A few weeks ago, we held a poll here at Lucky Gunner Lounge to find out what kind of content you guys were most interested in seeing. Of the four options given, “Concealed Firearms” won by a landslide, and we promised to bring you lots of content relevant to that subject this Spring.

Whether or not it looks like it outside your window, Spring is here, and today’s post marks the official launch of our series on concealed weapons. We’re starting off with a retrospective on the history of handguns used for concealed carry in the U.S.

Walther PP and S&W Shield
Walther PP .32 ACP and Smith & Wesson M&P Shield 9mm. Two popular carry guns that… didn’t make the list. But they owe their popularity to guns that did.

The following is a list of what I believe are five of the most important concealed carry guns of the modern era (which, for our purposes today, I consider to have started in the 1890s with the wide adoption of smokeless powder). These are the guns that either marked the beginning of major technological developments or became influential in the carry habits of Americans.

1. Colt Detective Special

Colt Detective Special
Colt Detective Special .38 Special Snub Nose. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Introduced: 1927
Caliber: .38 Special
Capacity: 6

Colt didn’t invent the concept of the snub nose revolver, but they popularized it with the Detective Special. Since the invention of the revolver, anyone wishing to make their wheel gun more concealable could always take a saw to the barrel and hack off a few inches, and there are numerous documented examples of such modifications. Miniature “pocket” sized revolvers were also available in the single action era, but Colt was the first company to successfully manufacture and market the concept for a double action revolver, essentially legitimizing the snub nose as a tool of the good guys, rather than a means of sneaking a weapon where it wasn’t supposed to go.

Even with decades of evolution of the snub nose concept, Colt’s Detective Special remains one of the few designs with a six-shot cylinder. They’ve been out of production for many years now, but used copies are still popular today.

2. Smith & Wesson Centennial

S&W 642
Smith & Wesson 642, one of many current versions of the Centennial. This model is nearly identical to the original with the notable exceptions of the stainless finish, rubber grips, and S&W internal lock (ew). Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Introduced: 1952
Original Caliber: .38 Special (later offered in 9mm, .357 Magnum, .22 LR, 22 WMR, .32 H&R Magnum)
Capacity: 5 (.38 Special)

After Colt took the snub nose concept mainstream, Smith & Wesson released the Centennial revolver, which included two major innovations that have kept S&W snubbys dominant in that category until the present day. The first was the omission of the hammer, creating a snag-free double-action only design. The second big change was the move from a steel frame to a lightweight alloy frame. These changes proved that a snub nose could be more than just a shrunk-down version of a full size revolver. With features that made the Centennial well suited for concealment and comfortable carry, S&W cemented the J-frame revolver as the kind of gun that could go with you anywhere.

3. FN Model 1910

FN Model 1910
The John M. Browning-Designed FN Model 1910 helped spawn a whole generation of small semi-auto carry guns. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

 

Introduced: 1910
Caliber: .32 ACP/.380 ACP
Capacity: 7+1(.32 ACP), 6+1 (.380 ACP)

Now is the point in the list where you say “I’ve never even heard of this gun and this author is a moron.” I won’t try to dispute the latter claim, but let me explain why this gun made my list. The FN Model 1910 is a John M. Browning design that’s not as well known by modern shooters as some of his others. When Colt wasn’t interested in the pistol, Browning took it to FN in Belgium who produced it until 1983. The pistol was popular in Europe but didn’t see nearly as many sales in the States. 

But as awesome as Browning is, the fact that the FN Model 1910 is one of his designs isn’t enough to make this list. What is special about this pistol is that it was the first semi-auto pistol design that placed the recoil spring around the barrel, rather than below it. This design was later copied by almost every other fixed-barrel blowback pistol design for the next several decades including the Walther PP series, Makarov PM, Beretta Cheetah, CZ-82/83, and Sig P230/232, just to name a few. Today’s small-caliber centerfire pistols have trended toward micro-polymer designs, but these larger, yet still compact blowback designs dominated the small semi-auto market for the better part of the 20th century, and they all have roots in the original Browning-designed FN Model 1910.

4. Glock 26

Glock 26
With the 10-shot, 9mm G26, Glock proved that sub-compact pistols don’t have to be puny mouse guns.

Introduced: 1995
Caliber: 9mm
Capacity: 10+1

The 9mm Glock 26 (and Glock 27 in .40 S&W) was not, in itself, an especially innovative design. It’s little more than a down-sized version of their original Glock 17 9mm. Before the Glock 26, it was not uncommon for manufacturers to make “compact” versions of their full size pistols, but it was rare that they were actually lightweight and easy to conceal for the average Joe with a carry permit. The so-called “baby Glock” hit the market at just the right time. With a 10-round capacity, it wasn’t affected by the standard-magazine capacity ban of 1994-2004, and it came during a period when dozens of states were passing their first concealed carry permit laws. Glock had primarily targeted law enforcement with their previous designs, but sensing an opportunity, they went right for the civilian concealed carry market with the Glock 26. It proved to be a huge success both with the target market and with cops looking for a backup pistol to compliment their Glock duty weapons.

Other gun companies in the 90s were still struggling to come up with ways to compete with Glock’s innovative designs and low production costs, but Glock was already two steps ahead of them with a carry gun that quickly gained a reputation for reliability to rival their full size line. Other small semi-autos on the market were either much heavier, fired weaker cartridges, or were stuck with lower-capacity single stack magazines. The popularity of the Glock 26 pushed other companies even harder in their efforts to go smaller and lighter with their designs.

Its popularity may have slightly waned in recent years in favor of thin single-stack 9mm and .40 S&W carry pistols, but the Glock 26 remains the prime example of a “serious” carry gun that many consider to be the perfect combination of firepower, concealability, and shootability.

5. Kel-Tec P-32

Kel-Tec P-32
Kel-Tec P-32. Photo by Oleg Volk

Introduced: 1999
Caliber: .32 ACP
Capacity: 6+1

Even if you kept reading after the FN Model 1910, then the inclusion of a Kel-Tec on this list has probably got you itching to hit the comments with some choice words about my intelligence. But just think about it for a minute — like the Model 1910, the importance of the P-32 is in what came after. The popularity of the P-32 led Kel-Tec to develop the P-3AT, which was the first of the itty-bitty polymer .380 pistols. Before these two came out, most of the true “pocket” pistols were chambered in .22 LR or .25 ACP. Ruger took notice of the rapid rise in popularity of the P-3AT, leading to the introduction of the LCP. It’s been debated whether the LCP was a direct copy of the P-3AT, but what’s clear is that Ruger used their superior manufacturing and marketing capacity to cash in on a market that Kel-Tec found with the P-3AT and P-32.

Since 2008, Ruger has sold hundreds of thousands of those little pistols, which coincides with the recent boom in popularity of concealed carry permits. Owning a CCW permit can no longer be considered a fringe activity relegated to gun nuts and the paranoid; it’s mainstream, and no gun embodies the popularity of the modern carry movement like the LCP. Other companies have followed the trend with similar designs like the S&W Bodyguard .380, Kahr P380, Taurus 738 TCP, and Beretta Pico. When .380 ACP turned out to be not enough for some folks, the gun companies shifted their efforts to making small single-stack 9mm pistols that were just a hair larger like the Kahr PM9, Kel-Tec PF9, Ruger LC9, S&W Shield, Sig P290, Beretta Nano, and Taurus PT709 Slim. I’m not saying any of these guns necessarily borrowed design elements from the Kel-Tecs, but the fact that they were even produced at all can at least partially attributed to Kel-Tec’s P-32 proving there was a market for “micro” small caliber semi-auto pistols.

Nothing New Under the Sun

Almost every popular modern concealed carry gun can fit into one of three categories: snub nose revolvers, compact or sub-compact versions of full-size pistols, and micro or pocket-sized single stacks. The medium-small sub-9x19mm pistols that evolved from the FN Model 1910 might be a fourth category, but these pistols have largely become obsolete in today’s market (though personally, I believe they are still a viable option in some situations). Whether you like them or not, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a successful contemporary concealed carry firearm that doesn’t owe either its commercial viability or its design heritage to one of the pistols on this list.


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30 Responses to “The Five Most Important Concealed Carry Guns of All Time”

  1. Darwin Sass

    I was actually quite impressed that you thought to include the FN 1910. It is one I thought of immediately when I saw the heading of this article and was surprised to find you had included it.

    Reply
  2. Brian Peppel

    What category would you put the SIG P239 into?

    Reply
  3. Tom Galloway

    THESE ARE GREAT ARTICLES,KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK

    Reply
  4. LG Chris

    Thanks, Darwin. I'm glad someone appreciated its inclusion.

    Reply
  5. LG Chris

    Thanks, Darwin. I'm glad someone appreciated its inclusion.

    Reply
  6. LG Chris

    Good question. It's my understanding that the P239 design borrows elements from both the P229 and the P230. The P230 would go into the "forgotten" fourth category of medium-small sub-9×19 caliber pistols. The P229 is a compact version of a full size. So that makes the P239 the bastard step-child of the Sig pistols, and it will forever remain somewhere in between the categories I just arbitrarily invented for this post. Nothing wrong with that, though… I kinda like the P239.

    Reply
  7. LG Chris

    Good question. It's my understanding that the P239 design borrows elements from both the P229 and the P230. The P230 would go into the "forgotten" fourth category of medium-small sub-9×19 caliber pistols. The P229 is a compact version of a full size. So that makes the P239 the bastard step-child of the Sig pistols, and it will forever remain somewhere in between the categories I just arbitrarily invented for this post. Nothing wrong with that, though… I kinda like the P239.

    Reply
  8. Steven Moutoux

    I have grown to love the Beretta PX4 Compact. Perfect size and much better than the S&W and the Glock 26 (which is too short a handle)

    Reply
  9. Leon Weatherby

    Go ahead just say it Ruger totally ripped off keltec. You can just about interchange parts between the p3at and the lcp

    Reply
  10. Pieter Lugt

    Excellent. I can't wait for the next article.

    Reply
  11. Douglas E. Thede

    I prefer the colt 1908 in 380 its flatter and a little heavier and extremely comfortable to carry

    Reply
  12. Delbert Mcintire

    Why no Derringer? Small but awesome!

    Reply
  13. Zach Franken

    Hey Chris I bought my wife a Sig P238 what is your opinion of this weapon and I have a PA-63 Mak 9mm it looks like a Walther PPK what do think of this weapon?

    Reply
  14. Mike Spivey

    Nice Colt and FN. Own a snubbie Colt Cobra in .38 and another snubbie in .32. Also A Colt 1908 and a Savage 1907. Definitely an interesting time for handgun development.

    Reply
  15. Mike Spivey

    Nice Colt and FN. Own a snubbie Colt Cobra in .38 and another snubbie in .32. Also A Colt 1908 and a Savage 1907. Definitely an interesting time for handgun development.

    Reply
  16. Scott Host

    I'm surprised you didn't include a XDm compact not much different then a Glock

    Reply
  17. LG Chris

    The Glock 26 was first by several years, and is far more historically significant than the XDm. That doesn't make the XDm a bad gun, just unimportant in terms of historical influence.

    Reply
  18. LG Chris

    Never handled a PA-63, but from what I understand, the double action trigger pull makes them nearly unusable. If you can tolerate that and it's reliable, 9mm Mak is not a bad round for carry.

    I like a lot of things about the P238, but the one I had was picky about ammo and hand placement when shooting. Sig was not helpful when I called asking for suggestions. Lots of reports of other people having problems with them. If you have one that runs, they are nice shooting pistols, especially for a small .380. I hope your wife practices a lot. Carrying a cocked and locked single action is not for the novice, for both safety and usability issues.

    Reply
  19. LG Chris

    Nice guns. I would love to get my hands on a Colt 1908 for a review.

    Reply
  20. LG Chris

    I like the Colt 1908, too, but I think the FN had more of an impact on firearms design overall. Would be cool to compare the two side by side, though.

    Reply
  21. Zach Franken

    LG Chris thanks for the feed back Chris the Mak 9 is definitely a close range weapon the only thing I don't really care for is it hit hard on your hand when fired….

    Reply
  22. Zach Franken

    LG Chris thanks for the feed back Chris the Mak 9 is definitely a close range weapon the only thing I don't really care for is it hit hard on your hand when fired….

    Reply
  23. Mike Spivey

    LG Chris, mine's a .25 ACP from around 1936.

    Reply
  24. Mark Lee

    well i happen to love my mp 40 shield i just got it and it is a bad ass gun

    Reply
  25. LG Chris

    I considered it, but the derringer style pistols seem to have peaked in popularity sometime in the second half of the 19th century, which was before the "modern period" that I used as the basis for this post. The derringer concept has managed to hang around until today, but they're just not all that popular compared to other types of carry guns.

    Reply
  26. SayUncle » Because the internet loves completely uncontroversial lists

    […] The Five Most Important Concealed Carry Guns of All Time […]

    Reply
  27. Rob Dewitt

    Great article, but maybe you should have mentioned the Seecamp .32. I think Kel Tec was originally only trying to compete with the expensive and hard to find Seecamp when they introduced the P-32

    Reply
  28. LG Chris

    Quite possible, but the Kel-Tec is polymer, like most of the other new pocket pistol designs. I would not be surprised if the Seecamp is easier to shoot than the P32, but that's kind of the point… Kel-Tec proved that most customers don't care if they can shoot their pocket pistols well as long as they are cheap, light, and easy to carry.

    Reply
  29. Paul Hacker

    Right now I have 4 of the five on that list and have owned a 1955 Browning (the 1910 updated after WW2.) And all five of 'em still will do the job.

    Reply

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