By Bill Caffrey
I’ve often answered questions from people interested in buying their first handgun by asking the question “what do you intend to do with it?” While this may seem intrusive or “snoopy” to some people, it’s a cogent question. What you intend to use the gun for will likely dictate what kind of gun you might want to buy as a first gun.
For the purposes of this article, we can generalize so you have an idea of what you should be considering if you are planning on buying you’re a handgun. Keep in mind that you will end up making the decision based on your own criteria, some of which will be subjective.
For some people a handgun must have an aesthetically pleasing appearance in some way. For others, it may be simply how it “feels” in their hand. All of these things come into play with your first handgun.
So what reason or reasons do you have for buying a handgun? It might help to list out some of the reasons people purchase handguns to see where you fit. Some of these are obvious while others are not. The reasons are:
- Home or business protection
- Self-defense outside of home (CCW)
- Match target shooting
- Informal or recreational target shooting (a.k.a. “plinking”)
- Combat target shooting
- Cowboy shooting matches
- Historical actors – such as revolutionary or Civil War reenactments
- Law Enforcement type activities
- Vector (pest animal) control
There, we’ve listed 10 purposes for which people buy handguns. I may have overlooked something, but this list will do for now. Let’s touch on each one and see how the use dictates the type of handgun best suited for each category.
Home or business protection
For most people a gun for protection in the home or at a business means a “service style” handgun, either a revolver or semi-automatic. Typically about a 4″ barrel, steel frame in a medium to large (.38 to .45) caliber. Size and weight are not as important as effectiveness of the caliber or the handling characteristics.
In this group, compromises are made for concealing a handgun that will be carried frequently. Size, weight, shape and capacity may be more important than caliber or comfort in shooting. Generally these guns have barrels of 3″ or less and are more compact than a service style gun.
The caliber may vary widely and include .22, .32, .38 and larger bores up through .45 caliber. Many people like semi-autos because they are flat-sided and easier to conceal than revolvers. Others prefer the simplicity of the “point and click” interface of a revolver.
We can divide this up into two groups – hunting small animals and hunting large animals. For small animals like rabbits and squirrels a small caliber (.17 or .22) gun is usually used. As the size of the animal increases, so does the caliber. For larger animals, like deer, bear and pigs a .44 Magnum is not excessive. For those who hunt large game or predators like cougar and bear, the new extreme power guns like the .460, .480 Ruger and .500 S&W may be the right gun.
It’s notable that most hunting handguns are revolvers as these are better suited to the magnum power loads. Caliber and power are the primary consideration here. Barrel lengths are typically 6″ or more for long-range accuracy and power.
Match Target Shooting
Shooting in competitive shooting matches pits the accuracy of your gun and, more importantly, your skill as a marksman, against others using paper targets. Some prefer revolvers while other use semi-auto pistols. Caliber can range from .22 up to .45, depending on the classification you shoot in.
Capacity is not an issue here, but long barrels, adjustable sights and precision triggers are highly valued. Some guns are built around a specific low-power cartridge designed just for putting holes in paper.
Informal or recreational target shooting (a.k.a. “plinking”)
For some folks a handgun works best as an informal target shooter or for familiarizing themselves or family members with shooting. Targets consist of paper targets, empty cans, water filled milk jugs or even overripe fruit and vegetables. Here is where the inexpensive ammunition of the .22 Long Rifle cartridge makes the small bore guns fun to shoot. Most any firearm can be used, however the guns most often used are .22′s with a 4″ to 6″ barrel because both the firearms and the ammunition are inexpensive.
If you want to shoot competitively in self-defense scenarios, this is for you. While the top name experts all use modified or custom-built guns, you can still participate in other classifications using a stock handgun. Caliber is usually limited to “fighting caliber” guns (.38/9mm and larger) and holsters are a must. Guns are typically semi-autos with 10 or more round capacity. Revolvers are at a disadvantage here due to their reload time.
If you’re a western movie fan or history buff, this may bring you more smiles for your buck. Handguns are limited to pre-20th century guns (or pre-1910 in some areas) and include the single-action “Sixgun” or “Peacemaker” revolvers often seen on the hip of John Wayne or Gary Cooper.
Black powder muzzleloaders are popular with some folks too. But be prepared to buy the costume accessories – holsters, period clothing and accessories. Not only for you, but also for your significant other who may like to dress the part.
There are groups that reenact battles from Concord to Shiloh, Bull Run and Gettysburg. This is a segment of our sport that delves deep into history. Here one must have a handgun of the correct era, in the correct caliber. Uniforms, costumes and firearms must conform to historical fact (replicas are most often used, of course). Live ammo is seldom fired, however some groups do put on marksmanship demonstrations where feasible.
In most cases, this also requires a “service type” firearm. These will typically be 4″ or 5″ barreled semi-auto pistols with large capacity magazines. The caliber ranges from 9mm to .45ACP. Knowing what local departments issue is a good guideline for your purchase.
Farmers and ranchers often have need of a handgun that can be carried in the fields or around livestock areas. These guns are most commonly used to shoot snakes, rats, mice, prairie dogs, gophers and similar animals. A good .22 pistol or revolver can be carried all day and the ammo doesn’t strain the budget.
Farmers may use “snake shot” for dispatching snakes and mice found in the field. Ranchers will shoot rats, snakes and burrowing animals that seem to pop up every day. Typically a 3″ or 4″ handgun fits the belt well and provides the necessary capability. Lightweight, ease of use and sturdiness are traits most often considered.
Your first decision is to determine for which use you gun will be used. Many people purchase a handgun with a “dual use” in mind — such as protection and target shooting. But be aware that some combinations may be unwise — such as trying to combine self-defense and a muzzle loading civil war era gun.
Some people will simply want to know what is “the best” gun to buy, however that’s like asking the question “what’s ‘the best’ motor vehicle to buy”? Without a frame of reference, someone might say Ferrari is the best, unaware that you also need to tow a boat. Which handgun is “best” in one of the above categories will depend on what handgun you find the most comfortable in your hand.
We will get to all the ergonomics and technical stuff in the future. First, however, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out several key elements for your consideration.
- Handle different models before making a decision. Find one that fits your hand comfortably.
- If you find it difficult to reach the trigger or other controls, find a different model.
- If the controls of a semi-auto pistol are complicated to you or if you find them hard to operate, consider a revolver for its simplicity.
- Do not be overly concerned about caliber. Making a hit with a .22 beats a miss with a .44 every time.
As we will discuss in the next section, deciding on a handgun might be easiest decision. We’ll look at accessories, ammunition and training in Part II.
Comment from Roland: Thank you for a great article (both part one and part two). I am a new gun owner and found this information very useful and straightforward. I no longer have to wonder what I really need and what the salesman may just want to sell me. Thanks again …