As edited by Jim Stouffer – Instructor

This article was originally written by Sid Weedon (www.sightm1911.com) to address issues regarding purchasing a handgun for personal protection.  With his permission, I have edited his article for general use.  His original article is posted on the ‘Kentucky Coalition To Carry Concealed’ website www.kc3.com

Either a revolver or a semi-automatic may be used in basic pistol training.  When selecting a pistol, you must ask yourself several questions.

  1. What is the intended use of the pistol? Single use or multi-use?  Will it be for target shooting, competitive shooting, personal protection, hunting etc?
  2. Should it have fixed or adjustable sights or maybe night sights?
  3. What caliber and barrel length will serve my needs?
  4. What size and weight is comfortable for me?
  5. Proper grip size is most important, the pistol MUST fit your hand to shoot accurately.  The index (trigger finger) must contact the trigger on the pad of the finger tip, no deeper than the first joint.

A good gun for learning the fundamentals of pistol shooting is a 22 caliber target pistol.  The fundamentals are the same regardless of caliber, and the 22 cal . offers many advantages.  It make less noise and has less recoil than larger calibers. Ammunition is less expensive, and can be purchased in any gun store. Most name brand 22 target pistols are very accurate.

Types and Sizes: Pros and Cons

Small Frame Pistols

Most little guns are unpleasant to shoot.  Being very light and having small grips, their muzzle flip is very bad.  After a few rounds your hand may begin to hurt.  Shoot a competitive match or take a training class that requires a lot of rounds to be fired with one of these pocket guns?  Forget it.  If you don’t learn to use it, how much good is it going to do you when the chips are down?  In this group, (although they are great little guns) I would include the small Berettas, S&W Airweight snubnose revolvers, Seecamp .32’s, Kahr’s and various derringers.  There is a place for these pistols, when deep concealment is an issue, however you MUST practice to become proficient with them.

Medium Frame Revolvers

Even though medium frame revolvers have been around for 165 years, they remain an excellent choice.  These pistols are simple to use and accurate.  They can handle hot loads and larger bullets making them effective personal defense weapons as well as good target shooters.  Examples of this class of pistol are the Ruger GP Series and the S&W Model 66. The ideal revolver would have a 3″ to 4″ barrel, a six-round cylinder, and a grip that fits your hand.  The biggest drawback of these pistols is the speed of reloading, but with practice, a revolver can be reloaded as quickly as an autoloader.

Medium Frame Auto Pistols

The overwhelming majority of professional trainers, operators, law enforcement and military people prefer medium to large framed autoloading pistols.  These pistols have the best combination of speed, firepower, accuracy, and power.  These pistols will generally load 8-10 rounds in their magazines (or more if you can find the older pre-ban high capacity magazines), have full-length grips, and 3.5″ or longer barrels.  These guns tend to have adequate accuracy, power, and large enough grips to be comfortable.  Examples of this type of pistol would be the Glock 17, 19, 21 and 22, the Smith & Wesson 39xx, 59xx, and 69xx series, the Sig Sauer 22x series, the H&K USP and P7, the Kimber ProCarry and Compact, the Springfield Champion, Para-Ordnance P12, Springfield XD series and many others.

Large Frame Pistols and Revolvers

Big pistols shoot more accurately, absorb more recoil, and develop greater muzzle velocity due to their longer barrels.  I would include in this group the Beretta 92, the Colt Government Model M1911 (and clones), The N Frame Smith & Wesson revolvers, Colt Python, Anaconda and their copies.  Characteristically, these guns have 5″ barrels and weigh 36 oz. or more.  The biggest drawback of these pistols is their weight.  They get heavy and small framed people may have difficulty handling them and as far as concealed carry goes, they don’t conceal well.

Autoloader Action Types

There are four types of actions around which semi-auto pistols are built.  It’s important to understand the differences:

Single Action –an example is: M1911 Colt .45 ACP Browning Hi-Power 9mm

This is the oldest autoloader design still in service, designed during the period between 1905 and 1911.  The hammer must be cocked, generally by racking the slide, for the gun to fire.  This design in .45 ACP, .40 S&W and .38 Super is favored by competitive shooters, FBI SWAT, FBI Hostage Rescue Team, and many special forces units because it has the best trigger, outstanding accuracy and is very fast.  For the gun to be carried in a state of readiness, the hammer must be cocked and the manual safety applied, “cocked and locked” This looks scary and is not recommended for novices or those suffering from attention deficit disorder.

Double Action/Single Action – examples are: (Armed Forces M9), most Smith & Wesson autos, SIG, Walther, and some Rugers.

This has been the standard design for most autos for the last 50 years.  These pistols are cocked by the first trigger pull, but subsequent shots are cocked by the action of the slide cycling back. Consequently, the first trigger pull is long and harder (Double Action) since it is also cocking the hammer.  Subsequent trigger pulls are easy (Single Action) since the hammer is already cocked.  These guns have an external safety lever which puts the gun on safe and de-cocks the hammer.  This is generally thought to be the safest design since the long, heavy first trigger pull and the external safety which blocks the firing pin tend to prevent accidental discharges.  The criticism of this design is that it forces the shooter to learn two different trigger pulls and accuracy often suffers on the first double action shot. Most accidental discharges with these sorts of pistols are the result of the shooter forgetting to de-cock the hammer.

Double Action/Single Action with De-Cocker Only –example is: Ruger and SIG

This is a variant of the DA/SA which is used by Ruger and SIG.  It functions just like a DA/SA except the “safety” lever is not a safety.  It only de-cocks the hammer, but the gun will still fire when the de-cocker is applied and the trigger is pulled.  I personally do not like this design since the de-cocker looks just like a safety lever but does not put the gun on safe.

Double Action Only – Glock, Smith & Wesson Sigma, some Berettas, some Rugers, Kahr, Kel-Tec, and others.

This is the newest action design made popular by Glock.  With these pistols every trigger pull is the same and they have no external safety or decocking levers.  The hammers are not cocked by the cycling of the slide (except for the Glocks which are pre-cocked by the slide cycle, and are not true double action).  DAO pistols depend on the long double action trigger pull to prevent accidental discharges.  In a sense these are autoloaders which fire like revolvers.  Triggers vary from model to model. Some, like the Glocks, have very light triggers.  Other DAO triggers can be quite heavy and long, and can be very unpleasant to shoot.  The advantage of this action is its simplicity and the fact that every trigger pull is the same.

Calibers and Power

In descending order of power here are the most common calibers of pistols, the .45 ACP, the .357 Magnum, the .40 S&W, the .44 Special and the 9mm., the .38 Special and the .380 ACP lastly the 22 caliber.

The Selection Process

Don’t be in a rush to buy the first gun you see.  Give it a lot of thought. Ideally, shoot as many pistols as you can before you make a decision.  Some gun ranges have pistols you can rent to see how they feel.  If you have friends who own pistols, go shooting with them. Most will be happy to let you shoot their guns and share with you their experiences with them.

Be careful about the advice of clerks at gun stores.  Some are very knowledgeable but many others are total idiots.  Just because someone works at a gun store doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she is an expert on pistols.  They will all offer an opinion, whether they actually know anything about the matter or not.

I would also maintain a healthy degree of skepticism toward articles in popular gun magazines.  They don’t make money by trashing the offerings of their advertisers. I have never seen a bad review in a gun magazine.

Your physical strength and conditioning may also be a factor, i.e., powerful auto pistols tend to function better for people with strong arms and hands.  How much time do you have to devote to practice?  As a rule of thumb, autos require more training than revolvers, so don’t pick a single-action .45 auto if you’re not willing to learn to use it.

As important as any other single factor is the size and geometry of your hand.  Hand size varies greatly between people and it is very important to handle a gun and note carefully the comfort of the grip and the position of the controls on the pistol.  If you can’t easily manipulate every control on the gun with either hand, then find a different gun.  People with short thumbs may have trouble with the safety of an M1911.  People with short palms may have difficulty with the thick handles of the double-stack 9mm and .40 pistols.  People with meaty hands may be “bitten” by the slide of a small auto when it cycles.

Ask yourself these questions:  Does the gun feel good in your hand?  Is the trigger smooth or is it rough and heavy?  Does the gun have the right balance of power, weight and size. In other words, does it feel good in your hand?

Price?

It isn’t good to make a decision on a handgun based on price.  No one wants to pay more than we have to or what is fair, but price should be the last consideration.  You won’t remember a hundred or so dollars extra you paid for the right pistol, but you will remember the ill-fitting bargain pistol that doesn’t shoot right or feel good.

Summarization:

What is the intended use of the pistol?  Single use or multi-use?  Will it be for target shooting, competitive shooting, personal protection, hunting etc?  Should it have fixed or adjustable sights or maybe night sights?  What caliber and barrel length will serve your needs?  What size and weight is comfortable for you?  Length of trigger pull, proper grip size and distance from trigger to grip is most important, the pistol MUST fit your hand to shoot accurately.  Hold it, feel it, fire it if you can, and recognize that you’re going to spend a lot of time with the pistol.  Remember also, that if you are buying for personal protection, it may be called upon someday to defend your life.

If you find that you enjoy the shooting sports you may end up buying not only one, but two or three pistols, each for a specific purpose.  It may be difficult to decide which pistol to buy, however, it is a most enjoyable experience.