Tips on purchasing a handgun…
Most of you have purchased a car at some point in your lives. My guess is that you did not walk in to the car dealership and tell the salesman “I have $20,000 and I need a car”… Unfortunately, we see it all the time with people buying a pistol. “I have $700.00 and I need to buy a gun.” This is not the most effective way to approach it!
There are a number of things you should evaluate when you purchase a pistol. Buying a gun that your friend likes is irrelevant, despite his exemplary service in the 382nd underwater, airborne, black ninja, secret squirrel tough guy division. Everyone has unique body types and unique requirements for their firearms!
Some of our clients show up for a pistol course with their brand new gun only to find out there was a better choice for them. Cost is not always the best metric. The most unreliable pistol I own was also the most expensive. You really need to find a way to shoot a few different guns and see what you like before you commit to buying a gun. While you are doing that, here are some tips and things to consider when you buy a gun. We call it the five F’s; fit, function, finances, F’ing trigger mechanisms and final thoughts.
Fitting a Pistol
The most important consideration in buying a gun is fit. The simplest factor in fitting a gun is the distance from the back strap of the grip to the face of the trigger. If you cannot maintain a properly placed grip and get the pad of your index finger flat on the trigger, you will struggle to learn to shoot that gun.
Next is the size of the grip. You need to be able to comfortably hold the pistol under control in either hand and in both. You should not feel like you are holding a tree trunk, or a pencil. The gun should be comfortable and it should feel like you have absolute control of it.
The next element is your ability to access the controls. Can you reach the magazine release, slide stop, and hammer with out adjusting your grip? The hammer is the least important of the three and not applicable to many models.
Buying a gun that fits will save you a lot of time, effort, and money on ammo when you are learning to shoot. If you buy a gun that is too small, you can eventually learn to shoot it. If you purchase a gun that is too big, you will pull the barrel off axis every time you press the trigger and you’ll never shoot that gun as well as one that fits your hand!
The next consideration is barrel length. The barrel length itself has little to do with the accuracy of pistol and more to do with helping you align the sights (except at the extremes). A longer barrel usually translates to a longer sight radius (the distance from the rear sight to the front sight), which is what improves your accuracy. It should be a more purpose-based decision. If you plan to carry your gun concealed, a long barrel is impractical. Subcompact pistols, and compacts are more than accurate enough for defensive purposes. Competing with a subcompact pistol is unlikely to yield good results. What do you want to do with the gun? Compacts designed for carry, full-size designed for target shooting, or a gun designed for all different situations. Subcompacts, are usually only suitable for very small people with small hands.
The next consideration is weight. Carrying a heavy gun on your person all day will take some getting used to. Weight also has some benefits when shooting in that it helps you to control recoil. If you don’t carry your gun, then weight is really not an issue unless it is so heavy that it distracts you. Once again, the real question you should ask with weight is: Does it feel like you can comfortably control it?
Next you need to consider magazine capacity. I consider eight rounds to be the minimum number of rounds for a gun that I will carry. On the range, I take a “more is better” approach due to the convenience of not having to constantly run to the ammo box, but when I carry, I am perfectly comfortable with an 8 round spare magazine. How many rounds do you need, and how many rounds do you want available to you when you train? The need should drive your decision far more than range convenience – especially if this going to be your only gun!
Next is caliber. Smaller bullets generally equate to higher capacity. Despite the continuing debate the ballistic coefficient for any defensive handgun round, 9mm and higher are adequate for defensive purposes. If your gun salesman starts talking about “stopping power,” realize that you are speaking with someone who simply has not done the research – and there are a lot of them. Aside from actually doing the research, the Aegis Academy has more than 50 years of active time deployed in combat zones. Not one of us has seen an accurately placed shot from a 9mm MP 5 or a pistol fail to evoke the correct response from a terrorist or a criminal (which is lay down and leave me alone). Conversely, we’ve seen poorly placed shots from larger calibers do nothing. Accuracy will always trump caliber, and I carry a 9mm to this day.
The other consideration for caliber is cost. How much are you willing to spend on training ammunition? 9mm rounds cost about half what .40 or .45 will cost you. That will add up pretty quickly if you plan to train. If you do not plan to train, you should probably consider alternative defensive strategy than buying a gun!
The least important from a functional perspective, but perhaps overriding factor to consider is the cost of the firearm. For the most part you get what you pay for. If you are on a budget, you do not need to spend $1000.00 for a reliable and accurate gun. There are several in the $450 – $650 range that are extremely reliable, and more than adequate for defensive shooting. If you are toying with the idea of stretching your limited budget, stop going to Starbucks, quit smoking, or carpool to work for a month, and save the extra money to apply toward your purchase options. The difference between your options at the $400 mark and the $650.00 mark are significant.
F’ing Trigger Mechanisms
This can be technical. The upside is you don’t need to know any of this to make a good decision other than “I like that one better than the rest.” The down side is, you really need to shoot the gun to know which mechanism you like. You can do that at our Firearms Familiarization Course. Call around to your local training providers and see if they offer anything similar.
There are three main types of trigger mechanisms: Double Action / Single Action (DA/SA), Double Action Only (DAO), and Single Action Only (SAO). SAO triggers are predominantly on 1911 models (although there are a number of manufactures that produce SAO’s on a variety of frames). Everyone should own a 1911, but If you are buying a gun for the first time, a 1911 would not be high on my list. The advantage to SAO triggers is that you can have a lighter and generally very short trigger pull that is consistent. Hammer fired SAO pistols with a hammer tend to be bit more difficult to learn to manipulate due to the external mechanical safety on most of them.
Striker fired guns are also single action guns. Glock, Smith & Wesson M&P and the Springfield XD are examples. These do not have the same manipulation requirements of a hammer fired SAO gun. They tend to have fewer moving parts, and are usually very reliable firearms. I would put these high on the list to check out if you are new shooter buying a gun for the first time.
The DAO trigger is probably the next easiest type to learn to shoot. The big advantage is that the gun does not need to be cocked and the trigger pull is the essentially same every time. The down side to DAO triggers is that they have a consistently long trigger pull. As you advance your skills you may start to be concerned with the speed and accuracy of follow up shots. You generally cannot fire a DAO as fast and accurately as you can a SAO or DA/SA due to the increased movement required to reset the trigger. There are certainly exceptions at the professional level, but for most mortals, we will make faster, more accurate follow up shots with a DA/SA or SAO model guns. The fact is that most gun owners will never train to a level where they can out run their DAO trigger. Heckler & Koch and Sig Sauer make a number of DAO guns. Sig Sauer refers to a number of their double action only guns as DAK for double action Kellerman (the gunsmith who invented their system). For your first firearm, you will learn faster and be far easier to train if you purchase a gun with a DAO or striker trigger mechanism.
Last is the DA/SA model trigger. The advantage to this is that you do not have to carry it cocked. You have a longer and heavier trigger pull for your first shot, after which it remains cocked (in SA) with a shorter lighter trigger pull for your follow up shots, until you decock it. The down side is that you have to spend a fair amount of time to master the two different triggers pulls to become effective. Additionally, the manipulation is initially confusing to new owners giving you additional things to worry about in the firearms training process. If I was buying a gun for the first time, knowing what I know now, I would lean towards a DAO or striker fired gun. They are just easier to learn to shoot. This mechanism is found on many Sig Sauer, Beretta and CZ models among others.
Final Thoughts on buying a gun!
If you are adding to your collection, you will shoot more efficiently with a gun that has identical, or very similar control features. Anyone can master different firearms if you choose to dedicate the time to training with it. All else being equal, consistency will save you a lot of training time.
On new or used guns. If you are severely budget constrained, consider a used gun that has been refurbished by the factory, or one that you are buying from someone you know who will give you an honest assessment of the number of rounds through the gun. Unless you are an experienced gunsmith, it is impossible to tell by looking at it. Holster wear can make practically new guns look ancient, but it has no effect on the important parts of a gun. If you are in the high-end custom market and looking at used guns, that is a different story. Buy it, send it to a skilled gunsmith, and have them inspect and refit any required replacement parts and you can save a lot of money.
Lastly, I have made some very broad generalizations here. Find a competent instructor who has a range of firearms that you can test out. Perhaps your local range has the ability to rent you a variety of guns. Far too many gun salesmen bully people into the wrong purchase, and far too many instructors brain wash their clients into thinking their gun must be best for everyone.
Best of luck with your new purchase!
~ Josh Neill