So you’re buying your first firearm?

As instructors of a Florida concealed carry course, we are often asked by the students what we recommend them to purchase. Our answer is invariably, we don’t know. This is because decisions on which pistol to buy are largely personal. People differ greatly on what brand, what model, what caliber, what need and what grip they want in a pistol. Our recommendation for a starting point is to attend a gun show where you can view many different kinds of pistols and in many cases feel the grips. We also recommend visiting a local shooting range that offers pistols for rent. By renting pistols, one can not only feel if the grip and weight is right but also feel the recoil and the trigger to make this important decision. For purposes of narrowing down your choice, and giving you an idea of what to look for, we offer the following:

Purpose

Firearms are made for different purposes. The first question to ask in determining what to purchase is what do I need the firearm for? How will I use it? Is the firearm going to be used to carry on your person for self-defense? Will it be used solely for training at the range? Will it be used primarily for home defense? Answering these will help narrow the scope of the pistols to consider, or perhaps lead you to a rifle or shotgun. Examples:

Colt 1911
Concealed CarryRange UseHome Defense
Sig Sauer P365Sig Sauer P3201911 (Colt, Ruger, Sig, etc.)
Ruger LCP IISig Sauer P226Shotgun: Mossberg Shockwave
Glock 43Glock 17AR-15

Semi-Automatic Pistol or Revolver

The modern consensus favors the semi-automatic pistol for defense and range use. However, there are still many people who do not trust semi-automatics for defensive purposes and use only revolvers. Their basis is that because of the additional moving parts in semi-automatics, they can jam. The jam can be caused by cheap ammo or because of the gun itself, whether because it is dirty, it has not been properly lubed or it simply has a poor design. Among the semi-automatic proponents, the kinks causing the majority of jams have been worked out in more recent introductions to the market, however, there is still cheap ammunition and inadequate cleaning and lubing which can only be addressed by the user. Revolvers have less moving parts and less likely to cause misfires, although hang fires and squib loads, which often pertain to a cartridge, not a gun malfunction, may still be a concern for users of revolvers.

The pros of the semi-automatic is the number of rounds available between each reloading of the gun comparable to revolvers, which are limited to max of 6 rounds in most cases. Some semi-automatics can accept extended magazines of 20+ rounds. The current concealed carry sized semi-autos with the highest round count can hold 12 rounds in a standard magazine.

The semi-automatic design may also better control the recoil, than in revolvers and can be slimmer and therefore more concealable than revolvers in general. Reloading a semi-automatic can be very quick with the carrying of extra loaded magazines, although revolvers have evolved to increase the loading speed as well. The advantage of the revolver as a defensive weapon, again, is primarily that it is not subject to jamming like the semi-automatic. When your life depends on the firearm, that advantage is enough for some people to leave the semi-automatic at home and carry only revolvers. Examples:

Chiappa 60DS Charging Rhino
RevolversSemi-Automatics
Smith & Wesson .38 SpecialHechler & Koch P30SK
Colt .45Glock 23
Chiappa RhinoWalther PPQ

Caliber

As with purpose, there are several options of calibers for pistols. Perhaps the most common caliber is the 9mm (also known as 9mm Luger, 9mm Parabellum or 9x19mm). The 9mm round is both economical for use at the range, where you may shoot 100-200+ rounds in any visit and provides sufficient firepower by most accounts for defensive purposes. But there are others that you may consider and some you should not.

Most pistol rounds may not be sufficient to stop a threatening person with just one round. You may need to hit an assailant several times. However, a round as small as the .22 is probably grossly inadequate for defensive purposes. These rounds are most often used for “plinking”, i.e. shooting at the range. They’re very inexpensive price makes it popular as a range round. The .22 round is capable of killing, but most likely it would do slowly by causing a great deal of internal bleeding. For defensive purposes, you want a round that will stop a threat as quickly as possible. The .380 round is smaller than a 9mm, but with modern ballistics, some consider it sufficient for defensive purposes. Smaller, defensive pistols often come in .380. Aside from 9mm, .22 and .380, you may also consider some calibers with larger rounds than the 9mm, such as .357Sig, .40S&W, .45 Auto (a/k/a .45 ACP) and 10mm. In revolvers, you have the .45 Auto, .38 Special, .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum, among others.

Keep in mind that although there are some pistols that come in small frames, but with large calibers, you will notice a bigger recoil because of the lighter weight of the smaller pistols. I.e., a small semi-automatic such as the Springfield Hellcat 9mm will have greater recoil than the larger, heavier, Sig P226 chambered in 9mm. Examples:

Sig Sauer P229 Elite
CaliberPistol
.380Ruger LCP II, Sig Sauer P238, Walther PK380
9mmS&W Shield, Sig Sauer P365XL, Kimber Micro9
.40S&WSig Sauer P229
10mmSpringfield Armory XDM
.45 AutoSpringfield Armory XD-S Mod.2
Some pistols, such as the Sig Sauer P229 and the Springfield Armory XD-S come in various calibers.

ACTION TYPE

When speaking of action type in considering a revolver for defensive purposes, the answer is simply: double action. The single action revolver is outdated, provides a slow method of reloading and requires two hands to adequately rapid fire if you are caught in a gun fight. Therefore, for defensive purposes, if you are leaning towards revolvers, stick to double action only (DA or DAO).

The issue gets much trickier with semi-automatic pistols, where modern semi-automatics can come in single action only (SAO), double action only (DAO), traditional double action or double action/ single action (DA/SA), or a “hybrid” of these, the striker-fired pistol. The choice here is strictly personal but may involve your tolerance for safety features. For instance, many firearms enthusiasts will only carry a pistol with double action, either DAO or DA/SA, if the pistol has no safety lever that the user must disengage to fire it. The added pull weight of the double action reduces the risk of a misfire in the absence of the safety lever. Many who carry, however, are adamant that their pistol not have a safety lever to reduce the draw time and reduce the risk of fumbling with a safety should a gun fight occur. For this reason, they will carry striker-fire, double actions or even SAO’s without a safety lever. Their mantra is that a well-disciplined trigger finger, one that is placed on the trigger ONLY when the user is ready to pull it, is safety enough, along with the use of a good holster that MUST cover the trigger when the firearm is holstered.

Glock 19
Action TypeFirearm
SAOSig Sauer P938, Colt 1911
DA/SASig Sauer P229, Springfield Armory XD-E
Striker FiredGlock (any), Sig Sauer P320

Trigger

Triggers are distinguishable by the pull-weight (i.e. how many pounds per square inch (PSI)) necessary to fire the round, by the travel to reset the trigger (how far does the trigger have to move after pulling it before it resets the action and is ready to be fired for follow-up shots), how smooth the pull of the trigger is, and its shape (some prefer traditional curved triggers, while others may swear that a flat trigger helps their accuracy). Getting a feel for the trigger will require actually handling various firearms to get a sense of what you prefer, such as being able to distinguish fine wine from dressed-up grape juice. Triggers on revolvers tend to have a greater pull-weight than those on semi-automatics. The same is true for double action semi-automatics versus SAOs or striker-fired actions.

Sig Sauer P365 XL

Magazines

Here the issue is based on round count. If you are in a gun fight, you will want to carry as many rounds in each magazine as possible to reduce the need to reload. Magazines can come in both “single-stack” and “double-stack” with semi-automatics. As the name implies, double stack magazines tend to have greater round capacity than single stack, but also tend to be about twice as wide. When determining comfort and concealability in a pistol you intend to carry, the choice may be single stack. Many people may carry double stack pistols just fine, but my humble, personal opinion, single stack works best for me. This offers the best chance of getting a pistol that is no more than 1 to 1.1” wide. Anything wider than that may lend too much weight to conceal carry a pistol for all but a short time. Keep in mind that I’m not a tall person and this is just my opinion for myself.

A new trend in magazines is a hybrid single/ double stack introduced by Sig Sauer in their P365 series (original, XL and SAS). These pistols carry many rounds for their size and manage to squeeze it into a width of 1.1”. As a result, the original P365 was the best-selling firearm of 2018.

Glock 17 with a drum mag

Conclusion

There are many other options available, such as sights, optics, presence of rails for adding flashlights or laser pointers, but these are outside the scope of this article and most of these accessories are aftermarket. You will find that with all the research you conduct, you may end up like most of us who find that the first gun didn’t quite fit what we had in mind and end up with multiple firearms. To that, we say welcome to the world of firearm owners. Between your multiple firearms and your drawer full of holsters (don’t get us started on these – maybe a later article), you will have truly arrived. Happy hunting for that perfect pistol!

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