How to Choose a Pistol / Handgun - Guide for New Gun Owners
Choosing a pistol can be a somewhat overwhelming task for someone that doesn't quite understand all of the terminology, and the implications of the various design features on the market.
I always compare the purchase of a firearm to buying a car. The steps and mentality should be the same.
Step 1: Identify it's Purpose
The first step to choosing any firearm is to identify it's purpose. Common usage of handguns would involve one or more of the following:
- Home Defense
- Concealed Carry
- Fun and Enjoyment
Competition is a very broad term due to the fact that there are so many forms of competition. For all intensive purposes, I'm going to ignore competition since it generally is for experienced shooters.
The far majority of handguns are going to be useful for home defense. I typically suggest a larger frame (overall size of the firearm) handgun due to the increased magazine capacity, reliability, and control (less recoil, more grip surface). An example would be a Glock 17 or Kimber Custom II, both of these are full size handguns. Since you are in your household, you do not need to concede these benefits for concealability like you would with the next purpose.
Concealed carry generally requires a compact sized handgun due to the fact that you are forced to conceal it. Common choices are short barrel revolvers (S&W Model 60 for example) and compact or sub-compact semi-autos such as a Glock 26. You are make a concession in magazine capacity and control for concealability. You will want to bear in mind your typical dress; is it loose or tight fitting? Tighter fitting clothing will require a more compact handgun in order to prevent "printing", which is when the firearm makes an obvious bulge or outline that stands out.
Step 2: Put it in your Hands
Make a trip to the local gun store and handle every handgun that fits your above purpose. Even handguns that appear similar will have a different feel in your hands. Narrow down your choices into a group of pistols that fit your hand well. Feel is an important aspect of developing confidence, and is vital to choosing a handgun.
The most important aspect of feel is the ability to reach the controls of the handgun. Make sure you can operate the slide release, magazine release, cylinder release, and any safety mechanisms properly without significant effort. Bear in mind your capabilities as a shooter at this point are very elementary, as you continue to develop your shooting skills these items will get easier to use through the development of techniques and familiarity. Step 3: Caliber and Control
Too many people get caught up in the caliber of a particular handgun. Personally, anything that is at least a 9mm / .38 caliber bullet is going to be well suited for any purpose. There are larger diameter bullets such as the notorious .45 ACP that push a much heavier bullet that does leave a slightly larger wound channel. The trade-off for 1/10th of an inch in bullet diameter is significantly less capacity and more recoil (albeit not much more).
Ultimately shooters end up changing their minds about caliber down the road. Many people that start out with .45s end up considering 9mms and .40s due to the considerably cheaper costs of ammo. Currently the price of a box of 9mm ammo is approximately $9 - 11, whereas .40 S&W is around $14 - 16, and .45 is hovering above $20 a box of 50.
Common Handgun Calibers
.38 SPL / Special
If you are undecided about caliber ... my personal choice is 9mm. It's a good all-around caliber that's affordable and easy to find. It's very controllable, yet has sufficient penetration and wounding capability and great capacity in most handguns. In a revolver, I recommend a .38 Special +P or .357 Magnum, both of which will shoot defensive .38 Special hollow-point ammo. (You can shoot .38 Special in a .357 Magnum gun)
Step 4: Try Before you Buy
Some gun ranges offer the ability to rent guns. This offers you the chance to try out the pistol prior to buying it. If you can't find the exact pistol you are looking for, then try something that is most similar to it, and be sure that it is the same caliber.
If you are unsure about a particular caliber, it is wise to try it out. A common example is 9mm and .40 S&W. Many people learn that .40 S&W is quite a bit different than 9mm by trial.
Step 5: Price Point
Expect to spend at least $400 on a quality new handgun. There are more affordable choices out there, but honestly they tend to have significantly higher failure rates from my experience.
Glock - All but the G36 (Highly recommend the 9mm Glocks)
Springfield XD & XDm Series
Springfield 1911s (Loaded and Above)
HK P30 / HK45 / USP / USPc
Sig P220 / P226 / P229
Ruger SR9 / LCP / LC9
Ruger GP100 / SP101
Kahr (Replace the sights with metal ones)
STI 1911s (Trojan or better)
S&W M&P Series
S&W Stainless J-Frames (Model 60)
Walther PPS (Not the PPK, the PPS)
Beretta M9 / 92FS (And other similar models)
CZ 75 Series and P-0x Series
Picked up a Gen 3 Glock 24 at the pawn shop the other day for a pretty good price. When I tried to haggle the guy down he said there wasn't much play in the price as the gun was still new. Bought it...