January 06, 2013
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."
There has been 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.
Small 9mm Pocket Pistol Avalanche
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 9mm
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 non-shooter 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.
Small 9mm Pocket Pistols Makes and Models
Here's a crop of small pocket-size 9mm pistols available in the marketplace.
The Nano is Beretta USA's first-ever striker-fired pistol. The name refers to 'nanotechnology ' (the science of the tiny) because it's so small, sleek, smooth and thin. The design utilizes a removable, serialized steel sub-chassis that can easily be swapped into replaceable complete grip frames to accommodate different hand sizes, simple to disassemble and maintain. The Nano's magazine-release button can be readily reversed to accommodate right- or left-handed use. There are no external safeties or slide-lock levers, making it extremely easy to carry and draw from concealment. The slide does remain open after the last cartridge but must be pulled to the rear for release.
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.
The Kahr CM9 employs value-priced features from Kahr's 3.6-inch CW Series pistols and puts them into a smaller, three-inch-barrelled package, giving it the same external dimensions as the more expensive PM9 model. What are the differences between CM and PM models? The CM9 has a conventional rifled barrel instead of a match-grade polygonal barrel. The CM slide-stop lever is metal-injection molded instead of machined. The CM-series slide undergoes fewer machining operations and uses simple engraved markings instead of roll marking. Finally, the CM models are shipped with one flush-pad six-round magazine. (Seven-round extended-grip magazines are available.)
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 polymer-frame, seven-round, single-stack PF-9 has a Browning-type locked-breech mechanism and was developed as a hybrid of the Kel-Tec P-11 9mm double-stack and P-3AT .380 Auto single-stack, combining their features into the flattest and lightest single-stack 9mm on the market. The PF-9 barrel, locking system, slide stop, assembly pin, front sight, recoil springs, guide rod and exterior controls are adapted from the P-11, and it is nearly identical to the P-11 in length and height, although it's much narrower and lighter in weight. The shorter trigger system with integral hammer block and the extraction system are adapted from the P-3AT. The PF-9 is rated for +P ammunition, but not for continuous use.
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.
Kimber Solo Carry
The aluminum-frame micro-compact Solo Carry may look and feel like a baby 1911, but it's not. It's a newly designed platform engineered to offer M1911 fans the ergonomic and functional benefits of an extremely small, all-metal Model 1911, while simultaneously providing other advantages commonly associated with polymer-frame DAO pistols. The Solo has a 2.67-inch barrel (shortest on the market) with an overall length of just 51/2 inches, and weighs only 17.3 ounces (which is a mere two-tenths of an ounce more than the similar-size polymer-frame Ruger LC9). It literally fits in the palm of your hand.
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.
The LC9 is in many respects a slightly larger single-column twin to the wildly popular Ruger LCP .380. It's larger both because the 9mm cartridge is slightly longer than the .380 Auto and requires a deeper grip-frame and action cycle and because the 9mm's increased recoil requires more grasping surface (and weight) for controllability. The larger frame also allows the incorporation of a 'full size ' slide lock and external slide-lock latch. A single-sided manual safety and a magazine disconnect are additional features of the LC9, as is a loaded-chamber indicator atop the slide.
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.
The three-inch single-stack P938 is the most compact 9mm in the Sig-Sauer line and the only 'true ' M1911 design among current pocket-size 9mms. It is essentially a scaled-up version of the Sig P238 .380, weighing only 0.8 ounce more (and only 0.4 inch longer overall). In most versions Sig offers, it comes with a six-round flat-base magazine; the 'Extreme ' P938 version comes with an extended wraparound-basepad seven-round magazine, which is also available as an aftermarket accessory.
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.
Smith & Wesson M&P9 Shield
The M&P9 Shield is the most recent of the growing crop of palm-size single-stack 9mms covered here, and it's the lightest and smallest 9mm personal-defense pistol S&W has yet offered. It's based on the proven full-size S&W M&P design and comes with one semi-staggered flat-base seven-round magazine and one extended-base eight-round magazine. The only real difference between the larger M&Ps and the Shield, other than scale, is the Shield's slimmer magazines and the fact that the Shield grip does not feature interchangeable different-size backstraps, but the much smaller Shield still has the larger M&P's natural-pointing 18-degree grip angle and hand-fitting contour.
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).
Taurus PT709 Slim
First introduced in early 2008, the Taurus PT709 'Slim ' was in many ways the progenitor of the modern surge in palm-size 9mms. The original PT709's striker-fired ignition system was completely reset by the action of the slide, making it technically a single-action design with no repeat-strike capability (meaning that the trigger pull did not, and could not, load the striker, but merely released the already cocked system). However, the trigger felt like a short-throw DAO-type gun, firm and smooth, with a positive travel distance, returning to the same stroke length for every shot.
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.
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