Here's my idea for the perfect defense handgun. I'm not going to do the usual gun writer crap about a three ounce cannon that shoots a .50BMG. I'll wait until the laws of physics are revoked for that little bit of nonsense. No, my idea is more along the lines of George Nonte's musings in books and magazine articles over the years, where through trying a little of everything, he came to some definite conclusions about what constitutes the ideal defense handgun. In order to do this you have to grant that the person choosing is speaking only for himself. What I like may be the worst thing ever for your great grandmother or your canary. Let them choose for themselves.
I will be choosing a semi-automatic pistol, which I'll get into later. I want the cartridge to be something like the .40S&W, though in truth I could go for a hot nine like the 9x23 Winchester or possibly .38 Super, or a .45ACP just as easily. In 2003, cartridge selection still matters but is not nearly as important as it was forty years ago when Nonte was musing--his choice, by the way, was the 9mmP, especially in JHP form a la the Super Vel from Lee Jurras. If I went with a .40S&W, the grip frame I'd demand would be limited (by size) to a maximum of ten rounds, and eight would suffice. More if a nine, fewer if a .45. The size of the grip would be the key factor for me. I prefer a single stack but a double stack on the order of the Browning Hi-Power would be good too. I find most double stacks to be too wide, which negatively impacts my comfort and my manipulation of the gun as well as concealment. The only two double stacks I really like are the Hi-Power and the CZ75/small frame Tanfoglio Witness. Note both are well-sculpted to fit the hand nicely and are surprisingly easy to grasp and manipulate compared to most of the lard-butt double stacks made today.
Nonte's own drawing from his book Combat Handguns:
Construction material is not critical for me. I do believe we all seek a balance of weight savings vs. recoil damping. I have a lot of tolerance for gun weight. A 30oz gun works fine for me, and I have carried 40oz all day long in the past. Given 30oz, I can happily specify steel and aluminum construction. I have no grief with plastic frames, and light is good down to about 20-22oz with a full power service cartridge. The Glock 23 in .40S&W is about 23oz or a little more, and offers as much recoil as I want in a pistol I would want to shoot extensively. So while plastic is the wave of the future for pistol frames, I find no downside to steel and aluminum. A note on aluminum--it is not as durable as the other materials, but in a properly designed gun where aluminum does not take direct pounding it is more than suitable. Good choices would be something like the SIG Classic pistols, not so good might be the Colt Commander, because of the different way stresses are imparted to each of these gun's aluminum frames. Weight is also tied in to size, so I am less interested in weight than I am in stating size. For example, I like a barrel length of four inches. More is better, a little less is tolerable in some calibers, but four inches is a good compromise. A good design can feature a four inch barrel without being in any way overly large, whereas a gun with a double stack frame is often too wide and deep to make my cut. I'd rather specify features than exact weight.
While on construction, I should say that a durable finish is desirable. "Pretty" is irrelevant. Non-reflective is good but not of much tactical importance as long as the finish and metal polishing doesn't contribute to excess glare off the top of the slide when shooting under bright conditions. I like hard chrome and think it is one of the best all around choices, even though it is a silver finish. I also think the deep heat-treating finish like Glock's "Tennifer" or Tanfoglio's "Wonder" is excellent, perhaps even better than hard chrome, and this can be colored afterwards to cut glare. I am not a fan of baked on polymer/paint style finishes and don't believe they are particularly durable. They are rust-proof until the finish is chipped or scratched. Mainly they are cheap and easy for gun shops to do, and they can offer really groovy camo paint jobs for the ramboesque crowd, which explains their popularity to me. I like Parkerizing (phosphating) but it does wear more than most people seem to think, and it isn't the best for carefully-fitted internal parts. Bluing is not a great finish on a primary carry gun either as it offers no real rust protection and wears fast. I will admit that any finish is acceptable if the user is diligent in maintenance, but not everyone can be so diligent, at least not all the time. Give me one of the first two finishes mentioned. Prior to finishing, I should add, the maker should insure that there are no sharp edges on the outside of the gun. I am not looking for an extensively beveled gun, but just one with no sharp edges.
Another critical external feature is sights. I prefer they be semi-fixed (drift adjustable only), preferably dovetail-mounted and the front at least should be pinned after sighting in. I understand that adjustable sights are made today that are quite durable, but a defensive pistol shouldn't ever need the sights adjusted so why use them? The sights should be smooth with no sharp edges. They don't have to be sloped in the Novak manner, and in fact some people prefer a 90 degree angle between the slide top and front of the rear sight to facilitate one-handed slide racking. I have no preference here. As to color, I believe the sights need to balance a simple sight picture with one that can be seen. I used to specify all-black sights but as my eyes age I appreciate white highlights. I do not like three dot sights of any sort. Better are sights with bars, or a rear white outline. Sights with only two shapes to align, like the bar dot of the SIG or the "Straight Eight" sight developed by Richard Heinie are the best for me. I am also not a fan of night sights. They are too busy for my tastes. If I did choose them they would be a bar rear, dot front, but I still haven't seen a night sight that offers an excellent sight picture otherwise. I don't want them. (ed.: I wrote that in 2003. Since then I've come to appreciate night sights! --2006)
One advantage to metal frames over plastic is that one has removable stock panels in his choice of material and surface. Some plastic frames feel okay, some are slippery, but the fact is that you are stuck with however they look and feel. Yes, there are fancy versions of skateboard tape one can apply to plastic grip frames. If you think I'm going to specify that option for my idea of the perfect pistol, you are sadly mistaken! I would choose wood or plastic stocks that can be removed and replaced. Light abrasive surfaces are okay but sharp checkering or stippling is no good as it chews up the hands and doesn't allow one to re-index the hand in the case of a poor draw. No, one should never make a poor draw, but if he does it is of value to be able to re-index if possible. That also applies to the frame itself, I should add.
As mentioned earlier I would want a TDA (traditional double action) semi-auto: double action trigger pull for the first shot, single action pulls subsequently. I think the semi-automatic is an easier gun to carry and to master for the average shooter. A revolver is a superb weapon in the right hands. I am fairly experienced with the revolver but I still prefer an auto. The fact that they normally hold a round or several rounds more ammo and are also quick to reload is just icing. In decades past the reliable out of the box automatic was a rarity; today it is the norm. As reliability is the number one most important feature of a self-defense weapon, believe me I wouldn't choose the semi-auto if it weren't as reliable as a revolver--or more so.
Why TDA? Well, the DAO (double-action only) is a poor choice for all around use. It is not very fast, and I don't believe the DA trigger for every shot is nearly as practical on an auto as it is on a revolver due to the different shapes of the guns and their recoil characteristics. Also, I found that the DAO auto's accuracy falls off at middle ranges and further. While odds are that in a real life gunfight you'll be able to smell your attacker's breath, it isn't something I choose to depend on for my choice of the perfect all around defensive pistol, so I simply refuse to limit myself with a DAO. The SA (single action) auto is a superb weapon but the most size efficient and reliable factory weapons made today are not SAs. The only two choices in an SA in my opinion are the 1911 and the Hi-Power. I own and shoot both and love them, but I find the hammer down DA first shot to be more comforting than offing the safety on an SA pistol. I also find the decocking method of the proper type is more easily learned to be an automatic movement during a lull in shooting, compared to upping a safety. I don't want to give the impression that I'm anti-SA, as nothing could be further from the truth. I'd just rather carry a TDA.
One feature I'd demand would be trigger pulls that are butter smooth and which have little to no stacking. Weight between the DA and subsequent SA pulls should not be so far apart that the transition is made difficult by a glaringly obvious weight difference. Other than that, the transition between pulls is of no great import as long as one knows how to handle the trigger. (For more on that see my article on shooting pistols double action.) I would want the weight of the DA first shot on the order of 10 pounds, with SA 5 to 6 pounds. I know 5 to 6 pounds is considered to heavy by most operators today, but it in fact is still easy to manipulate and requires a greater degree of deliberation to fire on the shooter's part. Not a lot but perhaps enough. Externally, I like a curved trigger that is polished smooth. Edges both front and rear should be beveled and smooth as well, and the trigger shouldn't pinch when pulled through its full length to the rear of the frame. The trigger guard should be plenty large enough to get the finger into it quickly, and if there is room for a gloved finger all the better. I want a rounded guard--no recurved guards for me, and no serrations or checkering.
With regard to the decocker, the best type are those which are frame-mounted and move down to decock. The SIG is the perfect example, but similar decockers are found on Taurus autos, HK USP autos, and some out of production S&W autos. The frame-mounted decocker falls naturally under the thumb and is an easy, natural movement. Pistols with a slide mounted decocker may or may not have the lever placed to be easily reached. Some brands are better than others in this regard, but in the perfect pistol, the slide should be slick--nothing to catch on hands or clothes, nothing to get in the way when performing malfunction drills, nothing to add to the width of a pistol.
A feature I would not have on my perfect gun is a manually operated safety. A personal weapon, often carried concealed, is less likely to be subject to snatch compared to say a uniformed policeman's gun, where there are legitimate arguments for manual safeties to slow down a gun snatcher. From the user's perspective the initial trigger DA pull, somewhat long and somewhat heavy, is all the safety required, just as was true with the DA revolver for most of the 20th Century. You will find that most current models with slide-mounted decockers also incorporate a safety into this lever, which must be manually offed. Some makers, such as Sturm-Ruger, offer the buyer the choice of safety or no safety. On the no-safety models the lever is just a decocker and springs back to the fire position automatically. Now all of the above doesn't mean a pistol should offer no mechanical safety at all. For decades we have had internal, passive firing pin safeties that will not allow the pistol to fire until the trigger is deliberately pulled to the rear. These do not depend on the user in any way--he does not have to grip the gun just right. They depend strictly on the position of trigger. This prevents discharge if the user drops a loaded gun, for example. With a quality safety system like this, present in the majority of modern pistols, an operator-manipulated safety is unnecessary and redundant, in my opinion. I would leave off both the active and passive manual safeties--the grip safety being an example of the latter.
I would prefer a design that is easy to maintain. It should be quick to field strip. Ideally it should be easy to clean and lubricate without detail stripping. Some guns, like the Hi-Power, are all open to view when field stripped. Others like the 1911 cannot be fully cleaned and lubed without detail stripping. Obviously the former is better than the latter.
I will wrap up here without mentioning any currently made handguns. I think we have some options that are very close to my ideal, and many which are not, but which nevertheless meet with other's perfect satisfaction. I hope my comments give you food for thought, even if your personal tastes are quite different from mine.
May 2008: since penning this article some years ago I've moved on to a different type of firearm action, which is perhaps illustrative of the never-ending search for perfection...
If you would like to put your own thoughts on this topic to pen, please do so and I will be happy to publish them in this same venue.
copyright 2004 by the author, all rights reserved.