Tuesday, March 13, 2012
- Buying That First Handgun
I was at the range this weekend with a friend who is thinking about buying his first handgun. He's shot my PX4 .45, and my wife's XD9, but he had it in his head that he'd prefer to buy a smaller gun that would better fit his hand.
Deciding on a pistol is a very complicated thing - much more complicated than deciding on a shotgun. And while I can't possibly solve this problem for my friend, I thought I'd toss out a few considerations just to help him (and whoever else) along a bit. Rather than make his choices, I'm just trying to lay out the dimensions of the trade-offs he'll inevitably have to consider. But first, a caveat.
There is something about the firearms community which breeds "know it all's"... I don't know why. You'll meet lots of people who will tell you that "this gun is better than that gun" or "Anyone who doesn't buy X is an idiot".
I hate those guys.
The truth is, firearms selection is about trade-offs, and no one knows the trade-offs you're willing to make better than you do. Once you are well informed enough to understand what you're getting vs. what you're giving up, only you can decide what will be 'the right gun' for you.
With that said, popular guns - that is to say, popular models and popular calibers - are all popular for a reason. That's where most people have decided that the best value is. The Glock 17 in 9mm Luger is America's most popular handgun. Unless there is something about you that is very unusual, that's probably a good place to start. In the end though, selecting a handgun is your choice, and that choice has to reflect your concerns not someone else.
Like most things firearm related, the first thing you should decide is what you're going to do with it. If you're going to shoot it occasionally for fun that one issue. Maybe it means you don't want to spend too much. If you're going to get into competitive shooting it's another where cost should be a secondary concern to accuracy. If you plan on leaving it in your bedside table and almost never shooting it that's another consideration, and might send you to a revolver instead of an automatic. These are just a few of the things you should consider first.
But there are other considerations too. A small gun is better for concealed carry, but a small gun is usually also a smaller caliber so it won't have much in the way of stopping power. A smaller gun with a larger bullet solves the concealment and stopping power issues, but it does it at the cost of recoil - which means a gun that's potentially painful to shoot, and therefore difficult to shoot well. A gun with some rare European caliber might be that unique solution to your ballistics concerns, but the bullets might be so expensive that you can never afford to shoot it. A small gun with a common small caliber bullet might 'fit' you better, but there are small guns which are much more painful to shoot than larger ones because they weigh so little.
The point is, there are tradeoffs. It's a very subjective decision to weigh the various issues to meet your personal needs. Don't believe the guy that says he knows 'exactly' what's best for you, and never trust the opinion of the salesman on the other side of the counter. Gather as much information as you can first, and then make up your own mind. But toward that end, here are some things I think will serve as broad guidelines to help you understand the scope of your decision.
They say the second scariest sound in the world is the sound of a gun going off, and the scariest sound in the world is the sound of a gun 'not' going off. So the most important consideration when it comes to a home defense handgun is that it is highly reliable and goes BANG when you want it to. You want nothing in its design or manufacture that will reduce the odds of that happening.
Many people lean toward revolvers in a home defense handgun for just that reason. Semi-auto's have springs which will compress over time, eventually making them less reliable without proper maintenance. A revolver though, is a proven design that is well known for its long term reliability. It's perfectly suited to sit in a drawer untouched for as long as you need it to, and be as reliable as the day it was made when you do.
I've heard people ask "Well a revolver only holds 5 or 6 rounds... what if I need more?" It seems to me that if someone is so determined to attack you that they're willing to ignore the first 5 shots and keep coming, I'm not sure a gun is going to solve your problem. At the very least you should be shooting a shotgun at them, which is my preferred home defense firearm anyway. But if that really is a concern with a revolver... that's why god made speed loaders.
A home defense gun is something you should be competent and comfortable shooting. Within that limit though, I am of the opinion that bigger is almost always better for home defense. If I knew I didn't have to worry about the weight of carrying the gun around all the time I'd go with a caliber that has as much 'stopping power' as I could shoot well and manage effectively. (This is a highly controversial opinion with many dimensions in itself, which I will bring up again below.)
What 'stopping power' refers to is broadly related to caliber. As a general rule a bullet with a large cross section will have more 'stopping power' than a bullet with a small one, which may have higher overall energy but go right through. A .44 or .45 caliber would usually (but not always) deliver more stopping power than a .38 or .380. But it doesn't mean anything if you don't hit what you're shooting.
So the second consideration with a home defense gun, although it's a very very close second, is that you be able to practice with it often enough to be able to shoot it well. By far the most important factor in any shooting situation is where you put the bullet - more important that the size of the bullet your shooting. A little .22 rim fire in the spine will debilitate an intruder much better than a 44 magnum in the elbow. So be prepared to practice enough to become a competent shooter with that particular gun.
Pistol shooting is much more difficult than the non-shooter ever imagines. They see Bruce Willis, with his car in a power slide, shooting out the passenger window and knocking the gun out of the hand of the man on the top of the bell tower 1/4 mile away, and think that it's easy to hit what you aim at. Nothing could be further from the truth. I've seen a number of brand new shooters empty entire magazines into a 2 foot wide target 7 paces away and miss with every shot. If my life were on the line against an armed intruder, I'd want to do better than that.
A Concealed Carry Gun:
NJ is a state which has a procedural ban on concealed carry of firearms, so there are probably better people to get advice on this issue than me. But I do know a number of policemen who never go unarmed, so let me relate a few of their concerns. The very first thing they complain about is weight. A big heavy gun is a pain to carry and it's difficult to properly conceal. the fact of the matter is, if it's too uncomfortable you will find excuses not to bring the gun with you, and when you need it ... it won't be there. So a small and light gun is better for concealed carry. But if a circumstance arises that you need it to protect yourself, the threat will already be VERY close to you. That makes an issue like 'stopping power' important, which points you back toward a bigger firearm.
Gun makers have put some thought into this conundrum and have recently come up with a new class of firearm which seems to be an excellent trade-off for many people struggling to solve it. In recent years we've seen a dramatic rise in the popularity of a class of guns called the "ultra-compact 9mm". These are guns that fire a full sized 9mm Luger cartridge, but are thin enough, small enough, and light enough to easily conceal. Kahr, Kel-Tec, Beretta, Sig Sauer, Ruger and others all have guns in this class.
There are a great many people that will tell you that a 9mm Luger isn't big enough for a self defense situation. That may be true, but the claim is highly debated. The military and FBI have invested huge energy into researching the issue, but the bulk of the results remain inconclusive. We do know that a .44 magnum will have better 'stopping power' than a .22 rim fire, but much more depends on shot placement, bullet type (either hollow point or FMJ) and other specifics of the situation.
So a balance must be struck between bullet size where generally larger is better, and firearm size where generally smaller and lighter is easier to conceal. The popularity of the ultra-compact 9mm's leads me to believe that these are a good starting point. Be aware though, while there are small difference between one make and another, as a rule these small 9mm's are not guns which are particularly comfortable to shoot. They are high powered and light which means they have comparatively high felt recoil.
My personal favorite in this bunch is the Diamondback DB9. It's not the best known gun or the best looking, but it's the lightest, the thinnest, and is also the only one which will fit into the hip pocket of my Levi's 501's. Because of its very light weight It's harder to shoot than many of the others, but I'm a little more recoil tolerant than most so it fits the bill for me. I don't think it would be a good first choice for a novice relative to the others above.
With that said though, a concealed carry pistol is a very subjective thing so you really need to make the call on your own. Look yourself. Do your research. And then the next time you're in Florida or Texas, or Pennsylvania (or another state which allows such things) go to a gun range to rent one to see how it feels to you.
An "All of the Above" gun:
This is such a broad topic that it's almost difficult to discuss it rationally, let along help you decide on a gun. But there are a few issues I haven't mentioned which add dimensions to your choice, and you might want to consider if you want one gun to do all everything with.
For starters, those small guns while good for concealment, are not 'range guns'. Even for people with lots of experience they can be painful to shoot. Most have double action triggers which are safer to carry but make them too inaccurate for competitive shooting. And to be honest, most simply aren't designed to be reliable after shooting tens of thousands of rounds at the range. Many have parts that need to be replaced after just a few thousand rounds, and a frequent shooter can go through that much in a few months. So to do 'all of the above' you'll probably want a full sized firearm. It can still be smaller - there are compact version of full sized guns that will work. But in my opinion, the ultra-compacts are really a specialty item.
Going with a full sized handgun opens up the calibers a bit too, but the more you shoot, the more the cost of ammo will matter to you. There is an axiom that a resistance movement should shoot the weapons of its enemy because when you need ammo, it's just lying around on the ground next to the dead guys. There is a similar dynamic with regard to ammo cost. With rifle cartridges it's a general rule that the bigger it is, the more it costs. While that's generally true with regard to pistols as well, it's not an absolute rule. A .380 cartridge is smaller than a 9mm Luger, but costs considerably more. A .30RF is so rare you need to buy them by the individual bullet and are usually available only at gun shows.
If ammo cost is a concern, then there is nothing cheaper than a 22RF. But that's such a small caliber that it really isn't appropriate for any kind of self defense or home defense situation. It's great for target practice - particularly with someone who is just learning to shoot. But as an "all of the above" solution, I don't think it really works. The 9mm Luger is in the middle of the range of pistol calibers. It's the most popular pistol caliber in the country and the favorite of our military, so for an 'all in' solution, I think it's probably the best place to start.
There are other design issues too. There is the revolver/semi-auto debate of course, but there is also 'double action' vs. 'single action' trigger which I mentioned briefly above.
A double action trigger is one that pulls the hammer back as you squeeze, eventually reaching the point where it's released and the bullet is fired. This is safer to have in your pocket, but it's harder to shoot accurately. A single action trigger is more precise and need less 'squeezing', but all other safety issues being equal, it's generally considered to be less safe. There are even some guns (like my PX4 for instance) which are 'double action' on the first shot, and 'single action' with each subsequent shot. I like that solution, but since it involves learning to expect a your trigger to behave differently after the first shot, there are reasons for the novice to avoid this as well.
All of these thoughts as well as the safety style (Glock style, side switch, half cock hammers, or some combination of the above) all need to be considered. The variations are countless and beyond the scope of this piece. But a little research will show you literally thousands of articles which weight the benefits and liabilities of each of them. Google is your friend.
And although I believe this should be subordinate to any issues of function, there is a question of aesthetics. A red car drives the same as a white one, but it can make a very different impression on others. It may make you feel different driving it. There is nothing wrong with preferring one gun over another simply because of how it looks. I personally think you should decide on functionality first (I think most people would agree) , but having resolved those issues there is really no reason why you can't buy a nice shiny stainless steel version of the gun you like over a simply matte black version if you are willing to pay for it. Don't make it a first concern, but you should like the way your gun looks if that makes you feel better about shooting it. There is nothing to be embarrassed about in that regard.
The truth is, buying a handgun is like buying a pair of shoes. There are so many issues to consider that it's not really possible for someone else to do it for you. But I think the issues I raise here will give you an idea of the various dimensions of your decision. Bigger is better, except when it's worse. Smaller is better, unless it isn't. Looser is cheaper or more reliable, but less accurate. More accurate can be costly, and maybe more finicky. It really depends on you. You don't want to be the one to show up at the wedding in your work boots or at the marathon starting line in something made of patent leather. Decide what you'll be doing with it first, and go from there.