Concealed Carry Handgun Features and Functions
When it comes time to purchase your first concealed carry handgun (or any handgun), the process can be a little daunting. There are literally hundreds of choices out there, many with multiple feature configurations. Many people start their research online, but those not previously familiar with firearms can quickly find themselves overwhelmed with terminology and gun-speak.
In our previous article (The Best Concealed Carry Gun? No Such Thing) we talk about how there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all make or model when it comes to a concealed carry handgun. However, there certainly are features and attributes common to most types of handguns. What do these features actually do, and why are they important? We thought it would be good to put a little primer together to help people new to firearms understand some of the technical terms they’ll encounter when researching, and what makes those features important. This information and background knowledge can then enable any buyer to make better informed decisions when making a final decision to purchase.
Revolver or Pistol
In simple terms a revolver works by having several cartridge-storing firing chambers arranged in a cylindrical block that are brought into alignment with the firing mechanism and barrel by manipulation of the trigger. A pistol uses a magazine and recoil operation to repetitively extract, eject a fired casing then reload a fresh cartridge.
Both have their pros and cons. Pistols can be a bit more slim and concealable. They also often have an advantage in ammunition capacity and can be reloaded faster. On the other hand, revolvers are viewed as slightly more reliable. Simply put, there are more ways for a failure to occur with a pistol, and since a pistol requires that it be successfully fired in order to chamber the next round, failure to do so, due to a feeding problem or even defective ammunition will completely halt a pistol’s operation.
Revolvers can come configured with either an exposed hammer, or what’s called “hammerless”, which just means the hammer is covered to reduce potential snagging on clothing, etc.
Obviously arguments can be made for both pistols or revolvers, but there’s no wrong answer here, and each individual can choose which style is preferable to them. Semi-automatic pistols can take slightly more practice to manipulate, where as revolvers, once loaded, are very straightforward to use.
Hammer-fire or Striker-fire
Hammers are found on almost all revolvers and many semi automatic pistols. When the trigger is pulled on a revolver, the spring-loaded hammer is released and directly strikes the primer of the cartridge. On a semi auto pistol, the hammer instead strikes a firing pin which then strikes the primer of the chambered round, causing the firearm to discharge.
Striker-fired guns accomplish the same thing with a slightly different mechanism. There is no hammer or external moving parts. Instead, an internal spring-loaded firing pin is released when the trigger is pulled, striking the primer of the chambered round.
The hammer vs hammerless vs striker fire choice might also play into your decision if you plan to carry your firearm in a manner where the protruding hammer potentially could snag on something as its being drawn, but otherwise all function reliably.
Size and Weight
We believe these factors are some of the most important things to take into account, because regardless of all the other considerations, the least effective gun in any situation is the one sitting at home when you need it. You never want your carry gun to be a burden to carry. If you don’t find it comfortable on your waistband, if it’s heavier than you’d like, or it takes up too much room in your purse, then you may find yourself opting to leave it at home. Obviously it’s not doing any good if it’s there and you’re not, so that’s not a habit you want to get into.
While most would consider smaller size to be better for concealed carry, that isn’t always the case. Smaller isn’t better for everyone. A person with large hands may find a very small pistol or revolver difficult to grip and shoot properly.
Single Stack vs Double Stack
These terms describe how the ammunition is oriented in the magazine of a semi-auto pistol. Single stack means the rounds are stacked one directly on top of the other in a single column. This allows for a slimmer magazine resulting in a smaller overall profile width-wise for the firearm, which can help make the firearm more easy to conceal.
On the other hand, double stack pistols have each round slightly offset from each other side-to-side, almost as though there are two columns in the magazine – hence the term “double stack”. Obviously this can greatly increase the ammunition capacity of the magazine, but it comes at the trade-off of a larger overall size. While a quarter-inch or less in extra width may not seem like a lot, it can feel a lot more bulky to some when it comes time to stick it down your pants.
Again, neither is better than the other. A larger person can obviously conceal a larger weapon, and as mentioned, someone with larger hands may find a wider handgun allows for a more comfortable grip and easier control while shooting. Others may find the opposite, or be willing to sacrifice capacity to allow for more concealability. Your situation and preferences will dictate.
Our article (The Best Concealed Carry Gun? No Such Thing) goes a bit deeper, and offers more opinion on this topic. All things being equal, using the cartridge that’s capable of doing the most damage to a hypothetical attacker would be best. Of course, all things are NOT equal, and when it comes to choosing a caliber for self defense, bigger isn’t always better. The more powerful the caliber, the harder a smaller firearm will be to control. Also, over-penetration can be as much of a concern as under-penetration.
As such, we generally recommend people start by looking at a carry pistol in 9mm, or .38 Special if they’re considering a revolver. While there are certainly more powerful calibers (and less powerful), we believe these to be the best balance between capacity, wound-potential, and “shoot-ability” from a smaller platform. Modern self defense ammunition in both of these rounds are quite formidable and up to the task. Furthermore, they are not cost-prohibitive to train with, and found practically anywhere ammo is sold.
Again, we want to stress that these calibers are simply recommended as a place to start. Many manufactures offer the same (or very similar) models in multiple calibers, such as .380 ACP, .40 S&W, .45 ACP, .357 Magnum and more. Each have their own pros and cons, and some models may handle different calibers better or worse in terms of felt recoil. Renting and firing a variety of handguns at your local range will be the best way to determine what model and caliber combination might work for you. Just make sure your making apples-to-apples platform comparisons – shooting .45 ACP from a full-sized, heavy steel 1911 will be a very different experience than shooting the same from a polymer subcompact.
Other Mechanics to Consider
Manual Safety or No Manual Safety
All modern firearms have at least one built-in mechanism to help mitigate the chances of an accidental/negligent discharge. Some have grip or trigger levers built that help ensure the weapon only fire when used as intended. For revolvers and some pistols, a long, heavy trigger pull helps to ensure it’s not somehow pulled accidentally. While none of these are fail-proof, they do afford some added protection without any extra steps on the part of the user. In the heat of the moment, all the shooter needs to do is draw and pull the trigger.
Many pistols also come with a separate, manually operated safety mechanism meant to physically block the firearm from functioning, adding an extra layer of insurance that the gun won’t fire while carried, handled or stored. Of course that also means there’s at least one extra step the user must be sure to do if the need to fire ever arises.
How you plan to carry should dictate your decision to have a manual safety or not. If you plan to have your gun in a holster at all times, or in a way that keeps the trigger completely covered at all times, you may not feel the need for a manual safety. If on the other hand you intent carry it in a pocket or purse, or where there’s even the slightest possibility that the trigger could be mistakenly or unintentionally engaged by something or someone, that extra level of safety and peace of mind might be worthwhile. Whatever the reason, if you do opt to carry with a manual safety engaged, training and repetition become extra important to ensure you don’t forget to disengage it when your life is on the line and a split second can mean everything.
You’ll see a firearm described as Double Action or Single Action. Sometimes they’re both. Either way, this is describing how the trigger operates the firing mechanism.
Double action indicates that the pulling of the trigger both cocks the hammer/striker and releases it (also rotating the cylinder on a revolver), causing the weapon to fire. This usually means the shooter can expect a longer, heavier pull. If the firearm is Double Action Only (DAO), this process is repeated every time the trigger is pulled. Some view this as an advantage in that it makes it much harder to unintentionally pull the trigger to the point of discharge. Another benefit is that if a round were to fail to fire due to a bad primer ignition on a DAO semi auto pistol, the shooter could simply pull the trigger again to see if a second strike will do the trick.
Single Action means the trigger serves only to release the hammer or striker. In order to fire, the hammer must be cocked independently, either by racking the slide to chamber the first round or manually pulling the hammer into position. A Single Action Only (SAO) firearm requires the repetition of that process each time the shooter wants to fire. In the case of single action only semi-automatic pistols, the hammer is re-cocked automatically after as the slide is forced back by the recoil of each shot. But in older revolvers, the hammer must be cocked manually before each shot. You may notice this when watching western movies as the shooter cocks the hammer with their thumb (or “fans” the hammer with the side of their palm) before each shot. Needless to say, a single action revolver would not be a good choice for self defense. While they are still being made, they’re not widely available for purchase and mainly manufactured only for hobbyists and collectors. They’re not commonly found in most gun stores.
A common and popular modern configuration is Single Action/Double Action (SA/DA). This means the the first pull of the trigger both cocks the hammer or striker and then releases it (double action). Then as the round is discharged the recoil movement of the slide re-cocks the hammer, so the next pull of the trigger need only release it (single action). In layman’s terms – the first shot requires a long and deliberate pull, but subsequent follow-up shots require a much shorter, easier pull. Many find this ideal for a defense handgun, because it helps ensure in a stressful situation the initial shot won’t be accidental.
A final consideration is that not all triggers are created equal. A smooth, consistent trigger pull will help you stay on target, while a “gritty”, hard-to-pull trigger might make your point of aim waiver as you squeeze. As the old axiom goes, you often get what you pay for. Trying as many as you can, and reading product reviews will help you sort through what models might be considered to have “good” or “bad” triggers.
A Decocker or Decocking Lever is a safety mechanism added to some firearms to allow a user to release the hammer or striker from a ready-to-fire position without pulling the trigger. Some view this as a safer way to both carry the firearm, or to unload it for cleaning or maintenance.
As we’ve said many times before, the common theme when it comes to concealed carry is that there is no one-size-fits all solution. There are many options and configurations, and at the end of the day, the best gun for you is the one you feel most comfortable both carrying and shooting. Hopefully this article will help to make that decision a little easier when the time comes.
If you have any further questions, or are ready to make your purchase, the folks at Next Level Armory are always standing by to help you be mission ready!