I’ve never liked the term “pocket pistol.” Yes, I often carry a pistol in my jacket pocket, but to call a gun a pocket pistol implies that it is specifically designed to be carried there. That is seldom (if ever) the case. So if I use the word “pocket” at all in reference to a handgun, I prefer the term “pocket-size.”
The past two years have seen an explosion in the availability of small 9mm semi-autos. Of course, there were pocket-size 9mms on the market before, but this category of handguns has now suddenly gone mainstream, with every major manufacturer adding new entries to a rapidly growing list. The reasons are complex and represent both a trend in consumer demand for concealed carry handguns and, in general, attitudes about the 9mm cartridge by firearms experts and ordinary citizens alike.
Foremost among these reasons is a fundamental shift in attitude among Americans in the post-9/11 and post-Katrina world about the need to have a firearm in their home or on their person for personal (and family) protection. This has resulted in a rapid acceleration of state and local legislation to the point where, today, 49 of our 50 states allow some type of concealed firearm carry by ordinary citizens. The consequence is that citizens by the millions have acquired concealed carry licenses, and many more have—for the first time—purchased small handguns for defense.
Because these buyers are not experienced shooters, they are largely unaware (even immune) to the arguments that have raged for decades among firearms experts over the “best” handgun designs or the most “appropriate” cartridge choices. The primary concerns of these first-timers are simple: reliability, convenience, ease of use, weight and, of course, cost.
The result—beginning around 2003—was a huge surge in sales of small, double-action-only, polymer-frame .380 Auto (and smaller-caliber) pistols, led by manufacturers such as Kel-Tec. It didn’t take long for more established name-brand makers to read the writing on the wall. If there was a breakthrough moment, it probably came in 2008 when Ruger introduced its tiny polymer-frame .380 LCP, the first concealed carry ultra-compact pistol the company had ever produced and a very “Kel-Tec-like” product. Across the firearms marketplace, pocket-size pistols ruled.
Then something even more interesting happened. Almost as soon as the LCP .380 appeared on the market, Ruger customers began to clamor for another gun just like it—only in 9mm. Kel-Tec’s polymer-frame double-stack P-11 (introduced in 1995), single-stack PF-9 (2006) and other 9mm variants started to experience record sales. Kahr Arms, whose all-steel, single-stack K9 DAO 9mm (also introduced in 1995) was arguably the first of the “modern feature” compact 9mms, experienced a similar surge, and the company was well positioned to capitalize on the situation since it had also moved increasingly toward polymer construction after the introduction of its 9mm P9 in 2000. Taurus announced its single-stack 9mm PT709 Slim at the same 2008 SHOT Show as Ruger introduced the .380 LCP.
Ruger responded to its customers with the “LCP-like” LC9 9mm in late 2010. Kimber introduced its diminutive 9mm Solo Carry in 2011, and Beretta came forth with its 9mm Nano only a few months later. Smith & Wesson unveiled its single-stack M&P9 Shield in May 2012. And on it goes.
Why has this happened? Firearms historians may eventually call it a “perfect storm” of favorable circumstances: a change in general public attitude about defensive handguns combined with an increasingly favorable legislative climate at the state and local level combined with positive federal court rulings, significant advances in economical handgun manufacturing capabilities and—most notably—a resurrection of the 9mm’s reputation as an effective cartridge for personal defense. Back when the 9mm replaced the .45 ACP as our official military sidearm in the mid-1980s, it was universally disparaged as inadequate by a vast majority of experts. Then, high-capacity firepower trumped single-stack cartridge power (much as the 5.56 trumped the 7.62 with the adoption of the M16 over the M14 in the mid-1960s).
But by the post-9/11 era, thanks to improvements in bullet design and propellant efficiency, even hidebound personal-defense experts who previously dismissed the 9mm were revising their views. The simple fact is that modern compact, polymer-frame, DAO 9mm pistols are where everything comes together with the right balance of weight, reliability, convenience…and power. Today’s new-technology 9mm ammunition is demonstrably equal to the effectiveness of .45 ACP ammo of the mid-1980s, with recoil levels much more appropriate for the average shooter in small handguns. You’d be hard pressed today to find any legitimate expert who would argue that the .45 ACP is a better choice for most compact pistol purchasers than the 9mm. At the same time, most authorities will also argue that the 9mm is superior to the .380 Auto for personal defense in a compact pistol. For most people.
Living with a Little Nine
But not for everybody. For experienced shooters, the 9mm may indeed represent the low end of the power range they can effectively handle in a palm-size gun. For first-timers, it may very well be pushing the upper limit. If you are considering purchasing a pocket-size 9mm for personal defense, making a recommendation to a nonshooter friend or relative or having a pistol that might be called upon for use by different members of your family, there are a number of factors to weigh.
Recoil is the most important. All small 9mms bounce, and bounce notably more than a pistol of the same weight/configuration in .380 Auto, .32 ACP, .25 ACP or even .22 rimfire (which continues to grow as a concealed carry cartridge choice by newly armed citizens). Can all the intended users handle a lightweight 9mm? Can they operate its action and handle its slide-spring stiffness? Is its trigger-pull length and weight appropriate for their hand size and finger strength? Does its grip fit their hand and allow a quick and secure grasp for shooting in a high-stress situation?
Let’s take a look at eight of the currently most popular slimline palm-size 9mm pistols on the market. As is obvious from their descriptions, images and the accompanying specifications, they differ widely in terms of design, operating qualities and configuration. Not to mention cost.
If a compact 9mm is on your radar for yourself or anyone you know, there is only one way to decide which one (if any) is the right choice. Handle it. Shoot it if possible. Until you do, you (or your friend or loved one) will be buying a pig in a poke.
As for reliability, they are all reliable. I have reviewed and lived with them all, several of them over a period of years. They work. Besides, if they weren’t reliable, they wouldn’t sell. As for accuracy, all of them will empty their magazines into the diameter of a coffee cup at 50 feet, which is all that is really needed for a close-up-and-personal life-crisis gun. And most will deliver groups less than half that size if you care to bear down and benchrest them. Most are available both with flat-base (two-finger grip) magazines and/or base-hook or extended (three-finger grip) magazines, which can make a huge difference in shootability. Several are offered with laser sight options, which can be a critical aid to the inexperienced.
Today’s increasing array of compact 9mm pistols may well represent a fundamental maturation in the long search for a general answer to the question of “what’s best for defense” for the average person. After all, millions of American armed citizens are buying these things. They can’t all be wrong.
Makes and Models
Here’s the mainstream crop of recently introduced pocket-size 9mm pistols currently available in the marketplace. Stay tuned. More are on the way…
The Nano’s low-profile, dovetail-mounted white-dot front and rear sights are adjustable (or replaceable) with a supplied 1.5mm hex wrench. Unique to the Nano is a built-in, recessed striker-deactivation button that allows you to deactivate the internal striker mechanism prior to disassembly so can disassemble the pistol without pulling the trigger. Trigger-pulling is de rigueur on many other popular modern striker-fired designs and has caused many unexpected kabooms among careless operators who can’t seem to remember to remove a loaded magazine before clearing the chamber.
A lot of originality is packed into the CM9. The black polymer frame features patented 4140 steel inserts molded into the front and back for added rigidity and strength. A patented “cocking cam” DAO trigger system unlocks the passive safety firing-pin block and completes cocking and releasing of the firing pin. The patented offset recoil lug and trigger-bar attachment allow the CM9 barrel to fit lower in the frame, and the striker-fired design positions the shooter’s hand farther up the grip, reducing muzzle flip. The white bar-dot CM9 sights are drift adjustable in the rear, and the slide locks open after the last round.
The rear sight is adjustable for windage with a supplied Allen wrench as well as for elevation with the use of shims (not included). The seven-round rectangular magazine is supplied with a finger-extension baseplate and numbered holes. An underbarrel mil-spec Picatinny accessory rail has one forward-positioned locking notch. The firing mechanism is DAO with an automatic hammer-block safety. The PF-9 is available in blued, Parkerized or hard-chrome metal finish, with black, gray or olive drab polymer grip frame.
The heart of the Solo Carry design is the design of its trigger/fire control mechanism. Kimber describes the Solo trigger as “a single-action striker-fired design with an even and smooth pull.” Pull travel is about a half-inch and a smooth seven pounds all the way, with barely perceptible stacking just at the moment of a very crisp letoff. Striker-fired pistols have an inherently lower axis of recoil than hammer-fired designs, which is an important consideration for an ultra-small 9mm. The trigger itself is satin-surfaced and relatively large for a pistol of this type, with an oversize triggerguard for easy access with gloves.
Unlike most tiny .380 autoloaders, the LC9 goes naturally into my hand and is a true grab-and-shoot gun. In size it comes about midway between the LCP and the company’s “midsize” double-column SR9 Compact—but closer to the LCP. It has a glass-filled nylon black polymer grip frame with an aluminum locking-block insert and a blued, alloy-steel slide and barrel. Each gun comes with one seven-round, single-column magazine with a standard flat floorplate for maximum concealability, plus an interchangeable finger-grip extension floorplate accessory for shooters who prefer a longer grip surface with more hand-to-pistol contact.
Mechanically, the P938 is a recoil-operated, locked-breech single action with conventionally located M1911 operating features. The slide locks open after the last shot, the release button drops the magazine free, and it is equipped with an ambidextrous manual thumb safety (but no grip safety). The design features a full-length recoil-spring guide rod and bushingless slide. The low-profile, yet highly visible Siglite Night Sights that come standard on several P938 versions may be the best “pocket gun” sights on the market. The P938’s semi-beavertail, hammer-cupping frame, which eliminates hammer bite, is a real benefit. For committed fans of the 1911 design, the P938 is the only choice in the ultra-compact 9mm world.
Also critical to the Shield’s user-friendly shootability is its short, crisp trigger pull, which again is the same mechanism found on full-size M&Ps. Extremely uniform shot-to-shot, the nominal trigger travel from rest is only .300 inch, and the reset stroke is only .140 inch. Nominal trigger-pull weight is just 61/2 pounds. This is one of the best DAO trigger pulls on the market, much different than the long-stroke pull and long-reset designs found on many other compact 9mms (and most ultra-small .380 DAOs).
Current PT709s are quite different than those originals and employ Taurus’ “Strike Two” design, which features a backup double-action pull if a cartridge does not fire on the first short, crisp pull. The slide does not have to cock the action before the trigger can be pulled again. There is also a manual safety that allows the pistol to be carried cocked and locked plus a Glock-like integral trigger safety and an internal firing-pin safety that blocks the striker from reaching a chambered cartridge unless the trigger is in a full rearward position. The PT709 is one of the few true pocket-size repeat-strike defense pistols on the market. It’s what I carry.