Buyer’s guide to selecting a handgun
By Ron Avery
Choosing a new firearm can be a daunting task these days. There are many good brands of firearms to choose from, but sorting through all the marketing hype and technical specifications can leave you scratching your head.
Here are some things to consider when you are shopping for a new firearm that will assist you in making a good choice and keep you in control of the buying process.
Price and mission
The first basic question is: What will your budget allow? While price shouldn’t be the only consideration, one has to be realistic about finances.
The next question is of primary importance: What is the intended mission you have in mind for this handgun? Think of handguns like golf clubs. You can try to work with one club, but you are better off with a well-thought-out selection. Patrol, SWAT, detective, undercover agent — all will have needs unique to their mission.
Handgun types fall into these general categories: duty weapon, reduced-size duty weapon, off-duty weapon, backup gun, hideout gun. Taking a realistic look at your mission will help you determine what features you desire. It will determine size and weight to some degrees, as well as other features such as round count, light rails and so on.
For general patrol/SWAT missions that are open carry, and for most off-duty concealed carry, full size guns offer the best performance in terms of weight, size, capacity, sight radius and controllability. Slightly reduced size and weight might be just the ticket for detectives or concealed carry.
For backup guns and hideout guns, concealability will dominate the selection process. If the gun is too big or heavy, you may end up leaving it at home. If it is low quality, it may not last long or malfunction at a critical moment. The key to these weapons is to use the word “practical” when you look at them. Will you be most likely to have it with you all the time because it is convenient to carry? Again, price is a consideration, but don’t sacrifice performance or durability in the name of paying less.
Remember though, durability standards are not the same for small, very light guns when compared with full-size pieces made to shoot a lot of rounds. Make sure it goes “bang” every time, it is safe, and you will carry it all the time.
Mode of carry
How will you carry the firearm? Will it be in a duty holster? Concealed carry? Fanny pack? Undercover? Hideout position or backup gun?
Think of climate or mission considerations and what type of clothing will fit with the mode of carry. Hot summers may preclude wearing a jacket to avoid standing out as a gun carrier. Here a slimmer/smaller gun can be worn in a higher ride or inside the pants holster with a squared bottomed shirt hanging over it.
If you like to carry a backup gun in a coat or pants pocket, a hammerless revolver such as the Smith &Wesson Scandium J-Frame weighs only 11 ounces while allowing you to fire from the pocket without jamming. A North American Arms, five-shot, .22 Magnum, Black Widow revolver weights about 9 ounces and hides effortlessly in an ankle rig, pocket or deep-cover position.
Size, weight and capacity
Too many people play follow-the-leader rather than make an educated choice. We are all born with different hand sizes. Don’t let capacity become the driving force in your selection. Pointability, shootability, controllability and manipulation of the trigger are far more important than mere capacity.
One of the first things to do, after determining the firearm is in a safe condition, is to grip the firearm and see whether the middle of the pad of the trigger finger rests easily against the trigger when you finger is relaxed. If you have to stretch your finger to get the middle of the pad on the trigger it is most likely too big for you. Now try this same test while wearing any gloves you would wear for duty or off-duty wear. This can be a deal-breaker.
Shooters with smaller hands almost always benefit from a narrower frame size that allows a stronger grip and gives a better reach to the trigger. I would gladly give up a few rounds of capacity in order to increase controllability and speed. The classic Colt 1911 pattern, carrying 8+1, has served many a cop well for many years and is still one of my favorite firearms. The Springfield XD in .45 ACP adds several more rounds to this yet has a smaller grip than many other high-capacity firearms.
Please note that smaller guns do not necessarily have smaller frame circumferences. As an example, going from a Glock 22 to a Glock 23 will not reduce the reach to the trigger. For a shooter with small hands, you will need to find a gun with a shorter reach from the tang to the trigger.
This encompasses the individual preference of the shooter and comprises conscious and subconscious choices.
How well does the gun point for you? When you bring it to eye level, are the sights falling into line with your line of sight? Some guns allow you to feel like you have built-in radar. Grip angle and shape, as well as thickness of the grip, will factor into this equation. Certain guns just point better for you, and you know that your sights will be aligned naturally for you. My advice is that if it is otherwise a high quality weapon, has sufficient round count, good sights and trigger then buy the one that points the best. Only you can determine this.
This is a crucial part of shooting well. A heavy trigger pull, too long of a reach or a complex trigger manipulation does nothing to assist you in getting good hits in a timely fashion.
The single-action trigger, a la the Colt 1911 Government Model, remains the No. 1 trigger in the world for high-performance shooting, and for good reason. It is an extremely viable trigger system for law enforcement and lends itself well to large and small hands when combined with a 1911-style handgun.
If you need to shoot precisely at high speed, make precision shots on a suicide bomber from a safe distance or take a longer shot, this style of trigger makes it far easier to do so. As a bonus, the manipulation of the thumb safety and trigger is almost identical to the M-4 Carbine, making weapons training that much simpler.
That being said, the striker-fired system is a close second to the single-action trigger and, in some ways, superior for certain modes of carry. Now that the Glock patent has expired, we are seeing a host of weapons from other manufacturers with this style of trigger. Springfield, S&W, Ruger, Taurus — all have firearms with similar trigger systems. I think this system will become the dominant system for law enforcement in the future.
Still, many prefer the double-action/single-action trigger system. Sig Sauer makes a very nice double-action trigger that is even better with competent gunsmithing. It is also hard to beat a small or midsize revolver for certain applications.
Full-size handguns provide a full-gripping platform for both hands. They generally have barrels between four and five inches long. Their size allows them to carry more rounds as well. The slight increase in barrel length does provide a bit more sight radius and bullet velocity and lends itself well to a weapon-mounted light. Being a little heavier, they tend to be a bit more controllable over a lighter, shorter platform.
For off-duty or concealed carry, many prefer a slightly downsized version of their duty weapon for better concealability and lesser weight. This lends itself to fanny pack carry as well. You do give up some control and capacity, but the trade-off is something you will have to judge for yourself. I generally don’t like carrying fewer than nine rounds in my primary gun if I can avoid it. Backup or hideout guns are a different story. Capacity is less of an issue than concealability and weight.
Weight can be a mixed blessing. A lighter gun is good up to a point. Lighter, polymer-framed guns can be more difficult to control under rapid fire compared with steel framed guns when shooting some of the hotter duty loads. I see many people having problems with flinch when shooting a lighter gun, especially if they shoot only a few times a year. Here a full-size or steel-frame gun might be a much better choice. Examples here would include the model 1911-style gun, which is still the No. 1 selling handgun in the world today.
We can have endless debate about stopping power of the various calibers, and it is endless fun. Far more important is how well you can shoot the gun in the size and weight you will carry. For duty weapons, .40-caliber S&W and .45 ACP seem to be the favorites, with a smattering of 9mm or .357 Sig. If you flinch quite a bit or shoot poorly with the weapon, your confidence will suffer. Consider going to a caliber that allows you to shoot well and still have a viable caliber. For smaller weapons, backup or hideout guns, we have 9mm, .380 or .38 +P, .357 Magnum or even .22 Magnum.
It has to go bang every time you need it to go bang. My standard test for a carry firearm is 500 rounds, without a malfunction, with the ammo I am going to carry on the street. Some of the smaller automatics with shorter slides may not cycle as reliably with a certain round as another gun with a slightly longer slide. It should feed flawlessly with the rounds you intend to carry.
This is a big one for me. I shoot 40,000 to 50,000 rounds a year on average with my primary high capacity 2011 from STI. I have, conservatively, more than 200,000 rounds fired on one of them, using the original frame, and it is still in great shape.
Most guns are rated to a service life of 10,000 to 20,000 rounds, even though they routinely shoot more than that. Even if you don’t shoot a lot, it gives you peace of mind to know your gun won’t break when you need it most.
Don’t expect a small, light hideout or backup gun to have the same durability of the full size guns. They have a different mission and generally will be carried a lot and shot enough to maintain a strong sense of competence with it. Undercover cops need something they can hide well, and they may need to compromise a bit on size and durability to have something that they feel they can use. Just make sure it goes bang every time.
This is a subjective topic and is a bit different than controllability. How well can you shoot the gun? You will be looking at what kind of sights are on the gun and how well you can see them, the weight, reach and length of the trigger pull, muzzle recovery after recoil, weight of the gun and type of load you will be shooting.
If you are shooting a hot round in a light gun and find yourself pushing shots around a lot because you are flinching all the time, then it is too much for you. Many times a bit heavier gun will allow you to have far more control than a lighter gun. My advice is to go to a local gun range and rent one to shoot or find a buddy that has one and shoot it.
How easy is it to take down and clean the gun? How about getting aftermarket parts like good sights and a better trigger job? If the gun goes down, what is the warranty service like? Does the manufacturer have a reputation for quality and timely repair service? Factory reps that are accessible go a long way toward making a gun more attractive to purchase. Never buy a gun that you can’t service easily.
I have tried to cover the most important points in selecting a gun that is right for you. Following these guidelines will help find one that fits your mission and your price range. Feel free to send an email to me at PSARON2@aol.com if you have additional questions.
- Police Training