Should Your CCW Be Big, Small, or Neither?

By Mike Boyle
Posted in #EDC #Guns
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Should Your CCW Be Big, Small, or Neither?

June 25th, 2023

7 minute read

Life is full of decisions, and some are easier to make than others. When selecting a pistol for personal defense, we must determine what cartridge best suits our needs as well as other issues such as action type, magazine capacity, weight and size. Realistically speaking, exactly how much time will you be willing to devote toward getting proficient with this new tool? Is this a pistol that you will be carrying on your person? These questions bring an entirely different dynamic into the equation.

ccw size, small vs large
There are a range of sizes available for personal protection. Is there a definitive answer as to which is the best?

My advice in selecting a gun for concealed carry is to choose the biggest gun you can shoot to a high standard and effectively conceal. Unfortunately, there is often a bit more to the picture. In my semi-retired chapter of life, informal attire is the order of the day, and my wardrobe is made up mostly of loose shirts and jeans. When dressed in this manner, hiding a full-size pistol like a 1911 is not an issue. I do have to make adjustments in the summer when hot, humid weather arrives and shorts and t-shirts become the order of the day, but by getting just a little bit creative, I can still hide a fair-size pistol. No doubt, the fact that I am a pretty fair size guy helps my cause.

I daresay most other people don’t have such latitude. What sort of clothing do you wear in your daily routine? What might work on the ranch or farm will be a non-starter in the office. Clearly, men have it much easier than women when carrying a concealed pistol. A great many workplaces frown on or even forbid the carrying of a weapon by their employees. But if you can carry a firearm in the workplace, recognize that some of your fellow employees may be put off. Where it is allowed, for many people staying under the radar remains extremely important.

The Case for Going Big

If someone had told me 30 years ago that traditional double-action (DA) pistols were on the verge of extinction, I would have told them they were nuts. But that’s precisely where we are today. Polymer-framed, striker-fired pistols such as the XD-M Elite now rule the market, and for a lot of good reasons. They have proven highly durable and reliable, and the learning curve for new shooters is not incredibly steep.

putting pistol in safe
Some people prefer a larger gun for self-defense. Is a full-size gun like this 1911 DS Prodigy 9mm a reasonable choice for CCW?

Another element that bodes well for this breed of gun is that they weigh about 30% less than a service-size pistol with a steel frame. A 40-oz. pistol on the hip may not be an issue for a few hours on the range, but you may have a different perspective humping the heavy metal around all day, every day.

Might a full-size pistol work for you? Depending on your lifestyle, attire and holster, it may indeed make the cut. There is simply no getting around the fact that a big gun is more challenging to hide than a smaller piece. With an inside-the-waistband (IWB) holster, I can render a service-size pistol nearly invisible. But the key is paying attention to the small details such as your belt and covering garment. A spare magazine or two worn on the opposite side of the body from your pistol can also give you up.

One attribute going in the favor of large, service-size pistols is the fact we typically shoot them to a higher standard. A longer sight radius and a grip frame you can actually wrap your entire hand around will certainly give you the edge in putting hits on target. But there is the trade-off for that enhanced performance potential. Ultimately, you must decide if the additional inconvenience of a larger pistol is worth the effort.

drawing ccw pistol from holster
With a quality holster, many people are able to carry larger guns, although a Hellcat Pro like this makes a good compromise between large and small.

Until fairly recently, there wasn’t a great deal of concern with grip frame size and how it corresponded to the hand. To accommodate double-stack magazines, grip frames on many DA and early striker-fired pistols were too large for many users. Today, that riddle has been solved, and just about all the major manufacturers offer pistols with interchangeable backstraps to fit a wider range of hand sizes.

Even with the smallest backstraps in place, some pistols will have too great a circumference for some users. One family of full-size pistols that will generally fit users with small hands is the 1911. The short trigger reach and the ability to get a proper grip can add up to success. Quite simply, there is more to size than length and height.

But what if none of these fit your needs?

Small — But Not Too Small

What if you were to go the opposite direction? In recent years, the introduction and embracing of small pistols chambered for legitimate service cartridges has been a real game changer. Not too long, pocket pistols chambered for inferior cartridges were the only option for those who favored an autoloader. Not only was their stopping potential questionable, but also their reliability.

xd-s pistol as ccw iwb carry
A small gun is often lighter to carry than a duty-sized pistol. This XD-S 9mm is a good example of a compact yet capable CCW.

That has all changed now, and one can select from a wide range of offerings that are easy to conceal and very reliable. External dimensions, particularly width, are much reduced over the service-sized and compact pistols, and best of all, they can be shot to a very high standard by anyone willing to put in just a bit of practice time. When I first broke into the gun game, snub-nosed revolvers filled this exact niche. Snubs are relatively powerful, compact and easy to operate, but they are difficult to shoot well. The new breed of micro-pistols is far more user-friendly and boasts a significant increase in onboard ammunition capacity.

Some solid contenders in this category include the Springfield Armory Hellcat and the XD-S Mod.2. The Hellcat has carved out a sizeable portion of the micro-pistol market, and it’s easy to understand why. In standard configuration, it boasts capacities of 11+1 and 13+1, making it the highest-capacity micro-pistol on the market. The single stack XD-S Mod.2 is yet another slick package and is available in both 9mm and .45 ACP. Measuring less than an inch wide, the XD-S can be easily concealed. Both pistols feature a slide cut for affixing a red dot optic.

Medium. The Ideal Compromise?

What if we compromise and select a medium-sized pistol for everyday carry? It just might work, but those same questions loom large. Again, it comes down to what sort of environment you have to operate in, and the type of clothing worn.

drawing ccw pistol from holster
Is there a comfortable medium between a duty gun and micro-compact? Something like this XD-M Elite 10mm Compact offers both impressive power and concealable dimensions.

For the purposes of this discussion, I would include the various compact pistols such as Commander-size 1911’s and the slightly downsized version of popular striker-fired and double-action pistols — and an “upsized” micro pistol like the Hellcat Pro. I would also include the various subcompact variants of popular service pistols with even shorter slides and grip frames than the compacts. Although length and height are significantly reduced, the subcompacts are just as wide as their full-size brethren.

With that said, a medium-sized compact pistol works best for me. Again, I’m not wearing business attire or traveling to non-permissive environments where carrying a medium size pistol could put up a red flag or cause a problem. In any event, you must do some real soul-searching to see if this option fits into your game plan. It has been my experience that most competent shooters give little if anything up by stepping down from a service-size pistol to a compact. The subcompacts with the much-abbreviated grip frames represent a slightly more significant challenge to shoot well, but some pretty good results can be easily achieved with practice.

drawing 1911 ccw pistol from holster
What do you prefer? Something large that is easy to shoot? Something tiny that is easy to slip into a pocket? Or something like this Ronin EMP 4″ 9mm in between that blends the features of both?

Selecting a medium-sized compact pistol with a slightly thinner slide and grip frame may very well get you under the radar. With a quality IWB holster or even a high-riding outside-the-waistband (OWB) holster, you can be very discreet assuming the right clothing. But there is no getting around the fact that carrying a mid-size pistol is outside the realm of possibility for many responsible citizens.

The Goldilocks Factor

On occasion, I have ruminated more about my choice of a carry pistol than when selecting a new vehicle! But when you get down to it, it doesn’t have to be that difficult. My primary handgun is a compact pistol, and I also rely on a pair of smaller handguns when more discretion is required.

 A common mistake of many first-time buyers is that they pick a pistol that is too large or heavy for everyday carry. After a week or two of lugging it around, they stash it under the seat of the car and find themselves back to square one. When you consider the type of pistol you are most comfortable with as well as the environment you will be carrying your handgun, arriving at the right decision will not be that difficult. Pick the one that’s just right.

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Mike Boyle

Mike Boyle

Mike Boyle has been a firearms and use of force instructor for 39 years. Although retired from active law enforcement service, he is active as a law enforcement training specialist for both his agency and the police academy. He has been a featured presenter for ILEETA and IALEFI and has written numerous articles for firearms and law enforcement periodicals. Mike is also the author of the book, Combative Shotgun, by Looseleaf Law Publications.

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