If you’re a handgun owner and you have friends who are not, you may often find yourself looked to as an expert on the subject. A common question I find myself faced with by new shooters is: “I want to get a handgun for concealed carry and personal protection. What should I get?” It’s a very personal question, with no one right answer. There is a very good reason there is such a broad selection of handguns on the market, and that is that different people look for different qualities in a defensive firearm.
The first thing a new shooter should do is become familiar with pistols in general. One major mistake experienced shooters make is recommending their personal favorite firearm as the gun of choice for a new shooter. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been at the range and seen a husband encouraging his wife to try out a lightweight .357 Magnum snub nosed revolver. Don’t get me wrong – small hammerless big bore revolvers are carried by thousands of women. Their light weight and small size makes them easy to conceal, and they still pack a wallop. But starting a new shooter off with such a firearm can be a mistake. When dealing with a new shooter, start small by renting something like a Ruger .22 pistol so that they can get used to practicing proper shooting technique. Firearms are intimidating, and starting a newbie off with a fire-belching magnum is a sure-fire way to intimidate them so much that they conclude that they are incapable of handling a firearm.
Once your new shooter is comfortable with a .22, step up and try out a soft shooting .380, 9mm, or .38 Special. Try a wide variety of handguns and let them find out what they like as well as what they don’t like. A shooter looking for their first carry pistol should find one that fits them well. Grip size, grip angle, overall weight and balance, muzzle length, and caliber all play into this complex equation. Be sure to consider the human factor: how intuitively can they manipulate the handguns controls? Is the safety easy to reach? What about the magazine or cylinder release? All of these things contribute to the overall suitability of a pistol to a particular shooter. There’s no set equation for figuring out what pistol fits best – you’ve got to take some for a test drive.
Most pistol ranges have a variety of handguns that can be rented for a small fee. Don’t bother renting full size handguns – these are usually not suitable for concealed carry. Stick with compact and subcompact firearms. Try a variety of actions and calibers. Don’t place too much emphasis on finding a large caliber pistol. While a .357 Sig or .357 Magnum may be your choice as the best carry caliber, it may be a handful for a novice shooter. The ability to maintain consistent and accurate shot placement is far more important than the “stopping power” of any particular caliber. As instructor Greg Hamilton said, “Do you know how to double the effectiveness of any bullet? Put another round through your target.” Two .25 ACP rounds that land solid hits on the target are much more effective than two misses with a .357 Magnum.
Consider also the price and availability of your ammunition. Practice is key to maintaining proficiency with any firearm. Your new shooter may love their .380 subcompact, but with the current ammunition shortage, will they be able to find enough .380 at a reasonable price to practice with? Many pistol models are available in a variety of calibers. If your new shooter falls in love with that Sig 229 in .357 Sig, but you’re concerned with ammo availability, have them try a Sig 229 in .40 S&W instead.
The overall reliability of a handgun is also very important. Many handguns are picky about what type of ammunition they will digest. Ask your local range if you can try some standard pressure defensive rounds through their rental guns. Most ranges will gladly let you give it a test drive if you purchase the ammunition there (most will not let you run +P high pressure rounds). In addition to their ability to feed ammunition, some firearms are simply more reliable than others. Talk to an experienced shooter or range master about the reliability of the pistol your new shooter is considering for purchase. Pistols that are carried regularly are exposed to all manner of fouling media. Lint, dirt, and dust can collect on the pistol, and rust can be an issue in high humidity environments or during the summer. Some handguns are simply better suited for concealed carry. Look for polymer, stainless steel, or other frames that will resist moisture, dirt, and dust.
Once a new shooter has settled on what gun is right, the pocket book comes into play. Firearms are not cheap as a general rule, and it’s possible to find that the right pistol for your new shooter is out of their budget. If that is the case, talk to your local firearm dealer about layaway plans, or consider buying used. Many manufacturers like Sig Sauer offer factory certified used firearms that come with an excellent warranty and are priced at a significant discount. If a factory certified used firearm isn’t a possibility, have a gunsmith inspect the potential purchase. They can spot excessive wear and abuse and can tell how well a used handgun has been cared for.
Finally, once the new purchase has been made, practice! Practice is critical to being able to properly employ a firearm in a self defense situation, so continue to encourage a new shooter to accompany you to the range and practice with their new pistol. If they’ve chosen a handgun that suits them well, practice will be an enjoyable pastime that the two of you can spend together.