First Timer’s Guide to Buying a CCW Pistol
November 4th, 2022
8 minute read
Eight years ago, I found myself with the opportunity to spend some time with my out-of-state father. He had been looking for a CCW gun, and most of our bonding time revolved around the then new to us world of handguns. Over the course of the next several years, Dad’s quest for a packable yet purposeful pistol helped lead me on my own path towards concealed carry, eventually finding what fit my needs, body type and environment.
Assuming you’re on the same course on which I found myself back then, let’s go down that rabbit hole together, spanning from my dad’s first attempt at picking out a gun to my consideration of the newest evolutions of Springfield’s line-up. But first, we need to talk about personalization.
No One-Size Fits All
I’m fat. No two ways about it. I didn’t used to be. I once was the definition of a beanpole, spanning six feet tall and weighing 125 pounds. In the same way that my body has changed over the decades, so too has my environment, job and family. These considerations are unquestioningly important regarding the selection of a concealed carry pistol. What worked for me then most certainly does not work now.
“Back in the day”, every shirt I wore draped over me like a tent. I could have concealed a Desert Eagle on my hip and no one would be the wiser, except that I’d probably be walking sideways from the weight. My job also required a suit/tie, which made things even easier!
One of the fundamental posits of concealed carry is that the gun has to fit your situation well enough that you actually want to carry it as much as possible. It’s more than useless sitting at home while you’re out dealing with society. Medical personnel wearing scrubs have a different use case than a construction worker, or a waitress, or a white-collar worker. At each stage of this article, I will endeavor to provide helpful tips toward this goal. So, let’s start at the beginning.
Dad’s First Gun … and Mine
My father relied on the advice of a gun store clerk and picked up a Springfield 4.5” XD-M in .40 cal. Now, this may sound to you like a classic interweb meme. I’m guilty of sharing such memes myself. A first-time buyer ending up with a duty-size pistol with no need for one. The thing is, it’s an amazing gun, and there are plenty of folks out there who can conceal a full-size pistol, just not us.
When we first started shooting it, we found it easy to manipulate and incredibly accurate, with minimal muzzle flip. The 4.5” barrel and excellent slide and frame ergonomics made for a very smooth shooter. I had already purchased my first concealed carry pistol by the time dad was no longer able to shoot, but I proudly accepted that .40 for home defense — a position it still holds today.
But this is about concealed carry. The 4.5” XD-M most certainly has its place, but I have never been able to comfortably conceal a full-size pistol. If you have the right body type, i.e. not one with my beer belly, they can be concealed on the hip (3 o’clock) or behind the hip (4:30- 5 o’clock), under a size +1 shirt easily. Even with a normal fit shirt, these Adonis types can wear the XD-M 4.5” in the appendix position.
But caution should be given when considering purchasing a pistol like this for EDC, especially if it’s your first. Full-size pistols are referred to as “duty” pistols for a reason. Most use cases for them reside with uniformed law enforcement, open carry or home defense — or CCW with those Adonis types!
My first EDC
My first goal in searching for an EDC was lighter weight. As a newbie, I didn’t have the right holster or belt and none of the shops I visited gave a lick about letting me know how important those were. So, I searched for something lighter and smaller. The only thing the gun store did help with was recommending I stick with Springfield since I was already familiar with the ergonomics and grip angle.
This led me to the original XD-S 3.3” 9mm. I enjoyed the gun so much that when they came out with an improved Mod.2 model with updated grip shape and ergonomics, I immediately bought it. My wife still has the original, her preferred EDC. The XD-S Mod.2 9mm is a superb single-stack, striker-fired pistol. The accuracy of the shorter barrel took barely one range trip to acclimate to, and it immediately found a home on my hip.
My extra-large hands fit well around the grip, despite a little extra wiggle room, and I held on tight when it was time to fire. Muzzle flip from the 3.3” barrel was minimal with the 9mm round. With the flush 7-round mag, it fit effortlessly under my clothes. The extended mag became a back-up as the extra length was slightly more difficult to hide.
I was able to carry IWB under my tucked-in dress shirt (make sure you get a tuckable holster/clip), and it was just as at home OWB under a winter jacket. The 2+ finger grip and generous trigger guard were easy to operate/us, even with heavy gloves. Here was a gun that was checking more of the boxes I found necessary and was able to stay with me full-time.
This very well may have been my permanent EDC if I hadn’t taken a pistol course later that year. For many the single-stack 7-round mag (9-round with the included extended mag), with its reduced weight load, is perfect. But after carrying for most of a year, it became clear that I could in fact handle more weight. And I wanted more capacity. That’s where my next purchase came in.
In furtherance of my quest for more capacity, I came upon the XD Subcompact 9mm. Except for having a 0.3” shorter barrel, the Subcompact was only slightly larger than the XD-S, but held 13 rounds in its double-stack magazine. Combined with the ability to run magazines from other, larger XD 9mm pistols, it seemed like the next logical step in my journey.
The height, from the bottom of the mag to the top of the slide, fits that goldilocks area between the XD-S’ flush-fit and extended mags. Ease of concealability remained with an added six rounds of capacity and just 4.4oz of extra weight. And I had found that the right belt made this added weight a non-issue.
What moves the Subcompact closer to the larger compact range, for me, is the extra ⅓” in width, not the grip length that generally defines compact vs subcompact. Appendix carry still works best in my mind, but as with the XD-S there are many options for carry. It fit just fine inside my dress shirts, medical scrubs and casual wear, but it’s not something I’d carry around in unsupported clothing like the XD-S is capable of with the right holster.
The Subcompact was the first pistol that I used in shooting competitions, and it got a lot of rounds pushed through it. Never once did it misfeed or misfire, but guns (and holsters) are like cars and should be maintained properly. However, despite the fact that we worked so well together, I was fairly sure I wanted to continue the search beyond the Subcompact for my ultimate EDC. It was at this point that I decided it was time to buy a different type of pistol.
My Current EDC
After purchasing the Subcompact on the idea that capacity was important for my situation, I looked at the areas where I could improve upon it. A slightly longer sight radius to improve those 25 yard and beyond shots and interchangeable backstraps to better fit my hand, but still in a less-than-full-size frame.
By now it was apparent that I had become a Springfield fanboy, so I went straight to the source. Lo and behold, I ended up right where I started, mostly: the XD-M Compact 3.8” 9mm. Changing to the large backstrap gave my long hand the extra room it needed, the nearly ⅓ longer sight radius quickly improved my longer-range shooting, and the compact frame (with the addition of a Pearce pinky extension) fit all three fingers comfortably.
While both pistols share the same base 13-round capacity, the XD-M Compact also share magazines with the full-size XD-Ms, giving you 19 rounds on tap. They pair with the Compact frame via a magazine sleeve which is molded to perfectly match the grip, giving you a full-size grip on demand. As my primary EDC, the XD-M Compact goes with me 80% of the time. I’ve worn it under scrubs (with a belt), tucked in with my suit during our wedding, and daily with a pair of jeans and an untucked shirt. I carry with the 13-round mag loaded and the 19-round mag very comfortably in my weak side pocket with the truly wonderful Raven Pocket Shield. And if you want one of these guns for yourself, there is the new XD-M Elite version of the 3.8” Compact that gives you all this along with upgraded controls, trigger and capacity.
Next on my list was the ever-popular Hellcat. With a 3” barrel, the 9mm Hellcat has the shortest overall length of the three. It measures 1” wide at the grip, only bested by the XD-S by 0.02”. Despite this, the Hellcat holds 11 rounds, vs the XD-S’ seven rounds. The only difference I can find between the flush-fit 11-round and the included extended 13-round magazines is that the 11-round mag is undercut to take off the part of the magazine that sticks out the most. It hides under your clothing easier.
The Hellcat’s ease of accuracy surpasses the Subcompact despite having the same size barrel. It is also 8.1oz. (yes, half a pound!) lighter than the Subcompact and 3.6 oz. lighter than the XD-S. With all that weight, is it snappy? A little. But I will wager that after one session at the range, you’ll completely forget about it. It’s just that well-designed. This all adds up to a pistol that wants to go everywhere with you. The light weight makes carrying while wearing dress clothes, scrubs or belt-supported athletic wear easier than any of the previously mentioned guns.
These are my priorities and my situation. Yours will necessarily differ. I can offer no better advice than to take a pistol course beyond your concealed carry class. The info learned, far exceeding how to shoot better, will lead you to a safer and more functional carry in the real world.
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