By Dan H.
I’ll start by saying I’m not going to give you a specific answer. If you were reading this article hoping to find the coveted holy grail and save yourself some time in a conquest for the the “ultimate solution,” you may be disappointed with what I have to say. With that being said, I encourage you to read on as I am offering my advice based upon some of the many questions I get from some of my less gun-savvy friends and colleagues when approached with this question. There will be some tangents that have the side effect of making this a rather long article, however I feel they will make this even more comprehensive, and better equip the aspiring handgun owner to be ready to take the plunge. To those of you reading this for the sheer joy of just passing time and getting perspective from another gun owner with more than a handful of tools at his disposal and to see what makes that person “tick,” come along for the ride . . .
I’ll begin by giving a little of my own background to establish myself as someone credible at offering some advice on the matter. I also do this to align your expectations with what I may be able to offer to someone who’s eagerly in search of that first handgun to begin their collection, to arm themselves for the sake of home or personal defense, or to begin the hobby of practical accuracy and target drills. At this time, I’m not certified or recognized as an expert in any discipline. I do not participate in any organized competitions. I do not have a bankroll to afford me the latest and greatest forged titanium, diamond-honed, carbon fiber-reinforced, special-ops anti-personnel personal defense weapon from the newest or most established entrants in the firearms industry.
What I can offer you is the advice from someone that works a 40-hour work week in a skilled trade industry with a passion for firearms for the past 13 years. I carefully consider every purchase with well-executed and thorough research on every accessory, firearm, ammunition component, tool, maintenance material, etc. with the intent of making every purchase count and sparing no expense within the confines of my budget to afford the best I can without bankrupting my future. Do I get it right every time? Of course not.
With all of that out of the way, there are generally three primary considerations that arise when selecting a handgun that become the most contemplated points before digging into the final selection. Those points are:
“Should I buy an auto-loading pistol or a revolver?”
“What caliber should I get?”
“What brand should I buy?”
I intentionally placed those questions in that order for several reasons. I did that because it helps to gradually break down the playing field in a more logical progression than to just say “I want something that shoots 9mm Luger” as that still leaves you with two other points to consider, the type of handgun and brand, let alone the other details you’ve yet to settle upon.
With that said, selecting a revolver versus an auto-loading pistol is a big decision to make. In choosing the primary architecture of your future purchase, you will also be narrowing your brand selection and available calibers to select from. I believe this is the most important decision to make first as each platform is perfectly capable, from a ballistics point-of-view, to tackle nearly any task you can reasonably ask of a handgun. The debate about which is superior, for any given task, is a timeless one that will likely never see a definite conclusion.
To help you with your decision, you must consider the strengths and weaknesses of each platform and make it a simple matter of determining which ones you regard highest. Your own needs and desires should be paramount above all others as it doesn’t matter to me what you think is cool, or not, and I have my own preferences. I’ve outlined the attributes of each below:
-Generally mechanically-simpler design (read: “less parts to fail”)
-Available in some calibers that exceed the ballistic capabilities of most auto-loading pistols
-Better operating resiliency to ammo that fails to fire
-Virtually impervious to failures to feed or eject that would prevent the firearm from firing
-Generally lower “equivalent” ammo capacity vs. an auto-loading pistol
-Generally thicker overall width compared to a ballistic-equivalent auto-loading pistol (really only relevant to those wishing to legally carry a handgun)
Auto-loading pistol strengths:
-Generally higher “equivalent” ammo capacity vs. a revolver
-Can be had in a package that’s slimmer in width than a revolver in an equivalent class of caliber (really only relevant to those wishing to legally carry a handgun)
-Often designed and built with ergonomics that align the gun to the shooter better than a revolver for purposes of controlling and mitigating recoil
Auto-loading pistol weaknesses:
-Susceptible to failures to feed and failures to eject
-Generally composed of more parts increasing the likelihood of a failure or breakdown
I opted to leave out some “attributes” that some might argue I should have included, and did this on the premise that I believe they are too subjective to use as a way to pit one platform against each other. Characteristics such as “rate of fire,” “time to reload,” etc. can be explained through individual training, proficiency, and the availability of quality carry gear, or the lack thereof should there be a performance deficit. I don’t feel it’s fair to slight a particular platform over these figures. Do not consider a particular platform inferior or superior based solely on the number of responses, either, as some of the points made should be weighted, such as ergonomics, ammo capacity, and reliability.
Once you’ve opted for a particular platform, the next two details will entail caliber and brand selection. Fortunately, you have a plethora of each to choose from. Again, I’m not going to spell it out for you, the reader, on what to get as I do not know your individual tastes or needs, but will instead direct you to some other questions to consider that should help you in making a selection. In my conversations with people that are interested in purchasing a handgun I pose these questions to them in response to one of the three I mentioned above:
“What is your primary intended purpose for the handgun?”
“Do you intend to fill multiple roles (such as “basic accuracy drills” and “home defense”) with the handgun?”
“If you intend to use it for personal defense, what method of carry do you believe you’d prefer to use?” (I use this question to offer some suggestions on the pros and cons of various forms of carry)
“How often do you intend to shoot it?”
“Do you have any plans to be competitive with your handgun?”
“Have you established a budget for your purchase, keeping in mind the costs for the transfer, ammunition, accessories, maintenance items, etc.?”
I usually find that within the first two to three questions that they often already have a particular handgun in mind and then soon realize there are some considerations they hadn’t pondered in coming upon that selection. There’s nothing wrong with having a preconceived notion of what you intend to buy, but just realize that this is a serious purchase and investment, one I would rank just below purchasing a new vehicle in a short list of life-altering decisions.
Your ultimate choice and selection should be thought through carefully, but realize that this is a purchase and is not a lifelong commitment. Should your purchase not live up to your dreams, you can always opt to sell the gun later or trade up or evenly (I wouldn’t financially recommend trading down, for obvious reasons) for something else. There’s no reason to panic or fret that you’ve done something terrible if you begin to have buyer’s remorse and in time you may grow more fond of your purchase the more you spend time with it. I know I’ve done it, and have never sold or traded a firearm through regret of having bought it in the first place.
Returning to the questions above, there are some general recommendations that can be made once those details are revealed by the intended purchaser. More often than not, the decision to purchase a handgun is for the sake of home or personal defense in these conversations. Regarding calibers for defensive use, there will be debates on what’s deemed the minimum-acceptable standard to measure other calibers against. One thing is certain: a functioning gun with ammunition that fires when you call upon it is more useful than no gun at all.
I will admit that I feel a certain obligation to give some sort of an answer to someone that’s looking for me to put an actual figure down on the table to be used as a reference, but I will always suggest that anyone looking for an answer they feel comfortable betting their lives on (and perhaps the lives of others) consider seeking recommendations from multiple sources. It’s wise to make use of other forms of media or publication from credible authors on many of these topics to seek out a common response. Again, this is a significant decision you’re making so being informed is always the better option.
I realize that up until now, I’ve not given a specific answer to any of the subjects I’ve brought up yet, and I’ve done that intentionally. I want you, the reader, to consider those points and use them as a construct for coming to a comfortable conclusion of your own. There’s a tremendous responsibility that goes along with purchasing a firearm, and borrowing a point made by a popular auto insurance company in one of their advertisements, buying on a whim because you “read it on the Internet” is reckless. I also recognize that to someone reading this, they may feel like much of this has been a tease without giving any defined responses and I will tease you no more. As I said previously, consider that these are my own observations based upon my own research from my time and experience with various firearms, and information I’ve gathered about many of the aforementioned subjects. Onto the final selections…
I’m a fan of both revolvers and auto-loading pistols for all sorts of duties, and here’s where and why I feel that they each excel differently. For target and range work, either platform will do just fine and there are numerous calibers available to satisfy both inexpensive plinking and precision hole-punching on paper. Barrel size goes a long way here for accuracy, most notably because as the front and rear sights stretch further and further apart, your sight radius (the distance between front and rear sights) increases. The reason this tends to aid in accuracy is that a longer sight radius makes gross miscalculations on holding the sights in alignment with the target less likely to happen. In other words, the further apart the sights, the more likely you are to hold them straight, as your poor aiming will become more obvious to your eyes.
Additional barrel length also tends to favor velocity, as it gives the powder in the cartridge more time to burn after ignition, which continues to accelerate the velocity of the projectile(s) traveling down the barrel. With a shorter barrel, some of that powder is wasted as flash or smoke exiting the muzzle instead. Just remember though, that the longer the barrel, the tougher it will be to conceal the gun for carry if you choose to use that gun later for home defense. The same goes for all of the extended magazines that many of these handguns offer optionally.
You won’t be building a race gun (meant for purely competitive purposes) that you can tuck into an inside-the-waistband holster so a compromise must be struck somewhere. Purebred performance guns aren’t really the greatest carry guns but they MAY be okay for home defense. These guns are built for ergonomics and ultimate convenience while being handled and manipulated to make the gun less of a factor in your performance. They often wear tall, blocky sights that would not be conducive to holstering in a compact rig designed for carry.
When time is of the essence, many people feel that a magazine-fed auto-loader will beat a revolver to the finish line when it comes time to perform a reload (I won’t get into the specifics about the various kinds and methods of reloading techniques for pistols). I don’t disagree. While I would trust a revolver unfailingly to defend my life if the need arose, regardless of caliber (shot placement given the caliber is critical in any defensive situation), I won’t deny that if I had the need to reload in the middle of an attack that I would be wishing I had a magazine to dump in exchange for a loaded one.
Trying to clear the chambers of my revolver and line up a speedloader to refill the gun to avail myself of the threat is not something I’m nearly as swift at doing as I am dropping a mag and slamming home a fresh one. This is true of many shooters and unless you’re rigged for a match at the range and have thousands of rounds and hundreds of hours on your revolver, it’s likely you’re among the same crowd. In this situation I’m talking about a revolver with a swing-out cylinder like most modern single-action/double-action, or double-action only revolvers (I’ll get to this concept in a little).
If we’re talking single-action only revolvers with a fixed cylinder (like those you often see in old western movies), it’s practically impossible to keep pace with a pistol during a reload. If you’re buying a handgun to hunt or do predominantly range work, being able to rapidly recharge your handgun may not be a critical necessity to you. If it’s going to serve a role in home or personal defense, you must absolutely consider your abilities to reload an empty handgun under stress when your life or the lives of others depends upon it. Training with whatever you choose is absolutely vital.
Continuing the notion of choosing a handgun for defensive use, this brings up questions about how to legally carry it as well as features, size, and calibers along with ammunition selection. These topics alone are worthy of their own review and discussion, so I won’t attempt to condense them into this article but will make some general recommendations. As for caliber selection, this alone is a subject of much debate, with some people residing in the camp that anything is better than nothing, others that claim a 22 rimfire handgun is sufficient with correct shot placement, and it goes on.
I personally am a believer that if a cartridge has served a military unit or police unit to some success, it should stand to reason that I can count on it to defend my life if I place care in where the shot or shots are delivered for the proper effect. I do believe a 22 Long Rifle or 22 Winchester Magnum can be an effective defensive round with proper ammo selection and shot placement, but it wouldn’t be my primary choice. For those reasons, I believe the smallest cartridge I can soundly recommend to someone for defensive use would be a pistol in .32 ACP with the right ammunition for the task. I personally have several pistols in .32 ACP, one of which I carry on a regular basis as a backup and another that I keep hidden at home for use during an invasion if I’m not able to retrieve my primary home defense guns in time.
I will note that ammo selection and testing for reliability with ANY handgun is vital before you stake a life on it, and have found that Winchester Silvertip .32 ACP does not have enough energy to reliably cycle my ultra-compact North American Arms Guardian (ultra-compact pistol) and have since switched to American Eagle or Sellier & Bellot .32 ACP FMJ ammo for the time being.
Moving up the ladder, any ammo more powerful than .32 ACP for defensive use should be a hollow point or expanding round of some kind, and NOT full metal jacket (FMJ). FMJ simply pierces a hole of similar diameter without much terminal tissue destruction and can likely cause an over-penetration problem or not readily incapacitate your attacker. For range use for target work in most of your defensive calibers, FMJ is fine.
Make sure you’re using quality defensive ammo however when it comes to protection duties. Speaking of which, .38 Special +P in a small frame revolver using premium defensive ammo from Federal, Hornady, or Corbon would be another decent contender for those concerned about recoil in a carry firearm or home defense handgun and I wouldn’t feel unprepared to handle a threat if the situation presented itself. Similarly, I place a lot of faith in my Smith & Wesson Bodyguard in .380 ACP stoked with Hornady Critical Defense ammo as it’s so comfortable to carry that I often forget I have it with me, yet I’ve seen what the ammo can do in ballistic gel and it’s remarkable given its diminutive size. This is not an ideal home defense gun or cartridge, however, given its small size, and performance that comes up short against other more capable rounds if you do not intend to carry your pistol.
.380 ACP pistols also tend to be blowback pistols, which means their recoil can be a little brisk and not the most pleasant to shoot. In a blowback design, this means there is no lock-up in the action to control the reward energy imparted on the gun. To describe this as simply as possible, most larger calibers tend to use some sort of mechanical interlock in which a barrel and slide or frame engage cut-outs in each other when the slide is shut and the gun is at the ready position to be fired (otherwise known as “in battery”). You can see this in play when you attempt to wiggle the end of the barrel on an unloaded gun with the slide closed, and it won’t budge. If the slide is locked back, the barrel will have some play in it, as it’s unlocked.
Most .380 ACP and smaller calibers tend to operate on a blowback action which means there is no lock up, and that mechanical lock up has a deliberate purpose of slowing the transfer of energy from the fired cartridge to the moving parts of the gun in order to reduce the wear on them and the shooter, with recoil that would be more severe without that mechanism. The S&W Bodyguard is so small and light that it has a locked breech to combat recoil as it would be ridiculous without it. Many regard the .380 ACP cartridge as the minimum defensive caliber, although I feel that ammo choices have improved its abilities rather substantially within the past 10 years and feel confident it would stop an attacker if it were necessary if quality ammo is used.
I want to divert to another topic briefly to explain something unique to nearly all of the pistols I’ve discussed above so far, both in my personal collection, and those you’ll often find available on the market for similar purposes. The pistols and revolvers commonly associated with self-defense designs, particularly in these lighter calibers, are of a double-action only (DAO) design, or a hybrid with some pre-set functionality. What this means is that the trigger pull is a compound action as it operates the gun, in that it’s taking up the tension of the main spring on the hammer and “cocking” it before the sear finally releases as you continue the trigger pull, ultimately firing the gun.
This is opposed to single-action (SA), where the hammer can be cocked back and the sear locks it in place with most of the tension already taken up off the trigger, and the remaining press of the trigger is much lighter to cause the sear to break as the gun fires. What does all of this mean in real-world applications to the shooter? A DAO-style trigger is generally a longer, heavier pull than SA, making each shot deliberate and consistent, simplifying training as the pull is always the same. However, it can be a challenge to be accurate with a heavier pull so you must train to adapt to it.
SA means a lighter pull, and many pistols or revolvers are of the single-action/double-action (SA/DA) variety and not just strictly SA. In a pistol this means the first pull, if you fired DA, would be heavy, but subsequent shots are lighter as the cycling of the slide cocks the hammer each time and reduces the pressure on the trigger to fire the gun. In a SA/DA revolver, this means you have the option to cock the hammer manually and then pull the trigger to release the hammer with a lighter pull, or as above, pull the trigger through the complete cycle as DA for a heavier but consistent pull with every shot with just one step. There are pros and cons to each, and it generally comes down to user preference. Experiencing these first-hand is your best bet before you settle on what you like.
Back to calibers, in semi-auto (what I’ve also been referring to as auto-loading) pistols you typically would be stepping up from .380 ACP to 9mm Luger (also known as 9mm Parabellum, 9mm NATO, or 9x19mm). With many defensive loads in 9mm (and other larger calibers), you will find that they’re listed as 9mm +P or even +P+. To explain briefly, these are “hotter” rounds than the international standard specifications that have been set for 9mm Luger and use of these rounds should be exercised with caution based upon firearm manufacturer warnings and recommendations.
Do not take my advice or commentary as legal justification for any of your actions, but generally speaking, most modern pistols designed for defensive or military/law-enforcement use will stand up to these above-average pressures created by this ammo when discharged, but I wouldn’t make a habit of shooting it all the time as it will be tougher on your gun and may cause parts to wear or fail prematurely. It isn’t cheap either. Don’t take this as an excuse or opportunity for not testing the ammo in your particular handgun enough to be sure it’s reliable and accurate for your use. I’d say a minimum of several hundred rounds should be fired to be sure it runs without a failure. If you don’t want to practice with it, you shouldn’t be using it for defensive purposes as it could fail or cause your gun to fail when it is needed most.
9mm, .40 S&W, .357 Sig, .357 Magnum, 10mm, .41 Magnum, .44 Special, .44 Magnum, and .45 ACP will often be your most common calibers in pistols and revolvers that serve defensive purposes, and are all equally at home at the range for knocking down steel targets and tearing up targets. I would have no problem in relying upon any one of these calibers in a handgun to subdue an attack on my life if the time came and they all have quality offerings from various makers of ammo that tailor these calibers for defense use.
As mentioned previously, Corbon, Federal, Hornady, along with Winchester and Speer make a variety of quality ammo for such purposes. I personally use a combination of Hornady Critical Defense, Corbon DPX, Speer Gold Dot, and Winchester PDX-1 in .380 ACP, 9mm +P, .357 Sig, and .45 ACP +P calibers in my various pistols in their appropriate calibers where that ammo has performed well in independent testing on various mediums to simulate self-defense scenarios. There are calibers larger than those I’ve mentioned, but they extend into specialty applications and are really unnecessary for defensive use against human attackers, and completely unnecessary for range use, albeit to each their own.
As I touched on previously, legally carrying your handgun is a major decision to make and it is often one met with a lot of challenges, both legally and personally. Setting aside the legal/political issues of carrying legally, personal choices come down to the size of the gun you feel most comfortable carrying and how you choose to carry it. It’s no easy task making certain your handgun is adequate for defensive use but neither so small that it’s difficult to manage in an emergency, nor so large that you have a difficult time carrying it because of comfort or concealment issues. This is one of the biggest struggles and headaches people encounter with carrying a handgun, whether openly or concealed, as your wardrobe, the type of holster/method of carry, the construction of the holster, size and weight of your handgun, additional ammo, and mounted accessories on your handgun all present challenges.
While carrying, your wardrobe is a factor particularly in warmer climates or in warmer seasons because you want to wear less layers of thinner clothing, and attempting to conceal AND/OR support the firearm becomes increasingly complicated. This is one area where I can definitely say that peer review and experimentation will really be key to finding a successful combination that works for you and your handgun when you carry.
As for particular recommendations that I can make, I would avoid ankle or shoulder holsters as I feel they present too much of a challenge to quickly and safely draw your holstered handgun in a defensive situation. Also, carrying off-body in a purse, backpack, briefcase, or gym bag are risky ventures as you are placing greater distance between you and your firearm and open up the possibility of theft of your conveyance which leaves you unarmed and your thief now armed.
If you choose any of those methods of carrying, exercise great care in where you travel with your handgun and be constantly aware of your surroundings without making it too obvious that you’re watching everyone around you, otherwise you’ll draw unwanted attention. If carrying on your body, do your best to avoid printing (having the outline of your gun show through your clothing) if carrying concealed as this can be a legal problem in some locations, let alone a security concern for yourself and others around should they feel alarmed or threatened even if you haven’t engaged anyone. Regardless, be very aware of all the ordinances and statutes as they pertain to carry. Being on the right side of the law is what this is all about.
Pocket carry is a viable choice for some handguns with the right holsters if the garments allow, but requires a careful and well-practiced draw to be successful. Wearing skin-tight jeans and carrying in a pocket risks making it difficult to cleanly draw your handgun and could be a real liability. I would never recommend carrying in a pocket without a holster that’s adapted to pocket carry, as that type of holster provides stable positioning of the handgun in your pocket and keeps it relatively clear of lint and other debris that could cause reliability troubles. It is tough to get a glimpse of what it may be like to carry that new handgun you want, prior to purchasing.
You will need to rely upon feedback from experienced users of the hardware you want along with attempting to get cooperation from a dealer to assist you in finding an ideal carry solution with a firearm you don’t yet own. They may be reluctant to holster a brand new gun for fear of prematurely wearing the finish. Finally, don’t be surprised if you purchase multiple holsters for a single gun, as we all find out that not one of them covers every need we’ll ever have. It’s just like shoes – one pair just can’t handle all the work.
Finally, before you place any money down on the counter to purchase that handgun, consider the other expenses such as the cost of extra magazines, parts availability for the sake of repairs, accessories you may find desirable that aren’t part of the stock configuration, tools and equipment to maintain the handgun, and the cost and availability of ammo. You may be thrilled with the idea of bringing home a new SIG Sauer pistol chambered in .357 Sig, until you realize that their factory magazines are fairly costly (trying to find some for my P250 in .357 Sig right now is next to impossible, let alone cheap) and that ammo is about 50% more expensive than comparable 9mm ammo from the same manufacturer along with fewer options (this isn’t me saying 9mm and .357 Sig offer comparable performance, as they are different). These are things to consider when you’re selecting a handgun for purchase.
9mm ammo is one of the most widely available and produced cartridges on the planet, which is a double-edged sword: everyone makes ammo for this caliber, and everyone wants ammo in this caliber. The panic of 2013 has demonstrated this very phenomenon and is yet another point of contention. When it comes to brand selection, this is more of a personal choice and I don’t feel any one brand clearly outshines the others on every front. My recommendation is to ask other experienced shooters for their experiences on customer service and reliability with a particular brand and/or make-model, but present the question with limited responses, such as, “Do you prefer a Springfield Armory XD 9mm Compact or a Smith & Wesson M&P 9C?”
Those of us with experience and familiarity with how expansive the marketplace really is will be more inclined and capable of offering pointed responses instead of trying to answer, “Do you like Glock better than Beretta?”. If I might make a suggestion, consider brands that have an appeal to law enforcement and government agencies or military units as they’ve already done a lot of homework for you in their testing and selection processes, but realize you aren’t necessarily preparing to make an amphibious assault on a remote African island, so don’t fixate on buying whatever the Navy Seals use. Be realistic, and most importantly be smart.