Choosing An Off Duty Carry Gun

I'm often asked for recommendations for a concealed carry handgun. Because much of my response also applies to selecting an off duty carry gun, I thought that I would address it here this month. There are two differences, however, that apply to police officers.

The first is that you should give serious consideration to carrying your regular duty weapon. Many officers discover that when they get their duty gun out of the bulky duty holster and think seriously about carrying it concealed, it is not as difficult as they first imagine. The advantages of doing this are that:

  • it is a gun you already have
  • it is the same one you train with regularly
  • you can use the same ammunition that you use on duty

Second, it should not cost you any extra money. I've carried many different full sized pistols over the years, including government model 1911 style auto loaders, 4 inch barreled S&W K frame revolvers and even a Glock 21 for a while. It can be done with a reasonable amount of comfort and only slight adjustments to your wardrobe, but it is not for everybody. Sometimes a full sized duty pistol just does not work, even after you have made the clothing changes. Usually this is because of the size, weight and general bulk of the gun in relation to your physical size. Sometimes it just does not go with the way you dress in your personal world.

Okay, then the second best choice is to go with the same gun design in a more compact size. I will use the Glock as an example here, because they are the most prevalent in the LE world. The same idea applies to other brands as well. If you carry a large framed Glock, such as the model 21, as your duty gun, then the compact model 30 is a good off duty choice. If you carry a model 22, then a model 23 or 27 makes sense. The idea is that, even though the gun is smaller, it is still the same operating system and uses the same ammunition. The other advantage is that it will take the same magazines that you use for your duty gun. When you carry a gun off duty, you need to carry at least one reload. It is kind of nice to have a higher capacity magazine for your spare, such as a 15 round magazine for the standard 9-round 27, in the example above, or a 17 rounder for a 10 round model 26, or a 13 rounder for the 10 round Model 30. You get the idea. You can even add a couple of rounds to that count using a +2 magazine extension. There are also collars available for at least some of the full sized magazines. They fill in the part of the magazine that sticks out the bottom of the magazine well and will give your fingers a better grip. Some manufacturers, specifically Springfield Armory with their compact XD pistol line, even supply a magazine with their compact pistols that already has that feature on a full capacity magazine. With such a set up, you have the familiarity of the operating system and at least some of the higher on duty capacity.

If you do not have a full sized duty gun that has a corresponding compact that will use the bigger magazines, at least the gun should have the same controls. I am thinking here of the SIG Sauer and Beretta pistols that are also common in police service. It is a big advantage to have the safeties, de-cock levers and other operating controls in the same place as your duty gun. The SIG P239, for example, is an excellent compact carry gun and all the controls are just like the full sized P226. Because some of the controls are significantly different than other brands of guns, it can be a real life-saver in a stressful situation to have everything the same as the gun you regularly use in training. Let's say that you still want or need to go to a different gun. Then what? Then you need to think about several things: caliber, capacity, size and carry method. They are all interrelated, so let's look at each.

Caliber

One temptation for many officers is to scrimp on caliber for the sake of having a small, easy to carry off-duty gun. Please don't. We have a saying: "Friends don't let friends carry mouse guns." While there may be some validity to the idea that any gun is better than no gun, very few people really need to have such a small gun that the only choices for caliber are something south of 9mm. In the case of law enforcement officers, you have responsibilities that you may have to fulfill, and being under-powered will not be a good thing. While some ordinary citizens may be deliberately trying to keep a very low profile when they carry, a police officer usually does not. You may be required to act. Private citizens have no such requirement and can legitimately fade away if a problem arises. I wouldn't want to see an officer trying to stop a crazed gunman, say at a shopping mall (I'm thinking Trolley Square here), with a gun that is best suited to a second back-up role. Stick with the first line calibers.

Capacity

I addressed the best solution to this earlier. Even if you are using a compact sized pistol, try to have a higher capacity magazine as a reload. After all, if you’re that far into a gunfight, concealability of the gun became irrelevant a long time before. If not, and you have a lower capacity gun then plan on carrying more spare ammo. I carry one spare maximum capacity magazine if I am carrying an auto loader that has at least a 10 round capacity. The spare is the compatible full capacity magazine. If I carry a lower capacity gun, such as a revolver (yes, I do), then I always have at least two reloads - and sometimes more.

Size

There are some excellent small guns available today for concealed carry. They generally suffer from two faults. They do not carry very many rounds, usually 6 or 7, and they tend to be more expensive. You pay for the convenience of small size. That said, they are a good choice if you really need to scale things down. The SIG P239 I mentioned earlier is a great little gun. I own several, but it has a single stack magazine. Likewise some of the small Kahr pistols are excellent. The PM9 is about as compact as a 9mm can usefully be, but again, capacity is the trade-off. Such slim guns can be handy. One problem with the Glocks is that they are all the same basic width within the same caliber. The exception is the Glock 36, which gives you the tried and true .45ACP caliber in a very slim pistol. I still would not call it a tiny gun, but it is slimmer than the other Glocks. If you want all the advantages of a Glock in a slim frame, check it out. Also, if you have not already checked out the compact versions of the Springfield XD and the Smith and Wesson M&P pistols, you should. There are some good things happening at both companies and they are continuing to expand their compact offerings. I shot an XD 9mm sub-compact this past weekend and it was superbly accurate and an absolute pussycat to shoot. I am also looking forward to the Smith & Wesson M&P .45ACP Compact pistol. They had a prototype of it at the SHOT Show, but it was not available for live-fire testing. It looked and felt great, and I am really looking forward to test driving one. In other words, there are a lot of good choices out there.

Carry Method

Finally, how you carry can have a big effect on what gun to choose. Let me say up front, you may have to change your wardrobe to accommodate carrying a decent concealed carry gun. This is usually more of a problem in areas of the country that have a lot of hot weather and minimal clothing is necessary for survival. In my case, here in sunny Florida, I usually wear a "safari" vest in the cooler weather. It easily hides any size carry gun and, besides, I have been spoiled with having all the pockets. It has become my portable office. When it gets hot, I go to shorts and an un-tucked polo shirt. I buy the shirts one size larger than normal, which gives plenty of drape at the waist. I carry a compact gun in an inside the waistband holster. No problem. Sometimes I wear a T-shirt (tucked in) with a light-weight shirt unbuttoned and un-tucked as my concealment garment. Very tropical. If necessary, I hum a few bars of "Margueritaville" and act like a tourist. Where there's a will, there's a way. If you are in a hot and humid area, or you sweat a lot, as I certainly do, consider the durability of your gun's finish. In hot weather, I usually have a Glock in a kydex holster. Leather and/or blue steel are not good choices here.

If you are looking at pocket or ankle carry, then you do have to think small. Even generously cut pockets need small guns and small pocket holsters. I usually stick to small revolvers for pocket carry, as they have less square edges to "print" (show through your pocket). I can get away with a compact Glock if the pockets are big, but I can still see the edges. It is rare, however, that my pocket gun is my main armament. Pockets are best for back-up guns. Ankle holsters require really loose legs on your pants. Jeans are not very compatible, unless they are the full, boot cut style. Again, revolvers seem to work best here, or the smallest of the autos. If you are not used to it, weight on your ankle can cause problems. If you carry an ankle back-up on duty, you may want to continue that off-duty. But a mini Glock is about as big as you will want to go, even though I have seen some who carry mid-sized autos.

Another choice is a belly band. If you get used to them, they can almost make a gun disappear under any clothing. They are a little slower to access the gun, but if concealment is your absolute most important goal, they are an excellent choice. I know people who carry full-sized Glocks every day in belly bands and no one ever figures it out. We demo that to amaze and impress our students. But seriously, you just have to make a few adjustments to your carry methods and wardrobe to open up more choices in your carry gun. Keep an eye out for the soon to be released "Gun Digest Book of Concealed Carry" by my friend and colleague Massad Ayoob. I have seen it, because I wrote the Foreword for it. It comprehensively covers the guns, gear and techniques in much more detail than I can here. It should be available from your favorite bookseller sometime this fall.

There are a lot of choices with all of the excellent firearms and gear available today. When someone asks which is best, my answer is always the same: the best gun is the one you have with you when you need it. And it needs to be one you can count on.



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