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How to choose your first handgun - a beginner's guide

Mountain Rose Defensive Training NRA Basic Pistol firearms training and shooting instruction

In my NRA Basic Pistol classes, one thing we cover extensively is how to select your very first pistol (or handgun) as a new gun owner. With the wide range of gun makers, models, and calibers, it can be overwhelming to try and choose the gun that best fits your needs and budget. The very first question I ask my students is: how do you plan to use this gun? A person who intends to carry a pistol concealed in an inside-the-waistband (IWB) holster will probably pick a different gun than someone who intends to leave it in a secured area for home defense. Carry guns need to be concealable (unless you plan to open carry, which is still a somewhat controversial topic that could be a series of blog posts in itself). If you're printing, i.e. showing the outline of your firearm under your clothes, you're not carrying concealed and may even be subject to legal penalties in some jurisdictions. Likewise, an overly heavy gun can be horribly uncomfortable to wear. If you own a gun for concealment purposes but rarely wear it because it's such a burden to keep on your body, it's not the right gun for that purpose.

Then there's the issue of stopping power. Higher calibers will have a bigger projectile and a more powerful powder charge; the bullet will make a bigger hole and hit harder and faster, doing more damage to an attacker. But high caliber guns are also typically bulkier and often pack quite a punch when it comes to recoil. We've all seen Dirty Harry's iconic .44 Magnum S&W Model 29 revolver in the movies, but how realistic is it for most people to carry that thing stuffed into a waistband holster? And how accurately can a smaller person shoot it, placing multiple hits on target consistently enough to stop the threat? These questions are dependent on every individual gun owner's needs and daily habits.

Smaller caliber guns may be easier to conceal and offer minimal recoil, but may also lack effective stopping power. There's a reason police departments and military professionals don't carry .22 caliber target pistols. Anything less than a 9mm may not have enough force to stop the threat in time to prevent the threat from harming you first. Don't get me wrong--it's not remotely impossible to disable or kill someone with a .22 caliber pistol! It's just that your attacker might be able to injure or kill you before they realize they've been mortally wounded.

Some well-meaning but ignorant people will recommend a defensive caliber like 9mm or .40 S&W but in a gun with a small frame, believing that this smaller gun will offer less recoil to the shooter. This recommendation is particularly common among men at gun stores, or who are trying to get their girlfriends/wives into shooting for the first time. What they don't realize is that the smaller frame absorbs less of the shock wave from the gun blast, forcing the shooter's hands to make up the difference. Smaller guns have more recoil than big ones, and this is made painfully apparent when shooting defensive calibers out of the typical "mouse guns" or pocket guns we often find marketed to women.

To help my students choose the right gun for their needs, I suggest that they visit a range that provides handgun rentals for a nominal fee. Only by shooting a variety of firearms will the new shooter know what feels good in their hands, what kind of recoil they can safely manage while maintaining good practice of the fundamentals of shooting, and what they feel most comfortable handling and holding. Comfort level matters! If your gun feels alien and uncomfortable to you, you're less likely to want to pick it up and do daily dry-fire practice. You're far less likely to feel okay about practicing holstering and unholstering techniques. And you're more than likely going to leave it at home instead of carrying it with you--making it just another expensive dust collector that won't be at your disposal in case of a real emergency.

As you can see, there are many factors to consider when picking your first pistol. But by far, the most important question to ask yourself is what your pistol's primary use will be. Once you know how, when, and where you intend to use it, a qualified instructor or knowledgeable gun owner can help you fill in the blanks. Consider taking an NRA Basic Pistol class to familiarize yourself with the various action types, calibers, and ways to use the many pistols available on the market today.

Stay safe out there and happy shooting!