Top Ten Handguns for Self-Defense – Part II – Semi-Automatic Pistols

Prepared as guidance for my brother, who’s shopping for his first sidearm.  He lives in a suburban community on the outskirts of Chicago.  Living in ILL-n-NOY(‘d), he’s not likely to be allowed to carry concealed.  He may not be able to interest his wife in training.  What should he buy?

Part II – Semi-Automatic Pistols –  Best applications:  For more advanced users, concealed carry for larger-bore and/or increased capacity, and full-on combat.  I generally don’t like the smaller semi-autos….I’ve tried many, mostly in .380 ACP, such as the Walther PPK.  It’s just my opinion now, but I’ve come to believe that smaller revolvers serve this niche a little better.  Ham sized fists can interfere with proper slide operation, you don’t get much (if any) more in the way of magazine capacity, and smaller cartridges may not have enough stopping power.

As for the 9mm, sorry, I’ve just never seen the point; yes, you get more (often lots more) capacity but you might as well use a cartridge that has better stopping power in more or less the same sized frame.  Obviously, opinions vary on this issue and, naturally, there are today many good 9mm defensive loads to use.  Still, how much magazine capacity do you really need? 

But, in my opinion, the real advantage of a semi-auto is for larger bore, large capacity, rapidly reloadable firepower.  Today, I’d probably stick with the .40 as the best combination of terminal ballistics and magazine capacity.  But, still, I love the .45 ACP and went that route before the .40 had gained any real traction, and when (mostly) 9mms were impacted by the assault weapon’s ban on high-capacity magazines.  So, I guess I’ll “dance with the girl I brung”. 

Regardless of your preference, however, the NUMBER ONE BIGGEST ISSUE for semi-autos is RELIABILITY.  They MUST FEED EVERY ROUND EVERY TIME or they just don’t qualify as a reliable defense weapon.  I would not carry anything that is overly particular when it comes to ammunition or magazine, requires feed ramp or other modifications to function reliably.  

Frankly, that’s the biggest reason my Walther went away…. I just couldn’t trust it.  Don’t settle for second best with semi-autos, otherwise go with a decent revolver.  They will almost always work with any ammo without a hitch.  No jams to clear, no problems.  The recommended models below tend to be very well-regarded and reliable.  (See this very good article on the “Care, Feeding, & Reliability of the Semi-Auto Pistol at Chuck Hawks site.)

The only other factor worth considering is trigger pull.  Revolvers are generally limited to “harder” double action triggers in fast firing situations.  This does reduce accuracy.  Among the biggest advantages enjoyed by semi-autos is the lighter single action trigger pull, usually after the first shot (except for 1911s, which is one big reason why they remain very popular, especially with competition shooters).  The lighter single-action trigger pull results from these being “self-cocking” when the slide blows back during the shot, which tends to dramatically enhance accuracy.  I noted that I like exposed hammer revolvers, which means you can manually cock the weapon if you want/need the more accurate lighter single action trigger pull.  Doesn’t help you in a combat situation, but it’s nice for target shooting, etc. 

I recommend that you stay away from DAO (double action only) semi-autos, typically law enforcement models from socialistic jurisdictions.  If you’re in a semi, stick with the standard double action first shot, followed by single action second shots (DA/SA).  The 1911, as stated above, is single action only (SAO).  It must be pre-cocked before firing, hence the term “cocked and locked” for a weapon with a round in the chamber, hammer cocked, with safety on.  These SOA advantages are biggest reason why they remain so popular.  Note:  The Glock is, in effect, more akin to a DOA, but it’s a unique design that enables a lighter trigger pull than most.  (Again, more good info from Chuck Hawk’s site on this issue.)

Pistol Brands in order of Quality and Value Rating

1.  Sig Sauer – Quality A+  (Very well made, very reliable, very simple, very perfect) Value – B- (Often the most expensive, except for those very high-end custom 1911s or other, more esoteric competition guns)

2.  Beretta – Quality A+ (Civilian models typically very highly finished, very pretty, very reliable, some unique features)  Value B+  (not cheap, most common models not small really, matter of taste)

3.  Glock – Quality A  (Ugly, unique, but relatively simple design, notable reliability)  Value A+ (May takes some getting used to, but the prices are very good for the quality and reliability.)

4.  Colt or Springfield – Quality A/B+ (1911s only, the Springfield is more mil-spec rough, but both tend to be very reliable)  Value B-/B+  (Nothing like a Colt, but buy the Springfield for value)

5.  Taurus – Quality – B+ (Well executed Beretta copies, not quite as nice) Value – A- (You just won’t love it like a Beretta, sorry, may not be as reliable, not sure.)

My Favorite Models

Note:  These reflect the above noted “rules”, but some exceptions are included.

In order of desirability and cost:

1.  Sig Sauer P226 or P229 (compact), DA/SA, 10 or 12 round mags, tritium night sites, tac rail option, MSRP $1050 w/ night sites, typically available for $825 or so.  I’m interested in their new DAK trigger system, which may be more like the Glock’s.  I personally carry the P220 in .45 ACP.  It’s never ever failed to feed and fire and that’s worth a lot to me in a semi (see comments above).  These are the models most relied upon by the most hard-core special forces units.  Some may argue for the H&K (below) or whatever, but Sig Sauers are simply “just right”.  They look right, fit right, work right.  Used models usually can be found at gunshows for around $700 or so.  (Note:  I’d love to get some feedback on the now-all-Exeter- made models such as the P250C, which have compelling prices….)

1a. (honorable mention)  H&K USP – DA/SA, 13 rounds, $800 at discount shops, sort of esoteric, but also favored by some special ops units.  Less common, but probably nearly as “perfect” as the Sig.   

2.  Beretta 92A1 in .40 cal., DA/SA, 12 rounds, biggish framed without offering any additional capacity.  I’ve got it listed here because there is, admittedly, something special (more pretty and refined) about anything Beretta makes.  These (92s in 9mm, 17 rounds) are what the army adopted to replace the 1911 and they are very reliable, very pretty, but very large.  Too large for the job, in my opinion, but as a matter of taste, I can’t fault those that choose them.  MSRP in the range of $700+, depending on options, but can be had for $600 at discount shops, used for $525 or so at shows.

3.  Glock 22 or 23 – DAO, .40 caliber.  Either/or, a bit longer, a bit shorter, both ugly and very dependable, despite a slightly complicated design.  Very ergonomic, looking like it was designed for 100% for function and not beauty.  Lighter than most full-sized service pistols due to the high polymer content.  Still, a remarkable value at $500 more or less, used nearer $400-$450.  Night sites available and generally add $100 or so to the price.  Favored by the FBI.  The “hands down” winner for value.

4.  1911s – Love ’em or leave em alone – Colt is the mainline name, but these are made over and built up by more companies than you can shake a stick at.  The best “value” alternative is probably Springfield, who offers a stripped down mil-spec model at about $540 or so.  Sometimes you can find them used, but Colts are more common at roughly the same price range.  Para-Ordinance also offers some very nice models, including double-stack magazine models for those with larger hands.  All of these are traditionally available in .45 ACP (with some exceptions), seven round magazines, specialized maintenance and operating skills.  They’re pretty cool (I’ve had three over the years), but not for everyone.  Single action only (SAO).

5.  Taurus PT940 – A slightly lighter and more compact version of their copy of the Beretta 92.  I might even like the SAO “cocked and locked” option, I suppose, but it may be just one more complication to a proven design.  Taurus tends to copy other company’s successes, with a bit less refinement and quality control.  This model makes the most sense as it does tend to improve on the features of the Beretta, at a much lower price point.  Consensus is that they are reliable, but I don’t have any real first or good second-hand experience here. BBW, I guess.  Can be had in the range of $500 new.

There are many, many others, but that’s a reasonable “short list”.  Good hunting.


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