How to Choose a Handgun


by Janice Talaroc20120524_195248

Updated 10/12/16

Today, there are many, many choices when it comes to handguns.  And just as many opinions as to which gun is the best.  Only you can decide which gun is best for you.  That being said, it is a good idea to seek out other’s opinions and experiences as part of your fact finding exercise before purchasing a gun.

Buying a new hand gun can be exciting, and a little intimidating.  Below is a list of tips that may help you identify which gun will most likely be a good match for you.  Keep in mind, buying a new handgun is much like buying a new pair of shoes.  What looks and feels good in the store, may not be such a good fit once you get it home and have a chance to really use it.  With that in mind, visiting a local range that provides rental guns is highly recommended before making a purchase.  Guns cannot be returned like other retail merchandise.  An NRA approved, or comparable gun safety class should be completed before purchasing a firearm.

Revolver or semi-automatic?  This decision may not be easy.  They both have pros and cons.


A small, lightweight revolver makes a great little concealed carry gun.  It is simple to operate, and easy to clean.  It is also a great home defense gun.  Although it is simpler to operate, it but may also have a very heavy, difficult trigger press.  This is particularly true of the double action only revolvers.  Be sure to try the trigger by holding the gun with a good firing grip, and slowly pressing the trigger.  Is it easy or difficult?  Can you hold the gun still while pressing the trigger?  If you have to exert so much pressure that the gun moves off target while pressing the trigger, this may not be a good choice for you.  If you think you do not have enough strength to rack the slide on a semi-auto, you probably don’t have enough strength to press the trigger on a double action revolver.  Find a good class and learn proper techniques for both.

If possible, shoot a revolver to see if the recoil is manageable.  The smaller, light weight revolvers designed for concealed carry may have too much felt recoil, which may be unpleasant and will result in you not wanting to practice.  Trigger press and recoil = two very important factors when making your decision.  Finally, they do not hold as much ammunition as some of the larger semi-automatics.  Revolvers do not have manually operated safeties.

Manual Safety:  The safety of a firearm is determined by the person operating the gun, not by a lever or button.  If you feel more comfortable with a gun that has a manual safety, it is imperative that you practice using the safety each and every time you operate the gun.  Most modern handguns have drop safeties.  This means the gun will not go off unless the trigger is pressed and the gun is loaded.  Refer to your universal gun safety rules.  Every gun is always loaded…


Semi-automatics come in several sizes and styles.  It can be overwhelming.  Starting with size, smallest to largest: sub-compact, compact, full size.  There are a few somewhere in between.

Sub-compact is probably the most popular size for concealed carry due to the lighter weight and smaller size.  A small, sub-compact, semi-auto may have many of the same advantages and disadvantages of the revolver.  Small light guns = more felt recoil, and often have triggers that are heavier than many shooters prefer.  Be sure to try one before you buy.  A sub-compact is usually a common choice for more experienced shooters looking for a 2nd gun that easier to carry and conceal than their larger preferred gun.

Choosing a compact semi-auto may be a better fit in terms of comfort and accuracy.  What you sacrifice in size and weight, will be made up for in comfort when shooting.  This is very important, especially if this is your first gun.  You need to feel comfortable, and going to the range to practice should be a regular routine.  One advantage to a compact semi-auto is it may hold more ammunition than a sub-compact.  (This varies from one model to the next.)  Again, it cannot be emphasized enough – try before you buy.

Full size semi-automatic handguns can be the easiest and most fun to shoot.  They are usually heavier, have a larger grip area, and longer sight radius.  All of this equals more comfort and accuracy.  What’s not to like about that?  Many first time gun owner’s choose a full size gun due to all the positive features, and then later, when they have more skill, move on to something smaller for concealed carry.  Makes sense, right?

Striker fired vs Hammer fired? For a very detailed explanation of striker fired handguns, please see this link by the Personal Defense Network.

Hammer fired handguns are very popular with target shooters.  The trigger press can be very light, and particularly in the 1911 version guns, the guns can be very accurate and enjoyable to shoot.  They typically have manual safeties and some versions such as Sig Sauer and Beretta, have decockers.  Be sure you understand how these features work before purchasing this type of gun.  Located at the rear of the slide, the hammer is visible, particularly when cocked.  Most hammer fired guns have steel or aluminum frames.

Striker fired handguns were originally introduced by Glock.  Most other major manufacturer’s have followed suit and introduced their own models.  The striker fired gun typically has a moderate trigger press, may or may not have a manual safety, and the frame is made of polymer.  These guns tend to come in at a very moderate price which makes them readily available to most first time gun owners.  Many experienced gun owners feel striker fired guns are the best choice for defensive carry guns.  This is due to the ease of operation, consistent trigger press, and proven reliability.  Again, obtain training, go the range, try out several guns before making your decision on which gun to buy.

Caliber: The number of different opinions on this subject are many.

If you are a new shooter, a 22lr caliber handgun will probably give YOU the best positive experience when you go to the range for the first time.  This is due to the low recoil of the gun, regardless of the size of the gun.  There is nothing wrong with choosing a 22lr caliber gun as your first purchase.  Shooting fundamentals are the same, regardless of the caliber of the gun.  You can learn how to shoot competently with a 22lr handgun.

As a first time gun owner, it is extremely important that you are comfortable enough with your new gun that you are willing to go to the range and practice regularly.  Much like driving a car, practicing once or twice, does not make you a safe driver.  If you want a gun for self defense, you need to get training and practice.  If you don’t know when it is safe to shoot, or if it is safe to shoot, or if you cannot hit your target, you should not have a gun.

Choosing a gun for self defense includes deciding on caliber.  Do your research.  Use only quality, self defense ammunition in your defensive handgun.  You must be able to put good hits on your target if you are to be effective at stopping a threat.  Choose a caliber that is manageable for you to shoot.  Get training and practice.  The caliber means nothing if you can’t hit your target.


Before you shop:

1.  If you have not obtained a CPL, concealed pistol license, consider doing so before shopping.  This will eliminate the waiting period for delivery of your new gun.  Be sure to bring picture ID and your CPL with you when planning to make a purchase.

2. Identify the primary use for the gun: target practice, self-defense, both?)  Knowing the type and caliber ahead of time is helpful.  (Revolver or semi-auto?  22cal, 9mm, 38cal?  Steel, aluminum, or polymer?)    A gun designed primarily for target practice may be larger and heavier than a gun designed primarily for self-defense and concealed carry.

3. Determine the approximate amount you would like to spend.  (Internet browsing can help to familiarize you with market prices on various models.) Many firearms retailers give small discounts for cash or debit, rather than credit card transactions.

4. Identify a couple of local gun stores to visit and allow ample time to browse while visiting.  You may want to take a friend that is familiar with firearms along to help guide you through the process; keeping in mind you should make the final decision.  Allow several hours to shop; the selection and purchase of a hand gun is not a short process.

At the store:

1.  Most retail gun shops separate the hand guns by caliber.  Some shops may separate guns by manufacturer.  You can expect to find a display case with one or more shelves dedicated to a specific caliber.  After locating this area, you will probably find tags with prices attached to each gun.  Some retailers use different colored tags when offering pre-owned guns for sale.  Just ask if you are not sure about any of this information.

2. After doing some “window shopping”, ask to see one or more of the guns you may be interested in purchasing.  You can expect that only one or two guns will be removed from the case at any one time. The store associate should always clear the gun before handing it to you.  Whenever a firearm is handed to you, check again to be sure the gun is empty and unloaded by removing the magazine, or opening the revolver, and checking the chamber.  Always keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction, preferably down at the floor.

Proper Fit & Operation:

1. Grip:  Check the grip for proper sizing to fit your hand.  While holding the gun with a proper shooting grip, trigger finger extended, the first pad of the finger should come in contact with the trigger when pressed.  If your trigger finger cannot reach the trigger easily, the gun may be too large.  If your trigger finger is reaching well beyond the pad of the finger when the trigger is pressed, the gun may be too small for your hand.  Many models now come with adjustable back straps designed to fit a variety of hand sizes.  Ask about this option, and about possibly changing the grip pads.  (There are many types available.)  Smaller, compact handguns may have shorter grip frames resulting in your pinky finger hanging off the end.

2. Trigger Guard:  Another important consideration, but often overlooked, is the length of trigger guard on the hand gun.  While holding the gun with a proper shooting grip, trigger finger fully extended, if the tip of your trigger finger is coming in contact with the front of the trigger guard, this may or may not interfere with your ability to press the trigger efficiently.  Trigger guards vary greater from one gun to another.  (Long nails with also cause interference in this way.)

3. Magazine Release Button:  Semi-automatic pistols usually come with a magazine release button located on the left side of the frame.  Some models may offer buttons on both sides of the frame, referred to as ambidextrous magazine release buttons.  If you are a left handed shooter, you may want to consider this option.  While maintaining a shooting grip, it is preferable to be able to reach the magazine release button without having to adjust your grip.  However, this may not be possible on many hand guns.  Be sure to operate the magazine release button several times when trying out a potential purchase to be sure you are comfortable with its operation. 

4. Manual Safety:  Many semi-automatic hand guns have manual safeties located on the left side of the frame.  Some models offer ambidextrous safeties.  Left handed shooters may want to consider this option.  While maintaining a shooting grip, you will need to be able to engage and disengage the manual safety with the thumb of your shooting hand.  As with the magazine release button, be sure to operate the manual safety several times to be sure you are comfortable with its operation on any gun you may be considering for purchase.

5. Slide Lock:  Semi-automatic pistols have locks to prevent the slide from closing when the magazine is empty, and to aid in clearing stoppages or malfunctions.  Be sure to operate the slide lock manually to be sure you are comfortable with its operation.

6. Trigger Pull:  Trigger pull is defined in pounds.  Example: 4.5 pound trigger pull.  Gunsmiths have tools and can identify the trigger pull if needed.  Many manufacturers provide this information in the owner’s manual or specifications for a particular gun.  Double action operation usually results in a much heavier trigger pull than single action operation.  Some hand guns can be operated either single or double action, and others may be dedicated to only one or the other.  Be sure to ask questions as needed, and obtain a clear understanding of this operation before purchasing a double action only handgun.

While maintaining a proper shooting grip on the handgun, press the trigger to the rear to determine is the pressure is comfortable and to your liking.  Besides weight, the length of trigger pull might also be considered when choosing a handgun.  Some handguns have long trigger pulls, which simply means the trigger will need to travel further before firing.  Others have short trigger pulls and will require less movement to fire.  Weight and length of pull will vary from one gun to another, as will preference for each will vary from one person to another.  Comparisons and shooting experience will help you to determine the best fit for your individual needs.  If needed, a competent gunsmith can make adjustments to the trigger pull of most handguns.  Prices may vary, but as of the date of this printing, $150 may be the minimum expected cost.

7. Sights:  Most handguns come from the factory already “sighted in” for the user.  Typical handgun sights offered on most factory pistols can be broken into 3 categories: fixed, adjustable, and night sights.  Fixed sights are typically black, or black with white highlighted areas on the rear and front sight.  These are the least expensive, and may be more difficult to see in low light conditions.  Adjustable sights provide the option for the user to make adjustments based on individual sight alignment preferences.  They may or may not include white or colored highlights.  One or both sights may be adjustable.  Some adjustable sights are referred to as “competition sights”.  Night sights may or may not be adjustable, and are made from material that glows in the dark.  Tritium Fiber optic sights not only glow at night, they also glow during the day.  Higher end pistols often include adjustable or night sights.  There are many varieties of aftermarket sights available; and in most cases, a professional can remove and replace factory sights as needed.

8. Magazines & other accessories:  Ask the store associate what accessories are included with the handgun that you may be interested in purchasing.  Some common accessories might include: holster, soft or hard case, cleaning brush; for semi-automatics 1-4 magazines, magazine loader, and magazine holder, and gun lock.  (Be sure to secure your firearm at all times when not in use.)  All new firearms come with owner’s manuals.  Some manufacturers put together very nice packages that include everything you might need, while others include only the minimum.  You may want to consider this when determining overall cost.

9. Ammunition:  Availability and cost of ammunition may play an important role in firearm selection.  Be sure to check current availability and prices on caliber and types of ammunition for specific handguns.  As a rule, the smaller the caliber, the less expensive the ammunition.  As an example: 22lr is much less expensive than 9mm, which is much less expensive than 45acp.

10. Cleaning: In order to maintain operating efficiency, guns need to be cleaned when used regularly.  If you are not familiar with the field stripping procedure on a particular gun that you are considering for purchase, ask the store associate to perform the operation for you.  This will enable you to see the level of difficulty involved, as well as view the interior of the gun.  Maintaining a gun is part of gun ownership responsibility.  If you plan to rely on your gun for self defense, it is imperative that you keep it cleaned and well oiled at all times.

Finally, many people ask me for recommendations on handguns.  I have always tried to avoid making specific recommendations on make, model and caliber.  All of the information in this article should help you to understand why.  That being said, I will share what I have found to be the best choice for my students, and for me personally.  Remember, only you can decide what is the best gun for you.

Caliber: 9mm – The recoil is manageable, the ammunition is reasonably priced, and I feel it is adequate for self defense.

Make/model of defensive firearm: Any reliable striker fired handgun.  Glock, Smith and Wesson, Springfield, Ruger, Sig Sauer, Walther, H&K.  I own them all.

My defensive handgun favorites: Springfield XDM compact Mod 2 9mm, Smith and Wesson M&P V-Tac 9mm, Wather CCP 9mm.  Sub-compacts: Ruger LCP, Glock 42, DB380, Ruger LCR 38 revolver

My favorite guns to shoot at the range: Kimber 1911 Team Match 9mm, Colt 1911 Gold Cup 45 ACP, any Smith & Wesson Revolvers, any 22lr handgun

Guns are like shoes.  One size does not fit all people, or all circumstances.

Tips provided here are for informational purposes only, and not intended to be all inclusive.  07/17/11  Update 10/12/16

3 thoughts on “How to Choose a Handgun”

  1. Janice, I love your tip about allowing ample time to shop around. My wife has been interested in purchasing a gun for target practice & possible protection. For her birthday I want to take her to a few gun shops to find the right fit for her. I’ll have to let her know about the CPL license.

    Liked by 1 person

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