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A Beginner's Guide To Selecting a Handgun

Martin is a graduate of LSU, veteran of the military, firearms trainer and writer.

Buying your first handgun can be a daunting undertaking to say the least. There are many makes and models of guns to choose from and no limit to the hype surrounding each. The trick is finding the right gun for you, which in itself is a task that can be much more difficult than it sounds or needs to be. Try going into a gun shop and asking the opinion of the sales clerk. After you finally get their attention, he or she will probably tell you what they think you want to hear in order to make the sale, whether the gun is too cheaply made to be reliable or too overly complicated to be used by a novice. Or maybe they’ll start droning on about stopping power or some other technical jargon that provides the standard fare of gun magazines drenched in testosterone, facts that are relatively unimportant in the scheme of things.

The hardest part about becoming a gun owner is getting past the bluster and ego to see what’s what. That is unless you live in a state where it’s almost impossible to own a gun, then you’re first obstacle would be to prove that you’re actually worthy of having a gun in your possession. But for anyone who believes in the 2nd Amendment, which should be every American. “The right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Try telling that to the people who think guns are inherently evil and should be abolished in order to assure a world filled with rainbows and unicorns.

Well, if you need reassurance, a gun can’t jump off the table and fire itself, at least not yet. It’s just a tool designed to perform a function and that function is to fire a projectile from the barrel. A gun doesn’t have a soul or free will and it won’t take malicious actions on its own. Of course, there are good guns and bad guns, but that’s strictly talking from a quality and design standpoint.

Hopefully, you haven’t made that all important purchase just yet, because you may find after you’ve read this that you’ve spent entirely too much money on a gun that’s more complicated than it needs to be or perhaps you haven’t spent enough. The truth is that selecting a semi-automatic handgun is simple if you know what you’re looking for and what you want the gun to do for you.

If you’ve done some research online or flipped through a gun magazine you’ll know that there are many shiny, new guns to choose from, but once you get past the slick marketing and product advertising you need to understand that there are some very real attributes and features that you need to be looking for.


To begin with, let’s talk about caliber. Most gun forums and magazine articles make a big deal of having a larger caliber that provides more stopping power, generally a bigger bullet equals more stopping power. So, let’s talk about what caliber means. It’s a measurement of the diameter of the bullet, the portion of the cartridge that actually goes out of the barrel. The cartridge or round, these terms are used interchangeably, is what we load into the magazine in order to make the gun operate. We’ll cover loading and unloading later.

There are three major calibers for semi-auto handgun cartridges. They are, from smallest to largest, 9mm, .40 S&W, and .45 ACP. The markings on the cartridge you use for your gun should match those stamped on the gun, so if you pay attention buying the correct ammunition shouldn’t be a problem. There are more calibers, but these are the big three. If you’re just starting with guns, that’s all you really need to know.

Now, I’m going to say something that will make most gun aficionados cringe, but this book isn’t for them. It’s for you, the beginner. It would be for them too, if they were willing to listen, but that’s another story altogether. You should definitely buy a gun in 9mm, sometimes called luger or parabellum. It’s that simple.

Let’s talk about why. First of all, if you’re going to be proficient with a handgun you need to practice at least once a month, ideally two or more times a month. At your level, you probably want to fire 50 to 150 rounds per month. That’s three boxes of standard ammo. An average box of .45 ACP cost about twice as much as a box of 9mm. In these unsure economic times, that’s a big savings. Shoot more, shoot better, spend less, need I say more?

Second, a controlled pair, two shots fired in rapid succession while maintaining the fundamentals of marksmanship, from any one of these handgun calibers is usually enough to stop an adversary. Of these three cartridges, 9mm has the least amount of recoil, so it’s possible to fire a controlled pair in a shorter span of time than it is with .40 S&W, or .45 ACP. Since most people buy a handgun for defensive purposes, this is a good thing. It let’s you get back on your sights and back on target faster after the first shot.

Third, you can carry more ammo. Magazines in 9mm generally have a higher capacity. That makes a difference when you’re carrying a handgun concealed. Unfortunately, most people who carry concealed don’t carry a spare magazine. I’d recommend carrying at least one spare magazine if not two or more, but from time to time, for whatever reason, it happens that you only have one. In this case, having a few more rounds doesn’t hurt.

If this list of advantages doesn’t sway you towards purchasing a 9mm, that’s okay. The only thing that really matters is making good hits when you fire your shots. We’ll talk about how to do that later.


There are three basic designs when it comes to semi-auto handguns. First, let’s talk about what semi-automatic means. When you press the trigger of a semi-auto, the action of the gun functions to load another cartridge into position where it’s ready to be fired. This happens one shot at a time until you stop pressing the trigger or the magazine is emptied.

It’s the way the gun operates that separates them. The basic categories are 1911-style, double-action/single-action, and single-action. We’ll talk about 1911’s first. Of the three types, 1911’s generally have the best triggers. The reason is that 1911’s function with the manipulation of a manual thumb safety and a relatively light trigger press. The problem is that to be run properly you need to keep the thumb of the hand that fires the gun riding above the safety, de-activating it to fire, then placing it in the “on” position after you’re done shooting. Some people with smaller hands have difficulty operating the gun in this manner. Also, people that are left-handed will require a left-handed safety.

Let’s talk about how the trigger works for a second. Most triggers will have some slack as the trigger moves to the rear. You can think of this as play, but it actually serves a function. So there’s a loose bit, then pressure as the trigger begins to do its job. 1911’s usually have a very light trigger, somewhere between two and a half and five pounds.

Most people think a light trigger is a good thing, but for defensive shooting you shouldn’t go much less than four and a half pounds. The idea here is that with a lighter trigger it’s easier to make better shots. But the lightest trigger won’t fix errors in technique such as an improper trigger press or squeezing the gun with your entire hand. Even so, there is equipment answer or a gunsmith modification advertised to “fix” any problem. Don’t fall into that trap. Shooting is very basic and you’ll see just how basic when we start talking about technique. Just remember that a more expensive gun isn’t necessarily a better gun.

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Now, let’s talk about double-action/single-action. These are guns that usually have an exposed hammer. The first shot has a long heavy press with no slack. This is a safety feature built into the gun. The trigger function of the first shot is similar to a revolver. The second shot is more like a semi-auto and has some slack with a much lighter press. This isn’t the best configuration for new shooters. With training you can learn to master the two different presses, but this adds an element of difficulty to your training. If you select this type of gun, just realize that you’re going to have to train a little harder to get it right.

Lastly, there’s the single-action. A good example is the Glock. It’s the easiest kind of semi-auto to operate. You simply load the gun and press the trigger to fire. This is the kind of gun I’d recommend to someone new to shooting, in particular the Glock 17. It’s a full-sized 9mm version of the Glock pistol. Next to the 1911 it has the second best trigger, it’s ultra-reliable and, unlike the 1911, it needs very little maintenance. The price is right as well. It’s one of the least expensive guns in this category.


If you’re considering a gun other than the Glock, here are some attributes to look for and test. First, there’s the trigger, it should have some slack, but the slack should be less than half the full travel of the trigger. Too much slack isn’t a good thing. A Springfield XD has a great deal of slack travel and very little press. It’s the way the trigger is designed.

Also, the trigger reset is very long. The trigger reset is the point to which you have to release the trigger to before it will fire another shot. Usually, the reset isn’t the full length of travel. To test this, make certain the gun isn’t loaded (you can do this by making sure there is no magazine in place, pointing the muzzle down and pulling the slide, the top portion of the gun, slightly to the rear enough to see into chamber (the back end of the barrel). If there’s no brass, the gun is unloaded). Now, keeping the muzzle down in a safe direction, press the trigger and hold it all the way to the rear. Cycle the action (pull the slide to the rear) and slowly release the trigger. When you here a click, that’s the reset (the point where the trigger is ready to be pressed again.)

On a Glock, there is a very definite click. This is what you want. Guns like the Browning Hi-Power and the S&W M&P have a very light reset, which makes it more difficult to be certain the trigger is actually ready to work again. If that’s acceptable to you, then that’s your prerogative. But the Glock trigger is the standard I use to judge other triggers.

Also, the trigger should reset at roughly the same point it began functioning for the first shot. An inconsistent reset from the first shot to the second makes trigger control more difficult. This is why a double-action/single-action gun is less desirable. There is a great deal of difference in the press from the first shot to the second shot. It’s something that needs to be trained aggressively to get right.

Also the trigger shouldn’t become more difficult to press as it begins to work. This is called stacking. The pressure it takes to press the trigger shouldn’t increase, but rather it should move smoothly all the way through until the action breaks (that’s the trigger actually working.) If it feels like there’s a milk jug attached to your finger or you’re physically unable to press the trigger, this isn’t a gun you want to consider.

Now, if you’re thinking you’re going to buy a gun and change things up like having a trigger work and make other modifications to better fit your specifications, you’re talking about spending a lot of extra money. Why not just buy the gun that operates the way you want it to out of the box?

Sights come standard on every gun, but many people either ignore them or don’t know how they work. It’s not necessary to have exotic pyramid shaped sights or a fluorescent dot system. Standard sights work just fine and most are aligned correctly when they come from the factory, but there are a few exceptions. I’d recommend you change the standard plastic sights on a Glock for some quality metal ones. Heinie and Warren Tactical are good brands at around $50. Have a gunsmith, not your buddy with a hammer, do it for you, especially if you get night sights. The fluorescent capsules are easily damaged if you don’t know what you’re doing. Adjustable sights aren’t necessary.

Next, let’s talk about size. There’s a misconception that smaller guns are easier to operate. That’s absolutely untrue. In fact, it’s the opposite. With a smaller-sized gun there’s more felt recoil. This is because the gun is lighter and has less inertia. Also, it’s going to be more difficult to operate, because the controls are physically smaller. The slide will be stiffer as well because the spring tension needs to be higher to accommodate the smaller amount of travel when the weapon cycles. The result is that you’ll need more hand strength to cycle the weapon.

Do yourself a favor and get a full-sized gun. It’ll be much easier to learn the basics with a gun that fits well in your hand. Then, if you feel you need for a smaller gun look at getting the same gun with a smaller frame. Most of these compact and sub-compact guns are offered in 9mm. There are a lot of options available, so do your research.

This brings up and interesting point−the controls of the weapon. I can’t caution you enough about making sure the controls are easy to operate. There are a number of guns out there where the controls are, at best, difficult to use, if not otherwise unusable. You have to know that there are instances where safety “features” were applied to guns that didn’t need them just to comply with a political or government requirement. These extra controls were added to already acceptable weapons systems, which in turn made the guns unacceptable.

In addition, the location of these controls can be problematic and downright puzzling. An external safety should be operated easily by the thumb of the firing hand. It shouldn’t be a sliver of metal that doubles as a medieval torture device. If the controls make it seem as if the gun was designed not to shoot, you might want to rethink your selection.

Controls may also have confusing multiple functions. I’m not prepared to talk about multi-mode guns in this beginner’s book. But my advice is to stay away from them. At this point in your training, it’s not necessary to have an overly complicated gun. If you’re ever uncertain of how your gun works, consult the operator’s manual. If you still can’t figure it out, trade the gun for a simpler weapon system.

It might be good to rent several different guns and try them before you decide to buy. Most ranges will rent you the most popular models. Try the guns out and find out what your own personal preferences are in a gun. What I’m giving you are basic guidelines, but you might decide that some of these tradeoffs are acceptable to you in order to have the model gun you want.


There is a lot of equipment you need to support your gun habit, some of it is necessary and some of it is just a waste of money. But don’t worry once you have the stuff you need it generally lasts for some time, other than targets and ammunition. So, you’ll be better served by investing a little extra money and getting good equipment that’ll last. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t shop around. Gun shops don’t always have the best prices or best products. In fact, they rarely do. Some of the gun shops I’ve visited actually seem to be clueless about the equipment that’s useful and the stuff that’s worthless or slightly dangerous. Let’s talk about the stuff you need.


Let’s talk about safety equipment you’ll need for the range. It starts with eye protection. Industrial safety glasses are fine, but if you want to be more stylish I’d recommend something with a straight earpiece. The reason is that when you’re wearing ear muffs the curved earpieces tend to dig in. With a straight earpiece, they can actually sit above the ear muffs. Oakleys are great for this.

Also, realize that at an indoor range you want to have your eye protection on at all times, because the risk of fragmentation is greater. It’s a good idea for the outdoor ranges as well even when you’re not shooting. The US Army took forever to realize that eye protection was important and vital, but you don’t have to. Wear your eye pro at all times and you won’t have to regret not wearing it.

Next, there’s hearing protection. Plugs are fine, but they become uncomfortable after prolonged wear and many people don’t know how to properly insert them. You simply tug on the top of your ear to straighten the ear canal, roll the plugs between your thumb and forefinger and insert. Don’t try to pierce your brain with them. Just make sure they’re secure.

A more comfortable option is ear muffs. You can get plain ear muffs, but you’re better off spending a little more or even a lot more depending on how much you shoot and getting a pair of electronic ear muffs. A nice set are the Peltor Tactical/Sports. They run over a hundred dollars, but they’re worth it if you do a lot of shooting. Shop around.

It’s good to wear a baseball cap to protect from the sun and hot brass coming down between your glasses and your face. It doesn’t have to be fancy, just something that gets the job done. Try to stay away from driving flat caps. Unless you’re in your forties and British, they’re pretty much out of style. Make sure you wear the brim facing forwards; otherwise the hat won’t afford much protection.

Lastly, you’ll need a range bag, nothing fancy just something to keep all your gear in one place and get it to and from the range. It doesn’t have to be tactical black or camouflage operator-type gear. Check out for deals. They’re not always the cheapest, but every now and then things go on sale. Also, you may need a stapler, targets and ammunition. Some indoor ranges require you to use their targets and ammunition. Just call or drop by your local range to find out for sure.

Most ranges don’t allow you to work from the holster, but let’s cover holsters and belts since you’ll need them for concealment anyway. For a belt you’re looking for is something an inch to and inch and a half wide. They make special gun belts that are reinforced so your gear doesn’t sag, but a sturdy belt will do. When you thread the belt through your holster make sure the buckle is on the gun side. It’ll help keep your holster from sliding off when you need to go to the restroom.

Let’s spend some time talking about holsters. A good holster will carry the gun securely and at the very least cover all the trigger. I prefer that the entire trigger guard be covered. You might have seen those cheap nylon holsters hanging in the gun shop. I’d recommend staying away from them. Duck tape and an oven mitt would probably do the job just as well and then you’d have a pouch for a magazine in the thumb hole (don’t try this.) What you need is a sturdy holster made of kydex or reinforced leather, something that won’t collapse in on itself. Bladetech, Uncle Mikes, and Blackhawk are a couple good brands of kydex holsters. These holsters usually have built in retention that can be adjusted by a screw. Stay away from holsters you can’t adjust. If you can’t get your gun out of the holster, it’s of no use to you. Leather holsters have a tendency to be incredibly stiff until they’re broken in, so that could be a problem. Once again, stay away from nylon pancake holsters. These are flimsy holsters that usually attach with a belt clip. That’s fine for something like a cell phone or radio, but I wouldn’t trust it for my gun.

Double retention holsters are holsters with a strap, button or something else that holds the gun in the holster. If you prefer this type of holster make sure you know how it operates. I would go with a single retention holster unless you’re carrying open.


You need a cleaning kit that includes a rod or bore snake to clean the barrel, lube/cleaner, a cloth, a toothbrush, q-tips and some pipe cleaners for the nooks you can’t get with the bigger stuff. Refer to you manual proper lubrication once you’re done cleaning. It only takes a few drops of oil. If the oil is coming out of your holster and down your leg, that’s too much.

Think about getting a fanny pack. They still make these for the purpose of carrying a gun. They’re not all that great for concealment, because everyone with any training knows you’re carrying a gun, but they’re great keep your gun and gear accessible at home. Spare magazines, flexi-cuffs and a flashlight are also good to carry in the pack to keep them handy. If home defense is your primary goal, though, do yourself a favor and get some professional training. As with all training, consider its usefulness, safety and practicality. If it’s good, use it. If it’s not, file it away as a learning experience.

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Ed Palumbo from Tualatin, OR on November 02, 2014:

The SIG P232 and Walther PPK/S have served me well for concealed carry.

Kawika Chann from Northwest, Hawaii, Anykine place on July 04, 2014:

Lol, Sig guns are the diamond necklace to my puka shell budget... but yes, please keep putting the word out, and I'll check out your website . Peace. Kawi.

Martin Carter (author) from Southeast Wisconsin on July 04, 2014:

In the meantime, I've written a condensed photo book of handgun fundamentals to be used in conjunction with professional training. It's free to download. Just check my website. There's a button at the top of the page to download.


Martin Carter (author) from Southeast Wisconsin on July 04, 2014:

Kawi. I carry a full-size glock every day as do many of my fellow instructors. I'd suggest a good quality holster like a comp-tac or crossbreed leather-kydex hybrid or something similar. Inside the waistband is better for concealment, but compromises on comfort. As a side note, I knew a larger guy that would demonstrate carrying 5 full-size handguns concealed. That's extreme, but it does show that there are many options other than just going with a miniature gun. Definitely, don't go too small, though. I fired ruger lcp .380 once and it was no fun. The gun actually feels like it wants to jump out of your hands. With an ultra small gun, you trade off ease of use and ammunition capacity and depending on your needs and skill level, this might not be something you can afford to do. Also, the triggers on these guns are usually ridiculous. The one exception is a Sig Sauer 938. I generally hate Sig triggers, but this one works like a 1911 and shoots well. Although it's very expensive for a microscopic gun.

Hope that helps and I'm glad you enjoyed the article. In fact, thanks to everyone that's taken the time to read and, hopefully, become a little more informed. I'm going to try to be more diligent in writing informational pieces. With handguns and shooting there is unfortunately an overabundance of generally terrible advice. I blame Hollywood and Youtube.

Kawika Chann from Northwest, Hawaii, Anykine place on July 03, 2014:

Nicely done Carter - am in the process of shopping for my first gun for conceal-carry. I spoke to a few guys - all law enforcement - they all say 9mm, and to think about keeping the size small for concealment. I have very large hands, so my last two fingers are floating off the handle. They said, so, you're a big guy, you can hang onto it - you don't want something that you can't conceal! So, I think I'll rent a few until I get used to shooting... what are your thoughts?

I really enjoyed this piece, upvoted/useful/follow. Peace. Kawi.

Martin Carter (author) from Southeast Wisconsin on May 06, 2014:

As a rangemaster at Front Sight Nevada, I use to fire 600-800 rounds per month, not because I had to in order to maintain proficiency, but simply because I had the opportunity. With all that use, I'd routinely go 3 to 4 months without cleaning my glock. As a beginner, that's the kind of reliability you want in a first handgun.

Ed Palumbo from Tualatin, OR on December 17, 2013:

I enjoyed your article and hope to more of your material on handgunning and firearms in general.

Keith Abt from The Garden State on June 08, 2013:

No problem.

Martin Carter (author) from Southeast Wisconsin on June 08, 2013:

Nice catch. Thanks. I originally had a different title and I actually didn't expect this piece to be approved anyway. It's funny. I had several other nice pieces I took the time to proof that were denied.

Keith Abt from The Garden State on June 08, 2013:

Shouldn't the hub title read "selectING a handgun," not "selected?"

Just sayin'.

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