Ask Foghorn: Best Gun for a First Time Firearms Owner?

A Reader Writes:

I’m 25 years old, and until last weekend had never fired a gun. One of my friends brought me out to the range and let me shoot his guns and I had a lot of fun. Now I want one, but I’m not sure which gun is the best for a first time owner. Help?

A few days ago RF let slip that he’s writing a book on self defense. As luck would have it I’m writing a book as well, and the subject is exactly what you asked about. I want it to be a small (cheap) book that you could hand a new shooter and they would be able to learn everything they needed to know to safely own and fire guns without having to go search the internet, including everything from firearms safety to selecting your first firearm. Which is where your question comes in — by answering it here I not only answer another one of our reader’s questions but I also knock a chapter off the list of things to do. So let’s get started!

Personally, I believe that the first firearm anyone shoots or owns should be chambered in .22lr. It doesn’t matter if its a pistol or a rifle, as long as it’s a .22 its a good choice. The reason for this is simple, and I’ll even break it out into bullet points. .22lr is the superior choice for a first time gun because:

  • There’s almost no recoil. The #1 thing that screws up new shooters is recoil, whether it’s flinching in anticipation and throwing off a shot or a fear of recoil keeping the shooter away from the range. A first firearm should let you build up your fundamentals so when you get to the harder hitting guns you’ll be more comfortable and more accurate.
  • It’s cheap. And by that I mean both the gun and the ammunition. Even if you buy the “wrong” gun and you absolutely hate it you’ve only made a small investment and aren’t losing a large chunk of change. The low ammunition cost also means more trigger time, which is essential for becoming proficient at shooting.
  • Ammunition is everywhere. Every single gun store I’ve ever been to has .22lr in stock and in great quantities — it’s one of those things that they keep permanently in stock. It’s also usually available at Wal-Mart, which explains the pile of receipts I have for frozen pizza and ammunition.

Now that we’ve decided on a caliber we can look for some guns that use it. The wonderful thing about this round is that there are an abundance of firearms that fire it, and most of them are right around the $200 range.

Some people prefer rifles and other prefer pistols. Personally I’m a rifle guy and only shoot pistols when I absolutely have to (for competitions and such), but I’ve met a good number of people in the other camp who don’t own a single rifle. It all boils down to personal preference (and local laws regarding firearms ownership), but for a first firearm my belief is that a rifle is the superior choice. Specifically a bolt action rifle. Bolt action .22lr rifles provide a number of benefits to new shooters (and the people training them), including:

  • Safety. The probability of a new shooter accidentally shooting himself or others with a bolt action rifle is much lower compared to a semi-automatic because of the manual operation of the action. With a semi-auto it’s possible for the shooter to mis-count their shots and forget they have a live round in the chamber.
  • Accuracy. Semi-automatic rifles use some of the force generated by the expanding gasses to operate the action and cycle in a fresh cartridge. This drops the muzzle velocity of the round, as some of the force that was going to be applied to the bullet is now applied to the action instead. Cheap .22lr semi-auto guns are notorious for inconsistently siphoning off force from the bullet to operate the action meaning some bullets will fly faster than others. The movement of the action can also cause the shooter’s aim to not be as true as with a bolt action.
  • Patience. With a semi-auto rifle there’s the temptation to just start blasting away at the target and not aim each and every shot. Which is fun, but doesn’t encourage the fundamentals of shooting (sight picture, trigger squeeze, follow through). For a first gun I’d opt for one that encourages a little discipline, and then get a fun semi-auto as purchase #2.
  • Ease of Purchase. There are very few places in the United States that have a problem with someone owning a bolt action .22lr rifle. New York City and New Jersey immediately come to mind, where you’ll need to get a permit to purchase and posses any firearm at all. But in those states where guns are frowned upon yet tolerated (such as California) the bolt action .22lr rifle will be the path of least resistance.

In choosing a first firearm, I’d also recommend choosing a gun with iron sights and a scope mount built into the gun. Iron sights are harder to use and encourage the shooter to spend more time lining them up properly (which will translate into better and faster shooting down the line), and an integrated scope mount will give the shooter the ability to add a scope later on if they want to start moving their targets further and further away. It’s the best of both worlds, and luckily most of the .22lr rifles I know have both built in from the factory.

I know a few of you are looking for specific recommendations, so I’m going to throw four out there — one bolt action rifle, one lever action rifle, one semi-automatic rifle and one pistol — because I know full well that despite my recommendation of a bolt action rifle some of you knuckleheads are going to get something else. These are all firearms I’ve fired and are not only enjoyable to shoot but accurate as well.

  • CZ-513 BASIC – I really wanted to recommend a Remington Model Five, but they don’t make them anymore. This is the same company that made those rifles and the same quality but in a current production firearm.
  • Marlin 39A – A lever action .22lr rifle that’s easy to maintain and accurate. This was the first gun my father ever owned back in the 1960s and his rifle still works beautifully to this day.
  • Ruger 10/22 – Available for around $200, these are considered by many to be the gold standard in semi-automatic .22lr firearms.
  • Ruger Mark III – A great .22lr handgun. Simple to operate, very little recoil, and damn fine looking.

In reality, whatever firearm you get (as long as you get a firearm) is a good “first gun.” If you enjoy it and have fun on the range that’s all that matters. But in my opinion a .22lr bolt action rifle will teach the fundamentals of shooting better than anything else available and be the cheapest and easiest firearm to own. Long after you’ve moved on to bigger and better guns it’s still enjoyable — even with the arsenal of awesomeness available to me I still find myself bringing my bolt action .22lr rifle to the range and enjoying it as much as anything else I own.

If you have a topic you want to see covered in a future “Ask Foghorn” segment, email guntruth@me.com.