4 Questions To Help You Buy The Perfect Handgun

So you’re ready to purchase your first  (or next) handgun? Let me start off by saying, “Woot-woot, hurray,  and congratulations”. You are joining a demographic of people that are as diverse as fish in the sea, rivaled only by the number of options you will encounter in choosing a firearm.  

As an instructor, the question I am asked the most, by far, is “what is the best handgun?”  I never realized how much a single question could both intrigue and frustrate me at the same time!   And while I’ve learned to become more gracious in my responses over the years, I now simply respond to that question with my own: “You mean to ask, what is the perfect gun for me?” What a difference two simple, sentence concluding words can make.

As you begin your quest, don’t be surprised if you are simply amazed, excited, and even a little overwhelmed by the variety of handguns available to purchase and the accessories that can come with them.  In this day and age, where the internet brings marketing and specifications of every make and model of gun in the known universe to our screens, it is easy to get caught up in the fads and trends. New features here, European made there, endorsed by this person here, shown in movies there.  

Having crossed path with the entire breadth of shooter demographics; from new shooters to experienced, from young aged to grandparents, from male to female, from trained officers to casual weekend plinkers; I have seen the frustration of shooters trying to force themselves to bond with something that just isn’t right for them.  On the flip side, I’ve seen the light bulb moment of joy when a shooter finds just what they were looking for! It’s not based on what might be the latest and greatest, or from a brand that they should love. It’s something that not only meets their needs, but is what fits their lifestyle, personality, mentality, and physical build.   

So, here is a practical guide to help you get started with your first (or next) handgun purchase.  

Question 1: What Is Your Budget?

The first thing I like to tell those in the market for a new gun is to know what their budget is and to actually stick to it.  I know it sounds basic, but I’ve been with people who get starry-eyed once in the store, buy something way out of their budget, and not only get into debt but don’t have funds to buy the necessary accessories and ammo.  I always tell people to budget, not just the firearm, but all the things that accompany shooting (extra magazines, holsters, ammo, cleaning kits, targets, locks & safes, etc).

That is why I also include the purpose in this first question.  The purpose will not only help narrow your choices but will also give you an idea of what additional items you may need to purchase.  The purpose will primarily drive factors like size & weight. A larger heavier gun might be more suitable for home defense than for concealed carry.   It might also factor in features like night sights (which I personally have on all my handguns).

Question 2: What Caliber Best Suits Your Purpose and Skill Level?

It’s not my intention to come anywhere near the great caliber debate that has raged for ages and will continue to rage for as long as man wields firearms.  But we can not ignore it because it is part of the gun buying process. Some guns only come in a specific caliber, while others are modular where you can swap out different frames and barrels to shoot multiple calibers from the same gun.  I know instructors who shoot a specific caliber because those are the guns they love. I know others who only carry a specific caliber and choose their guns accordingly. Either way, caliber will play a role in what you buy.

I recommend new shooters to go with 9mm, though there are certainly a wide variety of arguments.  9mm is easier to shoot (low recoil), allows for increased magazine capacity, and in its self-defense forms, has adequate stopping power.  While I’m on my soapbox, let me say that an accurately placed round is better than a “better” bullet that doesn’t hit its target. I’ll cover more on this towards the end of this article, but shooting different calibers is important to see what you are comfortable with.  As your skills and experience increase, you can learn to shoot 45 acp as if it were 22lr, but initially, you have to WANT to practice, which means you want to shoot a gun you actually enjoy shooting accurately. Stepping down from my box now…

Question 3: What Feels Comfortable To You?

This is so important.  There are guns that just feel good in your hands and some that don’t.  A gun can be too small or too big, too heavy or too light and so on.

The biggest difference here will be choosing between a semi-automatic pistol or a revolver.  Shooting the gun with live ammo is the best way to get a feel for what works best, but there is a lot you can discover in the store as well.  

You may annoy the salesman as you grope, grab, and hold the guns that capture your attention.  You want to actually point it at a target (I’m assuming you understand how to receive a firearm, check to make sure it’s clear, and do this in a safe manner) and check your natural point of aim.  How is the grip angle? Do you naturally come up on target as you raise the gun? Ask if you can dry fire to see how the trigger feels. They may want you to use a snap-cap. Do you want a Striker Fired Action (SFA) or something more like Double Action/Single Action (DA/SA) or Double Action Only (DAO)?   How are the sights? How is the checkering on the grips? How is the magazine release? How easy is it to break down and clean? How many rounds does the magazine carry?

The features here will really help make the final cut for you.   Some features will become non-negotiable for you as your researching your new gun that you’ll have to learn to utilize through training.  Whether or not your gun has a safety is a personal choice you make and train around. You may not be able to find something with every feature you want, but hopefully, it will be close.  Also remember that some things like sights and triggers can be replaced with aftermarket parts.

Questions 4: How Well Can You Shoot With It?

The gun store experience will let you get close to discovering the perfect gun, but the ultimate test will be throwing some lead down range.  Many ranges offer rentals for a fee and the requirement to purchase their ammo. I highly recommend shooting multiple calibers of guns you’re interested before making a buying decision, especially if this is your first gun.   

Go through all the features listed in Category 3. How does it point naturally? Do you like the trigger, the sights, and the action?  How easy is it for you to manipulate the magazine release? Are you accurate with it?   All these questions will play into your final selection. It’s not as black and white as you might think, but I’m positive you will gravitate towards specific types of actions, sizes, and styles.  

If you don’t have a local range that rents, find some friends that shoot or find an instructor online.  Second Amendment supporters are all over the place and eager to share our wisdom, experience and sometimes even our guns.  Join online communities and see if there are group shoots that you can attend. When I was living in the great commonwealth of VA, group shoots were abundant where you could shoot everything under the sun.  This is a great opportunity not only to see what you like but to develop great friends and a network of experienced shooters that you can learn from along the way.

Finally, take some classes.  My very first firearms class had a live fire session where we were able to shoot different style and caliber handguns.  

In the end, don’t be afraid to change your mind.  Guns don’t have feelings, although we might give them names.  I purchased a Walther PPS as a concealed carry gun and thought I found heaven.  It was light, slim, accurate and solid. It concealed perfectly and I could carry it in multiple positions without any problem.  It was only after several hundred rounds where I realized the trigger was digging into my finger in a most painful way. I tried to ignore it.  I tried to convince myself that my concealed carry didn’t need to be comfortable to shoot because I would only use it in a life-threatening situation… but I had to train with it.  And I didn’t want to train with it because it hurt my finger to shoot it. So, I said goodbye. It took me a while to get over it, but I mourned and moved on with my life. So will you.  

Good luck and remember to have fun!