Understanding Handgun Sizes

— Kat StevensCADRE Dispatch

If you’re new to the world of handguns or concealed carry, the vast array of handgun sizes can get confusing. You’ve probably run into questions like these:

  • What handgun size is best for your needs?
  • What do manufacturers mean by some labels they give their guns?
  • Why do some manufacturers use different labels for guns that are the same size as guns from other manufacturers?

Here, we’ll do an overview of the various handgun sizes and what they’re often best for. Consider this your starting point for understanding basic handgun sizes — and we’ll even suggest a few holsters along the way.

What’s a Micro-Compact Handgun?

Pistols in the micro-compact size range are often used for concealed carry and deep concealment in non-permissive environments. Due to their more diminutive size they’re easier to conceal and lighter to carry. Manufacturers that use the micro-compact designation include Kimber, Sig Sauer, Taurus, and CZ.

kimber micro 9
The Kimber Micro 9 Stainless is an example of a micro-compact pistol. (Photo credit: Kimber)

There’s no industry standard for micro-compacts, but generally speaking, these handguns have barrel lengths between three and four inches. The overall length of the standard micro-compact is under six inches and height is usually less than four inches.

Most micro-compact handguns have single-stack magazines rather than double-stacks, but it’s truly up to the manufacturer’s discretion.

Safariland offers several holsters for various micro-compact models. For example, the Incog X and Species are both compatible with the SIG Sauer P365, a popular micro-compact that offers fantastic capacity.

The Safariland Species holster offers a minimimalist design for micro-compact handguns like the Sig Sauer P365.

Then there’s the Safariland 575 IWB GLS Pro-Fit Holster, which is a good fit for the Taurus GX4 micro-compact pistol, and provides a more minimal footprint for even greater concealment.

What’s a Sub-Compact Handgun?

The sub-compact is often confused with the micro-compact, and for good reason — the two sizes are the same and simply labeled differently. The average sub-compact has a barrel under four inches in length and an overall length under six inches.

One distinction that can be made is that there are more double-stack sub-compacts on the market than there are double-stack micros.

Generally, a smaller carry gun with this overall frame size that is also a double-stack will be labeled by the manufacturer as a sub-compact. Manufacturers that refer to models as sub-compacts include Glock, Smith & Wesson, and Mossberg.

glock 26
The Glock 26 is a sub-compact handgun. (Photo credit: Glock)

Where a sub-compact really shines is in cases where you want greater capacity but prefer the frame to be as small as possible.

Guns like the Glock 26 are sub-compact but have more capacity than many single-stacks. The Glock 26 has an overall height of 4.1 inches and a barrel length of 3.43 inches.

Safariland offers holsters that are compatible with the Glock 26 such as the Safariland 17 IWB Concealment Holster and the 578 GLS Pro-Fit Holster, Paddle, and Belt Loop Combo.

safariland 17 iwb holster
Safariland offers a wide variety of holsters for countless sub-compact handguns. (Photo credit: Safariland)

These holsters give you options for different types of concealment and also offer varying optic footprint sizes and body colors.

What’s a Compact Handgun?

“Compact” is a bit more of a common label for handguns among firearm manufacturers. These guns fit into the size gap between micro-compact/sub-compact handguns and full-size models.

ruger american compact
The Ruger American is offered as a compact model. (Photo credit: Ruger)

Most compact pistols have barrel lengths around four inches, but the length can vary from 3.5 inches to 4.5 inches. They’re usually — but not always — shorter in height than full-size models. Overall length is typically about one inch less than a full-size model although, like all things, that can vary by manufacturer.

Manufacturers with compact handguns include Glock, Smith & Wesson, Mossberg, SIG Sauer, Dan Wesson, and Ruger.

smith & wesson pistol - handgun sizes: full size
The Smith & Wesson M&P9 M2.0 Pro is a full-size handgun. (Photo credit: Smith & Wesson)

Compact handguns are a good middle ground for carry because they offer a larger frame than micro- and sub-compact models — which translates to a better grip and more complete control for many gun owners. That, of course, means greater accuracy on target. It can also mean the gun is more comfortable for live fire.

Concealment will be easier than with most full-size guns but it does present a bit more of a challenge than with smaller handguns. Depending on the specific model, you might find a compact handgun easier to conceal with an OWB (outside waistband) holster and a cover garment rather than with an IWB (inside waistband) holster.

The Safariland 7367 7TS ALS/SLS Concealment Belt Slide OWB Holster is available in fitments for compact handguns.

Safariland makes numerous compact-friendly holsters. Whatever compact handgun you have, Safariland is likely to have a holster that fits it.

What’s a Full-Size Handgun?

If you’re interested in a full-size handgun you might be focused on a gun for home defense or range use.

It isn’t impossible to conceal a full-size handgun but it is significantly more challenging than concealing smaller guns. The average full-size handgun has a barrel length between 4.5 to 5.0 inches and an overall height that’s usually at least 5.0 inches.

The great thing about a full-size gun is that the grip is long enough for all of your fingers to make contact with it, unlike smaller models that can cause fingers to dangle. This improves control and comfort.

Also, larger handguns often generate less felt recoil and muzzle rise than smaller models due to their length and weight. Manufacturers that make full-size handguns include Glock, Smith & Wesson, SIG Sauer, Taurus, and Walther.

Carrying a full-size gun requires a sturdy holster capable of delivering good retention that holds the gun in place without bending, twisting, or folding. The Safariland 5198 Open Top Concealment Paddle/Belt Loop Holster with Detent is a great option for the Smith & Wesson M&P9 Pro, as is the Safariland 6287 Belt Slide Concealment Holster.

The 5198 comes with both injection-molded paddle and belt loops, so you can attach and adjust it for comfort and to match your needs.

With so many different handgun sizes on the market, choosing one is a matter of deciding what purpose the gun must fulfill. It also depends on your own experience and preferences.

When selecting a new handgun, take the time to do your research and spend as much hands-on time with various models as possible.

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