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How to choose a CCW handgun

Among new shooters and experienced shooters alike, one of the most commonly asked questions is “What's the best concealed-carry handgun?" In one sense, it's an easy question to answer: whichever concealable handgun you're comfortable and competent with.

Of course, there's more to it than that. To what extent does caliber matter? What sort of concealed gun holster should you choose? In this guide, we'll answer these and other important questions. We'll also recommend a good mix of tried-and-true CCW handguns in various frame sizes and calibers.

Stopping Power vs. Dropping Power

The best and most thorough studies on the lethality of various calibers in self-defense situations generally agree that, when it comes to eventually incapacitating an attacker, bullet size makes little difference. But it often takes several minutes (or longer) for the attacker to be rendered incapable of continuing the attack, particularly with calibers smaller than 9mm. This brings us to the difference between stopping power and dropping power. Certain calibers are more effective at immediately neutralizing a threat, regardless of whether or not they are immediately lethal.

Calibers sized 9mm and larger are significantly more effective at stopping an attacker, even when the defender's shots are not immediately lethal. In general, we recommend a caliber of at least 9mm for your CCW handgun, but this recommendation shouldn't override your comfort level. A .22 that you can shoot expertly is a better defense weapon than a 9mm or .45 that you have trouble controlling. Still, consider logging some more practice hours with those larger calibers when you have time. It could make a big difference one day.

Handgun Frame Sizes

Once you've narrowed your choice of calibers down to a range you're comfortable with, consider the frame size and capacity of potential CCW handguns, especially relative to your height and body type. All else being equal, tall people can conceal bigger weapons than smaller people can.

There are three broad size categories of handguns: full-size, compact, and subcompact. There are no hard-and-fast measurements for each size category. Barrel length can be used as a very rough rule of thumb, though.

  • Full-size or duty-size handguns are the largest. Tall people who are willing to wear baggy clothes can sometimes conceal full-size handguns successfully, but it's tricky. Barrel lengths tend to be between 4" and 5".
  • Compact handguns are smaller than full-size models and easier to conceal. Most people can hide one on their person reasonably well. Most commonly, you'll see barrels between 3.5" to 4.5".
  • Subcompact handguns are even smaller than compact models and are designed specifically for concealed carry. Almost anyone can conceal one without significant wardrobe changes. Generally, these models will have barrels under 4".

Smaller handguns are, of course, easier to conceal, but a smaller frame comes with a few drawbacks, too. Most notably, a smaller frame means lower capacity, especially in large calibers. If you need to carry extra magazines or loose rounds, consider where you'll keep them and how easy they will be to conceal.

Types of CCW Holsters

There are several types of concealment holsters: outside the waistband (OWB), inside the waistband (IWB), ankle, and shoulder. OWB and IWB holsters come in several configurations, the most common variants being strong-side hip, weak-side hip, and small of back.

Outside the waistband holsters are somewhat more difficult to conceal because the weapon itself and part of the holster sit on your belt as opposed to being tucked mostly out of view inside your waistband. These holsters may be more comfortable for extended wear than IWB holsters, and they tend to be the quickest to draw from.

Inside the waistband holsters are more concealable than their OWB counterparts but may be less comfortable or marginally slower to draw from.

Ankle holsters are easy to conceal and quite comfortable if you have a small firearm and spacious pant legs. However, they're slow to draw from.

Shoulder holsters can comfortably accommodate even full-size handguns but require a jacket or overshirt to conceal and are slow to draw from.

Strong-side OWB and IWB holsters are quick and easy to draw but may dig into your side, especially when seated. Accessing your weapon will be slow and awkward while sitting in a vehicle.

Weak-side OWB and IWB holsters (sometimes referred to as “cross-draw" holsters) are generally slower on the draw. However, they can be faster and easier to draw from while sitting, especially while in a vehicle. They are also less prone to digging into your side.

Small-of-back holsters can be quite comfortable and reasonably fast, particularly for compact and subcompact firearms. They're generally easy to conceal and comfortable while standing, but likely to be uncomfortable (and very difficult to access) while seated.

Experiment with several different kinds of holster configurations to see which feels most natural to you. Ensure that you can access your firearm quickly from standing, seated, kneeling, prone, and supine positions. With enough practice, you can draw quickly and smoothly from almost any holster.

10 Best CCW Handguns

Frame size and caliber preferences vary widely, so we curated a similarly wide variety of our favorite CCW handguns. Hopefully, at least one of these will be just right for you (or will at least point you in the right direction).

Heckler & Koch P30SK

Manufacturer: Heckler and Koch
Caliber: 9mm
Action: SA/DA
Capacity: 10+1, 12+1, or 15+1
Length: 6.42"
Height: 4.57"
Width: 1.37"
Barrel length: 3.27"
Weight: 23.99 oz. (unloaded)
Trigger Weight: 5.4 lbs

HK pistols have a well-deserved reputation for reliability, comfort, and ease of use. The P30SK is the little brother of the equally excellent, full-sized VP9 (which makes a superb home defense gun). It features ambidextrous controls, a smooth and convenient slide release, and several swappable grips.

The P30SK comes with ten-round magazines, which can be upgraded to hold twelve rounds in less than a minute with inexpensive extensions. The trigger is heavier and has a longer reset than you might expect, and unfortunately, nobody makes conversion kits (yet).

The trigger is the P30SK's only major flaw, but it's a forgivable one; there are few high-end subcompact pistols that can compete in overall quality. As an added bonus, the P30SK accepts full-sized, 15-round VP9 and P30 mags in a pinch.

Glock 26

Manufacturer: Glock
Caliber: 9mm
Action: DAO
Capacity: 10+1 or 12+1
Length: 6.42"
Height: 4.17"
Width: 1.26"
Barrel length: 3.43"
Weight: 19.4 oz. (unloaded)
Trigger Weight: 6.3 lbs

The subcompact Glock 26 is one of the most popular CCW handguns in the world because of its excellent balance of stopping power, simplicity and portability. Like all other Glocks, the 26 undergoes rigorous quality control testing and is exceptionally reliable. The trigger is a tad on the heavy side, but it breaks crisply and resets smoothly.

Because the gun is so popular, there are many holsters to choose from. Older Gen 2 and Gen 3 models in good condition can sometimes be found for half of what a new model costs, so the Glock 26 is a particularly good choice for the budget-conscious shopper who doesn't want to compromise on quality.

Smith & Wesson MP Shield

Manufacturer: Smith & Wesson
Caliber: 9mm, .40, or .45
Action: DAO
Capacity: 7+1 or 8+1 (9mm), 6+1 or 7+1 (.40 and .45)
Length: 6.1" (9mm)
Height: 4.9" (9mm)
Width: 1.15" (9mm)
Barrel length: 3.1" (9mm)
Weight: 20.8 oz. (9mm, unloaded)
Trigger Weight: 5.5 lbs (9mm)

If HKs and Glocks are a little outside your budget, consider a Shield, which retails for about half as much. These pistols are a bit taller than most other compact models, but it's one of the thinnest ones out there, making it an excellent choice if a low profile is a must.

Because of its thinness, the Shield can only accept single-stack magazines, reducing ammo capacity. The slide release levers also tend to be quite stiff and need to be broken in before they'll drop the slide reliably. Despite these two drawbacks, the Shield series of pistols are excellent and affordable CCW handguns.

Ruger SP101

Manufacturer: Ruger
Caliber: .357 (also fires .38)
Action: SA/DA
Capacity: 5
Length: 7.25" or 8"
Height: 4.5"
Width: 1.35"
Barrel length: 2.25" or 3"
Weight: 27 oz. (unloaded)
Trigger Weight: 14 lbs

Despite its length and weight, the Ruger SP101 is an outstanding holdout gun. If your wrists are up to the .357 recoil, you'll have serious stopping (and dropping) power at your disposal — and if not, you can always use lighter .38 special rounds.

This wheelgun's one drawback is its massively heavy double-action trigger pull. The single-action squeeze is crisp and light as a feather, though, so pull back that hammer whenever you can spare the time. As one of the smallest .357 revolvers on the market, and with plenty of holster options available, the SP101 is as concealable as it is powerful.

Glock 42

Manufacturer: Glock
Caliber: .380
Action: DAO
Capacity: 6+1
Length: 5.94"
Height: 4.13"
Width: 0.98"
Barrel length: 3.25"
Weight: 12.17 oz. (unloaded)
Trigger Weight: 5.4 lbs

The .380 Glock 42 is the smallest pistol that Glock makes. Weighing in at less than a pound, it's a palm-sized CCW handgun that can be concealed almost anywhere. If anything, it might be too small for people with large hands. The ultra-light .380 round also doesn't have much dropping power compared to our other top picks.

Nonetheless, as long as you train regularly and can consistently land effective shots, the .380 cartridge is a serviceable defense round. If size and concealability are your top priorities, the Glock 42 should be near the top of your shopping list.

Sig Sauer P365

Manufacturer: Sig Sauer
Caliber: 9mm
Action: DAO
Capacity: 10+1, 12+1, or 15+1
Length: 5.8"
Height: 4.3"
Width: 1.06"
Barrel length: 3.1"
Weight: 17.8 oz. (unloaded)
Trigger Weight: 5.5 lbs

Unlike many compact and subcompact 9mm handguns, the Sig Sauer P365 is built to handle +P ammunition, giving you the option to pack some extra punch in your CCW gun. It's also the fourth-lightest option on this list, and it's quite small overall.

Like most Sig Sauer handguns, the trigger on the P365 is nice and smooth, although there's an almost undetectable hiccup at the break point. Its sub-$500 price point sweetens the deal even more, making this pistol a very attractive concealed carry weapon for almost anyone.

Springfield XD-S Mod.2

Manufacturer: Springfield Armory
Caliber: .45
Action: DAO
Hammer/striker: Striker
Capacity: 5+1 or 6+1
Length: 6.5"
Height: 4.4"
Width: 0.9"
Barrel length: 3.3"
Weight: 23 oz. (unloaded)
Trigger Weight: 8.1 lbs

The XD-S Mod.2 is a comfortable, reliable, and surprisingly portable .45, thanks to its single-stack design. Its slimness and height make it easy to conceal, even under a normal t-shirt. Its sub-3.5" barrel combined with the size and ballistics of the .45 round make it slightly more challenging to shoot accurately, but the excellent stopping power more than makes up for it.

The XD-S Mod.2's unusually heavy trigger is its only real drawback. Fortunately, there are several aftermarket kits to lighten the trigger substantially. Simply put, this is one of the best compact .45's on the market, especially in light of its competitive price.

Beretta PX4 Storm Type F Compact

Manufacturer: Beretta
Caliber: .40
Action: SA/DA
Hammer/striker: Hammer
Capacity: 10+1 or 12+1
Length: 6.8"
Height: 5"
Width: 1.42"
Barrel length: 3.27"
Weight: 27.4 oz. (unloaded)
Trigger Weight: 9 lbs

The PX4 Storm chambered in .40 S&W is a bit larger and heavier than most of our other favorites, but it's still perfectly hideable under loose clothing. Its 10 or 12-round capacity is impressive, considering that most similarly sized pistols with comparable capacities are chambered in 9mm.

The 9-pound double-action trigger pull will be too heavy for some, although it's not too bad because it's smooth and consistent throughout. If you want large-caliber power without large-caliber recoil, .40 is a solid choice, and the PX4 is one of the nicest compact models you'll find.

Ruger LCRx

Manufacturer: Ruger
Caliber: .38 or .22
Action: SA/DA
Hammer/striker: Hammer
Capacity: 5 (.38) or 8 (.22)
Length: 6.5"
Height: 4.5"
Width: 1.25"
Barrel length: 1.87"
Weight: 13.5 oz. (unloaded)
Trigger Weight: 10.1 lbs

The .38 and .22 versions of the surprisingly light Ruger LCRx are virtually identical in size. Although the .22 version holds an additional three rounds, the significantly better stopping power of the .38 cartridge makes it a superior choice for most self-defense situations.

The double-action trigger pull isn't nearly as heavy as our other favorite Ruger revolver, the SP101, but it's still somewhat unpleasant. Even so, the LCRx is comfortable to shoot and easy to control. It weighs less than half as much as the SP101, making it a well-balanced CCW gun that performs reliably in all situations.

Smith & Wesson 442

Manufacturer: Smith & Wesson
Caliber: .38
Action: DAO
Capacity: 5
Length: 6.3"
Height: 4.49"
Width: 1.35"
Barrel length: 1.88"
Weight: 15 oz. (unloaded)
Trigger Weight: 6.5 lbs

If the triggers on our other favorite revolvers are too heavy for you, consider the much lighter and snappier S&W model 442. This wheelgun fits easily in a pocket holster, which is mostly a good thing, but its diminutive size does make its recoil a bit more difficult to manage.

Although the hammerless design means you can't reduce the trigger pull, it does make for a quicker, smoother, less error-prone draw — there's no hammer to snag your pocket or shirt. Few revolvers under $500 balance power and concealability as well as the S&W 442.

Shop with Confidence

Every gun on this list has been around for at least a few years and has stood the test of time. Of course, new CCW handguns will eventually come out that might be better than these. If nothing else, these manufacturers — HK, Glock, Smith & Wesson, Ruger, Sig Sauer, Springfield, and Beretta — have long-standing reputations for producing quality firearms, and they'll likely continue doing so long into the future.

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