Choosing the Right Handgun
When I work with new shooters who are looking to purchase their first or second pistol, I typically give these students the opportunity to handle different handguns. Choices vary with individuals’ tastes, hand sizes and specific requirements or preferences. However, when beginners are given the chance to shoot different pistols, several keep coming up as top choices for individual purchase and ownership.
Many folks choose Glocks for their simplicity of operation and maintenance. Glocks are double action only which means they have one consistent trigger pull from the first shot to the last. For concealed carry, in 9mm or .40 caliber, the compact Glock 19 and Glock 23 tend to be the most popular, offering the owner the best of both worlds—compact size and substantial rounds capacity (aka, firepower). For those who want something sub-compact, the baby Glock 26 in 9mm remains a top choice—deservedly so.
Many people who consider Glocks as serious candidates for their initial purchase, also like Smith and Wesson’s line of M&P pistols. Smith’s M&Ps come in a variety of flavors (9mm, .40 S&W, .357 Sig, .45ACP) and sizes. They also can be had with or without an external manually operated frame mounted thumb safety. Those who desire a manual safety, typically opt for an M&P, and it is an excellent choice.
The M&Ps have proven to be good shooters and reliable weapons. They are popular in both compact and full size configurations and have smoother triggers than do the Glocks. They also come with replaceable back straps so that the operator can adjust the grip size to his or her hand size. That is an intelligent feature that enhances their functional appeal.
Ruger Firearms also offers an excellent double action only (DAO) polymer framed pistol in their SR series. Their SR9 in 9mm and SR40 in .40 S&W can be had in a full-size or compact version (the SR9C and SR40C). These pistols do have a thinner feel to them. Although they do not have adjustable back straps, their grips are ergonomic and seem to fit most hand sizes comfortably. The SR pistols come with numerous internal safety features including an external frame mounted manual thumb safety. The Ruger SR pistols have proven in my experience to be reliable good shooters at a very affordable price point. Many new shooters find what they want and need in a Ruger SR9 or SR9C.
Additionally, many of these folks also favor a Springfield Armory XD. The XDs come in various sizes, and although classified by the BATF as single action, operate as double action only (DAO). The XDs have an exceptionally smooth trigger and have proven in my experience to be excellent shooters and very reliable. Their newest versions of the XD called the XDM feature adjustable back straps for different hand sizes.
Sig Sauer and HK make superb pistols but their price range is above that of the above mentioned offerings by Glock, Ruger, Smith and Springfield. For people for whom the cost is not a key consideration, Sigs and HKs make great choices.
In my experience, Sig Sauer’s sleek compact model P239 in either 9mm or .40 S&W is a very popular choice. This gun seems to fit all sizes of hands—men’s and women’s. The gun is a great shooter, ultra-reliable, and has very little perceive recoil in either caliber. It is also ergonomically designed for comfortable concealed carry. Traditionally, this Sig as well as their other models come in traditional double action (TDA) which is designated double action/single action or DA/SA. This means that the first shot is double action and then all subsequent shots are single action. To restore the cocked pistol to its neutral, decocked, hammer down state, the operator must use the manual frame mounted decocking lever. For those shooters who do not mind the transition from a double action (DA) first shot to single action (SA) subsequent shots, the Sig P239 is a superb choice. However, a smooth transition such that one does not throw away the first (DA) and second (SA) shots requires dedicated practice with the gun.
Recently, Sig Sauer has responded to market demand for DAO pistols and has released their pistols in a DAO configuration which is proprietarily referred to as the DAK . DAK stands for Double Action Kellerman (after the designer). In my experience, the DAK Sigs have not been as popular as their TDAs. People who seek a DAO pistol, as I mentioned above tend to choose either a Glock, Smith and Wesson M&P or a Springfield Armory XD.
Sig Sauer’s model P226 in 9mm (and to a lesser extent .40 S&W and .357 Sig) and their model P229 in .40 S&W, .357 Sig or 9mm, continue to be popular and excellent choices. However, it is a fact that these models are pretty thick and people with smallish to medium size hands often find the grips too thick. Additionally, one feels the thickness and the weight of these pistols when carrying them. Again, while these are superb reliable pistols and great shooters, their mass appeal, especially for concealed carry, is limited by their girth.
In my experience training beginners, the Sigs tend to be more popular than the HKs amongst folks who are willing to spend a little more. However, Heckler and Koch (HK) makes very fine pistols. Their classic USP Compacts in 9mm, .40 caliber and .45 ACP are excellent choices. These pistols can be had in a number of versions. The most common are the ones with the frame mounted manual safety/decocker lever. However, similar versions can be had in DAO featuring what HK calls their LEM or Law Enforcement Modification (or Module). I have found the LEM triggers to be exceptionally smooth and fast. I personally like the HK LEM triggers more than Sig’s DAK version due to the shorter reset on the HK LEMs.
HK’s newest pistols are their sleeker and more ergonomic 9mm and .40 caliber P-30 and HK45 full-size and compact .45 ACP pistols. Again these guns can be had in varying configurations, and unlike the USPs, they feature multiple back strap options so that one can adjust grip size to one’s hand size. The P-30s are proving to be quite popular in some circles. My HK P-30, HK45 and HK45C have proven to be very reliable and durable. They are all excellent shooters.
Thus far we have looked at semi-automatic pistols. In my experience, more beginners come to me for advice on selecting the right semi-auto for them than do those looking for a revolver for concealed carry. I have worked with many students, more female than male in this regard, who initially, think that a small frame snub nose revolver is the right choice for them. However, once they shoot one and experience the substantial recoil, they often change their mind and head over to the semi-auto department.
Additionally, the manual of arms and operation for the revolver, especially the small ones, often requires more fine motor dexterity than required to operate the well selected semi-automatic pistol. Some students have trouble opening and closing the cylinder and loading and unloading the snubby revolver. Further, students with hand and finger strength issues have difficulty with the heavier longer revolver trigger. Cocking the double action revolver with an external hammer for defensive shooting is not recommended. Furthermore, it can be an ordeal for a person with limited hand strength and dexterity to safely cock and decock the hammer.
Because of this safety issue and the other practical problems that I have mentioned above, a small framed revolver in .38 Special or .357 Magnum is usually not the best choice for most beginners. Additionally, the small framed revolver is limited in ammunition capacity (to 5 rounds typically). This “firepower” limitation is significant in light of the fact that it takes considerable training, practice and dexterity to rapidly reload a revolver as compared to reloading a semi-auto. Lastly, I want to mention that when a revolver jams, malfunctions, or experiences a stoppage in the field, the chances of being able to clear the stoppage rapidly in an emergency situation are poor. This typically makes the semi-auto a more reliable choice assuming that the operator has the requisite training and know how.
With all of the above said, I do not wish to downplay the utility, functionality, or beauty of small framed revolvers or revolvers in general as defensive handguns. I personally love revolvers and they ride nicely in one’s pocket in a good pocket holster. However, I merely want to underscore their limitations. Keeping these facts in mind, suffice it to say that I have worked with many students whose handgun choice is a snubby revolver and they do very well with it. On the advantages side of the ledger, revolvers do tend to malfunction or experience stoppages less often than do semi-autos. A quality revolver tends to be more tolerant of neglect—such as not being cleaned often, lint in the pocket, different types of hollow point or re-loaded lower power ammunition, and so forth. These are all pluses on the revolver side of the ledger.
In my opinion, based on my experience, Smith and Wesson, bar none makes the best revolvers on the planet. I am especially fond of their remarkably light weight Airlite scandium and titanium and aluminum Airweight lines of snubbies. Thse guns can be a bear to shoot full house .38 or .357 Magnum loads through, but they carry nicely all day. In fact, you hardly know you have one on you. This makes it more likely you will venture out of the house armed. After all, a small .38 in your pocket is superior to that high capacity 9mm you left at home! My favorite Smith and Wesson snubbies are their Airweight Models 442 and 642 (coming in at around 15.5 ounces) and their Airlite Models 340PD, 337Ti, 342PD and 360PD (coming in at around 11 ounces).
Ruger’s recently introduced Light Compact Revolvers (LCR snubbies) in both .38 and .357 have also gained a loyal following for good reasons. These affordably priced high quality snubby revolvers carry nicely in a pocket holster (they are light weight) and they shoot very well. They are also very ergonomic in the hands and they have a very nice trigger. And their felt recoil is not too bad considering their light weight. Highly recommended!
Ruger’s larger framed .357 magnum revolvers, such as their SP-101 and GP-100 series are also quality weapons that will last their owner a lifetime and more, and serve their owner well.
Each of the reliable, well-made handguns discussed above offers a low profile, concealed carry package that can provide discreet protection for the average armed citizen. If you choose the right holster and clothing, no one but you will ever know you’re carrying until they need to know, or unless you tell them.
Glock, Inc. USA. Smyrna, GA. 770-432-1202. www.glock.com.
Heckler and Koch. Columbus, GA. 706-568-1906. www.hk-usa.com.
Kahr Arms. Blauvelt, NY. 845-353-7770. www.kahr.com.
Ruger Firearms. Newport, NH. 603-863-3300. www.ruger.com.
Sig Sauer. Exeter, NH. 603-772-2302. www.sigsauer.com.
Smith and Wesson. Springfield, MA. 800-331-0852. www.smith-wesson.com.
Springfield Armory. Geneseo, IL. 800-680-6866. www.springfieldarmory.com