Handgun Selection Considerations
- Revolver vs. Semi-Automatic
- Handgun Weight
- Handgun Ammunition Capacity
- Handgun Durability & Reliability
- Handgun Accuracy
- Handgun Ergonomics
- Handgun Simplicity Of Operation
- Handgun Accessories
- Handgun Calibers
- Track Record
- Handgun Selection Recommendations
Handgun Tiers Of Quality
Handgun Cleaning & Maintenance
- Cornered Cat’s article on Handguns for Defense
- Throwing Lead’s article on Lessons on Pistol Shooting
Handgun Selection Considerations:
Handgun Selection Criteria:
- Revolver vs. Semi-Automatic
- Ammo Capacity
- Durability & Reliability
- Track Record
Revolver vs. Semi-Automatic:
- Easy to learn to operate. Good entry-level weapon.
- Not finicky with the type of ammunition it will shoot.
- Very reliable.
- Only holds from five to seven rounds of ammunition.
- Takes a little more effort to learn to operated efficiently.
- May be finicky with the ammunition it will shoot.
- Reliable with proper ammunition and when properly maintained.
- Most carry a greater number rounds of ammunition than a revolver.
Perceived Recoil: Generally speaking, the lighter a handgun with any given caliber, the more recoil you can expect. For example, .38 Special fired from a steel frame, 4″ barrel Smith & Wesson Model 10 is a pussy cat. .38 Special fired from a snub-nose, alloy frame Smith & Wesson “Airweight” 642 is a a lot more snappy to shoot. Another example are the compact size frames of the 9mm Glock 26 and the .40 S&W caliber Glock 27. The two pistols are identical in size and weight, but the recoil from the .40 S&W is much more noticeable. The additional recoil can may cause an inexperienced shooter to anticipate the recoil and throw off the shot. It will also increase recovery time between accurate shots if the perceived recoil is too excessive.
Ease of Carry: Are you comfortable carrying the sidearm all day long without getting a backache or constantly adjusting your belt? Too heavy of a firearm will pull on your pants, and you may find yourself adjusting your holstered pistol and pulling up your pants all day.
Conclusion: A lightweight pistol may be punishing to shoot with higher powered ammunition. A heavy pistol may be more uncomfortable to carry.
Handgun Ammunition Capacity:
With a one-in-three average hit ratio, having extra rounds will go a long way when faced with multiple attackers.
When carrying a handgun with a higher magazine capacity you may find it harder to effectively conceal. When carrying a smaller handgun with a smaller magazine capacity, it may be easier to carry and conceal, but may compromise you in a shootout as you will run dry and have to reload sooner. Your best bet is to carry a pistol that holds the most rounds of ammunition and is still concealable on your body size and type, and with your preferred method of carry.
I have found the Glock’s sub-compact size G-26 to be easy to carry and conceal in an in-the-waistband holster (IWB) to be easy to carry and conceal. I can easily carry an extra 17-round G-17 magazine or two in my pocket. The mid-size frame Glock 19 provides the shooter 15+1 rounds before they have to reload.
Conclusion: Carry a pistol that fires the most number of rounds before needing to be reloaded that you can effectively carry conceal.
Handgun Durability & Reliability:
You want a self-defense weapon with solid construction and mechanical reliability. The last thing you want is for your gun to jam in a firefight. Don’t gamble. Buy a firearm that is already in wide use by law-enforcement and the military (Glock, Beretta, Sig, etc.). Let the world’s cops be your guinne pigs. If their firearms weren’t durable and reliable they wouldn’t still be buying them. As many pistols as they buy, and as many millions that they fire, if there were to be a design flaw, it would quickly become apparent. If you buy a lesser known brand or model then you are on your own for testing and evaluation.
Conclusion: You will be well served by a Beretta, Glock, Sig Sauer, or Smith & Wesson product.
Most of the popular firearms employed by military and law enforcement (Glock, Beretta, Sig, etc.) will be more than accurate enough for self-defense work. With regular practice you will consistently be able to make rapid hits on a paper plate size target (human heart and lungs size target) at 10 to 15 yards, which is considered to be combat effective for a handgun. With lots of practice you can make carefully aimed hits on a man-size target at 100 yards (try it!).
Conclusion: You don’t need an overpriced, accurized target pistol to defend yourself. An out-of-the-box law enforcement grade pistol will be more than adequate to defend yourself with.
People have different size hands, and some people have more hand strength than others. Some handguns are better for those with larger hands.
Occasionally I will see police officers carrying full-size department issue .45 ACP caliber Glock 21 pistols. The Glock 21 is a fist full of a whole lot of firepower, but it has a fat grip to hold all of those ashtray size .45 ACP rounds. I sometimes question the judgement of the police officials in charge of procurement when they buy pistols that may end up being employed by smaller frame officers, such as most females. The larger, fatter pistols may be problematic to efficiently grip and manipulate the magazine release and slide lock. With the example of Glock pistols, a 9mm or .40 S&W pistol might be more manageable for someone with smaller hands.
When deciding on what pistol might be the most ergonomic for you, ask yourself these questions:
- Can you function the safe, magazine release, and trigger with one hand and without adjusting your grip?
- Can you get a firm grip right out of the holster? (Under duress there is no time to adjust your grip.)
Conclusion: Make sure that the handgun that you choose is ergonomic for your hands and body type. Try some of your buddy’s handguns at the range, or rent several makes and models the next time that you are at an indoor range. See what fits and what works for you.
Handgun Simplicity Of Operation:
- Savannah Arsenal’s Ammunition Essentials
- Throwing Lead’s article on Common Handgun Calibers
- Throwing Lead’s article An Alternate Look at Handgun Stopping Power
- Personal Defense Magazine’s article on Carry Ammo
Handgun Caliber Considerations:
Acceptable Defensive Calibers:
Ease of Procurement:
.380, 9mm, .40 S&W, and 45 ACP are your most popular calibers for semi-automatic handguns. .38 Special and .357 Magnum are your most popular calibers for revolvers. By “popular” I mean that you will most always be able to find these calibers of ammunition at Wall-Mart or gun-friendly sporting goods store (unless there is a shortage due to the public’s occasional fear of registration and confiscation), and in a post SHTF scenario it is the ammunition that you will most likely liberate from other sources. Choose a weapon that is easy to feed.
Calibers such as .357 Sig (used by the US Secret Service) .38 Super, 10 mm, 45 GAP, etc. are not in what I would categorize as popular, and because they can not always be easily procured at Wall-Mart, I do not consider them practical (because of lack of ease of procurement) as self-defense / stockpiling calibers. I’m sure I’ll catch hell from someone who disagrees with me!
Within the realm of acceptable defensive calibers the traditional thinking has always been that the .45 ACP or .357 Magnum calibers make bigger wound cavities than smaller calibers, but you had to ask yourself if you could handle the heavy recoil. Ammunition technology has come a long way. With today’s ammunition, 9mm is statistically just as an effective man-stopper as a .45 ACP or .357 Magnum, but at a fraction of recoil. It is better to choose a caliber that you can control and shoot accurately and rapidly. If you prefer to carry and can effectively shoot the larger calibers, then by all means do so. If not, you will still be equally served by a 9mm with the added benefit of less recoil and more ammunition capacity in any given handgun size.
Generally, the larger the caliber the larger of the pistol or revolver, the larger the firearm. Too big of a firearm may hinder controllability, concealability, and ergonomics for the shooter. Sure I’d rather have Mom use a caliber with some respectable knockdown power, but what if she’s intimidated by the larger calibers, physically not able to handle the recoil, and not able to get rapid and accurate fire on target? I’d rather her have a good dependable .22LR or .22 Magnum revolver that I know she can successfully use.
Try (rent at an indoor range) several different calibers of firearms and see what is the largest caliber that you are comfortable shooting. Choose a pistol in that caliber that is comfortable and concealable.
Also referred to as “9×19”, “9mm Luger”, and “9mm NATO”. 9mm ammo is the most popular handgun cartridge in the world and has a history dating back to the German Empire in 1902 where the round was developed by a man named Georg Luger. The FBI is returning to the 9mm after years of using .40 S&W.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation, Smith and Wesson, and Winchester designed .40 caliber ammunition to be a law enforcement cartridge and potential replacement of larger 10mm round. Loaded to relatively high pressure and small enough to allow many rounds to be comfortably carried, the .40 S&W round is a great round for self-defense and a popular choice among law enforcement today.
The FBI currently uses .40 S&W but has announced that it is returning to 9mm for their sidearms. Watch for many law enforcement agencies to follow the trend.
The US Customs & Border Protection uses .40 S&W Winchester Ranger 135-grain JHP.
The Federal Flight Deck Officer (FFDO… armed airline pilots) program uses .40 S&W.
.45 ACP, or 45 automatic colt pistol, might be the most effective combat ammunition ever made. Known for accuracy and stopping power, John Browning developed 45 auto rounds in 1904 for the U.S. Cavalry before the caliber was adopted for the Colt 1911. Many military and law enforcement units still rely on 45 ACP ammo today to protect communities and nations all over the world.
.38 Special ammunition is a rimmed, centerfire cartridge with a history dating back to the end of the 19th Century. A common caliber for revolver shooters, 38 Special was once the standard caliber for American police departments as well as soldiers in the first World War.
.357 Magnum ammunition travels anywhere between 1,200 feet per second and 1,600 feet per second with bullet weights ranging about 125 grain to 200 grain. Of course, the lighter the bullet the faster the muzzle velocity.
Today, you’ll find handguns chambered in .357 magnum as both pistols and revolvers. Although, many of the pistols can be quite a handful when it comes to recoil. Additionally, there are even a few carbines on the market chambered for use with .357 mag, a nod to the round’s brute power.
.38 special caliber revolvers can only shoot .38 special caliber ammunition, however .357 Magnum revolvers can shoot .357 Magnum ammunition as well as less powerful and less expensive .38 special ammunition if needed.
Are you planning getting a Concealed Carry Permit and legally carrying your handgun? You might want the giant hand cannon, but can you carry it concealed? You will need an appropriate size firearm for your body type and the way that you will carry it.
Make sure that you have the correct holster to keep the firearm out of sight, secured and accessible? How about automobile storage?
If you choose one of the more popular makes and models of pistols or revolvers there will be a wide variety of carry methods available.
Buying a sidearm for personal protection is one of those important choices that you do not want to go with the cheapest option.
While you don’t want to go with a cheap firearm, you don’t have to necessarily go with the most expensive either. You can buy two reliable handguns for the price of one handcrafted fancy and expensive model. While under duress you probably can’t shoot any more accurately with the more expensive handguns than you can a lesser priced reliable model.
There are many, many makes and models of handguns. A great number are cheaply made and are not dependable. A few are serious, high quality fighting tools. I do not have the money or time to experiment and find out what works and what is junk. There are countless military units and police departments around the world that fire millions of rounds of ammunition a year through their handguns, both in training and in actual combat. The weapons are going to be used in various climates by people who may not necessarily maintain their weapons as well as they should. I like the idea of using these guys as my gun testers. If a particular make and model is going to break, they are going to make it happen. This being said, just a few makes of handguns have what it takes to be used by professionals around the world. A few makes and models have what it takes to bring you back from the brink. The rest are not worth the risk.
Handgun Selection Conclusion:
You will want to choose a pistol that:
- Light enough to carry and conceal, but not so light for its caliber that it is difficult to effectively shoot with.
- Carries as much ammunition as possible that still allows the pistol to be effectively carry and concealed on your body size and frame.
- Is durable, reliable, and will go bang every time that you pull the trigger.
- Is accurate enough for self defense.
- Is the appropriate size for your hand so that you can easily draw and operate the controls of the handgun without shifting your grip.
- Simple to operate, and to disassemble and maintain.
- Has a wide variety of accessories (holsters, lights, spare parts, etc.) available.
- Is an appropriate self-defense caliber (9mm, .40 S&W, .45 ACP, .38 Special, and .357 Magnum).
- Is easily concealed on your body type.
- After receiving proper training and instruction, and after plenty of practice, easy for the shooter to make rapid and accurate shots.
- Affordable, but not cheap.
- Has an track record of being accurate and dependable.
Handgun Selection Recommendations:
Based on the criteria above:
Glock 19 (9mm, 15+1 rounds). Glock’s mid-size frame. Easy to conceal, or wear on duty or combat gear. Used by thousands of police departments around the world. Now being employed by the US Navy SEALS.
Glock 26 (9mm, 10+1 rounds, 12+1 round magazines available). Glock’s sub-compact size frame. Very easy to conceal. Same operation and internal parts as the Glock 19, but with a shorter frame, barrel, and grip. Can use the larger capacity magazines from the Glock 17 (17-rounds) and the Glock 19 (15-rounds), although they will hang out of the bottom of the grip. The G-26 9mm version is much easier to shoot and control than its .40 S&W twin, the G-27.
Smith & Wesson M&P-9 (9mm, 15+1 rounds). S&W’s full-size frame. Easy to conceal for large frame people, but might be more problematic to conceal for medium or small frame shooters. Used by thousands of police departments around the USA.
Smith & Wesson M&P-9 Compact (9mm, 10+1 rounds). S&W’s medium size frame. Same operation and internal parts as the full size, but with a a shorter frame, barrel, and grip. Much easier to conceal than the full size. Able to use the magazines from the full-size frame, although they will hang out of the bottom of the grip.
Smith & Wesson M&P Shield (9mm, 7+1 or 8+1). This is the single-stack magazine version of the M&P line of pistols. It is sold with two magazines. One holds 7 rounds, and the is a little longer and holds 8. In my opinion, the 8-round magazine is just as easy to conceal as the 7-round. The Shields are very easy to carry and conceal, and the 9mm version is very easy to shoot. It is a fantastic for small or medium frame shooters. It’s .40 S&W caliber twin is a little more snappy to shoot and may exclude the pistol from meeting the “shootability” criteria for many shooters. They Shields are fantastic pistols in terms of the criteria discussed above except that magazine capacity is the absolute lowest that I would recommend for self-defense and prepping purposes. Plan on carrying a couple of extra 8-round magazines, and practice until you are very proficient at fast reloads. The Shields are not compatible with the double-stack magazines of the full-size and compact-size M&P pistols.
Sig-Sauer P-228 (9mm, 15+1 rounds), Sig’s medium-size frame. Used by militaries around the world. The M-11 version is used by aircrew members of the US military. More expensive than the Glock and S&W offerings.
All of the Glock, Smith and Wesson M&P, and Sig-Sauer offerings are fantastic pistols. If they weren’t mentioned or were intentionally excluded, then it is most likely because they didn’t meet all of the specific criteria above. The larger frames or larger calibers may work perfectly for your level of shooting experience or body type, but may be problematic for any other shooters. The smaller offerings may not meet the caliber or capacity criteria. The recommendations above are intended to provide a viable option for 99% of shooters. Your experience, opinion, and results may very. Your input is appreciated at the bottom of the page.
Tier One Handguns & Gear:
Beretta Handguns: Except for their old 8000 “Cougar” pistols (absolute junk that was an embarrassment to the company, now being manufactured and sold by Stoeger). Their M9/92/96 is used by every branch of the US military and by many law enforcement agencies. Reasonably priced. Ultra reliable with the right mags.
F.N. (Fabrique Nationale) Handguns: I haven’t fired their FNP pistols, but if they are anything like any other FN products then they are tier one gear. Certain 5.7×28 rounds used by their USG pistols are intended to be armor-piercing, however they are not necessarily good man-stoppers.
Glock Handguns: The Jeep of handguns! All of their pistols run great, but there have been a few problems with their latest “Generation 4” version. Glock has attempted to remedy the problems, but if you decide to go with Glock products, do yourself a favor and get an older 2nd or 3rd generation version. Be sure to check out more Glock stuff on Savannah Arsenal’s Semi-Automatic page.
Heckler & Koch (H&K) Handguns: Built like a HUMVEE. Used by elite military and law enforcement. Very pricey. Very high quality.
Ruger Handguns: P-80 and 90 series pistols are very reliable, as are the GP-100 revolvers. All built like a tank. Price is very affordable.
Sig Sauer: Tier one gear. Used by many government agencies, US Navy Seals, and the British SAS. The bore on the 220/226/228/229 sits a little high for me, but they are in use by some of the world’s most elite special operators and law enforcement.
Smith & Wesson: The new M&P series semi-auto pistols are taking the law-enforcement community by storm. They are slowly pushing Glock aside. This is a far cry from their past semi-auto pistol models that appeared to have been designed by a committee (ie. the 5900/6900 series). Their revolvers have always set the bar with regards to quality and craftsmanship. I have had great customer service with S&W on two occasions.
Walther: The new P99 pistols are supposed to be pretty good. A friend shot the .380 version and was not impressed though.
Kimber, Colt, Springfield, and many others make high-quality 1911 style pistols. I compare these pistols to Corvette and Ferrari. When tweaked and pampered they will offer outstanding performance. Using that analogy, there are certain environments that those type cars wouldn’t last, and a Jeep or HUMVEE will excel. While those pistols may offer great performance in the right environment, when planning for “bad times” I would choose one of the Jeep/HUMVEE type pistols. I’m sure that there are many that will disagree with me, but in my opinion, I want a gun that I will know will go bang every time I press that bang button. 1911’s require a slightly greater amount of training to learn the master of arms, can cost significantly more, and require more maintenance. They can be a lot of fun, but they are definitely not an entry-level handgun.
Mecgar brand magazines: If you need magazines, purchase either factory originals or Mecgar brand…nothing else. You have been warned. CDNN Investments always has good prices on them. Make sure that you are ordering Mecgar, because they also sell the junky magazines.
**If you don’t see it on this list, it does not necessarily meant that it isn’t good. It just means that I haven’t ever play with it or read anything about it.**
Junk Handguns & Gear:
Rossi revolvers — Complete pieces of shit.
Taurus semi-auto pistols — Cunk, (except for the venerable PT92/99 clone of the Beretta 92…for which I have shot thousands of rounds out of without a single pistol related problem.) Taurus 1911’s are junk.
Taurus revolvers — barely acceptable. Keep saving your pennies a little longer and purchase a Smith & Wesson. Customer service and support at Taurus is virtually non-existent.
Smith & Wesson “Sigma” — Pictured right. This was S&W’s first attempt at a Glock-like polymer pistol. They aren’t made anymore, but if you find a used one for sale, walk away from it. Trigger sucks. Ergonomics suck. Feel like they were designed and assembled by a Cub Scout (no offense to the Cub Scouts…).
Lorcin, Raven, Jennings, and Bryco — Low-cost pieces of shit. Inexpensive, undependable, inaccurate, and not made to take any type of abuse. If you show up to the gun range with one of these you will get laughed at. I recently witness a .380 caliber Bryco pistol keyhole (hit sideways) the target at five yards. How could this be possible?! Total hunk of poo. If you can’t afford anything nicer you will be better off doing without. Spend the money on a good knife and some food and water for your bug-out bag.
USA brand magazines — You don’t see these very much anymore. I think that the company may have gone out of business (and not a day too soon). Save your money and buy Mecgar. USA is second-rate.
National Magazines — Total junk. Like USA brand magazines, you don’t see them much anymore. If you do, walk away.
Promag Magazines — semi-reliable, but don’t trust your life to them. Save your money and buy Mecgar.
Handgun Cleaning & Maintenance:
- Throwing Lead’s article Service Pistol Maintenance: 6 Steps Can Save Your Life
- Savannah Arsenal’s Glock Cleaning & Lubrication
Related Savannah Arsenal Pages:
- Ammunition Essentials
- Handgun Accessories
- Semi-Auto Essentials
- Revolver Essentials
- Gun Cleaning & Maintenance
- Gun Range & Training
- Concealed Carry
- Open Carry