Guns: What do you get for your extra money?

KelTec P15 and P15 Metal back-to-back for comparison

We all have a budget. Admittedly, some budgets are larger than others. However, all shooters want their money’s worth. When making our first purchases in the gun world, most of us begin with an inexpensive firearm. Often enough we outgrow this initial choice and look for other guns.

Poor choices abound, making you think your luck is running at sixes and sevens. A systematic approach will reap benefits both financially and in practical use rather than buying what is trendy or cool. The question to begin with is “What do we really get when we purchase a high end firearm?” Are we getting something better or simply icing on an already good cake?

Springfield Operator, top, and the Springfield Loaded, lower
The Springfield Operator, top, and the Springfield Loaded, lower, are each excellent handguns. Which is best for you?

I asked myself this lately while comparing the Springfield Loaded, Operator, and TRP. Don’t hold me to fluctuating prices, but the TRP costs about twice as much as the Loaded. A similar situation exists with AR-15 rifles. Should we purchase the best gun we can afford, or will something more affordable fulfill our expectations of performance?

When budgeting for gun purchases, a large part of the budget is taken up with accessories. A cheap holster is a disaster. Don’t go there. The cheapest RDS for the AR-15 won’t satisfy your needs as skill progresses. Combat lights and ammunition are another consideration.

9mm Luger, 5.7x28mm, and .45 ACP run at different price levels. .300 Blackout, .223 Rem, and 6.5 ammunition take different tolls on the wallet as well. Do you really need one caliber over the other for range work and just shooting? The affordable and readily available 9mm and .223 may be the wiser choice. Resale value of the guns is also of some importance.


Few of us choose a lifetime gun on the first go around. Let’s look at the handgun first. If destined for personal defense, reliability is the single most important factor. Only faultless reliability is acceptable. You may purchase a Glock 19 and go about your business confident in the pistol’s likelihood to always come up shooting when needed.

Glock and Clones

The Glock isn’t the most accurate handgun. Is that a concern? A friend who is an experienced instructor tells me that about 99 percent of his students cannot shoot up to the Glock’s accuracy potential. I would disagree and put the figure at 75 percent. In truth, few students are limited by the Glock. The remainder may benefit from a pistol with a better trigger, better sights, and a superior, more ergonomic, firing grip.

Shadow Systems striker-fired pistol with a Holosun RDS
If you want one of the finest striker-fired pistols the Shadow Systems line is among the best well worth the extra cost.

Perhaps, you should you invest in the similar Shadow Systems MR920 — a superbly reliable and accurate pistol but a more expensive pistol. If a lighter carry gun is the standard, the SIG P365 will serve just fine, or should you invest in the new SIG Legion or P365 TACOPS? I recently found a Glock 19 available at $550, a Shadow System MR920 at $989, a SIG P365 at $599, and a SIG P 365 TACOPS at $799. That is a significant difference.

So, is the Shadow Systems gun worth the added tariff? Most certainly! The trigger action is excellent — much better than the Glock — but just as durable. The grip treatment is superb. Shadow Systems provides the pistol with a good set of sights out of the box. Optics compatibility is good. Fit and finish are top tier. Is the pistol worth more to you than the reliable Glock pistol?

The Shadow Systems is at least as reliable as the Glock, but a better shooter. If you feel limited by the Glock’s trigger and sights, the extra money is well worth while. For the occasional shooter, there is little benefit. If you are going to train to be all you can be, that’s a different story.

SIG Sauer

Then, we have the SIG TACOPS 9mm. With a larger grip frame than the P365, the pistol is easier to use well than the P365 and has greater magazine capacity. The pistol may use a wider range of combat lights. The TACOPS, or if you prefer the XMACRO with compensator, really is a better shooter. The SIG Rose edition is another story. It is pretty, but not as good a shooter as the TACOPS, if we cut hairs. So far, we are batting a thousand and finding upgrades worth the money.

Two pistols with mounted red dot sights
If you intend to use optics be certain to include quality optics in the equation.

Let’s look at the trifecta of 1911 handguns. The division gets tough. You may purchase a legacy gun from Colt or Springfield. It may not have the features you want, but it is high quality. With the less expensive 1911 (you are able to afford), you’ll have to ask whether it has an ambidextrous safety, as an example.

If owning the pistol is fulfilment enough, and the handgun isn’t destined for personal defense, then we may make compromises. I would caution against purchasing a used 1911 of any type. After writing three books on the 1911, and gunsmithing them for years, I have gotten stuck on a couple myself lately.

People tinker with the 1911 more than other pistols. Unless you are very knowledgeable, and able to perform action work and replace parts, don’t chance it. Let’s look at three 1911 handguns from Springfield Armoy. The three are the Loaded at about $1,000, the Operator at $1,100, and the Tactical Response Pistol at $1,600.

The pistols feature good fit, finish, and reliability. Each features Novak sights, although the TRP features night inserts. The Operator features a light rail, some TRP pistols also have a light rail. A tip… there is enough variation among the Operator and TRP pistols that you need to do some research and be certain you get the object of your desires. The TRP is available in Armory Kote or stainless, and with and without rail as an example. Let’s look over the three Springfields.

Springfield Loaded

The Loaded is my present carry gun for most chores. It is stainless steel and features Novak sights. The pistol features an ambidextrous safety, beavertail grip safety, and a smooth trigger. The Loaded features nicely-checkered stocks. I find that I fire the Loaded fast, with a high hit probability.

Springfield Operator

The Operator isn’t significantly different save for the light rail. If you need a rail, or think you’ll want a rail, the Operator is a good choice. I cannot recommend the Loaded more highly, however. The next step up is a big one.

Springfield Operator, Springfield Loaded, and Springfield TRP pistols
Left to right: Springfield Operator, Springfield Loaded, and Springfield TRP. Each is a very good 1911 with ever more expensive features in the TRP.

Springfield TRP

You cannot make a Loaded Model or Operator a TRP by fitting or modification. The slide to frame fit is tight, very tight, and differs in tolerance significantly from the Loaded. The result is excellent accuracy. While a 25-yard group of five shots from a solid rest may fall into 2.0 to 2.5 inches with the Loaded, and occasionally some are a bit tighter, a TRP is good for 1.5 inches. Often enough, with quality ammunition, it will group five shots into 1.25 inches. But, is it worth the expense?

Considering the G10 grips and checkered front strap making for a superior balance of adhesion and abrasion, a tight, smooth trigger, and excellent fitting, the TRP is worth the money. However, few will need such a gun to fulfill their needs. That being said, the Loaded 1911 is among the best values in the 1911 world.

Rimfire Handguns


In rimfire handguns, the Ruger Super Wrangler set the world on its nose. The Wrangler is OK for the money, but the Single Six is a much better shooter. The in-between Super Wrangler isn’t as nicely finished as the Single Six but shoots as well with its adjustable sights and spare .22 Magnum cylinder. It isn’t made of the same material as the Single Six, but the Super Wrangler will outfit a bunch of grandchildren well.

The Super Wrangler, above, compared to the original Wrangler, below.
The Super Wrangler, above, compared to the original Wrangler, below.


A wonderfully-affordable .22 automatic is the KelTec P17. With low stress on parts, and no need for tight fitting or a locked breech action, .22s may be manufactured for less expense. The P17 has proven useful and reliable.


The FN 502 is among the more expensive polymer-framed pistols. Is it wort twice the cost of a P17? Maybe. It depends on how deep you are into rimfire shooting. The FN is extremely accurate. If you own a 9mm FN, you probably need a 502 as well.

The Better Budget Guns

Occasionally, you may get a perfectly good handgun for less than the going rate. As an example, the Canik TP9 models are often touted as being as accurate and reliable as much more expensive handguns. The pistol compares very favorably to Walther models. So closely, I must call it a toss-up. That is impressive.



In revolvers, there are many expensive revolvers and several cheap ones. Then again, there are true ‘value’ revolvers from Taurus. The 856 is a six-shot revolver as compact as most ‘five’ shooters. To find a smoother action than the Taurus is difficult.  If you just want a .38 for the pocket, the 856 is a good choice. The sights are good, and the revolver is light.

Taurus 856 .38 Special revolver left profile
The Taurus 856 is affordable. This .38 features a nicely pebbled rubber grip and front post-mounted night sight! No need to look for older guns.

Smith & Wesson

If you are a dedicated snub nose shooter, and want the ultimate hard use revolver, do you get a lot for the $800-plus dollars you shell out on the Smith & Wesson 640 Pro? You get a great deal. The 640 Pro doesn’t have the typical Smith & Wesson action lock. I don’t trust cast metal. The lock isn’t necessary, and it can be trouble.

The 640 features high-profile night sights. The fluted barrel limits recoil. Hogue’s special, recoil-absorbing grips help take the sting out of the .357 Magnum or powerful .38 +P loads. If you are willing to practice, and this type of handgun demands practice, the 640 Pro is well worth the money.


In shotguns there is less reason to purchase a high end model for defense. For hunting, clays, and 3Gun, yes, you need something like the Mossberg 940 or a Benelli. No question there. For personal defense, the decision is in favor of economy — if you must compromise.

Tokarev USA pump shotgun 12 gauge, right, quartering
This Tokarev USA pump shotgun is affordable, reliable, and useful if not as smooth and some shotguns.

I have tested some Turkish pump-action shotguns that were rough, sure. However, I have tested others that were smooth. None suffered feed problems.

Stevens v. Winchester

The Stevens 320 is a close copy of the Winchester 1200 Speed Pump. To be frank, other than the finish, it is as capable a shotgun as the original.


Moving up, I really like the Mossberg 500. My first shotgun was a Mossberg 500. It is worth the money with most models under $400. The cut down Maverick has plastic parts and moves the praiseworthy Model 500 safety off the reviver and into the trigger guard.

The stocks are often a bit loose, but the Maverick by Mossberg retails for $180 to $250 in defense versions. It is reliable; it isn’t that nice. There is the expensive Retro 500, which is a nice gun, but no more reliable than any other 500.

Maverick 88, 12 gauge shotgun, right profile
The simple an inexpensive Maverick 88 is a workmanlike design well suited to home defense.

The best gun for personal defense from Mossberg — in my opinion — is the 590. They may be expensive at over $500. However, they are a heavy barrel version with upgrades making it even more durable than a 500.

In the end, there are several cheap shotguns that are reliable and middle-priced guns that really do the business. In automatic shotguns, the Black Aces is something of a phenomenon with excellent handling and reliability. The Toros Copolla is a Benelli M4 copy that is comparable, if not quite up to, a Benelli’s fit and finish.

In the end if you are going to cut corners and purchase a cheap gun due to budget constraints, the shotgun may be purchased on the cheap and still be a reliable option. It won’t handle like a better gun, and it isn’t competitive in competition, but it will defend hearth and home.

AR-15 — America’s Rifle, Modern Sporting Rifles

When it comes to AR-15 rifles, never assume it is that difficult to mess up America’s rifle. Most of the monstrosities have been home builds, but then some of the nicest AR-15 rifles are built on the kitchen table. It is the American Way. A great deal of pride is enjoyed in building your own rifle.

AR-15 rifle with magazine inserted
AR-15 rifles vary in features. You may easily upgrade the rifle’s furniture. Fitting is more difficult to tighten up.

In short, the price of an AR rifle is determined by features and fit. There are many makers, and some are not consistent. An affordable Smith & Wesson or Ruger is a solid work horse. As an example, I recently took a $1,200 rifle to the range along with a $600 rifle. The less expensive rifle did not give up anything to the more expensive rifle.

When you get into the SIG, Colt, and Daniel Defense rifles, you have better fit between the upper and lower receiver. If you purchase a Springfield Saint, you get a good rifle with good furniture. The Springfield Saint Edge has a lot of bling, but also a superior forend and muzzle brake. The beauty of the AR is you may purchase a decent grade of rifle and upgrade as you advance, and never have the rifle out of service.


When you are ready to lay down your hard earned dollars, carefully consider what you will be doing with your firearms. In some cases, there is no need to pay for what you don’t need. But then the advice to buy the best guns you can afford is valid. And don’t forget to support the 2nd Amendment foundation and continue to enjoy your guns.

WHat was your first gun? How does it compare to your carry gun today or favorite gun? Will a budget gun get the job done, or do you recommend buying the best gun you can afford? Share your answers in the comment section.

  • AR-15 rifle with six-position stock and flip-up rear sight
  • Multiple boxes of ammunition in different calibers
  • Shadow Systems striker-fired pistol with a Holosun RDS
  • Springfield Operator, Springfield Loaded, and Springfield TRP pistols
  • Tokarev USA pump shotgun 12 gauge, right, quartering
  • Two pistols with mounted red dot sights
  • Maverick 88, 12 gauge shotgun, right profile
  • Several pistol holsters
  • Smith & Wesson 640 Pro, top - S&W 642 revolver, bottom
  • CRKT knife, Inforce weapons light, SIG weapons light, and spare magazines
  • Rock Island, Colt, and Guncrafter 1911 handguns
  • Springfield Operator, top, and the Springfield Loaded, lower
  • AR-15 rifle with magazine inserted
  • REmington V MAx Tactical 12 gauge shotgun

About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.

Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Rifle Magazine
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns

Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
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 (13)

  1. My go-to 1911 .45 is the Springfield Range Officer. I bought it the first year they came out. After many varied rounds I still have had zero failures, malfunctions, etc. Accuracy has been very good.

    My Glock 17 is an early 1st Generation. To date, no malfunctions and decent accuracy. It’s a combat pistol, not a target pistol.

    I sell guns for a living. The one consistent thing I see is all the people who buy a combat pistol but think it needs a target trigger.

  2. Anthony

    The TRP is tight, very tight, but you are also correct concerning the barrel. Good observation.

    At one time Springfield used Storm Lake barrels in the TRP.

    Bob Campbell

  3. Re the Springfield TRP. I suspect the accuracy improvement is really quality of parts and barrel fit as opposed to frame to slide/fit. I’m betting if you sent one of the drastically lower cost models to a gunsmith to fit a Kart NM barrel and bushing, it would drive tacks at 50 yards. In truth, most factory barrels fit properly can shoot pretty well out to 25 yards but the better barrel performance really starts to shine at 50 yards plus. Anyway, that has been my experience.

  4. @SCPISTOLERO may I suggest two things. Glock parts are affordable, so replace the guide rod assembly (about a $6 part), because if it is weak, it can result in the barrel and the slide not locking up consistently, resulting in Point Of Impact variation. Secondly check the take-down lever piece (about a few dollars) for wear, and proper installed direction. If this is in backwards, there should be a small hook facing to the rear of the gun, the other side should be a radius, the slide will not lock up consistently. Also an affordable part. This being a used police duty gun, it would not be uncommon for these two parts to be worn, resulting in accuracy issues. So for under say $20, you may be able to get your G21 fairly accurate again. An upgraded sight system like the TrueGlo Pro also helps improve accuracy on a Glock. The Goal Post/front dot sight do not promote good accuracy either. Note: I have never seen a Glock punch out 3 & 4 leaf clovers on targets like they do in the Glock advertisement videos. LOL.

  5. First handgun I purchased was the S&W M&P .40 as it was what we had transitioned to in 2006 when they came out. I bought it to have what I carried on duty. Still have it, and an SD40VE and S&W Shield Plus. All fine pistols. Also an RIA M206 revolver in .38spl. Not a bad revolver for $200 but it’s no Smith. As far as inexpensive shotguns go the H&R Pardner Pump is basically a clone of the Remington 870 for the same price as the Maverick… $200 or less. It’s a heavy joker but it’s solid. Don’t be gentle when racking it and it’s super reliable. If you’re into single shot break action shotguns the Stevens 301 is as close as you’ll get to the old H&R Pardner. Except it has swappable chokes in Winchoke theead and tooless takedown. It has a pointless safety lever on the side of receiver but it can removed or the set screw tightened so it can’t be activated. It serves no purpose other than for import laws because it has a transfer bar so it’s not going to go off unless the hammer is cocked and trigger pulled. Kicks like an angry mule even with target loads.

  6. First gun,
    Marlin model 60 semi-auto 22 rifle
    Cost, $44 new
    Quarter size groups at 50yards,STILL!
    Second gun,
    S&W model 10 38 special M&P revolver
    Cost, $118 used
    Third gun,
    Winchester model 12 3″ chamber shotgun
    Cost, $125 new
    Until I could afford something else, three kids later, this was all I needed, even today a man could get by quite well with these gems!

  7. I once purchased a Glock 21 police trade in from the PA State Police. Beautiful gun but I couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with it. I’m not trowing shade on the pistol, it just wasn’t for me. Maybe I’ll try a G19 or 17 in the future.

  8. The Toros Copolla is a pile of crap. I’ve already returned three of them, one unfired which had a canted front sight, and two others that broke on the first couple of rounds (jammed piston rod on one and a broken shell release lever on the other).

  9. Just commenting on your semi-auto pistol review.

    Well… you certainly limited our options!
    No Browning Hi-Power clones at all!
    No Taurus PT-92/99.
    No hammer-fired handguns AT ALL other than 1911s.

    There seem to be significant oversights in your choices of pistols to review.

  10. My first gun, the one I bought with my own money, was a Ruger .44 Magnum Carbine. Great gun had it for several years, wish I still had it! I was twenty 1960 when I bought it. First gun I shot was a Colt 1911 match pistol (my dad’s). Next gun I bought was a Glock G21. Eight years ago, I was seventy-six then. That was when I started carrying concealed. Bought three more Glocks, another G21, a G30, and a G36. The G21 was just a bit to big to hide. Went down to the G30 for a couple of years and dropped to the G36, a friend talked me in to it. Went back to the G30, G36 not enough ammo. Also have a few ARs in various calibers. I think you should buy the most gun you can carry and shoot well.

  11. Thanks for another splendid article. I think your points with expensive & less guns are analogous to tools in the residential remodeling profession. I can purchase a Milwaukee or Bosch tool for a fair price, especially on sale. They are both reliable, durable,& get the job done. And then there’s Festool that comes at nearly twice the price. Festool tools have greater precision & fit than the every day work horse tools. Similarly, my S & W Model 41 is simply flawless; everything tight & shoots like a dream. My Ruger Mark IV Lite is quite accurate, but it doesn’t look, feel, or shoot like the Model 41. The more expensive Model 41 is, in my opinion, we’ll worth it.

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