Is the PDW (Personal Defensive Weapon) Still Relevant?


FN P90 Personal Defense Weapon, Tactical
FN P90 Personal Defense Weapon

Ft Collins, CO –-( “When you keep doing what you’re doing, you’ll keep getting what you’re getting!” ~ Dave Young

PDW (Personal Defensive Weapon)

The term, “PDW,” has been conferred upon an ill-defined class of individual firearms that armies, including ours, have historically looked to for issue to “rear-echelon” troops.

Back in the Cold-War Era, commanders imagined rear-area personnel having to confront Soviet paratroopers, who would be wearing some kind of personal body armor. To address this eventuality, the FN P90, firing its proprietary round, the 5.7×28, was introduced.

The 5.7×28 did indeed penetrate some kinds of body armor, but was (and is) expensive, hard to find, and its performance in all other aspects of terminal ballistics is nothing special.

And the P90 itself is a short, compact, light rifle, but still too big to carry in a holster, much less carry concealed. It’s small, but not small enough.

I’ve had students bring P90s to DTI Urban Rifle Courses, and in all fairness, they run fine. Nonetheless, the P90 never “caught-on,” neither in the private sector, nor in the police community, nor has DOD ever displayed any more than casual interest!

Other weapons, from pistols with shoulder-stocks, to “miniaturized” SMGs, have also been tasked to fill the roll of “PDW,” with varying degrees of failure and dispassion!

During WWII, the M1 Carbine was designed as a “PDW!”

The English term, “carbine,” is derived from a French word for cavalry, or horse-mounted soldiers (who were expected actually to fight from horseback). It refers to a short rifle suitable for carrying by horse-cavalry, and that can be fired one-handed, from horseback. By the 1940s, horses, of course, no longer occupied an important position in land warfare, but the term stuck.

The M1 Garand (chambered for “30-06,” or 7.62×63) was (and is) a superb infantry rifle for average-to-large-sized, young males in good physical shape, but it was never well suited for carrying inside vehicles, nor for use by the small-statured, nor for rear-area personnel (from secretaries, to truck-drivers, to mechanics) who were not trained to expertly operate it, beyond a brief afternoon of perfunctory “familiarization firing.”

A brand new 1945-style M1 Carbine from Inland Manufacturing
A brand new 1945-style M1 Carbine from Inland Manufacturing

The M1 Carbine, firing what is little more than a pistol round, proved enormously popular in all theaters of WWII, including among front-line troops, but it still did not fit into a holster.

In our Modern Era, troopers are now herded into cramped armored vehicles and helicopters, all of which has demanded short, light, compact rifles, “carbines,” if you will.

Also, in our age of sophisticated optical sights, “sight radius” the distance between rear and front, iron sights (the longer, the more inherently accurate the rifle), has become irrelevant.

Thus, modern military rifles have barrels between sixteen and twenty inches, just long enough to maximize bullet velocity (within the context described above).

So, do modern armies still need a separate “PDW” for rear-area personnel?


The argument rages, but while votes are still being counted, what about pistols, like our current SIG P320 (M17), or the old Beretta 92F (M9), or for that matter the even older 1911?

Isn’t the sidearm supposed to fill the role of “PDW?”

Modern pistols can be safely carried, all day, fully loaded, in holsters, openly or concealed.

Recoil and noise are relatively mild (compared with rifles), and pistols can be brought into action quickly.

Modern pistol ammunition is as terminally effective at short range as pistol ammunition has ever been, and while most pistol ammunition is not “armor-piercing,” we are concerned today far more with rag-tag Islamic jihadis than we are with Soviet paratroopers.

A modern pistol, routinely carried in a high state of readiness, loaded with high-performance ammunition, in the hands of a seasoned Operator, is extremely fast, adroit, and lethal. Perfect for close-range, personal defense.

That’s why Operators in the civilian world carry them concealed, everywhere.

So, why haven’t we long-since forgotten the entire “PDW” legerdemain, and just started training troopers who need them, how to carry and use their issue-pistols effectively?

Why do we see, even in this “Age of Terrorism,” those few troopers (even officers and staff NCOs) who are allowed to touch pistols, carry them with an empty magazine well, even in “combat zones?” Heaven forbid anyone would have a round chambered.

The answer is, of course, systemic “risk-aversion,” which invariably leads to fear-driven decisions, a pernicious, chronic disease that plagues all bureaucracies.

U.S. Army surplus 1911 .45 ACP pistols
U.S. Army surplus 1911 .45 ACP pistols the orginal PDW.

Civilian police officers, as well as CCW permit-holders, routinely carry fully-loaded pistols, openly and concealed, every day, all day.

We don’t “turn them in” at the end of the day either.

They’re in our homes and our cars. We keep and carry them, always in a high state of readiness, continuously.

Yes, there are UDs [unintentional discharges]. We note the procedural lesson and move on! We don’t take all the guns away in a panic, because we’re frightened to death we’ll have another.

Yet, our magnificent troopers, even today, apparently can’t be trusted with pistols, nor with legitimate, modern defensive pistol training.

So, we continue to spend millions in an unnecessary search for the magic “PDW,” when a perfectly good one is right in front of us and has been since 1911.

“The ‘sunk-cost fallacy’ says that it is bad to lose something we have invested time, money, energy, and emotion into, regardless of whether or not that something is actually doing anything for us.

Humans are naturally risk-averse, so we stubbornly choose not to lose something, over potentially gaining something else, when we don’t even like what we would lose!” ~ Liz Powell

At the poker table, it’s called, “… good money after bad!”


Defense Training International, Inc

About John Farnam & Defense Training International, Inc

As a defensive weapons and tactics instructor John Farnam will urge you, based on your own beliefs, to make up your mind in advance as to what you would do when faced with an imminent lethal threat. You should, of course, also decide what preparations you should make in advance if any. Defense Training International wants to make sure that their students fully understand the physical, legal, psychological, and societal consequences of their actions or in-actions.

It is our duty to make you aware of certain unpleasant physical realities intrinsic to the Planet Earth. Mr. Farnam is happy to be your counselor and advisor. Visit:

Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

I’m old school, and grey of both hair and beard! I was raised on Wheel guns, and contrary to the popular ‘modern’ thought of never carrying the hammer on a live round in the chamber, we were taught just the opposite: 6 is better than 5, and 5 is better than 4! ( 5 round snubby models). We were taught how to carefully lower the hammer down on a live chamber, without lighting off the round in the chamber. In all my years I have never inadvertently lit a round off in a chamber by lowering the hammer! Modern ‘gun… Read more »

Ej harbet

3inch is the ideal all purpose a huge fan of pre-lock smith 64s.


I’m no longer going to use the term “Assault Rifle” from now on all my firearms are PDW’s

I hope more of you will join me with this way of thinking.


For sure

Get Out

IMOA there’s no need nor requirement to field another PDW for anyone, just use the M9, M4 or M16 already in service. The only difference is to require training on these weapons by support personnel which can be accomplished in a couple of weeks or so with follow on refresher training. On today’s battlefields the combat area includes rear areas and proper weapons training by these rear area troops will counter the obvious distrust commanders have with these troops carrying loaded weapons.


Excellent article. While on 2 1/2 years of private security contracts in Iraq we couldn’t carry a rifle (AK or M4) at all times, everywhere we went, so we always carried a pistol. I was issued everything from Browning High Powers to Glock 17s to Kimber 1911s, but one thing was always the same. I carried it with a round in the chamber and ready to deploy. But . . . I interacted a lot with Coalition troops, and the American troops who were not actually out on patrol or on the road never hcarried a loaded gun of any… Read more »


SGC used the P90 to good effect.

Ej harbet

Indeed 😀


I’ve had the opportunity to shoot a friend’s IWI Galil ACE .556 SAP 8.3″ Barrel with Side Folding Brace. That’s one hell of a compact PDW, IMHO.


Well put, John.
Of course if you are carrying an EMPTY pistol and your magazine is in a pouch or your pocket your response in time of need will likely remain inadequate.


I remember being required to carry a pistol back in ,my Vietnam days, whenever I made a run to pick up cryptographic material. The problem was that the RPS (what it was called at the time) material was issued from an office in the Subic Bay Naval Station HQ, and you weren’t allowed to carry a loaded gun there. Typical Navy Catch-22. I ignored the rule and carried my 1911 in condition 1 anyway. Turned out to be a good thing too, as I was once hijacked by a Filipino cab driver who apparently thought I was carrying a payroll… Read more »


Nothing quite like speaking with authority.

Well done.


Quote: “Why do we see, even in this “Age of Terrorism,” those few troopers (even officers and staff NCOs) who are allowed to touch pistols, carry them with an empty magazine well, even in “combat zones?” Heaven forbid anyone would have a round chambered.” This is something that always perplexed me as well. Even on field exercises when we trained to fight, the officers, NCO’s, and squad leaders who carried an M9 never, ever were allowed to unholster the weapon. Because of this, some even put it in a plastic bag then holstered it so they wouldn’t have to spend… Read more »

Wild Bill

@JW, I bet that if you can refine your question to tell me what it is that is weird and you don’t get, then I can give you a clear explanation in one sentence.


I am referring to the Navy, Seabees, to be precise. We were trained and qualified in multiple weapons including crew served systems. If I could sum it up in one question I would say why was the M9 treated like it’s never to be used? for the most part we were the “rear echelon”, but if you’re going to put a gun in someone’s hand, don’t just teach them to shoot a bullseye at 200M, or 25M depending on the gun. Now, I probably can guess the answer as well, because most of my time spent with weapons in the… Read more »

Get Out

What branch of service are you referring too?


PDWs are the fastest selling guns I see, and are most relevant to me. My wife sports her p-90 with deadly accuracy past four hundred yards. I just built a ar15 pistol in 300 BLK and fell in love with the platform all over again! Admittedly it’s pricey to plink with, so I just got my 9mm upper and binary trigger for true PDW firepower cheap. The 1911 was my first pistol, I love them, however a Kriss in 45 with a double tap trigger is a magnitude of lethality greater. My 300blk spitting supersonic loads is accurate past 400…good… Read more »

Xaun Loc

You are both right in what you say. And both wrong in the real world. Yes, the PDW as it has become exemplified by the P90 (NOT the PS90!) and the AR/AK “Pistol” with “brace” does represent an order of magnitude more firepower than any holsterable pistol. And, yes, the military need for a “PDW” is largely driven by a lack of adequate training. BUT the major points being missed are: 1) There is literally a world of difference between civilian needs and military needs. 2) Military personnel in ‘support’ roles will NEVER receive adequate combat training 3) Adequate pistol… Read more »


“Support personnel”, i.e. those who are not front line combat troops, using M4s have had very mixed results when engaging opposition forces. Their weapons just are not maintained as well as those of troops whose primary mission is pulling the trigger. The result is frequently an inoperative weapon. That’s a problem that needs to be addressed. My understanding of the history of the M1 carbine is that it was brought into production during WW II because of a shortfall of 1911 production to be issued in lieu of a sidearm. The cartridge was not terribly effective. My father carried one… Read more »


The reason for a sidearm is to imply that an order will be enforced! Protection is a secondary function. Do some Homework, Okay?

Ej harbet

Maybe for eurolackeys! To americans pistols are fighting weapons