Massad Ayoob: Capacity, Just How Much Do You Need to Carry?

Guns and Gear | Contributor

By Massad Ayoob, GUNS Magazine

The other day I spent some time getting re-acquainted with a handgun my dad gave me on my 21st birthday, a blue steel Smith & Wesson Model 36 Chief Special with 2-inch barrel and semi-square butt. As he handed it to me, he uttered words I’ve never forgotten: “I hope to Christ you never need to use it, but if you ever do… don’t miss.”

It wasn’t long before I had to pull it on a couple of muggers in a dark parking lot swept with icy wind, and the sight of it was enough to stop the action without a shot being fired. Which was a good thing, since the only ammo on my person consisted of the five .38 Special hollowpoints in the cylinder. After all, I was carrying a gun, wasn’t I? And it wasn’t like I was a cop (yet). That was 4-1/2 decades ago. I’ve learned a few things since, which might be worth sharing.

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Arrowed 9mm casings show how fast ammo can be expended. The pistol here is FNS-9C.

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The 19-round mag of the Springfield XD(M) 9mm, plus a 20th in the chamber, can be comforting.

Beware

There seems to be an unwritten law on the gun-related Internet saying, “If you carry less than I do, you’re a pathetic ‘sheeple,’ and if you carry more than I do, you’re a paranoid mall ninja.” Forgive me if I can’t buy into either of those attitudes.

These days, I still carry a J-frame S&W 5-shot more often than not as a backup, and with a Bianchi Speed Strip of spare ammo. What it is usually backing up is a service-caliber semi-automatic pistol, somewhere between 9mm and .45 ACP depending on what I’m wearing and doing, and that in turn will be backed up with a spare magazine if the auto is a double stack, or two spares if it’s a single stack.

Why? Research, mainly, but also some personal experience. I started seriously debriefing gunfight survivors shortly after I started carrying a gun in public, in the 1970’s. In cases where the simple display of the Good Guy’s gun wasn’t enough to halt hostilities, and the shooting started, five or six rounds was usually enough to solve the problem… but usually wasn’t always.

Armed citizen Richard Davis nailed three bad guys with the six rounds he had in his revolver before he ran dry, but one was still up and running enough to shoot him twice. When Rich was recovering from those wounds, it occurred to him that there had to be something better to stop bullets with than his own body, and he created the concealable soft body armor under his Second Chance brand that made him “the man who bullet-proofed America’s police.”

Armed citizen Lance Thomas, in multiple gunfights with armed robbers at his watch shop, learned the hard way that you often needed way more than five or six shots on tap to survive. In the police sector, this sort of thing happened so often that my generation witnessed the switch from a six-shooter on the belt with 12 spare cartridges to a semi-automatic pistol and two spare magazines—some 46 rounds readily at hand with a modern .40, or 52 with the most popular 9mm. I debriefed FBI Special Agent John Hanlon, who had only a 5-shot Chiefs identical to my old one when he was involved in the infamous 4/11/86 shootout in Dade County. He was reloading when he was shot down and crippled, and watched two of his brother agents murdered. Yes, in retrospect he wished he’d had more to fight back with.

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The five .38 rounds carried in this S&W Model 40-1 are enough—most of the time.

Personal experience means less than collective experience, simply because no one person is going to survive enough gunfights to become an oracle before the odds catch up with him. I’ve had a relatively easy life: Every human being I ever took at gunpoint either surrendered or fled, and the only times I’ve ever had to pull the trigger have been against animals. Most of those went down with one shot, some took more, and two—a steer that was very unhappy about the whole thing, and a pissed-off on-coming cottonmouth—took six. A Colt .357 Magnum discharged the sixth and instantly fatal hit on the steer. Moving backward in the dark and firing 1-handed, I missed the snake with three rounds from a Glock 31 and clipped the body with two before the sixth .357 SIG Gold Dot bullet vaporized its venomous head. In both cases, I was glad I had more than a 5-shot .38, not to mention how reassuring it felt to be able to reload later.

We all have to assess our needs and our “threat levels.” These days, I don’t tease people who carry little .380’s or five-shooters: often, that’s all they can carry, and more power to ’em for being armed at all. But I have also learned not to criticize those who carry something more powerful, nor those who carry more than one short gunload of ammunition to protect the people they care about, and so they can come back to those loved ones from whatever happens.

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