Every gun owner seems to have their own opinion on what caliber is best for concealed carry. The same goes for the best gun, holster, type of carry, the ideal number of rounds, the number of spare mags to carry, and so on and so on. The best gun is always the one that you carry every day. In other words, whatever works for you, keep doing it. But there are pros and cons for each caliber and carry style. For someone who is new to shooting, it’s good to have the discussion, even if there can never be consensus on what the best truly is. First, let’s talk about the handguns themselves.
Different Concealed Carry Handgun Sizes
It can sometimes be hard to discern the size of a handgun simply by the name the manufacturer gives it. Different gun makers have different ideas of what the term “compact” means, for example. In fact, the term compact can even mean different things from the same company. The Ruger LCP is a “light compact pistol”, and one of the smallest semi-automatic handguns made for concealed carry. Conversely, the Ruger SR9c (c for compact) is a 17+1 double-stacked handgun with a shortened barrel, but otherwise nearly identical to the full-sized SR9.
For this discussion, we will break down handgun sizes into four categories. Micro, Small, Medium, and Large. Here are some examples of guns in each of the four size categories:
Micro: Phoenix Arms Raven, Derringer, NAA Mini-revolver
Small: S&W Bodyguard, S&W J Frame Revolver, Ruger LCP
Medium: SIG Sauer P365, Glock 23, S&W M&P Shield
Large: SIG Sauer P229, Beretta 92F, Glock 17, Colt 1911
Some gun enthusiasts consider these micro guns to be merely a novelty. It’s true that they are generally not a gun owner’s first choice for self-defense, but micro-sized guns can be legitimate backup guns and are certainly capable of injuring or killing an attacker. And we should all agree that any gun is better than no gun.
Micros are usually small calibers such as .22 LR, .25, and .32. The Derringer is the exception. It holds two rounds in two over/under barrels and can be found in larger calibers such as .45 ACP. The North American Arms Mini-Revolver is, you guessed it, a mini-revolver. It’s a single-action, five-shot revolver chambered in .22 Short, .22 LR, or .22 Magnum. The mini-revolver is small enough to fit into just about any pocket and works well as a backup gun.
The handguns in the Small category are highly concealable, lightweight, and can be carried in several different ways. You can carry them in a traditional waistband holster, a pocket holster, a belly band holster, or even in an ankle holster. These guns are generally smaller calibers like .380 Auto or .38 Special. They usually have a small capacity because of their small size, generally between 6-8 rounds. Because they are so small, they are popular with new shooters, and especially women. In fact, Smith & Wesson even has an ultralight J frame revolver called the Ladysmith. However, many experienced gun enthusiasts tend to stay away from this category. There is an equation concealed carriers like to follow. It goes like this:
Larger Caliber = Fewer Rounds
Smaller Caliber = More Rounds
This means that they are willing to carry a smaller caliber if it has a larger capacity or carry a smaller capacity if it’s a larger caliber. But guns in the Small category have small calibers and small capacities, and that’s something that many gun owners steer away from.
Where guns in the Small category really excel is concealability. They are extremely easy to carry in multiple ways and are light enough to be carried comfortably all day. It’s often said that the best gun is the one that gets carried every day. All of your research into calibers, holsters, and capacities is worthless if you leave your gun at home because it’s uncomfortable to carry.
Guns in the Medium category are extremely popular with concealed carriers. Many of the best-selling handguns fall into this category. Guns in the Medium category offer a wide variety of calibers and capacities. The most common concealed carry calibers are 9mm, and .40 S&W. Traditionally, concealed carry guns that were 9mm and .40 S&W came in smaller capacities because they were single-stack magazines in order to keep the overall width thinner to conceal better. But recently gun manufacturers have begun producing medium-sized concealable handguns with larger calibers and larger capacities. The SIG Sauer P365 is a great example. It’s a 1.1” thick 9mm compact handgun that holds 12+1 rounds. The Glock 23 Gen 4 and 5 are another compact handgun with a double-stacked magazine. The G23 holds 13+1 rounds of .40 S&W and is just 1.3” thick.
We all love big guns, right? Large calibers and large capacities. These guns are fun to shoot but are much harder to conceal. They can also be cumbersome to carry. Full-sized pistols give you peace of mind knowing that you have the capacity to deal with just about any threat you could face. A Glock 17, for example, comes with a standard capacity of 17+1 chambered in 9mm. The 1911 comes in the largest caliber commonly carried, .45 ACP.
For those carriers who choose to carry full-sized guns, concealment is often an issue. Many experienced concealed carriers change their everyday carry (EDC) with the seasons. In the autumn and winter when they wear heavier clothes and jackets, they can more comfortably conceal a large handgun. In the spring and summer when shorts and tee shirts are popular, they might switch to a smaller, more concealable gun.
One way to get around the concealability issue is: don’t conceal. Guns in the Large category are popular with open carry enthusiasts. The debate between open carry and concealed carry is a fierce one, but one thing is for certain. It’s always better to carry a gun than to not carry one. Open carrying a full-sized 1911 will certainly make a statement. In fact, 1911s are the most popular open carry guns.
Different Carry Methods
Now that we’ve talked about the different sizes of guns and also touched on the difference between concealed carry and open carry, let's get more into the ways to carry a gun for self-defense. There is nearly an infinite number of holsters available to carry your gun in. I prefer to carry in a custom-made holster, as opposed to a “one size fits all” holster. Gun retention is important to me, and a custom-made holster just feels like it fits the gun better and holds it more securely. Holsters can come in a variety of materials, but the two most popular are leather and Kydex. I prefer leather because I like the look and feel of it, but Kydex holsters are extremely popular with gun enthusiasts right now. Kydex is a type of hard plastic that is formed to your specific gun’s dimensions and holds it securely in place while providing excellent protection to the gun.
Carrying in a waist holster is probably the most traditional way to carry concealed. Waistband carry is best for Medium and Large guns, although they make waistband holsters for Small guns as well. Because guns in the Small category conceal so well, there are a number of other types of holsters you can use with them. These include a belly band, pocket, and ankle holsters.
Inside-The-Waistband (IWB) holsters are extremely popular for concealed carry. They do a great job of concealing Medium-sized guns and reducing printing (the outline of a gun seen through clothing). IWB holsters are worn inside the pants, with only the belt clips exposed. This makes for a well-concealed gun, although IWB can sometimes be uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time, especially while seated. If you carry frequently, you will usually get used to the feeling of IWB quickly.
Outside-The-Waistband (OWB) holsters are much more comfortable to wear, although they don’t conceal nearly as well. OWB holsters are worn, you guessed it, outside of the pants. They attach to the belt on the outside of your pants, which means they are usually more comfortable to wear and especially to sit down with. Medium and even Large category guns are comfortable to wear in OWB holsters. OWB holsters are great for open carry, but a little more difficult to conceal. An untucked shirt will usually cover the holster and gun, but if you bend forward there will be significant printing. Some people don’t mind that, others avoid it like the plague. If you want to conceal your OWB and gun, the best way is with a jacket or unbuttoned shirt.
Some gun owners, especially those who like to open carry, like to customize their OWB holster with images, knowing that they will get lots of looks. Flags, the constitution, “We The People”, “Don’t Tread On Me”, and “Come And Take It” are all popular themes for OWB holsters.
Belly Band Holsters
While waistband holsters are by far the most popular style, belly band holsters could be the most convenient. Belly band holsters are pieces of elastic with velcro ends that you can wrap around your body and wear under your shirt. They have pockets built-in that can hold guns, extra magazines, even wallets, keys, and phones. I use my belly band holster when I’m wearing athletic clothes that don’t require a belt. Contrary to the name, a belly band holster doesn’t have to be worn only around your belly. It can be worn around your hips, under the waistband of your pants. This places your gun in roughly the same spot as a belt holster (5 o’clock carry), but with significantly better concealment. If you choose to wear the belly band around your belly, it can be moved up or down on your trunk to suit your specific needs. It can be worn low around your stomach or high around your chest. The belly band holster is extremely versatile.
One problem with the belly band holster is that it’s not a custom-made fit for your gun. The “pocket” in the elastic that holds your gun is one-size-fits-all. While it holds small guns fairly well, if you try to use a belly band with a medium or large-sized gun, it may slip and fall out. Also, the rigid velcro that attaches the band to itself around you is uncomfortable when sitting, depending on how low you wear the band.
Pocket holsters are great for small and micro-sized guns. They are great for backup guns, or for use as a primary concealed carry gun if you’re wearing shorts or athletic clothes. Pocket holsters can be worn in the front or back pockets of jeans or shorts, and conceal small-sized guns very well. I carry a Ruger LCP in a pocket holster sometimes. When I do, it’s usually in the back pocket on my dominant hand side. I also sometimes carry my NAA Mini-Revolver in a pocket holster, this one is usually in the front pocket. Pocket holsters are convenient because you can always have a gun with you, in just about any type of clothing.
Ankle and shoulder holsters are less common than other types of holsters but are still a legitimate way to carry a gun. Ankle holsters are for small-sized guns, while shoulder holsters are usually for large, full-sized guns. Both of these carry options are frequently used by police, both on duty and off duty. Uniformed officers often carry a backup gun in an ankle holster, while plainclothes officers and detectives sometimes carry their firearms in shoulder holsters. If you’re wearing a shoulder holster, it’s best to wear a sports jacket over it. That’s about the only way to conceal a shoulder rig.
We’ve talked about many different sizes of guns and the different ways to carry them. As I said at the beginning, there isn’t one best gun or best holster. The best one for you is the one you’re most comfortable with and the one you carry every day. Don’t let your last thought be “Damn, I wish I brought my gun!”