Choosing a Handgun

Deciding to own a handgun is a deeply personal and private undertaking.  There is not only a lot to think about and consider, but also much to learn and understand before you go out and purchase your first sidearm.  So, before you even consider owning that firearm, let’s talk through the array of possibilities generally regarded as the most likely sets of conclusions one has arrived at that reach the realization that the ownership of a handgun is not only advisable but also desired.


What to consider:


First, you need to know the status of the laws pertaining to firearms as they apply to you.  These wide variety of laws, rules, ordinances, regulations and forbearances affect all firearms owners and begin at the federal level.  Without getting into too much legal detail, suffice it to say that federal laws mostly concern the kinds of firearms available to be sold to the civilian market within the United States.  Federal law also regulates the licensing of dealers, the methods of firearm transfer, shipping, individual background checking, and things of this nature.


What is left to the laws of the individual states is the specific determinations about who can possess and carry sidearms, where they can be carried, and what restrictions can be applied to different classes of owners, etc.  Each of the 50 states vary widely when it comes to handgun regulation.  What is perfectly legal in one state is banned outright in others.


A good example of this is comparing the laws in New York with those of Colorado.  In New York, each county has control over the issuance of handgun permits.  In the New York City area for example, no other counties permits are recognized or are valid.  It is nearly impossible to obtain a concealed permit in New York City, (ironically the place you may feel you need it the most.)  In some NY counties, obtaining a handgun permit is quite simple.  In other counties, it is nearly impossible.  The controlling factor in NY is the county court judge in each county, which is in charge of the process.  If he or she is firearms friendly, then the process tends to be easier in that county.  If the judge has an aversion to guns, then the process becomes painfully slow or practically impossible.


By contrast, in Colorado, it is legal, without a permit, to carry a sidearm in public, as long as it is exposed and not concealed.  It is legal, without a permit, to have a handgun in your home or in your car.  The only situation in which Colorado law requires the acquisition of a permit is in the case that you would like to carry a sidearm concealed.


So, depending on the state in which you reside, the laws are going to be very different from one state to another.  Also important to know is that neighboring state may or may not have reciprocity with your state regarding your rights to possess or carry your handgun in that state.  The good news is that these laws and regulations are readily available via the internet and each state has them published on their websites.


Also note that those folks involved in the business of selling firearms and gun related accessories are generally pretty knowledgeable about the local rules and regulations as well.  I do not suggest that you take what the local sports store employee has to say as gospel, but at least you can get a general idea of what the local rules are as they apply to you.  Always verify with your local law enforcement authorities your understanding of the laws as they apply to you in the state in which you live.


Once you have learned the laws and regulations that apply to you and your circumstances and it is determined that you are legally eligible to own a firearm, then the next question you should be asking yourself is simply; Why?  What is it you wish to accomplish?  Is your desire for personal protection?  If so, is that concern more in terms of your home, in your car, in your office, when you jog, travel?  Maybe you simply want to learn to be a great marksman and shot targets at your local gun club.  Perhaps you’re simply a collector and wish to obtain certain guns because they appeal to you for personal reasons, maybe your dad was a police officer, or he brought a weapon home from the war and this got you interested in collecting.  Answering this question of why will determine what kind of firearm you will buy.


Like shoes, hats and jackets, one firearm cannot and will not fulfill all of the requirements you have for all circumstances.  What works best for target shooting may not be at all suitable for collecting.  What is great for home defense is correspondingly the wrong choice for your car.  Just like hiking shoes work best in the woods, sneakers work best in the gym.  Knowing this, if this is your first firearm purchase, keep in mind that fulfilling the single biggest goal you have first in mind might just be properly tempered against the information you are about to learn from this article.  For example, if cost is a major issue and you can only afford to purchase a single firearm and not more in the foreseeable future, then your consideration in choosing a weapon will be different from those others who look to own several or even many firearms.


The most likely distinction between new shooters to the world of handguns is probably the question of whether or not you have ever fired a firearm of any kind?  Furthermore, have you ever fired a handgun before?  If you have absolutely no experience with firearms at all, that is a big distinction between someone with basic knowledge and understanding of guns and gun safety.  Many folks have fired rifles or other “long guns”, but never handled a handgun.  Understanding your position in this experience matrix will allow you to customize the level and quality of training you will need to become safe, confident and proficient.  There is no component of firearms more important than your level of training.  Safety cannot be over-emphasized.  Remember, you’re dealing with an inherently deadly weapon.  Carelessness and ignorance take lives by mistake, and this can be avoided with proper training and then personal discipline in adhering to the rules.  Seek out the services of a trained, credentialed professional in handgun safety.


So, not only do handguns come in a variety of types, they also are defined by the caliber, or in basic terms, the size of the projectile.  If you simply Google handguns, you’ll see over 14 millions hits, so learning about types of handguns and their calibers is a matter I’ll only slightly touch upon for the sake of clarifying what I anticipate will be your most basic questions.


Your basic decision in handguns come down to two choices, (even though there are many variations on this generalization,), either choosing a revolver or an automatic.  The revolver is sometimes called a “wheel gun”, because it has a round cylinder that revolves each time the trigger is pulled, exposing another bullet for firing.  Most revolvers offer 6 rounds of ammunition, some smaller caliber guns feature 8.  Revolvers were very popular in years past, before the refinement of the automatic types, which did not initially perform flawlessly 30 years ago.  Revolvers also do not have as large a choice of calibers as are found in the offerings for automatics.  With revolvers, spend shell casings remain in the cylinder whereas in automatics, spend shell casings are automatically ejected out of the gun as they are fired.


Criminals and “hit men” prefer revolvers because no evidence is left at the crime scene via spent shell casings which may have fingerprints, and also readily identify the caliber of the gun used in the crime.


The term “automatic” is widely and freely used to describe the other types of handguns that are not revolvers, but the term is actually incorrect.  Technically, a true automatic weapon is capable of firing rapidly and automatically, as long as the trigger is kept depressed.  The handguns herein referred to as “automatics” are actually semi-automatics, it just happens that over time, common usage of the term has slipped into shortening the words to simply automatic.  In semi-automatic firearms, each single pull of the trigger releases a single projectile.  In order to fire rapidly and release multiple projectiles, the user must physically pull the trigger each and every time for each and every bullet, as opposed to the true automatic weapon which requires only a single depressed trigger to release bullets as fast as they are cycled through the weapon.  Guns of this type are generally banned from civilian ownership, which some limited exceptions.  Where you see true automatic weapon use is in military applications.  More often than not, these weapons are referred to as “machine-guns.”  Some fully automatic weapons are capable of firing between 600 and 1200 rounds per minute with the single pull of the trigger!


So the first decision is revolver or automatic.  I think most of you will conclude that the automatics of today are absolutely as reliable as the older style revolver and also offer more versatility in the array of calibers.  Additionally, most automatics allow for a much higher numbers of bullets than the standard 6 in a revolver.  Some automatics have magazines that store as many as 17, so firepower is also dramatically improved, especially important when considering self-defense.  And lastly, concealing a automatic is generally easier than concealing a revolver, simply because the revolver protrudes because of the cylinder, making for lumpy bumps under your clothes, (if you’re interested in carrying your handgun concealed.)  Automatics tend to be flatter because instead of a revolving cylinder holding the bullets, the magazine in the traditional automatic is housed inside the handle of the weapon.


OK, automatic it is, (for most of you.)  Now, What caliber?


Again, I’m keeping this simple and basic, so please those of you with superior knowledge about all the nuanced calibers, exceptions and oddities regarding firearms, I know and understand, but for the purposes of explaining this to neophytes, I’m going to make some generalizations.


The smallest and lightest caliber is the .22.  The numeric designation simply means that the diameter of the shell casing is .22 inches.  Commonly referred to as a “twenty-two”, this is probably the most common caliber in the world.   It is a widely used as an entry level cartridge to teach and introduce young people to hunting and shooting sports.  Available for rifle and handguns, this caliber is very versatile.  Also, the 22 is the least expensive round to purchase and produces almost no recoil, making shooting easier and more effective in teaching and training.  The downside of the 22 is the fact that the round is also the weakest of the calibers in terms of stopping power.  Make no mistake, a 22 can be lethal, (this caliber weapon was responsible for the assassination of Robert Kennedy), but in general terms, it is not considered as a serious choice for self-defense.  It is the perfect caliber for learning and teaching, it is also nicely suitable for target shooting or even squirrel and rabbit hunting, but it lacks any real credible place in the arsenal of anyone seeking a personal- protection weapon.


I could write about every other caliber and detail each, but for the sake of this entry-level informational article, let’s say this about making that choice.  In very general terms, the bigger the projectile, (caliber), the more stopping power.  The flip side of this is the larger and heavier the gun, and the more difficult it is to accurately control the recoil.  As the caliber goes up, so too does the price of ammunition, much to consider.


Many shooter like the 9MM for a nice balance between too light and too heavy.  Another common choice and very popular caliber is the .40.  Both offer good stopping power with manageable recoil.  Generally speaking, and in my opinion only, anything less than 9MM is unacceptable for self-defense.  If you are a target shooter the 22 is perfect.  If you are new to the sport, the smaller calibers are easier to learn and control.  The experts seem to all gravitate eventually to the .45, the granddaddy of all calibers, but I would suggest waiting until you are expert in marksmanship before making that transition.


I want to make one minor exception to my assertion about smaller calibers and stopping power.  In certain very limited situations, a smaller caliber is just the right solution for self-protection in very specific roles.  For example, I enjoy bicycling.  When I cycle, I sometimes carry a small frame, .380 automatic that fits nicely into the hip pocket of my biking shorts.  The gun is super small, and if it ever comes into play, it will be in very close quarters, so the trade-off in stopping power is made up for in how close to my adversary I would likely be in that limited situation.  In addition, the need for a smaller size in a sporting environment with limited ways in which to conceal a larger weapon in the absence of street cloths with many pockets is a consideration.  Also of note, if you have small hands, a smaller frame gun may be better for you in enabling you to best control the weapon.  Regarding the .380 in particular, even though this cartridge is in my opinion too small for my every day carry needs, in close quarters, and with the right hollow-point ammunition, the stopping power of this little cartridge can be dramatically increased with technology.


Again, to not get too far into the technical world of ballistics, each caliber also has multiple choices regarding the specific types of projectiles available for differing applications.  These differences have to do with the amount of power in which the projectile is expelled from the barrel.  Different application call for differing velocities.  Also the shape and type of material the actual bullet is made from can be customized to fit your specific needs.  I referred earlier to a cartridge called a hollow-point.  This is one of the choices that distinguish the nuanced differences that exist within the same caliber cartridge, but addressing differing needs.  Consult with your sporting goods dealer when it comes to deciding what type of ammunition is best for your conditions.  There are many choices and much to learn.


All right, we’ve worked through first, the legal realities for your possession of a handgun and also answered the question of why you want to possess a weapon and for what specific purpose.  This process is meant to help you narrow your choices amongst the myriad of handguns available.  Next comes deciding the make, model and caliber of your first handgun and then finally, your choice of ammunition.  I hope this article has helped you make those decisions in a thoughtful manner.  Best of luck to you.


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