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Choosing Your First Defensive Firearm
If 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 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.Published in Guns
Why didn’t you include Springfield Armory?
Very interesting, and it sounds like great advice.
The “Conceal Carry Balancing Act” graphic reminds me of what I tell my clients all the time “Good, Fast, Cheap, Pick Two”. It is funny to see them sometimes do a little mental dance with that.
If you have to pick two on your graphic for a daily carry, I would think that Concealable and Accurate would be my choices. Concealable because it would make is easier as a daily carry, no? Accurate because powerful misses are of little use.
Solid, common-sense post. The only additional advice I would add for the first-time buyer turns on your statement that guns are a consumer product. True, but brand loyalty out there makes Dodge vs. Ford debates sound like a church choir: harmonious.
The brand loyalty of “gun folk” can warp discussions. If the gun salesman you’re talking to is a Sig guy, he’ll definitely, probably overtly, try to “nudge” you in that direction. Read all you can of the “pros” and cons” of the brands in the list above–definitely a solid list–and you’ll discover that most of the differences boil down to personal preference, usually ergonomics. If at all possible, go to a gun store with a range and try all the brands you are considering; most people find that there’s a brand out there that feels like a natural fit. Someone who feels like the Glock just slipped into his hands and he was driving nails, probably won’t feel the same about the fit of a Sig.
Same thing with caliber loyalty. I concur with all of Kevin’s pro points on the 9mm, but there’s always the chance (particularly in a gun store, particularly particularly with a gun salesman) of running into the manly man that’ll tell you 9mm is alright “if you squat to pee” or “if you’re going to throw it at ‘im.” Don’t worry about that. It’s all about shot placement.
Would a good strategy be to go to a gun range that will rent you the guns to try out? To see how they feel in your hand and how they shoot? Under the instruction of a pro at the range, I would think this would be a really good idea, kind of like a test ride/drive.
No love for .40?
Your post is very timely in that I intend to increase the arms in my home significantly. There is simply too much going on/wrong in the world to have only one weapon with which to protect my family.
I like your list a lot. I’m really hoping to shoot several soon and decide which is right for me. The FN is quite a looker, but when I held the M&P Shield it felt like it was modeled on my hand.
Do you have any thoughts on a home defense long gun? I’m leaning toward one of the lower end AR platforms, something reliable and without a lot of bells and whistles.
If recoil in a 9mm is a concern, I’d also recommend the Walther CCP. Fairly low recoil, decently small, and I’d say it is accurate (I’m accurate with mine, but I’m sure your mileage will vary depending on how accurate you are to begin with).
Also, if you think a smaller gun will limit recoil, you’re wrong. The Ruger LCP wants to bite your trigger finger off every time you fire it. It’s a .380 but tiny, so snappy. Also, it is difficult to rack, and extremely difficult to lock back, due to a pretty tight spring.
With regards to the brands I listed in the post, yes, I left a bunch off. The Springfield XD is a great gun, as are the Walthers in this range. Beretta is coming out with their APX next year as well.
I’m probably going to incite a mini-riot with this, but in general, I recommend staying away from budget brands like Taurus and Bersa. A year ago, I might have recommended Taurus with more vigor, but their recent lawsuit over something so basic as building a gun that doesn’t discharge when dropped has made me hesitant to recommend them.
If you really, really, REALLY can’t afford the $500 for any of the guns I’ve mentioned, get a Bersa or Taurus and keep it running.
Something like this is a good way to store a handgun safely.
Yes! At my local gun range, you pay the range fee + ammo + rentals for 2 guns, and they let you shoot off as many different guns as you want. It is extremely helpful to compare them side by side.
Just for clarity – Taurus did recall that model and will repair your gun at no charge, correct? I agree with your hesitation to choose them among competitors, but I wouldn’t be concerned that the Taurus you already own is unsafe (unless it has been recalled and you have not gotten it fixed).
Thanks for the follow up Kevin.
I’ve owned five (5) Springfields. The first was a TRP ego gun. Then a Champion .45 followed by an XD .45 custom, XD(M) 9mm custom, and XD(S) .45.
The Champion got sold, didn’t need 2 vanity guns.
The XD .45 was used so much I wore it out and sold it for dirt cheap. The buyer thinks it is the greatest thing since sliced bread, but I could tell a difference.
Great words abut the tradeoffs. My EDC is the XD(S) .45 and I cringe when I train with it, but it is very nice to carry. The XD(M) 9 custom is the dream gun to shoot and compete with, but tough to conceal.
This is the most advisable strategy, but is not always possible. I live about 30 miles from a nice indoor range that will rent me everything I want to test, but after including ferry fare and other things it costs me a C-Note and 3 hours just for the commute.
Re: .40, no, no love whatsoever. :)
.40 S&W is a compromise cartridge brought about by outdated bullet designs and the inability of Federal agents to deal with 10mm. In today’s world, modern bonded hollow core ammo in 9mm can produce all the wounding of a .40 round, with less recoil and more boollits in your gun.
Ok, so then do you agree with some who say that 9mm is the absolute smallest you should ever carry? I’ve been considering a Sig P238 because of my wardrobe – it is not really a possibility for me to buy all new suits, and the CCP is a bit too big for my wasteband, and considerably too big for ankle carry.
Re: Range rentals, not just yes, but HELL YES. $100 in rental fees and ammo can save you buying a $500 gun you hate.
Re: Long guns. In general, I like shotguns for the home and ARs for the road, but don’t overlook lever guns and pistol caliber carbines as well.
More on that later.
I went for the compromise round because when the Navy switched from the venerable 1911 in .45 to the M9 I went from earning my sharpshooter ribbon every qualification to barely being allowed to carry. However, much of that may have been the pistol rather than the ammo. I also shot much better with the M14 (still the best rifle to shoot, worst to carry) than with the M16.
Of late I’ve contemplated the .357 SIG just to be weird.
Look forward to it. I lean away from shotguns due to a shoulder that just won’t take that much recoil anymore. I can’t remember the M16 even having a recoil (surely it had some, but was so light as to not leave an impression), so the 16″ barrel AR is probably where I’ll end up.
I’ve found a different range to try with good rental prices. It’s twice as far away, but a shorter trip with less expense since there is no ferry involved.
A USP Compact .40 was my carry-of-choice until ammo started drying up (after a certain someone ascended to a certain office and many prudent people started hoardi–er, stocking up).
One thing to remember about a .40 is that, when federal agencies swapped to .40, a lot of companies used the same chassis as they did for the 9mm and just started machining thinner, bigger bore barrels. For pistols made by ze Germans, not too much of a problem since they over-engineer everything. I’ve heard some pretty competent pistoleros articulate some pretty valid reservations on other brands, though.
Indeed. Part of why my research took me to H&K, who are just trolling me now.
In general? Yes.
I’ve seen good ballistics tests on .22 Magnum, and there are .380 rounds like the Hornady XTP bullet that will go through the FBI-standard of 4 layers of denim and 12″ of gel.
That’ll leave a mark…
If I have to play dress up and can’t carry my usual assortment of gadgets, I have a .380ACP KelTec P3AT in a pocket holster with me. I don’t really like the P3AT, but it was just about the only option out there when I bought in 2006. I much prefer the Sig P238 because it’s made of metal, not plastic. That added weight puts it closer to the right side of F=MA than most other pocket guns, which affects accuracy and makes it more fun to practice with. Plus its action is much easier to rack than other pocket guns, making it a good choice for people who lack upper body strength.
One thing against the P238 is because it’s built on (sorta) the 1911 platform, it does have a manual safety. If you’re ok with flicking that off in the panic of a bad situation, go for it. Also, it costs almost twice as much as the KelTec. Would I prefer to have something bigger/more accurate/more powerful on me than a pocket .380? Yep, but that little KelTec is better than pointed sticks or harsh language…
I just bought the S&W M&P Shield 9mm over the weekend. Came highly recommended for concealed carry by my brother, who has the same. My sis-in-law carries a Glock 19, which will be my next purchase…agree with KP that having only one firearm isn’t nearly enough for the times we’re in. I must say the guys at the store/range were very nice & helpful in rounding out my purchasing experience, they made the whole thing easy & enjoyable, & gave me lots of good tips. I got extra mags, holster, ammo & such. At the recommendation of one of your earlier posts, Kevin, I also put together a little tactical bag, with flashlight, knife, a mini-Leatherman, lighter, & some paracord. I’m obsessed with preparedness these days. What’s your opinion on the Shield?
After I take my basic-pistol class & get in more range time, I’m paying up for IL’s CCL courses. The whole endeavor is expensive, but worth it IMH$9O.
Own one, love it, was my daily carry for years until things got weird last month and I wanted to carry something that made more of an… impression on potential bad guys.
Boollits are good. More boollits are more gooder. :D
Spend the $160 for an Apex trigger kit, you’ll be glad you did. It makes it more accurate, easier to shoot and if “Five Thumbs” me can install it, so can you.
I looked at the picture before reading the text, and thought “you carry shot shells?” Got it…
Will do on that trigger kit, I can pick one up when I go pick up Shieldy on the 9th. I’m excited to learn all about it & get so comfortable with it, it becomes like a second pair of Ugg slippers for me. :)
This is very, very important. I had a week long school while in the Navy. I fired more rounds each day during the school than I fired cumulatively otherwise while in the service. We strapped on the pistol first thing in the morning and carried it all day. I became more comfortable being armed during that school than I thought possible. Civilian life provides me much less opportunity for carrying since most of the time when I leave the house I’m headed to a giant gun free zone known as a Navy base. Ironic, I know.
Actually, I have a Bersa in 380 and carry it a lot. Added Crimson Trace Laser grips several years ago and haven’t looked back. My Bersa has reliably taken every type of ammo I have fed it and not had a single problem. I also periodically will carry other firearms but the Bersa in a pocket carry is what I normally do around town.
One thing I should mention (Caution: Here There Be Gun Nerd Stuff) are the advantages of a “striker-fired” pistol versus “single action” or “Double Action/Single Action” pistols for the first time gun owner.
Gun Talk: “Action” = “What actually makes the gun go ‘BANG!’ when you pull the trigger”.
In general (and this is a SWEEPING generalization) striker-fired guns have two advantages over those other two actions: A lack of a manual safety to flick off during stress, and a consistent trigger pull between the first shot and every other shot. You’d think that a lack of a safety is a bad thing, (and to be fair, I know of smart, tough, dangerous people who prefer pistols with safeties), but the only way to get any of the guns I’ve mentioned to go BANG on command is to put your finger on the trigger and pull back. They are very, very safe, and I have no problems carrying one around with me, loaded and ready to go.
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, and then every shot after that has a lighter trigger pull, usually lighter than most striker guns.
Me? To be honest, I like DA/SA guns, but that opinion is increasingly out of favor in the gun world these days.
KP- agree on the need for total mastery of your firearm. I want complete, embedded muscle memory, where precious seconds aren’t being wasted in a real threat situation by any fumbling around. You’re right that civilian life will draw this process out, since you have to prioritize putting in the range time to get really proficient…I’d love to go to a week-long training camp! Spartan Tactical out here offers weekend courses on all kinds firearms & training – once they get their 2016 calendar up, I’ll probably take my CCL course from them. Yes, I’m in gun-free zones all the time at work too (hospital/medical offices), which makes me nervous.
I’ve been privileged to attend a couple different schools and training courses that provided a quantum leap forward in sidearm proficiency. Like most people, I don’t get to the range nearly as much as I’d like to. However, one of the best instructors I had pointed out and demonstrated that there are a lot of websites out there specifically to enable dry fire training, and that if you can’t hie to a range, proficiency can be maintained with good dry fire evolutions.