I spent Super Bowl Sunday this year learning that I should always be nice and polite and have a plan to kill everyone I see.
On May 13, I was awarded my concealed carry permit and decided to carry a handgun as often as I was legally allowed, where I was legally allowed, for as long as I felt like doing it. I was interested in finding out what it felt like to carry a gun, what was the best way to carry, and if the various legal hurdles would make it so impractical that I’d simply give up.
I was also curious about how carrying a gun might change the way I looked at the world. Did the mere act of carrying a gun mean I was paranoid? Would carrying a gun make me paranoid?
I was about to find out the answers to all these questions, but first I needed equipment in the form of guns, holsters, and ammunition. I contacted Smith & Wesson and told them of my plans, and they generously arranged to ship me a pair of handguns for a lengthy testing and evaluation period.
One was a M&P9C, a compact 13-round (12 in the magazine, one round in the chamber) 9mm semi-automatic pistol designed to be a backup weapon for police officers, or a primary weapon for concealed carry. Compact, black, and all business, it certainly looked capable of playing the role I intended for it.
The other handgun they sent was a new twist on an old classic. For years in television and in the movies, police detectives always carried snub-nosed .38 revolvers. The five-shot, aluminum-framed 637 revolver they sent me came with the bonus of a Crimson Trace (CT) laser mounted in the gun’s grip. When you grabbed the revolver with a firm grip, the laser projected a menacing red dot where the bullet would impact, in both daylight and the pitch black of a moonless night. The 637 included a keyed internal lock on the left side of the frame that blocked the cylinder from opening and the hammer from being cocked.
DeSantis stepped up and provided me with three different kinds of holsters to use. The neoprene Nemesis pocket holster was designed to work for those who carry in coat or deep pants pockets. The Cozy Partner is a classic, well-finished, inside-the-waistband holster that provides an excellent compromise between accessibility, security, and concealability. Both of these holsters were made for the 637CT revolver. For the M&P9C semi-auto, I went with a high-tech holster made of Kydex, the DS Paddle, and a single magazine pouch made of the same material for the spare 12-round magazine.
As for cartridges for these guns, ATK and Winchester took extremely good care of me, providing hundreds of rounds of CCI Blazer and American Eagle practice ammunition to test these guns, and their high-end Federal Premium Hydra-Shok, Supreme SXT, and Silvertip premium defensive ammunition.
Several days later I got the call from my gun shop that my handguns had arrived. I went to pick up the M&P and the 637CT, and things got tough. I learned the first day that deciding to carry is the easy thing; finding where you can legally carry is the hard part.
My typical day started by taking my older daughter to her elementary school, dropping my infant daughter off at her daycare, and then driving to work on a corporate campus in Research Triangle Park. In none of these locations is concealed carry permitted; if I’d been armed, I would have managed a trifecta of felonies before my first cup of coffee. The 637CT, which I’d planned to carry in the pocket holster with the intimidating Winchester Supreme SXT hollowpoints, stayed at home. Some experiment this was turning out to be!
It was a couple of days later that I finally had a chance to legally carry, when my wife dispatched me to the local pet store chain to pick up various kinds of critter food for the Owens family menagerie. As it turns out, a J-frame revolver with a full grip like that of the 637CT doesn’t fit real well in anything but the large side pockets of the cargo-style shorts I was wearing, so with every step, the 637CT slapped against my thigh. It was annoying, to put it mildly. Minimal clothing was required to deal with the heat with any degree of comfort, so the pocket holster, paired with a revolver with a full-size grip, was off the carry list until it was cool enough outside for a jacket.
Likewise, I quickly found that the DS Paddle holster that carried the M&P was impractical for me based upon what I wore in the summer. While the Kydex holster was very fast on the draw and very comfortable to wear, my normal summer attire of shorts and short-sleeved shirts simply couldn’t cover the gun from view. I was learning through trial and error that the style of holster that works for you will largely be decided by how you dress. It was becoming painfully obvious to me that to carry the handguns I had with my summertime wardrobe, only an inside-the-waistband (IWB) holster would keep the business end of the gun hidden, with the butt of the gun held up tight against my side for concealment under an untucked shirt.
Luckily, DeSantis had already shipped me a very good holster for the revolver in the Cozy Partner. It was well-made, comfortable, and held the gun securely even when I bent over to pick something up. Unfortunately, I didn’t have an IWB for the M&P, so I made it a point to do what so many folks do, and went to try to find something relatively inexpensive to do the job.
The holster I chose from the Holster Store was their Pro Carry Deep Comfort, which was almost half the retail price of the comparable DeSantis holster. While the fit was fine and the stitching was strong, the Pro Carry was not finished as well on the inside as was the Cozy Partner, which had an interior that seems to have been sanded almost completely smooth. Until it was broken in, the Pro Carry’s rough suede interior finish shed fibers of leather (and leather dust) nearly every time it was drawn. Several times early on, the M&P wouldn’t release cleanly with the front sight snagging. After some time passed and the excess material worked its way out or was worn down, the holster became serviceable and I still use it today. That said, I wish I had put the money upfront for a better-finished holster the first time around, which would have saved myself both time and uncertainty.
I learned all of this in just the first few days of carry. All the while I was self-conscious and occasionally uncomfortable; the weight of the 637CT riding behind my right hip felt odd, and I imagined the bulge it created was huge. During this time I was constantly reaching back to make sure that my shirt wasn’t pulling up and leaving the butt of the gun exposed. As I learned that my shirt wasn’t riding up and got used to the idea of carrying, the self-consciousness started to fade away … a little.
It wasn’t until day nine that I was actually able to find the time to take both guns to the range for a solid workout. Yes, we all know that every gun expert on the planet will tell you to shoot your firearm at the range and get used to it before carrying, but let’s be honest: people don’t always do as they should. I had some previous experience with five-shot snubbies and carried the 637CT for the first eight days because I thought following the first rule of a gun fight was more important than not having a gun at all.
At the range, I learned several things about the 637CT very quickly. First, the factory did a good job calibrating the Crimson Trace laser in an almost perfectly parallel plane to the barrel, and the gun was very accurate. My first three shots fired single-action (hammer manually cocked first) at a human silhouette clustered in one ragged hole just an inch up and inch to the left from the glowing red dot projected onto the target at a distance of 10 yards. Confident in the accuracy of the laser I turned it off to focus on working with the fixed sights, firing 2-3 rounds of 158-grain American Eagle lead round-nosed bullets at a time.
While the 637CT is a joy to carry because of its lightweight aluminum frame, the weight reduction and carry comfort come at the price of stinging recoil, even with the full-sized rubber grips that came on the gun. After 50 rounds, my hands were stinging. It was not a pleasant experience, but then these guns aren’t designed to be given heavy workouts. By their nature, snub-nosed revolvers are to be “carried a lot and shot a little.” I loaded the Winchester SXT +P hollowpoints, figuring the hot 130-grain bullets would exit with more flash and recoil than the 158-grain practice loads, but was pleasantly surprised. The difference in recoil was negligible, and the flash, if anything, was reduced. A box of SXTs went quickly and accurately through the target five yards away, and I was ready to put the 637CT away and try its semi-automatic cousin.
After shooting the lightweight revolver, the polymer and blackened stainless steel M&P snapped out 9mm bullets with recoil that seemed like that of a .22. I fired multiple strings at three, five, and seven yards, going through 150 rounds of aluminum-cased Blazer 9mm in no time at all. I then loaded and fired 20 rounds of Federal Premium Hydra-Shok personal defense ammunition — once again noticing the high-end ammo seems to produce less flash — and called it a day. The 240 rounds of centerfire ammunition were as much as I could handle in one session.
Throughout the heat of the Carolina June I found myself gravitating towards the M&P for carry in most situations where I was allowed to carry, though late-night runs to the store found me reaching for the 637CT because of the laser. Carrying a weapon was far from routine at this point, but I was far less self-conscious about carrying. It was also during this time that my carry class instructor’s “have a plan” speech began to make sense. Before I began carrying, I would be thinking about one issue or another as I carried out errands for my wife and kids, and couldn’t have told you much about what was going on around me. Because I was armed I felt a greater responsibility to be aware of my surroundings, noting where I was and who was around me. I wasn’t planning to kill anyone, but I was making sure that I minimized risk by being aware of what was going on.
By July, I was carrying the M&P almost exclusively. I’m more familiar with semi-autos and tend to shoot them better as a function of having more experience with that kind of firearm. It also wasn’t prohibitively heavier than the 637CT, held more than twice the ammunition, and could be reloaded far more quickly. Granted, the ammunition capacity issue isn’t a factor in most real-world shooting situations — criminals aren’t special forces soldiers and tend to break off their attacks at the first sign of lethal force — but knowing you have additional ammunition on hand if needed is comforting.
In August, however, one feature of the 637CT really stood out.
While on a family vacation in South Carolina (North Carolina has reciprocal licensing with many other states), I carried the 637CT because gun safes did not exist in the beachfront condominium we rented, and I wanted to make sure that there was zero chance that the gun could be reloaded or accessed by any of the children or unqualified adults present. Smith & Wesson builds a version of many of their handguns with a keyed internal lock, and the 637CT was equipped with this option. After I arrived and unloaded the SXT hollowpoints, I put the ammunition in my luggage and the 637CT in the carrying case it came with, with the keyed action locked, and placed it upon a high shelf in the bedroom closet. I didn’t have to worry about any potential accidents and the peace of mind was reassuring.
My testing and evaluation period was coming to an end, and I’d either need to return the handguns to Smith & Wesson or buy them. Somehow, my wife just couldn’t understand why I needed more than one handgun at a time — much in the same way she couldn’t understand why I needed more fishing rods or why the spouse of a golfer can’t understand why their fanatic needs yet another wedge — and so I had to make a decision. I would have done well with either, of course, but I went with the M&P because of my familiarity and confidence with that kind of gun and the relatively inexpensive cost of 9mm ammunition when compared to other centerfire rounds. If I had grown up shooting revolvers, I have little doubt that I would have chosen the 637CT.
As the weather began to cool in September and October I was able to start wearing heavier clothing and the Kydex DS Paddle came out more. Unlike the IWB holsters that I wore tucked inside the waistband of my pants behind the hip, the DS Paddle is worn outside the pants and it hid well under a sweatshirt or light jacket. The heavier clothing also made it easier to carry the spare magazine in the Kydex single magazine carrier on the belt, where it would be easier to access should I ever need it. Also in late September I completed my web contracting gig at the corporate site that forbids handguns, so I was free to carry almost everytime I went out.
By mid-October, after almost six months of carry, putting on my holster seemed as natural an act as picking up my keys and wallet before leaving the house. The weight on my right hip was hardly noticeable, the slight pressure vaguely comforting. I was no longer self-conscious and am far more aware of what is going on around me. That awareness, in and of itself, makes me far less likely to walk into a questionable situation where problems may arise.
Carrying a concealed weapon hasn’t become a chore or an obsession. It is simply something I do now, like putting on my seat belt when I get in a car. I never plan on getting into a wreck, but the seat belt is always there to protect me. The M&P compact plays a similar role. Although I hope I never have to use it, I can be confident that it is there to protect me if I ever need it.