One of the most common questions we are asked by students, individuals who are new to the firearm community or those who want to purchase a handgun is for us to assist them with the purchase of their first handgun. There are many different options available and even more people who will volunteer their advice, both good and bad, on what you should buy. The most important thing we can say is, the handgun is for you, not for them. Advice and information are why you asked for help in the first place, but some people are biased for or against certain firearm manufacturers, calibers, styles, etc. From our experience talking to firearm owners, those who make the decision for themselves are generally the most satisfied with their purchase. Those who rely on others to decide for them can easily end up with something that doesn't meet their needs and end up selling or never using the firearm.
The fact is because there are so many options available, ranging from tiny pocket pistols to massive hunting revolvers, choosing the right one can be very intimidating for a new buyer. Although we provide some help, you must also do your own research when deciding which is best for you and after trying several options, you will narrow it all down and decide for yourself. A person who has some experience with different types of pistols and a variety of calibers has a big head start.
Here is some great information, that hopefully, will help save you time, money and frustration when purchasing your first handgun.
Take your time
Don't be in too big of a hurry to take advantage of what seemed like a bargain at the time. Just remember that the deal of the century happens every day. There will always be another good or a better deal down the road. It's better to make the best decision the first time than regret a purchase later because you got something you don't love.
Ask yourself what the primary purpose for the handgun is and how you will be using it
• Are you buying it just to have fun shooting on a range?
• Are you getting into shooting as a sport such as attending competitions and it needs to have competition-grade features?
• Are you looking for a handgun that will be carried every day for self-defense?
• What are your physical strengths, abilities and challenges or weaknesses?
Reasons can be endless and the selection of a pistol for concealed carry has different criteria than one that will stay at home or in your vehicle. Size, weight, style, and type of safety mechanism come into play as well as the caliber of ammunition. If you plan on carrying the handgun on a daily basis, you will need to do so comfortably and in a way that fits your clothing styles. A pistol that is too heavy or otherwise uncomfortable to carry usually gets left at home. A pistol that is too light or has a very short barrel can be more difficult to master for new shooters. Some handgun models can fill multiple roles while others are specialized for certain tasks. Careful evaluation and a clear idea of the handguns intended use will serve to narrow the options down to a reasonable number and help you understand which one will best fit your needs and goes a long way toward ensuring satisfaction.
What is your budget?
Establishing a budget will narrow the search parameters. Shop around for the best price. The Internet makes price checking a much easier process than it used to be. Start by finding the Manufacturer Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) on the manufacturer's website. If a firearms price tag is marked with the same or higher than the MSRP, then there is a good chance you can find a better deal elsewhere. The exception is when there is a high demand for a particular model. In these cases, plan on higher prices and sometimes much higher than the MSRP. With that said, it's never a bad decision to buy quality. Avoid ‘Mystery Metal’ handguns. There is a tremendous temptation to save as much money as possible when buying a firearm because let's face it, they are expensive. But even though they can seem like a good deal at the time, cheaply constructed knock-offs with strange names and components constructed of unidentifiable metals are rarely a good investment.
For example, we will never recommend that anyone EVER purchase a Hi-Point firearm. Their slogan is ridiculous, "Your search for a tough, reliable, affordable firearm is over...". Always remember that you will only get the quality that you pay for. These pistols are very unreliable regardless of what they claim and difficult to disassemble without tools. We don't just leave it at that. Our opinion is based on knowledge of the company, personal experience dealing with firearm malfunctions and most competent people in the shooting industry will agree.
Using Hi-Point as an example, let's explain how firearm sales work. The MSRP of a Hi-Point pistol ranges from $199 to $235 as listed on their website. For a gun store, dealer or anyone with a Federal Firearms License (FFL) to be able to sell the handgun at or around the MSRP, they are able to purchase each firearm from the manufacturer with an approximate 30% discount which in the case of their cheapest model, the C-9 at $199, is $59.70. The FFL dealer then sells the firearm at, above or below the MSRP. This is where they gain their profit. The manufacturer also has to make a nice profit from each sale so seeing that the manufacturer sells the firearm to an FFL dealer for $59.70, the actual cost of the parts and labor to manufacturer the firearm may only be $35 or less.
This is why we tell everyone to ALWAYS do your homework before laying down money for a firearm. While looking to purchase a firearm, remember to save some money for essential items that are often overlooked such as ammunition and necessary accessories like a holster, cleaning supplies and safety equipment such as eye and hearing protection.
Be careful when buying used firearms, especially for self-defense
We are not telling you that you shouldn't purchase used firearms. It can be a great way to save money but it has to be done cautiously. If an individual is selling a firearm it could be for a variety of reasons such as a way for them to fund a new firearm purchase or because the owner needs the cash. Some gun stores and pawn shops also sell used firearms. Despite a bit of wear and tear, or a few scratches, these are the trustworthy gems that have plenty of life left in them for a reasonable price. But some used firearms are being sold because they are lemons. Several problems can slip past a visual inspection, including poor accuracy due to bent or broken sights, reliability issues (Hi-Point's), and malfunctioning internal components such as the firing pin, feed ramp, extractor, ejector, etc.
If you are going to buy a used firearm, especially for self-defense, then learn how to function-check the firearm you have in mind or lean on the skills of an experienced firearm owner you can trust. Although most gun stores test used firearms to ensure they function properly before selling them, some dealers may allow for a refund or full trade-in value if one of their used guns turns out to be a paperweight. Others follow a strict as-is, you-bought-it you-own-it policy. Before shooting any used firearm, it should be disassembled, inspected, cleaned and lubricated according to the manufacturer's instructions. If it passes this inspection, it should then be test-fired thoroughly with practice and defense-grade ammunition. If it performs reliably on the range, then it is ready to be cleaned once more and then carried or staged for self-defense.
What type of pistol is better?
In this article, we talk about pistols for self-defense. If you are looking for a rifle or shotgun for self-defense you can still apply everything we talk about here for those types of firearms. For the most part, choosing a pistol is a decision between a revolver and a semi-automatic. Beyond that, each category has a staggering variety of brands and models with different and sometimes unique features. Those who prefer revolvers often speak of their simplicity of operation, while those favoring semi-automatic platforms like their thin profile for concealment and prefer the convenience and speed of loading and unloading with a magazine. It is critical to ensure that someone considering a semi-automatic has enough strength to properly cycle the slide and to maintain the solid grip required for the pistol to properly function. The correct choice between a revolver and a semi-automatic is likely the one that feels more natural in your hand, easier to operate and performs better at the range.
Which size is right?
One size does not fit all. Someone with small hands may have fewer options, and this is one of the most overlooked considerations. If the pistol does not fit comfortably in your hand, it is difficult to maintain a proper grip. Recoil becomes harder to manage and accuracy will likely suffer.
Trust what your hands are telling you. The shooting community has many conflicting recommendations as to which are the “best" handguns and the “right” calibers to own. In truth, what feels like a good fit to one gun buyer may be a poor fit to someone else. One of the primary reasons for all of this debate is the differences in each shooter’s hand shape, size, and strength. Small grips feel awkward in big hands while chunky grips feel awkward in smaller ones. The controls, like the magazine release, safety, and slide lock may be too widely spaced to be manipulated, or maybe rubbing up against a knuckle because they are too close together.
A poor grip fit can result in a shooter's hands feeling tired or sore in a short period of time. So trust what your hands tell you. If a handgun feels lousy or is hard to operate in the gun shop, it's not going to feel or run any better on the shooting range. The best way to avoid grip and control fit problems is to go to a range that rents guns and try before you buy.
Which caliber and type of ammunition are best?
To some degree, the answers to the above questions have helped narrow the options. Possibly the best recommendation is to choose the caliber that is comfortable to shoot. This encourages practice, which in turn increases accuracy and confidence. Look for handguns chambered in common calibers. Although ammunition shortages come and go, there are handgun calibers that will always be hard to find or expensive to buy no matter what the state of the shooting market may be. It makes sense to stick to common calibers that are readily available in less expensive. When the staff at the gun store counter hands you a pistol to examine, don't be shy about asking for more information related to the ammunition's cost and availability.
It is important to understand how caliber applies to stop an attacker when selecting ammunition. We all want the best handgun with the best ammunition to effectively stop an attacker. Accuracy is one defining factor, and serious training is required to acquire the ability to stop an attacker under extreme stress, but the caliber you select will be the primary factor regarding equipment selection.
Caliber is determined by the inside diameter of a barrel and the measurement that matches the diameter of the projectile (bullet) portion of the ammunition. A .40 caliber firearm has a barrel with a .40 inch barrel diameter. It is measured primarily in fractions of an inch with a few calibers measured in millimeters, such as 9mm. Exceptions always apply, but the smaller the diameter, the smaller the ammunition is.
Other types of ammunition:
• +P or +P+ is a cartridge loaded to higher-than-standard pressures for its caliber, to produce higher velocities.
Many calibers are available in both standard and +p or +p+ variants. Ammunition marked +p produces more power and higher internal pressures than the standard ammunition produced in that caliber, while ammunition marked +p+ produces even more power and pressure than the +p loading. Many models of firearms will specify the degree to which they can use +P ammunition. Always check with the operations manual or contact the manufacturer. If you use this type of ammunition incorrectly it may shorten the component life of your firearm.
• ACP stands for Automatic Colt Pistol and used with caliber designations such as 25 ACP, 32 ACP, 380 ACP, and 45 ACP.
• GAP stands for Glock Automatic Pistol and was introduced for the .45 GAP round. The cartridge is shorter than the more common .45 ACP.
Choosing the right caliber means that you must consider both the characteristics of the gun and those of the ammunition. For those who have been told that you have to have a large caliber firearm to stop an attacker, it is simply not true.
Typically larger caliber handguns are also larger in size. They weigh considerably more, and even though they carry less ammunition when you factor in the weight of a loaded magazine, they can be heavy and may be more difficult to manipulate the slide. This sometimes makes it harder to carry on the body. This is less of a factor if the gun will be a home defense gun that is not to be carried concealed. The greater weight and overall size provide stability for greater accuracy with less felt recoil. These are important factors.
Concealed carry guns, however, are generally smaller in size and lighter in weight so they can be comfortably worn or carried. These characteristics may sacrifice accuracy. These smaller guns have less weight to absorb the energy produced when firing. All of the recoil energy produced must go somewhere, so it ends up in the hands and arms of the shooter. This does not necessarily make a compact or sub-compact handgun worse than a full-sized pistol, it is just important to understand that what is sacrificed must be practiced in training to overcome and manage these shortfalls.
When talking about ammunition, it is also very important to understand the penetration of a bullet and is an extremely important factor to consider. You must know where the projectile goes after you fire it is of the utmost importance. If you miss or it passes through the attacker, it may place neighbors, people in adjoining rooms or other members of the public in danger. Do you live in an apartment with a family with children next door? What is your home or apartment constructed of? Is the wall made of brick or drywall? (this might affect the defensive ammunition when you are home.) Does the bullet stop, or does it pass through the wall or the attacker?
Knowing your layout and where the best place to defend from inside your home is important. If you are outside of your home, you may have innocent bystanders near the attacker. It is your responsibility to always know what is between you and the target, behind the target and never shoot at anything you have not positively identified.
What about recoil tolerance?
Practice makes perfect, so it is important that the pistol selection be comfortable and fun to shoot. One of the best ways to find out is by visiting a range that will rent and provide basic instruction on several types and calibers of pistols. A friend with an assortment of pistols works as well. Start with smaller calibers and work up. Keep in mind that there can be a significant variance in recoil between different types of ammunition of the same caliber, as well as when the same ammunition is fired in different pistols.
The greater the recoil, the more difficult it is to get back on target quickly. There is a greater movement of your hand and the pistol. Your ability to effectively get the handgun back on your attacker is critical as there is no guarantee that one shot will stop the threat. Training must be continuous and you must have the mindset to be prepared to shoot multiple rounds on target, quickly. Learning to handle and master the recoil of your handgun is the only way to effectively use higher caliber handguns and ammunition. Heavier guns are also naturally harder to hold for a long period of time and keeping your gun on the attacker holding him at bay while you await help might be challenging.
Remember, handgun caliber and the caliber of ammunition go together, so the ammunition must be thoroughly considered too. The recoil generated through the gun, your hand, and to your arm is primarily determined by the ammunition you shoot through the gun. Things like powder charge and the weight and size of the bullet (the projectile itself) determine the amount of energy produced.
Although it is important to practice shooting with your defensive ammunition, you will likely use minimum amounts. A standard full metal jacket practice round will be the best option for regular training.
Based on the FBI study done in 1989 titled “FBI's Handgun Wounding Factors and Effectiveness,” (link opens as a PDF) defensive ammunition is designed to penetrate at least 12 inches and inflict internal damage in the largest area possible. Jacketed or bonded hollow points are the most popular defensive round and are readily available. These are the defensive rounds most commonly used by law enforcement. The bullet (projectile) has an open or hollowed tip intended to force the bullet to expand upon entry. This expansion can decrease over-penetration. The expansion also helps dump the bullet’s energy in the intended target, producing the greatest amount of tissue damage and reduce the chance of over penetration.
Are caliber conversions important?
Some types and models of pistols offer the advantages of shooting more than one caliber. Examples include shooting .38 Special ammunition in a revolver chambered for the more powerful .357 Mag or installing a .22 LR conversion kit on a semi-automatic 1911 pistol chambered for the proven .45 ACP. In both cases, the lighter recoil and lower cost of ammunition in the secondary caliber encourages practice.
Are there other important features to consider?
There is no shortage of attachments/accessories for a firearm. We explain a few different ones and find out whether or not they actually improve anything.
• Night Sights provide a defined aiming point in low-light conditions, a tremendous advantage. Some pistol manufacturers offer night sights as a standard feature. If not, aftermarket sets are available for most popular models. Some very good manufacturers are; Trijicon, TruGlo, AmeriGlo, Meprolight.
• Laser Sights project a colored dot, usually red or green, that is visible at practical distances under most lighting conditions. Depending on the type, lasers can be mounted on the rail directly beneath the barrel, replacing the guide rod spring, attached to the rear sight post, or by replacing the pistol grip. The one convenient thing about having a laser is the relative speed to get on target. Whereas with night sights, there are a few more moments to get perfect on target. The laser sight gives an almost instinctive response time. Plus, it makes firing from compromised positions, extreme close quarters or night firing, much faster. What are the downsides? If you don’t take the time to understand the difference between where the laser dot is on the target and where the bullet goes, you’re going to have a bad day come show time. Laser dot sights are not homing devices for the bullet. If you have the time to go to the range and try it out at different known distances, it can be an extremely effective attachment. Lasers are also a tremendous training tool and can assist with developing a proper grip and improving trigger control. Some very good manufacturers are; LaserMax, Crimson Trace.
• Flashlights are also an important feature and can be mounted on the rail directly beneath the barrel (some have a built-in laser sight) or just held in your hand. Whereas a laser sight is minimal and straight to the point, a flashlight is great for illuminating a large area of unknown darkness. From the other side of the muzzle, it can also blind or inhibit the aggressor’s line of sight. This is great for multiple reasons but there’s also the downside of it giving away your position, immediately. Some very good manufacturers are; Surefire, Streamlight.
• Suppressors can be expensive but great for self-defense within your home. When shooting in close quarters, such as a room or hallway, gunfire is loud enough to cause permanent hearing loss and immediate disorientation. If you are in the position where deadly force is necessary in order to protect yourself or your family in your home, applying earplugs or muffs is a liability both for time and situational awareness. Using a suppressed firearm in a home protection situation allows you to maintain your senses and better protect what’s most important. For more information about silencers click here.
You found and purchased your firearm
Once the pistol comes home with you, read the owner’s manual from cover to cover. It is important to develop a comprehensive understanding of all the mechanical and safety features, proper loading and unloading, and general care before firing. Pay special attention to the section on break-in procedures and follow these instructions with care. Regardless of whether the owner’s manual states the specific number of rounds that are to be fired before the pistol is "broken-in," break yourself into the pistol through constant practice. If possible, adopt a routine of shooting as often as possible, rather than a few boxes on occasion. Don't be afraid to use economical range ammunition for practice sessions. This is a good idea for several reasons, not the least of which is lighter recoil. However, it is critical to also practice with the ammunition that will actually be used in a defensive situation. When it comes to the latter, get the best performer and don't worry about the cost. Quite often, different types of ammunition will impact the target at a different place, even with the same sight picture.
Once you have made your selection, we cannot say enough about the importance of training. No matter which pistol is selected, it means nothing if you cannot effectively use your firearm, get on target quickly and shoot accurately. There is no substitute for your skill level when it comes to successful self-defense. It doesn't matter what type or caliber firearm you are carrying, it does you no good if you cannot hit your attacker. Get proper training from a qualified instructor. Training Courses are generally quite affordable and will make almost anyone a better shooter. Equally important, instructors emphasize safe handling, operation, storage, and firearm laws. To see our training courses click here.
As you can see, selecting the right handgun is very important. You must consider a multitude of factors to develop the self-defense strategy best for you. Caliber is an important factor, but just one of many. Make sure you choose a caliber that is compatible with a gun you can handle under stress. Be sure that you are comfortable with the recoil level of your chosen combination of pistol and ammunition. Make sure that you can find ammunition at a reasonable cost. Do not forget to think accessories, especially holster options if you intend to carry the handgun daily. Whatever combination you choose, remember that there is no substitute for training and regular practice.