Pistols & Optimizing vs. Satisficing

Probably more ink gets spilled, and more pixels get launched onto LED screens, on the subject of is-this-pistol-better-than-that-one, than on any other subject in the gun world. There are many approaches to the question of which-handgun-is-best, and it’s a mug’s question, because at some point you have to decide: best for what? What’s best for a hideout pistol is not what’s best for a cop’s service pistol, and in turn a military service pistol might demand a whole different approach.

We’re going to suggest a radically different approach:

It doesn’t matter.

For most people, the question to answer is not which pistol, but pistol.

For most personal defensive uses, any pistol that meets certain threshold requirements is good enough. And no pistol is the approach that is not good enough.

The cop who doesn’t get a dedicated off-duty gun, but lugs his G17 around, printing like a doofus, is not necessarily acting irrationally. He’s got a gun, right? In Mayberry, everybody knows he’s a cop, anyway, and so he doesn’t gain anything but expense and complication by carrying a G26 or G43.

On the other hand, the guy who must have the very best per use is illustrated in this fascinating article by Duncan at Loose Rounds on the short-lived Glock Gen3 RTF2 pistols. He takes some time getting to the features that make the RTF2 frames, the most important of which is the grip texture which is different from any Glock before or after, and concludes:

In my opinion the RTF2 frame is the pinnacle of the Glock line for a duty, home defense and training firearm. It is also the best feeling and handling Glock made frame.

“Pinnacle” — that word is a marker for an optimizing approach. Optimizing comes natural to most people — it describes an approach to making a decision or selection which requires you to:

  1. Define the characteristics of the “best” choice; and,
  2. Select the best choice according to that definition.

And Duncan runs right into one of the problems of an optimizing approach: what makes something the best choice for one task may not make it the best for another. He finds that the Glock RTF2 is a bit of a “horses for courses” specialist, and one of its less optimal courses is the one that most people select a handgun for, for concealed carry and self defense:

Now, if you are looking for a daily conceal carry handgun, The RTF2 framed Glocks are not ideal. If you are trying to conceal an RTF2 Glock, having it right next to your skin is not going to feel great. You will have to wear a layer of protective clothing. Also, the RTF2 frames are extremely rough on all clothing, gloves and even your seatbelt. For a training course, duty carry or home defense firearm, the RTF2 is the best of the Glock offerings, for a very positive grip.

This shouldn’t surprise anybody. A gun that’s optimum for this may not be optimum for that. It requires a compromise, but then, so does every gun. So whether you are a huge army trying to select a service pistol, a PD trying to equip your patrol officers, or a single individual looking for a gun you can carry to make a positive contribution to the safety of yourself and your loved ones, you can’t just pick one characteristic and give it ultimate weight. An optimizing approach either devolves into a matter of guesswork, or results in building a complex weighted matrix (such as a Pugh Matrix, explained here at the American Society for Quality), where every weighting value is a new point of possible error injected into your calculations.

A lot of time, optimizing is used not as a decision basis, but as a means to rationalize an a priori decision. As human decisionmakers, we are all great rationalizers.

satisficing approach sets a minimum threshold, and then accepts the first acceptable alternative that presents itself, or the best of a few that present at once. It’s meant to get you most of the way up the curve without expending a lot of time, money, brain cycles or combination of the above to try to get close as possible to the ideal. It recognizes that the ideal is an asymptotic value: you can only approach closer to it at ever-rising expense, but never actually achieve it.

The guy or girl who holsters a .45, or a Beretta, or a Glock, or an M&P, or a Chief’s Special five-shot revolver, for that matter, and closes the book on pistol selection can get on to the more serious business of pistol training and practice. The principle resource that satisficing can buy you is time, which is the one resource you can’t buy or produce more of, and the one resource that is ever in short supply.

Are you armed with the perfect gun? Probably not. Are you armed? Then you may be armed with something close enough to the perfect gun… to satisfice.

39 thoughts on “Pistols & Optimizing vs. Satisficing

  1. John Distai

    This also applies to careers, marriage, and home improvement projects. There are plenty of places in life where I tried to “optimize” all the factors, and all that really came from it was the misery of failing at task, being unsatisfied with the results, and inability to accept “good enough” and move on.

  2. W. Fleetwood

    I find it illuminating to consider the weapons and ammunition actually used by some of the folks up on the mountaintop. Sgt. York; stock Model 1911 loaded with 45 ACP GI ball. Officer Crillo; stock S&W Model 10 loaded with 38 special semiwadcutter. 2LT van Vuuren; Star Model B loaded with 9mm GI ball.

    Imagine the reaction of the Instructorate Senseis at the Superdooper, Level Five, Ninja Operator, Deathfang Pistol Course (TM) if someone were to show up with one of those. They couldn’t possibly do the XYZ Drill (147 rounds, 27 targets, 8 magazine changes, last 15 rounds weak hand, hanging from a Trapeze.). And if you can’t do the XYZ Drill you just aren’t competent to carry a handgun. Thus spoke the Instructor, Yes indeed.

    Oh well, for what it’s worth.

    Wafa Wafa, Wasara Wasara.

    1. archy

      I find it illuminating to consider the weapons and ammunition actually used by some of the folks up on the mountaintop. …. . 2LT van Vuuren; Star Model B loaded with 9mm GI ball.

      Imagine a *combat* shooter’s course drill where you have a 9mm semiauto pistol with two 8-round magazines, have to fire through a 4-inch by 4-inch [100cm] window from inside a telephone box-sized enclosure, and score on 11 moving targets piling out of the burning truck you’ve just put a high explosive 90mm round into. BANG! pop pop pop pop pop pop pop pop pop pop pop….

      1. W. Fleetwood

        It’s my understanding that popping the truck with the 90mm and the Cuban “Swarming” of his Eland were two separate incidents in the course of a series of firefights and skirmishes. Van had a very long day. At the end of it I’m pretty sure he had the same two thoughts we all do; A) They don’t pay me enough. and B) I’m getting too old for this shit.

    2. GWB

      I googled “2LT van Vuuren” and didn’t find anything useful. Any additional info I can use to find out about him?

  3. Boat Guy

    Even Cooper (who was just just a tiny bit dogmatic) had as the “First Law of Gunfighting;” … “Have a Gun!” He didn’t say “Have a 1911 in .45 ACP” though in many cases he might just as well have.
    I have for the last 96 hours been carrying a different pistol than I usually do because of changing circumstances; but it is one of about five that I consider to be appropriate for most uses; some have better sights than the others; some carry more ammunition or shoot a more powerful bullet. As always … “it depends”

  4. JAFO

    Good post. It’s applicable to any decision, really.

    The rub is that the task of learning enough to set an acceptable minimum threshold is initially not distinguishable from learning enough to optimize. I’d frame it as the problem of when to stop spending time and energy looking for smaller benefits than are justified by the additional time.

    Let’s face it — lots of ‘gun nuts’ (in the good sense) simply enjoy learning more about relatively unimportant differences between guns than we would need to if our only objective was self defense, forensics, target shooting, or whatever.

    1. GWB

      The key is to understand that choosing a firearm is not a once-and-done proposition. While you’re learning, get a gun. Then upgrade when you learn some more and decide you need something different. Then upgrade again when you learn enough more to make that decision neither optimal nor satisficing. Then…. :)

  5. Tom Stone

    I chose an airweight J frame smith 20 years ago and have put many thousands of rounds through it. “Improvements”?
    I had the action smoothed and put on CT grips about a decade ago while leaving the trigger pull at 10 Lbs.
    I can place my shots and it works every time, that’s what I need.
    For around the house, a full size 1911 because it’s what I grew up with and it works every time.
    There are more modern and “Better” choices, but these two meet MY needs.

  6. Bill T

    As the old desk sgt. told the lady, “Get a gun, learn how to use it, you will know when to use it”
    from Stranger at extranos alley.

    This cuts right to the chase. Good advice.

    1. bloke_from_ohio

      The F-35 is an exercise in combining mutually exclusive goals.

      1) The jets has to be supersonic.

      2) The Jet has to be stealthy.

      3) The jet has to pretend it is a helicopter.

      We are good at goal 1. Goal 2 is doable, it is just expensive. Goal 3 is kind of dumb, but the USMC insists on doing it. The logic behind an obsession with VTOL is understandable though. The Marines feel they got left hanging by Naval Aviation and the USAAF in the 1940’s. Marine Air guys still worry about that kind of scenario. It is probably not without cause given the ongoing silliness about the A-10….

      But, let’s get back to the goals. Combining speed and stealth is possible if not extremely expensive. Making a sneaky VTOL aircraft of a fast VTOL aircraft is very difficult, but not impossible. However the addition of VTOL to any fixed wing aircraft WILL make it worse at almost anything else you want it to do (area rule, weight, complexity, etc.). Trying to cram all three goals together is ludicrous. And we have gone full ludicrous with that airplane.

  7. looserounds.com

    Duncan is a little over zealous about Glocks in my opinion. Of course we all are when it comes to out pets I supposed. I as an example, detest everything about glocks

    Have a gun, is indeed the starting point. of course most of us reading this or already in our world will have a gun. the next topic that is something I always think about is the wisdom oft repeated of “well just make sure the gun you choose if comfortable for youuu”

    Starting from the ground rule of already having a gun and the lack of a gun is not the problem. I think the “comfy for you” is some of the worst advice given out there these days

    1. Gray

      per Cooper, another quote: “A firearm is not supposed to be comfortable; it is supposed to be comforting.”

      1. Boat Guy

        Purty sure that’s Clint Smith. He was one of Cooper’s early instructors and is pretty good at attributing words to those who said them.

  8. ToastieTheCoastie

    Exactly! I refuse to discuss the merits of various guns at length anymore because there are so many good, affordable firearms nowadays. The endless debates and optimization seem a little silly.

  9. Kirk

    To a degree, I’m with Musashi: It’s not the sword, it is the swordsman.

    You should be able to fight with whatever you have to hand. Custom Colt .45, Glock 17, Hi-Point, whatever. The key skills are in your hand and in your mind. Develop those, and prosper; focus instead on the gadgetry, and you’re both a fool and a soon to be dead one.

    I don’t know how many times I’ve seen this play out in life. A superior driver will do well when in a Yugo, or in an all-wheel drive modern sedan. The inferior driver will manage to kill themselves in a vehicle designed expressly to prevent that.

    Focus on skills, not the instrument.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Here in the wintertime, it’s passing by all the guys and gals stuck in ditches (or occasionally, up on guardrails… how did dey do dat?) in their 4-wheel-super-trac-whatever, while we’ve got RWD, a standard shift, and our heads out of our fourth point o’ contact (the last being the critical thing).

      4-wheel-drive for roads is just 100-200 pounds of dead weight to haul around for the life of your car.

      1. Daniel

        Summer (or cheap all-season) tires instead of proper Winter tires and a very gross over confidence in the vehicles AWD capability facilitated by manufacturer claims in commercials and dealer salesman exaggerating capabilities. Combine that with a lack of any sort of real driver training and we end up with a bunch ignorant twats bouncing their hubris off the closest guard rails.

        Anecdotal story…. I was at a local Subaru dealer to look at a used vehicle they took on trade. While waiting, I over heard a salesman talking to a younger man and woman about the extraordinary capabilities of the Subi AWD. “This this can go anywhere off-road better than any dedicated 4WD truck. …”

        Do you want to be ass first into a barrier on a highway off ramp? Because that’s how you get ass first in a barrier on an off ramp….

        1. Luke

          There’s actually some truth to the claim.
          Smaller, lighter cars can go many places that pickups will have trouble with. Even with smaller tires, they’re putting fewer pounds per square inch on the soil, and when going across a damp meadow, that’s a big deal.
          They just don’t have any ground clearance to speak of.

          1. RSR

            As you point out, it’s about weight per square inch/ft/area of space that matters on wet/soggy terrain, not gross weight… That said, wider offroad tires make smaller trucks lighter per sq inch than many passenger vehicles with increasingly narrower tires contact patch often being 1/2 or less the contact patch’s surface area for offroad truck tires (small contact patch used to optimize fuel economy by minimizing tire/road friction — not to optimize traction and accordingly safety, or vehicle stability [computeried vehicle stability systems and sensors supposedly account for the inherent deficienies of such design…]). When you couple w/ offroad treads and perhaps an air pump where one can air down offroad tires (which increases area, and also important that offroad type truck tires have sidewalls that are also more puncture resistant when aired down for sand or mud or similar soft surface), it seems silly to make the claim that cars are more offroad capable…
            That said, if talking full sized vs more compact truck options, there are differences — my 4wd toyota pickup weights at least 1,000 lbs less than an F150, and it’s width is ~68 inches vs ~80 inches for the F150… Yes, weight matters, but when talking about offroad, for me it’s often much more about trail width/maneuverability rather than weight ratings… Width typically is more of a factor than length, but that matters too… YMMV.
            Also worth noting the F150s from 20 years ago were much smaller than the F150s of today.
            While seemingly offtopic, it goes to Hognose’s original point, that any transportation is better than none, but when applying minimum standards, you quickly remove less than ideal options.

  10. archy

    ***And Duncan runs right into one of the problems of an optimizing approach: what makes something the best choice for one task may not make it the best for another. He finds that the Glock RTF2 is a bit of a “horses for courses” specialist, and one of its less optimal courses is the one that most people select a handgun for, for concealed carry and self defense:

    Now, if you are looking for a daily conceal carry handgun, The RTF2 framed Glocks are not ideal. If you are trying to conceal an RTF2 Glock, having it right next to your skin is not going to feel great. You will have to wear a layer of protective clothing. Also, the RTF2 frames are extremely rough on all clothing, gloves and even your seatbelt. For a training course, duty carry or home defense firearm, the RTF2 is the best of the Glock offerings, for a very positive grip. ***

    One of my uncles was a US Secret Service agent, assigned to every Presidential Detail from Eisenhower to Ford. I’ve got the 5-screw 2-inch S&W M10 that was reasonably state-of-the-art during the Eisenhower Administration, and shot the Lightweight .45 Commander he thought was a better and more practical carry piece for most of what he was doing. But in the 1960s he and some of his pals discovered the 9mm Smith and Wesson Model 39, a little shorter than a Commander, and in the same caliber and with the same mag capacity as a wartime P.38. Hollowpoint 9mm rounds weren’t yet common, but then too neither were they common for .38 Special rewhallopers, either. So he gave the ’39 a try…and found out those hand-grabbing checkered walnut grips just flat chewed the lining out of his not-inexpensive suit jackets. Yeah, he could have sanded or filed the checkering down. But he still had his Commander, which pretty much fit the same holsters, and it was a .45 that didn’t need trick bullets to get the job done.

  11. archy

    ***And Duncan runs right into one of the problems of an optimizing approach: what makes something the best choice for one task may not make it the best for another. He finds that the Glock RTF2 is a bit of a “horses for courses” specialist, and one of its less optimal courses is the one that most people select a handgun for, for concealed carry and self defense:

    Now, if you are looking for a daily conceal carry handgun, The RTF2 framed Glocks are not ideal. If you are trying to conceal an RTF2 Glock, having it right next to your skin is not going to feel great. You will have to wear a layer of protective clothing. Also, the RTF2 frames are extremely rough on all clothing, gloves and even your seatbelt. For a training course, duty carry or home defense firearm, the RTF2 is the best of the Glock offerings, for a very positive grip. ***

    One of my uncles was a US Secret Service agent, assigned to every Presidential Detail from Eisenhower to Ford. I’ve got the 5-screw 2-inch S&W M10 that was reasonably state-of-the-art during the Eisenhower Administration, and shot the Lightweight .45 Commander he thought was a better and more practical carry piece for most of what he was doing. But in the 1960s he and some of his pals discovered the 9mm Smith and Wesson Model 39, a little shorter than a Commander, and in the same caliber and with the same mag capacity as a wartime P.38. Hollowpoint 9mm rounds weren’t yet common, but then too neither were they common for .38 Special rewhallopers, either. So he gave the ’39 a try…and found out those hand-grabbing checkered walnut grips just flat chewed the lining out of his not-inexpensive suit jackets. Yeah, he could have sanded or filed the checkering down. But he still had his Commander, which pretty much fit the same holsters, and it was a .45 that didn’t need trick bullets to get the job done.

  12. Jay Dee

    My personal experience says to choose the biggest gun you will carry every day. A 1911 in the gun safe does you no good. Conversely, most criminals do not want to get shot. In the unlikely event you actually need to use a weapon for personal defense, even a Beretta Bobcat in 22 LR fills that bill.

    1. looserounds.com

      I admit not understanding the thinking of people who are not willing to change a little to accommodate the most effective pistol they can have. All I have ever CCWed is a full size all steel 1911 with two spare mags summer winter etc. often times in winter its a full isze 1911 with X300. and sometimes a full size 1911 with a colt defender as a secondary.

      summer, winter, spring and fall. I carry a full size 1911 and two mags. i have never had a problem keeping it concealed. and the weight has never bothered me

  13. Doug

    An old friend who loved wine told me when asked, the best wine is the one you like best.
    Never forgot that.
    I’ve applied that philosophy to many aspects of my life, including weapons choices, and it has worked excellent.

  14. guest

    good post, great topic to start the week, thanks.

    short of searching for pirsig’s treatise on motorcycle maintenance.

  15. Dienekes

    Way back in the day I spent an afternoon with Jim Cirillo at Glynco. Among other more important things we discussed, yep, gun selection. As I expected (and he confirmed) it was a pretty mundane issue. He acquitted himself quite well with a garden variety S&W Model 10. In later years he gravitated to Glocks. The mindset, however, stayed the same…

    All the obsessing about the perfect damn gun is akin to searching for the perfect hydraulic jack; boring and pointless.

  16. Nato

    I claim no expertise as I am am old in age but new to pistol shooting, I just wanted to say that you have hit on what informed my first gun purchase.

    “It doesn’t matter.”

    3 things

    Caliber. It doesn’t matter. I chose 10mm over .38, whatever.

    Frame size. It doesn’t matter. I chose full-size over compact, whatever.

    Action. It doesn’t matter. I chose semi auto over revolver, whatever.

    Then I went looking for a pistol with comfort when I held it and what I like to call high quality manufacturing.

    I’ve been meaning to do this for a while, but only just now got to it.

    Keep on blogging. Your blog is a great resource.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Things like frame size and weight do matter if you plan to carry the weapon concealed. But you’re very right that what works for you, works for you. There are tides and fashions in guns, as in anything, and any gun beats no gun (says the guy responding to blog comments in his exercise clothes, with an insignificant-caliber Walther in his pocket).

      “High-quality manufacturing” means different things to different people. A Glock is so ugly I can’t get over it, yet it works perfectly well. The pistol as industrial appliance. It is not a work of art, like a SIG 210 is, but nobody carries a 210.

      A Beretta 92 or CZ-75 is always much better finished than the Glock, yet the Glocks are replacing those weapons all but worldwide. (Part of the reason is that Glocks are cheaper, of course).

      I recently looked over some retired Washington, DC Metropolitan Police Glocks and SIGs (226s, I think) and was struck by just how badly DC cops keep their weapons. Given the excellent durability of the finish on those two guns from the factory, some of the rusted monstrosities were really eye-opening.

      Of course, they’re rusty, but have scarcely been fired.

    2. Sideliner 1950

      Respectfully replying to Nato, regarding caliber choice…

      You write, “Caliber. It doesn’t matter”. Right, any gun in a gunfight is better than no gun in a gunfight. But apart from that scenario, it can matter, and for me it did matter…not at first, but eventually, and the fallout is still an issue for me.

      Absolutely loved my sweet little .32 cal Beretta 3032 Tomcat for several years, right up until the slide mechanism failed irreparably, fortunately not in a self-defense situation. (By the way, to their everlasting credit, Beretta promptly refunded the full purchase price after authenticating my purchase documentation.)

      I was relatively new to shooting when I bought the Tomcat and it was my first semi-automatic pistol. From Day 1 I understood and respected Beretta’s restriction on ammunition pressure (<130ft lbs muzzle energy), and didn't think much about it, because there was sufficient ammo available that complied with that limitation. But knowing then what I know now, I'd have purchased a gun that could handle higher pressure rounds with heavier bullets. So that leaves out the possibility of replacing it with another 3032 Tomcat, as much as I loved it.

      One more argument against getting a .32 caliber pistol again is this: generally speaking, the popularity of .32 caliber weapons has been diminishing steadily for some time, suggesting that caliber may eventually become obsolete and possibly disappear completely in my lifetime.

      So what? you may ask…

      …So this: I now find myself with a considerable store of brand new .32 ACP ammo and nothing to shoot it with, as well as a dozen Beretta 3032 magazines that don't work in any other model gun. I know could just buy and shoot a different high-quality .32 cal pistol, toss the Tomcat magazines, and quit whining, but I'm not there yet; and if I did that, I'd still have a gun in a caliber that's becoming obsolete.

      And so the advice I'd offer to the uninitiated is this: DO choose your caliber wisely, because it COULD matter to you some day…obviously you don't want your weapon to fail when you need it (not blaming the caliber, just relating my experience), and you don't want to invest in ammo and/or accessories that will become useless if/when it does fail, and/or obsolete over time. Keep it simple and go with a mainstream caliber to avoid that anguish.

      1. Hognose Post author

        I often carry a .32 PPK, simply because I have a few .32 PPKs, including a real shagged-out beater. Hell, I sometimes carry a .25.

        Re your Tomcat: at least Beretta c/s made up for any failures of Beretta design and manufacture. But there are people who still shoot .32 and people who still own Tomcats… For an hour spent registering on GunBroker and setting up a couple of sales pages, and another hour spent on the PITA of sending the stuff (you can just send the mags in a priority mail next-day box) you can have some money in your pocket for ammo for the gun you do carry now.

        It’s strange which calibers live and which ones die. You would think that .32 S&W would go before .32 ACP. These old .32 and .38 pistols and revolvers from the early 20th Century may not be defensive guns any longer (100 years ago, cops carried Police Positives in .32 Colt. They’re little jewels of guns, unappreciated wonders).

        1. Sideliner 1950

          Thanks very much for the encouragement, Hognose, and for the solid suggestion. It is strange which calibers live and which ones die.

          Intellectually, I get it…investing a few hours to take advantage of GunBroker’s wide reach might just be my very best course of action, eventually allowing me to put this sad and frustrating chapter behind me and move on. I probably should do that, and I just might. But, I confess I haven’t completely let go of the thought of getting another comfortable, sweet little Tomcat and keeping my fingers crossed for “better luck next time.” Pathological…? Ha! Maybe a little. Sentimental…? Definitely. I’ll decide soon.

          Either way, thanks for all you do. And again, I appreciate your input.

  17. Frank

    Great article. I carry a Sig P250 compact in .45. It’s got a 400lb trigger pull that takes about a week to break. Everyone that I let try it at the range hates it, but I hit everything I aim at with it. I’m the only one that likes it and that’s good enough for me.

  18. Mark Andrew Edwards

    Good article. I like the rule of ‘enough’. Carry a gun. Don’t worry about which gun is best, worry about which gun is good enough.

    Accurate enough.
    Reliable enough.
    Comfortable enough.

    I tell friends and family who are getting into shooting to try out a lot of pistols and get the one that fits their hand best and that they enjoy shooting the most. Guns that are comfortable enough and are enjoyable to shoot will get shot and carried.

  19. Mick

    I consider the environment in which I’ll be carrying as a part of the equation. I work in a non-permissive environment, but value my life over my paycheck; thus, and Airweight Bodyguard in a convenient and discreet location suits; when in a more flexible environment, I have a variety of others to choose from, but tend to revolvers for the home, placed in various locations (my wife will NOT devote time to learning semi-auto contraptions, works wheelguns fine), and have gravitated to the M&P line from S&W in 9 mm for carry, as all you need to do is aim, point, and click, the same as my revolvers. These work for me; someone else may prefer an HK, another may pick a Nambu. None of my business; just don’t point them at me, if you please.

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