Holy wars have been fought on the internet for years arguing which pistol is the best. I don’t believe there is one best pistol, but among the many service pistols that exist in the marketplace some appear to be better suited to the defensive role.
What I consider most important in a pistol is its “trainability.” How easy or hard is it to pick up that pistol and learn how to operate it proficiently? There are other considerations to think about when selecting a self-defense pistol, but here I’m talking mainly about the features of the pistol. This is where some pistols have an advantage over others.
It is easiest to learn to operate a pistol when the controls are straightforward and don’t require intensive training in order to be able to operate without thought. Having a vast array of controls doesn’t make a firearm harder to operate per se, but having those controls and having them placed in unique or unnatural positions does.
There are four primary features that make a pistol easier or harder to operate depending on how they are set up: the action, the number of safeties, the mag release, and the slide stop.
Most defensive guns fall into one of three types of actions: single action only, striker fired, and double action/single action (DA/SA). Single action guns like the 1911 for example tend to have lighter trigger pulls. Many shooters prefer the 1911 trigger pull for that reason. Striker fired guns, like Glocks or the M&P tend to have a heavier trigger pull than the single action. Whether you choose a single action or a striker fired, they both have the same trigger pull every time.
DA/SA guns like the Beretta 92FS or the Sig Sauer P226 have two distinct trigger pulls. The idea is that a heavier first trigger pull is less likely to be pulled accidentally, thus making the firearm safer. The issue here is that two separate trigger pulls doubles the functions you need to worry about training. To draw and fire two shots you will contend with both of these trigger pulls.
In terms of trainability, the striker fired or single action win out because they only require you to master a single trigger pull instead of two.
Safeties come in a variety of flavors. Grip safeties, thumb safeties, and safeties located on the slide are just a few of the diverse options on the market these days. Other guns like Glocks don’t employ safeties at all. Personally I prefer a firearm that has no safety because it’s one less thing to fail or worry about.
A safety makes training harder because it adds another step to the process. Some guns have multiple safeties, like the 1911 which has two: a grip safety and a thumb safety. The grip safety is built into the pistol-grip making it automatically engaged while the pistol is held in a proper firing grip. The additional safety is located such that it can be engaged with the right hand thumb (or with modification the left hand thumb for the lefties out there). Both of these safeties are easy enough to operate that a minimum of training makes them both natural to use.
The Beretta 92FS on the other hand has a safety on the slide. This safety is a lot harder to manipulate while handling the pistol because it needs to be switched upward to be deactivated. This is an unnatural and difficult motion to make while drawing a pistol. Training can compensate, and you’ll find many people disengage the safety prior to drawing. This is a safe way to operate the pistol since the long double action first trigger pull makes unintentional discharge nearly impossible.
Not all mag releases are created equal. Most pistols tend to have the simple push button located on the left side of the gun behind the trigger guard. This position is superior only in that it is so common. Most pistols operate this way, so it makes training easier.
Some Walther pistols, like the P99 for example, employ a mag release lever instead of a button. This lever sits in the same location as the button, but requires a downward push to actuate instead of the inward push that is pretty much the industry standard.
This lever works fine, and if the user is trained properly it might even be advantageous because the trigger finger can be used to release a magazine. However, because this feature is so unique, it makes switching between pistols more difficult. Exchanging any of the other common service pistols for a P99 would require significant training to master the different mag release.
Given the choice I would rather have the manual of arms on all of my firearms be very similar. Every bit of diversity in your rotation means you will have more things to train, and more unrelated habits to avoid under pressure.
Service pistols all tend to have slide stops. They can be different sizes and locations on the pistol, but they all tend to be pretty close to within thumbs reach on the left of the pistol. This commonality means service pistols are easily trainable from a slide stop perspective.
Some concealed carry guns have no slide stop, and therefore the slide won’t lock back on the last round. This does create a training issue as you are forced to manipulate the slide when reloading. This isn’t a big deal unless you also train with a service pistol. The training industry has been advocating the use of the slide stop when reloading for improved speed for a while now. If you carry a gun that doesn’t have the slide stop, now you need to choose between learning one method (working the slide) or training two different methods for different guns.
Ultimately the pistol you choose is up to you. Some are easier to train with because of the simplicity or commonness of their features. When choosing a pistol for self-defense, consider these features as they could dramatically impact the amount of time it takes to become effective with that pistol.
Nick Savery is the author of www.IndestructibleTraining.com, a blog discussing integrating training across a variety of systems and platforms for the purposes of self-defense.