Choosing Your First Handgun

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

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.

Sale ends July 21, 2019

Sale ends July 21, 2019

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.


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.

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 decicions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (77)

  1. Thank you for your reply. Yes, practice, constantly. BTW after the Munich olympics massacre in’73, the Isreali Mossad hit teams that targeted the Black September terrorists used.22 caliber Beretta pistols, confusing investiators who thought no professional hitmen would use so small a weapon

  2. @ Ian Thank you Ian for making that comment. I have been following the discussion for days now and saying to myself that the most important thing is shot placement no matter what caliber it is. I think we all know that just about any caliber can kill someone. I have heard stories about how even a .22 cal. can do tricky things inside a body because it can tumble end for end before it hits its target. When the round enters the body, it can spin around causing all kinds of damage, and then lodge itself somewhere that is difficult to find to remove it. This tumbling effect is also the reason the .223 cal.assault rifle round is so deadly.The only other thing I can think of to say with shot placement is Practice, Practice, Practice!

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