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.

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About Nick Leghorn

Nick Leghorn is a gun nerd living and working in San Antonio, Texas. In his free time, he's a competition shooter (USPSA, 3-gun and NRA High Power), aspiring pilot, and enjoys mixing statistics and science with firearms. Now on sale: Getting Started with Firearms by yours truly!

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

  1. avatarRonaldo Ignacio says:

    Hands down, the Daisy 499.

  2. avatarSutton says:

    Nick, may I suggest that your book include a chapter on ballistics–not at the level it is is usually discussed online, but a sketch of the basic principles so that a newbie can have a way into the more technical stuff? People who discuss this stuff online usually know so much about it that it is difficult for them to make themselves clear to those who do not.

  3. avatarsdog says:

    CZ 455, or 452.

    • avatarJT says:

      Nothing against the 452 American, it’s a fantastic rifle, but they do run fairly expensive for a first gun.

  4. avatarDon Curton says:

    I’d gladly buy a Marlin from the 1960′s, but new? Not so much after the reviews I read here. Try a Henry! Great gun. A bit pricier, but worth it.

  5. avatarPascal says:

    IMHO, the first pistol should be a revolver. Something like the S&W K-22 or similar (I have and still shoot an early S&W 617). If you have to have semi-auto, I would say the GSG-1911 22lr. It is a 1911 in every way except it shoots 22lr and is inexpensive and will prepare you for a future bigger caliber.

    For rifle, I cannot argue with the choices but anyone I have ever had the change to teach I have used a Savage Arms Mark II bolt action 22lr. I believe that it is better made than the ones listed.

    • +1 for revolvers. Nothing teaches trigger press better than a .22 revolver.

      • avatarMike says:

        I haven’t found many DA .22 revolvers that are noticeably cheaper than their centerfire counterparts. That’s a lot of scratch for a first gun that is still a .22.

        You can get a SA .22 revolver, but that doesn’t give you much advantage in teaching trigger pull over a semi-auto. Moreover… it makes it much *harder * to get basic hits on target, which I think is really important for getting people to *enjoy* shooting, before they go full bore at mastering the craft.

        • avatarPascal says:

          If you check gunbroker.com you can find them for under $400. Before posting I found a DA Ruger for $179 and DA Colt for $250. Can you find semi-centerfire at about the same price, yes. I will argue that a DA revolver is easier to learn and maintain. It is also cheaper in the long run to fire vs centerfire. You can always sell or trade your first gun to get your next one.

  6. avatarDennis Pope says:

    Definitely the CZ 453 did all the research for myself a year ago, the trigger makes all the difference, great quality.

  7. avatarJK says:

    Great rec’s. Why I think so: the Mark III and 10/22 were my first firearms.

    The Marlin appears to load from the muzzle-end, tube mag. Is that really a good idea to recommend for beginners?

  8. avatarVan says:

    I agree about the Mark III line of pistols. I have the 22/45 variant and the thing is dead nuts accurate and will fire everything I put through it, unlike the Sig Mosquito I had. It is my wife’s favorite gun and she can tear the bullseye out of a target with it at 20 feet.

  9. avatarWest Philthy says:

    Don’t forget the Savage Mark II line. Awesome bolt action .22. Very accurate and nice features (accu-trigger) for the price.

  10. avatarDollar says:

    Without question a Marlin Model 60. Cheap and Reliable.

    • avatarNico says:

      But a hideous nightmare to clean and maintain. Zillions of tiny parts on a trigger assembly that wants to pop apart with a slightly wrong application of force, as mine did. Also, the trigger has a hefty pull to it.

    • avatarJohn says:

      My brother had one of those. Inferior in every way to a 10/22. Jammed every load. But, a hot load is the key. It works fine, but is not accurate.

  11. avatarBub says:

    I will even go farther and say if you only own one gun it should be a 22lr.

    • avatarVan says:

      I agree. If I could have one gun during the zombie apocalypse it would be a .22lr. I could carry thousands of rounds on my person and still be mobile.

  12. avatarRyan Finn says:

    Spot on Nick. Good advice.

  13. As much as I loves me my CZ’s, I kinda like a 10/22 as intro-to-guns gun because it can always be changed and adapted to new things as you move thru the shooting sports.To quote Alton Brown, I hate uni-taskers. True, a bolt-action .22 is hardly a uni-tasker (and stacks and stacks of dead varmits around the world stand as witness to that fact), but you’ll reach the end of what you can do with your gun a lot later with a 10/22 than you will with the others on that list.

    And Ruger MkIII is a great little gun, right up to the point where you have to disassemble it for cleaning. It’s popular, but I’m not sure it’s a good gun for beginning shooters.

    • avatarJason Steiner says:

      Indeed. The Ruger is a classic, but the Browning Buckmark is a superior choice from the standpoint of overall ease-of-use. And every bit as good to shoot.

      • avatarsdog says:

        its also much more expensive however. ruger 22/45/ mk III is a great gun. The takedown is not bad….. after 4-5 time of practice and a call or two to ruger customer service.

        • avatarJoe Grine says:

          I have three ruger Mark I/II/III pistols, but I only shoot them once in a while – just long enough so I forget how to reassemble that damn part – whatever its called. Seems like I have to fiddle with it for about 20 minutes each time before it goes back correctly. Maddening!

        • avatarDon says:

          If it is the part i’m thinking of i believe there is an aftermarket replacement which is much easier to take down and put back.

          -D

  14. avatarKevin Tym says:

    Just Bought a Mosin Nagant as my first gun two weeks ago. Had shot enough of a friends 22lr for basics and moved up to a .270 and a 30-30 and decided i could handle something with power cause I’m a taller guy. But still keep it cheap and fun for the first one.

    • avatarTotenglocke says:

      My first gun was a P-83 Wanad, which is chambered in 9×18 Makarov – and I love it. Not as bad of recoil as some other more common pistols, it’s cheap, easy to operate, decently powerful for personal defense if necessary, and the ammo is pretty cheap.

      I can understand a persons first shooting experience being with a .22, but for myself, I just can’t bring myself to ever actually BUY a .22 of any kind. Sure, it’s cheap, but the lack of recoil doesn’t prepare you for larger calibers and it’s not great if you end up in a SHTF situation.

  15. avatarDon says:

    These are all great selections, however I’d like to propose the an arbitrary .357 magnum DA revolver with a 3″ – 4″ barrel. For example S&W models 686, 60, or 27; Ruger Security Six, Service Six, or GP100. If someone is just starting out or is going to have one pistol, this one can really do just about everything you’d want from a pistol.

    Reasoning:
    1. Very simple to learn and operate. Arguably the most intuitive firearm ever.
    2. Very reliable.
    3. Simple to confirm if loaded/empty, clean, maintain.
    4. Cheap practice with .38 specials.
    5. Top contender for manstopping power with .357.
    6. It is of a size that is easily carriable, particularly the model 60. (I’m 5’7″ 145 lbs and have carried a police service six concealed for years before my gun collection bloomed)
    7. You could hunt with it if you wanted to anywhere in the USA where pistol hunting is allowed.
    8. Good gun for most informal competitions, can shoot SA for bullseye, DA for action.
    9. If you wanted to get into reloading for fun or to save money, .38 is just about the easiest and cheapest to reload. In a .357 frame it’s also probably the safest. Cases last almost indefinitely for light loads. Powder charges are so low you can get 2-3 thousand rounds out of a pound of powder. Bullets are cheap in .38 special weights.
    10. It’s not so small that it is a clumsy or hard aim shoot house gun.
    11. It’s legal everywhere handguns are legal.
    12. Long life without having to tune it up, probably 100s of years… no magazines, recoil springs, etc to deal with.

    -D

    • avatarJason says:

      A .357 is a great choice for a “one gun”, as it really does do it all. But if the question is “first gun”, then starting with a .22 is a good idea.

      • avatarDon says:

        In general I’d agree if learning and target shooting is the primary objective and the ability to afford more guns in within a year or two is present.

        With respect a newly independent 21 year old adult with want/need of a handgun (usually to adequately fulfill as many roles as possible), one’s first gun is likely going to be their “one gun” for a long time, especially if they run out and buy one the day they turn 21 and have as much money as most 21 year old’s have to spend on such things.

        Like most choices, it is in the most general sense a multi-objective optimization problem. The global fit to all objectives may not be the best fit with respect to a single objective. It depends on what the shooter cares about. I’ve noticed that most people coming into my family’s shop to buy their first gun as an adult (who are interested in a handgun) want something that will be 1) Versatile enough to be the “one gun” for a few years, 2) Easy 3) affordable to buy/use

        If the goal is simply to be a stepping stone to another handgun and money isn’t a huge issue the .22 is definitely the a great choice. People do come in with only target practice and learning as a goal with no interest in defense and carrying. The Mark III is a big deal to these folks, as is the Walther P22. I like the ruger single six a lot (my second handgun!) but these tend to be bought most often by fathers beginning to teach their children.

        Most common the goal for a virgin pistolero is to best fill all of the “normal” uses for a handgun (defense, fun, ability to carry if they decide to go that route), for this the .357 revolver is a good choice.

        Still others come in and are only concerned with defense and concealability and they usually opt for lightweight j frames or compact .380s and 9mm, which have distinct advantages in that application, however I feel personally that these are a steeper learning curve to get proficient with for a brand new shooter.

        Folks who just turned 21 who have grown up shooting pistol and have many to choose from in their family if they need something specific seem to opt right away for things like Glocks, XDs, M&Ps in .40S&W, which all kind of make sense if you already know how to shoot, will be dropping off your LTCF application on the way home from the gun shop, and have designs on action shooting.

        Suffices to say there is a reason why so many different formats and calibers exist. Everyone has different needs and desires, often defying simplification.

        -D

    • avatarRalph says:

      A .357 is a reasonable choice for a noob’s first handgun IF they stick to .38 Spls until they’ve mastered the gun. Mild recoil, great accuracy, versatility, all in a revolver with a simple manual of arms. But teaching a noob using .357s would be like teaching a new driver from behind the wheel of an Indy car.

      Still, most people would be well-advised to start with a .22, rifle, revolver or pistol.

      • avatarDon says:

        Lol, I never really considered a .357 out of a normal sized steel revolver to be indy car power. It’s literally no worse than a .45 acp from a 1911 so far as recoil is concerned, both with about 600 ft*lbs of KE at their respective barrel lengths, and both pieces weigh about the same… Though either is probably too much for a “noob”. So I guess I agree somewhat. But yes, .38 specials to start!

        -D

  16. avatarBen Eli says:

    Remington 597 in competition withe the Ruger 10/22. It is a little bit bigger and heftier and the stock parts are much better. With the Ruger 10/22 you will be quick to customize it out, if the AR is the Barbie Doll of firearms, the Ruger 10/22 is the Ken. The only thing you will want to change is maybe the iron sights, and some people sand the stock just under the barrel. The Remington also has a heavier barrel.

  17. avatarWade says:

    CZ 452 Special military training model. Indestructible, reliable, unbelievably accurate.

  18. avatarTom says:

    I would say a .22 rifle would be best for a newbie. Bolt action might be best as they are simple and a good tool as it forces the shooter to aim and not spray. I suppose a pump or lever action would work well. The .22 semi-auto can be good, but depends on the personality of the shooter to aim the thing and not spray. I guess this is why Ruger has a single shot magazine for the 10-22.
    The first rifle I had to shoot was Dad’s Savage A36 and later a Nylon 66 of which I bought.
    A .22 pistol or revolver would work well for a first hand gun. I think the Ruger Single Six would work well.
    My first handgun was a .22 Colt Peacemaker which I bought on my 21st birthday.

  19. avatarbryan e says:

    Hmm. And for the southpaws amongst us? Any rec’s for revolver beyond “revolver”?

    I’ll likely never shoot an auto because of the cartridges sailing across my line of sight(!).

    Likewise, a bolt action is simply backwards.

    • avatarScott.a says:

      They sell a nice lefty Bolt-action CZ-452. It’s about $70 pricier than the righty version but they do make it for southpaws.

    • avatarDrew says:

      Unless it ejects right into your face, the ejection across your body is no big deal. On 1911/M1935 type pistols, a right side safety is all you need, the rest of the controls are actually easier to manipulate left handed. I find it much easier to drop the mag with my trigger finger, for example. Revolvers are nice, but super slow to reload, due to having to switch hands. Although Charter Arms makes a LH revolver now! As for bolt action rifles, I prefer a rh model off the bench, it is kind of a drag in the field, but it’s not as bad as you think and you’ll miss out on tons of cool rifles if you insist on only LH models. I’d probably only insist on a lh bolt gun for dangerous game.

  20. avatarKevin Tym says:

    This article totally just made me buy a ruger 1022 this afternoon :)

  21. avatarTom says:

    I actually can shoot LH or RH, which is why I like the Ithaca 37 or Browning BPS pump shot guns.
    One .22 rifle that really should be mentioned for LH shooters is the little Browning Semi-Auto that ejects downward and loads in the butt. Very nice little rifle.
    I used to shoot a Stevens Favorite when I was a kid; which was single shoot. This rifle would be good for South Paws.

    • avatarbobby b says:

      ” . . . the little Browning Semi-Auto that ejects downward and loads in the butt.”
      – - -

      Ow! I’m thinking that the concept of concealed-carry has gone overboard.

  22. avatarrevjen45 says:

    The list omits the wonderful and economical Mexican Assault Rifle, AKA Marlin/Glenfield Mod. 60. They have been in production since the Early Pleistocene, and in fact the Leakeys found the remains of one with the specimen known as Lucy. Thus any early problems have long since been fixed, and parts are ubiquitous. Any gun show will have them in profusion. BTW, Mexican Assault Rifle is in no way perjorative. They are very practical people who recognize true value and functionality (I share their cultural esteem for 1949-54 Chevy pickups and Suburbans). I recall in incident in Perris, CA many years ago in which a Latino head of household found his home attacked by 3 thugs armed with a .38 revolver, one of whom shot his pregnant wife when she went to the door to see what was up. He put all of the assailants to flight (the luckiest one almost made it to the sidewalk), and 2 went down for the dirt nap. The Mod. 60 is usually cheaper than any of the models listed and offers great value per $.

  23. avatarDavebsr says:

    My recommendation for a first gun is the Hi-Point 9mm carbine (c995). It’s cheap ($250), is black and ‘cool’, and has next-to-no recoil (about the same as my Marlin 22, thanks to its size/weight and shock-absorbing stock).

    9mm ammo is almost as plentiful as 22lr, but not quite as cheap. It has enough rails to mount lots of accessories.

    It was my wife’s first gun, she’s very happy, and I’m very proud.

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