Choosing a Pistol
There are many types and styles of automobiles: from the Mini-Cooper to the Expedition; sedans and SUVs; convertibles and vans.
Everyone has a favorite or two, as well as some that annoy them. So it is with handguns (and rifles). There are hundreds of makes, thousands of models,
including some you never heard of, and even large firearms dealers don't have them all. Where to start?
Start with the general features or requirements, and work your way to the detailed view.
- What is the purpose to which it will be put?
- Hobbyist/Target Shooting (plinking)
- Home Defense
- Concealed Carry
- Organized Competition
- Should I get a semi-automatic (autoloader) or a revolver?
- What magazine capacity do I need?
- What caliber do I need?
- Who are the major firearms manufacturers?
- What models of those manufacturers fit your requirement?
- Are there suitable reviews of those models available online?
- Is there a local gun range where I can test-fire some of these?
Getting down to specifics.
Do not buy a handgun without handling it. Go to a gun shop or gunshow. Consider these features:
1. Grip size. It needs to fit your hand. If too small, you will trouble getting the pad of the finger
on the trigger without excessive arching of the finger. If too large, you will have trouble reaching
the trigger. Some models have replaceable backstraps, which can solve that problem.
2. (Semi-auto only) Your ability to rack the slide. This is sometimes a problem for women. Some models that are
especially easy to rack are the SIG Sauer P-238 (.380) and the S&W Shield EZ (.380). Glocks are also
generally fairly easy to rack.
3. The distance between the sights (sight radius). Longer is better. Concealable guns have a shorter sight
radius, but if they are too small, the gun becomes almost worthless beyond 12 feet, and hard to grip.
4. (Semi-auto only) The feel of the trigger break, which is when it fires. About 2/3 of the way through the trigger stroke
will normally be a "curb" (sear-wall), a temporary stopping place. Additional pressure at this point will push the
trigger over a slight hump, which is the break. Depending on the model, the break may be soft (squishy) (bad),
hard (jerk is required) (bad), or medium (a well-defined "curb", requiring soft pressure to reach the break) (good).
This is the most important feature of all. Do not buy from anyone who will not let you dry-fire the pistol
(Cabela's), and stay far away from DAO (Double Action Only) pistols.
5. Caliber: .22, .25, and .32 are generally considered to have insufficient stopping power for self-defense. The most
common calibers owned by new shooters are .380 (i.e., 9mm short) and 9mm. The .380 is somewhat underpowered, and
since those are usually small, concealable guns, have limited ammo capacity. The 9mm is often used by police.
Potential for upgrade.
When you buy a home, unless you pay $300,000, you will typically get a "builder's" fence, a 6-ft slat fence
instead of an 8-ft board-on-board. It will do the job, until you upgrade it. Handguns are similar, in that,
unless you spend about $1000, they will typically have some basic features that will work just fine, but
that some people will choose to upgrade. Typical upgrades, some of which can be done by the owner, include
better sights (night sights or fiber optic sights), and replacement triggers (Apex Tactical).
For people who want to go further, there are shops that specialize in customizing particular brands. These
customizations might include new sights, new triggers with custom parts, beveling/polishing the sear,
competition hammers, replacing the recoil spring, hand-lapping the slide-to-rail surfaces, flaring the
mag well, etc. Smith & Wesson and Ruger have their own shops, and there are private businesses that
specialize in CZ, and probably other brands.
It has been said that pistols multiply like rabbits. If that is true, it is because many people have, or develop, interests in
more than one of the areas above, and a pistol best suited for one purpose may not be practical for another. That doesn't mean that you
have to go out and buy several guns; start with the one that best suits your purpose. If another purpose becomes important enough,
you will know what to do.
Here are some features of the types listed above, for your consideration.
- Target Shooting pistols are typically .22 cal, with a long barrel and adjustable sights.
- Home Defense pistols are frequently full-size (1911-style), and at least 9mm in caliber, often .40/.45 cal or .357 Magnum. Capacities can be
16 rounds or more (except for revolvers).
- Concealed Carry pistols are generally very small and light (often a .380 or snub-nosed .38), with a short barrel and a short sight-radius, although some people
actually carry a .45, if their clothing styles and frame will allow it. Accuracy can be difficult past 10 yards with a little gun, and capacity
is often 6 rounds or less.
- Most pistols used for competition (besides target shooting) are either full size autoloaders or single-action (Cowboy-style) revolvers.
Presumably, that is not where your interest lies at this time.
The size of the grip front-to-back (frontstrap-backstrap) and the size of your hand have an impact on your ability
to reach the trigger properly. Different models have different sized grips, and some have interchangeable
Reasons to not dismiss the revolver out of hand:
While it's possible (though rare) for a revolver to malfunction, semi-autos do so somewhat more often.
The more you pay for a semi-auto, the less that will be a problem, but it still happens, often due to
With a semi-auto, the firearm relies on the energy of the previous round to cock it and
prepare it for another shot. A malfunction means the operator must manually clear the gun
and prepare it for the next shot, an operation that requires two hands, unless you are
highly trained. It also involves the instant recognition of the situation and a fast tap/rack
sequence to get the gun running again. Even police officers who qualify annually and train
regularly often stare at their guns when they malfunction. An efficient tap/rack isn't
likely to be accomplished in a reasonable time by a scared-out-of-his-wits average Joe, and
the law in most states requires the civilian to be in fear of his life, great bodily harm or
sexual assault in order to legally use deadly force.
On the other hand, a revolver gets all the energy to prepare for the next shot from the
operator. A dud round only requires you to pull the trigger again. There's no required
training for a second trigger pull. It's almost certain to happen with no delay, and a
scared-out-of-his-wits civilian can accomplish this without training. It's as instinctive
as any firearms operation could be.
Revolvers typically have a heavy trigger pull. There's almost no way to accidentally
discharge a double action revolver. It could be argued that a long, heavy trigger pull
impedes accuracy, but remember that most encounters with handguns are at very short range, and
most revolvers can also be fired in single-action mode.
There's also no issue with having to disengage a safety, cock a hammer, or chamber a round
under stress. The revolver is drawn and the trigger is pulled. After the shot is fired,
there's no need to put the gun back on safe. It returns to the original state after each shot.
Also, a limp-wristed shooter or poor grip won't cause a malfunction with a revolver and
this is common with lightweight semi-autos.
Some revolvers are double-action-only (DAO), meaning they do not have an external hammer. I do
not recommend these for new shooters.
There is also such a thing as a single-action revolver, which can only be fired when cocked. While
that may sound like a good idea, I also do not recommend these for new shooters. These are difficult
to load properly, and are only suitable for expert or competition shooters. They can be quite
dangerous to anyone else. If you must have one of these, take a lesson on it.
It is beyond the scope of this page to try to match a person to a pistol, as there are many factors
to consider. You will have to do some research, and what one person likes, another doesn't, but you
have to start somewhere. There are well-known manufacturers, and not-so-well-known ones; being a top
line doesn't guarantee the best match, nor does being less known guarantee dissatisfaction. With those
caveats in mind, here are a few brands that are generally accepted as having quality products with
satisfactory or better customer support (our apologies for omissions; this is very subjective)(alphabetical).
Specific models are not listed.
- Heckler & Koch
- SIG Sauer
- Smith & Wesson
- Springfield Armory
There are also several lesser-known manufacturers whose products can be perfectly acceptable, although some
models may be missing some desirable features, or fit-and-finish may not be as refined as more expensive handguns.
Sometimes budget has to be a factor, and these can be quite cost-effective. Just remember, you get what you pay for.
- Canik (Turkey)
- European American Armory
- Rossi (Brazil)
- Tanfoglio (Italy)
- TriStar (Turkey)
- Taurus (U.S.)
- Zastava (Croatia)
Of course, if cost is no object, there are a few very high-end brands. These are the Ferraris of handguns.
These will cost North of $2000.00 each.
- Dan Wesson
- Ed Brown
- Les Baer
- Nighthawk Custom
- Wilson Combat
As a general rule, we recommend, for home or car protection, a 9mm autoloader or .38 Special/.357 Magnum revolver (with at least a 4" barrel), and
for concealed carry, a .380 or 9mm autoloader, or a .38 Special/.357 Magnum with a short barrel. Within reason, the heavier the gun, the better. Also,
the longer the barrel, the shorter the learning curve to becoming accurate with it, so if your budget will allow, two pistols is a good idea.
Note that, while the .45 is a traditional big caliber, with big stopping power, the .40 has an advantage in that
the bullets travel faster, and the guns can carry more ammo.
There are other choices, of course (like a .22 Mag revolver), and nothing stops you from keeping a .45 at home, or even carrying a .45.
10 Most Popular Handguns for Women (2018) (TheWellArmedWoman.com)
- Glock 43 (9mm) (capacity 6+1)
- S&W Shield (9mm) (8+1)
- Glock 19 (9mm) (15+1)
- SIG Sauer P238 (.380) (6+1) (Tie)
S&W EZ Shield (.380) (8+1) (Tie)
- SIG Sauer P365 (9mm) (10+1)
- Ruger LC9S (9mm) (7+1)
- Ruger LCP (.380) (6+1)
- Glock 42 (.380) (6+1)
- Springfield XDS (9mm) (7+1)
- SIG Sauer P938 (9mm) (7+1)
My Personal Preferences (your mileage may vary):
CZ 75B 9mm (or for smaller hands, CZ 75B Compact)
Glock 17 or 19 (9mm) (19 is smaller)
Glock 22 or 23 (.40 cal) (23 is smaller)
S&W M&P 9mm or .45
Dan Wesson Valor 1911 (.45)
S&W 686 4-inch revolver (.357 Magnum or .38 +P)
Concealed Carry: (I personally prefer striker-fired guns for this)
S&W Shield (9mm, .40, or .45)
Glock 19 (9mm) or 23 (.40 cal) (a little on the large side)
S&W Airweight revolver .38
Glock 42 (.380)
Without getting into the "caliber wars", suffice it to say that the more serious a person is about self-defense,
the sooner they tend to move away from the .380. The FBI carries 9mm, and many police carry .40 cal.
There is a reason.
See my blog posts:
Choosing the Right First Gun.
Home Defense Guns for Ladies.
Handguns for the Physically Challenged.
See the Gun Links page for reviews and other resources.
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