Choosing A Handgun

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Choosing A Handgun Is A Personal Preference

Choosing a Handgun

In selecting a handgun for personal protection, the potential buyer is faced with a variety of incremental decisions.  Initial choices relate to the following:

     Revolver or autoloader? 

     What type of action?

     What caliber?

Handguns are a popular means of self protection because their small size affords portability and ease of storage.  Drawbacks may include recoil and limited long-range accuracy.  To generalize, most people find that with practice it is relatively easy to hit man-sized targets out to about 25 yards or so.  Accurate target acquisition tends to decrease thereafter.

"Recoil" is the phenomenon that occurs once a shot is fired.  Based upon the law of physics that states "for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction", recoil represents the reaction you experience when the force propelling the bullet pushes back on your gun.  Some people may find recoil discomforting and distracting, a response which can generate a "flinch" which adversely affects accuracy.  

Recoil is minimized by two choices over which the handgun purchaser has control: heaviness or weight of the gun and caliber or size of the cartridge for which the gun is designed.

Caliber is the term used to describe the diameter of the actual bullet or projectile in the cartridge in terms of hundredths of an inch (English units) or millimeters (metric units).  Common sizes range upward from .22 to .50.  Some common European-derived cartridges that are expressed in millimeters include the 7.62 mm and the 9 mm calibers.  The 10 mm is of relatively recent American origin.  The "ACP" suffix appended to some auto loading pistol cartridge designations refers to "Automatic Colt Pistol", even though the application may be for a semi-automatic, rather than fully automatic, self-loading firearm.

In addition to their diameter, bullets are characterized by weight.  The weight of a bullet is expressed in terms of "grains", the smallest unit of weight in the English system.  This method of measuring weight relied on the relationship between the number of grains of wheat that were equal to one pound: 7000 grains.  

Within any given caliber, a variety of bullet weights are generally available.  For example, it is possible to purchase factory loaded .38 Special caliber handgun cartridges in several weights, including 110, 125, 130 and 158 grains.  The higher the grain measurement, the heavier the bullet.  The reason that differing bullet weights are offered for the same caliber cartridge is due to recoil differences as well as the ultimate effect the shooter desires to achieve in terms of bullet performance.

Bullet performance is a measurement of a bullet's ability to satisfy a unique objective.  Performance results from a combination of factors which have been determined to be suitable for a specific application as a result of experimentation and experience.  Variable factors primarily include cartridge shape and dimensions, type and amount of gunpowder, and bullet size, weight, shape, and composition.  Resulting performance represents the bullet's ballistics, which include energy, velocity, and trajectory, as well as bullet penetration and expansion, if the latter is a desired objective.

In the world of shooting sports and activities, the purposes for which various cartridges have been designed are almost infinite.  Each intended use, however, has a corresponding relatively small number of cartridges proven to be suitable.  Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, however, attraction of a shooter to a particular cartridge may also involve a myriad of  personal, intangible factors. 

Revolvers vs Autoloaders

You will find that autoloaders, also known as "semiautomatics", "semiautos" and "self-loaders", and revolvers, or "wheelguns",  each have their own aficionados.  Most gun people, however, tend to own both.  

The advantage of the revolver lies in its simplicity.  Revolvers are more "forgiving" than autoloaders in the sense that they aren't as prone to jamming.  The  way revolvers work quickly becomes obvious to those inexperienced with firearms.   For people who may not be really "into" firearms, the revolver is a good choice.  This recommendation does not preclude the insistence that the gun owner become intimately familiar with their firearm, and develop required safety and procedural skills with practice. 

To handle a revolver for inspection, loading or unloading, or cleaning, insert the middle two fingers of the weak hand, palm up, into the space normally occupied by the cylinder once the cylinder has been pivoted out of the way and the gun is facing forward.  The cylinder will be resting in the palm of the hand.  This hold is secure, and will facilitate manipulation of the firearm for any reason.

The "downside" of a revolver, if any, lies in the fact that an unloaded gun can't be brought into action by most people as quickly as can the unloaded autoloader.  Accurate follow up shots also tend to be easier to make with a single or double action autoloader when compared to the revolver.  To leave a loaded revolver around unsecured is ignorant and criminal, In the hands of a practiced individual, Speed loaders or moon clips greatly enhances revolver loading time.  

As a precaution for a secured, loaded revolver of older design,  particularly a single action, do not load a round into the cylinder chamber aligned with the barrel.  This will prevent the possibility of accidental discharge in the event the gun is inadvertently dropped on the hammer.  

This occurrence is not a problem with revolvers of modern design and manufacture, however, due to advances in construction concepts, such as the incorporation of the transfer bar feature.  This device is moved into position by the pull of the trigger to convey the force of the dropping hammer to the firing pin.  When the trigger is in a relaxed position, the transfer bar is out of the way.  An air gap therefore exists between hammer and firing pin, thus precluding the possibility of accidental discharge due to dropping.  

Keep in mind that the cylinder of a Smith & Wesson revolver rotates counter-clockwise; that of a Colt rotates clockwise.

In revolver selection, barrel length is a consideration.  In terms of bullet performance, a longer barrel means greater energy from an identical cartridge.  However, there is little significant difference between energy produced by a 4-inch barrel versus that of a 6- inch barrel.  Some shooters prefer the longer revolver barrel length because it improves the sight plane, thus assisting accurate aiming.  

Shorter barrels may be subject to more wavering of the sight plane in hands that are not rock solid.  Police generally prefer the 4-inch revolver barrel because there exists less potential for a criminal to grab the gun, barrel first, from the officer's hand.  Eight-inch barrels in the larger calibers are not uncommon and are conducive to improved accuracy and performance.  Their additional weight, when heaviness of the firearm is not a detrimental factor from a "carry" standpoint, has the advantage of reducing perceived recoil.

Because their main attribute is ease of carry, "snubbies" or "body-guard specials" are factory equipped with relatively short 2-inch barrels.  The short sight plane makes target acquisition at distance difficult.  This is not a significant drawback to the intended snub-nose revolver use, which implies close quarter combat.  Most snubbies come with "fixed" or non-adjustable sights for this reason.  Some possess hammer shrouds or concealed hammers to minimize the potential to catch on clothing when the firearm is drawn.  

Due to small size and weight, particularly "air weight" aluminum alloy or titanium models,  felt recoil can be extreme, a factor that may detract from follow-up shot placement.  Some manufacturers have introduced models with factory ported installed  barrels  a feature which helps offset perceived recoil.  Porting is not recommended, however, on handguns intended for self defense.    

The disadvantage of a ported handgun lies in the fact that when the gun is fired from a position close to the body, rather than from a position of extended arms, the shooter may be stunned or temporarily blinded by hot gasses and debris thrown vertically upward through the exhaust ports in the barrel.  Hence, it is generally advised to avoid porting on handguns intended for personal protection rather than for hunting or target shooting applications. 

An attractive alternative to porting as a means of  reducing recoil lies in using a heavier, stouter handgun.  As an example,  the Smith & Wesson Model 640 is a weighty stainless steel snubby chambered in .357 Magnum.  Consider acquiring it and carrying .38 Special ammunition, possibly 110 grain, for self protection.  Perceived recoil will be manageable and the weight of the revolver will assist accurate target acquisition when compared to the various "air weights".  

Most snub-nose revolvers, including the Model 640, feature a five shot, rather than a six shot, capacity.  As mentioned previously, there exists no need to keep the chamber under the hammer empty due to the advanced design of newer model revolvers. Another variant from the normal "six shooter" is the eight to ten shot .22LR revolver.  These can be extremely fun to own and shoot.

Depending upon the make and model of the handgun, longer-barreled revolvers are generally equipped with a rear sight which incorporates adjustments for windage and elevation.  This assists accuracy in long distance shooting.

For those wishing to carry their revolver in a holster, barrel length on a revolver becomes a practical matter. This relates to the fact that holsters may be available in only the most popular barrel sizes.

When selecting a holster, it is advisable to choose one in which the leather has been pre-molded to the make and model of the gun you own.  The grasp of the holster is therefore secure, minimizing wear on the gun's finish which can occur with a loose fit.

In the world of handguns, revolvers are pretty basic firearms.  They tend to come equipped with essentially all the features necessary for enjoyable shooting.  Besides  barrel length determination and caliber, the prospective revolver purchaser will need to determine what type of material the gun will be composed of, and what finish is preferred.  Material choices generally include titanium, aluminum alloy, steel, and stainless steel.  Finishes, primarily for alloys or steel, include matte (non-reflective black), blued (mirror-like blue-black), and nickel plated (shiny silver chrome).

Stainless steel resists rusting, blued steel is extremely durable but will corrode if not cared for, and titanium and aluminum alloy are extremely light, with titanium being the lightest (about two-thirds the weight of steel).  Most people own both blued steel and stainless steel revolvers.  Stainless is more expensive to manufacture, and hence, to purchase.  The light metals are typically associated with snub-nose revolvers.  You may wish to avoid titanium if excessive recoil, rather than portability, is an issue.  

Gun finishes are largely a matter of personal preference.  Matte is preferred when stealth is the objective.  Stainless and titanium exhibit the dull gray characteristic of these metals, although polished stainless steel is available in some makes and models.  Nickel is resistant to corrosion.  High quality blueing, found on some firearms, can be exquisite.

In determining handling comfort of a revolver, pay particular attention to its "trigger reach".  The trigger reach is the shortest distance between the face of the trigger and the back of the grip just below the hump of the backstrap.  This dimension is a critical factor in determining how well one will engage the trigger.  

Before proceeding to examine any revolver or other firearm, check  and make sure the gun is unloaded and uncocked.  In order to determine the fit of the revolver in your hand, take a strong, comfortable hold of its grip.  The web of your shooting hand, the arc between the thumb and index finger, should fit well into the curve of the backstrap hump.  

The reverse situation is more difficult to address.  A revolver that is too big for your hand may sometimes be adjusted with smaller or thinner grips.  It may be more advisable, however, to select a smaller framed alternative gun.  

Among manufacturers of revolvers, Smith & Wesson stands out in terms of ease of assessing frame size.  In increasing order of size, models utilize the "J", "K", "L" or "N" frame, where "J" is small, "K" and "L" are medium, and "N" is large.  Larger frames tend to accommodate chamberings in more powerful rounds, due to increased strength and durability.  However, it is not uncommon to find identical cartridges offered in several frame sizes to accommodate the intended purpose of the gun and differing hand requirements.  The Smith & Wesson line of "Ladysmith" revolvers has been designed with the special requirements of the fair sex in mind.

Autoloaders, as the name implies, automatically cycle the slide, after the first shot is fired, to extract and eject the empty casing, scoop another round off the top of the magazine, and insert the new round into the chamber of the barrel.  Whether or not the slide recocks the hammer after the initial shot is a function of the type of action:  single action and double action versus double action only.  Autoloaders are also termed semi-automatics or self-loaders. 

A full automatic, visualized as a classic machine gun, fires numerous rounds when the trigger is initially pulled, and keeps firing until the trigger is released.  Autoloaders, on the other hand, require that the trigger be pulled each time a shot is fired.  

The federal government has not infringed upon the right of any mentally competent, law abiding  American citizen to own an autoloader.  Some states and local jurisdictions have.  While it is legal for an American citizen to own a fully automatic firearm, such ownership is subject to considerable federal regulation and oversight.

Design principles and mechanics of autoloaders may vary somewhat among various manufacturers.  However, all use the tremendous energy of the exploding gun powder from the cartridge to provide not only the forward motion  bullet, but also the rearward motion of the slide.  As a minimum, this action of the slide unloads and reloads the gun.  Depending on the type of action, it may also cock the hammer for subsequent shots.

In a revolver, cartridges are chambered in the cylinder.  Once fired, the empty "brass" or casings are manually pushed out of the cylinder by means of an extractor.  To accomplish this, the cylinder must be pivoted out of its locked position in the gun frame by hand.  

In an autoloader, cartridges are held in a spring-loaded magazine that is inserted into the grip portion or handle of the gun frame.  The magazine is loaded ahead of time.  The quick speed with which an empty magazine can be removed or dropped, and a loaded magazine reinserted, is one of the key factors which contributes to the perceived attraction of the autoloader as a handgun for personal protection.  

Magazine capacity is another attraction.  From a practical stand point, however, civilian gun battles rarely exceed the five or six round capacity of a revolver.  Shot placement, rather than shot profusion, is the key to deterring an attacker.  

Note that some people use the terms "magazine" and "clip" interchangeably.  This is not appropriate, and could brand one as a peasant.  A clip is actually a frame which holds cartridges for insertion into the magazine of some types of firearms.  It also differs from a link, which is one of the numerous small bands or rings that hold cartridges together to form a belt.  Belts are typically fed into machine guns.

In the hands of an accomplished shooter, autoloaders can be devastatingly quick to fire and reload.  The ability to hold considerably more rounds in the magazine, compared to the capacity of the five or six shot revolver, is a decided advantage.

 This advantage was diminished somewhat with the enactment in 1994 of the "Clinton Gun Ban", federal legislation that outlawed the manufacture of full capacity magazines for civilian use after that date.  Autoloaders were restricted to a maximum ten shot capacity, unless a full capacity "pre-ban" magazine could be legally acquired.  Fortunately, this onerous, ineffectual law expired on September 13, 2004.  Full capacity magazines are now legally available to citizens of almost all states, except the Peoples' Republic of California and some Eastern Bloc states.  In these states, restrictive state and local laws take precedence in the absence of the federal prohibition. 

Evidence at the federal level demonstrates that banning gun ownership by law abiding citizens is not the solution to violent crime.  Yet anti-self defense legislators and executives in the Peoples' Republic of California continue to infringe upon their citizens' right and choice of personal self protection.  You may wish to ask the Governator why. 

Unless a round is carried in the chamber, which is the common practice when one is outside the home and legally armed, the drill for most autoloaders is: release the safety, rack the slide (to chamber a round), and shoot.  In an encounter with an aggressor, the panic and terror of the moment may cause some people to forget the drill, resulting in a failure to get their gun into play.  Hence, practice with an autoloader is essential until the required skills have been mastered.

When changing magazines, practice releasing the empty magazine onto the ground while immediately inserting a fresh magazine into place.  Lives have been lost because individuals were overly concerned about putting the empty magazine into their pocket so it wouldn't get lost or dirty.

Many autoloaders of modern design will not fire if the magazine has been released or removed, even though a round is chambered in the gun.  This safety feature can potentially save lives: for example, that of a police officer who is capable of releasing the magazine of his own duty gun during a struggle with a criminal, just prior to having the firearm wrested away from him.  

For the responsible gun owner, it is important to ascertain whether or not this safety feature exists on one's own autoloader.  When "gun proofing " your children and their friends in the safe use of firearms make sure they understand that many autoloaders will still fire a chambered round even though the magazine has been removed.  Tragic accidents have occurred because young people have mistakenly believed that releasing the magazine was equivalent to unloading the gun.

For a variety of physical reasons, some people find it difficult to "rack the slide".  For these individuals, a revolver would be a better choice, as would a tip-barreled autoloader.  The latter incorporates a barrel which, upon release, rotates around a pivot in the front of the gun allowing a round to be manually placed into the chamber.  In all other respects, the tip-barreled autoloader functions as a normal autoloader.

Selection of an autoloading pistol should be based on one's judgment of its caliber, its accuracy, its user friendly features, its durability and its reliability.  You will likely find that the offerings of several manufacturers may fit your needs.  In such a case, selection of a particular make and model should be based on personal considerations such as performance in handling and comfort and fit in one's hand.

Extreme stress, fear and anxiety cause the loss of fine motor skills in any self defense situation.  This is the result of our ancestral "fight or flight" response to danger.  When supercharged on adrenaline, one's ability to shoot accurately and if necessary, reload quickly, is adversely affected.  

As a generality, it is more difficult to reload a revolver than an autoloader under such circumstances.  It is also more difficult to accurately shoot a double action revolver than a single or double action autoloader after the initial shot is fired.

Custom, decorum and regulations governing legally permitted concealed carry require that a firearm on one's person be worn in an unobtrusive, sedate and oblivious manner.  The autoloader, due to its flat profile, excels in this regard when compared to a revolver, with the possible exception being the snubby.  The latter, particularly in the shrouded hammer or hammerless configuration, are easily carried in a coat pocket or the front pocket of one's pants.  In terms of ease of carry, most find the flat sided profile of an autoloader to be superior to the bulkier silhouette of a revolver.

Type of Action

The type of action associated with a revolver or autoloader involves the mechanical relationship between the trigger and the hammer, specifically whether or not the trigger will cycle the hammer, or must the hammer be manually cocked.  Types of actions include single action, double action, and double action only.

A single action revolver or autoloader requires that the shooter manually cock the hammer for the first shot.  When the trigger is initially pulled, comparatively little effort is required to disengage the hammer and ignite the first round. 

With a single action revolver, commonly the frontier or western type, all subsequent shots will require that the hammer be manually cocked.  With the single action autoloader, the hammer must be manually cocked for the first shot only.  Once the gun is initially fired, the action of the slide automatically extracts and ejects the empty case and recocks the hammer.  Subsequent shots will require only a light pull on the trigger.

With double action revolvers and autoloaders, the initial pull of the trigger cycles the hammer to its full position and then releases it to fire the first shot.  

All subsequent shots with a double action revolver will require an extended trigger pull, identical to the first, to cycle the hammer and shoot the remaining rounds.  Note that a double action revolver can also be shot in single action mode.  This is done by manually cocking the hammer, usually with your thumb, and then pulling the trigger to release the hammer and fire a shot.  Trigger pull in the single action mode is lighter than the extended trigger pull of the double action mode.  Accuracy may sometimes improve if the shooter has the luxury of time to fire in the single action mode.

Double action autoloaders require a long initial trigger pull to cycle the hammer and fire the first shot in a manner similar to double action revolvers.  Because the slide automatically extracts and ejects the spent casing and recocks the hammer, however, all subsequent shots revert to single action mode, requiring only a slight pull of the trigger.  Like a double action revolver, a double action autoloader may selectively be fired in single action mode for the first shot by initially manually cocking the hammer.  First shot trigger pull will be correspondingly light.

A number of gun manufacturers have recently introduced to the market double action only autoloaders.  These designs respond to a perceived need by some police departments to minimize accidental shootings that may be attributable to the light trigger pull of subsequent shots once a double action autoloader reverts to single action mode after the first shot.  Double action only autoloaders function in a manner similar to that of a double action revolver.  They are preferred as standard issue by some law enforcement agencies.

Choice of the type of action an autoloader should possess is largely a personal matter.  Many shooters prefer the single action autoloader.  The .45 ACP caliber Colt 1911 was the standard issue sidearm for generations of American servicemen.  It and its numerous derivatives and clones possess a large following.  Military issue now consists of the 9 mm Beretta, double action.

To bring a single action autoloader such as the .45 ACP caliber Colt 1911 or the next generation Colt  1991A1 into action in the shortest amount of time requires that it be carried "cocked and locked".  This means that a round has been chambered by racking the slide, the hammer has subsequently been cocked by this action, and the safety has been manually engaged.  

To deploy the gun, one merely has to release the safety and pull the trigger.  In this mode, the gun will accidentally fire if inadvertently dropped, hammer first.  Many people are quite comfortable with this method of carry; others find it intimidating.  Single action autoloaders may not be the best initial choice of a gun for the novice shooter.  As skills develop with practice, new shooters may wish to further investigate the merits of single action autoloaders.

Double action autoloaders provide the reassurance of a long initial trigger pull for firing the first round and the ease and quickness of firing subsequent rounds associated with single action.  In many respects, this combination of features offers the best of both worlds to many shooters.  

Care must be exercised at all times, but it becomes especially important after the initial shot is fired from a double action autoloader.  Only light pressure on the trigger will cause the firearm to discharge again.  Hence, all safety rules of firearms  must be engrained in one's behavior to the point where mistakes will never occur.  Observance of the top two rules will prevent accidents from happening: watch the direction of the muzzle and keep it pointed in a safe direction; keep your finger off the trigger until you wish to shoot.

Because police officers may become involved in a physical struggle with a criminal once a shot has already been fired from their duty gun, accidental discharge of the firearm becomes a distinct possibility.  To reduce the chance of this occurring, some police departments are insisting on double action only autoloaders.

Choice of Caliber

Any gun, chambered for any caliber of bullet, is better than nothing in the horrific event that  you are ever confronted by an assailant intent on inflicting bodily harm.  The obvious thus stated, you will find that smaller, less effective calibers may not possess the capability of empowering their users with the means of taking control of a criminal encounter when the application of superior physical force is required.  They may not provide the "stopping power" needed to deter a determined aggressor.  

At worst, smaller caliber handguns may inspire a false sense of security in the mind of their owner, and let them down when most needed.  At best, the same gun may defuse an attack because many criminals are thwarted by the mere presence of a firearm in the hands of the intended victim, often without a shot being fired.        

Selection of a specific caliber for self defense is a function of a variety of factors, including ease of carry, portability, recoil tolerance of the shooter, and bullet performance.  

Ideally, a caliber would be selected which is capable of penetrating deep into the core or vital area of an assailant's body, without exiting.  The benefit of this attribute is relatively easy to visualize.  With too much penetration, a bullet will put a hole in the assailant, passing through the body.  Still possessing considerable energy, the bullet will continue on its course until its energy is dissipated by collision with subsequent objects, or worse, with innocent bystanders.  All the energy of the bullet, once it passes through the assailant's body, is wasted.  

Conversely, with not enough penetration potential, a bullet may get impeded by clothing and exterior tissue or bone, failing to disrupt the brain (computer) or the circulatory system (hydraulics).  Such a shot might merely serve to further enrage one's attacker.

In a manner similar to the fairy tale of the Three Bears, some rounds are "too hot", some are "too cold" and some are "just right".  The ideal round for personal protection will dissipate all its energy within the core area of the assailant's body.  It will not exit to endanger others.  Such a round will have the ability to penetrate from between ten and twelve to eighteen inches of human tissue.

When faced with an assailant, the purpose of your handgun and the cartridge it was chambered for is to protect you and your loved ones by "stopping" the aggression.  A measurement of the cartridge's ability to accomplish this is provided by real-world statistics which document actual street shootings, primarily by police in the line of duty.  

The term "one shot stopping power" refers to a bullet's ability to cause a criminal to immediately cease aggressive behavior when shot one time in the torso.  It does not infer whether or not the criminal was instantly killed, was mortally wounded and died later,  was wounded and recovered, or was psychologically as well as physiologically overcome and thus capitulated.  It merely means threatening conduct ceased once the criminal was shot once.

To immediately stop an aggressor, it is necessary to disrupt  the central nervous system, achievable by a shot into the brain, base of the skull, or upper spine in the neck area.  Nervous system trauma will result in  instantaneous loss of consciousness.  Damaging  the circulatory system of one's attacker through a torso shot will result in gradual loss of consciousness, achieved by shock due to blood loss.  

Effective wounding of an attacker, therefore, is a function of shot placement, which produces the path of the bullet through the body, and penetration, which determines which critical and non-critical tissues are disrupted.  Critical tissues include the central nervous system and cardiovascular organs and vessels vital to the assailant's immediate survival.  Rapid hemorrhage deprives the brain of oxygenated blood  required for consciousness.

Use of deadly force as a means of stopping aggression requires that, at a minimum, a person be in fear of losing their own life.  Laws vary among states, so it is important for a person to ascertain what constitutes legal use of deadly force in their particular jurisdiction.  This should be one of the initial activities conducted by a person who elects to purchase a firearm for self defense.  

Some states expand the right of personal defense to include one's family, and other states include strangers in danger as well.  Be prudent.  Remember, your objective is to cause the assailant to desist in their aggressive behavior by the effective application of superior force on your part.  There is no legal justification for a "coup de grace".  Likewise, a shot into the back of a fleeing attacker will be frowned upon in a court of law.  Don't be a peasant.  Do your legal and statutory research. 

Practice what some term the "double tap": the rapid fire of two successive shots.  Ideally, the double tap would consist of two quick shots to the assailant's chest, followed, if needed, by a shot to the head.  With either a revolver or an autoloader, sufficient ammunition is held in reserve to counter multiple threats, or to disable a criminal who, though wounded, continues their aggressive behavior.  Keep shooting vital areas until you have dissipated or terminated the threat.

Conventional wisdom with regard to handgun selection suggests that an individual purchase the largest caliber that can be handled comfortably and accurately.  Many advise that the minimum caliber for self protection be at least .38 Special in a revolver and 9 mm in an autoloader.  These two calibers are currently the most popular rounds  in the United States for self defense.  Ballisticaly, they are somewhat similar, with the 9mm having the edge in terms of performance.