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Handguns for the Beginner

Of all the things that I’m asked over and over, what is the right handgun for the beginner seems to come up time and time again.  I can tell you, my answer isn’t what you would expect.  I’ve heard so many people talk to customers through the years at the gun counters.  People with no experience in purchasing a gun making that purchase from a person with little to no experience in firearms themselves.  It perpetuates a cycle of misunderstanding and dangerous opinions vs facts.  

The person I want to address here is the person who wants a pistol for self-defense.  More so than any other reason, that is why people buy a handgun.  I’ll take it one step further here, most people who ask what they should purchase are females.  This happens for lots of different reasons.  Mostly due to the fact females are more prone to asking for help than a man.   I’m not stereotyping here, but it’s my experience over the years in selling firearms.  Women will ask for help, men typically ask a buddy.  With that said, there is nothing to qualify the person’s experience that is selling you the firearm, or your buddy’s experience in suggesting what you should be buying.  

My suggestion for what a person should purchase is from what I’ve seen through the years at ranges, stores, and listening to my customers.  If there is anything else that I can tell you, listen to what the customer’s concerns are.  I will say now, that there is no “One size fits all” approach to this, but if we are talking about a person with zero experience, there are two directions that I will take them every time.  90% of those lead to the same place.  

What everyone forgets when selecting a firearm is the fact that if it must be used in a life-or-death situation, it’s extremely stressful.  It’s not like a day on the range where people are helping you, you have all the time in the world to load the firearm, remember where the safety is, take a deep breath and squeezing the trigger.  It couldn’t be further from the truth.  I’ve put people on the range and as soon as you use a stern voice, they fall apart.  The reality most people without the proper training are not equipped to deal with the stress and adrenaline that comes from the moment when a firearm must be used.  Not even close.  One thing I always advocate is to get some proper training.  Do not buy any weapon, load it, put it in a draw and hope you never have to use it.  Buy the weapon, buy several boxes of self-defense ammunition, and a minimum of 300 practice rounds.  When you make the decision to purchase a firearm, you have to commit to the responsibility of owning it, securing it, and being able to use it.  

There are so many factors that need to be considered here, but let’s keep it simple and stick to two possible customers.  The first one wants the firearm for home defense and the second one wants it for concealed carry.  In an attempt to keep this brief, we’ll say that the customer has already made the decision to purchase a pistol for both cases.  With so many firearms options out there, even that is getting to be a tougher decision to make.  

The home defense person.  First and foremost, I will tell you right now that most people if they aren’t going to enjoy the sport of shooting and just want a firearm for protection, should look at any automatic weapons.  No Glocks, no Berettas, and no micro firearms of any type.  Here we go, the inedible question of “Why Not?”.  It’s simple.  High stress leads to mistakes.  Remember, we are addressing the person with little to no experience in firearms.  Magazine release buttons have been mistaken for safety selectors, hammers have forgotten to be pulled back to make the pistol fire, and my favorite one is the jamming of the firearm due to improper grip or ammunition selection.  That’s just the tip of the possibilities that could happen.  So, we are on a revolver.  Now, what caliber.  Here is where most people will defer to the 38 special.  I’ve found that to be the wrong choice.  Why would you shoot a 38, when you could buy a 357 mag and still fire 38 Spl through it?  If you go bigger than 357, most people can’t handle the recoil.  There is zero reason to ever go smaller in a self-defense weapon for a revolver.  You need a caliber that will stop an intruder and is still manageable for the shooter.  357 Mag fits perfectly.  Now, I stated this weapon is for home defense.  There is no reason to purchase a revolver with a barrel shorter than 4” for this task.  The smaller the pistol, the harder it is to control.  People often times forget that part.  For practice, you take a 4” 357 and shoot 38’s through it.  The recoil is extremely mild and the customer will get a good feel for the proper handling of the firearm.  Now, remember I said purchase a couple boxes of ammunition for self-defense.  Here is where you can either go to a +P 38 SPL load or step up to the 357 mag.  For me, it depends on the person.  Some people’s stature will make it tough to shoot a full load in a 357 mag.  You need to be conscious of this fact.  It is night and day when you make that swap.  I also am a firm believer in that everyone has the ability to shoot a full charge in 357 Mag, but you have to practice.  In a situation where your life depends on your ability to handle a firearm effectively, practice with the same ammunition you will be shooting in those circumstances.  You have to know exactly how that firearms reacts and handles when seconds count.  

The concealed carry person.  This is where I see more mistakes made than any other category of new shooter, especially by women.  They want a little gun.  They want a little round.  They want something pink.  No, no, and no!!  Women have an advantage here that men don’t.  They typically carry a purse.  Why in the world would you suggest a 380 Auto in a little bitty gun that will jamb if you don’t handle it perfectly?  There is no longer a reason to ever purchase a 380 AUTO.  I have fired more 380 into a gel block than any other round looking for a bullet to perform well.  The closest one is ours, but I still don’t recommend 380 for self-defense.  It beats a rock, but not by much.  Again I’ll defer to the revolvers here.  Same caliber applies, but I reluctantly opt to make the switch to a 2” long barrel in lieu of the 4”.  Now, some things happen when you make that swap.  The guns are lighter, shorter, and tend to be harder to control.  For that person I strongly suggest a steel frame instead of the aluminum or other options available.  It’s much easier to control with that short barrel.  I also make a suggestion to use a heavy bullet in the 38 SPL.  When you drop to a 2” barrel you aren’t getting a huge increase in velocity between the 38 and 357.  Also, with the increase in powder in a 357, the muzzle flash is much larger.  It reminds me of a fire-breathing dragon to be exact.  So, why buy the 357 and not the 38?  That is because at some point, you will have the option of shooting those fire-breathing monsters and if you don’t hit what you’re aiming at, nothing on the other end is hanging around for the multiple shots.  The goal is to train to the point to be effective with the 357 Mag round, but train with the 38 SPL.  It takes lots of rounds and lots of training.  Anyone who tells you different is trying to sell you something.  

I hope someone gets some good takeaways from this.  Starting with a revolver is never a bad thing.  I have a Kimber in 357 mag that I love and shoot on a regular basis.  If you shoot and want to move up to a semi-auto pistol at some point, I’m all for it, but only after you shoot, shoot, and shoot some more.  I’ve seen so many people start with a Ruger in 380, or a Glock in 9mm due to the popularity of those rounds and pistols.  It’s not the best place to start.  Hand placement is more critical, loading the magazine with stiff springs is a problem for some, and the fact that those pistols are a little harder with recoil just adds to failures under high stress.  A good 357 Mag will last a lifetime and is something that gives you flexibility and options in ammunition that cover just about any self-defense situation you could ever encounter.