There is what you want, what you have, and what you think you need.
Ever wonder why there are so many makes and models of cars? After all these years one would think that the ideal car, truck, van, etc would have already been designed. It’s easy to laugh at such a thought when thinking of cars, but what about handguns?
After 17 years of professional shooting and having worked in the industry as an instructor as well as a bit on the retail side I’ve collected some wisdom for you: there is no perfect handgun.
Spend $80 for a Hi-Point or $5,000 for a Nighthawk (or approximately 60 Hi-Points). Will you find the perfect gun? NO. There is no such thing as a perfect gun and it irks me every time I hear a salesman attempt to tell someone that they will only ever need one handgun and that brand X is the answer. It is extra offensive when I hear it said to new shooters.
There are guns that are easier to learn with, and there are guns that are better for concealment. The most important factor in selecting a gun is what most often gets over-looked: what is the intended purpose of the gun? I don’t claim to have all the answers, but this chart might help. Below is a simplification and consolidation of 17 years of being paid to shoot and the experience from owning a few dozen handguns. Consider these factors when considering your first gun, or even considering your tenth: Home Defense or Range, Level of Learning, Concealed Carry or Competition
Big: A larger gun gives more to grip and higher capacity. Fewer reloads on the range. If you’re not worried about concealment, there’s no reason to have fewer rounds to defend your house with.
Your Hand: What matches your hand most comfortably? Fit to consider (have an experienced shooter help with this) includes reach for controls and length of pull to the trigger.
Small: The smaller the better within reason. If a gun is too small for easy use of controls then it’s too small for you. The stock or grip is usually the toughest part to conceal which unfortunately also dictates capacity.
Barrel length and magazine capacity may be factors in determining the class you’ll be shooting in. Consult the sanctioning body’s guidelines before spending money on a gun. A longer barrel equals longer sight radius (distance between sights). The length will also result in higher velocity and more stability of the projectile. These two combined usually result in better accuracy without increased training.
If the barrel is too short for the powder to completely burn you’ll see some flash. By the time your brain processes this the danger may be already gone. Keep in mind that a cute little snubby will likely also be a fire-breathing dragon.
Not as important for concealment as grip length, but a factor in your guns’ power. Shorter barrels generate less muzzle energy and sometimes not enough for a defensive round to perform as intended. Problems with cycling and the projectile itself not doing all the magic tricks described on the box.
A longer barrel with a lower caliber can outperform a shorter barrel with a higher caliber (ie. 4” 9mm Glock 19 hits harder than a 3.8” 45 XDm). The longer sight radius makes it easier to aim and delivers more energy on steel targets.
Trigger Pull: This is a sticky point for a gun that will be both for the home and the range. Target shooting is easier and more fun with a short, light, and crisp trigger but those same characteristics will just as likely result in shooting the cat, neighbor, or tv during a high-stress home defense scenario. Stick with the middle ground or find a good Single Action/Double Action and learn how to use them.
Clean: Trigger pull is one of the most important disciplines to learn (after safety). Have an experienced shooter help you learn the difference between a mushy/gritty trigger and a crisp one. I recommend something with a notable pre-travel and discernable wall with a crisp brake. Revolvers can be great for this
NOT A RACE GUN: The trigger pull length and weight may very well be the deciding factor between a shot that saves your life and one that puts you in jail. Keep this in mind. The 4-6lbs that most guns come with is good. Learn your trigger!
Aftermarket performance parts in a carry gun are a liability that you may very well have to explain when you punch a bunch of random holes all over the place instead of in the bad guy.
Reset: Regardless of the total trigger travel it is a short and crisp reset that will give you the fastest follow-up shots. The lightest trigger in the world with a long travel will turn into sloppy strokes of the finger if the reset is too long. If you aren’t familiar with trigger reset ask an experienced shooter.
Caliber Cost: If you’re looking at a range gun consider how often you’ll be shooting and what the total cost will be for you. A lot like considering a car that require premium vs regular gasoline; what will feeding the gun cost you? Ammo prices vary wildly, but in general 45 ACP will cost you about 25% more per shot than 9mm. Would you prefer five boxes or four for the same price?
Comfort: Two main schools of thought here. Either get the most comfortable thing for you to shoot until you’re comfortable with shooting to move to a bigger caliber (ie. .22lr to 9mm) or start with the caliber you want to use later on and learn that caliber. There are good arguments on both sides. What will probably settle it for you is determining if you are willing to buy more than one gun.
Capacity: “Knock-down power” is mostly shot placement not caliber, so chose the caliber you can shoot well. The smaller rounds will likely mean higher capacity, a lighter gun, and potentially less cost. It is for these reasons that I converted from .45 ACP to 9mm.
All Three: You’re going to shoot a lot of rounds as quickly as you can and demand the most out of your gun. See the three columns to the left for the major factors here.
Extras Night sights, external safeties, loaded chamber indicators, cocking indicators, de-cockers, fiber-optic front sights, multiple magazine options are all important factors that either fit what you’re looking for or don’t.
A salesman may try to hook you on one particular function or tell you that it’s not important, but all of these things impact the way you will shoot the gun and the way it fits your purpose. Decide what you want and don’t want by trying multiple platforms before you buy. Ideally find a place that will let you rent until you’re worn out or find a friend with a collection. Let them explain the functions, but don’t let them tell you why that function is the best/only thing you need.
Bringing it all Together
I hope at the least this serves as a general guide of things to consider or at least be aware of when considering a gun purchase. The analogy I always use when explaining to a customer is that guns are a lot like cars. Even though (sadly) not everyone has bought a gun most have bought a car. We all drive different cars and very few are still driving their first car. Even if you decide on a four-door sedan there are hundreds of options out there. This is for a reason: we all have different needs, taste, budgets, and priorities. It all comes down to identifying what you need, want, and can afford and then finding the gun that matches those most closely. The next time you look at a mile-long row of black steel and plastic smile that there are options and you’re not stuck driving a Geo metro cross-country or trying to park a Suburban downtown. Either option could be done, but not nearly as comfortably as it could be in a different car.