This question comes up at every gun shop, every gun show, and every time two or more shooters get together. It's the old 'Ford vs Chevy' argument, although it can feel a little more like 'The Hatfields vs The McCoys' at times.
"What is the best pistol to carry for self defense?"
Like my dad used to say, "Now There's a hole with no bottom!".
At the risk of opening a can of worms, stirring them up, and spreading them out across the gun shop floor...... here is what 'Ol Carteach thinks.
My ideal carry pistol? One that works, one that is on me when I need it, and one that's sufficient caliber to likely deter someone who wishes me harm. In other words, carry pistols are like tools in a tool box. The right tool for the right job, or at least as close as one can get. Notice, there is nothing here that says a carry weapon must be a revolver, or must be self-loading. There is nothing here that says it must be made of steel, or plastic, or even from melted down barbie dolls. It need not be cheap, nor expensive, nor pretty, nor ugly. It need not have a whiz bang laser, nor a flashlight, nor dual matching cup holders.
A defensive carry weapon must work, must be there, and be big enough to do the job at hand. More than that is personal choice (not that that's a bad thing).
'Must Work' means the pistol needs to be reliable. In this case, reliable is usually determined by the number of rounds the weapon can go through without a failure of any kind (not directly related solely to ammunition faults). A not uncommon notion, and one I subscribe to, is that a carry weapon should be able to digest thousands of rounds in a row without a single hiccup. Not dozens, not hundreds, but thousands.
Revolver shooters may look at this number differently, and with good reason. Solid, old school, double action revolvers have a reputation for reliability that is unmatched. This statement may drive some Glock shooters into fits of frothy fury, but it's no less the truth. With fewer moving parts, robust designs, and no safeties to get in the way, revolvers have earned their reputation for dependability. Not that wheel guns are infallible, no.... they are far from that. No machine is free from all failures forever. But.... a good quality revolver is the standard others are measured against.
Weighed on the scales of reliability, revolvers as a genre have an edge. Not a big one, in these modern times, but there is a measurable lean to the wheelies side of things.
Most importantly, and back on the topic, carry weapons need to be reliable. This means their owners, if they really care, should be shooting them a lot. Not a box a year at the family Fourth of July picnic, in between the hot dog course and the pie extravaganza..... but several hundred rounds a month, if at all possible. Many defensive shooters believe a carry pistol should have a solid thousand rounds through it, without a glitch, before it is really dependable enough to be relied on.
In this area of concern, there is no substitute for round count. Folks who carry, and do it with forethought and reason, need to spend quality trigger time with their weapon. Should it not be true, should it suffer failures of any kind.... then it's time to move on to another weapon. Allowing for a short break in time, several hundred rounds or so, a serious weapon simply should not fail to work afterwords.
This is not to say that failures don't occur. They always will, as we are dealing with machines. Machines break, machines fail, and machines are only as good as their designers skull sweat and their owners care. If you have one steel ball.... you are pretty safe in that it's not likely to fail. As soon as you introduce a second steel ball and let it touch the first... all bets are off and it's just a matter of time till they fail. For that reason, good shooters practice for failures. Reload drills, failure to feed drills, and even 'move to a backup gun' drills.
Now, once we have a reasonably reliable weapon, where should we keep it? The answer is really very simple. A defensive weapon needs to be on you, or where you can lay your hand on it RIGHT NOW. That's it, pure and simple. Anything less means your defensive options are diminished tremendously. Understand... it's all about time. The time it takes you to move your weapon into service, Vs the time it takes a bad guy to surprise you and take the advantage. If your 'time to armed' is less than the bad guys 'time to overpower', then you may win. If not, you are likely to lose. 'Time to armed' means weapon in hand, ready, aimed at the threat. A weapon anyplace else but there means you are not armed yet.
This notion of 'time to armed' must be balanced against risk, and against social need. As I sit writing this, I am perhaps twenty feet from a substantial house gun... a twelve gauge pump action shotgun, tucked away in a safe and concealed position. Am I armed? Sadly, the answer is no... or least "not very well for the situation". I know from experience that someone can be on the front porch without my knowledge, and through the front door far faster than I can vacate this chair and get to that shotgun. But, should I have that weapon leaning against my chair, as I write? Or, perhaps in my lap? No, that would be unreasonable, given the threat level right now, which is approximately 'zero'.
The single best place for a defensive handgun to be is on your person. That is the one place it's best suited to fulfill it's role.... defending your life in a violent encounter. In keeping with this thought, some consideration must be given to the size and shape of the carry weapon, as opposed to other factors. How does the carrier dress? What environment are they in? How much weight can they comfortably bear all day without fatigue or irritation?
Above all else, a weapon left at home in the safe because it was unsuitable to carry... is no longer a defensive weapon. The words "Leave me alone, I own a gun!" will carry no weight when shrilly screamed during a violent encounter. A defensive weapon has to be on the person to be of use, and this means it must be suitable to the situation. If the only possible carry position is on a neck cord, with the weapon hidden under a tank top, then so be it. In that case, the weapon must be small enough, and light enough, to be carried so.
On the other hand, most adults who can wear any type of loose clothing can carry a full sized (and full power) pistol on their person without too much difficulty. There are any number of quality made and well designed belt holsters. There are belly bands, pocket holsters, 'Grip Clips', shoulder holsters, and purpose designed carry bags. There is clothing specially designed for wear with concealed carry. There are... options... many options, and very few real excuses.
It's in the 'carry arena' that semi-auto pistols gain an edge over revolvers. A modern defensive 'pistol' can carry ten rounds of .45 ACP in a reliable weapon that's flatter and lighter than most snub nosed .38 Special revolvers. Moving to even lighter calibers, such as .380, gives automatics the decided advantage. There is an entire new genre of very small, very light pocket pistols built around the .380 cartridge. Plastic bodied, double action only, minimal carry signature.... all designed to BE THERE in your pocket, because they are just so easy to carry. True, the .380 is not a mighty power house of defensive thunder, but even a pipsqueak .380 (in the pocket) beats a .38 in the safe.
My opinion? The largest reliable pistol you can carry, comfortably concealed all day, that is the way to go.
The last criteria, that the weapon be in sufficient caliber to perform it's job, is at the heart of a never ending discussion. What caliber is too small? What is too big? What is too 'unusual'? What has the best terminal ballistics? What has the best track record?
Carteach has definite thoughts on the issue. Consider what we ask the defensive pistol round to do. Ideally, it should be able to deter or stop someone from violently attacking. How does it do that? A pistol round works primarily in one way... it punches holes in people and things. If it's large enough, fast enough, or heavy enough, it can cause shock and trauma in addition to punching holes, but the very least a defensive pistol round must do is punch holes in people. Deep enough, and damaging enough, to deter an attacker (with luck).
On the low end of the scale, the .380 auto is considered the bottom rung. With modern ammunition, it has the ability to gain a bad guys attention. It certainly will not 'blow them twelve yards backwards, doing flips all the way', but a solid hit with one should let a bad guy know they made a serious error in the victim selection process. At the very least, it should cause enough pain and disruption to allow the victim to escape. At the worst, it may result in a dead bad guy. The same can be said for both the .32acp and the .22 rimfire, but both those rounds have a sad record in shutting down attackers. Kill people, eventually, sure. Deterring violent criminals bent on personal destruction? Not so much.
In the revolver realm, the .38 special is generally regarded as low man, although the venerable .38 Special +P 158 grain FBI load has a reputation as a man stopper.
From there, the field is wide open.... right up till the cartridge becomes just too strong for the shooter to efficiently and accurately handle it. There are some who regard the 9x19 parabellum as 'too harsh' in recoil, while others shrug off the muzzle blast of a .44 magnum as tolerable. The real consideration on top end is what can the shooter handle well. Too harsh, and accuracy suffers tremendously, especially as the shooter becomes afraid to practice.
As far as caliber is concerned, Carteach's thinking is.... The biggest that will fit the pistol you will carry, and not so big that you won't practice often. As for the rest, there is a good argument that can be made for every single cartridge out there, and each will have supporters and detractors. When it comes to tools in the tool box, chose the best you can, and one you have faith in... if such is possible.
Putting all this blather into real world reality, here are 'Ol Carteach's choices: For everyday carry, a Glock G-30 in .45acp. It's reliable, reasonably powerful, surprisingly accurate, easy to shot well, and on my large body it simply vanishes under a loose shirt. The full magazine of heavy .45acp loads is comforting, as the round has a long track record of success in defensive shooting. Over 100 years worth, come to think of it!
For backup, or times when I cannot carry on my belt, a Taurus model 85 .38 special snubnose with +p ammunition. The old snubby is one of the original Taurus imports, and I have owned it almost 20 years now. It's had thousands of rounds through it, and is quite reliable. For carry, it snuggles into a belly band and simply goes away, even under a loose T-shirt.
There are others in the Carteach CCW stable, but those two account for 98% of regular circumstances. Each pistol gets used, fairly often, and trained with under various situations. Neither is a target pistol, a plinking pistol, nor a hunting weapon. They are defensive concealed carry weapons.... and ones I have faith in.
What do you chose to carry, and why?