Barrel length primarily affects two different aspects of any gun you plan to carry for self-defense: concealability and velocity. Considering them in advance can help you choose the right gun for you and your particular lifestyle.
Concealability of the Firearm
In general, a gun with a shorter barrel is more easily concealed than one with a longer barrel and/or slide. A longer-barreled gun will hang lower in relation to any shirt, vest or other concealment garment.
Obviously, climate is a factor. In Minnesota, for example, it’s only really hot for maybe three months. Most of the year, keeping even a full-sized gun “under cover” is fairly easy.
On the other hand, I moved from Minnesota to Florida a few years ago. Typically, except for a couple of days a year, I wear light, untucked shirts that can sometimes expose the barrel of any duty-sized pistol or revolver.
As a result, a slight reduction in barrel length can make a difference. This is one of the reasons why snubby revolvers and sub-compact auto-pistols have become so popular.
Velocity of the Fired Rounds
While in general it is true that, using the same ammunition, shorter barrels will produce lower velocities than longer barrels, it’s not that simple. High-pressure rounds like .357 Magnum or .40 S&W do not lose significant velocity in shorter barrels.
For example, I have a Ruger GP100 and an SP101, both with 3-inch barrels, and two Smith & Wesson Mod 60s with 2.125-inch barrels. When shooting full-power .357 Magnum 125-grain defensive loads, they exit the 3-inch guns at 1,350 feet per second and the 2-inch guns at 1,265 feet per second. In either case, it is more than enough to ensure full expansion and penetration.
However, low-pressure loads like .38 Special, even +P versions, which may reach 1,100 feet per second out of a full-sized gun, will typically exit a 2-inch barrel at under 900 feet per second (some even slower). Sure, they will still do serious damage, but it’s just a fact that a shorter barrel length affects low-pressure loads more significantly.
My Revolver Recommendation
I recommend a 3-inch-barreled revolver over a 2-inch version. One inch doesn’t seem like much, but it translates to a 50 percent longer barrel. Velocity is definitely better, yet there is little difference in concealability.
The same holds true for auto-pistols, although to a lesser degree. The reason is that most auto-loaders chosen for self-defense tend to be in higher-pressure calibers, such as .40 S&W and even 9mm. Such loads still retain decent velocity even when fired from very short barrels.
However, the venerable .45 ACP is a different story. It is a low-pressure cartridge that was designed to use 230-grain ball ammo fired from a 5-inch barrel. True, it still performs more than adequately out of Commander-sized guns with 4- to 4.25-inch barrels.
But with baby 45s having barrels as short as 3 inches or so, velocity drops off dramatically. This results in less-than-desirable penetration and often no expansion whatsoever, even with quality hollow-points.
If you insist on carrying an extremely short-barreled .45, one solution would be to load 185-grain or 200-grain +P ammo, available from most manufacturers.
The Bottom Line on the Barrel Length of Guns
Barrel length is certainly one consideration in deciding on a concealed carry gun. But it’s only one of several. Just use common sense and a little forethought to lead you to the best decision.
About John Caile
John Caile is an NRA Firearm Instructor Certified in Pistol, Rifle, Shotgun, Home Firearm Safety and Personal Protection in the Home. He has more than 35 years of experience in concealed carry training and practical handgun shooting skills. John was Communications Director of the Minnesota Gun Owners Political Action Committee and was instrumental in passing Minnesota’s landmark concealed carry permit law. John is a contributing writer for USCCA’s Concealed Carry Magazine and has appeared on national talk radio and network and public television. He has been frequently published in the press. John lives in Palm Coast, Florida, where he continues his lifelong activism for gun owners and their rights.