Purchasing your first pistol can be a truly daunting task, one that many gun enthusiasts today take for granted, for someone new to the world of firearms, it can seem like learning a foreign language as well as understanding a different mindset as well.
Thankfully, firearms aren’t magic, but are pure science and engineering – meaning, that with a solid knowledge of the fundamentals, shooters can quickly determine what guns are or are not right for them. Even still, a small amount of focused experience can go a long way, when the shooter understands the physics behind the scenes.
That said, this first installment on my multi-part guide to buying your first handgun, will concentrate on the two biggest influences on whether a firearm is suitable for a particular shooter or not; mass/size and caliber.
While it’s tempting to buy the smallest gun in the largest caliber possible, it’s a near-perfect recipe for disaster for all but the most experienced, iron-gripped shooters. The combination of small gun/big bullet makes the felt recoil of such a gun painful as high-fiving a brick wall with your shooting hand. Conversely, buying the biggest gun in the smallest caliber, would reduce felt recoil to near nothing, but wouldn’t make for a very effective personal or home-defense weapon. Like a good partnership or marriage, it’s about compromise.
While size isn’t the same as weight, the two are obviously closely linked. Everything else being equal, with two firearms whose components are made of the same material, the larger one will weigh more. Things get tricky, when a new shooter realizes that while the slide and barrel must be made of steel, the frame is a different story. This is why the polymer-framed, massive Glock 17 weighs 22 ounces, while the smaller, all-steel Walther PPK tops the scales at 23.5 ounces, despite being nearly half as large.
But scale influences felt recoil in other ways, unique to the shooter’s hands itself. A properly-fitting pistol will have less felt recoil than an ill-fitting one, simply because the recoil forces are better spread out to the shooter’s hand. Plus, if the gun fits better, it will more naturally point in their hand, making reflex, or point-shots much more likely to find their mark. Additionally, smaller-framed handguns will have a smaller region to transfer the recoil impulse to the shooter’s hand, making any recoil feel more violent.
Another aspect to account for, is intended use. If a shooter is looking at buying a concealed carry pistol, they should try to purchase one that is both easy to shoot, and easy to conceal. Find a handgun with either of these traits is simple – but finding that special gun that does both, can be truly challenging.
Whereas, is the shooter intends to get pistol to set by their bedside, for use in an emergency, size isn’t a concern. Plus, in that example, a shooter should pick a firearm with as much capacity as they can feasible handle, since the only occasion they would need to use it, would involve them being literally cornered.
That said, size and capacity aren’t directly linked, but do have an influence on one and other, but that’s a topic for a different article. For the sake of narrowing the focus of this piece, we’re concentrating on size and caliber.
As a general rule of thumb, I won’t use any caliber that has less energy than anything a NATO military currently uses. Meaning, 9x19mm parabellum, and up. This is for two very important reasons.
First, these militaries wouldn’t select a round that didn’t have at least enough energy to incapacitate an enemy solider using ball ammo. We civilians aren’t limited to FMJ ammo, so we can increase the terminal ballistic effectiveness of our chosen round, by employing expanding ammunition -aka hollow points. These rounds dump more of the bullet’s energy into the target, and because of this they are also far less likely to over-penetrate and strike unintended targets.
The second reason ties into defensive rounds like hollow points. Because military rounds tend to be widely available to civilians here in the states, there’s no shortage of available defensive variants of these rounds on the market. This matters because availability is crucial for practice, and weeding out ineffective rounds. The best cartridge in the world isn’t worth a damn, if no one can find it commercially available.
The best solution for deciding on both a caliber and a frame-size, is to determine your personal preference ratio of heft and weight to caliber. Personally, I find the Glock 17 (any generation) provides a nearly ideal balance of size and weight to recoil – but only in a home defense role. As a concealed carry pistol, it’s far too bulky.
Truthfully, while they aren’t very popular today by comparison to their polymer-framed counterparts, all-steel or aluminum and steel handguns chambered in 9mm are tremendously effective home defense weapons. They are a beast to carry around, but that same weight that makes them too hefty to lug around all day also soaks up the recoil impulse from a fired round.
What should you take away from this piece? A few guiding tenants to help you pick a personal firearm.
In my experience, chose polymer-framed, medium-to-small-sized automatics chambered in 9mm for concealed or open carry -their weight and ease of transport makes a shooter more likely to actually carry them.
For home defense, large-frame, (ideally metal) semiautomatic handguns in 9mm or greater, ideally with enough magazine capacity to provide peace of mind. But we’ll save magazine capacity for another article.
Whichever route you take, be sure to familiarize yourself with the functions and features of your chosen pistol before committing to carrying it. Also, be sure to thoroughly test your chosen ammo through the gun with no malfunctions before loading up mags with it. Lastly, get some trigger time behind your gun, and practice firing from a holster if your range allows it; a mediocre gun in trained hands always trumps a perfect gun in amateur ones.