THERE A BEST PISTOL?
nearly forever, it seems, the arguments as to which kind of pistol
is best, single-action, double-action or some hybrid form of either.
Yet, the criteria upon which such pronouncements of superiority
are based vary greatly. So much, in fact, that they often bear little
resemblance to reality as we know it. So, like most controversial
issues, the perspective from which we view the subject tends to
influence our opinions more than anything else and, when viewpoint
clash, often prevents us from "seeing the forest for the trees."
is certainly the case with this particular issue, for emotions often
tend to run high when it is discussed. Still, in and of itself,
the question is intriguing and, for its own sake, worth investigating.
For me, the criteria boil down to a simple question -- which type
provides the best balance of the essential elements needed to best
fulfill the pistol's tactical mission and, exactly what are those
before we can proceed further, let's first define the pistol's actual
mission. In other words, we cannot realistically expect to find
answers until we first identify the questions, right? Though I am
perennially astonished at the number of people with an interest
in defensive weaponcraft who haven't done this before they buy guns,
ammo and ancillary equipment and begin developing tactics and techniques,
the fact is that some serious thought on this subject is in order
before any such decisions are made.
what is the mission of the defensive handgun? To provide its wearer
with the means by which to regain control of his immediate environment
when attacked, quickly and with as few shots fired as possible.
This means that we must view the issue from more than one direction.
First, obviously the more "user-friendly," it is, the
better, e.g. the more quickly and easily it can be presented and
used under stress, the more useful it is. This means that the weapon's
controls must be located for efficient operator manipulation, that
the gun itself isn't excessively bulky and/or heavy for convenient
carry/concealment and that it "points" and fits the hand
within reason, it must be mechanically reliable and sufficiently
accurate for the purpose. Third, it must be powerful enough to incapacitate
-- not necessarily just kill -- the attacker with minimum shots
fired, preferably one, if possible. Whether of not the adversary
dies is, from a tactical standpoint, academic. However, his ability
to project lethal aggression, i.e. to continue to threaten us with
or utilize Deadly Force against us, is of the greatest importance.
safety is important, too, but that's part of mechanical reliability.
The single-action (SA) self-loader is without question easier to
use quickly because it is meant to be carried in Condition One (loaded,
cocked and locked). The oft-repeated claim that it is inherently
unsafe because the safety doesn't block the hammer is just so much
drivel, as are claims that it requires special training and armorer
support. A quick look into history discloses that many legendary
weapons -- such as the M-1 Garand, Beretta BM-59 and M-14, AR-10,
M-16 rifles and .30 caliber M-1 carbine, for example -- utilize
this same concept but no one claims them to be unsafe. As far as
training and armorer support are concerned, the SA auto has thus
far enjoyed a worldwide military career than has spanned over eight
decades. Obviously, if it required special treatment or was unsafe,
et al, this could not have been the case.
(DA) pistols were created with the idea of keeping the hammer down
on a loaded chamber, allowing the gun to be cocked and subsequently
fired by a pull of the trigger, then reverting to standard SA operation
for subsequent shots. In theory, this allows it to be kept ready
for action with less preparation and operator "fussing around,"
often the cause of accidental discharges (ADs). One had only to
present the weapon, aim, pull the trigger and...boom! -- he was
the use of two different operational systems makes such weapons
more complex and, often, less mechanically reliable than SA autos.
More importantly, from a "human engineering" standpoint,
the long, heavy DA trigger pull required to initiate that first
shot is tough to handle quickly under stress without loss of first-shot
accuracy. As well, that many DA designs require the firer to shift
his trigger finger from one position on the trigger to another as
the weapon reverts to SA operation proved to be both time-consuming
to realize just how quickly defensive handgun encounters tend to
take place, many shooters mistakenly think that the DA auto is better
because they assume it to be "safer." Thus, they ignore
the fact that it is considerably slower and more difficult to operate
the two designs, which do I favor? Well, strictly speaking. I prefer
the SA. However, because I'm a professional instructor and consultant,
I don't have the luxury of predicating my entire instructional program
around a single design. For whatever reason, many people, at least
initially, prefer the DA auto and, if military or police personnel
are considered, many simply don't have a choice -- they must use
whatever type of weapon they're issued! Since I deal with students
from many different walks of life, my instructional program must
produce superior results with all designs, whatever they may be.
Thus, I created a program that works, regardless of the kind of
pistol the student uses. In other words, my job is to teach to use
their weapon to its maximum potential. What kind of gun the choose
is their business -- and their responsibility.
have been other attempts to deal with the problem: (1) the selective
DA or SA; (2) DA-only (with every pull of the trigger being long
and heavy), and; (3) the "semi"- DA, in which the loaded
pistol is actually on half-cock, thus, pulling the trigger completely
to the rear completes the cocking process and fires the gun. Of
the three, neither the selective DA/SA or DA-only have achieved
much popularity. However, the "semi" - DA, particularly
as represented by the Glock¸ is taking the law-enforcement
community by storm because, from a tactical, criminal and civil
liability standpoint, it offers a viable alternative.
"semi" - DA really better? Technically, yes; but let's
not forget the most important element -- the shooter. In spite of
the irrefutable fact that some guns are easier to use well under
stress than others, if the weaknesses aren't too great, operator
skill can sometimes overcome a system's inherent deficiencies and
produce good performance.
it was from this perspective that I undertook a research project
to find out if there really is a "best" pistol. In consultation
with my senior instructors, it was decided that we'd shoot the most
efficient --and coincidentally, the most famous -- examples of each
design in a test designed to simulate the major tactical functions
for which the pistol is used. Subsequent inquiry at several gunshops
as to which designs they sold most showed that three were predominant
-- SA, DA and "semi" - DA. So, we selected what we considered
to be the best of each and to the range we went...
went...and went, because, due to its thoroughness, the evaluation
took many months to complete.
guns selected? A Smith & Wesson M-39 9mm (DA), Browning P-35
9mm (SA), Colt Government Model .45 ACP (SA), Glock M-22 .40 ("semi"
- DA) and, to round things out, a Colt lightweight Commander .45
ACP (SA). How he carried the weapon of his choice, i.e. open or
concealed, was left entirely up to the shooter, as was his choice
of holster and spare magazine carrier(s).
five participants in the test were highly skilled combat pistol
shooters, three having successfully completed the American Small
Arms Academy Handgun and 4-Weapon Combat Master program. The remaining
two were not far behind, having been Distinguished Graduates of
the ASAA Basic, Intermediate and Advanced Defensive Handgun Courses
with the weapons they chose to utilize in the test. Thus, all concerned
were well-versed on and highly skilled in the most progressive and
effective handgun techniques now known to exist.
test format was simple -- eight simulations of typical handgun situations.
Specifically, they were:
(1) Single Targets X 5, at ranges of from 7 to 25 meters, weapon
presented from Holster. 2 hits required.
(2) Single Targets X 5, at ranges of from 50 to 100 meters, weapon
presentation from Holster. 2 hits required.
Multiple Targets (5), placed one meter apart, center to center,
at ranges of from 7 to 25 meters. Weapon presentation from Ready.
1 hit on each target required.
Multiple Targets (5), placed one meter apart, center to center,
at ranges of from 7 to 100 meters. Weapon presentation from Ready.
1 hit on each target required.
Tactical Multiple Targets (5), placed at various ranges and in various
configurations at from 7 to 50 meters. Weapon presentation from
Holster. 1 hit required on each target.
Partially Obscured Targets (2 left & 2 Right), 40% obscured,
at ranges from 7 to 25 meters. Weapon presentation from Ready. 2
hits required on target.
Small Targets X 2. Head Only showing from behind cover, at from
7 to 25 meters. Weapon presentation from Ready. 1 hit required on
Hostage Situations (2 left & 2 right). 40% of target's head
obscured behind hostage, at from 7 to 15 meters. Weapon presentation
from Ready. 1 hit required on target.
of paper, we elected to pursue maximum realism, using 25 lb. 18x30-inch
knockdown steel silhouettes. Why? Because they respond much like
people. Good hits will take them down, while peripheral or low hits
sometimes don't or, if they do, sluggishly so. Scoring was kept
simple -- each target was worth 10 points and there were time-block
penalties if the target was not hit the requisite number of times
as dictated by the drill or a hostage was hit. Moreover, to insure
a truly useful perspective was achieved on the data obtained, we
decided on three categories of scoring: (1) Elapsed Time; (2) Points-Per-Second,
and; (3) Points-Per-Round-Expended.
the test was intended to determine if any particular design was
indeed "better" or, if so, whether or not the shooter
could make the difference, instead of naming each participant, we
simply called them Shooters A, B, C, D, & E. Here is a list
of what gun and holster/spare magazine carrier they utilized:
Shooter A -- Smith & Wesson M-39 9mm (DA). M-D Labs Taylor-Thunderbolt
holster and spare magazine carrier.
Shooter B -- Browning P-35 9mm. Standard M-D Labs holster and spare
C -- Glock M-22 .40 S&W. Glock plastic belt-slide holster and
D -- Colt LW Commander .45 ACP. Gordon Davis "Taylor-Omega"
holster and .45MP dual magazine carrier.
E -- Colt Government Model .45 ACP. Gordon Davis "Taylor-Omega"
holster and .45MP dual magazine carrier.
gun was in "duty" configuration, meaning that all weapons
had high-visibility fixed sights, a trigger of from 3.5 to 5 lbs.
and an appropriate finish. No super-tuned match guns were used.
to insure international continuity, we used 124-grain NATO 9mm and
WCC-62 .45 ACP ball and Winchester 180-grin FMJ .40 S&W ammunition
throughout the entire test. Furthermore, each shooter carried realistic
a "basic load" of ammunition/spare magazines appropriate
to his weapon. A listing of this follows:
Shooter A -- 9 rds. in gun; 2 spare 8-rd. magazines.
Shooter B -- 14 rds. in gun; 2 spare 13-rd. magazines.
C -- 15 rds. in gun; 2 spare 14-rd. magazines.
D -- 8 rds. in gun; 2 spare 8-rd. magazines.
E -- same as Shooter D.
the testing ran its course, a number of Failures To Stop (targets
that did not fall due to peripheral or low hits, thus requiring
follow up shots to complete the problem) were experienced with all
calibers, even at close range, thus dispelling the widespread, but
erroneous, notion that velocity (9mm) or bullet mass (.45 ACP) alone
could somehow compensate for marksmanship. It quickly became clear
to all concerned that these occurred most often when the shooter
failed to properly balance accuracy and speed, the two hallmark
principles of combat shooting and gave us all a graphic re-education
in what we at ASAA call, "The Three Secrets" -- Sight
Picture, Sight Alignment and Trigger Control, the rock-bottom fundamentals
of shooting itself!
the ranges reached 50, then 75 and a full 100 meters (after all,
there are a few "big-name" writers who claim the pistol
is quite effective out to that range!), the absolute important of
these fundamentals made itself even more obvious. If you don't believe
this, take a look at the results of all three evaluative categories
of Tests 2 & 4 and see for yourself! Even though all five shooters
chose to use the highly stable Rollover Prone position, on those
occasions where execution of any one of "The Three Secrets"
did not take place, the results deteriorated correspondingly.
you don't feel that such long range shooting is a fair challenge
for service pistols, then simply ignore all of Test 2, the 50, 75
and 100 meters portions of Test 4, and concentrate instead upon
Tests 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and the 7 to 25 meter portions of Test 4.
See what I mean? No matter what the tactical problem, the fundamentals
of marksmanship influenced results more than any other single factor.
that point, bullet mass was a factor in that we could readily see
that 180-grain .40 S&W FMJs and .45 ACP 230-grain "hardball"
hit substantially harder and took the targets down faster than 124-grain
9mm Ball. On the other hand, the faster 9mm load shot noticeably
flatter, thus simplifying the marksmanship problem at longer ranges.
is there really a "best" pistol? Technically, if we eliminate
shooter skill from the equation, yes. When interviewed after the
tests, all participants agreed that the big Colt Government .45
(SA) had the best all-around combination of power, "user-friendliness,"
accuracy and functional reliability, while the Glock M-22 .40 S&W
("semi"- DA) and LW Commander .45 (SA) tied for second.
The Browning P-35 9mm (SA) was rated fourth and the Smith &
Wesson M-39 9mm (DA) last.
regardless of weapon design, if the shooter is willing to put in
the required extra work to achieve the necessary skill levels with
his weapon, the equation changes. The least popular design, the
DA S&W M-39 9mm, performed sufficiently well in the hands of
a Combat Master to not only successfully complete the extremely
difficult ASAA Handgun Master Course, but also handily defeated
the other weapons used in the tests in all three evaluative areas
-- Elapsed Time, Points Per Second and Points Per Round Expended.
Does this make the DA better? Not in my view, because of the extra
effort needed to achieve this level of performance. Putting it in
another way, think of how well Shooter A would have done if he'd
been using a pistol that was easier to shoot well under stress!
How did he and the DA auto outperform the other shooters and guns?
Look at the scores again and the answer is clear. Regardless of
weapon, they simply didn't concentrate as hard on discharging the
fundamentals of marksmanship! Could they present a pistol as quickly
as Shooter A? Yes. Could they assume field shooting positions as
quickly? Yes, without a doubt. Clearly, the most influential factor
was the operator, not the weapon itself. Obviously, the weapon design
was sufficiently efficient that Shooter A could overcome its weaknesses
and, in this case, even turn in a superior performance! Were the
weapon a piece of junk, this would have been impossible.
when we consider that the operator is really the weapon, while the
gun is merely a tool, we can conclusively state that a skilled operator
can indeed get by and even produce superior results with a less-than-optimum
weapon design, if he is willing to do whatever he must to achieve
the necessary skills with that weapon. If the design is harder to
work with, then the shooter must simply put in more time and effort
to accomplish the goal.
the other hand, the tests also showed the truth of the often-stated
premises that: (1) some designs are better than others, and; (2)
why struggle more than absolutely necessary -- the tactical problem
is already difficult enough...why make it worse?
as stated in the opening paragraphs of this text, it all depends
upon your perspective on the subject of defensive handgunning. The
data discovered in the test is most enlightening and confirms what
I've believed all along -- that the shooter is more important than
anything. And, a quick review of Points Per Round Expended score
confirms something else of interest -- that, when the chips are
down, magazine capacity, too, means little, something else I've
been saying for the last fifteen years!
a warning here...we must be careful not to lose our perspective.
To me, all other things being equal, when "push comes to shove,"
the weapon that allows me to "get the job done" the most
quickly and efficiently is the "best."