There’s no doubt about it… purchasing your first firearm is an amazing experience. Whether you’re looking for your first hunting gun, a self-defense weapon or just something to take plinking out on the range, there are a multitude of factors that all new firearm owners should consider before pulling the trigger on a purchase. For the purpose of this article, we’re going to focus on purchasing your first self-defense handgun.
Just like buying a new car, the sizes and uses of firearms vary tremendously. You’ll want to make sure you know what your needs are before venturing into your local gun store and asking questions about anything you see displayed. For instance, do you plan on carrying this firearm in public? If so, do you plan on concealing it? We’ll explore these topics in this article.
Gun stores are great places to gain knowledge on how to further meet your firearm needs but remember that the gun store employees don’t know you, and they surely don’t know what may suit your needs without knowing more information.
So if you’re in the market for your first self-defense handgun, or if you’re considering buying one in the future, this article will explore all of the questions you should ask yourself to ensure you purchase the one that suits your preference, needs and abilities.
Just a quick caveat, these points are in no particular order and don’t necessarily merit a rank in importance. Some things I write may also seem redundant in some areas, but this is just to reiterate the topic.
Here’s What to Consider When Buying Your First Self-Defense Handgun:
Why are you buying this firearm?
This question is the only exception to the “importance hierarchy” I’ve referenced above. The “why?” of your purchase is the most important question to know the answer to before buying a firearm. The rest of these tips are secondary to this rule, because if you have no idea why you’re buying a handgun, then you should rethink your purchase. This isn’t to say that shooting guns at ranges isn’t a fun reason, but even if you only want to have fun on the range, this would still address the “why” of the matter. You get my point.
While I know it may seem basic and straightforward, asking yourself “why” is the first step toward getting on the proper path to a gun that meets your criteria. For example, if you’re looking for a home defense firearm, you likely won’t be in the market for a bolt-action rifle.
The point is that the very first thing you should be considering is why you are buying your first self-defense gun and what features you may require (more on that later). You don’t necessarily have to become an expert on all types of modern firearms; you simply need to research your needs first, then see which guns fit the category you’re trying to fill.
So if you’re currently reading this article because you’re brand new to the world of firearms and are now considering purchasing your first gun, this should help you gain a better understanding of the main considerations when shopping for a self-defense handgun.
Who will be using it?
The obvious answer to this question is: you. With that in mind, you should consider who will be using this firearm at any given time, including on the range for a fun day of plinking. You never want to hand your gun to somebody you’re not comfortable with. Here are a few common scenarios when considering who will be using this gun and why it’s important:
Generally speaking, most gun owners have family they live with in one form or another. If you’re looking for a home defense weapon, and you plan on family members using it to defend themselves, then you’ll want to know the individual needs of these family members. For instance, if you have a more petite partner, you may want to stay away from larger framed guns, like the 1911, and instead opt for a compact or subcompact weapon.
Revolver or pistol? What’s the difference and why does it matter?
Revolvers and pistols are both handguns. Typically speaking, when people reference the two, they’re mainly referring to different types of handguns. Revolvers have ammunition loaded in a revolving cylinder, and either have an exposed or internal hammer that strikes the primer of the round and causes the projectile to shoot down the barrel. Pistols, as often legally recognized, are considered any handgun that does not have its ammunition in a revolving cylinder. Pistols are commonly semi-automatic and have their ammunition loaded in a grip-fed, spring-powered magazine.
Why does this matter?
This is not a full comparison and breakdown of the differences and benefits of revolvers and pistols, but here’s a quick rundown of the three main things to consider between these two types of handguns:
The first considerable difference between revolvers and handguns is the action. Without getting into too much detail, the vast majority of pistols are semi-automatic, meaning it takes one trigger pull for each shot fired. The force of the recoil from each shot pushes the slide back and resets the firing pin for the next round, while simultaneously expelling the casing. This prepares the handgun to fire the next bullet.
After a magazine is loaded into the grip of a pistol, the slide must be racked back manually in order to chamber the first round. This will then allow for the first trigger pull to fire the round and begin the cycle. It is impossible for a semi-automatic pistol to fire a single round after a magazine is loaded until the slide is racked back and the first round is chambered. Likewise, you may also have the slide already locked back fully, then load the magazine and release the slide, thus chambering a round.
Racking the slide to chamber a round can prove difficult for some people, and for this reason, can often become a deciding factor in opting for a revolver rather than a semi-automatic pistol. Each gun’s slide resistance varies between make and model, and some third-party companies offer accessories to make racking your slide easier. Many people also experience their slides becoming less resistant to racking after firing a few hundred rounds.
Revolvers come in two types of actions: single action (SA) and double action (DA). Some pistols may have two types of actions as well, but in all practicality, we’ll keep this example in the realm of revolvers.
A single action revolver requires the shooter to manually cock the hammer back before pulling the trigger. It’s called single action because pulling the trigger performs one action, which is releasing the hammer and striking the primer.
Double action revolvers have triggers that function as the name implies, performing two actions for each trigger pull. These two actions are first cocking the hammer back and then second to release the hammer, causing it to strike the primer. Manually setting the hammer back and pulling the trigger requires different muscles and substantially less force than racking the slide of most semi-automatic pistols.
You may come across a double action only (DAO) revolver, where the hammer is internal and not visible or adjustable for the shooter. Each trigger pull is a double action, but the process is contained within the frame of the revolver, requiring no human input to set the hammer.
On a side note, some semi-automatic pistol owners opt to chamber a round from their magazine, then eject the magazine, load another round into the mag and then reinsert it back into the firearm. This ensures the maximum number of rounds possible are loaded and ready.
The second main consideration when considering the differences between revolvers and pistols is the safety features available. This article won’t give an in-depth explanation of all the different safety features in firearms, but we’ll touch on a few of the most substantial ones to consider.
Chambering Live Rounds
A semi-automatic firearm can readily be carried without chambering a round, making it 100% incapable of firing a round when the trigger is pulled without first racking the slide. Revolvers can also be carried with the hammer down on an empty chamber, which then must have the hammer set in order for the cylinder to rotate to a live round. In reality, carrying a revolver this way isn’t practical in most circumstances and can still easily be made shootable by simply rotating the cylinder, even without realizing it. Some will say they carry their revolvers like this, but the vast majority of revolver owners don’t.
Safety and chambering go hand in hand, as not chambering a round can add an additional layer of safety measures to ensure you don’t experience a negligent discharge. Also, if your handgun happens to fall into the hands of a child, it reduces the likelihood of a devastating accident happening. No set of safety features will 100% prevent accidents from happening, and the responsibility for safety and security of your firearms lies solely in your hands as the gun owner.
If both a revolver and semi-automatic handgun are kept in a non-firing state by the way of a round not being chambered, the revolver requires much less force and often much less knowledge to fire a round than a semi-automatic handgun, especially one that has an additional manual safety, which often is lacking in most mainstream revolvers. One could argue that this difference impacts child accidents, although this is completely anecdotal in the context of this article.
Manual Safety Mechanism
As mentioned above, most mainstream revolvers don’t contain any sort of manual safety mechanism that the shooter can engage, adding an additional safety layer (albeit one prone to failure) for keeping their firearm safe.
A manual safety, commonly called a thumb safety, is a mechanism which locks the trigger and prevents a gun from firing by not engaging the pin or hammer. While manual safeties help add a layer of security to handling your firearm, they’re prone to failure and you should always abide by the basic firearm safety rules in order to prevent accidents.
Overall, modern firearms are extremely safe when handled correctly, but both pistols and revolvers offer manual safety features on certain makes and models. Not all makes and models of firearms offer manual safeties however, and revolvers are far less likely to offer manual safeties compared to semi-automatic pistols.
*Note on keeping your gun unchambered with a manual safety engaged: When you look into everyday self-defense scenarios, you’ll notice that situations can become elevated very quickly, regardless if you’re out on the trails, shopping at the local market or in the comfort of your own home. For this very reason, opinions differ on keeping a firearm chambered with the safety off while on your person. All self-defense scenarios are different and you’ll need to carry your firearm in a method that makes sense for your needs.
A third, yet not as important aspect to consider before purchasing a pistol or revolver, is the ability to customize and add accessories to your new gun that further suit your shooting style and comfort preference.
Yes, revolvers can be accessorized and customized and yes, there are some revolvers that have accessory rails and room for red dot sights. That being said, semi-automatic pistols are much more customizable than revolvers, especially when compared to revolvers in the few hundred dollar range.
The majority, if not all, semi-automatic handguns can be accessorized by the way of using the accessory rail on the bottom of the barrel, or installing a new set of sights. While not all handguns offer full freedom when accessorizing, semi-automatics trump revolvers when it comes to taking your firearm to the next level of personalization.
This was just a surface level rundown of the basic differences and considerations between semi-automatic pistols and revolvers. Now that we have this covered, let’s talk about where you’ll be carrying and storing your self-defense gun.
Do you plan on carrying your gun for self-defense outside of your home?
If you find yourself answering yes to the above, then this brings with it a whole new range of factors to consider.
Open and concealed carry restrictions vary by state and county, as do the permitting requirements (or lack thereof) for carrying a handgun in public. Once you familiarize yourself with the laws where you plan on carrying, you’ll then have to decide if you’ll be open carrying or concealing your gun. Since the legalities around open and concealed carry also vary by state and county, make sure to know which counties and states allow for open carry.
Just because you’re legally allowed to open carry, this doesn’t mean that you’ll prefer to display your firearm openly. You may still opt to conceal your handgun to remain discreet. If you decide to conceal your handgun, the ability to draw effectively is important and you should always practice drawing from your holster in a safe environment. Our line of MantisX training products can help you become and remain proficient in your holster draw and initial shot.
If your intention is to carry a concealed handgun for self-defense, then concealability is one of the most substantial factors when selecting which gun to purchase. For instance, a 1911 with a 5” barrel is much harder to conceal than a .357 magnum revolver with a 2” barrel. We could spend all day comparing any two handguns for concealability, but at the end of the day, it all comes down to grip and barrel length.
Guns with longer barrels will cause your core flexibility to be hindered by the lack of being able to bend any certain way without your firearm remaining rigid and vertical. Of course you could always opt for a holster that has a lower ride height for longer barrels, but that could adversely affect your comfort… trust me.
Likewise, the increased grip length of a handgun, be it from a larger capacity magazine or an aid like a magazine extension grip, can affect a gun’s concealability. This happens in many instances because the grip itself will also remain rigid, but in a horizontal position, sometimes causing an obvious obstruction under your clothing.
The shorter the grip is, the less likelihood of your gun sticking out sideways in certain positions on your body. Not only does this hold true with waistband holsters but also ankle holsters as well. Many semi-automatic pistols have grips taller than the width of your ankle, causing your gun to be exposed unless you wear loose enough pant legs so it doesn’t hug your holster.
Weight & Grip
Not all people are created equal when it comes to strength and dexterity, and it should come as no surprise that gun owners fall into this category as well. Handguns come in a variety of sizes and calibers, which directly affect the firearm’s overall loaded weight. You can see where I’m going with this… you’ll need to consider your personal strength, dexterity and ability to safely handle firearms of a certain size.
This holds true when it comes to grip as well. You can always make a skinny grip thicker to fit a larger hand, but you can’t make a large grip smaller to fit a more petite hand.
When it comes to caliber selection, keep in mind that a .45 ACP weighs more than a 9mm, and a 9mm weighs more than a 22lr. All three of these calibers are available in a variety of handgun makes and models. In fact, you can get the same make and model of a gun with a different caliber. For instance, the Springfield XD series comes in both a 9mm and .45 ACP variation. The most notable difference between the two on the range is the weight of the fully loaded .45 being heavier than the fully loaded 9mm.
Safe & Responsible Firearm Storage
This section may go without saying to some people, but remember, this article is about purchasing your very first self defense handgun, so the assumption is that you don’t have a floor mounted firearm safe fully loaded and able to withstand theft and fire. So let’s talk about storing your brand new self defense handgun.
I’ve titled this section, Safe & Responsible Firearm storage for a reason. Safe gun storage is responsible gun storage, just as responsible gun storage is safe gun storage. Keep in mind that this new pistol or revolver is meant to serve as a self protection tool that you keep readily available on your person, around your house or otherwise. Here are a couple of scenarios where storage options vary.
If you plan on a nightstand protector with no intention of carrying your gun outside of your home, then you may want a quick access keypad/RFID safe that either hides in a drawer or is mounted to a table or dresser next to your bed. If you plan on carrying your firearm outside of your house but then keeping it stored while home, you may opt for a medium safe that can hold multiple handguns, that you can mount to the interior of, perhaps, a closet shelf.
If you have young children or constant foot traffic through your home then the importance of safe and responsible firearm storage is amplified.
Gun locks go through your grip and breach and are manually locked by somebody with a key or combination. This type of lock ensures the gun cannot be loaded with a magazine and therefore cannot be fired. If you have children, and keep your firearm in an accessible safe (regardless of keypad or lock), you may opt to add an extra safety layer by using a gun lock in addition to keeping your guns within the safe.
When it comes to ensuring accidents do not happen, it’s best to store your ammunition away from your firearms, and your magazines should remain unloaded. However, being that we’re considering this a self defense and readily accessible handgun, we know that keeping a loaded magazine in or next to your firearm is most likely the storage option you’ll go with. Storing a firearm is a great responsibility and should be given the respect it deserves as a lethal tool.
Ammo cost and consideration
It may sound like I’m echoing myself here, but ammo too varies greatly in caliber and power. It turns out that everything in the firearms industry varies to a vast degree, but let’s talk about ammo.
Even during an ammo shortage and inflation across calibers, there are a few constant factors. Smaller calibers almost always cost less than larger calibers. One can argue that the free market can shift that needle rather quickly, but this is usually a pretty solid factor when considering which firearm to choose. You’ll find 22lr (small) to be less expensive than .357 magnum, 9mm and .45 ACP the majority of the time.
A secondary factor to consider is full metal jacket (FMJ) prices and purposes versus jacketed hollow points (JHP). The general rule is that full metal jacket ammunition is used primarily for target practice, while jacketed hollow point ammunition is used in more close quarter defense scenarios.
The reason for this is because of the ability of the jacketed hollow point ammunition to “mushroom” and become less penetrative, becoming less lethal after the initial target. Full metal jacket ammunition has a higher penetrability and therefore can pass through far more targets and walls than may be intended. Jacketed hollow points are almost always more expensive than full metal jackets.
Check out our article on how to make the most of your shooting during an ammo shortage.
Every so often, I’ll hear somebody chuckle and ask if we talk about first aid with firearms because you’re going to run over to an injured intruder and patch them up. This isn’t anywhere near why first aid knowledge and responsible firearm ownership should be married mindsets.
The main reason why you should purchase a high quality first aid kit with the ability to stop blood loss, and also be well versed in how to use it is simple… to tend to you, your family or any victim you may need to assist. If an unfortunate event occurs where you have to deploy your firearm, you’ll want to have the tools by your side to lend aid to those you care about.
At Mantis, we believe that well-trained and proficient shooters are safer shooters. With the proper training aids, you don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on classes and private lessons. You don’t even need to burn a hole in your wallet practicing at the range.
The most common and useful training aids on the market are laser-based training aids, either full laser pistols, or laser handgun cartridges such as the Pink Rhino. However, this isn’t the only way to train without using live ammunition. Simply working on your holster draw and sight alignment while your handgun is unloaded will make you a better shooter overall, so the practice can be minimal in cost and effort.
When it comes to purchasing your first self defense handgun, especially if you aren’t familiar with shooting, it’ll pay off exponentially to invest in a laser training aid to gain valuable feedback while practicing in the comfort of your home. Then, when you want to take your skills to the range, our MantisX product line is perfect for live fire training and giving you the tips and suggestions you need in order to increase your accuracy and precision.
Check out our article on laser pistols versus laser training cartridges.
Remember, At The End Of The Day, It’s Your Decision
No matter which options you’re looking for when it comes to your first personal self defense handgun, make sure what you select is your choice and not somebody else’s. You’ll gain nothing from listening to outside opinions and making a decision without doing your research, finding one that fits your personal strength, ability and safety level, and then making an educated purchase at that point.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t listen to what others offer up, including watching video reviews, I’m just saying that you should always choose your personal preference above all outside noise when it comes to purchasing a firearm.
We hope you found this article helpful in guiding you, and we wish you the best of luck and fun plinking with your new handgun!