Buying a handgun involves a truly dizzying array of choices. Nothing feels worse than going into a gun shop, range, or show, and looking like a complete fool, because you don’t have the foggiest idea what they’re talking about. So we’ll walk through some of the basic choices, you’ll need to make. Once you’ve decided to buy a handgun, there are four questions that must be answered, with the first question being the most important, as it will guide your answers to the other three.
- What will the gun be used for?
- What caliber/cartridge?
- Revolver or semi-automatic?
- What kind of trigger action?
In this article, I’ll just be addressing question number 1. You should have a working knowledge of the issues 2 and 4 before reading this article.
What will the gun be used for?
This is the most important question, as it will guide all of the rest of your decisions. In fact, it is such a big question, that the other considerations cartridge, type of gun, and trigger will be dealt with in separate articles. Some possible uses are listed below. Ideally, one gun would serve all purposes, but practically speaking, it’s just not possible. As a result, many people end up with two or more guns. For those on a budget, the more purposes, you can cover in a single gun, the better.
- Home protection
- Concealed carry
- Target shooting
- Plinking (just shooting at stuff like aluminum cans, bottle caps, etc.)
- Competitive sport shooting
- Trail/Wilderness protection (you say you like being a bear snack?)
There are many people who think that a handgun is not appropriate for home defense. They would prefer a rifle or shotgun. However, a handgun has many advantages for home defense. It is much more maneuverable than either a rifle or a shotgun, can be stored in much smaller places, and when that bump in the night turns out to be your neighbor asking for a cup milk, it’s much easier to hide the gun and not freak them out.
There are some disadvantages to handguns for self defense, however. The main one is that rifles and shotguns are typically more powerful than handguns, easier to aim, and–as such–require less training to use adequately. Some people think that shotguns are less likely to penetrate interior walls, making them safer for family members who may be in the next room. However, that is unfortunately, not true. Buckshot will penetrate even insulated dry wall just fine. Also, contrary to the movies, at about 12 feet (a typical across the room distance), the shot spread is only about 3 inches, so you still have to aim.
So how does Home Protection influence the choice of handgun? The modern thought is that you don’t want to kill the intruder; you want to stop him. For example, say you shoot an intruder who proceeds to kill you, and then bleeds to death. You killed the intruder, but you didn’t stop him. So your handgun needs be needs to be powerful enough to stop an intruder with the fewest hits possible. “Power” is essentially determined by the cartridge combined with the length of the barrel. Typically, longer barrels have more power, because the gunpowder has more time to build up energy behind the bullet.
When talking about the cartridge, if you start reading on the internet, the two basic arguments are: “bigger is better” and “only hits count”. Bigger is better means that the bigger the bullet, the better the chances the intruder will be stopped. Proponents of this school of thought tend to like “calibers that start with 4”, i.e., 40 S&W, .45 ACP, and 44 magnum (although, the 44 is almost too big). (Although it doesn’t start with 4, .357 magnum could also be included in this group). The problem with these calibers is that they tend to kick quite a bit, making them less than ideal for someone who wants the security of having a gun, but doesn’t practice much with it.
Only hits count, means that no matter how powerful the round, if you miss, it has no chance of stopping an intruder. Proponents of this school of thought will typically suggest that people buy the most powerful round they can comfortably shoot. 9mm, and 38 special are often mentioned here. Proponents of these calibers also point out that modern expanding bullets are much better stoppers than the solid bullets of the past. They also point out that these calibers are typically cheaper to shoot, so practice is less expensive.
The next consideration is revolver or semiautomatic. Revolvers are often preferred, because they are lower maintenance, and generally seen more reliable (simpler, with fewer things that can go wrong). But general opinions can be wrong. My gun nut friends tell me that revolvers are actually more complicated than semi automatics, and that more things can go wrong.
Revolvers also generally carry fewer bullets and are slower to reload than semiautomatics (assuming you have a loaded magazine). They are much harder to shoot well than semiautomatics. Semiautomatics are seen as requiring more training to operate, but they are easier to shoot well, and a loaded one is just as simple to shoot as a loaded revolver. (Some people recommend that you should occasionally “rest” the magazine springs, by leaving unloaded for a time to prevent the spring from “setting” in a shortened position; others say this is completely unnecessary.)
The final decision is trigger type. This is truly a matter of preference. Some people prefer double action or long triggers to supposedly prevent accidental shootings. Others prefer single action for more accurate shots. Personally, I am with the single action crowd, because only hits count.
Other considerations: there is no need to go with a small gun for home defense. Small guns are louder, harder to aim, kick more, and have more muzzle flash (leaving you potentially blinded at night). So go with a slightly larger gun. Save your small gun for concealed carry.
So what’s my current choice? Well, I only had one shot to fulfill multiple purposes (wives just don’t understand). Moreover, it was compounded by my being left handed, so my choice was a compromise on many levels. I chose the CZ-40P, a 40 S&W semiautomatic with double/single action trigger, which I intend to manually cock, should I need it for home defense. (Not anymore; see paying the stupid tax.)
Final Thoughts: The antigunners, posing as safety gestapo (for the sake of the children, of course) would have you store your home defense gun unloaded, disassembled, with a trigger lock, and the ammunition in a separate location. Their true intent is for you to die should you actually need to use the gun in home defense. A home defense gun should be stored ready to use but secured against both children and would be thieves. Store your gun on your person, or in a safe with a quick access feature that you can work in the dark. You may also opt for a bed holster; just make sure you secure the gun when you leave the house.
Some other resources:
Concealed carry is the practice of carrying a gun while in public for self defense. Most states require a license or permit to carry a concealed weapon. Most states also prohibit open carry of a firearm, so one of the main considerations in choosing a concealed weapon is how easy it is to hide on your person. If you are “made” (recognized as carrying a gun), you may be arrested for any number of charges such as “public display of a firearm.” Handgunlaw.us has excellent resources on various state laws. (The bible for Florida gun laws is Florida Firearms: Law, Use, and Ownership.)
Concealed carry is a series of compromises between adequate defense and the ability to carry the gun comfortably and hide it adequately. Generally speaking, concealed weapons should be small, lightweight, thin, and powerful, and easy to shoot…Choose any three. A larger, thin gun may be a better choice to conceal than a smaller, thicker gun. This is highly subjective. There is a saying (as there usually is with guns), “A 22 in the pocket is better than a 45 in the truck.”
Larger caliber cartridges tend to be associated with larger guns. However, there are plenty of small 45 caliber guns, but the tradeoff is usually magazine capacity. Small revolvers lend themselves particularly well to concealment. Trigger is again a matter of personal preference. The 1911 crowd’s preference is “cocked and locked,” meaning that the gun is ready to fire, but the safety is on. Others, prefer a double action trigger.
So, what did I choose? Again, it’s a matter of compromise. My CZ-40P is a compact frame on a full size slide. Unfortunately, the stock magazines stick out from the bottom, so if I were to carry it, I would need to get flush fit magazines. Also, the stock rubber grips, while very comfortable, are a bit thick and tend to catch clothing. If I were going to carry, I would also need to change the grips. Unfortunately, in the state of Florida, guns may not be carried on College and School grounds, so I cannot carry most of the time even if I wanted to.
Update: I now carry a Keltec PF-9 in my front pocket and no longer have the CZ-40P. For a larger gun, I use the overly thick XD-9 4 inch service model. It conceals well, but is a bit uncomfortable to sit in some positions.
This really depends on the type of target shooting that you want to do, but generally speaking, you’ll need a “target gun”. Target guns typically have longer barrels (longer sight radius) and single action triggers. Target guns tend to be automatics, but there are plenty of target revolvers out there as well.
As for caliber, 22 is quite popular because it is dirt cheap, doesn’t kick much, so accuracy is improved, and is a relatively inherently accurate round. For casual purposes, you could target shoot with almost any gun that has a good trigger.
Plinking is just plain fun, and the major considerations here are the cost of the bullets and nature of what you will be plinking. Shooting bottle caps can be done with almost any caliber, but if you’re trying to make a watermelon explode, you’ll need a bigger caliber. Cost is a major factor, because plinking is so much fun, you can go through hundreds of rounds. (Personally, I like 22LR).
What do I use for plinking? I use a 22LR adapter, the Kadet, on my CZ-40P.
Competitive Shooting really depends on what kind of competition you’re doing. A popular shooting competition is a steel shoot where one shoots at steel target that fall down when you hit them. Another popular competition is the bowling pin shoot, where the goal is to know bowling pins off a table by shooting them. 45 is preferred for pin shooting, because lower calibers often don’t have enough oomph to knock the pins of the table.
Another type of competition is “practical shooting” which shoots at “man size targets”. IPSEC and IDPA are the two major associations that organize competitions. IDPA is more oriented toward self defense scenarios. Some competitions have rules as to what calibers or features a gun can have for competition. If you want to shoot competitively, you’ll need to do some research on the guns required/allowed.
I do not competitively shoot at this time, although a local club does pin shooting, and I may try my CZ-40P in it.
Yes, believe it or not, hunting with handguns is quite popular. 22s are preferred for small game such as squirrel or birds. 22s are also nice, because they don’t make much noise and are quite easily suppressed (silenced) which doesn’t scare away the prey as much if you miss. (Contrary to popular media, silencers are legal in the U.S., and most are owned by law abiding citizens.) Large revolvers, such as 357 magnum and 44 magnum are preferred for larger game. I don’t currently hunt with a handgun.
There are many things you might want to protect yourself from in the wild. Depending on where you live, rattlesnakes may be a danger, or large mammals such as cougars/mountain lions, wild boar, and bears. Once hunted to the brink of extinction, cougars are now protected and have made a major comeback. They are beginning to encroach on some suburbs and there have been several attacks in recent years, and a few cougars have killed humans. What’s worse is that they tend to be ambushers.
Generally speaking you want to carry a revolver in a magnum cartridge. The .357 magnum is the lightest that is suitable for larger predators. If you are traveling in grizzlie country, 44 magnum is generally recommended, although the guns are heavy and not much fun to lug around. Of course deer attacks are much more likely to occur than either cougar or bear attacks. And predators of the two-legged variety are the most common.
Generally speaking all of these attacks are quite rare, but you only get one chance when a grizzlie decides that you look a lot like pate.
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