What Size Handgun Should I Carry? By: Alex Cole

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An assortment of pistols on a table

With modern options, there are hundreds of great handguns on the market. This is great because if one doesn’t work for you, ditch it for one that does. But with so many choices, how do you decide which one is right for you?

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Most of it is going to be up to personal opinion and how the gun feels to you. Some are going to fit your hand better than others, and you will notice you shoot some better than others. Some will be too big for you to conceal effectively, while others will be too small to handle and shoot well. I’ll attempt to help you narrow it down by examining the pros and cons of different size handguns.

Due to popularity, most of the example pistols I’ll reference are chambered in 9mm, but many are available in other calibers.

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three pistols assorted sizes
Some pistols will work better for certain occasions.

Full-Size

The largest handguns are considered “full-size.” These are the typical duty guns you’ll see on a cop’s belt or a soldier’s hip. That’s not to say that these are not for civilians, as these tend to be the easiest handguns to shoot. The heavier weight helps to soak up some of the felt recoil and the longer grip combined with the greater sight radius aids in accuracy and handling. 

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The drawback to the full-size handgun is its lack of concealability. The size and weight make it harder to carry concealed all day and it will be more noticeable to other people. However, this does not automatically rule out full-size handguns, as many people are capable of easily carrying a full-size handgun all day long. It mainly depends on your body type, wardrobe, and tolerance.

For me, carrying a full-size pistol isn’t comfortable in most situations. I’m sure other people feel this way, and this makes it more likely that you’ll leave your firearm at home. Having the biggest, baddest carry gun in the world won’t help, if you don’t have it on you when you need it.

There are plenty of great full-size pistols on the market, but I’ll highlight some of the most notable in different styles. The tried and true Government Model 1911 has been serving for over a century and shows no signs of quitting. The crisp, single-action trigger and slim single-stack design make this pistol shoot extremely well and feels great in the hand.

My personal favorite full-size pistol is the SIG Sauer P226. Variations of this pistol have been used by law enforcement agencies, as well as the Navy SEALs, for decades. The P226 has an established track record of incredible durability and legendary reliability. 

One of the most common modern police pistols is the Smith and Wesson M&P full-size. This striker-fired pistol is available in several different calibers and is simple to maintain and is lightweight on the hip with its polymer frame.

long-slide pistols - M&P

Compact

Compact pistols help bridge the gap between handguns that are often too large or too small. Compact pistols feature a slightly shorter barrel and grip than their full-size counterparts. However, they retain many of the features that make them great defensive handguns. This seems to be the sweet spot for most shooters looking for a do-it-all handgun. 

There are some who will think a compact handgun is too large for carry and end up leaving it in the safe or a drawer. In these cases it may as well be a full-size pistol. Although, the smaller grip may feel better in the hand to shooters with smaller hands.

The most popular pistol in this size, and possibly in the United States, is the Glock 19. Due to the popularity of the Glock platform, this pistol will have the most upgrades and accessories available on the market.

Another great option that comes ready to rock right out of the box is the Walther PDP Compact. The Walther PDP incorporates some of the best features that modern shooters are looking for, such as grip texturing, an optics-ready slide, and ambidextrous controls. Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention the Beretta 92 Compact. The pistol brings all the famed qualities of the military M9 into a more concealable package for everyday carry.

Walther PDP with light
Walther makes several versions of the PDP. This one features the compact slide paired with the full-size frame.

Subcompact

Subcompact pistols are my favorite size for concealed carry. As the name suggests, these are another step down in size. Most subcompact pistols will feature a two-finger grip, with your pinky dangling off. Although, there are pinky extensions for most magazines that will allow for a full grip. 

Due to the reduced size of subcompact pistols, you’ll likely feel a noticeable increase in felt recoil compared to their full-size and compact counterparts. The shorter barrel and sight radius will also cause a decrease in wound ballistics and accuracy at longer ranges. Magazine capacity will also be limited to around 10 rounds depending on the caliber.

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One of the top subcompact pistols is also a great budget option. The Canik TP9 Elite SC packs a ton of features for a price that won’t break the bank. This is a little larger than most subcompact pistols, but that aids in accuracy and recoil control at the range. 

Another solid subcompact option is the CZ P-10 S. The P-10 S has a higher magazine capacity than most of its competitors with 12-rounds in a flush-fitting mag. The P-10 is also known for having a great trigger and excellent reliability.

The final option here rides the line between this category and the next, but I believe its size fits better in the subcompact zone. The M&P Shield Plus is slimmed down from most subcompacts but still features the same 10-round capacity. The original M&P Shield as well as the newer Shield Plus are some of the top-selling pistols in the country for good reason.

Canik TP9 Elite SC

Micro/Pocket

Stepping down in handgun size again, micro, or pocket, pistols are the most easily concealed. Newer “micro 9s,” as they tend to be referred to, are all the rage right now. These pistols are only slightly larger than traditional pocket pistols but feature a similar magazine capacity to larger subcompact options. This is accomplished by new magazine design and technology that allows you to fit more ammo into a smaller gun. The most popular micro pistols are the SIG Sauer P365 and the Springfield Armory Hellcat. These are reliable and dependable guns that are incredibly popular for concealed carry.

Moving on to more traditional pocket guns, one of the most popular is the Ruger LCP series. My favorite in the bunch is the .380 ACP LCP Max. The Max offers both 10-round and 12-round magazine options and fits nicely in the front pocket of my jeans. This gives you a much higher capacity than any other alternative. A J-Frame revolver is a great option because of the inherent reliability and certain concealed hammer models can be fired from inside the pocket. The Derringer has been a go-to pocket option for decades, although it only provides the shooter with two rounds. Bond Arms makes modern derringers in all sorts of designs and calibers that are extremely well made. Even the budget Roughneck series is a dependable option.

SIG Sauer P365 9mm handgun with a spare magazine left profile
The SIG P365 packs a lot of firepower into a small package.

Carry Methods

If you’re not worried about concealing the firearm, there’s really not much of a reason to not go with a full-size handgun. Openly carried in a strong-side OWB holster, the full-size pistol is fast into action. A full-size pistol is also a great option if you plan on carrying off-body in a bag or vehicle.

Another great option that works well with both full-size and compact options is the shoulder holster. This will require some sort of covering garment, such as a jacket or overshirt, but keeps the weight of the gun off the beltline. There are off-side ammo carrier options to help distribute the weight evenly and provide you with an ample supply of spare magazines.

Inside-the-waistband carry is popular with compact and subcompact handguns. This is probably the most common method of carry, as it provides convenient access to the pistol with good concealability. The main two positions of IWB carry are appendix and behind the hip. Both have their pros and cons, but the main consideration will be how your pistol, holster, and carry position fit with your body type. Those with a bit more of a gut may have a hard time carrying in the appendix position, but for some folks it may offer more concealment.

The easiest and most discreet method of carry is pocket carry. Unfortunately, it requires the shooter to sacrifice draw speed, accessibility, and handgun size. These handguns tend to be chambered in smaller calibers as well. However, you do get a great deep concealment option for when carrying a larger firearm may not be possible.

Ankle carry has similar drawbacks to pocket carry, but draw speed will be hindered even more. However, if you find yourself sitting or driving for most of the day, you may find ankle carry works better for you. 

Blackhawk! IWB Holster
IWB holsters are the most popular for concealed carry.

Final Thoughts

Personally, I lean on the size of a subcompact pistol for everyday carry. I feel it provides me with the best balance between concealability and shootability. However, I also have options in all different size ranges depending on the situation. My carry gun will be very different if I’m going to a wedding or on a camping trip. 

What’s your favorite handgun size for daily carry? Does your choice ever change? Do you have multiple options? Share your answers in the comment section.