10 Best Concealed Carry Handguns of the Past 20 Years

Bob shooting a Remington R1

When I was challenged to come up with the best, concealed carry handguns of the past 20 years, I set down with a pencil and tablet and began making a list. This seems like an easy task, but there are many good handguns.

Glock 19 pistol on a Ziplock bag filled with ammunition
The Glock 19 is an efficient size and offers excellent reliability.

The bad ones were easy enough to keep off the list. I could not choose a handgun I had not personally fired—extensively—and had much experience with. I have tested most of the handguns introduced during the past three decades, and in some cases, I have seen these pistols go through my training classes.

I have seen many poor choices. I have learned to gauge a student’s progress in an inverse ratio to training and quality of training. Just the same, a quality handgun is also important. A poor choice holds a student back. Excess recoil, sharp edges, a heavy trigger action and poorly designed sights all keep a student from being all they can be. We have seen poor pistols come and go and second rate choices that have faded away.

Recently, I saw a roundup of concealed carry handguns on a popular internet site. It was obvious the author had never fired the pistols included, and most of them were included on a basis of size. I would never consider 9 out of 10 of the pistols listed. Complete reliability is one baseline. Another is wound potential.

The .38 Special and 9mm Luger are realistic minimums for personal defense. Those giving a pass on smaller calibers have no experience in personal defense. By the same token, those handguns that are uncontrollable in rapid fire—to my standard—are not useful for personal defense. The subcompact .40 caliber pistol and lightweight .357 Magnum revolver are among these. A balance of control and power is needed. After much reflection, what follows is my choice for the best, concealed carry handguns for the past 20 years.

CZ Rami

The CZ 75 pistol is a durable and accurate service pistol. The CZ 2075 Rami is a considerable redesign. The Rami features the trademark CZ slide design. The slide rides low in the frame by the use of reversed slide rails, with the slide running inside the frame rather than upon it. The result is a low bore axis and greater contact with the long bearing surfaces.

Bob Campbell shooting the CZ Rami handgun
The CZ Rami is an excellent all-around 9mm handgun.

The pistol recoils straight to the rear with less muzzle flip, accuracy is enhanced as well. The Rami is a double-action first-shot handgun. The pistol is offered in two versions, one with the traditional CZ 75 safety that allows cocked and locked carry and the other with a decocker. The pistol is supplied with a flush-fit 10-round magazine and also an extended 14-round magazine.

The Rami exhibits European quality and its best. The sights were good examples of combat sights and the pistol has proven reliable with a variety of defense loads. Attention to detail was evident in the Rami pistol. The double-action first-shot trigger was smooth, and the single-action press was clean and crisp. While the pistol handled best with the extended magazine, it was controllable with the flush-fit magazine as well.

There are tradeoffs in such a compact handgun, but these are minimized by the CZ design. The slide is a little difficult to rack as it rides low in the frame. The short sight radius means attention to detail is needed to secure good accuracy. This is a tradeoff that Rami shooters adjust to. My personal example will fire a two-inch five-shot group at 15 yards with the SIG Sauer 124-grain V Crown JHP. The Rami is a first class, concealed carry handgun.

Overall Length 7.2 in.
Overall Height 5.03 in.
Weight Unloaded 28 oz.
Barrel Length 3.75 in.

CZ 75D

The CZ 75D is perhaps the least known of CZ Variants. It is a highly desirable pistol that has proven accurate and reliable. When the Czech police were searching for a compact alternative to the standard CZ 75 the P01 was introduced. This is an aluminum frame handgun with a shortened butt, slide, and barrel and a monolithic dust cover that mounts a combat light.

CZ 75 handgun with wood grips right profile
A CZ 75 with decocker – The CZ75D is a first class handgun with a proven record for performance.

The P01 has been widely accepted. The pistol features a frame-mounted decocker rather than the CZ 75 manual safety. The CZ 75D is a handgun similar in size and weight to the P01 but without a light rail. Let’s face it, many concealed carry permit holders carry a pistol with a rail but do not carry a combat light. The CZ75D also features a unique loaded-chamber indicator.

The CZ75D compact 9mm also features good combat sights and a smooth trigger action. The P01 is often regarded as more accurate than the parent pistol, the CZ75, and this is a fair appraisal of the CZ75D in my experience. The CZ75D also has the advantage of a unique set of personal defense sights that offer snag free carry.

My CZ75D will group five-shots of the Winchester 124-grain PDX +P load into 1.25 inches at 15 yards. For those favoring the double-action first-shot pistol, it doesn’t get any better than the CZ75D, yet the pistol has no extraneous features. It is a straightforward design with much to recommend. My example has been fitted with Hogue grips.

Overall Length 7.2 in.
Overall Height 5.03 in.
Weight Unloaded 28 oz.
Barrel Length 3. 75 in.

Colt Series 70

Some may dismiss the Government Model 1911 as too large for concealed carry. Yet, many shooters, including myself, often carry the steel frame 1911. I have done so for more than 35 years.

Colt Series 70 1911 .45 ACP pistol
The Colt Series 70 is a capable handgun

The Colt Series 70 does not have adjustable sights or a target trigger, nor does it have an ambidextrous safety. The Colt doesn’t have any of the target gun features that have crept into personal defense handguns over the past decade.

The pistol is flat and concealable and faster to an accurate first-shot hit than any other big bore self-loading pistol. The Colt Series 70 is beautifully finished and fit is excellent. I have used the original Series 70 and find the modern pistol a better handgun. Even compared to 1950s and 1960s guns, a high point of Colt production, the Series 70 is a superior handgun.

Feed reliability and combat accuracy are excellent. There is no Series 80 firing pin safety, but the Series 70 relies upon a heavy-duty firing pin spring for safety. The trigger breaks at 4.5 pounds. The Colt has been fitted with a set of stag grips from The stag grips do not snag on garments yet offer good purchase when firing heavy loads.

The sights are good examples of combat sights. With the Federal 230-grain Hydra-Shok load, this pistol will fire a 1.0-inch 15-yard group. This handgun combines excellent combat ability with considerable pride of ownership.

Overall Length 8.5 in.
Overall Height 5.4 in.
Weight Unloaded 38 oz.
Barrel Length 5.0 in.

Glock 19

I have fired many Glock 19 pistols since their introduction, and all are remarkably consistent in accuracy and reliability. The Glock is a baseline for combat pistols. A cheaper handgun may not be reliable, and if you spend more than you pay for a Glock you need to be certain you are gaining good features.

Glock 19 pistol on a Ziplock bag filled with ammunition
The Glock 19 is an efficient size and offers excellent reliability.

Only a handgun that offers an advantage should be chosen. I do not agree with Glock perfection, save when it comes to reliability—and reliability is, after all, most important. You can work with a hard trigger, or less than ideal sights, but not a handgun that isn’t as reliable as a machine can possible be.

The Glock 19 compact is slightly shorter than the Glock 17 9mm and features a shortened butt. The result is one of the best balanced and most useful handguns on the planet. In most regards the Glock 19 makes an excellent holster or service pistol.

It is a great all-around, 24-hour pistol for working cops or concealed carry permit holders. There is a significant difference in recoil between the 9mm and the .40, and the Glock 19 9mm handgun is controllable and accurate. For the average shooter with overwhelming demands such as a job, family, and other pursuits, the 9mm is a reasonable choice and the Glock 19 an excellent choice.

How accurate is the pistol? First learn to control the trigger, but as an example my personal Glock 19, fitted with TruGlo night sights, will group five rounds of Gorilla Ammunition’s 115-grain JHP into 2.0 inches at 15 yards. It is remarkably consistent from one load to the other. The Glock 19 is the choice of many well-trained individuals. It is an affordable and uncommonly reliable handgun.

Overall Length 7.25 in.
Overall Height 4.99 in.
Weight Unloaded 24 oz.
Barrel Length 4.0 in.

Glock 43

The Glock 43 is a single-column magazine 9mm sub compact pistol. I find it a better choice for deep carry than the Glock 26 and similar handguns. The pistol has excellent features and performance. A good example of special variants is the Halo edition with a bright orange front dot and special rear sight.

Glock 43 9mm handgun right profile
The Glock 43 was a game changer in compact handguns.

The Glock is a good combat pistol but superior sights add to the handguns’ hit probability. The Glock 43 was a long awaited addition to the Glock line and swayed many first time shooters to the Glock line. The pistol isn’t as controllable or easy to fire as the Glock 19; it cannot be in its size and weight class. The real advantage of the Glock 43 in my opinion is that the pistol is slightly larger than the typical .380 class handgun yet much more powerful and reliable.

The Glock 43 features Glock reliability and chambers a reasonably powerful cartridge. With the Hornady Critical Defense 115-grain FTX load, this pistol breaks a two-inch group at 15 yards from a solid benchrest. Offhand performance depends upon the will of the shooter to practice.

Overall Length 6.2 in.
Overall Height 4.25 in.
Weight Unloaded 18 oz.
Barrel Length 3.4 in.

Glock 36

The Glock 36 was a sensation when introduced and remains so today. Glock designed a reliable compact single stack .45 and gave defensive shooters something lacking in the past—a completely reliable, truly concealable, compact .45 caliber handgun.

Glock 36 .45 ACP handgun right profile
The hard-hitting Glock 36 is the author’s favorite Glock.

The pistol features Glock’s world-class reliability, a controllable trigger action, and a grip frame that doesn’t overly stretch most hand sizes. The pistol features a six-round magazine. The Glock 36 is chambered for the .45 ACP cartridge. This cartridges gives shooters the advantage of wound potential in a cartridge that does not rely upon expansion for effectiveness.

The .45 ACP cartridge operates at low pressure and features a limited muzzle signature. Recoil isn’t harsh but rather a push compared to the sharp recoil of the .40 caliber cartridge. The Glock 36 is an excellent option for those who prefer the Glock handgun and .45 ACP cartridge.

This isn’t the pistol to load with +P loads, however, as it is a lightweight carry pistol. The Hornady 185-grain FTX is ideal. The Glock 36 I have on hand features a Bar Sto barrel and will deliver a 1.5-inch group at 15 yards.

Overall Length 7.1 in.
Overall Height 4.7 in.
Weight Unloaded 20.1 oz.
Barrel Length 3.8 in.

Remington R1 Commander

The 1911 Commander was introduced in 1950. The slide is ¾-inch shorter than the Government Model, and in the original version, the pistol featured a weight-saving aluminum frame. The original Commander, like the Government Model, featured small GI sights and a heavy trigger.

Bob shooting a Remington R1
Remington’s R1 Commander offers real power in a compact package.

Many versions have been produced over the years. Some have full-length guide rods and adjustable triggers—target gun features that have no place on a service grade handgun. A good development was the introduction of the steel-frame Commander. This resulted in one of the best-balanced carry guns every manufactured.

A few years ago, Remington introduced its R1 pistol. This is a well made and finished 1911 offered at a fair price. The R1 Commander, introduced some months later, has received little notice or acclaim. Yet, this handgun is among the best choices in a modern 1911 carry gun.

The sights are superior to the GI-type. The front sight is dovetailed in place, curing a problem with staked in GI sights. The ejection port is lowered for superior function and administrative handling. The R1 Commander features a spur hammer rather than the typical rowel hammer of the Commander, making it easier to lower the hammer.

The trigger action is smooth and crisp and the safety positive in indent. The barrel bushing is tight, but not so tight it cannot be field stripped by hand. The R1 Commander has proven reliable with all loads I have tested and more than passing accurate.

The carry load, the Gorilla Ammunition 230-grain JHP, has demonstrated a 1.2-inch group at 15 yards. I keep the spare Mec Gar magazine loaded with the Gorilla Ammunition FBI spec loads. This no frills 1911 has everything needed in a 1911 and nothing I do not need. It is faster from leather than the full-size 1911 and hits hard.

Overall Length 7.75 in.
Overall Height 5.4 in.
Weight Unloaded 35 oz.
Barrel Length 4.75 in.

Ruger SP101

The Ruger SP101 is a product of the type of design and engineering that have earned Ruger a great deal of respect in the professional field. When five-shot .38 Special revolvers were first introduced, they were built on the .32 frame. Upping the ante to .357 Magnum isn’t the wisest choice.

Ruger SP101 revolver left profile
In many ways, Ruger’s SP101 is head and shoulders above other small revolvers.

The Ruger, first introduced in .38 Special, features a newly designed frame. When you start with a clean slate, wonders happen! This heavy frame not only is well suited to the .357 Magnum cartridge it features a slightly lower bore axis compared to most revolvers. The result is a heavy-duty revolver that is controllable even with Magnum loads for those who practice.

The rear sights are broad, and the front post is easily picked up for personal defense shooting. The trigger action is smooth. I normally load the Ruger with the Hornady 125-grain Critical Defense—a useful Magnum loading that offers excellent wound ballistics. While I am primarily concerned with personal defense against our protein-fed ex-con criminal class, I am also concerned with defense against coyote, feral dogs, and the big cats when I visit the great outdoors.

The Ruger is dirt tough and never gives trouble, and may be pressed into an opponent’s body and fired, time after time, without fail. This makes it a good choice against the usual attack, as well as when you are on the ground as could occur with big dogs and mountain lions. For this duty, I change to the greater penetration of the Hornady 125-grain XTP. The Ruger SP101 is tough, reliable, and more accurate than you would suppose. From a solid benchrest with select loads, this revolver is the most accurate handgun tested for this report with a one-inch 15-yard group for an average of three groups, with some smaller, with the Hornady XTP load—at well over 1,200 fps!

Overall Length 7.2 in.
Overall Height 4.8.
Weight Unloaded 26 oz.
Barrel Length 2.5 in.

Smith and Wesson Shield .45

Smith and Wesson’s Military and Police series represents an important step in polymer-frame handguns. The pistol places ergonomics first, and the pistol fits most hands well. The M and P features good sights and is overall a credible service pistol. I tested one of the first Smith and Wesson Shield 9mm handguns, a subcompact M and P with a single column magazine, and found it good.

Smith and Wesson Shield .45 ACP right profile
The Smith and Wesson Shield .45 offers light weight and power in a useful package.

The pistol is controllable and reliable. I have seen several Shield pistols in training and reliability is good. When Smith and Wesson introduced the .45 caliber Shield, I obtained one of the first. I have fired the pistol extensively. I find it reliable, accurate enough for most uses, and ergonomic. I like the hinged trigger and excellent combat sights.

The pistol is more comfortable to fire than expected due to good grip design. I also like to have a manual safety on my handgun and the Shield provides. If you chose, you may simply ignore the safety. This isn’t the pistol to deploy with +P loads. I like the Hornady 185-grain Critical Defense in this handgun. The Shield is affordable but high quality.

Overall Length 6.45 in.
Overall Height 4.88 in.
Weight Unloaded 20.5 oz.
Barrel Length 3.5 in.

Smith and Wesson 442

The final choice is, in my opinion, the best all-around snubnose .38 Special revolver available. I seldom, if ever, carry the 442 alone, but I deploy it nearly every day as a backup, save when I am carrying two heavier handguns. The Smith and Wesson double-action aluminum-frame .38 has been my backup for over 30 years, in some form or the other.

Smith and Wesson Model 442 revolver left profile
11 The Smith and Wesson 442 is the author’s favored concealed carry handgun. This one has a lot of wear from daily carry.

The 442 is controllable, due in part to the humpback frame design that conceals the hammer. Unlike revolvers with an exposed hammer or the self-loading pistol, the 442 may be fired repeatedly from the pocket, which I practice occasionally.

The 442 is affordable, and the highest quality revolver in this frame size. The 442 is indispensable as a backup and travels with me a great deal. I have considered ammunition carefully. I most often deploy the Hornady Critical Defense 110-grain FTX. At seven yards, firing double action, I am able to group five shots into three inches—all we can ask from a snubnose revolver.

From a solid braced position, I am able to make center hits to a long 25 yards. However, this is a stunt with this type of revolver and takes time and concentration. The 442 offers a lot of protection, ounce for ounce.

Overall Length 6 5/16 in.
Overall Height 4.6 in.
Weight Unloaded 16 oz.
Barrel Length 2.0 in.

The author has given his list and reasons. Which choices do you agree or disagree with and why? Which guns would make you top list? Share your answers in the comment section.

The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog. "The Shooter's Log", is to provide information - not opinions - to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decicions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (72)

  1. Is it not supposed to be best concealed carry?
    How are you supposed to carry a full frame gun of any type year round unless you wear a outer garment of some type. I’m no fan of Glocks, they don’t fit well in most people’s hands. They tend to point downward when you first draw them and you got to tilt them up to align with the target.
    Besides, how you going to hide it, wear a coat on a 95 degree day so you can have your 9mm.
    My opinion of a 9mm, is that you got to put enough rounds in your target to weight it down with lead to disable it.
    Check the reload data, it’s nothing but a Simi auto 38 special.
    If you ate going to pack a full frame at least pack enough gun that one shot will do the job.
    45 ACP, 10mm, 357 sig or a 38 super.
    If I can’t carry a manly gun do to dress restriction (just to hot out side to wear a suit), I strap on my Kimber micro 9mm and hope I can make it to my pickup truck to retrieve my bug out bag with my big boy gun and plenty of ammo, plus all the nessasary supplies to take war to whom ever forced me to draw my gun in the first place.
    As I said in a previous post the best gun is the one you got with you, but when the subject is concealment, a small frame, accurate 9mm is going to be your best choice in what’s available in today’s market place no matter what brand you go with.

    1. I carry a new Sig P320 compact 45acp with nite sights. It is easy to conceal, small frame with not much recoil and very accurate. It is unbelievable, being a small framed .45. Very smooth.

    2. Keith,
      I like SIG’s, other than my son was in a gun fight and it jammed. Being a Diplomatic Security Agent, he was issued the Sig, now they are changing to the Glocks. More likely Glock beat everyone else out with the best deal for the government than anything about how the gun performed in the field.
      Anything you carry should perform perfect with your chosen ammo. The time to find out you have a problem is not when your and/or others lives are at risk.
      With so many shooting in the news, we as gun owners should do our best to avoid scaring the general public to death over needlessly showing that we are carrying a loaded gun in and around them.
      Whatever you decide to carry, you should make sure it’s totally concealed, for you loose a tactical advantage if an adversary knows your armed. The adversary will move to counter your moves, block your gun draw or just shoot you first.
      Carrying a gun is a big responsibility. But it’s nothing but a tool. Your better served to learn how to avoid needing a gun and how best to react to a potential thteat so your insured the best chance to survive any type of attack.
      In my teaching I show that I can close a distance of 25 feet before most people can draw their concealed weapon. A gun is just a tool, your mind is your best weapon. So keep all the tactical advantage you can while not scaring everyone around you….

    3. Wow. Hope your son is Ok…I just got my first ever Sig (P365). In just several hundred rounds, flawless. But not for everyone as we all know. Nite Sites are standard and don’t work. Dealing with Sig has NOT been a good experience either. Ruger, excellent customer service, unfortunate that I had to use them. Same with S&W (unfortunate) but they took forever.

      My glock? Never had to deal with customer service…why? NEVER failed. Price is important, but as your son found out…click, then bang is most important when it counts. Not sure if I’ll drop my G43 for my EDC for new P365.

    4. I don’t plan on scaring anyone. The only way anyone would know if I am carrying is only if I absolutely needed to draw it, which I hope never happens. But when the time does come, I hope with my military training and other training I receive, that I will be aware of my surroundings and act accordingly.

  2. M&P 9C. Fantastically reliable, joy to shoot, much less expensive than the Glock 19, and it has a safety. American made, too.

    1. If you knew him, you would know that he is a solid 1911 guy. Taking his bias out though, he could not deny the Glock’s place. ~Dave Dolbee

    2. Why not…they make excellent pistols! I own TWO…G27 awful to shoot. G43 amazing to shoot!
      But both have never had a single misfire. G43 with many thousands of rounds! (cleaned every third outing)
      G27 never cleaned!

      I own Ruger x 2

      So I’m not a ‘Glock Boy’. Just a fan of all things that are sweeeeet

  3. I noticed that there are two CZ brand guns on the list, and Glocks. What I would question about your list is were some of these firearms even available 20 years ago. I also noticed an absence of any older-school S&W’s like the 36, 60, Walthers, Taurus’, Colt revolvers etc. Sorry, but I also don’t believe many people outside of LE officers would carry a 1911 concealed for protection. And then there is the Remington R-1. I own one and it is IMHO the worst 1911-type handgun I have ever fired. I am curious who “donated to the cause” to have their firearms listed in this article.

    1. Your comment concerning donations is not well taken.
      As for CZs, the original came out in 1975 and the Glock in the 1980s, pretty certain they were there! Also- I carried the R1 for some time before upgrading to a Les Baer. The SW 442 is leagues ahead of the Model 36, which was introduced in 1948 so it doesn’t fit my criteria.

  4. I like the Sig P229 RX for my EDC. A little larger than a lot of EDCÔÇÖs but if you do it right, you can conceal it pretty well. At least I do.

    1. Hi Scott! 🙂 Yes, my Sig 229 Elite is one of my favorite pistols.! I have 4 Sig pistols. A P229 (.357 Sig and .40 S&W barrels), P226 (9mm), and (2) P320’s (.357 Sig & ,40 S&W). Unfortunately my Sigs are a little on the heavy side and fairly wide. However they are my favorites next to my EDC Kimber .45 Pro Carry II. So I usually have to wait until cooler weather before I can carry the Sigs, so I can cover them sufficiently.

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