Defining the Handgun

Many people ask, what’s the best handgun? Many of us would respond, what’re you using it for?  Do you need an offensive handgun or a defensive one? The appropriate secondary for an SMU door kicker might be less than ideal for a small-framed individual carrying concealed. There are other considerations, of course. Here’s how Nick Perna looks at it.

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After I got out of the Army I briefly worked construction prior to entering law enforcement. I was essentially a laborer, but I also did some apprentice carpentry work. I learned early on to use the right tool for the job.

Take, for example, hammers. There are different types. Framing hammers are large and heavy for driving nails into plywood and support beams. Most tradesmen carry multi-use type hammers like Claw hammers. But sometimes they need specialized types like ball-peen hammers which are used to shape metal. Each type of hammer has a purpose so it’s up to the user to decide which he needs. The task dictates the type.


We can draw an analogy regarding what type of handgun to carry in a tactical environment. As with hammers, there are many varieties available so it’s important to choose the right one. Tactical handguns, the type carried by military personnel and tactical police officers (SWAT), fall into two general categories: defensive handguns and offensive handguns.

Defensive Use

Defensive handguns are generally used for just that—self-defense. Military support troops who operate in less hostile environments carry them. Operators of crew-served weapons also carry them to use if the crew-served weapon becomes inoperable.

The Springfield XD is a possible choice for a defensive handgun.
Small frame Springfield XD, one possible choice for a defensive handgun (image courtesy Springfield Armory)’

Offensive Use

For actual tactical operations, such as building clearing, offensive handguns are used in conjunction with heavier weapons, like assault rifles. Operators use handguns when clearing tight spaces such as ships or aircraft where their small size is optimal, compared to long guns.

Differences in Build

Offensive Handgun

So what’s the physical difference between the two types? Ideally, an offensive handgun is going to be large frame gun like an M1911, Glock 21 or Sig Sauer 320 (think framing hammer). At a minimum, it will be equipped with a rail-mounted light system for nighttime clearing or working in dark areas. It may have a laser system with IR capability as well. A threaded barrel is a good option for mounting a suppressor. Additionally, a red dot sight may be mounted. Extended magazines are a good idea as long as they don’t interfere with other gear.

Tactical Officers using offensive handguns (Glock 22s) during building clearing exercise
Tactical Officers using offensive handguns (Glock 22s) during building clearing exercise

Defensive Handgun

A defensive handgun could be a large frame but, preferably, a mid or small frame gun would be better. I say this because a smaller frame gun weighs less and takes up less room on a belt or tactical vest, making it possible to carry more gear. Belt and tac vest space can be at a premium and fills up quickly with ammo, med gear, and other essential stuff. Guns like the Glock 26 9mm or the Springfield XD compact are good examples of smaller-frame pistols. Add-ons like lights and holographic sights aren’t necessary. You can secret a small-frame gun behind a rifle magazine pouch on a tac vest or in a vest-mounted holder. Conversely, an offensive handgun is generally going in a drop leg rig.

The new(ish) Sig Sauer P320, one of the new generations of offensive handgun
The new(ish) Sig Sauer P320, one of the new generations of offensive handgun
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Ammo Requirements

Offensive Handgun

When carrying an offensive handgun you generally want to carry more ammunition for it. Since it’s going to be used in partnership with a long gun to engage bad guys, (otherwise known as gunfighting) it needs more ammo. An operator needs to make accommodations for this, ensuring he has space on his belt and vest for it.

This means you might have to leave some long gun ammo at home to make room for handgun mags. The mission dictates what the proper rifle-to-handgun-ammo ratio will be. Simply put, clearing more enclosed space equals the need for more handgun ammo.

Defensive Handgun

With a defensive handgun, on the other hand, you are going carry just enough ammo to protect yourself, especially if your long gun goes down. How much ammo depends on the situation; but bear in mind, everywhere you carry handgun ammo is a place where rifle ammo or other essential gear can be carried. Some environments limit pistol applications. For instance, does it make sense to carry two handgun magazines in the same amount of space that a rifle magazine could be carried? Is it worth sacrificing a strobe or radio batteries, two items that can definitely be lifesavers? So when you are going to work make sure you bring the right tools.




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Nick Perna

Nicholas Perna is a former Army officer from the 82nd Airborne turned Army Reservist and police officer who has (among other awards) been decorated for valor in the line of duty and a recipient of the Officer of the Year Award in his department. An EMT and current street crimes supervisor, Perna has worked detectives, patrol, street crime suppression, counter-gang, counter-narcotics, SWAT and in numerous other billets. As a police officer he's worked collateral assignments as a SWAT Team Leader, Firearms Instructor and Terrorism Liaison Officer; while active duty he served as an airborne medical platoon leader, company commander, battalion intelligence officer and battalion OPSO. A combat veteran, while serving in Iraq in '03 he led a team of SOF soldiers conducting psychological operations as part of Joint Special Operations Task Force Arabian Peninsula. Perna has previously been published in SWAT Magazine, Soldier of Fortune, Havok Journal, Police One, Guns & Weapons for Law Enforcement, Counter Terrorist Magazine, the NTOA's Tactical Edge, the CATO Quarterly journal, the Homeland Security First Responder Network and other places. We don't know him well enough to make fun of him yet, but it certainly seems like he's a candidate for grumpy old man jokes like Hernandez and Reeder, and you can rest assured we're trying to get picture of him as a boot 2nd Lieutenant.

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