Things To Consider When Buying Your First Handgun
Buying your first handgun can be hard. Everyone has a favorite, and they know what gun they want next. Picking out your first handgun is crucial for many reasons. It is important that the handgun you choose fits your needs. It needs to be a handgun that you want to train with. You will quickly find out that training with your handgun is vital. To start with you will need to ask yourself a few questions.
- What do you want the handgun for?
- Do you need a Revolver or Semi-auto pistol
- Which action do you prefer to train with?
- Single Action (SA).
- Double Action (DA/SA).
- Double Action Only (DAO).
- What caliber do you shoot best?
- .40 S&W
- .45 ACP
- How much do you want to spend?
- Do you have someplace you can go shoot to train?
- Do you know what steps you are comfortable doing to fire a gun?
- Most importantly how does the handgun fit in your hand?
Reason for the handgun
Most people will buy their first handgun for personal self-defense. Although handguns are also used in competitions, target shootings, and small game hunting. We are going to focus on buying your first handgun for personal self-defense.
A personal self-defense handgun needs to fit you, it needs to be comfortable to carry and shoot. Keep in mind when considering buying your first handgun. The word comfortable is relative to the person. It does not mean it’s going to feel good on your hip. As much as it means you are comfortable having it on you.
The majority of today’s guns are tested and are considered reliable. On the off chance, you get one that has problems, manufacturers are very good about fixing them for you, usually free of charge. If you want to add a light or laser on the end of your gun. Make sure that your particular gun comes with a Picatinny rail on the front of the weapon.
What to ask the Dealer
Let the dealer know that is what you are looking for and they can help guide you. For example, If they know you want to mount a light and/or laser on the handgun. The dealer will show you only guns that allow that feature. If you get nothing else from this article. Pay attention to this, don’t let anyone choose the gun for you.
What works for me may not work for you. What fits in my hand may not feel good in yours. As a result, buying your first handgun has to be your decision. An experienced shooter can get used to another gun quickly. It may take you more training to use a feature your dealer likes.
Finding a place to practice is going to be just as important as buying the gun or getting training. If the gun doesn’t fit your hand right or has too many unrealistic features to use in a self-defense situation. Then you are less likely to train with it. You will be even less comfortable feeling like you can use it when under attack.
Types of self-defense handguns
There are 100s of kinds of handguns but typically there are only two types. The revolver and the pistol(also known as semi-automatics).
The revolver is the easiest type of gun to use, simply pull the trigger and it fires. The revolver has a very low malfunction rate, making it very reliable. It is easy to clean and can be cheaper than a semi-automatic. It typically carries between 5-7 rounds at a time.
That said it may not be the best option for your first handgun. It takes longer to learn to shoot correctly and it takes more weight to squeeze the trigger. When applying more weight to the trigger, oftentimes people will move the gun out of alignment. This is one of the reasons so many people have a harder time getting used to firing a revolver.
Keep in mind with enough training and practice you can get good with any gun. If you are looking for a gun that you will be able to learn quickly, the handgun may not be the best option. That is not to say it can’t make a good defensive handgun.
The semi-auto handgun is generally the preferred personal self-defense handgun One reason is the ability to carry more ammo. They typically carry between 6-17 rounds at a time. Another reason they are easier and faster to reload. One of the biggest advantages is upgradability. For example, if you don’t like the sights, trigger, or magazine capacity. Most of the semi-auto handguns will allow you to upgrade these parts.
Semi-auto handguns tend to conceal easier. As a result, they tend to be the first choice when buying a new handgun. Of course, they offer a wide range of safety features as well. So from here, we will focus the article on semi-automatics rather than the revolver.
A few things to consider when buying your first handgun
If attacked it will happen more like an ambush rather than a fight. What I mean by that is you will likely only have seconds to react. The handgun you choose has to work in that situation. You can train to develop any actions that require your gun to shoot.
You can also train to get consistent with your handgun. Self-defense instructors usually recommend that you start with something you can draw and shoot. The goal is to accurately & quickly fire as many shots as needed to stop the attack.
When buying your first handgun, it’s crucial that it matches your needs. If you have to draw, cock the hammer, rack the slide or turn off the safety. It may not work when you are experiencing the side-effects of an attack. When reading the next sections on the actions. Keep in mind you will need to be able to perform these steps under extreme stress. If you are completely new to handguns some of them might not be a good choice to start with.
Types of actions on a handgun
Handgun actions are described in many different ways but it’s all pretty simple. There are single actions(SA), double actions(DA/SA), Double action only(DAO), and Striker-Fire. The SA handgun has a hammer you pull back and lock in place. When you squeeze the trigger, it will release the hammer. The trigger performs a single action.
The DA works both in double action and single action. As a result, you can either pull the trigger to cock the hammer back and release it. As a result, The trigger performs two actions. You can still cock the hammer manually and use it in SA. DAO doesn’t allow you to cock the hammer back. Therefore pulling the trigger does both actions only.
The striker-fired handgun has no hammer. Instead, it has a striker that locks back when you rack the slide. When you pull the trigger it releases the striker, which fires the bullet. When buying your first handgun you need to know which action works best for you.
Single action for self-defense
The problem I found when looking at single action for self-defense was that I would need to remember cock the hammer on the first shot. The slide will cock it back for each additional shot after that.
If I wanted to avoid having to remember to cock the hammer. I would then have to keep the hammer cocked back. Notice how far back the trigger is. SA require less trigger pressure to fire. Being the trigger is so far back, it also fires a lot faster and easier.
Thinking about this with shaky hands when drawing during a self-defense situation. It could pose the danger of firing the gun by accident. The SA semi-auto has the lowest lbs of pressure needed to fire. As a result, a small squeeze on the trigger and it will fire. Some have even been known to fire when dropped.
Why a SA can be a problem for new shooters
To avoid some of these issues gun companies have put a decocker on some of their guns as well as a safety lever. If the hammer is locked back and the safety is on. It is considered cocked and locked. To prevent firing by mistake when drawing or being dropped. Many SA handgun owners train to turn off the safety once they are lined up on the target.
You have to keep in mind with every action that it is common to be shaky and/or have sweaty hands. When you are dealing with a fast attack on your person. That is not to say a SA doesn’t work for self-defense. It simply means you have to be well trained to use it.
Double Action for self-defense
The double-action kind of offers that middle ground but with its own set of drawbacks. The issue with the double action is the first shot is of course double action. No need to remember to cock the hammer. The trigger requires more distance & pressure to perform the initial action.
The first shot is in double action and the remaining shots are in a single action. Due to the slide cocking the hammer for you after each shot. As a result, the first trigger pull can be around 10lbs and every shot after that only a couple of pounds. The reason this could be a problem when buying your first gun. Is that you need to get used to two different weighted trigger pulls.
What trainers have found is that new shooters will either try to cock the hammer initially. This will allow the trigger weight to stay the same. Then there is the other side where students fire in DA initially. Then students tend to overcompensate when firing the next shot.
The reason DA can cause problems for new shooters
Just like the revolver DA takes a longer finger reach and harder pull on the trigger. When new to shooting this could mean you end up pulling the gun in one direction or another. In a situation where you need to be accurate and fire quickly. It could cause you to miss your target and hit something or someone else. You can read my article on proper trigger control to get helpful tips that will help.
Getting used to firing in double action will take you more time. DA fires mostly in a single action. As a result, you don’t get a lot of time practicing the first shot. Again, you can train to compensate for the difference. This is usually something that is adapted faster by experienced shooters as well.
Double action only for self-defense
When buying your first gun. The double-action-only might be a good solution. That is if you have the right finger length. It has a consistent trigger pull and its trigger is hard enough that it is likely to avoid an accidental discharge.
Picking the right double action for your hands would be the key. If your fingers are long enough to fit the double-action trigger without shifting the gun when you shoot. Then it may be a good choice for you.
You will need to be able to comfortably shoot a double-action, even if your hands are sweaty and shaky. Having your finger slip off or move the gun when shooting could be a deal-breaker for self-defense. Again that is not to say you are unable to learn to handle these obstacles. Will it be the best choice when buying your first gun, only you can answer that.
Striker-fired guns for self-defense
Striker-fired semi-autos have around 5 1/2 lb trigger pull. This is the middle ground when it comes to triggers. It’s a lot easier than the DA but not as easy as the SA. The other thing is Glock made these type of guns famous by using what they call safe action. Instead of having a single safety or anything else, the gun will only fire if you squeeze the trigger.
The safe action system uses a safety on the trigger, the firing pin, and a drop safety at the trigger bar. This of course does not prevent someone from picking up the gun and firing it. It also doesn’t prevent you from squeezing the trigger by mistake. Instead is makes sure the gun only fires when the trigger is squeezed. The trigger pull stays consistent and due to their polymer frame, they are light guns overall. This is a common choice when buying your first gun for self-defense.
The advantages of these types of guns for self-defense are their ease of use. Traditionally they come without safety, although some manufactures still use them. You simply draw, aim, and start to fire.
Don’t get me wrong you will still need to train with every gun to be proficient. You can check out my articles on Trigger control and Aiming to get a better understanding of the process. Many gun manufactures now make a reliable striker-fired handgun. Many offer multiple safety features that may or may not work out in a critical incident.
The way the gun fits your hand
This could be one of the most important parts of buying your first handgun, if not the most important. The reason is if the handgun does not feel comfortable to shoot. Then it is likely you won’t train with it. Handguns are a tool of self-defense and only work if you learn how to properly use that tool.
You will need to be able to reach the mag release, safety(if equipped), slide-lock, and hammer(if equipped). You want to be able to do all this without having to move your hand around. The trigger finger will need to sit comfortably on the trigger.
The magazine size will have a lot to do with the way a handgun fits in your hand. A single stack will carry fewer rounds but the grip will be thinner. A double stack mag will stack the casing’s side by side making the grip wider. Make sure you try both when buying your first handgun. Smaller hands tend to do better with single-stack handguns.
Picking the right caliber
The caliber size will long be a great debate, and I am not going to engage in it. What I am going to tell you is that you need to pick what you shoot best. Larger caliber means more recoil to control. In law enforcement studies and a Study by Greg Ellifritz, they found very similar results from the 9mm, .40, &.45. the .380 is also considered a good self-defense caliber. Keep in mind we are talking about the number of shots it took to bring down real attackers.
The average for each caliber was as follows:
9MM 2.45 shots to incapacitate
.40 2.36 shots to incapacitate
.45 2.08 shots to incapacitate.
All of which had right around 50% chance of stopping an attacker with a single shot either to the torso or head. The .380 surprisingly had a 1.76 shot average to incapacitate and a 62% rate of stopping someone with a single shot. So what does all this means?
It means to pick the caliber that you can shoot accurately and quickly. They all do their job in a self-defense situation. The .380 likely had better numbers to its ease of control. A well-placed shot is going to do more damage than a random one. A good test is if you can only get two-shots on an 8 in target quickly with a.45 and the third shot misses. Then you may want to try a lower caliber
One thing is pretty clear if you can quickly and accurately get multiple shots on target. Then that is probably the right caliber to choose when buying your first handgun. If you have to stop and re-aim that 3rd or 4th shot. That is the time your attacker now has to respond. Buying your first handgun is all about what works best for you.
How to know which will work best for you
Recoil management is going to be a major factor in deciding what works best for you. For example, I shoot a 9mm pretty quickly and accurately in a 6 in area. My wife on the other hand has to slow way down to shoot the 9mm accurate. In a self-defense situation, this would not be the best choice for her first handgun.
Size of handgun
When buying your first handgun. You may be thinking about concealed carrying or you may simply not like a full-size gun. Each caliber of bullet comes with its own gun size choices.
The terms full, compact, and sub-compact all have to do with the size of the handgun itself. Typically a full size will have around a 4.5-5 in barrel, compact 3.6-4.25, and anything under 3.5 would be a sub-compact. The longer the barrel and the farther the sights are apart the more accurate the gun will shoot. That is not to say you can’t shoot a small gun accurately.
We are talking small margins here usually less than a 1/2″ difference at most. Of course the farther away the target is the more that gap is going to be. In self-defense shooting, you will never be that far away from an attacker so each size works. If you are sniping someone with a handgun at 50-100 yards. Then that would likely not be self-defense.
Some things to keep in mind. Recoil is going to be higher in smaller guns, you can lessen that some by going with a smaller caliber. The size of the grip will determine how easy a gun is to control & conceal. For example, a larger hand is going to have a harder time gripping a sub-compact vs a compact or full size.
Why recoil matters
When discussing recoil what we actually mean is the muzzle flip, which is different from recoil. The muzzle flip is what takes you time to line your sights back on the target. The recoil is the force being absorbed by your body when you shoot. When buying your first handgun, you will need to make sure you can control the recoil and muzzle flip.
Meaning we need to make sure we can shoot multiple shots quickly and accurately. If using a smaller sub-compact you may find when shooting quickly your shots are all over the place. Then this is probably not the best option for your self-defense gun. Of course, you can train to get better over time. Unless it is due to hand-size, that may not be something you can overcome.
The thing with muzzle flip is each person and gun is different. For example, if you watch Mickey Schuch from CarryTrainers shoot his full-size beretta, there is almost zero muzzle flip. If you watch my wife shoot our M&P 2.0 compact, you would think she just fired a hand cannon. That means you need a gun that has manageable recoil for yourself.
Other things to consider
When buying your first handgun you will also need to consider things like sights and safeties as well. Two things to remember about any and all safety features. The first is they are mechanical, so they can and will fail. Good safety practices will do more to keep you safe than mechanical safety. The other is if your gun has a safety, you need to practice with it on at all times. A grip safety or trigger safety is the exception. The gun won’t fire unless you have a firm grip and your finger is on the trigger.
The reason for training with the safety on. Is so that you can form the habit of shutting it off without thinking. Nothing will slow you down more than pulling the trigger and nothing happens. That first shot could be the one that saves your life.
As for sights I cover them more in my learning to aim article. Just know a lot of people end up changing their sights. If you are planning to later use a red dot sight on your handgun. Then look for something that is already set up for one or if you have the money buy one that comes with it.
A lot of people try to start with either fiber optic or night sights. Traditionally there will be nothing wrong with the stock sights on any gun. Most of the time people change them due to personal preference. If you plan to change your sights, ask the dealer if the sights can be changed before purchase.
When buying your first gun. What your neighbor or even the guy at the store recommends may not be the right gun for you. Your first handgun needs to fit in your hands. As well as work for self-defense and be reliable.
You will need to be able to quickly and accurately hit what you are aiming at. It will need to have very few steps to stop an attack. Remember attacks happen fast, they are not like fights where you have time to face off.
If you have never shot a gun I recommend starting out with a smaller caliber and moving up, the best spot is usually the 9mm or .380 for people with a weaker grip. If you need a pocket pistol you may want to try the .380.
While recoil is not bad on handguns, it will take a minute to get used to for new shooters. My wife’s first time firing a gun her words were and I quote ” No, No, No, No, take it”. She never expected the recoil of the gun and frankly neither did I. The first shot is a surprise and may scare you a little. It does get much better the more you shoot.
Just make sure everything feels right and you can operate the gun safely. Everything needs to become second nature. As a result, you shouldn’t need to move the gun around to do everything. A bad fit will mean less desire to train. If you are thinking of conceal carry, focus more on compact and sub-compact.
If you are using it for a safe weight, think more full size, if it fits good. Never give up on your training, it’s the only thing that will take the tool and make it a deadly weapon against an attacker.
- How it feels in your hands (feel both types of guns double stack and single stack) Also feel a full-size, Compact, and Sub-compact to see what fits.
- Can you reach everything without moving the gun around
- If it has safeties are you able to operate them without adjusting your hands?
- How many rounds do you feel you will need
- Can you reach the trigger easily and is it a consistent pull.
- Can you control the recoil enough to fire quickly and accurately
- Are you equipping a light or laser
- Do you plan to get a red dot
- Check how many magazines it comes with, you will need extra
- See if you can rack the slide (some people don’t have the strength and will need a shield EZ or lite rack gun.
- Dry fire the gun and see how the trigger feels(it should be smooth and crisp)
- Make sure all the controls are reachable
If they don’t find something that works for you. Check other places around town. No store will have every type of gun. You will learn a great deal from guns that don’t work for you. For example, if something doesn’t feel right, or the mag release is in the wrong spot. Then that manufacture or size of guns may not be the right fit.
Finally, take a class as soon as you can and get started with the local range. I found dry-fire practice will ease your comfort level and help you to use the gun safely at the range. You can learn a lot from dry-fire practice so set up a routine and practice. I dry-fire practice every aspect of gun handling and drills. Before I go to the range and shoot with live ammo.