Defining the perfect backup gun for concealed carry is a difficult task, but we're here to give it our best attempt.
Why so difficult? Because "perfect" is so individual and subjective. There are a broad variety of potentially suitable backup guns for concealed carry because there are a broad variety of needs. What's right for a southwestern Sheriff is far different than what's right for an undercover Chicago cop, and what's right for a 2nd Amendment-loving businessman in Dallas is far different from the perfect backup gun for a big game guide in Alaska's grizzly country.
To begin with, we're going to have to narrow the field a bit. (Covering all of the above situations would fill a book.) By my narrow-minded best guess, the greatest percentage of the folks looking for a backup gun are either law enforcement that want a discrete piece that they can go to if their duty weapon is lost or compromised, or self-defense minded folks that want a really deep-carry backup to their standard concealed carry sidearm. In both cases, true discretion is important, more important than capacity or accuracy.
So let's start with that: For most folks, a backup gun for concealed carry needs to be quite small. To that we must add the virtue of perfect reliability, because if it doesn't go bang every time, no matter how dirty or lint-clogged it is, when necessary you won't be able to scrape off the angry fellow bent on strangling you.
Small size and reliability are critical for concealed carry. What else is important? How about power? While it doesn't qualify for "critical" status, substantial authority can be really helpful when attempting to enlighten a big, drugged-up attacker in a concealed carry situation. While there are some oddball cartridges such as the .327 Federal and such that are quite capable, and while James Bond's creator Ian Fleming attributed his hero multiple one-shot-stops with the dainty little .32 Auto, let's err on the side of common availability and at least moderate authority and pronounce the .380 Auto the smallest really capable concealed carry cartridge suitable for semiautos (and bigger is better) and the .38 Special the perfect compact wheelgun round for concealed carry. There. That was easy.
How you intend to wear the backup gun for concealed carry can narrow down the options, too. If it will be stowed inside a waistband, lots of guns will work, including compact semiautos in powerful calibers. But if you need to be able to drop it into a pocket, you'll need a really small gun. Ankle carry falls someplace between. (As an aside, the only half-respectable golf score I ever posted was with a compact revolver strapped to my ankle. So experience tells me that nothing improves your golf stance and swing like velcroing a good wheelgun to your leg.)
If you need that concealed carry backup gun to disappear — to completely vanish — on your person, you'll need a very, very tiny shooter indeed.
How about caliber agreement, meaning a backup gun in the same caliber as your standard concealed carry gun? If convenient, by all means, buy a smallish 9mm to go with your Glock G17 or whatever. However, as emerged during the preceding paragraphs, most backup guns must be very small, and very small guns — particularly semiautos — don't usually play nice with the capable sort of calibers that your main concealed carry piece should be chambered in. In reality, you're likely to be best served with a .380 or .38 Special.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, your backup gun for concealed carry should be easy for you to operate under the worst kind of stress. As in while you're getting shot at — and potentially already possess a fresh bullet hole or two. If practical, it's really, really worth getting a smaller version of your standard full-size go-to gun. For example, if you have a Glock G19 or the like on your belt for concealed carry, get one of Glock's outstanding tiny single-stack pistols such as the 9mm G43 or .380 G42. Or if you pack a full-size double-action revolver such as a Smith & Wesson 686, choose an Airweight J-Frame for your belly gun. Feel, function, and fire controls will all be familiar, so you won't have to shift gears to get your concealed carry backup gun into the game when things have gone way too far south.
In the end, only you can pick the right backup gun for your purposes. What we can do is suggest a baker's dozen compact sidearms of various types and models that won't let you down, no matter how deep the mud, blood, or booze. Take a few minutes to browse through the following, and please hit us with any suggestions or observations in the comments section. We'd love to hear your take on the perfect backup gun for concealed carry.
Glock G42 & G43
These two long-awaited single-stack pistols put Glock quality into pocket-size packages for concealed carry. For deeper carry opt for the .380-caliber G42, which carries 6+1 rounds, weighs less than 14 ounces, is only 0.94-inch wide, and 5.94 inches long. If a shade more size doesn't bother you, get the more powerful 9mm G43 version instead. It too carries 6+1 rounds, but at 18 ounces it's a bit heavier. It's slightly bigger, but not by much: 6.26 inches long and 1.02 wide. Price: $525.
Kel Tec P-3AT
At only 8 ounces and 0.77 inch wide, this little Kel Tec P-3AT is a legitimate pocket pistol. Chambered in .380 Auto, it carries 6+1 rounds. Rudimentary sights make it less than ideal for shooting past a couple of yards, but that's not what backup guns are for, anyway. Length: 5.2 inches. Price: $338.
Kimber Micro & Micro 9
Roughly based on Colt's famous old Mustang pocket pistol, Kimber's Micro and the new Micro 9 are beautifully built, upper-crust backup guns. Of single-action design, they have exposed hammers and manual thumb safeties. Excellent crisp triggers make them easier to shoot accurately than most other pocket guns. The .380 Auto version holds 6+1 rounds, is 5.6 inches long, and weighs 13 ounces; the 9mm version has the same capacity but is 6.1 inches long and weighs almost 16 ounces. Price starts at $597.
North American Arms
This innovative company offers a ton of various little revolvers, including those chambered in .22 Magnum, but if you're going to go tiny, well, go tiny. This doll-sized five-shooter chambers and fires .22 Long Rifle cartridges from its 1.12-inch barrel, and with the advanced technologies in segmenting rimfire projectiles for personal protection, it's a whole ton better than nothing. What's that? Yes, this shiny tiny shooter will fit inside your bra. Weight is a laughably light 4.6 ounces, and it's only 4.0 inches long. Price: $245.
Ruger LCP .380 Auto
While the LCP isn't quite the lightest pocket pistol showcased here, at 9.6 ounces it comes close, and at $259 it's the least expensive semiauto. Of .380 caliber, it carries the typical 6+1 rounds but offers Ruger's above-par toughness. Length: 5.16 inches. Width: 0.82 inch.
Ruger LCR .38 Special
Few revolvers are of space-age design. This Ruger LCR .38 Special is one of the few. Featuring an aerospace-grade aluminum frame and polymer "fire control housing" (grip frame and trigger guard) it's a very innovative, lightweight 13.5-ounce revolver. Simple design gives reliability, and at belly-gun distances its 1.87-inch barrel is authoritative enough. Capacity is 5 rounds. Overall length: 6.5 inches. It doesn't quite make the bona fide pocket-pistol cut, but it's pretty darn close. Price: $579.
SIG SAUER P238
Another small single-action that claims its ancestry with Colt's Mustang, the SIG Sauer P238 is available in myriad variations. This practical base model is made of Nitron-blackened stainless steel and sports rosewood grip panels and night sights. A manual thumb safety offers peace of mind. Capacity is 6+1 rounds, and the dashing little pocket pistol weighs only 15.2 ounces. Overall length is 5.5 inches. Price: $723.
Smith & Wesson M&P Shield
While this is way too big to qualify as a pocket pistol, unless you live in an Eskimo parka, the M&P Shield almost achieves bona fide fighting-pistol status courtesy of it's outstanding ergonomics, excellent recoil control, and 8+1 capacity in 9mm. It's also available in .40 S&W, but capacity is one cartridge less and recoil a bit more peppy. For what it's worth, a Shield 9mm is my primary concealed-carry sidearm. Weight: 19 ounces. Length: 6.1 inches. Price: $449.
Smith & Wesson M&P Bodyguard 380
This diminutive polymer-framed pocket pistol was engineered to successfully compete with the likes of Kel Tec's P3AT and Ruger's LCP, and amongst those that use them€¦ well, let's just say they'd never use anything else. Like most of its ilk, the little .380 Auto holds 6+1 rounds. Metal parts are stainless steel finished with S&W's super-durable black Melonite-type coating. Weight is 12 ounces, length is 5.25 inches, and price is an attractive $379.
Smith & Wesson Model 442
With more decades of hard use and undercover combat to its credit than any other compact revolver currently in production, anything from the J-Frame family has genuine street cred. This particular Airweight Model 442 is especially appealing: a concealed hammer eliminates snagging inside pockets and on clothing, and in .38 Special it's particularly shootable. At 15 ounces it's not hard to pack day in and day out. Capacity is 5 rounds. Length: 6.31. Price: $469.
Smith & Wesson M&P 340
You've got to be a masochist to want to fire full-house .357 Magnum loads in this tiny handful of uber-light Scandium and stainless steel, but if you're man enough to control 'em, the M&P 340 will shoot 'em. Of course, the better part of valor is to load the cylinder with peppy .38 Special cartridges, which the M&P 340 will safely chamber and fire. Like its less-expensive .38-Special-only brother, the 340 is of hammerless design, making it ideal for shooters desiring a concealed carry revolver. By the by, this is the gun that was strapped to my ankle when I posted the golf score mentioned earlier. Weight is an eyebrow-raising super-light 13 ounces. Length is 6.31 inches. Price: $869.