So You Want to Buy Your First Handgun

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When you start pulling a trigger at eight years old and you stay on top of all things shooting, you tend to learn a few things. Now after 35 years of trigger pulling, I have learned a lot, maybe not enough to make me an expert, but dam close. A jack-of-all-trades master of none, was what my dad use to say. Now back then social networking (sharing information the old fashion way) was gathering some friends around the campfire or leaning on the bed of your pickup truck. It’s not at all what it is today, but you talked face to face and you gave advice and shared experiences as well learned a few things.  And if you listened to people who were in the trade, you became wiser. In every job I have ever had, sooner or later my fellow employee’s learned about my hobby, after which I was known as the gun guy. Even now, my fellow employees have dubbed me the, “the go to gun guy”, and ask me for advice, and thanks to all that listening I did, help them I do.

Now I have come to expect all this at work, but when I started to get questions out in the trade from the people I work for, it set the rusty wheels in motion for an article. And the question I most often received was what inspired me to write this piece, which was, “I want to buy a handgun, but what should I get?”  And the second most asked question I receive is, “if you could only have three guns, what would they be?” Now being a very pro-gun fellow, avid shooter, collector and Life Member of the NRA, I am only too happy to help them with their questions. What you have to remember is that everyone’s tastes are different and what I like may not be what you like. I base my advice on my years of experience with all types of firearms and my taste, because in the end the choice is yours. Take your time and research your choices and ask other shooters you trust for advice. That’s the great thing about our sport, we are like family and we help each other.

Hand size

Let’s start with the size of your hand, which plays a very important part in pistol selection. A pistol should feel good when you grip it, as a good grip aids in control and accuracy. If you have small hands and you’re shooting a big bore revolver, you’re not going to control recoil as well as you should and accuracy will suffer as a result. You may even lose control of the pistol causing it to fly out of your hand(s) resulting in damage to the pistol or injuring yourself or a bystander, YouTube is full of great examples of this. When you have it in your shooting hand you should be able to access all the controls on the pistol with ease especially your slide stop, (which engages after the last round is fired to hold the slide open) and your magazine release (the button you push next to the trigger to release the magazine from the magazine well) On a revolver it would be your cylinder release latch. (Let’s your cylinder swing out to load and unload)

Having large hands can have the opposite result when shooting a pistol that is too small, such as a sub compact model. If you find a pistol you really like and it does not feel good and control is in question, you could always replace the factory grip panels with larger or smaller ones that feel good to you and improves your control. One of my favorite companies for grips is Hogue; they sell a wide variety of grips, some of made of exotic wood from around the globe. Something else that plays into comfort and controllability is the magazine capacity. There is a single stack or single column magazine in which the round sit one atop the other and gives you a thin profile, like a Sig P-220 .45 ACP magazine. Then there are double stack or staggered column magazines like the Beretta 92FS, which will widen the grip of the pistol and people with smaller hands may have a problem with controllability. Once this issue is addressed you can move on to whether you should get a new or used pistol.

New or used

Most people I speak to, tell me they don’t have a lot of money in any economy, especially for a new gun. Since gun prices can vary according to make, model and style, finding what you like in a used one is a great way to start. It follows along the lines of buying a used car; sometimes you can get a better pistol for less money than could have normally. Most gun shops carry used pistols in all makes, models and calibers and should have inspected or had a competent gun smith give it the once over to insure it’s safe to re sell. Never be afraid to ask them any and all questions, if they’re a good shop, they will gladly answer your questions truthfully.  Most shooters would never abuse their pistols, but if they have, or didn’t know they have, it’s not always visible damage. Shooting +P or +P+ (Plus Pressure loads) in a pistol not designed for them can weaken steel and parts and result in catastrophic failure injuring or killing the shooter and bystanders. If the shop hasn’t checked it or you bought it from a friend or family member, just take it to a gunsmith and pay a small fee for peace of mind. Also make sure with semi automatic pistols the magazines are clean and free of rust and dents. The springs should be in good working order and make sure they don’t bind when loaded.

If you do have the money for a new pistol, then the world is your oyster, just find a good fitting gun in the caliber of your choice, that’s esthetically pleasing to you and you’re set. Buying new just eliminates one concern; it wasn’t shot and possibly abused, although abuse is not always visible as I said before. Most if not all pistol manufacturers will fix and or replace your pistol for the life of the gun and for as long as you own it. Colt, Springfield Armory and Smith and Wesson to name a few offer this warranty. Taurus has a lifetime warranty on the pistol not the user, so it doesn’t matter how many people owned it before you – it’s covered. These companies get my business, because they stand behind their products. I have sent guns back to Glock, Ruger, Springfield Armory and Colt and never received a bill for repairs and that’s great customer service. You never knew there were so many choices in one pistol purchase did you? Well if you’re shopping, I’m sure you’re well aware of this fact now.

Caliber

Now you need to choose the caliber of your new handgun and that’s an easy one right? Well, it is not rocket science, it just means making a good choice based on the use of the pistol. Now this area will send some people into fits, because no one caliber can do it all right? Well I believe that’s true in some aspects; in war you want a caliber that will immediately stop your enemy as with law enforcement. After all the primary purpose of a gun is to kill what you’re shooting at and some calibers do a better job than others. You wouldn’t use a .22 caliber for home defense although any gun is better than no gun. Again you want to stop the attack immediately, so you pick a caliber that delivers its energy into the target and ends the attacker’s ability to function.

Most will agree the .45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) will deliver on this promise and it’s proven in combat. This is why die hard .45 fans hate the Beretta M-9 pistol the military has be saddled up with, because it’s a 9mm FMJ Ball ammunition (round nose full metal Jacket bullet used in military arms since the Geneva Convention prohibits hollow point ammunition in combat) It has no stopping power and since the round is a FMJ it tends to pass through the target and not stop it. Yet it carries 15 rounds in the magazine and capacity is what people want. I will talk more on this later. I believe that even with a 9mm pistol, if used with the right ammunition, such as Hornady TAP (Tactical Application Police) or Hornady Critical Defense or any good modern hollow point round, it can be an effective man stopper. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t let my wife have her carry gun in 9mm.

My personal choice is the .40 Smith and Wesson as it fits between the 9mm and the .45 ACP. All these calibers are plentiful (kind of) and easy to find in almost any store that sells ammunition, along with .38 Special and .357 magnum, both are revolver cartridges. Of course if you have a .357 you can also shoot .38 Special from it as well, a bonus for owning one handgun. Everyone should own a .22 caliber pistol, its available everywhere and it’s easy to control and very economical. It also makes a great starting handgun for beginners and supervised children. If you just plan on plinking and nothing more, a .22 is best. For home defense and or CCW (Concealed Carry Weapon) carry I wouldn’t go any smaller that 9mm. Although, there has been a recent craze for pocket pistols in .380, and like I stated before, any gun is better than no gun, but I tend to stay away from the smaller calibers. I do have a concern for the stopping power of theses smaller cartridges. In the end the choice is yours to make.

Revolver or semi automatic

For new shooters I always recommend a revolver, it’s easy to shoot and does not suffer the functioning problems a semi-automatic does. It is also easy to load and easy to check to see if there is ammunition present or loaded. Most Revolvers are double action, meaning you can pull the hammer back and shoot or squeeze the trigger and it will shoot as well. Some are single action only meaning you must pull the hammer back each time you fire, like the Colt single action army model. You can pick up a .22 pistol from Ruger fairly cheap, like the Ruger Bearcat or from Taurus in the model 990 and the Smith and Wesson model 63. If it is a defensive revolver a small model may suit you well when weight and size are a concern like the S&W model 340PD in .357 Magnum, which is made of Scandium Alloy/Titanium/Stainless Steel and weights in at 12 oz empty. A target or home defense revolver may call for a larger handgun such as the Ruger GP-100, .357 Magnum with a 4 or 6 inch barrel, as size is not a concern for non CCW handguns.  You will not run out of choices and two of the giants of the revolver world are Smith and Wesson and Taurus.

The biggest concern for me with a revolver is the fact that many people, including children, the elderly and some woman have difficulty pulling the trigger in double action revolvers. Most seem to be ok pulling the hammer back and firing the pistol this way and this is one of the concerns Smith and Wesson addressed with there Model 60LS Lady Smith. It would be better if carried to have the hammer at rest, as the amount of energy need to pull the trigger in single action is less than double action thus avoiding the pistol being discharged. Remember there are no physical safeties on a revolver, just keeping your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to shoot. You can often have a gunsmith lighten the trigger pull or you could purchase hand and finger trainers, which are used to strengthen your hands and fingers, this would eliminate this problem for most. Revolvers can be loaded one round at a time or with speed loaders, which load all the rounds into the cylinder at one time. This method requires a bit of practice but is the most efficient way to load a revolver you may carry, along with pouches for extra speed loaders on your belt.

Another advantage with revolvers is, if you start to reload your brass, recovery of your empties is just a push of the cylinder latch. There are some of you out there who are thinking, “but it’s only five or six shots, a semi automatic gives me 15 or more.” Well if you hit most people once with a .38 or .357 Magnum and they get back up, make friends and hand them your wallet. Shot placement is the key in any shooting situation and if you need more than five or six shots in a normal situation, you should practice a lot more. It doesn’t matter if you have five or twenty-five rounds if you can’t hit your target. Another good point about revolvers is there are no safeties to worry about and problems that can plague a semi automatic. In a high stress shooting moment, or in target practice, you will point and pull the trigger and it will fire with no worries about failure to feed, bad magazines, stove piped brass, and your safety being engaged.

A semi automatic pistol requires more knowledge and training although most people can figure them out fairly quickly, they might not be ready to handle the issues associated with a semi automatic. These pistols work on a simple blowback principle which means after the trigger is pulled the round goes off and the energy from the round pushes the slide backwards and ejects the spent case and strips a new one from the magazine. If the magazine is not seated (pushed in till it locks) or it’s rusty or damaged, the pistol may jam or may not work properly. This is a great concern considering it is the heart of the gun and with out it, it is a single shot pistol that you have to load by hand or a great paperweight. I use only factory magazines with my pistols because I don’t trust my life to after market magazines. They are fine for target practice and that’s all I use them for. Clearing jams and misfires are called immediate action drills and a trained experienced shooter will move through this problem easily. A novice could have big problems and in some cases may be wounded or killed while in a defensive situation

While it’s true you can carry large amounts of ammo and deliver volumes of rounds down range, if you can’t hit what your shooting at 54 rounds won’t do you a bit of good.

Having 36 rounds of .45 in a Glock 21 means you should be able to put down 36 targets, not pull the trigger in hopes of putting a lucky round into your target. With training and practice a semi automatic is a powerful defensive tool, a fun target gun or both. Semi automatics, like revolvers, come in a wide range of calibers from .22 thru .50 Action express. If you love life on the wild side then try the Desert Eagle from Magnum Research (www.magnumresearch.com) But be warned, it’s a large, heavy pistol requiring large hands and is the only gas operated pistols in the world, meaning it cycles the action or slide using gas from the fired round. Or in revolvers, you could try the Smith and Wesson 500 Magnum the most powerful handgun in the world. Many years ago I was closed minded and emptying that magazine was what I craved, but now as a well-seasoned shooter, both revolvers and semi automatic handguns fill my safe and the Smith and Wesson 460 XVR and Colt Delta Elite are next on my list.

Make

The maker of the gun is purely the choice of the shooter and there are many manufacturers to choose from. Some of the pistols I own are made by well know firearms companies like Beretta, Sig Sauer, Glock, Ruger, Colt and Walther, and the list is large. Any one of these would make a great choice and if well maintained will provide you with years of service. You can do a general search of the web for gun manufacturers, my search turned up this list, which claims to be the most complete and up to date list on the intranet.   http://www.madogre.com/Interviews/weapon_manufacturers.htm Under the search option for gun parts within the website for Gun Parts Corporation you will find a master list of firearms manufacturers both in and out of business. You can use this to search for anything that fires a bullet; I hope it just doesn’t overwhelm you too much. There are new, upcoming and foreign companies who have guns that are not as well known and in turn could be cheaper. The question is, do you want this gun for plinking, self or home defense.

If you choose a cheaper or less known gun and you are using it for target practice, then malfunctioning, while still an inconvenience is not as important as if it were used for defensive purposes. If its primary roll is defense, then you want to make sure it works every time since malfunctions can cost you your life. This is not a great concern now as technology has caught up with firearms and using modern C & C milling machines, guns are very reliable. Besides with the amount of sue happy people in this world, it does not pay to make a bad gun, it will cost you a lot more in lawsuits than doing it right the first time. 

Models

Models are just as vast in the gun world and some knowledge in the subject does help, but with pistols there are 3 main categories. Full size pistols, let’s say the Glock 22, will hold the maximum number of rounds, which is 15 for that model and the barrels, will usually be five inches. The Glock 23 is a compact models and is a smaller version of it’s full size brother and will usually hold the same amount of rounds although the barrel length is shorter, about 4 inches. The grip is usually the same size as the full size model. Sub compact models like the Glock 27 will be the smallest of this series of Glocks, with a about a 3 inch barrel and the grip will be short, about 4 inches. It will only hold 9 rounds because you are trading capacity for less weight and a more compact size, for concealed carry or use in an ankle holster. This model is very popular for a back up pistol because if you carry a Glock 22, you can use the full size magazines in your Glock 27, which is what I do.

Picking the right handgun can be tough unless you are armed with the knowledge it takes to make the right choice for you and your needs. My hope is that this information will be easy to understand and will help you in your choice for your first handgun. Always remember that there are exceptions to every rule and information is always changing. When you are ready to buy, do your research and don’t impulse buy as you will get something you don’t enjoy and have to sell it for a loss. No one gun can fill the bill, but you can buy something that will fill more than one need, and you can add to your collection at a later time, once your knowledge base has grown. I have many firearms and I use them for different jobs, from home defense to hunting to sport shooting and I add to my collection regularly. Avid shooter will tell you, “You can never have enough guns.” I second that and it’s been a hobby and a passion for me, with a large shooting family to back me up and they will do the same for you.

The answer to that second question, “If you could only have 3 guns which would they be?” Well for me, my Handgun would be a Glock 21 in 10mm, because it can handle almost any situation from defensive use to handgun hunting. My Shotgun would be a Remington 870 in 12 gauge, because there isn’t much a 12 gauge can’t handle. Home defense, hunting and sport shooting are covered. For my rifle it becomes a little tougher and my choice would depend on my activities. But I could fill the bill with an AR platform in .308cal / 7.62x51mm like the Arma Lite AR-10A2. If you love the AR style rifles they are making it in many calibers and one may fill the bill for you and your needs. If I was a die hard hunter, I could get a bolt action or semi automatic rifle in 30.06 cal which could handle just about anything in North America. So there you have it, my top 3 picks for firearms that would handle my needs, although my love for firearms overrides my sensibility and I am compelled to get more and more, everyone has to have a hobby, right?

Lastly and most important is the security of your new handgun from robbery and use by unauthorized people or children. A great way to do this is through a Safe, although the down side is a safe can be many thousands of dollars, but can hold all valuables within your household. But there is a cheaper alternative available from a company called Gun Vault. They have two models I like; the first is the MV-500STD and the second is the MVB-500. The MV-500STD is a straightforward transportable vault that works just as well in the car or the home and has finger touch keypad opening. The MVB-500 is basically the same, but uses biometric finger print identification to open the vault. Both vaults will handle a 5-inch handgun with extra magazine or speed loaders. Both come with steel cables to secure the vault inside your vehicle or home and these units run $139.95 and $215.95. If this is still too pricey for your wallet, there is another alternative, the Nano Vault 300 which will hold a standard 5-inch handgun like the MV-500 series and also come with the steel security cable. The difference is this model uses a 3-digit combination lock and will cost you $39.95, not much for peace of mind. Also, they can hold other valuables if you are not carrying your handgun, like cash and credit cards. Make sure you look them up whether it’s your first handgun or 21st and especially if you’re a CCW holder. Thanks for reading my article and I hope I helped you make an informed decision and please feel free to respond with praise or concerns.

Links to venders from the article:

Glock                          www.glock.com

Smith and Wesson      www.smith-wesson.com

Sig Sauer                    www.sigsauer.com

Taurus                         www.taurususa.com

Colt                             www.coltsmfg.com

Ruger                          www.ruger-firearms.com

Springfield Armory    www.springfield-armory.com                                   

Gun Vault                   www.gunvault.com

Hogue Grips               www.getgrip.com

Gun Parts Corp.          www.gunpartscorp.com

Hornady ammunitionwww.hornady.com

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