What to look for in a Self Defence Pistol

| 2 February 2010


More and more people consider buying a pistol to carry for self defence or changing what they have already. South Africa’s licensing laws make this a particularly difficult decision because if you make the wrong one it isn’t easy to fix. The question is: what to buy? Some people will recommend the handguns they have, or what they have read or been told. Often very experienced shooters will give you contradictory answers depending on what works for them. Sometimes the guy in the gunshop will recommend what he has in stock. We can’t always blame him as he does have a business to run. What follows are my thoughts and what I consider the most important points. These thoughts are based on what I have observed teaching people of various skill levels, watching shooters while running a public range, as well as observing shooters competing in various sporting events.


If it doesn’t work everything else is irrelevant. A self defence pistol needs to work no matter what the conditions. If it’s dirty or if your grip isn’t perfect, it should still function. Far too many people accept a high stoppage rate, thinking that somehow the pistol that doesn’t work on the range will all of a sudden work when they need it most. Do your research and get opinions from as many people who actually shoot their guns as possible. A gun that is fired once a year with fifty rounds does not necessarily constitute a reliable firearm.

Buy quality! You generally get what you pay for (not always) and it is going to be difficult to change if you make a mistake. So choose carefully. I can’t remember how many times I have seen people choose the cheapest handgun they can because it is “just for self defence”. They then tell me that if they were buying to compete then they would spend a little more. Seeing as though it will “just” be used in a life threatening situation they think they don’t need anything better. If my pistol has a stoppage in a match it will only cost me a couple of seconds or a couple of points. In reality, a stoppage could cost me my life.

Once you have bought a quality pistol make sure your example works. Test it thoroughly as every manufacturer makes the occasional lemon. No matter what the brand and how good their reputation is, you need to ensure that your particular pistol works and that it works with the ammunition you will be shooting in it. I have seen problems with numerous brands, even those with the best reputations, and while they are generally relatively easily repairable, you need to find this out on the range.

Preventative maintenance is important. Keep your pistol clean and properly lubricated and replace parts as required. Springs, for example, wear out and need to be replaced periodically for best function. When you clean your pistol, take the time to inspect it and ensure that extractors and firing pins aren’t chipped, etc.


Does the pistol fit you and your hands? Can you reach the safety, slide stop, magazine release and any other controls, or do you have to shift your grip? Ideally you want the pistol to fit your hand in such a way that there is a straight line from your forearm down the length of the barrel. If you have to take an off centre hold, recoil will be magnified and you will have a more difficult time getting a consistent grip from the holster. Both extremes of grip size can have an effect. Some shooters choose a grip that is too big for them and struggle to reach the controls. Others have a pistol that is too small for them and have a similar problem.

Size and Weight

This is a compromise and you need to decide which is more important to you and work around what you have lost. A service pistol (e.g. Glock 17, Colt 1911, etc) will generally be easier to shoot quickly and accurately than a sub compact (e.g. Glock 26) but the subcompact will be easier to conceal. This accounts for the popularity with many experienced shooters of the compact pistols such as the Glock 19, H&K USP compact, and similar size pistols. These give you a pistol that allows a full three finger grip with a reasonable sight radius and decent capacity, while still being a little easier to conceal than a full size service pistol.

Remember though that concealing any pistol is part of a system which includes gun, holster, belt and dressing around your choice. I personally prefer to go no smaller than the compact size pistol and adjust my concealment system accordingly. If you feel that you can’t hide anything bigger than a sub compact, then it’s better to buy that and carry it than to choose something full size and leave it at home.

Personally if you are buying a pistol I would not buy any of the pocket size pistols / revolvers (e.g. Walther PPK or .38 snub size or smaller), simply because they are generally far more difficult to shoot than even a subcompact pistol.

Caliber and Capacity

Any of the service calibers (i.e. 9x19mm, 40 S&W, 45ACP, etc) will perform about as well as a service pistol can be expected to perform. They are all capable of pushing an expanding bullet with sufficient penetration. They will also perform acceptably through common barriers. The smaller calibers (9mm short and below) will have to be severely compromised either on penetration or expansion.

I would recommend 9×19 (9mm Parabellum) especially for the first time buyer. This caliber offers acceptable terminal performance as well as greater capacity, lower recoil and generally lower costs of ammunition than the others. If you only feel comfortable with a bigger caliber, then get one. However, don’t fall for the gunshop commando BS that ‘a 9×19 is just a 45ACP set on stun’; it is capable of performing as required. I would recommend staying away from calibers such as 357 SIG, 10mm Auto, etc. simply due to the lack of availability and high cost of ammunition. If you have other guns and want one of these for sport, then enjoy. If it is your only gun, you may regret it when struggling to find ammo. I have very rarely been in a gunshop that didn’t have at least some sort of 9×19, .40, or .45 on the shelves. It may not have been the ideal ammunition, but at least it was something.

With regards to capacity, the more the merrier. Yes, you may never need it, but like the old cliché goes: rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it. In this country, bad guys normally attack in groups. Couple that with the fact that they may all require multiple rounds to stop their attack and five or six rounds definitely doesn’t seem to be enough. People argue that once the shooting starts their attackers will try to escape. We need to be prepared for the ones who don’t or for the case where you and your family are inadvertently cutting off their escape route.

Spare Parts Availability and Ease of Service

This is probably more of a concern for those of us in SA than our friends in the US. If a part breaks in your gun (and if you shoot it enough, eventually a part will break no matter what brand of wonder pistol you have) will you be able to replace it quickly and easily? Try to have a pistol that is currently in production and that you will be able to find a gunsmith or armourer for. Before you buy, check with gunshops to see if they carry parts for your preferred pistol. You may be able to find spares on the internet, but if you need magazines for your VP70, you are not going to be able to bring them in even if you find any.


For the purposes of this discussion there are two types of accuracy. We will look at the intrinsic accuracy the pistol is capable of and the practical accuracy the shooter can get out of it.

Most quality pistols should be capable of shooting with sufficient accuracy for any self defence requirements. What is important is that the shooter is capable of taking advantage of this mechanical accuracy. If the pistol had sights that are very difficult to see or a trigger that the shooter struggles with, this can be problematic. A prime example of this is the famous .38 snub. Most of these, if locked into a machine rest, should be capable of head shot accuracy out to 25 meters if not beyond. Many shooters struggle to shoot these pistols accurately even as close as 7 meters. Many people find their tiny sights and triggers difficult to manage, so even though the handgun is capable, it is not easy to take advantage of its ability.


The gun’s finish shouldn’t be a deal breaker. However, Glock’s Tenifer, H&K’s H.E. or Smith & Wesson’s Melonite will make your life much easier when it comes to maintenance. A pistol that is carried every day will be exposed to sweat and these sort of finishes offer far greater protection than conventional blued steel or even many alloys of stainless steel.

I would also strongly recommend that a pistol chosen for self defence should have a secured firing pin. Most mainstream quality pistols will have a firing pin block designed to make the pistol drop safe. A pistol carried every day will possibly get dropped and knocked around. Many older designs may not contain this device and, if dropped, could potentially fire which is something we should avoid.


The above are just the key points which I believe should be looked at when considering a pistol for self defence. In this country guns are expensive and if you make a decision that you aren’t happy with, you will have a difficult time correcting it. If at all possible, try to shoot an example of the gun you intend buying and do as much research as possible. Gunsite.co.za is a wonderful resource for something like this and you should be able to get feedback from experienced people who can assist in this decision. If possible, try to find people who shoot large round counts through the pistol you are considering and if there aren’t any, there could be a reason for this.

Article by BigT, GunSite SA Forum Member.

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