How to Choose the Best Handgun for a Beginner

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Trying to decide which handgun is the best one for a beginner can be a daunting task. In today’s marketplace, there are so many choices to choose from that it can make the decision seem almost impossible. In this article, I will go over some of the points you need to consider when buying your first handgun.

One of the biggest decisions that a new gun owner has to make is, what is the intended use of the handgun? Is it something that you will just take to the range? Or is the handgun going to be used for personal protection? Do you intend to carry the gun concealed at some point in the future? All of these questions can influence the choice of pistol.

Where to start when choosing a pistol

The first thing to consider when choosing a pistol is the size and fit of the handgun. If you have a smaller build and a smaller hand then you will need to start with a gun that has a smaller grip. The grip is just one aspect of the gun. You need to make sure that you can reach and operate things like the safety, magazine release, or cylinder release if looking at a revolver.

different sized pistols
Three different sized colt 1911 type pistols. Top series 70 goverment model 5″, Middle Colt Defender 3″, Bottom Colt Mustang

Another part of choosing a pistol is the ease of operation. When looking at buying an automatic pistol you will need to know if you can pull back the slide to be able to load and unload the pistol. Sometimes new shooters just do not have the strength to grip the slide and pull it back. With training and practice, a new shooter can learn how to deal with slides that are stiffer. However, when starting out it is better to start off with something easier to use.

Handgun capacity

Magazine capacity will make big a difference to the size of the gun and the weight of the handgun. It will also play a big part in the desired use of the gun. If you have a small hand it can be an issue to hold a pistol that has a large capacity. This is because large capacity handguns usually use a double-stack magazine. This means that two bullets are stacked beside each other in the magazine. This makes it much wider than a magazine that has only a single stack.

Double stack versus single stack magazines
51517517Single stack Magazine on the left compared to a double stack magazine on the right

A large capacity handgun is usually not a practicable choice for concealed carry. A large grip size will make the gun much harder to hide under your clothing. Not saying that it cannot be done just that you will need to work harder at it. When it comes to carrying a gun on your body concealed, weight is definitely a concern.

Choosing a handgun caliber

There is a lot of talk about which caliber is the best caliber. Unfortunately, the answer is not that simple. Choosing a caliber is going to depend on a number of factors. Typically for a brand new shooter, it is better to start off on a smaller caliber. Starting off with a .22 rimfire is a great way to learn to shoot. The ammunition is cheap and usually plentiful. The other big bonus is that the recoil is extremely low and manageable.

Compare the differences in recoil. The top pistol is a .22 caliber automatic, the pistol on the bottom is a .45 colt automatic. watch the difference in recovery times and muzzle climb

Not having to deal with heavy recoil means that you can concentrate on learning the fundamentals of shooting. Things like sight picture and trigger control are much easier to master when you are not scared of the gun kicking. .22 caliber pistols are available in all different types and sizes. They come in automatics and revolvers and are fun to shoot, even for experienced shooters.

Two Revolvers that are the same caliber but very different to shoot. The pistol on top is the S&W Airweight. it weighs in at 14.5 Oz’s and kicks like a mule. The Pistol on the bottom is the Ruger Security 6. It weighs in at 2Lb’s 6 Oz’s and is a pleasure to shoot.

A good centerfire caliber to start a new shooter or younger shooter off on is the .380 auto. A .380 is basically a cut-down 9mm round. This makes it comfortable to shoot and it does not have the same recoil of the larger 9 mm cartridge. Smith & Wesson has come out with the M&P380EZ model. It is similar in size to the standard M&P 9mm version, but it is much easier to use. The slide is easy to operate and the magazines use a small notch on the follower making them easy to load. It is also extremely easy to shoot.

9mm versus 380
9 mm and 380 side by side

9mm versus .40 versus .45 calibers

When comes to larger calibers there can be a few things to deal with. The first big thing is the recoil. The bigger and the heavier the bullet the more recoil the handgun will have. Also, the bigger the bullet the less capacity the gun will have. As far as which caliber is best is going to depend on its intended use, as well as the operator.

Bullet comparsion
.45 ACP , .40 S&W and 9 mm side by side

From a personal defense standpoint, the larger the caliber the more stopping power it has. This alone does not mean that it is the right choice for all situations. With a large caliber comes a lower round count. It also is going to mean more recoil. So, follow up shots and getting back on target is going to require more energy and training.

Smaller Calibers

Smaller calibers are going to have slightly less stopping power, so it means shot placement will have to be more accurate. The advantages are that smaller caliber pistols will typically have higher capacities and more manageable recoil allowing for faster follow shots.

Bullet selection
Popular handgun rounds from left to right: 44 Mag, 45ACP, 40 S&W, 38 special, 9 mm Luger, 380 ACP and 22 LR. The bullets in front from right to left 45 ACP, 38 Special, 9mm and 22LR

When it comes to choosing a caliber for personal defense it is really going to come down to your own personal choice. A well placed .22 caliber bullet will put an assailant down just as quick as a larger caliber. The thing to keep in mind is if you can deliver that well-placed shot while under stress and when the adrenaline is flowing.

Types of Automatic Pistols

Not all automatic pistols are the same. There are four main types of automatic pistols to choose from

  • Single Action Automatics: These are pistols like the 1911 models. Single action automatics will have an external hammer and can only be fired when the hammer is back. The advantage of a single action pistol is that the trigger will have a short and light pull. This makes it easy to fire accurately without having to pull hard on the trigger. The downside of the single-action automatic is also that the trigger pull is light. A light trigger pull in a stressful situation can result in an accidental discharge.
  • Double Action Automatics: Double-action automatics are similar to the single action in that most of the time they will have an external hammer. However, the one biggest difference is that the hammer does not need to be back for them to fire. Most of these pistols also use a hammer drop safety. This means that the hammer is released when the safety is applied. The first shot that is fired will be a double-action shot. Meaning the hammer will be pulled back by the trigger, then all other shots after that will be single action. The advantage of a double-action automatic is that it is less likely to suffer from an accidental discharge. The downside is that the first shot is much harder to pull the trigger and typically accuracy will suffer.
  • Striker fired automatics: A striker-fired automatic means that it does not have an external hammer. Instead of a hammer hitting a firing pin to fire the gun, they use a spring to propel the firing pin into the cartridge. One of the advantages of a striker-fired pistol is that it is easier to draw the pistol from a concealed position. This is because sometimes an external hammer can get stuck on clothing. Whereas the outside of a striker-fired gun is usually smooth. The triggers on most striker-fired guns are considered a single action trigger. Although they are not as smooth as the true single-action automatics.
  • Double action only automatics: As the name implies these guns have a double-action-only trigger. These types of guns were designed mainly as a concealed carry type of pistol. By using a double-action-only trigger means that all shots will feel the same. The trigger pull weight will be about twice that of a single action trigger. Though it makes them safer from an accidental discharge, accuracy will suffer.
Striker fired versus Hammer fired
Pistol on the left is striker fired and has a smooth back of the slide. the pistol on the right is hammer fired. Sometims an external hammer can get stuck on clothing when trying to draw from a concealed postion

Choosing a revolver

Revolvers can be a good first choice of handgun. Although they can come with some drawbacks as well. Often considered to be more reliable as they do not suffer from many of the failure types that an automatic can have. However, they have two drawbacks. The pistols are most of the time going to be fired in double-action mode. This means a heavy trigger pull as the cylinder will be rotated at the same time as the hammer is being pulled back. The next issue is the round count. The limitation of the size of the cylinder is going to be 5 to 6 rounds in most popular revolvers.

5 and six shot revolvers, How to buy a handgun
Six shot and five shot revolvers

Just like automatic handguns, revolvers come in all different sizes and calibers. The smaller handguns like the smith and Wesson Airweight are exceptionally light and easy to carry. However, because they are so light the recoil can be very harsh. This makes practicing and getting proficient with the gun difficult as it can be painful to continually shoot with.

Different types of revolvers Pistols
Three different types of revolvers, top left double/single action revolver, top right single action only revolver, Center double action only revolver

There are also larger frame revolvers that are comfortable to shoot and are accurate. These guns are great for target practice or leaving in the nightstand. Trying to carry concealed can be an issue due to size and weight.

So, What is the Best way to Choose a Handgun

The best place to start is at the local gun shop. Usually, the bigger ones are the best like Cabela’s, Sportsman Warehouse, or Bass Pro Shops. These types of gun stores will usually have a large selection to choose from. Start by looking at the guns that you like the look of. Then see if you can operate the gun. Make sure that you can pull the slide back on an automatic. Check the feel of the gun in your hand. Is heavy or uncomfortable to hold. Make sure that you can reach the magazine release. Hold the gun up and look through the sights. The sights should be clear and easy to see. Different guns can have different sights and different grip angles that can affect how well you can see the sights.

Handgun selection
Handgun couter at a big retailer

Before you buy try out the type of gun you are interested in. Most major cities will have gun ranges that offer pistol rentals. Going to one of these ranges is a great way to try out a gun before you buy it. This is a good thing because once you purchase a new gun there is no returning it for a refund. Shooting ranges are a great place to try out a lot of different types of guns for not a lot of money.

If you have friends that are shooters or own guns talk to them about their guns. If possible, go out shooting with them and try out their guns. Just remember what works for your friends may not work for you. Do not feel pressured to buy a gun just because your friends own one. It has to work for you.

How to buy a Gun

Now that you have narrowed down the type, caliber, and model of pistol you need to start looking at how to buy it. One of the first things you should do is check the local laws in your area. Unfortunately, not all states are in favor of their citizens owning guns. So, you will need to check if you need a license or a permit to purchase. Two ways to check on local and state laws are to call your local gun shop and ask what is required to buy a gun. They should know what forms will be needed and if you need to take any courses before showing up to buy. The other way is to go to your state’s website. Search the keyword “firearms” which should return all of the specific laws related to your state.

When it comes to buying the gun, you do have options. Buying a handgun online is not that hard though you will have to have it sent to a licensed dealer in your town. My advice would be to purchase a new gun at your local gun shop. If they don’t have the gun you want in stock most dealers can order it and have it in a couple of days.

Now that you have a handgun

Now that you own a gun it’s time to get some training. The best place for that is at your local shooting range. You can also check with the NRA for local trainers in your area. A qualified trainer is going to be better than relying on a friend to teach you.

The next most important thing to do is practice. Shooting is a skill and relies on muscle memory to become better at it. So, you need to shoot as often as possible. If you intend to carry the gun for personal defense, then you need to shoot at the minimum once a month. I personally try to shoot at least once a week. Each time I go to the range I pick one thing to work on and practice. This keeps all my skills up to date.

Be safe and shoot often.

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