Once upon a time, pocket pistols were associated with gamblers, Lincoln’s demise, and soiled doves consorting with dangerous men. Bankers, law enforcement agents, and wary travelers made good use of them too: in fact, any astute citizen anticipating trouble made a pocket pistol a part of his or her daily garb.
Mr. Henry Deringer was the father of the pocket pistol, designing and marketing small, single-shot flintlock pistols as early as the 1820s. His name was adopted (and misspelled as “Derringer” by many companies) as a generic denotation of the pocket-packin’ tools of the day, which were vast in variety and capability. (As an aside, the moniker of the day was “palm pistol” rather than pocket pistol.)
While quite small in size, many early pocket guns were of relatively large caliber, such as the .41-caliber caplock muzzleloading pistol used to assassinate Lincoln. Many were of single-shot design, but others such as the “pepperbox” sported as many shots as the maker desired to incorporate into its cylinder-like barrel. Many Pepperbox pistols were too big to stow in one’s pocket, but the smaller, four-barrel varieties served beautifully.
Arguably the most popular — and for good practical reason — were the two-shot over/under models that hinged at the forward end of the frame, making for easy loading. Popularized in the 1866-introduced Remington Model 95 in .41 Short (or .41 Rimfire, if you prefer), they were ultra-concealable, simple, reliable and powerful enough and made admirable weapons for discreet carry or as backups to one’s primary fighting tool.
Over the decades, pocket pistol form changed, evolving toward repeat-fire capability. In order to keep pistols small enough to fit in a pocket or the palm of one’s hand, something had to give, and in general, it was the size of the caliber that the pistols were chambered for. As semiautomatic pistol designs became streamlined, reliable and trusted, pocket pistols adopted the operating system. Arguably the most recognizable of all compact semiautos — James Bond’s .32-Auto Walther PPK — actually falls out of the realm of honest pocket pistols. It’s just a bit too big. A more iconic example of the type is the .25 Auto Colt carried by Al Capone. Typically carrying about six rounds in the magazine, they weren’t particularly powerful, but operated via a very simple blowback type mechanism, making them easy to manufacture in tiny proportions.
Currently, the recent burgeoning trend in carrying a concealed handgun for personal defense is driving considerable innovation in pocket pistol design. The tiny fighting tools getting stuffed into pants pockets, purses, waistbands, and ladies garters are more capable than ever.
For the most part, this innovation exhibits in two areas: ever-lighter weight, mostly assisted by polymer-frame construction, and in bigger calibers. Enterprising engineers are working out how to house .380 Auto and even 9mm Luger cartridges in pistols not much bigger than the .25-caliber pocket guns considered cutting-edge a half-century ago. And while only a couple of those 9mm pistols really qualify as an honest pocket gun, several models that are just slightly too big are still really, really compact for a pistol chambered in what is considered a full-size handgun cartridge. We’re not going to take an in depth look at them, but the best deserve passing mention: Glock’s G43, Smith & Wesson’s M&P9 Shield, Beretta’s Nano, and others are certainly worth consideration.
Current Deringer-style double-barrel designs make use of titanium and other super-materials, and let us not forget the super-light Smith & Wesson 1.87-inch barreled Airweights — the only centerfire revolver series that really achieves bona fide pocket pistol status — nor the doll-size, but very functional, rimfire pocket revolvers by North American Arms.
Without further ado, here, in alphabetical order, is a look at a handful of the best pocket pistols on the market today.
This Italian-based company is known for its history as the world’s oldest gunmaker for both its fine shotguns and for winning the small-arms contract that supplanted the old American-made 1911 war horse as the U.S. Army’s sidearm of choice. When it claims that its pocket pistol is the thinnest .380 Auto on the market, it does so with good authority — it’s literally less than three-quarters of an inch wide. At only 11.5 ounces, it’s also one of the lightest pistols available, and it’s designed with snag-free lines that won’t fray even the silkiest Victoria’s secret material or wear on the kangaroo-hide inners of your custom cowboy boots, let alone your soft 21st century skin. Capacity is six plus one, and it comes with two magazines. Plus, it’s manufactured in Beretta’s stateside facility. Price: $400.
These extremely innovative pocket pistols use a magazine and feeding system that is vastly different from the norm. In essence, when the pistol cycles, the fresh round is drawn rearward off the magazine, lifted behind the barrel breech (which extends rearward, about even with the rear of the magazine) and driven straight into the chamber of the rotating locked breech system. Paraphrasing fellow-writer Steve Johnson, it can sort of be thought of as a bullpup pistol. As a result, the barrel is a good inch longer than most pocket pistols without appreciably increasing the overall length of the sidearm. With no need for a feed ramp, chamber tolerances are tighter, and, theoretically, accuracy benefits. Recoil energy is harnessed and absorbed by the cartridge lifter and rotating locking mechanism—the only spring necessary is a slide return spring, meaning that functioning the slide requires very little effort, making it an excellent option for shooters with minimal hand strength. Caliber, 9mm Luger. Weight: 17.4 ounces. Width: 0.96 inches. Capacity: 7 plus 1. Pistols ship with two magazines. Price: $1,349.
While it makes good use of modern metallurgy and manufacturing techniques, the Bond Arms Defender series of double-barreled pocket pistols are about the closest thing you can find to a traditional Deringer. Plus, these little guns use an innovative switch-barrel system that enables the owner to possess and use barrels ranging in caliber from .22 LR to .410 shotshell on the same frame. To load/eject shells, work the latch and rotate the barrels upward on their hinge. It’s not a high-capacity design, and it’s not fast to reload, but hey, you can get it chambered in cartridges that make a thump from Paul Bunyan’s axe seem mild.
The Cowboy Defender is a simple, rugged version free of a trigger guard. Bond Arms touts the trigger guard as assisting in recoil control on the heavier calibers, and of course it does offer the trigger a bit of protection. However, for the type of pistol this is and, for traditions sake, the Cowboy is our preferred poison.
Our choice of caliber? .45 Colt, naturally. Because we can. Pistol weight is right at 19 ounces. Capacity: two rounds. Price: $440.
Double Tap Tactical Pocket Pistol
An ultra-modern take on the over/under double-barreled pocket pistol, the Double Tap Tactical Pocket Pistol (what a mouthful) sports titanium aircraft-grade frame construction, carries two extra cartridges mounted on a speed loader in the grip, is superbly made, and kicks like an unholy mule from hell. But hey, when you’re scraping your chances for life out of the frying pan or fire, an authoritative spatula is just what you want.
At only five-eighths of an inch in width, this is, without argument, the thinnest of all the pocket pistols. It’s got a snag-preventing profile, and carries really, really comfortably. For a price, extra recoil control can be purchased in the form of barrel porting. Available in 9mm and .45 ACP, these unique little pistols weight in at 13 ounces (Titanium) and 15 ounces (aluminum) and retail from $499 to $799, depending on material and barrel porting.
The smallest pistol that the Austrian-based company has ever made, the G42 is of single-stack design and is chambered in .380 ACP. While many concealed-carry proponents consider the ever-so-slightly larger 9mm-caliber G43 a more versatile pistol, for bona fide deep carry, the G42 has the edge. Unloaded it weighs less than 14 ounces, width is only 0.94 inch, capacity is 6 plus 1 and it carries Glock’s reputation for indestructibility and reliability.
One of the ultra-modern pistols utilizing space-age materials combined with one of the best semiautomatic operating systems in existence, the Glock G43 is the epitome of the modern pocket pistol. Price: $529.
Second only to the Kel Tec P-3AT and Ruger LCR in minimal weight, the CW380 tips the scales at 10.2 ounces, and, at $419, it’s priced modestly for a Kahr, it lives up to the company’s reputation for superb, refined construction. It’s flat, too: at exactly three-quarters of an inch, it’s actually thinner than the Kel Tec P-3AT. Built-in texturing on the grip side panels and coarse square checkering on the front- and backstrap help control recoil. Like most pocket pistols, it has no safety, relying on a double-action type trigger instead. Capacity is six plus one rounds. My only grievance with the pistol is that it ships with only one magazine. On the plus side, the slide locks back on an empty magazine, which isn’t the case on many tiny pocket-size pistols.
Kel Tec P-3AT
Of the pocket pistols listed here, the P-3AT is the lightest, at 8.3 ounces unloaded, courtesy of trim 4140 steel parts and a polymer body that houses the 7075-T6 aluminum frame. Capacity is 6 plus 1 rounds. Plus, it’s flat — only 0.77 inches in width. Having been around for many years, it’s also a proven design with the bugs worked out of it. Couple that with the lowest price of the semiauto guns detailed here ($338), and it gains compelling footing as a great practical option for those in the market for a pocket pistol.
That said, candidly, it’s not built with the refinement of the more expensive pistols. If you like it, by all means pick one up. If you want something with a bit more refinement, read on.
Basically a slightly refined version of Colt’s legendary .380 Mustang, the Micro ties classic design with current technique and materials. In many ways the Micro can be compared to a miniaturized 1911, making operation intuitive for fans of “Old Ironsides.”
Even though it’s built on a metal frame, the Micro weighs in at only 13.4 ounces. Width is nominally 1.1 inches, but if you ignore the bump of the thumb safety, the rest of the pistol is beautifully slender. Capacity with the included flush-fitting magazine is six plus one, and an extended seven-round magazine is available as an accessory.
A vast spectrum of variations is available within the Micro line, ranging from a simple black version free of bells and whistles up to the Sapphire, Diamond and Bel Air versions, which sport mirror-polished finishes, night sights, engraving, special grips and so forth. Price ranges from $651 to $1,014.
For a petite person or anybody wearing those ridiculous skinny jeans, this is not a pocket pistol, and even for a burly fella that traditionally houses his lower self in cargo pants, it’s just barely a pocket pistol. It earned its right to be included here, however, by being the sleekest and smallest 9mm semiauto built.
Of superb design and outstanding manufacturing quality, the Solo weighs in at 17 ounces (less than the Bond Arms traditional double-barreled Deringer), is 1.14 inches wide at its thickest point, and carries six plus one rounds of 9mm ammo. Kimber recommends the use of 124-grain and heavier projectiles for most reliable function.
Dehorned to provide comfortable, clothing-abrasion-free carry, the Solo is arguably the biggest pistol here, and shades the line between acceptable in size and too big, but it offers outstanding shootability and 9mm power in, well, let’s call it a “cargo-pocket pistol.” Several variations are available ranging in price from $815 up to $1,291.
North American Arms .32 ACP Guardian
There’s a slightly heavier, .380-caliber version of this striking little 14-ounce pistol, but hey, no pocket pistol roundup would be complete without something in the caliber made legendary by Bond, James Bond.
Beautifully made of stainless steel, this tiny Guardian is available in .25 ACP, .32 ACP, and the unique, peppy little .25 NAA — which is North American Arm’s own cartridge created by necking a .32 cartridge case down to .25 caliber, resulting in a zesty bottleneck round that pushes .25-bore projectiles at around 1,200 fps. The innovative company pulled the same trick with the bigger .380 ACP, necking it down to .32 caliber and gaining speed. It’s available in the bigger version mentioned earlier.
Of double-action-only operation, the Guardian .32 ACP holds six plus one rounds, is under 0.83 inch wide and costs only $403—a darn good deal considering its quality.
North American Arms .22 Magnum revolver
At 6.5 ounces, this is absolutely the smallest, lightest pocket pistol available today, unless you opt for the 4-ounce version in .22 Short. You can literally carry two of these little five-shot poppers and still be less weighed down than with many of the other pocket guns detailed in this article.
I like the .22 Magnum version for the extra power it provides — what with the 1 5/8-inch barrel, even it only attains performance typical of a full-size pistol in the standard .22 LR caliber. However, don’t pooh-pooh it: Remington’s legendary Model 1895 in .41 Rimfire may have pushed bigger-diameter, 130-grain projectiles, but they only went about 425 fps. With a keen eye, you could literally see them fly. Yet they killed plenty of nefarious characters dead. A 40-grain .22-diameter projectile going well over 1,000 fps penetrates better.
While these tiny revolvers aren’t really what anybody wants in a gunfight, they’re better than a big, heavy gun you left home that particular day. You can toss one in your pocket or purse and it will never get in the way. It’s the perfect backup pocket gun to your pocket gun. Several variations exist, ranging from $219 up to about $500, including a really cool variation with a folding “holster grip” that functions like the body of a folding knife, complete with pocket clip.
One of those absurdly small honest pocket pistols that feels more like a toy than a battle tool, the LCP is deceptively light — only 9.7 ounces — but don’t let it fool you. While the design had a few growing pains at first, with the bugs worked out, it’s a very capable pistol.
Capacity of the LCP is, like most compact .380s, six plus one rounds. The polymer frame and steel slide have rounded, snag-reducing lines, corners and profile to maximize in-the-pocket ergonomics. Only one magazine is included, but others are available from Ruger or at your local gun shop, and at a price of $389 for the pistol, you can’t complain too much.
Sights are integral to the slide, making them ultra durable, and, although they are very low profile, they’re surprisingly effective. Width is only 0.8 inch. This is one of the easiest-to-carry modern pocket pistols available today.
Sig Sauer P238
While Colt’s Mustang has spawned more than one clone, the Sig Sauer P238 is one of the best. Weighing in at only 15.2 ounces, this all-metal pistol is one of the best-pointing, easiest-shooting pocket rockets available, even if the design technology is more decades old than your grandpa. Modern metallurgy and surface finishes, tritium night sights (on some variations) and space-age grip materials set it apart from its ancestors.
Of single-action-only operation, the P238 has a thumb safety, traditional mag release button, and the slide locks open on an empty magazine. Flutes in the grip panels and front- and back-strap aid grip without being abrasive like common textures.
If you’re an all-metal kind of gun owner, you owe it to yourself to handle one of these fine little guns before choosing your particular flavor of pocket poison. Price ranges from $679 to $795, depending on variation and options.
Smith & Wesson M&P Bodyguard 380
Although the first Bodyguard 380 semiautos weren’t refined and tested rigorously enough to wear the much-honored M&P label, the current models have, and with good reason. Extraordinary design and manufacturing quality ensure that it’s robust, reliable and accurate. Although the base, laser-less model retails at only $379, the M&P Bodyguard is my personal favorite of the polymer-framed super-light .380 ACP options. At 12 ounces, it’s heavier than the Ruger LCP, Kahr CW380, and Kel Tec P-3AT, but I’ve used it extensively and tend to shoot it really, really well, even during stressful scenarios in dark houses.
Of double-action-only operation, the M&P Bodyguard holds six plus one cartridges and has a tiny manual thumb safety. Even the all-black version is made with a stainless steel slide and barrel atop the polymer frame. Sights are small but clear and are drift-adjustable for windage.
One of the Bodyguard line’s early claims to fame was the inclusion of on-board lasers. While the current base model depicted here doesn’t wear one, variations are available from Smith & Wesson with an integrated Crimson Trace laser or a trigger-guard-mounted external Crimson Trace laser. Prices with lasers range from $449 up to about $520.
Smith & Wesson Model 442 Airweight
Without a snub-nose revolver, our belly-gun roundup just wouldn’t be complete. Smith & Wesson has built superb backup guns in the form of short, handy revolvers for many, many decades, but most of them are just a bit too big to be comfortable in the hip pocket of your suit pants. The Model 442 Airweight isn’t. Chambered in .38 Special, it offers more punch than any .380 ACP, and is simpler and more robust than most. However, it’s worth noting that it contains only five rounds in the cylinder.
Built on an aluminum frame, the 442 Airweight tips the scales at 15 ounces, which is lighter than several of the other pocket guns featured in this article. Of double-action-only design, it eliminates the potential for an exposed hammer snagging on the inside of one’s pocket and for lint to get into the mechanism and cause reliability issues.
While some shooters consider revolvers as so-last-century, this compact, super-light Smith & Wesson is anything but. It will take more abuse than any semiauto, is simpler to fire, and shoots a more powerful cartridge.
It’s worth noting that for double the price you can buy the same-size, Scandium-framed Model 340 PD version of this pistol chambered in .357 Magnum, which weighs even less (11.4 ounces), rivaling the lightest of the polymer-framed .380 ACP pocket pistols, and which carries a punch like a Soviet grenade — on both ends. If you’ve got the extra cash and are man enough to handle the cartridge, by all means, opt for it. And of course, the great thing is that you can safely fire the same friendly .38 Special cartridges as the Model 442 consumes through the Model 340 PD. Price: $469 (Model 442) to $1,019 (Model 340 PD).
In terms of innovation, the Curve stands apart. As its name suggests, it’s built in a curved shape to more comfortably conform to your body. Plus, it possesses legitimate pocket-pistol characteristics — it’s light, only 10.2 ounces, and small. Even with an on-board laser and spring steel pocket clip, it’s only 1.18 inches wide and the bulkiest point.
Capacity is standard — six plus one rounds of .380 ACP ammo — and operation is double-action-only. There’s no manual safety, but a loaded-chamber indicator lets you know when it’s good to drop into the purse and go.
Frankly, it looks funny, and operating it can take a little getting used to. Plus, it doesn’t have sights. I suppose designers figured it would be used at smell-the-burglar’s breath distances, and that the on-board laser would provide precision at greater ranges. In bright light across a parking lot, however, you’re out of luck. Rumor has it that Taurus is bringing out an updated model with sights.
Verbal lather aside, the Curve is certainly the most cutting-edge pocket pistol out there.