Handguns, like people, come in all shapes and sizes. Knowing the different sizes comes down to a few simple characteristics that are readily identifiable if you know what to look for.
Handgun sizes are based on barrel lengths and whether you can grip the gun in your hand entirely without needing the magazine to be inserted. Handguns’ sizes are full-size, compact, sub-compact, and pocket-size, and their size will affect their caliber and how they are carried.
Understanding the sizes and pros and cons of each can make choosing which gun would be best suited to your needs, especially for self-defense, a lot easier, so when you choose a gun, you already have your size ducks in a row!
What Are The Different Sizes Of Handguns?
In the firearms industry, there are no set rules and regulations that determine the size of a handgun, but there are two distinct characteristics that define the handgun size. Those two characteristics are the barrel length and grip size.
Based on these two characteristics, it is possible to identify the size of handguns simply by looking at the barrel length and the grip size; now, let’s take a look at the four different categories, starting with the pocket pistol.
You also might be interested in our article on the difference between a pistol and a handgun.
The Pocket Pistol
These types of weapons have been around for a very long time as in the old West, and early 1900s, compact pocket pistols like the Baby Browning and the Derringer were popular as you could carry them in your pocket and were not easily visible.
With pocket pistols, the barrel length is 3 inches or less, and the grip does not fit into the hand whether the magazine is inserted or not. These little pistols can fit into the palm of your hand and are easily concealable.
Typically, these pocket-size firearms come in smaller calibers like .25, .32, and even.380 Auto as larger calibers would add weight, and they would be challenging to control – can you imagine a Baby Browing in 9mm? It would fly out of your hands and probably fall apart under the recoil.
As a primary self-defense weapon, these types of pistols would not be ideal. They are usually low capacity, and the small caliber lacks stopping power and penetration, which are two critical aspects of an effective self-defense option.
As a backup weapon, again, the same criteria would apply, but up close to your target, a .25 shot in a vital area could well be effective in causing incapacitation.
Handguns like the Remington RM 380 have a barrel length of just 2,” and the Ruger LCP II has just 2,75″. Both are chambered for the powerful .380 ACP round, giving plenty of power without sacrificing control and concealability.
The Sub-Compact Pistol
Next in the handgun size range is the sub-compact handgun. The sub-compact pistol has a barrel length between 3″ and 3,5″ and is smaller framed than the compact and full-size handguns.
In many cases, the gun doesn’t fit into your hands completely without the magazine, and the sub-compact handguns often have a magazine that extends the length of the grip so it fits into your hand as a compact handgun would.
Sub-compact handguns are easy to conceal even with the extended magazine. Many manufacturers have been able to add a grip extension to the magazine, which adds extra length and girth to the sub-compact pistol, making it easier to handle and control.
This is also why sub-compact handguns can be chambered for larger calibers, and this makes these almost pocket-size handguns an excellent option for concealed carry or as a very effective backup.
Suppose the caliber is large enough and it has a good capacity. In that case, you can even consider this category of a handgun as your primary self-defense weapon as it is easy to conceal and handle with the additional grip length.
Examples of modern sub-compact pistols would be the Colt Mustang in .380 Auto, the Glock G42 in .380 ACP, and the Kimber Micro 9 in 9mm.
The Compact Pistol
Slightly smaller than a full-size pistol, these handguns typically have a barrel length of 3,5″ – 4,5,” and the grip length would be that little bit smaller than the full-size grip, fitting inside the fist when gripping the gun.
Again, the magazine will often extend the grip so that with the magazine inserted, the shooter can wrap their hand around the gun, and it feels more like a full-size pistol. These are ideal for concealed carry as smaller framed pistols can be holstered using different options.
Because they are lighter and smaller than full-size pistols, compact pistols make excellent self-defense options as they can be chambered for larger calibers with sufficient stopping power.
Ladies and people of smaller stature prefer compact and sub-compact pistols. They can be adequately controlled in a combat situation and carried without being bulky or heavy compared to a full-size handgun.
With improvements in ammo design, especially for self-defense rounds, a compact handgun can deliver enough stopping power and penetration to incapacitate an attacker or even deliver kill shots at reasonable ranges and have a good capacity as well, with spare mags not adding any real level of discomfort.
A compact pistol would include the likes of the Walther PDP, Glock 19, and HK VP9.
The Full-Size Pistol
This is the big daddy of handguns and will have a barrel length of 4,5″ and longer, and in the world of firearms, these are by far the largest group of handguns available. Full-size pistols can come in calibers from .22 to .50 AE and have capacities from 7 rounds like the 1911 to 17 rounds or more like the Glocks.
Check out our article on how many rounds handguns hold.
These guns will completely fit into the enclosed fist and are usually the primary choice for law enforcement, military sidearms as well as self-defense. For example, the US Military switched to the higher capacity 9mm Beretta 92 in 1985 after having the 1911 .45 ACP in service for more than 75 years.
Full-size handguns need to be holstered to be carried effectively and safely as you don’t want your fully-loaded Glock falling out of your jacket pocket as you bend over to tie your shoelaces!
Examples of full-size handguns include the Colt 1911 Government Frame in .45 ACP, Browning Hi-Power in 9mm, the Sig-Sauer P226, and Glock 17, to name but a few.
Like pistols, revolvers also come in different sizes, and similar criteria would apply in terms of grip size, barrel length, and caliber to a degree.
For example, the Colt Single Action Army and Smith and Wesson M29 would be full-size revolvers, while the .38 snub nose would be categorized as a compact or even sub-compact handgun.
Now that you are able to identify and classify handgun sizes, you can evaluate your carry and self-defense requirements to see which size would be the better option for you or your family members.
Be realistic about weight and bulk when choosing your gun, and make sure to carry, conceal and draw your gun comfortably and quickly. Remember that having a gun and not needing its always better than needing a gun and not having it, even if it is only a pocket pistol!