Choosing a Carry Gun: Putting Your Best Foot Forward

I realize people have different ideas concerning handguns, price, and unfortunately, training and competency. If you are choosing a personal defense handgun, exertion (both mental and physical) must be part of your vocabulary. If you are lazy or complacent when choosing a handgun and mastering the piece, you may end up in the morgue with a toe tag — just as certain as if the act had been premeditated self-destruction. This is serious business.

That being understood, I like to have a cushion and not be in debt up to my eyebrows, but some things demand paying more. If it hurts the budget a little, so be it. I have never regretted purchasing quality.

Nighthawk 1911 .4 ACP semi-auto pistol with two boxes of Silverback ammunition
This Nighthawk 1911 is a remarkable handgun with many good features.

If what you can afford is affordable — and reliable — practice as often and hard as possible. Don’t be in the position of being armed with a deadly weapon but unable to defend yourself well with it. Of course, we all have a budget, and some are larger than others.

Let’s look at the logic of purchasing handguns. I put a lot of time and effort into testing handguns. Some are OK, others are not, and a few are very good. I have realistic expectations. I know an inexpensive handgun will not last as long, or perform as well, as better-made guns. It will not be as accurate, and it will not be as reliable in the long run. However, there are exceptions.

Handgun Quality

I am primarily writing to folks who own good firearms, even great shooting guns, but carry cheap guns anyway. Some have a fear of scratching the carry gun, marring the finish, or perhaps losing the pistol in some inquiry should it be used for personal defense. I get it. But the average cost of a funeral according to a Google search in March of this year has reached $ 7,484. A quality carry gun costs a lot less.

Then again, there is the guy who is just cheap. As an example, a fellow in a local gun shop asked me what a good .22 Magnum for trail use would be. In conversation, he mentioned he owned a new-in-the-box Smith & Wesson Model 63. I replied that the S&W is as good as it gets for a carry gun.

He laughed and said sure, but it is way too expensive to risk carrying in the field. He dreaded getting a scratch on it. I replied he wouldn’t likely be happy with a cheaper gun. The Model 63 isn’t going to appreciate that much, he should use it. After all, IRA and 401K accounts are investments, carry guns are for use.

Les Baer, Wilson Combat, Dan Wesson, and Springfield 1911 handguns
Les Baer, Wilson Combat, Dan Wesson, and Springfield offer first-class 1911 handguns. They are worth the tariff.

A carry gun is too important to go cheap. He didn’t take my advice (if I am any judge of human nature). Purchasing a $400 gun to preserve the finish and value of an $800 gun, doesn’t make horse sense.

When you choose a carry gun for personal defense, there are many choices: snub nose .38, three-inch barrel .357 Magnum, 9mm single stack, 9mm compacts, .45 Commanders, and .357 SIG pistols. All are viable — provided the user is competent. I cannot tell you how many times during my law enforcement career that I pined for a different firearm, or the freedom to choose a proper handgun, when I was issued a handgun that limited my ability.

Fortunately, we may choose a carry gun that complements our abilities and fits our lifestyle. I enjoy that choice very much. Although the institutional gun was usually reliable, it wasn’t the gun of my dreams. I have seen cops in small southern towns carrying Llama, Star, and even Iver Johnson handguns. (Most were some type of constabulary or court-appointed paper server.)

original Browning Hi-Power, Guncrafter CZ 75, and Wilson Combat Beretta 92
Top to bottom: An original Browning Hi-Power, Guncrafter CZ 75, and Wilson Combat Beretta 92. Each is arguably the best of the breed. Custom guns will outshoot issued guns by a wide margin.

A very pleasant older man found standing in front of a municipal building in New Mexico served as a bailiff in a small court and helped me with directions to the next town. He carried an old German single-action revolver in his waistband.

Security officers were often issued double-action .38 caliber Rossi, Taurus, or Tiger revolvers in the past. They may have qualified with one gun, only to be issued a revolver they had never fired. The double-action-only modified double-action first-shot 9mm guns were in vogue for a while and a shooter’s gun from hell. The point is, when you have freedom to choose and you have a good gun, deploy it!

I’m pretty certain your vehicle costs more than the nicest handgun I own, and you’ve probably hit potholes and drive through mud puddles sometimes. I am not the pot calling the kettle black. However, I understand the reasoning behind not always putting your best foot forward with a handgun. However, I carry the best pistol I own.

Wilson Combat’s front-strap checkering and trademark sunburst grips on a pistol
Wilson Combat’s front-strap checkering compliments its trademark sunburst grips.

There are a couple of idioms that I am very comfortable with… the snub nose .38, medium-size .357 Magnum, and a good 1911. I own one double-action .38 that is a great piece of ordnance. I also have a couple of less-expensive Charter .38s that were affordable and serve a purpose.

A revolver may be inexpensive and still be reliable. Accuracy, smoothness, and handling are another matter. Then there is the .357 Magnum. I may like something I would not necessarily recommend to most shooters, but it serves a purpose.

As an example, the aptly named Taurus Tracker .357 is a rugged, stainless steel, seven shooter that is ideal for the trail. I bear scars from an animal and while once in a lifetime is enough. Odds are, something that has happened once may well happen again.

I also own a S&W 66 that is a fine all-around shooter. It is a spare. While the S&W is a great gun, the Tracker suits me a little better. The Tracker’s grips don’t allow much sting in recoil and the ported barrel makes the mighty magnum tolerable. I often carry a magnum when hiking or taking long walks, and especially when walking with my pet, where the likely threat is a coyote or other four-legged beast.

As for the local animal control, and this is common across most states, the locals are past lazy. They approach indolent. Forget any help until the dangerous animal seriously injures someone. So, I carry a magnum. Since those long walks in cool air are peaceful, I often walk at night.

Ruger GP100 revolver with the cylinder open
The Ruger GP100 isn’t particularly expensive but offers an exceptional lockup, leading to excellent accuracy potential.

I own two .357 Magnum revolvers with night sights. One is a S&W Model 640 Pro, a stainless revolver without the ridiculous action lock. This is a formidable J-Frame. At close range, the added recoil and short sight radius of the 640 Pro are not a demerit.

A relatively new revolver in the battery is a Colt Python Combat Elite. This revolver features boot grips and a three-inch barrel topped with a bright tritium dot. It is easily the most accurate revolver I have owned. Often a 25-yard group will exhibit several bullet holes punched together. A man-sized silhouette at 100 yards is in a great deal of danger.

Will night sights make a difference, and should I carry the practically irreplaceable 640 or a Charter .38? (I have yet to see another 640 exactly like mine.) What if I really need a 50-yard shot but don’t have the Python? A lot of what, if, and gee whiz, but that is why we carry a pistol in the first place.

Smith and Wesson Pro revolver with the cylinder open showing live rounds in a moon clip
Among the advantages of the Smith & Wesson Pro is that it is cut for moon clips. This is an expensive custom option, but included on the S&W 640 Pro.

As far as 1911 handguns go, the 1911 requires quality manufacture and attention to tolerance. You cannot cut corners and expect the pistol to remain reliable. Unfortunately, a quality 1911 is increasingly pricey due to this requirement. Inexpensive 1911 pistols are fine for recreational shooting but just not the same as a high-quality pistol.

Remember, the original 1911 was a warfighter of the best material and properly assembled by trained professionals. Inexpensive guns were designed to cut this standard to sell at a reduced price. As a result, I own fewer 1911 handguns than I once did, but the ones I have are very good pistols. There are pricey 1911 handguns.

Wilson Combat offers good, solid, reliable pistols that cannot be faulted on any regard. We cannot all afford this type of handgun. A good quality, stainless-steel pistol that I find to be an excellent value is the Springfield Loaded. The Loaded is a good 1911 — as good as it gets for the money — and a 1911 I have great confidence in.

muzzle of a Wilson combat .45 ACP 1911 semi-automatic handgun with green fiber optic front sight
Wilson Combat offers tight fit and good accuracy.

The Springfield TRP is tighter, more difficult to rack, and commensurately more accurate. The tighter the pistol, the less eccentric wear, and the less likely it is to suffer incident wear. The TRP is superbly accurate.

How much more is this accuracy worth? In rapid combat fire, the Loaded is practically equal to the TRP. Unless your hands are wet, cold, or sweating… then you need the TRP’s grip stippling. In absolute accuracy, the TRP in my hands from a solid bench rest will put five shots into 1.25 inches at 25 yards, the Loaded about 2.0 inches on average. The TRP also features front strap checkering and magazine guide. In being all you can be, the TRP is going to edge away from the Loaded and exhibit better all-around performance.

Is the Loaded good enough? Certainly. Top-quality handguns are designed from their inception to offer good performance and long-term service. A variation on the TRP, the Bureau Model, went 25,000 rounds in FBI testing without a single malfunction.

Glock clone above and Glock 19 9mm pistol below
The Glock (lower) has an excellent reputation for reliability. The others… maybe.

Fit and finish are important. Cost isn’t the overwhelming criteria. A cheap gun is well… cheap. Something must give to produce a cheap, inexpensive, or ‘affordable’ handgun. Can an affordable handgun be reliable? Certainly. For example, the Glock is a baseline.

The Glock is reliable and requires little maintenance. It has become the baseline for institutional and personal defense use. So, there is little to no reason to adopt a firearm cheaper than the Glock. After all, the Glock is a model of reliable function.

However, young and old alike, and anyone on a tight budget, may find a less-costly handgun attractive. There are a few. The Smith & Wesson SD9 has Glock-like features, but it isn’t a Glock. Reliability seems good. The pistol will eat the X-ring out of a target at 7 yards. There are no grip inserts and little aftermarket support, but the pistol works.

S&W SD9 2.0 9mm semi-auto handgun with boxes of Winchester, CCI, and Speer ammunition
The author fired the SD9 2.0 with a variety of ammo, both range and defensive, and found it to be both reliable and accurate. Its handling was on par with more expensive guns such as the M&P, SIG, Beretta, and Springfield.

Canik handguns are similar enough to the Walther to offer a good level of protection. With some of the cheaper guns, the problem comes when costs are cut, quality control is also cut, and fewer parts are rejected. Little hand fitting is done.

The person purchasing a cheap carry gun isn’t going to fire it often and certainly isn’t planning on using it in a competition. I have always been aware that there were more cheap guns than good guns. The difference is that today, we have better inexpensive guns than anything of the past, with better safety features. Just the same, if you can afford a better gun, your shooting experience will be much more positive.

What is important?

Reliability is a million times more important than finish or any other criteria. Reliability isn’t the exclusive province of the expensive handgun, but most firearms costing over $1,000 are very reliable. They should be at that price point, and the demanding customer will accept no less. Less-than-ideal reliability is no reliability at all.

Speer Gold Dot Carbine ammunition 9mm Luger
Quality ammunition in your carry gun is essential to your defensive plan.

As a rule, inexpensive revolvers are less likely to malfunction than inexpensive automatics. On the other hand, I have seen cheap revolvers literally tie up with the hammer midway in its travel.

Reliability isn’t a modern marvel by any means. The original Colt 1911 went over 6,000 rounds in military testing without a malfunction. The Springfield Bureau Model went 25,000 rounds. Glock pistols have endured more than 30,000 rounds in similar testing. SIG’s P-series came out on top of a 228,000-round firing test. From the Colt 1911’s original test to modern institutional testing, these firing trails are critical studies and data we should consider when choosing a firearm.

When you jump into the handgunning world, I would recommend a middle-of-the-road pistol. Not so cheap to discourage your progress, and not so cheap progress isn’t possible. When your shooting ability is limited by the pistol, you will know it, but it takes a long time to reach that point.

Colt Python Combat Elite revolver, right profile on a pink and white silhouette target showing bullet holes in the throat area
If your best revolver is a Python, you should darn well carry it!

Some shooters begin with the best and eventually begin to shoot right up to the gun’s potential. But the middle of the road is a good place to be in the beginning. Most stay there. If you feel that you could shoot better with an improved trigger, sights, grip treatment, or just want to be all you can be, a more expensive carry gun may be the ticket. A cheap gun will never be. And when you own that gun don’t carry a cheap gun. Be all you can be, at all times.


A cheap scabbard is an embarrassment for a quality handgun. A floppy, out-of-shape, fabric holster, or a poor piece of suede leather that is poorly stitched, is simply unacceptable. A good-quality holster is needed to keep the pistol secure on the belt, ready for presentation, and at the proper angle for a rapid draw.

Les Baer in a Wright Leather Works paddle holster
This is the author’s Les Baer in a Wright Leather Works paddle holster.

A balance of speed and retention must be present. It isn’t easy to get right, but there are makers who get it right every time. Wilson Combat offers a wide range of excellent gear. Wright Leather Works is a maker with an excellent reputation.


Anything that is safe and goes bang! is fine for practice. Quality ammunition, with a well-designed and thoroughly-tested projectile, clean powder burn, and good accuracy is the only logical choice for personal defense. For me, that is most often Federal HST or Speer Gold Dot ammunition. Consider the many institutional tests these loads have passed and choose accordingly.

Do you own a safe queen, or do you carry the best gun you own? Which guns are ‘good enough’ for those on a budget to carry and why? Which self-defense ammo do you recommend? Share your answers in the Comment section.

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