket pistol. They are less powerful, hold less ammunition, and are among the most difficult guns to shoot. Many people find that comfortably carrying a larger gun often requires a sacrifice in the fashion department, often wearing over-sized T-Shirts and polos to stay cool but have enough billowing fabric to prevent their gun from printing (showing its shape through the clothing). However, in my experience with carrying pistols in the Deep South, and as someone who appreciates a snappy outfit, I’ve come up with a few wardrobe tips of my own that help things out a bit.
Tip 1: Seersucker
I can’t think of a more classic southern style than seersucker. If you’re unfamiliar with seersucker, it is a type of light fabric, usually made from cotton, that is woven in such a way to give it a puckered, crinkly texture. This texture helps hold the fabric slightly away from the body, and promote cooling by better air circulation. It also resists wrinkles. I can personally attest that it works, too. I got a seersucker suit in law school and was surprised how much cooler I was than in other suits. I started buying seersucker button-down shirts because I liked how they looked and I wanted these same benefits the suit offered in more casual settings. The coolness really helps when it comes to carrying a gun, and my usual “casual” wear in the summer is an un-tucked seersucker button-down. It looks so much more presentable than a T-shirt or another boring polo. However, I also immediately discovered that there are more benefits to seersucker when it comes to concealed handguns.
My wife used to like to watch “What Not to Wear” when it was still on TV. I must confess I watched plenty of it with her. The hosts of that show would always talk about “color, pattern, texture, and shine” as factors to consider when trying to buy clothes that don’t look boring. Well, seersucker has everything but shine (unless you get all-white, then it doesn’t have color). Many people say that patterned shirts help reduce the visibility your gun printing, and this is true. Seersucker shirts go one step further, though. In addition to the striped pattern, the crinkly texture goes even further to break up the look of any potential printing. Of all shirts I’ve ever tried, seersucker shirts help with printing most of all.
If you’re interested in investigating the cooling and anti-printing qualities of seersucker shirts yourself, you’re in luck. Seersucker clothing has had a big resurgence in popularity since about 2010, and every year I see more and more of it for less and less money. When I first started buying seersucker shirts, I could only find them online at LL Bean and at Brooks Brothers. The online LL Bean price and the outlet store Brooks Brothers price were about $40 a shirt, so a bit on the high end of what I am willing to pay. However, since then I’ve found several seersucker shirts at other stores, from Dockers and Old Navy, for much less money. Most department stores at the mall seem to carry at least a few, and it is not uncommon to find them on the sale rack, either. They seem to be considered pretty seasonal, which helps with finding sales, even though it is hot enough around here to wear them from March until November, or sometimes, like today, in February.
Tip 2: Casual Blazers
I know what you’re thinking – this isn’t much of a tip. Everyone knows that wearing a jacket helps hide a gun. The reason I’m including this is that few people seem to shop for them with their gun in mind. I constantly hear blazers being dismissed as an impractical carry-facilitating garment during hot weather. However, if you shop with carry in mind, you can find many blazers that are designed for the heat, made of breathable materials. In fact, there are tons of great seersucker blazers on the market these days, and cheap! Seersucker blazers can be had for less than many other blazers. Even in the hot Louisiana summer, a seersucker blazer can still be worn pretty comfortably, unless you plan to be outside in the heat for long periods of time, when pretty much nothing helps. But if that’s the case, you’re probably ok with a more casual look anyway. A seersucker blazer is a great cover garment for the summer months when you need to look a little dressier (keeping your shirt tucked in), without having to go through the hassle and slowed draw speed of a tuckable holster. I like tuckable holsters, until I actually have to tuck my shirt into it, or have to practice drawing from it. It is a feature that is better in theory than in practice. If I have a tucked in shirt, you can bet I’m wearing a blazer or other cover garment.
And speaking of a more casual look, I feel like casual blazers are somewhat overlooked. Many people skip the blazer as part of their carry clothing repertoire because they “don’t need to dress up” that often. Well, I can offer two bits of criticism to that idea: one, there are many casual looking blazers out there that are appropriate with jeans and even just a T-shirt. And two, you will look better with a casual blazer than just a casual outfit alone. Short of exercising or doing other physical activities, there really isn’t any situation where a casual blazer is inappropriately dressy. I wouldn’t pair one with shorts, but if I’m in shorts, I’m not tucking my shirt in, so the blazer is less necessary. Trust me, if you always dress slightly better than you need to, people seem to have a slightly better disposition toward you, and it gives you more options to conceal your gun. It is never bad to look good. The very slight extra effort of putting on a nicer outfit, even just to go run errands, is worth the improvement in how people interact with you and how you feel about yourself.
Tip 3: Sweater Vests
To break from the “dealing with heat” theme slightly, a sweater vest is a very versatile garment to have for a concealed carrier. When it is “technically fall” here in Louisiana, it is still very often too hot for an actual sweater. This is often true even into the middle of what we call “winter.” A light, cotton sweater vest, though, doesn’t really provide a lot of warmth. What it does provide is a cover garment for your gun that goes over your otherwise tucked-in shirt. This can allow you to have a neat, professional look, without even the necessity of the blazer, and still carry (and draw) your gun easily. The sweater vest is a little less useful than the blazer, and won’t provide as much coverage for bigger guns, but can be more style appropriate for our “fall” than a seersucker blazer would be, and still cooler than a heavier blazer or jacket.
Tip 4: A Shirts instead of T Shirts
When I started carrying a gun, I quickly realized that an undershirt was pretty much mandatory. The feeling of a holster against my bare skin, regardless of the material, is just not comfortable. At the time, most of my undershirts were white T-shirts. However, wearing two shirts in the summer is unnecessarily warm. I made the switch to A shirts (AKA wifebeaters), and they are much cooler, while still providing just enough of a buffer between holster and skin. Not to mention, they tend to fit the body more closely, which will make you less likely to feel “bunched up” around the holster.
Tip 5: Proper Shoes
I may have more pairs of shoes than my wife does, and there’s nothing wrong with that. This is a pretty minor tip, as I don’t think you need to wear athletic shoes or combat boots every day for maximum effectiveness in a fight. I usually wear oxfords or loafers. But one thing you should be aware of is that, whatever shoes you wear, you need to be able to move well in them. Make sure your shoes fit properly, and that you could go into a flat out run in them if you had to. I can run in my loafers, but I do have one pair of what are commonly called “boat shoes” that don’t fit well enough to properly run in, so I avoid wearing them. Being able to run might be more important to your survival than having a gun on you, anyway. So if you’re going through the effort of lugging a gun around with you, you should probably avoid going around in just flip flops, crocs or similar shoes. While they are comfortable in the heat, they are difficult to run or maneuver quickly in, and even if you managed to kick them off to run, you might not be on a surface that plays well with bare feet. This doesn’t mean you can’t wear sandals of any kind, just make sure they fit on your foot securely with some kind of back strap at least. There are many varieties of sandals that are suitable for running.
Please note, though, that I don’t think this applies to women. I wouldn’t tell female carriers to give up on all forms of high heeled shoes, even though you can’t run away in them. The important difference is that there is a style value to heels that makes them appropriate, or even required, in many social situations, whereas there really is no time that flip flops are socially expected attire, so it isn’t much of a sacrifice.
If you put a little effort in to your wardrobe, it is not difficult to find clothes that both look good and accommodate your carry needs. Dressing a little nicer than absolutely necessary on a daily basis not only provides you with more concealment options, but also can enrich your life in other ways. There are also other incidental benefits from dressing well while carrying. First, you’re less likely to be “outed” in public. If you’re wearing nice clothes, people are more likely to notice your clothes than the gun hidden under them. Wearing accessories like ties and pocket squares, especially colorful ones, naturally draws the eye to the accessories and takes attention away from your gun. And finally, if something does happen and your gun is seen, or if you have to use it, being dressed well will improve the disposition of the bystanders and police toward you. People are more likely to think you’re a “good guy,” and the police are less likely to be suspicious of your motives, if you’re well dressed. That goes for everything in life, too.
Concealed Carry Fashion Dont’s
No discussion of concealed carry fashion, or fashion generally, would be complete without the “what not to wear” list. My list is not going to be much different than the conventional wisdom, but if you’ve read this far and haven’t heard this kind of stuff discussed yet, it is worth going over.
Don’t #1: “Tactical” Clothing
The point of concealed carry is to hide the fact that you have a gun, so don’t go around like you’re cosplaying a cop. Gun stores are full of “tactical” pants and “tactical” vests, but none of this stuff is worth buying. All “tactical” pants I’ve seen are just overpriced cargo pants that advertise to everyone that you’re carrying a gun, and cargo pants stopped being cool long ago anyway. “Tactical vests”/photographer vests (basically any vest with lots of pockets) are commonly mocked in the concealed carry community as “shoot me first vests,” because they all but scream “I’m carrying a gun” if you’re wearing them around in public. All “tactical” pants and vests do is provide you with a whole bunch of pockets that you will never use, and trick you into spending money on stuff you don’t actually need. And think about it – even if you did fill all those pockets with “totally necessary” gear, that means you have to wear a vest or tactical pants literally every day.
Basically, if it isn’t something you’d wear if you weren’t carrying the gun, it isn’t something you should wear when you are. Even if you do need extra pockets, my beloved blazers have several, and I use them to carry all kinds of stuff like pens, business cards, and sunglasses.
Don’t #2: Concealed-Carry Specific Clothing
Similar to tactical clothing, these are nothing more than gimmicks to separate new carriers from their money (money which would be better spent on ammunition). There are tons of shirts on the market that have built-in “holsters,” Velcro slits in the sides that let you draw through the shirt, or a variety of other gimmicks to make you think they’re useful. They aren’t useful. First of all, these things aren’t cheap. Shirts with holsters built in are unnecessarily expensive, usually as expensive as just buying a holster, and you can use a real holster with any outfit. If you get an undershirt with built in holster, are you going to by a ton of them, or worse, wear the same undershirt every day?
And if you get these shirts that are meant to facilitate easier draws, they suffer from the same general problem. If you buy shirts that are supposed to facilitate an easier draw, you would still have to wear the same style of shirt every day. You need to carry in a consistent manner, so that if you need to draw, you don’t have to hesitate and remember where your gun is and what drawstroke is needed. If you have a holster-shirt, you will have to either wear that shirt every day or train for different kinds of draws. The same thing goes for the shirts that break away or something to help drawing – you also need to train how to draw with a normal shirt unless you plan to wear the breakaway shirts exclusively. Even if you train with both kinds of draw, in the heat of the moment, you still need to remember which draw to use. It would be a tragedy to try and reach through a Velcro pouch that isn’t there because you are wearing a different shirt. And if you practice your draw adequately with a normal shirt, you don’t really need the help from the breakaway shirt, because you can draw plenty fast. So don’t bother wasting your money on this kind of stuff. Just carry in a real holster and wear normal clothes, and practice a consistent drawstroke until it is second nature.
Don’t #3: Gun-Related or Aggressive Apparel
For a lot of the same reasons “tactical” clothing is bad, you probably don’t want to walk around sporting your Smith and Wesson or Glock T-shirt. There’s nothing wrong with having this stuff. I have tons of gun-branded T-shirts. But I used to wear them when I was working at a gun store, or when I was in college and not allowed to carry on campus anyway. Now I just wear them around the house. If you’re carrying, a gun-themed shirt tends to advertise the fact that you might be carrying. This might make people more likely to spot your concealed gun. Also, if you find yourself in a situation where your gun might be necessary, there’s a chance the bad guys might have identified you as a potential threat before you even realized something was going down, and have made a mental note to send the first bullet your way.
The same goes for any other “aggressive” type clothing. In addition to potentially making you a target, or making people think you might be a bad guy, it doesn’t make a good impression on the police if you actually have to shoot someone. If you’re going around in a shirt that says “Kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out,” that’s probably not the first thing you want the police to see if you’ve just shot someone in self defense. You should avoid wearing anything that makes you look like you’re out looking for trouble, or anything that might look bad if you end up shooting someone. This is the specific reason I quit wearing my Charles Bronson Death Wish T-shirt long ago. A guy wearing a Tapout shirt looks a bit less innocent to the cops than someone just wearing a plain shirt, just because of the preconceptions that most people have. If you wear a confederate flag T-shirt and shoot someone who is a minority, you’re going to have a bad time, even if it was clearly self-defense.
The basic standard for the lawful use of deadly force is the reasonable fear of death or great bodily harm. It is harder to explain to the prosecution or to a jury why you were in fear for your life if you deliberately try to look like a tough guy, or like someone who wants to be a vigilante. Is this fair? Absolutely not. It is total bullshit for things like clothing choice to be used against you, but the fact is, plenty of things influence the mindset of cops, prosecutors, judges, and jurors.
Here is an example of an aggressive inscription on a rifle being used against the shooter (a cop) in court. As far as I know, this case is still ongoing (or has ended in a non-newsworthy way), so I’m not sure if this argument held any water. Even so, there’s no point in even risking these sort of things, and graphic tees with distasteful things written on them aren’t really fashion forward anyway.
There is, of course, more to be said on this topic. I will probably write future articles in this same vein, and would like to collaborate with veteran female carriers to come up with similar tips for women, especially since women tend to have a harder time making a gun work with their wardrobe. For the time being, if any readers have any tips they would like to share, please send them to me! If I get enough good suggestions, I’ll compile them into another article.
Piece be with you,
The other morning, I read an article about a toddler finding a gun in his mother’s purse and discharging it, injuring his sister. I’ve used similar examples in my course to warn against the dangers of off-body carry, and seeing the same fact pattern yet again made me decide to give the topic a bit more of an in-depth discussion in this post.
This is a very frequent source of gun accidents, and it often ends much worse, with the child or the parent dead. Please take the time to review these examples:
Off-body carry is very controversial in the Concealed Carry community for this exact reason. Defenders of off-body carry will say that this is more of a negligence issue than a problem with off-body carry per se, and that if the parent was doing it properly this kind of thing wouldn’t happen. However, “doing it right” means you have to be extremely vigilant, and not let your bag out of your sight or out of arms reach for even a second. This is at odds with the main reason that people choose to carry off-body, however, which is often for the comfort and convenience. It is easy to put a gun in a bag. You don’t have to clip a holster on and off. It isn’t uncomfortable. You don’t have to dress around it or have a variety of holsters for different situations. However, the hassle associated with comfortably concealing a gun in an on-body holster, while real, is less of a hassle than the constant attention and control of a bag containing a gun. The hassle of a holster is over after a few minutes while dressing. You have to worry about the bag all day long. So practically speaking, very few people who consider off-body carry are really going to “do it right.”
Let’s assume, however, that it is “done right.” In several of the above linked articles, there is a recurring theme: people who know the parent say they were responsible people who wouldn’t let something like this happen. Yet something like this happened anyway. This doesn’t mean that it is impossible to do off-body carry safely, but the fact is there are more ways that it can go wrong than with other carry methods. It is possible even for the most diligent person to have a momentary lapse in attention. Those people may have been very responsible gun owners, but if a carry method is vulnerable to tragedy with a single moment of inattention, it should be discouraged in favor of other methods. Simply put, the extra risks involved with off-body carry almost always outweigh the benefits.
There are other problems that can arise aside from those posed by curious toddlers, so even people who are never in the presence of children should think hard about off-body carry. Think about common street crime. In a mugging, for example, an attacker is very likely to commence an attack by grabbing a purse or bag. At best, your attacker only wants the bag, and you lose your gun along with the rest of your valuables. At worst, your attacker means to do you harm, and he may have just taken your best means of self-defense. Even if he doesn’t manage to get the bag away from you, the struggle can make your draw difficult or impossible.
There is also the ever present risk of your bag getting separated from you. If you put it down, someone could swipe it. You could walk away from it and forget it. Even if you don’t forget it, if you are at all separated from it when attacked, you would have to get to your bag before you could get your gun. If your bag is always by your side, never out of arm’s reach, or even better, always on your shoulder… why not just use a holster?
For the sake of fairness, though, there are some things that are good about off-body carry. One of the best things about it is that it is much easier to carry a much larger gun. As long as the bag is big enough, you can carry the largest of full-size, high-capacity handguns, with very little extra effort. It also doesn’t matter what you’re wearing, either. You can carry the same gun, even a big gun, regardless of your clothing. With regular holster carry, it is very difficult to carry a large gun in tight clothing, and this is one reason there are so many small guns available. Most people can’t always dress around a big gun, don’t want to deal with the weight, or don’t want to have to sacrifice style for protection.
There are other situational benefits of off-body carry as well. If you’re walking to your car in a dark parking lot at night (a classic, cliché mugging setup), you can have your hand in your bag, with your gun in full ready grip, and it just looks like you’re getting your keys. Starting with your hand on the gun is the fastest you can possibly draw. You can do a similar thing with pocket carry, but again, pocket carry requires a pocket sized gun, which are generally the weakest, hardest to shoot, and lowest capacity guns. Another scenario that can arise is when going to places where you can technically carry, but where you are likely to be found out, like your doctor’s office. Almost all medical facilities I’ve gone to prohibit firearms, but not all do. If you go in to see your doctor, and your doctor needs to to disrobe, or needs to take an Xray, or any other thing that would get your gun seen, you either need to have a very understanding doctor or just leave your gun at home or in the car during your appointment, unless you off-body carry. You can leave your gun in your bag, and even if you’re in the Xray machine, generally no one is going to be able to swipe your bag in the otherwise private room.
Even with these situational benefits, in my experience, the average off-body carrier is not “doing it right.” Most people aren’t using their purse or briefcase or other bag to carry a large gun. They’re just putting their compact gun in the bag. Furthermore, I doubt that the average off-body carrier is keeping a truly constant vigil over their bag. I personally find the necessary level of concern over a bag to be unsustainable in the long term. And even though there are some situations where off-body carry makes sense, too many people just let it become their default method, regardless of the situation. But as a default method, off-body carry is at its most dangerous. When you just become complacent about it, that’s when a kid gets in your bag, or you lose track of it, or you simply aren’t able to access your gun under the pile of receipts when you really need it.
So if you’re considering off-body carry, really ask yourself why. If you’re doing it because it seems easy, you should probably reconsider. Doing off-body carry “right” is actually more work than carrying on-body in a holster. The situational benefits rarely outweigh the constant problems. I am a firm believer that off-body carry, if ever used, should only be a situational method, not a default method, for the vast majority of people. It should only be your default method if holster carry simply will not work for you at all, and that’s generally not really true. If carrying in a holster is not working for you, you should consider trying a different holster, or a different gun, before just dropping your piece in a purse. There are countless different holster, carry method, and gun combinations out there. There is a good setup for everyone, it can just be expensive and time-consuming to find. Even so, a drawer full of unused holsters is better than a stolen gun or a dead toddler.
If you’ve given it the thought, are aware of the risks, and are still intent on off-body carry (maybe you’re a yoga instructor or something and there is just no way you could carry on your person during your normal day), please ensure you’re doing everything possible to make sure you’re being safe. Don’t carry around children if at all possible. Lock your bag up if you’re going to be around kids. Keep it near you at all times. Take it with you wherever you go, to every bathroom break or every trip to the water cooler, even if you don’t need it. At restaurants, try to sit in a booth so you can keep it next to you and in your sight. Avoid hanging it on the back of your chair. When carrying your bag, carry it with the strap cross-body whenever possible, as this makes the bag harder to snatch away from you, and keeps the bag better oriented for a fast draw. Keep your bag where you can see it at all times, or at the very least where no one else can see it, to prevent theft. Your gun also needs to be in its own compartment in the bag. You can’t just have it in the bottom of you bag mixed up among all your other things. It needs to be in the same place, and facing the same way, every time. You won’t have the luxury of digging around for it in a violent encounter. It also needs to be holstered within the bag to provide trigger guard protection. A bag with a built in holster, or that at least holds one of your holsters in the proper orientation, is best. The bag also needs to be easy to open quickly when you need to draw. You don’t want to have to fumble with a zipper. This isn’t even an exhaustive list of concerns.
If all that seems like a lot to keep track of, maybe just put your gun in a holster and stick it in your pants.
Piece be with you,
For over a century, the debate between revolvers and semi-automatic pistols has raged. Revolvers were the standard for law enforcement for a very long time, with semi-automatic pistols having a reputation for spotty reliability. “Those semi-automatics jam up” was a common thing to hear from the erstwhile “experts” at gun shops. However, as technology has progressed and semi-automatics have been improved, the differences in reliability have really narrowed. Modern semi-automatic pistols are extremely reliable and hold much more ammunition than they once did, so the limited capacity and very slow reload time of a revolver has become more and more difficult to justify on reliability grounds. Many shooters, myself included, go thousands of rounds in their semi-automatics between malfunctions. I personally have only had a few malfunctions out of my defensive, centerfire semi-automatic pistols out of tens of thousands of rounds, and all of those malfunctions were due to ammo problems, not gun problems.
One relic of the old conventional wisdom on revolvers is how they are recommended. It is extremely common to see revolvers recommended to new shooters, and especially to women. These recommendations are often given in a somewhat condescending way. Recently, the tide has begun to shift, not just to recommending semi-automatics to new shooters, but to (rightfully) criticize the sexist, elitist attitudes that many gun shop employees have toward new, and especially female shooters. A semi-automatic is not difficult to learn how to use, and there is nothing inherently better about a revolver for a female shooter. The main reason for this pattern of recommendation is the simplicity of using revolvers, and the assumption that a woman (or just a new shooter in general), is not going to put in the effort to properly understand how a semi-automatic pistol works. Nothing could be further from the truth, and if anything is going to prevent someone from learning what they need to learn about guns or shooting, it is that condescending attitude that colors their early experiences.
But this article is not to sing the praises of the many amazing semi-automatic pistols that are available today. This is intended to be an exhaustive compilation of posts I constantly seem to be making on gun forums in defense of the double-action revolver. Double-action revolvers are my personal favorite type of gun to shoot, and I most commonly carry them as well. Despite it’s shortcomings, there is still a role for the humble revolver. In fact, I’m going to sound like I’m contradicting what I said in the last paragraph and say that revolvers are a good choice for new shooters, just for a few different reasons than are normally given (and many of the same reasons). However, many of the benefits of a double-action revolver can be had for seasoned shooters as well, so revolvers are something for everyone to consider having in their collection, whether it is their first gun or their fifteenth. When I became an instructor, very few of the other candidates really knew much about revolvers, and one of them hadn’t ever even touched one. That just won’t do. Despite the overwhelming popularity of semi-automatics, revolvers are still common enough that anyone seeking to call themselves knowledgeable about guns should be familiar with them. Below are some reasons that anyone should take a hard look at owning at least one revolver, no matter their skill level, instead of just assuming they are obsolete.
Simplicity and Safety
Revolvers are easier to learn to use, and easier to avoid making a dangerous mistake with. That isn’t to say that a new shooter can’t easily learn to use a semi-automatic safely, but many gun owners buy a gun with the best of intentions to seek training, and don’t quite do as much of it as they should (or get “trained” by the ubiquitous uncle/brother-in-law/whatever who “knows a lot about guns” and does more harm than good). If a person is likely to only go shoot a few times, and the gun is most likely to spend its time collecting dust, a revolver may be a good option. This is probably the main reason revolvers are recommended to new shooters, and it isn’t technically wrong, it is just all too often assumed that a female shopper is less likely to become adequately familiar with their gun. In reality, women seem to pay more attention to their instructor, and men seem more likely to assume they already know how to use theirs. I can’t find any statistics, but I’d be willing to bet that men have a much higher rate of negligent discharge of firearms than women.
On a revolver, there is simply a trigger, a cylinder release, and usually (but not always) an exposed hammer. That’s the extent of the “controls” that one has to learn. Semi-automatics similarly all have a trigger and a magazine release, but also have a slide which must be manipulated, and may or may not have a safety, decocker, slide stop, hammer (which may or may not actually work the same) or any combination of the above. Furthermore, loading and unloading a revolver is more straightforward. Either there are cartridges in the cylinder or there aren’t. When a revolver is loaded, the cartridge rims are clearly visible, so it is very difficult to think a loaded revolver is actually empty. There is no “forgetting one in the chamber” with a revolver. With a semi-automatic pistol, you can remove the magazine but still have a cartridge in the chamber capable of being discharged. This is the main cause of negligent discharge – ignorance or carelessness of properly unloading a semi-automatic pistol. A revolver, however, is more forgiving of these sorts of mistakes that a new gun owner is somewhat more likely to make.
The same goes for trigger discipline. Rule two of safe gun handling is “always keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot.” This is a critical rule, and all shooters should strive to follow it at all times (known as “Trigger Discipline”). However, mistakes do happen, and many shooters don’t get adequate training to overcome that natural urge to put their finger on the trigger. At least with a revolver, pulling the trigger is more difficult than on many semi-automatic pistols. It is a very long, deliberate trigger pull in double action mode, so momentary lapses in trigger discipline are less likely to result in a negligent discharge. That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t maintain proper trigger discipline with a revolver, but for a new shooter, it can be a benefit. A revolver trigger is also substantially less likely to be pulled by something other than a finger, like a strap on a faulty holster, which is another source of negligent discharge. Many instances of negligent discharges occur during reholstering, and revolvers are more resistant to these careless mistakes than the most popular semi-automatics.
So in short, a revolver is easier to learn to operate properly and safely, and more forgiving of common safety mistakes. But there are many other reasons to consider a revolver, even for safe, experienced shooters.
The versatility of revolvers is one of my favorite things about them. Many common revolvers can shoot more than one cartridge. For example, any gun chambered in .357 Magnum can fire .38 Special. .38 Special is cheaper and has much less recoil, so it is great to practice with. With a revolver chambered in .357 Magnum, you can fire very powerful magnum loads that are strong enough for hunting use, super light .38 special target loads for easy shooting by even the weakest hands, and perhaps most importantly, anywhere in between. You can find a “Goldilocks” load that has the “just right” amount of power, so that you can get the maximum performance that you are still able to shoot comfortably and control. Even if a revolver doesn’t allow for multiple cartridges to be fired from it (for example, a .38 special revolver can only fire .38 special), there is still much more variety in ammunition choice than for a semi-automatic pistol. Because the power of the cartridge has nothing to do with the operation of the gun, revolvers can fire reduced-power, lower recoil rounds and still work perfectly well. Revolvers will cycle even with blanks. In a semi-automatic, the ammunition needs to be sufficiently powerful to cycle the action, so if the recoil is too much for the shooter, there is nothing they can do short of buying a different gun.
You also have much more variety in ammunition choice for features other than power. A revolver can handle any shape of bullet perfectly well, whereas a semi-automatic may not reliably feed certain bullets. Revolvers can also fire rubber bullets or wax bullets and still function perfectly. Loads like this can allow you to practice shooting practically anywhere, as they are even less dangerous and damaging than a pellet gun (though you should still always follow all rules of gun safety, and definitely don’t shoot anyone!).
Additionally, since the grip doesn’t have to contain a magazine, there are many more grip sizes available for revolvers. Some semi-automatics are just too big for some shooters, but most revolvers can accept very small or very large grips with just the turn of a screw.
If you’re trying to find the most versatile revolver, a medium to large framed .357 Magnum revolver (such as the Smith and Wesson 686 or Ruger GP100) with a 4 to 5″ barrel is probably the single most versatile option. Barrels under 4″ limit power and accuracy to a point where they would not be suitable for hunting, and barrels over 5″ become a little too long and unwieldy for practical defensive use. The 4″ barrel is the historically most popular length, and for good reason, so this perhaps the easiest configuration to find, though there are many 5″ options these days as well.
Because of this unparalleled versatility, a revolver is something that any member of a household can learn to use, even if they have completely different levels of hand and arm strength or recoil aversion. Male, female, young, and old, there is likely a load available that they will enjoy shooting and can learn to shoot well. And if your budget is limited so that you can only buy one handgun, but want to be able to do any kind of handgun shooting activity with it, you can’t beat a medium sized double action revolver.
For both new and experienced shooters, a revolver is a great training tool. Of all handguns, a double action revolver probably offers the most training value that a single gun can. The only thing I can think of that you can’t practice with a revolver is magazine reloading and clearing malfunctions. A double action revolver is great for training your trigger control. One gun gives you two different trigger modes to practice in – light, crisp single action (manually cocking the hammer before firing), and long, heavy double action (firing with the trigger alone). Practicing with a the long, heavy double action pull will do wonders for your trigger control, and make the debates over the minor differences in semi-automatic triggers seem somewhat pointless. And even though the double action trigger may be long and heavy, it is still smooth, so it is still possible to shoot very well with one. The single action trigger will also allow you to make very precise shots, and to practice fundamentals other than trigger control by minimizing the effect of trigger pull on your technique. For new shooters, the easy, light, and crisp single action trigger is a good stepping stone to building fundamental skills, and they can “graduate” to shooting all double action once they’ve got a good handle on the basics. After these skills have been developed, a shooter can still switch back and forth between shooting in different modes, to keep from getting too accustomed to a certain trigger feel and becoming sloppy on fundamentals. Having two different trigger modes available, with all other features of the gun being identical, can really help isolate problems with trigger control, as you can change just that one variable and note the differences.
A double action revolver is also excellent for dry fire practice. You can endlessly dry fire a double-action revolver without having to manipulate the slide as you would have to do for many striker-fired or single-action semi-automatics. The heavy double action pull will also really help build hand strength with routine dry fire practice.
A double action revolver is also easy to do certain training drills with, such as the Ball and Dummy Drill. With a semi-automatic, the ball and dummy drill requires dummy rounds. For a revolver, it can be performed even without having dummy rounds. Similarly, to get the benefit of the ball and dummy drill in a semi-automatic, the shooter needs to be completely unaware of the position of the dummies. This generally requires that someone else be present to load the magazines. However, with a revolver, you can do this drill by yourself, by leaving one chamber empty and spinning the cylinder without looking at it, so you don’t know where the empty chamber is. The ball and dummy drill is excellent for new shooters, and it still something that seasoned shooters should do from time to time, just to check that they haven’t become sloppy. Finally, another benefit that a revolver has for this drill is in retention of dummy rounds. With a semi-automatic, when you reach a dummy round, you will have to eject it by racking the slide. This can send it flying to the ground, and if you’re in an indoor range, that could mean beyond the firing line. It can be disruptive, dangerous or flat out disallowed to retrieve anything that goes past the firing line, depending on your range. Dummy rounds aren’t cheap, either, unless you make your own.
A similar thing to the ball and dummy drill is to load a mixture of .38 Special and .357 Magnum ammunition (or a mixture of heavy and light loads of the same caliber). You can also combine this with the ball and dummy drill, to have three different levels of recoil in one cylinder. This is an excellent technique to train out recoil anticipation.
Several of the things previously discussed also make a revolver a great training tool – it is easier to learn to operate safely for new shooters, and you can shoot anything from wax bullets to powerful magnums out of the same gun to build up recoil handling skills. Simply put, you can get more variation in training with a double-action revolver than with anything else.
Though I have already said that the reliability differences between revolvers and semi-automatics are minimal, there are a few situations in which the inherent reliability of a revolver still shines. Because of how integral the reliability issue is in the debate about revolvers, this is going to be the longest section of this article. Note that revolvers can, and do, malfunction, but malfunctions in a revolver are less likely to be induced by the shooter. The only thing required for a revolver to cycle and fire is that the trigger is pulled, so the revolver isn’t susceptible to failure based on poor technique by the shooter. Even if a semi-automatic gun is nearly as reliable as a revolver, the shooter or the situation aren’t always reliable. For example, semi-automatics can malfunction due to a shooter error often called “limp wristing.” I’ve seen this happen many times personally, especially with the small, lightweight guns that many people erroneously assume are best suited to small, lightweight shooters. If the shooter does not hold a semi-automatic firmly enough to resist the recoil, the gun may malfunction. The shooter needs to have adequate control of a semi-automatic for the slide to move backward against their resistance – if the entire gun moves backward too far instead of just the slide, it won’t properly cycle. Limp wristing can happen pretty frequently with new shooters, or with shooters that lack adequate hand and arm strength. It can also happen when the situation demands atypical shooting techniques, like one-handed or off-handed shooting. A shooter could have no problems firing two-handed, but might not have enough strength to keep proper hold control with one hand or with the off-hand, and this could cause a malfunction. In a self defense situation, if you’re reduced to firing with one hand or especially with your off-hand, the situation is already far less than ideal. At times like that, the extra reliability of a revolver may make the difference, especially for a less skilled shooter. A revolver can be fired upside down with the pinky finger of the off hand, and as long as the trigger can be pulled, the gun will cycle. As a side note, this is why it is important to practice one-handed and off-handed shooting regardless of what kind of gun you have – you don’t want the first time you try it to be when your life is on the line.
There are other situations that can arise as well. One is in the case of contact shots (where the muzzle of your gun is pressed into your attacker’s body in a struggle). This can push the slide of a semi-automatic pistol out of battery (in other words, the slide not fully closed) and prevent it from firing. This is a very small issue of course, but it is still a problem that revolvers don’t experience.
There are other situational benefits of revolvers, such as firing through a pocket. If you are carrying a small revolver in a coat pocket or something, you can fire the gun without taking it out of the pocket if absolutely necessary (this is best with hammerless revolvers – fabric can still catch or obstruct an exposed hammer and prevent firing). However, semi automatics will almost always malfunction after the first shot or two, as the fabric will prevent the slide from moving back fully, closing fully, or the case from being able to clear the ejection port.
Even the most reliable gun in the world is still only half of the equation. Your ammunition still has to function properly for your gun to fire. No matter how reputable a brand of ammunition is, there is always a chance that a cartridge could fail. Sometimes primers are just duds, or are too hard to be fired on the first strike. With a revolver, if a cartridge fails to fire, all the shooter has to do is pull the trigger again to try the next round. This is also the case with double action automatics, but for single action and striker fired automatics, this would have to be cleared like any other malfunction. I have had a round from a premium, trustworthy manufacturer with a too-light powder charge that sounded weak and failed to cycle the action. I still continue to trust and carry this brand, but the point is that no ammunition is 100% guaranteed to work, however high quality.
The last thing I’m going to mention about reliability, and this is especially important for newer or more casual gun owners, is that revolvers don’t require you to extensively test and evaluate defensive ammo for reliability. I touched on some of these factors in the Versatility section above, as a revolver will cycle reliably no matter the power of the round, and any shaped bullet will work just fine. With semi-automatic pistols, certain brands of hollow point ammunition for self defense may not feed reliably in certain guns. All hollow points are shaped slightly differently, and the way the shape of the bullet nose interacts with the feed ramp, chamber, etc, can cause reliability problems. For example, if the hollow cavity is too wide, it can catch on the bottom of the feed ramp and prevent the cartridge from being chambered (this happened to me once). This is one reason that there are no wadcutter loads for semi-autos, and semi-wadcutter loads are often unreliable. It is possible for there to be nothing wrong with a certain gun, and nothing wrong with certain ammo, but the combination of the two just doesn’t run right. Best practices for semi-automatic pistols are to test a sufficient number of a certain defensive hollow point round to ensure reliable function. This means shooting at least a few boxes through your gun. However, most quality defensive loads come in boxes of 20, and cost more than a dollar per shot. To sufficiently test one type of load means to spend around $100 in many cases. And if that load doesn’t work as well as you’d like, you have to start over with a different one. Realistically speaking, many gun owners do not adequately test their defensive ammo, or may not even know that it could even be a problem, assuming that any premium round will deliver premium performance. While most guns will work fine with most loads, there is a chance that the rounds you bought specifically for self defense will fail you when you most need them if not thoroughly tested. This isn’t really a problem with revolvers, though. You can be confident that whichever load that you want to use will function correctly. The shape of the bullet has no impact on the reliability of a given round in a revolver. The only necessary testing of self defense rounds in a revolver is just to shoot enough of them to get a feel for the level of recoil and point of impact. This can be done with only a few rounds.
In summary, while modern semi-automatics are extremely reliable, and may be more reliable than revolvers in certain conditions (like mud and sand) that are frequently used to test reliability, there are many situational issues in which revolvers still have a slight edge. Many of these situations are also more likely be arise, especially for new and civilian shooters, than any kind of “gun in the mud” scenario.
Ease of Maintenance
Another benefit that revolvers have, which again primarily helps newer or more casual gun owners, is the ease of maintenance. This also plays into their “real world reliability,” as they are more likely to function properly even their are not maintained as carefully as they should be. Revolvers are easy to clean, and don’t need to be disassembled at all to do so. If you clean out the bore and the chambers, that’s pretty much it. Almost everything else is just cosmetic. With stainless steel revolvers, you don’t even have to worry much about the metal itself corroding. Revolvers are also less susceptible to failure due to improper lubrication, and don’t need to be lubricated nearly as frequently as semi-automatics in order to ensure proper function (the actual internal action should be kept fairly dry). As such, a revolver can be left neglected in a drawer for a long period of time and be more likely to work when needed than a semi-automatic. The lubrication on a semi-automatic can dry up, get sticky over time, or be soaked up by whatever it is stored in, be it a holster, pistol case, or socks in a drawer. When it comes to concealed carry, a carry gun quickly attracts a lot of lint. This lint is more likely to become a problem with a semi-automatic than with a revolver if the gun is not frequently cleaned. Again, I do not endorse neglecting one’s guns, and all guns should be routinely inspected and practiced with, but many gun owners may not exercise their due diligence as much as they should.
Even for the diligent gun owner like myself, there is something to be said for the peace of mind that comes with easy maintenance. Even though I regularly inspect and maintain all guns that I use for self defense, I still worry that I’m not doing enough of it. I don’t always remember how long my nightstand gun has been in my nightstand since it was last lubricated. I’ve never had one fail on me due to lack of maintenance when it does make it to the range, but the threat is always there in the back of my mind. The sight of lint on my semi-automatic carry guns is more worrisome than on my carry revolvers. On a related note, loading and unloading a semi-automatic for maintenance causes me some worry as well, and can especially be a problem for less experienced shooters. Repeated chambering of ammunition in a semi-automatic can cause bullet setback (the bullet getting pushed into the casing, shortening the overall length, and potentially causing reliability issues or an unsafe rise in chamber pressure when fired). Many new shooters don’t know about this. There is debate over whether the pressure can actually get to dangerous levels, but the change in cartridge overall length can certainly cause failures to feed. Also, the more a gun is loaded and unloaded, the more opportunities there are to have a negligent discharge. As discussed in the Safety section above, forgetting a round in the chamber is the most frequent reason negligent discharge occurs, and some semi-automatics actually require the trigger to be pulled before the gun can be disassembled, so it is critical to visually inspect that the chamber is clear. On the opposite side of that, it is possible upon reloading the gun to forget to chamber a round. If that happens, the gun won’t go bang when you need it to. I’ve never actually done this personally, but when I carry a semi automatic I still worry about it sometimes, and will check on a regular basis just to be sure that a round is still chambered. It always is, but it is an itch that can only be scratched by checking, and it is better to visually double and triple check whether a chamber is loaded or unloaded than to get complacent and assume you’ve done everything right.
The last thing that makes revolvers worth owning is that they are just fun to shoot. You get two trigger modes in one gun and a wide variety of ammo choices, as discussed previously. Many people, including myself, just like how revolvers look and how they feel in the hand. That may sound like a silly reason to chose a certain gun, but the fact of the matter is that you will practice more with a gun you enjoy owning and shooting. This is one reason I continue to carry revolvers – most of my practice ends up being with revolvers, and a lot of successful self defense is pure automatic reaction and muscle memory. When I point my carry revolvers, the sights line up with the target automatically, just because of how natural they feel in my hand.
Revolvers also make other shooting-related hobbies easier and more rewarding. I mentioned hunting previously in the Versatility section, and many revolvers are better suited to hunting than the average semi-automatic, if only because of the relative ease of mounting optics on them. Also, if you handload/reload your own ammo, a revolver makes that hobby much easier and more interesting, and as a handloader myself, this is one of the main reasons I continue to shoot revolvers as much as I do. First of all, you don’t lose any brass. You eject the brass manually and can put it right back in the box, as opposed to having to search around for the ejected brass on the range floor (you never find all of it). Secondly, again as discussed in the Versatility section, you can load your ammo as light or as hot as you want (within safe pressure ranges of course), and you can develop your own “perfect” load. Lastly, revolver ammo is also just easier to reload, because you don’t have issues with the overall length. This saves a step in the process, and avoids the issue of loading a “bad batch” of unreliable ammo when trying a new bullet because the overall length is slightly wrong.
As you can see, there are many reasons why owning a revolver is still a valid choice, even as a self defense gun. Does all this mean that I think that they are better than semi automatics? Of course not. Semi-automatics are still the best choice for most people, and I continue to recommend 9mm semi-automatics to most people I train, even though I love revolvers. If I know nothing about someone other than that they want a gun, a medium frame 9mm semi auto is the go-to recommendation, as it will be the most likely to suit the average needs of the average person. But there are still good reasons to choose a revolver and to recommend a revolver to certain people, even today, and those who do choose a revolver shouldn’t be mocked by armchair experts.
Despite the criticism, a revolver may be a good recommendation to a new shooter for the reasons listed above, provided that recommendation is actually well considered for that shooter’s needs, and not just based in a sexist or elitist attitude. And yes, even though the recommendation of revolvers to women is cliché and usually for the wrong reasons, there are still some situations in which the recommendation is legitimate, it just has nothing to do with sex or gender. When I used to sell guns, it was fairly common for a female shopper to only be there because her husband/boyfriend/father/etc. wanted her to have a gun for self defense, not because she personally had the intrinsic desire to learn. In those situations, where she is likely to only go shoot a few times at someone else’s urging, then put the gun away forever, the inherent ease of reliable use, maintenance, and safety of a revolver might make the most sense. This has nothing to do with the fact that she is female, but everything to do with her overall attitude toward gun ownership. I’ve met many male gun shoppers who clearly just want a gun to have around the house for peace of mind, and don’t seem very interested in pursuing shooting as a hobby or sport. A revolver may be the best option for them as well. I’ve also had many people interested in buying a gun for themselves, but one that their wife who is not interested in guns could also feel comfortable using. Again, a revolver is less intimidating to learn for many people who have little desire to learn, and the availability of lower-power ammo can help with this as well.
While all gun owners should take a deep interest in their shooting skills and should seek at least some level of formal training, the reality is that many (probably most) do not. Many that do get training and practice at first don’t keep up with regular practice or maintenance. This does not mean that they shouldn’t still have the right to own a gun, but it may mean that a revolver is the best gun for them.
And even for experienced shooters, a revolver isn’t a stupid idea. There are many activities in the shooting sports that revolvers excel at, and a skilled shooter who enjoys shooting revolvers can still use one to great effect in self-defense. There is an old pro-revolver argument, or more of a gun store meme, that “if you can’t do it with 6 shots, you can’t do it with 16.” This is a pretty stupid argument in a lot of ways and is rightfully criticized. However, nothing gets passed around that much without at least some grain of truth to it. While having more capacity in a gun is always a better thing, most defensive gun uses are resolved with no shots fired or with very few shots fired, to the point where a revolver is usually enough gun. It isn’t always enough of course, and there is no harm in having more rounds on tap. But whenever it comes to arguments about guns and self-defense, we need to remind ourselves that ALL of these competing considerations are on the margins. Having to use a gun in self-defense is already a fairly unlikely thing. Having to actually shoot someone is even more unlikely. Having to shoot someone until you are out of ammo or having to reload in a gunfight is even much more unlikely still, and the same goes for having to deal with a malfunction. So in reality, the differences between semi-automatics and revolvers are ultimately only relevant in a small percentage of a small percentage of situations, to the point where preference may actually be more relevant than practicality.
Piece be with you,
There are tons of options when it comes to self-defense ammunition. In years past, the decision was generally as easy as “buy hollow points.” However, these days there are so many different types of self-defense ammunition, how do you know which ones to get? Even if you have a brand you’ve heard good things about, each manufacturer often makes several different lines. So where do you start?
Fortunately, for all the different options on the market, there are also tons of resources available to determine if a given option is any good. It is generally very easy to find very thorough testing data online. This is probably one of the reasons there are so many choices, as the greater availability of information breeds competition. But if there is one thing that this wealth of information has taught me, it is that just “getting hollow points” is definitely not good enough. Despite the many different options, very few of them actually seem to perform as advertised. Chances are, the generic hollow point ammo that was considered good enough in the past is very unlikely to actually expand on target, thus not providing meaningfully better performance than regular target ammo.
First, it is important to understand what qualities are required in good self defense ammo. While the purpose of hollow point ammunition is expansion, that expansion can’t come at the expense of adequate penetration. FMJ ammo penetrates just fine, but doesn’t expand, and some hollow point ammo expands too much, or even breaks apart (whether by design or not), causing inadequate penetration. In general, it is better to penetrate and not expand than to expand but not penetrate. The bullet has to penetrate sufficiently to reach the vital organs, and has to expand sufficiently to reduce the chances of over-penetration and create an effective wound cavity. So to have a good self defense round, you need just the right amount of both, a Goldilocks bullet if you will.
So what is “adequate” penetration? The FBI standard gel test requires that a given bullet penetrate a minimum of 12 inches of ballistic gelatin after passing through heavy cloth (which can clog many low-quality hollow points and prevent expansion. Note that this does not equate to the same amount of penetration in an actual target, as there are many other factors such as bone that come into play). Further, the FBI standard looks for a maximum penetration of 18 inches in gel. So when evaluating any given carry ammunition, you should make sure that this round (fired out of a gun with a similar barrel length to yours, as this significantly impacts velocity) will penetrate between 12 and 18 inches of standard ballistic gel. This lets you rule out a lot of options from the get go. Some will fail to expand, and this usually results in penetration in excess of 18 inches. Some expand too much and fail to penetrate enough, or are designed to break up on impact, which looks impressive in a gel block but which, in reality, means that the efficacy of the round was wasted on superficial wounds. Note that penetration in excess of 18 inches is not necessarily grounds to disregard a certain load if the expansion was good and consistent, and if the penetration in excess of 18 inches was not more than an inch or two. However, if there are other options that expand just as well and fall right into the 12-18 inch mark, those should be considered first. They likely have less recoil than their more aggressively penetrating counterpart, anyway.
Once you’ve eliminated over and under-penetrating rounds, you have to look at the consistency of expansion. Again, poor expansion likely eliminated many of the rounds due to over-penetration. But there may be some rounds that expanded most of the time, only failing to expand some times. These rounds might be ok, but keep in mind the standard gel test is much more likely to cause reliable expansion than an actual living target, riddled with bones and with an uneven density of flesh. So if a round can’t manage to expand consistently in gel, it is much less likely to expand consistently in flesh. Even rounds that expand every time in gel may not always expand in flesh, but if they can reliably handle the gel at least you have the best chance of expansion when it counts.
Finally, there may be some rounds that expand reliably and penetrate properly just looking at raw measurements, but still might not be as good as others. You should look at factors like core-jacket separation and weight retention as well. This is when the lead core separates from the copper jacket of the bullet, causing it to be less effective, or when bits of the bullet are otherwise lost during it’s path through the target. While it does expand, the main benefits of the expanded bullet are lost, and the primary penetration is just accomplished by the lead core alone. This is fairly common with some rounds like Remington Golden Sabers. A good bullet has the case and jacket bonded together to prevent this.
So once you have narrowed it down to bullets that penetrate properly, expand reliably in gel, and hold together properly on target, the last consideration is reliability in your gun. It is possible that your choice of ammo, while the ammo performs perfectly, might not cycle reliably in your specific gun. This also does not mean that there is a problem with your gun. There are many different bullets with a wide variety of shapes, and many different guns that vary in their dimensions. Every once in a while, a certain gun will just not be compatible with a certain bullet, even though there is nothing wrong with either. Beyond reliability issues, some rounds are just more accurate in some guns than in other guns. So it is incumbent upon you to thoroughly test your chosen round in your chosen gun. This can get fairly expensive as premium self-defense rounds are much costlier than target ammo, but this is your life you’re talking about, so it is worth the money. You should at least run a few boxes of the stuff through your gun to make sure it runs right and shoots straight before you load your gun up to bet your life on.
So where do you find all this wonderful information? My favorite site is LuckyGunner Labs. This is the most comprehensive, thorough, and consistent test (not to mention easy to interpret, with pictures and video to boot) that I’ve seen. It also contains a detailed writeup of the same things I’ve covered in this post. If we look at the results of this test, we can easily see which rounds are good choices and which should be avoided. It is also important to note that these tests were performed with compact, concealed carry style guns (average barrel length of about 3.5 inches), so larger guns will likely have deeper penetration. If a given round is just slightly below 12 inches of penetration in a 3.5 inch barreled gun, it will likely penetrate adequately out of a 4+ inch barrel gun. However, if it is already penetrating quite far in the small gun, with the bullet on the verge of coming apart, it will probably not be a good choice for a longer barreled gun.
It is also prudent to note that if a given bullet is effective in one caliber, it might not be that great in another. It is important to look for data as close to the gun you will be using as possible. For example, Federal HST rounds are excellent performers in most calibers. However, in .380, they don’t seem to expand and penetrate much too far.
Looking at data like this can also be pretty eye opening about what does and does not matter in a defense load. It is surprising to see that, in many loads, the standard pressure and the +P counterpart seem to perform more or less the same. Sometimes, the increased velocity of the +P round increases penetration, when other times it may penetrate a little less due to improved expansion. One of the most interesting things is how different bullet weights in the same line of ammo can perform very differently. For example, in 9mm, Speer Gold Dots are one of the best performers, except for the 147 grain, which doesn’t appear to expand very reliably (likely due to the reduced velocity of the short barrel pistol used, and would probably expand quite well our of a full sized gun). So again, even if you know what is good and what you like, you need to make sure that the specific bullet weight you choose works as well as whatever test you saw.
If you don’t want to look at all the data yourself and just want my take on it, I would say you should generally start your search by looking at Speer Gold Dots, Hornady Critical Defense, and Federal HST. These rounds are generally the most consistent good performers, and are generally easy to find in stock anywhere and not terribly expensive. However, before stocking up on a given load, at least look into the tests for that specific load. If you’re packing a .380, the Hornady Critical Defense are really the only loads that fit the bill. The Gold Dots expand very well but don’t quite penetrate enough, and the HSTs seem to clog with cloth and not expand at all. However, in other calibers, the balance may shift. In 9mm for example, the Gold Dots seem to be the best balance of consistent penetration and expansion, with the exception of the 147 grain of course, and without even needing the increased recoil of +P. The HSTs also do very well, but penetrate a bit more aggressively, and the pictures make me a little concerned for the weight retention if hitting something hard like bone. The Hornady Critical Defense looks a little anemic by comparison, and if your barrel was any shorter than the one in the test it would not be my first pick. Hornady has the Critical Duty line as well, but it is designed for full size guns and is just barely expanding well in this test.
All of this can be a little overwhelming, I know. But with the wonders of the internet, at least you can get a very good idea of what you should use, instead of just having to rely on someone’s recommendation or the manufacturer’s marketing, or just hoping that your hollow point of choice will actually work as advertised when your life is on the line. In general, if you stick with rounds that have a proven track record (Gold Dots have been around a long time, and the competition is pretty much just starting to get competitive), and avoid the latest gimmick, you’re doing a better job than most. Once you have been messing with guns long enough, ammo choices become as interesting, if not more interesting, than gun choices. Throw handloading into the mix, and you’ve got yourself a whole new hobby.
Piece be with you,