Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Choosing a Defensive Handgun

In the previous article on What to Bring to a Utah Polite Society Event, I wimped out. Rather than delve into the potentially controversial topic of what sort of handgun is best for self defense, I just talked about what makes and models we commonly saw at our events. This post is intended to address choosing a defensive handgun more thoroughly.

Before we begin a couple of caveats: Which gun and caliber are best for self-defense is a controversial topic. Everyone from true high-speed low-drag operators to armchair commandos has an opinion. The advice in this article is based on my opinions. These opinions stem mostly from shooting at Utah Polite Society events, taking some classes from Gabe Suarez, and perhaps most importantly, watching other people, particularly novice shooters, at our monthly events.

The advice in this article is intended for novice shooters. I’d like to think that even some more experienced folks may be able to get something out of it. However, if you are an experienced shooter and you find something you disagree with, keep in mind just be something that doesn’t apply to you.

Second, this article is intended for folks who haven’t yet bought their first defensive handgun. If you have a handgun please don’t go run out and buy another gun just because your original choice runs contrary to the advice in this article. You will probably be better served bringing your current gun to a few of our events before making a decision. The gun you have may end up working fine for you. If you do decide to go out and get a different gun, having a bit of shooting experience under your belt will help you make a better choice. Reading this article is not a substitute for actual experience.

What Are You Buying a Defensive Handgun For?

A defensive handgun is not a magic talisman that will keep you safe from harm. Nor is it a magic wand that will force a bad person to do what you say. A handgun is a fighting tool, a killing tool, a tool of last resort which you may someday have to use to save your life or the life of a loved one. The ultimate question when trying to decide on a defensive handgun is, “Which gun will do the best job of keeping me alive?”

A lot of folks, particularly those who are new to concealed carry or who don’t have any practical shooting experience, seem to loose sight of this. Rather than thinking about a pistol’s fighting qualities, they concentrate on comfort or concealability. “How many rounds are shot in the average gunfight” is a perennial question on internet gun forums. The people asking it generally want to know the absolute smallest, least capable gun they can get away with carrying. This makes about as much sense as buying the minimum possible airbag, fire extinguisher, or parachute. A defensive firearm is a vital piece of emergency equipment, your life will depend on if you ever have to use it. Comfort and concealability are important, but they pale in comparison to a handgun’s fighting qualities. As Clint Smith says, “A handgun should be comforting, not comfortable.”

What’s Important When Choosing a Handgun?

If you frequent gunshops or internet discussion boards on the subject, you will be bombarded by opinions about what sort of pistol is best for self defense. Some folks will tell you that if your pistol isn’t a .45 you might as well be armed with a sharp stick. Others say that you need at least a dozen rounds before you can even begin to consider defending yourself. Every make and model has its own cheerleading squad trying to convince you that their favorite gun is the best.

The truth is the most important thing to look for when choosing a defensive handgun is a pistol that you can shoot well. Caliber and magazine capacity are important features, but the biggest hip howitzer in the world isn’t going to do you a bit of good if you can’t hit your assailant with it. Unfortunately, personal fit is where most gun buying advice, particularly on the internet, falls short. As I said in the equipment article, most people who tell you which gun you should buy are telling you what works for them, which may or may not have any relevance to what will work for you. That’s why this article is titled “Choosing a Defensive Handgun” rather than “What Defensive Handgun You Should Buy”.

The best pistol buying advice comes from someone who has some experience, and who has seen you shoot a pistol. If someone who knows what they are doing watches carefully while you are shooting, they can give you a lot of good advice. They can tell you how well your current gun is working for you, and where it may be falling short. They may be able to point you in the direction of some better options. This is another reason to hold off on buying a new pistol until after you’ve come to one of our events, since we have quite a few folks who can give you very good advice.

So what qualities are important in choosing a defensive handgun? Most importantly, you need to be able to shoot it accurately, misses don’t stop an attacker. It needs to work absolutely reliably, if it jams or breaks in a fight it could get you killed. Similarly, you need to be able to operate it in what will probably be the most stressful situation of your life, with a full fledged fight or flight reaction and adrenaline coursing through your veins. Finally, the rounds it fires need to be powerful enough to stop an assailant and the gun needs to hold enough rounds to disable all of the assailants.

Personally, I carry a Glock 21. It’s big, heavy, and ugly as sin. It has no character. It’s not going to impress firearms aficionados the way a high-end 1911 or a fine revolver might. No matter how long I carry it, it’s not a gun I’m ever going to love. None of that matters. What matters is that I shoot it well, it’s extremely reliable, and it carries 14 rounds of .45 ACP. I have concluded that it’s the handgun I want to have in my hand if someone is trying to kill me.

Finding a Pistol that Fits

The two most important parts of choosing a gun that will shoot well for you are getting a gun that fits your hand, and choosing a gun and caliber combination with recoil you can handle.

In finding a gun that fits your hand, the most important feature is the trigger reach. Trigger reach is the distance between the back of the grip and the trigger. When gripping the gun with your index finger held straight and resting on the trigger guard, the trigger should be next to the index finger’s middle knuckle. If the trigger reach is much too long, a shooter often tries to correct this by holding the gun incorrectly. When a pistol is gripped properly in one hand, the barrel should be in line with the bones of the forearm. If the trigger reach is too long, the shooter may grip the gun so that it ends up to one side of the forearm bones, rather than in line with it.

Proper Grip: Gun is aligned with the forearm.

Improper Grip: Too long a trigger reach means the gun is to one side of the forearm (exaggerated for effect).

While an inability to grip the gun properly is the most dramatic result of too long a trigger reach, there can be more subtle effects as well. If the trigger reach is too short, or slightly too long (but not long enough to force an improper grip) it can lead to “pushing” or “pulling”. When firing a handgun, it is important to pull the trigger straight back. If you pull to one side or the other, the act of pulling the trigger is going to push or pull the gun out of alignment with the target, moving the point of impact.

When shooting a gun with a single-action trigger (see Operating Systems, below, for a discussion of single vs. double action) the trigger should touch the pad of the trigger finger. A heavier, longer, double action trigger should touch the finger at the first joint. If the trigger reach is too long, the contact point will move towards the tip of the finger, pushing the gun to the left (for a right handed shooter) when the trigger is pulled. If the reach is too short, the contact point will move away from the tip of the finger, and a right handed shooter will pull the gun to the right. This is a much more subtle effect than an improper grip. One way to check is to “dry fire” the gun (pull the trigger when the chamber is empty and the gun is pointed in a safe direction). When dry firing, the sights should stay in alignment and not move as you pull the trigger. It is also possible to spot the results on the range. If you are consistently shooting to one side or the other, then your trigger reach may be too short or too long.

While the trigger is the most important control, you also need to be able to reach the gun’s other controls with your shooting hand. On a revolver, the cylinder latch should be within easy reach. On a semi-automatic you should be able to activate the magazine release and slide lock lever easily. If the gun has a decocker or a manual safety (see Operating Systems, below) you need to be able to reach those without moving your hand. When shooters with small hands are using a gun with a large grip, they are often tempted to activate these controls using their support hand, rather than the hand that’s holding the gun. This should be avoided, because the circumstances of a confrontation may require you to run the gun one-handed. Your support hand may be occupied carrying a baby, or holding onto a child, or it may have been disabled by injury earlier in the fight. One-handed operation is a critical skill that my not be possible if the gun is too big for your hand.

On the subject of magazine releases, some pistols come with a “heel” magazine release (sometimes called a “European style” mag release). Rather than being located near the base of the trigger guard, the magazine release is on the butt of the gun, near the bottom of the magazine. This position complicates the reloading process because you have to use the support hand to activate it. Pistols with this style of magazine release are not recommended.

Left-handed shooters face particular challenges in reaching the controls because, as with everything else in the world, most guns are set up for right-handers. Accommodations for southpaws come in three flavors. Left-handed controls are on the opposite side of the gun from their normal positions. Reversible controls can be placed on either side of the gun, allowing it to be set up for either right-handed or left-handed users. Ambidextrous controls are on both sides of the gun, allowing both right-handed and left-handed shooters to use the gun without requiring any conversion. Safeties and decockers are probably the most important controls that need to be set up for left-handers. Thankfully, ambidextrous and left-handed safeties are becoming increasingly common on modern pistols. Ambidexterous slide locks are available on some pistols, but unlike an ambidexterous safety or decocker, their absence is not a deal breaker. Whether you’re right or left handed, it is generally better to train to release the slide by pulling back on it, rather than using the slide lock lever. Some pistols also sport reversible or ambidextrous magazine releases. While convenient, these are not really necessary. Most right-handed magazine releases can easily be activated using the tip of the left index finger.

While the primary problem for people with smaller hands is reaching the trigger and other controls, the biggest problem for people with larger hands is having enough gun to hold on to. This problem comes in two distinct flavors, the length of the grip, and the circumference. It is far easier to shoot a pistol when you can wrap all of your fingers around it. However, some subcompact autoloaders leave the pinky finger dangling below the butt of the gun. Some guns come with finger rest extensions which attach to the bottom of the magazine to give your little finger a place to sit. In my opinion, if you need a finger rest to grip the gun properly, you might as well get a gun with a longer grip, since this will probably get you a higher magazine capacity as well as giving you someplace to put your little finger.

It’s usually quite obvious if a gun’s grip is too short. If the grip has too large a circumference the problem is more subtle. The best test of a handgun’s grip circumference is how well the support hand fits on the gun. If the grip is big enough, there should be a gap between the tips of the fingers and the base of the thumb. This gap is where the base of the support hand’s thumb should go in a proper two-handed grip. Fitting the base of the hand into that gap locks the support hand into your grip and helps it control the gun’s recoil. If the gun’s grip circumference is too small, there won’t be enough room to fit the support hand in there. The support hand may not have any direct contact with the gun at all, which means it isn’t contributing that much to handling recoil.

Too small a grip: Not enough room for the support hand between fingers and the base of the thumb.

Correct size grip: Room for the support hand between fingers and the base of the thumb.

This is actually a problem that I ran afoul of. My first defensive handgun was a Heckler and Kock USP Compact .45. The USPc is a fine gun, but it has a fairly narrow grip, especially for a .45. Since I didn’t have a lot of experience shooting other firearms, it took me several months to even realize a bigger grip might suit me better. I think that a big part of the reason I can shoot my Glock 21 better than my HK is that it has a nice fat grip, rather than the USPc’s slim one. This is a good example of how personal the fit of a gun is. Someone with smaller hands would find the USP compact’s grip just fine, but they might have trouble with the fatter grip of the Glock 21. This is why you need to find a gun that fits you, rather than a gun that fits someone else.

It is also possible for a guns grip circumference to be too large, but this is usually associated with too long a trigger reach or difficulty reaching other controls. It would be quite rare for a person to find a gun with a short enough trigger reach that also has a grip fat enough to give them difficulty.

Finding a gun that fits your hand is a lot like trying on clothes. With clothing, however, there is a standard sizing system that will at least put you in the ballpark. There isn’t really anything similar with handguns. Most manufacturers don’t even publish the length of the trigger reach for their firearms. I can provide some general advice so you don’t have to try out every gun in the gunshop to find one that fits you. If you have large hands, you’d be best off looking at pistols with high capacity “double stack” magazines. These generally have beefier grips with large circumferences. If you have very small hands, your best bet will be to look for guns with single stack magazines. You may also want to stay away from .45 caliber handguns, because the length of the round contributes to a relatively long trigger reach. If you have average size hands, you have the biggest range of options, since all but the biggest and smallest grips will probably work OK for you.

Several manufacturers have introduced pistols with replaceable backstraps. These are plastic inserts that attach to the back of the grip that can be switched out to accommodate different sized hands. They primarily alter the trigger reach, but adding a bigger backstrap will also increase the circumference somewhat. Currently, the Smith & Wesson M&P and the Heckler & Koch P2000, P3000, and HK45 pistols are available with interchangeable backstraps. Most gunshops display these guns with the medium size backstrap. If you are looking at one of these pistols and it seems too large or too small, ask which backstrap is on it at the moment, and if they could let you hold it with a larger or smaller one attached.

Handling a gun and seeing how well it fits your hand is a good way to tell if a gun isn’t going to work well for you. If you know what to look for (which you hopefully do after reading this article) it’s easy to tell whether the grip is too big, or too small, or it’s too difficult to reach the trigger or other controls, just by handling the gun. However, the only way to really know if a gun is going to work for you is to shoot it. If you know a friend who owns the same gun, ask if you can put some rounds through it. Otherwise, try to find someplace that rents the gun you want to buy and try it out. Popular guns are usually fairly easy to find. Almost any place that rents guns will have Glock and Springfield XD pistols available. However, if the gun is an uncommon or niche model, it may be difficult to find someplace to rent it. This is another argument for following the crowd when it comes to handguns. I would recommend putting at least 50-100 rounds through the rental gun before you decide to buy. In the Salt Lake City area, you can rent pistols at Impact Guns (4075 W 4715 South in Salt Lake City and 2710 S 1900 West in Ogden) and Doug's Shoot'n Sports (4926 S Redwood Rd in Salt Lake City).

The biggest things to look for when test-shooting a pistol are how accurately you can shoot the gun and how well you can recover from recoil. Determining how accurately you can shoot is fairly easy, the target will tell the tale. If you are new to pistol shooting, it may be worthwhile to attend a basic class, like the NRA’s First Steps or Basic Pistol courses so you can learn enough fundamental shooting technique to compare different firearms.

Recovery from recoil is a little more subjective. The biggest factor here is generally not the rearward force of the recoil, but muzzle flip. Muzzle flip is how high the muzzle of the gun rises during the recoil. With the proper stance, the entire body can absorb the rearward recoil force, but absorbing muzzle flip is largely dependent on how well you can grip the gun. With a high muzzle flip, it will take longer to get the sights back on target for the next shot. The amount of recoil depends on both on the characteristics of the caliber and the characteristics of the gun.

In general, larger, more powerful cartridges will produce more recoil (see Caliber below for a discussion of different cartridges). However, the feel of the recoil can vary with different calibers. High velocity cartridges like the .357 SIG, .357 magnum, and .40 S&W tend to have a very sharp, “snappy” recoil. Lower velocity rounds like the .38 Special and .45 ACP have more of a push. Because of this many people find the recoil of a .45 easier to handle than the .40, despite the .45 being a bigger, more powerful round.

The most important feature of the gun itself that affects recoil is its weight. A heavier gun will help absorb the cartridge’s recoil better than a lighter one. Some manufacturers make essentially the same gun in a variety of frame materials, which can substantially affect how much they weigh. 1911s and revolvers are available in both steel and aluminum alloy frames. Kahr makes most of its pistols with a choice of steel or polymer (plastic) frames. The alloy and polymer-framed guns are lighter and easier to carry, but more difficult to shoot. Barrel length also has an effect on recoil (in addition to the heavier weight of the longer barrel). Longer barrels help soak up recoil and reduce muzzle flip by moving the gun’s center of gravity further forward.

The other big factor that affects a gun’s recoil is its bore axis. Bore axis is the vertical distance between the top of the shooter’s hand and the centerline of the barrel. Guns with a high bore axis have a lot of muzzle flip. While guns with a lower bore axis tend to have less muzzle flip, they have more of a direct backwards “punch” into the web of your hand. Revolvers tend to have a very high bore axis, as do some models of autoloader, like the Heckler & Koch USP. Glock pistols are known for their low bore axis.

Finally, semi-automatic pistols have less recoil than revolvers, because some of the recoil energy is used to cycle the slide. Effectively, the slide functions as a shock absorber.

All of these factors combine to produce a gun’s felt recoil. There is a tendency to focus on the cartridge when talking about recoil, but you cannot look at it in isolation. For instance, the .45 ACP is a much more powerful cartridge than the .38 Special. However, a .38 fired from a snub-nosed lightweight alloy revolver with a high bore axis will have a much more punishing recoil than a .45 fired from a long barreled, steel framed, semi-automatic. If you find the recoil on a gun that you’re test firing too severe, consider moving to a larger gun or a smaller cartridge (see Handgun Sizes below for a discussion of different size handguns). The best case for recoil is a full-size steel-framed 9mm semi-automatic like the Beretta 92FS or the Browning Hi-Power. The worst case is a snub-nosed, alloy-framed .357 magnum revolver with a high bore axis. Shooting a box of full-power ammo through such a gun can even leave the web of your hand bloody. One additional thing to keep in mind if you’re a novice shooter is that your ability to handle recoil is going to improve quite a bit with training and practice.

In an effort to reduce muzzle flip, some shooters use compensated handguns. A compensated gun has holes or slits drilled or cut in the top of the barrel near the muzzle. When firing, some of the hot gasses escape through these openings and help reduce muzzle flip. While they can be effective at reducing recoil, compensated guns are not recommended for defensive use. If you have to shoot from with your gun close to the body, you’ll catch your own muzzle blast from the ports. The flash from the compensator ports can also interfere with your night vision.


One of the most important characteristics of a defensive handgun is reliability. A defensive firearm is a piece of lifesaving equipment. It is absolutely vital that it works properly every time. If you are in a self-defense situation and your pistol fails to function properly it could well get you killed. You are betting your life on this gun, reliability is important! In fact, the only reason I didn’t list reliability first is that there are so many reliable handguns on the market today. It’s not difficult to find one. While certain brands, like Glock, have a particularly solid (if not legendary) reputation for reliability, a modern gun from almost any major manufacturer is probably going to be quite reliable. Manufacturers like CZ, FN (Browning), Glock, Heckler & Koch, Ruger, SIG, Smith & Wesson, Springfield Armory, Steyr, Taurus, and Walther all produce highly reliable firearms.

However, even the best manufacturer turns out the occasional lemon. This is why it’s important to test your carry pistol before trusting your life to it. It’s not enough to know that Glocks are reliable, you want to know if your Glock is reliable. To this end, I would recommend shooting several hundred rounds of practice ammunition and at least 50 rounds of your chosen self-defense ammo before trusting your life to a pistol. These rounds should be 100% malfunction free. This may seem like a very high standard, but it is your life that’s potentially at stake here. If there are any malfunctions, either figure out what the problem is and fix it, or if you think it was some sort of fluke, fire several hundred additional rounds (or another 50 rounds self-defense ammo) before deciding the gun is ready for service. Some manufacturers recommend a break-in period. Malfunctions during break-in are not necessarily cause for concern (that’s why there’s a break-in period, after all) but you should still fire several hundred additional rounds after the break-in is over.

As mentioned in the equipment article, magazines are the number one cause of malfunctions in semi-automatic pistols. Damaged or improperly manufactured mags are the quickest way to turn a reliable pistol into a jam-o-matic. Don’t buy cheap aftermarket magazines for self-defense use. Stick with factory magazines or a high-quality aftermarket manufacturer like Mec-Gear. If you are having trouble with a semi-auto, mark your magazines so you can tell them apart and keep track of which ones are in the gun when you have problems. If a magazine keeps giving you trouble, get rid of it.

Semi-automatic pistols can also be sensitive to ammunition. If the ammunition is too weak, it may not fully cycle the slide, causing feeding or ejection problems. Hollowpoint ammunition can cause feeding problems as well. Certain pistols just don’t seem to like certain brands of hollowpoints, which is why it is so important to test your carry ammo in the gun you are going to be carrying. If you have reliability problems and have eliminated magazines as the culprit, try switching to a different brand of ammunition

The one exception I would make to the general statement that most handguns are reliable is 1911 style pistols (the classic Colt .45 automatic, clones of which are now manufactured by many different companies). This is not to say that 1911s cannot be reliable; a great many of them are. However, the 1911 is an older design that demands more care and precision from the manufacturer than more modern designs. There are many different manufacturers of 1911 pistols and not all of them produce a gun with the same level of care and quality. The 1911 was also designed long before the advent of modern hollowpoint ammunition and was designed to feed round-nosed bullets. The feed ramp needs to be modified to feed hollowpoints well. Most current production 1911s come this way from the factory, but if you buy one that doesn’t, or have an older gun, you’ll need to take it to a gunsmith if you want to shoot hollowpoints through it. In addition, the 1911 is probably the most popular pistol for shooting competitions, which has created demand for very accurate pistols. That accuracy sometimes comes at the cost of reliability. Highly accurate pistols are generally “tight” with little clearance between moving parts. This is fine for competition, but the standard of reliability for self defense is different. If you pistol jams up in competition you may loose the game, if it jams up in a self-defense situation, you may loose your life. If you want to carry a 1911 for self defense, get one from a manufacturer with a good reputation for producing reliable, high quality pistols like Kimber or Springfield Armory. Buy high quality magazines from Chip McCormick or Wilson Combat. Shoot at least 500 rounds to break it in and test it rigorously with your carry ammunition before trusting your life to it.

While reliability is largely independent of the shooter, there is one type of reliability problem that’s going to vary from person to person. This is called “limp wristing”. For a semi-automatic pistol too operate, the frame of the pistol (the lower half, including the grip and trigger) needs to be held steady enough while the gun recoils so the energy of the bullet can cycle the slide. If you have a weak grip or weak wrists, you may not be able to hold the frame steady enough during recoil. This can be a particular problem with very small semi-autos, which don’t have as much mass to help you hold it steady. If limp wristing is a problem, you may need to develop more strength in your hands and forearms or get a bigger handgun. In extreme cases, switching to a revolver may be warranted.

Systems of Operation

So far, this article has talked mostly about what qualities a good defensive firearm should have. It should be reliable and it should be something that you can shoot well. Both of these are important, but also fairly abstract. You can’t look at a gun’s specifications on the internet and figure out whether it would be reliable or shoot well for you. Now, we’re going to get into more concrete characteristics. We will eventually get around to talking about caliber and capacity, but for the moment I’m going to focus on a gun’s system of operation.

Most defensive handguns can be divided up into four categories: double action revolvers, point and shoot semi-automatic pistols, semi-automatic pistols with decockers, and semi-automatic pistols with manual safeties. These four categories differ primarily in how complex the controls are: revolvers are simplest while semi-auto pistols with manual safeties are the most complicated.

Double Action Revolver – Double action revolvers are the simplest and most reliable type of handgun. Every pull of the trigger will fire a bullet until the cylinder is empty. There are no other shooting controls to worry about besides the trigger. If a revolver malfunctions, all you have to do is pull the trigger again and it will fire the next round. This simplicity makes the revolver a good choice for self-defense, but it comes at a cost. Most obviously, a revolver’s ammunition capacity is strictly limited. Most revolvers are limited to five or six rounds, while semi-automatics are available that can hold double or triple that (see below for a discussion of ammunition capacity). Revolvers also take longer and are more difficult to reload than a semi-auto. Finally, while learning to use a revolver is simple, the trigger of a double-action revolver is difficult to master. A double action revolver trigger has to raise the hammer, rotate the chamber, and release the hammer. In order to accomplish all this, the trigger pull has to be long and heavy which can reduce accuracy, especially for the novice shooter. Despite these drawbacks, they are still a good choice for many people.

There is one other type of revolver, the single action. Single action revolvers require the shooter to cock the hammer between each shot. They can be quite accurate, beautiful, and are historically interesting. However, there are much better options available for self defense. I would not recommend anyone rely on a single action revolver for protection. If you want to have fun shooting your old west style gun, take up Cowboy Action Shooting. Leave personal defense to more modern designs.

Point and Shoot Semi-Automatic Pistols – There is no established term that covers all the pistols in this category, so I’m going to call them “point and shoot” pistols because that’s all you’ve really got to do. Like a revolver, the only shooting control is the trigger. The first guns in this category were Double Action Only (DAO) semi-autos. DAO pistols operate just like double action revolvers, all you have to do is pull the trigger. Unfortunately, most DAO autoloaders have a very long, heavy trigger pull, which makes them difficult to shoot accurately. Long heavy triggers are necessary because the trigger pull has to cock the hammer, rather than just releasing it (a double action revolver trigger does the same thing, but due to mechanical differences between a revolver and a semi-automatic, revolvers are generally smoother and easer to shoot than DAO autoloaders). True DAO semi-automatics never proved all that popular, except with some law enforcement agencies which felt that the heavier trigger pull was better from a liability perspective (never mind that most of their officers couldn’t shoot well with it).

Rather than making the trigger do all the work, newer pistols in this category use the cycling of the slide to cock the hammer or striker most of the way. Pulling the trigger accomplishes the last little bit of cocking, then releases the hammer or striker. This gives these pistols a trigger pull somewhere between a double action and a single action. The first pistol with this sort of trigger was the Glock, but today it’s also available in on all Smith & Wesson M&P and Springfield XD pistols. SIG and Heckler & Koch also offer some of their pistols with this sort of trigger, under the names DAK and LEM, respectively.

Semi-Automatic Pistols with Decockers – Semi-autos with decockers, also called Double Action/Single Action (DA/SA) autoloaders, are somewhat more complicated to fire than point and shoot semiautomatics. These pistols have a double action trigger pull on the first shot, similar to a DAO pistol. For subsequent shots, the action of the slide will recock the hammer, giving a much lighter single action trigger pull. Jeff Cooper called these pistols “crunchentickers” because of the hard “crunch” of the first trigger pull, followed by the much lighter “tick” of subsequent shots. This difference between the first and subsequent shots makes DA/SA pistols somewhat more difficult to master than point and shoot handguns.

The single action trigger pull is light enough that it’s dangerous to carry a holstered pistol in this condition, so DA/SA autoloaders all come with a decocking lever. The decocking lever lowers the hammer, returning the pistol to its double action state with a long, heavy trigger pull. The need to operate this decocking lever adds an additional layer of complexity to the pistol’s operation. However, this doesn’t require quite the same level of practice that disengaging a safety does because you don’t have to deal with the decocker until after a deadly force confrontation is over. For safety reasons decocking the pistol needs to become an automatic part of your holstering process.

Semi-automatic pistols with decockers are available from SIG, Beretta, HK, CZ, and a variety of other manufacturers.

Semi-Automatic Pistols with Manual Safeties – All of the previous categories had one thing in common, if you need to shoot the pistol, you just point it at the target and shoot. With a semi-automatic pistol with a manual safety, you must disengage the safety before firing. It takes a lot of practice to be able to do this reliably in a stressful situation. The benefit of all that practice is a much lighter, crisper trigger pull than any of the other systems of operation. Autoloaders with manual safeties are Single Action (SA) pistols. All the trigger does is release the hammer, so it doesn’t need to travel nearly as far or be pulled with as much force. These pistols are carried in what’s called “Condition 1” or “cocked and locked” with the hammer back and the safety engaged.

By far the most popular SA autopistol is the classic 1911. Other pistols of this type include the Browning Hi-Power (a kissing cousin of the 1911) and some models from HK, Taurus, and other manufacturers.

One last type I should mention are pistols that have both a manual safety and a decocking lever. These come in two different types. Heckler and Koch and Taurus make pistols that allow you to activate the decocking and safety functions separately. If you move the lever one direction (down) it acts like a decocker. If you move it the other direction it acts like a manual safety. These guns are quite versatile. They can be carried cocked and locked like a 1911 or decocked and unlocked like a SIG. It is also possible to carry them decocked and locked, but, like wearing both suspenders and a belt, this is rather redundant. If you buy one of these pistols I highly recommend picking one way to carry (cocked and locked or decocked and unlocked) and sticking to it.

The other combination of safety and decocker is seen on some Berettas (including the current U.S. military service sidearm, the M9), older Smith & Wesson autoloaders, and some pistols from other manufacturers. On these pistols the safety/decocking lever has only two positions. In the up position, the weapon is ready to fire. The down position decocks the weapon and engages the safety. Thus the gun cannot be carried cocked and locked. Your only choices are decocked and unlocked, and decocked and locked. As mentioned earlier, having both a stiff double action trigger pull and a safety is redundant. These pistols should be carried with the safety/decocking lever in the up position. As Jeff Cooper put it, “Don’t get caught with your dingus down.”

This is one place where I’ll give a more definite recommendation, rather than general guidelines. For defensive use, particularly for the novice shooter, I recommend either a double action revolver or a point and shoot semi-automatic pistol. For a new shooter who’s planning to come to a Utah Polite Society event, I would recommend a point and shoot autoloader. Despite a challenging trigger, the simplicity of a revolver makes it a good choice for someone who’s not going to put a lot of effort into learning how to run their gun. However, if you have enough interest in learning to defend yourself that you’re going to show up for one of our events, you are probably willing to put in the extra effort to learn to operate a slightly more complex firearm.

I’d like to emphasize that this doesn’t mean that guns with safeties or decockers are bad. Any of these systems can make a fine defensive pistol. However, pistols with decokers and safeties require more training and practice than revolvers or point and shoot autoloaders. If you carry a pistol with a manual safety, you need to be able to disengage that safety every time you draw, even when your heart is pounding, adrenaline is flowing, and you are in fear for your life. If you carry a DA/SA pistol, you need to learn to shoot with two completely different trigger pulls and transition between them under extreme stress. Building up your muscle memory to this sort of level requires thousands of repetitions to develop and regular practice to retain. Before deciding to carry a pistol with a manual safety or a decocking lever, be realistic about whether or not you are willing and able to put in that much time. In addition, keep in mind that until this becomes automatic, while you’re shooting you’ll have to devote more attention to running your gun and less attention to shooting skills, tactics, movement, and other skills that we try to develop at our events. This is why I recommend one of the simpler options for novice shooters.

Caliber and Capacity

The fundamental truth is that handgun bullets are wimpy. Regardless of what you see in the movies or on television, one shot is not going to catapult someone across the room and drop them dead in a heap on the floor. A rifle or a shotgun stands a pretty good chance of taking down an assailant with one shot, but with a pistol, physically stopping an assailant with one hit is unlikely. One bullet may be enough to discourage them from continuing to assault you, but unless you hit them in the head (a tricky proposition against a moving target in the stress of a gunfight) it isn’t going to physically stop them immediately. Stopping an assailant with just two hits is also unlikely. A more realistic assessment is that a determined assailant may soak up 3-6 hits before he stops.

A second factor to consider when deciding how large a magazine capacity you want is the possibility of multiple assailants. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey more than a third of all robberies involve two or more robbers. The need for multiple shots against each attacker and the threat of multiple attackers combine to make large magazine capacities seem like a really good idea.

The width and length of the magazine (and thus the width and length of the grip) and the caliber are the main factors in determining how many rounds a handgun can hold. The traditional pistol magazine is what’s called a ‘single stack’ mag. The rounds are stacked one directly on top of the other in a fairly thin magazine. Most modern pistols use a ‘double stack’ magazine. In a double stack magazine the rounds alternate between being offset to the right and left. Double stack magazines hold more rounds, but require a fatter grip on the gun, making them difficult for people with small hands to use. Recently some pistols have been introduced that have staggered rounds, like a double stack, but are narrower than a traditional double stack. These are found in the S&W M&P .45, and the HK USP Compact .45 and HK45. They can be a compromise between capacity and grip size.

While all handgun bullets are wimpy, some cartridges are less wimpy than others. Larger bullets will create bigger wounds, increasing blood loss and making it more likely that they’ll clip something vital. Faster bullets will penetrate more deeply and are more likely to reach an assailant’s vital organs, particularly after passing through cover.

The most popular personal defense cartridges for revolvers and autoladers are listed below. Each list is ordered from least powerful to most powerful.

Revolver Calibers

  • .38 Special
  • .357 Magnum

Semi-Auto Calibers

  • 9mm
  • .357 SIG
  • .40 S&W
  • .45 GAP
  • .45 ACP

When using modern hollowpoint ammunition, any of these calibers will serve acceptably for self defense. In an autoloader, the 9mm, .40 S&W and .45 ACP are by far the most popular self-defense calibers. In my opinion one of these is probably the best choice. There’s nothing wrong with the .357 SIG or the .45 GAP. Either round provides perfectly acceptable performance for personal defense. However, the fact that these cartridges are less popular means there is a smaller selection of self-defense ammunition available and practice ammo costs considerably more than the more common calibers. How much practice you get has a much larger effect on how well you’ll do in a defensive encounter than which caliber you choose, so unless your ammunition budget is very large, you’re probably better off with one of the more popular calibers. This goes double for even more niche calibers like 10mm or .41 Magnum.

Some people feel that the .380 ACP is an acceptable self-defense cartridge. However, the .380 isn’t a very fast round, and hollowpoints in this caliber often fail to expand or, of they do expand, fail to penetrate deeply enough. I wouldn’t recommend it. I definitely wouldn’t recommend any smaller caliber (.32 ACP, .25 ACP, or .22 LR). None of these is powerful enough to perform reliably in a self-defense situation.

Larger calibers, such as the .44 Magnum, certainly pack enough punch to be an effective personal-defense round. However, these powerful cartridges have considerable recoil, slowing follow-up shots. Most shooters are probably better served by a less powerful round that can be shot more quickly.

The 9mm, .357 SIG, .40 S&W and .45 GAP all have the same overall length. This allows most manufacturers to use the exact same frame for pistols in all four calibers. If a pistol in one of these calibers fits your hand, the same model in another caliber will probably fit the same way. Their recoil characteristics do differ, so the main factor is going to be how each round shoots for you. A .45 ACP cartridge has a longer overall length, requiring the pistol to have a bigger grip and a longer trigger reach.

While more powerful calibers are better, there’s always a tradeoff between caliber and capacity. If you can wrap your hand around a double stack .45 and a double stack .40 and can handle the recoil in both calibers, the .45 is probably the better choice, even if it carries a few less rounds. Similarly, if your hand size limits you to single stack pistols, a .45 is probably a better choice than a 9mm (again, assuming you can handle the recoil). However, if the choice is between a double stack .40 and a single stack .45, I would take more rounds in the smaller caliber. A .40 may not be as powerful as a .45, but 15 .40s will probably serve you better in a gunfight than 10 .45s.

Gun Size

One topic that hasn’t been covered yet is how big a gun you should buy. Autoloaders are generally grouped into three size categories. Full size guns have a barrel around 5 inches long and full length grips. Compact guns have a barrel around 4 inches long and may have a somewhat shorter grip. Subcompact guns have a barrel length of around 3 inches and often have grips so short that they cannot accommodate most people’s little finger. These days the size of the gun and the size of the grip are somewhat independent of each other. It’s possible to find a full size gun with a small grip and a subcompact gun with a fat one, so most people will be able to find a gun that fits their hand comfortably in whatever size they want.

In general, large guns are easier to shoot. A longer barrel allows for a longer sight radius (the distance between the forward and rear sights), and their greater weight helps soak up recoil. A fullsize gun may also carry more ammunition than a compact, and the compact almost always has a bigger capacity than a subcompact. The grip on a subcompact may be short enough to make it difficult for a person with large (or even average sized) hands to keep a good hold on.

Many people feel that a smaller gun is more comfortable to carry and easier to conceal. While there is some truth to this, it is possible for most people to carry a fairly large gun, provided they are using a good holster and gunbelt (see the Equipment post for recommendations in this regard). If you can “dress around the gun”, concealing a fullsize weapon is quite doable. If your job or other activities don’t allow you to wear a good cover garment (a jacket, vest, or untucked shirt), then a smaller gun may be your only option. The other part of this equation are the consequences if someone spots your gun. If your employer has a strict no-gun policy and getting “made” means being fired, then a smaller pistol may be advisable. If having your gun spotted will prompt nothing more than some good-natured ribbing for carrying so obviously, then erring towards a larger gun could be the better choice.

Finding the Perfect Gun

At this point, I’m sure a lot of the novice shooters reading this are thinking, “Enough already! Can’t you just tell me what to get?” (the more experienced shooters are probably thinking, “This guy is an idiot! Why am I reading this?”) Because what pistol will work for you is such a personal thing, I’m still not going to tell you what gun to get. However, I do have a plan for deciding what gun would be best for you:

Go to a gun store. Ask to handle a variety of models of the following types: Glock, Springfield XD, Smith & Wesson M&P, Heckler & Koch pistols with the LEM trigger, and SIG pistols with the DAK trigger. These are all point and shoot pistols and are all good choices for a defensive handgun. Don’t forget to ask about different backstraps for the M&P and HK P2000 and HK45 models. Figure out which of these pistols fit your hands well (use the advice I gave above to figure out whether a pistol fits your hand or not). Once you know which pistols fit your hand best, find a friend with one or a place that rents them and shoot each pistol in as many different calibers as you can. Figure out which pistol and caliber you shot best. Find someplace that has that gun in that caliber for a good price and buy it. Fire a few hundred rounds of practice ammo and at least 50 rounds of self defense ammo through it. Buy a holster and magazine carrier (see the Equipment post for recommendations). Come to a Utah Polite Society event with your new pistol!

Monday, August 13, 2007

What to Bring to a Utah Polite Society Event

The basic philosophy behind the Utah Polite Society’s equipment rules is simple: carry the same gear you carry every day. Since the goal of all of our events it to help people prepare to use their firearm in self-defense, it only make sense to use your every day carry (EDC) gear. Indeed, one of the great benefits of our monthly shoots is that it gives you the chance to test your EDC rig in fairly realistic self-defense situations.

Of course, with a rule like this, there’s really no way to enforce it except for relying on the honesty of the participants. We’re certainly not going to show up sometime during the month to make sure you’re carrying the same gear you used in our last event. However, unlike competitive shooting games like IPSC and IDPA, our events are not competitions. We don’t even keep score. So if you don’t use your EDC gear, the only person you’re really cheating is yourself.

For most of us, “every day carry gear,” means a concealed weapon. You should bring a cover garment that conceals your pistol from casual observation. Again, the cover garment should be similar to what you wear every day. A cover garment is part of your shooting gear and if you practice with a tactical vest draped over your pistol, it’s not going to be very applicable to getting the gun into play from underneath a polo shirt. While concealed carry is the norm for most of us if you are in law enforcement, private security, the armed forces, or some other profession which involves open carry, you are welcome to use your duty gear.

Required Equipment
While we don’t have a whole lot of hard and fast rules about equipment, there is certain gear that you’ll need to participate in one of our events.

Handgun – Bring a handgun suitable for self-defense use. If you are a new shooter, and haven’t selected your carry gun yet, feel free to bring another pistol if you have one available, even if it’s a .22 target pistol. However, if you have a defensive handgun available, you will be much better off practicing with that even if you end up selecting a different model for carry. While most of our events are shot using handguns, we occasionally have optional carbine and shotgun stages. If we’re going to have one, it will be mentioned in the e-mail announcement.

Magazines – Bring at least two magazines (one for your gun plus one spare). Some of our stages involve reloading or clearing a malfunction, so an extra magazine will be required. If your carry gun is a revolver, bring two speedloaders or three moon clips.

Holster – Almost all of our scenarios start out with the gun in the holster, so a holster is definitely required. All holsters must cover the trigger guard of your pistol when the gun is holstered. While we don’t have a blanket prohibition on any particular holster type, for safety reasons we ask that new shooters don’t use shoulder holsters, cross draw holsters, fanny packs, smart carry/thunderware, t-shirt holsters, purses, small of the back holsters, and waistband clips attached to the gun. All of these types of holsters require great care to avoid sweeping yourself or bystanders with the muzzle of the gun when drawing or holstering. If you’d like to try using one of these holsters after you’ve come to a couple of events and can demonstrate that you can use them safely, then we’ll be happy to let you use it. If you carry a small firearm in your pocket, we strongly recommend carrying it in a pocket holster.

Belt – For any holster that rides on the waistband, a good belt is a necessity. A thick, heavy belt will keep the holster and other gear on the belt in place.

Magazine Carrier – Bring a magazine carrier or pouch to hold your extra magazine(s).

Ammunition – Most of our events involve shooting 50-75 rounds of ammunition. Bringing 100 rounds will generally provide a good cushion and leave you some extra rounds to shoot a stage a second time or shoot steel targets on the range after the event is over. We make an exception to our, “carry the way you do every day” policy for ammunition. Inexpensive full metal jacket ammunition works perfectly well for practice, and is a lot cheaper than hollowpoint defensive ammo.

Eye and Ear Protection – Eye and ear protection is mandatory.

Some scenarios may require additional equipment (a flashlight for a night shoot, for example), but this is relatively rare. If additional gear is necessary, the e-mail announcing the event will mention it.

Equipment Advice
Despite our lack of detailed equipment rules, experience at Utah Polite Society events has given us a pretty good idea of what sort of gear works best. This section is intended to provide some guidance about different types of gear, particularly for those who are new to concealed carry and defensive shooting. While we think it’s good advice, none of the following is mandatory or required.

It’s useful to think of your gun and everyday carry gear as a system. Each individual piece is important, but the bottom line is how well it all works together. A particular make of holster might work great for one gun, but not for another. To further complicate matters, a person’s body type, gender, lifestyle, clothing choices, and the degree of concealment required are also part of the system. A gun, holster, and belt that work great for one person may not work at all for someone else. If the following advice seems distressingly vague at times, it’s because of this personal element. When people give gun advice over the internet, telling you to buy a particular gun or a particular holster, what they are really saying is how well this gun or holster works for them. This may or may not have any bearing on what will work best for you. Rather than telling you to buy the same stuff I’ve got, the goal of this section is to provide information so you can make an informed decision.

Handgun – The relative merits of different firearms and calibers have inspired countless hours discussion, debate, and internet flame wars. Rather than telling you which gun and caliber is best, I’m going to describe what sort of pistols and calibers are most common at our events. The most common types of firearms are Glocks and various makes of 1911s. We also see Heckler and Koch, SIG, Springfield XD, and Smith and Wesson pistols on a regular basis. Taurus, Kahr, and Kel-Tec guns show up occasionally. Most people shoot either full size or compact pistols, though a few favor subcompacts. The most common calibers are .45 ACP and .40 S&W, with 9mm and .357 SIG being somewhat less common.

One additional thing to take into consideration when choosing a handgun is the availability (or scarcity) of accessories like holsters and magazines. There are good firearms out there that are less than ideal for concealed carry because accessories for them are expensive or difficult to find. This can apply both to less popular or niche weapons and to newly introduced models. If a newly introduced gun proves popular, accessories will become easier to find as time passes.

Magazines – The more the better, particularly if your firearm has a relatively low capacity. Two magazines will probably get you through any drill or scenario we do and three definitely will. The real benefit of bringing more magazines comes when you’re not shooting. In my experience, it’s possible to learn as much from watching other people shoot a stage as you can by shooting it yourself. Having more magazines means you can spend more time up at the firing point observing and less time back at the bench stuffing rounds into your mags.

While I definitely recommend bringing more magazines, I’d advice against buying cheap ones. Magazines are the number one source of jams, misfeeds, and other problems in semi-automatic firearms. Your experience at one of our events is going to be much better if you can shoot without battling magazine induced malfunctions. Aftermarket magazines, particularly 1911 magazines, vary widely in quality. For most weapons, factory magazines are going to be the most reliable. For 1911 shooters, Chip McCormick and Wilson Combat make very reliable magazines. If you have another type of gun and can’t find factory magazines, Mec-Gar manufactures many of the “factory” magazines provided with new guns by various manufacturers.

Holster – Finding a good holster is quite important to being able to carry a gun comfortably and well concealed. Trying to carry in a poorly made holster, or even a good holster that’s a bad fit for your clothing choices or body type can be a huge source of frustration. With the right holster, even a full size handgun can be carried comfortably and easily concealed. With a bad holster, even the smallest pistol is going to be uncomfortable and hard to hide. Most people end up trying several different holsters before they figure out what’s right for them.

By far the most common type of holster at our events is a strong-side hip holster. Our shooters are fairly evenly split between inside the waistband (IWB) and outside the waistband (OWB) holsters. For those of you who are new to concealed carry, outside the waistband holsters carry the gun on the belt, just like an ordinary knife sheath or cellphone carrier. Inside the waistband holsters place the gun inside the waistband, between the pants and the body. Which is better depends heavily on personal preferences, what sort of clothing you usually wear, and body type. OWB holsters are harder to conceal, but many people feel they are more comfortable. IWB holsters are more concealable, particularly if you are carrying a long-barreled firearm, but they can be less comfortable and require pants about 2 inches larger than your normal size in the waist.

In addition to comfort and concealability, another important characteristic for a holster is the ability to reholster one-handed. If you need to manually spread the holster open to get the gun back in it, it is very likely that you’ll point the gun at your hand or fingers while reholstering. IWB holsters are the most problematic in this regard because they need to be stiff enough to avoid being squished shut by the belt when the gun is removed. This is a particular problem with cheap nylon holsters. Some leather holsters have this problem as well, but the better ones will generally have some sort of reinforcement around the mouth to keep them open when the gun is drawn. Pancake style OWB holsters without reinforced tops can suffer from the same problem. Thumb-break holsters can be difficult to reholster in because the straps can get in the way when reholstering (a particularly dangerous problem when combined with a gun that has no external manual safety such as a Glock). Unlike collapsing holsters, this can be overcome with practice, but a thumb-break isn’t really necessary on a concealed carry holster in any case.

The most popular holster materials are leather and kydex (a stiff, hard plastic). Some inexpensive holsters are made from nylon, but as noted above these are not recommended.

Holsters come in a wide range of cost and quality. At one end of the spectrum, mass produced plastic holsters can costs $20 or less. At the other end, high-end custom leather holsters can cost hundreds of dollars and waiting lists of up to a year. Aside from some beautiful high-end leatherwork (which are priced more on their aesthetics than their function) you usually get what you pay for. A $20 holster is generally going to be less effective, less comfortable, and less concealable than a $70 one. However, for the same level of quality, a kydex holster is generally cheaper than a leather one.

In addition to the general admonition about getting what you pay for, I would advice against buying cheap, “generic” holsters that are advertised as fitting “any compact pistol” or that claim to fit a long list of weapons from different manufacturers. Any decent holster, whether it’s made of leather or kydex, is going to be molded around a particular gun.

Women’s body types and fashions make it somewhat more difficult for them to carry and conceal a firearm effectively. Since this is one are where I’m not really qualified to give advice, I recommend that any women trying to figure out the best holster and carry method for them take a look at The Cornered Cat.

Many holsters intended for police use include some sort of manual retention device. These are intended to keep an assailant from grabbing the gun out of the holster. There are various forms of retention including thumb snaps, hoods that rotate over the rear of the gun, and buttons that have to be pushed to release the trigger guard. Such devices are appropriate for police officers who carry their guns out in the open and get into physical scuffles with suspects, but they are generally unnecessary for concealed carry. A good concealed carry holster will keep the gun in place by friction even when you engage in vigorous physical activity. There’s really no need for any additional retention.

If this all seems complicated, that’s because it is. Choosing a holster, especially your very first holster, is difficult. While I am a firm believer that a high quality holster is the best investment in concealed carry equipment you will ever make, the fact is that someone new to concealed carry probably doesn’t have enough experience carrying a gun to choose the holster that will fit them best right off the bat. To trot out a personal example, I bought by second holster before my CCW permit even arrived. Because of this, I’m going to recommend buying an inexpensive injection molded or kydex OWB holster from Fobus or Uncle Mike’s (note that Uncle Mike’s also makes nylon holsters and, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, these are not recommended). This will get you in the door for $20 or less. If your carry gun is a Glock, another option is the Glock Sport/Combat holster, which costs less than $15. I want to emphasize that a holster that costs under $20 probably isn’t going to be something that you’ll end up using over the long term. I am recommending these holsters solely to provide something basic and inexpensive you can use while considering what your next holster is going to be. In particular, please don’t decide that concealed carry is too uncomfortable, or that your gun is too big to conceal based on your experiences with one of these holsters. There are much better options out there once you know enough to make a bigger investment.

Once you have a basic holster, the best way to learn about your options is to come to one of our events and take a look at what other people are wearing. If you ask some of our more experienced folks about their holster they will probably be willing to talk your ear off about their gear.

Belt – Even the best holster can be uncomfortable, difficult to conceal, and even difficult to draw from if it’s not supported by a good belt. Dress belts are generally too thin to provide good support. A heavy duty work belt is better, but best of all is a purpose made gunbelt. A gunbelt will be stiffer and do a better job of supporting your holster and gun than a belt that’s just intended to hold your pants up.

While a purpose made gun belt is the best choice, new shooters may find it easier (and less expensive) to get a heavy 1.25” leather belt to get started with. This will work well enough for them to get your feet on the ground, and learn more about different belt options.

Magazine Carrier – The most common types of magazine carriers are open topped ones, where the magazine is held in place by friction, and ones with a flap covering the magazine. Open topped magazine carriers are generally faster and easier to deal with. Magazine carriers with top flaps are not recommended. Magazine carriers should be carried on your hip on the side opposite the pistol, with the bullets facing forward. This puts them in the easiest position to access for a fast, smooth reload. Magazine carriers that hold the magazines horizontally are more difficult to access and are not recommended either. Some holsters (usually cheap nylon ones) come with a built-in magazine pouch. These are difficult to reach and aren’t recommended. Fobus and Uncle Mike’s both make inexpensive injection molded or kydex magazine carriers (Uncle Mike’s also makes nylon magazine pouches with velcro flaps, these are not recommended).

Eye and Ear Protection – The best eye protection has good side coverage, so it’s difficult for a stray shell casing to get behind the glasses (hot brass stings!). Sunglasses are generally acceptable eye protection, but you may also want to bring a pair of clear shooting glasses in case it’s cloudy. If you wear prescription glasses, you can use them for eye protection instead.

Foam earplugs and noise reducing earmuffs both do a good job of protecting your hearing from the sound of gunfire. However, it is easier to lift an earmuff to talk to someone than it is to pull out an earplug. Best of all is electronic hearing protection. These are earmuffs with built in microphones and speakers that retransmit soft noises to your ears while blocking out loud noises, allow you to carry on a normal conversation without taking the earmuffs off. Electronic hearing protection is fairly expensive, costing from $65 to $175 dollars a pair. However, a great deal of what you learn at our events comes from interaction with the other participants. Being able to talk easily without getting deafened when someone in the other squad opens fire unexpectedly really helps in getting as much as possible out of the event. Keep in mind that you’ll be wearing your hearing protection for three or four hours straight, so it’s important for it to be comfortable as well as protecting your ears.

If you’d like more advice about equipment, feel free to contact us. In addition, you can visit the Warrior Talk and Defensive Carry forums. Both are excellent places for advice on guns and gear for self defense.

Non-Shooting Gear
In addition to the shooting related gear described above, there are some non-shooting related items that can make your experience more pleasant.

Foremost among these is appropriate clothing. Keep in mind that Hendrickson range is approximately 1000 feet higher than Salt Lake and it will be somewhat cooler there. Temperatures vary from the upper 80s during the summer to the low 20s in the winter. Low temperatures can continue surprisingly late in the year (we got snowed on in early May this year). The weather up at the range can also be quite different, raining up at the range while it’s clear down in the valley, for instance. Utah Polite Society events continue regardless of weather conditions. We shoot rain or shine.

During the winter, most of the range is covered with snow. Our scenarios and drills will generally involve walking on the snow, so a good pair of snow boots or waterproof hiking boots will make things more pleasant, as will a pair of warm socks.

Sunblock is recommended year-round. It may actually be most necessary during the winter, when reflected sun from the snow can cause intense sunburn in a short period of time.

Our events are generally over by noon or one o’clock, so lunch isn’t really necessary. However, some snacks and something to drink can be nice if your stomach starts rumbling mid-morning.

How Much is All This Going to Cost?
If you already have a firearm and magazines it is possible to put together everything you need for less than $100 (Fobus or Uncle Mike’s holster and magazine carrier, leather belt from WalMart, two boxes of inexpensive practice ammunition, inexpensive shooting glasses and earmuffs). If you want to go whole hog, the total can easily reach several hundred dollars. However, if you’re going to carry all the time and be shooting with us on a regular basis, I think many of these upgrades are worthwhile (a better holster and magazine carrier, purpose made gunbelt, and electronic hearing protection). If you’re uncertain about whether the Utah Polite Society is for you, buy some inexpensive gear to dip your toe in the water. Once you’ve shot with us a bit, you’ll very likely gain some new insight into what equipment will work best for you and decide to upgrade or just replace some or all of the gear you start out with.

Where to Buy on the Wasatch Front
Handgun and Magazines – Gallensons (166 E 200 South in Salt Lake City) and Impact Guns (4075 W 4715 South in Salt Lake City and 2710 S 1900 West in Ogden) have a good selection of defensive firearms and magazines.

Holsters and Magazine Carriers – Gallensons and Impact Guns both carry Fobus and Uncle Mike’s holsters and magazine carriers. More expensive kydex and leather holsters are rarely seen in retail stores; these are specialty items most commonly found online.

Belt – A heavy 1.25” leather belt from WalMart, Target, or similar stores is enough to get you started. Purpose made gun belts are another specialty item seldom found in local retail stores, but there are a variety of manufacturers online.

Ammunition – Inexpensive practice ammunition is available locally from Gallensons, Impact Guns, Sportsman’s Warehouse, and WalMart.

Eye and Ear Protection – Available from Gallensons, Impact Guns, Sportsman’s Warehouse, and Cabelas (2502 W Grand Terrace Parkway in Lehi) (Cabelas generally has the best prices on electronic hearing protection). In lieu of shooting glasses, eye protection from Home Depot or Lowes also works well.

All of these items (except handguns) are easily available from various online stores as well. Local outlets tend to carry the types of holsters and shooting accessories that sell in the greatest numbers. Unfortunately, most of this is more appropriate for casual shooters or hunters, than it is for folks who choose to carry concealed handguns. Concealed carry gear is very much a niche market and doesn’t provide enough sales volume to make it profitable for local outlets to stock much of these kinds of items. Most of the better concealed-carry equipment just isn’t available locally. Over time you’ll learn that much of the gear you’ll need will have to be purchased from Internet sources. Many of the folks who have shot with us for any length of time have purchased gear from Internet sites that specialize in this sort of thing, and can direct you to the more reputable vendors.


  • Handgun
  • Magazines
  • Holster
  • Belt
  • Magazine Carrier
  • Ammunition
  • Eye and Ear Protection


Utah's Personal Protection Laboratory