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Pocket-Pistol Lessons

Little guns can be effective self-defense tools, but they require extra commitment.


Establishing a bond with a pocket pistol is similar to marriage—in one way: You have to be willing to accept compromise. To make any compromise worth the effort, there must be a clear objective. In this case preserving your life is the goal, and pocket pistols, whether diminutive semi-automatics or small-frame revolvers, do their part and offer a solution that is easy to carry concealed. Merely slipping one into the front pocket of your jacket, however, will not prevent a determined threat from causing you bodily harm. To stop a violent attack, you must be prepared to counter with force adequate to end the confrontation. Therein lies the compromise. In exchange for realizing the benefits of a pocket pistol’s small size, light weight and ease of concealment, you trade accuracy, capacity, ease of handling and power. So while a pocket pistol may be the most convenient tool to have at hand, it is often far from ideal. The first step in dealing with its limitations is realizing it will likely be more difficult to defend yourself with a pocket pistol than with any other firearm.

Unfortunately, many citizens who carry pocket pistols are lulled into a false sense of security and don’t recognize and plan for the relative deficiencies of their little handguns. That is particularly true of those who carry a pocket pistol as a backup to their primary sidearm. True, many pocket pistols are simple to fire because their double-action-only triggers or striker-type mechanisms eliminate the need to disengage a frame-mounted safety. It’s also true that most defensive engagements take place at short range. But to assume these factors warrant a nonchalant attitude is foolish, and potentially deadly.

Once you realize a pocket pistol represents a compromise that in many cases is necessary to accept if you want immediate access to a handgun, the next step is learning how to deal with the trade-offs. The process includes identifying the areas where pocket pistols come up short, and then tailoring your self-defense plan with those limitations in mind.

When considering the best way to cope with each downside, don’t be afraid to seek professional help. My Ruger LCP and I went to Gunsite Academy in Paulden, Ariz., where we found instructors willing to assist in ironing out our issues. We soon realized we weren’t alone. About a dozen other shooter/pistol couples were there with the same issues as us. Here is what we learned during our two days of sessions.

Session 1: Think Before You Carry
In any good compromise, both parties gain something. Because of their size, pocket pistols give you more flexibility than larger handguns in how and where you choose to carry them. “I carry a pocket pistol because it’s less visible and less cumbersome,” says Gunsite Rangemaster Charlie McNeese. “I usually carry it as a backup to my primary pistol, but if I don’t have the ability to carry a big, primary five-inch or four-inch .45 or .40 because of its visibility, I may go with a .38 revolver or a .380 pistol instead. At that point, the smaller gun becomes my primary pistol.”

Deciding whether you rely on a pocket pistol as your primary sidearm or as a backup could dictate where you carry it, McNeese suggests. For example, if you carry only a Kel-Tec P3AT during the warmer months because the heat calls for a lighter covering garment, the best place for it may be inside the waistband behind your strong-side hip—where you normally tuck your go-to compact. You’re already familiar with the carry location, so why change it? Familiarity breeds competence.

When serving in the backup role, your pocket pistol’s carry location becomes secondary to that of your primary handgun, but careful thought is still required in determining placement. The moment you reach for your backup, it becomes your primary. Presenting your pocket pistol from an unconventional position, such as lying on your back, or even with your support hand are scenarios to consider when choosing a backup carry location. Ankle, appendix and support-side, inside-the-waistband carry are all options.

“You want to make sure what you need to get a hold of is accessible,” says McNeese, “and you can do it safely.” Of course, a pocket can serve perfectly as a carry location, and it’s probably the most common place for a pocket pistol to reside. Depending on your activities, however, a pocket—particularly one in the front of your pants—may not be ideal, despite the popular moniker.

“What do you do if you’re sitting down,” McNeese asks. “How do you get it out of your pocket?” The answer is you don’t, at least not without quite a bit of movement. If you have to stand just to get your hand on your pistol, you’ve given a threat several critical moments to anticipate and perhaps avoid your defensive actions.

A jacket pocket is easier to access from a seated position, but like any pocket, its size relative to your hand and your pistol plays an important role in its utility as a carry location. When your hand wraps around the frame of a pistol, it forms a semi-fist shape that is nowhere near as streamlined as an open palm. You may have no trouble shoving your hand in a pocket and accessing the pistol, but your line of defense is worthless when you can’t put it into action. While it’s possible to fire a pistol from inside your pocket, that drastically limits your effective range and is best reserved as a last-ditch effort.

No matter where you choose to carry your pocket pistol, put it in a holster. That requirement seems obvious for methods such as inside-the-waistband and ankle carry, but it’s just as necessary if you carry a pistol in your pocket. A holster protects critical components of the pistol from foreign objects, such as lint or a forgotten coin, prevents your index finger from accidentally contacting the trigger, and keeps the handgun oriented in the optimal position for presentation.

Session 2: Practice Effective Presentation
Pocket pistols often require a more determined focus on handling than larger handguns to safely and effectively present them from concealment. Simply put, they aren’t as easy to grab.

“Everything is more difficult with a small pistol,” says Gunsite Rangemaster Chris Weare. “You may find you’re going to have to slow down and be more deliberate.”

Weare stresses that the maxim “slow is smooth and smooth is fast” should be the guide when presenting a pocket pistol. Frantic motions, which come all too easily in a stressful situation, lead to mistakes. Pocket pistols tend to magnify those mistakes by being small.

For example, it’s more difficult to establish a proper firing grip on a tiny frame that seems to get swallowed by your hand. Taking a momentary pause to ensure your hand is in the proper position on the pistol before drawing it from the holster will help the next steps of presentation come more smoothly. The alternative, adjusting your grip as you drive the pistol toward the target, can slow down your presentation by a greater degree than taking a split second to make sure your hand placement is correct at the start.

You probably will not be able to get your entire hand on your pocket pistol; your little finger and maybe even part of your ring finger may hang below the magazine. Weare points out this makes correctly indexing the web of your shooting hand on the frame or grip even more critical, as it serves as your initial and primary connection to the handgun. Placing your hand as high as possible on the frame or grip maximizes the amount of available space for your fingers, as well as helps control recoil. A word of caution here: It’s possible to grab some small semi-automatics too high, and your hand will interfere with the slide cycle. Repeatedly performing a slow, step-by-step presentation during practice will help you recognize proper hand position by feel. You may have to spend more time perfecting this step with a pocket pistol than with a larger handgun. It’s worth the effort.

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20 Responses to Pocket-Pistol Lessons

Jim Dalton wrote:
June 12, 2013

Great Article! As a firearms instructor I can't impress enough how important it is to practice every aspect of safety, carrying, shooting and maintenance until it becomes habit. My first experience with a pocket pistol was the Ruger LCP. I immediately recognized that the extra "snap" of the recoil would require a much firmer grip. My daughter is a crack shot with my .45 XD 5" but when first put to the test with the LCP was off by 4"+. After a little instruction on using body alignment and hip placement to strengthen her grip she was back on target. With a small gun body alignment and the knowledge of using your larger lower body muscles to strengthen your grip become extremely important. Squeeze your grip harder and you will shake causing rounds to be off target. Additionally, consideration of construction materials is important as well. After getting comfortable with the LCP I opted to switch it out for a Sig P280. The weight of the metal frame helps reduce the recoil effect. Again, it's a trade-off. Grams=ounces, ounces=pounds, pounds=pain. However, after training many civilians with pocket pistols my opinion is that a metal frame in this small is a small trade off for the benefit. I just wish I would see more of my trainees at the range. It scares me and breaks my heart to see someone I trained pull a pistol from their pocket and be unable to even rack the slide because it is gummed up with lint. This tells me 3 things. 1: They didn't take my instruction to heart. 2: They have not "mated" with their firearm. 3: Their firearm is now more of a liability than an asset to their safety. I love that this article presumes that routine practice is the norm. I just wish it were true!

Martin B wrote:
June 08, 2013

Most small pocket sized guns are seriously limited in effective grip-ability, accuracy (both due to short barrel and short sight radius), and velocity of shot, as well as weight pf projectile. For this reason, I would recommend IWB carry of an XDS .45 ACP. The flaws with this gun are muzzle rise and limited capacity, neither of which are as serious or life threatening as the flaws other small guns have. And the likelihood of a one stop shot is far higher, though with proper grip and a spare mag or two, you will be in the fight as long as needed. And the higher recoil will not be a problem at the time! There are grip enhancements available to improve comfort during the necesary practise sessions to achieve proficiency.

topgun wrote:
May 05, 2013

Well said Carl!Some gun is better than NO GUN.

Carl wrote:
May 02, 2013

Great... Yet ANOTHER caliber debate... Bottom line, if I ever have to draw my PPK/S (.380) or my Solo Carry (9mm)... My odds are INFINITELY better than NOT having either with me. My primary focus is and will always be to have some way to get myself & my family out of a situation. These choices are better than, say, throwing rocks... The caliber debate will NEVER go away... But carrying anything is better than not.

BigFoot wrote:
April 30, 2013

Scot_c: Good catch, that would be a lot of bullet-riddled bodies. Here are his words: "All of the autopsies I see aren't gunshot victims. Asked and answered six weeks ago on my May 18th post. As I clearly stated, some are naturals, some are SIDS, some are overdoses, etc. although there aren't many days that we don't have at least one gunshot victim. We do autopsies 6 days a week, I work on 5 of those days (and often 6), and on Monday morning I look over photos of the few that I might have missed from Saturday. Any bodies taken in on Sunday are rolled to Monday. And when I'm out of town often I'm at another ME's office observing autopsies there. Of course if you want to figure in the ones I saw (not worked on) in Kosovo and Bosnia we can bounce that number up much, much higher." According to that, maybe 300 to 600 gunshot bodies a year plus bodies at other Medical Examiner offices plus his experience in Kosovo and Bosnia. That certainly puts his credentials far ahead of anybody else's on this forum. Let me end this by summing up the calibers this way: If I told you that I ran ten straight one-shot stops with well-placed shots to the chest using a .380 you would say "No way, maybe one if you were lucky." Using a 9mm: "I can see two, maybe three, but forget ten straight." Using a .40: "Yeah, I could believe that." Using a .45: "So?"

Scot_c wrote:
April 29, 2013

Bigfoot - 8.2 autopsies 365 days a year...3,000 a year. Obviously not all homicides unless you're somewhere in Africa or the Middle East. So how many are gunshot fatalities? Faked up stats to try to establish credibility does nothing for your arguments.

Phil Ingalls wrote:
April 29, 2013

My Kel-Tec PF 9 is my daily carry. And doubles as a pocket gun. I don't leave home without.

Tom wrote:
April 29, 2013

I now carry a Diamonback Db9. Experience tells me that it takes lots of practice and the right load to hit the target with a small pistol. I too started out at 15 feet and worked out to about twice that. Accurately requires a steady hand and knowledge of how the gun shoots. I would also recommend shooting after exercise and from weird positions. Self defense situations get the heart rate up very quickly.

BigFoot wrote:
April 29, 2013

Bigger Foot, at least I brought some solid information to the party, what do you have to contribute to the knowledge base? Give us some hard facts to endorse your choice in a defensive weapon. Try to do better than "I like it and I read somewhere that it's good." Since most of you have probably never read about gunshot autopsies, I thought you would enjoy my post. Sorry, but when other people don't add their thoughts to a thread, it sure looks like you're hogging it.

noodles wrote:
April 29, 2013

Bigfoot's correct, bigger is better and penetration is very important.

Bigger Foot wrote:
April 27, 2013

There should definitely be a limit on how many messages paranoid, know-it-all, inviduals are allowed to send.

BigFoot wrote:
April 26, 2013

DENNER37 – Sorry, but that's not my diatribe. As I mentioned in the beginning, the article was written by a person that works in a morgue. The reason for posting it was to provide that most important requirement needed in the decision-making process: facts. Our daily dose of personal opinions from the gun magazines are counterproductive and confusing, at best, when it comes to sorting out our firearm needs in a logical manner. Here, on this site, if 100 shooters were asked which caliber and bullet is the best for self-defense there would be 100 different answers and none of them would be from personal experience. While opinions make for good conversation, wouldn't looking over the shoulder of a guy working on a corpse on an autopsy table in a morgue be a lot more meaningful when it came to buying a weapon whose only purpose was to save your life? If, after a zillion autopsies, it was clear that caliber X fails way to often while caliber Z gets the job done, wouldn't you want to know that before heading down to the gun store? #37, in all of your examples, as the morgue guy said, they will kill, but that's not the point. It's all about picking the round with the best chance of ending the fight with one good hit so you don't get shot. If, in your personal experience, your favorite round has a higher percentage of winning than his .45 when it comes to the butt-on-the-ground test, keep it. But I bet he has more experience in calling winners and losers than you do.

denner37 wrote:
April 25, 2013

Bigfoot, you're diatribe is nonsense. The ole 9mm vs .45 debate. 9mm Nato is a very effective round, it generally tumbles in human tissue, whereas the .45 ball does not. If you believe a Winchester Ranger 147 grain or HST is not right on the heals of any .40 or .45 loading you're mistaken. That 127 grain +p+ round is nothing to sneeze at either. You must be stuck in the 80's with the ballistics on the 115 grain silvertip ?

BigFoot wrote:
April 25, 2013

FOLLOWUP: Everybody should now feel very enlightened because they have just received a crash course in the terminal ballistics of defensive handguns. You have replaced theory with fact so now you know what works, what doesn't work, and why. I liked the suggestion to put bones in the ballistic gelatin to make the test more realistic. Not only could we see which bullets blasted through bone and then how far they penetrated but we could follow the trails in the gelatin of the lesser bullets that were deflected. His advice on arming for the worst possible situation makes sense. You don't want to take on a wide-body that's high on drugs and dressed like an Eskimo when you only brought a "pocket pistol" to the fight. Anyone for a 4-inch .44 Magnum? In all fairness to the .380 and 9mm, I don't think his argument is that they aren't killers, it's just that they can't be depended on. In his reference to the Army liking the .45 over the 9mm, he infers that the reason might be solely because of the hard ball ammunition they are required to use. But, from the FBI tests, we know that their 9mm used JHP so the 9mm fails with both JHP and hard ball when put up against the .45. Might makes right and that's where the big bores win the argument.

BigFoot wrote:
April 24, 2013

(PART 4) All things being equal, I suspect that a hit to the vitals with a 9mm ends the fight as quickly as an identical hit with a .45. At least in the autopsies I've seen I've never had any indication to the contrary. But that's not the point. Let me say it clearly here. In my humble opinion, the 9mm and .380 are more likely to fragment or be deflected into a non-vital area or to simply stop short of reaching the vital organs than a similarly-placed shot with a .45. It's all due to penetration. The reason so many folks wind up on the autopsy table with 9mm and .380 holes poked in 'em is because these two calibers are the ones most commonly carried by the BGs. It stands to reason that the more BGs that are carrying them, the more BGs that will wind up on the autopsy table with these rounds in them. And in most cases they work quite well. Let me make this clear. Still, as I said in a very recent post, there are a fair number of times when they don't, and these are the times that give me pause for thought. I realize that nothing is guaranteed regardless of caliber, but I've can't seem to remember a .45 that fragmented or failed to reach the vitals as a result of a deflected bullet but I can think of plenty of times when I've seen the .380 or 9mm do it. While we may argue the reasons, the fact is combat soldiers preferred the .45acp to the 9mm and the troops today want to get rid of the 9mm for a .45 based on their experiences. Special units that have the ability to buy weapons commercially have already bought .45acp pistols. These units express great satisfaction with the .45 and very little with the 9mm. This may be related to the fact they are required to use ball ammo and because they are limited to ball for political reasons, the .45 is all the better." If you want to read the entire article, go to http://www.gunthorp.com/Terminal%20Ballistics%20as%20viewed%20in%20a%20morgue.htm

BigFoot wrote:
April 24, 2013

(PART 3) Perhaps, like me, you think it much more likely you'll be set upon by 6' 12" 325LB Louie Packaload who just got paroled from the state pen (assault on a police officer and possession of a big fat bag of crack) and who comes equipped with a big knife and a fresh load of heroine, PCP, or meth (or some combination of the three with a few shots of Jack Daniels thrown in) pumped into his arm. Uh oh, did I bring the .380 or the .44 Mag? Maybe its winter time and Louie is well dressed with a heavy leather jacket, a sweater, and a heavy flannel shirt. Now, whatta YOU want to be pack'n? Hey, shoot me with a 9mm +P+ and I'm on my butt in a heartbeat. Shoot Louie with the same load and you've got one ticked off ex-con to deal with. Friends, I'm a big believer is safety margins and there isn't a bigger margin with a handgun than a 200-240 gr. JHP clipping along at 1200+ fps. From empirical observation of what comes across the autopsy table, I've noticed MANY times that the 9mm or .380 strikes bone and is deflected into a non-vital area, never reaching vital organs. And I've seen it with multiple shots on occasion. Other times the 9mm or .380 will fragment before reaching the vitals or just plain haul up short. Whatever the reason, often times adequate penetration needed to reach vital organs is not achieved and the fight continues. Much of this, I think, is related primarily to bullet weight with the 9mm typically weighing about half of the .45. As I think I've said before, I don't think I've ever seen a .45 fail to penetrate adequately, and it's for that reason that it's my carry weapon. Time and time again I've seen the venerable .45 just keep plowing along, busting up bone instead of skipping off of it or being stopped by it. If it's headed in the direction of the vital organs, there isn't much that's going to deter it from its intended target.

BigFoot wrote:
April 24, 2013

(PART 2) Try it again, and I think you'll see that this impressive wound cavity that's so often seen in ballistic gelatin goes down the tubes. Bone is in the body for basically two reasons-to give support as with the legs and spinal column and to protect major organs, such as the ribs protecting the heart or the skull protecting the brain. Skip a bullet off a support bone, such as the leg, and the BG will keep shooting. Break it, like you generally do with a .40 or .45, and the BG is going to hit the pavement and your chances of survival increase dramatically. It's the same with a shot to the chest. Skip a 9mm off the sternum (breastbone) and the fight continues; plow through the sternum with a .45 and, trust me, the fight is over. I'm just convinced that all things being equal, bigger is better when it comes to bullet size. As for the .22, it's a poor choice of weapons and probably about the last one I would choose if given a choice of calibers. Still, it's a caliber we see quite frequently, and it might be good to know what damage it imparts. Discussing it is in no way an endorsement of it. The reason it's such a poor choice of a defensive weapon by now should be obvious. If you think 125 grains of 9mm has little stopping power, try 40 grains of .22 long rifle. It has been my experience that hollow point .22 long rifle bullets fired from handguns seldom mushroom; when fired from rifles they usually do. This whole business of what caliber/bullet/load to carry for self-defense has been talked to death (pun intended) but that never stops me from joining in and offering my 2 cents worth. I always like to ask people about their expectations during a criminal attack. Do you expect to be attacked by 5' 4" 110LB 75 year old Mrs. Jones with her "attack umbrella"? Hey, stick that pellet gun in your belt and be on your way.

BigFoot wrote:
April 24, 2013

(PART 1) But will they save your life? I have posted evaluations from the FBI and the Military on the .38 and 9mm and thought you would like to read this. The following are assorted quotes from a very long article that was written by a person who works in a morgue. "I see an average of 8.2 autopsies per day/365 days per year, and I can tell you that when the chips are down, there's nothing that beats a 12-gauge. As for handguns, the name of the game is not only shot placement but how a properly-placed bullet acts once it gets there. I've seen folks killed by a bb to the eye and others survive after being hit by several well-placed rounds with a 9mm. As for me, I'll take a slow-moving .45 to a gun fight any day. I absolutely despise a 9mm for defensive situations (yes, they will eventually kill but often not quickly enough to prevent the BG from doing you in first) and a .380 as well. These are probably the two calibers I see most often on the autopsy table. So let me give a few thoughts here. First, as you've pretty well guessed by now, I'm a big fan of the .40 and .45 for personal defense, and for the same reasons. They're both big, slow-moving bullets. Of the two, I think big is more important. As I've said before, I want something that will plow through bone and keep going, not skip off of it. I can't tell you how many times I've seen a .380 or 9mm strike bone on a well-placed shot and skip off in a non-vital direction, leaving the BG free to return fire. With the .40 and .45, this seldom happens. Ballistic gelatin, being all that's available for most bullet testing, is good as far as it goes but it's often far different from what we see in the morgue. A far more realistic scenario would be to dress up ballistic gelatin with a heavy coat of denim to mimic blue jeans, embed some bones obtained from a butcher shop, and throw in a few objects of varying densities to mimic organs.

Chasman122 wrote:
April 23, 2013

..I have just recently acquired two (pocket pistols)from my stepdad..I really find this article informative and will start practicing asap thanks

April 23, 2013