In the Spring of 2022, I decided that I wanted to start carrying a pocket gun. While not replacing my primary carry gun, I wanted a Back Up Gun (BUG) that could fit into a pocket. I did some digging, and have spent the last year testing out pocket pistol options. Which ones worked well, and which ones were suboptimal?
Pocket Pistol Criteria
You may be asking, why carry a pocket pistol? Well, for me, it was to add a BUG into my EDC. I have carried full size or medium size guns all of my life, but the opportunity cost to carry a BUG seemed low enough that I should try it out. Maybe you need to worry about non-permissive environments (NPE), and you need to carry a much smaller, extremely concealed gun. While I use the term "pocket pistol", I use that as a form of way to describe NPE guns too.
Before I began testing pocket pistols, I set some criteria that needed to be met:
- The pistol needs to be concealable in pants pockets.
- Loaded weight of the pistol must be under 18 ounces.
- Capacity can be no lower than 5 rounds.
- The pistol needs to have some form of sights for aiming.
- The pistol needs to be reliable.
These criteria were not that strict, in regards to firearm selection. The only variable that I would need to properly vet post-purchase would be reliability, as the other elements could be checked prior to purchase.
I looked into many guns, and found that many met 2 or 3 of my criteria, but not all of the pre-testing ones. Something like a SIG P365 seemed like a good choice, but it was too big to realistically conceal in a pocket. Eventually, I landed upon 4 guns that I tested. The Beretta 21A in 22LR, the Smith & Wesson 442 in 38SPL, and the Ruger Lite Rack LCP & LCR, both in 22 LR. How did these 4 small guns perform?
The Beretta 21A
The first pocket pistol that I tested was the Beretta 21A Bobcat, in 22LR. I scored and INOX model from Big Daddy Unlimited during a closeout sale, and got the gun for just under $300. I picked up spare mags and an a kydex pocket holster, and began my testing.
The 21A is unique for an autoloader, as it has a tip-up barrel assembly, and no traditional recoil assembly. To load the gun, you tip the barrel up, insert a round, close the barrel, and then insert a loaded magazine. The gun operates using a standard DA/SA hammer system, and has a manual safety, if you do choose to use it. Another "feature" is the lack of an extractor, as the blowback design of the gun kicks the spent casing out.
The gun is tiny, lightweight, and easy to conceal in a pocket. It is kind of a fat gun, but is overall quite small. Weight comes in at 12.4 ounces. Capacity is 7+1 rounds, so it hits that criteria too. The sights are tiny, but are precise enough and plenty usable. Accuracy is also good on the 21A, and hits out to 15-20 yards was easy enough.
However, the 21A is not a reliable pocket pistol. My specific gun has had a mess of reliability issues, such as double feeds and failures to extract. For testing the .22s here, I primary used Federal 22 Punch, and CCI Mini Mags. Both of those ammos are generally high quality and have good QC, but that did not help the 21A at all.
From what I can tell, the 21A has two design issues that lead to poor reliability; the lack of an extractor, and bad magazines. The gun has no extractor, which leads to spent shell casings staying stuck in the barrel. The magazine design is very old, and has feed lips on them. Between the bad feed lip tension and strange feed angle, reliability was not good. I would say that during my 1000 round testing, I had about 70% reliability on the 21A. Even for 22LR guns, that is abysmal.
The 21A is not a pocket pistol that I ended up feeling comfortable carrying, or recommending for BUG use. How about the Smith 442?
The Smith & Wesson 442
The second pocket pistol to test was the venerable Smith & Wesson 442. The 442 is one of the S&W Airweight model 38SPL +P rated J-frame revolvers. Both the 442 and 642 have been around for a long time, and are tried and tested guns. I bought my no-lock 442 from a vendor on GunBroker for about $400 after fees. I installed a Wilson Combat spring kit and Hogue G10 grips, and got a kydex holster for pocket carry.
The S&W J-frame design has been around for a long time, and if you've used a Smith revolver, operating the 442 is easy. The 442 is a standard swing-cylinder revolver, with a DAO trigger. A hidden-hammer design, the 5-shot 442 carries quite well in the pocket. It lacks a lot of sharp edges and corners, making concealment and drawing fairly easy. Weight isn't too bad, coming in at 17 ounces loaded.
The 442 has been reliable in my use, however, shooting it is not very enjoyable. Even with my preferred loading (148gr Federal Gold Medal Match wadcutters), recoil is somewhat stout. Unless you install large grips, you'll have your pinky hanging from the bottom of the frame, lessening your ability to control recoil. The 442 has rudimentary notch sights, which while usable, are far from great. DAO revolvers do require some skill to use, and while I am not as accurate as I would like to be, I can still keep everything in the black of a B8 target at 10 yards.
The 442 meets all of my criteria as a good pocket pistol, it's just kind of hard to shoot. Capacity is at the low end too, and 5 rounds will not last very long. However, this is a BUG, not a primary, so I am willing to concede the capacity here. Also, while I do not carry spare BUG ammo on my person, if you chose to, the 442 is easy to load via speedloaders or speed strips. I'm a speed strip fan myself.
I do recommend the 442, if you are able to practice with it, and realize that it is a lower capacity option. How about our next revolver?
The Ruger LCR 22LR
Back in September of 2022, Dan and I went to a P&S shoot. Rhett Neumayer was also there, and he and Dan both spoke positively of the Ruger LCR. From there, I decided to get one to test for this series. I got mine for about $500 in late 2022.
I chose an LCR in 22LR. I like the idea of a lightweight, higher capacity revolver, and the LCR seemed like a good fit. Mine is outfitted with the Rogers Enhanced Grip, as the OEM rubber grip was poor for pocket carry. With 8 rounds of 22LR Punch & these grips, the LCR comes in at 14.8 ounces.
The LCR 22LR is a DAO swing cylinder revolver, with a push button cylinder release. Coming from the 442, this took a teeny bit of practice to get used to. The frame is part polymer, part aluminum, and with this, the gun feels kinda cheap. Trigger pull is heavy and a little creepy, but certainly serviceable. The sights on the LCR are much better than the 442.
In 22LR, the LCR is easy to shoot. I found that with both 22LR Punch and Mini-Mags, I had to aim about 3 inches high at 10 yards to hit precisely. I shot a few "Tests" with the LCR, and passed each time. Even compared to light 38SPL loads, the 22LR LCR was much easier to shoot. Physically loading the pistol is well, fiddley, to say the least. I've yet to find a good 22LR speedloader for this gun, so the 8 rounds in it is how I've carried it. Carriage has been in either a kydex holster, or a Galco Pocket Protector.
The LCR 22 has been a joy to carry, for the most part. It hits all of my criteria, and is easy to shoot. However, the next gun has been my favorite so far.
The Ruger LCP 22LR Lite Rack
The final gun for today is the Ruger LCP 22LR Lite Rack. This is a very compact, 10+1 capacity 22LR pocket pistol. I'm a sucker for more rounds, and 11 seemed really promising. My specific LCP 22 is a cerakoted distributor special, with a silver slide. My cost was about $270 after fees. I picked up some spare mags and a holster, and began testing.
Ruger's LCP 22 Lite Rack is an SAO hammer operated pistol. Trigger pull comes in around 7LBs or so, and is long. They call is the "Lite Rack", as the slide is easy to pull.
When I first got the LCP 22 in, I found it to be quite comfortable, and easy to manipulate. The sights are quite rudimentary, but work well enough. The 10 round magazines stagger the rounds in a manner similar to the SIG P365, which is how they hold 10 rounds in such a small size. Weight is miniscule, at 11.9 ounces fully loaded. Out of the box, the gun came with a manual safety, and a magazine disconnect safety.
During my initial testing, I found the LCP 22 to be enjoyable and easy to shoot, when it wasn't malfunctioning. I was having the occasional failure to go into battery, which was annoying. This was happening with great, good, and mediocre ammo. However, I had a hunch as to why the gun was having failures.
I decided to rip the magazine disconnect and manual safety off of the gun. The LCP 22 has a chassis system similar to the SIG P320, so this was not that hard to do. The pistol still has a trigger "dingus" safety, so I did not feel that I was rendering the gun unsafe by doing the work to it. Doing this work made the gun run like a champ.
Reliability is somewhere around 99% now. With quality ammo, I can get through about 150 rounds before I start to have malfunctions. I've shot many "Tests" with the LCP, and can be fairly accurate with it out to about 20 yards. Despite the long and fairly heavy trigger, the gun is easy to shoot. Unless you've got extremely small hands, the your pinky will be hanging off of the LCP during firing.
The LCP 22 carries like a dream. It is thin, light, and fits perfectly into the pockets of my slacks and gym shorts. The very square shape of the grip makes concealment easy, and assists in getting your master grip in the pocket before you draw the gun. So far, this has been my favorite pocket pistol I've tested. However, there are some variables and considerations to think about.
Pocket Pistol Variables & Considerations
I set my criteria for what I want out of a pocket pistol, however, there are other elements to think about.
The three big variables/considerations are (at least to me), as follows:
- What is the minimum caliber that you are comfortable carrying in your pocket pistol/BUG?
- Do you want a semi-auto pistol, or a revolver?
- How do you plan on carrying the gun?
Personally, I think that these aspects need to be considered. I am comfortable carrying a 22LR handgun as my BUG, but you may not be. I have selected ammo that performs to a degree that I find acceptable, and acknowledge that I'd rather have a less potent cartridge in exchange for more capacity, and better shootability. While I am comfortable with a 5-shot Smith 442, I am more comfortable with 8 or 11 rounds in either of the 22LR Rugers. You also need to test your ammo before you carry the BUG.
In regards to semi-auto vs. revolver, it comes down to a combination of personal preference, and carry methods. Do you plan on carrying in a holster? What kind of pants are you wearing? How often do you perform maintenance your carry guns? I always carry my BUG in a holster, wear either slacks or gym shorts, and clean/lube/de-dustbunny my carry guns each week, so semi-autos work well for me. However, a revolver may work better for you if you don't want to lube and clean the gun as often. If you don't desire to carry in a holster (I'd recommend that you do use one), a revolver would be a safer bet.
Truth be told, testing out the guns before you rely on them is extra-important for BUGs, as they are generally your last line of defense as part of your EDC.
The Verdict on Pocket Pistols (For Now)
After all of my testing, I am whole-heartedly in the camp of carrying a pocket pistol/BUG. I've been doing it since the middle of 2022, and see no time to stop.
In regards to testing, I am not stopping here. There will be more in-depth articles on the pocket pistols that I had success with, and possible testing on different guns in the future. I've had my eye on a few .32 ACP designs, like the KelTec P32, S&W Bodyguard, and Beretta Tomcat. If you have any guns that you'd like me to test, leave a comment below!
While not sponsored by them, I'd like to thank SpartanTactical2017 for making quality kydex pocket holsters. I've purchased 4 of their holsters as part of my testing, and I've liked them more than some of the ones from much bigger companies.
I'd also like to thank James at Brigham City Amory for assisting with purchasing the LCR 22. He offered to help get me one near cost, which was very helpful. Brigham City Armory is not a sponsor of PrimerPeak, but if you decide to buy anything from James, let him know that we sent you!
Further Reading & Patreon Link
Hey there! Thanks for checking out my intro article to pocket pistols! The full follow up reviews for the guns tested are linked down below:
- Ruger LCR 22 Review - Sub Caliber Supremacy
- Ruger Lite Rack LCP 22 Review - A Good LCP
- S&W 442 Review - A (Situationally) Great Classic
If you'd like to support me on Patreon, I've got the link for that here. Nearly everything that I do on Primer Peak is paid for out of my own pocket, and my content is not shilled or driven by manufacturers or companies. If you decide to donate, I'd really appreciate it, as it would allow for me to continue to bring you quality work.