This is meant to be a primer for 1st time buyers (or considering to become one) or novices who need a bit of direction. Volumes of books are written every year and dozens of periodicals published every month on the subject of handguns. Now while this may seem a long-winded and wordy and maybe even rather technical rant,...I truly am trying to keep it all as simple and concise as I can. I mean, can anyone write a simple short article on the history of vehicles and the resulting single best car or truck? So bear with me.
Before we should consider what handgun(s) to acquire, one should ponder carefully WHY they seek to do so, and thereby define some parameters to assist their considerations. Is this going to be a primarily DEFENSIVE handgun? The answer is often yes, but what or whom do you anticipate you may need to defend against? If you are a shopkeeper, that would likely be people. But if you live in Alaska, people may be a problem, but so are bears! Thus, you may be in need of considering a LARGE handgun. Everything is relative. Will you ever be carrying your handgun secretly and discreetly as you go about your day? Are you left-handed?
There is no one "best" handgun. There are simply too many variables in individual physiology among humans for that to ever be the case. But there are some models out there that tend to be adaptable to use by the vast majority of folks, and hopefully I will help illuminate you as to what works for you.
I am going to proceed here with the assumption the reader is primarily interested in owning a handgun for defensive use. I will lightly touch on some handguns that are also somewhat suitable to defense against wildlife.
The Myth Of Stopping Power (There is no magic death ray)
Despite what you may have seen in the movies or on TV, handguns do not necessarily put someone down for the count as handily as they are often depicted. In fact, handguns are notoriously poor fight-stoppers. Most people shot with handguns survive. By comparison, most people shot with rifles or shotguns do NOT survive. In the parlance of the modern firearms trainer, this mantra is repeated over and over;..."Your pistol is designed to allow you to get to your rifle." This is because handguns, being small, even the large ones, are designed to fire ammunition that is not as powerful as are full-sized firearms. Thus, handguns are a compromise between lethality and portability. The question is often asked "Why do you carry a gun?", to which some of us say with a smirk "Because a cop is too heavy." Well, without any sarcasm, one can truthfully answer "Why do you carry a handgun?" with "Because getting in and out of my car with my AK47 is a flippin' hassle."
And because of this, people often seek to carry as powerful a handgun as possible. That makes a certain amount of sense at first glance. But as one delves into the morbid science of terminal ballistics (the science of wounds and what bullets do to bodies), you eventually discover the inescapable truth that MARKSMANSHIP plays a greater role in successful application of defensive lethal force than caliber or bullet design. This can be summed up by another old-time gunfighter saying; "A .22 in the eye is more effective that a .44 in the big toe." Obviously.
What this means is that your ultimate selection of handgun should be based firstly and primarily on how accurately you can shoot it. "If you're not making hits, you're just making noise." goes another old gunslinger saying. But I go beyond that and warn you further, that every round you fire is a liability. This is true not only on the range where we practice appropriate discipline and safety so as not to have an accidental wounding,...but it is even MORE true out in the world if you ever have to shoot in defense. There will likely be bystanders. If you miss the justifiably shootable person you are intending to hit, but instead end up hitting the car full of nuns in the background,...well, that is not what anyone wants. And despite being fully justified for pulling the trigger, if you injure or kill a non-guilty person or child, even by the most understandably accidental circumstances,...you may still be in huge trouble. At the very least you will have to live with it. So be brave, be bold,...and be accurate.
To that end, there is a much larger conversation here that we don't have space or time for regarding the ethics of seeking out training. A responsible carrier of a handgun will also responsibly seek to be skilled in its application. Ok,...I won't hit you over the head with that,...for now. Enough said.
But careful selection of your handgun can have a HUGE effect on your likelihood to land hits on target, whether untrained or even if you are. It has to do with ergonomics; the way we humans interface with mechanical machines. Specifically as this regards to handguns, I call this factor "pointability".
Pointability Factor – How To Find It
Understand that if/when you are ever scared for your life and have to suddenly shoot at someone or something, you will likely experience what has been called an "adrenaline dump". Its a natural left over response condition from our days when early humans lived naked on the African plains. If a lion faced you, whether you ran or decided to use your spear, you were at a disadvantage and were going to need that spurt of nervous energy if you had any hope. But that surge of energy disrupts our normally refined motor skills and it even floods our brain in ways that make us tend to exclude temporarily things we don't need to perceive in that moment. Like pain or even sound. And in fact, despite whatever delicate plan we may have had up until that moment, our panic can overwhelm our consciousness and cause us to reflexively act before we even formulate a thought.
Thusly, even if you are a skilled marksman who can confidently and accurately display adept capability,...when the lead starts to fly both ways, that adrenaline dump often causes those fine motor skills to go out the window, and in a panicked fear for one's life its all your overwhelmed organic data processor can do to thrust your handgun outward at the threat and start cranking the trigger as fast as possible. It's not uncommon at all and nothing to be ashamed of really. Fear is fear, and we all experience it.(But let it be known that good repetitive training is designed to help you react according to what you have practiced. Train like you fight, fight like you train.)
What would be ideal is if your handgun, when grabbed and extended toward a target, was indexed so in tune and in line with your body, that it becomes a mere extension of you. So much a part of you that you can aim it as naturally and accurately as you can point your finger. Well, there is a test for that, and here it is.
First, to demonstrate what I'm talking about, pick out an object in the place you are sitting or standing at this very moment. A clock or picture on the wall, for instance. Look at it. Now look away from it. While still looking away from it, point your finger at it. While still pointing your finger, turn your head to look down along your extended arm and notice how closely you have naturally pegged that object blindly. This is natural pointability.
When handling a handgun you are considering, attempt this same exercise. (Make sure the gun is unloaded first, of course, and don't point it at people. Do I need to say this?) Pick a spot on the wall or similar safe thing to point the empty gun at,...look away,...point the handgun at it,...then look down along your arm and the sights on the gun. Whichever pistol you encounter that most readily aligns at or near your target,...this is probably the one for you.
Many things in a gun design can affect this. The width of the grip, the curve or straightness of the grip's shape, the length of pull from backstrap to trigger face, how heavy or large may cause the muzzle to droop one's grip downward. And because there are so many different designs and models out there, to find a truly well pointing pistol may require fondling quite a few.
Ok,...so you've found a handgun with good pointability. Great! But the next challenge to accuracy under stress (and all conditions, really) is the trigger. Why? Because as you pull a trigger and it moves rearward, that act changes physically the dynamics of your gripping the pistol. Thusly, by merely pulling the trigger, your alignment of the sights (usually called your point of aim) changes and moves. When it comes to accuracy, moving sight alignment is bad,...steadiness is our goal. And just the slightest change in grip shape or width and other factors can cause wildly varying difference in such effects from different gun to gun.
At this point it is good to understand the different types of trigger actions found on handguns. We have 1). single-action (SA), 2). double-action (DA), 3). a unique hybrid for some semi-autos called SA/DA. and 4). double-action-only (DAO).
Single-action handguns have a singular manner for the hammer to reach its "cocked" position and the pistol be ready to fire. This is universally by the shooter actually pulling back the hammer to the cocked position. On revolvers, this is done manually every single time by the shooter, but in semi-automatic pistols, while cocked by the shooter for the first round, the cycling of the pistol resets the hammer. Actions of this type usually do not need for the trigger to move hardly at all to "break" and release forward upon the firing pin and fire. Thusly, sight alignment is less often disturbed at the moment of firing and inherently more conducive to putting rounds downrange accurately. However, the downside can be a pistol that can be easily fired unintentionally. To put this in context, picture an old west revolver or an old US Army .45 auto.
Double-action means there are 2 ways for the hammer to reach its apex; the first is the manual cocking as performed on a single-action-only weapon, and the second is to by means of a long trigger travel that internally cams the hammer towards its cocked position and then instantly "breaking" and dropping the hammer. This was a speedy improvement over the old west thumb-busters, and also a safety improvement since one had to make a conscious and deliberate trigger pull to fire the weapon. Accidental discharges were much reduced. The typical 20th century police revolver is a DA revolver.
As auto pistols evolved, some folks desired to get a similar measure of safety as DA revolvers had exhibited. And so the first double-action trigger systems for auto pistols were devised. However, these designs provided for a long and heavy DA trigger pull for the FIRST shot, after which the hammer would reset in the traditional way and successive shots afterward were in single-action mode. These have been dubbed as a class of pistols called SA/DA autos. They tend to dominate the many defensive pistols available today. The famous US military M9 (also known as the Beretta 92F) is an example.
Double-Action-Only is a style that first came about in revolvers. Police departments had a recurring problem with officers at inopportune times cocking their pistols in order to have a more precise and quick first shot available if things at that moment necessitated. Unfortunately, that occasionally allowed an accident to occur, and civilians and fellow cops alike ended up getting wounded or killed when itchy fingers got too excited. So by converting police revolvers to operate only with the long trigger travel and eliminate the feature of being able to cock the gun in single action mode, liability of inadvertent woundings went down. Not all police institutions adopted this, but it was popular with some. As the use of auto pistols over revolvers grew during the 80s and onward, many of these police institutions resisted because the SA/DA autos in use at the time did not offer this level of safety they demanded. Soon, the manufacturers started offering versions of their autos with DAO trigger systems. These autos look nearly identical to their pre-existing SA/DA brothers unless you know what to look for. The tell-tale sign is that they are missing an exposed hammer spur to use to cock them.
A sub-genre of DAO auto pistols are typified by the famously iconic Glock. The Glock is categorized somewhat sort of mistakenly as a double-action-only (which is what allowed it to gain acceptance in law enforcement circles so quickly, since the insurance companies for the departments definitely endorsed pistols less likely to cause suits to be paid out). To be more precise, it is a striker-fired system. In such a system, the striker is never in the cocked position until the pulling of the trigger brings it back to its release point. In as much, yes, it is much like a DAO trigger system. But unlike a more traditional DAO, the distance of trigger travel is not nearly as far and usually not nearly as heavy like those on revolvers. Instead, the Glock trigger can be customized to release levels nearly as light as some single-actions. More on the Glock itself later. But due to its success, many similar designs now abound, so striker-fired handguns really deserve their own category.
Getting back to pointability and how these different triggers affect it,...the point is that all this plays into the physiological and mental game of marksmanship,...especially under stress of the "fight or flight" instinct and adrenaline dump. So beyond merely conducting the pointability drill, it is also advisable (again, with an UNLOADED weapon) to also "dry fire" the prospective acquisition. This means actually pulling the trigger on an empty chamber, and experiencing during that time it takes for the trigger to travel rearward and the release to break, to observe how much your sight alignment (also called your sight picture) wobbles and or pulls downward or to the side sway from your intended aim point. This can cause you while actually shooting to indeed hit low or to the side, and is known as "pulling the shot". If you observe that this occurs, it likely means that while this design fits you well, perhaps you need to handle a model with a different trigger type, or grip, or whatever else may be an option.
And while we are discussing the ergonomics of handguns and how they fit the hand, something to look out for if you have meaty hands (or even if you don't) is how exposed the web of your hand is or isn't to "hammer bite". Hammer bite is when some of the flesh of the hand gets pinched by the hammer on a handgun being thrown back under high velocity by the slide. Older pistols can be prone to this, but as ergonomic considerations prevailed in new designs as time marched on, much was done to eliminate this. But when selecting a pistol, check to see when you grasp it firmly if the web of your hand gets up where it might get impacted. The pictures below show a Browning Hi-Power on the left (notorious for hammer bite) and a customized Colt .45 on the right that has been fitted with a "beaver tail" specifically to protect the hand from hammer bite occurring. Most striker-fired pistols, because they have no exposed hammers, usually are exempt from this worry.
Derringers and Saturday Night Specials
We've been discussing mainly revolvers and automatic pistols so far, but lets take a moment to mention Derringers. These are those very diminutive 1-shot, 2-shot or sometimes even 4-shot pocket-sized deep concealment guns often portrayed as used by riverboat gamblers or nightclub girls.
Guns of this type are meant for up close emergencies only, so using sights with them is almost pointless, and at distances beyond a card table or bedroom, the whole pointability thing applies a little bit, but not so much. If regular sized handguns are a compromise of lethality vs. portability, these are the compromise between concealment vs. ergonomics with lethality coming in 3rd place. There are many things going against these little poppers. Their limited ammunition capacity doesn't provide many opportunities to hit your target. The little beasts are difficult to manipulate even with small hands. Their triggers are usually either very heavy for safety reasons or so light as to be dangerous. And because of their light weight, they recoil sharply and somewhat painfully. But despite all that, they absolutely excel at concealment. And because they are so unobtrusive, simply fitting into your pants pocket or change purse, its easy to ALWAYS have it with you. And the 1st rule of a gunfight is HAVE A GUN. Your Dirty Harry magnum does you no good when its in your glove box while you're being accosted while out walking.
Similarly, little .22 and .25 caliber auto pistols that can fit in your pocket are also better than nothing. While little calibers such as these are not known for being "man-stoppers", they have indeed slain many people. As mentioned before, bullet placement on target is what's most important.
Back in the 70s they were tagged with the derisive name Saturday Night Specials because they were the cheapest handgun you could buy and were sometimes used in crime because they were considered disposable. While true that they ended up in crime scenes in disproportionate numbers compared to regular sized guns because they were cheap, they also were used in many many instances of self defense in ghettos everywhere for the exact same reason. If a crappy Saturday Night Special is all you can afford, then by golly get what you can afford. After all, the 1st rule is,...HAVE A GUN!
Alright, let's say you have identified a few designs that have good pointability and all, but you have the option of several calibers. What is good, best or just plain bad?
Well,...more ink has been spilled upon the pages of print media on this topic than,...golly,...I can't imagine. The science of terminal ballistics can be as mysterious as ethereal shamanistic rituals. It is both modern and arcane at once. But to sum it up as briefly as possible, one needs to understand the methods by which bullets create the wounds they make. This can be a bit gory, so I apologize.
Firstly, there is the most obvious means of wounding, which in the parlance of the ballistician and medical technician is called the "Permanent Crush Cavity". This is the pathway of destroyed flesh that the bullet actually impacts and pulverizes as it passes through the body. But secondarily, the next means is the "Temporary Stretch Cavity", created by the hydrostatic shock wave a projectile makes as it passes through our flesh that is 90% water. Drop a rock into water, and watch as it impacts and sinks you can momentarily see a hole in the water larger than the rock itself before the water closes back in on itself. The same happens to us with bullets of sufficient velocity.
While the permanent crush cavity process of wounding is very straight forward and easy to understand, there has been over the years a great deal of misunderstanding, disagreement and just bad amateur pseudo-science about the significance or lethal effect temporary stretch can have or what other physiological effects it can produce. For instance, the earliest myths of "stopping power" or "knockdown power"emanated from the idea of "energy transfer", when the mathematical sum of mass and speed impacts an animal or man. Even if a bullet completely exits, it has certainly slowed down and expended energy within. This energy, it was theorized, it some way overwhelmed the body's central nervous system, causing messages to the legs, for example, to buckle and the body to fall, even if the wound was not a fatal one. For decades this was accepted, in part because it is not altogether inaccurate. But physiology of animals and men are more complicated than that.
Now here we should pause and explain that the hydrostatic effect that creates temporary stretch cavity is minimal in handgun cartridges, because handguns fire relatively weak calibers, at least as compared to rifles and shotguns. In fact, the reason rifles are far deadlier than handguns is because of the much higher velocity they throw bullets at, even though those projectiles are usually smaller and lighter than those expelled by handguns. Ballistic science identified many decades ago that there is a velocity threshold past which bullets actually do more damage by velocity than by mass. The mechanisms, however, to handle the power necessary to fire such powerful ammo, are too large to design into a nicely portable or concealable handgun.
And yet, despite all I just described, there is a flip-side to this, which is that frontal impact surface area of a projectile, if sufficiently large, can just like a big rock dropped into water, create hydrostatic shock out of proportion to its velocity. So for instance, a shotgun slug creates a significant wound not only because it is bigger, but because it displaces so much of that 90% water bag in its path. When expanding bullets were invented, it was noticed that not only did the permanent crush cavity increase and thereby become more effective in "stopping power", but because the increased frontal surface area of the expanded bullet also increased resistance to forward momentum, they usually did not exit or at least not as often. This decreased liability of the bullet continuing onward and striking something or someone you did not wish to.
All of this comes down to, as it relates to handguns, the eventual development of the Hollow-Point projectile. Previous handgun ammo for defensive use was just plain rounded profile projectiles that did not expand. This made the mathematics of lethality for pistols rather simple. A .32 caliber obviously created a larger wound than a .22, and a .45 made a bigger hole than a .38, so that was best. And for non-expanding bullets today, that still holds true. But larger bullets are also heavier bullets, and tend to over-penetrate humans and become liabilities downrange where innocents may be. As a result, police officers during the 1900s to 1930s were often issued .32 caliber guns, due to the thinking that this was "enough gun" without needless liability. While this idea still held with most European police institutions well into the 80s, that idea fell out of favor in the U.S. before the breakout of WW2. The typical urban officer such as NYPD decided the .38 was better, even if it occasionally blew right through suspects.
But in the 70s, American sport shooters began to develop what one might call the first of the extreme sports; handgun hunting. Yes, handguns historically were under-powered, but it recent times had become more powerful as manufacturing and science progressed in capability, allowing for more powerful pieces. The iconic .44magnum, for instance, came to market in 1955 and immediately was embraced for forays into bear territory and other dangerous places. And as it proved it was more effective than anything that came before, some people began realizing it was a whole lot easier to pack through the brush than a rifle. More large bore powerhouse calibers were developed. But also, attention was given to developing expanding projectiles for use in such pursuits. Something that had not really been done very much before. It was during this time renewed interest in the hollow point bullet increased. The hollow point had been around since just before the turn of the century, but had been outlawed in warfare, so pretty much forgotten. Lead alloy formulation had also changed a lot in that time and lead used in most bullets was of a much harder state than that used 80 years before. Thus, handgun hollow point bullets of 70s and early 80s tended to perform as designed when driven to maximum velocities found in magnum hand cannons, but did not open reliably in more moderate calibers and regular velocity loadings. Eventually, science conquered the problem, and most hollow points (HP) today perform reliably in most applications.
But this gets us back to the Temporary Stretch Cavity. Depending on the level of energy transfer a given bullet design may generate as it flowers open while transiting through flesh, that tissue which is violently pushed aside is sometimes done so powerfully enough that it does not merely stretch,...but tears and rips. And in this fashion, small bullets end up making bigger wounds than their size would indicate. This phenomenon also varies on the TYPE of flesh impacted. Fatty tissue is rather elastic and stretches more readily with less tearing, while the opposite is true of muscle tissue, which tears up more destructively under the same conditions.
Great, you say. You will be sure to go buy hollow point ammunition for your defensive pistol. Well,...hold on a second. HP ammo is not always the universal enhancer of handguns it at first appears to be. For one, older auto pistols were designed only to feed and function reliably with rounded profile bullets, and the blunt nose of HP ammo can and does cause malfunctions in a lot of those. Any machine upon which your life may depend needs to work 100% of the time, so that would be bad. Yes, you can simply acquire one of the most modern handguns; one which has been specifically designed and engineered to be a reliable feeder of hollow points. But also, some calibers for smaller guns just still don't have enough velocity to ensure a HP bullet will expand. And even if they do, doing so may stop the bullet too shallow and not penetrate deeply enough to do the necessary damage. For these "weak" calibers, plain old regular rounded profile bullets can still be the best option.
At this point, I should also make brief mention of the difference of effect mere pistols have exhibited on regular people vs. "druggies". There are many, many accounts recorded of police shootings involving suspects under the influence of drugs or alcohol who withstood many non-survivable wounds but who just did not fall down or cease hostilities until they either bled out (which can take a surprisingly long time) or took a round to the brain. Pistolcraft as taught by many today focuses on aiming for center mass as has been the traditional practice,...but upon not observing desired results of ending the confrontation, to then aim at taking out the body's support structure which keeps it erect and in motion,...which is the pelvis. Yes, a head shot will end everything, but that is actually a rather small target and usually bobbing and weaving. The pelvis is larger and easier to hit.
So, ideally, we want a bullet that is not likely to over-penetrate, for liability reasons,...yet, we need it to have enough energy to penetrate enough to smash bones. This is quite a difficult balance, actually.
So I have listed here some of the most popular handgun calibers. I have left off some of the larger ones because this is of course an introductory article for those rather new to weapons. The bigger calibers I'm leaving off this list would just simply be a ridiculous choice.
.22LR(long rifle) – At handgun velocities, the HP bullets rarely open up, just use round nose (RN)
.25acp - Exactly same advice as for .22 given above / low power
.32acp - Exactly same advice as for .22 given above / low power
.380acp - Exactly same advice as for .22 given above / low power
9mm - Very developed mid-power cartridge, HP ammo works well and recommended, most common
.38spl. - Very developed mid-power cartridge, HP ammo listed as +P works well and recommended
.40S&W - Very developed mid-power cartridge, HP ammo works well and is recommended
.45acp – Low velocity but big bore, most HP ammo works well, very developed mid/high-power
.357magnum – Very developed, highly effective, HPs work well, high-power
As I said before, the MOST important factor in a defensive handgun is getting hits on target. I wish to stress again that choice of calibers and bullet design comes AFTER good pointability and marksmanship. But if you have a choice between 2 or more options,...consider the largest/powerful one you can competently use effectively. If that is only a little .22 pocket pistol, so be it.
Metal Or Plastic (past vs future)
Guns will always contain at least some metal, but use of plastics in them is increasing ever more. In 1982, the Glock pistol first appeared and changed minds forever about how durable and reliable a gun can be despite extensive use of polymers for much of their design. Although it took over a decade for many to embrace the "plastic fantastic", the gun manufacturing world began copying from the Glock playbook. Today, gunsmiths are working hard to adapt. They trained to be craftsmen hand working steel and wood, and yet now need to be aware of and handy in polymers and epoxies as well. Non-plastic weapons are sooooooo last century.
While auto pistols have been the vehicle upon which the polymers development of handguns has been riding, revolvers now are finally being adapted and designed using plastic as well. But these have been mostly for mid-range power level calibers. For the truly powerful bruisers like the magnums, I don't see them being anything but metal for quite some time. Titanium and Scandium as well as plain old Aluminum are also still being used in addition to steel.
Is there any benefit to a steel gun vs a plastic one anymore? Well, in at least one category, yes. Weight, and how that absorbs recoil. While a heavier gun can be more fatiguing to wear and carry, the heavier a handgun is, the less felt recoil (or kick) it will impart. If one spends a lot of time practicing marksmanship with their all steel handgun, it will simply be less fatiguing to shoot that large amount of ammo if it is steel than if it is lightweight aluminum, for instance.
But one of the reasons Glocks were so well embraced by cops is the lighter weight that the plastic made possible. If you haven't carried a big block of steel on your belt for 8 or more hours a day year after year, you might not be aware of how that wears on you physically. Some officers develop back problems to a slight degree as a result. The struggle is real. As well, if you carry it concealed in a hot climate like Phoenix or Miami, you're likely to sweat all over it. Nothing corrodes steel better than alkaline salty sweat. But plastic,...not a problem.
As time has gone on and everyone has tried to beat or at least be equal to the Glock when it comes to their own plastic-based pistol design, some have developed some new twists that are truly noteworthy. The Swiss firm of SIG, for instance, in their recently developed P320 model, designed it so that the serial number is assigned to the trigger pack assembly. As a result, the plastic frame, which is the normally regulated piece considered the firearm, is replaceable with any number of variant types without having to register them as separate guns. Thus, one could choose to purchase all the pieces necessary to assemble their P320 into many different versions of the gun without anywhere being on record as possessing more than 1 handgun. This modularity seems likely to become more common and popular. As it happens, the US Army recently adopted the SIG P320 as the M17, to replace the Beretta 92F/M9.
Desirable Features, Enhancements and Customization
After seeing all the varied models of handguns available out in the world, you might ask why. Well, much like why car development didn't stop with the Model T Ford or the Volkswagon Beetle. There is always a new idea for efficiency of performance or manufacturing or both. Usually these steps forward are small and incremental for each new development. Some consumers can't wait to abandon their current model to embrace the newest thing, while others loyally cling to their old beloved antique because it gives them a sense of security. But regardless, progress marches on.
A study in this phenomenon is the cult of the.45 caliber M1911 pistol. When it premiered on the world stage in 1911, it was the most modern and amazing handgun yet devised. In a time when revolvers reined as the kings of firepower, the 1911 had 33% more rounds on tap, reloaded and got into action more quickly, fired a cartridge equal in effectiveness to the most powerful then available and could expend those rounds downrange even quicker than experienced revolver shooters. It wasn't until 1935 that the same inventor, John M. Browning, created a competitor (the Browning Hi-Power) that held 75% more ammo, but of the smaller and less powerful 9mm. 3 years later, the German army adopted the first SA/DA auto pistol (the Walther P38). But despite these developments, after 2 world wars, Korea and Vietnam, millions of former U.S. soldiers had seen the combat effectiveness of the 1911 over these and others out in the ultimate experimental testing ground.
This not only invigorated the existing cult of the 1911 but also continued to build it. However, with that many fans, there inevitably are those within the cult who are bound to be prone to experimentation. And throughout the decades, various gunsmiths and customizers slowly identified some places where the 1911 was not perfect and could be enhanced. Despite being over 107 years old, the design is still alive today because of those modifications that keep it relevant. But unfortunately, being designed that long ago, with manufacturing processes of the day, manufacturing the 1911 today is more labor intensive and expensive than many more recent and modern alternatives, such as the Glock. Never the less, some folks just won't let go of their 1911 pistols, including the U.S. Marines.
While not as old as the 1911, the Glock has developed a cult following as well;...perhaps an even larger one. And has done so in only 36 years. And the reason why is that the inventors of the Glock took note of all improvements made to handguns over previous decades, and tried to stuff as many of those into one overall unit of design, as well as innovating use of the most modern manufacturing and processes. Interestingly, Glock had prior to that moment never designed or manufactured a gun before. It was because of this that they were not biased by what a gun should look like or function like. Aside from its well known significant use of plastic, the Glock was also ergonomically well crafted. It utilized a rather radical grip angle that forced the wrist to lock rigid in order to align the sights and in doing so created rather natural pointability characteristics; it had no exposed hammer to accidentally hook on clothing when attempting to draw from concealment; neither did it have any sharp edges anywhere that could inadvertently injure the handler during rough or panicked handling; critical metal components were given a space-age finish that was nearly as hard as diamonds and the most corrosion-resistant yet devised which was also a matte black non-reflective "tactical"; had good protection for the web of the hand during cycling; and it was designed to feed even the most blunt and ill-designed hollow point ammunition reliably. While all of these features were available on a heavily customized 1911, the cost for commissioning one built with these was significant and prohibitive for most consumers. However, the Glock came from the factory with these as standard, and the cost was less than a non-customized 1911 by hundreds of dollars.
So here follows my list of features that should ideally be on a handgun you acquire. Perhaps you will not need all of these, and if so, then ignore those items. But consider these when you are looking at a prospective purchase.
1). Corrosion resistance finish – When the 1911 was invented, blued steel was the corrosion resistant finish most commonly available. For those with the bucks to spend on it, nickel plating was the ultimate. But the race to develop how to get to the moon as well as the Space Shuttle program resulted in finishes that are out of this world (no pun intended). Melonite, titanium nitride, nickel-boron as well as ceramic-based finishes are some of the most recent and amazing developments. Some of these are colorable and some guns these days come in a rainbow of possibilities. Titanium Nitride, often seen on drill bits, gives a gold color. But the most common of these as a factory finish is Melonite, also known as salt-nitride or simply nitride. It gives a non-reflective matte black look and is rated for thousands of hours of resistance to salt-water spray, so sweating all over it when tucked in your waistband won't ruin it. Many handguns are simply made of stainless steel, with some left "in the white" or highly polished to please the eye, while others sometimes give them a colored or tactically matte finish. Stainless steel is certainly better than regular steel in resisting corrosion, but is not as "stainless" as some might believe. I have personally "stained" a few stainless steel guns due to my alkaline sweat. But that was due to lack of care on my part. As long as one daily cleans and oils any stainless weapon exposed to sweat or salty fluid (that especially includes blood), it will continue to look and function fine.
2). Reliability – Your handgun is a machine. Machines can malfunction and break. Some machines are better designed than others. But this is a machine that your life may depend on. Some people say that a gun which only malfunctions 1% of the time is ok. But would you want to fly in an airplane that only lands safely 99% of the time? Determining which handgun meets your reliability quotient can be tricky. Newer designs tend to almost all feed modern HP ammo reliably. And of course, nearly every pistol feeds rounded point bullets. But I have seen new pistols from reputable brands escape the factory with quality control issues that affect reliable function, more than once. The end result is this;...you MUST test and verify that your particular combination of handgun and ammunition choice actually work as advertized.
Never assume that just because you bought what others have told you is the best that they in fact are and work. As Reagan said, trust, but verify.
3). Sights and Sighting Systems – The regular sights that come on your weapon are usually referred to as "iron sights", because back in the day, they were always made of iron, just like the rest of the gun. While today they may be plastic, that is the term. Anything using glass or a prism is simply referred to as an "optic". Optics are relatively new to defensive handguns. I tend to be old school and dislike them, but others raved that they are the future. Regardless of which you end up preferring, the plain old plain sights of old have been eclipsed by modern enhancements. Specifically, illumination. Very common to add as an upgrade to traditional "iron sights" are versions with vials of radioactive Tritium inlaid within them.
Tritium is a product used in fusion reactors as well as some nuclear weapons to enhance yield. But by itself it is relatively harmless and very low in emission. However, it is unique in that it is self-luminescent, having a useful half-life of 10 years or more. When used in low light situations, hit probability improves radically. I have insisted on having these on every serious handgun I have ever owned or ever will.
In recent years, competitors in simulated combat shooting sports have been using miniaturized Heads-Up-Display (HUD) micro optics (also known as "reflex" sights) in place of iron sights, believing they are easier for the eyes to pick up the illuminated aiming dot with critical speed. This pioneering use has eventually led to some people adapting these to their Every Day Carry (EDC) handguns. Although battery powered, the technology has evolved to where internal motion sensors turn itself off when sitting still. And even when activated, the amperage draw is so small, battery life is rated in thousands of hours.
While Tritium powered iron sights run from $70 to $150, HUD optics usually cost $200 to $350, depending on brand and quality. HUDs also add to the size of your handgun and can adversely affect its ease of concealability.
4). Accessory Rails for mounting lights/lasers – Many defensive shootings occur either at night or elsewhere dark and poorly lit. Trying to manipulate a flashlight in one hand and a handgun in the other is something police officers struggled with for decades. But the advent of small yet powerful LED flashlights eventually led to mounting them on pistols. As the ability to do this with ease and modularity has seen nearly all modern auto pistol designs (and some revolvers) to include mounting rails for attaching these types of very useful tactical illuminators. Laser pointing sights have also reduced much in size, and can be mounted using the same rail systems. To make things even better (if perhaps a little complicated), there are modules on the market which offer BOTH illumination and laser designation. Older pre-rail era designs can be modified by having a gunsmith mount a rail to your hunk of steel, but incurs extra cost.
Rail-mounted lights and lasers vary greatly as to cost and quality, so if you desire one, you will have to research them on your own. An entire article could be written about just these alone.
"Dehorning" or "melting" - I mentioned earlier that one of the things Glock got right was making sure that they already had no sharp edges anywhere on the pistol as it arrived new in the box. While not a new desirable feature, this "melting" or "dehorning" of corners and edges was traditionally something that was a custom service performed by a skilled gunsmith AFTER you bought a pistol. Thanks to Glock, the bar has been raised, and now many competitors seek to do the same. This may not seem like a big deal at first. But after you have worn a concealed handgun tucked in your waistband behind your kidney all day,...sitting and twisting and bending,...you will come to appreciate a smooth-surfaced weapon. Many a detective or citizen has ruined the lining of their coat or jacket where their pistol constantly rubbed and abraded. Its kind of like having a rock in your shoe. And when it comes to rapid and panicked operating of your pistol, even in practice sessions, the smallest raised edge can draw blood when handling the gun roughly like you well might do when the deal is real.
A firearm is merely a tool. A machine. Like many machines and tools, to achieve real utility, you often need accessories.
1). Feeding Devices – Your auto pistol uses a magazine (also knows as a mag or clip) and usually comes with at least 1, sometimes 2 or 3. Police officers often carry a minimum of 2 extra mags on their duty belt. You might say, "Well of course. Their profession is dangerous and they are out there looking for trouble." While true, cops also often have back-up and other cops to bolster their situation. YOU DON'T!! While you may not be looking for trouble, when trouble does find you, you will likely be alone,...or at least likely the only person armed to handle whatever is happening. And today, that thing which may happen to you often involves more than one bad guy. Are you willing to gamble that you will be able to handle anything that comes your way with ONLY the one magazine in your handgun? Do you carry a spare tire in your vehicle? Then carry at least one spare magazine. Also, if/when you put in time at the range practicing, you should also be practicing reloading your weapon under time and stress. In doing this, you might mishandle one or two magazines and end up damaging them. Magazines are consumables. They break on occasion and need replacing. Better to have more than you need on hand for when you do. As the Navy Seals say;..."two is one, one is none."
Besides which,...high capacity magazines are under legislative threat. During the years 1994 to 2004, when manufacture of new production magazines over 10 rounds was forbidden, the pre-existing finite supply often commanded 3 or 4 times the cost prior to that time. Similarly, during the scare after Obama's stated intention to pass sweeping gun control schemes after the December 2012 Newtown massacre, when it seemed very likely for the bans to return,...prices shot up again. Today, whether you despise Trump or like him, we are experiencing a calm and affordable market for gun stuff. It will not last. Time to buy is now. If the next administration is not gun-friendly, you will regret not investing in magazines today.
And if you resist the modern trend and instead opt for a revolver (nothing wrong with that), I urge you to acquire and learn to use some "speed loaders". These are devices which hold another bunch of rounds ready to load into your revolver's cylinder once you empty it of the spent cases. With a little practice it is much faster than simply holding a handful of loose cartridges and loading them one at a time.
Another option, though less popular, is the use of "moon clips". These are flat sheet metal pieces which hold cartridges ready to be just slapped into the cylinder altogether, operating even faster than speedloaders, which have to be manipulated to release the cartridges into the cylinder. Moon clips are far easier. But, only some revolvers are manufactured to be compatible with moon clips, and having a revolver modified to use them can be expensive.
2). Holsters - You probably don't shop often for a wallet. But when you do, it is likely only then that you realize there are so many ways to design one to achieve its relatively simple task. Some fancy leather ones seem nice, but they can get dog-eared and ugly over time. Nylon ones are cheap and functional but kind of plain. And really, it is nearly the same when it comes to holsters, which are kind of like a gun wallet. And like wallets, you can end up spending way too much for good looks and you can spend way too little on poorly made crap. The dilemma of how to choose a proper holster can easily require its own article. But consider the case recently in the news of the FBI agent whose concealed pistol came free and fell out on the dance floor while he was off duty having a good time. In his excited, exhausted and drunken state, when he reached down to quickly retrieve it, the gun went off, wounding an innocent bystander. Would this have happened if he was using a holster with proper retention? I suspect not. While there are many arguments to be made in favor of open top "inside-the-waistband" (IWB) type holsters for ease of draw,...this situation would be an argument against it and to have one utilizing a retention strap. If you are female, you may determine you shall keep your gun in your purse. If so, you should certainly look into getting one made for that purpose. Imagine all the typical crud and debris that gather in the bottom of a purse. Imagine that getting into the inner workings of your gun and causing it to malfunction! Also imagine getting your purse snatched. Maybe on-body carry like men do is preferred after all.
Attention to detail to whatever holster or carry system you choose is much more important than you likely realize. Ask any cop. They carry their weapon more than they ever fire it, and so will you. They draw from their holsters and reinsert into their holsters nearly every day and several times a day. Aside from how this can wear on your gun (which is why I prefer leather), it is an opportunity for accidents. Even when properly trained to keep your finger out of the way when pushing back into the holster, badly worn or poorly made holsters can cause an accidental discharge. See the picture below to see what I mean.
What happened here is that the protective area meant to cover the trigger and prevent it from getting inadvertently activated actually got much softer and pliable over time and was able to scrunch up and insert itself into the pathway as the pistol was being reholstered. As a result of this sort of accident, some folks have come to prefer the rigid plastic types of holsters, often made from Kydex.
While Kydex is impervious to body oils and sweat and is easily moldable to custom shapes and provides excellent resistance to abuse and abrasion,...it is a hard surface that is encasing your handgun. Repeated insertion and retraction will likely mar or wear any except the most resilient of finishes. But if your handgun is merely a tool, does it need to be pretty? Only you can decide.
3). Lasers/lights – In my own personal opinion, use of laser aiming devices is not preferable to tritium-powered night sights. However, you may disagree and want one. Likewise, while I believe weapon-mounted flashlights are indeed very useful for cops, I believe their utility for the average person is a bit less. But everyone's circumstances are different. There are two important types of switches for activating these lights and lasers, the first being some sort of pressure switch, which is depressed when gripping the handgun and activates the unit. The other is a little toggle type mounted on the rear of the unit, near the front of the trigger guard . While the grip switch seems intuitive and simple, it can have the drawback of being instantly on and illuminating when perhaps you don't desire it at that moment. The toggle switch type on the back of a unit allows you to simply extend your trigger finger forward to activate it when you need it. In fact, some accidental discharges have occurred when folks have tried to mount their grip switch on the front of the grip in such a way as to allow it to be selectively activated. But as physical therapy folks can tell you, under stress when you try to squeeze only one particular finger, you sometimes inadvertently squeeze two or three,...which can have disastrous results.
I have owned a couple of these, and at least for me and my size of hands and fingers, operating the toggle type switch with the trigger finger was not difficult and I believe is safer. But again, no one set of gear fits all hands and all circumstances, so before buying one of these, try to get your hands on a few handle them first.
Handguns Suitable Against Deadly Wildlife (and other unique options)
Perhaps you occasionally venture into wilderness areas where bears or mountain lions are. While even a mid-level caliber suited to use on humans, like the 9mm, is better than nothing, if facing an angry grizzly bear, you'd much rather have something a bit more deadly.
For use in territory populated by deadly animals, the usual choice is a revolver of magnum caliber. Sportsmen and outdoor professionals have usually opted for these. Some of the ones designed in recent decades have been with ridiculously powerful new calibers, such as .500magnum, .454Casull and .480Ruger. But leave those bruisers to the professionals. They require a LOT of skill and practice to wield effectively.
If you are not a dedicated gundude, something like a .357 or .44magnum would be still effective and yet easier to learn to handle. And as a special bonus, revolvers chambered in these mid-20th century calibers can also be used with milder less powerful calibers of similar dimensions more user-friendly for defense against people. .357 guns can also shoot .38special, while .44magnums can likewise shoot the shorter .44special. Your magnum revolver could thereby be utilized for whichever niche it might need to fill, merely by stuffing it with the right ammunition.
However, some large bore auto pistols meant primarily for use on people have saved quite a few folks from dangerous animals. We are referring mostly to .45 calibers here, but 10mm have served adequately as well.
The Shotgun Pistol
A unique revolver exists today that has become rather popular for self-defense, but which is also capable of taking on deadly animals. These are revolvers chambered in .45LC (Long Colt) but with slightly stretched length cylinders to allow for also being able to chamber .410 shotgun shells.
The dimensions of the .410 shell and the .45LC cartridge are so similar in body and rim diameter that this is possible. The result is a wide variety of ammunition that can be used. The .45LC cartridge is powerful enough to defend against most predators, and is no slouch even against bears. And anti-personnel hollow-points are certainly available. But the options provided by the variety of .410 shells is what makes these truly interesting.
Like all shotgun calibers, there are .410 shells which throw slugs (single projectiles), or buckshot (several projectiles), or birdshot (a swarm of small BBs).
The birdshot option has intrigued some buyers for several reasons. Some who are not confident in their ability to place bullets where they need to go on target feel that a mini shotgun shell such as the .410 will allow them to at least hit their assailant. Also, if one misses their attacker, at least the birdshot will lose velocity quickly due to low mass and become less lethal (and eventually non-lethal) as it travels downrange. At distances beyond 15 feet, the birdshot is likely to not result in death, which can be important for folks seeking to thwart an attacker, but who really want to avoid ever taking a life. By aiming at the head, one can incapacitate an assailant, yet not kill them.
As well, inside a home, a pattern of birdshot will penetrate far less drywall or furniture, reducing potentially any likelihood of wounding family members elsewhere in the house. Birdshot is also very effective on rattlesnakes.
The first and most popular of these revolvers I'm talking about was The Judge, made by Taurus.
Taurus later developed a partially polymer version called The Public Defender.
Due to the success and volume of sales of these .45/.410 revolvers, Smith & Wesson came out with their version, called The Governor. But unlike the Taurus offerings, S&W took it just a step further and made theirs with 6 rounds instead of 5, and also engineered it to accept short and stubby .45acp rounds in moon clips. The Judge can be modified to be used with moon clips, but that will cost extra $ spent with a gunsmith. However, since the Judge costs nearly half of a Governor, maybe that's worth it?!
And perhaps the greatest "less lethal" ammunition option for these unique shotgun pistols is known as "dragon's breath". These are shells loaded with magnesium shavings rather than birdshot or buckshot. When fired, the gunpowder ignites these white hot shavings that burn brightly and intense. Being so light in mass, at nearly any distance except point blank they are nearly incapable of penetrating someone. But they easily blind, distract, confuse and generally discombobulate people being shot at with them. But since magnesium burns at 880 degrees, the flakes have a nasty habit of setting stuff on fire,...including clothing. So while shooting dragon's breath in the house may cause your attacker to run away (on fire), it is also likely to burn it all down.
See a link below to a video of these things.
How To Seek Out Further Advice
I certainly have likely not covered EVERYTHING here. And while I hope this article helps you out, you will undoubtedly have more questions. So how best to go about seeking answers to those questions?
Of course, the internet is full of all kinds of data. Including a lot of biased, inaccurate, unsupported and just plain wrong data and opinions. Lots of folks on the internet claim to be knowledgeable about guns, including me. But who should you listen to? Who knows what they're talking about and who's talking out of their Congress hole? There is no easy answer to that, although the gundude community does tend to police itself when it comes fake experts giving crappy advice and obviously don't know what they're talking about. We call guys like that "Mall Ninjas". Wannabes who will never be.
If you have a friend or acquaintance who owns what appears to you to be an abnormally large number of firearms, they might know a little bit or even a lot. But when you converse with them on the subject of their gun knowledge, see if you can detect an appropriate level of humility and a willingness to admit if/when they don't know something or haven't seen it or done it.
There are too many know-it-alls in the world, and they can get you killed. Likewise, even if your friend has a lot of good knowledge to impart to you, it would be best if they know how to describe things to you in non-expert language.
Sometimes we gundudes get so caught up in our unique terminology that we occasionally forget that new folks to the gun world may not know the lingo. If your gun friend starts spewing so much information at you that it feels like drinking from the fire hose,...it's ok to tell them to slow it down and pursue one topic at a time. A patient friend will happily do so.
If you don't have any gun buddies or care not to crawl down the time-sucking rabbit-hole that the internet gun forums can be, feel free to ask&