Confirmation bias in firearm selection

Read the following statement from a commenter on the post below about revolvers as self defense weapons:

The female shooters I have instructed also seem to prefer revolvers far and away above compact and subcompact semi-autos of all stripes.

Before I continue with this, I want to establish something – I am by no means picking squares with any of the commentors that disagree with my opinion, but I want to point out a thought I had earlier today.  Whenever I see comments like that, where an instructor is saying that “most of  my x students (where ‘x’ = some common characteristic such as gender, height, left-handedness, etc) prefer y gun type” my first thought is that I’m running into confirmation bias on the part of the instructor.  Take for example the oft-repeated “women that are new shooters should get a snub nosed revolver”.  I am on record as saying in many places that this is a terrible idea, because snub guns are wretched difficult to learn to shoot well.  How that bias affects me is when I’m talking to a newbie shooter about what gun to select, I am going to unconsciously steer them away from the compact revolvers towards a gun that I feel is a better platform.  Then if I say “all my shooters pick Glock 19s so ergo Glock 19s are the best guns for newbies” I have thus demonstrated confirmation bias.

I wonder then how many new shooters pick sub compact revolvers not because they’ve made an informed choice, but rather because the bias of their instructor has directed them towards a particular gun?  I’m not saying that the instructors do it out of malice or incompetence, but rather because they genuinely believe that gun x is the best for demographic y, without necessarily evaluating the actual person standing in front of you.

Again, this isn’t taking shots at anyone – the scope of my “introducing newbies to firearms” is usually done via email or friends that are considering their first gun purchase.  But for just a moment, let’s take an honest look at the snub nosed revolver and see if it really stacks up as the “optimal” defensive firearm.  And I say that to you while I’m carrying a j-frame myself.

I’m guilty of this myself – I often push people towards what I believe to be the “best” firearm for personal defense, when I fact I should be encourage people who are shopping to get out there and shoot guns until they find one that they like and that works for them.  Carrying a gun doesn’t do you any good if you cannot get lead on target during a dynamic critical event; the bottom line is that only hits count.  But to build that proficiency, you have to train with your carry gun whether it’s a 2 inch j-frame or a 5 inch 1911 – only hits count.


  1. I find your accusation of bias both offensive, and inaccurate. Everyone knows that when it comes to firearms every instructor everywhere is totally and completely objective. 🙂

    So let me explain my bias, when dealing with students there are number of issues I routinely encounter.
    Probably the most common problems are

    1. Purchasing a firearm which is to heavy/inpratical to carry.
    This is a major issue. Obviously this means different things to different people. You may be able to carry a 1911 just fine everyday. For other people that’s not an option. I actually have rigs for students to try out. But 3 minutes in class != a day sitting around with a full-size steel framed beast strapped to your arse.

    2. Lack of of proficiency/not practicing. I can explain the importance of training with your carry gun, I can insist that my students qualify with a gun that they intend to carry. I can’t babysit them after they leave and make sure they make it out to the range. Lets face it people are lazy.

    The snubby revolver IMHO addresses those 2 most common issues I encounter, at least as well as any firearm can. It’s small enough that most people can carry it without issue. Like any small framed gun it IS more difficult to shoot than full size equivalent, but it at least eliminates some of the extra reflexive motor control skills you need for a semi-auto in a defense scneario, especially one with an external safety. We can argue accuracy all day long, but I feel the snubby works just fine at “monkey point good” distances 🙂 which is the type of shooting you will most likely be doing if your life is in danger.

    I do evaluate every student on an individual basis. I always tell my students to shoot a gun before they purchase it. If possible, and you can get a loaner.. carry it around your house. I even have a fullsize .38 I bring with, students can compare a fullsize .38 to my j-frame. For some I definitely recommend or suggest other guns. It all depends on the shooter.

    In terms of an optimal defensive firearm… I’d take a 870 pump loaded with buckshot but sometimes that’s just not pratical.

    I’d much rather a student be carrying their snubbie 38 when they needed it. Than be needing their 1911 that they left at home because it was just to darn heavy.

  2. You will also note that I said in my first post that I DO NOT carry a revolver, but that many of the women I’ve instructed chose them anyways. I don’t even own a centerfire J-frame (or similar) for example.

  3. Certainly if the only gun in a new shooter’s stable is a snubbie .38, you can damn near guarantee they won’t be hitting the range much! Jesus when I don’t pack my 1911 I carry a S&W642 and I have to push myself to take that gun to the range…and when I get there I need to push myself to shoot the damn thing.

    It’s a really nice gun, and I’m pleased with it’s performance, and how it carries, and I feel quite confident with my skills in it….but it is hands down the most difficult gun I own to shoot, and outright the most unpleasant.

    And I’m a gun-nut, I think shooting guns, and loading ammunition, and reading about guns, and chatting online about guns is the best thing ever.

    Now your average gun n00b may not be so ravenous, and you hand them a gun that is painful to shoot, difficult to grip, and has a heavy trigger pull that unless you really know how to properly pull a trigger is going to pull so low and to the left it won’t even mark the page, that new shooter is going to get so damn frustrated the gun’s going in a sock drawer. Or worse yet, it’ll be carried, but never shot.

    NOT good.

  4. I agree with Greg B.
    Many of the people I’ve instructed have NO INTEREST in firearms at all. They don’t care about accuracy, they will NEVER clean them, they don’t shoot them even occasionally, no matter how much you goad them, and they will certainly never “train” with them enough to become proficient to a level that most shooters would be satisfied.

    I don’t think that’s any reason to deny them the right to defend themselves.

    The last woman I instructed was a 62 year old RN. She doesn’t like guns, and only wants one because she feels there is a need for one when she goes home at the end of her shift (which is in the pre-dawn hours). She chose a revolver. I tried to steer her towards a semi auto that her daughter GAVE her, because she already had it. She still wanted to get a revolver instead, and was noticeably less comfortable with the semi auto during instruction.

    She’s never going to shoot for accuracy. She’s never going to cast bullets or reload. She is not someone who wants to stop a bank robber. She has no fantasies about killing a terrorist. She does not want to fight tyrannical government forces in the streets of our home town. She doesn’t want to be a hero. She is a normal person who is not interested in guns at all, and never will be. If she wasn’t related to a friend of mine, she would probably never asked anyone about firearms at all.

  5. Just a note here, perhaps the issue here is I didn’t make myself clear. Most people looking to get their PTC are not “N00bs” In the traditional sense. I would never hand a brand new shooter a 38 snub-nose. I’d give them a .22.

    When I say newer shooter, I mean someone who knows their way around a handgun, but not posses the muscle memory ingrained from months/years of practice/competition. These people have a grasp of the basics, or they wouldn’t be in a PTC course. They would be in an intro course.

  6. I oft wonder as a corallary to my confirmation bias hypothesis that if women were never exposed to the assumption that they should carry a revolver if they’d still do that.

    Think about a movie where a “rought and tumble guns and dirt” main character has provided a firearm to the “lil’ lady” for whatever reason. It’s always a snub nosed revolver. Always! I can think of multiple examples in the mass media that reinforce the entirely bullcrap idea that a snubbie is a “girl’s gun” or is somehow an ideal solution for the ladies.

  7. I know I’m being a comment whore but, if carrying a snub nose is for girls you can call me Gregetta I guess. Gender shouldn’t play a role in firearm choice. Period.

  8. “Gender shouldn’t play a role in firearm choice. Period.”

    It does, however, play a role in plenty of things that should affect firearm choice, like hand size, strength, clothing styles (affecting holster selection), etc.

  9. “Gender shouldn’t play a role in firearm choice. Period.”

    It does, however, play a role in plenty of things that should affect firearm choice, like hand size, strength, clothing styles (affecting holster selection), etc.

    Both statements are true. When advising someone on a carry gun, you should ignore gender. What you should look at are things like hand size, strength, clothing styles (affecting holster selection), etc. The tiny little 90 lb 4′ 11″ woman who can barely lift her purse without effort probably should not be trying to carry a full-size steel frame 1911, while the 6′ 8″ Amazon warrior who routinely bench presses an SUV could probably get away with a Zeliska .600 Nitro Express.

    Note that gender plays no significant role in that statement. That’s how it should be.

  10. One of the things I liked about the instructor for the NRA Basic Pistol course my wife and I took was that he brought a BUNCH of pistols (though no revolvers). IIRC it was a Mk.III, a Browning 9mm, a Glock 17L, and a Kimber .45. No revolvers, though. Since it was a rental range I took the opportunity to try a couple of .40 (a Sig and a Glock 22, didn’t care for either).

    Armed Canadian, when he does his intro sessions, brings a bunch of different toys as well. When I get the chance to pass that forward, I intend to do the same.

  11. I wonder if, in addition to stereotyping, it’s also because it’s easier to tell what’s going on with the gun.

    For autoloaders, in the movies they’re always being racked and cocked and re-racked and re-cocked until someone unfamiliar with guns has no idea what’s going on any more. In real life, not only are there a bazillion mechanisms used, but when you rack the slide you only have a vague idea of how the bullet got into firing position.

    With revolvers, not only has everyone seen enough Westerns to know that you get six shots, that the hammer goes back and slams down, and that the cylinder rotates for each shot, but when they handle the gun they can actually see all this happen and so they’re better able to grok it.

    It appears that the dividing line between “that makes sense” and “whoa, whoa…I want something simple” lies between revolvers and autoloaders, at least for those not otherwise interested in guns. Education may help with this some, but it may also just be something more ingrained.

  12. My wonderful mrs’s has shot various types of guns, but for her, she wanted a revolver, for the same reasons Mr. Wolfwood (Do you carry a cross gun?) said at the end of his comment: for her she needs to really understand everything going on with that gun. And with her revolver she does see everything going on, understands it, and most importantly, feels comfortable knowing whats going to happen when it goes off.

  13. Funny a high % of my female students perfer mid-size 9mm autos. Once they see autos are not all that complicated, and they can “rack em”. The last 2 advance classs the ladies were carrying M&P compacts, in the ccw we usually let them try both, and they usually lean towards the auto after shooting both, as they find the 9mm has less recoil than 38.

  14. Chad

    Well, almost. I have custom grips on my 1911 with a Chi-Rho, but sadly enough the Cross Punisher was out of my price range.

  15. When my wife wanted to get a sidearm of her own, I suggested a revolver — simply from the simplicity of operation point of view. But I tried her out on MY revolver (a K-frame 3″) and a variety of semiautos (both mine and friends).

    She liked the Commander. She liked the High Power. She liked the Sig 228. She didn’t have much feeling one way or the other on the Glocks (both the 19 and the 23). She didn’t like the Beretta 92. She liked the K-frame with Cor-Bon .357 Magnum loads. She even liked the Peacemaker in .45 Colt (NOT cowboy target rounds).

    (Note — the K-frame is my bedroom gun, even though I prefer to carry a Commander. When awakened by a strange noise at 3 AM, I would prefer the “Point and BANG” interface of the revolver with it’s DA trigger and no safety switch over the Cocked and Locked 1911 format.)

    So she bought a J-frame clone (Rossi) from a friend. NOTE — _I_ didn’t buy her a J-frame, that was her purchase, before we were even married.

    Now, she didn’t carry or shoot the Rossi for a while after getting it — but she would shoot my guns when we went out. I didn’t see any point in pestering her to dig out teh Rossi and shoot it, and frankly, when I borrowed it and fired it, I didn’t notice any issues — it shot just like every other J-frame I’ve played with.

    Fast forward a fair bit, and she has been reading Tam, Breda, and the Cornered Cat, and decided to go ahead and get her CCW. Of course, when it came in, she wanted to try out several holsters, and shoot the Rossi.

    The first time she fired it, she hated it. The trigger guard beat up her finger in recoil, and she didn’t feel like she could hang on real well. (This from a woman that LIKES Big Boomers, recoil and all.)

    So she sold it that same day.

    We went gun shopping. She still liked the 3″ K-frame, but I recommended she pick up EVERYTHING and see what felt good in her hands. I recommended something with a DAO trigger, but pointed out she was going to have to trust the gun, so she should handle and try the trigger on everything that she wanted to.

    She never even made it down to the revolver selection and stuck to the semiautos: Sig, Kahr, Kel-Tec, Ruger, various subspecies of Tauri, etc.

    When she hit the Springfield XD9 Tactical, she stopped, she grinned, and she looked comfortable. THIS was the gun that fit her hand, and the trigger felt good. So I convinced her to go ahead and buy it.

    She loves it, shoots it well, and is getting used to carrying it. (She has recently learned that she needs two spare mags. More as a counterbalance, than any perceived need for that much spare ammo.)

    Of course, now I’M thinking of getting an XD for myself. . . probably in .40 S&W (because I can get 9mm conversion barrels). Because her gun also feels that good in MY hands. {grin}

  16. The first firearm my wife shot was my Ruger Security-Six shortly after I’d purchased it. It was her first time shooting and, I’m embarrassed to say, she outshot me something terrible with it. Fast forward fifteen years or so, I bought a J-frame from a deputy’s yard sale. My wife tried it, said, “Thanks dear” and stuck it in her purse. I can’t hit squat with that snubbie but both my wife and my now-nineteen year-old daughter can hit cantaloupe-sized targets at fifteen yards all day long with it. Neither lady cares for any of my semi-autos although my daughter has a Keltec P11 with which she is scary good. Both like the smaller grips of the snubbie best.

  17. Caleb,

    I have to say. . . the XD Tactical hits just about “perfect” on my scale if I had to do a mass-order for a large group of shooters, many of whom would be novices. Whether police, private security, or a hypothetical “issue” to armed citizens — the XD scores high across the board for full size or mid size use.

    The full size XD in .45ACP hits just about perfect on my list of “service sidearms I wish DoD would adopt”, especially if you look at the version with the thumb safety. (The military is not going to order a handgun without a safety any time soon for general issue. No matter what arguments people may have for a DAO/no manual safety configuration. Period.)

    Sometimes a design just comes all together. There’s nothing on the XD I have seen that is bad — it’s the closest I have seen to “If John Moses Browning (PBUH) had designed the Glock.”

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