The Case for the Pistol Caliber Carbine

The H&K MP5 chambered in .40 S&W is accurate, controllable, has almost no recoil, and would be superb for home defense.

U.S. involvement in the Global War On Terror, the expiration of a pointless and stupid federal “assault weapons” ban, and greater interest in gun ownership has all combined to push development on the AR15 family of weapons to new heights. Today the AR15 can be had in a highly refined, specialized form suitable for just about any shooting task you can conceive of. One of the areas of greatest benefit has been shrinking the size and weight of the weapon (while maintaining excellent reliability) to the point where it has now supplanted the previous king of compact, shoulder-fired weapons: The sub-machinegun.

The H&K MP5 chambered in .40 S&W is accurate, controllable, has almost no recoil, and would be superb for home defense.
The H&K MP5 chambered in .40 S&W is accurate, controllable, has almost no recoil, and would be superb for home defense.

In a world where you can order a MK18 from Daniel Defense and load it with ammunition developed for optimal performance against bad guys it can seem that there’s not much point to the SMG or her kissing cousin, the pistol caliber carbine. It would be easy to think that progress has made them irrelevant, but I don’t think we’re quite there yet. If you are in a job where body armor and a firearm are standard issue equipment you should certainly be seeking out the numerous advantages provided by the compact, reliable AR15 pattern carbines with all their terminal ballistics wizardry and modular goodness. Those who don’t find themselves regularly needing to shoot armored bad guys at ranges which vary from 5 feet out to 300 yards might find that the pistol caliber carbine fills a niche that other guns don’t quite fit.

For starters, the pistol caliber carbine (PCC) is extremely easy to shoot. Putting a pistol caliber in a shoulder fired weapon typically results in very soft recoil with minimal, if any, muzzle rise from shot to shot. While the AR15 isn’t really known for having beastly recoil, the short guns do move around on you and tend to be pretty loud. The combination can be intimidating. Those challenges can certainly be overcome with proper training and practice, but that’s not always an option. I’ve seen quite a few members of the fairer sex at the range shooting their husband’s/boyfriend’s/fiancée’s/brother’s/dad’s/friend’s AR15 rifles, struggling with the experience due to the noise and recoil. In contrast, I’ve watched a ~ 12 year old girl who had never handled an MP5 before pick one up and give the center of a silhouette target absolute hell while a great big grin spread across her face. When I cleared a plate rack with the MP5/.40 in the picture I was grinning, too. The PCC is just plain fun to shoot, especially on steel. A shoulder-fired weapon with Ruger 10/22 levels of intimidation and ease of accuracy for new or small shooters, only shooting a bigger bullet that’s proven very effective against bad guys is a winner.

The MP5 caught in the middle of a burst. Lack of muzzle rise gives a clue as to how easy it is to control this weapon, even on full-auto.
The MP5 caught in the middle of a burst. Lack of muzzle rise gives a clue as to how easy it is to control this weapon, even on full-auto.

The better PCCs on the market today like the Beretta CX4 Storm allow mounting all the accessories you could reasonably want on a home defense weapon like red dot sights, white lights, and slings. It’s a very light, handy little rifle. I had the chance to use the CX4 Storm doing some low light  training and even with iron sights and a white light it was exceptionally easy to hit the head box of an IDPA target at speed. With controls that closely mimic those on the Beretta 92 family of pistols and magazine commonality, it’s an excellent choice for someone who owns a Beretta and wants a good home defense gun.

There are other options out there, of course. The Ruger PC9, the Marlin Camp Carbine, and even the M1 carbine are all floating around out there in addition to the still-in-production carbines like the CX4 Storm and the Kriss. My personal favorite, of course, would be the H&K family. Ideally an HK94 with an MP5 sized barrel on it. Thanks to the 1989 import ban and the 1986 machinegun ban they’ve become quite expensive and a tad out of the reach of the average pocketbook. There’s still something quite special about handling and shooting one, though. If you shop carefully you should be able to get a good PCC for less money (excluding the H&K route) than a good 5.56 AR15 carbine would cost, leaving more money for quality optics, a light, and maybe some ammo.

The PCC isn’t as versatile as a 5.56 carbine and the terminal ballistics of a good 5.56 load will be superior to what you can get out of what amounts to a big, easy to shoot pistol…nevertheless, there are situations where a big, easy to shoot pistol will work splendidly. I would argue that serving as a home defense gun that’s also fun to use at the range is the niche that the PCC fills perhaps better than anything else on the market. It may not be the first choice of elite counterterrorism units these days (although many still have the old reliable MP5 in inventory and still use them on occasion) but it’s worth remembering that those units used shoulder-fired, pistol caliber weapons to great effect for a long time…and maybe the average shooter will find that it does a pretty good job for him/her, too.

16 thoughts on “The Case for the Pistol Caliber Carbine”

  1. I think until all the rules surrounding SBR’s are done away with, this market will continue to be tumultuous. While I love my CX4 and Uzi and MP5 “rifles”, a lot of people aren’t going to shell out that money when they can get something more powerful in the same size.
    Gun buyers are like all consumers: they don’t want a hassle and want the best for their dollar. If it takes a year, silly paperwork, and an extra $200 to get an SBR, it’s not worth it for most people.

  2. Frankly, it eludes me why there aren’t a lot of PCC’s in 357SIG, which is actually an excellent cartridge for a carbine..

    1. I suspect that the companies are spooked about the possibility for neck separations. Some customers would also get freaked out about the fired 357 SIG brass looking akin to a .40 S&W after it ejects from a straight blowback action.

  3. The PCC and SMG are both victims of American gun laws. If there were no NFA? I’d absolutely have an MP5 for my home defense gun with a suppressor slapped on there. As it is, the need for a 16 inch barrel in order for a weapon to have a stock REALLY puts a damper on things. When you get into that size range, why not just use an AR?

    1. I agree. The NFA’s oafish regulation distorts the situation considerably, as does the ridiculous 1989 import ban. (The result of an executive order rather than legislation…behold the power of the regulatory state) We would have more selection without those obstacles and more people might make the choice to use a PCC.

  4. Yeah, until the NFA laws on SBRs get adjusted, PCCs will remain a small niche. And those of us int he People’s Republic of California will have to make do with M1 carbines or lever guns. Although I do love my .357Mag lever gun.

  5. I think the PCC is much more useful when it is available in select fire versions. The controllability of a well designed shoulder arm in a pistol caliber allows full auto to make up some of the terminal ballistics disadvantage of pistol vs. rifle cartridges.

    As Tim mentions, if you are going to be limited by the law, you might as well use the more powerful cartridge. Since their is no chance of deregulating full-autos that I can see and there IS a mild chance of making it easier to own suppressors, I think that would only solidify the place of the interim cartridge carbine.

  6. The MP5 is a great firearm. I’ve had the opportunity to shoot a couple over the years at gun ranges and found them to be accurate, easy to handle, and a whole lot of fun. Unfortunately I doubt will ever own one due to the high price, etc.

    However, the PCC has always been an object of desire for me. I looked at the Beretta, but was a little turned off by the plastic look. The last couple years the 9mm ARs have caught my eye, but I’ve been worried about whether or not they are reliable, plus most cost as much or more than 5.56 AR. Tim have you any experience with pistol caliber ARs?

    1. I’ve used a few, including the Colt 9mm SMG…and I haven’t really been a fan. The Colt-patterned magazine ARs in 9mm seem to be the best bet, but the magazines themselves are difficult to load. On more than one occasion I’ve gotten a mag half loaded only to have it spit a bunch of cartridges out at me forcing starting over. Once you manage to get it loaded all the ones I’ve used (primarily Colts with short barrels) have worked pretty well…but the guns I’ve used tend to be a bit “bouncy” when you are shooting enthusiastically. Personally I would seek out something other than an AR in a pistol caliber unless I got a screaming deal on one…preferring to get a reliable HK clone (not an easy task by any stretch) or one of the PCC’s that take reliable pistol magazines.

  7. Other big advantage is dramatically less noise with a PCC and slightly inproved terminal ballistics compared to a pistol length barrel. That said I really want an MP-10SD with the 2 round burst… Because 10mm

  8. One pistol caliber carbine that seems to be overlooked is the Keltec Sub 2000. The Sub 2000 is easily concealed, cheap, accurate, reliable and has available large capacity magazines. My 40 S&W shoots 3 MOA at 50 yards, and lethal double taps closer.

  9. I saw a Ruger PC9 at the Buffalo Bill museum in Cody, WY, last summer. I didn’t (and still don’t) get why it never caught on. A 9mm based on the 10/22 platform sounds awesome!
    Then again, you do still have the option of an AR platform chambered for the 9mm.

  10. My wife has 92f I bought her long time ago + a Fn Fal in 308. Hasn’t shot in long time. I like the MP5’s. .40 is good; I wish they had a .10mm; I don’t want to debate the Diff. at this time.

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