Classic guns have a number of advantages over the latest fad in firearms. First, classic guns can often be purchased used at a significant savings compared to the hottest new guns on the market. Classic guns are time tested, and have proven themselves over decades of service and parts and accessories are plentiful–often available off the shelf from dealer stock.
Identifying classic carry guns, of course, is very subjective and there is room for debate. I would characterize true classics as guns that have been widely accepted for several decades, with a strong record of service in law enforcement or military use.
The following are a few of my favorites from my personal collection, that I consider classic carry guns. I apologize for the over-representation of Smith & Wesson products, but let’s face facts, S&W has produced a number of undeniable classics, and was the primary supplier of law enforcement guns for many decades.
Smith & Wesson J-frame
The S&W J-frame dates back to 1950, but is still one of the most popular deep concealment guns. J-frames have been consistently issued by law enforcement agencies for undercover and plain clothes work for more than fifty years. I have a good friend who works as a vice and narcotics detective, who carries a J-frame as his primary issued weapon.
The J-frame is a five-shot small frame revolver available in a variety of frame materials. With an aluminum “Airweight” frame, the J-frame weighs around 15 ounces, making it ideal for pocket carry or ankle carry where weight is critical. Steel J-frames can weigh more than 23 ounces and are well suited for belt carry. In truth, however, this revolver can accommodate almost any carry method.
The most typical chambering is .38 Special, but some models are available in .357 Magnum. Shooting .357 Magnum through a small-frame snubby revolver, however, is quite an experience! For most shooters, .38 Special will be the preferred self-defense caliber.
J-frame revolvers are easily adapted to a variety of uses and users. This gun is available with a traditional exposed hammer (Chief’s Special), a completely internal hammer (Centennial) or a shrouded hammer that combines the attributes of both (Bodyguard). The Centennial J-frame guns are great for deep concealment because there is no risk of catching the hammer spur on clothing during the draw. Centennial style guns can also be reliably fired from inside a jacket pocket because pocket material can’t interfere with the completely internal hammer.
The Centennial, however, is double-action only, requiring a long trigger pull to cock and fire the gun. The Bodyguard style J-frame has a shrouded hammer with many of the same benefits, but also permits cocking the gun manually for firing single-action.
Since J-frames have been around for so long, there are a huge number and variety of guns available on the used market. Prices can range from around $300 to well over $800, depending upon the age, condition, frame materials and such. You can also find J-frame accessories–like holsters, grips and speed loaders–in stock at most any gun shop. Nearly anything you could want to equip or customize your J-frame is readily available.
Used J-frames are a great buy. S&W’s quality has been consistent over the years, and the older guns are very well built. Older guns also have the advantage of not having an internal lock–a controversial safety device that has been known to cause malfunctions on rare occasions. You can buy an older J-frame with confidence, so long as the gun has not been abused or modified by a “kitchen table” gunsmith. Be careful though, older guns may not be rated for use with modern +P ammunition. Fortunately, there are many great standard pressure defensive loads, so +P capability is not necessarily a requirement.
The J-frame pictured is a Model 38, an older Airweight Bodyguard. This particular gun is almost as old as I am, having been purchased new in 1970. I find the Airweight Bodyguard to be one of the best J-frames for concealed carry. Bodyguards are available in a variety of Models, including the 38, 49, 438, 638 and 649. If you prefer the internal hammer Centennial style, check out Models 40, 42, 442, 640 and 642. I believe that the 642 is currently S&W’s best selling J-frame. If you like the traditional hammer style of the original Chief’s Special, look for Models 36, 37, 60, and 637.
The S&W J-frame is a true classic carry gun that is small enough to go almost anywhere, but has a solid reputation for reliability. Everybody should have at least one of these small revolvers!
Smith & Wesson K-Frame
While the S&W J-frame is the classic deep concealment revolver, the K-frame is the classic duty gun. The K-frame is a medium frame six-shot revolver that dates back, in one form or another, to the turn of the century. The medium-size frame is quite a bit beefier than the J-frame, and is definitely more suited to belt carry. Snub nose K-frames, however, with a two to three inch barrel are still very concealable.
If you are willing to pack a larger revolver, the K-frame has many advantages over the J-frame. With the extra weight of the K-frame, .357 Magnum loads are much more manageable. Even if you choose to carry .38 Special, the larger grip and larger overall dimensions of the K-frame make the gun much easier to manipulate. [Ed. And the triggers are generally much better.]
K-frames were standard issue for many police departments prior to the 1990s. At times the used market was flooded with police trade-in guns. I have not seen that in a few years, but the K-frame is still easy to find. There are too many variations to discuss, but the most common models are: 10, 12, 64, 67, 68 (in .38 Special) and 13, 19, 65 and 66 (in .357 Magnum). Prices can vary from about $300 to $600.
The K-frame pictured is a Model 65, which is a stainless steel .357 Magnum with fixed sights. I acquired this one about eight years ago as a police trade-in for just under $300. The gun has performed flawlessly for me through several gun classes and is built like a tank.
If you are a traditionalist, or just like to be “old school,” a K-frame six-shooter is still a very viable concealed carry gun. While it may require a little more effort to conceal than some guns, in general the K-frames shoot very well and are stone cold reliable with just a minimum of care and maintenance.
Smith & Wesson 3913
Smith & Wesson introduced the Model 39 in 1955; the first production double-action semi-automatic pistol made in the United States. This basic pistol design evolved through several generations into a number of different models including double-stack and single-stack guns in various sizes. Any number of these models were standard issue in police agencies across the country, especially in the 1990s when many agencies were trading in their S&W revolvers for S&W pistols.
The quintessential concealed carry gun from this series arrived in the “third generation” 3913. The 3913 is an aluminum fame, single stack, compact 9mm. It is a traditional double-action/single-action with a slide mounted de-cocker/safety lever. The 3913 is a thin, small and light 9mm with 8+1 capacity. All of that translates into a very nice concealed carry gun.
In recent years, particularly since the introduction of the M&P line of pistols, a lot of the interest in the third generation S&W semi-autos has faded. S&W autos, including the 3913, are still great guns and can often be purchased at bargain prices.
For a number of years, S&W offered an “economy” version of the 3913 with the designation 908. The differences were relatively minor, and the guns are functionally equivalent. The gun pictured here is actually a 908, because I did not have access to a 3913. I purchased this one used for $250. A typical 3913 will likely run anywhere from $350 to $500 on the used market. A few models, like the 3913 TSW or the 3913 LadySmith may be priced higher due to stronger demand for those particular models.
If you like a traditional DA/SA gun, the S&W autos offer a great value–and the 3913 is a concealed carry classic.
Glock 17 (Second Generation)
When Gaston Glock filed for his 17th patent, he really had something special on his hands. The Glock 17 introduced the world to the first polymer frame semi-automatic 9mm pistol. The plastic frame allowed for a massive 17+1 round capacity in a lightweight and durable pistol. Law enforcement agencies and military units around the world adopted the Glock 17 and subsequent Glock models, for duty use.
In addition to the use of innovative materials, the Glock design is very simple and capable of complete disassembly with a single punch tool. Parts were easily interchanged, upgraded or replaced by a user with minimal training. The end result was an incredibly reliable pistol that functioned in the most adverse conditions. In a very short time, the pistol earned a legendary status for quality and reliability.
Despite the “perfection” touted by Glock in their marketing materials, the Glock line has continued to evolve through four generations, plus some additional variations. Glock has added an equipment rail, finger grooves, and different grip shapes and textures, among other things.
While the newer models are very nice, the early models are still desirable carry guns. I don’t see a lot of first generation G17s for sale anymore. However, second generation guns are still relatively easy to find.
In some ways, I prefer the second generation guns over anything that has come since. The second gen pistols have smooth grips with no finger grooves, so they fit more people’s hands without modification. They also have no equipment rail on the front dust cover, making the gun more sleek and smooth in front of the trigger guard. If you are not going to carry your gun with a weapon light attached, the rail only adds unnecessary bulk. And despite the few evolutionary changes, nearly any part or accessory for later Glock models will fit the earlier guns as well.
Glock pistols are very affordable, running significantly less than $600 if purchased new in 2010. Used models, however, tend to hold their value because of the longevity of these guns. Second generation guns can sometimes be had a little cheaper than newer guns because they aren’t quite as “tactical” in their appearance. If you can find a second gen (or any Glock) in decent condition for around $400, that would be a great price. Expect to pay closer to $450 for any used Glock.
The Glock 17 may be slightly large for some people to carry concealed, but it can be done successfully with the right belt and holster. If the G17 is too big, Glock does offer a compact (G19) and sub-compact (G26) in 9mm, not to mention offering all frame sizes in several other calibers. However, the Glock 17 is the classic gun that turned the firearms industry on its head in the 1980s, and deserves mention as a true classic carry gun.
Without a doubt, there are many other classic guns that could have easily made this list. A few obvious possibilities include many variations of the 1911 platform, the Sig Sauer P228, and the Colt Detective Special. The purpose of this article, however, is to remind us all that great carry guns aren’t found only in the most recent catalogs or SHOT Show press releases. A lot of the best handguns for civilian carry can be found in the pre-owned display cases at your local dealer, or maybe even in the back of your gun safe at home.
Thanks to the United States Concealed Carry Association for this contribution. To get a free copy of the Armed American newsletter – click here.