Buyer's Guide to Selecting a Handgun

June 14, 2016 3 Comments

Buyer's Guide to Selecting a Handgun

This article was originally written for policeone.com.

Choosing a new firearm can be a daunting task these days. There are many good brands of firearms to choose from but sorting through all the marketing hype and technical specifications can leave you scratching your head. Below are several points that will help you make a smart choice and keep you in control of the buying process when shopping for a new firearm.

Price and Purpose

The first basic question is what will your budget allow? While price shouldn’t be the only consideration, you need to be realistic about finances.

The next question is of primary importance: what is the intended mission you have in mind for this handgun? Think of handguns like golf clubs. You can try to work with one club but you are better off with a purpose-based selection. Patrol, SWAT, detective, undercover agent–all will have needs unique to their mission.

Handgun types fall into these general categories: duty weapon, reduced-size duty weapon, off-duty weapon, backup gun, and hideout gun. Taking a realistic look at your mission will help you determine what features you desire. It will determine size and weight to some degrees, as well as other features such as round count, light rails, and so on.

For general patrol/SWAT missions that are open carry, and for most off-duty concealed carry, full-size guns offer the best performance in terms of weight, size, capacity, sight radius, and controllability. Slightly reduced size and weight might be just the ticket for detectives or concealed carry.

For backup guns and hideout guns, concealability will dominate the selection process. If the gun is too big or heavy, you may end up leaving it at home. If it is low quality, it might not last long and could even malfunction at a critical moment. The key to these weapons is to use the word “practical” when you look at them. Will you be likely to have it with you all the time because it is convenient to carry? Again, price is a consideration but don’t sacrifice performance or durability in the name of paying less.

Mode of Carry

How will you carry your firearm? Will it be in a duty holster? Concealed carry? Fanny pack? Undercover? Hideout position or backup gun?

Think of climate or mission considerations and what type of clothing will fit with the mode of carry. Hot summers may preclude wearing a jacket to avoid standing out as a gun carrier. Here a slimmer/smaller gun can be worn in a higher ride or inside-the-waistband holster with a shirt hanging over it.

If you like to carry a backup gun in a coat or pants pocket, a hammerless revolver such as the Smith & Wesson Scandium J-Frame weighs only 11 ounces and allows you to fire from the pocket without jamming. A North American Arms, five-shot, .22 Magnum, Black Widow revolver weighs about 9 ounces and hides effortlessly in an ankle rig, pocket or deep-cover position.

Ergonomics

To determine if the ergonomics of a gun are right for you, start by checking how well the gun points for you. When you bring it to eye level, are the sights falling into line with your line of sight? Certain guns will point better for you and the sights will be aligned naturally. Grip angle and shape, as well as thickness of the grip, will factor into this equation. My advice is that if a gun is otherwise a high quality weapon, has sufficient round count, good sights, and trigger then buy the one that points the best for you.

We are all born with different hand sizes. To determine if a gun fits your hand (after checking that the firearm is in a safe condition), grip the firearm and see whether the middle of the pad of your trigger finger rests easily against the trigger when you finger is relaxed. If you have to stretch your finger to get the middle of the pad on the trigger, then it is most likely too big for you. Now try this same test while wearing any gloves you would wear for duty or off-duty wear–this can be a deal-breaker.

Shooters with smaller hands almost always benefit from a narrower frame size that enables a stronger grip and gives a better reach to the trigger. I would gladly give up a few rounds of capacity in order to increase controllability and speed. The classic 1911 pattern, carrying 8+1 rounds, has served many a cop well for many years and is still one of my favorite firearms.

If you have smaller hands, please note that smaller guns do not necessarily have a smaller frame circumference. For example, going from a Glock 22 to a Glock 23 will not reduce the reach to the trigger. For a shooter with small hands, you will need to find a gun with a shorter reach from the tang to the trigger.

Trigger System

This is a crucial part of shooting well. A heavy trigger pull, too long of a reach, or a complex trigger manipulation does nothing to assist you in getting good hits in a timely fashion.

Single-action triggers, such as the Colt 1911 Government Model, remains the No. 1 trigger in the world for high-performance shooting, and for good reason. It is an extremely viable trigger system for law enforcement and lends itself well to large and small hands when combined with a 1911-style handgun.

If you need to shoot precisely at high speed, make precision shots on a suicide bomber from a safe distance, or take a longer shot, a single-action trigger makes it far easier to do so. As a bonus, the manipulation of the thumb safety and trigger is almost identical to the M-4 carbine, making weapons training that much simpler.

That being said, the striker-fired system is a close second to the single-action trigger and, in some ways, superior for certain modes of carry. Now that the Glock patent has expired, we are seeing a host of weapons from other manufacturers with this style of trigger. Springfield, S&W, Ruger, and many other manufacturers all have firearms with similar trigger systems. I think this system will become the dominant system for law enforcement in the future.

If you prefer a double-action/single-action trigger system, Sig Sauer makes a very nice double-action trigger that is even better with competent gunsmithing. It is also hard to beat a small or midsize revolver for certain applications.

Controllability

Full-size handguns provide a full-gripping platform for both hands. They generally have barrels between four and five inches long and their size allows them to carry additional rounds. The slight increase in barrel length provides a bit more sight radius, bullet velocity, and lends itself well to a weapon-mounted light. They also tend to be more controllable over a lighter, shorter platform.

For off-duty or concealed carry, many prefer a slightly downsized version of their duty weapon for better concealability and less weight. You do give up some control and capacity but the trade-off is something you will have to judge for yourself. I generally don’t like carrying fewer than nine rounds in my primary gun if I can avoid it (backup or hideout guns are a different story). Capacity is less of an issue than concealability and weight since extra magazines can also be carried.

Weight

Weight can be a mixed blessing. While it’s more convenient to carry a gun with less weight, lighter, polymer-framed guns can be more difficult to control under rapid fire compared with steel-framed guns. I see many people having problems with flinch when shooting a lighter gun, especially if they shoot only a few times a year. Here a full-size or steel-frame gun might be a much better choice. Examples here would include the model 1911-style gun, which is still the No. 1 selling handgun in the world today.

Caliber

We can have endless debates about the “stopping power” of the various calibers but far more important is how well you can shoot the gun in caliber you will carry. If you flinch quite a bit or shoot poorly with your weapon, your confidence will suffer. Consider selecting a handgun that allows you to shoot well and still provides a viable caliber.

Reliability

It has to go bang every time you need it to go bang. My standard test for a carry firearm is 500 rounds, without a malfunction, with the ammo I am going to carry on the street. It should feed and cycle flawlessly with the rounds you intend to carry. Some of the smaller handguns with shorter slides may not cycle as reliably with a certain round as another gun with a slightly longer slide.

Durability

This is a big one for me. I shoot 40,000 to 50,000 rounds a year on average with my primary 2011 from STI. I have, conservatively, more than 200,000 rounds fired on one of them, using the original frame, and it is still in great shape.

Most guns are rated to a service life of 10,000 to 20,000 rounds, even though they routinely shoot more than that. Even if you don’t shoot a lot, it gives you peace of mind to know your gun won’t break when you need it most.

Don’t expect a small, light hideout or backup gun to have the same durability of a full-size gun. They have a different purpose and will generally be carried a lot but only shot enough to maintain a strong sense of competence. Undercover cops need something they can hide well so they may need to compromise a bit on size and durability to have something suitable. Just make sure it goes bang every time.

Shootability

This is a subjective topic and is a bit different than controllability. How well can you shoot the gun? You will be looking at what kind of sights are on the gun and how well you can see them, the weight, reach and length of the trigger pull, muzzle recovery after recoil, weight of the gun, and type of load you will be shooting.

If you are shooting a hot round in a light gun and find yourself pushing shots around a lot because you are flinching all the time, then it is too much for you. Many times a slightly heavier gun will allow you to have far more control than a lighter gun. My advice is to go to a local gun range and rent one to shoot or find a buddy that has one and shoot it.

Serviceability

How easy is it to take down and clean the gun? How about getting aftermarket parts like good sights and a better trigger job? If the gun goes down, what is the warranty service like? Does the manufacturer have a reputation for quality and timely repair service? Factory reps that are accessible go a long way toward making a gun more attractive to purchase. Never buy a gun that you can’t service easily.

I have tried to cover the most important points in selecting a gun that is right for you. Following these guidelines will help you to find one that fits your mission and your price range.


Ron Avery

Co-Founder, Tactical Performance Center

3 Responses

Kendall Everett
Kendall Everett

June 16, 2016

I loved your suggestion to find a gun that’s durable and able to last through thousands of rounds. It’s important to know that the gun you purchase will not need repair too soon after purchase. It may be a good idea to get the number of a gun repair company in case something does go wrong. http://razorbackarmory.com/our-services/repair/

Ron Avery
Ron Avery

June 15, 2016

Pablo
That would depend on what you’re going to do with it. If you’re going to shoot USPSA I would get the Edge.

Pablo Staniszewski
Pablo Staniszewski

June 15, 2016

Which 2011 STI model would you recommend Mr. Avery, I’m in the process to choose one of the STI models and I love several of them but I have to choose one for now.
Regards in advance.

Pablo
Miami, FL

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