Choosing a Handgun, Part II: Form Follows Function

There’s an old saying in the gun world: the best gun is the one you have. That’s nonsense. Well, kind of. Plenty of new handgun owners buy an overly powerful, over-large or ill-fitting handgun. They fire it a few times, get scared or hurt by the recoil and shelve the piece. To paraphrase one of Farago’s favorite expressions, the trick to handgun proficiency is to buy the right gun. And now that we’ve solved the semi-auto pistol versus revolver conundrum [see: Part I], it’s time to talk about what you plan to do with your new handgun. The answer to that question will point you towards a gun that you will use, master and maybe love. As you approach this buying decision, remember that no one gun fits every purpose or hand, and that manufacturers offer many different answers to the same questions. Confused? Let’s back up and  start with purpose. What are you gonna do with your new gun?

Trophy Queens

A lot of new handgun buyers fall in love with the idea of owning a handgun. After watching thousands of action movies, encountering someone who owns a handgun, wandering into a gun store, hearing about a local gun crime and/or hitting a certain age (where the illusion of invincibility evaporates), they want one. They don’t know why. They just do.

In the confusion that follows, when self-appointed experts pepper them with information and their personal prejudices, newbies tend to buy a gun based on looks. They go from infatuation with handguns, to fascination with “a” gun. They figure a gun’s a gun and why not this one?

There’s nothing wrong with buying a handgun simply because you like the way it looks. Or because you want to collect it (i.e you gotta have it). Some enthusiasts dismiss weapons bought primarily for their physical appeal as “trophy queens.” More “flash” than “bang.” But they are what they are: guns. Pointed in the right direction. they’ll get the job done.

Just don’t get carried away. If you’re a new owner buying a weapon based on its looks, technology or historical value, do some deep data diving on the Internet. Even better, find a gun guru to advise you what a gun is and how much to pay (plus commission of course). You’ll also need an alarm system and a VERY secure trophy cabinet and/or safe.

More importantly, don’t expect your prized handgun to serve a dual purpose. While it’s cool to say you’re defending your family with a Colt Single Action Army pistol, a “working gun” needs to perform its task easily, appropriately and efficiently. And personal taste can be fickle. Even if your state doesn’t have a “cooling off” period, take one.

Target practice/shooting competitions

Shooting is fun. There, I’ve said it. Well, target practice and competition can be fun if you choose a weapon that’s both comfortable and affordable. A lower caliber handgun—one that uses a bullet that’s smaller in diameter—is going to give you less “kick” (a.k.a. recoil) than the big (a.k.a. Hollywood) guns. Bonus! Neither an entry-level .22 caliber handgun nor the ammunition is uses will break the bank.

In general, the longer the gun’s barrel, the more accurate the weapon will be on the range. If you think you’re headed in this direction, it’s best to go get some shooting instruction before you buy, using an instructor’s handguns. Make sure the instructor knows your intentions and lack of experience. If you think they’re going to go all macho on you (a tendency some instructors display towards first time women shooters), bail out.

A new handgun owner who’s thinking about buying a weapon for self-defense should consider starting with a .22 for target practice. It’s an easy way to get familiar with gun safety and build basic marksmanship skills. But it is NOT a suitable handgun for home defense or personal protection.

Twenty-twos are not intimidating—to either the owner or a hardened criminal. They’re only effective for self-defense if the shooter is ready, willing and able to place the gun’s bullets exactly where they need to go. And maybe not even then. There are plenty of safer non-lethal options, and more effective lethal ones, for defensive purposes.

Home Defense

We’re back to “the gun you have” philosophy. But why not have the best gun for the job? If you’re worried about a daytime home invasion or personal assault, buy a handgun that’s appropriate for concealed carry [see: below]—even if you never plan on taking it out of the home.

Generally speaking, this use places comfort at the top of the list of requirements. The handgun must not interfere with any of your normal activities (cooking, sitting in front of the TV, playing with the kids, etc.). Otherwise, you won’t want to wear the gun, and you won’t have it when you need it. When you consider your purchase, holster the handgun and pretend you’re at home. Sit, stand, run, the works. Practice taking the gun out and putting it back.

The comfort issue may also help determine the size and/or caliber of the handgun you choose.

A lot of words have been written about any given gun’s “stopping power”: the caliber and bullet type needed to “stop” an attacker. What’s often left out of this debate: the distance to the target. In a home defense scenario, you’re likely to be within handshake distance of your attacker. So, while I would avoid a .22, you’re free to choose a larger caliber handgun based on comfort and . . .

Safety. This is a mission critical issue. While you should never let a child handle your gun without careful supervision, and all children should be taught gun safety, you must assume that your handgun could get in the wrong hands. Handguns are fitted with a variety of safety devices. Choose a gun that offers the best combination of security and ease of use, erring on the side of safety.

if you’re looking for a handgun to keep by the bedside for a nighttime encounter, you’ve got a far greater range of options. You can choose a more powerful (i.e. larger) weapon without worrying about long-term ergonomics. Safety is also less of an issue, providing you use a biometric handgun safe. Which you should. But again, you have to hit the target. So make sure you don’t buy something that will hurt you on the range.

You might also want to consider a gun that will fit laser grips (a device that will put the familiar red dot on a target when you squeeze the grip) for low- or no-light conditions.

Vehicle Defense

If you plan to keep a handgun in your vehicle, you’ll need something that fits in your glove box that’s easy to handle/use in a confined space. (You also need to be prepared for hearing loss, but that’s a topic for another article.) Safety first, of course. But not so first as it is for the home defense strategy. You need a gun you can grab, aim and shoot in a heartbeat.

Never leave unattended children in the car with access to your gun, regardless of whether the glove box is locked or not (you could forget). If you leave the kids in the car when you nip out to the store, go for optional concealed carry. In other words, buy a gun you can—and WILL—take with you when you leave the car.

[Note: plenty of attackers strike while victims are going to or leaving their vehicle. The idea that you’ll win a footrace to your car, open the door, open the glove box, nd then aim and fire the weapon is as ludicrous as it sounds.]

Women should also consider using a handgun purse: a bag designed to hold a firearm. Remeber: the weapon has to be within immediate reach.

Concealed Carry

Concealed carry is the toughest requirement for a handgun buyer to satisfy. Purchasing a handgun for concealed carry is like buying a billfold, wallet or watch—with the added need for combat capability.

Generally speaking, the lighter the better. A handgun under 30 ounces is best. I know someone who bought a beautiful 1911 semi-automatic: a .45 caliber handgun that’s a kissin’ cousin of the ones our daddies carried in WWII. It had a steel frame, five inch barrel and eight-round capacity. After eight hours on my—I mean “his” hip, it felt like a lead ingot.

Most manufacturers make a lightweight version of their popular handguns, and they’re well worth the premium. I should have bought a 1911 with an aluminum frame, laser grips and a four-inch barrel—a gun that’s much easier to conceal and won’t elicit a sigh of relief when I remove it at the end of the day.

Once you start narrowing down your choices, hie thee to a gun emporium and start checking out your dream guns for how they feel in your hand. There’s no hard-and-fast rules here; it’s all a matter of what feels good.

A number of the newer polymer guns offer interchangeable grips that allow you change the size of the grip to better fit your hand. Polymer-framed guns are also generally lighter than their metal counterparts. If you’ve got a big mitt like mine, you may be able to go for one of the high-capacity magazine weapons, with magazines that can handle somewhere between 13 and 18 bullets. If you’ve got a small hand, you might be better off with a gun with a smaller grip, and less bullets.

There is that. And a new handgun owner shouldn’t get hung up on the number of rounds (bullets) a handgun can hold. Unless you carry large amounts of cash or valuables on a regular basis, you’re unlikely to encounter attackers geared-up for an extended gunfight.

And again, consider safety mechanisms. Buyers new to guns should make sure they find a safety system that’s idiot-proof and intuitive. {Ed: as should we all.] You also need a holster that feels like a tailor-made Italian silk suit (i.e. nothing). Do not buy a gun and then try to find a suitable holster. You’re far better off buying and wearing a holster first, with a rough idea of the handgun you might purchase. [I’ll cover holsters in my next article.]

“Starter gun”

At the end of the day, any modern handgun will perform its intended task. With a bit of luck, you’ll find one that suits your style, lifestyle and abilities.

Then again, maybe not.

It’s sensible to think of your first handgun as a “starter” gun: one that allows you to see if handgun ownership—with all its risks and responsibilities—is for you. You don’t need to spend a fortune. So don’t. Once you know what you like and what works, and what you don’t like and what doesn’t work, you can buy “the’ handgun. Or move on to one that suits another purpose. Either way, you will end up with a better gun.

comments

  1. avatar Donal says:

    Good article. I've never owned a gun, but almost ten years ago, I fell in love with a .22 Ruger that I was using as a prop in a play. (The owner had removed the firing pin.) It was such a nice machine, and would probably make a good starter gun, but I have struggled with the practicality of owning one.

    I work in a city with strict ownership laws, and a high, but largely drug-related, murder rate. I ride the light rail and walk through the streets to my office, and back home. Ruger also makes a compact .38 pistol, the LCP, but my wife doesn't want a gun at home, and my bosses don't want one at work. So if I buy one, it will sit in a safe most of the time.

    Hearkening again to that article on the Argentina collapse, the author said that most people were attacked while leaving or entering their house or business. This ties in with Gambill's comment about being attacked while leaving or entering your vehicle. Just having a pistol will not save you unless you can react faster than they attack. Just having a pistol in the safe won't help much at all.

  2. avatar CNS100 says:

    Handguns don’t hold “bullets.” They hold cartridges, rounds, shells. Please stop making this mistake; it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard.

  3. avatar 21tango says:

    Fine article! And bullets ammo shells lead its all the same.

  4. avatar Musa Ssebaduka says:

    I own cz83 handgun am ver comfirtable with it I have it for ten years now but is it possible to paint and change it color? Because its still intact but fading n I fear will also rust.if you got any idea about my concern, plse help.

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