By Jeff Levant, The Shooting Channel
When faced with the challenge of choosing their very first handgun, new shooters are often overwhelmed by the numerous choices and decisions they have to make. I’d like to use this blog post to help give new buyers a step by step process to choose the right gun for their needs. I also want to give them an idea of some of the pitfalls and errors that novices tend to encounter when looking for their first handgun.
Step One: Evaluate Intended Use
The first step in any purchase is determining if you even need a handgun or would your intended uses for the firearm be better served with a rifle or shotgun. Many first time buyers are looking for a gun to simply use for self-defense in and around their own home. In this instance I advise everyone to look at purchasing a basic shotgun or modern sporting rifle. These firearms provide a great amount of protection for the money and require a lower level of training to become proficient at typical home defense distances. That being said, long arms are more difficult to conceal, store, and secure around the home than most handguns.
Step Two: Set a Budget
So you’ve determined that you need a handgun and your intended use is for shooting on the range and keeping at home for personal protection. The next biggest decision you have to make is deciding on a budget. There are currently handguns on the market to accommodate all income levels, from inexpensive Hi-Point handguns for $150, to custom competition guns costing several thousands of dollars. You’re the only person who can determine what your budget is, however we have all heard the axiom that “you get what you pay for,” and that is as true with firearms as with anything else in life. That is the reason I recommend that new buyers set their handgun budget in the $400 to $800 range if their finances allow. The reason I start so high and set such a wide range is that within this price point it is easy to purchase a handgun with proven reliability, that is ergonomically well designed, and that has an excellent warranty from a well-known manufacturer.
Step Three: New or Used?
The next consideration is whether to purchase a new or used handgun. This is almost entirely a personal decision and will be dictated by your usual buying habits. However, you will be able to greatly extend your budget by shopping the used handgun market vs. purchasing the same gun new. Many used handguns can be found for 25% to even 50% off of their normal retail price. Shopping for a used gun can allow you to purchase a much better quality handgun for the money. If you have ever purchased a used car you may be thinking that buying a used gun could be a bad idea. While it’s true that there is the possibility of purchasing a problematic used gun, it’s important to remember that if you stay within the pricing guideline I spoke about you’ll be getting a gun from a reliable manufacturer. Most major firearms manufacturers offer a lifetime warranty on the guns they sell, and the warranty is usually on the gun, not the purchaser, so it is usually transferred to anyone else purchasing the gun.
Steps Four & Five: Size and Caliber
All of the previous questions we asked and answered were probably the easiest to answer. These next two questions are where it gets difficult to give a clear and definitive answer as to which is the best choice. Now we need to decide which caliber to shoot, and what size gun we want to shoot. These two options will be determined by your intended use for the gun. For the purposes of this article, we will assume you are purchasing a gun for defensive purposes, either to carry, or to keep at home for protection. When it comes to ease of shooting, while ergonomics can play a part, the two biggest factors are gun size and caliber. A full size duty style gun chambered in a lower powered caliber will be a very enjoyable and easy to shoot firearm, while a compact pistol chambered in a large caliber will be unpleasant to fire for any length of time. So at one end of the scale is comfortable to hold and easy to shoot and at the other end is comfortable to carry and easy to conceal. If you do not intend to carry your firearm on your person on a regular basis, you would be best served by a full sized, high capacity handgun. This will be a comfortable gun to shoot, and will usually allow for a high ammunition capacity. If you are looking for a gun to carry concealed on a regular basis, you would be better served choosing a compact and lightweight gun. Just keep in mind that your compact gun will have more perceived recoil, will usually have a reduced ammunition capacity, and will usually have less gun to hold on to. If you are looking for a multi-purpose gun, there are plenty of guns out there that try to strike a good balance between the two opposite ends of the scale.
Choosing the right caliber is probably one of the most debated topics in the firearms field, and there are varied opinions and almost all of them have some merit. So here is mine. For the purposes of this article we will only consider the .380acp caliber and higher. I know that there are plenty of guns chambered in smaller calibers and plenty of people have a valid reason to choose them, but the guns are usually chambered in smaller calibers for very specific purposes and do not relate to this article about choosing a first handgun. Recent FBI Protocol testing would suggest that if you are using modern defensive ammunition chambered in .380 or higher you should be well armed to meet most threats encountered by your average self-defense shooter. Going back to when we talked about handgun size and perceived recoil, the same holds true when we talk about caliber. When comparing two handguns of similar size and weight, the one chambered in the larger caliber will have more felt recoil than one chambered for a smaller, lighter caliber. In addition, the handgun chambered in the larger caliber will normally have a lower capacity than the one chambered in a smaller caliber. We can draw several conclusions from these simple facts.
Handguns chambered in larger calibers provide more stopping power than ones chambered in lighter calibers, but are slower shooting due to higher felt recoil, and have a reduced capacity for possible follow up shots.
Handguns chambered in smaller calibers allow for fast multiple shots, provide a higher capacity for those multiple shots, but may not end conflicts as quickly with a single shot.
In my opinion, new shooters need every advantage they can get, which means they should be looking for low recoil, high capacity, easy shooting handguns. As a shooter trains and improves their skill level, they can look to shooting larger caliber firearms.
Step Six: How Does it Feel?
We’ve talked about the following topics: Use, Budget, New vs. Used, Size, and Caliber. All of these are very important considerations, but probably the most important one is Feel. How does the firearm feel in your hands? There’s no right or wrong answer to this, and there’s really no advice I can give you to figure this part out. The best thing to do is to head to your local, well stocked firearms dealer; find a patient salesman. Put as many guns as possible into your hand and when you find the right one, you’ll just know it. Try to find a gun that has the controls within easy reach. You don’t want to have to change your grip on the gun too much in order to reach the safety, the slide stop lever, or the magazine release. Aside from those considerations, find something that sits comfortably in your hand and provides for a natural point of aim when shooting.
There you have it. Six basic things to consider when purchasing your first handgun. I get to see a lot of new shooters coming into the range after having made a quick purchase of a firearm, only to regret that choice shortly after shooting it for the first time. If you follow these basic steps, you are very likely to wind up with a firearm that you enjoy shooting and will give you many years of service.