Gear, Parts and Accessories

Helping to Choose A Concealed Carry Handgun For a New Shooter

If you’re a handgun owner and you have friends who are not, you may often find yourself looked to as an expert on the subject. A common question I find myself faced with by new shooters is: “I want to get a handgun for concealed carry and personal protection. What should I get?” It’s a very personal question, with no one right answer. There is a very good reason there is such a broad selection of handguns on the market, and that is that different people look for different qualities in a defensive firearm.

The first thing a new shooter should do is become familiar with pistols in general. One major mistake experienced shooters make is recommending their personal favorite firearm as the gun of choice for a new shooter. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been at the range and seen a husband encouraging his wife to try out a lightweight .357 Magnum snub-nosed revolver. Don’t get me wrong – small hammerless big bore revolvers are carried by thousands of women. Their light weight and small size makes them easy to conceal, and they still pack a wallop. But starting a new shooter off with such a firearm can be a mistake. When dealing with a new shooter, start small by renting something like a Ruger .22 pistol so that they can get used to practicing proper shooting technique. Firearms are intimidating, and starting a newbie off with a fire-belching magnum is a sure-fire way to intimidate them so much that they conclude that they are incapable of handling a firearm.

Once your new shooter is comfortable with a .22, step up and try out a soft shooting .380, 9mm or .38 Special. Try a wide variety of handguns and let them find out what they like as well as what they don’t like. A shooter looking for their first carry pistol should find one that fits them well. Grip size, grip angle, overall weight and balance, muzzle length, and caliber all play into this complex equation. Be sure to consider the human factor: how intuitively can they manipulate the handguns controls? Is the safety easy to reach? What about the magazine or cylinder release? All of these things contribute to the overall suitability of a pistol to a particular shooter. There’s no set equation for figuring out what pistol fits best – you’ve got to take some for a test drive.

Most pistol ranges have a variety of handguns that can be rented for a small fee.

Don’t bother renting full size handguns – these are usually not suitable for concealed carry. Stick with compact and subcompact firearms. Try a variety of actions and calibers. Don’t place too much emphasis on finding a large caliber pistol. While a .357 Sig or .357 Magnum may be your choice as the best carry caliber, it may be a handful for a novice shooter. The ability to maintain consistent and accurate shot placement is far more important than the “stopping power” of any particular caliber. As instructor Greg Hamilton said, “Do you know how to double the effectiveness of any bullet? Put another round through your target.” Two .25 ACP rounds that land solid hits on the target are much more effective than two misses with a .357 Magnum.

Consider also the price and availability of your ammunition. Practice is key to maintaining proficiency with any firearm. Your new shooter may love their .380 subcompact, but with the current ammunition shortage, will they be able to find enough .380 at a reasonable price to practice with? Many pistol models are available in a variety of calibers. If your new shooter falls in love with that Sig 229 in .357 Sig, but you’re concerned with ammo availability, have them try a Sig 229 in .40 S&W instead.

The overall reliability of a handgun is also very important. Many handguns are picky about what type of ammunition they will digest. Ask your local range if you can try some standard pressure defensive rounds through their rental guns. Most ranges will gladly let you give it a test drive if you purchase the ammunition there (most will not let you run +P high pressure rounds).

In addition to their ability to feed ammunition, some firearms are simply more reliable than others. Talk to an experienced shooter or range master about the reliability of the pistol your new shooter is considering for purchase. Pistols that are carried regularly are exposed to all manner of fouling media. Lint, dirt, and dust can collect on the pistol, and rust can be an issue in high humidity environments or during the summer. Some handguns are simply better suited for concealed carry. Look for polymer, stainless steel, or other frames that will resist moisture, dirt, and dust.

Once a new shooter has settled on what gun is right, the pocket book comes into play. Firearms are not cheap as a general rule, and it’s possible to find that the right pistol for your new shooter is out of their budget. If that is the case, talk to your local firearm dealer about layaway plans, or consider buying used. Many manufacturers like Sig Sauer offer factory certified used firearms that come with an excellent warranty and are priced at a significant discount. If a factory certified used firearm isn’t a possibility, have a gunsmith inspect the potential purchase. They can spot excessive wear and abuse and can tell how well a used handgun has been cared for.

Finally, once the new purchase has been made, practice! Practice is critical to being able to properly employ a firearm in a self defense situation, so continue to encourage a new shooter to accompany you to the range and practice with their new pistol. If they’ve chosen a handgun that suits them well, practice will be an enjoyable pastime that the two of you can spend together.

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 (12)

  1. Some of the comments are promoting small pistols in .357, which is a lot of round. I know, I have he hammer version of the Ladysmith shown with the article, and it is beast to shoot with the .357. However, all .357’s can also shoot .38 cal ammunition, an this is what I load and carry. I like having the .357 option, especially if I carry this while hunting as a defensive weapon, but for daily carry, I stick with .38 cal.

  2. Let her try a S&W Ladysmith .357, with wax&primer loads (no propellant); cheap, no recoil, little noise; start off with lots of dry fire with laser grips & snap caps, custom pocket holster that will allow the Ladysmiths’ hammer; she can cock it & fire; the dry fire will develop her trigger-finger strength for DA; it’s small enough that she’ll probably carry it; maybe no so with a full size Glock

  3. FWIW, I have 2 weapons that I would consider for Concealed Carry. Depending on the situation: for work where I could conceal under a coat, I have a holstered .357 S&W 686 with a 6 inch barrel, and for everyday 24/7 I have a .357 S&W model 640 Centennial for its hammerless feature (pocket carry in leather holster made for pockets). I know muzzle flip is a consideration, but it comes back down on target quick enough. Good follow through is very key. If you are focused on maintaining aim while the shot is occurring, you will be doing yourself a favor by also ensuring you bring that puppy back in line ASAP. Definitely would have a problem with the titanium scandium models, so I don’t even give them more than a quick glance. You really need the weight of solid steel for a snubbie in .357 magnum using .357 ammo.

  4. I was in a very popular gun store in vegas, just shopping the wares. I already owned 4 revolvers at the time but liked looking at the shiny models while waiting for a stall on the gun range. A woman was browsing the same as me when a salesman came up. She wanted a new pistol as she never really liked the one she had (in her purse which was loaded and produced to show the guy). Guy asks her how often she had fired her pistol. Answer.. wait for it… never. Which also meant she had never gotten through a CCW course and was carrying illegally!

    Also was there waiting when a strip casino had their security staff doing “annual” marksmanship testing. Basically to pass this test you hold the weapon level at shoulder height and control your fire and you’ll pass. You really don’t have to aim at the ranges they were looking at: big silhouette at point blank and medium range. Over a quarter of the guys failed, some more than once, and one almost four times(!?!) to pass this test (he did it on the last one allowable). One seriously said that he would be better if the target were turned sideways! Now, these guys probably had no weapon of their own, and all weapons have to kept on property, so practice is not a consideration for most of them, but really?

    I felt like a true wild west gun slinger compared to these “real life” examples from where I live, and with all my practice I felt I could always use a lot more.

    There is no substitute for practice, but no matter the weapon, if the owner considers practice similar to “reading the manual”, they will never do it unless forced to.

  5. @CTD Blogger
    I think your statement that many people simply are looking for a gun to carry and may never become comfortable with their gun is irresponsible. You are condoning the purchasing and carrying of a gun with which the person you are recommending this to has no familiarity. That really seems like a good idea to you? Don’t get me wrong, I am by no means against carrying guns. Quite the contrary in fact. However, I think that like any potentially dangerous activity, it needs to be done carefully.

    No matter how you look at it, guns have a very high capability of killing someone. That is why they were invented, why they still exist, and people carry them (concealed or otherwise). You can try to pretend that they are not, but the fact of the matter is that guns are dangerous.

    One of the things that us gun people bring up relatively often when defending the dangerous nature of guns is the dangerous nature of driving. And I think the analogy fits well here in addition to the other ways we generally make the comparison. What you are talking about doing when you encourage people to carry a gun for protection without being familiar with it, is the same as letting someone who has never even been exposed to motor vehicles (never ridden in one or anything) take a 3 hour course and get a licence and a car. It’s absolutely insane to think that I could be driving down the interstate with someone like that. Someone walking around with a concealed pistol who has not spent enough time with it to be comfortable shooting it, is at least as bad.

    All that being said, I carry a Kel-Tec PF-9 in a Hidden Ally Holster (from High Noon Holsters) and absolutely love it. The recoil is almost ridiculous, but for someone with a small frame like myself, it packs a pretty decent punch with very easy conceal-ability.

  6. In my opinion, there are two types of handguns – holster guns, and pocket guns.

    If you’re looking for something that’s easy to carry, and easily slips into a pocket, there are numerous options available – from the Beretta Tomcat, to Kel-Tec’s offerings in .32 and .380, to the newer micro-sized 9mm pistols. These guns are great for what they are, but there are obvious sacrifices that must be made, in terms of caliber, capacity, and ease of use, to make the gun that small.

    The second type is a holster gun. These guns are carried in some type of belt holster, whether that be a paddle, IWB, or OWB. My position here is simple – since you’re already wearing a holster, and likely a cover garment, you want to make as few sacrifices as possible. There is no place in this space for a “compact” – it’s just as easy to conceal a full-frame gun. You’ll want to go with a top-end caliber like .45, .40, or 10mm. For larger capacity, 9mm is acceptable.

    And of course, before going out and spending your hard-earned dough, check out some handgun reviews online first. 🙂

  7. Overall a fairly good piece about selecting a handgun.

    I’d like to add this web page to the equation as well, as it’s one of the better pieces about handgun selection:

    One point I’d like to disagree with is the full-sized vs. (sub)compact issue. If we’re talking about new shooters here, new shooters are going to have a higher degree of success and satisfaction if they shoot a big gun first. A full-sized gun will have more weight (help to manage recoil), will have a longer sight radius (easier to aim and get accurate hits), will have more grip (even experienced shooters don’t always like their pinky dangling) which again leads to better recoil management and shooting experience. Your piece here advocates starting people off with success and fun, so let’s further that by working with full-sized guns. Depending upon the mode of carry (and the person), you certainly can conceal a full-sized gun just fine. Let this new shooter work on their shooting skills, have success, enjoy shooting enough to want to seek out further practice and training. After they deal with all of that, THEN they can work on selecting a gun for concealment… maybe buying a 2nd gun, or maybe they would sell the first full-sized gun (if money is an issue) to buy the more compact one. It’s putting the cart before the horse for people to buy small guns from the onset… let them become good shooters, let them become educated about carry and carry options and what would work for them, then see about selecting a gun based upon its size.

    1. You’ve got some good points here.

      I’m not knocking full size pistols for concealed carry, and you’re absolutely right: compared to their little brothers, they have less recoil due to their additional weight.

      But the way I look at it – we’re considering a single gun purchase for a new shooter. If you can only buy one gun, and your intention is to carry it concealed, it’s my opinion that that firearm should be a compact or smaller. While you CAN carry a full size pistol, concealing it can be problematic, especially in the summer months where less clothing is worn.

      You mention letting the person get used to shooting in general and practice enough to get to the point where they seek out training. You suggest that After they deal with all of that, THEN they can work on selecting a gun for concealment

      This completely misses the point. We’re trying to arm a person who needs a firearm for personal defense, not get someone to be an avid gunnie and shooter. I know many new shooters who never get comfortable with pistols, or just decide they don’t like them for some reason or another. But they still see the need to be armed for self defense, and still seek advice on what to carry.

      At the end of the day, a new shooter should carry whatever firearm they are comfortable with. If that means they carry a Walther P22, then that’s better than not carrying anything at all.

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