I am not an expert in the field of firearms by any stretch of the imagination. I like to shoot, and I shoot often. I’ve had the opportunity to shoot a number of handguns over the past few years, and I have availed myself of a goodly amount of locally-available training. It’s a fun hobby that has the benefit of potentially saving my life.
I’ve been asked numerous times by non-shooters about buying a handgun. They ask because they know it wasn’t long ago that I was just as new and uninitiated as they are, but that I jumped in and familiarized myself with the field. Some people trust my opinion, and I’m all too happy to talk about stuff I like (if you want to escape in a timely manner, do not bring up guns, politics, religion, or Camaros around me). But I figure that my take on the subject is a bit different than most and as such would make interesting reading.
Don’t expect a listing of what to buy. There are too many good choices to limit with a few recommendations. To illustrate, I carry a Smith & Wesson Bodyguard .380 every day, but that doesn’t mean the Ruger LCP, Kahr P-380, or others of the same type are poor choices. I plan on planting a few ideas in the heads of serious inquirers. I will also assume in the interests of accessibility that the reader knows absolutely nothing of firearms.
This is going to be a long one, so let us begin.
WHAT KIND OF HANDGUN DO YOU PREFER?
This question comes first, as it eliminates a world of options from the outset. The preference to which I refer is revolvers versus semi-automatic pistols.
Revolvers are an older design by which rounds are loaded into a revolving cylinder which turns and aligns with the barrel when a hammer is pulled back (or cocked). When the hammer is released, it springs home and contacts the cartridge primer, igniting the powder inside and sending the bullet forward. This is done until the cylinder is spent.
There are two types of revolver. Single-actions require cocking the hammer before pulling a trigger to fire. Double-actions use the trigger to cock the hammer and release it in a single yet longer stroke. As single-action revolvers generally only used for certain types of competitive shooting and hunting, I recommend double-action revolvers for those things as well as personal protection purposes. Double-action revolvers also come with different hammer styles. While the standard revolver has an exposed hammer, they can be shrouded (hammer sides are covered by the frame, but are exposed on top and can be cocked) or hidden (totally covered by the frame). These are great options if you’re carrying concealed.
I personally believe that revolvers are great for first-time users. They are reliable, tolerant of most ammunition, easy to learn, simple to clean and lubricate, and require little additional maintenance. On the flip-side, they are slow to reload. There is typically no external safety beyond a transfer bar which requires a finger pulling the trigger to allow contact with the cartridge. They have long, heavy trigger pulls that may be hard for those with weak hand-strength to use and can affect accuracy. Also possibly impacting accuracy is a revolver’s higher barrel…since it’s higher than your forearm, the force of firing a bullet can cause the muzzle to pivot upwards.
The manufacturers I recommend in the revolver category are Smith & Wesson (tend to be finer quality) and Ruger (tend to be more rugged). Colt used to make fine revolvers, which are an option if found in good condition. Other major manufacturers include Taurus/Rossi and Charter.
Rather than using a revolving cylinder, pistols load cartridges from a grip-housed magazine and eject empty cases as it cycles. They are also available in more varieties than revolvers: pistols may come in single- or double-action and can use a hammer or a striker block to fire.
This type of weapon is used by police forces and military units all over the world. Their magazine-fed design enables them to have higher round capacity than revolvers and to be easier and faster to reload. The trigger tends to be lighter and easier to operate than revolvers, which can also lead to better accuracy. Barrels tend to be lower and more in-line with the shooter’s arm, so they’re generally easier to keep on target. They are also quite reliable when properly cleaned and lubricated, and they disassemble easily for maintenance. Many have the option for external safety device if desired, and some have as many as three that must be defeated to fire the gun.
On the down-side, they tend to need more maintenance than revolvers, specifically cleaning. Not all are as easy to disassemble as others. They are sensitive to poor grip…if “limp-wristed” while firing, the gun will not properly cycle and failures to eject or load may result. Users have to learn how to overcome these issues, which means they aren’t as intuitive to use as revolvers. Slides can be difficult to “rack”, or pull backward, for those with weak hand-strength. They also tend to be more picky with ammunition, though again this is usually ammo-related and not gun-related.
They require a bit more dedication from the shooter than a revolver does, which is why I typically prefer revolvers for new shooters. But, while more complex than a revolver, bear in mind that the military has been training 18 year-olds to use them for battlefield use for the past one hundred years, so it’s nothing training can’t overcome.
Quality pistol manufacturers abound…I already mentioned S&W and Ruger for revolvers, but they also build great pistols. Other quality brands include Glock, CZ (my personal favorite), Springfield Armory, Kahr, Beretta, FNH, Steyr, SIG Sauer, Heckler & Koch, and any number of smaller companies who produce designs based on the old 1911 platform (which I do not particularly recommend for new shooters).
Another consideration for pistols is that older models tend to be made of steel, while newer designs make use of an advanced polymer material. Steel is heavier to carry and requires more attention to cleaning & lubrication, but they tend to be easier to control while shooting due to their heft. Polymer is generally easier to maintain, lighter, and less expensive.
WHY DO YOU WANT A HANDGUN?
This is the most important question I ask, and there are many answers…personal defense? Hunting? Competition? Or do you want a gun just because it is your God-granted and Constitutionally-guaranteed civil right as an American to have one? These are all valid answers, but they call for different considerations.
For this you will want a handgun that is accurate, easy to use, eminently reliable, and fires bullets big enough and in sufficient quantities to stop a threat. This would translate into a full-size handgun, i.e., what your local police might use. This is usually a good first choice for most people because there is a number of good options that meet these requirements.
Lately, many who have asked me about getting a gun want to carry them, and there are even more things to think about. What are the laws where you live? Handgun Law and USA Carry are great resources. The law can be pretty tedious to follow at times, but it is your responsibility to do so.
Home Defense vs. Personal Defense
Simply put, the difference between a home defense handgun and a personal defense handgun is one stays at home and the latter stays on you. If you can and are willing to carry openly, then a full-size duty-style handgun is fine. But while you might be able to carry a full-size gun on your hip, most can’t or won’t…I do not carry openly off my personal property or at the range for an array of reasons. But whether you carry openly or concealed, a compact or subcompact version of a full-sized pistol may be what the doctor ordered.
Let’s look to Glock for a good example. The Glock 17 is a full-sized service/duty pistol with 17 rounds and measures approximately 8″ x 5.5″. The Glock 19 is a compact version with 15 rounds of 9mm and measures nearly 7.25″ x 5″. The Glock 26 (a.k.a. the “Baby Glock”) is a subcompact version with 10 rounds of 9mm and measures about 6.5″ x 4″. They all shoot 9mm ammunition, work the same, and the smaller guns can use the same magazine of those larger than itself. The smaller ones are easier to conceal and lighter to carry than the full-size, but they trade compactness for magazine capacity. Additionally, a shorter grip can cause handling issues, and long-range accuracy may suffer due to the shorter slide.
Another issue is thinness. The Glock pistols mentioned above use a double-stack magazine, which means the rounds are staggered to fit more in there, resulting in a wider mag and grip. This may be an issue for some who’d prefer a smaller weapon. There are a number of thinner options out there…I carry a Ruger SR9c (a compact model of the full-sized SR9), which is a bit thinner than most other pistols of its type despite the double-stack magazine. Many manufacturers offer pistols that accept single-stacked magazines, most notably the Springfield Armory XDs series.
Concealed Carry Pistols
There is a whole class of handguns now being made that are specifically for carry with shorter, thinner slides, shorter grips, single-stacked magazines, and options galore. The S&W Bodyguard .380 from earlier in the article is an example of this, and there are many others available from other manufacturers.
These smaller handguns tend to have heavier springs in their mechanisms that can make them hard to handle. It is for this reason in part that you see many people looking at smaller revolvers for concealed carry. Perhaps the most common and well-known carry revolver is the Smith & Wesson J-frame. Other good options include the lightweight Ruger LCR and the slightly larger and versatile Ruger SP101. Revolvers are favored in close encounters, as they don’t depend on slide movement to operate and won’t fail if anything from clothing to a bad guy’s body make contact with the firearm.
No matter what type you go with, the biggest issue with such small handguns is physics: the smaller and lighter the gun is, the more recoil plays a factor in how they handle. They can be downright painful to shoot, particularly if you’re using one of these pistols that fire more potent ammunition like .357 Magnum, 9mm +P or .40 S&W. My recommendation: don’t. If you have, say, a Ruger SP101 that can fire .357 Magnum rounds, load .38 Spl. instead. I’ll explain more about this when I talk about bullet caliber later.
I don’t personally recommend hunting with a handgun for first-time shooters because it requires more than intermediate skill to handle heavy firearms firing high-powered bullets at animals who should only be put down as quickly and humanely as possible. Hunting is best done with a long gun, which is beyond even the very broad scope of this article.
I’m not hugely into competition, but I do compete from time to time just to sharpen my modest skills. Many of those I know who do this aren’t serious competitors, i.e., they don’t do it for a living, and they live just fine with off-the-shelf equipment. Two of the best shooters I know use Glock 19s. I shoot a (soon not to be) stock CZ-75 B Ω in competition. My doctor used to shoot in IDPA competition with his Kimber 1911 Custom Target. Competition pistols should generally have good sights, longer barrels/slide for accuracy and heft to offset recoil, and a light, short-travel trigger.
Any number of firearms will fit this bill…just talk to people around the local gun shop who compete and see how they do it. For a first-time shooter, though, just go with a stock firearm until you are good enough to be limited by your equipment. By that time you will know what you need. There is specialized competitive shooting out there that uses revolvers, particularly in cowboy shooting, which uses single-actions like the Ruger Vaquero and offerings from Uberti and Chiappa. Like I said about hunting handguns, these require far more than beginner-level skills and are far beyond what I’m trying to cover here.
HOW MUCH DO YOU WANT TO PAY?
This is frankly the least important question I ask. Most of the ones I’ve mentioned are not super expensive, and you don’t have to pay a lot for a good gun. Generally what you’re paying for is reputation and customer support. Some manufacturers have a value line…for instance, S&W has a cheaper alternative to the M&P series of pistols in the SD series. Kahr has a less expensive CM series compared to its PM line. These are good quality but value-priced guns.
There are other options out there that aren’t part of the major manufacturers I’ve mentioned…Taurus has some decent stuff in its catalog. One of my local gunsmiths had a series of CZ clones from a Turkish company called Canik55 that I’ve heard nothing but good about. The old Beretta Cougar is now being manufactured by Stoeger in Turkey for about half as much as Beretta sold it. My first pistol, the Argentinian-made Bersa Thunder .380 CC, still shoots like a champ…its non-CC styled predecessor can be had for less than $300 new. Heck, even a Hi-Point shoots reliably…and doubles as a convenient boat anchor.
WHAT CALIBER CAN YOU HANDLE?
This is the most controversial topic amongst people of the gun, and it’s usually 9mm guys vs. 45ACP guys. If you were to judge by the internet argument, you can only conclude that the former are girly-men and the latter have small genitalia. But now that there’s a such thing as hollow-point ammunition, it’s a matter of personal preference these days…the differences are not what they were fifty years ago. As a sidenote: despite their demonization in the media, you should keep hollow-points in any pistol you just for protection…they are more effective against threats due to the fact they expand inside bad guys and tend to stay inside them rather than going straight through and possibly hitting something or someone you don’t want to.
But what caliber should you choose? While more people are killed every year by .22LR bullets, it’s not the most effective man-stopper out there. For protection purposes, you generally should not use anything smaller than a 9mm bullet in a handgun. Bullets for pistols with a diameter of 9mm includes, of course, your standard 9mm, but also the popular but marginal .380ACP (some say it is not quite powerful enough; an armadillo I bifurcated a few years ago with a couple shots from my Bersa Thunder .380CC says otherwise), and the powerful .357 SIG (lots of muzzle blast with superior obstacle penetration). For revolvers, the .38 Spl. is generally viewed as the starting point for personal protection, and the .357 Magnum’s high recoil, muzzle blast, and penetrative performance is legendary.
In other popular calibers, the classic .45ACP is still considered by many as the best all-around man-stopper of the conventional calibers, and its mild recoil makes it easy to handle, but the size of the bullet contributes to lower round capacities. The .40S&W caliber was developed as a compromise between the smaller and faster 9mm and the hard-hitting .45, and while it’s an effective round that more than splits the difference in capacity, its recoil is also snappier.
The main consideration for the caliber question is that you want the strongest bullet you can shoot effectively and as many of them as you can fit…also known as “bring enough gun”. Granted, by that logic, you’d walk around with a drum-fed Saiga 12-gauge shotgun everywhere you go, but if a .22LR revolver is all you can handle then you should use that. The main thing about a gun-fight is to actually have a gun, and it had better be one you know you can use.
Since there is no way to make this determination without heading out to a gun range, I will give you two personal recommendations. First, if you have the opportunity to go to a range and shoot, start with .22LR first. Recoil is slight, noise is lesser, and it gets you acclimated to how a gun works without being scared by it. Don’t try to take on a .44 Magnum on your first try! Second, 9mm pistols and .38Spl revolvers tend to be mild enough for most people while being effective defense rounds. Just don’t forget that recoil is based on how much powder is in the cartridge, the heft of the bullet, and the heft of the gun itself: it goes back to the earlier point I made about carry guns: smaller guns with stouter rounds means more recoil. For instance, a .38Spl and a 9mm will dole out plenty of recoil from a Ruger LCR or LC9, respectively; but it’s pretty tame when shot from a Ruger SP-101 or SR9.
DO YOU HAVE A GUN STORE AND/OR A RANGE NEAR YOU?
Based on the considerations you should have in mind by this point, go to a store and start checking out guns. What fits best in your hand? Which points most naturally for you? Can you manipulate the controls (safety, slide, slide/magazine/cylinder release, trigger) with no trouble? These are things you can largely figure out by actually handling guns.
An even better option is to find a range where you can rent different firearms and see how they run. For example, Modern Outfitters in Meridian, Mississippi, is a great place for non-shooters to be introduced to firearms, whether for fun or for protection (before you ask, no, I’m not a paid spokesman…just a big fan). The best time to go is on their monthly Ladies/Guys/Couples nights, when range fees are $5 and rentals are 99¢ for anything on the rental shelf. This way you can try several different things to find what works best for you…and it’s a great opportunity to get to know others in the area who are also interested in shooting. And if you want to accelerate your learning, the shooting competitions held on those nights are a great way to develop and sharpen basic gun-handling skills.
Check around your area to see if there’s anything similar to this, as it is the single best way to ensure you make a good buying decision. Even if you’re not looking to buy, a range is a great place to learn about shooting.
Everything I’ve said here is designed to help you figure out what handgun is best for you. Granted, I didn’t get into things like holsters or safes or carry methods…you have to find yourself a gun first! There are many better places you can get info on these things, but my thoughts on finding a first gun are comprehensive and sensible without boiling down to me telling you what you should like. If you have any specific questions, please use the comment section below and ask away.