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Priorities in the Selection of the Defensive Handgun

1. Reliability

2. Ergonomics

3. Other Size Factors

4. Revolver vs. Semi-auto (Autoloader)

Three generations of Smith & Wesson Centennial revolvers - with blued or stainless-steel frames - from top to bottom, wear the original factory grip with a Tyler T-Grip Adapter, hand-carved Boot Grips from Craig Spegel and the Pachmayr Compac Professional Grip. (Photo from Defensive Use of Firearms: Revised and Updated, copyright © 2010, by Defensive Use of Firearms, LLC.)
The Delta Grip from Ergo Grip extends beyond both the back strap and the bottom strap of a round-butt, J-frame S&W revolver, making it less suitable for pocket carry. Some users of the Airweight and Airlite versions - particularly if they have man-size hands - find that it makes those guns easier to control.
Hogue's Centennial/Bodyguard grip - pictured here on Smith & Wesson's Bodyguard 38 - offers a less radical approach to making those two small-frame S&W revolvers more manageable for some users. It is currently offered with the rubber section in three different colors, including pink and black.
Compare these two similar grips from Hogue for the ultralight Ruger LCR revolvers. Some grip makers are sensitive to the fact that male-size finger grooves are not suitable for all users and offer models without them.
This photo shows all three "palm swells" that Beretta furnishes for the PX4 Storm pistol. Note that only one extends the distance from the back strap to the face of the trigger. This photo shows a Walther PPQ pistol, and all three of the back-strap inserts. Note that they offer both different shapes and different distances from the back strap to the face of the trigger.
  • Some pistols, including most versions of Smith & Wesson's discontinued metal-frame, double-action models, incorporate a safety mechanism that prevents firing if there is not a magazine inside the magazine well. Ruger actually offers its small, striker-fired LC9s in a standard version that includes both a thumb safety and a magazine-disconnect safety and a Pro version, that lacks both.
  • Magazine-disconnect safeties may be viewed as desirable by users who want to be able to disable the pistol by simply removing the magazine. One such group that comes to mind is mothers and grandmothers who will not commit to holstered carry, on-body, and may perceive a need to disable the gun when children are present and the gun may be out of sight and reach of the adult.
  • The crucial issue is that safety with firearms is primarily a matter of following The Rules, not relying on a mechanical safety. Further, those who do opt for a pistol that incorporates a magazine-disconnect safety must remain mindful that that feature is not present on all other pistols, including some which may appear to be the same model as one that does incorporate that device.

  • As the US prepared to enter World War I, it lacked the capability to manufacture enough of the newly adopted M1911 pistol. In 1916, someone at Smith & Wesson figured out that the rimless .45 ACP cartridge could be made to function reasonably in the firm's large-frame revolver by inserting three of the rounds in a stamped-steel half-moon clip. The Army adopted that revolver as an expedient and Colt created a similar one on their large frame. This resulted in the rare case of two mechanically distinct handguns sharing the same designation - M1917.
  • The three-round half-moon clip was so named as it had a semicircular shape, with the cartridges inserted from the "inside." The concept was not all that popular with early Border Patrol agents who were issued surplus M1917 revolvers and M1917 rifles - another expedient to deal with the inability to produce enough of the relatively new M1903 Springfield. Then came the sport of timed bowling-pin matches and someone started making full-moon clips that revolver competitors felt gave them a faster reload with the rimless .45 ACP round than using a speedloader with rimmed cartridges. The full-moon clips - generally referred to simply as moon clips today - have a star shape, with an opening for the center of the extractor star - and cartridges inserted from the "outside."
  • Today, revolvers are made to handle such pistol calibers as .380 ACP, 9x19mm, .40 S&W, 10mm and .45 ACP with the use of moon clips. Because some shooters value what they believe is a faster reload with a moon clip, some .38/357 revolvers are manufactured to allow their use and others - typically in other chamberings - are so modified. These work by cutting a recess in the center of the rear of the cylinder, to accommodate the moon clip while leaving enough of the outer contour for the rim of the case to headspace, whether or not the clip is used. Unlike with the rimless pistol cartridges, the rimmed revolver cases will also extract with the extractor star without the use of the clips.
    • For as little enthusiasm as I have for designing or modifying revolvers chambered for rimmed cartridges for the use of moon clips, I am unable to validate a claim in at least one online forum that the use of rimmed revolver cartridges, without the moon clips, in such guns increases the risk of cases getting trapped under the extractor star.
  • Moon clips are susceptible to bending and breaking - the latter particularly with the relatively flimsy clips used for five-shot 9x19mm and .38/.357 revolvers. Bent clips - just enough to keep them from lying flat - may not only slow the claimed faster reload, they may also absorb some of the energy of the hammer strike, hindering reliable ignition of the primer. In the worst-case scenario, they may even hinder rotation of the cylinder. An additional issue with moon clips for revolver cartridges is whether their thickness matches the brand of ammunition that you intend to use.
    • Since this discussion was first posted, a company called Ez Moon Clips has introduced a line of moon clips for pistol cartridges made of a slightly flexible polymer. In addition to making the cases easier to insert and remove from the clips, the company claims that this also allows them to spring back to their flat configuration should they be bent. If true, that's a significant consideration in the selection of moon clips.
  • Around the 1980's, French police used revolvers chambered in 9x19mm, both with and without moon clips. (Smith & Wesson's Model 547 was specifically designed to extract that rimless case without the use of moon clips for such a contract.) It is worth noting that those French units who continue using revolvers - typically SWAT-style entry teams - have transitioned to France's own Manurhin .357 Magnum revolvers.
  • If you've got the spare funds, I have no objection to seeking out an out-of-production S&W Model 547 or a currently produced Charter Arms Pitbull revolver, for the expedient use of 9x19mm ammo when it is more readily available than the traditional, rimmed revolver rounds. Dependence on moon clips, however, negates one advantage of the revolver - the ability to keep loading with loose rounds when magazines, clips, speedloaders and similar devices are not available. Double-action revolvers generally function more reliably with the rimmed cartridges around which they were designed. Those concerned with saving a second or two in reloading time may be better served by a so-called "New York reload" - transitioning to a second revolver.

  • The two key issues with speedloaders are choice of type and how to carry them.
  • There are two basic types of speedloader - twist-release and push-release. The choice is somewhat like a man's choice between briefs and boxers - folks tend to fall into two camps and to adhere strongly to their preferences. Admittedly, I was trained with twist-release loaders - specifically HKS brand - and am most familiar with and partial to those.
  • Twist-release loaders are pretty simple. The body has openings for the cartridges, appropriately spaced so that they will align them with the chambers of the revolver for which the loader is intended. A knob turns a "star" clear of the openings for insertion of the rear of the cartridges, then turns it in the opposite direction, to engage the rims. When it's time to release the cartridges, the knob is turned back. On HKS loaders, the knob turns clockwise to accept and to release the cartridges and counter-clockwise to secure them. On the twist-release Pachmayr and 5 Star loaders, it's the opposite.
    • At the expense of a longer length, the Speed Beez speedloader operates very much like a twist-release loader except that rather than twisting the knob, it is pressed to release the cartridges. One review, however, suggests that this design may not reliably retain the cartridges if dropped.
  • A significant concern with speedloaders is the potential for an ergonomically shaped grip stock to interfere with the optimal alignment of the loader with the cylinder. This can be an issue even when the grip is shaped with a so-called speedloader clearance. Pachmayr uses a rounded hexagonal shape and 5 Star uses a scalloped shape to minimize that potential problem.
  • Some people dislike the fact that twist-release loaders depend on gravity to seat the cartridges in the chambers. While I recognize the potential for the chambers to get a bit "sticky" after a few loaded cylinders have been fired, I see that as more of an issue in a match or in training than in an actual gunfight. I prefer to look at the other side of the coin. The ability to release the cartridges without having all of them already partially chambered offers a few options:
    • Cartridges whose bullets don't present a rounded ogive or taper, allowing easy, simultaneous alignment with all the chambers - typically low-recoil loads with target-style wadcutter bullets or Federal's similarly contoured +P HST Micro load - can still be loaded from a speedloader by indexing two of them at the outer edges of two chambers and twisting the knob.
    • When revolvers ruled the roost, some officers who carried a K-frame S&W revolver in the duty holster found that, in a pinch, they could use the same technique to reload a backup D-frame Colt revolver (e.g., Detective Special or Cobra), with its slightly smaller cylinder. I'm under the impression that this also applies to twist-release loaders sized for the five-shot S&W J-frame and Ruger SP101 revolvers to reload Ruger's LCR/LCRx revolvers, with their slightly smaller cylinders, and vice versa.
    • In fact, this last technique can even be used to reload - at least partially - a five-shot J-frame revolver with the loader for a six-shot K-frame revolver. With no intervening practice, I demonstrate this from time to time. I can usually get four of the six rounds chambered and, on a good day, five of them.
    • (Inasmuch as I've got some photos of the process of a normal reload with an HKS loader, they've been posted on a separate page.)
  • Push-release loaders require the cartridges to be inserted far enough into their chambers to depress the release button at the center of the body of the loader. The push-release, German-made SL Variant - no longer available in the US - has its body scalloped, to reduce interference with grip panels. This feature seems to have been incorporated into the relatively new QuickLoad speedloaders. Some users who prefer the push-release concept have found it necessary to deepen the speedloader clearance on the left side of the grip, in order to use the loaders with round bodies smoothly.
  • At that, Safariland's more compact Comp II loaders still depend on gravity - or finger pressure - to finish seating the rounds. Others, such as Safariland's Comp III loaders, which use a spring to drive the rounds out of the body, add a bit more bulk on top to house the spring mechanism.
  • Speaking of gravity, reloading a revolver generally requires the muzzle to be pointed at least partway below horizontal or the cartridges will start sliding out before the action can be closed. That's just part of the price of using a revolver. Of course, as mentioned above, a faster alternative that is not dependent on position is a so-called "New York reload" - transitioning to a second revolver.
  • Speaking further of gravity, in a fight, the loader itself is expendable once the new rounds are chambered. Whichever type of loader is used, once it's performed its job, it is simply released so that that hand can reacquire the firing grip and the action closed as quickly as possible. Let gravity take the loader to the ground by whatever course it chooses - don't waste time tossing it aside. On the range, empty loaders can be recovered when it is safe to do so. On the street, they're likely to end up in evidence bags.
  • (If some cartridges fail to drop out of a twist-release loader when the knob is turned, that's probably because of some interference between the grip and the body of the loader. One or two spins of the cylinder with the thumb already on the cylinder should let the remaining cartridges drop into place and allow the empty loader to find its way to the ground.)
  • For the sake of completeness, at least one company - Zeta6 - has begun offering a hybrid between a speed strip and a speedloader. The cartridges are carried in a pattern to fit the chambers of the revolver - as in a conventional speedloader - but the release, once the fresh rounds are chambered, is effected by peeling off the the flexible carrier - differing from a conventional speed strip in that all the rounds are chambered at once. As with a speed strip, this form of release is not realistic in the extreme case of needing to perform a one-handed reload with a revolver with a 2" barrel as it will pull the barrel free of its placement inside the waistband. At that, even using two hands, one reviewer had trouble leaving all five rounds chambered in a five-shot, J-frame S&W revolver when peeling off the strip.
  • Out of uniform or off the range, one challenge of speedloaders is carrying them discreetly. Add to that the fact that most users find it more ergonomic to align the cartridges with the chambers by holding the body of the loader rather than by holding the knob. (Tip: Once you've got the loader positioned at the rear of the cylinder, it's easier to use the thumb holding one side of the cylinder to rotate the cylinder than to rotate the loader for the final alignment.)
  • Cartridge spacing and belt thickness allowing, I like to carry the loader straddled vertically over the belt, with half the cartridges inboard and half the cartridges outboard of the belt. (That's usually three inboard and two outboard when the loader only holds five rounds.) With my experience limited almost entirely to HKS loaders, the two carriers that I prefer are the Second Six pouch from DeSantis and the Speedloader Clip from Ted Blocker Holsters. The former will work with both the J-frame and K-frame .38/.357 HKS loaders and provides the security of a snap while still allowing acquisition of the body of the loader with thumb on one side and middle and ring fingers on the other. It is adjustable for use on 1¼", 1½" and 1¾" belts. The latter is a spring clip, available in two versions for use with 1½" or 1¾" belts, and gives the fastest acquisition of an HKS loader, in the preferred grasp, of any system that I've seen.
  • Several makers produce pouches suitable for the more compact Safariland Comp II loaders, typically of ballistic nylon with a Velcro closure or of leather, with a snap closure. I see two problems with them: First, they place the entire bulk of the loader outboard of the belt. Second, they usually require that the loader be grasped by the knob, not by the body.
  • There are a few offerings made of Kydex, which may or may not offer the preferred grasp. I recall seeing one that places the loader horizontally, over the belt. A major concern of mine is that Kydex is not tolerant of flexing. I have no reports on the durability of the section that holds the loader but I'd be very wary of any Kydex belt attachment that would be susceptible to flexing from the wearer bending over or from the belly hanging over the belt.
  • Most people can reload more efficiently by transferring the empty gun to the non-gun hand for the reloading process and handling the loader in the dominant hand. Thus, loaders are typically worn on the gun side - if the gun is worn on the dominant side - or at the front of the body. With some holders that position the loader vertically, it may be possible to wear one loader just forward of the holster so that the two bulges blend into each other, making for easier concealment than two separate bulges.
  • Some people carry speedloaders in pockets. If you do so with a five-shot loader, here's a "hack": You can cut or grind down a 13- or 16-dram prescription vial (look for the number 13 or 16 on the bottom) so that the body of the loader just barely sits on the new rim and the bullets are protected from such things as pocket lint plugging the cavities. (The same concept can be used with a moon clip of the same size and will also reduce the risk of bending the clip.)

5. Hammer-Fired vs. Striker-Fired Pistols

6. Caliber or Power

  • "Mouse gun" is an admittedly derogatory term for a small-caliber pistol intended for carry in a pocket rather than in a belt holster. (Historically, such guns have also been carried in purses or kept in nightstand drawers although neither practice is recommended.) The term implies that the cartridge fired is only powerful enough for use on animals the size of mice.
  • Opinions vary as to whether the term includes pistols chambered in .380 ACP but it would certainly seem to include most pistols chambered in .32 ACP, .25 ACP and those pistols chambered in .22 Short and .22 LR that are not intended for sporting use. That last qualification raises the additional issue beyond power of relying on such guns for defensive use - their size. As noted above, small size may be as much an impediment to effective use of a handgun as large size.
  • While some users - particularly those with limited strength or arthritis - may need to settle for small-caliber guns due to intolerance for recoil, felt recoil will be intensified by small size of the gun and improper fit to the hand firing it.
  • Historically, many of the sales of these guns has been to people particularly concerned about concealment in prohibited venues such as work environments where otherwise lawful carry is banned by an employer. Some have sought them as "last-ditch" backup guns hat would only be used in extremely close quarters, such as when an assailant has managed to mount the defender and access to another, more powerful gun carried is not feasible. That is certainly a plausible argument for such a gun but its limitation for delivering low-power shots beyond arm's length must be kept in mind.
  • Admittedly, we now live in a world with recurrent ammunition shortages, often including of the once ubiquitous .22 LR. With the caveats about rimfire ammunition expressed elsewhere, a traditional argument for the .22 LR for those who must use a low-power round for defensive purposes is that its relatively low cost should encourage frequent practice. If that's the route that you or a loved one must go, at least select a pistol that is both practical and fun to shoot.
  • Note that, while this discussion has focused on pistols, many of these same comments apply to mini-revolvers and to derringers. In fact, with the latter, poor ergonomics become an even bigger issue as power and recoil increase.

7. Problems with Lightweight and "Ultralight" Handguns

8. Consistency

9. Revolvers Make Poor Shotguns

  • Over the years that this website has been online, there has been a substantial increase in the number of Americans carrying firearms for personal protection. In recent years, I have seen an increasing number of articles reporting mishaps as dropped-gun discharges, resulting in a spectrum from embarrassment, through legal charges, to injuries and fatalities.
  • Firearms suitable for defensive use are properly considered deadly weapons. As such, their primary function is to launch potentially deadly projectiles. Attempts at mechanical means to make them completely "safe" risk making them useless for that primary role, under emergency circumstances. Thus, safety with firearms is primarily a matter of following The Rules.
  • While the use of a proper holster is a major step in keeping handguns from dropping to the floor or the ground, some guns are still less "drop-safe" than others. For better or for worse, such "drop-resistance" usually comes at a higher price. Most good-quality, modern revolvers and pistols are fitted with passive safety devices that greatly reduce the risk of dropped-gun discharges. One maker of medium-price firearms was forced to recall several models of polymer-frame, striker fired pistols because the firing-pin safety, at best, required engagement of the thumb safety in order to prevent discharges if the pistols got dropped at the wrong angles.
  • When you shop for a firearm - particularly a handgun - be sure to ask what sort of passive safety it has to prevent discharge if it is dropped. It may be worth some further research to determine if that safety system has been reported to have failed.

  • One of the most common problems with revolvers is binding of the cylinder. With double-action revolvers, this is often noticed as resistance in the trigger stroke. Such binding can be caused by one or more high primers, crud under the extractor star or - in S&W revolvers and some copies of them - loosening of the sleeve that forms the forward portion of the extractor rod.
  • A good precaution, after closing the action of a loaded revolver, is to check that the cylinder is not binding. If the revolver has a hammer with an exposed spur, the hammer can be eased back just far enough to disengage the cylinder stop, which rises and falls in a slot at the bottom of the cylinder window. Once it is disengaged, the other thumb can be used to check that the cylinder rotates without binding. If the revolver lacks an exposed hammer spur - such as if the hammer is concealed or the spur has been removed - the tip of the little finger of the non-gun hand can be usually inserted behind the trigger, allowing the trigger enough travel to disengage the cylinder stop without the risk of firing the revolver unintentionally.
  • If binding is detected and is traced to one or more primers that project beyond the head of the cartridge case, those rounds must be replaced. This problem is seen more commonly with reloaded training ammunition but can occur with factory ammunition as well.
  • If no high primers are detected, check the mating surfaces of the underside of the extractor star and the recess in the cylinder in which it seats. This is the most crucial area for cleaning on a double-action revolver and a revolver shooter should always take a nylon-bristle brush - such as a toothbrush - to the range for such cleaning. Accumulation of unburned flakes of powder here can be eliminated by avoidance of oil at this location and by turning the muzzle skyward while ejecting fired cases.
  • On S&W revolvers, there is a tendency for the sleeve that forms the forward portion of the extractor rod to shoot loose - even after the change to a left-hand thread, circa 1960. As soon as you detect this, carefully unscrew the sleeve, degrease the male and female threads with a solvent such as acetone, then apply a drop of a temporary Loctite (e.g., 222) or nail polish to the male thread before reassembly. The other thread that merits this precaution, when it is found to have worked loose, is the one for the slotted nut that holds the thumbpiece (cylinder release) to the bolt. These threaded parts, along with the side-plate screws, strain screw and the screw that holds the rear sight in place if the revolver is fitted with an adjustable sight, should be checked on every cleaning.
  • While revolvers have long been touted as being more reliable than autoloading pistols, this is a handy guide to function testing the more commonly encountered double-action revolvers. Also, this useful discussion of testing revolvers for other aspects of reliability.


Note: While this cutaway drawing helps identify several parts of a S&W revolver, it is of an older
version and some parts, including the hammer and firing pin, are no longer made as pictured.

Genitron offers a rudimentary animation of the firing cycle of a similar S&W revolver but it fails to show
how the hammer is released by the sear hook on the rear of the trigger, at the end of the trigger stroke.

With the same caveat as above about generational changes, this old US Secret Service maintenance manual
may help you better understand the nomenclature and functioning of a S&W Revolver.


While this article focuses on Glock pistols, the cleaning instructions apply to
most striker-fired pistols and are adaptable to hammer-fired pistols as well.

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