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)

  • Vic vapor

    |

    nice article, Mr. Roberts,
    drawing the baseline at 9mm and 38 special
    seems reasonable.
    My wife, and her new LCP II shooting
    the 9mm’s lil brother 380,
    with good grippage, sights, trigger, easy to rack
    slide,
    and concealable-ity, and her good shooting
    is not to be discounted.
    – I found the comment by Sudden impact,
    describing the 357 totally well said…. It is
    worth learning to shoot it good
    for the awesomeness it provides.

    Reply

    • wr

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      My wife also carries the LCP

      She has tried to conceal a larger gun and I am hoping she will eventually transition to the SIG P250 9mm she keeps as a home defense gun. If not at least she has a fighting chance! Thanks for reading

      Reply

  • JMK

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    My first CCW purchase was the Smith & Wesson Shield 9. It was a great first purchase weapon along with an N82 Tactical IWB holster. Over time I upgraded to a Sphynx Subcompact with a Crossbreed IWB holster. That pistol has unbelievable accuracy and reliability. Crossbreed holster is great once it is broke in and formed to the body.

    Reply

  • JungleBoogey

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    No mention of a 357 magnum. I have a Weihrauch Hunter (Germany), 3in six shooter that is (with practice), reasonably accurate up to 20mtrs. I don’t believe I would have any problems defending myself with it…

    Reply

    • WR

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      I own a Traditions Sheriffs Model, basically the same thing, made by Pietta. If you are familiar with the gun that is what counts. I enjoy shooting mine a great deal.

      Reply

  • thomas unger

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    Why is availability never mentioned? The most reliable, affordable, accurate, effective handgun in the world is of no use if it is in the console of a car or the bottom of a purse. One MUST choose a weapon that is of a carryable and concealable size and weight so that one can be armed at all times. Perps are not going to give you ‘King’s X’ while you run out to your car or rummage through your purse. Of course, if you aren’t serious enough about your security and those you love, then by all means, carry part-time. I hope you regret your choice.

    Reply

    • wr

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      Once Bruce Nelson invented the Summer Special IWB holster there was no excuse for not carrying the Commander every day and I have for many many years. There are many great holsters and I think the primary problem with folks is poor to very poor holster selection.

      Reply

  • Ralph

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    My first hand gun was a Ruger P85 mKII, I still have it today, I love that gun. My reason for buying it was simple, my friend had one and when I went to the range with him, it felt good in my hand, no recoil because of the metal frame & the 9mm round and it was a tack driver anywhere between 4 – 12 yards; and worse case I could bludgeon a bad guy with it after I unloaded a clip.
    However, for a first time gun owner, I would suggest the same thing that Ma Duece suggested, go to a gun range that rents out guns. For a minor rental fee, a new shooter could find the gun that works best for he or she, it may take a few trips, but that small investment pays out in the long run. I always give this advice to first time shooters because a gun that feels great in my hand and accurate (for me) may not be the same for another shooter.

    Reply

  • Stravonski

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    My first pistol & also my carry is a Taurus 24/7 OSS (.45 ACP) that I carry in a Crossbreed holster. I’m a large fellow & like loose fitting shirts so it is completely concealed. I don’t have to worry about trying to grip a tiny pistol with just 2 fingers or deal with a barely spinning bullet out of a 1-2″ barrel. Plus its 12+1 capacity gives (IMHO) the best chance to walk away from an incident while any attacker(s) get carried out. Also the pistol fits my hand like it was custom made for me. Being a tactical gun, take down & cleaning is very easy & I have never had a single jam. I’m very happy with it.

    Reply

  • JAMES M MERIDETH

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    Very good and informing article. I started my quest for a self-defense weapon online. I looked at several different affordable choices then went to local dealers to get the feel of the guns. I think I’ve settled on the Taurus G2 PT 111 9mm. It’s within my price range, seems easily concealed and holds 12 +1. If I need more than that, I’m in big trouble! Thanks and keep the good articles coming.

    Reply

    • WR

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      I have seen the G2 9mm on sale for $225 lately.
      I have fired it extensively in two different handguns.

      In my opinion the best pistol Taurus has ever made.

      Reply

    • WR

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      I do not trust my life to the 380

      Like a poor pastor I would have the blood of my flock on my hands for issuing poor doctrine.

      Reply

  • rick

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    My very first gun was an Erma lugar .22 – bought it in the 70’s at Kmart. I still have it. Perfect hand fit and fun to shoot out in the desert. After a few hundred rounds the ramp wore out as if it was not hardened. Then the firing pin broke. Being a tool maker I made new parts for the gun from hardened tool steel and used a high speed drill blank for the firing pin. The problem with most guns today is they are production guns – made from poor steel usually case hardened. If you can file the part it is not hard enough to really last.

    Reply

  • Greg P.

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    I would recommend S&W M&P series or Glock. While I personally do not care for Glock; both of these brands are extremely popular. Another important factor in carry guns are the availability of Holsters and accessories (including magazines)

    My first carry gun was a Beretta 9000. Magazines were few and far between and holsters didn’t exist. Now I carry Px4 full size or M&P M2.0 (5″) as my carry guns. The Px4 has a large selection of Holsters and mags; while my M&P offers twice that. However the newer 2.0 long barrel did require a custom OWB holster. (FYI M&P Pro Holsters/molds work).

    So consider holsters, magazines, and aftermarket products when selecting a self defense firearm.

    Reply

    • Greg P

      |

      Very well said.

      I am not a Glock fan but it always works!

      If I were a Chief or a bean counter– yes the Glock

      Reply

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