Are Subcompact Pistols Worth It?

glock 17

Concealed Carry of pistols is a subject of enormous breadth and depth, covering such intricacies as who you are and what you do for a living versus where you are carrying and under what conditions you will be carrying: is the environment, permissive, semi-permissive, or restrictive?

What consequences are there for you legally and socially if you are caught? What are your likely threats, and what else do you need to carry to mitigate those threats?

There is much, much more to concealed carry as a lifestyle choice and a skillset than merely arguing about guns and holsters (such as concealed carry insurance), though those topics gobble up a significant amount of bandwidth containing the conversation.

In particular, what size of gun is acceptable (or not) for your average everyday gun-packer seems to consume the lion’s share of information exchange and conversation.

One class of handgun seems disproportionately popular compared to all others for carry, and that is the subcompact. These greatly abbreviated versions of effective, larger models are innately attractive to many for the same reasons diet versions of soft drinks and snacks are attractive: same great taste, less filling!

Well, in our case, we hope they have the same performance as our larger guns, just in a much smaller form factor so we don’t have to work as hard to conceal it.

But are these mighty-mite pistols really the no-strings-attached bargain for concealed carry they appear to be? In this article, I’ll be illustrating some of the pros and cons of these small and sleek handguns to help you find out if they are the solution to your problems.

Smith & Wesson MP9 compact

What is a Subcompact Pistol?

A subcompact pistol does not fall into any standard definition or size bracket that I can list, but they are a distinct and definite class of handgun. Consider the following family tree: fullsize handguns are your larger, bulkier models, often pushed into use as police and military service pistols.

Think handguns like the ubiquitous Glock 17, Smith & Wesson M&P9 or the Beretta 92/M9. Revolvers are also had in fullsize configuration, ala the S&W Model 10 or 686, or Ruger’s GP100.

Going down on size we arrive at compacts. These are often slightly abbreviated versions of the fullsize guns we just talked about in both length and height, though some guns are purpose designed in this class. Most give up a round or two of capacity, but most can still use their larger sibling’s magazines.

Great examples of this breed are the Glock 19 (smaller than the Glock 17), and Beretta 92 Compact (a shorter 92 in both directions). A great example of a compact revolver could be a fullsize revolver with a significantly shorter barrel, or a smaller frame all around, like Ruger’s SP101, which is still a modest size.

Last stop on our tour is the subcompact class, the subject of our article. Subcompacts are smaller than compacts still, and may even be different in design or caliber. If the “parent” designs use double stack magazines in the case of a semi-auto, they might use a single stack mag in a subcompact to save width.

Example guns in this category include the Glock 26 (the tiny double stack 9mm) or M&P Shield (a single stack M&P variant). Revolvers get in on the action too with the deathless snubbie occupying this category, though they are rarely called “subcompact revolvers”. Some you will no doubt have seen include the 5-shot S&W Mod’s. 36 or 642 and Ruger’s flyweight LCR.

Beyond these shrunken versions of larger guns, technically all of the tiniest pocket pistols sometimes derogatorily called “mouse guns” also fit in here. Modern and popular models like Ruger’s LCP and LC9, or Kel-Tec’s P3AT and P32 sit beside vintage greats like the Walther PPK and Browning Pocket Auto.

So a subcompact pistol is really just any tiny handgun, from miniaturized versions of larger, modern guns to purpose built deep-concealment pocket pistols.

That being said, modern shooter’s vernacular often makes a distinct separation between the slimmest and slickest of the subcompact “major” caliber handguns and the tiny, diminutive pocket pistols that usually have smaller chamberings to match.

For that reason, I will be confining my discussion to what most shooters today would recognize as a subcompact: something like a Glock 26, M&P Shield, LC9, snub revolver and so on.

Why a Subcompact at All?

Simply put, comparing a subcompact pistol apples-to-apples to a larger handgun, you will sacrifice a fair bit just for smaller form factor. For starters, subcompact pistols that are the same chambering as a larger gun will usually give up several rounds worth of capacity in order to reduce size as much as possible.

Their short grips will reduce the gripping surface that will lend control over the gun. Short barrels and light weight often make for snappy recoil and exaggerated muzzle flip. A shorter sight radius if sights are present in substantial form will make it harder for the shooter to align them with precision on the target.

The smallest guns, the mouse guns and true pocket pistols will sacrifice ballistic performance in further quest of the smallest possible form factor.

These itty bitty guns are so tiny that they can be easy to fumble in the hand, and miniscule or absent sights will mean that anything approaching practical accuracy with them is attained only after long practice.

Quite a laundry list of sacrifices compared to a larger pistol. So why go with a subcompact at all? Simply to get a gun with the smallest possible form factor. Whether or not this is a necessity depends on who you are, why and where you are carrying.

We’ll tackle those qualifiers in the next sections.

Purpose-Driven or Comfort-Driven?

I’ll admit to something: I am always listening and looking out for the shooters who drop the ‘C’ word in the context of concealed carry. As soon as I hear the “Yeah, but it is so uncomfortable…” used in conversation I know I have separated the pretender and the sissy from the herd, and I will soon move in to admonish and embarrass them…

Okay, not quite that crazy, but I have for a long time been a sort of crusader against concealed carriers who care about comfort. When I say crusader, I mean I used to give someone some pretty stiff mentoring on their priorities when they were discussing carrying a hunk of steel and comfort in the same sentence. “It isn’t supposed to be comfortable; it is supposed to be comforting!” Stuff like that.

I had a sort of perverse pride in my remorseless dedication to carrying a fullsize handgun at all times, be it in sweltering heat or frigid cold, and I would not suffer people to even desire to carry something less than an excellent, “fighting” handgun. If this sounds like a sort of tribal purity testing, it was.

Now, I have mellowed much and view handguns as different sorts of hammers for driving different kinds of nails. I can use a hammer to drive a nail it was not designed for, but if you do that your work and you may very well suffer for it, but it can nonetheless be done.

The facts are that, compared to a fullsize handgun, subcompacts do nothing better except hide; they are much easier to both conceal and carry, sometimes being entirely suitable in a pocket by themselves.

But the other fact I willfully overlooked in my braggadocio and pride when I was younger was that sometimes a smaller gun may mean the difference between having a gun or having none!

If you intend to carry a firearm, you should carry the most effective gun you can. If this is a subcompact, either in a backup role or as a primary defensive piece, then more power to you. But, if you choose to forsake a larger, more capable gun just for the sake of laziness or discomfort, then your priorities are probably out of order.

Are Subcompacts Effective?

Effective here meaning able to stop an attacker or buy an opportunity for you to escape in the context of an armed citizen defending his/her life, yes. In the context of a police or military sidearm, no, but that isn’t what we are talking about, is it?

The larger subcompacts often fire the same rounds as fullsize and compact pistols, with ballistics that are comparable enough as to make them virtually identical. Of course, one will pay for this much power in a pint-sized package with snappy recoil. This is turn affects your follow-up shots.

The more diminutive guns in this category are often chambering rounds that most savvy shooters turn their noses up at- .22 LR, .25 ACP, .32 ACP- but in actuality are probably adequate for the task at hand if you have the ability to place the rounds where they need to go in your attacker.

Look at it this way: our attacker is likely not expecting to get shot, to say nothing of us putting up seriously stiff resistance. While a .22, .25 or .32 is no one’s idea of a righteous fight stopper, no handgun projectile really is.

If you start plowing multiples of these little rounds into scumbag’s thorax or face, you will likely be able to buy yourself a window of opportunity to get clear of the impending attack, and escape, especially escape unhindered and unharmed, is always a win in a citizen’s self-defense scenario.

Understand me well before you commit to the little guns: these guns in any guise are not easy to shoot well. At the kinder end of that spectrum you have guns like the Glock 26 and M&P9 Shield which, aside from their shorter grips, have all the functional niceties of their larger stablemates, including good, useable sights and nice enough triggers. These guns can be shot to a high level but you will need to work at it.

At the opposite end of this spectrum we have the true pocket guns, many of which have heavy, tough triggers, truly tiny gripping surfaces and barely-there protrusions atop their slides and frames that could, charitably, be called sights, if they are present at all.

Guns in this latter category are certainly intended for coarse, close-in work, but that is not the standard for good guys and good gals: shooting these little guns to a good standard of proficiency requires significant work, often a little blood, and regular practice. The results are worth it if you intend to carry one, and you must train accordingly.

Who Subcompacts are Best For

If you are a person who carries a gun and absolutely, positively, cannot risk being discovered, a subcompact may be the right choice since it is so much easier to conceal and conceal deeply compared to a larger gun.

Maybe you work in a non-permissive or restricted environment. Perhaps getting caught carrying could simply result in “social penalties” you are unwilling to bear. Whatever the reason, if discovery is truly untenable, consider a subcompact.

If you already carry a larger fullsize or compact gun and want another gun as either a backup gun to be carried in tandem with your primary pistol, or as a special-purpose low-/no-profile gun for milk runs and other tasks, consider a subcompact.

Having one gun to rule them all is a fine thing to aspire to, but life has a funny way of thwarting those plans. Remember what I said about using the one right hammer…

If your mode of dress sees you usually swaddled in layers of outerwear, something like heavy parkas or jackets, things that are not easy to move aside and draw past in a hurry, consider a subcompact: a smaller gun carried in an external coat pocket already in your hand is far faster to bring into action than any other you have to fish out from beneath your layers of clothing.

Bottom Line

Are subcompact pistols worth it? Absolutely yes, if your situation and needs dictate they are the right tool for you. Context is everything, and without fully assessing your unique objectives and the situation you carry in you may not make the most informed decision.

Choosing the wrong tool does not mean you cannot get the job done necessarily, it just means the work will be harder, and often more dangerous.

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6 Comments

  1. Great article. I’m a retired police officer, now in my 70’s, LEO permitless carry in my home state, plus LEOSA certified. Most of my adult shooting life, I shunned small pistols, but did carry a PPK as a backup for many years.

    In retirement, I carry full size pistols, either 40 or 45 caliber during those times of the year when a jacket or other cover garment is practical, but during hot weather I carry either a S&W 642 snubby, or most of the time Ruger LCP 2. With the improvements ammo makers have made to their defensive ammo, I do not feel under-gunned. Admittedly, sub-guns are more difficult to shoot accurately, so that’s where practice, practice, etc., is important. I modified the Ruger with a Hoague slip-on grip, highlighted front sight and my gunsmith installed an Apex trigger which made a big improvement in accuracy.

  2. We own multiple subcompact firearms: SIG 283, S&W Bodyguard, Springfield XD/S, Walther PK-380 & PPK/S. My wife mainly carries the SIG, my son takes the PPK/S. NO ONE likes the S&W or XD/S!

  3. I carry a Kimber Micro 9 in a pocket holster if it doesn’t print too much. My choice is a Glock 29 in a inside the waist holster with a unbuttoned shirt to hide it. In the winter I sometimes carry my tank (S&W 1006) in a shoulder holster. I like the 10mm cartridge and it can be a handful but I practice with it weekly.

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