The choice of a firearm can be a very difficult one for many of us. Full sized or compact? What caliber? Steel frame or polymer? How much should I spend?
The first thing you need to do, and I recommend this to everyone - take a class on the fundamentals of shooting. Beginner firearm courses will teach you proper stance, grip, sighting, as well as general firearm operations and safety. Nearly every range offers a “basic handgun” course for $50 or less and it typically only lasts 2-3 hours so it isn’t a significant time investment either. Instructors are usually certified by the NRA and/or long time shooters who really know their stuff. Most also have an assortment of handguns they will supply for students to use during the class.
Next, consider your use; the reason you are purchasing the firearm. Will this be a self defense pistol kept for home protection or concealed carry? Are you taking up shooting as a hobby with the intention of eventually competing? There are many articles available that debate the merits of pistols by use; a quick Google search will fill your reading time.
I look at handguns as a shooting enthusiast as well as with an eye toward home protection. My preference is with full sized, metal frame pistols and I like both the 9mm and .40 caliber round. These rounds are supersonic and aggressive, but not so difficult to manage or too expensive to buy ammunition. Some brief thoughts on the most common selection criteria:
- Full sized vs compact - A full sized handgun offers less felt recoil and greater shooter accuracy. Compact firearms typically have greater recoil and less shooter accuracy at distant targets. Of course, a full sized handgun can be difficult for concealed carry as well. More experienced shooters find they can use either equally well and competition shooters typically use full sized handguns. Home and self defense, as well as hobbyist - I recommend a full sized handgun.
- Manufacturer - There are many firearms manufacturers including Smith & Wesson, Beretta, Sig Sauer, Ruger, Springfield Armory, Glock, Browning, Remington, and more. For the new shooter, I recommend sticking with a mainstream, well known manufacturer until you have a better understanding of firearms.
- Caliber selection - This is another religious topic. .22 long rifle is dirt cheap, low recoil, and hands down the best caliber for just getting some time in at the range. It is not a good selection for self defense, however, as it lacks stopping power and offers limited damage. 9mm is a supersonic round that offers reasonable recoil and effects significant damage. .45 caliber is the venerable; many swear by it as it is a large round that packs a wallop. That said, it is also a subsonic round, does not have the same penetration of a supersonic round, and is more expensive than other calibers. .40 caliber is a supersonic round with greater mass that sits somewhere between the 9mm and .45 rounds. Originally introduced by S&W in response to the FBI’s need for a round with more oomph than the 9mm, it has been carried by many law enforcement agencies for over 25 years and shows well. Any of these rounds will be suitable for self defense purposes, home or concealed carry. For your first firearm, I recommend a 9mm as the ammunition is plentiful and less expensive than others, which means you’ll be able to spend more time at the range.
- Steel frame or polymer - Modern handgun technology has taken dramatic leaps forward in SO many ways. One change is in materials used to manufacture the weapon. Polymer frames make handguns lighter, do not rust, and are long lasting. This also reduces the cost of manufacturing the gun and that means lower costs to consumers. That said…I’m a metal frame kind of guy. I’ve shot a few with polymer frames, I even own one, but I simply prefer the feel of a metal frame. I like the heft, balance, and performance of a metal frame. If you’re on a tight budget, there’s nothing wrong with getting a polymer frame and they shoot very well.
- How much to spend - As always, you should spend as much as you can afford. Budget about $400-$600 to get a decent handgun from the manufacturers mentioned above. For beginners, anything over $700 is really overkill; there are plenty of great, entry level firearms in the $400-$600 range.
There’s also no rush to buy; most ranges offer handgun rentals for a variety of models. Even better is if you can get an experienced friend to go to the range with you and bring his/her pistols. The more time you get at the range practicing, the better; it will really go a long way toward picking the right handgun.
What are some good handguns to consider? Here are some that I like, in no particular order….
- 92 Series - The Beretta 92 has a long history and is my personal favorite (I own an M9A1). The 92 series is a full sized, metal frame, 9mm pistol and suitable for target or home defense use; its size may make it a challenge to carry concealed. Price ranges $550-$650, depending on the model you choose.
- G17/G19 - The G17 is a full sized, polymer framed, pistol chambered in 9mm. It is a very popular handgun, light, and reliable. The compact version, the G19, offers a solid balance between concealed carry and home defense. The price range for this handgun is $500-$600, typically right about $550.
- SR9/SR40 - The Ruger SR series has a 4 inch barrel, polymer frame, and is suitable for either concealed carry or home defense. Ruger also offers a compact version with a 3.4 inch barrel. MSRP for these handguns is $529 and you can usually find them right around that $500 mark.
- XD Series - Springfield Armory makes a number of great pistols, including the XD series (XD/XDS/XDM). Price range is $500-$800, depending on which model you select. These are polymer framed, 9mm, .40 cal, .45 cal firearms and well reviewed (positive reviews).
- SD9VE/SD40VE - This is a polymer frame, entry level handgun that is very good for either concealed carry or home defense. MSRP is right about $400 making it one of the more affordable handguns available as well.
- M&P / M&P Shield - This is another polymer frame handgun that serves both concealed carry or home defense purposes. The M&P line runs $450 for the Shield up to $800 for other models in the M&P product group.
You may also want to consider adding a .22LR pistol to your collection. A .22 is fun to shoot; the limited recoil means you can spend more time practicing before your arms fatigue. The low cost ammunition (typically less than 10 cents per round for bulk ammunition) means more time at the range without breaking the bank. There are MANY selections, but I recommend the Ruger Mark III or Beretta Neos as I own both and have found them to be great for working through the basics.
Last but not least, spend some time reading articles and watching videos from reputable sources. Each of the major gun manufacturers sponsor competition teams; these folks put up YouTube videos with information on a variety of firearms as well as shooting tips. You’ll find a few solid non-affiliated video sources like “Hickok45” or websites like TheTruthAboutGuns.Com. And, of course, join the NRA (nra.org).