Handguns for Dummies
November 18, 2008 10:49 AM   Subscribe

What are some good resources for a novice looking to purchase a handgun?

I am considering purchasing a pistol for 1) home protection and 2) general target shooting. And I will probably only buy one (right now, I'm leaning toward Sig Sauer, but for strictly aesthetic reasons), and have it serve double duty (I don't want to be a "collector"). But I am fairly new to firearms. Where can I go to learn more? About guns in general, but also info on topics like; what makes a good gun for a particular use (not maker, but issues like caliber, stopping power, weight, etc.), price paid vs. overall quality, expert opinions, safety/etiquette, training, etc. Think "if you're a newb, you MUST read X". Even (especially?) if it's overly technical. Online info is good, but printed material is also welcome - as are your recommendations/advice.
posted by anonymous to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (31 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
 
http://www.m1911.org/
Excellent site about an excellent gun.
posted by aleahey at 11:01 AM on November 18, 2008 [4 favorites]


I'm not saying this to be snarky, but the guys at the gun store (both those that work there and those that hang out there) dream about having somebody walk in off the street and say basically exactly what you said above. They sit and argue/bull shit about this very thing all day long. Please make their day and go ask.
posted by Pollomacho at 11:27 AM on November 18, 2008


1911s are fine, but not my style.

Personally, I like my Springfield Armory XD 40. It's an excellent choice for anyone's first handgun, because it's extremely safe (in handgun terms) and extremely reliable (20k rounds without cleaning in one test).

When I'm looking to carry something smaller, it's a Walther PPS. Pricey, but very, very nice.

There's plenty of info out there about both of these guns.

My wife's is a Sig, and it's pretty ok, too. Seems a little bulbous to me in certain parts of the grip, and I prefer an internal firing pin as opposed to the Sig's external hammer. If you're dead set on a Sig, look for one of the German police force's retired P6's. They're an excellent buy, and the only wear they have to speak of is holster wear.
posted by SlyBevel at 11:28 AM on November 18, 2008


And yeah, Pollomacho is right. Go to a gun shop and let them talk your ear off for a while. Handle the guns at the counter. Talk about calibers, and defense, and carrying, and home use.

But then buy privately. Here in Utah the place to buy a gun person-to-person is KSL. Maybe there's something like that where you are?

Even a pawn shop will usually have better deals than the gun shop, but do know what the price should be before you walk in.
posted by SlyBevel at 11:33 AM on November 18, 2008


the guys at the gun store dream about having somebody walk in off the street and say basically exactly what you said above.

Are you male? Or female? If you're female I disagree with the above advice- I got the biggest load of patronizing crap when I walked in off the street- all about how women should only use revolvers because anything else was too complicated. WTF?

Go to a shooting range, talk to THOSE guys (or women, if available), and try out a bunch of different guns. Find the one that's the most fun and then buy that one.
posted by small_ruminant at 12:03 PM on November 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


Also, the actually buying part varies a lot from state to state. Last I knew, in California you're required to buy via a gun shop, even if the original sale is private- and the gun shops get to charge you for their time and trouble. California gun laws pretty much bite, imo, but that's another rant.
posted by small_ruminant at 12:04 PM on November 18, 2008


GunsAmerica is good place to go to get a feeling of the actual prices. I haven't purchased a gun for a few years so pricing may have changed but when I was purchasing my guns the MSRP was always much higher than the prices that were available when you knew how to ask.
posted by 517 at 12:06 PM on November 18, 2008


A lot, maybe most, gun shops offer some sort of Handguns for Dummies class where you learn handgun safety, how to load, clean, etc, the laws, and you spend some time on the range with both pistols and revolvers. It's a great way to jump start your knowledge and get some hands on experience to see what you are most comfortable with.
posted by COD at 12:20 PM on November 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


You can go and talk to the gunshop guys... but, unfortunately, a lot of gun owners listen to a lot of bullshit. While you'd hope that a gunshop guy has his shit together, I haven't really found that to be the case. I've been told all sorts of patently untrue shit. They're trying to make a sale, not educate the populace, remember.

I'd recommend that you check out The Firing Line forums. That's where I went and hung out and talked before buying a gun. Some of those people are just as full of shit as anybody else, but there're generally enough of them there that you can synthesize sense from the cacophony.

And, some advice from me:

All handguns, in all non-exotic calibers, suck in terms of stopping power. It's something like 70% of handgun wounds are non-fatal--which is a good thing, IMO. While I still think a handgun is still an excellent defense against a deadly threat, I mention this because I want you to ignore all the fairy-talk you'll hear of "this one here'll knock a man across the room with a fist-sized hole in his chest". It won't, because nothing will.

Next, the kinetic energy numbers they give you aren't especially meaningful. Discharging 200 ft-lbs of energy isn't going to stop someone if you hit their leg, and discharging 15 ft-lbs is good enough if you get their neck. Shot placement and penetration are really the only factors that consistently determine the outcome of a gunshot.

So, keeping all of that in mind, I settled on 9mm for my caliber of choice. Low recoil (helps shot placement), low cost of ammo (helps practice), and high velocity (helps penetration). It is the smallest, lightest, and lowest "powered" of the standard calibers. I don't think I'd go any smaller, though.
posted by Netzapper at 12:26 PM on November 18, 2008


Are you male? Or female? If you're female I disagree with the above advice- I got the biggest load of patronizing crap when I walked in off the street- all about how women should only use revolvers because anything else was too complicated. WTF?

This is true. The biggest chauvinistic pricks I've ever met have been gunshop guys.
posted by Netzapper at 12:28 PM on November 18, 2008


Are you male? Or female? If you're female I disagree with the above advice- I got the biggest load of patronizing crap when I walked in off the street- all about how women should only use revolvers because anything else was too complicated. WTF?

This is true. The biggest chauvinistic pricks I've ever met have been gunshop guys.


It is true, but at least you find out one thing, where not to do business.
posted by Pollomacho at 12:31 PM on November 18, 2008


I have issues with the NRA as an organization (which I mention only in case you do as well) but their basic firearms class is excellent. I don't know what "new to firearms" means but you can walk into that class having never before picked up a weapon and be okay. Here in the Northern VA area you can go to the NRA range itself for the class. You can find a NRA course near you.

Be prepared for a full range of answers to questions like "best caliber for X use" because it's rare anyone agrees. The best answer I think you will get to any of those kinds of questions is "the one you are comfortable handling." Some of that is based on things like your hand size, a lot of it is just based on practice.
posted by phearlez at 1:05 PM on November 18, 2008


I ended up buying from them anyway- I would have had to travel too far otherwise.

"this one here'll knock a man across the room with a fist-sized hole in his chest". It won't, because nothing will.

Not that I'm an expert, but my family always favored shotguns for home defense. Handguns were for fun (or for concealed carry, if you'd really let your life go off the rails), but a shotgun stops someone cold without any bullets accidentally hitting someone in the next room over.

That noise they make when you're racking a load could probably be either useful or annoying, depending on how stealthy you're trying to be. I've heard there are ways to make that quieter but I don't know what they are. Again, I don't own a shotgun and haven't fired one since I was probably 12 years old.
posted by small_ruminant at 1:10 PM on November 18, 2008


That noise they make when you're racking a load could probably be either useful or annoying, depending on how stealthy you're trying to be.

In HS in Denver one of my classes visited the local FBI office and they gave us a tour of the armory, which was pretty cool (only time I've seen a real Thompson, for example).

The agent who was showing us around mentioned that many people in the FBI favored pump-action shotguns specifically because of the sound they make when racking a round. He said that they had bad guys give up once they heard the 12 guages chambering rounds. Could be total BS but that's what he said.
posted by trinity8-director at 2:22 PM on November 18, 2008


Don't buy a Sig. They're junk, and have no break point in the trigger, so you can't take up slack in the trigger.

My duty weapon is a Glock and I trust my life to it. It is a reliable weapon. There are some really good HKs out there too.

Don't buy a Beretta either.
posted by C17H19NO3 at 2:28 PM on November 18, 2008


I decided to buy a Glock 17 (then later a Glock 30) based in part on one of the Related Questions below. I've been on the range many times since then and have not had any problems with jamming or misfires at all. I've seen several other Beretta owners have those issues. Plus, the Glock can take all kinds of abuse that would corrode or otherwise ruin other guns.

For home defense considerations, this blog piece explores the pros and cons of long guns vs hand guns.

The best resource will be your own experience. Go to a pistol range and rent a few types of pistols. Once you become familiar with the action of loading, shooting, and field stripping a gun you'll understand articles and information published about guns much better.
posted by Burhanistan at 2:38 PM on November 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


He said that they had bad guys give up once they heard the 12 gauges chambering rounds. Could be total BS but that's what he said.

Not BS. That's the sound of serious trouble coming your way. Not the sound any burglar worth his salt wants to hear while prowling for the family silver in the dark. A guy might miss with a single bullet or the shot might not do any fatal damage. A spray of shot, however, stands a better chance of seriously fucking you up.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:50 PM on November 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


Burhanistan has the right idea.

Go someplace you can shoot a number of different pistols. You need to find out how they feel in you hand and how you react to them.

But I'd also have to agree with some of the other posters that a shotgun may be a better option for real defense. And yes that 'CLACK CLACK' of working one into the chamber has a serious psychological affect.

And I too, would strongly recommend a Glock. Simple to use and simple to keep.

SandPine
posted by sandpine at 2:54 PM on November 18, 2008


(I ended up getting a Glock 19, fwiw.)
posted by small_ruminant at 2:56 PM on November 18, 2008


Book recommendation:
The Complete Encyclopedia of Pistols & Revolvers by A.E. Hartink
This book has color photos and technical specifications for pistols & revolvers. It also has info on safety, locking systems, dimensional drawings of all the parts of a handgun, and a nice section on ammo. Very helpful. It's a good way to familiarize yourself with what's available before you go shopping.

And since you mentioned home defense, here are a couple more I like:
Principles of Personal Defense by Jeff Cooper
Effective Defense by Gila Hayes
The latter is written specifically for women, but I'd recommend it to anyone interested in this topic.

If you're female, you may face additional challenges in acquiring a gun, as small_ruminant mentioned above. Gun culture is still overwhelmingly male-dominated. I've compiled a bibliography on women and firearms, but it's more focused on feminism, history, psychology of defense, profiles of female gun owners, etc., than it is on choosing a firearm per se. If you're interested in more reading material recommendations, feel free to MeFi mail me.
posted by velvet winter at 4:00 PM on November 18, 2008


My previous thoughts on selecting a handgun.

In general, I agree with those advocating "go forth and try" and disagree with blanket statements that "Brand X is {good,bad}." Brand X might be bad for certain people, but not for others. Some manufacturers have quite a variety in the product line, so Model A from Brand X might be good for you, but Model B from the same company may not be.

That said, low price generally indicates low quality, and the major manufacturers are more or less comparable in terms of reliability when properly maintained. Anecdotal evidence of failures can be useful, but most firearm malfunctions are due to bad ammunition or poor maintenance, not from any flaw of the weapon itself. Manufacturing defects can occur with any brand, but are unlikely with the major manufacturers.

Shotguns and rifles can be great for a fixed position (hiding in your bedroom), but aren't so good if you have to move around or carry something (a child, for example) and only have one hand for the weapon. All firearms have issues with overpenetration in residential building materials (sheetrock, et al).

Take a basic handgun class from somebody who has no vested interest in selling guns. If you're interested in firearms for defensive purposes, get training in use of deadly force and know the laws in your area (full disclosure: I teach these types of classes).

My usual book recommendation is Strong on Defense. It's not about guns particularly, but rather about mindset.
posted by doorsnake at 4:28 PM on November 18, 2008


I took a class very similar to this one several years ago. It was a great experience, very informative. Note: the instructor in the course I took--and the one pictured here--were both women.

I want you to ignore all the fairy-talk you'll hear of "this one here'll knock a man across the room with a fist-sized hole in his chest". It won't, because nothing will.

Or conversely, even if it could do that, it would probably have such a kick you wouldn't be able to control it. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't.
posted by gimonca at 4:36 PM on November 18, 2008


Go to a pistol range and rent a few types of pistols. Once you become familiar with the action of loading, shooting, and field stripping a gun you'll understand articles and information published about guns much better.

This is excellent advice. If you don't like the way a gun shoots, the way it feels in your hand, you won't use it. And even if you end up deciding that target shooting isn't your thing, you must use your gun from time to time to maintain a certain level of competence if you plan to keep it for home defense. Trying out several pistols is the only way to make sure you'll like what you end up buying. Take a friend or SO and make an afternoon of it.

Netzapper has said good things about caliber choice. I think 9mm is the best choice for a first/only gun given your stated criteria. It's cost-effective; I bought 100 rounds of 9mm target ammo at Scheels the other day for $23 and noticed that 100 rounds of .40S&W (which is slightly larger) cost $36. Stopping power is adequate; like Netzapper says, shot placement is far more important than caliber.

In terms of quality and value, I think any of the more respected brands will serve you well. People have expressed opinions here against certain brands, and I won't discount their experience (which in many cases is no doubt greater than mine), but there are plenty of long-term satisfied owners of Glock, Sig, Beretta, S&W, HK, CZ, and many others. I've heard enough unhappy stories to stay away from the cheaper brands like Hi-Point, Taurus and Ruger, but these have their advocates as well. My point is, finding something you like and will use is more important than the debatable merits of one brand over another.

That said, I have to Nth the Glock. It's not pretty, but it's rugged as hell and easy to clean. Parts and accessories are cheap and can be gotten anywhere. Glocks are also about the simplest semi-automatic pistol you can get, both in the number of parts and in the feature list. There's no manual safety (but it has three internal safeties and is as safe as others as long as you follow correct safety practices), no de-cocking, no difference in trigger action. A Glock can be field-stripped for cleaning in about five seconds.
posted by [user was fined for this post] at 5:34 PM on November 18, 2008


I was in your shoes about five years ago. I settled on a Sig P239 9mm. It was more expensive and complicated than comparable Glocks and Berettas, but I have short, thick fingers and it was the only handgun I found that I could really get my index finger around the trigger (besides the really tiny deep conceal carry pistols). I suspect that if you can't get a good handle on your weapon, you will have a hard time feeling comfortable using it.
posted by mrmojoflying at 6:24 PM on November 18, 2008


A question nearly perfect for me, and I'm late to the party.

Join a range that has an introductory course and take it. Mine did an excellent job.

Make friends with other gun owners, people who shoot where you shoot, so long as they're the sort of person you'd want to talk to anyway. Gunnies love to show each other stuff and instruct.

Once you've mastered the basic function of your weapon and have developed some basic shooting skills, take a live-fire combat shooting course that teaches multiple targets, reloads, and movement. Front Sight, Thunder Ranch, and such are the most known and most expensive schools, but you can most likely find good instruction locally and at a better price. Shooting in a range stall is only the beginning. The whole game changes when you add in shoot/no-shoot decisions, movement, reloads, holstering, cover, and even low-light scenarios. (this is another great place to make friends. My first instructors became pals. Also, these classes are insanely fun.)

Don't sweat buying the right gun all that much your first time out. You're going to wind up buying more guns. It just happens. They multiply like tribbles.

As for the Sig, I don't own one, but every one I've handled has been a joy to shoot. My friend's 226-R has an outstanding trigger in both double and single-action mode, and they're crazy reliable. C17 says you should avoid them because they have no break-point in the trigger, but there's something to be said for it. Knowing exactly when the weapon will discharge can often lead to flinching/recoil anticipation in new shooters. The advice you often receive is that you should let the exact moment of discharge surprise you, so you don't subconsciously shove the barrel down in advance. Also, in a life and death shooting situation, i wouldn't count on doing anything so fine and delicate as feeling out a trigger break, easing up to the break point, and then letting off a shot. You're probably going to pull straight back, and keep doing so until the bad guy's on the ground.

A couple things about semi-autos:

-Don't skimp on the magazine. Most pistol failures are magazine related. Your gun deserves the best. This is NOT the place to save money.

-Don't release the slide with the slide stop lever. It's a fine motor skill, and they work differently gun-to-gun. Sigs in particular keep their slide stop in a totally different place than almost every other handgun. When your life's on the line, you want to do something that will work no matter what gun you're holding, and with hands that aren't surgeon-precise. What I do is reach over the weapon with my weak hand, grab the rear slide serrations from above, and give the slide a good hard yank to the rear. Assuming you have a fresh mag in place, this will pull the slide back, disengaging the stop, and allow the slide to snap forward. (The technique is called "slingshotting", I think.) With practice, you can do it REALLY quickly. I do this and always get compliments from instructors on my quick, authoritative reloads.

-Don't let range rental guns influence you completely. If I had gone by the XD-40 at the LAX range here in LA, I would have thought it was the least reliable hunk of junk on the market. But rental guns get abused and banged up the way no privately-owned gun ever will. My XD has been as reliable as a stapler. Also, ranges sometimes install really stout trigger springs so they don't have to replace them as often, particularly with GLOCKs. This makes you think GLOCKs have terrible triggers. This is not true. They merely have bad triggers.

As for guns you might want to buy:

-Berettas are comfortable, but I'd spend the extra two hundred to get a Sig, which is as comfortable but tougher.
-GLOCKs are tough and trustworthy, but unpleasant to shoot.
-XDs are more comfortable than GLOCKs, but some early models have weak rust protection, and the new XD-M models just look ghastly.
-A lot of people love the Smith and Wesson M&P series. I haven't handled them, but they're worth a look.
-HKs are reliable and well-designed, but not worth the price bump from a Sig. There's nothing about them that's worth $1200 other than the name.
-Ruger and the rest of the S&W line aren't well regarded. Rugers are tough and cheap, but for a gun to be that affordable and not get carried by many police or military units should tell you something. Every S&W auto I've handled has been terrible to shoot.
-1911s are comfortable, beautiful, accurate, powerful, and generally addictive. Once you join the cult, you'll never look at another handgun. If you want one of those, you'd better message me privately. It's a whole 'nother world.

If you're in LA, I'd be happy to teach you about this stuff. I relish the thought of helping to expand the responsible gun-owner population.

And as far as safety and such goes, refer to my earlier post on another topic.
posted by Doctor Suarez at 7:11 PM on November 18, 2008 [3 favorites]


Seconding Burhanistan, about going to a gun range that rents guns and trying a few out. I suggest calling ahead, asking when a slow time would be, and explaining that you are new to handguns and want to learn. I was all excited about the Kimber Pro Carry 2, for example, until I went to a range and found that it just felt awkward and unpleasant in my hand (which is too small for it.) The little Glock was much more comfortable for me and I was a much better shot with it. No way to know till you try.

If they - your local range or gun shop - offers an NRA certified handgun safety class, take it - it will answer a lot of your questions, and it will also answer some questions that you might not realize you ought to have answered.

Consider joining the NRA (American Rifleman is a good magazine, free with membership); or the non-partisan Gun Owners of America, if you can't stand the NRA's super-right-wing politics.

To debunk some wrong things cited above: a self-defense gun is not a deterrent or a noisemaker. It's a tool for shooting people. If you don't intend to shoot people, but instead to use a gun in some way that doesn't including shooting people (for example, intending to scare people by displaying or cocking a gun, but not using it to shoot a person), you should not own a gun.

Stopping power is not equivalent to fatality. You can put a bad guy down without killing him.

Now I'm going to segue from fact into opinion: I am not in favor of the 9mm round because it isn't very good even at disabling a person. Agree that 10mm, .40 S+W, and .45ACP are going to be better at stopping people and these are the calibers you ought to be considering because they are relatively easy to get and not too expensive.

Unlike nearly everyone else in this thread, I like a revolver. I favor a Smith and Wesson J-frame as a carry gun, and a K-frame for home defense. I like them because they have few moving parts, are unlikely to break or jam, are easy to strip and clean, and they feel good and are fun to shoot.
posted by ikkyu2 at 7:25 PM on November 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


That said, I have to Nth the Glock ... There's no manual safety ... no de-cocking ...

The thing I dislike about my Beretta is the decocker. It is a really counterintuitive feature. Unless you're going to be shooting a lot, stay away from guns with decockers.
posted by jayder at 7:31 PM on November 18, 2008


The revolvers I've shot have been noticably heavier than my Glock, which is very light (being mostly plastic). As someone whose hands tire out easily, lighter means I can shoot accurately for longer.
posted by small_ruminant at 8:11 PM on November 18, 2008


I like a revolver. I favor a Smith and Wesson J-frame as a carry gun, and a K-frame for home defense. I like them because they have few moving parts, are unlikely to break or jam, are easy to strip and clean, and they feel good and are fun to shoot.

I favor revolvers for the same reasons. My favorite is the Smith & Wesson Model 28 .357 Magnum revolver. "Minimalism in handgun design," Wikipedia calls it. Great fun to shoot! Can be hard to find these days, though.
posted by velvet winter at 10:02 PM on November 18, 2008


ikkyu2 sez: Unlike nearly everyone else in this thread, I like a revolver. I favor a Smith and Wesson J-frame as a carry gun, and a K-frame for home defense. I like them because they have few moving parts, are unlikely to break or jam, are easy to strip and clean, and they feel good and are fun to shoot.

Actually, I like revolvers, and favor the J frames for carry as well for myself. Revolvers in general are less subject to malfunction, but have higher felt recoil (the action on a semi-automatic absorbs and spreads out the recoil impulse). I would generally not recommend a J frame as a first gun, however, as they are fairly challenging to shoot well (long heavy trigger, very rudimentary sights). The lightweight models (Smith & Wesson "airweight" or "airlite", for example) feel wonderful to hold and carry, but can be punishing to shoot. I regularly have novice students arrive to an introductory level class with such guns, who end up giving up on it after just 10 or 15 shots.

Now I'm going to segue from fact into opinion: I am not in favor of the 9mm round because it isn't very good even at disabling a person. Agree that 10mm, .40 S+W, and .45ACP are going to be better at stopping people and these are the calibers you ought to be considering because they are relatively easy to get and not too expensive.

I'll disagree here to a degree. Using modern hollowpoint ammunition (this is important), the difference between .38 Special, .357 Magnum, 9mm, .40 S&W and .45 ACP is not that substantial. Yes, there are differences, but it is more important that the shooter be able to accurately fire the firearm and handle its recoil. Find a gun in one of the above calibers that you can shoot well, then select a good, modern hollowpoint round for it.

I generally would not recommend 10mm for a novice; guns chambered in 10mm are much less common, the ammunition is more expensive and harder to find, and the recoil of full power 10mm is substantial. The .40 S&W is, essentially, a shortened 10mm downloaded to a manageable recoil level.
posted by doorsnake at 10:01 AM on November 19, 2008


Consider joining the NRA (American Rifleman is a good magazine, free with membership); or the non-partisan Gun Owners of America, if you can't stand the NRA's super-right-wing politics.

As I said upstream, I have issues with the NRA and am unwilling to give them money. However if I was to do so, as a frugal individual I would likely join at a gun show since it is not uncommon for shows to have deals where admission is free when you join. If you live somewhere that has gun shows this might be an interesting way for you to see a lot of different armament and talk to people.
posted by phearlez at 2:57 PM on November 21, 2008


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