Pocket pistols fill an important niche in the defensive firearms market. As a group, these little semi-autos fit comfortably between the more powerful handguns that get left at home because of weight and size, and the fist full of thin air that comes with having no defensive firearm at all. Pocket autos also serve nicely as back-up guns, when having a second, or even a third, gun makes sense for the situation.
Pocket pistols chambered for .32 ACP, also known as the 7.65 mm Browning, have been a popular carry option for quite some time. The .32 offers an improvement in stopping power compared to pistols chambered in .22 LR or .25 ACP. But the cartridge can be chambered in guns that are measurably smaller and lighter than the current run of .380 and 9 mm pocket pistols.
It's important to note here that when shopping for deep concealment pistols it's prudent to compare apples to apples. Whatever caliber they may be chambered in, all pocket guns have been designed from the ground up, or from the chop-shop down, to be as small as possible while still providing at least some gun for the shooter to hold on to. Getting the gun to be small often means giving up the weight, size, sights and controls that make handguns comfortable to shoot and operate. As a result, pocket pistols are not generally considered "fun" to shoot. But ultra compact semi-autos are working guns with the specific purpose of easy concealment in mind. And some designs and ammunition combinations have been more successful than others. Two pocket pistols that have stayed on top of the little gun heap are the North American Arms Guardian and the Kel-Tec P-32.
North American Arms Guardian .32 ACP The first of these two guns to hit the market was the NAA Guardian, which launched in 1997. Since NAA was known for mini revolvers chambered in .22, this pistol was a break from the company’s usual product line. The Guardian shows a lineage influenced by the Seecamp pistol design, which includes a fixed barrel and direct blowback action. The slide, frame and fixed barrel are all machined from 17-4 PH stainless steel. This just happens to be the same metal found in a subtle little revolver called the Freedom Arms .454 Casull. The all-steel construction gives the Guardian an unloaded weight of 18.73 ounces, which is a bit on the heavy side when compared to some of the competition, but it's hard to argue with the strength and durability that steel construction has to offer.
Kel-Tec P-32 The P-32, a locked-breach semi-auto pistol, arrived on the self-defense scene in 1999. The barrel and slide are made of SAE 4140 ordinance steel, with an internal frame made of 7075-T6 aluminum. The external frame, checkered grip and trigger are made of an ultra-high-impact polymer. This blend of materials gives the P-32 an exceptionally low unloaded weight of just 6.6 ounces. The pistol is so light, in fact, that Kel-Tec offers a lanyard kit that allows the pistol to be carried around your neck. The P-32 does have a slide lock, which will hold the slide open after the last shot in the magazine is fired. This pistol does not feature any external safeties, instead relying on a long double-action trigger pull and internal hammer block for safe operation.
Side By Side Having shot and carried both the Guardian and P-32 at various times, it was interesting to compare them side-by-side and note the differences. The P-32's polymer frame provides about a 1 1/2-finger grip with its seven-round magazine. The Guardian has an abbreviated one-finger grip with a six-shot magazine. As a result, the all-steel Guardian has the smallest profile, but the P-32 has a lower weight. The Guardian can be upgraded with a variety of in-house customizations, including hardwood grips and slide engraving, while the P-32 can be had in a variety of frame colors and slide finishes.
The sights of both pistols are minimal, if not almost decorative. The P-32's are slightly better out of the box, but the Guardian can be fitted with larger sights at the factory. The P-32 sits a little lower in the hand to help manage recoil, while the Guardian sits a little higher in the hand with the extra weight in the frame working to reduce the recoil. The Guardian has a smooth 10-pound trigger pull. This may sound heavy to practice with, but the heavier trigger is intended to act as a safety feature for pocket carry and is not hard to learn to work with. The P-32, on the other hand, has a smooth 5-pound trigger. It's easier to practice with, but may seem a bit light to some shooters for safe pocket carry.
At the Range Since some .32 ACP pistols will only reliably feed ball ammunition, and a few will only function with hollow points, I chose to mix things up a bit with the accuracy testing. Both pistols were fired using two full-metal-jacket rounds—Fiocchi 73-grain and Winchester 71-grain—and two hollow points—Fiocchi 60-grain XTP and Winchester 60-grain Silver Tips. Since these guns are intended for, and perform best at, close range, the five-shot groups were fired from the bench at 7 yards.
Both guns performed consistently with all four loads tested, producing no single group larger than 2.50 inches. The Guardian yielded its best results using Winchester Silver Tips, with an average of 1.75 inches, and a best group of 1.5 inches. The Fiocchi XTP was a very close second in the Guardian with an average of 1.83 inches and a best group of 1.5 inches. For all intents and purposes, both loads performed at the same level of accuracy.
The P-32 liked the Fiocchi XTP best of all with an average of 1.75 inches, and a best group of 1.5 inches. The Kel-Tec gun did not get along as well with the Winchester Silver tips. The average group size stretched out a bit to 2.25 inches, with a best group of 2 inches. Both pistols worked reliably with all four loads tested.
The single event that might be called a malfunction was a stovepiped cartridge case. It was the last round of Winchester ball ammunition fired from the Guardian pistol. Just so you know, this occasional piping of a last spent case is a known factor for the Guardian. However, the process of dropping the empty magazine, loading a fresh magazine and racking the slide to reload, causes the spent case to clear the gun without any additional actions than the usual reloading process requires. Technically, it must be noted as a malfunction, but from a practical standpoint, it doesn’t interfere with the normal operation of the Guardian.
Final Thoughts You won't find many shooters who will argue that .32 ACP pocket pistols are the ultimate man stoppers for self-defense. Bigger calibers are available, but they’re not necessarily better if the larger guns they inhabit get left at home and leave the shooter unarmed. After running the Guardian and P-32 in a comparative review, which one to pick really comes down to your personal preferences. The three most important aspects of a defensive pocket pistol are reliability, reasonable accuracy and pocketability. Both of these pistols meet, and exceed, all three requirements. For those who want or need compact pocket protection, the Kel-Tec P-32 and the North American Arms Guardian pistols are well worth your consideration.