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How to buy handguns

Choosing a new firearm can be a daunting task. 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.

1. Price: The first, most basic question is, “What will your budget allow?” While price shouldn’t be the only consideration, one has to be realistic about finances. But don’t sacrifice performance or durability in the name of paying less. If it is low quality, it may not last long or malfunction at a critical moment.

When looking at the prices of handguns, the key is to think practically about its features and only pay for what you know you need.

2. Mission: 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-considered selection for 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 also help decide size and weight to some degrees, as well as extras such as round count, light rails and so on.

For general patrol and 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.

3. 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?

For backup guns and hideout guns, ability to conceal it will dominate the selection process. If the gun is too big or heavy, you may end up leaving it at home. For off-duty or concealed carry, many prefer a slightly downsized version of their duty weapon for its lesser weight and ease of concealment (including in a fanny pack). You do give up some control and capacity, but the trade-off is something you will have to judge for yourself.

Also, remember to think about 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.

4. Capacity: An important factor, but don’t let capacity become the driving force in your selection. Too many people play follow-the-leader rather than make an educated choice. Aim, controllability and manipulation of the trigger are far more important than mere capacity.

5. Size and Weight: We are all born with different hand sizes. 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. But note that smaller guns do not necessarily have smaller frame circumferences. For a shooter with small hands, you will need to find a gun with a shorter reach from the tang to the trigger.

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.

6. Ergonomics and Controllability: 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.

In this department it’s safe to say that full-size handguns provide a better gripping platform for both hands, and, with barrels between four and five inches long, the slight increase in barrel length provides a bit more sight radius and bullet velocity. Being a little heavier, they tend to be a bit more controllable over a lighter, shorter platform.

But then again, it’s all about personal preference. 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.

7. Trigger System: 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 one of the most popular triggers 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.

Striker-fired systems are 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. I think this system will become the dominant system for law enforcement in the future.

8. Caliber: We can have endless debate about stopping power of the various calibers, and it is endless fun, but not necessarily the most practical way to assess a gun you are looking to buy. Also, 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. Far more important is how well you can shoot the gun, the size of the gun, and the weight you will carry.

9. Reliability: 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.

10. Durability: This is a big one for me. I shoot 40,000 to 50,000 rounds a year on average. I have, conservatively, more than 200,000 rounds fired on one of my guns, 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.

11. Aim or ‘Shootability’: 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. 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.

12. Serviceability: Never buy a gun that you can’t service easily. It should be easy to take down and clean the gun. It should also be easy to add aftermarket parts like good sights and a better trigger job. Also, make sure to ask what the warranty service like, and if the manufacturer has 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.

Do you have any other suggestions for officers purchasing and evaluating handguns? Please leave a comment below or email products@policeone.com with your feedback.

PoliceOne Firearms Columnist Ron Avery contributed to this report.

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