Selecting Your First Handgun

At last count, I have instructed over 7000 firearm students during the past 35 years. This has shown me a few things. Before you buy your first handgun, there are a few vitally important chunks of knowledge that you should know. These are:

  1. Which handgun designs and sizes are best for me?
  2. Which calibers will best serve me?

The trend in recent years has been to promote smaller, compact handguns. The problem with this is that smaller handguns are more difficult to shoot. Here’s a breakdown of what I mean by this.

Pistol size Many makes of semiautomatic handguns come in several sizes. There are full size models, compacts, and sub-compacts. Generally speaking, the smaller the model, the more difficult it is to become effective with it. Grips are compromised when there is nowhere to put your pinky. Sight radius, the distance between the front and rear sights, becomes smaller, making accuracy more difficult. Smaller slides are more difficult to retract, which can be very problematic for the elderly or those with arthritis.

Revolver size In a similar fashion, revolver models come in several sizes. Generally speaking, there are full size 4″ barrel models, mid size models with 3″ barrels, and “snub nose” models with 2″ barrels. The snub nose models have the same problems with short sight radius and small grips. Ejector rods are shorter on “snubbies”, making the extraction and ejection of fired brass from cylinders more difficult than full size ejector rods.

Recoil Sub-compact autos and snub nose revolvers both have stronger recoil, especially those with aluminum alloy or plastic frames. Less weight equals more recoil. Also, shorter barrels have snappier recoil. In the larger calibers, this can be downright obnoxious.

Grip size Neither type of handgun works for a shooter if the grip is too large for the hand. If you cannot easily reach the trigger with the last digit of your index finger while holding the handgun in straight alignment with your arm, the handgun grip area is too big for your hand. The best solution is to try a different handgun. On revolvers, switching to slimmer grip panels might do the trick. On semiautos, newer models come with several sizes of interchanging back straps that might do the trick as well.

Caliber Which brings me to caliber choice. Many new handgun owners give in to the siren song of larger calibers equals more effectiveness. What they do not realize is that the larger the caliber, the more practice it takes to achieve the same level of competence they can with a smaller caliber. In other words, all else being equal, it takes more practice to shoot accurately with a .45 ACP caliber handgun than it does with a .380 caliber handgun. For new shooters shooting larger calibers can be demoralizing.

Summary What does all this mean? In a nutshell, the smaller the handgun size, the more unfriendly it is to new handgun owners. Sub-compact semis and snub nose revolvers are handguns best suited for experienced shooters who have already developed their shooting fundamentals. A new shooter is better served with a mid size or full size handgun that is easier to shoot and often more fun to shoot. Likewise, the more powerful the caliber, the more time and ammo that needs to be invested to become effective. And don’t forget to check the grip size.

I hope this information helps when making a choice of which handgun a new shooter should choose. Remember, if one cannot accurately hit the target under stress, it doesn’t matter how large the caliber is or how concealable the handgun is. There is a reason why the Glock 19 mid size 9mm caliber handgun is the most popular handgun in the world. It is a “jack of all trades”, filling many requirements reasonably well. If you have not already done so, consider taking a solid self defense class such as my CCW Initial Permit.