Frankly, Pistol Caliber Carbines Don’t Make a Lot of Sense – Here’s Why

    I know that I am not going to make any friends by writing this, but that never stopped me before, so why not? Here goes: Pistol caliber carbines don’t make a whole lot of sense for the American rifle buyer, or at least not most of the offerings on the market right now.

    Now, wait, hold on: Before you get your pitchforks, you should know what I mean exactly. Firstly, I am talking about pistol caliber carbines as defensive or working tools, not as range toys or fun guns. Second, I am talking about the American market specifically; I cannot speak to the Canadian or European markets, or any other market. Third, for the purposes of this post I am not going to consider NFA pistol caliber long guns, that means anything I write here doesn’t necessarily apply to SBRs, suppressor hosts, or submachine guns. Also, none of the arguments I am making here address circumstantial reasons to own pistol caliber carbines, for example legal restrictions on standard caliber rifles, or lack of access to rifle-rated ranges. Ultimately, I don’t think people should tether their gun purchase decisions to what online “experts” like myself have to say. We might know a lot and can potentially be helpful in making decisions (though neither of those things are guaranteed), but ultimately we cannot account for every potential circumstance and situation. At the end of the day, anyone reading this with an eye to buy must make their own decisions for their own situation, not based on what a so-called “expert” like me has to say!

    Alright, now go get your pitchforks.

    The fundamental problem of the pistol-caliber carbine is that it is a compromise with no payoff. Take a standard rifle-caliber carbine and change the design so that it uses pistol ammunition, to what end? A number of arguments have been made to positively answer this question, but I think they mostly serve to justify the concept, rather than the concept existing to fill a meaningful need. Still, let’s review a few of those arguments:

    • Pistol caliber carbines can share ammunition with the pistol. This way, if either the pistol or rifle runs dry, it can be refreshed with ammunition from the other.
    • Pistol caliber carbines can approach rifle performance thanks to their longer barrels.
    • Pistol ammunition may be cheaper than rifle ammunition.

    The ammunition sharing argument to me falls flat because it describes a technical curiosity, but no actual practical advantage. If both weapons share ammunition, so what? In what situation does one run dry with one firearm and then defeat results if it can’t then be refreshed with ammunition from the other? Isn’t the most logical thing to do in this situation – one which must be extremely rare to begin with! – to simply switch to the other weapon?

    I think this argument mostly relies on analogy to the guns of the Old West, in which sometimes ammunition could be shared between rifle and pistol. However, this was probably more a byproduct of the circumstances of the era. For one thing, ammunition standardization was much less solidified in those days than it is now. Where now we have two overwhelmingly dominant centerfire calibers, 9mm and 5.56mm, one each for rifle and pistol, back then a number of different caliber systems existed, and it was not unusual for different manufacturers to have different non-interchangeable competing ammunition types! Also, the performance gap between rapid-firing lever-action carbines and revolvers was not very great before 1890; as evidence of this, look at rounds like the .44 Henry and .44-40 which although designed as rifle ammunition later became popular in handguns. In those days, as well, the state-of-the-art propellant technology, blackpowder, was not as tailorable for different barrel lengths as smokeless powder is today. All this put together means that at the time, there were circumstances where choosing a rifle in a pistol or revolver caliber had no practical downsides.

    What was true then is not true now, however. Now, given the high performance of modern rifle calibers like the 5.56x45mm and 7.62x51mm, opting for a pistol-caliber long gun incurs a substantial penalty in terms of range, accuracy, lethality, and power. Consider, for example, that from a 10.5″ SBR barrel, 5.56mm offers twice the muzzle energy and essentially twice range (by trajectory) than the 9mm when fired from rifle barrels; the common 16″ civilian carbine produces nearly three times the energy of the 9mm. Even the lowly .30 Carbine produces more than double the muzzle energy when fired from comparable barrel lengths! The high velocity, high energy, and superior projectile shape of rifle ammunition give the weapons chambered for them a great deal more capability and destructive power than they would have if chambered for pistol ammunition.

    It should also be pointed out that ammunition is typically designed to perform well in one platform or the other – rifle, or pistol. Today’s modern propellants can be tailored to a great degree for maximum performance from whatever barrel length the intended platform has. The ‘burn rate” describes the quickness with which the propellant consumes itself to power the projectile. Ammunition designed for short barrels, like as for a handgun, are designed with very fast burn rates so that they consume themselves completely or nearly completely before they leave the muzzle, while ammunition designed for longer barrels (like as for a rifle or carbine) will have slower burn rates. The slower burn rate of rifle ammunition is the reason why rifle-caliber pistols like the Kel-Tec PLR-16 produce such massive fireballs, while handguns in pistol calibers do not. The converse of this fact is that pistol rounds, especially autoloading calibers of the type generally used with modern self-defense pistols, do not gain very much performance when used with longer barrels. For example, the Federal 124gr Hydra-Shok 9mm – according to data on the informative Ballistics By the Inch website – gains a mere 170 ft/s when going from a 4″ handgun barrel to an 18″ rifle barrel.

    Versus the pistol, the pistol-caliber carbine leaves behind all of the salient advantages of that type, being just as large as any other rifle. After all, the PCC is simply a rifle that eats pistol food, and it is not for their potent, efficient ammunition that people choose to buy pistols! There is the argument regarding cost of ammunition, but this difference is not so great, especially when one considers the quality of ammunition being bought. The least expensive 9mm is considerably less accurate (5-8 times less accurate, in my experience) than the least expensive 5.56mm, which means more frustration on the range. In fact, I do not even use some brands of steel-cased pistol ammunition even for pistol practice, as they are so inaccurate I consider it a waste of time and money. It should also be noted that the ammunition cost argument only applies to the 9mm caliber; all other pistol calibers are just as expensive if not more expensive than .223 rifle ammunition.

    Very simply, these objections then boil down to the pistol-caliber carbine having “all of the power of the pistol, and all the concealability of the rifle”. Of course, such a simple statements leaves out some of the nuance of the issue, such as the fact that pistol-caliber carbines are substantially easier to learn to shoot well than handguns are. Still, I think the basic statement holds water. Why should anyone choose – unless legal or other external circumstances dictated it – to spend hard earned money on a pistol-caliber carbine, based solely on its defensive merits? I find I don’t have a good answer to that question, besides “they shouldn’t.”

    However, earlier this week, revolver gunsmith, trainer, and self-defense expert Grant Cunningham posted a brief article explaining why he thought PCCs have a role in the self-defense world. Having said my bit about PCCs, I think it’s worth taking a look at some of his arguments and addressing whether I think they are really compelling, or not.

    I should say ahead of time that I think – in absolute terms – Grant and I do not have massively dissimilar opinions on the pistol-caliber carbine. I don’t think there is a great deal of difference in how we perceive the carbines themselves, nor are either of us arguing that PCCs are either so ineffective as to be unsuitable for defense, .or so potent as useful as to be the only logical choice, so then the question is simply whether we think they are useful enough compared to the other offerings on the market to have a niche as working tools. Simply, Grant seems to believe they have a modest-sized niche, whereas I think they have a vanishingly small one. Not a great difference of opinion, there!

    Still, I do disagree with many of his arguments, so let’s take a look at them:

    1. “[.30 Carbine is] is definitely not a rifle round” Grant stretches  the definition of “pistol-caliber carbine” to include the M1 Carbine, which isn’t really a PCC. For one thing, pistols chambered in .30 Carbine are very uncommon and generally not models suited for personal defense. For another, the .30 Carbine was designed and its propellant selected for 18″ long barrels, not short pistol barrels. Defensive ammunition in that caliber is likewise designed to make the most of the long carbine barrel, and does not work very well when fired from a pistol.

    2. The first half of his core argument concerns the fact that the PCC has some advantages over the pistol, and it’s rather involved so I’ll break it into subsections. That the PCC has some highlights versus the pistol is true, but we don’t use pistols because of the characteristics they share with PCCs! We use them because of their small size and concealability, which PCCs utterly sacrifice!

    2a. PCCs can use all the same ammo that handguns can. Well, not always (in my experience, not even usually). Whether PCCs can use modern JHP ammunition or not is kind of hit-and-miss, and in particular most low-cost semiautomatic PCCs struggle to feed ammunition that your handgun will eat without issue. Most importantly, though, the PCC market is too small and niche to have the kind of positive feedback loop that the handgun market possesses, where both pistol and ammunition manufacturers put a lot of time and effort into ensuring that weapons work reliably with modern defensive JHP ammunition and vice-versa. Yes, one may be tempted to argue that while older PCCs had issues with JHPs, newer ones should be just fine, but that doesn’t seem to be the case, at least not in my experience. For an example of a PCC that should have “had everything going for it”, but still failed to live up to standards even with ball ammo, look at the $2,000 Wilson AR-9:

    3. The second half of Grant’s core argument concerns how PCCs compare to their rifle cousins. Grant begins by characterizing the argument that “yes, the PCC has some advantages over the pistol, but the rifle-caliber carbine has all the same advantages without being gimped in power” as “going off the rails”.

    3a. Grant argues that .223/5.56mm will have more recoil than “a PCC”. By this, I assume Grant means a 9mm PCC, despite the fact that he also includes .357 Magnum lever-actions and .30 cal M1 Carbines in that definition. Regardless, I have never met anyone – not even 80lb girls – who had a serious problem with the recoil of lightweight 5.56mm carbines. In fact, during The Great .22 LR Drought, I used a Colt 6920 as my go-to “first time shooter” rifle, because it was so easy to shoot. 6920 as my go-to “first time shooter” rifle, because it was so easy to shoot. We must also consider the method of operation; a blowback 9mm rifle may have more perceived recoil than a locked-breech 5.56mm rifle – this isn’t a hypothetical, it is true for most examples I am familiar with. If recoil is such a serious issue, it may be better to start off with an inexpensive .22 caliber rifle and become more familiar with shooting and marksmanship fundamentals first, before going out to buy a pistol-caliber carbine.

    3b. 5.56mm does have a lot more muzzle blast than 9mm from a PCC (9mm from a 16″ barrel is almost-but-not-quite hearing safe), but is this is a significant problem if shooters wear proper hearing protection at the range, during practice? And when fighting for your life, is this difference enough to give up advantages like accuracy, power, range, etc? Regarding flash specifically, I should also point out that Grant himself once made the case that muzzle flash wasn’t really a significant factor in night time shootings, although whether you agree with this is up to you.

    3c. Grant argues that rifle magazines are bigger and harder to manipulate. I have had the opposite experience. Double-feed magazines are much easier to load than single-feed magazines, and the larger ammunition makes it significantly easier to manipulate the rounds into the magazine properly. Further, rifle magazine speedloaders give shooters with poor arm strength the ability to use larger muscle groups to feed ten or more rounds at once, something that is not possible with single-feed pistol magazines. This is just when compared to pistol-magazine-fed PCCs, let alone lever-actions in revolver calibers which have an entirely different (and more severe) ammunition management problem.

    3d. Grant makes the case that “a hit with a PCC is still better than a miss with a rifle!” Most of the PCCs I have ever fired could not live up to the accuracy of 5.56mm rifles, because bulk pistol ammunition is simply not up to the accuracy standard that even bulk rifle ammunition is consistently capable of. In fact, much of the affordable steel-cased bulk pistol ammunition has been so inaccurate in my experience that I don’t consider it suitable for handgun training, let alone rifle training. In contrast, I have not seen this problem with steel-cased rifle ammunition, for whatever reason.

    3e. As for the idea that they are inherently easier to shoot… I am not so sure. Again, this will depend on which PCC (by Grant’s definition) one is shooting with, but it is very hard to beat the AR-15’s ergonomics, sights, and inherent accuracy – qualities that are far from “off-limits” to PCCs, but which are generally not found in inexpensive models.

    3f. Grant pushes the argument that this supposed accuracy penalty that 5.56mm AR-15s come with will cause a miss instead of hit often enough to make AR-15s unsuitable for use by less-skilled persons. Is this a realistic idea? At what distance are these misses occurring, and is it a distance at which one would be better served with a true rifle-caliber carbine? It is difficult to imagine that at “facetime” distances this supposed accuracy penalty is setting the rifle-caliber carbine back substantially, especially considering the fact that due to their enormously superior lethality they are more forgiving of bad hits in the first place!

    4. Grant postulates that hobbyists don’t like pistol-caliber carbines because they think everyone needs to be an expert, and the PCC is not an expert’s weapon. Let’s take the second half of this argument, because I agree with it. I think that there are a substantial number of vocal people who are unwilling to consider that someone might not have the time or drive to get the best training, or even any training at all. I agree that people who just want to defend themselves and aren’t ready to adopt the “tactical lifestyle” (whatever that means) deserve and need good advice that fits them, too.

    So, at least from my end there is no refusal to acknowledge this fact. Still, I see PCCs as inferior tools, essentially “fun guns” which, if necessary, can be pressed into service as defensive tools. I don’t agree with Grant because I don’t think his argument holds up to close scrutiny. The most persuasive part of the argument is that PCCs are much quieter than rifle-caliber carbines, but that seems like a relatively minor issue when compared with all the other downsides the PCC brings.

    Is all this to say that pistol-caliber carbines have no niche? No, I think they have a few good niches, including as range toys, suppressor hosts, and small game harvesters. One niche where I would like to see the pistol-caliber carbine expand into is that of an inexpensive home defense long gun, a market currently dominated by shotguns. One of the major advantages of the pistol-caliber carbine that isn’t being widely exploited by manufacturers is the potentially very low cost of manufacture. Thanks to the low power of their ammunition, pistol-caliber carbines can be simple blowback affairs, and can therefore be constructed very inexpensively. Hi Point is currently the market leader in this segment, their carbine having an MSRP below $320. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that a carbine of decent quality could be made at this price point or potentially even lower, and such a weapon could provide many of the advantages of a semiautomatic long gun to low-income families, or provide a low cost weapon that can be used in situations where the risk of weapon loss is high (such as on a boat). However, currently most pistol-caliber carbines come with price tags higher than the average budget AR-15, making this a moot point. With the rise in prices of military surplus firearms like the SKS and Mosin-Nagant – which have until recently dominated the $200-$400 bracket – is it time for manufacturers to step up to the plate and deliver the next Camp Carbine?

    Nathaniel F

    Nathaniel is a history enthusiast and firearms hobbyist whose primary interest lies in military small arms technological developments beginning with the smokeless powder era. He can be reached via email at [email protected]