Little Guns, Big Impressions

Little Guns, Big Impressions

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.

The little .22 Long Bernardelli (top) is a classic example of a "vest-pocket" pistol. The superb .380 Walther PP is a little too large for that niche.

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.

As most .32 and .380 Auto pistols are no different in outside dimensions, go for the extra punch of the .380 unless you cannot handle the additional recoil.

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.

.25 Auto
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:

New developments in .380 ACP pistols, like the Ruger LCP, are redefining the definition of an entire class of pistols.

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.

Ruger LCP


 

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!

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Tactical Solutions Introduces New X-Ring Takedown SBR Rifle

Tactical Solutions Introduces New X-Ring Takedown SBR Rifle

Keith Feeley of Tactical Solutions sat down with Michael Bane at SHOT Show 2018 to talk about the new X-Ring Takedown SBR .22LR rifle.

Black Hills Evolution of Rifle Cartridge: .308 Win. 175 Gr. Match

Black Hills Evolution of Rifle Cartridge: .308 Win. 175 Gr. Match

David Fortier talks with Jeff Hoffman of Black Hills Ammunition about the evolution of the .308 Win. 175 Gr. Match bullet.

Pinging Steel At Over A Mile Away

Pinging Steel At Over A Mile Away

Big bore semiauto or a lever gun? We look at the futuristic .450 Bushmaster and how it compares to the tried and true .45-70. ISS Prop House gives us the rundown on the guns used in Enemy at the Gate. We ping steel with a .300 WinMag at over a mile.

Springfield Armory Saint Victor

Springfield Armory Saint Victor

The SAINT' Victor Rifle delivers a lightweight and agile rifle solution while maintaining effectiveness at extended engagement distances.

Trending Articles

Daniel Defense has blazed a new trail with its first-ever bolt-action rifle, the Daniel Defense Delta 5. Rifles

Daniel Defense Delta 5 Review

Joel J. Hutchcroft - May 31, 2019

Daniel Defense has blazed a new trail with its first-ever bolt-action rifle, the Daniel...

These cheap postwar variants offer perhaps the best value on the vintage-Mauser market. Rifles

Yugoslavian M24/47 Mauser-Pattern Rifle

Joseph von Benedikt - May 13, 2019

These cheap postwar variants offer perhaps the best value on the vintage-Mauser market.

How can a shorter-barreled revolver have higher velocities than a longer-barreled semiautomatic pistol? Handguns

Revolver vs. Semiautomatic Pistol: A Ballistic Oddity

Allan Jones - May 15, 2019

How can a shorter-barreled revolver have higher velocities than a longer-barreled...

The joys of handloading are many, and one of them is sharing the experience with a novice. Reloading

Share the Handloading Experience

Lane Pearce - May 19, 2019

The joys of handloading are many, and one of them is sharing the experience with a novice.

See More Trending Articles

More Ammo

Capable of excellent accuracy and terminal ballistics, the 257 Roberts Ackley Improved is an interesting wildcat cartridge. Ammo

.257 Ackley Improved Ammo

Lane Pearce - June 27, 2019

Capable of excellent accuracy and terminal ballistics, the 257 Roberts Ackley Improved is an...

Often predicted to become obsolete as a hunting cartridge, the .30-30 Winchester is not dead yet. Ammo

The Grand Old .30-30 Winchester

Allan Jones - June 24, 2019

Often predicted to become obsolete as a hunting cartridge, the .30-30 Winchester is not dead...

In single-shot firearms, .35-caliber rifle bullets are great performers in the .357 Maximum cartridge. Ammo

Put the .357 Maximum Where It Works

Allan Jones - March 06, 2020

In single-shot firearms, .35-caliber rifle bullets are great performers in the .357 Maximum...

The Winchester Wildcat 22 LR Ammo is a good plinking round as well as a reliable small-game hunting round. Ammo

Winchester Wildcat .22LR Ammo

Jake Edmondson - December 13, 2019

The Winchester Wildcat 22 LR Ammo is a good plinking round as well as a reliable small-game...

See More Ammo

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.