Skip to main content

8 Most Underrated Personal Defense Handguns

8 Most Underrated Personal Defense Handguns

When looking at the diverse selection of defensive handguns available on the market today, shooters tend to divide the playing field into "good" guns and "bad" guns. The good ones are reliable, shoot well and fill the buyer's needs. The bad ones are inaccurate, dysfunctional or just don't fit the shooter's requirements. But in between these sweeping categorizations we find a variety of handguns that, while often rejected by the masses or shooting experts, have managed to earn a loyal following. These guns may be stars that lost their shine, chambered in controversial calibers or just plain weird to look at, but for one reason or another, the folks that own them would never give them up without a fight. Take a look and see which one of these underdogs you have tucked away in your safe.

Bond Arms Derringers

In the late 19th Century, American gunsmith Henry Deringer became famous for his innovative pocket pistols. His name, eventually misspelled as 'derringer, ' became synonymous with any pocket-sized single or double barrel pistol. These days, the derringer label is usually treated as a derogatory denunciation of a pistol's quality. This is because several companies over the years have produced sub-standard replicas of the famous Remington Model 95, resulting in over-under double barrel pistols getting a reputation for being cheap, unreliable, and even dangerous to use.

Bond Arms, on the other hand, has taken the original Model 95 concept and redesigned it to be a powerful, reliable, modern defensive handgun. Unlike some derringers, with frames made of an unidentifiable light-weight alloy, the Bond frames and barrels are built from nothing but sturdy stainless steel. The Bond's safety features include a rebounding hammer, a push button cross-bolt safety and a mechanism to lock the barrel release lever into the closed position as the pistol is fired.

The primary weakness of the derringer platform is its low ammunition capacity of just two rounds. Bond strives to make up for that restriction by offering interchangeable barrels to fire a variety of big bore cartridges, including the .45 Colt, .44 Special, .357 Magnum and .410 shotgun shells. The folks at Bond Arms will be the first to admit that their derringers aren't for everyone, but the company maintains a strong and loyal fan base because of their high standards for quality, excellent customer service and their double-barrel pistol's reliability.

Browning Hi-Power

Mr. John Browning remains"" target="_blank">the Browning Hi-Power 9mm pistol.

FN Herstal commissioned Browning to design a pistol that would fill a French military requirement for a new service pistol which had a capacity over 10 rounds, and would be rugged and easy to service, launching a 9mm bullet. Since he had sold the rights to the 1911 to the U.S. military, he started from scratch. The result was a slim and trim single-action pistol using a 13-round staggered magazine. While the Hi-Power is an excellent pistol that has seen service around the world, it's never really been popular in the country of its maker. Part of the lackluster sales may be due to its relatively high price. Some say it's a matter of shooting market trends. It was"" target="_blank">Glock and Beretta 92 may have kept the Hi-Power from catching on.

Makarov 9x18 Pistols

In the mid-1990s, not long after the fall of the Soviet Union, a variety of inexpensive Eastern Bloc firearms started making their way"" target="_blank">the Makarov pistol. This all-steel, single-stack semi-auto is usually chambered for the Soviet 9x18 Makarov cartridge. So why was it such a hot ticket item then, but pretty much off of the shooting radar now?

The Makarov sold like hot cakes for the same reasons the Soviets chose to issue the pistol to their forces for 40 years: It's simple, rugged, relatively light and compact, and it produces a level of stopping power right in line with the .380 ACP. What made these already affordable pistols even more attractive was the plentiful and inexpensive surplus ammunition with which to feed them.

However, as is common with imported surplus guns, the quality of the pistols varied. Some were excellent performers, while others were boat anchors. This inconsistency in quality control left some buyers loyal for life, while others swore off Russian guns forever. In time, the cheaper guns and ammo dried up along with any general interest in them. Those who got the good ones love them and hold on to them. You can still buy Makarovs, usually from online sources, but you'll pay about the same amount as you would for a value-priced pocket .380.

North American Arms Mini-Revolver

Tucked away in the mountain valley of Provo, Utah, North American Arms (NAA) has been producing some of the smallest defensive handguns available since 1971. After examining a NAA .22 Short mini-revolver, weighing in at a whopping 4 ounces, almost no other handgun deserves the title of "tiny." If you want to take advantage of the supply of its namesake ammunition, the .22 LR frame is also available. To give a maximum boost to this diminutive revolver's power potential, a selection of .22 Magnum versions is also available.

Shooters who flip out at the idea of carrying"" target="_blank">.22 rimfire pistols for self-defense and stop somewhere around the section labeled "Belly Guns." But as folks who carry these guns"" target="_blank">test tables and a video that may surprise you.

Ruger SP101 .327 Federal

Ruger has a long and decorated history of providing top quality handguns at an affordable price, but not every"" target="_blank">the LCR, Blackhawk and Super Redhawk steadily travel out of the factory into shooter's hands,"" target="_blank">the SP101 chambered for the .327 Federal cartridge.

Released in 2011, this version of the SP101 was the result of a team effort with Federal Ammunition. The .327 Federal cartridge is an update to the .32 H&R magnum. Chambered for this round, the SP101 offers shooters recoil and power levels ranging from the soft shooting .32 S&W cartridge all the way up to lightly-loaded .357 magnum rounds. Best of all, the narrower cartridge leaves room in the cylinder for a sixth cartridge. Reviews were very positive, with folks who tested the gun generally giving it a big thumbs-up.

Unfortunately, this gun and ammunition combination has fallen victim to the same new cartridge issues that waylaid other innovations like the .41 Magnum and 10mm. First, the reception by the general public was lukewarm at best. Why invest in a new caliber that's so similar to the readily available and well trusted .38 Special? Secondly, when the bevy of new handguns chambered to fire the .327 Fed arrived, the ammunition was in low supply and nearly impossible to lay hands"" target="_blank">Cor-Bon and Buffalo Bore, currently provide factory .327 Fed cartridges.

Smith & Wesson Model 64 .38 Special

If you're new to shooting, or under the age of 40, there's a whole subset of reliable, battle-proven defensive handguns that are going to be underplayed or ignored completely while you're perusing your options at the gun shops. This group is well-represented by the"" target="_blank">Smith & Wesson K-Frame .38 Special revolvers. These medium-frame .38s were once the 'standard ' by which all other revolvers were judged. The blued Model 10, and later the stainless steel Model 64, could be found on the hips of law enforcement personnel around the world.

In the mid-1980s, police forces began to make the switch over to high-capacity semi-autos. As a result, the K-frame revolver started to fade from view. Much of the hyperbole used 30 years ago to boost sales of semi-autos, "proving" semis are far superior to revolvers in every way, seems to have become engrained in people's minds as facts. The truth is, medium-sized .38s are an excellent option for home and personal defense. Accurate, reliable, easy to operate, certainly enough power to get the job done, and far more comfortable to shoot and practice with than the smaller five-shot J-Frame snub nosed revolvers. The upside to this lack of love for the K-Frames is that they can be purchased second-hand for around $300 dollars. Those who shoot and love these guns say they're perfectly happy to pay more.

Steyr M Series

To say that Americans are picky about what features they like their guns to have would be an understatement. Considering how much guns cost and how broad the selection is, there's no good reason for shooters to settle for anything less than just what they want. Unfortunately, this same perspective can result in shooters shying away from the unfamiliar. Even though the design features that are different from the norm are positive, they can cause a pistol to be ignored.

A pistol that falls squarely into this category--in the U.S. anyway--is the Steyr M9-A1. It exhibits many of the desirable features of commonly adopted pistols like the Glock, Smith & Wesson M&P and Springfield XD, including the same price. The latest version of the pistol, including the Styer M-A1, has even been called the "Glock Killer" by some reviewers. But even though the pistol has been in production since 1999, it's rarely seen on the American shooting range. So why is the public's reception of this pistol so unenthusiastic? Some say it's the grip angle, others say they don't care for the unusual sight system that uses triangles instead of dots. It also gained a reputation with some for having a poor trigger, which is a problem the manufacturer reports as having been addressed in the latest versions. The shooters who own them are willing to state that this is a pistol that deserves more respect.

Taurus Judge .45/.410 Revolvers

The turbulent story of how the .45 Colt/.410 Taurus Judge has been received by the shooting community reads just like the release of a summertime blockbuster movie. First, rumors that a .410-firing revolver was about to arrive on the scene had everyone all atwitter. Then, the Judge was officially reviewed by various professional gun writers. Just like movie critics, they panned the new gun. Statements of the Judge being useless, a solution in search of a problem, inaccurate, a jack-of-all trades but a master of none, were commonly posted and printed. Few professionals had anything nice to say about it. And what did consumers do in spite of these reviews? They proceeded to buy them by the truckload, making the Judge one of the most successful products in Taurus' history.

Years later, the Judge is still a controversial defensive handgun. One of the reasons is that Taurus has said shooters should load the gun with birdshot for close range defensive situations, like a carjacking. Gun gurus will gladly point out that .410 birdshot loads, while painful, do not produce the penetration needed for successful threat stopping shots. However, loaded with .45 Colt or .410 Buckshot loads, the Judge produces plenty of stopping power at close range. Whether you like it or not, the Judge is here to stay.

Current Magazine Cover

Enjoy articles like this?

Subscribe to the magazine.

Get access to everything Guns & Ammo has to offer.
Subscribe to the Magazine

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Benelli Lupo ATR

Benelli Lupo ATR

Quality. Art. Design. History. Precision. Innovation. Family. Passion. Love. These words come to my mind when describing anything Italian, and the same is true for a product bearing the name “Benelli.”

Trijicon RMRcc Reflex Sight – Perfect for Optics-Ready Concealed-Carry Pistols

Trijicon RMRcc Reflex Sight – Perfect for Optics-Ready Concealed-Carry Pistols

The people asked and Trijicon answered. Introducing the RMRcc miniature red-dot sight for compact, concealed-carry pistols. Trijicon's new RMRcc features the durability and reliable controls that have made the RMR so successful, but its reduced dimensions make the “Concealed Carry” model better suited for the popular small-frame pistols designed for discreet carry and personal defense.

Guns & Ammo TV: 6.5 Creedmoor vs. .375 H&H

Guns & Ammo TV: 6.5 Creedmoor vs. .375 H&H

The 6.5 Creedmoor and the .375 H&H are almost complete opposites, or are they? The 6.5 Creedmoor is a newer and popular cartridge that transcends long-range precision rifle shooting and hunting big game. The .375 H&H is more than a century old, but still a popular and versatile choice for hunting big and dangerous game. For this shoot, Pro Tom Beckstrand, former U.S. Army Special Operations officer and sniper team leader, faces off against Guns & Ammo TV cameraman Ben LaLonde in a challenge that highlights the differences between these two cartridges.


Trijicon's New Specialized Reflex Optics (SRO)

The Trijicon SRO is specifically designed for pistol use. The wide field of view and clean, crisp dot makes it easy for users to find and track the dot in both target and competitive shooting applications.

See More Popular Videos

Trending Articles

9 Commonly Misused Gun Terms How-To

9 Commonly Misused Gun Terms

Kyle Wintersteen

"Assault weapon." Sixteen-round "clip." A box of "bullets." When it comes to guns and gun...

The Swarovski Z5(i) P BT L 3.5-­18x44mm has a unique and versatile multiple-­zero system and an erector assembly unlike any other on the market. The Z5(i) is an excellent choice for an all-­around hunting scope.Swarovski Z5(i) P BT L 3.5-­18x44mm Scope Review Optics

Swarovski Z5(i) P BT L 3.5-­18x44mm Scope Review

Tom Beckstrand - September 09, 2020

The Swarovski Z5(i) P BT L 3.5-­18x44mm has a unique and versatile multiple-­zero system and...

Don't mortgage the homestead to get into PRS, this is what's available from the likes of Mossberg, Tikka, Savage, Howa, Bergara, Weatherby and Remington.Starter Rifles for Under $1000 Rifles

Starter Rifles for Under $1000

Aaron Carter - May 09, 2019

Don't mortgage the homestead to get into PRS, this is what's available from the likes of...

The one glaring weakness in the .30-­caliber magnum cartridge lineup is best highlighted by examining the requirement around which Hornady designed the .300 PRC; the requirement came from the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). .300 PRC Review Rifle

.300 PRC Review

Tom Beckstrand - March 12, 2019

The one glaring weakness in the .30-­caliber magnum cartridge lineup is best highlighted by...

See More Trending Articles

More Handguns

Springfield Armory introduced the Ronin Operator 4.25Springfield Ronin Operator 4.25" 1911 – First Look Handguns

Springfield Ronin Operator 4.25" 1911 – First Look

Guns & Ammo Staff - July 14, 2020

Springfield Armory introduced the Ronin Operator 4.25", a lightweight, rugged and reliable...

The surplus gun scene is constantly changing. I procrastinated and missed the opportunity to purchase a police trade-in P226 and P229 in .40 S&W for $379.95 because I thought they might come available in 9mm. Friends, the lesson I learned is that if you think you might want it, don't wait too long. Surplus Guns Handguns

Surplus Guns

Keith Wood - September 17, 2020

The surplus gun scene is constantly changing. I procrastinated and missed the opportunity to...

Concealed carry is on the rise, and the demand for variety has never been greater. Competitive shooter Jim Tarr joins Guns & Ammo Editor Eric Poole in this segment of “At The Range” to review the Kimber EVO SP, which is currently available in four unique models to meet Kimber's market demands.Guns & Ammo TV: Kimber EVO SP Handguns

Guns & Ammo TV: Kimber EVO SP

Guns & Ammo Staff - July 31, 2020

Concealed carry is on the rise, and the demand for variety has never been greater. Competitive...

Competitive shooter James Tarr joins retired police chief and current Firearm Instructor Jeff Chudwin to review Walther's new variant of the PPK.Guns & Ammo TV: Walther PPK/S .380 ACP Handguns

Guns & Ammo TV: Walther PPK/S .380 ACP

Guns & Ammo Staff - July 24, 2020

Competitive shooter James Tarr joins retired police chief and current Firearm Instructor Jeff...

See More Handguns

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!


Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services


Buy Digital Single Issues

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Guns & Ammo App

Other Magazines

See All Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Guns and Ammo subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now