There’s a buddy of mine that has been on the fence about getting a gun, but slowly he’s coming to the conclusion that owning a gun would be a wise decision towards the ability to protect his home and his family. Between that, some other people coming to me for advice on “getting starting” with firearms, and noticing a great many people come across my blog because they are searching for the best gun, or the best 9mm handgun, best pistol, or the best defensive gun, good defensive home guns, or whatever combination of search terms… I figured it might be useful to have a posting discussing this topic.
The first question you have to ask is what you want the firearm for? Is this for home defense? Personal defense? Plinking? Target shooting? Hunting? Competition? Firearms are merely tools and there’s a wide variety of tools because there’s a wide variety of applications. You don’t use a screwdriver to pound in a nail (you can, but it’s not effective or efficient), and even if you’re twisting a screw do you need a long shaft or short one? flathead? phillips? torx? hex? then there are various sizes of those heads. Various tools available for the task, and you’ll accomplish the task more readily if you choose the right tool for the job. So understand what your end goal is and let that start you in the right direction. For the remainder of this article I’m going to be tilted towards defensive firearm use, but the details apply to any sort of firearm selection.
Once you know what direction you wish to go, my recommendation would be to research and take your time in doing so. The Internet is a great resource for finding out about things, but it can also be rife with a lot of bad advice or outdated information, or can just be flat out confusing; it can be tough to sort the wheat from the chaff. This is why I suggest you take your time in researching. Come to know the sources providing the information. Does the source have an agenda or bias? For instance, it’s difficult to accept the opinion of a gun magazine writer because it’s difficult for them to be critical of a product when they need to go to that product’s manufacturer for advertising revenue. How critical can you speak of the one you’re asking for money? That doesn’t mean their opinion is worthless, just that you have to understand where they are coming from. Same goes for asking the guys behind the counter at the gun store as they’ve got a product to sell. Furthermore, you have to be mindful of subtle bias, such as gender bias.
When you are researching, what should you keep in mind and look for? At first I would say to obtain a general knowledge. Learn about the various firearms manufacturers. Learn what products are available. Go to a local store and just look around at everything. Leave your wallet at home and make no move to purchase anything, just soak up information. What you want to establish for yourself is a base of knowledge. Learn the lingo. Spend time listening. Ask questions. Seek out as much knowledge and information as you can. As you do this, you might also consider taking an introductory firearms class which can provide you with solid foundational information.
After you’ve gained a basic familiarity, you’ll start to be forming some idea of exactly where you want to go and what tools you like and could meet your goal. All too often at this stage the wrong questions get asked. For instance, if you’re looking for a defensive handgun, people start to look for “the best defensive handgun caliber”. While caliber is important, it’s not the most important thing. No matter what sort of gun you want or goal you have in mind, gun fit is so important. Having the biggest most badass gun doesn’t matter if you can’t hold and shoot the gun well. KR Training has a great write-up on criteria for choosing a first handgun.
I want to avoid giving a specific suggestion because what works for me may not work for you. Nevertheless, people want to know what I personally recommend, so I’ll provide that with this caveat: the following is what currently works for me for my needs for my context for my situation. I like 9mm handguns. That doesn’t mean I don’t like other handguns, but for my personal defensive situation the Springfield XD-9 works just fine. When I was first selecting the handgun, I went down the wrong road: wanted a small, lightweight, not too expensive handgun… it read like something exactly out of KR’s writeup. After following the better advice laid out in the article, I wound up in a much better end selection. Save yourself the trouble folks and heed that article. As for a home defensive tool, I’ve written an article series on that topic and can just direct you there for more on that topic.
I should also say that you should not be afraid to accept that you may make the wrong selection. I did at first. If you make a purchase and determine it’s not right, you can always learn from your mistake and make a better choice next time. You can resell your used firearm through online venues or sell it back to a gun store or to a private purchaser; there are many possibilities. Or you can just keep the one and use it for other means. For instance, my first purchase was a subcompact pistol, which for various reasons really wasn’t the best way to start out. I have kept that gun and it has found a place, tho it certainly spends more time locked away than being used.
Try Before You Buy
This is another good argument for seeking out a fundamental training class. One thing I like about KR Training’s offerings is their Basic Pistol 1 class. It’s more than just the NRA Basic Pistol class, it’s a buffet! A great number of handguns are brought out: different makes, models, actions, calibers, sizes, shapes. It allows you the opportunity to not just learn foundational skills, but to also try out a great many handguns. This allows you to determine what you might like, don’t like, what fits you, what does not fit you, why tiny high-powered guns (e.g., subcompacts in .40 S&W) aren’t the best choice for beginners, etc.. It’s a great value for the money. Being able to try before you buy can be a great help. Also check the local gun ranges in your area to see if they rent guns. Sometimes rentals can be expensive (lane fee, rental fee, buying their ammo, etc.), but they can still be a useful avenue for obtaining hands-on information. If nothing else, you can always “fondle” various guns at the store. While this isn’t the best avenue since you can’t get a feel for how the gun fires, it’s better than nothing. Just holding a gun at the gun shop can determine some basic things like if the gun fits you and how the gun feels in your hands. For me, all I had to do was hold a Glock to realize I didn’t like them.
While it’s not difficult to basically operate a firearm, there is learning about safety and there is a greater bit of learning towards how to operate the firearm effectively. No matter your reason for owning a firearm, you do yourself a greater service by obtaining the training necessary to operate that firearm. It doesn’t matter if you’re wanting the firearm for defensive shooting, target shooting, sports, hunting, whatever…. there is training available and recommended to take. Just owning a gun does not mean you can use the gun. Just getting some basic pointers from a friend does not mean you can really handle it. Seek out training. Seek out different instructors. Learn all that you can. We are always served better in life the more education we have, and firearms are no different.
There are a great many factors that go in to selecting a gun, from the goal to the fit to the training. Take your time, do your homework, and get educated both before and after the purchase. Education will serve you best.
Update: Ladies (even gentlemen), Kellene Bishop chimes in with her take on selecting your first gun.