By Sam Hoober, Alien Gear Holsters
There are a number of reasons to make a more compact gun, and for both pistols and long guns. Consumers demand them, and more and more manufacturers are supplying them.
As with everything in life, there’s a compromise in there somewhere. In some instances, those compromises are worth it. In some instances, they aren’t. In some instances, the compromises can be worth it if you know what you’re doing.
So let’s say you’re a total newbie and you’re considering something like a pocket pistol or snubbie revolver, or the compactest rifle, shotgun or pistol caliber carbine you can find because you think – or you’ve been told! – that it’s easier to carry or handier to use. There are some compromises that you need to know about.
None of this is to suggest that the firearm you’re interested in won’t work for your intended purpose – especially if it’s home defense or personal defense – or that it’s a bad gun.
Instead, this is to understand that guns are mechanical objects. Changing their specifications changes how they work. Guns are also tools for tasks, and changing how the tool works changes the tasks for which they are best suited. Therefore, understand the task you want the tool for.
Yes, that was unbelievably nebulous, so let’s get into this.
The chief compromise is that shorter barrels result in lower projectile velocity. This applies to any type of gun, handgun, shotgun or rifle.
How much that matters depends a lot on what sort of ammunition you’re using and what you’re using it for. Accuracy won’t be compromised, but trajectory will be changed compared to the exact same projectile if it had been sent out of a barrel at a faster velocity, such as a 55-gr .223/5.56mm bullet propelled at 2200 feet per second from a 10.5-inch barrel of an AR pistol compared to the same bullet propelled at 2950 fps from a 20-inch barrel of a full-on AR-15 rifle.
If you’re using some sort of expanding ammunition, such as a hollow point bullet, a lower muzzle velocity means that you are closer to the expansion threshold than you would be from a longer barrel.
Let’s say that a hypothetical 115-grain 9mm hollow point (or rather jacketed hollow point or JHP) projectile has an expansion threshold of 850 feet per second. Below that velocity, the bullet will not expand in any medium and will just act like a fully jacketed bullet.
Let’s also say that this hypothetical bullet has a hypothetical velocity of 1150 fps on average from a 4.5-inch barrel, like the barrel that you’d find in a Glock 17 or Beretta 92FS pistol. However, let us also assume that a compact 9mm with a 3-inch barrel pushes the same bullet out at 925 feet per second on average. The lower velocity puts the bullet closer to the expansion threshold and therefore may not function as well compared to when fired from a longer barrel.
You should be aware that projectile velocity varies from bullet to bullet just due to the varying rates at which propellants ignite and so on. If you were to shoot a whole bunch of ammunition through a chronograph, you might see a swing of up to 50 fps or more for a lot of the exact same brand and box of ammunition.
If you just bought a subcompact 9mm, don’t panic. Those aren’t real-world figures; those are hypotheticals to illustrate the point. In the real world, 3- to 3.5-inch 9mm pistols typically only lose about 100 fps on average to a 4.5- to 5-inch barrel. For a 115-gr projectile, that’s comfortably into the expansion threshold.
However, that’s for 9mm; it might be a different story for a different caliber that’s slower than 9mm, such as .45 ACP or .380.
With rifles, it becomes a whole other ball game.
It was discovered quite some time ago that the optimal barrel length for any rifle (in the most general sense possible) is between 24 and 26 inches. Any longer and there’s no benefit, any shorter and you don’t get the optimal performance in terms of trajectory and terminal performance. A slower bullet will drop more over the same distance as the same bullet propelled at a faster velocity.
Say a hypothetical 55-grain .223 or 5.56mm bullet normally exits a 20-inch barrel at 2950 fps, with a trajectory of 1.5 inches higher than point of aim at 100 yards, 0.5 inches low at 200 yards and 4.5 inches low at 300 yards. If the same hypothetical bullet is propelled at 2300 fps from a 10.5-inch barrel, common on AR pistols and short-barreled rifles, the drop could change to 0.75 inches high relative to point of aim at 100 yards, 2 inches low at 200 yards and 10 inches low at 300 yards.
Again, these are not real world figures. This is a hypothetical to illustrate an idea.
Why the heck does this even matter?!
Because if you buy AR pistol, AK pistol, or similar firearm, one of the first things you need to know is that it won’t be as effective at longer ranges on man or game and that long-range shooting will be more difficult. Therefore, that .300 Blackout pistol is more of a close-quarters weapon and you should therefore treat it as such.
Besides, the perfect .30 caliber round for long range already exists. Depending on whom you ask, it’s either .308, .30-06 or .300 Winchester Magnum, but that’s a discussion for another time.
Oh, and another word on shortened semi-auto rifles – and that’s the matter of gas.
Modern semi-automatic firearms are all gas-operated. The gases created by the propellant igniting either operate a piston that cycles the bolt (piston-operated) or directly blow the bolt back, which is called direct impingement. Now, the function of that system depends on the correct amount of gas pushing the bolt back and cycling the action.
Now, as a general rule, manufacturers tend to sort out the gas system for the gun – as it’s configured by the factory – before it leaves the factory. If you do anything to it that changes the amount of gas that’s going back into it – like adding a suppressor or shooting reduced-velocity ammunition – you’re going to need to tune the gas system so it runs reliably.
So it really isn’t so simple as getting a .300 BLK AR pistol, putting a suppressor on it, and you’re good to go with any ammunition you want. The same is true for a short-barreled AK, such as the many “Krink” pistols going about at the moment.
There are some guns of this style made to function suppressed or unsuppressed and with a wide variety of ammunition from the factory, but they are typically quite expensive!
So be aware of that if you’re getting into a rifle platform any shorter than carbine length.
Now let’s move on to shotguns.
There’s no way to sugar coat this. There is no way in which a shotgun with a pistol grip or the club grip on the more recent variations on the theme is superior to a shotgun with a stock. They are not faster to get into action, they are drastically less controllable and it’s more difficult to shoot them accurately.
And don’t kid yourself for one instant about shotguns not needing to be aimed. If you’re thinking “but spread something something” you need to sober up. Besides, only birdshot really has much spread at home defense distances. Buckshot will still be a fairly tight cluster at 10 yards (about the longest distance shot you’ll make in most homes) and slugs don’t spread. So yeah, shotguns need to be aimed properly.
Where spread does matter with a short-barrel shotgun it’s that the pattern will open up faster compared to the more traditional 26- and 28-inch barrel lengths of most scatterguns. That’s why the longer barrel is preferable for shooting sports involving shotguns and shot that actually spreads into a pattern such as skeet, trap and, of course, hunting. But that’s a whole other kettle of fish, as they say.
It is also true that the market is littered with compact “tactical” or “defense” shotguns – use whatever your preferred adjective is; it’s purely semantic and this author doesn’t care enough to argue about them – that have a stock. Many are very affordable and very good products.
The form of a weapon often matters less than you think; competence with the weapon will matter far, far more in the moment of truth. Therefore, equip yourself with a tool that will give you the best chance of success, which in the case of lawful armed defense of yourself is the most accurate shot on target you can make in the shortest amount of time. If that tool is a shotgun, the darn thing needs a stock on it.
Ultimately, a gun is a tool for a task. If you’re getting a gun for a purpose, such as home defense, concealed carry, sport – or all of the above, and that can be done – you need to understand what tools are best for it.
Compact guns are not bad. They are good tools for certain tasks, and in fact are the best tools for certain tasks. A carbine-length or shorter rifle is better in tighter quarters; a full-length rifle or shotgun is not the best tool for clearing rooms or for carrying in a vehicle. A full-size pistol is not the most comfortable nor as easy to conceal if you’re going to conceal and carry. However, you need to understand their limitations, and act accordingly.
Sam Hoober is a Contributing Editor to AlienGearHolsters.com, a subsidiary of Hayden, ID, based Tedder Industries, where he writes about gun accessories, gun safety, open and concealed carry tips. Click here to visit aliengearholsters.com.