Choosing Your First Defensive Firearm

 

woman-at-gun-rangeIf you’ve decided to take responsibility for your own self-protection and become your own first responder, you’re in good company. This year, on Black Friday, Americans bought enough guns to outfit the entire Marine Corps (and a few extra Army Divisions as well).

The fact is, though, that going into a gun store to purchase a firearm can be an intimidating event. It’s like buying a new big screen TV for your home or upgrading the stereo in your car: There are a lot of technical terms and a lot of choices to make, sometimes with no clear distinction between one product and another. Guns, for the most part, are a consumer item, just like a blender or a microwave or a television, so what you plan on doing with your gun is going to affect what kind of gun you’re going to buy. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to assume you’re looking for something that is first and foremost to help keep yourself and your family safe inside your home, and then possibly to carry outside the home as well.

If that’s your situation, I would recommend starting with a modern, compact polymer service pistol in 9mm, such as the Glock 19, the Smith & Wesson M&P9c, the Sig Sauer P320 Carry, Ruger SR9-C, or the FNS-9 Compact. All of these guns are very reliable, very safe to handle, and very easy to use. Also, most of these have a wide variety of accessories available so your gun can grow in capabilities as you do.

One of the reasons why I recommend these particular guns to first-time gun buyers is because of the way they’re operated (also called their “manual of arms”), which is essentially the same for each and many other pistols as well. If you learn to shoot one of these guns well, chances are you’ll shoot well with just about any modern pistol. (We’ll leave the discussion on revolvers for a later time. I like ’em, but I believe their time has passed.)

Also, while I really like long guns such as shotguns and rifles as home defensive weapons, what they give you in terms of firepower comes at the cost of flexibility: It’s not as easy to move around inside your house with a long gun on your shoulder as it is with a pistol in your hand, and people tend to frown on slung shotguns being carried into a Walmart. Inside the home, a long gun is ideally suited to guarding a safe room, or for backing your defensive pistol with even more firepower.

The balancing act of concealed carry.

Pick any two.

The modern compact 9mm is close to the sweet spot of accuracy, firepower and concealability: They’re small enough to carry on a regular basis, they carry enough rounds to get the job done, and they are easy to shoot and practice with.

I personally prefer 9mm because the recoil is manageable and the cartridge size allows you to have a good number of rounds with you at all times. If recoil is more of an issue, look at the Glock 42, Ruger LC380 and KelTec PMR30, as they’re about the same size as those other guns, yet shoot lower-powered but effective cartridges like .380ACP and .22 Magnum.

You may be tempted to buy a smaller-sized gun in 9mm than the ones listed above because you believe you’ll carry a smaller gun more often than you will a larger one. Resist that temptation, because subcompact 9mm’s, like the Ruger LC9 or Glock 43, are to defensive firearms what on-screen keyboards are to touch-typing: They work well only if you know what you’re doing before you get one.

Buying a defensive gun means very little if you’re not willing to have it near you on a day-in, day-out basis. If you’re going to carry your gun, buy at least one holster for your gun, and get used to the weight and bulk of your gun by carrying it with you every day. If you’re not going to carry, make sure your gun is safe from inquisitive hands. You purchased a gun to protect your family from harm — it is essential to make sure they’re protected from harming themselves with it.

No matter which option you chose, get training in how to effectively use your gun under stressful conditions, and make sure you maintain the skills you learned in class with regular practice, because the life you save may be your loved one’s. Or your own.

There are 68 comments.

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  1. Lizzie in IL Inactive
    Lizzie in IL
    @LizzieinIL

    Kevin Creighton: Double Action/Single Action guns also usually don’t have a safety, but they do have a heavier, longer trigger pull for the first shot that requires you to put some thought and effort into what you’re doing,

    My first pistol was a S&W .38, the hammerless Airweight model.  Double action only, definitely a longer, heavier trigger pull on it.  I haven’t shot it in years since being up here, but will take it out to the range now with my other one & get more practice with it.

    • #31
  2. Kevin Creighton Contributor
    Kevin Creighton
    @KevinCreighton

    Lizzie in IL: Double action only, definitely a longer, heavier trigger pull on it.

    (Gun Nerd Stuff)

    Revolvers is slightly different here, even though the words is the same.  Revolvers don’t have a safety, (ok, 99.99% of them don’t, for all you pedants out there…) they are safe the same way a Glock, et al, is safe: Don’t pull the trigger, and you’ll be fine for all eternity.

    Double Action = Pulling the trigger does double duty, it moves the cylinder and cocks the hammer.
    Single Action = Pulling the trigger trips the hammer. That’s it. You got cock the hammer, etc.

    Yeah, I know, it’s confusing….

    • #32
  3. TG Thatcher
    TG
    @TG

    Thanks for posting this, Kevin!

    • #33
  4. Wineguy13 Thatcher
    Wineguy13
    @Wineguy13

    Funny story about the .40 SW.  After my dad’s death, I was the proud owner of over 30 lbs of hand-loaded .40 SW which my father had loaded before selling the pistol (Did I mention he was a scary combination of OCD, retired, and well-heeled?).  So I figured for the price of a M&P .40 SW I could have a BUNCH of fun and sell the pistol afterwards, since I had the same feeling about the cartridge.  A few years later, I still have a few hundred rounds, am still planning on selling the pistol, but will probably get the same model chambered in 9mm or similar since I love the interchangeable grips and action!  My wife actually believed the whole ‘We can’t afford NOT to get the pistol when you consider what the ammo is worth!’ argument.

    • #34
  5. The King Prawn Inactive
    The King Prawn
    @TheKingPrawn

    Just a hunch, but it seems you’ve shied away from anything with a shorter barrel than 3.5″ (except the Ruger at 3.4)…is this where you’re leaning more toward accuracy over concealability?

    • #35
  6. RabbitHoleRedux Inactive
    RabbitHoleRedux
    @RabbitHoleRedux

    Lizzie in IL: My first pistol was a S&W .38, the hammerless Airweight model.  Double action only, definitely a longer, heavier trigger pull on it.  I

    I have it , too. But I still much prefer an open hammer to pull for accuracy, and a larger frame to absorb the kick.

    My son talked me into buying  a 9mm P938 Sig Sauer and it’s a fine little gun for concealed carry. But to be honest, I feel even less comfortable with it than the .38 airweight. I find I always feel more at ease with a revolver.

    Clearing the barrel in the automatics takes a lot of hand grip strength. Maybe I just get nervous. I’m not sure. In a pinch, I now prefer  a heavy COLT or S& W .357 because they don’t move around so much like a smaller weapon in recoil.

    I guess they each have their advantages. A snake gun like the .410 judge is very easy to use, too.

    • #36
  7. Kevin Creighton Contributor
    Kevin Creighton
    @KevinCreighton

    The King Prawn: Just a hunch, but it seems you’ve shied away from anything with a shorter barrel than 3.5″ (except the Ruger at 3.4)…is this where you’re leaning more toward accuracy over concealability?

    Not accuracy per se, but heft. 3.5″ of barrel is also an equally large amount of slide, and probably more frame is well, making for more of a gun to soak up the recoil.

    Force = Mass x Acceleration… it’s not just a good idea, it’s the law! :D

    • #37
  8. The King Prawn Inactive
    The King Prawn
    @TheKingPrawn

    Kevin Creighton:

    The King Prawn: Just a hunch, but it seems you’ve shied away from anything with a shorter barrel than 3.5″ (except the Ruger at 3.4)…is this where you’re leaning more toward accuracy over concealability?

    Not accuracy per se, but heft. 3.5″ of barrel is also an equally large amount of slide, and probably more frame is well, making for more of a gun to soak up the recoil.

    Force = Mass x Acceleration… it’s not just a good idea, it’s the law! :D

    I have a full size H&K USP, so I’ve got the mass down. I don’t mind carrying it OWB, but it’s simply not a concealable pistol. Thankfully I have small hands, so the shorter grips are less of an issue for me where compact/sub-compact pistols are concerned.

    • #38
  9. ctlaw Coolidge
    ctlaw
    @ctlaw

    For those of us living with magazine bans, what would you suggest?

    I think everything you mentioned is designed for high cap mags., thus wasted on us.

    Do you suggest getting 10 round mags. for larger capacity guns (and thus wasting volume), upgunning on caliber, or getting something like a single stack?

    • #39
  10. Kevin Creighton Contributor
    Kevin Creighton
    @KevinCreighton

    ctlaw: Do you suggest getting 10 round mags. for larger capacity guns (and thus wasting volume), upgunning on caliber, or getting something like a single stack?

    U-Haul? ;)

    Actually, it’s been ruminating in my mind for awhile that one of the reasons why we saw Kimber (and others) come out with some top-rank 1911’s for a decent price in the mid-90’s was because of the Clinton Assault Weapons Ban. If you’re limited to 10 rounds or less, ya better make ’em big ones.

    This is one of those rare times I might (MIGHT) suggest a 1911 for personal defense, or else scrounge around and find some pre-ban mags.

    • #40
  11. The King Prawn Inactive
    The King Prawn
    @TheKingPrawn

    I idiosyncratically like 10 rounds because I can subconsciously count to ten and don’t ever expect to be surprised by the slide locking to the rear.

    • #41
  12. ctlaw Coolidge
    ctlaw
    @ctlaw

    Kevin Creighton:

    ctlaw: Do you suggest getting 10 round mags. for larger capacity guns (and thus wasting volume), upgunning on caliber, or getting something like a single stack?

    U-Haul? ;)

    Actually, it’s been ruminating in my mind for awhile that one of the reasons why we saw Kimber (and others) come out with some top-rank 1911’s for a decent price in the mid-90’s was because of the Clinton Assault Weapons Ban. If you’re limited to 10 rounds or less, ya better make ’em big ones.

    This is one of those rare times I might (MIGHT) suggest a 1911 for personal defense, or else scrounge around and find some pre-ban mags.

    Can’t carry pre-ban mags. even if possessed pre-ban.

    • #42
  13. Ryan M Member
    Ryan M
    @RyanM

    ctlaw:

    Kevin Creighton:

    ctlaw: Do you suggest getting 10 round mags. for larger capacity guns (and thus wasting volume), upgunning on caliber, or getting something like a single stack?

    U-Haul? ;)

    Actually, it’s been ruminating in my mind for awhile that one of the reasons why we saw Kimber (and others) come out with some top-rank 1911’s for a decent price in the mid-90’s was because of the Clinton Assault Weapons Ban. If you’re limited to 10 rounds or less, ya better make ’em big ones.

    This is one of those rare times I might (MIGHT) suggest a 1911 for personal defense, or else scrounge around and find some pre-ban mags.

    Can’t carry pre-ban mags. even if possessed pre-ban.

    ah, for carry… not that anyone is checking. I suppose I wouldn’t want to risk my license, but other than that, I’d say to hell with bans.

    • #43
  14. Stu In Tokyo Inactive
    Stu In Tokyo
    @StuInTokyo

    I have never shot a 9mm, a friend’s dad was an RCMP Staff Sergeant and he took us to the range often and we learned how to shoot pistols, but they were all revolvers, at the time the RCMP carried a S&W Model 10, which is a 38 if I recall. I got to be a pretty good shot with that gun. In fact he really taught me how to be a much better shot overall and he taught us boys, my older brother and his two sons, all about guns and gun safety. I was very proficient with my Lee Enfield No.4 Mk I surplus rifle I used for hunting deer, which was the same model of rifle that my grandfather carried into battle in WWII.

    I have an uncle who was a mining assayer, he was badly mauled by a bear once, so he got a handgun license that he called a prospectors license, which allowed him to carry on his person a handgun while in an area considered wilderness. He bought a S&W Model 29, yes the .44 magnum gun. I shot that monster a few times, wow, no thanks. I would guess that if you shot that gun a lot you could become good at it, but for a daily carry, I’d think something smaller would be good. The 9mm really is interesting, I’d love to shoot one.

    • #44
  15. The King Prawn Inactive
    The King Prawn
    @TheKingPrawn

    Stu, what’s the environment like in Japan for personal weapons?

    • #45
  16. Kevin Creighton Contributor
    Kevin Creighton
    @KevinCreighton

    ctlaw: Do you suggest getting 10 round mags. for larger capacity guns (and thus wasting volume), upgunning on caliber, or getting something like a single stack?

    Actually, thinking about it a bit, because I shoot Production/SSP, every pistol match I’ve shot has been with ten round mags, and the Shield I carried for years had an eight round mag. And aside from an active shooter scenario, ten plus one will be enough.

    Go for it. Just carry a spare mag or two. :D

    • #46
  17. Kevin Creighton Contributor
    Kevin Creighton
    @KevinCreighton

    Stu In Tokyo: The 9mm really is interesting, I’d love to shoot one.

    You’re ahead of the curve. I never saw a handgun (except in museums and on the belts of cops) until I moved from Calgary to the U.S.

    Perversely, though, I had fired an automatic weapon, at a open house at Sarcee Barracks. Go figure.

    • #47
  18. Stu In Tokyo Inactive
    Stu In Tokyo
    @StuInTokyo

    The King Prawn:Stu, what’s the environment like in Japan for personal weapons?

    Well even pocket knives are basically against the law, they say you can carry one up to 6.5cm (2-1/2″) but even that small they want you to have a legitimate reason to be carrying a knife of any kind, and no self protection is not legitimate. I have a collapsible baton in my van, and technically it is legal, but if I hit someone with it, and they had no arms at all I’d be in deep do do. If they had a knife, then I’d be OK, maybe. I’ve been thinking of getting a tactical pen, but more for fun than anything, really this is a very safe place.

    • #48
  19. The King Prawn Inactive
    The King Prawn
    @TheKingPrawn

    Stu In Tokyo: Well even pocket knives are basically against the law…really this is a very safe place.

    I’ll go ahead and postulate that the correlation is in no way causal here and that it is more a cultural injunction against unwarranted violence, well except that Yakuza thing.

    • #49
  20. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    Stu In Tokyo:
    Well even pocket knives are basically against the law, they say you can carry one up to 6.5cm (2-1/2″) but even that small they want you to have a legitimate reason to be carrying a knife of any kind, and no self protection is not legitimate. I have a collapsible baton in my van, and technically it is legal, but if I hit someone with it, and they had no arms at all I’d be in deep do do. If they had a knife, then I’d be OK, maybe. I’ve been thinking of getting a tactical pen, but more for fun than anything, really this is a very safe place.

    Stu, given your restrictive environment, here’s an option you may want to investigate:  Get yourself a locking carabiner (full size, as for mountaineering) and a metal kubaton.  Attach the kubaton and your various and sundry keys to the carabiner.  Now, you’ve got a pretty decent collection of field expedient brass knuckles, flail, and striking stick.  All of which can be with you all the time, and easily explained away (the kubaton is for breaking out a window if you’re in a vehicle accident).  Not as good as a Glock or a tactical folder, but better than getting curb-stomped five feet away from your van, thinking longing thoughts of the asp.

    • #50
  21. RabbitHoleRedux Inactive
    RabbitHoleRedux
    @RabbitHoleRedux

    anonymous: You can read thousands of pages of gun reviews and watch hundreds of hours of videos, but nothing other than direct personal experience will tell you what works for you.

    Bingo!

    It’s so personal. And even good advice may just not feel natural in your hands. And if it doesn’t feel natural it won’t be your go to weapon. Still, it’s fun to have a variety for different moods and sometimes just to learn a new technique for fun. ;)

    • #51
  22. Stu In Tokyo Inactive
    Stu In Tokyo
    @StuInTokyo

    Boss Mongo:Stu, given your restrictive environment, here’s an option you may want to investigate….

    —SNIP—

    Sigh….

    I used to carry something very similar to that, made from a very hard wood Lignum Vitae or Iron Wood, it was octagon shaped, and had a hole through the middle, I had a long threaded i-hook that I attached my key ring to on one end and was held in place by a nut welded on on the other, it was shaped, but not to a point. The whole thing was just longer than my palm so that I could use it as a flail with my keys, or in a blunt force fist striking down position. I was stopped several times for being a foreigner and the J cops were bored/racist/had a quota to fill. They always ask for a knife, I never said I had one, except the small one on my key chain. When they saw keychain I had made they asked me what it was for, I told them it was a gift from a friend, that the wood was from a tree that we grew up climbing as kids. When pressed I said it could also be used to pop the window from a car from the inside to get out. I was told that they could arrest me right there for having an weapon. I looked but could find nothing on the books, but, why piss-off the cops.

    Tactical Pen?

    • #52
  23. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    Stu In Tokyo:

    Boss Mongo:Stu, given your restrictive environment, here’s an option you may want to investigate….

    —SNIP—

    Sigh….

    I used to carry something very similar to that, made from a very hard wood Lignum Vitae or Iron Wood, it was octagon shaped, and had a hole through the middle… it was shaped, but not to a point. The whole thing was just longer than my palm so that I could use it as a flail with my keys, or in a blunt force fist striking down position. I was stopped several times for being a foreigner and the J cops were bored/racist/had a quota to fill. They always ask for a knife, I never said I had one, except the small one on my key chain. When they saw keychain I had made they asked me what it was for, I told them it was a gift from a friend, that the wood was from a tree that we grew up climbing as kids. When pressed I said it could also be used to pop the window from a car from the inside to get out. I was told that they could arrest me right there for having an weapon. I looked but could find nothing on the books, but, why piss-off the cops.

    Tactical Pen?

    Tactical Pen.

    • #53
  24. Frank Soto Contributor
    Frank Soto
    @FrankSoto

    Kevin Creighton:Re: Range rentals, not just yes, but HELL YES. $100 in rental fees and ammo can save you buying a $500 gun you hate.

    Also, become friends with other gun owners.  I only needed to rent one handgun gun before I made my first purchase because a buddy brought 6 of his to the range for me to try out.

    • #54
  25. Liz Member
    Liz
    @Liz

    For those of us who live in giant gun-free zones (it is very difficult to obtain permission to own a gun here and if you do finally get one for self-defense, the laws make it extremely risky actually to use it), can you recommend other items or strategies?

    I see Stu mentioned the tactical pen; it seems appealing, but do you have to be a ninja to use it effectively? Situational awareness is clearly the first defense for all of us, but what should be the next step?

    • #55
  26. Stu In Tokyo Inactive
    Stu In Tokyo
    @StuInTokyo

    Liz:For those of us who live in giant gun-free zones (it is very difficult to obtain permission to own a gun here and if you do finally get one for self-defense, the laws make it extremely risky actually to use it), can you recommend other items or strategies?

    I see Stu mentioned the tactical pen; it seems appealing, but do you have to be a ninja to use it effectively? Situational awareness is clearly the first defense for all of us, but what should be the next step?

    I’ve never used one, but I guess you could look at it as a lever, if you have no lever lifting or moving even a medium sized rock is hard work, but with even just a basic lever, say a 2×4 you can lift whole houses, you can move a lot of heavy stuff. If you are being attacked an you hit the person attacking you with a closed fist, yeah it will hurt, but unless you are very strong/skilled/lucky, you will not likely deter them much, if you strike with a tactical pen in your fist, so lets say 2″ of the pen sticking our the bottom of your fist and you do a chop motion with the fist, the 2″ of hard tactical pen, with a point that is designed to pop a car window, that will do a LOT of damage and cause a LOT of pain.

    • #56
  27. Kevin Creighton Contributor
    Kevin Creighton
    @KevinCreighton

    A friend of mine visited England last year, and they’re as nervous about personal defence as the Japanese are. His solution? A “tactical” flashlight that kicked out at least 150’lumens. It’s bright enough to dazzle an opponent in the dark and heavy enough to add more oomph if you need to strike someone with it.

    • #57
  28. ctlaw Coolidge
    ctlaw
    @ctlaw

    Kevin Creighton:A friend of mine visited England last year, and they’re as nervous about personal defence as the Japanese are. His solution? A “tactical” flashlight that kicked out at least 150’lumens. It’s bright enough to dazzle an opponent in the dark and heavy enough to add more oomph if you need to strike someone with it.

    Perhaps that explains why I am constantly being served ads for variations on “the world’s brightest flashlight”.

    • #58
  29. EHerring Coolidge
    EHerring
    @EHerring

    ctlaw:For those of us living with magazine bans, what would you suggest?

    I think everything you mentioned is designed for high cap mags., thus wasted on us.

    Do you suggest getting 10 round mags. for larger capacity guns (and thus wasting volume), upgunning on caliber, or getting something like a single stack?

    For a rifle like an AR, put two mags together, butt to butt, and tape together with duct tape.  You can do a tactical mag release/flip/load quickly.

    • #59
  30. M1919A4 Member
    M1919A4
    @M1919A4

    I am an old revolver man myself and currently have Ruger LCR revolvers in .38 and .357 for my wife and myself.  The trigger is the best I ever have found on an out-of-the-box revolver and the hammer is enclosed, so she can carry it in her purse without worry about its catching on something when it is drawn.

    I do not consider the five round limit a significant handicap, as I feature that anything we encounter outside of the house will be a one-on-one or small group approach and five ought to be enough.  (House defense is in the form of some Remington 870’s strategically located.) But, I am looking at replacing the two we now have with the same model in .327 Federal Magnum for the sixth round in the chamber.

    I load both with .38 +P rounds and do not find the recoil difficult for either of us to handle.  The polymer frames seem to absorb some of the recoil.

    The feature that I like the most is the always-ready but, so long as one does not touch the trigger, always-safe feature.  I also like being able to glance at the rear of the cylinder and tell whether there are rounds in it.

    My own feeling is what Kevin already stressed: whatever weapon one has at home doesn’t matter, if one doesn’t have the weapon at hand, it is worthless.

    • #60
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