By Chris Dwulet, Lead writer and editor for Ammo.com
Buying your first handgun is an exciting and daunting prospect. It’s totally awesome because you get to buy a new gun (and who doesn’t like that?) But it can also be confusing for a lot of new gun owners because there are so many different options to consider.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed, but don’t worry! You’ve found this article and I’m going to do everything I can to simplify the process for you.
With over 20 years of personal firearms ownership under my belt and being a former USPSA Production class shooter, I’ve made my fair share of mistakes when it comes to buying handguns.
But the good thing is that YOU won’t have to make the same mistakes as I did.
In this article I’ll discuss the 6 most common mistakes you can make purchasing your first handgun and how to avoid them.
Why Do You Want a Handgun?
The first mistake a lot of first-time handgun buyers make is not understanding what they really want a handgun for. This typically breaks down into three different categories: self-defense, target shooting, or hunting. If you don’t understand what you’re buying for, you’ll likely find yourself owning a handgun that is ill-suited to meet your needs. And no one wants that!
Self-defense handguns are typically small to medium caliber (more on that later) and have a high capacity for multiple follow up shots. Target shooting handguns cover a wide range of options but are typically small caliber for an enjoyable shooting experience and have low recoil so you can really focus on the fundamentals of marksmanship. Finally, hunting handguns are typically chambered in large calibers that are suitable for taking down large game. Often, they are heavy revolvers with longer barrels that help soak up the recoil of the larger cartridges that they fire and require a lot of skill to shoot accurately.
So, before you head to the gun store to pick out your first pistol, make sure that you’ve really zeroed in on what you plan to use your handgun for. This will help you make the research phase a lot more enjoyable and help you make the right buying decision.
I know this is an uncomfortable subject to talk about, but we have to admit the truth…Size matters.
There, we said it.
All joking aside, the size of the handgun you purchase will make a huge impact on how much you enjoy shooting it when it comes to felt recoil.
I’ve helped multiple new shooters pick their first handgun, and invariably they will tell me, “Oh I just want something small and easy to shoot!” However, these two things typically don’t go together as smaller handguns typically have sharper recoil and are harder to handle.
My advice to the shooters is never pick anything smaller than a compact handgun (think Glock 19) for their first gun. Why? Because if they get themselves a subcompact like they were talking about, they’ll end up hating it.
I have personal experience with this that I always enjoy sharing. The first handgun I ever bought was a Taurus PT709S. It was a single stack 9mm subcompact, had won the NRA Handgun of the Year, and I thought it would be a perfect pistol for concealed carry and home defense.
There was only one problem. That gun was incredibly uncomfortable to shoot, to the point of almost being painful. Even with a soft-recoiling 9mm, the small frame size did little to fill my hand and my wrists took the brunt of the recoil. I hated it and ended up selling it at a massive loss, but I was glad to see it go.
In general, larger handguns will be easier for newer shooters to handle. The extra weight will help soak up some of the recoil, making trips to the range enjoyable and productive.
If you’re buying your first handgun, do yourself a favor and get a full-size or compact. You’ll thank me later.
Pick the Right Caliber (And Why It’s 9mm)
One thing that can mean the difference between loving shooting and hating it is picking the right caliber to start shooting. Universally almost everyone in the 2A community will agree that a 22LR is the perfect cartridge to learn the basics of marksmanship with. It has virtually no recoil and is extremely affordable.
However, rimfire ammo is notorious for reliability issues and really lacks the stopping power needed for self-defense. Yes, I know lots of people defend their life with a 22LR every year…I’ve read all the anecdotal evidence on the forums about this too.
But understand that just because you CAN do it with a 22LR doesn’t mean that it’s the BEST option.
If you’re serious about getting a handgun for self-defense, you cannot go wrong with a 9mm Luger. It has mild recoil that even beginners can handle but still has the stopping power needed to defend your life against a bad guy. Loaded with jacketed hollow point (JHP) ammo, the 9mm Luger is a formidable self-defense caliber that is inexpensive to shoot and won’t slap your wrists around.
Lots of experienced shooters and internet commandos like to debate the 9mm vs 45 ACP as a starter caliber for new shooters. Although the 45 ACP is a lot easier to handle than some intermediate calibers, I wouldn’t recommend a 45 to a new shooter unless you planned on owning a heavier handgun like a 1911. The added weight of the all-steel 1911 helps mitigate the felt recoil of the 45 Auto and makes for an enjoyable shooting experience.
In general, I typically advise new shooters to avoid 40 S&W, 10mm Auto, and anything with the word “Magnum” in its name for their first handgun purchase. These rounds are snappy and have more felt recoil than a 9mm, making them difficult to handle for new shooters.
Instead stick with a 9mm for a semi-auto or a 38 Special for a revolver and you’ll be a happy shooter.
Get a Grip
Now that you’ve narrowed down your new handgun purchase in terms of caliber, size, and intended use, it’s time to head to the gun store and fondle some pistols. Admittedly, this is the fun part if you ask me.
One thing that this does is it gives you a feel for how the pistol sits in your hand. Ergonomics are just as important in the office as they are on the range. And everybody’s hands are built differently, which is why some people shoot certain handguns better than others.
When you’re holding a perspective pistol, ask yourself these questions:
● How does this handgun feel in my hand?
● Can I actuate the controls easily (safety, magazine release, slide stop)?
● Can you rack the slide?
● How does the weight feel? Does the handgun feel balanced in your hand?
● Does it feel like the handgun naturally points or is it awkward when I look down the sights?
Also, always remember to follow the rules of firearms safety and never point a handgun at anything you don’t intend to shoot. Yes, the gun store employee should ensure the firearm is empty before they hand it to you but do yourself a favor and don’t point it at them or anyone else in the store for that matter.
Instead, if you want to look down the sights then do so while pointing the handgun at the floor or in a safe direction. Also practice good trigger discipline and always keep your finger off the trigger. If you want to see how the trigger feels, first ask the employee if it is ok to do so, then point the handgun at the ground before you pull the trigger.
Don’t Be a Cheapskate
Listen, I know that money is tight these days and you need to stretch every dollar you earn as far as possible. Although there are times to scrimp and save, your first handgun probably isn’t the best time for that.
It might be tempting to try and get a cheap handgun but save yourself the heartache and frustration of clearing jam after jam at the range and get yourself a solid handgun from a reputable brand.
These brands being Glock, Springfield Armory, Smith & Wesson, Sig Sauer, Ruger, CZ-USA, H&K, and Walther. These companies are known for making extremely solid handguns that won’t let you down when you need them the most.
If you do need to save some money, you might want to consider purchasing a used handgun from a reputable brand. There’s a lot of stigmas about buying anything used these days, especially with images of seedy used car salesmen trying to sell you an old, beat-up piece of junk. However, most used firearms can be found in excellent condition for a reasonable discount.
But if you’re worried about getting a lemon, just save up a few more months and buy a new handgun. As the old saying goes, “You get what you pay for” or my personal favorite, “Buy once, cry once!”
Try Before You Buy
By far, the best thing you can do before purchasing a new handgun is to try it out at the range BEFORE you buy it. Most ranges will have firearms for rent, and even though you have to shoot their ammo through it, this is considerably cheaper than buying a handgun, hating it, and having to try and resell it at a loss.
The truth is some handguns just don’t work with some people while others can conduct a symphony of gunpowder with the same pistol. Let me explain this another way with a personal story.
After the PT709S debacle, I knew that I wanted a full-sized handgun next. I still wanted a 9mm and I fondled multiple firearms before I landed on the Smith & Wesson M&P9. The ergos were out of this world, it felt like the handgun was gently caressing my palm while whispering, “Buy me” into my ear.
I had to have it, it had to be so much better than the Taurus, right? I mean it’s a Smith & Wesson, it must be amazing! Well, for some people it was a masterpiece of arms, but for me it was another nightmare.
The felt recoil was considerably less shooting a full-sized handgun, so it had that going for it. But in my hands, I couldn’t get this handgun to produce acceptable groups or accuracy with numerous different brands of ammo.
Now I know what you’re thinking, “Oldest excuse in the book! It wasn’t the gun’s fault, you just sucked shooting!” While I’ll admit this is a possibility and I was somewhat new to handgun shooting at the time, but that pistol and I just didn’t jive well together. I put hundreds of rounds through that handgun, and I just couldn’t get to the point where I felt accurate with it.
I had other people shoot it and it grouped just fine and was very accurate, it just simply didn’t work for me. So, I headed to my local indoor shooting range, and I rented two different firearms to try. I selected a Glock 17 and a Kimber TLE Custom 2 1911 and both shot beautifully for me. They grouped extremely well, and I was accurate with both. It should come as no surprise that I own each of these handguns today and they will never leave my collection.
What this story shows is how certain handguns simply don’t work with some shooters. Other marksmen or Internet commandos on the gun forums might rant and rave over their accuracy with a particular handgun, but if it doesn’t work for you then it’s no better than a glorified paper weight. And the only way to find out which handguns work best for your hands and shooting style is to try before you buy.
It may cost you a little extra to rent a handgun and buy the range’s ammo, but I can promise you that you’ll save hundreds of dollars in trial and error and a lot of heartache to boot.
That’s it! You made it all the way through the article. You should now have a better understanding of the 6 most common mistakes shooters make when buying their first handgun.
By far the easiest way to avoid all these mistakes is to try before you buy. This way you’ll have a clearer understanding of which handguns work best for you.
If you’d like to read up more about all the different handguns on the market today, make sure you check out the extensive TGR Handgun Reviews library to learn all the ins and outs of any potential handgun you’re looking to purchase.
And if you follow the steps outlined in this article, I have no doubt that you’ll find the perfect handgun to fit your needs and we look forward to seeing you out on the range!
Ammo testing for reliability
Once you have bought your new gun, be sure to really test it for reliability. For range time just about any commercially available NEW ammo is good and reliable. Avoid gun show reloads, they might be OK but it’s better to spend a little more and get good quality new ammo. Test all your magazines. Generally, you want to shoot several hundred rounds through a gun to make sure it is solid and reliable and shooting actually helps break in the gun and generally makes it more reliable. If you are buying one for self-defense be sure to use premium self-defense ammo. And while it is expensive, you want to test with your gun in all magazines. And not just fire a mag and call it “good to go”. Run a few boxes of it through the gun and again, test all magazines with it.
Seriously, look into taking some training courses. If you are a brand-new shooter, take the time to invest in yourself, again, especially if you are looking to use for self-defense. Even if you are a seasoned shooter that has “been shooting your whole life” good training courses will likely humble you and teach you stuff you didn’t know about. And hey, you get to shoot a lot! What is more fun than that. You might even want to look into trying some beginner competition like IDPA. (International Defensive Pistol Association). You learn a lot, meet some good people and have a great time.
Be sure to safely store your gun at all times. You are ultimately responsible for it and you don’t want it getting into the wrong hands. Don’t leave it in your vehicle. So many guns get stolen this way, the number one-way guns get into the hands of criminals is by theft. You don’t want to be responsible for someone getting hurt due to YOUR negligence.