“What handgun should I get?” Our answer to that question would be, “It depends”. Are you an experienced shooter? What do you want to use the gun for? Do you intend to practice with the gun, or are you going to put it away until you need it? Do you have any issues with controlling the recoil (kick) of a handgun? This is just a sampling of the things that should be considered before buying a handgun. We won’t go into specific recommendations here, but rather, focus on the factors that one should consider when selecting a handgun.
Handguns can be subdivided into two categories, pistols and revolvers. Each type has advantages and disadvantages. The majority of handguns sold today are pistols. Pistols have detachable magazines which usually hold more ammunition than a revolver. When fired, a pistol will eject the empty cartridge cases out of the gun with no additional effort from the shooter. Revolvers will retain the empty cases in a rotating cylinder until the shooter manually opens the cylinder and dumps the empties out before reloading. Pistols and revolvers can be single action, meaning that the hammer of the gun needs to be cocked prior to pulling the trigger.
The most popular type of single action handgun is the 1911 pistol (because of the year it was adopted by the US military as the official sidearm). Single action revolvers are still produced today by a few companies but are very similar to what many people think of as “cowboy guns”. We will not go into great depth on single action revolvers due to their impracticality for self-defense. On the other hand, single action 1911 pistols are very popular today and are made by dozens of different manufacturers. No matter the manufacturer, a 1911 will have several things in common with other 1911’s. First, the gun is carried “cocked and locked”, meaning that the hammer is cocked and the thumb safety is on. “Isn’t carrying a gun with the hammer cocked dangerous?” Not any more dangerous than carrying any other gun. To get a 1911 to fire from a “cocked and locked” state, you must first grip the gun as if you were going to shoot it because the 1911 has a grip safety that must be disengaged by the web of your hand. This is the second thing 1911’s from different manufacturers have in common. The next step in getting the gun to fire is disengaging the thumb safety lever. All 1911’s will have a thumb safety either on one side of the slide or both sides (ambidextrous safeties). Finally, you actually need to pull the trigger. If any one of those three things doesn’t happen, the gun isn’t going to fire.
Let’s talk a little more about the 1911 trigger for a second. The triggers on 1911’s are arguably the best triggers you can get on a handgun. They are short, crisp, reasonably light, and move straight back. What this all adds up to is increased accuracy and ease of pulling the trigger if you have weak hands. It is my opinion that the 1911 would probably not be nearly as popular as it is today, over 100 years after its introduction, if it weren’t for the trigger mechanism.
Another common type of action is striker fired. Striker fired guns are strictly pistols and never revolvers. Most modern pistols are striker fired. Brands like Glock, Ruger, Smith and Wesson, FN, Sig Sauer, Springfield Armory, Walther, H&K, and more all produce striker fired pistols in their product lineups. Glock, in fact, produces ONLY striker fired pistols. A striker fired gun holds the spring loaded firing pin back with mechanical blocks until the trigger is pulled, causing the firing pin to strike the cartridge and ignite it. Striker fired pistols are popular for several reasons. First, the trigger pull is the same every shot like a single action gun, but no grip safeties or thumb safeties are necessary due to the way striker fired guns are engineered. This means that they are easier to learn to shoot and operate. Second, they are usually easier to manufacture because striker fired guns almost invariably have a polymer (plastic) frame. This reduces weight and cost to make the gun. The polymer frame is also immune to corrosion from moisture (sweat). Finally, the effort necessary to pull the trigger of most striker fired guns, while more than the 1911, is usually much less than a revolver or a double action pistol.
The final types of actions we will discuss is double action only (DAO) and double action/single action (DA/SA). DAO handguns involve a hammer that is both cocked and allowed to fall forward by a single pull of the trigger. Double action = two things accomplished with one motion by the shooter. Many revolvers with concealed hammers are DAO, and many less expensive pistols are DAO. DAO guns’ trigger pulls are the same each and every time, but they do tend to be stiffer than striker fired or single action pistols. Now, to further muddy the waters, the final type of handgun action that we will discuss is the DA/SA. This type of action can be double action or single action and both pistols and revolvers can be DA/SA. A DA/SA pistol will have a hammer and will have a long, heavy trigger pull for the first shot, but the subsequent shots will all have shorter, easier single action trigger pulls because the previous shot will also cock the hammer. A DA/SA revolver will function like a DAO gun unless you manually pull the hammer back with your finger prior to pulling the trigger (like a cowboy gun). If you want to fire single action with a DA/SA revolver, you need to cock the hammer manually before every shot, unlike a DA/SA pistol that cocks the hammer for you on everything but the first shot.
“So, which do you recommend?” Many people go right to pistols, but we advise new shooters to at least consider a revolver. Revolvers are easy to load and unload. They are virtually immune to malfunctions. They do not require the use of manual thumb safeties, and they are rugged. The downside to revolvers includes their limited ammunition capacity (usually 5 or 6), their stiffer trigger pulls, and the recoil. Revolvers don’t have any recoil springs in them like pistols do so they do tend to “kick” a little more than a pistol firing a comparable round. However, if you are not going to practice clearing malfunctions or working with a thumb safety or take the gun out every so often to clean and lube it, you may be better off with a revolver.
Pistols are very popular with shooters today for several reasons. First, they are available in a wide variation of calibers and sizes. Pistols may come with or without manual safeties, and they may have metal or polymer frames. Another feature of many modern pistols is an accessory rail under the barrel which can be used to mount lights or laser sights. Pistols also offer lighter trigger pulls and a larger ammunition capacity than revolvers along with the ability to very quickly reload by swapping magazines. Finally, they are usually softer shooting than revolvers. The drawbacks to pistols are that they require more practice to learn how to load, shoot, reload, and deal with any malfunctions that may occur. The reward for the extra practice is a higher capacity, lighter recoiling gun that many people consider easy to shoot.
When considering a pistol, you should start with thinking about what you want to do with the pistol. For example, if you want it strictly for home defense and have no plans to carry it outside your house you have a vast array of options available. You need not be worried about buying something small enough to conceal. There are advantages to full sized pistols (typically 4-5 inch barrels). They are easier to aim due to having a longer sight radius (distance between the front and rear sights). They have less felt recoil than a smaller gun of the same caliber due to the increased mass of the gun. Finally, they will have the greatest ammunition capacity. 15 to 19 round capacities are the norm for full sized pistols.
If you are looking to carry a gun concealed, you will need to strike a balancing act. There is no such thing as a free lunch when it comes to carry guns. You can carry a full sized gun, but you will probably find it very difficult to conceal and very uncomfortable. The opposite would be to carry a small .22 caliber miniature pistol. You will find it very comfortable to carry and easy to conceal, but you will have limited ammunition capacity and power as well as difficulty in aiming and firing. Just like the size of the gun has pros and cons, so does the caliber you choose to carry. A good piece of advice is to carry the biggest gun you can comfortably carry ALL DAY. For many people, this ends up being a single stack 9mm pistol. Single stack 9’s are by no means the only choice nor are they best for everybody, but they are some of the most popular choices in America. It is our opinion that they are a good place to start when actually looking at concealed carry pistols.
Finally, let’s talk briefly about what caliber to choose. Caliber is one of the most controversial topics among gun owners. There has been many an argument over which is better, 9mm or .45ACP for a defensive pistol. Our opinion is that the size of the round isn’t as important as where you put it into your target. In other words, a 9mm to the chest will do more to stop a threat than a .45 to the arm. Typical defensive pistol calibers in increasing order of power include .380 auto, 9mm, .40 S&W, and .45ACP. If you can shoot a 9mm more accurately and quickly than a .45, then go with the 9mm. If you can’t handle the recoil of a 9mm but still want a small gun, consider a .380 auto or even smaller. The best gun to stop a threat is the one you have on you at the time. In other words, the little .380 pocket gun that you actually carry is better than that .44 magnum hand cannon that you left at home because it’s too heavy and big.
In revolvers, the most common defensive calibers are .38 special or .357 magnum. There are other calibers for revolvers, but these two are the standard. Many people that buy a small revolver for defense buy one that is light. That’s good for ease of carry. The problem arises when you start shooting full power .357 magnum loads out of it. I can honestly tell you, one of the most uncomfortable, painful really, experiences I have ever had at the range was shooting 100 rounds of .357 magnum out of a 12 ounce snubnose revolver. If you buy the .357 for defense, you have the option of shooting .38 specials out of it. You can shoot .38’s in a .357 but not the other way around. Consider doing just that, at least until you get used to the gun and the full power loads.
We often get asked what one should expect to spend on a defensive handgun. Some people get stuck on the idea that a more expensive gun is a better gun. To some degree, this is a true statement; however, the additional money often doesn’t equate to a better defensive gun overall. A more expensive gun may shoot a slightly tighter group of shots or have a slightly smoother trigger, but in a typical defensive situation where you are trying to hit a human sized target at 20 feet or less, the extra ½ inch of accuracy and silky smooth trigger aren’t going to make up for all your adrenaline. You are more important in putting shots on target than your gun. The one area that paying more money is definitely worthwhile is reliability. If you are confronted with paying $400 for a gun known to malfunction every 100th round or $600 on one that runs and runs just imagine this-you go to defend yourself, pull the trigger, and hear “click”. Is the extra $200 worth it then? There are plenty of reliable, reasonably accurate defensive handguns out there for less than $500 and a few under $300.
So, at the end of all of this, what is the take home message? Don’t buy a gun without thinking about what you want to do with it and taking honest stock of your abilities and limitations. It’s good to get advice from others and look around to handle (and shoot) as many different guns as possible. Having said that, don’t buy a gun just on someone else’s recommendation or the gun’s reputation. You need to be comfortable with your choice and confident in being able to use it. Taking some training classes from reputable instructors is highly encouraged and will help build your comfort and confidence. There are classes tailored to beginners, females, and seniors out there. Get out and practice with your gun as often as you can, too. Not only will it make you a better shooter, it’s fun!