Choosing a handgun that's right for you (updated Jan 2012)
There are many handgun models on the market, in a wide variety of calibers, barrel lengths, action types, sizes, finishes, and other mechanical features.
If your main interest is recreational shooting or learning to shoot well, a .22 pistol or revolver is the best choice. Most of the rules below apply to .22's as well as larger caliber self defense guns. Our favorite .22 pistol is the Browning Buckmark, however just about every major gun manufacturer produces a good quality .22. These guns are great choices for learning because ammo is cheap, recoil and noise are less than larger calibers, and usually these guns have good sights and triggers.
Generally the self-defense handgun market can be separated into two categories: primary guns and backup guns. A primary gun is a gun that's the one you prefer to carry or use for home defense. Ideally it's the 'no compromise' gun: the one that you shoot well because it's got all the right features (size, caliber, capacity, etc.). It's the one that is appropriate for recreational shooting, the one you will probably bring to our classes, the one that you could shoot a competition with. A backup gun is the 'all compromise' gun: the pocket/micro/superlight/mouse gun that you carry when you can't figure out how to carry the primary gun easily. If you are buying a first handgun, start with the 'primary gun' and not the backup gun, because it's much easier to learn to shoot with a good primary gun. Starting out with a backup gun is very hard and most people that try it typically never learn to shoot well.
If you pick the right equipment, becoming proficient with a handgun and using it effectively will be much easier.
When most people go gun shopping or get advice from gun salespeople or gun owner friends, typically their 'search criteria' list looks something like this:
size (small is good), weight (light is good), cost (cheap is good), caliber (bigger is better), magazine capacity (bigger is better), night sights (good), laser (cool), color (blued, stainless, green?)
A lot of those assumptions are wrong. As it turns out, what really matters when you try to hit a target with it is this:
gun fit (can you reach the trigger), trigger pull weight, trigger pull distance, barrel length, sight radius, sight quality, gun weight proportional to caliber.
Let's put this in perspective. The whole point of shooting is to hit your intended target quickly. If you miss or you are too slow, the consequences could run from just wasting ammo to giving up a game animal, a prize at a shooting match, or your life. There's no award for 'had a big caliber', 'carried the lightest gun on the market', or 'had plenty of ammo in the gun'. You either hit or you don't. Choosing the right equipment will get you to a higher level of skill in less time, and whether you only shoot 50 rounds every 4 years because the state requires it for your carry permit, or you shoot multiple days a week with dreams of winning the Nationals, equipment will make a difference for you.
The features that make a gun easy to shoot:
A frame that lets you reach the trigger properly - Why a narrow grip? Ideally when you put your finger on the trigger, the trigger contacts your finger in the middle of the first pad (or for a heavier trigger pull, at the first joint). More importantly you want your trigger finger to make a right angle with the trigger and you want the inside of your trigger finger away from the frame, not laying along the frame all the way to the trigger guard. Why? Because every time you flex your trigger finger to manipulate the trigger, you will be moving the frame (and thus the sights) as you move the trigger. That can cause you to pull the sights off target and cause a miss, typically a left or low-left miss. If you are a trigger-yanker or trigger-slapper contact with the frame only magnifies this problem. Many high capacity, large caliber semiautos have very fat frames, and those with double action first shot designs typically have triggers with long reaches. If you pick up one of those guns and you cannot reach the trigger without rotating your grip on the gun -- get a different gun. The gun is too wide for your hand and you'll never shoot it well. If you have short fingers a 'single stack' (lower capacity) pistol is probably the best answer for you.
Many newer pistol models (Springfield XDM, Smith and Wesson M&P, Glock Gen 4, and others) come with grip inserts to let you customize the gun to your hand size. In order to correctly evaluate whether a gun will work for you or not, you need to try all the different grip inserts. The floor models of these guns that you'll handle in gun shops almost always have the "medium" grip insert installed, and you'll be lucky if the shop can find the other inserts and the person behind the counter knows how to install them. You should still ask to try them all anyway, because it's important.
A frame you can get all your fingers on - it's much easier to hang onto a handgun if you can get all your fingers on it. In reality the additional 1/2"of grip required for all your fingers really doesn't make any significant difference in whether the gun can be concealed or not. It absolutely _does_ make a difference in how well you can shoot the gun, so buy a gun you can get all your fingers on.
A grip with no finger grooves - Finger grooves are nice if you have infinite time to get the gun perfectly positioned in your hand, provided the off-the-shelf finger groove grips you bought match up with the dimensions of your hand. In a realistic personal protection use of a handgun, you will be in a hurry, in the dark, under stress. With a grip with no grooves, if you miss your grip slightly you still can get an acceptable grip on the gun. If you miss your grip with a finger groove grip, you'll have a very bad grip on the gun. Finger grooves also provide more surfaces for concealment garments to snag on. For what it's worth, in 20+ years of competitive shooting and training at the major shooting academies I've never seen any top competitor or tactical instructor shoot a pistol with finger groove grips, except for those carrying recent model Glocks. I took a Dremel and removed the finger groove ridges from my Glock. Make the gun fit you and you'll shoot it better.
A trigger pull of 6 pounds or less - The heavier the trigger pull, the more force it takes to fire the gun. That increases the likelihood that you will pull the sights out of alignment before the bullet leaves the barrel. Rifles and shotguns typically have trigger pulls of less than 6 pounds. Pistols should too. Some argue that pistols need heavier trigger pulls to act as an additional 'safety' to prevent negligent discharges. That may be a good answer for law enforcement and military users, where training time is often limited and all gun users are not gun enthusiasts. If you are a civilian purchasing a handgun for personal protection or recreational use, your training time is under your control. Instead of buying a gun that's hard to shoot on the assumption that your safe gunhandling skills are poor, why not get professional training, bring your gunhandling skills up to where they should be and get a gun that increases your odds of getting good hits when you need them?
A trigger that has a short distance of travel - The shorter the distance the trigger has to move, the less likely you are to move the sights out of alignment before the gun fires. Just as with the light trigger pull, the factors that make a gun easy to shoot also make it easier to have a negligent discharge with.
The same trigger pull for every shot - Some handgun models are designed to have a long, heavy trigger pull on the first shot (double action) and have a shorter, lighter trigger pull for the 2nd and other shots. There are a lot of models with the double action/single action (DA/SA, sometimes called 'traditional double action') design on the market. You don't want any of them. Rifles are intended for long range precision shooting. They have the same trigger pull for every shot. Shotguns are designed for quick instinctive shooting. They have the same trigger pull for every shot. Pistols should operate the same way. The double action design was a good idea when it was the alternative to a single action (cowboy sixgun) design that had to be cocked by hand for every shot. In a semiauto the main reason for the double action first shot design was to allow the user to carry with the hammer down vs. 'cocked and locked' (hammer back with safety on). The double action design requires users to 'decock' the gun after it's loaded in order to carry it safely. Unfortunately I have seen a lot of students that buy the DA/SA guns and then carry them cocked (to avoid the long DA first shot pull) which is unsafe. The gun was not designed to be carried that way. Or they just 'cheat' when they go to the range and never practice the double action trigger pull, or they carry the gun without a round the chamber, planning that there will be enough time to rack the slide before the first shot. Sorry: there probably won't be enough time for that when you really need the gun. And in that situation what you really need is your first shot to be a good, fast hit. Getting a hit with a gun with 1" of travel, 12 lb trigger is harder than with a gun with a 1/4" of travel, 5 lb. trigger. With the many options for striker fired (hidden hammer) pistols that have the same trigger pull for every shot, there is absolutely no reason to own or carry a pistol that has a different trigger pull for the first shot. It requires the user to learn more skills, master two trigger pulls, all for no conceivable advantage in operation.
Barrel length of 4"-6" - In general guns with shorter barrels have more recoil and are harder to shoot because the sight radius (distance between front and rear sight) is shorter. The geometry of sight alignment is simple: the farther the sights are apart, the less small errors in sight alignment affect where the bullet goes. With semiautomatic handguns often the "micro" models are less reliable than their longer-barrelled cousins. This is because the semiauto's cycling involves the speed at which the slide cycles (affected by ammo, gun cleanliness and recoil spring) and the speed at which rounds come out of the magazine (affected by ammo, magazine cleanliness and magazine springs). The short guns have shorter slides which have shorter slide cycle times and thus are less robust to variances in ammo and springs and cleanliness than the larger models. The powders used in ammunition are typically selected to burn at a rate that fully consumes the powder in a full sized barrel. That means that in a short barrelled gun you lose velocity and can have additional muzzle flash when some of the powder burns in air instead of in the last 1-2" of barrel. Concerns about concealibility often lead people to short barrelled guns. For men the simplest answer is to carry in an "inside the waistband" style holster. With the barrel inside the pants the only thing that has to be covered by a concealment garment is the grip. This allows for greater flexibility in choice of concealment garment and allows easy carry of a pistol with a barrel length that makes it more reliable and more shootable. Due to differences in body shape between men and women most inside the waistband holsters don't allow a comfortable draw for women. Some of our women students use off-body carry techniques (gun purse, fanny pack, faux "daytimer", etc.) as a way to carry a 4" or longer pistol.
Sights that are crisp and simple - "3 dot" sights, while popular, are not necessarily the best idea. Most top competitors prefer a solid black rear sight with either a solid black front sight, or a front sight painted a bright color or (more common in recent years) a fiber-optic front sight. Most factory front sights are too wide and many aftermarket front sights are narrower. This allows more constrast and makes it easier to get the front sight centered in the notch. 3-dot sights can often fool the user, because if you line up the 3 dots the gun shoots higher or lower than it does when you ignore the dots and align the top of the front sight with the top of the rear sight. That is because the placement of the dots within the sights is not always correct. The best approach is to black out the dots and learn to shoot aligning the sights themselves.
Some people like night sights. I don't believe that they are an essential item. Between bright ambient light in many urban areas and the flashlight/gun techniques commonly taught at most schools, you will have sufficient light on your sights from ambient light or your own flashlight to use whatever sights are on the gun. So if you want to spend money improving the sights on your gun, consider a narrow fiberoptic front sight. Giant sights and unusual sight systems (ghost ring, triangles, etc) are marginally faster for big close targets but are significantly harder for medium and long range targets. If you want sights that are useful for all handgun applications and situations stick to traditional sights and get rid of the 3 dots.
Sufficient gun weight for the caliber - Many people mistakenly think that lighter is better in a pistol. As the gun gets lighter the amount of muzzle flip during recoil increases. That slows down the rate at which you can make follow up shots, and perhaps more importantly, increases the likelihood that you will flinch in response to recoil, which causes missing. If you have a good quality belt and good quality holster that supports the weight of the gun, gun weight is not an issue for carry. If you buy the cheapest belt and holster you can find at the gun show or at the "big box" sports store, then you need to upgrade your gear. A good pistol costs $500 or more. A good belt and holster combined will likely cost you $100 or more but it is absolutely worth the investment in comfort, concealment and drawspeed.
Caliber recommendations - 9mm is the best place to start. It's the minimum caliber deemed acceptable by law enforcement and military users and the caliber with the most manageable recoil of all the defensive calibers. Ammo is easy to find and cheap. You are better off with a pistol that you can shoot well in 9mm than a bigger caliber gun that you miss with. If you want something bigger than 9mm, we recommend .45 ACP as the next step, not .40 S&W. On a scale of perceived recoil, .45 ACP actually has less recoil than .40 S&W, because .45 ACP uses heavier bullets at slower velocities and typically the guns are a little heavier which dampens recoil. The downside to .45 ACP is capacity. The most popular .45 ACP design is the "1911" style design which is a great narrow design for people with small hands. The high capacity .45 ACP pistols tend to be very wide and only fit people with large hands. The general rules about gun fit always apply. If it doesn't fit your hand, don't buy it assuming you can 'work around' that problem. You can't. We do not recommend guns in .357 SIG (extreme muzzle flip and blast) and .40 S&W should only be considered by shooters that have no problems with 9mm or .45 ACP pistols.
For backup guns we still recommend 9mm and .38 special. Why not .380, .25 or .32? Those calibers are extremely marginal for personal protection. Secondly all of the guns in those calibers have long heavy trigger pulls, so now you have a pistol that you probably going to shoot poorly in a caliber that won't perform if you get a hit. There are many good backup gun models in 9mm.
Good choices in a primary gun: S&W M&P 9mm. Glock 19 or 17 in 9mm, Springfield XD or XD(M) 4" or 5" in 9mm and .45ACP. STI, Kimber, Springfield or Para Ordnance 1911 style pistols in 9mm and .45 ACP. Kahr K9 and P9.
Click here for a more detailed comparison of Glock vs. XD vs M&P, with discussion about specific gun modifications we recommend.
For those with hands so small that none of these guns meet our gun fit criteria, Springfield EMP 9mm, and SIG 239 (a small 9mm that is essentially a small 1911).
Good choices in a backup gun: Kahr MK9 or MP9. S&W 640, Charter Arms, or Ruger revolver in .38 +P.
Good choices for a general purpose pistol well suited to pistol competition: Glock 34 (9mm), S&W M&P Pro, Springfield XDm 5.25" 9mm, STI, Kimber, Springfield or Para Ordnance 1911 style pistols in 9mm, .40 S&W and .45 ACP.
For revolvers: S&W makes the best and the triggers on the S&W guns can be tuned to be easy to shoot. Taurus revolvers are a decent value for the money but cannot be tuned to shoot like a S&W.
1911 and Glock pistols basically dominate the competition and high skill shooter communities. These two families of guns are supported by the widest aftermarket accessories, holsters and are well proven and capable designs. S&W M&P and Springfield XD and XD(M) are also popular, and the M&P, in particular, has seen significant acceptance in the law enforcement community. There are other designs that are OK but less popular. When you start trying to find spare magazines, holsters, and other gear you may run into problems or end up paying more.
updated Jan 2012