I have avoided discussing suggestions about buying your first handgun for a long time. For the most part, it’s because my passions trend towards rifles. In the grand scheme of conflict and “weapons of war,” pistols are but a blip. Their low power, short range, and relatively difficult use make them nearly irrelevant for infantry combat. This doesn’t make them useless, though.
Handguns are primarily weapons of personal defense. They are a tool that’s easy to keep with you at all times, and provide a chance to fight and survive long enough to reach a more effective weapon- like a rifle. In a pinch, lacking something more suitable for the task, they are a tool for close quarters fighting. Outside of military use, the primary benefit of a pistol is the ability to easily conceal it.
With all of that said, the handgun is usually the first thing someone thinks of when they decide they want to buy a gun for self defense. The amount of options, opinions, and information available on the topic is overwhelming to someone who is not already versed in the nuance and language of the gun world.
My goal for this article is to simplify this down to a few key points and make the process a whole lot simpler for the first time handgun buyer.
So let’s begin.
Bottom Line Up Front
I’ve got a fair bit of thoughts here, so let me start with the most important part first. Despite what gun many gun counter salesmen will say, or what someone’s inexperienced instincts tell them, this decision is simple.
The average first-time handgun buyer should start with a compact-sized 9mm gun with a barrel length of 3.5″ to 4″ and a nominal capacity of 14-15 rounds, depending on local laws that may arbitrarily restrict that to something less. The most important factor for the gun selected is its reliability.
Everything else, including striker fired, hammer fired, ergonomics, safety, no-safety, sights, optics capability, or anything else is secondary to those factors. All of these other points come down to training and practice, which is the most important thing after reliability.
Luckily, there are many guns on the market today that meet standard.
Now let’s discuss how I arrived at this bottom line.
Handguns are Boring
The process of becoming a skilled pistolero is exciting. A gifted handgun shooter is a sight to behold, and the pursuit of that kind of performance is anything but boring.
But the pistol itself is boring.
While optics, lights, and “go fast” accessories trickle into the pistol world- they are simply not at the same level as what’s available with long guns. Manufacturer don’t want you to see that, though, so they’re doing everything they can to squeeze blood from the marketing turnip and convince you why their pistol is better than the other guy’s.
So I’ll be honest with you. Between running this site, writing for magazines, competing, renting, and shooting a lot of handguns over the years- the fact starts to settle in that most handguns are pretty much the same.
Yes, there are nuances to things like ergonomics, trigger, and other things. However, these are all personal preferences to the user. What I like might be different than what you like.
In the end, the only thing that matters is whether the thing goes bang every time I need it to without fuss. This actually knocks out a surprisingly large number of brands and models with less than stellar reputations.
Reliability is Number One
When selecting your first, and maybe only, handgun then the most important thing you should care about is whether it goes fires every time you pull the trigger. If you are betting your life, or your family’s life, on the gun then accept nothing less than stellar reliability.
And don’t fuss with it. Competitive shooters enjoy modifying their guns to shave ounces here or there, alter the balance, use different weight springs, or tinker with the inner workings to shave off time from their split. The trouble with this is that every modification that takes the gun further away from it’s engineered specification also puts it into unknown reliability territory.
So don’t do it.
Everything else is secondary to reliability. Luckily, there are several manufacturers and models out there with great reputations to start with. The safest bet is usually to stick to companies and models known to compete for military and law enforcement contracts.
Off the top of my head,
- Smith and Wesson’s M&P series
- H&K P30, VP9, HK 45
- Sig P320, P365
- Walther PDP series
- FN USA FN 509 series, FNX-9
- CZ USA 75 series, P07, P10c
- Beretta 92 series, PX4, and APX A1
Are there other guns out there that are probably good as well? I see a lot of praise out there for Canik, Arex, IWI, and others. However, those can be a lot harder to find in your local shop, not to mention find support items like holsters and spare magazines.
The ones I’ve listed provide a great starting point for most people looking for their first gun. If you go through enough test data, I’m sure some of these will show better reliability numbers than others, but I believe all of them are more than good enough.
So what’s next?
The Next Most Important Thing: How You Shoot It
I best most people would say that the next thing to decide is deciding whether or not you want a striker or hammer-fired gun. Or perhaps holding them all to see which one feels best in your hand.
However, I argue to eschew all of that in favor of actually seeing which one you shoot the best. If you haven’t developed any personal preferences around ergonomics and fire control groups yet, then it’s not worth quibbling over the differences between beavertails, finger grooves, and trigger safety tangs. Shoot the gun and see how you like it and how it performs for you.
That said, ergonomics aside, I bet most beginners will demonstrate a preference for striker-fired pistols here simply because of the known learning curve around double action.
Full Size, Compact, or Sub Compact?
I’m a believer in the “one gun” idea. By that, I mean that it’s reasonable to use the same gun for a variety of tasks including concealed carry, home defense, competition, and training. Some people get wrapped around the axle with multiple guns, each one having subtle differences making it better for competition, night stand duty, or whatever. I think you can skip that.
The vast majority of people do best with a compact-sized handgun. In handgun terms, “compact” means a barrel roughly 4″ long and a capacity of 14-15 rounds of 9mm. This is the ultimate compromise gun, being small enough to reasonably conceal, large enough to hold and control comfortably, and has enough capacity for training and match stages.
The other configurations, full-sized duty guns and sub-compact carry guns, usually give up one of those points by either being too large to comfortably conceal (duty guns) or too small to comfortably shoot for prolonged periods (sub-compacts).
By starting with the compromise option, you allow yourself room to grow in any direction. If you want to move from night stand duty to active concealed carry, then no problem- just get the appropriate holster and have at it. Want to start competing? Go for it, it will work great.
On the other hand, I’ve seen many people get the full sized pistol first thinking they would never carry. Then, after some time and exposure, they have to go buy a second gun for carry use. Save yourself the effort up front and get the compact.
But What if You’re a Female?
Many new shooters fall into the trap of thinking that women are better served with really small guns to go with their smaller hands. While a very small gun might look physically less intimidating due to its size, You cannot get around physics. With less physical mass and less gripping surface for the hands, the sub-compact carry guns have snappier recoil and are more difficult to control.
In an interesting turn, Walther released the PDP-F series, which is still a compact-sized handgun with different ergonomics tailored for female shooters. I have no experience with it, but I do think it’s notable that companies are paying attention to the trend away from “smaller is better” advice.
Within our house, Allison is a big fan of my full-sized Beretta 92A1, 1911, and compact-sized CZ 75D PCR.
Hammer-Fired or Striker-Fired?
I’ve already talked about this a bit in another post, so I won’t linger on it here. I’ll simply say that this is a personal preference. New shooters who have not yet developed strong marksmanship fundamentals usually perform better with striker-fired pistols due to the consistent trigger pull from shot to shot.
Experienced shooters might perform slightly better with hammer-fired guns due to the potential for lighter triggers. Shooters who carry their gun a lot also might prefer the exposed hammer and heavier double action pull of the first shot as an added safety mechanism for carry.
There is no right or wrong answer here. Ultimately it comes down to which one you shoot better.
External Safety or No Safety?
One of the most successful marketing efforts Glock ever did was convincing the world that external safeties were unnecessary, or actively harmful. You see it all over the place today, with people balking at the idea of an external safety on their gun, even if it has a relatively light trigger pull and no other mechanisms like a trigger tang.
On the other hand, generations of shooters successfully used designs like the 1911, Browning Hi-Power, and others that all had mechanical safeties.
Whether you select a pistol with a safety or not comes down to your personal preference and risk tolerance. I completely understand wanting a mechanical safety on a pistol in a house with children.
Generally, I don’t care for mechanical safeties on my hammer-fired DA/SA guns. With striker-fired guns, I can go either way (I have one of each).
Should you choose a gun with a safety, then there are two important factors to consider:
First, the safety mechanism should be large enough to use quickly and instinctively as you draw the gun. As a bad example, the safety on my FNS-9 is tiny and tucked up at the rear of the slide. It would be very easy to miss it and fail to turn it off during an emergency.
Secondly, if you are going to use a safety then you must absolutely train to use the safety consistently. Always practice deactivating the safety lever as part of the draw sequence so that it becomes instinctual. You do not want to be in a position where you practice drawing and shooting with the safety off, and then load it with live ammo and flip the safety on for carry or storage. Under pressure, you’re liable (if not likely) to revert to what you’ve practiced and forget to flip the safety lever.
Optics or No Optics?
I’ll admit that I was skeptical of the whole pistol pistol optics trend. However, now having spent a good amount of time with it, I think it’s the future. Much like the debate between learning iron sights on rifles before learning to use red dots, I believe that we will see more and more of a transition to just starting new shooters with dots first.
The biggest arguments against dots on handguns come from people, like me, who spent years and years training and competing with iron sights. With that, we’ve developed a certain level of muscle memory and habits about sight presentation to get us on target faster. That made the switch to dots a little bit trickier, as the presentation is slightly different.
With new shooters, however, there is no ingrained muscle memory and no habits to break. A person in this position will learn from the get go to maintain target focus and how to bring the sight in alignment.
With that said, the first rule still applies and whatever dot you select should have a reputation for ruggedness and reliability. The gold standard is the Trijicon RMR, with notable new enclosed options coming from the Aimpoint ACRO P2 and Steiner MPS. On the more budget-friendly side, the Holosun 507c and 509t have built solid reputations.
Whichever route you go, make sure to pay attention to the mounting patterns and adapters. Also, be aware that going the optics route adds another layer of maintenance you have to keep track of: batteries.
With all of that said, I would not feel undergunned if I had a pistol with only iron sights and someone else had one with an optic. If the pistol you shoot best doesn’t come ready for optics, then get it anyway to learn to shoot it well. Optics are interesting, but they should not be a deciding factor.
So Should You Really Never Mod a Pistol?
In general, I think beginners should not tinker with their pistols. It’s not that it’s always a bad idea, but that it takes time to learn about what each modification actually does and how it affects operation of the pistol as a whole.
For example, I would not have an issue with someone choosing to swap out a set of cheap plastic factory sights for a nicer set of metal night sights. That doesn’t affect the operation of the gun.
In most cases, I am fine with minor polishing and smoothing of internal contact services to produce a cleaner trigger pull. This kind of thing is really just accelerating what would happen naturally over time. That said, there’s a fine line between this kind of mod and accidently (or inappropriately) modifying the geomotry of the pistol’s mechanics that then induce malfunctions.
For guns you stake your life on, then I don’t think it’s a good idea to start swapping out operating parts and springs. Competitive shooters do this with guns that they know will only ever see a steady diet of custom competition loads with light primers and lower powder charges. For everyone else, I think it’s more important that the gun reliably work with a wide variety of ammunition.
Now that we’ve gotten to the end of my little brain dump, let’s do a quick review. Most people, in most circumstances, will do just fine with a compact-sized handgun. It’s the perfect balance of compactness, capacity, and ergonomics.
The most important factor you should consider is reliability, followed closely by how well you shoot it. Ergonomics are a factor for sure, but such preferences usually don’t develop until you have enough experience, and even then you’re often influenced by what you started with.
All of the other choices, like hammer-fired or striker-fired, safety or no safety, optics or no optics, are personal preferences. As I say with rifles, start with something and master it first, then worry about what you might tweak along the way. Most people never get to the point of mastering the gun.