Selecting a Handgun for Defense
While the vast number of makes and models seems daunting don’t be too putt off by all the possible options. There is something out there for every one. Purchasing a gun for defense is easy; purchasing the right gun for you is what’s going to be hard. Especially with no one helping you out other than the guy on the other side of the counter trying to make the sale. Some gun shops are fantastic in helping buyers select the right gun. They will ask about your experience, they will ask about your likes/dislikes, intended use, Etc. Some just want you to buy something and get out so they can sell something to the next guy. I’ve seen all types of gun shops. Some won’t help you at all and act as if the process of selling you a gun is too taxing for them and you should be ashamed for making them work. Silly me, I thought that was part of their job. But not all of it is the fault of the employee. Some customers can really irk a counter worker, if you don’t intend to buy at that moment, tell them. If you are just browsing and looking over a number of different models, you aren’t making the shop any money and can take up a lot of time that they could be using to help out someone that knows what they want. I’m not saying that you’re acting as an inconvenience, I’m just saying that you should be polite and not be expected to be waited on hand and foot if it’s a busy day.
The goal of this piece is to get someone not overly familiar with handguns to the point where they can look over info, create a list of what they want, see what’s available and walk into a gun shop looking for “A”, “B”, “C” and “X” for a DEFENSIVE handgun. And not waste a ton of time looking over guns that don’t meet their needs. This piece is not geared toward one who will buy the gun and leave it in a sock drawer or shoot it maybe once a year. This is geared toward someone looking to buy their first handgun, shoot that first handgun often, qualify (if needed) with that gun, and carry that gun on a regular basis and should shoot often to build and maintain the skills needed to work that gun in an acceptable manner. If you’re new to guns and buying your first, I would definitely recommend the NRA First Steps Basic Pistol Class.
Now as my wife says, “On with the show!” let’s get started shall we?
What kind of gun do you want?
Your two options are a revolver or a semi-automatic, commonly referred to as autos. With a revolver your capacity is limited from 5-8 rounds depending on what exact model you are interested in. In most cases today, people are buying autos for personal protection. I am not going to cover revolvers in this piece as I want to focus on autos with another piece on revolvers coming later. Most revolvers that are purchased for carry end up being snub-nosed pistols, those usually having barrel lengths 2” or less. They are small and are harder to shoot well than most other guns. Not that it can’t be accomplished, and not that there are not thousands upon thousands of them in service, but it is my belief that most people that have them do not shoot them nearly enough to be as proficient as they should be.
What SIZE gun do you need?
Automatics come in four general sizes:
• Full Size – Generally has a barrel length of 4.5” – 5”, and all the fingers of the shooting hand can fit on the grip of the gun.
• Compact – Generally has a barrel length of 3.5”- 4.5”, may have a full grip or may have a slightly shorter grip than a full size gun.
• Sub-Compact- Generally has a barrel length of 3.5” of less, and has a shorter grip frame than a compact, generally allowing only two fingers to grasp the frame.
• Pocket – Generally has a barrel length of 3” or less and is smaller in overall size than a standard sub-compact. I will not be covering these in this piece as like the snub revolver, these tiny guns are not easy to shoot well and it is my belief that these make poor choices for first handguns.
It is easier to get a full grip on a full size or compact gun, being able to get a firm grip on the gun is an important factor in shooting accurately, especially when shooting rapidly. The gun should fit your hand so that the three remaining fingers (middle, ring, and pinky) are all resting on the front strap of the gun. If the gun is too large or too small, it’s going to be harder to handle correctly. The controls of the gun should be in easy reach of the thumb and fingers, it is common to have to shift the gun somewhat to engage the levers and devices that may be present, but only slightly without compromising the integrity of the grip. To put it simply, you should be able to work the levers / buttons with one hand without a whole lot of fuss. Selecting the size of the gun depends on what you intend to use it for. If you plan on eventually carrying a gun in accordance with your State’s laws, size may be a definite issue.
• A larger gun will have more weight which will aid in absorbing recoil, a longer barrel which increases muzzle velocity, a longer sight radius (the distance between the front and rear sight) which generally results in a more accurate gun in the hands of a human and a higher capacity magazine in most cases allowing for more shots without reloading.
• A compact gun has many of the traits of the full size, in most cases none of the above benefits are waived, there is still some recoil absorbing mass, the sight radius is still on the long side, the capacity is still relatively high, or unchanged, and the gun is a little easier to conceal.
• A sub-compact is probably going to be the easiest to conceal, but the hardest to shoot well. There is less mass to absorb recoil, the sight radius is very short, and muzzle velocity is decreased. Yes, you read that right; you’re getting more felt recoil, and less velocity. This means that you’re getting degraded terminal performance while your ability to get back on target faster is also being degraded. So while the gun may be easier to conceal, you’re hurting your chances of stopping a threat as efficiently as possible. That being said, a small gun on the person beats a large gun sitting at home. While the degradations are a factor to some, the light weight, small size, and ease of concealment make these guns very popular.
It is my opinion that the compact is the way to go for your average shooter/carrier; my wife who is all of 5’4” and 104lbs manages to carry a compact, all steel .45ACP despite its size and weight. If she can do it, so can you. You just need to be willing to make some changes to your wardrobe if needed.
Before we move on to actual gun selection, there are several things that need to be taken into account. As stated previously, there is a multitude of makes and models available for purchase, the reason for this is (on top of the number of vendors) is the amount of features on guns, again there is something for everyone, and not everyone likes the same things on a gun.
The top four items of interest, great debate, and ridicule are as follows:
• Caliber / Knock Down Power and Capacity
• Frame Material
• Trigger Type
• With or Without External Safeties
When it comes to handgun calibers for general carry, none of them are guaranteed instant man-stoppers.
If one is using premium, expanding hollow point ammunition, all of the major calibers for carry are about equal in terminal performance. The primary calibers for defense (in semi-autos) being 9mm, .40S&W, .357 Sig, 10mm, and .45ACP. The .380ACP is not on this list as there are many that think the .380 is sub-standard for quickly incapacitating an aggressor. The most common advice given is to use a “Service Caliber” and go with a good jacketed hollow point (JHP). Some of the better JHPs are the Speer GoldDot, Winchester RangerT, Federal HST, and Hornady XTP. However, refer to my above statement that a smaller gun on the person beats the larger gun left at home, if all you can conceal well is a smaller .380, it beats a sharp stick in the eye and harsh language and with some of the more modern ammunition types, the .380 is becoming a more viable option.
Now where caliber does come into play is in the following arenas.
• Capacity (Single Stack vs. Double Stack)
• Ease of retracting the slide
Obviously, the larger the caliber, the less cartridges you have at your disposal, with smaller cartridges, you can have more capacity.
When it comes to recoil and the service calibers, each one handles differently, generally speaking the 9mm will be the mildest, followed by the .45ACP as the .40S&W and the .357 Sig have more muzzle climb. I’ve never shot a 10mm, but as it’s a .40S&W with more umph, I would place it at the top. With more recoil to absorb, the recoil spring is going to be tougher, thus a 9mm recoil spring will be easier to manipulate than the others. Etc.
Knock Down Power:
This is a myth, repeat after me, “To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction”. If the gun isn’t knocking you over, it’s not going to knock down a human target.
But someone will bring up steel plates and that some calibers will knock “X” plates over while another caliber does not. Allow me to explain: Human beings are not steel plates, a larger slug will have more energy transfer dispersed onto the plate; a human target will absorb most of that energy rather than have it all displaced at the point of impact, and in case anyone missed it the first time, human beings are not steel plates.
People fall from getting shot because:
A: Psychological Effect: It really hurts and it probably comes as a surprise that it hurts.
B: Physical Damage: The projectile damages the body in a way that it collapses. I you shoot someone in the brain pan and take out a chunk of their brain they’re probably going to fall over. Mechanical bone structure is damaged by the shot such as a good shot to the pelvis that breaks it.
I don’t care what the guy at the gun shop says; a single .45ACP shot to the shoulder will not knock someone into the next county.
This is another debate that is unwinnable; there is no right answer to this.
In most cases I will say that more is better every time, but that may not be easy for some to conceal. Given my current location I am perfectly happy with 8 rounds of .45ACP just as I am perfectly happy with 20 rounds of 9mm. If I lived in a higher crime area with more likelihood of needing the gun, I might go with the 9mm for some added capacity. In terms of capacity, there are two types of magazines, single stack and double stack or single column and double column magazines. These are simple terms that reflect how many rows, columns, or “stacks” of cartridges are held in the magazine. Your guns like the 1911 Pattern pistol(some double stack versions are available), the Sig P220, and the Kahr line of pistols are single stack while a majority of the Glock pistols and Springfield XDs, etc. are double stack guns. A single stack gun will have less ammo, but generally has a slimmer grip profile than a double stack gun which will hold more ammunition, but may be too large for smaller hands.
I will offer the following advice; carry the largest caliber you can shoot well in the package that carries the most ammunition that you can conceal. If you can shoot a double stack .45, but can’t conceal it, start looking at 9s and 40s that you can conceal more easily. If you can’t conceal a double stack 9, but can hide a single stack .45 and shoot it well, it’s all you.
2: Frame Material
You pretty much have two choices, polymer and metal (Metal is made of three sub-types: Steel, aluminum alloy, and “other”) There are diehard fans for all of the previously mentioned materials. The polymer is very tough and much lighter than a metal alternative but as it is lighter, there is less recoil absorbing mass, it’s not too much of a problem with lower caliber guns like the 9mm, but some mass helps tame recoil on the other service calibers. Aluminum alloy is the man in the middle, it’s a little lighter than steel but not as light as polymer, there are some issues with aluminum alloy as the steel slide is harder than the frame. This can cause premature wear of the frame when compared to a steel slide/steel framed gun. But don’t be discouraged, the service life of an aluminum alloy framed gun is still in the tens of thousands of rounds. Shooting a steady diet of +P and +P+ ammunition is not recommended for the lightweight guns. Personally, I like steel framed guns. The weight doesn’t bother me and I just like the way they handle better than the others. “Other” metals include titanium and other hybrid alloys such as Scandium, these offerings are not as common and tend to be pricey, so I’m not going to cover them, just be aware that they exist and have their own issues.
3: Trigger Type:
Commonly referred to as “Action” this identifies the way the trigger setup of the gun works, there are multiple types of trigger types available for use but most of them are of the following sort:
Single Action Only (SAO or SA):
Your two most common types if SAO guns are 1911 pattern semi-automatics and your "Western" revolvers" such as the Colt Single Action Army. A lot of people get confused on this as they mistake action type and trigger type. With both the 1911 and single action revolver, the hammer must be cocked in order for the gun to fire. Pulling the trigger causes one action, that of the hammer to fall and make contact with the firing pin. Looking at this example, the 1911 is cocked by the cycling of the slide after being fired; hence it is a semi-automatic, but still a single action trigger. The single action revolver must be cocked manually for every shot. To confuse you even further, there are some single action only guns that are striker fired as they are fully cocked by the manual cycling of the slide or other operation. Two examples of single action, striker fired guns are the HKP7 family and the Springfield XD (includes XDM) line. There are some that will disagree and say that striker fired guns are not SAO. But looking at the requirement that pulling the trigger facilitates only one action, the release of "X" that initiates the firing sequence, YES they are single action and are even considered SA by the International Defensive Pistol Association (IDPA).
Double Action (DA):
Most modern revolvers are referred to as double action, despite the fact that they are still capable of being fired in the single action mode, why this is I don't know. Double Action indicates that pulling the trigger caused two actions, 1: the cocking and 2: release of the hammer. One action=two results. Common double action revolvers are the Ruger GP100 and Redhawk models.
Double Action Only (DAO):
DAO guns can not be manually cocked; they are cocked and released by trigger manipulation. DAO guns can be revolvers or semi-automatics. Glocks are erroneously referred to as DAO as the trigger must be pulled to fire the gun, in my opinion this is false. Glocks and many other makes/models are partially cocked, striker fired guns but we’ll get to them later.
A DAO gun has the following traits.
1: Is only cocked by trigger manipulation and the trigger pull is the same for every shot.
2: In semi-auto guns, the hammer will go back to rest (hammer down behind the slide) after each shot. Remember, the trigger cocks and releases the hammer, not the slide in this case.
3: As the trigger is the driving force to cock and release the hammer, second strike capability is there. If you have questions on second strike capability...try Google, I'm not covering that in this piece. Common DAO guns are the S&W 642 and KelTec P3AT.
There are some different types of DAO, such as DAK and LDA from Sig and Para Ordnance respectively; I will cover those in brief at the end.
Traditional Double Action / Single Action (DA/SA):
This type of trigger is what is found on the Beretta M9 and other semi-automatic pistols. The first shot can be double action or single action IE one pull of the trigger will cock and release the hammer. If the hammer is manually cocked, pulling the trigger will release the hammer. As the M9 is a semi-automatic pistol, the slide will re-cock the hammer after the gun is fired. With a DA/SA type of gun, all subsequent shots will be fired single action until shooting stops and the hammer is de-cocked.
Partially Cocked, Striker Fired / Striker Fired:
Glock, Kahr, some S&W models and others operate on this type of mechanism. What sets these aside from DAO guns is that the cycling of the slide partially cocks the striker and the pulling of the trigger finishes cocking the mechanism and releases the striker to make the gun go bang. Remember what I said before, some striker fired guns fall into different categories. Glocks and the like kind are generally referred to as being DAO and it is common to see the term associated with them. Personally, I don’t view them as DAO, but the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) did, which is why it’s kind of stuck. However, a DAO “X” and a Glock have very dissimilar traits and the triggers have different feel which is why I separate them in this text.
Now that we have the basics out of the way, we can take a look at some different "sub-types" of triggers. As mentioned previously, out there in the world there are these two strange beasts that are called Double Action Kellerman (DAK) and the Light Double Action (LDA) which are found on so equipped Sigs and Para LDA models.
“SIG released an altered version of the double-action only (DAO) pistols called the DAK (for Double Action Kellerman, after the designer of the system). The DAK capability is available in 220, 226, 229 and 239 models. When firing the pistol the first trigger pull is 6.5 lbs (compared to 10 pounds for the standard DAO). After the pistol fires and the trigger is released, the trigger has an intermediate reset point that is approximately halfway to the trigger at rest position. The trigger pull from this intermediate reset point is 8.5 lbs (38 N). If the trigger is released all the way forward, this will engage the primary trigger reset and have a trigger pull of 6.5 lbs (29 N). To engage the intermediate reset, the trigger must be held to the rear while the slide is cycled, either manually or by the recoil of a round being fired. The United States Coast Guard has adopted this firearm as its PDW (Personal Defense Weapon), replacing the older M9 pistol.”
As there are two different pull weights, this is not a conventional DA.
Without going into gross detail, the LDA is a super smooth, lightweight trigger. Generally speaking most DAO guns have a heavy pull and no safeties. The Para LDA incorporates the 1911 pattern thumb safety thus allowing for a very light pull but still has the hammer going back to rest after every shot, but if I recall correctly, the LDA has no second strike capability and needs the slide to cycle in order for the trigger to do it's thing in cocking and releasing the hammer.
HK refers to their DAO as LEM (Law Enforcement Modification) which is thought to be another form of lighter double action, but it is really another pre-cocked hammer system, you can read more about it at HK's website.
It's a lot of info to take in. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages. If you'd like to read more on the types of trigger actions on semi-autos, I would definitely recommend checking out Automatics: What Action Type for Me? by Stephen Camp.
The majority opinion on triggers is that it’s better to have only ONE trigger pull to master, such as from a SAO or DAO gun rather than having to master two distinctly different trigger pulls such as what would be found on a traditional DA/SA gun like the Beretta M9. I fall in with those that feel one trigger pull is best, however with the proper training and time spent mastering both trigger pulls, there is nothing wrong with a DA/SA gun.
4: With or Without External Safeties
There are those that love them, those that hate them, and those that are undecided.
I like an external safety for the following reasons.
A: As we now have a child in the house, if he ever does get his hands on a loaded gun, there are a couple more steps to achieve ignition other than just pulling the trigger. I know what you’re all thinking, “That would never happen” but things do happen that shouldn’t.
B: In the event that someone gets my gun during an altercation, and they don’t know how the gun works, that gives me a little more time to do something. Again, I know what some of you are thinking, but I’ve had at least one police officer and one range buddy demonstrate that they didn’t know how to work a 1911 and one gun shop employee demonstrate that he didn’t know how to operate a HK P7.
C: Most of the guns I have are single action and have light triggers; the external safety prevents a negligent discharge in the event of improper handling provided that the safety is engaged and functioning
The camp that does not like the safety uses the following as their main argument.
A: You (this really means them) will forget to disengage the safety in a time of stress.
B: It is faster to not have to fiddle with the safety.
C: It’s just not needed.
Regarding speed, it’s a training issue, not an equipment issue. If you train to disengage the safety at the correct time, you won’t forget it and it’s just as fast as not having one.
It’s a personal preference, but if you decide that you want a firearm with an external safety you better practice, practice, practice. The safety should be disengaged during the draw stroke and should be “off” when being presented to the target”
So now that we've covered the basic options you need to go out and find out what's going to work for you. How? Well that's the hard part. If you want to do it right it's going to take time and some money. Going over the list of what's what, you need to decide on what you want on a gun and then go find a place that rents guns. Once you get there and you go off your list and fire off what you can, go back over your list and see what you liked and what you didn't like. Shoot some guns that are not on your list. If you thought you wanted and SAO but found that you didn't like it, shoot a DAO and a DA/SA.
You don't HAVE to do this, but it would probably help prevent buyer’s remorse and at a bare minimum, you can walk in as better educated consumer.
Here is a chart which shows most of the common makes and models that I would recommend for purchase; this reflects current production guns only as there are too many previous models from every manufacturer to list. For the purpose of this article, I am also assuming that all guns are to be bought from a reputable dealer and in New in Box (NIB) condition from the factory.
Click to open in new window, click again to enlarge.
I apologize for its lack of clarity, I will try and clean it up and make a revision. Now taking in account the chart up above, here is some more info:
The Big 10:
When it comes to guns, there are some less than reputable manufactures, I’m not going to cover them. What I am going to go over are the makers of handguns that I would purchase for general defense use including carry on my person. Remember that when buying a gun, it should fit your hand well and should feel balanced:
Borrowed from Sixto
When I pick up a pistol, I want the bulk of the weight to be low in the pistol toward the center or even rearward. Now, this would seem easy because of the magazine weight of a loaded pistol, buts its really not.
It has something to do with bore axis as well; but a lot of that depends on the weight distribution of the gun as well. You can get away with a high axis if the weight is lower and more rearward.
Having the weight and axis set in the way I described allows for a much more natural pointing ability as well as faster shooting potential.”
This list is alphabetical.
Browning North America's Official Web Site
Colt's Manufacturing Company, Inc.
CZ & Dan Wesson
North American Arms (NAA)
Now that is not nearly the complete list of firearms manufactures out there, this is just the list that I would feel confident in buying from, all with the exception of Taurus and Kimber, with them I’m really on the fence, I have not owned a Taurus, nor do I have any desire to own one and given my experiences with multiple Kimbers, I do not generally recommend them, that being said Kimber appears to have more happy customers than unhappy customers. Some will take this for gun snobbery, call it what you want it’s just my opinion.
On that list are makers that have an average LOW price of around $2300.
To remove some of the higher cost options and some of the lower cost options, I am refining the list down to:
CZ & Dan Wesson
Smith & Wesson
These are what I would consider the top 10 for your average defensive gun purchases. Odds are if you do your research and figure out exactly what you want, and find it from one of those 10 makers, you will be happy with your gun and it will work.
What I see most, is “What is the BEST gun?” I hate this question as it is one of those questions that can not be answered, its right up there with “Which caliber is the best?”
To put it bluntly, no one gun is better than the rest, some may be “better” than others, but there isn’t one gun to claim the title of Best Handgun Ever. It’s all about what is best for the purchaser, for Joe Bob the “Best” gun might be a Glock 19, for Bob Joe, the best gun might be a $3000.00 1911 pattern .45ACP. The only way for one to figure out what is best for them is to try out as many guns as possible and make an educated guess on what will work for them. Once you purchase a gun, you need to make sure it works; guns are man made and are fallible. Some gun makers may dictate a specific break in period for their guns, this info is usually in the owners manual (on a side note, no matter what gun you buy, read the owners manual and any other documents in the case, if you buy a used gun that does not have the manual, you can usually download one from the manufacturers website); but in general regardless of specified break in period, you should run a couple hundred rounds of full metal jacket or other "range ammo" through the gun to ensure it functions properly. Once you decide on a type of ammunition to be used for defense that should also be tested in the gun for reliability. There isn't a magic number of rounds that will guarantee a working gun. If you fire 300 rounds, there is no guarantee that the gun will not break on 301. Guns can and will fail eventually for a number of reasons. If you're gun does not function well during this break in / test period, there are a number of possible causes. It is in my opinion that the best course of action is to contact the maker of your gun and seek warranty service.
So hopefully by now you’ve at least got an idea of what you want in a gun, now to throw a big wrench in that I’m going to ask a question. If you plan on carrying the gun, what are you going to carry it in? That’s right; you need to go get a holster. This can be as bad if not worse than figuring out what gun to buy.