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Assault can happen anytime, anywhere. That’s why the gun you actually carry with you is the one that matters most.

You’ve decided to take your personal security seriously and attend a firearms training course. The next step is to properly equip yourself, so you talk to a few people, buy the right magazines to find out what the “professionals” carry, then head to the gun store to make your purchases. You might say, “The full-size 1911 pistol fires the .45 ACP and if I buy +P, high-velocity hollow points, that will be even better. I’ll get one of those weapon-mounted lights, six spare magazines with pouches and top it off with a thigh holster like the SWAT teams and military wear. That should fill the bill!” You then spend time firing rounds to hone your skill.

Then comes the reality of daily concealed carry. A 1911 with the light mounted is too bulky, so the light goes away. The thigh holster was a mistake because you are never going to use it to carry the gun, so now you buy a concealed belt holster. After a few days of lugging around the full-size .45 with two spare magazines, you decide that maybe the magazines are a bit “over the top” so you just carry the gun. Then the gun begins to get heavy and your regular pants belts don’t support the weight, so maybe, just maybe, you need something smaller and lighter.

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At typical defensive distances, .380 ammo travels upwards of 900 fps, penetrating 10 inches into denim-covered ballistic gelatin.

Writer, trainer and former law enforcement officer Walt Rauch once said, “We talk .45, shoot 9mm and carry .38.” But should small pocket pistols be considered a good choice for personal defense? After all, the smaller the gun, the less there is to hang on to, which makes it more difficult to shoot. The .380 and snub .38 have never been considered “death rays,” so maybe carrying these guns is a step in the wrong direction? Gunsite Training Center offers a two-day course called “Pocket Pistols and Penlights.” The course is intended to explore the use of small pocket-sized guns in conflict to see if they can carry their weight. I attended, and here are my findings.

Go Time At Gunsite

Gunsite instructors Giles Stock and Bill Murphy began with a short lesson on weapon concealment and small weapon effectiveness. Each weapon type was used in a series of typical instructional drills—such as one, two and three shots from the ready position and holster, as well as some speed reloading and vertical movement. There was a great deal of discussion about trigger actions, grip length and configuration as well as recoil control in rapid fire. Sight picture was also a hot topic; some experts feel sights are impossible in combat while others disagree. It is safe to say that all in attendance prefer bold sights regardless of this argument, and the snubbies that were equipped with XS Sights were in demand.

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Moving targets! Gunsite offers some of the best pocket pistol-specific training available, getting as real as it gets.

All were also in agreement that the smaller frame guns offered a greater challenge to the shooter. Giles Stock noted, “We often buy these guns for our wives, kids or other loved ones thinking that they would be a good choice when they might be wrong for their level of skill!” It’s kind of hard to disagree with this statement after an afternoon of shooting these small guns.

Night Work

Upon returning to the range for an evening session, Bill Murphy gave a quick overview of the SureFire E1B Backup light and its capabilities. The Backup, an ultra-compact dual-output flashlight, developed as a duty light for plainclothes officers or as a backup light for patrol officers, is also ideal for outdoor, self-defense, and everyday use. It features a virtually indestructible power-regulated LED emitter and a precision TIR (Total Internal Reflection) lens. The Backup’s pushbutton tail cap switch lets you activate the flashlight and select an output level: press or click for an 80-lumen high beam or click off and press again for a 5-lumen long-runtime low beam that’s perfect for reading a map, checking an ID, or navigating in the dark. No larger than the palm of your hand, the Backup is an ideal companion for the pocket pistol.

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The range program reviewed traditional flashlight techniques, such as the Harries, SureFire or Syringe technique, the Neck Index and finally the off-body FBI technique. Each technique was taught and tried with all of the available weapons as the evening concluded with a number of shoot, shoot-move and light-up-shoot-move drills. In reality, all flashlight techniques are one-hand shooting techniques married to a flashlight in the support hand and having both a compact handgun and a compact light did not make the “marriage” any easier. However, good work can be done with the combo as long as you focus on the task at hand.

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Pairing your pocket pistol with a light, like this SureFire Backup, can make for a formidable personal defense combo.

Ballistic Testing

The debate over handgun stopping power is alive and well. I do not know many people who consider the snub .38 or .380 to be powerful, but if you are going to rely on one for personal security, it is a good idea to understand its capabilities. Thus, a block of 10 percent ballistic gelatin covered with a layer of cotton denim and a number of Hornady and Federal rounds in both .380 and .38 Special were tested for velocity, expansion and penetration. Using the LCP, LCR and S&W J-frame for the test, it was determined that both the .380 and .38 “hovered” in the mid-900 fps (feet per second) range which, in my experience, is the minimal level for assured expansion. The gelatin block told the story as the Hornady Critical Defense load, with its polymer-filled tip, proved to be the hot setup for these short-barreled guns. Both the .380 and .38 had recovered diameters around 0.5 inches with penetration in the 10-inch region. These test results were actually better than I expected.

Once the ammo testing was finished, the group was divided in two and several of the Gunsite shoothouses were put in play for a bit of tactical work. While I have been through more than my share of such training, I never find these boring and I always learn something—even if it is just about myself. In this case, I felt a lack of confidence in the small guns I was carrying (Ruger LCP and LCR) and wished that I had a “handful of gun” going through the door with me. As it turned out, I actually did OK, hitting my targets solidly—even a couple that were rather long shots for an indoor simulation. As I reached the last door, I made an assessment of my situation and noted that I had two guns, each with one live round. I looked at Bill Murphy and said, “I’m not opening that door…I can’t win.” He smiled and said, “That is always an option!”

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The final drill was a search of a shoothouse after dark, which required the use of the SureFire Backup light. Since the Gunsite shoot houses have no ambient light at all, it was probably darker than would be the case in a real confrontation, but that offered little comfort. In such situations, the best technique is short “blips” of light with movement in order to keep potential attackers from knowing your exact location. With no ambient light at all, this proved to be a challenge as I opened the initial door, saw a figure standing in front of me and mistook a Bible for a gun. Oops! Darkness does that to a combatant and all that one can do is practice and train to achieve their best performance.

What I knew about the capability of these small guns and lights was reinforced. If you are going to rely on these compact tools, it is best if understand their strengths and limitations, and then train and practice like your life depends on it, because it does!

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