Buying Your First Handgun

Buying Your First Handgun

By:  Jason L. Van Dyke, Esq.


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There are many articles, in many different publications that offer advice to those in search of their first handgun. All of them are bullshit for the same reason: They make the mistake of either reaching a conclusion or not making a conclusion at all. This article will attempt to remedy that situation by dispensing with the common pleasantries of such an article and boil it down to the basics of what any newbie in the market for a handgun needs to consider:

 

Caliber:  This is a subject that has been debated ad nauseum. There are some who say that no real handgun starts with a caliber that isn’t preceded by the number “4”. There are others who say, “Well, I wouldn’t want to be shot by a 22 either.” My response to this debate is a question rather than an answer: What do you plan on using this weapon for? The most common answer is personal defense, which thankfully, makes my job easier because it tells me that the person I am talking to is going to be entrusting their life to this weapon and that it needs to be powerful enough to reliably stop a threat that will statistically be a human male weighing between 140 – 250lbs. This eliminates most choices that are less powerful than a .380. So, I tell the person that depending upon their budget and the type of gun they want that they are probably looking at one of the following in a semi-automatic handgun:  380 Auto, 9mm, 357 Sig, 40S&W, 10mm, or 45 Auto. Of these, 357 Sig and 10mm should be considered “magnum” rounds and are the most expensive; 45 Auto and 40S&W ammunition are somewhere in the middle; and 9mm and 380 are usually around the same price, (with 380 tending to be more costly).  If the shooter is unable to realistically afford three, fifty-round boxes of ammunition per month of training ammunition in that caliber, I eliminate it. 

 

 A comparison of pistol caliber sizes.

A comparison of pistol caliber sizes.

The reasoning behind this method is simple: there are only two ways that a handgun can stop an attacker. The first is psychological. This means that the production of a weapon, the psychological trauma caused by the act of being shot at, or the implications of being shot in a non-lethal manner causes the attacker to surrender or flee. The second is physical. This occurs when a bullet renders the attacker physically incapable of continuing the attack either due to death or serious injury. The physical method is the only one that is completely reliable. Therefore, the shooter’s training with a handgun will focus primarily on manipulation of the weapon and the ability to hit a target multiple times at various distances. If the shooter cannot afford to purchase the ammunition necessary for training, the handgun becomes a liability, rather than an asset. A well-trained marksman is lethal, but an untrained individual is more dangerous to themselves and others than a potential threat. I consider it mandatory to purchase a handgun in a caliber that you can find and afford to train with on a regular basis. A larger caliber is not a substitute for accuracy. 

 

Size & Weight:  Handguns are typically made of either steel (or an alloy), or a combination of steel and some high-strength polymer material. The purpose of using polymer instead of steel in the construction of a handgun is to decrease the weight of the weapon. This innovation started with Heckler & Koch, but was made popular by Glock. Both steel and polymer framed pistols work very well, but neither are without their drawbacks. Naturally, a weapon constructed entirely of metal will be far heavier than one constructed with a combination of metal and plastic. However, the heavier pistol will have less perceived recoil than a lighter weapon, which is a consideration both for inexperienced shooters and those who want the option of making a quick follow-up shot. It has been my personal experience that modern polymer framed pistols do not have significantly more felt recoil than their counterparts constructed completely of metal. The polymer construction of these pistols also allows for modular designs, which allow a pistol to be easily “fitted” to the hand of the shooter through the sale of inserts.  The overall feel of the pistol in the shooters hand, and how burdensome the weapon is to carry around on a daily basis, is a matter of personal preference for each individual shooter.

 

A far more important consideration is the size of a pistol being purchased primarily for concealed carry.  I live in a state where open carry is legal, so this is not a major consideration for me.  While I do not regularly open carry, the Texas open carry law allows me to strap the pistol of my choice to my belt and throw a shirt over it. If someone were specifically looking for an armed individual, the fact that I am carrying under these circumstances would be fairly obvious – but would go unnoticed by the casual observer. However, if I were living in a state or carrying in a location where the law required the weapon to be completely concealed, I would be carrying a smaller and more easily concealable weapon (being mindful of the fact that a smaller weapon will typically be lighter, and thus, have heavier recoil).

 

   Pistols come in a variety of sizes, each having advantages and disadvantages

 Pistols come in a variety of sizes, each having advantages and disadvantages

The most important consideration with respect to the size and weight of the pistol is the capacity. It should be obvious to most that a smaller caliber weapon will typically hold more ammunition than a larger caliber weapon.  Similarly, a weapon that is smaller in size will hold less ammunition than one that is larger in size. I recommend that a person carry a pistol that will allow them a minimum of eight shots prior to reloading. The reason for this is because of the stress that a life or death situation puts on the human body. While I can induce physical or mental fatigue during training, there is nothing I can do that will effectively simulate the stress of being shot at by actual bullets. Stress causes fine motor skills, especially those that are necessary to operate a handgun, to deteriorate. It naturally follows that with the loss of fine motor skills, a shooter is more likely to miss. Therefore, having extra ammunition for follow-up shots is a major consideration when choosing a handgun for personal defense.

Ease of UseA weapon that is painful to operate or which is a pain in the ass to use is one that will go unused, and thus, become nothing more than a liability to its owner. The first major factor to consider when selecting a handgun is the location of a manual safety.

  A comparison of the practical M1911 Safety with the impractical Beretta 92FS  

A comparison of the practical M1911 Safety with the impractical Beretta 92FS 

There are some handguns, most notably Glock and Sig, which have no manual safety. I am not a believer in a manual safety. For most weapons, the manual safety is little more than a crutch used by the shooter as a substitute for sloppy manipulation of the weapon. There are also a number of weapons that incorporate a manual safety in a location that is not easily flipped to the “off” position by the shooter. One example of a good manual safety exists on the M1911-type pistol.  The thumb naturally comes to a rest on the manual safety as the gun is drawn from the holster and flipped to the “off” position.  An example of a bad manual safety is seen on the Beretta 92FS (M9) pistol, which is located completely on the slide and requires the flick of a thumb to switch to the “off” position. If you absolutely must have a pistol with a manual safety, it is important to keep in mind that the safety is a manual device that can fail: it does not guarantee that the gun will not fire. There is simply no substitute for proper manipulation of your weapon.

 

        The second aspect concerning ease of use is the location of the magazine release button.  Most handguns have this button conveniently located where the right hand thumb can actuate it.  However, some European-made pistols have a magazine release system incorporated into the trigger guard, or even a latch on the bottom of the magazine well. Although I do not care for the system incorporated into the trigger guard, it is one that I can live with. The latch system on the bottom of the magazine well is very difficult to manipulate when performing a quick reload and should be avoided. Naturally, if you are left-handed, (or if you shoot left handed) you should consider a weapon that has ambidextrous controls, (or which is capable to conversion for a left-handed shooter). 

 

 

 a M1911-style pistol broken down for routine maintenance.

a M1911-style pistol broken down for routine maintenance.

 

The third aspect concerning ease of use is the trigger. For most weapons, gunsmiths can modify the trigger weight and feel, but I encourage new shooters to learn with a stock “out of the box” trigger. Learning how to properly pull the trigger of a handgun straight back to make a well-aimed shot is far more difficult than most people realize. Don’t believe me?  Hold out your hand; pretend like you are holding a pistol; (do not close your fist because no handgun is that small) and use your index finger to pull an imaginary trigger straight back while trying to keep all of your other fingers completely still.  What you will see is called a, “sympathetic reaction” and it is completely normal. The “trigger” you just pulled had no resistance. Imagine now how difficult it would be to keep a pistol steady with a long and heavy trigger pull. While the fundamentals of a steady trigger squeeze do not change, a longer and heavier trigger is certainly a disadvantage to the shooter. 

 

        The fourth and final aspect for ease of use is the difficulty in breaking the weapon down for routine maintenance. A handgun is a machine; and just like any other machine, it requires both cleaning and lubrication.  It is for this reason that I do not recommend M1911 pistols for new shooters. I happen to own a M1911. I love it. However, I primarily use it for shooting competitions where my life is not on the line. Before purchasing any handgun, ask the salesperson to demonstrate how to take apart the pistol for cleaning. If possible, perform the task yourself before purchasing the weapon to ensure that it is something you will be able to do at home. Remember that, if you neglect your pistol, your pistol will neglect you when it is needed the most. 

 A Sig P320 broken down for routine maintenance.

A Sig P320 broken down for routine maintenance.

Aftermarket Parts:When purchasing a pistol, please consider the availability of any aftermarket parts and accessories you may wish to purchase (as well as the cost of the same). I love Glocks and Sigs – but I know that I will spend twice as much on an extra magazine for a Sig as I will for a Glock. I consider night sights to be mandatory equipment for any pistol. If your pistol does not come with night sights as a factory option, you will almost certainly want to purchase an aftermarket set. You will also want a holster for your pistol, which is a subject that I could write an entire article on. At the very least, you will want to ensure that you have a number of different options available. 

Brand:  I do judge a handgun by its manufacturer. This is because as a license to carry instructor I have seen certain brands of handguns fail time and time again. I have mentioned Glock and Sig by name in this article, but there are certainly a number of other brands that every shooter should consider. I make only one recommendation: Look at what military and police departments use and stick with those brands.  You do not need to stick with a particular model. However, if police and military personnel trust the weapon, a company with a level of quality control that you can feel confident in probably makes it. I would not trust my life to a $200.00 pistol. Of course, if that’s all you can afford, a $200.00 pistol is often better than no pistol at all. Just the same, it is relatively easy to walk into a gun store with between $400.00 and $650.00, and leave with something of very high quality.

 The author at a shooting competition. 

The author at a shooting competition. 

 Conclusion:As I stated at the outset of this article, I am not going to recommend a particular pistol. This is a personal choice and, if I recommend the weapon that happened to work best for me when I was a beginner, there are people who will inevitably be disappointed to learn that the same weapon does not work for them. The purpose of this article is to educate my readers on factors to consider when choosing a weapon – not to make the decision for them. With the knowledge contained in this article, I am confident that almost everybody who reads is will be able to make an informed purchasing decision. Uhuru!

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