By Bill Caffrey, HCA’s Editorial Advisor
This is one part of a series of articles to inform novice shooters of the types of handguns available. In this series we discuss each of the primary caliber handguns and give a few examples of various makes and models. We aren’t attempting to be a catalog of firearms – which would be a tremendous undertaking. Rather this series is intended to show the variety of guns available and help you identify something that might be suitable for you.
- Caliber & Cartridges Overview
- .22 Long Rifle
- .25 ACP (a.k.a .25 Auto, 6.35mm Browning)
- .32 ACP (a.k.a. 7.65mm Browning)
- .380 ACP (a.k.a. – .380 Auto, 9mm Corto, 9mm Kurz, 9mm Short, and 9×17mm)
Caliber and Cartridge Overview
The word caliber is used to denote the diameter of the projectile, usually in thousandths of an inch. For instance, the .40 S&W cartridge is 0.40″ in diameter. But the world isn’t quite so simple. Many cartridges claim a certain size, but are slightly different in diameter than “advertised.” For instance, the .44 Magnum is really only 0.429″ in diameter (i.e. a .43 Magnum) but no worries here. The cartridge is what defines the ammunition your gun uses and what you buy. The cartridge is the bullet, cartridge case, powder, etc. all in a self-contained unit. The .45ACP cartridge is nominally the same caliber as the .45 Colt, but the latter cartridge is almost twice as long.
For this article, we’ll use an illustration of cartridges for you to reference. This is not all-inclusive but will give you an idea of relative sizes amongst the handgun cartridges.
Left to right:
22 LR, .25ACP, .32ACP, .380ACP, 9mm, .357SIG, .38 SPL, .357 Mag, .40 S&W, .45 ACP, and .223.
The .223 rifle cartridge, used in the US M16 rifle is shown only for comparison.
Small caliber handguns are generally defined as any pistol chambering the .380ACP and smaller diameter cartridges. These are the .22, .25, .32 and .380 caliber handguns. Except for the .22 caliber handguns, the small caliber handguns are used when concealment is more important that power.
Small, easily concealed handguns may not stop an attacker with one shot, but they do allow you to follow the first rule of a gunfight — have a gun. However, which gun is right for you will be based on how you intend to use the gun. A self-defense handgun you carry a lot will look much different than one used for target shooting.
.22 Long Rifle
The .22 Long Rifle is a rimfire cartridge, meaning the powder is ignited by crushing the rim of the cartridge sharply. Consequently, these are considered somewhat less reliable in their ignition than “center fire” cartridges. Defensively, the .22LR penetrates well, but its 36-40 grain bullet lacks the mass and energy to make it a good choice for serious defensive use. Small size, low chamber pressures and cheap ammo are its primary virtues. As a training cartridge, target round or just shooting cans for fun, the .22 is hard to beat.
Browning Buckmark .22
This single-action .22 semi-auto pistol uses the traditional blowback action with a rear-mounted slide. Browning Firearms catalogs twenty-four variations of the Buckmark. Different finishes, grips, barrel lengths and styles accommodate most shooters. Retail prices start around $389 to $425. An excellent choice as a training gun. The Buckmark also makes a good field gun for anyone spending lots of time outdoors, ranchers, campers, hikers, fishermen, etc.
Beretta .22 Model 21 Bobcat
The Italian made Beretta Bobcat is a palm-sized .22LR (or .25ACP) pistol. This compact, rugged small frame measures just 4.9 inches (125 mm) overall and weighs only 11.5 ounces. It features a lightweight, alloy frame, blued steel slide, tip-up barrel, and double/single action. The Bobcat comes with a 7-round magazine for .22LR ammunition, or an 8 round magazine for .25 (6.35mm) caliber cartridges.
Users rate this little gun highly for its fit and finish. Like any tiny .22 auto, you need to find out which brand of ammo it works with the best. The short barrel and lightweight .22LR cartridge means that this type of pistol is strictly a short range and low power affair.
Retail prices range from $289 to $350.
Beretta Model 87 Cheetah
Based on their successful Model 85 .380ACP Cheetah frame, this .22 self-loader continues with the Beretta tradition of high quality pistols. This 20 ounce pistol features a 3.8″ barrel, traditional double-action trigger, blow back action, a 3-dot sighting system, ambidextrous safety, reversible magazine release (lefties will be pleased), matte black anodized alloy receiver, combat style trigger guard, double action trigger. Beretta’s unique open-top slide virtually eliminates stovepipe jams. Magazine capacity is only 8 rounds. This isn’t an inexpensive, “me too” gun, but a high quality pistol. Expect retail prices to be in the $700 to $770 range.
Beretta 87 Target
The Target version of the Cheetah series is this Model 87 Target, which features a 5.9 inch barrel, larger extended slide and both adjustable metallic sights and a Weaver-style rail for mounting scopes or red dot sights. A squared-off muzzle allows a steady ready position on the bench for practical or international standard pistol shooting. The single-action trigger is light and crisp for accurate off-hand firing. The 10-round magazine is standard. The target model is built on the Model 87 “Cheetah” chassis with a dedicated target slide and barrel. It weighs in at a hefty 29.5 ounces. Retail prices should be expected to start at $750 or more.
Beretta Neos .22
Looking like something out of a Buck Rogers movie, the Beretta Neos (means “new” in Greek) is a fresh design from the Italian gunmaker. Constructed of five assemblies, which are easily disassembled without tools, the U22 Neos is manufactured in the classic Beretta blue or Inox finishes to satisfy the tastes of all shooters. The ergonomic grips in fiberglass reinforced polymer with anti-slip finish can be substituted with optional colored or rubber inlay grips. The Neos features a 6″ barrel with an integral rail that accepts Weaver style scope mounts, 10-round magazine, ambidextrous manual safety, and a fully adjustable target rear sight. It is also equipped with a cocked firing pin indicator at the rear of the pistol. The Neos is intended as a target or recreational use pistol. Retail prices on the Neos are $225 to $250.
The Firestorm double-action pistols are made by Bersa and provided to Firestorm. Therefore, the products are very similar with some minor changes. These blowback .22 pistols hold 10 rounds of .22LR and are available in matte blue or “duotone” finishes. The design is patterned after the older Walther PPK design and is relatively compact. Both the Firestorm and the Bersa use a unique round key to lock the gun for safe storage. The lock is located on the left side above the trigger. The Firestorm measures just over 6.6″ long x 1.43″ tall with a 3.5″ barrel. At 23oz, it’s no lightweight – that’s the same weight as a S&W 5-shot .357 revolver – but it is small enough for discrete carry. Owner consensus on the Firestorm products is generally very good. Average retail prices are below $299, making this an inexpensive pistol.
The Ruger “Mark” series has been providing excellent value to shooters for over 40 years. The Mark III continues with a 10-round magazine, alloy chassis, 4.75″ barrel and solid reliability. There are 9 standard models to choose from and yet another 9 which are custom “distributor” models, giving you 18 different choices.
The Ruger is a favorite choice for both a recreational shooter and outdoorsman. Optional finishes and barrel lengths are available too. Safety features include a manual safety, loaded chamber indicator and a magazine disconnect feature. Retail prices around $300.
Ruger 22-45 Pistol
When trying to train for accuracy, it helps considerably if your training gun feels like your competition pistol. That’s the idea with the 22-45 pistol. Ruger combined the Mark III action with a grip frame shaped like the Colt 1911 .45 automatic pistol. This allows those who prefer the 1911 or use it competitively to have a less expensive pistol to fire without changing the feel of the gun. The 22-45 features a Zytel polymer grip frame, and six different model variations to choose from. Retail prices range from $289 to around $300.
At only 12.3 ounces, the little Taurus 22B is a lightweight. Only 4.24″ tall and with a 2.75″ barrel, this 8-shot .22 will fit easily in purse or pocket. It’s double-action-only trigger has a smooth face as should any defensive pistol. Although it’s DAO, it still has a manual safety and a bobbed hammer. While not a unique feature, the tip-up barrel allows easy loading of the first round without the need to manipulate the slide. Taurus offers fifteen different models in varying finishes and grip options, including pink grips and gold accents (see inset photo). Retail prices are between $225 and $265.
Like any tiny .22 auto, you need to find out which brand of ammo it works with the best. The short barrel and lightweight .22LR cartridge means that this type of pistol is strictly a short range and low power affair.
The Walther P22 pistol can be used for training, simple target shooting or as an outdoorsman’s gun. The polymer frame makes field care very simple. This is a feature packed .22 pistol too. It features a 3-dot sighting system, 3.4″ barrel, 10-round magazine, oversized trigger guard for use with gloves, ambidextrous controls for both left and right hand shooters, interchangeable backstraps to accommodate different hand sizes, windage adjustable rear sight and a traditional double-action/single-action system, which means you can double strike a .22LR round if necessary. Safety features include an integrated trigger lock, loaded chamber indicator, magazine disconnect, hammer safety and firing pin safety. A “target model” is also available with a 5-inch barrel and integrated compensator for those wanting to engage in match shooting. The P22 can be considered a “training gun” for the larger caliber Walther PK380, PP and P99 pistols.
The basic version of the new pistol is the 27oz SP22 M1. The M1 is equipped with a 4-inch standard barrel along with a two-stage trigger complete with adjustable trigger stop. The base model is manufactured with an adjustable steel rear sight and a three-width adjustable front sight. Medium sized polymer grips are standard on the M1 model with smaller grip sizes for juniors also available. M2 thru M4 variants adds 6″ barrel, different grips and match-grade components for competition shooting. Prices range from about $350 for the basic M1 to $700 for the full target M4.
.25 ACP (a.k.a .25 Auto, 6.35mm Browning)
The .25 ACP cartridge was developed in 1905 by John Browning. He was asked to create a reliable pocket pistol for FN (Fabrique Nationale). Since the .22 rimfire ammunition of that era was not very reliable, he designed a small caliber center fire cartridge with about the same power as the .22 LR. For maximum penetration and feed reliability, the 50-grain bullet was given a jacketed round-nose shape. Unfortunately, the .25ACP, when fired from the typical 2 to 2.5″ barrels does not penetrate very far. Still, it was better than using a broken beer bottle in a fight.
The Italian made Beretta Bobcat is a palm-sized .25ACP (or .22LR) pistol. This compact, rugged small frame measures just 4.9 inches (125 mm) overall and weighs only 11.5 ounces. It features a lightweight, alloy frame, blued steel slide, tip-up barrel, and double/single action. The Bobcat comes with an 8-round magazine for .25ACP ammunition, or a 7 round magazine for .22LR caliber cartridges. Retail prices range from $289 to $350.
Users rate this little gun highly for its fit and finish. The short barrel and lightweight .25ACP cartridge means that this type of pistol is strictly a short range and low power affair. Power wise, expect only about 60-70 ft-lbs of energy.
Browning “Baby Browning” and Colt Model 1908 Vest Pocket Pistol
In 1905, Fabrique Nationale of Belgium began producing John Browning’s .25 caliber pocket pistol. Originally it was called the “Vest Pocket” pistol, but the name “Baby Browning” has become it’s popular name. In 1908, Colt recognizing a good thing when their noses were rubbed in it, acquired the rights to produce the pistol in the U.S. The Colt version varies slightly (a better safety lever for instance) but the guns are the same in the essentials.
With their short (2.1 inches) barrel and meager 6-shot capacity, these guns are designed for minimal intrusion on the user’s daily life. Weighing in between 9 and 12 oz, they’re light and compact. Measuring a little over 4″ tall and less than 3″ long and just 7/8″ wide, this is one of the smallest pistols made.
The VP .25 auto and the BABY were intended as personal or “last ditch” defense arms, they are only marginally effective in lethality because of their miniscule caliber and light projectiles. Both models are surprisingly accurate in the hands of an experienced shooter, but their chief value lies not in their power but in the sense of security they bring to their owners.
The 1968 gun control laws made importation of small pistols like these illegal. Consequently, these guns are out of production and are now essentially collector’s items.�
(exception – see Precision Small Arms below)
This copy of the “Baby Browning .25″ is made under license from Fabrique Nationale by PSA in Aspen, Colorado. This little pistol exudes quality in its construction and PSA is the only licensed maker of “Le Bebe”. Designed in 1905 and later made by Colt in 1908, the Baby Browning was an immediate hit. It’s still a last-ditch gun to use but the quality is still very good on this product.
The modern PSA .25 auto retails in the range of $440 to over $500 depending on the finish. Engraved and models embellished with gold accents are available at extra cost.
While the .25 ACP cartridge and most pistols aren’t “man stoppers” they can still be deadly. If you use a .25 ACP, consider it as a delaying tactic to allow you to get away from an attacker or access a more powerful firearm.
Invented in 1899 by John Browning, the .32 ACP cartridge is a low-powered cartridge. It fires a 71-grain bullet at 900 fps for 128 foot-pounds of energy. That makes the .32 ACP just marginally better than the .32 S&W Long revolver cartridge.
The .32 ACP is not considered a good “fight stopper” and is usually grouped with the .22LR and .25ACP as meager cartridge for protection. Shooting and combat pistol expert Col. Jeff Cooper once remarked that the .32 ACP “is satisfactory… about as satisfactory as a 4 oz beer.
The Tomcat is a lightweight (14oz) double-action .32ACP pistol with a 7 round magazine. It features a lightweight alloy frame, tilt-up 2.4-inch barrel for easy loading and unloading without using the slide, exposed hammer for single-action cocking and a positive manual safety.
The traditional Beretta open-top slide design helps eliminate ejection jams. This pistol is 3.7″ tall and 4.9″ long, and 1.1″ wide.
Retail prices for the Tomcat are in the $400 to $500 range.
The P32 made by Kel-Tec CNC Industries. The P32 is a polymer-framed, double-action only (DAO) semi-automatic, locked breech pistol, chambered for the .32 Auto cartridge. The magazine has a 7 round capacity and the gun weighs under 10 ounces loaded. It’s compact, measuring only 3.5″H x 5.1″L x 0.75″W with a 2.7″ barrel.
The lightweight and small size allows the P32 to slip into the pocket of your slacks easily. Its snag-free design allows it to be accessed quickly. Its 5-pound DAO trigger is similar to that of a revolver and the P32 does not have an external safety. The lightweight floating firing pin retracts after each shot and reduces the chance of discharge if the gun is dropped or struck hard.
Most users seem happy with their P32′s which are most commonly used by licensed citizens. The retail prices on these pistols vary, but expect them to be between $275 and $340 depending on finish.
.380 ACP (a.k.a. – .380 Auto, 9mm Corto, 9mm Kurz, 9mm Short, and 9x17mm)
Around since 1908, the .380 ACP is another John Browning invented cartridge. It fires a lightweight 9mm (.355″) bullet of about 90-grains at about 1000 fps, producing 200 ft-lbs of energy. This puts the .380 into the same group as the standard velocity .38 Special revolver cartridge.
The case, as shown here, is 2mm shorter than the 9mm Luger cartridge which is why it’s known as a 9mm “Short” in other languages (“short” is Corto in Spanish, and Kurz is German).
The .380 is usually considered the “bottom level” of self-defense cartridges. The short case and small diameter means that the .380 penetrates adequately when full metal jacket (FMJ) ammo is used. Some hollow point ammo may expand too quickly, leaving a shallow wound or one with poor penetration. It is more powerful than the .32 ACP and thus more effective in terms of incapacitating an attacker. Many gun makers make a quality .380 pistol and there is no need to buy something that works marginally.
For a pistol that usually retails for under $300, the Bersa provides a good value for the money. The Bersa is designed along lines similar to that of the Walther PPK series of pistols (that many folks know from James Bond movies). At 19.75 ounces, they’re reasonably light, allowing all day carry. Features such as a 3-dot sight system, combat style trigger guard, extended slide release, intergral locking system and a lifetime service contract make the Bersa a good choice for a small pistol. Most owners of the Bersa .380 Series of pistols are happy with their purchases. Bersa customer service seems to be good with repairs turned around in reasonable times. We recommend you buy one or two spare magazines as insurance against a lost or damaged magazine and for one spare reload.
CZ Model 87
The larger, 24 ounce .380 ACP CZ-87 has a 12-round magazine capacity and is built on a steel frame with the traditional DA/SA action (first shot is double-action and the rest are single action). It also features an ambidextrous safety, a 3.8″ long hammer forged barrel and the excellent 3-dot sighting system.
This is not a small pistol, measuring 5″H x 6.8″L x 1.4″W. CZ (Česká Zbrojovka) products are made in the Czech Republic and are notable for their excellent quality at a reasonable price. U.S. customer service gets good marks overall too. If your needs don’t require easily concealment or you like the large capacity magazine, the CZ 87 is a good choice. Retail pricing runs between $425 and about $475.
The most recent pistol from Kahr is their P380, a six-shot polymer framed DAO pistol that weighs in at about 11.5 ounces. It fires from a locked breech, helping to reduce felt recoil over typical blow-back type pistols. Sights are low but visible, using the bar-dot configuration.
It’s dimensions are similar to that of the Kel-Tec – 3.9″H x 4.9″H x .75″W making it very compact. The barrel is 2.5″ long and the Kahr comes with two 6-round magazines.
With a retail price around $550 to $590, it’s one of the more expensive pistols in the small caliber group. But Kahr’s triggers are as smooth as a fine revolver trigger. Tritium night-sights are offered on one model, pushing the retail price up around $650.
Most owners are happy with their Kahr pistols, though Kahr recommends an extended break-in period of up to 200 rounds. Their customer service is average and some users have complained about slow service.
Tipping the scales at just over 10 ounces loaded, the Kel-Tec P3AT is the lightest .380 you can buy and an extension of their popular .32 ACP P32 pistol. With the .380 P3AT, however there are some subtle changes.
The P3AT fires from a locked breech rather than using a simpler blow-back operation. This means slightly reduced felt recoil. The .380 pistol also loses it’s slide-lock, a feature we’d prefer was retained. This means the slide does not lock open on the last round – a visual indicator your gun is empty. Sights are basic, as this is intended as a point & shoot gun for bad-breath distances. Capacity is only 6 rounds (+1 in the chamber) and the P3AT retains the double-action-only (DAO) firing system for safety. It’s compact, barely larger than the .32ACP P32 pistol.
The P3AT measures only 3.5″H x 5.2″L x 0.77″W with a 2.7″ barrel. Retail prices run from about $275 to $300.
The P238 pistol has the appearance of a miniature Colt 1911 pistol and for good reason. The pistol is a single-action, blow back operated .380ACP built on a chassis similar to that of the Colt .380 pistol. At 15 ounces, its anodized alloy frame helps reduce the carry weight.
It features Sig night-sights, a manual thumb safety, and a bobbed hammer for a snag-free draw. Sig’s P238 holds six rounds in the magazine making the gun a compact 3.9″H x 5.9″L x 1.1″W, including the 2.7-inch barrel.
The P238 comes in several finishes with Nitron finish standard. Optional finishes include a bi-tone with a stainless slide, Equinox and the Titanium Rainbow shown here.
The P238 is a recent model with scant feedback as yet. Given other products by Sig, the P238 should be an excellent small gun suited to pocket or purse carry with a holster. Prices for the standard Nitron finished pistols should start around $535.
Smith & Wesson .380 Bodyguard
From S&W comes this completely new design for a .380 pistol. It puts a compact, 11.85 oz, double-action only, polymer framed six-shot pistol in the palm of your hand, including the integrated laser sight.
Surprisingly, the S&W is hammer fired (vs. striker fired like many others, such as the Kel-Tec and Kahr) which allows for a double-strike capability (if the gun doesn’t fire, pull the trigger again).
The INSIGHT laser sight is integrated into the dust cover below the barrel and provides a bright red beam out to at least 25 yards. This is an excellent feature for low-light conditions.
The .380 Bodyguard measures only 4.1″H x 5.25″L x .75″ wide. Sights are a 3-dot arrangement with a low profile for snag free draw.
The only failing I see with the .380 Bodyguard is that to activate the laser requires a separate action other then squeezing the grip. The button is located on the dust cover just forward of the trigger guard.
This is an entirely new model from S&W that won’t be released until late spring of 2010. Pricing has not yet been set, but with a built-in laser, expect retail prices to be upwards of about $575 and perhaps closer to $650. S&W earns good marks for excellent customer service and speed of repairs.
Walther PPK & PPK/S .380 Pistols
Made famous in the in the hands of Sean Connery as James Bond, the Walther PPK has a long history and reputation as a quality pistol.
Available in .32ACP and .380 ACP, the PPK has a shorter grip than the PPK/S. That shorter grip reduces the magazine capacity by one round to 6 rounds of .380 ACP or 7 rounds in .32ACP. The PPK/S holds 7 rounds of .380 ACP while the .32ACP holds 8 rounds. The current PPK series line-up features a longer beavertail to protect the hand from the slide and hammer. The new pistols retain their traditional blow back operation and DA/SA action (first shot is fired double-action). The slide-mounted safety also decocks the hammer.
The pistol comes with basic fixed sights and two magazines. The PPK weighs in around 23 oz (almost 24 for the PPK/S) so this is not a true pocket pistol.
Designed in 1931, the Walther retains the classic lines that made it so famous for the last 79 years. U.S. made guns are manufactured under license by Smith & Wesson. The stainless steel construction adds to the price. Retail prices should be expected to be in the $550 to $600 range.
The foregoing should give you a good idea of what kinds of small caliber pistols exist on the market and which ones or which styles may suit your needs. The next article in this series will explore larger caliber pistols from 9mm to .45 caliber.