Choosing Your First Handgun

By Wilburn Roberts published on in General

The most common question presented to trainers, writers, and the family ‘gun person’ is, “Which handgun should I purchase for personal defense?” The bottom line is dependent upon the shooter and how much or how little time, effort, and training will go into the final choice. There are many firearms that are well suited to personal defense. But the student differs mentally and physically, and so should the choices each individual makes. The first step is individual research and study.

Smith and Wesson Shield 9mm top vs. .45 ACP bottom

The 9mm Shield, top, and the .45 Shield, bottom, are credible choices for personal defense.

There are many second- and third-rate handguns on the market. The first criteria when choosing a handgun is reliability. There is no other factor as important as reliability. Durability is also important. The handgun should not have sights that tend to break or fragile grips or magazines that break if dropped.

The pistol should fit the hand well. Sharp edges, a heavy trigger or an uncomfortable grip frame are deal breakers. There are genuine differences in handfit between otherwise suitable choices. As an example, there are four reliable single-stack, compact 9mm handguns in my safe awaiting evaluation. The four are all reliable firearms from respected makers.

One shooter finds a certain grip frame fits his or her hand well, while another will find the other handgun is the best fit. To cut the evaluation short, and look at some obvious factors, I have found that the Glock 43 9mm is the most concealable by a margin, while the larger Honor Defense Honor Guard 9mm is the most comfortable to fire and use due to its larger grip. Neither is a problem to conceal, and neither is a problem to fire comfortably. However, one or the other excels on certain points. It is a personal choice, but each of the four would serve well.

Smith and Wesson 360 snubnose .38 Special right profile

The Smith and Wesson 360 snubnose .38 Special is a first class handgun with many advantages.

The budget is a consideration. I would rather max out the credit card, than purchase and attempt to trust a cheap gun. The difference between a cheap gun and a good gun isn’t great. Remember, reliability is the single most important criteria. Handling and handfit are next. Accuracy is always interesting, and I admit I favor the more accurate handgun. But practically any quality handgun—even the most compact—will place a magazine full of ammunition into a single ragged hole at seven yards.

All will strike the adversary in the chest at 25 yards. A controllable trigger action that is smooth, rather than light, and good sights are essential. There are handguns delivered without sights or with at best bumps on the slide. They are as useful as a car without a steering wheel.

There is a baseline on caliber for personal defense. The 9mm Luger is a caliber in which you may have reasonable confidence given proper load selection. Ammunition is affordable and plentiful. Train, and continue to practice, at least monthly after securing good initial training.

Smith and Wesson Shield in a Galco Stow and Go holster

This Smith and Wesson Shield is carried in the affordable and high quality Galco Stow and Go.

A Word to the Wise

Caliber isn’t gender specific. A man doesn’t rate a .45 if he isn’t willing to practice. Recoil can be counterproductive to growth as a shooter. Don’t let the personal behind the counter recommend an ineffectual handgun caliber for a woman. The .32s and the .380 ACP are inadequate for personal defense in my opinion.

Some hands are small, others narrow; some hands have long fingers and others short fingers. Hand fit is important. But all normal human hands will fit a Glock 43 9mm.

Some will be cramped by the small grip and may need a larger handgun. Be certain to try each handgun in turn at a well-stocked shop. The hand should be comfortable when closed on the handgun grip and the trigger finger extended to lay the first pad of the finger against the face of the trigger. Shooting ranges that offer rentals are a great learning resource.

Revolver in a Wright Leatherworks holster with a speedloader

The author’s personal .38 snub with an HKS speedloader and Wright Leatherworks holster.

Find a handgun you are able to handle well. Be certain your hand is placed in a manner in which you are able to operate the controls—the magazine release, slide release, and safety. Most defensive handguns are double-action only trigger mechanisms, with only one trigger action to learn. Double-action first-shot trigger handguns are more complicated and demand a steeper learning curve.

The firearm choice depends on knowledge and skill. Skill at arms is much more important than the exact handgun choice. Reliability is the baseline and caliber selection is important as well. Executing a rapid presentation of the handgun from concealed carry and delivering a well-aimed shot to the adversary is good, but if the caliber is inadequate, chances are, the handgun will not be effective in saving your life.

Larger handguns often feature a grip frame that is more comfortable and allows greater control in rapid fire. The 9mm strikes a heavier blow than the .380 ACP and other inadequate calibers. Shot placement is more important than any other factor in wound potential. The bullet must be placed where it will do the most good. It is interesting to debate different calibers and their usefulness.

Two upset Hornady bullets

If you are worried about ammunition performance, load Hornady defense loads and rest easy.

The .38 Special revolver and the 9mm Luger self-loading pistol are good baselines for performance, and each may prove useful in trained hands. Some find the revolver frustrating to learn due to its longer double-action trigger. Some find the self-loader equally frustrating, considering the need to learn a more complicated manual of arms. There is a proper choice for each individual.

Many very experienced shooters choose the revolver. It isn’t outdated. The ability to control the .38 Special revolver, or the 9mm semi automatic, should be confirmed before the individual graduates to a larger caliber. There are many considerations in personal defense.

Conclusion

Handgun selection is very important, but it is just one step on the path to proficiency at arms.

Which handgun are you most interested in for your first purchase? Which one would you recommend to others and why? Share your answers or ask a question in the comment section.

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The mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, "The Shooter's Log," is to provide information-not opinions-to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (77)

  • Elena

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    I like the pistol that allows for backstrap change outs. I have a pair of Walthers and would not change them for something else. They both have magic words along the side — “Made in Germany.”

    Yes, I paid more for it, but you get what you pay for.

    Reply

    • WR

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      I have a good friend that feels as you do on the Walther.

      I cannot say you are wrong!

      Thanks for reading.

      Reply

  • MA Deuce

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    1st time hand gun buyers should contact a local shooting range, many of them rent different types/ chamberings, that way you can test drive before buying, and contact shooting instruction places, take a course, see what they recommend for your individual requirements. .22`s are fun, and have their niche, they been around for a long time. For personal defense, naw.
    Better than nothing, but… there are more firearms to choose from than ever before.

    Reply

  • DrRisk

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    The first pistol I bought was a Beretta Mini Cougar .45. It is a superior weapon. The .45 ACP has a 92% knock down rate which is critical in self-defense maneuvers—getting the perp on the deck makes it much more difficult to kill you. Before I bought this pistol, I had fired a variety of .38 special revolvers and Colt .45’s. I now have a S&W .38 special and a Mauser .380 auto. Ammunition is equally important. I keep Glaser and hollow points in my weapons when not at the range. Which is a point not mentioned in the article. To be any good you have to practice. I go at least monthly for at least any hour at the range.

    Reply

    • wr

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      Absolutely!

      If you do not practice your skills are more aspirational than operational.

      Reply

    • Shawn

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      Is there a source for a study done that confirms the 92% number? I have absolutely no doubt that .45 ACP is a beast of a round but to actually measure something like “knock-down power” in real-world environments is next to impossible….so I’m assuming a study was done?? Shot placement is going to have a lot to do with “knock-down” probability with any caliber chosen. A .45 to the arm or shoulder will hurt, and may even deter an attacker, but not so sure it will knock them down. I’m not saying you’re wrong, and I love .45, but to cite such an arbitrary number without a study or source leaves me a bit skeptical.

      Reply

    • Secundius

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      @ Shawn.

      Regardless on how Limited your Language Skills are?/! Nothing say’s “Get the Hell Out of My House” LOUDER than Looking Down the Length of the Barrel of a M1911A1 .45ACP…

      Reply

  • Ian S Jones

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    I agree that a.22 is the perfect choice for a first gun. Plus it gives you the advantage of being able to practice a lot for very little expense. Practice does (help) make perfect. I got my first.22 (a Ruger semi-auto handgun) when I was 8.

    Reply

  • jim

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    What is the ‘first handgun that I should buy?’ This is so easy that I’m surprised the author didn’t even think about it. A .22! Either as a revolver or as an automatic. Since there is almost no recoil one can learn to shoot without any worries about it. But don’t buy a snub nosed weapon, buy something with at least a four inch barrel…five or six is even better. Once you’ve learned the basics and have practiced shooting enough to become proficient, then and only then start thinking about buying a weapon with more power. Just remember the ‘lowly’ .22 killed more people in WWII then any rifle did!

    Reply

    • old copper

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      I agree to a point on the .22 unless you need protection right now.

      What are you talking about the .22 killed people in WWII? I know of the High Standard suppressed pistol and that is about it Jim. Come on with this I want to hear it.

      Reply

    • Chuck

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      I think that he should have stated that the .22 has killed more people “in its’ history” than any other caliber.

      Reply

    • Adam

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      The opening sentence of the article makes it clear the context is specifically for personal defense. If it’s truly all you can afford or manage to shoot well, a .22 certainly is better than nothing – but the overwhelming majority of handgun purchasers are not in that category.

      Reply

  • coyote hunter

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    .32 and .380 acp are in adequate….Has the author ever been shot by one of these calibers?..if he had, he would find that they are adequate in changing a thugs attitude about attacking you.

    Reply

    • WR

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      That makes my bullet pucker itch, and I have one that is healed.
      Bad guys are not average joes. Every damn one is a sociopath and many are psychopaths. Sometimes a light hit makes them angry. A man is about as hard to put down as a deer, and about the same size. A .38 or 9mm is little enough but will get the job done. The rest are pretty much useless in my opinion after investigating many shootings.

      Reply

    • Rob Honey

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      I decided after much debate to trust my life and my loved ones lives to nothing less than .357 mag .
      If recoil is an issue practice w .38.
      The report of a magnum round makes me giggle like a schoolgirl .

      Reply

    • WR

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      Evidently you are my long lost brother.

      Thanks for reading.

      Reply

    • Adam

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      You’re basically asserting that a psychological stop (pain) is adequate for defensive purposes. If that were truly the case, you could carry pepper spray instead of a firearm and be just as well-armed.

      Smaller calibers, while better than nothing, are less effective than 9mm/38 Spec (and up) in this regard. Additionally, given the wide array of small 9mm pistols on the market today there is no longer a significant size advantage in choosing a smaller caliber.

      Reply

    • WR

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      Well said.

      Reply

    • Chuck

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      Perhaps if you have agreeable and wimpy thugs in your area. Someone who is insane, enraged, drugged or has a “proper” mindset (which ALL good people should!) is going to absorb a LOT of .22’s, .25’s, .32’s, and poor quality/performing .380’s before they cease to be a serious threat. .38 Specials should not be carried with jacketed bullets, generally speaking. 158-grain SWHP +P’s (soft lead, Semi-wadcutter hollow points at +P velocity) from Federal or Winchester are what you want and need in a 38. There simply is not enough velocity and energy to reliably expand a jacketed bullet in .38 Special and any of the lesser calibers, and .22’s will almost never penetrate a human skull.

      Reply

    • rick

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      Wasn’t it a .380 that killed Travon Martin? With one shot!
      I have a Bersa .380 – it is not a mean as my .40 cal, but probably just as lethal as a 9mm.
      For self protection I prefer the .40 cal, but if my 1911 and .40 were on a table and I needed one in a hurry, I would pick up the 1911 – the .45 is #1 if you can stand the weight and fewer round mag capacity.

      Reply

    • wr

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      It was a 9mm if one individual round matters.
      All cartridges are lethal sooner or later. Most people hit with handgun bullets survive. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that the attacker is stopped . If he dies the next day it is irrelevant to your life and health. You are dead on on the 1911 .45. It is heavy. I have a great respect for the .40, dropped a deer with one hit in the neck at about 35 yards, 4 legs in the air.
      All cartridges that penetrate are lethal but then so is slow acting poison. I prefer the shock and damage of a larger caliber.

      Reply

    • Paul Frantzis

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      I agrer, this guy is out in left field!

      Reply

  • Ian S Jones

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    Great article. I agree the first priority is it must go bang Everytime you pull the trigger. But another that must be addressed is the willingness of an individual to pull the trigger if the situation arises. But that’s for a different article.

    Reply

  • Suddenimpact

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    Rewind back to 1980. If I was starting out again with my first weapon and I was going to be able to carry concealed (lived in California back then), this is what I would do. First of all, my first weapon was a S & W .357 magnum stainless 4 inch snub nose revolver with Hogue rubber grips. I would purchase a S & W 2 1/2″ to 3″ heavy barrel revolver (hopefully stainless steel) and add the rubber finger grooved grips. The reason I would go ahead and purchase the .357 instead of the .38 special is in case later on I wanted to try my ability to handle the more potent .357 charged ammo ( more knockdown power, velocity, and distance). Also remember that you can load a .38 special cartridge into a .357 revolver but you can’t load a .357 cartridge into a revolver chambered for only a .38 special due to the extra length of the .357 magnum cartridge. That pistol should be real easy to conceal also, maybe even easier than the semi autos ( I have semi autos too). Over the years I have seen the awesome power of that weapon and can only guess what it would do to someone if they were to be hit with a .357 hollow point load. So…..a .38 special or .357 for a self defense weapon…..absolutely!! They are easy to maintain and clean and are very dependable. I never worried about if I pulled the trigger if the firearm was going to go bang.

    Reply

    • WR

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      I own several SW revolvers and they are first class.
      Well said.

      Reply

    • Adam

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      Show me a .357 revolver that’s 1.5″ thick or less at the cylinder, and I’ll agree that it’s easier to conceal than a double-stack 9mm pistol.

      If you’re arguing better concealment than a single-stack 9mm pistol, then it would need to be 1″ thick or less at the cylinder.

      Reply

    • Suddenimpact

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      @ Adam Adam, I won’t argue that there is a bulge where the cylinders are on a revolver but there are things to consider when finding the best concealing weapon. First of all, everyone’s body is not built the same ( bone curves, extra pinches of skin, etc. etc.) I will agree with you that a single stack semi automatic is most likely going to be slimmer than a revolver. I have a 1911 Kimber SS Pro Carry II that I love to carry because of it’s light weight but truthfully it can be a real mother to keep hidden sometimes even though I have a full retention IWB holster (Crossover Brand) it’s still a four inch pistol. I am slim and don’t have much padding to hide it.

      Reply

  • Enzo From NM

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    My first handgun was a Walther P38 9mm. I still have it and still love it. It’s the 1st handgun brand I would recommend. Yet many people want something new as made in this century, so I would recommend a Walther M2 ppq for a 1st gun to people. It’s better than a glock, S&W, Springfield, or any other handgun out of the box factory gun. Best trigger out the box, best grip, and just reliable. A little pricey, but good things aren’t cheap and cheap things don’t last.

    Reply

    • WR

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      The P38 is easily among the most influential guns of the last century, leading to the Beretta 92. Walther is a great brand, all of the way.
      Thanks for reading.

      Reply

    • rick

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      You’re killing me with your statement about how good the Walther PPQ is. I was watching some youtube videos and decided I was going to buy one in .40 cal. I called a local store to see if they had it. I was informed that it is not approved by my sick dem state, so I can’t have it. Guess what state I’m in? CA

      Reply

    • Shawn

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      That’s a pretty subjective comment but you are stating it as though it is a proven fact. Everyone’s taste is going to be different. You say the PPQ is better than glock…but that’s according to you and your taste. I own both and grab my G19 before the PPQ more often than not when concealing. I grab my VP9 before either lately, and personally I feel the trigger on the VP9 is far better than the PPQ. I love all 3 guns, but it’s always going to boil down to personal preference.

      Reply

  • Secundius

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    To me it was a “No Brain’r”in 1990. My choice of a New Glock 17 for the Sale Price of $999.99 or a New $299.99 Colt M1911A1…

    Reply

    • Intrceptor

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      Wow! Glocks were that expensive when they first came out? I remember about 10 years ago you could buy any Glock for $500. They didn’t have the variety they have today – it was pretty much 9mm or .40.

      Reply

    • Secundius

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      @ Intrceptor.

      The Gun Store Owner told it was the “Wave of the Future”!/? And he had a Hard Time keeping them in stock. First time I held one, it felt “Cheap”, like a Child’s “Cap Gun”. I left the Store with something I was Familiar With, that was Totally Dependable in the Mid-1970’s and Early 1980’s. As well as Two World Wars and Two Regional Wars, the Colt M1911A1 .45ACP…

      Reply

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