A pocket pistol is an American term for any small, pocket-sized semi-automatic pistol or, less-popular, any other handgun (e.g., derringer, or small revolver) of (most commonly) small caliber, suitable for concealed carry in either a front or rear pocket of a pair of trousers, or in an exterior coat pocket. Some consider the term solely applicable to hammerless handguns that are striker-fired in semi-automatic blowback configurations. However, with the advent of newer and smaller double action only (DAO) semi-automatic pistol designs, some locked breech concealed-hammer pistol designs are now also called pocket pistols.
In general use, the term pocket pistol is not considered a pejorative term. However, some pocket pistols, often those of lesser caliber, are referred to as mouseguns, which sometimes is considered a pejorative term among those who prefer larger caliber pistols, although not among those who prefer smaller caliber pistols for deeper concealment.
The pocket pistol originated in the mid-17th century as a small, concealable flintlock known as the Queen Anne pistol, the coat pistol, or the pocket pistol. This was used throughout the 18th century, evolving from a weapon reserved for the wealthy to a common sidearm in broader use as more and more manufacturers made them by the start of the 19th century.
The original 19th century vest-sized pocket pistol, the derringer, which developed from the Philadelphia Deringer, is typically no longer widely used for concealed carry (except in .357 Magnum calibers) with most preferring more rounds of small caliber cartridges in an auto-loading pistol design to provide increased self-defense capability extending beyond one or two shots. While still retaining moderate amounts of popularity, short-barreled ("snubnose") revolvers are similarly not as widely used as pocket pistols today as they were during the 1950s and earlier.
The first widely used and successfully sold pocket pistols were sold in blowback designs, such as the Baby Browning, designed and first marketed in 1905, along with the round designed for it (the .25 ACP).
More recently, modern locked-breech designs, such as the Kel-Tec P-32 and Kel-Tec P11, have become more popular through providing an option for carrying larger, more powerful, caliber sizes, while additionally including more safety features than were included in the older blowback designs.
The typical usage of a pocket pistol is for close range self-defense, often serving as a deep concealment backup gun to a larger handgun. Pocket holsters are highly recommended for the safe carry of pocket pistols, with standard practice being to carry the holster (sometimes with a second magazine sub-pocket stitched into the holster) in a front or rear trouser pocket with nothing else carried in the pocket that could snag on the gun when drawn. The most popular pocket holster designs are typically made of form-fitted leather, with a heavy layer of leather worn outward from the body to prevent printing of the gun outline on tight clothing, although Kydex holsters are also used, especially for thicker pocket pistols for which the added thickness of a leather holster would cause an excessive overall thickness.
Pocket pistols are carried with a round chambered, and with a safety engaged (ON), for single-action designs. However, with the 5 to 6 lbf (22 to 27 N) trigger pulls seen on double-action-only long trigger pull handguns without any external safety, and with a round chambered, the use of form-fitting trigger-covering holsters prevents inadvertently discharging the gun while it is carried, in much the same way that a revolver can be carried without an external safety. The use of moisture and vapor-barrier layers in the holster stitched closer to the body in the holster is recommended to prevent damaging the finish of the pocket pistol due to sweat. This extra layer also serves to increase carry comfort, and to prevent chapping or blistering the skin under the holster due to repetitive motion rubbing or friction that can occur while walking, jogging, or running.
Pocket pistol users include both concealed handgun licensed private citizens and police officers, desiring a self-defense gun, or desiring to carry a backup gun. Aiming is typically intended for point and shoot, only, with one-handed pistol operation, unlike the practice with small-caliber target pistols which are instead usually fired with two-handed stances, and while carefully aligning the front and rear sights. The typical effective range for pocket pistols is 3 to 7 yards (2.7 to 6.5 m). Pocket pistols are typically made with rounded edges, with few controls, to prevent snagging on the draw.
Range practice, at least monthly, is often practiced by those who carry pocket pistols to maintain proficiency and accuracy. Pocket pistols are not typically pleasant to shoot, having considerably more felt recoil than seen with more massive full-size or "full-frame compact" semi-automatic pistols.
Caliber sizes and safety features
Pocket pistol caliber size is typically .22 LR, .25 ACP, .32 ACP, and .380 ACP in older hammerless, blowback designs; and .32 ACP, .380 ACP, and 9 mm Luger in concealed-hammer, locked-breech designs. There are also single-stack 6+1 pistols in .45 ACP or .40 S&W such as the Springfield Armory Micro Compact LW and the Smith & Wesson SW990L which technically qualify as pocket pistols or holdout guns.
In general, the newer concealed-hammer, locked-breech designs are much more resistant to accidental discharges, having modern hammerblock and other safety features that prevent pistols from firing when a round is chambered and the pistol is accidentally dropped on its muzzle.
Pocket pistols are typically derided by gun enthusiasts who claim that they provide inadequate self-defense. Likewise, pocket pistols, due to their typical low cost, often are lumped with Saturday night specials by those not favoring the use of such guns. Hence, pocket pistols are less popular with a larger cross-section of the general US population than larger self-defense handguns. Still, the numbers sold speak of a wide degree of popularity, with some models having been sold in quantities in excess of 3 million over 30 or more years.
Similar terms include Saturday night special, mousegun, and junk gun. The term pocket pistol typically encompasses a superset of most all of these handguns, without the pejorative issues often seen with the terms Saturday night special and junk gun.
Typical pocket pistols
- Beretta 21 Bobcat (.22 LR and .25 ACP)
- Beretta 3032 Tomcat (.32 ACP)
- Bersa Thunder 380 (.380 ACP)
- Bryco Arms P-38 (.32 ACP and .380 ACP)
- Raven Arms MP-25 (.25 ACP)
- Walther PP (.380 ACP, .32 ACP, .22 LR, and .25 ACP)
- Ortgies semi-automatic pistol (6.35 mm, 7.65 mm, and 9 mm)
- Taurus TCP (.380 ACP)
- Ruger LCP (.380 ACP)
- Ruger LC9 (9x19mm)
- Kel-Tec PF-9 (9x19mm)
- Kel-Tec P-11 (9x19mm)
- Kel-Tec P-32 (.32 ACP)
- Kel-Tec P-3AT (.380 ACP)
- North American Arms Guardian (.25 NAA, .32 ACP, .32 NAA, .380 ACP)
- Kahr P380, P9, P40, P45 (.380 ACP, 9x19mm, .40 S&W, .45 ACP)
- Kahr K9 (9x19mm)
- Kahr CW9 (9x19mm)
- Kahr MK9 (9x19mm)
- Kahr PM9, PM40, PM45 (9x19mm, .40 S&W, .45 ACP)
- Kimber Solo (9x19mm)
- Glock 26, 36, and variants (9x19mm, .40 S&W, 10mm Auto, .45 GAP, .45 ACP, .380 ACP, .357 SIG)
- Rohrbaugh R9 (9x19mm)
- Sig Sauer P238 (.380 ACP)
- SIG Sauer P290 (9x19mm)
- Diamondback DB9 (9x19mm Luger)
- Springfield Armory XD-S (.45 ACP)
- Velo-dog (.22 Velo-dog cartridge)
- North American Arms Mini-Revolver (.22 Short, .22 LR, .22 WMR, .17 HM2, .17 HMR)
- Ruger LCR
- Smith & Wesson 442
Pocket pistol comparison chart
- McLeod, Terence (2001), Concealable Pocket Pistols, How to choose and use small-caliber handguns, Boulder, Colorado: Paladin Press, ISBN 1-58160-279-0. Concentrates on blowback operation pistols, only.
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