Buying Your First Handgun

first gunI had an introductory gun class a while back, and one of the couples attending had borrowed guns from a LEO buddy. The husband was using a Glock 22 (full-sized .40 cal) and the wife was using a Glock 27 (sub-compact .40 cal).

He’d been to the range one time in the past, and this was going to be her maiden voyage. A perfect example of, “Why to NOT borrow a gun you’ve never shot before”.


The NRA FIRST Steps Pistol Orientation class takes the students from soup-to-nuts on how to use handguns. Safety, operation, storage, cleaning, ammo selection, etc. And of course, how to shoot.

I tell the students that the philosophy behind the technique I teach is that I want them to take the energy of the muzzle blast and transfer it from their weak hands, to their weak wrists, to their weak elbows into their strong shoulders. It helps them visualize the “system” of controlling their handgun.

If you have a fault anywhere along this system, you need to figure out how to compensate.

[What follows assumes a right-handed shooter]

It all starts with your hands. If you have a weak right hand, you can compensate by over-gripping with your left (support) hand (actually the same technique I use for overly-strong right hands as well…. but I digress…). A weak left hand gets the opposite treatment.

If both hands are weak, you generally only have one option: Go down in caliber. You can somewhat compensate by increasing the weight of the gun (going from poly-carbonate to stainless steel, for instance), but my experience has shown that those weak hands have difficulty handling the heavier gun.


Back to our rookie student.

Yeah, she had weak hands. Both of them.

When the students take their first shot, we do it one shot, one student at a time. I want to make sure that they’ve absorbed what had taken place in the classroom. They load their gun with a single round, just to ensure that after they fire the shot, they don’t go brain-dead on me and suddenly think it’s a good idea to wave the muzzle around the range or keep pulling the trigger out of panic.

Call me overly-cautious. I can live with that.

So, she takes her first shot with the .40 caliber Baby Glock, and it damned near comes flying out of her hands. Visually, she had a great grip – nice and high on the beaver tail and both hands in full contact with the grip – locked her elbows, was leaning into her shot, and still, it almost came out of her hands.

She verifies the gun is safe, sets it down and turns around. She’s got a look of, “No damned way am I shooting that gun again!” It was too much gun for her physical abilities. I offered to let her use the FNP-9 I use for demonstrations in the class (a mid-sized 9mm pistol). Her husband went back to the classroom, grabbed my gun case, then a box of 9mm from the gun store and brought it all back to the range.

She ended up putting 50 shots, 7 yards down-range, with most of the shots in a 12 inch pattern. It was a much better match for her physical abilities.


In virtually every FIRST Steps class I teach, I get questions regarding how to choose the right gun.

I start with the questions: What’s the purpose of the gun? Pleasure target shooting or self-defense (this would include shooting competitively in IDPA, etc.).


I tell them that the number one selection criteria has got to be, “How does the gun feel in your hands?” Is it comfortable? Do you prefer a grip made of wood, plastic, rubber or metal? Do you prefer a grip with finger grooves or a straight grip? Is your hand too big or too small for the grips? Do you feel more comfortable with semi-automatic grip that has the beaver tail, or do you like the feel of a revolver with the open space above your hands?

I tell them to go to a range and pick up every single gun in their rental case (do this during a slow period at the shop out of courtesy.). Standard, compact, sub-compact. Every style of grip they’ve got.

If you think you’ll be carrying the gun concealed, consider the sights and hammer spur on the gun. The more pieces sticking up from the gun, the more chances you have of catching the gun on your clothing when drawing. Where will you carry it on your body? Hip, back, appendix, ankle, under arm.


While they’ve got these guns in their hands, they need to do the second test: The ability to manipulate the controls. When holding the gun in its proper and most comfortable position, are you able to place the center of the trigger finger pad on the center of the trigger? After asking the permission of the shop, dry fire the gun (they will usually have you load Snap Caps first). With a revolver, are you easily able to pull the trigger in double action? Are you able to easily cock the revolver?

On a revolver, can your right thumb easily manipulate the cylinder release? On a semi-auto, can your right thumb manipulate the safety (if one is present)? On a semi-auto, can you easily manipulate the magazine release button with your left and right thumbs? Most importantly with a semi-auto, are you strong and nimble enough to manually lock open the slide?

Finally, in this phase, present each gun as though you were going to shoot the gun. (Again, ask the permission of the person helping you, and be sure you’re aiming in a safe direction.) When presenting the gun, does it naturally go to the target, or do you need to do significant adjustments once the gun is fully extended? If the latter is true, consider another grip configuration. You may have one pistol where the grips go straight down, and another that slants back towards you.


Once you’ve gone through the first two stages, and have narrowed your choices down to a few guns, now you need to fire them. I recommend starting at the lowest possible caliber for your needs. For instance, the Glock 26 (9mm) and Glock 27 (.40 cal) are identical in every way other than caliber. Size, weight, number of rounds. Shoot the 9mm first, and if it feels good, give the .40 cal a try. If you’re able to handle each equally well, then it just comes down to cost of ammo, availability of ammo and whether you think a larger caliber is better suited to your needs.

Consider this: You will always be able to shoot a smaller caliber at least as rapidly and accurately as a larger caliber, but the opposite is not true. You’ll most likely be able to put more rapidly fired 9mm shots into the 10-ring than you will with .40 caliber ammo.

Along those lines, if the gun is for self-defense, I believe 9mm or .38 Special is as low as you want to go. That being said, if after shooting the guns, and either of those calibers is too difficult to handle, try .380 Auto or .32 cal. Still too difficult? Try .22 Magnum, then .22 LR.

It’s better to be armed with a gun than not, but understand that those last 4 calibers will require some damned good shot placement to be effective. Very little room for error.

As you may have gathered from above, I’m not a believer that a bigger bullet is necessarily better. Yes, the way you stop a bad guy is to make a big hole in him, but you have to hit him first! Larger calibers are more difficult to handle, especially if you’re placed in a highly stressed situation. Like self-defense.

I Promise

The last step is a promise to yourself.

With all other things being equal, I believe that a semi-automatic handgun is a better choice for self-defense than a revolver. Why? You have the ability to generally carry more ammunition in the gun, you are able to take multiple shots much more quickly, and reload more quickly.

But they have more things that can go wrong. When you pick up that gun you have in the night stand, is a round in the chamber? Or did your spouse insist that you put it there without one? Is the safety on or off? If you get a failure to fire, or a “stove pipe”, will you know what to do immediately, or will you have to stop and think for a minute?

A revolver, in its most basic form is point-and-shoot. You can’t fire as quickly, nor will you generally have as many rounds to shoot at the bad guy, but when you go “click” it will go “bang”.

So, the promise is this: Will you promise yourself that, if you get a semi-automatic pistol, you’ll go to the range, practice loading, unloading and failure to fire drills (with Snap Caps) AT LEAST once per month?

If you can answer “yes” to that question, and all of the previous tests and analysis make it a toss-up between the two types of pistols, get a semi-auto. Otherwise, go with a revolver (but still go to the range on a regular basis!).


Too many people buy a gun strictly based upon the recommendation of a friend or family member. “The Glock 26 is the best damned sub-compact out there. It’ll shoot the pants off of anything else in its class!’

Maybe for your friend. Maybe not for you. I’ve had at least half a dozen students that bought a Glock 26 based on a friend’s recommendation, only to find that it didn’t fit them well. Usually, their fingers were too short to properly reach the trigger (Glock grips are thicker than most).

Go through the steps THEN buy the gun. Don’t handicap yourself by buying a gun that doesn’t fit your physical abilities and stature, requiring you to modify your shooting style to accommodate the gun.

BTW, I LOVE Glocks – own a number of them, including a 26. Just using it as an example…

, , , , , ,

One Response to Buying Your First Handgun

  1. tdale July 11, 2014 at 2:29 pm #

    Great article! Send the link to my sister, who’s getting ready to buy a gun. Really like the point made about comfort. The guns I own that stay in the safe are the ones that don’t fit my had well.