Choosing Self Defense Guns

This article first appeared in our September 2008 members' journal

By Marty Hayes, J.D.


Much is written in gun magazines and on Internet forums about the kind of weapons we should employ in our self-defense plan. In this article, I will give my perspective as both a trainer and an expert witness in self-defense cases, while drawing on my experiences as a cop for about 30 years, since I still carry a special police commission.

Before talking makes and models though, I want to offer some perspective. Following a self-defense shooting, your gun will be confiscated. If the shooting occurs in the home, police are likely to confiscate all your firearms (more on this in a future article). But, for the purposes of this article, let’s assume that the police take only the gun you used into evidence. That gun will remain in the police evidence locker until it is either released by order of the judge after trial, or given back to you months, if not years, later after police and prosecutors determine that they will not press charges. This brings me to the first point: I wouldn’t use a prized pistol for self defense. I tend to carry guns about which I would not suffer any financial or emotional distress if they were forfeited. That means I carry stock guns, with perhaps a better set of sights. For example, on a recent motorcycle trip, I took along a Colt Defender and a Smith and Wesson Model 642. Total value of both guns combined adds up to under a thousand dollars, so if they sit in some police locker in Big Timber, Montana for five years, it’s not the end of the world.


$800 dollar 1911s, $450 dollar revolvers and $550 Glocks comprise my “go to” guns at home. Whether or not the police might have occasion to take my whole collection is a discussion best left to another time, since it entails a fairly lengthy legal analysis of 4th amendment issues.

Solving Problem One

Jeff Cooper described what a person faces when needing to protect their life or the lives of their loved ones as “Problem One.” He was absolutely right: the first priority must be solving the life-threatening problem. Cooper identified “Problem Two” as dealing with the legal and moral aftermath of a self-defense shooting. This article will first address Problem One, then look at how choosing a self-defense firearm influences Problem Two.

As you know, in addition to leading the Network, I run a shooting school and have, for the past 20 years, advised students about gun selection. The first advice I give is to select a gun chambered in a serious self-defense caliber. That means caliber .38 Special or larger, with .380s relegated to the role of an “expert’s gun.” An expert armed with a .380 has a much better chance of survival because advanced training and skill should offset the ineffectiveness of the cartridge. Still, most experts don’t carry .380s except as a back up, pocket gun.

On the flip side, we don’t want to choose a gun from which excessive recoil makes shooting difficult. New shooters especially benefit from choosing an easy-to-shoot gun as their first pistol. Train and practice with it, and then move up to a large caliber. For example, begin with a Glock 19 and use that as your first training and self-defense handgun. Later, if you want a little more powerful cartridge, get a Glock 23. The skills you learned with the Glock 19 will transfer completely to the larger caliber gun. The converse is also true. At our school, we see many students train with the full-sized Glocks, like a Glock 17, and then conceal a Glock 19 or 26 as their primary carry pistol. For my nickel, it makes sense to train with the gun that allows you the greatest likelihood of success in the training course, and then, once you’ve mastered the necessary techniques, transfer those skills over to the more difficult gun to shoot.

Additionally, I have for the last 20 years, proffered that learning how to shoot with a .22 caliber revolver or semi-auto pistol does no harm and does a lot of good. Once you have mastered the basics of grip, stance, sight picture and trigger squeeze, transfer these skills to a larger caliber handgun. In fact, if granted unlimited money and time, I would start all new shooters with at least eight hours on .22 caliber pistols. If all our students first arrived at the academy with a .22, they would pick up the skills in half the time and spend half the money both on training and ammo. Sheesh, don’t tell them! I make considerable sums each year curing flinches caused by shooting large caliber guns too early in my students’ shooting careers!

Handguns for Self Defense

Next, I would like to identify a few of my favorite self-defense handguns, although this list is certainly not all-inclusive. The previously mentioned Glock 19 is number one on my list because it is in a serious self-defense caliber, is small enough to be carried in a reasonable holster by most people, and is absolutely reliable. The controls are easy to use, parts are readily accessible in the rare event of a breakage, and the recoil is very manageable. In fact, I see this gun in use by many self-defense instructors, who know enough to choose what works. Many times people call the academy and ask for a recommendation on a gun, and before the question is finished, I answer, “Glock 19.” We then start discussing particulars. My second favorite self-defense gun is the Smith and Wesson Model 19, 2.5 inch .357 revolver. In fact, if I could only have one handgun, that would be it. You might ask, “Why on earth choose a revolver?” Well, being an old revolver shooter myself, I do not have any pre-disposed biases. Once a person learns how to manage the double action trigger, it is as easy to shoot as any other gun, and it is chambered for the king of man-stoppers, the .357 Magnum cartridge.

In a survival situation, if I had to hunt for food, I could reasonably hunt large game out to 100 yards with a Model 19, because for some reason, that particular revolver is simply a tack driver. It is very easy to carry in a good pancake-style belt holster, and with a set of wooden Hogue Monogrips, I find it extremely easy to shoot. One can train with light-kicking .38 loads, and then switch to .38 +P or full-power .357 Magnum loads for carry.

One caveat though, if you choose this scheme, make sure you train enough with the hot loads to know you can reasonably control the recoil, and by all means, shoot them in the dark! Depending on the load, the muzzle flash of the short 2.5-inch barrel can be pretty annoying. The revolver also comes in stainless steel as the Model 66, but it has an orange insert for a front sight, and I simply prefer black sights of the S&W Model 19.

My third recommendation for a self-defense handgun, the Springfield XD 9mm pistol, is a gun I have never actually owned and rarely fired. Even though I don’t have a lot of experience with XDs, many of the top experts in the country swear by them, and if it is good enough for Clint Smith, Chuck Taylor and Massad Ayoob, it is good enough for me. I have shot XDs enough to know they shoot very much like the Glock 19, and are perhaps a little more ergonomically pleasing in the hand. Furthermore, the Springfield XD is extremely affordable, a valuable attribute to many.

Fourth place on my list of recommended handguns goes not to one gun, but instead, to a class of guns. Those are the Smith and Wesson J-frame series of handguns, illustrated in the photo above. Options range from 2- to 3-inch barrels, fixed or adjustable sights, stainless or blued steel, hammerless double action only or traditional double action with hammer. The 3” barreled, adjustable sight models are a dream to shoot. However, put a Crimson Trace Lasergrip on a 2-inch Model 642, stash it in a Kramer pocket holster, and you can carry it in a pocket all day long and not even know it is there. There is no excuse for not carrying a serious self-defense handgun, when these babies sell for under $500.

Finally, I believe any list of recommended guns for self defense would be incomplete without listing what Ken Hackathorn calls the world’s finest close quarters combat handgun, the John Browning-designed 1911. Four years ago, I switched my daily carry and training handgun from the Glock to the 1911 and since then, I have become an ardent fan of this pistol.

I have three 1911 pistols that I routinely swap around for training and carry, a series 70 Springfield Armory, a Smith and Wesson and a Para-Ordnance. They all are set up with short triggers and extended magazine wells, and I can switch between them without a hitch. Also in the gun safe, is the aforementioned Colt Defender, a great lightweight carry gun. I don’t train with it much because I am not sure the alloy frame was designed for thousands of rounds of use and abuse. Stored alongside the Defender is my “Sunday Gun,” a Detonics Combat Master, designed by legendary designer and friend, Sid Woodcock. The Detonics doesn’t get carried much, because I really would not want to lose it to the bowels of a police evidence locker, but on those special occasions when style demands, I will sport it.

As easy as the 1911s are to shoot well, they exemplify the term “two-edged sword.” The single action operation is singularly unforgiving if safety rule #3 is violated (keep your finger off the trigger until the sights are on target and you are ready to fire). To compensate, the 1911 employs a manual safety that is routinely engaged when carrying. The shooter must sweep off the safety with the thumb before firing. Thus, the 1911 style of pistol demands a higher level of competence and training before it should be used as a self-defense pistol.

A final thought: Many fine handguns are omitted from this assessment, handguns which deserve a place here but didn’t make it because this merely reflects my own preferences.

Problem Two

If ever we use a gun for self-defense, our choice of firearm will be included in the examination of our actions. In most situations, it’s a non-issue, because most incidents are ultimately determined to be acts of reasonable self-defense, and the actor is not prosecuted. And, while I can’t quote statistics, I would hazard to guess that most people are not sued after using guns in self defense, although I also believe the civil lawsuit for wrongful death or unlawful force is much more common than the wrongful prosecution. However, your choice of firearm used may be exploited when the facts of the incident are not clear, and the prosecutor or plaintiff’s attorney tries to pile up evidence for their side. Let me explain.

I recently received an E-mail promoting a training course with the Kalashnikov style of rifle, the AK-47. This training course was being marketed to the civilian sector, with self-defense in mind. In a perfect world, it shouldn’t matter what gun a person uses for self-defense, as long as the act itself was justifiable and the gun was legally owned.

Sadly, the world is not perfect. On January 17, 1989, Patrick Purdy used a Chinese clone of the AK-47 to shoot up a schoolyard full of children in Stockton, California, killing five children and injuring another 30. I believe this incident alone generated more anti-gun legislation, both in California and nationwide, than any other single incident in our history, and forever stained the AK-47 as a rifle used by evil people. Now, rational, logical thinking Americans can separate the type of rifle from the act, but it is likely if Purdy had used an AR-15 rifle, a like stigma would have attached to it.

But, here is the rub, folks. Are we always judged by rational, logical citizens? Do you think perhaps a jury member might associate the AK-47 rifle with evil murderers? Do you think if you used an AK-47 for self-defense, the prosecutor or plaintiff’s attorney might portray you as criminal? Could your choice of rifle tip the scales of justice against you?

Likewise, could your choice of handgun work against you? Handguns with names like “The Judge,” or a pair of revolvers engraved with the monikers “Bonnie” and “Clyde” conjure up images of famous killers and backstreet vigilante justice. For my money, I’d prefer to use the same models of guns the local police use on a daily basis (or in the case of revolvers, used to use). Instead of an AK-47, use an AR-15. Moreover, if you decide to use a shotgun for home defense, you can argue that the police abandoned the shotgun in favor of a weapon that had “greater firepower” and increased lethality. I see the 12- or 20-gauge shotgun as a GREAT home defense weapon from the viewpoint of justifying its use in court.

One last thought: If you don’t think the name game has any precedent, please consider the fate of Winchester’s “Black Talon” ammunition. Primarily because of its name, the hysteria caused by the left-wing radicals caused Winchester to pull the ammunition out of production after a couple of years, replacing it with the generic sounding name “Ranger.”

Gun Modifications

While we are on the subject of gun selection, let’s address how modifications play to a jury.

The first big issue concerns reducing trigger pull weight. The industry standard for a self-defense weapon’s trigger pull is four to five pounds or greater. Lining up a dozen self-defense experts to make that point in court would be no problem: we could trot out the FBI’s choice of weapon for their Hostage Rescue Team or cite agency after agency issuing the Glock handgun with the standard trigger pull weight of five pounds.

If the shooter uses a handgun with a trigger pull weight of under five pounds, they have opened the door slightly to a charge of negligence or recklessness, because they ignored the industry standard. Depending on the facts of the case, it might not be hard to defeat that argument, if the ultimate issue didn’t center on an accidental or negligent discharge of the weapon and solid logic backed using the lesser trigger pull. But, why open the door for this argument at all? If you can’t competently manage a five-pound trigger on your self-defense weapon, pursue training with a good instructor. (See network affiliated instructor list).

Replacement sights comprise one entirely court defensible gun modification as do night sights or a laser-sighting device. Sight modifications, routinely made on police service weapons, help the shooter hit the target more accurately, especially in the dark. There is no downside. In addition, I see no liability in changing grips to improve the pistol’s fit in your hand (more on this in the next issue of this eJournal), nor to putting an extended magazine well on your 1911. For my money, these gun modifications are about the limit. Spend your money on practice ammo or training, and skip further modifications.

Ammunition: The 500-pound Gorilla

One incentive compelling me to start the Armed Citizens’ Legal Defense Network, LLC was the plethora of inane, “contrary to good judgment” and outright dangerous advice given over the Internet. If just one topic illustrates this issue, it is discussion of reloaded ammunition for self defense. In our third video, two attorneys broach this issue, but today I want to take this discussion a step further. First, there is nothing legally wrong or improper about using hand-loaded ammunition for self defense. Absent legal concerns, I would be perfectly comfortable going into battle armed with my reloads. I would have personally checked to see that there was a proper powder charge in each case before seating the bullet, because I have had squib loads (no powder) from reputable ammunition manufacturers. Still, the negatives out weigh this positive.

First, by using hand-loaded ammunition, you allow the opposition to portray you as some crazed, Rambo type whose hobby consists of making killer ammunition. Can you guarantee that a jury would not be prejudiced by that argument? Although we know the argument is specious, it could certainly arise. More importantly, however, hand-loaded ammunition cannot be reliably replicated. Commercial ammunition manufacturers like Federal and Winchester keep independent records of the recipe used to make their products. Even if you keep exact records, you cannot provide independent data, so any ammunition used to conduct ballistic tests inevitably falls under suspicion.

Exemplar ammunition for testing could be critical in two main areas. First, an independent expert needs to test the dispersion of the unburned gun power and other residue that creates the stippling seen on individuals shot at close range. Suppose you claim the person you shot was right on top of you when you pulled the trigger, but analysis of the gunshot shows little or no stippling. Suspicion that you lied, because normally stippling would be present. Let’s say you used extremely efficiently burning powder, and your particular load produced little unburned gunpowder. Your report is indeed accurate, but nearly impossible to prove. If, instead, you had used commercial ammunition, tests conducted using cartridges from the same lot of ammo corroborate your claim. If, however, no exemplar ammunition is available, no test can be made, and the other side may convince the jury that you lied about the assailant’s position when you pulled the trigger.

The amount of gunshot residue expelled while firing and its transference to skin is the other area in which hand-loaded ammunition can cause a big problem in court. Gunshot residue tests are used to determine if someone fired a gun. If you and your opponent were struggling for your gun when you discharged it into his stomach, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to prove that he had his hand on your gun when the gun discharged? Again, samples from a factory’s production lot of ammunition is the only conclusive way to show how much debris should remain after firing.

Additionally, forensic science can determine if a particular gun fired a particular cartridge by examining the microscopic tool marks transferred from the gun’s recoil shield to the case head. If hand-loaded cases have been fired before, this evidence is moot. Sometimes, even the bullet’s external ballistics come into question, and then bullet trajectory is replicated by live-fire testing.

With these points in mind, I must postulate that any advantage to using hand-loaded ammunition is considerably outweighed by the potential downfalls. So, if we don’t carry our favorite hand loads, what do we use?

What Brand to Choose

First, you might find out what your local police agency uses, and simply go with that load. However, at times police agencies select the load based on either price or penetration through barriers, so the answer is not that simple. If you are an apartment dweller, the last thing you want is a load that is noted for its deep penetration.

Pitched arguments have raged over the years about ammunition stopping power. If you select your ammunition based on a perceived ability to stop someone with one shot, is that a reasonable basis for your choice? Wouldn’t it sound better to testify that you chose the particular ammunition based on its reliability, manufacturer’s strength and that it met specific criteria?

What is that criteria? You will need to make your own decision, but for me, what follows guides my personal decisions. First, the ammunition must be commercially available. For example, while the Super Vel line of ammunition was ahead of its time, and you may still have a healthy supply of it in your basement, it should not be carried because Super Vel went out of business a long time ago. Likewise, Triton Ammunition had an excellent product but is no longer manufactured. Do some study and find ammunition from a successful and well-established manufacturer that will serve your needs.

The next criterion is easy: I carry only good quality jacketed hollow point bullets that exceeds 1100 feet per second (fps). I stipulate 1100 fps based on my observation of ballistic tests in gelatin, in which that level of velocity seems to do a fine job expanding, even after going through several layers of clothing.

Finally, the ammunition must cycle reliably in your handgun. To test reliability, fire at least a couple of 50-round boxes through the gun with out malfunction. If you get malfunctions, make sure your gun is operating correctly, then retest. With ammo prices sky rocketing, some will argue that running a hundred rounds through your gun just to see if it works reliably all the time is way too expensive. If that is your sentiment, I suggest a revolver for your self-defense handgun. Reliability and malfunction issues differ for revolvers, though some testing is necessary to be sure the ammunition discharges reliably in the revolver.

Well, that is surely enough for now. One of the great advantages to publishing our eJournal electronically is the freedom to expand on a topic in greater depth than the print media accommodates. In closing, I ask you to understand that these views are mine alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of our advisory board members who are professionals in their own right, and may have different experiences upon which to draw their own opinions.

Copyright © 2008-2010 Armed Citizens' Legal Defense Network. All rights reserved. Reproduction without written permission is strictly prohibited.