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Which Concealed Carry Gun?

Which Concealed Carry Gun?

Making the right choice, as if your life depended on it.

Concealed carry pistols tested, clockwise from top: Smith & Wesson Model 60, North American Arms Guardian, Glock Model 36, Kimber 1911 Compact Aluminum, Kahr PM9, S&W Model 340.

Earlier this year a friend was astonished to learn I didn't have a concealed carry permit. I live in a "must issue" state, where permits are available by simply attending a three-hour class, being photographed and fingerprinted, and paying a fee.

Why not own a concealed carry permit? Frankly, it never occurred to me. I'm not a policeman, and I live in a "safe" middle-class neighborhood. But I've recently had second thoughts. Everywhere you look, the safety of ordinary citizens is being gradually eroded by car jackings, home-invasion robberies and formerly rare drive-by shootings. Crackheads and teenaged gangs are arming themselves. Maybe I should take the hint?

I've been writing about guns and hunting far longer than I care to admit. During that time, I've accumulated a sizeable collection of firearms, including I don't know how many pistols and revolvers. I spend a lot of time in desert and mountain country, where my bigbore handguns are carried holstered in plain sight.

I admit to sometimes tucking a small pocket pistol into--where else?--a pocket when hiking wilderness trails. I've also kept a handgun quietly out of sight on family camping trips. I didn't advertise its presence to my children--these were camping, not shooting weekends. Those occasional lapses into lawlessness didn't worry me (although they probably should have). I was simply applying the Scout motto, "Be Prepared," for possible encounters with two-legged predators.

Ken Turner puts the pocket-size Kahr PM9 through its paces. To simulate close combat, guns were targeted at just seven yards. With 115-grain DPX Cor-Bon loads, the 16-ounce Kahr delivered four-inch groups.

I didn't take concealed carry seriously at first because it's still perfectly legal to walk the streets of most Utah cities with a holstered handgun at your hip. Provided the gun is safely unloaded, you're theoretically within your legal rights. Notice I said "theoretically." Stroll through downtown Provo or Salt Lake City so armed, and I guarantee you won't escape the notice of the local constabulary.

As a bonus, a concealed carry permit also offers financial incentive. Manufacturers regularly loan me guns to test and report on. Each time a gun arrives at my FFL holder, the required background search costs me a small fee--and those fees soon mount up. The search is waived for concealed carry permit holders. I did the math and quickly discovering how foolish I'd been to ignore this money-saving bonanza.


(Left) The author found the S&W Model 60 fairly easy to control with 125-grain .357 Magnum loads. Groups of 2 1/4 inches at seven yards made it a contender. (Right) The Model 340's ferocious recoil resulted in seven-inch groups. Light weight has its price.

Waiting for my permit to arrive in the mail, I suddenly realized something. Nearly all the handguns I owned were designed primarily for hunting. Precious few were suited to concealed carry. My Thompson/Center single-shots obviously didn't qualify, while the revolvers in my collection were mostly chambered for bigbore deer and bear rounds like the .44 Magnum, .454 Casull and .475 Linebaugh. These heavy, large-framed guns with their 6- and 8-inch barrels weren't something I wanted to tote on my hip every day. Concealing them would present serious problems.

I actually own some pistols designed for self-defense--a handful of .45 ACP 1911-style guns and a diminutive North American Arms .380 ACP Guardian autoloader. Two of these guns were worth considering. The .380 Guardian got the nod because of its diminutive size and modest 18-ounce heft, while a Kimber Compact Aluminum made the list because I have a fondness for 1911 .45s. At 28 ounces, this gun was pleasingly light compared to the other 1911s I owned. I also liked the serious punch .45 ACP loads delivered. The Kimber Compact Aluminum was a forerunner to Kimber's current Pro Carry series.

With those as my "seed guns," I began looking for other concealed carry candidates to evaluate. The first pistol I requested for testing was a Glock Model 36--a compact, 22.4-ounce double-action autoloader in .45 ACP chambering. That big, battle-proven cartridge was a point in this gun's favor.

Let me make a quick distinction: Some auto pistols (like those made by Glock and Kahr) have no exposed hammer and are fired by simply pulling the trigger. However, these pistols can't discharge until the slide has first been manually cycled to chamber a round and cock the action. Firing follow-up shots has the same effect--as the slide cycles under recoil, it automatically recocks the action. This makes for a relatively light, consistent, easily managed trigger pull. True double-action pistols and revolvers aren't cocked before firing--the action cocks as your finger hauls back the trigger. True double-action triggers have longer, heavier pulls that are more difficult to manage.

Ken Turner demonstrates the Model 340's nasty kick.

My next selection was a Kahr PM9--a 9mm pistol weighing only 16 ounces and compact enough to disappear inside the pocket of my jeans. I liked the idea of simple "pocket carry"--no muss, no fuss and nothing bulky stuffed inside your waistband. To facilitate this kind of carrying, De Santis offers the Nemisis, a soft, ambidextrous holster that fits handily inside a front or rear trouser pocket. In addition to holding the pistol securely, it disguises the Kahr's outline. This wallet-shaped holster remains inside your pocket, so it doesn't slow your draw.

Like the Glock 36, the Kahr PM9 has no side-mounted external safeties; these are strictly point-and-shoot pistols. While the Kahr sports no manual safety of any kind, the Glock has its famous Safe-Action trigger. An insert in the trigger face must be depressed--along with the trig

ger itself--before the gun will fire.

I've always liked revolvers, so I added Smith & Wesson's Model 340 to the mix. Combining a scandium-alloy frame with a titanium cylinder makes this the lightest .357 Magnum I know of. My sample tipped the scales at a hair over 11 ounces. Lacking an external hammer, this is a true double-action handgun. At 61?4 inches long and 4 1/4 inches tall, it's also extremely compact. The barrel is barely 17?8 inches long. Like the Model 60 that inspired it, the Model 340 sports a five-shot cylinder.

Model Comparison
ModelCaliberMagazine CapacityTrigger ActionBarrel LengthOverall LengthHeightWidthWeight
Glock 36.45 ACP6DA3 5/8 in.6 3/4 in.4 1/2 in.1.10 ins.22.4 ins.
Kahr PM99mm6DA3 in.5 1/4 in.4 in.0.91 in.16 oz.
NAA Guardian.380 ACP6True DA2 1/2 in.4 1/2 in.3 5/8 in.0.91 in.18.4 oz.
Kimber Compact Aluminum*.45 ACP7SA4 in.7 5/8 in.4 3/4 in.1.26 in.28 oz.
S&W Model 60.38 Spl./.357 Mag.5SA/DA2 1/8 in.6 9/16 in.4 3/4 in.1.30 ins.22.4 oz.
S&W Model 340.38 Spl./.357 Mag.5True DA1 7/8 in.6 1/4 in.4 1/4 in.1.30 in.11.2 oz.
*Corresponds to Pro Carry II

Theoretically, an 11-ounce centerfire revolver like this would be the ideal "carry all day" gun. Weighing bare ounces this side of nothing, it hardly makes its presence felt. However, I've fired featherweight magnums before and knew there was a price to pay. I wasn't sure I'd be able to control this gun's recoil with full-house .357 Magnum loads.

With this in mind, I also asked S&W to send me a classic Model 60. This stainless steel revolver weighed exactly twice as much as the Model 340, making it twice as noticeable on your hip. Its 21?8-inch barrel was also slightly longer.

This Fobus paddle holster can be quickly attached to, or removed from the belt.

Short barrels mean reduced velocities. With the effects of recoil in mind, I wondered how much punch you'd actually lose by switching from .357 Magnum to .38 Special ammo in these bobbed-barrel revolvers. The chronograph showed 125-grain .38 Special +P loads exiting the Model 60's muzzle at an average velocity of 844 fps. That translated into 198 ft-lbs of energy. Shooting 125-grain .357 Magnum loads through the same gun delivered 1,103 fps and 338 ft-lbs. That's 30 percent greater velocity and a whopping 70 percent more energy. No question--magnums were clearly the way to go.

The two S&W revolvers and the NAA auto pistol sported bare-bones aiming equipment. The Kimber and Glock .45s and the 9mm Kahr wore better sights that were drift-adjustable for windage and far easier to see.

To put these guns through their paces, I met Ken Turner, a lifelong friend and shooting companion, at my improvised desert range. Because the guns were designed for self-defense, we didn't bother with 25-yard targets. Instead we placed Birchwood Casey Shoot-N-C combat-style targets seven yards downrange. This is considered the maximum practical distance for close encounters of the defensive kind. Instead of using a sandbagged rest, we simply gripped the guns in a firm, two-hand hold, then stood and shot.

The results were revealing. When I fired 125-grain .357 Magnum Remington fodder through the S&W Model 60, the five-shot group measured just 21?4 inches across. It took more than 12 pounds of trigger pressure to cycle the cylinder and ready the gun for firing. However, trigger action was so smooth that it felt much lighter. The single-action trigger broke crisply at 31?2 pounds. Recoil was substantial but controllable.

Among the autos, the author liked both the Glock and Kimber .45.

When I tried the same ammo in the Model 340 AirLite weighing just half as much, groups opened to seven inches. They grew progressively larger as the session continued. The first round was always close to the aiming point, but subsequent shots went increasingly wild. I attributed this partly to an even stiffer, heavier trigger--but mostly to ferocious recoil that quickly tenderized my palm and produced serious flinching. Neither Ken nor I enjoyed firing this gun.

In the interest of reality, I turned down the shooting glove Ken offered. "I don't know anyone who wears padded gloves as a daily accessory," I said. (Michael wears only one, and I'm reasonably sure it isn't padded.) "I'll shoot bare-handed." After burning through two cylinders filled with magnum loads, I'd had enough. Ken fired just five shots before throwing in the towel.

Experts at Thunder Ranch say people in "shoot or be shot" situations typically experience three stress-related conditions: 1) tunnel vision, 2) sound occlusion (deafness) and 3) loss of fine motor control. If my motor control turned iffy, I doubt I'd be able to hit an attacker with this revolver, even at seven yards. Stouter lads might be up to this task, but I decided an 11-ounce .357 Magnum wasn't for me, no matter how lightly it rode on my hip.

Mitch Rosen's behind-the-waistband holster allows the gun to be hidden by the folds of a shirt.

Next we fired the 9mm Kahr. With 115-grain DPX Cor-Bon loads, this little 16-ounce pistol consistently produced five-shot groups measuring four inches across. Its white-dot front sight aligned quickly over the rear white post, speeding your aim. The trigger came back smoothly, breaking at seven pounds. The grip wasn't large enough to accommodate my little finger, which curled under the butt. Ken and I both agreed this was an impressive little pocket pistol.

Then we turned to the North American Arms Guardian--a pistol even smaller than the PM9 Kahr, although a couple of ounces heavier. While I'd owned this pistol awhile and put several rounds through it, it surprised me by turning in 41?4-inch groups in spite of its long, heavy trigger. Hornady's 90-grain JHP/XTP loads were used in the test.

The NAA hideaway was pleasingly compact, but I'd rather have more oomph on tap than .380 ACP ammo provides. This would be a great backup gun for policemen, but I didn't intend to tote more than one concealed pistol at a time.

The S&W Model 60 with Crimson Trace LaserGrip (left) and the Barami Hip Grip. The Barami Hip Grip has a projecting lip that hooks over belt, preventing the gun from slipping down inside the pants.

Moving to the other end of the caliber scale, Ken and I fired my Compact Aluminum Kimber. Fed 185-grain DPX Cor-Bon loads, the single-action auto pistol produced five-shot spreads averaging 1 3/4 inches across. The sights were excellent, and the Kimber's crisp 31?2-pound let-off was a big boon to accuracy.

Unlike most 1911 pistols, the Kimber sports a barrel that fits snugly inside the slide without requiring a separate bushing. Like other 1911 pistols, it must be carried cocked-an-locked to be ready for instant action. Para's double-action pistols are an exception to this rule. I own a full-size Para LDA and like it a lot. This company's line of double-action Carry Option .45s are similarly compact and just a few ounces heavier than the Kimber.

The Model 36 Glock was a pleasure to shoot. Its smooth, six-pound Safe Action trigger was easy to control, making tight 1 1/2-inch groups possible. The gun digested Black Hills 185-grain jacketed hollowpoints without a hitch.

A long-time 1911 fan, I've never warmed up to the Glock's unique grip. In spite of atypical ergonomics, the gun felt pretty good in my hand. Recoil wasn't a problem. The white-outlined sights quickly caught my eye, making aiming fast and easy. It's easy to see why Glocks are popular with law enforcement professionals.

DeSantis' soft Nemesis holster made the 9mm Kahr an even more effective pocket pistol.

Accuracy and dependability are both highly important if your life is on the line. After a 100-round break-in and follow-up cleaning, all the guns proved reliable, feeding and firing without a hitch.

When you're talking concealable handguns, holsters are the other half of the equation. I've already mentioned the neat little Nemesis pocket holster DeSantis makes for 9mm and .40-caliber Kahrs. I also tried a pair of excellent all-leather, behind-the-waistband holsters Mitch Rosen sent me for the Kahr and Glock pistols. Holsters that anchor to your belt and ride inside the pants are ideal for concealment. Cover the grip with your shirt, and the gun disappears, leaving only a leather belt loop as evidence you might be armed.

Mitch Rosen also supplied a more conventional belt holster for the S&W Model 60. This will be ideal for days I spend afield without worrying about concealment. Regular belt carry is always more comfortable than wearing a gun inside the waistband of your pants.

I also dug out an old Barami Hip Grip I've had for years. This is an ingenious device that replaces the factory grip of the Model 60 with a hard-plastic grip featuring a projecting lip. The lip catches your belt, preventing the revolver from sliding down inside your pants. This is the hands-down lightest, smallest concealed carry "holster" on the market. The device works pretty well, but I wouldn't try running or jumping with this grip in place. Incidentally, the Hip Grip is still available.

Another device worth mentioning is the Crimson Trace LaserGrip designed for the Model 60. I've used LaserGrips on several other guns. They're ideal for fast aiming in defensive situations.

While it doesn't conceal the gun, Mitch Rosen's leather belt holster makes a great companion for the S&W Model 60.

Two other holsters deserve a nod. I've been using a Tactical Elite paddle holster from Fobus USA to carry my Kim

ber in plain sight. I've also found a unique inside-the-waistband holster from the same company that keeps the Model 36 Glock hidden in surprising comfort. This molded holster fits the curvature of your body and allows easy reholstering without using both hands.

What's my pick for concealed carry? That I couldn't narrow my choice to just one gun should come as no surprise. These models made my short list: The S&W Model 60 remains a concealed carry classic for several good reasons, such as plenty of power in a compact, proven reliable revolver that won't throw your hip out of joint. While it's twice as heavy as the Model 340 AirLight, the extra heft makes it far more controllable.

I'm a huge fan of .45 ACP pistols, and the Glock 36 and Kimber Compact finished in nearly a dead heat. These are both great guns. If I slightly favor the Kimber, it's because I'm more accustomed to its grip.

Finally, the PM9 Kahr is simply too small and cuddly to pass up. Its 9mm ammo lacks .357 Magnum or .45 ACP punch but will do the job in a pinch. The DeSantis Nemesis holster helped sell me on this. Together, this gun and holster make the perfect pocket-pistol combination.

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