Buying Your First Handgun

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Okay, so something
has finally tipped the scales of your judgment in favor of acquiring
your first handgun. Maybe you know someone who was just victimized
by a criminal. Maybe you have a new family and feel the urge to
make yourself ready to protect them. Whatever the reason, you have
decided to buy a handgun. Here’s how to do it.


For most United
States citizens, purchasing a handgun is as simple as going to your
local gun store, choosing a particular gun to buy, showing photo
I.D., filling out the background check form, and then paying for
the gun upon approval from NICS
(usually instantaneous, but may take as long as three days). There
are a few states where this procedure is more cumbersome due to
some requirement imposed by statute. To check your state’s particular
rules, simply ask a local gun dealer or refer to
Each state’s rules vary, so I won’t cover them here, but some states
restrict not only who may purchase and possess a handgun, but what
particular models are permitted for such possession within that
state. Restrictions may apply to so-called “assault pistols,” those
that are capable of accepting high-capacity magazines (usually 10+),
or those that the state may classify as “Saturday
Night Specials


The first,
most obvious question that you must ask yourself is “What role(s)
do I expect this gun to fill?” The possible answers include competition
or target shooting, hunting, home defense, and self-defense outside
of the home.

or Target Shooting

I can neatly
avoid providing any useful information on this point because anyone
who plans to spend cash on a “race
” or high-performance target handgun is likely already familiar
enough with weapons to have no need for my advice. It suffices to
say that there are handguns designed for fast presentation, sight
acquisition, and follow-up shooting that are advantageous for competition
use, but not practical or economical for defensive uses. Likewise,
there are target handguns that are designed for precise shot placement
that may be too bulky, of insufficient caliber, or otherwise unsuited
for defensive applications.


Hunting handguns
may be used to take a number of different varieties of game, from
squirrel to deer to wild boar to bear. Regardless of the quarry,
a hunting handgun is almost always a bulky sort of implement, either
because the gun is chambered in a large caliber that requires a
heavy frame and barrel, because optics are mounted, or both.

The most common
hunting handgun type is the large-caliber revolver. Many states
permit deer hunters to hunt with pistols and revolvers above a certain
caliber, usually .40. The .44
cartridge is well known for its ability to take down
even large, dangerous game like bear, and it may be found employed
by all manner of medium and large game hunters. Revolvers in a large
caliber like the .44 Magnum are undeniably intimidating and effective
enough for use in home defense, but are too bulky for most personal
defense applications where discreet possession of the handgun is

handguns utilizing either a break-action or bolt-action occupy a
small but growing niche within handguns designed for hunting use.
Predominantly manufactured by companies like Remington, Savage,
and Thompson-Center,
these guns are extremely specialized and are designed for one thing:
to accurately fire a rifle bullet out of a package much smaller
than the average rifle. The recoil is often tremendous, the time
for a second shot is long, and the speed for target acquisition
is as slow as it would be with any scoped weapon. These specialized
firearms may be used for hunting or for long-range target shooting,
but they have little application outside of these areas.

Home Defense

For many users,
a handgun is the best weapon for home defense. The handgun is more
easily wielded than a shotgun by individuals with a slight build,
and the shorter length of a handgun allows greater maneuverability
in close quarters than a shortened pistol-grip shotgun. In considering
a handgun for home defense, there are several questions that you
should ask yourself before proceeding:

1) Does the
gun fit in my hand comfortably? Is it comfortable for the largest
and smallest potential shooter?

In a life or
death situation, confidence is a necessary component of a potentially
life-saving action. Having good positive control of the gun in your
hands is essential to confidently wielding it against an attacker.
Additionally, you must be able to hang on to a gun in order to fire
it safely and accurately.

2) Does the
cartridge caliber/load make the handgun’s recoil too severe for
the people most likely to need to use the gun in defense?

Recoil that
is so strong as to be uncomfortable can make a shooter anxious and
tends to dissuade the shooter from practicing regularly. Both of
these may mean that the handgun is less useful when a situation
requiring decisive action arises. As physics dictate, a cartridge
generally generates more felt recoil as the mass it has to displace
decreases. Therefore, larger, heavier guns will typically have less
recoil than smaller guns chambered in the same cartridge. In a smaller
pocket pistol, .380 ACP may be the largest round a shooter feels
confident with, whereas the same shooter might be completely at
ease with a .44 Special in a heavy, full-frame revolver. For the
recoil sensitive, .380 ACP, 9 mm, and .38 Special are all safe bets
that still offer reasonable power.

3) Is the cartridge
for which the gun is chambered effective enough to insure that I
will be able to stop an attacker?

There is much
debate over caliber selection within defensive handgun circles.
Many shooters argue that anything less potent than 9 mm or .38 Special
is unreliable for self-defense. Except for extremely petite or physically
weak shooters, I would tend to agree that cartridges like .32 ACP,
.25 ACP, .22 Short, .22 LR, .22 Magnum, and even the .380 ACP are
all too impotent for a dedicated home defense weapon. While they
are all superior to a pocketknife for self-defense, I think it is
worth the slight extra recoil to move up to a more effective “major”
caliber, including 9mm (although this round’s effectiveness is sometimes
questioned too), .38 Special (also criticized as impotent), .357
Magnum, .40 S&W, .44 Magnum, .44 Special, and .45 ACP, among

If you buy
a minor caliber, you will definitely have to purchase the more expensive
defensive ammunition in order to improve the round’s efficacy against
an attacker. Standard full metal jacket or “hardball” ammunition
will work satisfactorily for defense work if in the largest calibers,
such as .44 Magnum or .45 ACP. This should not be a major consideration,
though, since I would generally recommend defensive ammo for regular
carry because those rounds frequently feature corrosion resistant
nickel-plated cartridge casings and are manufactured to tighter

4) Does this
manufacturer have a reputation for reliability?

Unless you
are really pushing the poverty line, it is hard to justify buying
a gun that might work when you need it. Stay away from guns manufactured
by unknown or disreputable makers. My short list of quality handgun
makers would include: Sig-Sauer, Heckler & Koch, Ruger, Glock,
Smith & Wesson (revolvers), Colt, Kimber, Para-Ordnance, Kel-Tec,
Walther, Springfield, Beretta, Browning, and Taurus. Some of these
are better than others, but each has established a reputation for
reliability and safety. There are other companies that make good
guns, but the companies listed above have history of consistent
excellence for at least the past ten years, and many for over a

Outside of the Home

In addition
to the considerations listed above, the selection of a handgun for
self-defense outside the home requires the added consideration of
concealability. If a gun is too bulky to be worn comfortably on
your person, you are less likely to carry it often and therefore
less likely to have it at hand when the need for it arises. Be sure
to select a gun that isn’t too heavy for you to easily carry. For
some, this means selecting a handgun chambered in .380 ACP or some
other smaller caliber. While these calibers may not be optimal,
they are preferable to being empty-handed in a situation where a
gun could save your life.

Action Type

Handguns are
most commonly available in one of two action types: revolver or

A revolver
holds five, six, or more rounds of ammunition in a rotating cylinder
behind the barrel. When all the rounds are expended, the shooter
must swing the cylinder out, eject the spent casings, and load each
of the chambers with a new cartridge. The only revolvers that you
should consider are “double action” (DA), meaning that you need
not cock the hammer before pulling the trigger to fire a round.

A semi-automatic
holds ammunition in a magazine, usually vertically inserted into
the grip. When you pull the trigger to fire, the hammer strikes
the firing pin, discharges the cartridge, and uses the force of
the fired cartridge to cycle the action of the gun, reloading the
chamber with a fresh round from the magazine. Semi-automatic pistols
may be single action (SA), double action, or double-action only
(DAO). A DA semi-automatic will fire if the user pulls the trigger
when the hammer is at rest and there is a round in the chamber.
The trigger pull for the second shot will be shorter and lighter
because the action of the gun automatically cocks the hammer. A
DAO has the same, heavy trigger pull each time, and the hammer is
always at rest.

As with revolvers,
I would recommend that most first-time buyers avoid SA semi-automatics
simply because the learning curve is slightly steeper and the time
required to bring the weapon into action is longer since the hammer
must be manually cocked prior to the first shot. The most popular
SA semi-automatic is the M1911
.45 ACP
designed by John Moses Browning and manufactured most
famously by Colt. While this venerable design has much to offer,
I cannot recommend it as the sole lifeline for a beginning shooter.

When choosing
between a revolver and a semi-automatic
, remember these factors:


  • may be
    reloaded more rapidly by simply removing empty magazine and inserting
    a fresh one (and, depending on the model, either racking the slide
    again to chamber the first round or releasing the slide from its
    locked position)
  • usually
    has a higher magazine capacity
  • may be
    flatter and therefore more concealable
  • more likely
    to have a manual safety
  • malfunction/misfeed
    may require more steps to remedy


  • cleaning
    is easier because disassembly is usually not required
  • in case
    of a misfire, simply pull the trigger again


While I cannot
offer an exhaustive list of suitable selections here, the following
models are a few of those with which I have personal experience
and thus can wholeheartedly recommend.

Home Defense

Smith & Wesson revolver
chambered in .38 Special or better,

Sig-Sauer pistol
chambered in 9mm or better, including:

Heckler & Koch pistol
, including:

Glock pistol
, including:

  • Glock
    Model 23
    (.40 S&W): Durable, reliable, and easy to shoot.


Kel-Tec pistol
except the PLR-16, including:

  • Kel-Tec
    (.380 ACP): Medium potency round, but in an extremely
    light, concealable package. Very competitive prices. Semi-automatic.

The basic
model Taurus pistols and revolvers
chambered in .38 Special
or better, including:

  • Taurus
    Millennium Pro 111
    (9 mm): More potent than .380 ACP, but
    slightly bulkier gun too. Semi-automatic.
  • Taurus
    Titanium Model 617
    (.357 Magnum): Lighter than steel but stronger
    than alloy of gun below, this gun fires the potent .357 Magnum.
    Relatively inexpensive compared to gun with same features from
    S&W. Revolver.

Any subcompact
Glock, including:

  • Glock
    Model 36
    (.45 ACP): Incredible potency, but limited magazine
    capacity. Semi-automatic.

Smith & Wesson J-frame revolver
, including:

  • Smith
    & Wesson Model 638
    (.38 Special): Light alloy that is
    cheaper than the slightly more durable titanium revolver from
    S&W, fires slightly less potent .38 Special. Concealed hammer
    makes for snag-free draw from concealed position.

also that stainless steel is less likely to corrode than carbon
steel, so paying extra for a stainless steel model or a model with
a tough anti-corrosion coating is often a good investment for a
carry gun that will frequently come into contact with your skin,
dust, etc. Titanium, scandium, and other alloys are used instead
of steel in the frames of many revolvers to save weight. Titanium
and scandium are more durable than the cheaper alloy frames, with
regards to the finish of the gun.

Dealer or

Most guns at
gun shows are being sold by dealers who are Federal Firearms Licensees
(FFLs). They tend to mark prices down for the show because they
want to be competitive with the other dealers present and they don’t
want to have to pack up the guns on Sunday. Individuals also bring
guns to sell at gun shows, so you may happen across a great deal
on a used gun from such an individual. In my experience, though,
haggling at a gun shop tends to be about as effective as attending
a gun show with regards to finding a good sale price on a particular
gun. If you know what you want, you will probably get it either
way. In either circumstance, paying cash tends to lower the price.

you are looking for something unusual, or a model with a very specific
configuration, attending a gun show may be advantageous. For a specialized
order, you can also either order through your local FFL or find
what you want on
and have the local FFL transfer it to you for a fee – usually
about $25–$50. According to federal law, an individual buyer
can only buy a handgun in the state of his residence. This means
that an out-of-state dealer has to ship to your local dealer, who
then performs the background check and maintains the required records.
Most states place no restrictions on individual to individual transfers,
although you should get a bill of sale – handwritten or in
printed form – for the gun no matter whom you buy from.

Good luck,
and happy shooting!

14, 2008

Dick Clark
[send him mail],
a native Southerner, currently lives in exile in the People’s Republic
of Cambridge, MA. He is a first-year law student at Suffolk University
Law School in Boston.

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