Saturday, February 11, 2012

Handgun Selection: Overview

I am posting this advice as I have been asked by several people in recent weeks for advice on purchasing their first firearm. The reader should assume there is always more detail and information available than what is contained in this post—I am going to try and keep this as short and to the point as possible but it is a lot of information.

Anyone interesting in getting introduced to firearms should take classes from a qualified instructor. The local gun shop can be a great resource and the NRA is also be helpful.

If there was ever a time in the history of the United States to own a gun it is today. Right now. The idea that a weapon will be made available to you, in the event of emergency, and you’ll be able to use it is limited to Hollywood movies and fiction. The threats to our Second Amendment rights are numerous and growing.

The handgun (pistol) is the most versatile self-defense (SD) weapon available. If you can only own one gun, or are getting into guns because you want a SD weapon, the handgun should be first on your list. By no means should you stop with handguns either, but this post will deal only with handgun selection and it will be limited to semi-automatic handguns as they are the most capable for SD.

A Sig Sauer P226R in three different roles; home defense, sidearm, and concealed.

Handgun Selection: Part I Ammunition

The ammunition that a handgun fires, called a “round” in the singular, is the most important variable in how capable the weapon is. There are no “high/low” switches on firearms, and frankly, no reasonable person would use such a switch. In a SD scenario the goal is to stop the threat as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Various .40SW loads; 135gr JHP, 165gr JHP, 165gr BJHP, and 180gr FMJ

Handgun Selection: Part II Action

The action of a weapon is also critically important in selecting a handgun. The action determines how a weapon is fired and involves the trigger, safety(ies), and sometimes a de-cocker.

Many people will get confused when considering the action of a gun and assume that a gun that lacks external safeties is less safe. It is actually the operator who determines how safe a gun is and not the mechanics of the weapon. Alternatively, the presence of an external safety doesn’t make the gun safer either as many people have accidentally shot themselves with guns that have external safeties.

Once an action or “platform” is selected, users should try to stick to that platform. This decreases the need to train to different platforms which would increase confusion and decrease the effectiveness of muscle memory once the adrenalin kicks in. In short: keep it simple.

While there are advantages and disadvantages it is always the shooter who must train to that action and be safe with it. Here are my thoughts on the most popular actions available...

Handgun Selection: Part III Size

This is also where things get super confusing as there are many choices. Most major handgun manufacturers will make models in the following sizes: full, compact, subcompact, and pocket. Among these sizes are “single stack” (single row of rounds in a magazine) and “double stack” (two rows of rounds in the magazine).

To make this easier, rule out the subcompact and pocket sized guns right off the top. Unless you have very small hands and cannot handle a larger gun, don’t even consider these as a SD gun. It’s worth noting that these sized guns do have a role for shooters, but they are not good primary SD guns because of their limitations (capacity and accuracy [shorter barrel]).

I would also eliminate single stack guns for the capacity limitations.

Handgun Selection: Part V Manufacturers

The most important thing to consider in the brand department is the track record of quality. If you buy a gun that malfunctions when you need it, it becomes an expensive chunk of metal. Do not spend time on what looks cool or what special forces team x carried to kill Bin Laden (they carried P226s by the way :) ).

I find that manufacturers with military/LE contracts are the most invested in quality. Gun companies live and die on the basis of these contracts and not civilian sales. A company that loses a contract because of quality will have a serious black eye that will cost them dearly.

Handgun Selection: Part V Accessories

These are some things to think about in addition to buying the actual gun and what comes with it in the box.

I prefer night sights on my handguns. These are sights that glow in low light/no light and provide you with a sight picture in all conditions.

They are about $160 to add onto a gun after purchase or $100 if you can do it yourself (and they are hard to do—I have done them). It is best to buy a gun with these sights installed and properly zeroed.

Night sights have a 12 year life limited by the radioactive isotope (Tritium) that is used in them. Yes, that sounds scary, but it’s not. If buying a used gun or old stock, consider this lifespan. Most manufacturers will label the box with the born on date.