Things to Consider on a First Handgun Purchase

A friend of mine has entered the wonderful, and might I say, addictive world of “guns”.

Of course this leads to the question of “What handgun to purchase?” So today I’ll discuss considerations for purchase.

First thing to consider is the planned use of the firearm. Are you looking for a firearm to teach you familiarity with firearms, to just have fun, or are you considering a firearm for use in home or self-defense? Is this going to be your only gun? or just the start? or “I don’t know?”

This is really the primary decision one has to make. If you are choosing a firearm for self-defense there are a number of considerations you need to factor in to your decision.

Namely, caliber choice, and which calibers are considered effective for self-defense purposes. Most handgun calibers fall into two types; rimfire or centerfire.

See prior post for an understanding of the differences.

For self-defense purposes, most advocate the use of centerfire cartridges. Although there is some exception for .22LR, especially in the hands of one who has physical issues preventing the use of more effective cartridges.

If you’re not looking for a self-defense handgun, and just want to have something fun to shoot and learn with. It’s hard to go wrong with a pistol chambered in .22 Long Rifle. The ammunition is cheap. An average round costs about 30 – 60 cents. A 22LR round costs approx 3 cents. That equates to about a magazine for every bullet of another caliber fired. It is VERY hard to argue with frugality.

A pistol chambered in 22LR will provide you with the opportunity to learn and hone shooting skills. You can practice sight alignment, trigger pull, draw from a holster, reloading of magazine, malfunction drills. About the only thing that a pistol chambered in 22LR won’t do is acclimate you to a much heavier recoil of the larger calibers. Most 22 pistols are extremely accurate due to the very low recoil of the round.

Also, do not fall into the trap of thinking that a .22LR cannot kill. A 22 will kill a man, it is a very capable round. It’s disadvantage is that as a small round it is less likely to inflict a wound that will immediately stop an aggressor. Potentially allowing an aggressor to harm you even after they have been shot.

That’s why, we can’t recommend a better handgun than a 22LR for fun and practice. So what 22 pistol does the N.U.G.U.N. Blog recommend for new shooters? Find out here…

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Okay, that taken care of…what if you want a firearm with a greater focus on self-defense and stopping power?

This is when we begint to look at the centerfire cartridges. Looking at centerfire cartridges, we are provided numerous choices. 9mm, 38 Special, 357 Magnum, 25 caliber, .380, 40 S&W, 45 ACP, and many more… so which to choose?

Most experienced shooters will advocate that a new shooter looking for their first handgun stay with a common caliber. The ammunition is plentiful (usually), and there is a higher resale value for a firearm of a common caliber – especially important if you later discover a handgun that you love and want to trade in your first gun for an upgrade.

If one chooses a revolver, then it is hard to argue with the .357 Magnum. As this chambering has an added benefit, it can also shoot 38 Special. The 38 Special is an older, lower powered round that from appearances looks very similar to a 357 Magnum. It is also one of the more economical centerfire rounds.

The 357 Magnum is personally, one of my favorite rounds to shoot. I find it accurate, and to be extremely exhilerating, while at the same time not over-powering. My wife on the other hand would likely disagree. (And guys, don’t hand your girlfriends/wives a revolver loaded with 357 without telling them. It’s not a funny joke. It’s just jerky.) There is a lot to be said for a good old double-action revolver. Let alone the beauty of rotary firearms.

What about semi-automatic pistols? These have displaced the revolver as the standard for police, military, and concealed carry amongst the citizenry.

They offer a number of advantages over a traditional revolver. The biggest being “firepower” – the number of rounds a firearm can carry. While the average larger pistol caliber revolver carries 5-6 rounds. Most semi-auto pistols carry between 8-18 rounds. That is a very significant advantage.

Their are some disadvantages. The learning curve is slightly higher. Furthermore, if a chambered round fails to fire, one must know how to eject and chamber a new round. Where as with a double-action revolver, one need only pull the trigger a second time.

Today, it is hard to go wrong with a 9mm for one’s first defensive handgun – unless you live in NJ. The ammunition is plentiful (usually) and cheap (compared to most other centerfire cartridges). In the past, the 9mm earned a somewhat disparaging reputation for failing to stop. A lot of this was due to the fact that 9mm ball ammo would often over-penetrate and pass through the target. Developments in ammo over the past few decades has led to great improvements in the effectiveness of 9mm ammunition – in particular, with regards to jacketed hollow-point ammunition (JHP). Hollow point rounds feature a hollow in the nose of the bullet. This aids in expansion. While some will have you believe this is some kind of cop killer or super bullet; such is not the case. The expansion can aid in stopping power, but it also reduces the chance of a round over-penetrating and exiting the target and proceeding to impact elsewhere (ie: bystander). So in many ways, they are a safer round for defensive use.

A 9mm pistol is able to hold more rounds than most other pistol cartridges, and provides a slimmer form factor. Which is important if used for concealed carry. The 9mm pistol becomes an effective stopper with the use of JHP ammunition. And when combined with the other advantages that a 9mm pistol provides; it makes for a very good first choice. And is what I would recommend to a new shooter looking for a handgun with defense in mind.

However, let us take a moment to review some other common calibers.

45 ACP – The cartridge of the famous Colt 1911. This is a very large round with excellent stopping power. In fact, it is one of the few cartridges that maintains effectiveness even with ball ammuntion. The downside is that along with a larger cartridge & larger bullet; comes greater recoil. I recommend everyone “Try before you buy.” And shoot a 45 before making it your first handgun purchase.

If I lived in NJ, this would probably be the handgun I would recommend for any who feel comfortable shooting this caliber. This is because New Jersey is lone state that prohibits its law-abiding citizens from using jacketed hollow point rounds.

40 S&W – This cartride was the compromise two the two above. It is a larger and more powerful than the 9mm, but smaller than the 45ACP. It was developed with law enforcement in mind, seeking to provide a cartridge that would provide stopping power closer to the 45 but allow for more rounds to be held by the pistol. It achieved this goal and is one of the most commonly used cartrrides used by law enforcement agencies in America. All that said, I would NOT recommend it for a first handgun. As the 40 S&W is considered rather zippy with a strong perceived recoil.

.380 Auto – This is, essentially, a short version of the 9mm. It is regarded by many as the minimum caliber for a defensive handgun. And then, by most, as sub-optimum. It is commonly used in very small compact pocket pistols such as Ruger’s LCP and Keltec’s P3AT. If you are looking for a pistol for ultra-conceal carry, it is a good caliber to consider. However, I would argue that such should NOT be your first handgun. Furthermore, the ammo is often more expensive and harder to find than it’s slightly bigger 9mm brother.

A few comments on other cartridges. There are a lot of cartridges out there that are variants on the above. Some designs are newer and some are older. However, I suggest keeping to the above cartridges for your first handgun. That said, I wanted to make a statement regarding the two other calibers you might encounter. 25 and 32 calibers. These are considered by many defense experts to be underpowered. The 25 in particular is about the only caliber that I have heard instructors actually warn against. And have heard of a few claims of 25 calibers being stopped by clothing and a heavy leather jacket. If one finds a 9mm to be overly powerful, than I suggest one of two things. 1) Make sure you have the right gun. 2) Utilize a pistol in 22LR. The performance is not significantly differing but the frugality will allow greater rangetime and a more experienced shooter has a significant advantage.

The next section I am going to address the “right gun”.

“Make sure you have the right gun!” What in the world does that mean?

Let me give you a few examples. First off, firearms are ALL about physics. The law of firearms are first and foremost constrained by the law of physics.

“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” – We call this “recoil”.

“An object at rest, stays at rest.” – this affects the perceived recoil by the shooter.

Simply put, the heavier the firearm, the less perceived recoil is felt by the shooter. We can take two firearms, one we will make completely out of metal and the other will be a hybrid of metal and plastic polymers. We will use identical 9mm rounds in both. The lighter polymer gun will have a greater perceived recoil. That’s because there is less weight to the gun, and less inclination for the handgun to stay at “rest”.

One common failing of gun salesmen is to talk a little ol’ lady into a little ol’ gun. Namely, a Smith and Wesson airweight revolver. When she goes out and fires the gun for the first time, it’s nearly overwhelming. That’s because the gun has so little weight, that there is little offsetting the force of the rounds explosion and exit. However, we can take a much larger 45 ACP round and put that in an all metal Colt 1911. She’ll shoot that and remark how much softer it felt.

The reason, even with that larger cartridge, the 1911 added weight helps tone down the felt recoil.

So why have a light gun? Really, there are only 3 reasons.

1. Carry – This is the main reason to have a light handgun. For concealed and open carry. Carrying a light handgun is less of a burden than a heavier one. Would you like to carry 2 lbs all day or 1/2 a pound?

2. Youth – Sometimes a child needs a smaller, lighter firearm. Especially with rifles which might be too larger for their frames.

3. Fun – That’s right. Some people just love the thrill of a good kicking gun.

Other factors in choosing the right firearm include the following:

Reliability – Make sure your gun is made by a quality manufactuer with a reputation for reliability. The last thing you want is a gun that doesn’t go bang when you need it.

Comfortability – Always make sure you have the opportunity to hold and dry fire a firearm before purchase – live firing is even better. But this allows you to determine if the gun fits your hand well. Many new semi-auto pistols feature adjustable backstraps allowing for a greater range of hand sizes to grip the firearm comfortability. Another thing to look for is natural point of aim. Different firearms have different grip angles. Some people find that a particular grip angle suits them better, and feels more natural. One technique is to aim a gun, close your eyes, and see how out of position the gun has moved when you re-open your eyes.

Cost – Yes, this is always a factor. And while more expensive does not always equate to a better firearm. Cheap, almost always equates to a crappy firearm. Often for a $100-$150 more you can move up to a decent Ruger or S&W for about $400-$500. If you really are unable to move up to the base cost of a decent sidearm, you might be better off buying a used pistol. Pistols have fair decent life spans, and an easy replacement of a few springs can revitalize and old semi-auto pistol. A good used pistol will usually outlast and outperform a new cheap gun.

While this post does not encompass all aspects of purchasing a firearm, I hope it has provided a decent start toward your decision to do so.

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Lastly, and I cannot emphasize this point enough, practice & training. PRACTICE AND TRAINING. PRACTICE AND TRAINING.

The benefits of professional training in conjunction with regular practice will far exceed most any other purchase decision you make. Your odds of safety and fun are much greater with a $400 Ruger and good training then they are with a $3,000 custom 1911.

If you are considering entering the world of a handgun owner, and I hope you are – it’s a fun world; then you must consider training.

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Published in: on January 31, 2011 at 12:09 am  Comments (5)  
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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. If I lived in NJ, this would probably be the handgun I would recommend for any who feel comfortable shooting this caliber. This is because New Jersey is lone state that prohibits its law-abiding citizens from using jacketed hollow point rounds.

    For the record: NJ does not have any law prohibiting the use of hollow point rounds for home protection. I keep all my home protection magazines full of JHPs. It is illegal to carry holly point rounds outside the home. Since concealed carry is all but illegal in NJ, the hollow point law is used as an add on charge when someone is arrested for illegal possession of a handgun. I can buy JHP rounds in NJ chain sporting goods stores.

  2. @Jeremy – good to know you can use them for home defense.

    If one does choose to use them at home. I’d suggest one order and have one’s hollow points delivered via UPS. As a number of people have been arrested for possession of hollow points (including one case of a few loose .22LR rounds with the small dimple).

    I’d love to see N.J. bring some common sense to the table and do away with that specific prohibition.

  3. why when everyone writes these articles nobody mentions all the things you need WITH the purchase of someones first? Ya need stuff to keep/maintain the weapon, you also need stuff to have successful range time so you can be proficient with your new investment:

    Such as:

    Cleaning kit/supplies (oil, solvent, qtips, pads)
    hearing protection (plugs at minimum, electronic muffs preferred)
    eye protection
    possibly extra magazines, make range time much more productive.
    Ammo (seems obvious but you’d be surprised)
    Ammo storage (wet ammo bad)
    snap caps (snapping in or dry firing is a great way to practice)
    range bag
    holster
    gun safe for home storage or a lock

    maybe another list would be for what to put IN a range bag so you can practice productively. Ill leave that for someone else.

  4. […] while back we did an article on Buying your First Gun. A reader commented that there is more entailed to becoming a gun owner than simply buying your […]


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