How to choose your first handgun.
The first thing you must ask yourself is, “What will be the purpose?” Is this purchase going to be a self-defense gun, a hunting gun, a competition/ recreational gun or multi-purpose? A handgun in each of these categories will have some overlap, but most will have very specific features that will allow it to excel at its given task. Does it meet the legal requirements for hunting? Does your state have ammo or capacity restrictions? For self-defense guns, specifically, they need to be 100% reliable, the trigger can’t be to light (a hair trigger), and a decent set of sights; these are good requirements to start with. Similar questions need to be asked for the other guns mentioned above.
I say this from experience and as a reformed gun bunny. Most sales people want to sell you a gun that fits your needs and you physically. So, any competent sales person should know how to fit you for a gun, be it a hand gun or a long gun. The person at the gun counter that immediately says, “A little lady needs a little gun” should be ignored; any advice they give you should not just be taken with a grain of salt but, a shot of tequila and a lime. If you are not an experienced shooter you should rent any gun you’re interested in before you buy it. A gun will feel different while shooting then it will in the shop.
Now, you must be able to obtain a full grip, high on the gun and be able to reach/operate all the firearms controls. Grip the gun multiple times, feeling for any hot spots. If the gun rubs you the wrong way in the shop it will only get worse under recoil. This is kind of like buying a pair of shoes, except the guns fit won’t break in; at least not without some tools and maybe a gunsmith. Are the sights useable? Can you achieve proper finger placement on the trigger?
“Is it to small?” is a question that most people overlook, especially new shooters. A smaller gun is harder to shoot that its larger siblings. There is less surface area to grip, if you can’t achieve a solid purchase (grip) on the firearm, due to lack of real estate (surface area), it quickly becomes harder to control. The sight radius is shorter, which makes it more susceptible to your natural arc of motion; everyone has it, you can’t get rid of it. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you can learn how to work around it. The gun weighs less so it absorbs less of the energy created with each shot; that energy must go somewhere…. this means into you. This means more perceived recoil, which adds up to slower follow up shots, more fatigue, shorter practice sessions, and bad habits. On the other side of the spectrum, “Is it to big?”. This question is more pertinent to concealed carry. If the gun is so big that you’re not going to carry it, what good is it? If the gun isn’t going to be carried get the largest gun you can operate safely and effectively, because 17rds of go away is much better than 5rds of go away.
There are a few people out there that this isn’t a concern. For the rest of us it is a reality. Do not buy a subpar gun just because it is cheap. Sometimes in life you get what you pay for. If this is a self-defense purchase, how much is your life worth? If all you can afford today isn’t quality, put off the purchase and save your money a little bit longer. It will be cheaper in the long run. As I write this in Dec 2017, it is one of the best buyers’ market I have seen in a long time. You can currently get a superb firearm at bargain basement prices. This won’t last forever; the market will correct itself.
9mm, .38spl, .357 magnum, .40 S&W, .357 sig, 45acp, .44 magnum… it doesn’t matter. Read that again. I don’t care what caliber you shot. Read that again. Quit chasing the perfect caliber, you’ll be searching your whole life. With today’s technology in ammunition manufacturing the most common self-defense calibers all perform within a small percentile of each other. So, if you can control it (read, place accurate and effective hits on target), shoot it. Hunting is a different beast.
Here is my opinion. If you can shoot the larger calibers well, you can shoot the smaller calibers better. 9mm offers excellent terminal ballistics, more capacity, lower recoil, and less cost than the others. Ballistics, 10-15yrs ago that wasn’t the case, hence the development of the all the calibers between 9mm and 45acp. Ammunition manufacturers have spent millions of dollars on research and development of the 9mm; shooting it to the head of the pack. Most police departments and alphabet agencies have returned to the 9mm, with good reason. As a starting point, if you like to do your own research, look up Dr. Martin Fackler and Dr. Gary Roberts; their work has been instrumental in the caliber wars. Capacity, the only time you can have too much ammo is when you’re either drowning or on fire. Cost, I can shoot twice as much 9mm for the same cost in the larger calibers. That means more practice, which means better survivability. What about .380, its performance is currently at the same place 9mm was when the big switch to 10mm, .40S&W, and .357sig occurred. For some it is the bare minimum when it comes to self-defense calibers. For myself, I say it’s better that a sharp stick. Considering you can get a 9mm in the same size as some of the most popular .380’s; why wouldn’t you? It also costs more per round than 9mm.
After all of that remember this, handguns are terrible at stopping a threat. They are a tool of convenience, because, it’s not polite in today’s society to walk around with a rifle or a shotgun slung on your back. The myth of a 1 shot stop for handguns is just that, myth. If I knew I was going to get in a gunfight and had to be there, I would have a rifle and as many of my buddies with long guns as well. Stopping power or knock down power are misnomers, because you can’t cheat physics. If that gun in your hand was capable of knocking a grown man high on PCP off his feet just by making contact with him, it would do the same to you. The most energy a bullet will ever have is at the muzzle, everything from that point is literally downhill. The bad guy will, at most, feel the same amount of energy transfer as you…most likely less.
Often overlooked, but still important. What good will your wonder blaster 9000 if you can’t get spare parts or magazines for it? How much do those components cost? Can I easily get a quality holster for it, or does it require custom work? Are there multiple gunsmiths that can work on your gun or is there only one that has 2 year waiting list? Does anybody make sights or triggers for it? All these questions can lead to an overall good experience or a lifetime of frustrations. So, don’t ignore this little detail.
What your neighbor, the sales person, and gun blogs say is the best gun doesn’t matter. What works for them, may not work for you. You are the only person that can decide what is your best gun. That may even change as you grow as a shooter; you can only figure out what works by shooting them. In general, anything from the major players, Glock, Smith & Wesson, Sig Sauer, Beretta, Ruger will work. That being said, even they have the occasional QC slip up. So thoroughly test your firearm, how much depends on its intended use. Remember a handgun must be reliable, effective, user friendly, and wearable (if it will be carried).