Choosing a handgun for concealed carry requires the shooter to weigh several factors, including size, weight, caliber, capacity, fashion and the likelihood of detection. Some of these factors can lead shooters to consider the likes of a pocket gun.

I recommend belt holster carry of a medium or larger semi-auto pistol whenever possible. The larger gun offers a faster draw, longer sight radius, higher capacity, better sights and a better trigger. However, this mode of carry requires an untucked shirt, vest or some other cover garment. Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to dress that way for a variety of reasons.

For the past decade, I’ve used various off-body carry methods to be armed in situations where holstered carry wasn’t possible. But after hosting a snub-nosed revolver class, I started carrying a snub in my front pants pocket. This enabled me to carry in places I hadn’t carried before.

The common criticism of the pocket gun is that it’s not “enough gun.” Some claim the pocket gun carrier gives up too much in speed, accuracy and capacity. Failing to find any real data that measures the difference, I started a project. I ran a special pocket gun class that included a standardized test students would shoot with their primary and pocket guns.

We tested students on their speed to hit the target when starting from a seated position, and recorded their draw times both when they drew and shot while seated (left) and when they stood up to draw and shoot (right).

We tested students on their speed to hit the target when starting from a seated position and recorded their draw times both when they drew and shot while seated (left) and when they stood up to draw and shoot (right).

How Much Capacity Do You Need?

Tom Givens says the average gunfight is “three shots in three seconds at 3 yards.” But he’s also had a few student incidents in which eight to twelve rounds were fired. Claude Werner, who has been tracking statistics reported in the NRA’s “Armed Citizen” column and other media for many years, says that the average incident involves two rounds, though some incidents required eight to nine rounds.

The NYPD use of force report for 2010 compiled data on 52 shootings and states that 76 percent of those incidents involved five or fewer rounds. The Los Angeles Police Department report for 2009 shows 65 percent of their 85 shootings involved five rounds or fewer. Twelve percent of NYPD shootings and 27 percent of LAPD shootings required six to ten rounds, with 12 percent of NYPD shootings and 8 percent of LAPD shootings requiring more than ten.

Police shootings are not a perfect model for armed citizen incidents, but looking at all the data clearly shows that a five-round gun is not a guaranteed solution to all likely incidents. It may be a solution 70 percent of the time, which is preferable to no gun. Noticeably absent from any of the armed citizen incident data was any example of an incident in which an armed citizen’s death was directly linked to running out of ammo before the fight was over.

Pocket Gun Training Day

Pocket guns bite hands, pinch fingers and induce recoil fatigue faster in shooters than larger handguns do. They hold less ammunition, have to be reloaded more often, and can be slower to reload than larger guns. With that in mind, my instructor team and I revised our Defensive Pistol Skills 1 class. We lowered the round count and created a half-day version of the course for pocket guns.

We started the class with a pocket gun version of our pre-test. It requires the student to start at a ready position and knock down a “Hard Head Ted” reactive target at 10 yards within three seconds. To knock down the target, either the 6-inch circular chest plate or small head plate — both hidden inside a plastic torso — must be hit.

The students have to run this drill cold (no dry-firing or other warm-ups). This provides an estimate of how one would perform in a real situation. Some of the students started the day with pained expressions. They found that either their accuracy or speed was insufficient to pass the pre-test. In most cases, the problem wasn’t speed; it was accuracy.

We began with fundamentals, such as trigger control, improving follow-up shot speed, presentation of the gun from a ready position and drawing from the pocket holster. We continued into more complex skills, including shooting on the move, shooting one- and two-handed, and drawing the pocket pistol from a seated position — both staying seated and standing up prior to drawing.

Another common use for the pocket gun is to function as a backup gun, drawn in case the primary gun malfunctions or is damaged. We simulated this situation by having the students start with “red guns” aimed at the target. They then dropped that gun, drew a pocket gun and re-engaged the target.

“Three Seconds or Less”

To measure the difference between the primary gun and pocket gun, we used our “Three Seconds or Less” drill. We created this drill to use as a post-test in our Defensive Pistol classes as a reasonable baseline for practical concealed carry skills. It’s a sequence of one-, two- and three-shot exercises, all using a three-second par time. The exercises are shot at 3 and 7 yards. It tests one- and two-handed shooting, movement and the concealment draw.

The drill is run using IDPA targets, scoring the “-1” zone as one point down and the “-3” zone as three points down. Misses subtract five points. The test has a maximum score of 100 points, with 90 points or higher considered passing.

Using a pocket holster instead of a hip holster has advantages and disadvantages. The pocket holster allows the user to reach into the pocket and grip the pistol without revealing that the shooter is carrying. Reaching back to get a firing grip on the pistol in a hip holster generally broadcasts one is armed. Getting the concealment garment out of the way or reaching into a pocket can take a lot of time.

In recognition of this issue, the Three Seconds or Less Drill was designed to have students access their firearms off the clock. They start with a hand on the gun. For those strings that required a full concealment draw, pocket gun users were allowed to start with a hand already in pocket. To avoid test bias, some shooters shot the pocket gun first. Others shot the primary gun first.

Pocket Gun vs. Primary Gun Data

A total pool of 18 students shot the test with primary and pocket guns. The pool included those with very little shooting experience, intermediate level shooters and a few IPSC/IDPA Master class level competitors. The detailed data, shown in the chart, includes some interesting trends.

Pocket gun vs. primary gun data based on the 18-student pool during Defensive Pistols class.

Pocket gun vs. primary gun data based on the 18-student pool during Defensive Pistols class.

Shooters classified as “low skill” had passed the Texas CHL shooting test but had no training in defensive pistol skills. This group did not attend the pocket gun class and was given limited instruction in safe drawing techniques prior to taking the test. For this group, the average difference in scores was significant (20 points).

Shooters classified as “medium skill” had taken at least one defensive pistol course or had IPSC or IDPA match experience. The average performance loss was 10 percent. Students shot passing scores (over 90 points) with the primary guns but fell short with the pocket guns. Two shooters using a pocket gun with a trigger very similar to their primary guns, scored the same (+/- 1%) with both guns. However, they failed to reach the 90 point goal with either.

Shooters classified as “high skill” had taken more than one defensive pistol course in the last year or were regular competitors in shooting sports. These shooters had an average skill loss of less than 3 percent. And all but one shooter passed the test with both guns. No shooters had practiced with their pocket guns in the past year prior to attending the pocket gun class.

Pocket Gun Conclusions

Is a pocket gun enough? Data analysis indicates that a five-shot .38 probably holds enough ammunition to handle 70 percent of all likely situations. In the hands of a “low skill” shooter, the odds of getting acceptable hits are poor. That group averaged 57 percent on the test. When those two probabilities are multiplied to calculate total probability, the result is 40 percent. It isn’t great but is better than 0 percent (no gun).

Training and skill, whether acquired through practice with the pocket gun or a larger gun, dramatically increase the odds of getting acceptable hits. Scores jumped from the low 60s to the middle 90s. Adding capacity to the pocket gun can also improve the odds. Adding capacity is not a substitute for developing skill, though. Three good hits are tactically and legally preferable to seven bad shots.

The best odds, regardless of skill level, come from carrying the primary gun. This overcomes both the capacity and capability limitations of the pocket gun.

The best solution? Carry a medium or large-sized handgun. Train and practice with it until you can shoot a passing score on the Three Seconds or Less Drill. Carry that gun as often as you can. Have a pocket gun, preferably one that holds six or more rounds. Train and practice with it until you can pass the test. Carry it in those situations when no other practical option exists.

About Karl Rehn

Karl Rehn, lead instructor for KR Training, has taught classes in the Central Texas area for the past 20 years. He is an NRA Training Counselor, Texas Concealed Handgun License Instructor and a Master class competitor in IPSC, IDPA and Steel Challenge. Rehn has trained with dozens of well-known tactical and competition instructors.