It is said that you use a pistol to fight your way back to the rifle you never should have put down in the first place. It is also said that handguns have one distinct advantage over long guns in that they are worn, not borne; wearing a handgun in a holster means that you never have to put it down to do something, as you do a rifle or shotgun. While there can be no denying that rifles and shotguns have distinct advantages in both power and reach, it is the handiness and convenience that makes the handgun indispensable when the excrement hits the wind generator and the dead start walking the earth.
Before the question of which handgun is best for defense against zombies can be answered, several other just as important questions must be asked. First, what kind of zombies are we talking about?
Traditionally, zombies are the walking dead from voodoo mythology. These are the true animated corpses, not alive in any sense of the word and sometimes controlled by others. What I'll call Romero zombies are what we have all seen in such documentary films as Night of the Living Dead. These are bodies that are in every medical sense dead, and yet they are still animated to what extent their rotting bodies allow. The third type is not really a zombie at all, but should be mentioned anyway — these are the infected. Afflicted with any number of viruses or plagues which turn them into mindless killing machines, the infected are in many ways the most dangerous of the three.
Matching the tool with the job is important no matter what you're doing, whether it is auto repair, or clearing the undead from your lawn or your town. What kind of pistol will work the best against the above threats? That depends.
Romero zombies are perhaps the simplest of these threats to dispatch. Severe trauma to their central nervous system (i.e. brain and upper spine) will put them down. If you're using a pistol, this means that you need to have something powerful enough to penetrate the human skull reliably from any angle. The human skull can be remarkably resilient, however, so pay attention.
Voodoo zombies are true animated corpses. They are dead flesh walking. They have no beating heart, which means that even if you shoot them full of holes and there is not a drop of blood left in their bodies, they will keep on coming. Should you shoot them in the head, then? Unfortunately, a corpse is a corpse, and a dead brain is a dead brain whether or not it has been perforated by bullets. Shooting Voodoo zombies in the brain won't stop them. So what will stop them?
It has been suggested by some in the scientific community that shooting out the eyes and ears of Voodoo zombies will reduce or eliminate their ability to track you. This is an unproven theory, and one I would not like to bet my life on. Besides, the history of Voodoo zombies shows that they are quite frequently controlled by other people, so maybe they aren't even using their rotting eyes and ears. No, the only way to stop a Voodoo zombie is to eliminate their power of locomotion. Broadswords, or better yet, two-ton dumptrucks traveling at highway speeds would do a better job of this than a mere pistol, but we have to work with what we have.
Go for the support structure, meaning the pelvis and thigh bones. Once the zombie is reduced to crawling you'll have a lot more time to think and act. Magic or science, their bodies are still made of flesh and bone, and if you destroy their joints so that they can't come after you or grab you, you've eliminated them as a threat even if they are still animated. To do this, you'll need to use a caliber powerful enough to not just reach the center of the body, but break bones.
The infected are not dead per se, but are mindless attackers who feel no pain. Many police officers have had to deal with suspects out of their mind on drugs who were in the same condition. Gunshot wounds to the hydraulic system of these people will not stop them, because until they have totally bled out they will keep on coming. There are only two ways to stop the infected — shut down their brain or eliminate their ability to come after you by destroying their support structure. Either method requires a handgun chambered in a cartridge powerful enough to perform these tasks.
The first step in deciding which handgun is best suited to one or all of these tasks is realizing which handguns are not. The process of elimination makes things a lot easier. For example, revolvers, while reliable and time-tested tools, are just not a good choice when it comes to dealing with the undead, for two reasons — capacity and speed of reloading.
There is never just one zombie. Everyone knows this, and it's hard to hear the word horde without automatically associating it with the undead. Where there is one zombie (using the generic term), there are a dozen, that's why they are such a problem. Alone, they are easy to outwit and — except for the sometimes very mobile infected — outmaneuver. In groups they can surround you and break down your barriers through sheer body weight. Revolvers only hold half-dozen rounds, and even if you have speedloaders, they are still slower to reload than semi-automatics.
In the movies, you'll quite often see characters armed with Desert Eagles. While these are very fun pistols to shoot, they have no place in zombie defense. They are too big and heavy to carry for any length of time, so much so that getting them out and aimed at the threat with any speed is a losing proposition. Chambered in .357, .44 Magnum and .50 Action Express, they definitely have enough power — too much, actually. Recoil with a Desert Eagle is more than what you're going to want in a target-rich environment. Their capacity is also somewhat limited, so no matter how cool they look, avoid them unless there is no other alternative.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are the so-called AR-15 pistols. Stockless, short-barreled versions of America's rifle, these light recoiling weapons are fed by high-capacity magazines, and no one doubts the .223/5.56mm round has enough oomph to reach the brain stem. The problem, however, is that these are handguns in name only. The advantage of a handgun is that it can be at your side, holstered, at all times. These pistolized ARs have to be slung, and as such for our purposes, are no better than a rifle. If a stockless AR counts as a pistol, then my pistol of choice is an H&K MP5K PDW — but of course no one would consider that a handgun.
The ability of the undead to hear and pursue sounds is well documented, so many people might think that using a suppressed pistol is the answer. However, nobody makes a holster for suppressed pistols. This inability to be holstered is what eliminates any suppressed pistol from consideration, as far as I am concerned. While they usually don't move very fast, zombies can quite frequently move quietly, and you need to be prepared to react in an instant. A pistol set on the ground, somewhere over there, is not the answer.
I have heard several people suggest that a suppressed .22 is the ideal zombie pistol. Low recoil and noise, combined with cheap and plentiful ammo, are admittedly good arguments for this platform. However, what good is a weapon that won't put down the threat? While a .22 LR will put down a Romero zombie with one or six shots to the head — depending how many bounce off the skull — those little bullets will do nothing to a Voodoo zombie. Will a .22 kill one of the infected? Yes, with a good headshot on what is probably a fast moving target — good luck with that — or you can hit them repeatedly center mass and wait for them to bleed out. Meanwhile, they are still trying to kill you and everyone around you.
The ideal zombie pistol should be powerful enough to reach the brain the first time more often than not, or any bone in the body. All centerfire cartridges thought suitable for personal defense — 9mm, .40 S&W and .45 ACP — do this, with the .45 probably being the best. The .45 ACP, however, has a lot of recoil, and the cartridges are fat — relatively few will fit inside most handguns.
The .40 S&W round is a good balance between the .45 ACP and the 9mm. Power-wise it is closer to the .45, but guns chambered in this caliber can hold more rounds. Consideration, however, should be given to ammo availability after the world turns upside down. UPS won't be making any deliveries. While many people and law enforcement agencies — there's a good chance you may be stocking up on ammo at abandoned police stations — use both .40 S&W and .45 ACP, you will find as much or more 9mm ammunition lying around as any other caliber. This ready availability, combined with the number of the cartridges you can fit into even modestly-sized semi-autos, puts the 9mm ahead of other calibers.
So, we've settled on a 9mm auto as the basic envelope. What features should it have? Well, good sights of course, but just about every pistol today has serviceable sights. It definitely should have a tactical rail on which to mount a flashlight. While a light may draw zombies to you, there is nothing better to light up those dark corners than a flashlight, and a weapon-mounted flashlight is best of all. Most importantly, the pistol you choose needs to be reliable.
The 1911 is the handgun against which so many are judged. They can be made very accurate, and its single-action trigger allows quick and precise shooting. The traditional 1911 payload of 8+1 .45s is significant, and high-capacity double-column versions of this design can hold twice as many rounds of .40 S&W with extended magazines. However, it usually takes a gunsmith to get guns like this reliable, and then there is the cost. Once the world falls apart, paper money will be useless, but until then we all have bills to pay and food to buy. Investing over $3,000 for a custom or semi-custom, high-cap 1911 is perhaps not the best way to spend your pre-catastrophe dollars. I believe there are better options.
DA/SA semi-autos are tougher to shoot than pistols which have the same trigger pull each time. This is especially true for new or inexperienced shooters — which you may be surrounded with. Between DAO or striker-fired pistols, the trigger pulls on striker-fired guns are better. The better the trigger pull, the more likely you are to hit what you're aiming at.
Glocks are the striker-fired pistols against which all others are judged, and for good reason. They point naturally, their triggers aren't too heavy, they are a lot cheaper than 1911s, but most importantly of all, they're reliable. While they are not perfect — plastic sights, mushy trigger pulls — their positives far outweigh any negatives. I carry a Glock 34 every day, and if I had been asked last year to pick what I thought was the best zombie pistol, I would have chosen just that.
But then I had an opportunity to test the new Springfield Armory XD(M) 5.25 Competition model.
XD(M)s are striker-fired semi-autos with a grip angle nearly identical to that of a 1911 as opposed to a Glock. They have a spring-loaded grip safety, a safety lever on the trigger, an ambidextrous magazine release and a tactical frame rail. The XD(M) also features interchangeable backstraps in three different sizes to fit all sorts of hands.
The XD(M) 5.25 comes with an adjustable steel rear sight, fiber optic front sight, and like most XD(M)s, has a trigger pull around 6 pounds. This is all good, but what sets the XD(M) apart is its 19+1 capacity in 9mm. Twenty rounds before you have to reload will get you out of just about any zombie problem you might encounter shy of a World War Z-level chainswarm. Not just that, but the pistol is sold as a kit, and in addition to the pistol and three (count 'em, three!) 19-round magazines, you get a holster and double magazine pouch, all for a street price under $750. That price should leave enough money in your wallet to buy ammo, not just for FMJ for practice, but the high-end hollowpoints for when the zombies show up. The zombies aren't going to kill themselves.