by Contributing Author
The purchase of a handgun is often the first item on the itinerary of the new gun owner. The handgun is the typical firearm of self-defense, and a terrific variety of designs, makes and models are available on the new and used markets. While more experienced shooters will have settled on a preferred brand and model or two they rely on for their needs, this is far from the case with most new shooters.
The old saying, “everyone has an opinion” is true and triply true in the world of guns: well-intentioned advice and tips will assail the new gun owner from every direction; gun store staff, friends, family, YouTube videos, teachers and trainers, cops articles like this one. Most are well-intentioned, some will offer recommendations of questionable or dubious utility and still others will be products of experience and wisdom.
The problem is sorting the good from the bad when you have no frame of reference! Most newcomers to the way of the gun will simply be looking for a friendly, trustworthy expert to tell them what to buy, what to avoid or help direct their search to one of few decent selections to prevent them from making a mistake. Nothing at all wrong with that, and to be honest there are so many great, or at least decent, guns on the market today that a prospective purchaser has to screw up pretty good to get saddled with a toaster.
So instead of presenting just another list of do’s and don’ts for new shooters looking for their first handgun, I will instead address some broader considerations you should keep in mind to help you make the most of the advice you are offered and give you confidence in your selection no matter what you buy.
I offer up my considerations and advice for prospective buyers who are seeking guns for sale, handguns in particular for general self-defense in a civilian context, not target shooting, hunting or anything else. As I cannot possibly hope to anticipate or account for every person’s unique needs, intent, talent and other such intangibles some of this advice may not apply to you.
In general though, these guidelines will help prevent you from making a mistake when purchasing a pistol that results in wasted time, effort, money or both. There is usually no easy exchange or return of a gun bought from a dealer, as any new stock, once transferred, can only be resold to them as used. Purchasing a gun you wind up hating and wish to exchange will see a steep reduction in the buyback price.
A poorly designed pistol or one of inferior quality will make shooting it less fun and practice more laborious, slowing your development as a shooter. If the pistol is prone to malfunction or breakage, that can mean disastrous consequences if it is called on to help you save your life in an altercation.
Thoughts on Pistol Selection
There has been more pontificating done on choosing the One True Handgun than any other facet of gun ownership, very likely. It’s easy to get pulled apart by a barrage of opinions and endorsements here. Only a few characteristics really, really matter when it comes to picking a pistol suitable for defense. The rest, while not necessarily minutiae, are of far lesser importance, and may in fact only be of interest to those who are professionally or vocationally dedicated to maximizing performance.
When choosing a handgun the most important trait by far is reliability. Reliability is essential in order to have the confidence that the gun will go bang when you pull the trigger, no matter what. No matter if it is dirty or clean, dry or oiled. A gun that is finicky or fussy should not be considered for the critical duty of keeping you and potentially others safe.
What is reliability though? And what is acceptably reliable? After all, it seems good laboratory data is pretty tough to come up with outside of a few publicized government and military tests, and what testing data manufacturers care to offer to the public, and you are not wrong to be wary of bias. Simply put, a given model’s reputation for reliability is usually built up or torn down by a combination of factors and only a few of them will be anything approaching comprehensive scientific data.
The rest are all very anecdotal in nature, sadly, and is part of the reason shooters have strong and often divisive opinions about every imaginable make and model of pistol. For every person that tells you a pistol is good to go because so-and-so uses it, there will be others who decry it as a piece of junk because their brother-in-law owned one and it broke. Generally, you will not go wrong buying a gun from a prominent, well-known manufacturer.
The Price is Right
Price matters: you most often times get what you pay for with guns. Don’t be fooled into thinking you can buy a $100 pistol that is trustworthy unless a relative you trust is selling one of theirs at a loss. Luckily, you do not need the esteem of an expensive exotic brand to get a worthy one; excellent guns can be had brand new between $400-600 dollars, and acceptable ones between $350 and $400. You can save more on the same model by buying a used gun, which is generally safe if you buy from a reputable dealer who will guarantee your satisfaction.
There is a curve that guns are rated on when it comes to quality versus price. Comparing guns apples-to-apples helps make sense of things. It is not entirely appropriate to compare a metal framed hammer fired pistol to a polymer framed striker fired pistol on price alone. Metal framed guns are more expensive than polymer framed ones, as a rule. Ditto for hammer-fired guns versus striker fired guns. Say if the average price of a good polymer, striker-fired pistol from a major manufacturer is around $500 new, give or take 50 bucks, there’d better be a good case for another manufacturer charging $700 for a similar polymer, striker-fired gun.
Caliber selection literature could fill volumes and terabytes of storage as a topic all its own, but generally you will be well off to stick with a popular, “standard” round in a given category of gun. So for semi-autos consider a .380ACP, 9mm Luger, .40 S&W or .45ACP. In a revolver your choices will be .38 Special or .357 Magnum. Your default choices in each category should be 9mm and .38 Special. Both are completely effective for defense against people, have mild recoil and cheap, plentiful ammo in a huge assortment of different loads. Smaller cartridges like the .22 LR and .32’s of various types should only be considered if you have injuries or infirmities that prevent you from effectively handling and controlling a pistol chambered for the others. In such a case they are adequate for defense, though not optimal.
If you have your heart set on a bigger caliber for whatever reason, then go with that but understand you’ll pay for it two ways: cost of ammo and greater recoil, though the former is usually more of an issue than the latter in anything but the smallest guns.
Selecting Type and Action
Speaking of revolvers vs. semi-autos, I’ll say only this: the semi-auto takes a little more work to learn how to load and unload it, but is easier to shoot well once that is practiced. The revolver is easier to load and unload, but is harder to shoot well overall. The average semi-auto will carry much more ammo than a similar sized revolver, and ammo capacity is important, but the majority of defensive shootings are concluded within 1-3 rounds, statistically.
Though one might argue that if you are going to rely on statistics, your chances of ever needing the gun in the first place are slim unless you go out of your way to find trouble. Just something to consider. Both are more than adequate for self defense, so if you are gravitating towards one or the other, don’t stress over it. Buy it, be prepared to train and practice on it, and you’ll be fine.
The action of the gun is worth consideration, though after much time instructing I have arrived at the conclusion that it is not as important for most as expert users would perhaps indicate based on their discussions with their peers: The action of the gun in essence determines the way the trigger behaves. Without delving into too much detail in keeping with the intent of this guide, you can classify the action as single or double action, and what that means is how many actions the trigger can perform with the hammer of the pistol, and further complicated by the fact that some pistols lack hammers altogether.
A single action trigger can only release a cocked hammer, while a double action can both cock and release the hammer. What does this mean to you? Basically, a double-action trigger will have a long, heavy pull because it must mechanically retract and then release the hammer in the same movement. A single action trigger will have a light, crisp, short pull because it must only trip the sear to release an already cocked hammer.
The majority of revolvers sold today are double action, but may be manually cocked for a single action shot if desired. Semi-autos may be single action, where the gun will always have a cocked hammer if ready to fire, or double action, which start with the hammer down for the first shot, but subsequent shots are all single-action until decocked. This all seems very complicated in text, but a quick demo at the gun shop on how to run a given pistol will clear things up: some guns are very simple and easy to use with a minimum of controls, while others are a little more involved and have an extra lever or button. All but the worst designs are easy enough to learn if you are committed; don’t let the presence or lack of a hammer deter you from a pistol you like. You will learn how to use it safely and efficiently with only a little training and practice, I promise.
The only other major characteristic you should pay attention to when buying is the size of the gun. Depending on your intentions for it, you may help or hinder your objectives by choosing a large or small gun. Larger guns (to a point) shoot better with less recoil and more ammunition on board than smaller guns. Smaller guns though are obviously easier to carry and conceal.
If it is only going to live at home or on the nightstand, a full size gun is fine. They can be carried concealed, but you’ll have to work a little harder to achieve that and usually sacrifice more comfort. A compact gun can more or less do it all and they still shoot nicely and are easy to handle. Think twice before purchasing a subcompact or micro handgun as you give up a lot in performance, and often reliability, to get that tiny, easy to carry size. If you do not really require a gun small enough to ride in the pocket or on the ankle, then pass on them.
If you have narrowed your choices to one of a few models that are similar in all major features except manufacturer and design, with one being a common make and the other an exotic rarity, choose the common gun. No matter how cool, special or interesting you think the other gun is, you’ll thank me later when the time comes to get parts, holsters and service for your new gun. I’m not saying you’ll be up a creek with a foreign or domestic exotic, but it will make your search more difficult and usually expensive.
Common, popular designs benefit from tremendous OEM and third-party support on everything from parts to customization, and while you may privately detest the idea of carrying what everyone else is carrying, the purpose of this tool should trump your concerns about social vanity.
Buying a new gun does not have to be a stressful guessing game. With a clear purpose for the gun in mind and armed with this guide, you’ll be walking out of the gun shop in no time with a fine pistol to suit your needs.