So you wanna buy a handgun?

Posted: October 6, 2011 in Beginner, Handgun, How To

“What gun should I buy?”

That’s one of the questions I hear most often from people who are new to shooting. They may have been out with a friend a few times, or maybe they’ve never actually shot a handgun before. Either way, they’re thinking about picking up a new gun and don’t know how to pick the right one for them. Unfortunately, this question is very similar to “What car should I buy?” There are a lot of options and not every gun is right for every person. So now I get to answer questions with more questions.

“What do you want to use it for?”

For the purposes of this post, we’ll assume they’ve already decided to buy a handgun instead of a rifle or shotgun. I’ll talk more about buying those in future posts. So we know they want a handgun, but there are about as many different uses for a gun as there are guns out there. The big ones are personal defense, competition, hunting, and “plinking”. Plinking is just when you go to the range to have fun shooting, without any specific goal in mind. Shooting tin cans off a fence is the classic example of plinking. Many people (maybe most people) want to do at least a couple of these things with the same gun. If you don’t know what you want to do with it, that makes it tougher to pick the right gun. There are a few out there that are pretty good for just about anything, so those would probably serve you well enough. I would say that, in general, people who are new to guns are looking for something that’s good for home defense and/or plinking. I’ll concentrate on those for the purposes of this article.

“Do you want a revolver or a semi-auto?”

The first distinction in handguns is between revolvers and semiautomatics. Revolvers are sometimes called “wheelguns” by gun folks. You’ll also hear semiautomatics referred to as semis, semiautos, self-loaders, auto-loaders and even automatics. Revolvers look like this:

Semiautos look like this:

You can see that the guns are shaped very differently. They also operate very differently internally, and each has its own pros and cons. However, with most modern handguns, the user interface is pretty similar. You just pull the trigger and the gun fires. So which do you want? You need to pick them up and feel them. For some people, revolvers just feel natural in their hands. For others, semiautos fit like the proverbial glove. I can’t tell you which one you’ll prefer, so you’re just going to have to head to the store or a range or a friend’s basement and hold a whole bunch of them to see what feels right.

What about those pros and cons I mentioned? Let’s run through those. I’m going to be speaking in general here, since there are exceptions to every rule (and 3 exceptions to every rule in the gun world).

Revolver

Pros

  • Reliable
  • Durable
  • Simple
  • Many can use different calibers in the same gun
  • Can use extremely high-powered cartridges

Cons

  • Lower capacity
  • Slower to reload

Semiautomatic

Pros

  • Wide variety of shapes and sizes
  • Higher capacity
  • Faster to reload
  • Easier to modify/accessorize

Cons

  • Can be unreliable (Don’t let this scare you off, I’ll explain)
  • Can be more complicated to operate
  • Require a certain amount of hand strength to operate the slide

Now if you’re a gun nut like me, you’re probably screaming your head off right now, and believe me, I cringed as I wrote a few of these. The truth is that you can learn to reload a revolver very quickly with a lot of practice, and modern semiautos are often very reliable, but these are as close as I can get to general rules. Semiautos tend to have a higher capacity (usually 8+ and all the way up to 20) and tend to reload faster. Revolvers have a reputation for reliability and simplicity because there are fewer moving parts, therefore fewer things to go wrong.

Some of these reputations are outdated, but continue to be popular. It’s what I call the “Old guy bias”. Back 40+ years ago, semi-autos weren’t nearly as rugged or popular as they are today, and the smart money was on revolvers. A lot of the modern gun gurus have been saying the same thing for the past 40 years, never updating their opinions as technology changed. Even a lot of younger people who look up to these gurus (and with good reason) are simply repeating what they’ve heard without thinking it through. Don’t get me wrong, those old guys are often amazing shooters and have more real world experience than I ever will. We can all learn a ton from them. That doesn’t mean every word they say is gospel, though. So the “common knowledge” about guns isn’t always the truth. That’s worth keeping in mind as you go shopping.

What does all this mean for you? Very little, unfortunately. When you’re dealing with differences between guns, you’re dealing with differences in degree, not in kind. It’s all just one big gray area. Is a gun that misfires one shot out of a thousand a reliable gun? What about one that misfires five shots out of a thousand? What about one that misfires only once in ten thousand rounds but the stoppage is so bad you have to take it to a gunsmith to have it fixed? If you read on the gun forums you’ll see a lot of chest thumping nonsense like “I want a gun that goes bang EVERY time you pull the trigger.” We all want that, and none of us will ever have it. There is no gun so amazing that a combination of bad ammunition, bad environmental conditions and bad handling can’t make it misfire. That’s facts. Every gun can and will misfire under the right circumstances. The rule of thumb for reliability is to buy a good quality gun, keep it clean and lubricated, and feed it quality ammo. Some guns can live with a little less coddling than others, but none of them is going to throw a hissy fit about being treated well. What you’re looking for is a gun that will be the most reliable under the widest set of circumstances, and also preferably one that you can return to operation quickly if a misfire should happen. Sounds like a lot of gray, right? And that’s just talking about reliability. I haven’t gotten into such other vaunted concepts like accuracy or shootability yet.

So when it comes down to revolvers or semi-autos, it’s really just going to be personal preference. If you get a good gun in either category, it will serve you well. Read reviews, talk to friends who own guns, rent them at a range, do whatever you need to do to feel good about your decision. It’s not an easy one, but it’s hard to get it entirely wrong anymore. Modern manufacturing techniques and metallurgy are pretty solid, and most guns are pretty darned good. Worst case you can always sell it and buy another.

“What kind of action do you want?”

Now we’re digging deeper. Beyond just pulling the trigger, we’re talking about how the gun actually operates internally. This may seem unimportant, but it’s worth thinking about. There are two major types of actions, and a lot of gradations and exceptions (of course). You have single action, wherein the trigger does one thing and one thing only: it drops the hammer/striker/whatever and fires a shot. A double action is where pulling the trigger does two things, normally cocking the hammer/striker/whatever back and then also dropping it. This is where it can get a bit confusing. You can have single action revolvers and single action semiautos. You can have double action revolvers and double action semiautos. You can have a gun that is both single action and double action (SA/DA) in either revolver or semiauto format.

There are pros and cons here as well, but they’re more subtle. They have to do with the feel and weight of the trigger. The “weight” of a trigger refers to the force you have to apply to it to get the gun to go bang. They can be anywhere from 1 pound (for superduper competition pistols) all the way up to 15 pounds (for some defense-oriented revolvers). The heavier the trigger pull, the tougher it is to fire the gun. With a really light trigger (anything under 4 pounds) you run the risk of it firing without a firm, intentional trigger pull. That’s fine for target shooting and competition, but not good for defensive guns. With a trigger pull that is too heavy, you’re more likely to pull the gun off target by squeezing the trigger. Keep in mind that your gun will probably weigh from 1-3 pounds. If you’re putting 15 pounds of force on a 3 pound gun, you have to be doing it exactly right if you want to avoid moving the gun around. Generally speaking, single action triggers are lighter than double action. They are also usually shorter (the distance the trigger has to move) and have shorter resets (the distance forward the trigger has to move after firing to re-engage and be ready to fire again). This is one where you’ll have to feel it to see what you like. You can dry fire the gun to get a feel for the trigger, but always ask beforehand. Dry fire (pulling the trigger without any ammunition in the gun) doesn’t really hurt modern guns, but some people don’t like it anyway for whatever reason. Trigger control is one of the most important aspects of achieving good marksmanship, and having a trigger that helps with that is a good idea.

“What material do you want?”

Some people are only happy with a gun that’s made of solid steel. Not even aluminum, titanium, scandium or unobtanium will satisfy them. Some people prefer polymer guns, or “combat tupperware” as they are known. Steel guns tend to be heavy. The reason people came up with all the other options is precisely for this reason. Polymers and all the “-ums” are lighter than steel. Sometimes that’s good, like when you have to carry the thing all day. Sometimes it’s bad, like when you’re shooting a powerful round and the lighter gun doesn’t have as much inertia with which to withstand recoil. There are tons of both types of gun out there these days, and very few generalities can be made about the different groups. What I can say from my personal experience and from talking to/reading/watching many others is that the polymer guns tend to be more reliable. I think this happens in part because they are built with looser tolerances, since they’re intended for rough use. I can honestly say that I think the material that the receiver is made of has nothing whatsoever to do with the operation of the gun (and there are people with AR lowers carved out of wood who might agree with me), so I think it has to have more to do with the design of the operating parts themselves. If you want a semiauto that will go bang as reliably as possible, the big three polymer guns (Glock, Smith & Wesson M&P, and Springfield XD/XDm) are all great options. If you want a steel gun, you also have a lot of options. A lot of steel guns are in the 1911 style, but there are also Beretta, Sig Sauer, H&K, a whole mess of revolvers from every manufacturer, and plenty of older designs that are still perfectly good. Polymer guns have the added benefit of the frame not rusting. If you live in a humid climate or plan on carrying (in which case, your pants ARE the humid climate) having a frame that won’t rust is nice. Most of the polymer guns also have a coating on all the steel parts to help prevent rust as well.

“What caliber do you want?”

This one really comes down to what you want to do with the gun, again. If you’re interested in defense, I would suggest 9mm or something more powerful. Some people will try to convince you that anything smaller than .45 won’t keep you safe, but the science is not on their side. Expect a lot more on that topic from me in a later post. If you’re just interested in plinking, really any caliber will work. You just need to figure out how much recoil you want to manage, how much shooting you’ll be doing, and how much you’re willing to spend on ammo. The .22LR (LR stands for long rifle) is a fantastic option. There’s essentially no recoil to speak of, ammo is cheap and you can find it anywhere. It’s enough to put holes in paper, knock cans off a fence, or even take small game if that’s your thing. It’s a fantastic round and I highly recommend that everyone own a gun chambered in .22LR. You can, of course, also go to the other extreme and buy yourself a S&W .500 revolver. Ammo is expensive as hell and you can’t really find it anywhere, but you won’t mind because you won’t want to shoot any more than a few rounds at a time anyway. Not something I’d recommend to a new shooter as a first gun, but it’s a heck of a lot of fun to take a hand cannon out to the range and blow very large holes in things. Maybe later on you can treat yourself to one. Something in the middle is probably a good option. For a revolver, the .38 Special is very popular and with good reason. It has good power, availability and price, and many guns that can shoot it can also shoot the .357 Magnum. You want to make very sure that your gun specifically says it can handle the increased pressure of the .357 before putting any in there, though. You can hurt yourself and destroy your gun if you’re not careful. If you want a good, solid caliber for defense or plinking in a semiauto, it’s hard to beat 9mm. As of this writing, you can get 100 rounds of target ammo for $20 (that is very subject to change, as ammo prices can be volatile) and it’s a great round for both defense and just shooting for fun at the range. Compared to .22LR (at $20 for a box of 550 rounds) you’re still spending a lot more money on ammo, but you get a much more versatile gun out of it.

So now we’ve covered revolver vs semiauto, action, material and caliber. What else is there to know?

Accuracy? For a beginning shooter, the gun will be more accurate than you are for a good long while. As long as your gun has sights on it that you can see, you’re probably okay. People get crazy worrying about accuracy but the fact of the matter is that by the time you’re worried about keeping 1-inch groups at 25 yards with your handgun, you’ve probably already upgraded a few times. Keeping every round on a 9″ paper plate at 5 yards is enough to keep you busy for a good long while.

What about external lever safeties or grip safeties? Some people swear by them. I’ve basically decided I have no use for lever safeties on my guns. Doesn’t mean I don’t have them, it just means it’s not a feature I require. My favorite gun right now is a Springfield XDm in 9mm and it has a grip safety. Some people think grip safeties are stupid, but mine doesn’t bother me. Some guns, like the 1911, have both a lever safety and a grip safety, and almost any gun guy in the world will talk your ear off about how great it is. So it’s about personal preference again. The good thing about safeties is that if someone pulls the trigger while the safety is engaged, the gun won’t fire. The bad thing about safeties is exactly the same thing. You have to decide for yourself whether you think it’s more likely that you will leave the safety on, someone will get hold of your gun, try to pull the trigger without disengaging the safety and the safety will prevent the gun from firing, or whether you will pull out your gun to defend your life and forget or fail to disengage the safety in time to stop the person attacking you. For me, I think anyone capable of pulling a trigger is also capable of disabling a safety. The safety is not a guarantee that the gun won’t hurt someone unintentionally, it’s at best a mild inconvenience. The way you keep your guns from being fired without your consent is to restrict access to them by putting them in a safe when they’re not on your hip. A safe is a significant inconvenience to someone who wants to fire your gun without your consent. Some people, though, just don’t feel safe without that lever flipped to safe. If that’s you, by all means, buy a gun with a lever. Just make sure you practice with it enough that turning it to ‘fire’ becomes second nature to you. As far as internal safeties go, most modern guns are drop safe, even when they are cocked with a round chambered. I wouldn’t go testing it in my kitchen, but you shouldn’t need to worry about it.

Comfort is a big factor, but that’s quite literally between you and your gun. Nothing I say here can help you figure out which one feels good in your hand. Ideally, you will be able to reach all the controls of your gun without taking your hand out of firing position, but that’s extremely rare. Almost everyone has to adjust their grip at least a little bit to operate safeties, magazine releases, slide stops and decockers effectively. As long as your hand fits comfortably on the grip and your trigger finger can reach the trigger, that’s the most important thing. Shooting a gun that feels terrible in your hand just so you can reach your magazine release without adjusting your grip is silly. The best gun for you is the gun you shoot well. You’ll learn to manage your controls as you practice with it. I personally have an issue with my thumb resting on the slide release of my favorite gun, which causes it to malfunction sometimes. It doesn’t mean it’s not my favorite gun, and it doesn’t mean it doesn’t work for me very well. It just means I have to practice with it a bit. I’m not suggesting that the placement of your controls doesn’t matter at all, just that you may not be able to find a gun you can operate without adjusting your firing grip, regardless of how big your hands are or how many guns you try. If you have two guns that feel great, have a reputation for reliability, are a similar price, and one has controls that are easier to access, by all means go with it. I just don’t think you need to kill yourself worrying about it. Chances are good you’ll end up with a few guns and they’ll all have different controls. You’ll get used to them and you’ll run them just fine.

Cleaning is something to think about. Some guns are very easy to take down without any tools, are composed of a few major parts, and are very easy to maintain. Other guns are 1911s. Some guns require you to pull the trigger in order to disassemble them. This is something that shouldn’t be an issue, since we always always always check the gun to be sure it’s unloaded before doing any kind of maintenance to it, right? But even when we always do things, sometimes we don’t. There are countless cases of negligent discharges (I’m comfortable using the word in this context) where a person was cleaning the gun without completely unloading it first. This is just plain stupid. You’re in your house where all your favorite stuff and people and furry things live, and you’re not going to check to see if the gun you’re screwing with is loaded? Bad plan. But it happens. Anyone can get complacent if they don’t practice CONSTANT VIGILANCE. So if your gun requires you to pull the trigger to disassemble it (many polymer semiautos do) then you have to be extra double careful about checking to make sure it is unloaded. It may be worth buying a manual or a DVD or heading to youtube to get instruction on how best to clean your gun. Different guns get dirty in different ways and need to be lubed in different places. Just like people. So if you’re not sure you know what to do, go find someone who does and learn from them. There’s no shame in not knowing, only in doing it wrong because you were too proud to ask for help.

I think that’s it on this topic. Hopefully that helped clear some things up a bit for you. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask in the comments section and I’ll answer as best I can. Thanks very much for reading.

Comments
  1. […] a fan of DA/SA guns anymore. If you’re not familiar with the terminology, check out my post So You Wanna Buy A Handgun. So I knew these weren’t going to be my favorite guns ever, but I’d heard so many […]

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