Selecting a Handgun

My friend is in the process of picking his first (and he says “only”) handgun. I started to write him some notes on my opinions, trying very hard not to come across as a FKIA, then realized I could get some blog mileage out of it. So, here we go – general thoughts on selecting a handgun.

Form follows function
What do you want the gun for? Is this a fun gun for the range, or a working gun?

With range guns, everything that follows in this discussion is moot. While range guns can be used for serious work, they won’t be your go-to guns, and thus get treated a little differently. You may or may not have holsters for them; you have only one or two magazines, and no spare parts; your ammunition supply for this gun is small, maybe only enough for a single range trip.

A working gun, on the other hand, you’re depending on to protect your life, and that of your family. It’s the gun that will wait on your bedside table while you sleep. It’s the gun that will ride on your hip throughout the day. It’s the gun that you will have with you when you need it, when you least expect. As such, it will be the gun you’re most familiar with, the one you shoot the most. It’s going to be abused – sweated on, scratched, banged against doorways and furniture, shot a lot, rained on, dropped, and shot some more. You will lightly maintain it daily; meticuliously after each time you shoot. The first time it goes click when it should have gone bang, you’re going to lose confidence in it, strip it to individual pieces, clean everything to a shine, replace the springs and worn parts, and make it earn its way back to your good graces. You’ll have multiple holsters to accommodate multiple styles of dress, many magazines, a box of spare parts, and enough ammo to keep your gun running if you can’t get any more tomorrow.

And here’s the real rub – your working gun, your constant companion, is disposable. It is essentially a single use item. If you are involved in a lawful self-defense use, you can expect your pistol to be confiscated as “evidence”. Even if you’re acquitted, charges are dropped, or never pressed, it may be years before you see that gun again, if ever. (That might be some Philadelphia bias showing through.) Having duplicate firearms available suddenly makes sense, no?

Manufacturers
You’ll find every manufacturer has its own groupies, who claim their gun is the best around – Beretta, Colt, Glock, HK, Kimber, SIG, S&W, Springfield Armory, and so forth. The magazines will rave about any gun company that’s paying for advertisement. But, you could post your question on any number of gun-specific forums (GlockTalk, SIGForum, HKPro, etc), and I think you will ultimately get one similiar answer – get a gun that you shoot well. Stick with the major manufacturers, and you should be fine.

Caliber
There’s a lot of colloquial advice on caliber selection, like shooting someone with a .22 will just make them angry, or you can’t win a gunfight without a caliber that starts with a “4”. Carrying a 9mm makes you a girly man, but carrying a .45 says you’re compensating for something. Some will say you need the latest high-tech round from the Eargesplitten Loudenboomer family. (I’m not making that up – it’s a real cartridge.) Others say if .45 Long Colt was good enough for Bill Hickok, it’s good enough for me.

My advice is pick a common caliber (9mm/.40/.45/.357SIG in Semis, .38/.357/.44 in wheelies) that you shoot well, and can afford to shoot often. Ultimately, shot placement trumps hole size.

Price
While a $1000 gun is good, a $500 gun and $500 of practice ammo is better. Better yet is a gun, ammo and professional training that will teach you to shoot it well.

Accessories
There are just a couple of things necessary to enhance a good working gun.

I feel night sights are mandatory to know where your gun is pointing in the dark. After that first night-vision destroying shot, you likely won’t see them again, so you must make the first one count.

If you’re using an autoloader, you’ll need a small collection of magazines. I’d recommend at least two, preferably three, dedicated exclusively to carry / defense purposes. Then have at least three more for training purposes – these will get dropped and dirty. If you can afford more, buy more.

You’ll need a good quality holster, molded specifically to your gun, that covers the trigger completely. There are many options – which I’ve covered before. You’ll also want a carrier for a spare magazine.

More important than the holster is a good quality GUN belt. Thin, flexible belts don’t have the stones to support a handgun. A belt made specifically to support a gun spreads the weight across the hips, and won’t flop away from the body like a lesser belt.

My Bias
Here are my biases, not that they should matter in your choices:

– My working guns are Glocks. Yes, they’re plastic. Yes, they all look alike, and some would say they’re without soul. They’re also ubiquitous police firearms – something like 60% of law enforcement in this country is toting a glock. That means accessories and parts are easily available. They’re simple to clean and work on. The tenifer finish is second to none in my opinion. Some lament the lack of external safties – I like the simple controls.

– My caliber of choice is 10mm. Granted this is an enthusiast’s caliber, and isn’t available in every store that sells ammo. Thus, my working guns are in 9mm.

– S&W semis & Berettas: I find these guns unattractive, and thus they don’t interest me.

– 1911s: These guns are sexy. I’ve been a fan since long before I was old enough to drive, let alone shoot or own one. However, it seems to me most folks feel the need to send them to a good ‘smith for tweaking and polishing before using them for carry purposes. Add to that a single stack, low capacity magazine, and the weight of a steel frame gun, and I’m not interested in carrying one. Mine are just for the range. Besides, I don’t train with one, so those extra controls require too much thinking.

– SIG: I love the look of SIG pistols, and they shoot very well for me. The bore axis is a little high, which always gives me a strange feeling of not quite aiming them properly. The DA/SA trigger takes a bit of work to master, but can certainly be done. The advantage of this action is double strike ability, which is lacking in both glocks and 1911s. (Of course, TRB takes precedence over double strike.)

Those are my opinions, please feel free to stop by and give my friend your thoughts.

Oh, and if you want a reference “text” on selecting guns: Boston’s Gun Bible.

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