Gun Buyers Quick Start Guide

As an instructor and a gun dealer, I’m a little more careful about recommending a gun for someone else. It’s such a personal decision. Gun owners who aren’t instructors seem to have no problem telling their friends to buy a Glock or a Colt, or whatever their favorite firearm is. Or they recommend something they wish they had so if you’re not happy with it they might be able to take it off your hands at a discounted price.

I wish they wouldn’t do that. You need to pick your own gun. In this article, I’m going to give you a starting point. These are the mainstream guns, the kind to buy if you’re a Ford, Chevy, Chrysler, Toyota, Honda or Nissan car or truck buyer. There are higher end guns that are more costly, and sometimes they’re better, sometimes they’re not. There are specialty brands that appeal to some of us for specific purposes.  But I’m sticking to first-time buyer recommendations here and I’m going to offer options in full-size guns, compact guns and slim “carry” guns using 9mm as the comparison. You can get most of these in a .40 caliber or .45 caliber version, also, but 9mm serves us well for comparison purposes.

Before I get into the comparison charts, I want to tell you about three guns you should look at if you’re a first-time buyer looking for an inexpensive carry gun and you don’t consider yourself a “gun” person. In other words, you figure this will be your only gun and you’re going to keep it with you for personal defense.

Those three are the Taurus PT-111, the SCCY CPX-1 (or CPX-2) and the Taurus PT-809c. These are under $300 9mm handguns that hold 10 to 12 rounds and which are reliable. You need to keep them clean and you need to hold them with a firm grip while shooting. Load them up with ARX or Fiocchi Hollow Point ammunition and learn to shoot them well and you’ll be fine.  The difference between the SCCY CPX-1 and CPX-2 is one has a safety and the other doesn’t. They come in a variety of colors.  The Taurus PT-111 and the PT-809C are similar size and have similar capacity. The PT-111 is striker-fired (internal hammer) and the PT-809C has a hammer. Sometimes we can’t get one or the other, I say whichever one you can get is just fine.

Under $300 Guns

Many gun owners recommend Glocks to everybody. If I were going to just recommend something like that because that’s the gun I like I would be more inclined to recommend a Smith & Wesson M&P. It is similar in price, function and features as a Glock. I have them in practically every caliber from .22 to .45 and in some calibers I have more than one. They come in full-size, compact and slim. Some people like to shoot Glocks, I prefer M&Ps. To me they seem to have less felt recoil than a lot of other guns. So if you want something a little more than the three I mentioned above and you don’t want to go through the charts and do a lot of comparing, pick up an M&P in the gun store or at the gun range rental counter and see if you like it. If you do, you’ll should never have a reason to regret buying one.

Now to the charts. The prices shown here are the most recent prices we’ve been charging for these guns. The prices fluctuate from time to time based upon availability and manufacturer/wholesaler incentives or price changes, but should be pretty close to what I’ve indicated here for comparison.

First up are the full-size guns. In my experience anybody, and I do mean anybody, if they are willing to invest a little time and effort into it, can learn to shoot and even to carry one of these guns. That’s why I recommend starting there. If you can shoot it and operate it, you’d be better served with a full-size gun than a compact or a single-stack, slim gun (unless it’s a 1911) in my opinion. Here are six mainstream guns to consider:

Full-Size 9mm Handguns

Each of these firearms has a compact version. If carrying the full-size is uncomfortable for you, perhaps the compact version of essentially the same handgun will work better:

Compact 9mm Handguns

With so many people getting their Concealed Handgun Permits, the manufacturers created a market of “slim” single-stack handguns designed to be easily concealable. Since many of my favorite carry guns are 1911s, which are single-stack .45s, I can’t fault anyone for wanting to carry a slim gun. The trade-off is the round count. Since some of these guns have .40 and .45 caliber versions, they’re right up there close to my 9-shot 1911s in capacity, so many people find themselves comfortably armed with a seven or eight shot 9mm. Here are the ones in this category you have to look at:

Single-Stack 9mm Handguns

As I mentioned at the start, there are other brands, great brands, from which to choose. Sig Sauer has a line of pistol you could easily classify as the Mercedes of the gun industry. They are tough, they are accurate and they are reliable. Spend a little extra for a Sig and you can’t go wrong. The same can be said of FNX and FNS pistols or Heckler & Koch. And if you join me and thousands upon thousands of others as a 1911 fan, Ruger, Smith & Wesson, Springfield and Taurus all have 1911 models as does Sig Sauer, Colt and others, including a number of custom 1911 gun makers.

I hope this helps as a starting point. We have considerable experience with all of these guns and have not reservations about recommending any of them. Pick them up. Rack the slide. Try the trigger. If you have the opportunity to rent one at a gun range, do so. Then pick the one that just feels right to you.

Personal Preferences – As Varied as the People Who Have Them

I’m very careful about recommending a gun to someone else. I can tell you if a choice is a bad one for you, based on my experience training a lot of shooters, but among the many good choices, I can’t pick a gun for you. It’s just too personal. I spend a lot of time reading. I read every issue of the fifteen or more gun magazines that are available here in the U.S. I read the letters to the editor first, then the gun reviews, followed by the training articles. I often find the gun reviews amusing as well as informative. That’s because every gun writer has his or her prejudices and these color how they review a gun. Some love 3-dot sights, others hate them. Some like big thumb safeties on 1911s, others like little bitty ones. What’s funny about it is they often write as if their particular preferences are the ones everyone should have. But in all fairness, many mention them as just that — personal preferences.

Just for grins I thought I would tell you what I like in a handgun and why. There is one given I can get out of the way quickly. I want a gun that is very tolerant of a variety of ammunition and that if kept relatively clean works 100 percent of the time.  But what else?

Trijicon Night SightsI like night sights. All of my defensive guns don’t have them, but most do. It’s not just for shooting if the light is low. I like them because if I need to locate the gun quickly when startled awake at night, or if the lights go out, the sights beckon me.

I like grips that aren’t too rough. Some of those tactical grips people put on handguns are very uncomfortable to me. A textured or checkered pattern is welcome, but don’t make it too rough because I rarely wear gloves. Tactical operators that wear shooting gloves when heading for a fight — those are the ones that like tactical grips.

Checkered Front StrapFor a 1911 type gun I like a checkered front strap and back strap. I’m not sure why, but they just feel better in my hand. One of my favorite guns, a Colt Commander, doesn’t have a checkered front strap, though the back strap is. I love the gun, but I find myself wishing the front strap was checkered. There is an aftermarket solution I tried for a while, but it didn’t stay in place well. I may try again with some type of adhesive.

Except for single-action handguns that are carried (at least by me) cocked and locked (hammer back, safety on) I don’t like external safeties on handguns a couple of my guns that have them, if I’m carrying the gun I leave the safety off so there won’t be an added complication should I need to draw and shoot.

Ambidextrous SafetyOn my 1911s I like a an ambidextrous safety and I like the over-sized ones. Why? For a reason that may not be applicable to many people, but I carry my defensive pistol in an inside the waistband (IWB) holster worn at the three o’clock position. With the gun in that position, the safety is against my body so it’s not really  easy for me to check, as I periodically do, to make sure the safety is still on. With a safety on the right side of the gun also, it’s very easy to check the safety to make sure the motion of my body hasn’t pushed it off.

When it comes to 1911s, I could care less about whether it has a Series 70 or Series 80 firing pin system. I cannot tell the difference when shooting the gun and both offer the safety I desire. But when it comes to guide rods, I prefer not having a full-length guide rod. Some 1911s have that, others don’t. For me the difference is simple. It’s easier to disassemble the gun for cleaning with a short guide rod than with a full-length guide rod. Does it change how the gun shoots? Nope. Does it change its reliability? Nope. A full-length guide rod, as far as I’m concerned isn’t a red flag that would keep me from buying an otherwise desirable gun, but my preference is to not have one.

Caliber – I like a .45. But sometimes I carry a 9mm. I used to carry .40 S&W from time to time, but the arthritis in my hands and shoulders makes shooting a .40 uncomfortable. Even with the .45 I’m tending towards rounds with less recoil (think ARX). I’ve covered this in so many articles before, I won’t take up any more space here.

Handgun With RailRails – should your gun have a rail or not?  I think that one depends on where you’re going to use the gun. I have an M&P in the bedroom with a Streamlight flashlight/laser combination, so the fact that gun has a rail makes it work. Some of my carry guns have rails and all they are good for as far as I’m concerned is making me choose a different holster. I personally will not have a light on a carry gun because I don’t intend to open carry and having a concealed carry rig big enough for a light or laser on the rail just isn’t feasible. Besides, I don’t anticipate the need in a defensive gun that I carry.

Striker-fired versus hammer-fired. For me this makes no difference, but I read a lot of handgun guys that say they don’t like the idea of a double-action first shot followed by single-action for the follow up shots. Many seem to imply this is a training problem. I guess if you just don’t shoot much it could be, but I don’t seem to have a problem adjusting quickly to whatever gun I happen to be shooting. So I have guns with hammers and I have striker-fired guns and I just shoot them without worrying about it. If a semi-automatic has a hammer, it usually has a de-cocker, and I like the fact that I can de-cock the gun and put it back in my holster. The striker-fired guns don’t have that.

How about the finish? On some guns you have the option of stainless steel versus a blued finish.  I like stainless steel. Wait, I like blued. I like polymer finishes. I like bi-tone guns. Okay, too many choices. Let me back up and pick just one. Hmmmm. I have this desert tan, Marine Colt that looks pretty nice. But I keep eyeballing the Metro Arms Chrome Commander. Then  there’s the deep blued finish on the Remington R1. See, it’s hard to choose. Mix them up and get some of each, that’s what I say!

Triggers. If there’s anything gun guys love to hate it’s a certain trigger or trigger pull. But what some folks hate, others love. Really heavy double-action trigger pulls, I don’t like, but beyond that, I just don’t seem to be as “trigger sensitive” as a lot of guys. I find the trigger on most guns pretty easy to get used to if I just shoot it a few times. When you’re picking a gun, you do need to make sure the trigger pull isn’t too hard. Anything over 12 pounds for me is just not something I want to deal with. I will say that 1911 triggers, which move straight back as you pull them and which usually have somewhere between 4 and 5.5 lbs. of “pull”, are a pleasant surprise to people who have previously only shot handguns with hinged triggers, which is what basically every other type of pistol has.

Undercut Trigger GuardI could cover many more details that people either like or don’t like about guns, but I’ll stop with just one more. It’s something the writers usually call “undercut” and it applies to the trigger guard. The purpose is to allow you to get a higher grip on the frame which mitigates some of the recoil. I was reading about some of the new Sig Sauers the other day and the writer was talking about how they had an undercut trigger guard which was an improvement over earlier models. I started looking at my Sigs – an SP2022, a P226 and an M-11, which is really a P228 in military dress, and a couple of 1911s. All of them except the 1911s have an undercut to some degree or the other. The picture I’ve used as an undercut example here is actually on a Glock, but it’s not stock. It’s a gunsmith enhancement and you may notice, it was done by cutting a way a significant portion of the stock trigger guard. I’m for anything that mitigates recoil, so I’ll say that’s a good thing, but I’ll also tell you have guns I love to shoot that don’t have that undercut.

You will develop your own preferences over time. Maybe you have already. It’s kind of what makes selecting a firearm so personal.