Concealed carry options abound for most of the United States. Every state now has some form of concealed carry law on its books. The concealed-carry permit gamut runs from very restrictive states to other states that don’t require a specific permit, figuring the Second Amendment is permit enough. The upshot is that more and more people are getting their concealed carry permit than ever before, and most of them seem to be carrying some form of 9mm pistol.
A poll taken by usacarry.com drew over 1800 respondents. The largest percentage of those participating in the poll (thirty-nine percent) carry a 9mm. The next most popular caliber was the .40 S&W, with twenty-four percent followed by .45 APC pistols with twenty-three percent. This is not a scientific poll but it at least sheds an unofficial light on what folks out there are carrying. One of the most popular 9mm pistols at present is the subcompact single-stack.
What Is A Subcompact?
Pistols tend to fall into one of three overall size categories: full, compact and subcompact. For the purposes of this article, I will loosely define them as follows:
- The full-size pistol has a barrel at least four and a half inches long and a capacity of sixteen or more rounds.
- Compact pistols will have a barrel length of around four inches and will carry from ten to fifteen rounds.
- The subcompact pistol has a barrel length of around three inches, and the gun will carry up to ten rounds. Sometimes subcompacts are small enough be carried in a pocket holster. Most will utilize single-stack magazines with a few exceptions.
Exceptions certainly exist. One example is the Springfield XDS. This pistol in 9mm comes with either a 3.3 or 4-inch barrel and a seven-round flush-fit magazine, although an extended magazine is also included. The 3.3-inch version is firmly in the subcompact family but given my definition of a compact guns’ barrel length above, the 4-inch model is technically a compact. It can be a bit confusing. We will confine our survey to 9mm guns with a three-or-so inch barrel that has the ability to hold up to ten rounds using flush-fit (not extended) magazines.
The subcompact gun is probably the fastest-growing segment of current handgun production. Just about every pistol maker is turning out small pistols about as fast as they can make them. I think the peak production time for these guns was probably when the political climate as to the future of gun control laws was unsure recently and folks were buying guns “just in case.” Sales may have cooled off a little, but the small subcompact gun in 9mm still makes up a very large chunk of handgun production. However, they may not be for everyone.
Why Do You Want A Subcompact?
You must examine your reasons that are leading you to look at subcompact guns. These guns are, for the most part, not the best choice for an inexperienced shooter.
Here’s why:1. Felt recoil is usually multiplied because of the light weight and short length of the subcompact. 2. The subcompact’s short grip frames usually allow only a two-finger grip. (We are only looking at flush-fit baseplates now in keeping with the subcompact size and concealability criteria). These guns can be hard to control with their smaller grip size. Extended magazines, however, do tend to provide extended grip. 3.Another factor that folks sometimes don’t consider is the distance between the front and rear sights. A shorter sight radius can make it more difficult to hit a target much beyond ten yards or so for some people. The rookie shooter needs all the help he or she can get in terms of putting shots on the target. Sometimes the longer sight radius of one of the other classes of pistol is called for. 4.Finally, the magazine capacity of the little guns can be restrictive. Some subcompacts hold as few as five or six rounds. Even with seven rounds available, you must be accurate and not waste shots.
How Are You Going To Carry It?
All right…you know for sure you want a subcompact 9mm to carry concealed (don’t miss out on insurance). Now, how will you take it with you every day? Let’s look at some options.
Pocket-carry… a subcompact 9mm may work well for that purpose. Most small 9mm guns will fit in a pocket (holster), but only you can decide if that will work for you. As with any pistol’s ability to not “print” (the pistol’s shape being visible under the covering garment), the grip length is the most important factor. Very small 9mm guns will be able to be carried in a pocket holster, but the grip needs to not give away the fact that you have a gun there. A good holster will pretty much solve that problem by holding the grip tightly in your pocket. You do not ever want to carry a gun in your pocket without a holster made for that purpose.
IWB (Inside-the-waistband) holsters broaden your available options. The IWB holster (being hidden inside your pants’ waistband) is perhaps the most concealable of all types of holsters for small 9mm guns. The only thing to watch out for when wearing one of these holsters is that, if the holster sits deeply on your belt, sometimes the small pistol grip can be hard to grasp. Make sure your holster allows a good grip on the gun before you draw it and also allows you to holster it with one hand.
Ankle holsters are perhaps the least visible way to carry a gun to the outside observer. The gun is strapped to your (usually) weak-side ankle and is available by you leaning over, bending your knee and reaching down for it. The downside is that you have to do that – bend your knee and reach down for it. It is not as accessible as a gun carried about your mid-section, especially if you are not in shape and have a few extra pounds in that mid-section to work around. Many law enforcement officers will carry a small 9mm on their ankle as a backup gun but for the most part a subcompact 9mm is better carried further north on your body. (Be careful when carrying an ankle holster…there is a local story going around about a State Trooper who was kicking in a bad guys’ door only to have his ankle-carried backup gun on his kicking leg go flying into the room when the door flew open…luckily the guy inside was already on the floor face-down. Make sure your gun is tightly secured in the holster!)
OWB (Outside-the-waistband) carry is popular for larger pistols but not so much for the tiny 9s. Unless you have a reason that disallows IWB or pocket carry, the OWB holster may be overkill for the size of the gun. They can be easier to put on your belt, especially if you have a paddle-style holster that slips between your pants waistband and your undergarments, but for most purposes one of the other styles of carry may be preferred.
Two last styles of carry is off-body, or carried in plain sight.
Off-body style utilizes any container that carries a gun not attached to your belt, ankle or other part of you that is designed to not look like a holster. A purse, a small portfolio, a zippered leather planner-these are some examples of ways to carry a gun off-body.
Sneaky Pete is an example of how to carry a gun in plain sight. This is a rectangular, nylon zippered case that attaches to your belt, sized to hold a small gun. It looks like a cell phone case on steroids. Another plain-sight carry method is the gun vest, which is supposed to make the wearer resemble a photographer.
These styles of carry are usually not encouraged by training professionals as it is easy for someone to identify or take your gun. Unless you can have a hand firmly on the gun’s container all the time, off-body carry is not recommended. A factor against plain-sight carrying is that bad guys are getting better at spotting these carriers. The shooting vest in particular has been dubbed the “shoot-me-first” vest as more and more gun carriers are seen in them. There are better ways to pack your 9mm.
So… we have figured out that we do indeed want a subcompact 9mm after determining that we can handle it and the recoil, short sight radius, etc. will not be a problem. We have also determined how we are going to carry it…which one do we buy?
We will look at a few of the most popular subcompact 9mm guns out there at this time. Any of these guns will certainly work well for concealed carry. All are in current production in 2019. I’ve rounded some of the specs to the nearest decimal point – if you want exact measurements, they are available. All guns are polymer-framed and striker-fired unless otherwise noted.
This gun is a personal favorite. There are more expensive guns out there and I have carried a few of them but dollar-for-dollar you can’t beat the LC9s. It is the quintessential subcompact 9mm. I have one with me a lot of the time as it lends itself to different styles of carry and is light but packs a punch. My usual method of packing one involves using a pocket holster, although I do have IWB-style holsters that work as well. This gun has been around awhile, so holster selection is good. If you go to look at this Ruger at your local gun shop, please make sure you’re looking at the LC9s…that “s” is important, as it differentiates this model that is striker-fired from the original LC9 that used a hammer. The trigger pull is very different between the two. The LC9, to my knowledge, is no longer made but you may run into one while shopping. The trigger on my LC9s is around 5 pounds and smooth as butter. The sights are dovetailed, which means they can be replaced but the factory sights do the job very well.
Ruger is a company that has been accused of over-building almost all of its handguns, adding weight and strength where it may not be needed. The LC9s does not fall into that category. It is under an inch wide, weighs an ounce over one pound and is short enough to disappear inside a pocket, but it is still strong and is +P rated for limited use. I have put hundreds of my 124-grain cast bullet reloads through mine with no gun-related problems. It comes with the standard seven-round flush-fit magazine and nine-rounders with finger extension are available. I have both. Doing the math, 7+1+9=17 rounds of 9mm self-defense ammo at your fingertips. That hopefully should suffice.
One comment that I have heard on the negative side is that this gun is TOO skinny, that it squirms in your hand while being shot. It is skinny for a reason. I would rather have to add something to an easily-concealed gun’s grip than to try to remove material from one that is too wide. What I choose to add is step traction tape, sold at hardware and similar stores, that is designed to be put on the leading edge of stair steps to add non-slip traction. This tape is very rough and thick (and cheap). I cut out sections that match the grip panels I want covered on most of my semiautos and it stick them on. It gives me a rough texture that out-does aftermarket grip add-ons at a fraction of the cost. If you like a rough, sandpaper-like texture on your pistol grips, give it a try. The Ruger benefits from this tape treatment and has no added bulk because of it. It makes the gun easier to control.
The gun is accurate. Here is a photo of a target I shot recently at a range of 15 yards. Although the group is pushed a bit to the right (my fault), it shows just how accurate a gun designed for short-range encounters can be. The ammo used was my handloads; factory ammo might be even tighter.
This target is one of many I’ve shot that displays the inherent accuracy of the LC9s. For close-encounters-of-the-bad-guy-variety, the gun displays more than enough accuracy. Ruger’s reputation for building solid firearms to be sold for a decent price is well-known and the LC9s falls into that category.
You want a yellow LC9s? No problem. There are several color combinations available – you don’t have to have a plain black gun. Another option: the LC9s is available with or without a thumb- and magazine disconnect-safety. If it doesn’t say “Pro” after “LC9s”, then it has both of those safeties. Mine is not a Pro model, although I feel with carry guns safeties should be automatic and not require extra motions (like swiping off a thumb safety). Striker-fired guns usually have redundant safeties built into them. You must press the trigger fully to fire them. External manual safeties tend to be redundant and are available in order to sell guns in those states that require such things. My friendly local gun shop guy, Duane tells me he sells the non-Pro model over the safety-free version about 4 to 1… evidently most guys around here want the extra safeties. I simply don’t use the thumb safety and that carry mode has worked well.
Another variation on a theme is the EC9s. This is the value-oriented version of the LC9s that features milled, non-adjustable front and rear sights and shallower slide serrations in an effort to reduce costs. Another difference is the finish. The finishing process has been changed a bit in order to save a few more bucks. The EC9s is priced around $299. If non-adjustable sights are OK with you and you are looking for one of the better buys in a subcompact 9mm, take a look at the EC9s. As far as the LC9s, expect to pay up to $100 less than the MSRP at your local gun shop. Either one is a great buy.
Glock 43 Gen 4
The G43 is Glock’s entry into the single-stack 9mm subcompact market. It took the company a while to produce this gun. Most other major players in the industry had introduced single-stack subcompact 9mm guns before Glock brought out the G43. This eagerly-awaited gun started selling upon introduction and has been consistent in being a top-seller for the company. Many law enforcement officers carry it as a back-up gun (I have a friend on a local police force who carries one as a backup to his G22 .40 S&W). It is a popular gun.
Why So Popular?
Why is the G43 so desirable as a carry gun? If you own a Glock you already know the answer to that question. If you don’t own one, suffice it to say that Glock sells a lot of guns because they are easy to use and reliable and the G43 is no exception. The G43 is one of the better-selling models that Glock sells. Its single-stack magazine allows it to fit within that desirable one-inch width category that so many manufacturers strive for. It is a little heavy, at just under 21 ounces, when compared with other subcompact 9mms but that doesn’t bother the people who carry it. An IWB holster (or even pocket holster, given the right size pockets) will allow you to have the gun with you all day and hardly notice that it’s there.
If you are familiar with Glocks and own one or more, the advantage of carrying a G43 is obvious. All Glocks pretty much work the same and the trigger is consistent within the brand. I mentioned my police friend above – he traded a Beretta for his G43 and then had trigger work done on it. He carries it daily, in or out of uniform. The Glock name to a lot of shooters means reliability and uniformity among models. You could do worse than to carry a Glock 43. Real-world prices for this gun tend to be close to MSRP, so be prepared when you are shopping to find this gun not discounted a lot.
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S&W M&P Shield 9
The S&W Shield is a gun whose introduction was eagerly awaited by the shooting public. S&W team shooter Julie Golob added to the excitement by using a Shield to hit targets at and beyond 100 yards on a popular shooting TV show. When the guns were introduced in 9mm and .40 S&W calibers, they were good sellers out of the gate. The Shield is one of the top-selling CCW guns out there. It has since been introduced in .45ACP which endears it to even more shooters but we will look at the 9mm version.
I owned one of these 9mm guns a while back and sold it. I should have kept it. The Shield itself is a gun that is comfortable in hand, has good sights and digests most any ammo you feed it. It is part of the M&P line of pistols, which endows it with certain features:
- Take-down is accomplished by rotating a takedown lever instead of removing a pin
- The stainless steel slide carries an Armornite finish, which is truly tough and won’t show minor wear
- A thumb safety is optional
- Three-dot sights
- Hinged trigger safety
- Deeply-cut slide serrations ease racking the slide
The Shield shares the above features with its larger M&P brethren. Mine was definitely a quality gun, made to exacting specifications and its quality was evident at the range. The gun was accurate and easy to carry. I put it in a DeSantis Inside Heat IWB holster (one of the few left-hand holsters I could find) and it rode there unnoticed by me for the most part.
With over a million of these guns sold, their reputation speaks for itself. If you would happen to have a problem, the lifetime service policy will see to it that it is taken care of quickly. I’ve experienced S&W’s customer service and it is among the best in the industry. As for shooting, the grip angle helps the gun come up and point at the target, doing the eyes-closed test. The texturing of the grip is just enough to keep the gun tightly in your hand when firing it. Sight pictures with some guns are not the best but that is not the case here. The three dots line up quickly and consistently, with enough space around the front sight to allow precision shooting. The upshot of all this is that it is no wonder that S&W sells so many Shields – they are solid performers and are at home in a concealed-carry situation. Expect a real-world price of between $370 – $400.
Beretta BU9 Nano
The Nano was the first striker-fired Beretta marketed by Beretta USA. It was designed to be easily concealed in a pocket or other holster. It is not a whole lot bigger than some .380 pistols out there, but wields a 9mm punch.
The gun has a few unique features. I owned one of these a few years ago and was struck with how small it was. It truly did fit in a pocket. Other attributes that the Nano have include:
- A reversible magazine release
- A striker deactivator for service and disassembly
- Hex-key-adjustable sights
- Serialized chassis so you can exchange the guns’ frame for another of a different color if desired
Looking at the gun, it seems like it would ride high in your hand. It doesn’t. The grip is small, two fingers with the flush magazine but the way the backstrap and beavertail fit your hand, you don’t notice the slightly higher bore axis. The grip that you do achieve is more than enough to stabilize the gun when firing. Beretta’s guns often look a little different than most (example: PX Storm, Neos) but are solid designs with proven track records. They are popular with law enforcement officers as backup guns and I personally know at least one LEO that carries a Nano. Expect a real-world price of around $320-$400.
Taurus Slim (PT709 Slim)
The Slim is called the Slim for a reason. Barely an inch wide, it disappears inside a waistband. This is one of the better-selling Taurus pistols. It does tend to slide under the radar, though, what with the PT111 G2 out there or its newer incarnation, the G2C. The G2C is a small, double-stack 9mm that holds 12+1 rounds. It is an option, although it is wider by a quarter inch and a bit heavier. Since we are talking about small, light single-stack 9s, we’ll stick with the Slim.
One of our sons bought a Slim (when it was called the PT709 Slim before being re-named) and I shot it – I was impressed. It was brand new, and felt like it. The trigger was a bit rough, but with some shooting, it will wear in and smooth up. This was not my first experience with Taurus striker-fired guns’ triggers –I’ve owned several and they slick up over time.
I was impressed with a couple of things when I shot it a few months ago. First, the recoil was not bad even with hotter loads and seemed to send the gun straight back instead of flipping the muzzle up. I attributed that to the decently-low bore axis and higher hand hold under the beavertail and trigger guard.
The other thing that caught my attention was the fully-adjustable rear sight. Having owned other Taurus striker-fired guns with this same sight, I know that once it’s adjusted it will tend to stay put. Some may argue that an adjustable sight on a carry gun is a bad thing but I like the ability to center the sights for a given load without having to resort to either whacking the rear sight to move it in its dovetail or using Kentucky windage (oh, to have an Nc Star Universal Sight Pusher!). The adjustable sights on guns I’ve owned were solid…they are decent sights. With the Slim, adjust the rear sight all you want with a screwdriver, not a mallet.
Yet Another Choice – the G2S
As I was just now perusing Taurus’s website in an effort to check my specifications, I happened upon a brand new gun. This gun is new to me. The above-mentioned G2C has been cloned, it seems, except that the new version is a single stack with 7+1 capability with an MSRP of about $318.
This muddies the waters a bit, as both the Slim and the G2C are well-built guns. Why throw another new model into the mix?
I guess the answer would be, in a word, competition. There are so many other choices out there for the single-stack subcompact buyer that evidently Taurus feels the more, the merrier in their lineup. Why did I not describe that gun in detail? It is a new model and I’ve never held one. I would prefer to wait a year or so and see how it stacks up against other guns before recommending it. The shopper also needs to be aware that Taurus has changed its lifetime repair policy. Guns designed before January 1st 2017 carry the lifetime warranty, while guns designed after that date have a one-year warranty. I assume that the Slim, being a re-named previous model, would fall under the lifetime warranty as would the PT111 G2. On the other hand the G2C/G2S would have a one-year warranty since they are newly designed models. This is mentioned just to make the shopper aware of the policy change.
At any rate, Taurus has put forth great effort under new leadership to deliver guns that are reliable and are good buys for the money. Their efforts are paying off. If you are looking for a more budget-friendly subcompact 9mm. Expect a real world price of around $275-$300.
My CM9 was so small that I forgot I had it with me on several occasions. This tiny 9 is definitely a contender for pocket carry. I shot my handloads through mine along with factory defensive ammo and it didn’t hesitate with any of it. As you can imagine, recoil was rather brisk with the hotter loads. The gun is rated for +P ammo but I don’t believe I would push it. As far as a subcompact 9mm goes, this one could be the definition of that concept.
As for the company, Kahr (which also owns Auto Ordnance and Magnum Research) makes its guns in the U.S. There are four basic lines of pistols under the Kahr banner – the P, M, T series and the C series. P/M/T series Kahrs use either a steel or polymer frame and are fancier, with fewer MIM parts. (One example: the slide stop/release is machined for the P/M/T series Kahrs and MIM cast for the C series). The P/M/T slides have a few more sculpted areas and fancier engraving. The main difference is that the P/M/T series guns use polygonally-rifled barrels while the C series’ barrels are rifled conventionally. For me, a bullet caster and reloader, this last difference between the two was the most important as cast bullets are not always recommended for polygonally-rifled barrels. So, the little CM9 shot my cast reloads and did a good job of it.
Kahr guns are noted for their smooth trigger pulls (although they are a bit long) and slightly offset barrel feed ramp. This allows the design to be more compact and yet offer reliable feeding. About the only thing I didn’t like was the takedown drill. You have to line one notch on the slide up with another notch on the frame and only then can you pull the slide release out to remove the slide. It takes a bit of practice and dexterity.
All in all, if you are looking for one of the smallest, if not THE smallest, subcompact 9mm, give the CM9 a look. There are three different sizes/capacities in the 9mm C series: CM (6+1), CW (7+1) and the CT (8+1). I mention the CM9 for two reasons: it’s the smallest of all the Kahr 9s and I owned one so I can speak from experience with it. It’s a great buy for the real-world price of around $360.
Springfield Armory XDs 3.3 and 4.0
Springfield Armory is taking its small carry gun line to the next level. With the introduction of the XD line to the U.S. in 2001, the company has steadily grown its market share of subcompact guns. Calibers range from 9mm to .40 to .45 ACP but we will concentrate on the 9mm.
Why Three Guns?
The XDs (slim) and the XD-E (exposed hammer) lines both utilize single-stack magazines and are very close to one another in terms of specs, handling and shooting. That is why we are mentioning all three guns. The only difference between the XDs 3.3 and the XDs 4.0 is barrel length and accompanying overall length difference. The action and everything else are the same. The XD-E is a new model that is hammer-fired, has a slide that requires 27% less effort to rack than the other two guns and has an external thumb safety in place of the other guns’ grip safety. The E model is designed to be used by less-experienced shooters but is still a viable option for concealed carry so I will include it in our discussion.
XD model pistols share a feature set that is a bit different than other guns. First, they have a grip safety like a 1911. This alone sets them apart from others. Secondly, many XDs have a fiber optic front sight with red, green or orange rods that you can interchange. Third, they use a striker status indicator at the back of the slide and a loaded chamber indicator that is tactile on top of the chamber.
These pistols are good sellers and are well made. I owned an XDs in .45 ACP. It was a great shooter and carried very well. The reason I sold it was the magazine capacity – five rounds. I got tired of swapping flush-fitting magazines many times during a range session. Other than that, it was one solid gun that had a great grip angle and other good ergonomics. The XD-E would be a good gun for a new shooter, with its low-force slide retraction and exposed hammer. With a striker-fired gun, a rookie may get confused as to the state of his or her weapon’s readiness. A cocked hammer says it all.
I like the XD line and am considering one for my next gun acquisition. They are well-made, reliable and are backed by a good company. Expect to pay around $360-$400 for the XDs and around $420-$480 for the XD-E in real world prices.
The new Sig P365 is taking over the concealed carry 9mm market, if you believe what you read and the videos you see about this gun. Well, maybe not total domination but it is attracting a following. This is the only double-stack-magazine model that I included in this article. You may wonder why, since we’re talking about subcompact, easily-concealed guns and most double-stacks don’t fit those criteria. The reason it’s included is evident if you look at the specs. The gun is basically the size of most of the other guns I’ve mentioned here, and the specs are close to them except for one area: capacity.
The P365 includes two 10-round magazines, with a 12-rounder available. You could carry thirty-three rounds of ammo if you have the included extra ten-round magazine, and then buy a twelve-rounder. Ten plus one, plus ten more and twelve more…that should be enough for just about anybody.
The capacity is only one reason to look at this gun. Sights are another. XRAY3 Day/Night sights are available from the factory, so you won’t have to spend more to add night sights to your P365. Another factor is that the gun is rated for +P ammo. Most people who have shot a P365 say they shoot very well and are controllable. Recoil from +P ammo in an 18 ounce gun could get a little exciting, but the word is that recoil isn’t all that bad.
If you are a Sig lover, give it a look, and if you’re not particularly fond of Sigs, give it a look. I have owned other Sigs and they are very well-made guns. Expect to pay close to MSRP for a P365 – the supply is very slowly catching up with the demand.
Kel Tec PF-9
If you are on a pretty strict budget but still want to have a decent subcompact 9mm to carry, take a look at the PF-9. You get one 7-round magazine and a gun that will definitely fit in a pocket holster. Kel Tec guns are made in Florida and they are backed by excellent customer service. You can find the PF-9 for around $250.
The Sig P938 is a 1911-style subcompact 9mm. It looks and functions as a 1911 would but is a bit different on the inside. The P938 includes Sig NiteLight sights and a 6+1 capacity. This little gun is very popular. Being a single-action gun, most folks carry it cocked and locked. The ambidextrous thumb safety helps keep the gun safe when it’s not being fired. Sig’s reputation doesn’t hurt anything, either – this is a solid gun. The alloy frame adds to the weight and allows you to fit custom grip panels if so desired. I have seen this gun priced anywhere from $550 – $650.
As with any “best of” or “roundup” articles, the gun selection is biased by my experiences. I have shot or owned several of the guns on this list so I know which one I would choose, but that doesn’t matter. You are the one who has to select the gun that feels right in your hand, that is reliable, and that you would trust your life to. Only you can make that decision. First-time buyers especially need be aware of their specific needs and purchase accordingly. If you can rent guns at a range, do so. If not, look them over carefully and then buy the gun you like the best. Be safe, first and foremost and then practice with range ammo AND your proven-in-your-own-gun self defense ammo. Be careful,and have fun!
Mike has been a shooter, bullet caster and reloader for over 40 years. Never one to be satisfied with the status quo, he is often found at his reloading bench concocting yet another load. With a target range in his backyard and after 40 years of shooting, his knowledge of firearms and reloading is fairly extensive. He is married, with four sons and daughters-law and 8-and-counting grandkids.