Buying Your First Handgun
by Dick Clark
by Dick Clark
by Dick Clark
Okay, so something has finally tipped the scales of your judgment in favor of acquiring your first handgun. Maybe you know someone who was just victimized by a criminal. Maybe you have a new family and feel the urge to make yourself ready to protect them. Whatever the reason, you have decided to buy a handgun. Here's how to do it.
For most United States citizens, purchasing a handgun is as simple as going to your local gun store, choosing a particular gun to buy, showing photo I.D., filling out the background check form, and then paying for the gun upon approval from NICS (usually instantaneous, but may take as long as three days). There are a few states where this procedure is more cumbersome due to some requirement imposed by statute. To check your state's particular rules, simply ask a local gun dealer or refer to Handgunlaw.us. Each state's rules vary, so I won't cover them here, but some states restrict not only who may purchase and possess a handgun, but what particular models are permitted for such possession within that state. Restrictions may apply to so-called "assault pistols," those that are capable of accepting high-capacity magazines (usually 10+), or those that the state may classify as "Saturday Night Specials."
The first, most obvious question that you must ask yourself is "What role(s) do I expect this gun to fill?" The possible answers include competition or target shooting, hunting, home defense, and self-defense outside of the home.
Competition or Target Shooting
I can neatly avoid providing any useful information on this point because anyone who plans to spend cash on a "race gun" or high-performance target handgun is likely already familiar enough with weapons to have no need for my advice. It suffices to say that there are handguns designed for fast presentation, sight acquisition, and follow-up shooting that are advantageous for competition use, but not practical or economical for defensive uses. Likewise, there are target handguns that are designed for precise shot placement that may be too bulky, of insufficient caliber, or otherwise unsuited for defensive applications.
Hunting handguns may be used to take a number of different varieties of game, from squirrel to deer to wild boar to bear. Regardless of the quarry, a hunting handgun is almost always a bulky sort of implement, either because the gun is chambered in a large caliber that requires a heavy frame and barrel, because optics are mounted, or both.
The most common hunting handgun type is the large-caliber revolver. Many states permit deer hunters to hunt with pistols and revolvers above a certain caliber, usually .40. The .44 Magnum cartridge is well known for its ability to take down even large, dangerous game like bear, and it may be found employed by all manner of medium and large game hunters. Revolvers in a large caliber like the .44 Magnum are undeniably intimidating and effective enough for use in home defense, but are too bulky for most personal defense applications where discreet possession of the handgun is preferred.
Single-shot handguns utilizing either a break-action or bolt-action occupy a small but growing niche within handguns designed for hunting use. Predominantly manufactured by companies like Remington, Savage, and Thompson-Center, these guns are extremely specialized and are designed for one thing: to accurately fire a rifle bullet out of a package much smaller than the average rifle. The recoil is often tremendous, the time for a second shot is long, and the speed for target acquisition is as slow as it would be with any scoped weapon. These specialized firearms may be used for hunting or for long-range target shooting, but they have little application outside of these areas.
For many users, a handgun is the best weapon for home defense. The handgun is more easily wielded than a shotgun by individuals with a slight build, and the shorter length of a handgun allows greater maneuverability in close quarters than a shortened pistol-grip shotgun. In considering a handgun for home defense, there are several questions that you should ask yourself before proceeding:
1) Does the gun fit in my hand comfortably? Is it comfortable for the largest and smallest potential shooter?
In a life or death situation, confidence is a necessary component of a potentially life-saving action. Having good positive control of the gun in your hands is essential to confidently wielding it against an attacker. Additionally, you must be able to hang on to a gun in order to fire it safely and accurately.
2) Does the cartridge caliber/load make the handgun's recoil too severe for the people most likely to need to use the gun in defense?
Recoil that is so strong as to be uncomfortable can make a shooter anxious and tends to dissuade the shooter from practicing regularly. Both of these may mean that the handgun is less useful when a situation requiring decisive action arises. As physics dictate, a cartridge generally generates more felt recoil as the mass it has to displace decreases. Therefore, larger, heavier guns will typically have less recoil than smaller guns chambered in the same cartridge. In a smaller pocket pistol, .380 ACP may be the largest round a shooter feels confident with, whereas the same shooter might be completely at ease with a .44 Special in a heavy, full-frame revolver. For the recoil sensitive, .380 ACP, 9 mm, and .38 Special are all safe bets that still offer reasonable power.
3) Is the cartridge for which the gun is chambered effective enough to insure that I will be able to stop an attacker?
There is much debate over caliber selection within defensive handgun circles. Many shooters argue that anything less potent than 9 mm or .38 Special is unreliable for self-defense. Except for extremely petite or physically weak shooters, I would tend to agree that cartridges like .32 ACP, .25 ACP, .22 Short, .22 LR, .22 Magnum, and even the .380 ACP are all too impotent for a dedicated home defense weapon. While they are all superior to a pocketknife for self-defense, I think it is worth the slight extra recoil to move up to a more effective "major" caliber, including 9mm (although this round's effectiveness is sometimes questioned too), .38 Special (also criticized as impotent), .357 Magnum, .40 S&W, .44 Magnum, .44 Special, and .45 ACP, among others.
If you buy a minor caliber, you will definitely have to purchase the more expensive defensive ammunition in order to improve the round's efficacy against an attacker. Standard full metal jacket or "hardball" ammunition will work satisfactorily for defense work if in the largest calibers, such as .44 Magnum or .45 ACP. This should not be a major consideration, though, since I would generally recommend defensive ammo for regular carry because those rounds frequently feature corrosion resistant nickel-plated cartridge casings and are manufactured to tighter specifications.
4) Does this manufacturer have a reputation for reliability?
Unless you are really pushing the poverty line, it is hard to justify buying a gun that might work when you need it. Stay away from guns manufactured by unknown or disreputable makers. My short list of quality handgun makers would include: Sig-Sauer, Heckler & Koch, Ruger, Glock, Smith & Wesson (revolvers), Colt, Kimber, Para-Ordnance, Kel-Tec, Walther, Springfield, Beretta, Browning, and Taurus. Some of these are better than others, but each has established a reputation for reliability and safety. There are other companies that make good guns, but the companies listed above have history of consistent excellence for at least the past ten years, and many for over a century.
Self-Defense Outside of the Home
In addition to the considerations listed above, the selection of a handgun for self-defense outside the home requires the added consideration of concealability. If a gun is too bulky to be worn comfortably on your person, you are less likely to carry it often and therefore less likely to have it at hand when the need for it arises. Be sure to select a gun that isn't too heavy for you to easily carry. For some, this means selecting a handgun chambered in .380 ACP or some other smaller caliber. While these calibers may not be optimal, they are preferable to being empty-handed in a situation where a gun could save your life.
Handguns are most commonly available in one of two action types: revolver or semi-automatic.
A revolver holds five, six, or more rounds of ammunition in a rotating cylinder behind the barrel. When all the rounds are expended, the shooter must swing the cylinder out, eject the spent casings, and load each of the chambers with a new cartridge. The only revolvers that you should consider are "double action" (DA), meaning that you need not cock the hammer before pulling the trigger to fire a round.
A semi-automatic holds ammunition in a magazine, usually vertically inserted into the grip. When you pull the trigger to fire, the hammer strikes the firing pin, discharges the cartridge, and uses the force of the fired cartridge to cycle the action of the gun, reloading the chamber with a fresh round from the magazine. Semi-automatic pistols may be single action (SA), double action, or double-action only (DAO). A DA semi-automatic will fire if the user pulls the trigger when the hammer is at rest and there is a round in the chamber. The trigger pull for the second shot will be shorter and lighter because the action of the gun automatically cocks the hammer. A DAO has the same, heavy trigger pull each time, and the hammer is always at rest.
As with revolvers, I would recommend that most first-time buyers avoid SA semi-automatics simply because the learning curve is slightly steeper and the time required to bring the weapon into action is longer since the hammer must be manually cocked prior to the first shot. The most popular SA semi-automatic is the M1911 .45 ACP designed by John Moses Browning and manufactured most famously by Colt. While this venerable design has much to offer, I cannot recommend it as the sole lifeline for a beginning shooter.
When choosing between a revolver and a semi-automatic, remember these factors:
- may be reloaded more rapidly by simply removing empty magazine and inserting a fresh one (and, depending on the model, either racking the slide again to chamber the first round or releasing the slide from its locked position)
- usually has a higher magazine capacity
- may be flatter and therefore more concealable
- more likely to have a manual safety
- malfunction/misfeed may require more steps to remedy
- cleaning is easier because disassembly is usually not required
- in case of a misfire, simply pull the trigger again