Whether selected by Joe Citizen for personal protection or by a peace officer for a "hide-out" or back-up firearm, the small handgun was common at the crime lab. The old term "vest pocket" aptly suggests the typical size.
In addition to working a lot of cases with this class of handgun, we also did gelatin and field-testing that left me with some strong impressions and opinions.
.22 Short, Long & Long Rifle
Few short-barrel rimfire revolvers were acceptable for real-life use. Lesser brands had common quality issues like horrific barrel-cylinder alignment and cylinder gaps through which you could throw a cat. Even the quality guns produced low velocities.
Compact .22-caliber semiautos were a different story. Their .25 ACP-class frames avoided the alignment and gap issues of cheap revolvers, but still did not churn up a lot of velocity from their roughly 2-inch barrels. Hollowpoints didn’t open. The ammo choice for such a pistol usually centered on what reliably cycled the action.
In gelatin testing, the 2-inch .22 LR semiautos posted underwhelming velocities. We tested with a Smith & Wesson Model 61 Escort, one of the best back then, and the highest velocity we achieved was under 860 fps with hollowpoints; the average energy transfer into gelatin–38 ft-lbs–was only 60 percent of what a typical .38 Special RN lead bullet posted from a 2-inch revolver. On the other hand, penetration was enough to traverse our 15cm (roughly 6 inches) blocks of gelatin.
We did not test "hypervelocity" .22 LR at the time; many of the tiny pistols we had available did not cycle well with this class of ammo. Function first, then terminal effects–always.
.22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire (.22 WMR)
Small .22 WMR firearms were either mini-revolvers–seldom approved for police back-up use–or the old Hi-Standard over-under derringer. The latter was decently built and safe. It was double action only and had no exposed hammer, eliminating the classic dropped-gun hazard all too common to clones of the original O-U derringers. The original Winchester 40-grain JHP with an exposed lead tip ahead of the jacket mouth had a muzzle velocity of 1,090 fps, and its energy transfer in gelatin exceeded that of many standard-velocity .38 Special 158-grain SWC loads in a 2-inch barrel.
The downsides to this combo were two shots only; a long, stiff trigger pull; and an amazing pyrotechnics show emanating from the muzzle. If you missed the bad guy and he got away, he was easy to find–he had temporary blindness and no eyebrows.
Today’s .22 Magnum ammo with lighter bullets, bonded jackets, and big hollowpoint cavities make this a cartridge I’d love to retest.
I recall it was the great sage Skeeter Skelton who quipped, "The .25 Auto is useful for last-ditch defenses–across very narrow ditches."
I have to agree. Although popular, the .25 was only marginally better than the .22 LR fired from an equivalent pistol, transferring 40 to 50 ft-lbs of energy in 15cm of gelatin and completely penetrating the test block. The "trick" bullets of the time seldom improved terminal effects, and those recovered from recently deceased bad guys usually showed no expansion.
There were, however, reasons to consider the .25 over the .22 LR, and to consider the "trick" bullets over FMJs. Both relate to function:
The inside-lubricated .25 ACP cartridge made a more rigid package than the outside-lubricated .22 LR. In short-stroke semiautos, this often gave the .25 the edge in reliable function (all other things being equal).
The trick bullets were often lighter and had commensurately higher velocity. This extra impulse helped reliability, especially in European pistol models.
With any firearm for defense, reliable functioning trumps everything else. A working .25 Auto is preferable to a jammed .45 Auto when things go bad fast. Test until you satisfy yourself that you have reliable function.
.32 & .380 Auto
From Walther PPKs in our collection, the .32 FMJ was usually just under the .38 Special RN 2-inch performance, and the .380 FMJ was about on par with .38 Special RN from a 4-inch tube. However, in the 1970s, the pistols available were not scaled to the "vest-pocket" concept. Given that .32s and .380s are generally built on the same frame, bigger is better. I’ll not say much more about the .32 Auto, but .380 hollowpoints that expanded stopped in 4 to 5 inches of gelatin. Most didn’t expand. It was expansion or penetration, but not both.
I love my German-made .380 Walther PP, but it’s not really a pocket pistol. A fairly thick profile means it is neither comfortable nor stealthy in a blue jeans pocket. The PPK/S shares the grip thickness of the PP; all you gain is less barrel sticking out. The original PPK with its skeletonized grip frame and slab-sided grip panels came very close, but was always expensive and hard to find.
Thank You, Progress!
Today, the game has changed. Manufacturers have created quality .380 pistols that are not much larger than some of the bigger .25 Autos. When I combine price and quality, I keep coming up with the Ruger LCP. I spent some quality time with this pistol shooting steel plates on ST Technical Editor Dick Metcalf’s farm, and that experience proved to me that "compact" doesn’t sacrifice "hitability."
Given the "all or nothing" nature of early .380 HP ammo we saw in Dallas, I worried that shortening .380 barrels to vest-pocket proportions would hurt velocity and, subsequently, terminal effects. I found some Speer test data with the .380 LCP, and the numbers both surprised and reassured me.
The test results showed the Speer 90-grain Gold Dot HP exiting the muzzle at 955 fps from the little LCP. Average bare gelatin penetration was nearly 11 inches, and the bullets’ average expansion was just over 0.50 inch. I can live with that.
Today we have vest-pocket options with significant performance, thanks to new guns and new ammo. The old compromises of my days in law enforcement are fading. Even 9mm pistols are getting smaller and, more importantly for pocket carry, flatter–as in "slab-sided." I’m not quite to the point of calling a 9mm a vest-pocket pistol, but I reserve the right to change my mind!