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Gun Nut Tip of the Week: Handgun Buying 101
Gun Nut Tip of the Week: Handgun Buying 101
Purchasing a handgun is a topic that often conjures up rigorous debates. There are differing opinions and schools of thought, and hopefully this thread will serve to either answer some questions, or at least provide information for a more informed purchase. Much like any other firearm you may buy, each brand and model will have its proponents and detractors. One gun shop owner will tout how glorious Brand X is and how everyone and their cousin needs one, but you will always meet someone that believes Brand X is not worth its weight in kitty litter. Handguns are subcategorized in several fashions, but the general term is "handgun". Some people are purists and are very adamant about properly defining the differences between "pistols" and "revolvers", etc. A pistol simply means a handgun whose chamber is connected to the barrel. Pistol typically refers to a semi-automatic handun (1911, Sig, Glock, etc.)
The question often asked when considering a handgun usually revolves around caliber. Much like any other firearm purchase, several factors must be taken in account before caliber is considered.
The first thing you need to take into account is what you plan to use the handgun for. Certain handguns have more appropriate uses than others. Some handguns are very utilitarian and universal, while others are very specialized. The following are common handgun uses:
1. Defense (Self/Carry vs. Home)
Defense: Many people purchase handguns for personal protection. Overall, the handgun is purchased for this purpose more than any other weapon due to portability, small size, and magazine capacity. The main thing to consider in this category is what the handgun will most likely be used for, be it home defense or for personal mobile defense/concealed carry. Firearms in the defense category can be varied, because any handgun can be employed for defensive purposes. Some just happen to do it much better and more competently than others. I will break this down individually.
Home Defense: Home defense handguns can be anything. What you decide to use will depend on several factors. Some handguns used are a universal handgun that are broadly used for several things, like target AND concealed carry. If you want to get a dedicated home defense pistol, you will need to decide, first and foremost, what you feel comfortable using. Some people will only use revolvers, while others swear by semi-auto pistols. The two schools of thought revolve around "knock-down power" and magazine capacity. Some people believe that a magnum caliber revolver like a .44 Magnum is the best choice, since one hit from that round will stop anything cold. Others believe that having a pistol with a high magazine capacity is better. Most revolvers range between 5 and 7 rounds in cylinder capacity, while typical pistols range between 7 rounds and 17 rounds on average. Pistol advocates tout the semi-auto pistol as ideal due to high magazine capacity, ease and speed of reload, wider array of available ammunition choices and weapon features that are conducive to effective home defense. Whatever you decide, good home defense handguns will have certain characteristics. Before anything, they should be easy to use. If the pistol is not easy to use, it can become difficult to use in the dark. You should be able to load, operate and reload your gun simply by feel. The handgun should also be capable of rapid fire. Pistols are capable of rapid fire, as are most revolvers. Some revolvers, typically "cowboy-action" styles, are single-action only. They make terrible defense guns because you need to physically c*ck the hammer back before every trigger pull. The pistol should ideally have some form of night sight. Glow sights are nice, but tritium night sights like those offered by Trijicon or Meprolight are the best option. Tritium sights are self-luminous, making it possible to use them in complete darkness and still know where you're aiming. They last for upwards of 12 years without batteries, as tritium is a low-level radioactive isotope (triple hydrogen ion). Night sights are offered almost every brand of pistol, as well as several models of revolvers. If your handgun does not have night sights, it will need to be supplemented by artificial light from a flashlight. Having a small high-output flashlight is convenient, but it's even better if you have a weapon-mounted flashlight. Some flashlight companies make flashlights that have their own special mounting hardware to mount to any handgun, but good weapon lights are designed to be mounted to dedicated weapon rails. Many pistols are made with lower equipment rails to facilitate this purpose. Smith & Wesson has recently produced the Model 327 M&P R8 .357mag revolver with a lower equipment rail, and I suspect that other revolver models and brands will soon follow suit. Handgun size is not a huge issue, since any size works. It is recommended that you pick a handgun that is not a sub-compact size, since those tend to be hard to control. Larger guns afford more accuracy and controllability. Defense handguns should also me devoid of porting or compensators. Porting and compensators blow gases up or to the side and they create bright flashes that will destroy your night vision. Do not choose a gun that has any holes in its barrel except the ones that the bullet goes into or out of. Finally, pick a handgun that not only YOU feel comfortable shooting, but that other people in your house can shoot. My Kimber Tactical Custom II .45 is a superb defense gun, but with its safeties and complexity and the separate hand-held Surefire flashlight, picking it up and shooting it effectively is somewhat difficult for my wife, who is a gun novice, to do. To add to it, the low magazine capacity makes it much more complicated for my wife to operate since it will most certainly require a reload in the event of usage. On the other hand, my Glock 34 with the Trijicon night sights, rail-mounted flashlight and the 19rd magazine is a much better option. She can literally pick it up and pull the trigger with far less difficulty. Additionally to all of this, make sure that the caliber is appropriate. Defense calibers should be of sufficient power to stop a threat, but not so powerful so as to over penetrate or be hard to control for follow-up shots. Pistol calibers ranging from .380ACP, 9x19mm, .357sig, .40S&W, 10mm Auto, .45GAP and .45ACP are preferred. Revolver calibers often used are .327 Federal Mag, .38 Special, .357 Magnum or .44 Magnum are common. Using calibers too big or too small can be safety hazards.
Self Defense/Carry: Carry guns are similar to defense guns in many aspects. The main difference between the two is that carry guns tend to be smaller in size, and are geared more towards concealability and simplicity of use. A good carry-capable handgun should have a short barrel, usually less than 4", with a shorter grip and low profile or combat-type sights. Night sights are a huge plus. Equipment rails are unnecessary, since most handguns will not fit in a concealable holster when a light or external laser device is attached. Carry guns should be capable of shooting at ranges up to 50 yards accurately, although they should be able to effectively be used at 15yds or less since most encounters happen at that range. When making a carry-capable selection, be aware that you will need to be more discriminating in your choice. It's not feasible to try and be Danny Glover from Predator 2 and carry a Desert Eagle .50AE pistol. Some handguns are specifically made to be carry guns. Snub-nose revolvers, small "pocket pistols" like sub-compact autos, and intermediate compact pistols and revolvers are commonly produced by many manufacturers. In carrying, there is an ever greater debate regarding calibers to be used. Calibers to be used will tend to include all those in the home defense category, as well as some lighter calibers. People carry rounds as small as .22LR, while others will carry small titanium revolvers chambered for .44 Magnum. What you carry will ultimate come down to how comfortable you are with the cartridge. If you don't mind shooting light or small cartridges, small "pocket pistols" like the Beretta Bobcat or Tomcat or a Kel-Tec P-32 will be very popular. If you want higher magazine capacity with a suitable combat-capable caliber like 9x19mm or .40, a sub-compact or compact Glock, Springfield XD, H&K P2000/P2000SK or Smith & Wesson M&P may be desireable. If you like compact size but want some punch in caliber power, a revolver is a great choice. Small frame revolvers are very reliable, and many chambered in powerful calibers like .357 magnum can be had in a package smaller and thinner than most auto pistols. The big problem people make is that they decide to carry guns that may be SOLD as carry weapons, but really make poor choices. Guns like the Bersa Thunder .380 Concealed Carry or the Kel-Tec P-3AT or P-11 are billed as carry pistols, and they have many characteristics that make them desirable for carrying. The problem is that the sights are basically grooves in the top of the frame that are barely usable. This technique was developed from carry revolvers like the S&W J-frame compact revolvers, to include the Model 36, 60 and 340 M&P. These sights trade off accuracy and usability for operational effectiveness. These sights are designed so as not to snag or catch on clothing or holsters. Revolvers sights like this are much better than pistol sights, since revolver sights tend to have deeper notches that are more visible. Ultimately, it comes down to what you want to shoot and like to shoot. The ideal carry pistol will be one that you can shoot two-handed, one-handed, in the dark without looking, can carry concealed with little discomfort, carry concealed without being too bulky, and that you can shoot effectively. More than anything, the pistol must be reliable. Many cheap little pocket pistols are unreliable and fail.
Target or plinking handguns are really any handgun that you want to use for the purposes of just going to the range or out into the country and shooting stuff. If you just want something for putting holes in paper or shooting pop cans, there are several options available to you. Often times, people will want a gun to just go shooting with. Buying a handgun specifically for the range makes little sense unless you plan to use it for another purpose, such as Home Defense or Competition. The purpose of going to a range is getting better at shooting and to have fun. If you do want a gun that is just fun to shoot with and for no other purpose, the best option is a .22LR pistol or revolver. .22LR ammunition as the cheapest ammunition available, and is for sale everywhere you go. They're fun and perfect for teaching inexperienced shooters how to shoot a handgun. If you want a handgun that is good for another purpose, get a handgun that better fits other uses, but select a caliber that is more common, less expensive, and/or easy to find. A 10mm Auto or .41 Magnum handgun may be a great defense gun and also very effective and fun at the range, but you will pay lots of money for ammunition, if and when you can even find the ammunition. Conversely, a 9mm or .38 Special handgun would be perfect. The average person shoots between 100 and 200 rounds when they go to the range. 9mm ammunition costs $13/box of 50 while 10mm ammunition costs $28/box of 50. You do the math.
Competition handguns are more varied than any other type of gun. There are competitions for everything from stock pistols to highly modified revolvers to bolt-action handgun. The decision to purchase a competition-grade gun is usually one made by someone that already has lots of shooting experience or that knows a lot about handguns already. Competition handguns must be tailored to the specific competition you are intending to compete in. Each type and class of competition has different rules regarding things like caliber, level of modification, magazine capacity, size of handgun, weight of trigger pull, type of sights, and the person shooting the handgun, just to name a few. If you want to break into competitive shooting, the best thing to do would be to talk to competition shooters or go to local matches so that you can decide what is the most common or most recommended gun to get. Talking to shooters at the competition will give you a good idea, but it's ideal to get several opinions before you make a decision on not only what to compete in, but what to compete with. Several companies make handgun models that are competition oriented by using match-grade (very high quality and accuracy-increasing) components, triggers, and target sights. Most companies also make handgun models specifically designed to be used in certain specific competitions. An example is the Glock 34 and 35 created to allow shooters to compete in IDPA matches while still utilizing a longer barrel. Most 1911 manufacturers (Kimber, Springfield , Para-Ordnance, STI, etc.) sell multiple target or competition models. Competition isn't limited to pistols. There are cowboy action competitions where you can only use single-action "cowboy" revolvers, particularly like those that Ruger and Colt make so well. A good way to get a general pistol is to pick up a full-size semi-automatic pistol from a reputable manufacturer in a very common caliber, particularly 9mm, .40S&W or .45ACP. This will allow you to do target shooting, home defense, and also competition. Most competition organizations and series' have "STOCK" categories designed for shooters both novice and advanced. Glock is especially prolific and advantageous, as they have a whole shooting society, the Glock Sport Shooting Federation (GSSF), dedicated to them. The GSSF holds their own competitions all over the US . Additionally, Glocks are usable in almost every competition series, from IDPA to USPSA, Bianchi Cup and IPSC.
This is the category where you will see more usage of less common types of handguns, like single-shot break action, bolt action, or single-shot rotary-breech handguns. Calibers in this category are often varied and contain calibers that are atypical handgun calibers. Many of these handguns shoot rifle calibers, making them very versatile as short to mid-range hunting guns. Additionally, this is the category where you see the heavy revolvers that shoot loads like the .454 Casull, .460 S&W, .480 Ruger and .475Linebaugh and .500S&W. The Desert Eagle is most commonly used as a novelty pistol, but it is often used as a hunting pistol due to chambering popular hunting calibers like the .357 Magnum and .44 Magnum, in addition to the popular .50AE cartridge. The single shot and bolt action handguns are often equipped with scopes. Revolvers are occasionally so equipped as well. These heavy pistols are geared towards medium to large-sized game hunting. Additionally, the heavy revolvers are often carried for personal defense while hunting, hiking or doing other activities in the wilderness where bears, mountain lions, wolves and moose (seriously) are a very real threat. The revolvers are designed for hunting at 100yds or less, but typically employed at ranges less than 50yds. The single-shot handguns that are chambered in rifle calibers are typically used at ranges of 200yds or less, but can extend to much longer ranges depending upon the shooter and type of optics being used. Also in this category are the .22LR pistols again. They are used for shooting small game like squirrels, rabbits, raccoons or other varmints. This category is often very fun, and great for the kids. Each state has their own requirements, so check to make sure that the caliber you want to use is legal for the game you wish to pursue. Additionally, states have regulations on types of firearms, minimum barrel lengths, and types of optics or sighting aids that can be used, so be sure to do your homework before you drop $1k on that Smith&Wesson X-frame revolver. This also applies to trying to use your snubby .38 or your Sig P239 to pop a deer in the woods. Not all guns may be legal to use.
Duty and Tactical handguns are similar to defense pistols that you would optimally use in home defense situations. The main requirements for duty and tactical handguns are common combat-capable calibers, which are auto calibers like the 9x19mm, .40S&W, and the .45ACP. Very rarely will you see police, government, security or military agencies stray from these calibers. The 9mm itself is the most common caliber used worldwide. Other agencies may use calibers that are slightly less common like the .45GAP or the .357Sig, and outside the US you may see some groups use various forms of the 9mm, whether it be the 9x18mm Makarov or the .380ACP (9x17mm/9mm Kurz). Regardless of caliber, a good duty or tactical gun must have proper tactical sights that can be used in daylight or low light/nighttime. The gun must be capable of holding a detachable magazine for rapid reloading and speed of cyclic firing rate. The gun should ideally have an equipment rail for tactical lights or aiming devices (LASERs, IR, etc), but it isn't necessarily a deal-breaker. The gun should ideally also be devoid of porting or compensators. Flashes coming from porting can destroy night vision. Some tactical pistols will be ported, but often times the flash is countered by the use of Law Enforcement or defense ammunition that is low-flash. A proper barrel length should be between 4" and 5.5". Guns longer than 5.5" tend to be hard to wield and maneuver with, while barrels shorter than 4" have more muzzle flip and are harder to control and accurately shoot during rapid fire. Most polymer-frame duty or tactical guns actually range between 4" and 4.5" in barrel length, while the 1911 class of pistols will have the longer 5" or 5.5" barrels. Some companies, like Heckler & Koch and Glock have actually made guns that are specifically built for tactical usage, like the H&K USP Tactical and Mk23 SOCOM or the Glock 34 or 35 models. While these guns are good for duty use, they excel at tactical usage where more discriminating accuracy and higher controllability are needed. Dedicated tactical pistols usually have longer barrels and higher magazine capacities. Police, Government and military agencies typically use their duty weapons as their tactical/SWAT handguns. Only in dedicated SWAT/ERU/SRT/Special Operations teams do they employ mission-specific tactical guns. Currently, Glock owns more than 60% of the market share of police duty weapons due to ease of use, high reliability, accuracy, outstanding resilience and durability, cost-effectiveness, and high magazine capacity. These are all attributes a duty or tactical pistol should have. The ultimate characteristic is always reliability, which is a non-negotiable necessity in this field. Knock-off handguns like the S&W Sigma series SW9V and SW40V or the Taurus PT series are basically excluded from being used in tactical or duty usage because they do not have the proven track record of testing and reliability that brands like Glock, Sig Sauer, Springfield and H&K do. There can be no compromise when it comes to proven reliability.
Typically, you will only see pistols in this category. Most agencies have phased out revolvers. You will rarely see revolvers in use by any US agencies. The only times you see them in use are when the officers/agents are required to purchase their own weapon. No major department issues a revolver within the US anymore due to low magazine capacity, slow reload times, slow cyclic firing speeds, and inadequate accuracy at rapid fire.
Type of Handgun
Now that you know what you want to use your handgun for, you can advance onto the next decision, which is what type of handgun that you want to buy. Which handgun you buy will then be able to help you narrow down the caliber and type of ammunition that you will use. Revolvers and semi-autos have different types of ammunition. You will be able to narrow your choice down by deciding which way to go with your selection.
Remember that with handguns, what you pay for is typically what you get. You don't have to shell out loads of money in order to get a great handgun, but shelling out only a small amount will render consequences of frustration and unreliability.
Caliber and Ammunition
Now we come to the nitty-gritty of the everlong debate. Your decision for what caliber weapon to get is directly influenced by what you will use the weapon for. Often times, when people inquire about which caliber they should get, they always compare a few similar calibers like the .40S&W and the 9x19mm with something odd and out there, like the .22LR or a 9x25mm or a greater nonsequitor like a .454 Casull. The answer to the caliber question is that you ultimately need to shoot what you feel comfortable shooting, and what you feel comfortable buying or reloading.
It's not uncommon to feel overwhelmed when trying to decide what caliber to go with. Ultimately, it depends on what the gun is for, as well as how many you already have. If you're buying a handgun for the first time, it is advisable to buy a common caliber, like the 9/.40/.45 triad, or a .38 Special or .357 Magnum revolver (.357 Magnum chambered revolvers have the added bonus of being able to shoot .38 Special; .38s cannot shoot .357s). These calibers are extremely easy to find, and there is the widest array of options for available handguns. People who want target calibers will tend to go towards 9mm, while defense usage tends to sway people towards heavier calibers like the .40 and .45.
Caliber selection does not necessarily dictate mandatory usage, but it can help. To make a similarity to a famous quote by Enzo Ferrari, "aerodynamics are for people who can't build engines", so too is it true that big calibers tend to be very helpful to people who can't make good shots. They reduce the margin of error. A hit on someone's arm with a 230gr .45ACP will do far more than the same shot with a 90gr .380ACP.
Caliber availability is a huge factor in any purchase. In today's market, you cannot count on every caliber to be available when you want it too. Common calibers like The Triad can be found almost anywhere. .380ACP, .357Sig, .45GAP and other uncommon calibers are rare and significantly more expensive. If you want something to shoot a lot, and you have a limited cash supply, it is advisable to avoid uncommon or exotic calibers. .40S&W ammo is going for around $18/box of 50. 10mm Auto ammo is going for $32/box of 50. That's just one example of many.
Caliber usage is also dictated in duty, tactical and competition usage by rules and regulations. Duty and Tactical handguns are typically all the same caliber within a specific agency. Rarely will you have deviations in major agencies. Smaller agencies are sometimes different and have lesser standards. Competition rules will often dictate which calibers may be used, or more specifically, which ones CANNOT. Caliber is also dictated by laws when hunting. Many states have minimum caliber restrictions, or very regulated caliber guidelines.
Ultimately, the real truth is that there's no "all-in-one" caliber. But also, as you can tell, "The Triad" of the 9mm, .40S&W and .45ACP are by far the most typical and readily available calibers. With them, you cannot go wrong.
The type of ammunition you use will also be dictated by purpose. For target shooting, most people will use a standard full metal jacket (FMJ) bullet. Tactical, duty, hunting and carry usage necessitates the use of expanding bullets. Most expanding bullets are jacketed hollowpoints (JHP), while some companies like Federal Ammunition make an expanding full metal jacket (EFMJ). Revolver calibers sometimes have a semi-jacketed bullet with an exposed lead nose, but this type of bullet is made specifically for hunting or target shooting. The use of JHP bullets is standard throughout the US for all non-target (and sometimes including target) usage. JHP bullets include Hornady XTP, Federal Hi-Shok, Federal Hydra-Shok, Federal HST (Hydra-Shok Two), Winchester Ranger SXT, Winchester Silvertip, Speer Gold Dot, Remington Golden Sabre, and several others. The most commonly used bullets are those that are also favored by Law Enforcement and Government Agencies. In the world of ammunition and bullet technology, the industry is heavily influenced by what the Police use. Everyone wants to use what the Pros use. Law Enforcement agencies primarily use Federal Hydra-Shok, Federal HST or Speer Gold Dot. As a result of this, Federal Hydra-Shoks and Speer Gold Dots are the best selling JHP rounds on the market. The Federal HST ammunition is still only available to Law Enforcement, although some of it has leaked out to the civilian market. Eventually, the HST will completely replace the Hydra-Shok. Through testing, I can tell you that the Hydra-Shok, HST and Gold Dot are the most reliable bullets with the most rapid expansion. Hornady's XTP bullets are also able to quickly expand, but they have been known to over penetrate, making them fantastically ideal for big game hunting.
Another point of controversy is the fable of the Winchester Black Talons. In the 1990s, Winchester entered into the JHP market with their offering: Black Talons. The bullets were just standard JHP bullets with similar performance to the Federal Hydra-Shoks (also available at the time), but were black in color due to an oxide process known as Lubalox. Lubalox was just a coating to protect the bullet from corrosion and make it leave less fouling in the barrel, similar to moly-coated bullets. Black Talons were touted as being "cop killer" bullets, and able to penetrate body armor. The reality was that they were no more effective than other commercially available hollowpoints. They were a danger to paramedics, because the copper jacketing could cut latex paramedic gloves when they handled the bullets from the victims. Again, this is also a threat by any other expanding bullet. So, to cure the controversy, Winchester took off the Lubalox coating and renamed the bullet. The Black Talons still exist, but they're called the Ranger SXT. It's the EXACT SAME THING. Seriously.
An After Thought:
I was standing in a local gun shop and range a while back, and there was a guy talking to one of the salesmen. The customer was asking questions about caliber, and was throwing out classic comments like "my buddy swears by his .45" and ".40S&W is what cops use". The salesman was sharing opinions, and the customer was basically eating up everything the salesman was saying. The salesman wasn't wrong, but he obviously knew the customer knew absolutely nothing about what he was talking about. The customer would have believed everything. The salesman then said, "bullet size doesn't really mean anything. If you shoot someone in the head or center mass, it doesn't matter what caliber you use-they'll be dead". The customer then of course replied by saying "oh yeah, I TOTALLY say the same thing.". I couldn't help but go .
It makes an interesting point though- ultimately, the caliber argument is always trumped by high training and good accuracy. But to say that caliber selection is useless and that a .380ACP is just as deadly as a .45ACP is a fallacy. One produces several times more hydrostatic shock than the other smaller caliber. One weighs almost 3x as much. It's not a moot argument, especially considering that most people don't know how to properly shoot in defense situations. According to FBI statistics, the average shooter can hit 1:35 shots. The average trained shooter, like Police and competition (IDPA, IPSC, etc.) shooters will hit 1:7 shots. So ultimately, always understand that there is no one factor that will nullify another factor. Ever.
Thanks Again for Reading, and may you always put two in the heart and one in the head.
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Last edited by Reedo302; 09-17-2009 at 01:49 PM.