Living with sub-compact guns

I’ve been running the Ruger SR9c in competition and as my carry gun for almost two months now, and I’ve fired just short of 2000 rounds through the gun.  In that time, I’ve had the opportunity to encounter a lot of the myths about sub-compact guns that you’ll run in to, as well as some of the performance shortcomings that can be ameliorated with training and practice.

One of the big myths is that a sub-compact is less accurate than a fullsize gun.  That’s just plain old nonsense.  Sub compact guns are often just as mechanically accurate as their full-sized counterparts, what makes them “less” accurate is that a shorter sight radius and increased recoil often make them more difficult for shooters to master.  Of course, the “increased” recoil is another semi-myth.  I’ve shot the full-size SR9, and I’ve shot the compact SR9c.  The SR9c uses a different recoil spring system than the fullsize gun – a dual captive spring system goes a long way towards soaking up felt recoil.  I have probably said this 100 times, but the SR9c is the softest shooting sub-compact gun I’ve ever played with.  I’ve heard similar reports about the Gen4 Glock 19s, which also use Glock’s new dual spring set up.  There’s no reason in this modern day and age for a sub-compact 9mm to dish out punishing recoil to the shooter.

That’s important, because there is one thing that’s true about sub-compact guns – it takes more practice with a smaller gun to build up the same skill level that is built in less rounds with a fullsize gun.  The abbreviated grip and shorter sight radius have a lot to do with this.  A smaller grip can prevent you from grabbing the gun correctly straight out of the holster, which means the sights won’t be lined up quite right, which adds time, etc – I has having this problem the other day on my disastrous classifier run.  However, one area that the subcompact does help make up for that is in how fast it clears the holster.  In the picture above, my SR9c is riding in its Comp-Tac Speed Paddle, and IDPA legal holster.  Because I only have to raise the gun 2 inches to clear the barrel of the holster, it’s wickedly fast on the draw.  I’ve managed to hit a 0.87 draw to a -0 hit in practice with this, and in actual competition my first shots are usually 0.10-0.15 seconds faster with this gun, assuming I grip it correctly and get the sights lined up.

One thing to bear in mind when you’re carrying a compact is the muzzle velocity you’re going to lose out of that shorter barrel.  147 grain CCI Blazer ammo, which is listed at the factory as 950 FPS muzzle velocity only chronographed at 870 FPS from this gun.  With an gun where the barrel length is less than 4 inches, you’ll need to weight that loss in velocity into account when you’re selecting carry ammo.

Ultimately though, if there’s anything that lots of drills have taught me the last couple of months is that you can shoot a sub-compact just as well as you can shoot a fullsize gun – it just takes more practice.  I’d encourage you to shoot IDPA or USPSA matches with your carry guns, whether it’s a Glock 26 or a S&W M&P Compact.  The benefit of employing your defensive firearm under simulated stress is incredible, and with practice you’ll be just as competitive.  Don’t believe me?  I finished 12th at a major USPSA match shooting the Ruger SR9c against full on race guns and race gear, and with the handicap of scoring minor.  So grab your compact guns and get out to a match!


  1. Why not just carry a larger gun? With an IWB style holster, an extra inch or two of barrel length is no more difficult to carry than a 3″ bbl gun. IWB holsters aren’t any slower to draw from and have a much lower printing profile than an OWB.

    Seems to me that if you are going to be in a gunfight, you want to carry the gun you shoot the best, since those are the most important shots you will fire in your life. The whole “what to carry” problem should be solved for _that_ variable, not the “what gun will inconvenience me the least on a daily basis” variable.

  2. I totally agree – I think that if you can conceal a 4 or 5 inch gun, by all means you should. I do know that because of my small frame, some fullsize guns are difficult to conceal in an IWB holster for me, or they’re uncomfortable to wear for extended periods of time. A smaller gun is usually more comfortable, and while it’s a compromise it certainly beats “no gun”.

  3. So true. I shot the Secret Service match in ’97 with a Glock 27 and did well enough to annoy the serious bullseye guys.

    The flip side, of course, is why pick a sub over larger gun? Most folks can conceal far larger guns than they reliaze. Bu t if the compact works for your particular situation, there is no reason it should hold you back on any practical level.

  4. I’m 5’6″ which puts me on the smaller size. The Comp-Tac “CTAC” holster, with its 5 positions of adjustment on each belt loop. works great for me. The trick is that you have to experiment with holster position and angle to find what works.

    The main issue with larger guns isn’t barrel length, it’s grip length. That’s where short grip models like the G19 and Commander-size 1911s have appeal. I think Springfield really goofed on the XDM 3.8’s by not chopping the grip down and reducing the capacity by 2-3 rounds. Most of the polymer/striker gun lines use full size frames for their “medium” models which forces people concerned with grip length into the compact models.

  5. I think that a lot of people carry the smaller guns because they don’t realize that they can conceal a much larger firearm if they dress carefully around the gun. As much flak as I catch for dressing like a yuppie, from fall to spring I wear a lot of sweater vests, and even being 5’6 myself I can conceal a full size 1911 with no issues under that.

    Personally though, one of the reasons I like smaller guns is because they weigh less. The SR9c with 10 rounds in it weighs a lot less than a Commander sized 1911 in .45 ACP and holds 2-4 more rounds than the 1911. That’s a big deal for me, because getting that extra ammo without the weight penalty seems like getting something for nothing.

  6. Oy..I couldn’t imagine shooting my P250C in competition..the DAO trigger would be murder. D:

  7. On the subject of smaller guns vs larger ones, here’s something I’d love some opinions on. My first and favorite handgun is a S&W 686 Plus, 6 inch. I cannot emphasis how much I love this gun, and obviously it shoots VERY tight groups at any distance, but it’s a literal pain to carry.
    Recently I bought my first semi-auto, the XD9 subcompact, which really couldn’t be more different.
    Now, somehow I shoot the subcompact far better than the full size XD’s, and better than any other semi autos I tried (Glock, Sig, Ruger, and various 1911’s), and almost as well as the 686. Any ideas on why that might be?

  8. Oh, and for reference, I’m a big guy – 6’1″, 230 pounds. Caleb, did you have any similar experiences putting down the wheel gun for the Ruger?

  9. I found out that shooting revolvers in double action mode made shooting basically any other gun on earth a lot easier. If you can manage a DA trigger pull, most striker fired guns are nothing.

  10. I never really considered the SR9c to be a subcompact, but maybe I’m just used to the sub-subcompacts. I find my P239 to be a very reasonable carry gun that I use any time I can wear an untucked shirt or a tucked shirt that will cover an IWB holster. However, I don’t consider it very compact. For work my uniform is a tucked in T-shirt which pretty much demands that I go to a pocket pistol, although I’ve been tempted to get a smartcarry and see if I can carry the P239 in that.

  11. Question- Are you running the 147gr ammo exclusively in the Ruger, or running a mix of 115, 124 & 147? And if you are running it with 147’s only, why? Inquiring minds want to know!

  12. Jeff,

    When I was shooting 9mm all the time (about 10k rounds/year for a few years) I used 147 grain exclusively. It gives you a less “snappy” recoil that is more comfortable. Put alternating 115 and 147 grain cartriges in your magazine then empty it into your target. You can definitely tell the difference and will prefer the 147s.


    The way I read the score sheet for your USPSA match is that you came in 12th in the Limited 10 Division. There were no open guns or even high cap guns in that group. Only 1 GM in the group so it’s hard to say for certain but it looks to me like your classification is going to be something in the neighboorhood of 50 to 55% at best. This is a high class C shooter at best. That doesn’t seem to be particularly good justification for making the claim “you can shoot a sub-compact just as well as you can shoot a fullsize gun”.

  13. Joe is right, 147s are less snappy and are generally preferred in competition.

    As far as the shooting goes, in my defense the “1 GM” in the division is Bob Vogel which kinds of skews things. That being said, the Ruger SR9c was scoring minor – assuming for the moment I shot the exact same hits and times but made Major, that would have bumped me into the top 10.

    The point though is that people have a misconception that competing with a carry gun or a subcompact is somehow a bad idea or that they’ll get slaughtered if they do. Would I run a subcompact side by side against an STI Steelmaster and expect to win? No. But that’s not the point. The point is that instead of worrying if you have the right gear, people should just get out and shoot and not worry about it.

  14. Only DA revolver we have in the house is this ancient .22 my father has. That thing has an impossibly heavy trigger pull.
    Makes the DAO on the P250 (hammer fired btw) seem like a chainsaw through melted butter.

  15. “people should just get out and shoot and not worry about it”

    I fully agree – I carry G26 and try to compete with the same piece of hardware. See no reason to do it otherwise.
    Of course I have to say – my main personal goals for each competition is to learn, improve myself and enjoy the shooting. Potential victory (not happened yet:) will be just a sweat cream on the cake, not the main target. Some people understand this, some don’t. It’s simply my way.

  16. I do not understand why the loss of 80FPS would be a concern. Would one of you please explain that a little more?

  17. Most (all?) of the action shooting competitions require a minimum “Power Factor” (PF). This is defined at Bullet Mass (in grains) x Velocity (in fps)/1000. In USPSA competition your scoring depends on what PF you are shooting. ‘A’ hits always count as 5 points but “B”, “C”, and “D” hits count less for minor than it does for major. Major is defined as a PF of 165 or greater and Minor is greater than or equal to 125 but less than 165.

    So if you have loads that just barely make the minimum level with a normal length barrel you are probably going to drop below the threshold when you shoot the same loads in a shorter barrel. This would change your scoring or disqualify you from the match.

  18. The other reason, and the one I was actually thinking about when I wrote this was with defensive ammo such as sub-sonic hollowpoints like the Winchester 147gr JHP Ranger I favor may lose such velocity that they fail to expand properly.

    But power factor is absolutely correct, at the aforementioned match, I managed just barely made the 125 power factor required for minor.

  19. Carrying a bigger gun is certainly an option, but my tastes for carry lean toward “compact.” As in efficient use of space.

    The P239 is a big gun for the number of rounds it carries and is a good example. The P232 is another one. (Not to pick on SIG but I have experience with these particular models.) There are many options that will get you the same load out in much easier to wear packages. This gets worse as you climb the scale to “full sized guns” since the designer doesn’t need to round every corner and get the slimmest grip profile possible. They’re probably optimizing the other direction…

    Where on the scale of size vs rounds is different for everybody of course, just like Caleb’s last post on barrel length vs grip length for carry made clear. For me, bigger guns brings more “big” and not enough more “gun” to the table. So far.

  20. That is the balance in CCW; carrying what you can be comfortable with. In a perfect world we’d all be able to open carry fullsize 9mms or 1911s or have a slung carbine; but until that happens we’ll always be faced with a compromise choice on what and how to carry.

  21. I’m still not really keen on the entire sub-compact idea myself since the grip length requires either a modified grip or some kind of “booster seat” for the magazine just to get a decent hold. I’ve tried the G26 and after one magazine in that thing I went back to my G19. *shudder*

    Really, IMHO, the Glock 19 is the perfect balance of grip length versus barrel length that I’ve yet to use which is why I still own one. The only real thing I’d change would be slimming the grip to a single-stack like the SR9c which would make things perfect.

    Now if only S&W and/or Ruger would put out a nice 9mm/45acp/40S&W single-stack with the grip length of a G19 with a 3.8 or 4-inch barrel I’d trade up in a heartbeat. ^_^

  22. Ladyfox, take a look at the HK P30. The grip ergonomics are amazing, You don’t realize you’re holding a doublestack gun.

  23. Caleb,

    It may be awhile before I can get a chance to try since I just checked and the H&K P30 is not on the Kalifornia Certified Roster of Handguns. Goddess, I really hate the bureaucracy in this cursed state and if my hubby and I already did not have a plan to leave (albeit one that’s going to take a few years that will kick in once he graduates college) I think I’d go insane. -_-

  24. Ladyfox, the SR series is a double stack. Though it’s an amazingly slim one.

    It sounds like you’re describing a Kahr – single stack 9mms. They’ve done the work to sell in CA haven’t they? A PM9 is my daily carry. I don’t have a lot of experience with their larger offerings, but if they’ve kept the girth the same and added barrel and grip length alone, you might have a winner.

  25. Karl,

    COmmanders don;t have smaller grips. Their barrel and slide are 3/4″ shorter, andteh frame hasbeen slightly reorked to accomodate that (slightly different lengths in teh rails and recoil spring recess), but the grip length is the same as a standard Government Model.

    I’m 5’7″ (AND A HALF!), and while I can and have concealed fullsize 5″ Governments and 4″ revolvers, I find that I can COMFORTABLY conceal a 4.25″ Commander or 3″ K-frame a heck of a lot easier — for one, the back of the gun doesn’t jab me in the ribs every time I sit down, especially when I IWB (which is my preferred method, although I do like a horizontal shoulder rig for a travel gun or cold weather).

    Carrying a full size service pistol is certainly do-able for me — I’ve done it. It just wasn’t comfortable or nearly as concealable for me.

    That’s why I stopped carrying full size Governments and 4″ revolvers, and started carrying Commanders and 3″ K-frames about 15 years ago.

    I’m thinking of getting something SR9c sized for a “summer” or “suit” gun, because it’s even more concealable than the Commander, and also getting one of the new .380 BUGs for carry when I cannot risk printing, and even an SR9c is simply too high a risk of that.

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