What is an efficient handgun, and why is it important in self defense?

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Last Wednesday we talked about inefficient handguns, namely the Beretta 92 (and variants.) It wasn’t that I was picking on the Beretta, you understand, only that (as I explained) I’d gotten an email about that specific gun. Also, as I pointed out in the article, the Beretta was hardly alone; the older S&W autos were very similar in operation and deficiencies, yet for some reason they don’t have nearly the vocal following!

Let’s start today by talking about efficiency as applied to the handgun. An efficient handgun, as I pointed out, is one which requires the least amount of handling to employ, the least amount of training time to become proficient, and imposes as little on the shooter as possible. In other words, it’s a gun which consumes the least amount of resources in both training and use (resources might be things such as time, energy, money, ammunition, attention, and so on.)

There are two facets to this notion of efficiency: use of resources in training, and complication during an actual shooting incident. Let’s start in training: an inefficient gun uses more of a student’s time, effort, ammunition, and money to get to (and maintain) any given level of proficiency. I’ve had more than one person (here on the blog, on my Facebook pages, and in the comments on other blogs) say that difficulties with DA/SA guns are “just” “training issues”. YES! That’s my point!

None of us have unlimited resources for training. Even if a person is incredibly, obscenely wealthy he or she still has limits on available training resources, like time and energy. (Most of the rest of us have to factor in money, which is no small concern these days.) If you’ve read my latest book (Defensive Revolver Fundamentals), I go into this idea in a chapter titled “Managing Scarcity” – because that’s what we’re doing whenever we train or practice: managing our scarce resources to get the best return possible. Combat Focus Shooting students will recognize this as the “Plausibility Principle”.

A gun which uses more of those resources in training leaves us fewer of those resources for other things. Now you may think that the resources used for, say, learning to consistently decock the gun or to manage that transition between heavy double action and lighter single action don’t seem to be all that burdensome, but that’s time, effort, money and attention which you can’t spend on the important parts of defensive shooting: recognizing and responding to the attack. Using resources mastering a more-difficult-to-handle gun means those resources can’t be used to learn your balance of speed and precision under a wider range of circumstances, which is perhaps the most basic and vital aspect of all defensive shooting.

When actually shooting in self defense, those inefficiencies cause some very specific and concerning issues. Forgetting to off-safe the gun when the need to shoot arises, for instance, is a common error among both new and seasoned shooters. I’ve have many responses to last week’s article testifying that they had practiced with their gun so often that its operation had become “automatic”; yet, I’ve seen USPSA Master-class ranked shooters, put into a training environment where they were mentally off-balance, forget to take their safeties off and spend precious time trying to figure out why their gun wouldn’t shoot! (This is far more common than shooters of such guns can ever admit; I had one very experienced shooter deny that it happened even after being shown the video of his error!)

Even the most experienced shooters of DA/SA guns such as the Beretta often drop shots in those same kind of training drills. I’ve watched more than one extremely skilled shooter using a DA/SA auto pull their first shot low, or their second shot high, during a drill designed to put the shooter into an unpredictable environment. That transition between DA and SA is more difficult than most people believe it is, especially when taken out of the calm and predictable training environment and put into one a little more like an actual incident.

Yes, it’s all about training: a DA/SA gun, such as the Beretta, takes more of it than guns which are simpler – and still hold out the possibility of operational error because of their more complicated nature.

An efficient gun would be a one which has a consistent trigger action from shot to shot; a gun which is in the same firing condition after a shot as it is when it’s in the holster; a gun which has a minimum of extraneous controls; a gun which requires no action other than manipulating the trigger to fire.

What guns are simpler and therefore more efficient?

If we were to make a list of the most efficient defensive handguns, the modern striker-fired autopistol would be at the top of that list. Guns like the Glock, Smith & Wesson M&P, Springfield XD series, Steyr, and some of the Walther models have a consistent shot-to-shot trigger, no extra levers or buttons to manipulate in the course of operation, and no extraneous safeties. They’re also extremely reliable (reliability is an often overlooked contributor to efficiency) and have a low bore axis, which aids recoil control and makes them easier to shoot.

Right under those would be the very few double-action-only autoloaders still being made. Some of the SIG-Sauer guns fall into this category, as do some of the HK pistols. They have external hammers which may make some people feel a little better about their safety, particularly with reholstering, but those hammers also raise the bore axis. As a result the guns tend to be a little larger and, in my experience, a little harder to shoot.

What’s next? Believe it or not, the double action revolver. Think about this: consistent triggers, no external safeties, no decockers (and if they’re double action only, no provision to even be cocked to single action – my preference.) They are, in use, extremely efficient. It can be argued that the Glock has more in common, conceptually, with the revolver than with other autoloaders. The only place where the revolver is less efficient is in reloading; however, it’s more efficient at the primary task (shooting) than any of the autoloaders listed below which makes it overall a more efficient tool.

Next would be the single action autoloaders, such as the 1911, Hi-Power, and the CZ-75 series when carried “cocked and locked”. Their need for constant manipulation of the manual safety makes them less efficient in both use and training, and their older designs are in the aggregate less reliable than the newer striker-fired guns. (That isn’t to say you can’t find individual examples which are perfectly reliable, only that they occur less frequently.)

At the bottom of the list are the DA/SA autoloaders, about which we’ve been talking. They require more resources in training and practice, and have more to deal with in actual shooting, than even the single action autoloaders. This group is, collectively, the most complicated type of handgun and requires the most training and practice to maintain proficiency.

Finally, remember this: the foregoing is not to say that an inefficient gun is bad or can’t be used to defend yourself, because that clearly isn’t true. People have used, and continue to use, DA/SA guns to protect themselves and their families with success. What this is saying is that learning to use one, and maintaining your ability to use one, will take more of your limited training resources and carries a slightly higher risk of operator error during a critical situation than a more efficient choice.

I believe that your choice of defensive handgun is yours, but that choice should always be as informed as possible!

-=[ Grant ]=-


About the Author:

Grant Cunningham is a renowned author and teacher in the fields of self defense, defensive shooting education and personal safety. He’s written several popular books on handguns and defensive shooting, including "The Book of the Revolver", "Shooter’s Guide To Handguns", "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals", "Defensive Pistol Fundamentals", and "Practice Strategies for Defensive Shooting" (Fall 2015.) Grant has also written articles on shooting, self defense, training and teaching for many magazines and shooting websites, including Concealed Carry Magazine, Gun Digest Magazine, the Association of Defensive Shooting Instructors ADSI) and the popular Personal Defense Network training website. He’s produced a DVD in the National Rifle Association’s Personal Firearm Defense series titled "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals" and teaches defensive shooting and personal safety courses all over the United States.
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