Pocket Rockets – Section One: A Pocketful of Death

“Because such firearms are so portable and lightweight, it’s extremely easy to wave them around indiscriminately – unintentionally placing yourself and others in possible danger. Remember, the smaller the handgun, the easier it is to point it in the wrong direction or place yourself in a potentially dangerous position.”– Phil Spangenberger, “Pocket Autos for Defense and Fun!,” Guns & Ammo

Because the term “pocket rocket” is an invention of gun industry marketing, there is no standard definition. However, advertising and articles in gun fan magazines regularly stress two salient points about this class of handgun:

  • They are small enough to be easily concealed (often illustrated by a picture of a gun nestled in the palm of a hand).
  • They feature higher caliber – and thus greater wounding power – than other pistols of comparable size.

The gun industry offers a staggering array of small semiautomatic pistols in many calibers. This study focuses on semiautomatic pistols that are no more than seven inches in overall length and that are chambered for ammunition in 9mm or larger.e (See Appendix A for a representative sampling of such firearms.)
Killing Power – The Three Deadly C’s

All guns can kill. But some guns kill better than others. This is because they incorporate one or more of the three deadly C’s – concealability, capacity, and caliber. The essence of pocket rockets is the way in which these factors have been deliberately combined into one package.

Advertising flyer obtained at 1999 S.H.O.T. Show
Concealability. Guns that can be easily concealed are more likely to be carried on the person. They are convenient for use by criminals like Buford Furrow, and are more likely to be at hand in a moment of anger or emotional upset among “law-abiding citizens.” The lethal potential of the availability of firearms was aptly captured in the following two sentences by public health authority Dr. Arthur L. Kellermann:

A lighted match can certainly start a fire, but the potential for serious injury or death is much greater if you toss in a bucket of gasoline. Likewise, violence can certainly cause harm, but the potential for serious injury or death is increased when a firearm is involved.12

Capacity. The greater ammunition capacity of firearms affects the outcome of armed encounters. Although most handgun shootings occur at close range, most bullets fired, even by trained law enforcement officers, miss their targets.13 For example, FBI agents are reported to have fired at least 70 rounds at two assailants in a fierce 1986 firefight in Miami, but only 18 rounds hit the criminals.14 The ratio of hits to rounds fired was not much better in the fatal shooting of an unarmed West African immigrant, Amadou Diallo, by New York City police in February 1999. In that case, four officers reportedly fired a total of 41 bullets, 19 of which hit Diallo, who was not shooting back. Two officers emptied their 16-round capacity semiautomatic pistols, one fired five times and one fired four times.f Therefore, the more rounds a gun can fire quickly, the more likely it is that a given shooting will result in multiple wounds. More wounds increase the likelihood of death or serious injury in a given incident.15

Caliber. Bigger bullets (higher caliber) inflict more serious wounds.16 The authors of a comparative study of police ammunition, for example, wrote in 1996 that “[o]f the bullets which attain desired penetration depth, those of larger diameter are the most effective, crushing more tissue.”17 This fact is reflected in, among other practical applications, the military’s specifications for handguns to be used by special operations forces.18 Trauma centers are seeing an increase in bullet caliber,19 and the fatality rate is higher for persons shot by large-caliber handguns than for those shot with small-caliber handguns.20 This is especially true when the bullets are “defensive rounds,” such as expanding hollow points, specially designed to inflict maximum trauma and cause incapacitating injury.21

American gun manufacturers have exploited these three deadly C’s in gun design over the last 20 years as a general means of sparking consumer interest in saturated markets, thereby boosting sales. Bob Rogers, editor of Shooting Sports Retailer, a prominent firearms business magazine, summed up the resulting mix of gun products in 1997:

Firepower is increasing. So is the killing potential as guns shrink in size and concealibility.22

The Pocket Rocket Formula

The manufacturers of pocket rockets in particular – which include virtually all of the major handgun manufacturers and many smaller companies – have deliberately combined all three of the deadly C’s into a single palm-sized package. A handgun enthusiast magazine described the trend in these words last year:

At one time not so very long ago, you could cover the subject of…9mm Parabellum and more powerful autos, in a single sentence: “There aren’t any.” A few firms tried to reduce the guns of their era….But none of these firms came near to creating anything like the mini-powerhouses we have today. Today’s guns show a size/power ratio undreamed of 25 years ago.23

What follows is a brief description of how pocket rockets achieve this “power/size ratio” and what it means for lethality.

  • Concealability. Advertisements for pocket rockets stress their small size. They are often illustrated by a picture of a gun resting in the palm of a hand. At least one manufacturer (Kahr Arms) has distributed palm-sized paper silhouettes to demonstrate the actual small size of its product.
  • Capacity. Pocket rockets generally come with ammunition magazines that hold from five to 10 rounds of ammunition. Comparably small-sized revolvers hold from five to six rounds in their cylinders.24 But pistols can be more quickly reloaded than revolvers, and high-capacity magazines holding as many as 15 to 16 rounds can be bought in the aftermarket and used in many pocket rockets.
  • Caliber. The modern gun industry has always marketed small semiautomatic pistols, many of which have become known as “junk guns” or “Saturday Night Specials” because of their shoddy construction and frequent use in crime. In years past, however, these guns came in relatively low calibers, such as .22, .25, .32, and .380. In the last decade, however, gunmakers have combined the diminutive size of handguns with increasing caliber. Pocket rockets, which represent the state of the art in this deadly miniaturization, now routinely come in higher calibers like 9mm, .357 SIG, .40 Smith & Wesson, and .45 ACP. Ammunition manufacturers are also increasingly offering specialized “defensive” ammunition for such guns, thereby increasing their wounding potential.

Obtained at the 1999 S.H.O.T. Show
It is impossible to document how many pocket rockets have been manufactured and sold in America. Neither the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms nor any other agency or private organization collects detailed information on production of handguns by each manufacturer’s model or gun size. Thus, the most that one can say is that Smith & Wesson, for example, produced so many handguns in such-and-such caliber during a given year. But one cannot say how many of each product line was made nor, indeed, how many of the guns made were sold.

However, the writings of informed industry observers in the gun press, advertisements, and the appearance of new models in the catalogs of such companies as Smith & Wesson make clear that the manufacture and sale of pocket rockets have boomed over the last five years. Given their deadly potential, it is no wonder that pocket rockets are increasingly appearing as guns traced in crimes.
Why Pocket Rockets? Marketing Lethality

The gun industry did $1.5 billion in wholesale trade of guns and ammunition in 1998. For some individuals it has been very profitable. For example, William Ruger, Sr., the president of Sturm, Ruger & Company, was reported in 1996 to be earning a salary of $333,000. He and his son owned shares of the company (which the elder Ruger called a “little money-making machine”) worth more than $174 million. The so-called “Ring of Fire” companies�makers of “Saturday Night Specials,” inexpensive, easily concealed handguns made from low-grade metals�have posted large profits for their owners. James Waldorf and Errol Brown, founders of Lorcin Engineering Company, paid themselves $925,000 each in 1994. In 1996 Bruce Jennings of B.L. Jennings earned a salary of $1.6 million, while Jimmy Davis of Davis Industries collected $800,000 in pay.25

But the industry has faced serious problems in the last 20 years or so. Foremost among these is the fact that the industry has increasingly faced saturated markets because guns are too durable�they simply last too long.26 To compound these problems, fewer and fewer young people are growing up into the “traditional” hunting and sport-shooting markets. Other industry concerns include a decline in the number of country dwellers, who tend to have more space for shooting, and growing curbs on the discharge of lead.27

Thus, the gun industry’s chronic problem over the last several decades has been figuring out how to deal with markets in which “more and more guns [are] being purchased by fewer and fewer consumers.”28 To stimulate these markets, it has turned to “innovation” in product design. “Convincing people they need more guns is the job of innovation,” a panel of industry experts reported in 1993. The role of innovation was described in that same year by Andrew W. Molchan, publisher and editor of American Firearms Industry:

Without new models that have major technical changes, you eventually exhaust your market. You get to the point where 90% of the people who might want one have one already. This is the fundamental problem with the classic rifle and shotgun market. Handguns during the last twenty years have sold better than long guns, mainly because of the innovation. A lot of 1993 handguns are very different from what was around in 1933. This innovation has driven the handgun market.29 (Bold text in original.)

Pocket rockets are the latest in the line of “innovation” with which the gun industry has driven the handgun market.

Advertisement, American Rifleman, March 1999

Advertisement, American Rifleman, April 1999
Concealed Carry Laws

The success of pocket rockets has been tied closely to a wave of “concealed carry” laws, strongly pushed by the National Rifle Association, that allow growing numbers of Americans to legally carry firearms hidden on their persons.

These laws have been good for the gun business, as the NRA’s former chief lobbyist, Tanya Metaksa, noted in a 1996 interview with The Wall Street Journal:

The gun industry should send me a basket of fruit�our efforts have created a new market.30

Concealed carry laws help sell handguns31 and gun dealer services, “turning into an economic windfall in both guns sales and in classes required to obtain CCW-permits.”32 The marketing vice president for Interarms, once America’s premier gun importer, called concealed carry laws “the most important star on the horizon.”33 A gun industry magazine headline put the matter more bluntly: “More Gun Permits Equal More Gun Sales.”34

But not all voices within the industry have been as enthusiastic about concealed carry as Ms. Metaksa. As Guns & Ammo’s “personal security” writer opined in July 1992:

If someone carries weapons concealed, he must really be looking for or expecting trouble instead of avoiding it (whether they were carried legally or not).35

Nevertheless, the gun industry has enthusiastically followed up its legislative successes with dozens of new models of “pocket rockets” aimed at the concealed carry market�and at the thousands who, like Buford Furrow’s victim, Joseph Santos Ileto, will become “targets of opportunity” for these tiny killers.


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e) There are no “standard” industry specifications for the overall length of pistols that are variously advertised as “compact,” “subcompact,” “carry,” “concealed carry,” and so forth. The seven-inch-length dimension used in this report was selected after inspection of a range of several manufacturers’ advertising materials and is intended to fall on the conservative side of the vague line dividing compact handguns from “full-sized” pistols.

f) “Officers in Bronx Fire 41 Shots, And an Unarmed Man Is Killed,” The New York Times, February 5, 1999, p. A1.