So You Want to Buy a Gun... Part 2 - Handguns
So you want to buy a gun... But what kind to buy? Once you seek out info via training and mentoring, it's time to figure out which type of firearm is the best fit for your lifestyle and needs. Do you want to start hunting? Is your primary goal to defend your self or your home? Or are you looking to enjoy some time at the range target shooting? Whatever your reason, you're going to need to know what is out there for you to choose from. In this part of the So You Want to Buy a Gun series, I'll review the basics of handguns so you can see if this type of firearm is one that jives with your interests.
The handgun is a versatile firearm. Depending on what configuration you buy, it could be used for target shooting, home and personal defense, and even hunting. To help decipher literature on handguns that you might read, I started building a page to use as a reference about handguns. To keep this post brief, I'm going to address the bulk of handguns, which come in two basic varieties: semi-automatic pistols and revolvers.
A semi-automatic pistol looks like the ones in this photo. They typically hold between 6 and 17 rounds of ammunition. They feature sights on the slide, which is the part of the gun that you can feel moving or "cycling" after you pull the trigger. To load it, you place rounds of ammunition into the magazine "stacked" on top of one another, then insert the magazine into the magazine well (inside the grip).
Physics Side Note: According to Newton's third law, when an object (i.e. the bullet) is propelled forward there must be an equal and opposite reaction backward. A semi-automatic pistol uses this principle to its advantage. The round of ammunition that was loaded gets ejected and the next round is loaded automatically after the round you just fired cycles through the gun. Each trigger pull = one round fired and one round loaded, at least until your magazine is empty of ammo! This is called semi-automatic because of the one-for-one auto-loading nature of this handgun. A fully automatic firearm is one that keeps shooting and auto-loading until you stop pulling the trigger (these are not typically offered for sale to consumers - that's a whole other ballgame). Commonly available ammo for a semi-automatic pistol include .22LR, 9mm, .380 ACP, .45 ACP.
From my experience, the major advantages of a semi-automatic pistol are:
- Small size makes it light enough to carry all day and small enough to conceal
- It is ready to fire the next shot without me having to load it again (could be good in a defensive gun use application when my mind would be busy with the task of surviving)
Disadvantages of a semi-automatic pistol could be:
- Regular maintenance is required to keep the firearm in working order, though many are designed to be rugged workhorse-type guns
- Racking the slide is necessary to load a round in the chamber or clear a malfunction, and that can be difficult for some women (with certain pistols)
A revolver looks like the gun in this photo. It is a classic, recognizable from old Westerns and Clint Eastwood movies. It holds ammunition in a cylinder that "revolves" with each trigger pull to position a new round to be fired. The cylinder typically has between 5 and 10 holes ("chambers") in it. Some revolvers have hammers to revolve the cylinder (the first action of firing) and some have only a trigger to revolve the cylinder and fire the gun (the second action of firing). If the hammer is the only way to revolve the cylinder, that revolver is called a single action revolver. If the hammer is there, but you could also use the trigger to revolve the cylinder then that revolver is called a double action revolver. And some revolvers have no exposed hammer - those are called double action only.
To load the revolver, you'll place a round into each hole in the cylinder, or use a speed loader or moon clip. The rear sights are mounted on the frame, and the front sight is on the barrel. Some revolvers used for hunting and competition use scopes, mounted via scope rings to the scope ring cuts on the frame. Revolvers have typically come in revolver-specific calibers of ammunition, including .38, .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum and .45 Long Colt. However with the dawn of moon clips many calibers of semi-automatic rimmed ammunition, like 9mm and .45 ACP, have found its way into modern revolvers.
In my experience the revolver has the following advantages:
- Revolvers have lots of options. They could be small and concealable like the LCR or big enough to hunt with, like the Ruger Redhawk in the first photo.
- Revolvers will always shoot -in some scenarios the semi-automatic pistol could get caught up and not load the next round, but this won't happen with a revolver. Think about shooting through a purse if you were in a desperate situation.
Disadvantages of the revolver could include:
- Heavy trigger pull. It isn't unusual for double action revolver triggers to need 10 or more pounds of force to pull the trigger.
- Often due to the fact the revolvers are traditionally made of polished steel, they cost more than many models of semi-automatic pistols.
If a handgun seems like the right option for you, start doing research on what models are out there and what the benefits and disadvantages are. Like many things in life, there are tradeoffs. If something is concealable, it might be less pleasant to shoot due to "snappy" recoil. If the gun looks and feels amazing, it might cost you some hard-earned coin. You'll want to look for something that works well for your specific needs.
For example, if you want to conceal-carry a handgun, check out forums that review options and think through your specific setup to see if the gun fits you in terms of size, weight, holster availability, ammo availability, reliability, etc. Another really good move is to try out different handguns. Because we humans have lots of genetic variation, not all guns will fit each individual equally well. Since most handguns will start at $200-$300 shelf price on the lowest end, it's worth feeling it in your hand, dry firing the trigger, and (if possible) shooting it on the range. Some good places to do this "try before you buy" is a training course, gun stores, and a range day with a trusted friend who is willing to safely guide you as you try out some of the guns they have.
Another consideration is the caliber of handgun. Lots of sources out there recommend a "small" gun for beginners, and while I can see the benefit it might not be a wise move. If your budget is tight, and you can only buy one gun for the foreseeable future, a .22LR that is great for target shooting is not going to cut it for self-defense (I plan to write more about this, but in short: I've had enough ammo fail to fire in a smallbore match that I cannot recommend anyone stake the defense of their life on rimfire ammunition). I promise to write more about this later.
If you have any questions about anything I've written, feel free to contact me. Stay tuned for some info next week on rifles.