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Before Buying Your First Handgun

The decision to acquire a handgun for first time should not be taken lightly, but once the decision has been made several important factors enter into determining what type of handgun to purchase; the two choices being either a revolver or a semiauto.  To the untrained and/or the uneducated, the movies and TV play a large part on what the initial consideration is or should be, and as is shown by current sales information and other industry sources, the semiauto handgun is a top contender for many first-time buyers.

The reason for the popularity of the semi-auto is fairly obvious; with very few exceptions this is the handgun of choice for the movie hero, it is the primary handgun for almost all law enforcement agencies in the US (and around the world), and it is also the standard handgun for military units at home and abroad.  So with this kind of support and popularity it’s easy to see why the gun that seems to appeal to new shooters is the semi-auto and, in fact, it is what most new shooters walk out with when they go to their local gun shop to make that all important first purchase.  But is it really the best choice?

In spite of what we see in the movies, not all handguns are created equally nor are they equally easy to operate.  More importantly the learning curve for the novice can be quite different if the gun chosen is a semiauto versus a revolver; in spite of what many novice shooters may think, sometimes it takes more than just pulling the trigger to make a handgun go bang.


To decide which style of handgun is best for the new shooter, let’s take a close look at a few important considerations and compare the options.


Anticipated Use:  Before any serious consideration can be given to selecting a handgun, the buyer should first decide what the basic reason is for wanting one.  Right off the top there are only three primary motivations: self defense, sport or a combination of both.  A fourth reason is the possibility that the gun acquired may have collector value, as many guns do, in which case obtaining certain guns can also be considered an investment of sorts.  Obviously, a gun obtained for sport (target shooting and plinking) can also be used for self defense, and vice versa, but in truth a good defense gun is not always suitable for sports shooting, and the same contradiction can be said for many target shooting specific guns which are also used sometimes as defense guns.  The simple reason is a defense gun usually entails a caliber designed for protection, i.e., stopping power and number of cartridges per loading, while a gun for target shooting is best enjoyed if the caliber (and the power) are less than that used for defense.  Again, any gun used for sport can also be used for defense, but if you’re serious about either option the chances are you will lean more toward the type/caliber/design that suits your anticipated needs more.  Both revolvers and semiautos can accommodate being used specifically for defense or sport if the buyer knows what to look for, and to a lesser degree both handgun styles can also be used for double duty (protection and target shooting) if the buyer knows this ahead of the purchase and understands the tradeoff of using one gun for both applications.


Ease of Use / Simplicity:  The very first handguns were designed for single-shot use because the technology to manufacture a successful multiple shot firearm was still a few centuries away.  Through trial and error, as well as about 150 years of development, the revolver type handgun came to fruition during the early 1800s; and it wasn’t until mid-1800s that successful revolver designs were being sold commercially in quantity.  These initial efforts were single-action only designs, which required the gun’s hammer to be manually cocked for each shot, but in due time forward thinking gun designers figured out how to build a revolver that could be fired without cocking the hammer simply by pulling the trigger, often referred to as double-action shooting.


This design revolutionized the handgun industry, and even today double-action revolvers (capable of being fired solely by pulling the trigger) have been and are a standard of simplicity.  All one has to do to use a modern revolver is (1) load cartridges in the revolving cylinder, (2) point/aim the gun (3) pull the trigger.  And because very few revolvers (if any) have a built-in positive safety device/latch/button, nothing could be easier to use for even the most inexperienced shooter.


On the other hand semiauto loading guns are fairly new designs when compared to the revolver; originally envisioned for military use in the late 1800s, they eventually worked their way into the public sector where they are a mainstay of both civilian shooters and law enforcement personnel today.  Without going into too much detail on the history of semiauto development, suffice it to say that, much like the revolver, these types of modern handguns allow the shooter to fire one shot with each pull of the trigger, but a few extra bells and whistles and demands on both the shooter and the gun are added into the mix.


Remember how the revolver is loaded by placing bullets in a rotating cylinder?  Well, a semiauto maintains a supply of bullets by use of a magazine; a metal reservoir that is loaded with bullets and then inserted (usually) into a hollow well in the grip of the gun.  Once a magazine is in place the gun needs to be “charged,” that is a cartridge must be seated in the chamber (back end of the barrel) by operation of the slide mechanism before it is ready to be fired.  Depending on the specific design of the semiauto it may or may not have a safety that needs to be disengaged before the trigger can be pulled, and as an added feature of the mechanics involved, some semiautos require that the hammer be cocked before it can be fired, but some designs are meant to be fired double-action only from the very first shot.  Are you still with me?


Depending on the model and style of the semiauto in question, some hold as few bullets as 5 or 7 in the magazine (and once empty they have to be reloaded again), and yet other designs can hold as many as 17 and 18 cartridges in one loading before it needs to be reloaded (so-called extended magazines hold even more!), so you can readily see that potential firepower is a major consideration in selecting a semiauto over a revolver.  However, the issue of potential firepower (number of cartridges available in a single loading) notwithstanding, there is the aforementioned issues of charging the gun – accomplished by manually operating the slide back and forward again to seat a cartridge in the chamber – as well as disengaging a safety if the gun is equipped with one, and also cocking the hammer if the design calls for it.  A lot of things to tend to before the gun is fired, but once these preliminary actions have been taken care of the gun should fire continuously with each pull of the trigger until the magazine is empty, provided it doesn’t jam or otherwise encounter a failure to feed a live round in the chamber or extract each and every empty brass casing from the chamber so a new cartridge can be fed for firing.  If the above sequence of events may appear to be a leap of faith, take solace in the fact that it works flawlessly with most semiautos 99.99 percent of the time.  If the .01 percent chance of a problem occurring is a concern, then there is always the stodgy 6-shot alternative.


The bottom line to the issue of ease of use and simplicity as a condition of selecting a suitable handgun will depend largely on how able the prospective buyer is to determine what the primary use of the handgun will be and, also, he/she should be able to weigh this knowledge against the two major types of available firearms previously discussed.  More on this later.


Safety:  It goes without saying that guns, all guns, are inherently dangerous.  All too often we hear about tragic incidents which occur as a result of carelessness or lack of education regarding the proper operation and handling of firearms, and each accidental discharge or injury only serves to offer the anti-gun community more reason to criticize the Second Amendment, the firearms industry, as well as all law-abiding citizens who own guns.  Realizing this we should take into account how the various types of guns stack up regarding basic safety features as well as inherent safety considerations for both the revolver and the semiauto.


As previously noted, revolvers are the what-you-see-is-what-you-get gun; no positive safety devices, levers, buttons or other exterior devices.  These guns operate simply and efficiently in a time-tested manner: load bullets in the cylinder, close the cylinder and then pull the rigger and it goes bang, and depending on how many bullets the revolver holds it will go bang 5, 6 or (with some newer models) even 8 times.  Again, just pull the trigger and the gun does the rest, it couldn’t be any simpler.


The semiauto, on the other hand, is a bit more complex and labor intensive; and as a result almost all semiautos come with positive safties, and some with more than one positive safety.  For the record, a positive safety is something that needs to be physically activated by the shooter for the gun to fire.  In the case of most semiautos there is a lever, usually located on the left side of the frame, which is engaged by the shooter’s thumb; and when engaged it is a solid bar against the trigger being pulled.  On some new semiauto models (i.e., the Glock) there is no positive safety, and once the gun is loaded and charged (magazine inserted and a bullet in the chamber) all the shooter has to do is pull the trigger just like a revolver, one after another until the last bullet is fired.


Again, revolvers have no positive safety mechanisms, and most semiautos do.  But the fact that revolvers historically do not have a safety is NOT an indictment of their overall safety; it just means that for many shooters, there is one less thing to worry about in the event of a high stress encounter.


Dependability:  When it comes to firearms the term “dependability” is fairly cut and dry; in its most simple terms we all want a gun that fires each and every time we pull the trigger.  As stated above revolvers utilize a design that has withstood the test of time for over a century and a half; once the gun is loaded all the shooter has to do is engage the trigger for each shot until the cylinder is empty, and because the basic design is simple with very few moving parts, the chances of a failure to fire are remote at best.  As an added bonus, should a cartridge fail to fire, all the shooter has to do is pull the trigger again and a new round is positioned in place ready to fire when the hammer falls.  There are no safeties to engage or flip on or off, no failures to feed or extract, just operate the trigger.


The semiauto is uniquely different, and in spite of its high tech design and credentials, offers a more complex set off mechanical actions to function properly – in sequence – for the gun to continuously fire until the magazine is empty.  Here is the semiauto sequence stated again once the gun is loaded and a bullet is in the chamber: release the safety if one is present, pull the trigger, the gun fires and almost simultaneously the slide start back, during the slide’s reward motion the empty case is extracted from the chamber and ejected out to the side, and at the most rearward position of the slide it start forward during which time the next bullet to be fired is stripped from the magazine and forced into the chamber (rear of the barrel), after which the trigger is pulled again starting the whole cycle once more until the magazine is empty, at which time the slide will remain locked in the rearmost position.  This continuous sequence of events is dependant on each empty case being successfully extracted and ejected, and each fresh round is successfully chambered to its maximum position so the slide is closed completely allowing the firing pin to strike the bullet primer.


Whew!  Do you think there is a possibility for an occasional misfire due to failure to feed or extract?  Yep, you’re right if you said yes; but thankfully, and in most cases, the semiauto performs all these functions over and over and over again flawlessly provided (1) thought is given to the ammo used, and (2) the shooter holds the gun firm enough to allow the mechanical sequence previously described to operate as designed.  Is there a chance that some phase of the semiauto sequence could fail to function properly?  Yes.  But even though the chances are slim to none that a malfunction will occur, statistically it can still happen more often with a semiauto than with a revolver.  Which means that if you prefer the semiauto as a defense firearm over a revolver, you are strongly advised to learn how to clear jams and malfunctions quickly and efficiently so you can fully utilize all the benefits the semiauto offers.


Firepower:  if there appears to be a subtle but obvious preference here toward the revolver as a defense firearm for the novice/inexperienced shooter, you are correct; there is little or no way that this writer can recommend the semiauto for anyone less than an experienced shooter or someone who is willing to seek out the training necessary to be fully competent in the operation and handling of the more demanding gun.  However, there is one glaring difference that takes the semiauto way above the realm of the revolver:  potential firepower, which is simply the number of shots available with one loading before the gun is empty.


As previously stated the great majority of revolvers of standard size are meant to fire only 6 shots before the gun is empty, and smaller revolvers (designed for concealment) are generally limited to a 5 shot capacity.  There are even a few revolvers that can hold 8 bullets in a single loading, but these are the exception rather than the rule.  However, compared to a modern high-capacity semiauto even an 8-shot revolver pales in the number of available shots per loading.  Additionally, there are some folks who strongly believe that the ability to reload quickly is high on the list of added features when considering the acquisition of a defense handgun; police and military personnel definitely fall into this category.

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Simply put, there is a big difference between the time it takes to reload a semiauto as compared to the reloading of a revolver; semiautos are loaded by use of a magazine which can be pre-charged with bullets and be changed out quickly from the gun when necessary.  On the other hand revolvers are generally reloaded by the manual placement of each bullet into the cylinder, which is obviously time consuming when seconds count.  There are aftermarket revolver reloading devices available (speedy loaders) which can significantly cut down the time necessary to reload, but this method is suggested only if the user is trained and adept at the mechanics and subtleties of using these devices.


Before we leave this issue there is one other fact which must be taken into account before deciding what type of handgun may be suited to your needs: the number of rounds that are actually fired in the majority of so-called “life and death” situations.  This writer is unaware of any study that quantifies the number of shots fired in a defense encounter involving only the civilian population, but there are numbers given for the average of shots fired in the police sector, to wit, before the advent of semiautos as the primary firearm in law enforcement (the 1970s) the average number of shots fired in police shootings was about 2.5 to 3.5 shots per incident per officer.  This may be pure speculation now, but since the semiauto has entered into law enforcement there is no doubt that the average number of shots per shooting incident has probably gone up, if for no other reason than because officers know (either consciously or subconsciously) that they have the advantage of more shots available to them with a semiauto.  Again, this is only an educated guess, but human nature being what it is, it’s probably safe to assume that if someone knows they have 17 shots in the gun ready to go, then by extension it may be safe to assume that one or two more shots will be fired if the heart is pumping and Adrenaline is flowing.


Closing statement: firepower in and of itself should not be the bottom line in choosing an appropriate handgun for defense use, but if it is (and there are many people who believe it so), then you can do no better than going with a semiauto as your gun of choice.  If you do, then please appease an old man and just be sure that you seek professional training, and make sure that you seriously become familiar with the operation of your gun and you practice with it on a regular basis.  Did I mention the need for practice?


Ammo/Caliber Selection:  If there is one aspect surrounding a discussion about handguns and self defense that always seems to be pivotal, it’s the subject of ammunition selection. In the old (very old) days before modern gunpowder and before shooting statistics were kept and analyzed, there were all manner of calibers and gun sizes available, but folks depended on guns for survival soon found that when it came to prevailing in a shooting situation, a bigger bullet was generally better.  Today, however, ammo comes in all sizes (caliber), bullet weight and bullet shape and powder loadings, which for the novice means an array of technical and sometimes confusing facts that must be wadded through before a learned selection is made.  But if one fact had to jump to the forefront in a discussion of handgun ammo today it would definitely be the mix of certain calibers and bullet designs selected for use (usually in the medium weight/size range) which, along with modern gunpowders has made it possible to manufacture ammo that generates greater velocity and effect out of the barrel, and utilizing various combinations of both has led to some very effective loads with calibers that were once thought to be too small for defensive use.


To take this tutorial one step further, we know today that if a bullet is propelled fast enough even a small bullet can be effective; the technical term for this arcane science is terminal ballistics, and it is something that weighs heavy in selecting an appropriate handgun and bullet for personal protection/defense.  This is also the thought behind small bullets being used by the military in many modern field rifles in use today.  However, when it comes to handguns there is only so much velocity that can be built into a specific cartridge before it becomes – for lack of a better term – too hot to handle.  The fact is there are a lot of bullet/powder combinations that have great appeal to shooters who make a serious hobby of handgun ballistics, but many of these bullet/powder combinations are just not applicable for use by the average entry-level user, and so we are ultimately left with what can be considered standard acceptable defense loads for the great majority of people who are new to the fold and are only looking for a gun and bullet combo they use without any worries or special considerations.


Here are the recommendations that should be considered in selecting the best handgun/ammo mix: the very small calibers (.22, .25, and .32) are generally considered too light in weight to be effective as a serious defense load, while the larger calibers (.44 Magnum and above) are just too heavy and uncomfortable to shoot for the great majority of new shooters who are looking for a handgun that offers simple and easy to handle protection.  With regard to the prior handgun caliber disclaimer, the only viable options left are the so-called middle calibers; the .380, 9mm Parabellum, .38 Special, .357 Magnum, 40 S&W and .45 ACP.  To fine tune the selection process even more it should be noted that, in general, the .380, 9mm, 40 S&W and the .45 ACP are calibers associated with the semiauto, while the .38 and .357 are considered revolver calibers, although there are examples of handguns having been made that cross the line on this point, these cross-over guns are the exception rather than the rule.  If you want to keep it simple stick to the above recommendations.


Now comes the time when this writer takes the liberty of actually stating which calibers are probably best for the average person who is looking to acquire a handgun for the fist time, with the primary use being protection and/or sport.  In order of personal preference the following is offered for your consideration:  .38 Special revolver, .357 revolver, 9mm semiauto, .45 ACP semiauto, .40 S&W semiauto, and lastly the smallish .380 semiauto.  There is no doubt that this recommendation will not sit well with some firearms aficionados, but that’s okay because when it comes to the subject of which bullet and gun combination is best for personal protection or sport, it’s kind of like trying to decide what color works best for a new car; there are just as many opinions as there are colors, and so it is with the gun/bullet debate.


Cost:  We have finally come to the subject of cost which, for many, is just as important as what type of gun and ammo is best for the new shooter.  To put it in the simplest terms possible, you get what you pay for.  For every gun made there are top-end name brand examples that, rightfully so, command the highest prices on the shelf or in the display case, and the same can be said for buying ammo.  This is not to say that you can’t find well made guns and ammo from lesser known manufacturers, but if the first-time buyer is unsure of which brand is better, it’s always safe to go with a name that is known and familiar.


Another consideration is where you buy your gun and ammo, and in this regard the law is very clear on how purchases are transacted; in some states no gun can be purchased without the intervention of federally licensed dealer.  If you’re someone who is unclear on the law in your particular area, then don’t just guess at what the law says or take for granted what someone tells you; go directly to a bona fide commercial dealer, with a storefront and appropriate licenses hanging on the wall, and find out straight from the source what’s legal and what isn’t.  Sure, going to a dealer will probably cost you more than transacting a sale from a friend of a friend who knows someone who has a gun for sale, but you should also know that failure to comply with the law when it comes to firearms can be quite costly and life changing if you are caught violating the laws in your state/city/county.   Better to be safe and maybe pay a little more than get a “deal” that can come back and bite you in the hind quarters with the law.


Final Thoughts:  As a retired police officer and former firearms instructor, this writer has had many conversations with friends and acquaintances regarding what gun and ammo combinations are recommended for someone who is just looking to get a gun for personal home protection or sports plinking.  Invariably the person asking the question has already formulated several ideas about the subject based on what someone has already told them or from what they’ve seen on TV, so when I respond to their questions there is a certain element of surprise because the suggestions I offer may not be what they expected or wanted to hear.  So if you were my friend or even someone I just met, and you asked me the same question(s), this is how I would respond:


The best all-around gun for personal protection at home for the first-time buyer/user is the revolver.  The more simple a gun is the better it is for someone who is new to guns or inexperienced.  In this regard there is nothing simpler than a well made 6-shot revolver with a 4-inch barrel, and if I had to suggest a caliber it would be the .38 Special because it’s easier to handle but it still has enough energy to get the job done.  This type of handgun is also a great choice for learning the basics of shooting, and it is suitable for both casual plinking and target shooting.


As for the issue of ammo for your new revolver; again, stick with simple, lead round nose bullets are just fine.  You will find that many well appointed gun shops also carry reload ammo at a discount price compared to new factory ammo, and this will be more than adequate for practice at the range.  Have a box of new factory ammo available for home protection, and about once a year shoot a few cylinders full through your gun for practice, and replace the box with newer ammo as needed.


If you have made the decision to own a gun then you are strongly advised to seek out training from someone who is familiar with firearms, most gun shops can assist you in this matter.  One of the very first things you will learn from your instructor is that you should consider all guns loaded even if you absolutely know they are not loaded.  Never point a gun (loaded or not) in a direction that, if there was a bullet in the gun and you pulled the trigger accidently, it wouldn’t hurt anyone.  Keep in mind that bullets can penetrate walls and doors, so don’t pull the trigger on an empty gun unless the barrel is pointed away from walls and doors because, as we already know, even an unloaded gun is loaded.  The fact is, many experts and people with a lot of experience with guns have had what is referred to as an accidental discharge, and even the best of the very best can make a mistake.  But as long as you treat the gun as though loaded loaded, and you never ever “dry fire” the gun pointing it at a door or a wall where someone could be on the other side, your potential for an accidental discharge will only be an embarrassment and not a tragedy.


And while we’re on the subject, you should always make sure that both your gun and ammunition are stored safely, out of reach of family, friends and especially children.  Not only do you have a moral obligation to take every reasonable precaution necessary, you also have a legal duty to make sure your gun is stored properly.  Some states have laws that place a gun owner directly at fault if a child/minor obtains access to a gun, regardless of whether or not it results in injury; the mere fact that a gun was stored in an unsafe manner and it resulted in injury (or worse) can be actionable by law, and some jurisdictions really want to make an example of any gun owner who falls into this category.  So if you decide to own a gun, please be careful and please exercise common sense.


Did I mention that you should treat all guns as if they are loaded even if you already know they aren’t?


Closing comment: making the decision to own any firearm, specifically a handgun, is not to be taken lightly, but every law-abiding citizen has the legal right to do so if they chose.  Some anti-gun groups would have you believe that having access to a gun is the purview of only the police and military, but the US Constitution says otherwise, and the fact that approximately 90-million Americans own at least one firearm is testimony to what our Founding Fathers believed was the birthright of every American.  No one demands or even asks that you own a firearm; it is an individual decision that has been available to each citizen of this great country since 1776, and the hope is that we, as a free people, never give in to those who would disarm American citizens.  End of speech and end of article.  If you have any questions or comments regarding this article please contact the Typical Shooter and we will make every effort to get back to you with an answer.

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  1. Great info, very thorough yet succinct. Keep it up.

  2. What are the best earmuffs for an indoor shooting range?

    • Indoor ranges are especially noisy and harmful to human ears, and the more frequent the exposure the greater the chance for long lasting damage to hearing. If someone has to shoot at an indoor range you are advised to use the “double layer” method of protection; ear plugs and ear muffs together. This may sound silly or appear to be overkill, but over time indoor ranges are far more detrimental to hearing than outdoor ranges, especially with the larger handgun calibers or centerfire rifles.

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