What is Your Gun’s Role?

There are thousands of different makes and models of handguns. Many designers make firearms with the power to stop attackers in their tracks. Some design handguns for target practice. While yet others are better suited for a museum or a collector’s display case. When people ask me, “What is the best type of handgun to buy?” I usually reply with the question, “What do you want it to do?”

I Want to Defend Myself

Good for you! You have decided to grasp the right to protect yourself, your family, and your property. Bravo! Welcome to the rational side of the fence; we’ve been waiting for you. Now, the big question remains. You know you want a handgun, but you aren’t sure which way to go. There are so many choices it can be mind-boggling. What is worse, you asked 10 different so-called experts about the best handgun, you got 10 different enthusiastic answers. Instead of me telling you exactly what to buy, I will let you come to your own conclusion based on your needs.

To Conceal or Not to Conceal

A question I ask people early on is whether they intend to carry their weapon concealed outside the home. This is important because it greatly narrows the shopping field. While you could technically conceal just about any handgun, the smaller models are easier to hide and won’t make a print on the outside of your shirt. You’ll find you carry more often when you’re not trying to conceal something that looks like it belongs mounted on the back of a Humvee. The most common concealed carry handguns today are small-framed semi-automatics. Revolvers usually work fine, but most only carry five or six rounds. On the flipside, a double-action revolver has a long and heavy trigger, which you are less likely to pull by accident. If you do get a revolver for pocket carry, try to find one with an internal hammer. While external hammers make single-action shooting possible, they tend to snag on pockets and shirts when you are trying to draw them in a hurry. The last thing you want to deal with is snagging clothes while trying to protect yourself. Remember that revolvers tend to be the most reliable handguns available since they tend to go bang every time.

If you aren’t worried about concealed carry, and you want a handgun for home defense, the sky is the limit on size. Just remember that even though revolvers are reliable, semi-autos tend to give you more chances due to their magazine capacity.


Bigger is not always better. Everything is a tradeoff in the firearms world. Why would you not want the largest possible caliber? Over penetration and capacity are two very important features you want to look at. The object of a defensive gun is to stop an attacker. When a bullet passes through a target without stopping, the rest of the kinetic energy from that round transfers into whatever object it stops in. This can be a wall, a couch, or worse, an unintended human. An ideal shot stops inside the attacker and dumps every bit of that energy into damaging the assailant. For concealed carry, the absolute smallest caliber I would recommend is the .380 ACP. However, with the newer model pocket 9mm handguns on the market, the .380 may be on its way to obsolescence. If you can find a concealable .45 ACP—it is an excellent round for stopping people, but you do lose some magazine capacity with that larger round. A decent compromise would be the .40 S&W. It works for home defense as well as concealed carry. For home defense use, go with .45 ACP or .357 Magnum loaded with defensive rounds. A non-defensive round, such as a full metal jacket tends to over-penetrate. Imagine an FMJ large caliber projectile flying through a crowded apartment building. When you are defending yourself you are responsible for everything you hit, this includes bystanders.

The Best Gun

A common adage in the defense community is that the best gun for the job is the one you have with you. Just about any gun is better than no gun at all. However, remember that you are purchasing these tools to save your life, so buy quality if you can afford it. Reliable firearms are not necessarily expensive, but the good ones are rarely the cheapest of the lot. Glock, Smith & Wesson, Colt, and Kahr are just a few decent brands to keep in mind, but many other brands that will fill the role nicely. The best thing you can do when choosing a gun is to shoot it. Find a friend, family member, or colleague who is willing to let you try one of their firearms. Most gun ranges allow you to rent firearms as well. See what feels best in your hand. Accuracy, recoil, and maintenance are all important things to consider. Whatever you choose, remember safety and responsibility are the most important things you can learn about firearms.

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 (21)

  1. I have had and carried many guns throughout my life. Ever since I had enough money to buy a Glock, I did. 19. I feel most confident with the 9mm round despite the insults suggesting feminine qualities from my 45 toting pals. With the +p or +p+ ammo running through a 15 round mag, I feel I am good enough shooter to stop whatever is bearing down on me in a worst case scenario. BUT, most importantly I am extremely familiar, comfortable and proficient with the weapon system itself. I have taught several of my friends the ins and outs of this mechanical work of art after they picked up their own Glock. That being said, I have shot dozens upon dozens of different guns and I can’t say I’ve ever had a bad time doing it. As long as a gun works, it will be beneficial when you need it and enjoyable while you are out plinking.

  2. I am retired LEO.For 27 yrs i have carried weapons of many kinds in different assignments Patrol,Undercover,SWAT.Now the only things i shoot at are paper and steel targets I dont even hunt anymore.But my guns are all considered Politically Incorrect.SORRY MRS.FEINSTEIN,VP J.BIDEN AND ALL New YORK LEGISLATORS AND BHO.

  3. Now if it is objected that the .45 holds fewer rounds that the 9mm, are you assuming that everyone has a hand big enough to hold a double stacked 9mm?

  4. Now what is better for home defense than a bullpup like the .308 Kel-Tec RFB shooting PDX1 rounds? (Check out the round before arguing, please.) Suppose your burglar or home invaders wear 3A vests?

  5. I have several handguns (revolvers and semis). Each one has it’s own good points and bad points. However, the Colt 1911 is my favorite. It is tired and true and practically indestructible. The only modification made is Pacmyar grips. I carried one in Vietnam and will carry one until the day I leave this earth. Granted I do have several extra clips (7 rounds each). I do hit what I aim at. The .45 round will do it’s job.

  6. I have used a large assortment of weapons in my time ranging from long-range rifles, to full-auto door-openers, Military-grade rifles, shotguns and a lot of pistols in nearly every major caliber. I have personally never found a weapon that was more ergonomically made though, than my Walther P99. I shoot 147gr Hydra-shoks in it and that’s all. My wife (a woman that has never wanted a firearm, always been a little afraid of them, and most of our marriage was vocally anti-gun) actually fell in love with its baby brother, the Walther P22, which she shoots only CCI Segmented rounds out of. Mega-damage from such a small caliber. It is so efficient and hyper-concealable that I have purchased one as a backup. Both weapons went through a 300 round shoot-in without a hitch. Smith and Wesson are making the 9mm’s here in the states for Walther, now, but I can attest to its accuracy. As with any weapon, the shooters skill matters, and the grade of weapon matters, as well as the ammo, but I can say that at 25 yds, I usually hit 12 of 15 in the eye. A chunk of that I have to attribute to the weapon (I have a wheel-gun that I am always high with). I’m not saying that these pieces are perfect for everyone, but they work very well for us, and deserve a mention.

    For Home defense, I’ll keep my 9rd – 12ga mossberg with red dot reticle. Don’t need an “assault weapon” for that, personally. Especially when Im shooting 3″ slugs (at 2k fps, they will crack body armor at 50 feet). Thats not to say other people shouldn’t have them, but just that I don’t need one for home use. Now, my AR will only come out if the shtf.

  7. I am 71 and have been shooting for over 50 years, I needed a gun for protection 3 times over the years but never had to fire it for protection. I have revolvers, pistols, rifles and shotguns. I have a CWP and alternate between 2 carry guns depending on what I am wearing. The best gun for self defense is one that you can hit where you are aiming.

    I recently gave myself a .223 for Christmas before Newtown. It is a puny round and miniscule compared to my .270 or .308. So why did I buy a so call assault weapon. Although it may or may not happen in my lifetime, I see America falling into such a dismal state that the likely hood of marauders raiding and stealing in gangs of 5 or more is very possible and is happening in some northern cities. Supposedly in LA there a 60,000 gang members that is the equivalent to about 60 army battalions.
    The AR style rifle is light, easy to sight and has large ammo capacity.
    I hope I never shoot anything but paper and coyotes with it, but if I have to use it for self defense I will have it.

  8. Well Written. I, too, feel that a wheel gun may be a better choice for new handgun owners. Way less possibility of a malfunction. Don’t forget about Ruger as another possibility for brand. Well built, way over engineered. My personal choice for now is SP101 in .357. Thinking of LCR in .38 to carry,.22 for inexpensive practice with an identical weapon.

  9. The gun to carry is the one you can carry and keep it concealed very well. I carry, in my front pocket, a North American .22 magnum with the ballistic tip rounds. This weapon is not very accurate at over 12 or 15 foot but your encounters are going to be within this range. It is a very powerful 5 shot weapon and I like it very much. In my car I carry a snub nose 357 magnum. And on my person, when I have on a coat, a .45 with a 3″ barrel . So I feel well protcected at all times.

    Either of these weapons will do. My favorite is the .45 because of its awesome stopping power, but the .357 is a lovely round too. Basically, the main thing in all this is to be willing to actually use the thing if you ever have to. It’s too late when your head is already bashed in then you think I should have pulled the trigger. Being an infantryman from long ago I can they’ll you there’s nothing as effective as getting the first shot. Worry about what happens later, at least you will still be alive to worry about it!

  10. Good article! Buying and carrying a firearm is dependent on a lot of factors, but the worst thing is a spontaneous buy or even judging what’s best for another person. I once bought a Beretta .25 Auto, for my wife. She is a small person and I thought the little Beretta would be just right for her. Auto, double-action, reasonable slide action. Uh uh! She prefers my pachmyr-gripped, 38/357 revolver, with a 2 1/2 inch barrel.

    But, the bottom line, carrying and owning a firearm, responsibly is better than not owning and carrying at all. Whether it’s a .22 revolver or auto, or a Commander’s Model .45 ACP, knowing how to shoot and being a responsible owner is an obligation. But, whether for target shooting,, hunting or for self-defense, it is a right to keep and bear arms. And, it is also a right to be able to protect oneself when taking the time to dial 911, may be too late!

  11. My wife and I also have several handguns for concealed carry and to take to the range. Since we were both new to pistols we started out with a S&W 7 round .357 Mag revolver (686 model) with 4″ barrel. It worked really well for practice since we could use the less costly .38 ammo for the range. We always brought along a box or two of .357 Mag JHP to remember how it feels to re-acquire the target when using the personal defense ammo. It’s now our go-to weapon of choice for home defense and is always available in the same spot in the house. I have some other stuff from long ago in the safe and a modern long gun in the closet (no kids in the house).

    After we both got our CCW licenses, the big revolver was not very suitable for concealed carry (except maybe in winter for me when I wear heavy clothing). We got her a S&W .38 special snubby since she has problems pulling any slide back with some rhumatism in her hands. Then we found her a 32 cal. Baretta Tomcat pistol with the ‘tip up’ barrel so no need to retract the slide except to clear a jam which is very rare if the gun is kept clean and lightly oiled. As others have stated – if a handgun is too much trouble to conceal or too clumsy to carry and you don’t like to shoot it, you won’t have it with you when you need it. And I now carry the snubby – all total we have three quality handguns for about twelve hundred dollars plus a couple of poorly designed, cheap holsters (steep learning curve there) in a box at the bottom of the safe.

  12. We have a variety of handguns. I have tried the smaller guns, however, I feel the full sized handguns look more scary. If I ever need to use a gun then I want it to look the part as well as performing the part. I find my favorite firearm to carry is the Sig 2022 in the 9 mm caliber. The gun has a 15 round magazine in it and the holster I carry it in has another 15 round magazine in a compartment attached to the top of it. It fits well inside my purse as long as I carry a larger purse. I do also have a bersa thunder .380 with the same type holster for those times when I wish to carry a smaller purse. I have fired both several times on the range and feel I can do what I need to with them. I loved reading your article. Keep up the good articles. 🙂

  13. I have been in the Navy and Ord. Army. I came to the openion if you can afford only 1 firearm it is the M 1911 45. 2 reasons, stopping power and noise. When some one is breaking into your home you should be ready for when they open the door. The first shot is the one that counts. So if you are half way lucky and hit the target pluss the sound of a large Cal. going off, will scare the rest off. Hitting the target that will be with in 20 feet will knock them back and deter the rest from entry, allowing the police enough time to arrive and complete the job. On the safety side the M1911 requires more than a small child to shoot with all of the safetys. Personaly I like one in the chamber and safety cock. It would take a child all day to figure out all of the safetys. With the open sale of body armor I now favor the new MR 4570 revolver with the 10″, for all kind of shooting. You might not be able to kill them, but a few broken ribs will change their mind. I bought my Daughter a S&W 9mm SS with night sights, but she likes her husbands 357 and 1911 better for general shooting. The S&W is her carry weapon. From the time they could understand I tought them all (3)self defence. The results is calm reserved people that get along with everyone yet know they can stop the worst.

  14. Nicely written, but was disappointed at no mention of the 38 special. Not complaining, just pointing it out.

    When going through the “Which gun should I get question”, I ask my students how much they will practice problem situations (e.g., stovepipe, FTF, FTE). These would be catastrophic in an SD situation if you don’t know how to resolve the issue immediately. The answer is that they won’t. Semis are cool and sexy, but I always encourage them to try out the good ol’ wheel gun. Simple and reliable are great attributes to a SD firearm.

    .38 special has some great SD rounds for snubbies (std or +p) or even move up to a .357 if you get a larger framed revolver.

    Great articles. Keep ’em coming.

  15. In the world we live in now just getting firearms into the hands of the good and decent is not enough. There is a need for quality instruction / education in the proper care and feeding of ones weapon. I, as a gunsmith, have found myself doing as much teaching as gunsmithing. I personally carry a combination of a S&W .357 snub nosed, a walther P22 and a 1911 depending on where I am and what I am doing and am equally skilled on these. I also carry a well hidden but quickly accessable 12 gauge with folding stock in my truck – just in case. Hope for the best but prepare for the worst.

  16. My wife and I have a nice array of handguns from .22 through .40 S&W, in addition to some nice rifles and shotguns. Whenever we are on the range we often see other folks who are obviously new to the world of firearms, and trying to learn to use a newly acquired handgun.

    It is not long before a conversation is struck up when it is noticed we are firing on two lanes, and each have several handgun safes on the bench, and we are switching from one model to another, and switching lanes. When asked which is our favorite handgun we state our preference, and tell folks we invested in several different handguns before settling on our favorite unit, and there is nothing like trying several to see how they really operate. We will then offer to let these fine folks fire any of our handguns to get a feel for how they behave, lest they go out and buy another handgun and find that it is not to their liking after all.

    Same goes for anyone we have helped get their handgun permit in NY (Upstate, where sane people run our law enforcement agencies) We take them to one of our ranges as guests and show them how to use any handgun we have they are interested in, then let them try as many as they want just to help ensure that their first purchase is their best purchase. Women tend to love our Sig-Sauer P238 Lady, and guys are usually in favor of the Glock 26 or 27. The DiamondBack 9mm sure looks nice, is small and is often the first or 2nd handgun friends want to fire, but due to its small size and light weight it proves too snappy to fire more than a few times.

    As much as we like the DB9, we have likely done much to guide folks to the P238 or Glock 9mm just because they are more tame to fire for a sustained period of time (as in practice, practice, practice), and more practical to operate on the range (DB9 has no slide lock, so hard to quickly comply with a Cease Fire order).

    Just sayin’, until one fires several it is a crap shoot to what works best. We are always looking at and buying different handguns despite really liking ours already.

  17. According to the movie with Bruce Willis in the deserted town with two opposing mobs all anyone needs is a pair of 1911 Colt 45 autos and a bunch of magazines. I tried to count how many shots he could get from a 7 round mag but they were too fast and too many. I’ve shot a pair of Colt autos as fast as I could and I don’t think I can trust my left hand not to shoot me. Still a pretty good man stopping round though and so far 100% reliable wether Colt or other brands.

  18. I have a few different guns. I haven’t hunted since I was 16 but still have my Marlin 336c in 30-30. I suppose it all boils down to this. Any of the firearms I currently have are for defense of self and others. I carry concealed and open. I bring out the carbine for work and on the range. I’ve got a couple different firearms for home defense and a couple different ones for personal defense. I grab which one I’m in the mood for. I am comfortable with the feel of certain guns over others. Like many posters to this site, I grew up with the AR15. It has been in my hands and near-by since I was in basic training at 17, over 30 years ago. I am comfortable with 1911s and Glock handguns. I own a couple of each. I shot my first 1911 while in Korea in 1983 and have been shooting and carrying Glocks for more that 20 years.

    The best gun is the one you have when you need it most. Gun people can tell you which one it will be for them.

  19. Man, Your last line was the best advice of all. Go to a shooting range, see how several feel shoot and recoil. Lot of people buy guns that look sexy or deadly or what others like and then when they actually shoot them they hate the gun. In the Army I shot expert every qual with the M-9 but I hated the pistol. I’ll never own one because I hate the way they feel in my hand.

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