In recent years, despite the seeming nudge to the left our government has (in general) taken, laws and outlooks empowering American citizens to protect themselves have increased. Across the country there are now at least 37 states that have “shall issue” laws. In several states no permit is required to carry concealed and in other states – just recently – laws were passed that allowed for open carry without a permit (some states have had this for decades but citizens haven’t dared to do it for fear of police reaction). Along this vein, there have been recent debates about whether or not guns should be allowed in federal and state parks.
When I was an active police officer (I’m retired now) I wouldn’t have thought about going camping without taking a gun. Why would I? Technically though, the law prohibited me from carrying in federal parks. Yes, I freely admit it: I ignored that law. I’d far rather have been “tried by twelve” than “carried by six”. I mean… let’s face it: if you’re camping out in the wilderness – and that’s what I’m talking about – it’s just silly to not have a firearm if you legally can. The country’s elected government finally agreed with me with the passage and signing of the Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act (HR 218) which exempts police officers nationwide from concealed deadly weapons laws. It also covers retired officers who meet certain criteria.
This “awakening”… this change in outlook to greater support the ability of every American citizen to possess and carry a firearm for defense makes our discussion of guns for field use of greater interest. People in ever increasing numbers are “strapping up”. This, to me, begs the questions…
What is the best gun for the field?
What’s the best way to carry that gun?
The discussion of those questions – and my potential answers – is the subject of this article.
Now, obviously we’re going to talk about handguns. In certain parts of the American wilderness I imagine it’s quite silly to go out and about with a rifle. Let’s face it, man is not the top predator unless we are armed. There are plenty of animals that can prey on us animal-to-animal and win the fight. Those animals that couldn’t do it one-on-one often hunt in packs and can win the fight by sheer numbers. That’s why – if we’re smart – when we go out into those areas we carry a gun and stay alert. Some of the animals though aren’t what we think of as dangerous animals. I mentioned man being prey above but what about the animals that might attack us out of fear or protection? They represent a threat to and while we should do what we can to avoid encroaching on their territory, if we make that mistake it’s not one I think we should die for. I speak of things like snakes that will usually run from us or at least leave us alone if we let them.
For those of you who regularly go into areas where a rifle better suits your needs, that will be a topic of a future article. For the many campers and backpackers we have in our readership (look for a future survey on what your favorite outdoor activity is) we’re going to talk about the options available in handguns, the pros and cons of various designs and the best methods and places to carry them. Here we go…
Revolver vs. Pistol
When I started out my career as a police officer I was 18 and part of Uncle Sam’s Army. I was issued a Government Model 1911 .45ACP. Even as many years ago as that was the weapon had been a mainstay in the military arsenal for over 70 years. I came to appreciate the heft of it in my hand, the 7+1 capacity and the sweet single action trigger pull on every shot.
When I got out of the Army and became a civilian cop I was issued (by my first agency) an old blued .38 Special with a 4” barrel and abused ugly minimal wood grips. It was 1985 and the military was switching over to the Beretta M9 9mm and police agencies nationwide were following suit. I would have been happy if my agency had just gone to stainless steel revolvers instead of the old blued ones. My second agency issued me a blued Colt Trooper MkIII .357 Magnum revolver with a 6” barrel and big ugly wood grips in a swivel holster that was held to my gunbelt by way of a single snap. In the interest of self-preservation and comfort I almost immediately went and purchased a blued 4” revolver (.38 Special because I couldn’t afford a stainless .357) and a security holster to go with it.
At the grand old age of 21, with a whopping three to four years of law enforcement / uniform experience to my name, I was having the “revolver vs. pistol” debate in my head. I missed my government issued 1911 .45ACP. It was easier to shoot and held more rounds. Besides… carrying “cocked and locked” was way cool. (Hey… I was only 21, remember?)
There came a point though where I realized that carrying a small revolver for off-duty was much more convenient than carrying a full size pistol (or revolver for that matter). I procured a Smith & Wesson Chief’s Special – a snubby 5-shot .38 – and it became my best friend, going everywhere with me. On duty it was usually on my ankle. Off-duty it rode at my right kidney or in the small of my back. I was never really comfortable wearing a shoulder holster; it always felt too restricting to me, but that gun was with me everywhere. In my mind I added another level of debate.
Reality mandates that before we decide whether we’re going to carry a pistol or a revolver for our field adventures we need to identify:
- The environment we’ll be in
- The threats we anticipate possibly encountering
- How much reload ammo we anticipate needing and the method of carry
In ourUnited Stateswe can experience quite the plethora of outdoor environments from beach to mountain, swamp to desert, flat plains to rolling hills. My camping is mostly done in the mountains but I have, in the past, camped on or near the beach. Virtually all of my backpacking has been done in mountains. While no gun is reliable if it’s dirty, you do need to consider environmental conditions. If you’re going to be in a place that is often moist / wet or regularly has a high humidity level you don’t want to take a blued weapon. Stainless steel or a weapon with one of the many metal / alloy / chemical coatings would be advisable. Today’s variety of polymer framed pistols may well be a good choice.
That said, if you’re going to be in or around a lot of sand or other grit that can infect your handgun, revolvers may be more desirable than pistols – but it depends on how finicky your particular handgun is. I’ve seen some revolvers that would seize up on a speck of unburned powder and I’ve seen pistols that functioned just fine once the mud was poured out of the barrel. The point is that you need to know what you’re traveling into and how your options in handguns would function from a combined efficiency and maintenance perspective.
Once again we have to appreciate the variety our country has to offer. Depending on where you go the threats you potentially experience can range from grizzly bears to rattlesnakes, wild boars to mountain lions, coyotes to wolves. I don’t know if it’s fortunate or unfortunate but, to date, the biggest threat I’ve ever faced on a camping trip came from that two-legged predator called man. When I was a younger man on a camping trip with my best friend on the Appalachian Trail in westernMarylandour camp was invaded by an assortment of drunks on ATVs from the not-too-distant farming communities. I was quite happy to have my stainless steel Colt Commander .45ACP with me. A revolver full of bird-shot loads might have presented a threat but also might not have proven very successful if needed in defense against a human predator.
The threat you deem most likely is what I’d recommend you choose your caliber by. In some places the potential threats might mandate handguns near the higher end of power delivery such as .44 Magnum or even .454 Casull. If you are camping / backpacking in such places my recommendation would be that you reconsider carrying a rifle, but I also understand that circumstances can limit our options. In other places the most common threat might be snakes.
Through the course of my life I’ve had chance to encounter several Water Moccasins (Cottonmouths), a few rattlesnakes and, more often than not, harmless black snakes. In at least two incidents the poisonous snakes were right up in our usual area of habitation: one hiding under a rock right up against the house and the other sunning on a rock just a few dozen feet from the house. In both cases I had uncles who shot the snakes with .22 caliber rifles, taking several shots before determining that enough damage had been done to kill the snake.
In both of those incidents, had my uncles had shot-shells for their revolvers, only one shot might have been necessary. That type of ammunition though is primarily manufactured for revolvers thereby helping you make your decision between revolver and pistol. I hate wasting ammo so I’d far prefer to fire one shot-shell to do the job than several rounds of single projectile ammo. The strength of revolvers in such situations is that you can load up the first chamber or two with the shot-shell ammo and the rest with ammo designed for larger animals. If you find yourself encountering the larger threat, you crank through the first round or two (how many ever are shot-shell) potentially causing minor injury to the animal or maybe turning him/her due to the noise. Either way, your follow on shots with the more effective single-projectile ammo are quick enough to get to. (I’d venture to guess that your bigger challenge at that point would be keeping your shots on target as you try not to soil your shorts)
This is, of course, dependent on the type of handgun you choose in the first place. That said, carrying scads of reload ammo is far easier for pistols than for revolvers. Comparing similar caliber weapons – for the sake of this article we’ll use .38 Special and 9mm) – in the different designs of revolver versus pistol, you usually get six shots of .38 in a medium sized revolver while you can get as many as 16 of 9mm in a similarly sized pistol. Perhaps using a caliber more generally suited for larger threats, a revolver chambered for any .45 round is going to be pretty big and offer six rounds. A comparable pistol could be much smaller to offer an equal number of rounds or the same size and offer as many as 14 rounds without a reload.
If you’re going to choose a revolver then speed-loaders become almost mandatory and you need to figure out how many you’ll carry. Will they all have the same ammo in them? Or will you carry a speed-loader of shot-shell and another of jacketed hollow point? At what point do you say, “Okay… if this isn’t enough then I shouldn’t have been there to begin with”?
In that above mentioned camping trip where my best friend and I found ourselves surrounded by drunken ATV riders at two in the morning I had my Colt Commander full (7+1) and a spare magazine (7 more). I couldn’t imagine a scenario on a camping trip in which I would need more than 15 rounds of .45ACP. THAT is the decision you must make when you decide how much spare ammo to carry AFTER you’ve decided which you’ll carry out with you: revolver or pistol and in what caliber.
After you’ve analyzed your needs, if you choose to carry a pistol I’d highly recommend you pursue ruggedness and versatility as much as possible. Yes, I’m a fan of the .45ACP but I wouldn’t want a revolver in that caliber. It’s restricted to single-projectile ammo – even if the projectile breaks up when it hits the target. If you’re choice is a revolver then I’d recommend a stainless steel .357 Magnum with a barrel length between three and five inches. Here’s why…
With a revolver chambered for .357 Magnum you can shoot either .357 ammo or .38 Special ammo. The availability of single projectile ammo for either caliber is wide and varied. You can get everything from lead roundnose (although I can’t figure out why you’d want it) to semi-jacketed bonded-core soft-lead hollowpoints. There is also a wide variety of shot-shell ammo available for either caliber and speed-loaders are easy to find for any common manufacturer’s revolver. Revolvers like the Smith & Wesson Model 66 and 686 come to mind – but they might be a tad big or heavy for you. How about the Smith & Wesson Model 64? Widely used by police agencies in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s there are still plenty of serviceable surplus Model 64s on the market. Remember that you’re not using these weapons for competition so adjustable sights aren’t a requirement. Fixed sights will take more abuse and not lose their zero. As a final note, there is an abundance of relatively cheap practice ammo available for these calibers of revolvers.
If your choice is a pistol then your variety increases even more. Do you want single action? Double action? Safe action? Do you want a polymer frame or alloy? Do you require an external safety? This gets to be almost like picking a duty weapon.
There are plenty of very serviceable pistols that will take plenty of abuse and still function. The top three two that come to mind are the Glocks and the S&W M&Ps. Certainly the pistols from Colt, H&K, Springfield Armory, Taurus and others will serve you well but I’ve never seen anything take abuse like a Glock and still keep working. I’ve seen the disassembled pieces from a Glock Model 19 reassembled IN THE MUD, the weapon loaded with a full mag, the first round chambered and the weapon fired through the whole magazine (15 rounds) without a malfunction. Glocks offer a variety of caliber choices as well: .45ACP, .45GAP, 10mm, .357Sig, .40S&W and 9mm. The 10mm is well suited for use even on big threats (ask Ted Nugent since the Glock Model 20 is reportedly his handgun of choice anytime he’s in the field).
As much as I speak of the ruggedness of the Glock, our Navy SEALs use and swear by the Sig Sauer P226 9mm. I know one former SEAL who has had the same P226 for nearly 30 years with well over 50,000 rounds through it and he still says it’s the only gun he’ll ever carry. I know another gentleman who has been carrying a Brown High-Power 9mm cocked-and-locked for the better part of forty years and he’s just as loyal to it. You have to decide what’s going to work best for you under the circumstances you expect to encounter. Then you need to procure the pistol, practice with the pistol and get confident with it. “Confidence through Competence” applies to everything we do. Where protecting your life is concerned, you want to be as competent AND confident as possible.
The biggest question you can ask yourself when deciding where and how to carry your sidearm is this: how fast might I need it?
Many backpackers choose to carry their sidearm in or on the pack. That means not getting to it quickly. Many campers choose to keep the weapon secured in their vehicle. That REALLY means not getting to it quickly.
Let’s face it: the threats you can face out in the wilderness are the kind where, if you need the sidearm, you need it RIGHT NOW – not when you can get to your car, unlock the doors, open the safe under your seat and reach your gun… after that bear has torn you to shreds. I can’t say I’m a fan of putting the gun in or on the backpack but if you’re going to then ON is far better than IN. There are plenty of holsters you can attach to a pack via MOLLE webbing or anything you can customize.
Now, let’s settle something else: no holster is going to keep your sidearm clean and dry AND allow you to access it in anything resembling a timely fashion. Your gun is going to get dirty and/or wet and you’ll just have to devote the time to clean it. If you’re not willing to invest the maintenance time in your weapon, don’t carry it. Eventually you’ll end up carrying a weapon that doesn’t work due to your simple negligence.
I was issued a revolver once that the cylinder couldn’t be opened on because the guy who had it before me had never unloaded and cleaned it. The loads were corroded into the chambers which wouldn’t even turn. A gunsmith had to disassemble it for me to clean. If the cop who had it before me had needed to use his gun he’d have been out of luck – due to his own laziness and negligence. If you’re going to carry it, clean it!
If you’re not going to put it in or on the pack then it’s going on your person. Today’s holster varieties include everything from in-the-waistband to shoulder holsters to belt holsters to drop-leg “tactical” holsters. When it comes to pure comfort and speed of access, especially while backpacking, I don’t think the drop leg platform can be beat.
Yes, I know: some people think this looks “squirrely” and that anyone who wears a gun this way is a “wanna-be-swat-cop” enthusiast. I submit this thought: if you’re going to carry a sidearm and it’s not going to be concealed, what’s the difference? Is the guy who wears his gun in a shoulder holster a “wanna-be-detective”? Is the person who wears a sidearm in a cross-draw holster a “wanna-be-air-marshal”? Is the person who wears their sidearm in a tooled leather gunbelt a “wanna-be-cowboy”?
The bottom line is this: unless you are carrying the weapon concealed you need to carry it comfortably, securely and in a fashion that grants you quick access. In my experience, the “tactical” leg platform meets these criteria. If you disagree, stand up, relax as much as you can without falling over, and see where your gun hand is hanging. It’s not up under your armpit; it’s not resting on the opposite side hip; it’s not up on your strong-side hip; it’s hanging near the top of your thigh just in front of the curve of your hip. You want your sidearm as quickly available as possible? Put it in a thigh holster positioned so that your hand hangs almost comfortably at rest on the grip. You’ll also find that wearing a holster like this makes the handgun accessible while you’re driving too.
Outside of that option – which many just aren’t comfortable exercising – pick a good secure holster system that is comfortable to wear. For many that IS a cross-draw pistol – and there are plenty of good ones out there. Your options today include carbon-fiber holster bodies, leather holster bodies, kydex holster bodies (that I recommend against based on pure strength concerns) and more. Having already stated that your gun WILL get wet and/or dirty I also need to recognize that the more of your weapon the holster covers the more it is protected from the elements. Remember the trade off though: the more covered your weapon is the longer it will (usually) take you to get it out and into action.
Some holster systems are overly simple, like a nylon web loop sewed into a belt. It’s far better than nothing but doesn’t really offer comfort or security. Other belt rigs are durable beyond the lifetimes of you and I (I still have a holster / belt set custom made for me by George Wells, then of Wellsmade Holsters, made out of elephant hide that will FAR outlast me). As a general rule, your field holster needs to have a definitive security design that will secure your handgun into the holster even if you’re upside down.
Such a security device could be a simple strap with a good snap. It could be a spring-loaded trigger guard hook. Whatever it is, you need to be confident that, no matter the circumstances, your gun will stay in your holster until such time as you decide to draw it. When that time comes, you should be able to secure a good grip on your handgun, deactivate the security device and draw the weapon in a timely fashion.
Prior to concluding this article I’d like to address one topic I received about this topic a couple years ago in an email: full flap holsters. I received an email from a gentleman who proclaimed that full-flap holsters were the only acceptable type of holsters for “field use”. In support of his outlook he cited the military’s use of the Bianchi Universal Military (UM) holster #84. That nylon holster has a removable full flap that secures by way of a spring-loaded “tongue in slot” design.
My response to this is two-fold:
I don’t believe in absolutes except that there aren’t any. What works well for me may not work well for anyone else in the world and vice versa. What my best friend likes may not appeal to me and what I support he may disagree with. Absolutes are absolutely useless. If your preference for a given holster design is voiced in an absolute I’ll probably disagree with you.
I believe that full flap holsters are perfectly acceptable for handguns that are secondary to rifles (essentially back up guns) and which are not, therefore, needed with any immediacy. If your life depends on you getting that sidearm out quick, a full flap holster is probably not in your best interest.
Rifles are better than handguns in the field. If you’re not going to carry a rifle, carefully select your type of handgun. There are pluses and minuses to both revolvers and pistols. Know your potential threats and arm yourself accordingly. Carry the weapon so that you are comfortable with it and can access it as quickly as you might feel necessary. PRACTICE with it and maintain it. Any weapon that won’t function or that you are unskilled with is nothing more than an expensive club.
As always, your comments are appreciated and can be shared on this topic on our blog.
Stay safe! Happy trails…
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