How to Choose a Handgun


by Janice Talaroc

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.

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 back or 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.  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.

10. Cleaning: In order to maintain operating efficiency, guns may 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.

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

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.


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