The Semi-Automatic Pistol

February 6, 2010 by  
Filed under Trail Boss Articles

Some people prefer to carry the semi-automatic pistol for defense. The semi-auto is flatter than the revolver, and generally has a greater ammunition capacity than does a revolver of the same overall size. I believe that it simply comes down to PW9609Lpersonal preference more often than not. Rather than advocate a specific brand or model, I’d like to offer some factors that might be to your advantage to consider when looking for a defensive auto pistol.

Is it of a size that you will actually carry it? I don’t mean can you carry it– will you carry it? I one had a +70 year old client show up for training with a large capacity .40 caliber pistol, which he proudly announced he intended to carry all day, every day. I suggested that he might be better served with a smaller handgun, and he became rather indignant. He protested that he was in perfect physical condition, and that he would have no problem carrying the handgun. He was in excellent shape, but his experience in carrying the gun was that he had hauled it to my concealed carry class in his lunch pail.  I might be a bit sheltered, but I haven’t carried a lunch pail regularly since third grade. Sad truth to tell, my main reason for quitting was that my lunches quit fitting in a lunch pail, and I graduated to shopping bags to haul my chow. I have nothing against lunch pails and I’m not clairvoyant, I just doubt this old guy was going to start carrying it 18 hours a day.

It turned out that despite spending way too much money on an expensive holster he found that the gun was simply too large and heavy for him to drag around in the course of his normal workday.  He ended up with a smaller handgun in a pocket holster. The gun should fit into your lifestyle, because you’re unlikely to alter much of your lifestyle when you begin to carry a handgun.

If the gun is too large, you’ll leave it elsewhere. If it isn’t with you, it doesn’t count. I don’t generally recommend tiny defensive auto pistols, but I sincerely believe you are infinitely better off with a .22 Short in your pocket than you are with a Combat Custom Big Name Whiz-Bang .577 Magnum Zombie Killer that is out of reach.  For most people, a reasonable choice is somewhere between those extremes.

Is it reliable?  If your gun shoots when you don’t want it to, it isn’t safe. If it doesn’t shoot when you want it to, it isn’t really a gun. I have heard seemingly-reasonable people say that they’ve never fired their defensive handgun because they “don’t want to break it”. Such behavior is lunacy.  Shoot the gun, and then shoot it some more. If it isn’t reliable, and your best efforts cannot make it reliable, you’re not carrying a gun, you’re carrying a talisman.

Don’t take other people’s word for anything when it comes to defensive handgun reliability. Always err in your favor when making decisions that determine your future health. Reading a shooting test in a gun magazine might be interesting and a place to start, but test your own gun. If everybody you know has found a particular model to be perfect, you might be the person who is due to get a lemon. Don’t carry a defensive semi-auto until you’ve put at least a couple of hundred rounds through it.

I’m not a gun snob, but some brands I have regularly found to be unreliable. I don’t carry those guns defensively.  Though there are brands I prefer, their guns don’t get a free pass with me.  My ugly hide is too precious to me that I will trust some pencil-neck in Advertising or Marketing, whose job it is to sell guns. Its business to them– it’s serious to me.

A few words about inexpensive semi-autos might be in order.  On most inexpensive auto pistols, the magazine is where the least attention is lavished.  If corners are being cut, it’s on the mag. When I became a police firearms instructor, I was taught that probably 90-plus percent of auto pistol malfunctions were due to magazine spring failures.

Consider this:  if you were to purchase a spare magazine for most semi-autos, it would run you about five percent of the cost of the gun. (Say, twenty-five bucks for a five-hundred dollar pistol.) Most magazine springs cost buyers about ten percent of the cost of a magazine. (Roughly two-and-a-half bucks for a twenty-five dollar magazine’s spring.) I’m betting most manufacturers have about a quarter of a dollar’s cost in that spring.  So in a handgun that you spent half a grand on, your handgun’s reliability hinges on a two-bit spring.  You can do the math– (I’ve depleted my skills for one article. I flunked Advanced Math in high school, but only took it because I had a crush on the beautiful brunette who taught it. It didn’t help my GPA, but it was a choice I’ve never regretted)–  if you spent fifty bucks on your pistol, what are the chances it will be reliable?

Don’t get bogged down in details. I’ve seen folks refuse to consider a carry handgun because it didn’t fit into parameters set by alleged experts.  One of the most-revealing articles I ever read was a set of interviews of several top model 1911 custom 300px-Pistol_TT33gunsmiths. After each maker enumerated the qualities that made his handgun a buyer’s best choice for defensive carry, each was asked which handgun he carried daily for defensive purposes.  Not one daily carried a model 1911 he had customized. Most who regularly carried any handgun at all carried a 5-shot S&W J-frame revolver.  Some freely admitted that they seldom carried any handgun, and one mentioned that he had an old war trophy Tokarev semi-auto somewhere in a closet at home.  All seemed to agree that their beautifully-crafted masterpieces were worth more to other people than they were to themselves.  Why carry something that expensive when folding money spends so much easier?

Don’t buy anything just because others write about it.  I prefer a steel-framed S&W model 1086 double-action 10mm for defensive carry.  I truly like the gun, and have taken several whitetail deer with it, one at a bit over fifty-five yards.  Just because I like it doesn’t mean I recommend it to others.  I’ve been carrying concealed handguns since I was 21 years old, which was roughly a million years ago.  When teaching concealed-carry classes I ask that if anybody ever sees me without a handgun that they not mention it to my beautiful and long-suffering wife as she knows that if I’m not wearing a handgun, I’m not wearing trousers.  In short, I’m not quite right. In addition to that, I wrenched my back a couple of months ago and have been carrying a much more lightweight S&W Chief Special 9mm CS9D, a double-action-only compact.  Wimpy?  Sure I am.  But I don’t get paid if I don’t work, and I can’t work if I can’t stand up and walk around.  The little nine will have to do until my back gets squared away.  I’m not stopping car-loads of hostile people on dark freeways anymore, so the little Chief isn’t a bad choice.

20228-1I understand that most handgun tests delight in describing sizes of the groups of shots fired through particular models. Don’t get wrapped up in handgun accuracy.  If you become an enthusiast, you can work on developing pinpoint of long range handgun accuracy.  Until then, work on smooth and efficient presentation from wherever you carry it, and make sure you carry the darned thing.

Don’t choose a gun just because it’s pretty, and don’t reject one simply because it’s ugly.  Consider the above-listed recommendations, and ignore what doesn’t matter.  Don’t worry about public opinion or snide comments from buddies.  Get what fits you and your life.  Make sure it can be relied upon.  Carry the gun as often as you can. Become proficient in its safe and effective handling.  No rocket science involved in this equation, folks.

The fact is that anyone can effectively operate a defensive handgun at a basic level.  You get a good grip, line it up, and put holes in the things you want holes in.  As long as you have a tool that works, and it’s with you when you need it, the rest will likely take care of itself.

Mike Stamm is a retired Michigan State Trooper.  He currently  is the owner and chief instructor at DTOM Inc a Michigan based firearm training company.  If you would like to contact Mike for training or if you have questions you may do so by email:



3 Comments on "The Semi-Automatic Pistol"

  1. Ed Harris on Tue, 9th Feb 2010 8:33 AM 

    VERY revealing! I remember well that article about gunsmiths known for customizing M1911s, but who all carried revolvers as their EDC. I sold my M1911 pistols soon after that and never regretted it. I’m still amused at how an entire industry has grown up around customizing .45s and ARs.

    P.T. Barnum was sure right.

  2. Steve on Wed, 10th Feb 2010 7:56 PM 

    A lot to be put on the table here. I too enjoy a 1911, but know it does one precious little good if left at home because of its bulk. Thoughout the first half of my time as a cop, I carried a Colt (lightweight) Commander .45 on duty, and more than a few times packed it under my jacket on my own time. But generally I carried the only other handgun I owned back then, a nickel M38 S&W. So while it is painful to think about parting with it, I must admit that Commander was rarely around when not in uniform. Today I have replaced that M38 with a M642. And that .45 has long since been retired to the safe. Ny drawn conclusion here is that whatever is in your hand beats anything that is not.

  3. S A Kay on Tue, 2nd Mar 2010 8:09 AM 

    Great article!! I too love 1911′s but for the last 10 years I carry a Glock or XD. Seems like anymore everybody wants to have the latest whiz-bang – I just want to know it’s gonna go bang when I need it to. I especially like your comments about rotating magazines. I break down and clean my carry gun the first weekend of every month and rotate my magazine. I’ve been called a little OCD for it, but I think it makes more sense than having the spring compressed year in and year out.

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