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)

  • BikerJeff

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    I pack a Charter Arms Off-Duty 38 with chopped Pachmayer grips in a Sneakypete pouch, and an extra speed loader in it as a carry gun. Have never had an issue with my “PDA” case on my waist, and can confidently hit a 55-gallon drum size target at 50 yards with it. Is all I need.

    Reply

  • WR

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    He is quoting a so called study of some years ago. It never held sway among professionals and has been long discredited. My own research does give the .45 about a nine out of ten record, but it isn’t because of knock down. If it knocked the felon down it would knock the shooter down as well!

    Reply

    • Ian S Jones

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      The only study I’ve ever seen regarding a 92 per cent one shot kill rate was a South African study I read in the army and it rated the 44 Magnum Glaser safety slug as the only one with a one shot kill. The.45 ACP had a one shot STOP in that range.

      Reply

  • Ian S Jones

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    In the end it all comes down to 2 little words: SHOT PLACEMENT, SHOT PLACEMENT, and SHOT PLACEMENT!

    Reply

  • Fred

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    Idk why fools like this even write articles half the he wrote contradicts itself. In the section where I quote he says “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.” He should have said most defensive handguns are single action. He also made many more mistakes in the article and basically was just pushing 9mm and .38 special

    Reply

    • WR

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      Fred,
      This fool has a degree in Criminal Justice and a minor in psychology and writers curriculum for a university program on gun smithing and ballistics. This fool has over twenty years police experience and several of those as patrol lt. Started out working for governors program, top of my class. Since then looked over both ends of a gun barrel more than once and have been shot by someone other than myself, which some instructors cannot say.
      According to the ATF more double action only handguns are sold than double action first shot or single action or revolvers. But then what do they know? As for pushing the 9mm and .38, well, yes. They are the best for most shooters. Nothing wrong with an opinion based on fact.

      Reply

    • Shawn

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      Could you cite the science that backs up your “fact”? I’m not disagreeing with you, just curious that if it is indeed a fact, are there credible studies that corroborate this? I agree that there are more DAO guns used for self defense….in fact, I don’t even think it’s by a small margin, but would be extremely interested to see the science on 9mm and/or .38 being “the best for most shooters”, keeping in mind that simply because they are most widely used doesn’t necessarily make them “the best”.

      I agree with most of the article, except the area that states .380 and .32 acp are inadequate for self-defense. I know this is an opinion and mine differs a bit from yours. If an extremely small woman wants to be protected and just can’t find comfort in shooting a gun chambered in 9mm or higher, then .380 is just fine by me if it’s the difference between carrying something and nothing at all. If .380 is the highest someone can go and shoot well because they can actually train confidently with it, then by all means I say go for the .380. The .32 acp is getting a bit too small IMO as well, but again, if it’s that or nothing….I would most likely choose that.

      Reply

    • WR

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      I think you answered your own questions. Sure the .32 and .380 are better than nothing. But more often than not not enough. The .38 and 9mm are good baselines.
      As for science some years of ballistic research by the FBI, beginning about 1935, that shows what is needed in a defensive/service grade caliber. Ballistic gelatin and other media for testing and a thorough testing program. It isn’t just the wound potential the FBI also tabulates a clean powder burn, muzzle flash and accuracy. They are very demanding and there is no reason we should not be.

      The so called studies published in gun rags are few years ago I discared then and do so now. The goat shooting was at best a hoax and anyone that begins to speak of secret sources and confidential information clearly is conning someone. IN this case a lot of some ones!

      So, study the FBI reports and their values. They have resources that the rest of us could never approach. Those are the facts. My personal testing is extensive but nothing to compare with the FBI’s ammunition testing. Federal Cartridge Company and Hornady also publish gelatin results.

      Thanks for reading.

      Reply

  • Mark

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    If you can, get a Wonder 9. 13 to 30 rounders of 9mm helps when facing a home invasion crew, too.

    Reply

    • WR

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      Absolutely sound advice. Plenty of ammunition and if loaded with a +P plenty of expansion and penetration. And not much recoil in a full size handgun. I sleep the way God made me and a high cap 9 and a flashlight beside the bed solve a lot of problems when you do not have time to grab a spare magazine.
      Thanks for reading.

      Reply

    • Ian S Jones

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      I keep a couple of 33 rounders around for my G-19. Because you just never know.

      Reply

  • Jerry Phillips

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    Seems to me your recommendations always go with who advertises with you the most.
    And of course everybody goes with popular popular popular. I’m sure if CZ did some advertising you might even mention the P-07

    Reply

    • Bob Campbell

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      Jerry
      Thanks for reading The Shooters Log!
      We have done features on the CZ and very soon there will be a feature on the CZ P10 polymer gun.
      Cannot hit everything in one shot but the crew tries.

      Reply

  • Smitty

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    @Adam: Come see me and I’ll show you a 6 shot 357 with 1.25″ cylinder. The first revolver ever made by Kimber, the K6s DCR is fantastic. Great feel, heft and trigger pull and no wider than an auto. It has replaced my Sig Sauer 938 9mm as my carry guy. I love it. Supply wasn’t keeping up with demand, I had it on order since last October and just got it a couple of weeks ago but it was well worth the wait!

    Reply

    • Adam

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      That’s actually quite slim for a revolver, and makes it basically as concealable as a double-stack semi-auto pistol. For comparison purposes, the SIG M11-A1 is 1.5″ thick and the M&P 9c is 1.2″ thick.

      However, the Shield (and other single-stack pistols) come in at under 1″ thick while still holding 6-8 rounds of your chosen caliber.

      Reply

  • Rowca

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    My first was the Colt Ace, followed by the Walther P38 as my personal As I aged I opted for the Beretta AF-92 variant, and graduated to the CZ pistol. For concealment I favor the CZ 9mm Rami and in the summer months the Sig P238. The latter is a .380 but its size combined with the right ammunition offsets a a larger caliber and wearing non-summer clothes to conceal.

    Reply

    • WR

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      Colt ACE is one helluva gun!

      P 38 was the bad buys gun in the late 1960s. Lots of bad guys had the P 38 or the Luger against cop’s .38s.

      My first instructor kept a Walther P38 on hand to show us what a good gun was in a semi auto. I had rather of hand the Walther P38 than two of the SW 59s we were stuck with later.

      WR

      Reply

  • Steve F

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    Hmmm. Yet another out-of-hand, unexplained and conclusive dismissal of the .380 caliber. The minute I see this, I discount the rest of the article.

    I always have the same answer for these folks. Stand there and take two or three .380 Hotnady Critical Defense rounds to the chest. Then tell me how ineffective the .380 is.

    Fact is, even a .22, properly placed, will serve. And it’s a hell of a lot easier to place multiple quick-fired rounds on target with my SIG Sauer P238 than it is with most 9mm concealables (including the excellent SIG Sauer P938). The P238, in particular, feels almost like a .22 on steroids. VERY fast re-aquisition.

    In addition, the single action trigger on the P238 (and on the 9mm P938) is more conducive to accuracy, particularly if you have large handd (on this, your mileage may vary).

    There’s a saying among folding knife enthusiasts: the best knife for the job is the one you have with you. Same for firearms. Particularly in summer clothing, 9mm is hard to conceal–even the small ones like the Glock 43. Fact is, if I only had 9mm, there’d be many more times that I’d not be carrying at all.

    Reply

    • WR

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      My circle of friends included police and military veterans that have seen gunfights or arrived just after the festivities were over or the perps were running around with several .38 or 9mm bullet wounds. They don’t stand there and take bullets. Murder is easy. When high on natural stimulants or drugs that originated as pain killers it is very difficult to stop these sociopaths. Not one of us carries a handgun smaller than a 9mm or .38. The .357 revolver and .45 auto are well respected. We discount opinions such as yours as lacking validity. Cops in Area Six or Fort Apache, NY, do not carry small bores. Carrying because you want to believe is OK. That seems the modern way and clearly there is a lot of disinformation in the popular press. As for knives– I favor the Randall Combat Knife but I do carry a folding Emerson or Spyderco Police Model most of the time.

      Reply

    • Steve F

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      As for knives, try a Zero Tolerance. The 350 is a good middle-ground.

      Regarding caliber: of your standard target is someone high on angel dust, maybe you should just carry a Desert Eagle.

      Sorry, but the practicality of carrying CONCEALED, particularly in NY State, cannot be overstated. Most of the larger calibers can’t be carried that way in summertime casual clothing. And the modern .380 with defensive rounds (Hornady Critical Defense) will do just fine).

      Are larger calibers likely to cause more damage? Well, not necessarily. Number of rounds on target/speed of re-aquisition matters. So does whether the thing is to big/heavy to carry concealed obviously the first place.
      We are not talking about a service pistol, here. We are talking about a concealed carry of last resort. I have no interest in anything but rapid-fire accuracy at 7 yards or so.
      Oh, and I know a number of police officers who carry .380s as offduty or BUGs.

      Reply

  • kace

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    Good article. … One thing that I think about a lot is caliber choice. There are, a few between 9mm and 45. Like 357 Sig, 5.7×28, 40 S&W. … A follow-up on the variety of handgun calibers and their effectiveness and recoil trade-offs would be most welcome. Most of the gun shops I go to don’t have rentals for all of these alternative calibers. :(

    Reply

    • WR

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      Consider it done.

      Look for this article within 6 weeks or so.

      Reply

    • Camelot

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      I’ve been carrying .357Sig for a couple years now. I used to carry all .45ACP. I frequently carry a Glock 33 and the thick grip is not a problem for me because i have a skinny waist. This gun is a handful and is harder to control than a .45 so it takes practice, but you get 11 rounds with a Pierce mag extension in a very compact package, and superior ballistics for intermediate barriers should the need arise. I also carry a full-size M&P40 converted to .357Sig (arguably the easiest caliber conversion existing) and this gun is good shooting with real stopping power and 15+1 capacity, in a slightly smaller package than my M&P45. The .357Sig calculates to ~100ft-lbs more energy than the .45ACP with a 9mm bullet at ~250 fps more velocity than 9mm Luger. I personally consider the .45ACP to be the ideal caliber for soft targets at close range (the most likely SD scenario) and I do my best shooting with the .45, so I also carry my M&P45 occasionally. I load the .45 with 230gr Cor Bon +P, these loads will penetrate deeper than most HP .45s and do damage, even though they calculate by my own chrono testing to less energy than .357Sig. Bottom line, neither caliber will tickle the bad guy, but the .45 is a little tamer.

      Reply

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