How to Choose Your First Handgun—Step Outside

Our shooting expert takes all of the guesswork out of choosing the handgun that’s just right for you.

By Bryce M. Towsley

How to Choose Your First Handgun—Step Outside
Photograph Courtesy of Glock, Inc.

The term “handgun” covers a lot of ground, from easy-to-conceal pocket pistols to specialty single-shots designed for hunting big game. In between there are, literally, hundreds of handgun models to choose from. With so many choices, it’s not surprising that those in the market to purchase their first handgun get confused.

Trying to wade through all of the pluses and minuses can be daunting, so we’ve made choosing your first handgun easy. Here’s how the two most popular handgun designs break down and how they might best fit your preferences.

Revolvers

The revolver is the oldest repeating handgun design still in use. It has a cylinder with multiple chambers to hold the cartridges. The cylinder rotates on a central pin to align each of these chambers in turn with the barrel to fire the cartridge.

Revolvers typically are more accurate (on average) than semi-auto handguns. They are tough, durable and all but trouble free. They are also the most reliable repeating handguns because they don’t jam (something that can happen with semi-auto designs). Revolvers are also the simplest handguns to learn to shoot and operate safely.

Revolvers come in a long list of available cartridges, starting with the .22 LR rimfire and ending with fire-breathing cartridges like the .500 S&W. They work best with rimmed cartridges, but can be used with rimless cases by using adapters to hold the cartridges. Revolvers offer the most powerful cartridges of any repeating handgun. That means they are the best choice for handgun hunting big game and for protection against large predators such as bears.

There are two basic revolver designs, single action and double action.

Single-Action Revolvers

Photograph Courtesy of Colt Manufacturing Co.
Colt’s New Frontier is an example of a classic single-action design. Such guns are highly reliable but slow to reload as only one chamber is exposed at a time.

The single action is the cowboy gun; the one John Wayne used in all his western movies. It’s the older design, dating back to Colt’s first repeating handguns in 1836. The single action requires that the hammer be manually cocked each time the gun is fired. Most single actions are very slow to load as they use a swinging gate that exposes only one chamber in the cylinder. The cylinder must be rotated, and each chamber loaded one at a time. This can become an issue in a self-defense handgun where the ability to reload quickly is important.

The single-action revolver is considered the most reliable design. It is also chambered for the widest range of powerful cartridges. While the single action is offered in popular cartridges like the .22 LR, .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum and .45 Colt, you can also find them in beast mode cartridges like .470 Linbaugh or .500 Wyoming Express. Many believe that the grip design for the single action makes handling the recoil of these dragon slaying cartridges easier than with other handgun designs.

With a few exceptions, most single-action revolvers are full-size handguns.

Double-Action Revolvers

Photograph Courtesy of Smith & Wesson
Double-action revolvers, like S&W’s medium-frame Model 66, are the most popular handguns for defense. Cock the hammer and fire in single-action mode for accuracy or simply pull the trigger to fire one round after another in double-action mode.

The double action is Dirty Harry’s gun. It was the choice for police for decades before being replaced by the semi-auto starting in the late eighties.

The double-action revolver can be fired by cocking the hammer, just like the single action. This provides the light, short trigger pull, which is best for precision shooting. It can also be fired by simply pulling the trigger, which is called “double action.” Pulling the trigger rotates the cylinder and cocks the hammer before firing at the end of the trigger stoke. This will result in a long, hard trigger pull, but it’s faster for follow up shots.

Traditionally the double-action revolver will open by swinging the cylinder out on a pivot, to expose all of the chambers. This allows you to unload all of them at the same time. It also allows reloading all chambers at the same time if you use a device called a “speed loader.” Those shooters who choose a revolver for a self-defense handgun almost universally pick a double-action model.

Until Smith & Wesson introduced their big revolvers in .500 S&W and .460 S&W the double action was not chambered for cartridges as powerful as the single action. Today that gap has closed. The most popular double action revolver cartridges include .22 LR, .38 Special, .357 Magnum and .44 Magnum.

Double-action handguns range in size from a pocket-size snub-nose through the huge guns that house the blaster cartridges. The small frame, snub-nose revolvers are easy to carry concealed, but are difficult to shoot. As always, the middle range of revolver size is usually the best option. That is a medium frame with a 4- to 6-inch barrel. Short barrels are easy to carry in a holster while the longer barrels provide a longer sight radius and a bit more velocity.

Best Revolver Choice for Beginners

A first-time shooter might do well to look at one of the many .357 Magnum revolvers. These guns can also handle the milder .38 Special cartridge for lower recoil when practicing.

Photograph Courtesy of Howard Communications
Single-action semi-autos, like this 1911-380 from Browning, cock the hammer after the first shot and provide a light, short trigger pull.

Semi-Auto

The semi-auto handgun has been around since the late 1800s. In recent years it has dominated in the market.

The typical semi-auto handgun uses a removable magazine that fits into the grip. It will fire each time you pull the trigger, until the magazine is empty. Often called “self-loading,” the energy from the fired cartridge is used to cycle the action. This ejects the empty cartridge, cocks the gun and feeds a new cartridge from the magazine into the chamber. The gun can be reloaded very quickly by replacing the empty magazine with a fully loaded magazine.

Semi-auto handguns work best with rimless cartridges and can be chambered in a very wide range of cartridges from .22 LR rimfire through the .50 AE. The most popular are .22 LR, 9mm, .45 ACP, .380 ACP and .40 S&W probably in that order.

Photograph Courtesy of Smith & Wesson
Semi-autos, like the M&P 380 Shield E-Z, have a larger magazine capacity than revolvers and can quickly be reloaded by simply dropping the empty magazine and inserting another that is fully loaded.

Semi-auto handguns are considered to be a bit less reliable than revolvers and a bit less accurate, although the gap on both of these issues has closed in recent years. They are also a little tougher to learn to operate than a revolver.

There are several common types of semi-autos. The single action, the 1911 design for example, cocks the hammer and provides a light, short trigger pull.

Double-action-only and hammer-fired handguns use energy applied to the trigger to cock the hammer and fire the gun. This results in a long, hard trigger pull. Some believe this is safer, even though it reduces the shooter’s ability to shoot the gun accurately.

Double-action/single-action semi-autos use a double-action trigger pull for the first shot and then automatically switch to single action for any remaining shots.

The Glock all is the best example of a striker-fired semi-auto handgun design. Striker-fired does not have an external hammer and instead uses an internal striker that is in line with the firing pin and is activated by the trigger. This results in a trigger pull that is somewhere in between the single-action and double-action trigger. A striker-fired trigger will typically be about half the length of travel and pull weight of a double-action semi-auto handgun trigger.

Most Popular Semi-Auto Designs

Photograph Courtesy of SIG Sauer
Striker-fired designs, like the SIG 320, use an internal striker that is in line with the firing pin and is activated by the trigger. This results in a trigger pull that is somewhere in between the single-action and double-action trigger.

The two most popular designs of semi-auto handguns are single action and striker-fired. Of the two, striker-fired is the best seller. That is probably due primarily to price. Glock pioneered the use of molded polymer (plastic) in handgun frames and most striker-fired handguns use this manufacturing process. As a result, the prices of striker-fired handguns are considerably lower than a high quality machined metal handgun. The striker-fired handgun, usually in 9mm, is likely the most popular handgun for a new shooter. They are an excellent choice for target shooting as well as self-defense. Popular 9mm ammunition is readily available and generally less expensive than many other handgun loads.

The size of semi-auto handguns ranges from full size through micro. Full-size models are usually easier to shoot due to their extra weight, which helps to dampen recoil. However, they can be heavy to carry in a holster. At the other end of the spectrum are the micro semi-autos, which are popular because they are very easy to carry. A micro .380 Auto will fit in a pocket easily, but they are difficult to shoot accurately, and ammo is far more expensive compared to, say, 9mm loads.

The smaller subcompacts are easy to carry and are a good choice for concealed carry. They are tougher to shoot with and are not as much fun at the range due to the increased felt recoil from the smaller handguns.

Best Choice for Beginners

Photograph Courtesy of SIG Sauer
For semi-auto fans, medium-frame pistols, like the SIG P365, are a great all-around choice for first-time handgun buyers. They are small and lightweight enough for carry yet heavy enough to dampen recoil.

Most shooters will find the middle ground suits them well. The medium pistols, often called “compact” size, provide an excellent balance for easy carry and accurate shooting and are a good option for a first handgun.

No matter which design you pick, any “brand name” handgun today will be among the finest ever produced. Modern manufacturing techniques have resulted in high quality at an affordable price. There has never been a better time to join the millions of handgun shooters enjoying this exciting and challenging sport.

Photograph Courtesy of Kimber Mfg., Inc.
Kimber's K6, is chambered in the powerful .357 Magnum cartridge, but it is also compatible with milder .38 Special loads to reduce recoil, making it a good choice for those looking for a compact revolver.

About The Author: Bryce M. Towsley has been writing about guns for 36 years and has published thousands of articles in most of the major firearms magazines. He has hunted all over the world and is a competition shooter in several disciplines. Towsley has several books available on guns, shooting and hunting as well as an adventure novel, The 14th Reinstated. Signed books are available on his website

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