From pocket popguns to large-bore powerhouses, there are a number of factors to consider.
When considering handguns to be carried concealed, I tend to separate them into degrees of protection offered. The five levels I've come up with are pocket guns, subcompacts, compacts, middleweights and service guns. This article does not pretend to be a comprehensive list of every gun in each class of weapon, only those I consider to be standout designs.
Pocket guns are so called because they're so small and light, they don't even require a holster to carry--just drop them into a pocket, and they disappear. Contemporary pocket guns include the .22 mini-revolvers from North American Arms, tiny .25 autos, the Seecamps and North American Arms Guardian. In this class we might also put two-shot derringers.
When we say "pocket guns," everyone instantly thinks of the exquisitely crafted .22 mini-revolvers from North American Arms. NAA's .22 Short mini-revolver is the smallest repeating handgun on earth. This gun, and the slightly larger .22 Long Rifle version, are so small, they're actually difficult to manipulate without the optional holster-grip, a polymer device into which the gun folds, equipped with a clip to affix to a waistband or pants pocket. Open up the holster-grip and it acts as a handle, making thumbcocking easy. Many NAA buyers prefer the .22 Magnum mini since it offers a bit more power in a gun that's still pocketable. I prefer it because it's just enough larger that it's easy to manipulate without a holster-grip.
Among .25 autos, Beretta's double-action Model 21A Bobcat is on the large side for pocket carry but is still manageable, given a fairly large pocket. It is available in both .25 ACP and .22 Long Rifle. The former cartridge is the superior choice due to its centerfire method of ignition vs. the .22's rimfire system, which is prone to misfires.
The Seecamp LWS-32 and LWS-380, being as they are the size of a smallish .25, are extremely popular among serious gun carriers (though among the cognoscenti such small pieces are almost invariably used as backup to a larger weapon rather than the only gun carried).
Seecamps have always had problems with availability. They're made by a small factory, thus production is limited and guns are continuously back-ordered. Many readers have complained about writers recommending a gun "no one else can get." Thus the North American Arms Guardian, readily available and but marginally larger than the Seecamp, has become quite popular. North American Arms actually offers four versions of its small auto. The "small frame" Guardian is chambered in .32 ACP and .25 NAA (a .32 necked down to .25). The "large frame" Guardian is a quarter-inch taller and longer and may be had in .380 ACP and .32 NAA (a .380 necked down to .32).
As a class, pocket guns lack very much power. Only the derringers offer truly serious cartridges if you're willing to put up with a fairly bulky gun, but that comes at the expense of a mere two-shot capacity.
Capacity is limited in all of these guns, and handling qualities are not the greatest. Derringers and the NAA minis with their tiny bird's-head grips are particularly bad in this regard. Mini-revolvers and derringers have a geriatric rate of fire since they require a slow--and fumble-prone under stress--thumbcocking of the hammer for every shot. The .25 autos are comparatively fast and easy to fire. Sights on pocket guns range from microscopic in the case of .25 autos and the NAA .22s and Guardian to totally absent on Seecamps.
Reloading ease and speed are very poor. Reloading an NAA mini-revolver requires disassembling the gun and cannot be accomplished in any sort of combat-appropriate time frame. The autos are faster and easier to reload, but they're only "fast" compared to other guns in the class.
Pocket guns are, by definition, slow to draw. Having the gun rattling around in the bottom of a pocket, or even inside a pocket holster, requires inserting your hand through a possibly narrow and tight pocket mouth to get to the piece and does not make for the fastest draw in the world.
Having said all that, it's worth noting that people do occasionally save their lives with pocket guns. For some people these may be honestly the largest guns they can carry.
Subcompacts are considerably larger than pocket guns. While they're small and light enough to simply be dropped into a pocket, they require a holster for best use. They are usually chambered for more serious cartridges than pocket guns and are the largest guns that lend themselves well to carry in ankle and pocket holsters.
I place the five-shot Smith & Wesson J-frame .38 snubbies and equivalent guns from other makers in the subcompact class, though they've been dropped loose into a lot of pockets over the years. To my mind, the classic Colt Detective Special, while often discussed as tactically equivalent to the S&W J-frame, is enough bigger that it crosses the line from subcompact into being a compact belt gun.
The .38 snubbies have their virtues, primarily a great size-to-power ratio. While many new gun carriers wind up with .38 snubnose revolvers for exactly that reason, the same thing makes these guns more suited to the expert than the new/casual shooter. There's not enough weight here, even in all-steel examples of the breed, to dampen .38 Special recoil to a level a novice can handle. Go from steel to a lightweight aluminum or even lighter titanium or scandium frame and the recoil problem gets progressively worse. Grips are tiny, thus they don't offer much to hold onto. Installing oversize grips helps, but it compromises the small size that makes these guns so attractive. Sights are tiny, trigger pulls typically stiff.
I'm not saying good shooting can't be done with .38 snubbies. It's just that doing so requires more skill than most people possess. These guns' small dimensions make reloading them, even with speedloaders, a slow proposition.
I am not a fan of small-frame .357 Magnum revolvers, at least when actually loaded with .357s. Stuff 'em with .38s, however, and they're about as good as, well, a .38. I've heard, "Oh this is a great idea for a last-ditch, close-range, belly-to-belly defense gun." Let me put it to you this way: The only people who think these guns are really cool are those who've never fired them.
When Glock introduced its "baby" Models 26 in 9mm and 27 in .40 S&W, some writers rushed to claim that the Smith & Wesson J-frame was therefore obsolete. I disagree. Wishful thinking aside, the G26/27 (and the later G33 in .357 SIG) are quite a bit larger than a J-frame, so much so that I rate them not as subcompacts but in the larger compact class.
No, the gun that made the J-frame .38 obsolete for me was Kahr's PM9 (Polymer Micro 9). It is so superior, in my estimation, to any other gun in this class, it might as well own the entire subcompact field. The PM9 is a shockingly small stainless steel-slide/polymer-frame 9mm. Fully loaded, it holds seven rounds of a service cartridge--a quantum leap in power over pocket guns only marginally smaller. But for all that, this is an easy gun to shoot.
When testing the PM9 for the 2005 Handguns Annual, I had no trouble doing two-shot drills into the head box of an IPSC target at seven yards, two good solid hits, with shot-to-shot speeds of .28 second. When you make a full-power auto pistol this small, especially with a polymer frame, you severely impact long-term durability. Kahr's not fooling anyone; the company will flat-out tell you the PM9 is a 6,000-round gun. I guess I can live with that. The PM9, as far as I'm concerned, is the very definition of a "carry a lot, shoot a little" maximum-concealment full-power pistol.
Kel-Tec produces three versions of a small, polymer-frame auto pistol chambered in .32 ACP, .380 ACP or 9mm Parabellum. These guns' light weight, low price, small size and extreme flatness have earned them a lot of fans. Early examples of Kel-Tecs I fired years ago had atrocious trigger pulls, but recent examples I've handled have been much improved.
Because of their short butts, and correspondingly short magazines, subcompact auto pistols are still slow and fumble-prone during reload. The good news here is that for a slight increase in size and weight over true pocket guns, the subcompacts offer a decent level of protection.
We are now up into the world of guns large enough that they absolutely require a holster for all but the most heroic of pockets. This is the land in revolvers of the Colt Detective Special and Ruger SP101. In auto pistols, we're looking at the Glock 26/27/33 series and recent compact 1911s from Kimber, Para and Springfield. These are guns of substantial-enough size that reloading during combat becomes a realistic possibility--not up to middleweight/service-gun speeds but much better than pocket guns and subcompacts.
I once performed a shootout test between the compact Glock 26 and the middleweight Glock 19. As far as accuracy and shot-to-shot-speed, I found I could shoot a 26 just as well as the larger 19. But the 26 couldn't keep up with the larger gun in draw speed (unless it is fitted with a Pearce grip extension, there's just not enough gun butt to grab fast) or reload speed since my shooting hand, extending beneath the G26's short butt, could interfere with inserting a fresh magazine.
With compact guns, capacities increase. In revolvers, we jump from five shots in the J-frames to six in the Detective Special. Among auto pistols, we break into double digits for the first time. The Glock 26, my personal hands-down choice for best compact handgun, offers 11 shots of 9mm (a 10-round mag plus one in the chamber).
Frankly, the compact is my least favorite category. Not because there's anything inherently wrong with guns in this class, but for just a small increase in size we can have a much more capable middleweight. Compacts don't offer either the extreme hideability of smaller guns or the handling qualities and capacity of the larger middleweights or service pieces. They're kind of betwixt and between.
But that's just my opinion. For some people, the compacts are the cat's meow. These are the smallest guns that begin to offer us truly, deeply useful handling qualities: capacity and shootability. While they give us more of all the things we want from a defense gun than smaller pieces, for only a modest increase in size and weight we can have ever so much more.
This is a term I apply to guns intended to give most of the handling qualities and capacity of a full-size service piece but are considerably smaller and easier to carry and conceal. Included are snub-nosed medium-framed revolvers and auto pistols with slides and barrels shortened and butts chopped for greater compactness vs. a true service gun. Classic examples of middleweights are the 21?2-inch-barreled Smith & Wesson Model 19/66, the Glock models 19/23, the single-stack SIG P239 and double-stack P228/P229, the Smith & Wesson 3913 and 69 series and so forth. For a CCW self-defense handgun, this is the most generally useful class of weaponry.
For years my carry guns came from this class. I think the most impressive middleweights are the high-capacity 9mms. Personal opinion: The two best guns in the class are the Glock 19 and SIG P228/P229 in 9mm. I carried a Glock 19 and SIG P228 as my daily concealed carry gun for two years each. In that time I attended numerous training classes and shot (and won) matches with both. I never really felt disadvantaged against people firing larger service-size weapons. Of course, my skill level at the time wasn't such that I could appreciate the difference (more about that later).
The Glock 19 is a 16-shot handgun in a package not all that terribly larger than a Colt Detective Special. The SIG P228/P229 is a slightly chunkier 14-shooter. The popularity of middleweight Nines took a hit during the 10-year dark age of the assault weapons ban and prohibition of magazines holding more than 10 rounds. With nines, .40s and .45s in many designs equal in capacity, a lot of folks during this time frame figured, "If I can only have 10 rounds, I want them to be the fattest ones possible" and so passed over the nine in favor of cartridges starting with the numeral "4." The fortunes of 9mm middleweights have been revived in the post-AWB world.
Probably the definitive middleweight is the aluminum-framed Colt Lightweight Commander. Up until its introduction, we'd had tiny pocket/subcompact autos on the one hand and full-size service pieces on the other--and really nothing in the middle. These days tactically equivalent guns to the Lightweight Commander are available from numerous makers, primarily Kimber, Para-Ordnance, Springfield and Smith & Wesson.
Most people consider the Glock 17 and SIG 226 to be full-size service pieces. However, if you look at their dimensions, they're almost exactly the same size as a Commander. (With the SIG P226, a fat grip and wide slide do bulk up the gun a bit.) However, though we could well place the G17 and P226 in the middleweight class if we wanted, I bow to the common view and class them as service guns.
In the middleweights we finally see handguns chambered for service cartridges (.38 Special, .357 Magnum, 9mm Parabellum, .40 S&W, .45 ACP, .45 GAP) with enough size and weight that they're easily manipulated for anything we may need to do in self-defense. Draw speed, reloading speed and ease, rate of accurate aimed fire--all are there in the quantities we'd want in a real-world emergency. And the overall size of the gun is such that it may be concealed quite easily by the reasonably dedicated gun carrier.
These guns were designed from the ground up for police and military service without size or concealability being an overriding concern. They were intended primarily to be easy to shoot, with the expectation they'd be carried in the open on a belt. Due to their size, using a service-size gun as your daily concealment weapon is a proposition for only the most dedicated gun carrier. And yet, there are a lot of people out there doing it.
For instance, despite the existence of smaller options in 1911s, almost everyone I know who carries a 1911 concealed on a daily basis carries a Government Model. This is an extremely popular concealed carry handgun despite the fact that it's a big, heavy piece.
For some sociocultural reason I don't pretend to understand, in Washington State where I reside the 1911 Government Model .45 is an extremely popular carry gun. If I had to take a guess, I'd say it has something to do with the fact that this is a very rich area for IPSC shooting, and has been for decades. I've been told the Renton, Washington, IPSC club is one of the oldest in North America. A few years ago when famous firearms instructor John Farnam taught a class in my area, looking at class attendees' guns, he said, "I haven't seen this many cocked-and-locked .45s in one place since the last time I went to Gunsite." In my opinion, most of these people would be better served by a steel-framed Commander, but there it is.
There are so many companies, both big factories and custom shops, producing 1911 Government Models these days, it almost seems it would be easier to name the few companies that don't build one. The major players today are Kimber, Springfield Armory, Para-Ordnance and Smith & Wesson on the factory-gun side and Wilson Combat, Ed Brown, Les Baer and Nighthawk Custom among the smaller, high-end shops.
For about 12 years my choice of carry gun was a middleweight. About 10 years ago I became a competition shooter. I started out with indoor gun-range pistol-league stuff, then segued into IPSC. When IDPA started up in 1997, I fired the first match ever held in Washington. For the next few years I did it all with my middleweights, first the SIG P228, then the Glock 19.
Eventually, though, I realized I was giving up something, a measure of controllability, speed and ease of accurate aimed fire compared to using a full-size service gun. That's when I put away the Glock and switched over to a full-size Wilson 1911 as my daily carry piece. It served me well--so well that I was the 2002 Washington State IDPA Champion in Custom Defensive Pistol (IDPA's .45 auto division).
As previously mentioned, some service guns like the Glock 17 and SIG P226 are, in the overall scheme of things, so compact that we could logically class them as middleweights. In Glock 9mms, we do have another option, a dimension beyond the Glock 17: the Glock 34, a semi-longslide 9mm designed from the ground up to be the same overall size as a 1911 Government Model. Now, to me that's a darn interesting concept. When I recently socked away my multi-thousand-dollar 1911 in the gun safe and went back to a Glock, both for carry and match use, it was the Glock 34. And I'm loving this gun. The way I figure it, if I can carry and conceal a full-size, steel-framed 1911, I can carry and conceal a Glock 34. (The major difference being, of course, that the Glock is a lot lighter.)
Though service guns can seem to many people too large to carry and conceal, when the balloon goes up, if you're limited to a handgun, they're what most everyone would want to have in their hands. The late, great holstermaker Bruce Nelson said to me many times, "Everyone wants a .25 auto to carry that magically turns into a .44 Magnum if they actually need to use it." Or, as I've also heard it said, "None too small to carry; none too large in a gunfight."
So the question you have to ask yourself is whether you are willing--or able--to carry and conceal a truly substantial sidearm in order to have the best tool to hand if you ever need to defend your life. If the answer is no, this class of weapon is not for you. If the answer is yes, you probably won't be satisfied by anything less.
And there you have it. Each class of weaponry just discussed has its own virtues and vices. A clear understanding of the same can guide you toward making the best choice for you.