(This is part one of a three part series. Please also visit ‘Which Caliber to Choose for a Sub-Compact Pocket Pistol‘ and ‘How to Best Carry Concealed a Sub-Compact Pocket Pistol‘.)
At times it seems that little has changed in the last 100 years of firearm and pistol design. Revolvers are much as they always have been. The Colt .45 semi-auto has celebrated its 100 year anniversary this year. But if you find yourself agreeing with this, you’re wrong.
There have been big changes in semi-auto design, and in new lightweight small sized guns. There have also been new calibers (most notably the .40 S&W, introduced in 1990, and the 5.7×28, introduced in 1993) but these are outside the scope of this article.
Semi-autos now can hold a great deal more than the classic 7+1 round capacity of an M1911A1, and can also be a great deal smaller. Sure, derringers have always been around, but they’ve never been much more than ultra-desperate ‘toy’ guns, and now there are plenty of what are sometimes termed ‘sub-compact’ or sometimes ‘pocket’ pistols. Some use new plastic materials or aluminum to replace some of the heavy steel, giving them even lighter weight, and all are designed to be as small as possible to provide the ultimate in terms of convenient carry and ultra concealment.
The Evolution of Modern Pocket Pistols
Pocket pistols can be traced back to that titan of gun design, John Browning (designer of the Colt M1911 among many other weapons) and his 1905 and 1908 model semi-auto pistols chambered for the .25 Auto cartridge. His pistol, then known as the Colt 1908 Vest Pocket Pistol, subsequently evolved into the Baby Browning, produced from 1931 onwards, and is still (more or less) in production today.
These pistols were small – the earlier was 4.5″ long, the Baby Browning 4.1″ long, but were medium rather than light weight (13 oz and 9.7 oz respectively), and carried six round magazines. The .25 Auto cartridge is very underpowered (see part two of this article series which discusses calibers for pocket pistols) and so these pistols represented an uneasy compromise between concealability and fire power.
Larger pistols appeared with larger calibers, and the development of high quality pistols by Seecamp – first in the same .25 Auto caliber in 1981, then subsequently in .32 ACP (from the mid 80′s to the present day) and .380 ACP (from 2000 to the present day) saw broader acceptance of the modern pocket pistol. These Seecamp weapons, although produced in very small numbers, acted to validate the concept of ultra-compact pocket pistols as a bona fide modern day weapon variant.
Other manufacturers copied Seecamp to a greater or lesser extent, and then evolved into their own designs, and new lighter weight materials allowed for the pistols to be reduced in weight.
The next thing that massively increased the market interest and demand for ultra-concealable pistols was/is the wonderful restoration of concealed carry rights in most US states over the last couple of decades. Nowadays the NSSF estimate there to be 6.3 million people with concealed weapon permits in the US, and that has unquestionably driven demand for small easily carried pistols.
Some Modern Sub-Compact Pistols to Consider
So, maybe you too are looking for a small ‘pocket pistol’ that you can literally carry in your pocket, or readily conceal elsewhere on your person? Here’s a great summary of ten small pistols that might include the one that is exactly what you’re looking for.
I’m not nearly brave enough to wade into the depths of ‘which is the best gun’ because these days so many guns are so good that it boils down to a lot of personal preference. It is analogous to arguing whether Ford or GM make the best car (or for that matter, Toyota and all the other companies too) when all you need is a car for your daily commute and local shopping runs.
But I can tell you (uh, oh, here I go….) that of the ten pistols detailed in this article, I own a .32 ACP caliber LWS/Seecamp. However, many of the pistols in the review have come out since when I bought the Seecamp, and I can’t help but think that maybe one of the new tiny .380 (or even 9mm) pistols might give me a significant upgrade in power with only a minimal increase in size/weight.
On the other hand, I already have a couple of small .380 pistols (my favorite being a Walther PPK).
Size/Weight Issues and Tradeoffs – Walther PPK vs Modern Designs
It is interesting to compare the PPK size/weight with that of more modern pocket pistols. The PPK – which amazingly dates back to 1931, and with little change over the 80 years since its introduction – is 6.15″ long overall, almost exactly an inch wide, and weighs 20.8 ounces with empty magazine, or 23.1 ounces when filled with seven rounds of .380 ammo.
The various modern .380 pistols are shorter and narrower – ranging from 4.25″ long to 5.25″ long (so between almost one and two inches shorter); from 0.75″ to 0.91″ wide (saving you up to a quarter inch in this dimension), and their unloaded weights range from 8.3 oz up to 18.5 oz. Many of these new pocket pistols are half the weight of the PPK – a much appreciated factor if you truly are carrying them in a pocket.
But smaller and lighter is not universally good. The shorter the barrel, the more the muzzle flash and less the accuracy. And the lighter the pistol, the greater the recoil. Neither factor really matters when you’re at ‘point blank’ range and rapidly firing semi-blindly into the center of mass of a way-too-close attacker, but if for any reason you find yourself needing to make an aimed shot at more than say 10 ft, your ability to do so will massively reduce in line with the smaller and lighter the gun is you’re using.
My PPK is a lovely smooth shooter and can be operated single or double action, and with a great trigger feel to it (Interarms did a lovely port/polish/tune job on the pistol for me when I first purchased it as a much appreciated courtesy). Sure, there’s recoil, but it is no worse than firing a full size 9mm, and its low profile fixed sights and general design is acceptably accurate (ie the gun is better than me) out to at least 21 feet, and as far as I’m concerned, most of the time if a bad guy is more than 21′ away, he’s less likely to be a deadly threat.
On the other hand, my less powerful double action only LWS has a long heavy trigger pull, nasty recoil and no sights (which sort of says it all in terms of accuracy expectations, doesn’t it!).
In choosing a pocket pistol, don’t necessarily fall into the trap of thinking that the lightest weapon is the best. A few more ounces will make an appreciable difference in soaking up some extra recoil.
However, whatever size and weight you choose, by all means get one of these new generation pocket pistols. They are lightweight, concealable, and generally inexpensive (sometimes little more than half the price of the $629 list on my PPK), but they are also nasty to shoot, with heavy triggers (being double action only), lots of recoil and little accuracy.
(This was part one of a three part series. Please also visit ‘Which Caliber to Choose for a Sub-Compact Pocket Pistol‘ and ‘How to Best Carry Concealed a Sub-Compact Pocket Pistol‘.)