Is a Pocket Gun “Enough” to Use in Self-Defense?

The common criticism of the pocket gun is that it’s not “enough gun”—that the pocket gun carrier gives up too much in speed, accuracy, and capacity.

The common criticism of the pocket gun is that it’s not “enough gun”—that the pocket gun carrier gives up too much in speed, accuracy, and capacity.

Choosing a handgun for concealed carry requires the shooter to trade off size, weight, caliber, capacity, fashion, likelihood of detection, and other factors.

I recommend belt holster carry of a medium or larger semi-auto pistol whenever possible, because the larger gun offers a faster draw, longer sight radius, higher capacity, better sights and a better trigger than a pocket gun. That mode of carry requires an untucked shirt, a vest, or some other cover garment.

Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to dress that way, either because you are carrying in a non-permissive environment, have limited clothing options due to workplace dress codes, are active outdoors, or some other restriction, such as your spouse saying, “you aren’t going out to dinner with me dressed like that.”

 

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 100 percent solution to all likely incidents.

 

For the past decade I’ve used various off-body carry methods to be armed in situations where holstered carry wasn’t possible. After hosting a snub-nose revolver class taught by Claude Werner, I started carrying a snub in a front pants pocket, which 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”—that the pocket gun carrier gives up too much in speed, accuracy, and capacity. Failing to find any real data that measures that difference, I started a project to collect that missing information, by running 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, who has had 60 students involved in shootings in the past five years, says the average gunfight is “three shots in three seconds at three yards,” but also reports 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, but some incidents required eight to nine rounds.

The NYPD use of force report for 2010, compiling data on 52 shootings, states that 76 percent of those incidents involved five or fewer rounds, while the Los Angeles PD 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 twelve percent of NYPD shootings and eight 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 100 percent solution to all likely incidents. It may be a 70 percent solution, which is preferable to the 0 percent solution (no gun) in those situations where the primary gun simply can’t be carried. 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 guns bite hands, pinch fingers, and induce recoil fatigue faster in shooters than larger handguns do.

 

Training Day

To measure the difference between the primary gun and pocket gun, we used our “Three Seconds or Less” drill and recorded students’ times using each gun type.

To measure the difference between the primary gun and pocket gun, we used our “Three Seconds or Less” drill and recorded students’ times using each gun type.

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 to create a lower round count, half-day version of the course modified to include topics unique to pocket guns.

We started the class with a pocket gun version of our pre-test, which requires the student to start at a ready position and knock down a DVC Targets “Hard Head Ted” reactive 3-D target at ten yards within three seconds. To knock down the target, either the six-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, before doing any dry firing or other warm up, to give them an estimate of how they would perform in a real situation. Some of the students started the day with pained expressions, as they found that either their accuracy or speed was insufficient to pass the pretest. In most cases the problem wasn’t speed, it was accuracy.

We started the class with a pocket gun version of our pre-test, which requires the student to start at a ready position and knock down a DVC Targets “Hard Head Ted” reactive 3-D target at ten yards within three seconds.

We started the class with a pocket gun version of our pre-test, which requires the student to start at a ready position and knock down a DVC Targets “Hard Head Ted” reactive 3-D target at ten yards within three seconds.

A lot of time at the start of class was spent on fundamentals while shooting three-inch dots and other small shapes on our KRT-1 target, working on 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 (mainly to the 10 and 2 o’clock angles), 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, to be drawn in case the primary gun malfunctions or is damaged during the fight. We simulated this situation by having the students start with “red guns” aimed at the target, then drop that gun, draw their pocket gun, and re-engage the target.

Students learned to shoot their pocket pistols in a variety of realistic drills, including shooting on the move.

Students learned to shoot their pocket pistols in a variety of realistic drills, including shooting on the move.

 

“Three Seconds or Less” Data

To measure the difference between the primary gun and pocket gun, we used our “Three Seconds or Less” drill, featured in a previous issue of Concealed Carry as a former “Drill of the Month.” We created this drill to use as a posttest 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 shot using a three second par time, at three and seven yards, testing 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, with misses subtracting 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. With a hip holster, reaching back and getting a firing grip on the pistol generally broadcasts that the shooter is armed. Getting the concealment garment out of the way or reaching into a pocket can take a lot of time particularly with lightweight cover garments or pants with small pocket openings.

In recognition of this issue, many strings in the Three Seconds or Less drill were designed to have students access their firearm “off the clock,” starting with hand on gun, and for those strings that required a full concealment draw, pocket gun users were allowed to start with hand already in pocket. To avoid test bias, some shooters shot the pocket gun first; others shot the primary gun first.

Using non-firing dummy guns, students practiced discarding the primary firearm while retrieving the backup gun from a pocket.

Using non-firing dummy guns, students practiced discarding the primary firearm while retrieving the backup gun from a pocket.

A total pool of 18 students shot the test with primary and pocket guns, during and after the pocket gun course. 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 on the next page, includes some interesting trends.

Shooters classified as “low skill” had passed the Texas CHL shooting test, but had no training or practice drawing from concealment or in other defensive pistol skills. This group did not attend the pocket gun class, and were given limited instruction in safe drawing technique 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, or both. The average performance loss was 10 percent, with students shooting passing scores (over 90 points) with their primary guns, but falling short with the pocket guns. Two shooters, each using a pocket gun with a trigger very similar to their primary gun, scored the same (+/- 1%) with both guns, but 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%, with all but one shooter passing the test with both guns. None of these shooters had done any practice with their pocket guns in the past year prior to attending the pocket gun class.

Training and skill, whether it’s acquired through practice with the pocket gun or a larger gun, dramatically increases the odds of getting acceptable hits.

Training and skill, whether it’s acquired through practice with the pocket gun or a larger gun, dramatically increases the odds of getting acceptable hits.

 

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 (anyone lacking training beyond the CHL level), 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, which isn’t great, but is better than 0 percent (no gun).

The class spent a lot of time working on fundamentals while shooting three-inch dots and other small shapes on our KRT-1 target.

The class spent a lot of time working on fundamentals while shooting three-inch dots and other small shapes on our KRT-1 target.

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

The best odds, regardless of skill level, come from carrying the primary, not the pocket, gun, since this overcomes both the capacity and the 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.

 

[ Karl Rehn is the lead instructor for KR Training (www.krtraining.com) and 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, who has trained with dozens of well-known tactical and competition instructors. ]