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Pocket Pistols Past and Present

Until the 1980s, permits to carry a concealed handgun were discretionary in most states. Meaning they were issued at someone’s discretion—typically a sheriff or police chief. If you were politically connected, carried cash or just happened to live in an area that still respected the right to personal self-defense, gun permits were granted, but people really didn’t talk much about them.

That all changed in 1987. And you can thank one Marion P. Hammer, of the Unified Sportsmen of Florida, and NRA’s first lady president. In 1987 Florida passed the model “shall-issue” concealed carry law in the nation. Although a few other states had already had some form of “shall issue,” it was the Florida law that set the standard for future legislation. Essentially, what it did was recognize for all law-abiding citizens the right of self-defense once again. No longer were citizens completely dependent upon law enforcement largesse, influence or geography for their own personal security. In Florida, if you had committed no crime and were willing to go through the permitting process, you would be able to obtain a CCW permit without having to prove “need” to a bureaucrat. And crime went down.

The effect of the 1987 Florida law would not be immediately responded to by the firearm industry as a whole. But some firms such as Seecamp and Arcadia Machine & Tool (AMT) were ahead of the domestic pocket pistol curve. In 1981, the .25 ACP Seecamp LWS was introduced by a company that previously was in the business of gunsmithing and turning out double-action M1911s. The LWS .25 was a trigger-cocking self-loader, what we now refer to as “double-action-only.” Pull the trigger, and it cocked the hammer and then released it to fire. It was soon followed by the LWS .32 in .32 ACP—and it became known as a gun pocketed by the concealed carry intelligentsia. The Seecamp had neither sights nor an external manual safety, relying on a long, heavy, deliberate pull of the trigger instead. The all-stainless Seecamp finally made it into .380 ACP in 2000, and North American Arms makes a copy of it, too. Thirty-five years later, Seecamp still has a waiting list. Following on the heels of the Seecamp was the AMT Backup series made in .380 ACP, which we first tested in the June 1993 issue, followed by a larger .45 ACP and even a .22 Long Rifle version.

But more pocket pistols were on the way—the two most emblematic were from then-new companies, Kahr Arms and Kel-Tec. In July 1995 there was a cover story written by then Technical Editor Robert W. Hunnicutt titled “Slick Slide Compact 9 mms.” The story on the recoil-operated Kahr Arms K9 and Kel-Tec P-11 began with, “A lot of concealed carriers want the simplicity of a snub-nose revolver with the firepower of an autoloader. Two new trigger-cocking 9 mm compact pistols provide both.” Kahr Arms, under the leadership of Justin Moon, had spent considerable time and money patenting the ideal pocket pistol, first in steel, then aluminum (and later in polymer). Hunnicutt wrote “The Kahr K9 resembles a shrunken Glock enough to cause double takes.”

(l.) Kel-Tec P-3AT (ctr.) Taurus TCP (r.) Kahr Arms P380

Kel-Tec’s owner and principal designer, George Kelgren (who previously designed the Grendel P-12 pistol), was onto something, and that something was a single-stack magazine, trigger-cocking operation and a polymer frame. “At a suggested retail price of $300, it should sell in most places at a price not much over a used pistol. It’s definitely worth a look from the budget-conscious defensive user,” wrote Hunnicutt in 1995. Kahr and Kel-Tec were joined by Taurus with the PT-111 Millennium in 9 mm in 1999. As good and affordable as the P-11 was, Kel-Tec’s biggest hit was the 2003 introduction of the .380 ACP P-3AT—the .380s sold like hotcakes.

But even bigger news in the world of polymer-frame, trigger-cocking, single-stack pocket pistols came in 2008. Legend has it that when George Kelgren first got his hands on the Ruger LCP at that year’s SHOT show, he said “Oh well, it was only a matter of time.” In July 2008, Field Editor Wiley Clapp wrote “The LCP is small, light and flat enough to be carried without being noticed at any time and in any kind of attire.” At the time its suggested retail price was $330—and the LCP sells for considerably less today. 

The maturation of the spread of affordable, lawful, personal armed self-defense is expressed in the original Ruger LCP. Sturm, Ruger & Co., which had gone from really the fiefdom of one of the greatest figures in firearm history, William B. Ruger, Sr., had become a publicly held commercial manufacturer with leadership wanting to make the kinds of guns people wanted buy and incredible production capacity to make it happen. What the LCP did was put an old-line name on the pocket pistol once again. Ruger forced an entire industry’s hand. Even Glock, which had clung to double-stack magazines despite consumer demand, joined the pocket pistol pack with its U.S.–made .380 ACP G42 in 2014 and last year with the 9 mm G43. Now it’s hard to find a gunmaker that doesn’t offer a self-loading pocket pistol.

In recent years, the real revolution in pocket pistols hasn’t been in the guns themselves, but rather in how they are engineered for affordable mass production. Too, advances in modern self-defense ammunition have helped legitimize smaller guns. While many self-defense experts regard .380 ACP as marginal for defensive use, there is no doubt that the modern expanding hollow point is far more effective than the ball round of even a few decades ago in stopping a threat. And pocket pistols come in everything from .22 to .45 these days.

Today, millions of law-abiding Americans with pistols in their pockets are heeding the century-old wisdom of Capt. Pollard: “Wherever the criminal classes use weapons, the respectable classes also adopt them for private defense. The police all the world over share the trait of never being on the scene when wanted.”