Choosing a Pistol

What Gun Should I Buy?

Revolvers are typically cheaper than semi-automatics, require less training to handle safely, and are more reliable. Though a short or “snubnose” barrel is much more concealable, a good basic revolver choice for the beginner, would be a .357 magnum revolver with a 4″ barrel from Colt, Smith and Wesson or Taurus. Choosing the .357 magnum caliber allows the user to select ammunition, from .38 special to full powered .357 magnums. The .357 magnum revolver is still the mainstay of many police departments nationwide. Because .38 special and .357 magnum are popular calibers, ammunition is relatively inexpensive.

Guns chambered for calibers less than .38 special are often smaller and easy to conceal, but they generally are underpowered for self-defense applications. Data collected by the FBI and other researchers show that even the standard .38 special only has marginal performance in actual shootings. .38 special +P ammunition is available and provides a midpoint between the standard .38 special and hot .357 Magnum calibers.

Old-style “cowboy” single-action revolvers are a poor choice because they must be thumb cocked for each shot and are very slow to reload.

Semi-automatics provide several advantages over revolvers: larger ammunition capacity, faster reloading, and a flatter profile. The major disadvantage of any semi-automatic is that it requires more training to use and own safely. Accidental discharges are more common with semi-automatics because most have lighter triggers than revolvers and have more complex loading and unloading procedures. The correct procedure to unload a semi automatic pistol is to first, DROP THE MAGAZINE and then pull the slide to the rear to eject the round in the chamber and visually inspect the chamber to make sure that it is empty. All too often novices get these steps out of order and are surprised when their ‘unloaded’ gun “just goes off”.

Semi-automatics come in three action types: Single action only, double-action/single-action, and double action only. The double-action only semi-automatic has a heavy trigger pull for each shot, like a revolver. This design is inherently the safest for a novice shooter. Double action only guns are produced by Smith and Wesson, HK and many others. While the Glock is not technically DA-only, it falls into this category of revolver-like semi-autos. The Glock has been chosen by many police departments nationwide and has a reputation for reliability and ease of operation.

The most famous single-action-only semi-auto is the Colt 1911 .45 ACP used by the US military for many years. These guns are produced by Colt, Springfield, Kimber and several others. Recently, high-capacity versions of this design are being marketed by Para Ordnance and Springfield. The 1911-style design is often the choice of experienced shooters who are willing to train themselves to handle these guns safely. For decades the 1911 design has been the choice of champion competitive shooters and legendary shooting instructors such as Jeff Cooper and Ray Chapman. The 1911 is typically carried “cocked and locked”, which means that a round is loaded in the chamber and the hammer is cocked back with the safety applied. This provides the capability for a very fast first shot but also increases the risk of accidental discharge in the hands of an untrained user.

During the 80’s the double-action/single-action semi-auto gained popularity as a flood of high-capacity 9mm semi-autos were produced. These guns have two different trigger pulls: one double action pull for the first shot, often 10-12 lbs, and another single-action pull for all successive shots, often 3-6 lbs. This is because these guns, unlike the 1911 design, use the first double-action trigger pull to cock the hammer. Most DA/SA semi-autos have a decocking lever, which drops the hammer after a round is chambered. The hammer is then cocked again as the trigger is pulled for the first shot.

There are several problems with this type of handgun that make it a poor choice. Shooting a handgun well requires diligent practice to master the mechanics of grip, sight alignment and trigger squeeze. With a DA/SA gun not one but two different trigger pulls must be learned. Novice shooters often pull their first shot low as a result of the heavy DA trigger. Many of these guns are designed with long curving triggers (such as the Ruger P series) that are not condusive to accurate shooting. Rather than press the trigger straight back parallel to the barrel as in a Glock or 1911 style gun, the DA/SA shooter must pull back and down on the curved trigger which frequently causes the muzzle to dip down as the trigger is pulled. The end result is that shots strike low on the target. The DA/SA guns typically have more modes, features, controls and options than other designs, which makes them more confusing to the novice.

DA/SA guns include most Smith and Wesson semi-autos, Rugers, Berettas, and SIGs. Taurus semi-autos allow operation both as DA/SA and as single-action-only, which gives the user the choice of ‘cocked and locked’ or decocked. Many people consider Taurus to be a cheap copy of the Beretta, but in reality Taurus purchased Beretta’s Brazilian plant and is using the same production line once used for Beretta’s. Taurus’ guns are typically $200 cheaper than their Beretta counterparts and have a lifetime warranty.

Recently a survey was taken of firearms trainers via the Internet. They were asked to list what models they carried and recommended to students, and the models used and carried by those they had studied under in the past. The survey ended up including data on several hundred instructors, including those at major academies like Gunsite, Thunder Ranch, Lethal Force Institute, etc. The results showed that the Glock and 1911 were the most popular, followed by Beretta and SIG designs.

.380 is typically considered the minimum caliber for self-defense in a semi-auto, although there are guns on the market in .25 and .32. The only semi-auto caliber that is possibly ‘overpowered’ for self-defense is 10mm, which has ballistics similar to .41 magnum.

When considering which model to buy, check the angle that your trigger finger makes with the trigger. Ideally it will make a ninety degree angle. If the grip frame of the handgun is too big for you hand, you will have trouble reaching the trigger, which will impair your ability to shoot accurately. For many people the high capacity frames of the Glock, Beretta, SIG and Ruger are simply too fat. Some gunsmiths offer a grip reduction package for the Glock, which makes it more comfortable for small hands. Typically “single stack”, designs such as the 1911 models work well for shooters with small hands right out of the box. While having additional rounds in your magazine can be reassuring, never forget that the first few rounds are typically the most important, and sacrificing accuracy in favor of magazine capacity may not always be the best plan. Carrying extra rounds because you plan on missing a lot is an extremely poor plan.

The best way to make a decision about what gun to buy is to handle and shoot as many different guns as you can and to determine how much time and effort you intend to spend to become proficient with your handgun. Find something that you can tolerate shooting for 100 round practice sessions, and something that you are willing to carry with you on a daily basis.