Choosing A Self-defense Gun
I get emails and private messages on Facebook nearly every week asking, “Which gun should I get?” So, this is a blog article that’s been in progress for quite a while. I finally got around to finishing it.
In this political and social climate, I’m getting the question even more often. Many people are considering buying their first guns. More are realizing that they alone are responsible for their own safety and security. Usually, they’re asking about handguns. Yes, long guns, such as rifles and shotguns have a place in the self-defense line-up. Maybe I’ll touch on that another day. Handguns will be the focus of this article.
Hypothetically, the ideal handgun would have all of these qualities:
- Large caliber that would instantly stop the bad guy.
- Little to no recoil (kick).
- High capacity for ammo.
- Small, lightweight, and easily concealed (if you plan to carry it).
- Fits every hand universally.
- Never malfunctions.
- Inexpensive to buy and own.
Unfortunately, no such handgun exists!
There is no perfect gun, and all of them present compromises. So, the quick answer to the question is, “It depends.”
The truth is that I really can’t recommend any particular gun to anyone.
What I like, you may hate. What’s right for you depends on a number of factors, including:
- What fits your hand.
- Can you operate the controls easily?
- What you can shoot comfortably and proficiently.
- Sensitivity to recoil (aka “kick”).
- Do you plan on carrying it concealed? Where? How? How do you dress?
- Is it for home defense?
- Will you be “sharing” the gun (with a spouse)?
Do Your Homework!
I have long advocated taking a basic pistol handling class. Typically, these classes have a variety of handguns available for students to try. Quite simply, the best way to find the best type of gun for you is to “try before you buy.” Some ranges have guns available for rent, which is another way to see what you like. However, I will attempt an introduction to handguns that you may find useful before dipping your toes in the gunpowder.
Revolvers vs. Pistols
Let’s get down to the two basic types of handguns: revolvers and pistols. They are easily visually and functionally distinguished.
Revolvers, also sometimes called “wheel guns,” have a prominent and visible cylinder in which 5 to 8 rounds of ammunition are loaded. At each trigger pull, the cylinder rotates and puts the next round in front of the hammer to be fired.
Revolvers generally are believed to be more reliable than semi-auto pistols. It’s true… and considered a significant advantage of revolvers. They are also easier (simple) to operate. Once it’s loaded, you just pull the trigger. There are no safety levers, magazine or slide releases.
Revolvers generally don’t “jam.” So, there are no “jam-clearing” procedures to be learned. However, they CAN malfunction and lock up. Ask me how I know. So, don’t believe anyone who tells you, “revolvers never malfunction.”
And, clearing a jammed revolver is not easy. You won’t be able to do it in a shit-hit-the-fan scenario. A jammed semi-auto pistol (see below) can be cleared easily and quickly (once you know how) right then and there… and be back in action against the bad guy. Though such jams are fairly rare with a reliable semi in the hands of a properly-trained shooter.
Revolvers are easy to use, as their design is very simple. If your first gun is for home defense and it will be “shared” (used by your significant other), a large-framed revolver is a great choice. Revolvers are also easier to maintain, as they don’t require any dis-assembly.
The big disadvantage of a revolver is that it has a lower ammunition capacity (5 to 8 rounds, typically). Another disadvantage of a revolver is that it can be more challenging to conceal due to the profile of the cylinder (thicker than most semi-auto pistols)… if your plans include carrying concealed. Though it is not impossible. They can certainly be concealed.
Also, revolvers are more difficult when it comes to “tactical reloads.” That means when the shit hits the fan, and you’re out of ammo, loading a revolver cylinder takes longer and can be more difficult when your body is loaded up with adrenaline (manual dexterity is greatly diminished). Feeding rounds into the holes in the cylinder can be a challenge if your hands are shaking from an adrenaline dump. However, there are devices called “speed-loaders” and “speed strips” that can make reloading much easier.
That all said, revolvers are considered by many to be ideal for beginners and first-time buyers. Smith & Wesson and Ruger make excellent revolvers. HOWEVER, you may find that a snub-nose revolver like the Smith & Wesson 642 Airweight pictured two pictures up on the right are often recommended to women for their first concealed carry gun. It’s generally a bad choice. While they are conveniently compact and lightweight, they have a harsh recoil. They KICK. A lot. Because of that, the new owner will tend to shy away from practice. Even for an experienced shooter like myself, practice with the S&W 642 Airweight gets tiresome and painful after about 20 rounds of practice at the range. Practice is important, so for a novice, a snub-nose may not be a good first choice. A larger framed gun will absorb recoil better and encourage more practice.
Semi-auto pistols look quite different than revolvers. They have a slimmer profile. And, rather than a cylinder holding the ammunition, there is a box-shaped magazine that is inserted into the grip of the gun. On top, there is a “slide” that moves back and forth. This is how the gun loads the next round into the chamber to be fired. The first round is chambered by the user “racking the slide” (pulling it to the rear and letting it snap forward). When the first round is fired, the slide action automatically ejects the spent round and loads the next round in the chamber ready to be fired at the next pull of the trigger.
Semi-autos typically have higher capacities… 7 to 15+ rounds, depending on the size (of the frame) and caliber of the pistol. Semi-autos offer very quick and easy tactical reloads. You press the magazine release button and drop the empty magazine. Pop in a fresh magazine, rack the slide, and you’re ready to go. Semi-autos usually offer a flatter profile (thickness) for easier concealment.
Semi-auto pistols can malfunction (in a number of ways). So, it’s important to understand how and why they malfunction. If the SHTF (shit hits the fan), you’ll know how to clear the malfunction quickly and get back in the fight. The malfunctions can be misfeeds, jams, etc. Or, it can even be the magazine that malfunctions. All of these can usually be dealt with on the fly, if you’re prepared. Though, again… such jams should be quite rare.
Because the slide of a semi-auto pistol is spring-loaded, some people (with small or weak hand-strength) may find it difficult to operate.
Maintenance of semi-auto pistols is a bit more involved, as they require some dis-assembly (“field-stripping”) to clean and lubricate. However, most are fairly easy.
Semi-auto Pistol Variety
There are semi-autos that are very simple in design (fewer moving parts), such as Glock’s line of pistols.
And, there are semi-autos that are complex with a lot of moving parts, such as the classic Colt 1911, a .45-caliber (see below). You’ll find fans and haters of both.
Of course, there are other good brands, too.
Personally, I like Glock and FNH pistols. And, one reason is that they are VERY reliable. They just shoot and shoot and shoot. Malfunctions are extremely rare to non-existent. Smith & Wesson and Ruger also make some excellent and very reliable semi-autos.
I will dare to make this suggestion, especially for a new shooter: Don’t get a Colt 1911 style pistol for your first gun. They are a bit more complicated. You WILL find enthusiasts that think they are the ONLY type of pistol to get.
While there are many fine 1911 pistols available, I will simply argue it’s the wrong choice for most NEW shooters. Your mileage may vary. I’ve shot 1911s. They’re very cool. But I don’t own one…. yet. When I do get one, it will primarily be a “range gun.”
Care and Feeding
If you’ve made the decision to arm yourself with a lethal weapon, I hope you’ll agree that proficiency and competence are important. And, to achieve that end, practice at the range should be part of your plan. The more practice you get, the more competent you’ll be… and, it’s FUN! You should also consider additional professional instruction. Simply buying a gun doesn’t make you a shooter, just as buying a piano doesn’t make you a musician.
Range time is important. Some people buy a gun, shoot it once (some never), and then either put it away at the house or carry it… without really being competent. That can be dangerous to themselves and others around them.
Range time and cost: The real question is whether you have to buy ammo at the range, or will they let you bring your own? If they’re charging $10 – $20 (usually by the hour), and you can bring your own ammo, then that’s not too bad. But, some ranges require you to buy your ammo from them (and charge less for the range time), and they may charge a premium for the ammo (compared to buying it elsewhere). Costs can escalate quickly. However, some ranges are fairly reasonable. Some offer annual memberships that include unlimited range time, which can reduce your costs if you go often. Check around.
I buy most of my ammo online. And, if you start to shoot fairly often, it’s worth buying it in bulk online.
Which caliber? .38-Special… 9-mm… .40-cal…. .45-cal…
Another thing about ammo… it can affect your decision on purchasing a gun. Bigger calibers make bigger holes. Advocates of armed self-defense quip that bigger holes “let the bad out (of bad guys) faster.” Bigger calibers also make a bigger boom. And, that means more recoil. How much recoil can you tolerate and still shoot accurately? In a self-defense scenario, two hits with a smaller caliber is better than six misses with a larger caliber.
Besides deciding which caliber you are comfortable (and competent) shooting, you may consider the COST of practicing with that caliber. Different ammo calibers will cost varying amounts. From cheaper to more expensive: 9mm < .40-cal < .45-cal, for example.
(Edited to add: The pricing examples below may not reflect the current reality with prices fluctuating wildly due to the political influences at play. But, you can still consider how the prices are relative to each caliber.)
9-mm can cost from $10 – $13 for a box of 50.
.40-cal can cost ~$16 – $18.
.45-cal can cost ~$18 – $20.
I can easily go through 200 – 300 rounds in a range session of about an hour. Some shoot less. Some shoot more. It just depends on your experience and preferences.
Range ammo vs. self-defense ammo
I should mention the differences between range / practice ammo vs. self-defense (SD) ammo.
Range ammo is typically FMJ (full metal jacket – lead covered by copper) or plain lead. It’s cheaper than self-defense (SD) ammo. And, it’s generally not appropriate for self-defense. It doesn’t expand on impact. It can even pass through the bad guy, possibly hitting someone else (innocent). And, that’s not good.
SD ammo is also known as hollow-point (HP). Hollow points are appropriate for SD because they expand (making a bigger hole in the bad guy and transferring more energy to the target). And, they don’t go THROUGH the bad guy, possibly causing collateral damage or casualties.
SD ammo is more expensive. Premium SD ammo can cost as much as a buck a round. You don’t usually use it for practice at the range. BUT, you SHOULD run (test) a couple boxes of it through your gun to make sure it functions reliably. This is especially true with a semi-auto pistol. It’s not really an issue with revolvers. Some semi-autos can be picky about SD / HP ammo. You don’t want to find out your semi-auto pistol jams up with a certain HP ammo at the worst possible time. Find a brand / model of HP your gun likes to eat. Once you’ve determined compatibility between pistol and SD ammo, you’re good-to-go and won’t need to practice with the expensive SD ammo.
Always use protection!
It’s very important to use eye and ear protection at the range. We only get one set of eyes and ears, and damage to either is usually irreversible. Buy your own glasses and ear muffs. Don’t cheap out! Even high quality protection is relatively inexpensive. Ranges have rentals. But, I don’t like to put rental gear on my face that has someone else’s sweat all over it. Yuck!
One more pearl: Wear a baseball cap! Ejected brass shells (HOT!) are a bit unpredictable in their trajectory. It’s not only your own brass, but it could be from the shooter in the next lane over. I’ve seen them lodge between eye glasses and cheeks or eyebrows, leaving a nasty burn. But, they’ll bounce right off the brim of your baseball cap.
Another pearl for the ladies: Don’t wear low-cut tops or open shoes at the range… for the same reason I recommend baseball caps. I’ve seen ladies doing quite a dance when hot brass lands in their cleavage. Never mind that dancing around with a loaded gun in your hand adds danger to yourself and those around you. PUT THE FIREARM DOWN ON THE BENCH… Then dance all you want. Put the gun down first!!
UPDATE to this section: Woman Shoots Fiance in Leg at Range after Hot Casing Lands in Blouse!
UPDATE #2: A very sad story – Teen accidentally killed at gun range by dad’s bullet
Guns require maintenance to remain reliable. Cleaning and lubricating your guns will keep them running and prevent damage from corrosion. You don’t want a gunked-up gun to malfunction on you at the worst possible time. If you carry a gun concealed, you’ll need to clean it occasionally even if you haven’t fired it in a while (due to lint and other dirt that accumulates). Read the manual and keep it clean and shiny.
Bet you can’t shoot just one!
In the end, you may discover that one gun isn’t enough, because one gun isn’t ideal for a variety of purposes. You may find that a gun that is great for home protection doesn’t serve well as a carry piece. Likewise, you may find a particular gun is ideal for range practice and not so much for home protection. And, so on. There’s nothing wrong with owning multiple guns for multiple purposes.
Now get out there and exercise your 2nd Amendment Right!
So, there you go… a primer on choosing and using your first gun. I hope you found it helpful. Again… Take a class, and try before you buy. Also, you can rent a variety of guns at most ranges (after you’ve taken the class). Learn and commit to memory the rules of safe gun handling.
If I missed anything, or you have questions, feel free to post them in the comment section below!
PS… You may also like these articles about guns:
Why You Shouldn’t Listen to Bad Advice on Self-defense
Everyone Should Have a .22-LR in Their Collection
Is the Gun Loaded? It Doesn’t Matter!
Why I “Need” an AR-15
Save Your Own Life with Situational Awareness
My Appearance on CNBC’s Special About the AR-15