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What should I buy for my first handgun?

Updated: Nov 13, 2023

If you have been thinking about getting your first handgun you have come to the right place! There are a million different options out there and it can be a bit bewildering. What caliber? Subcompact, compact or full size? Red dot or iron sights? What features are important? I'm here to help.



So many choices!


I'm going to look at this question from the perspective of someone who wants to get a handgun with the potential of using it to defend themselves or others. If you just want a gun for fun times at the range then go get whatever makes you happy! Whether that is an enormous revolver or a quirky foreign thing in some rare caliber, there's nothing wrong with getting a gun just because you think it's cool.



My wrist hurts just looking at that thing


Believe it or not, this gun shoots rockets!


If you are looking for a more practical option and want to be able to use it for self-defense I have just what you need. I don't always follow the rules so my suggestion for your first handgun is actually....two handguns. That's right, two. If you can't afford two I totally understand and you can skip the first one but if you can swing it you will be able to train more and more training is always better.


My first suggestion isn't actually something I would use for self-defense at all. I think the best first handgun is a .22 pistol. I know, I know, you wanted something practical to protect yourself, why would I recommend a little .22? The answer is a gun is more of a liability than a tool if you don't know how to use it.


A .22 caliber semi-automatic modeled after a larger handgun gives you the opportunity to jump start your firearm training. Most popular brands have .22 versions of their combat pistols and they make great training guns. If you are new to shooting a .22 is a perfect first gun to start your training journey. A .22 will have very little recoil, it will be quieter than a larger handgun and most importantly it will be cheap to shoot. Cheap ammo and low recoil means shooting more rounds during practice becomes fun and cheap instead of tiring and costly.


Personally I have both a Sig P322 and a Taurus TX22 I bought as trainers for students. I will have full reviews for both available soon but in short, the P322 is a nicer gun but comes at a much greater price. The TX22 was less than $300, has all the features I wanted and has run flawlessly. For the price it really is hard to beat. Unfortunately I have to recommend against the Glock 44 which is their .22 offering. This might seem odd when you see my next suggestion but the Glock 44 just isn't a very good gun compared to the other options on the market right now. FN also makes the FN502 which has pretty positive reviews. All of these options will have the same controls and overall feel as their bigger brothers and skills learned on them will carry over to larger guns.


Sig P322

Taurus TX22



Now that you have some rounds and range time under your belt you want the real meat and potatoes, a do-everything self-defense handgun. If budget is a concern you could probably sell your .22 to help fund your next gun however a fun .22 pistol is always something good to have on hand and is great for introducing other people to shooting.


My number 1 suggestion for your first defensive handgun is the venerable and ubiquitous Glock 19.




The Glock 19 in all its glory


The Glock 19 is a compact or midsize 9mm with a magazine capacity of 15 rounds. It is extremely reliable, easy to use, and has a massive aftermarket for parts and upgrades. For me the G19 ticks all my boxes.


Semi-Automatic

For me this is a must. There are a few arguments to be made for revolvers but in my opinion they aren't very convincing and there is a reason no modern military or law enforcement agency is still using revolvers. The Army and Marines stopped issuing revolvers over 100 years ago, it's time to move on.


Size

The G19 is a midsized handgun which means it is small enough to conceal without being too uncomfortable, but large enough to be easy to shoot. Getting a sub-compact gun for a first gun will make learning how to shoot much harder than it needs to be. Smaller guns have more recoil, less surface area to grip, a shorter sight radius which makes them harder to aim, and increased recoil. Remember, a smaller gun doesn't mean less recoil, it is shooting the same bullet as a larger gun but has a lot less mass to control that recoil.


Caliber

The Glock 19 is chambered in 9mm. I would consider 9mm the ideal defensive and everyday caliber. Anything smaller than 9mm is not ideal ballistically for self-defense (skip the little .380s). Anything larger tends to bring increased weight, recoil, and reduced ammo capacity. 9mm ammo is extremely common and can be found everywhere. It is relatively affordable compared to other calibers and has a wide variety of different bullet options. Don't let anyone tell you that you need a .40 or a .45 to stop somebody. When it comes to actual performance inside a human body all those rounds will do almost identical damage.


Magazine Capacity

The Glock 19 holds 15 rounds plus one in the chamber. For defensive uses more is always better. A full-size 1911 might have a slightly larger bullet but I'll take 16 chances over 8 any day.


Spare parts and Aftermarket support

This is a huge one for me. Personally I would agree that there are better handguns than the G19. It is ugly, blocky, comes with lackluster iron sights, lacks some features of newer guns and really hasn't changed much in over a decade. There are guns I shoot better than the Glock but there is an advantage Glock has over all other handguns and that is its ubiquity. The Glock family of handguns is the best-selling and most common handgun in the United States. Millions of civilians and many Law Enforcement agencies use Glocks, ensuring that finding spare parts and magazines is always possible. If you come across a handgun in the United States there's a decent possibility it will be a Glock and knowing how to use it is a big advantage. In addition, there is a massive aftermarket for Glock parts. Everything from holsters to triggers, barrels, frames, compensators, magazines and slides can all be found easily. If a stock Glock isn't good enough for you there are enough parts out there that you can upgrade it to your heart's desire (and the limits of your wallet!).



This started life as a basic Glock 19


Red dot or iron sights

Here is a big one. Do you want to start with iron sights or pay the extra and get one of those fancy red dots? Like the best of questions...the answer is - it depends. I'll give you the pros and cons of both and you can decide for yourself.


Price

The Glock 19 isn't what I would consider cheap but it is reasonably priced for what you get. If you are buying new they can be found for $450-$550. You can find cheaper guns and you can certainly find much more expensive guns but for what you get the price is pretty good. If you are the kind of person who likes having upgrades on everything or just have a bigger budget I have included a more expensive option at the end of this article for those who want something a bit more upgraded and don't mind spending $650-$850.



Iron sights - The basic way firearms have been aimed for hundreds of years. Iron sights never run out of batteries, don't require adjusting and come with your gun. They are simple and you can be both fast and accurate using irons. Many instructors say you should learn how to shoot irons because that is what you are most likely to find on most guns. I think a small part of that is old school instructors who think red dots are "cheating" but they do have a point that many guns do not have red dots and if your red dot ever dies you are left with your irons so you should know how to shoot them.


As for the downsides, iron sights can be difficult for beginners to learn. Lining up three separate posts in 3 dimensional space while trying to figure out where and what to focus on can be a lot for new shooters. The basic premise of shooting iron sights involves having your focus on the front sight while the target behind it is blurry and unfocused. The problem with that is twofold. For one it isn't how our eyes are designed to work. Think about hitting a pool ball, throwing a dart, shooting an arrow or throwing a football, in all these examples your eyes focus on your target, not some floating point in front of your face. When it comes to a stressful life or death scenario you will most likely target focus and look straight past that front sight. Having to pull your focus back to the front sight can be difficult. That isn't to say you can't use iron sights in a gun fight, people have been doing it for hundreds of years, but just because that's the way it has been done doesn't mean it can't be done better.


Another downside is that iron sights can be tough to use for people with vision problems. Shooting accurately with the sights all blurring into one is difficult to say the least. Many older shooters find shooting with red dots much easier as their eyes can still pick up a red dot just fine.





Red Dots - In my opinion red dots are the future for handguns. The same paradigm shift happened with rifles over the last two decades or so. Rifles went from almost exclusively having iron sights to red dots, holographic optics and scopes. Many people fought the change saying iron sights have always been good enough but now you won't find a professional military or law enforcement unit without optics on their rifles. That same shift is slowly happening with pistols but the same benefits red dots bring to rifles are all present with pistols so I think it is only a matter of time. Red dots have some great upsides but they are not without disadvantages.


On the plus side they are very simple to use. There is no lining up posts, just put the dot where you want the bullet to go and pull the trigger. You can stay target focused and look straight through your optic and like magic there is a little red dot super imposed on your target. You don't have to change your focus from target to front sight and it is much easier to determine when your shot is lined up. Oftentimes I've had students struggling with accuracy, even at relatively close distances. I give them my red dot equipped handgun and they start printing nice accurate groups. This tells me their weapon handling is just fine but they are having trouble lining up their sights accurately. Red dots are also much easier to use at longer ranges as they don't suffer from the problems iron sights do as they start obscuring your target as you get farther away and giving you a smaller and smaller margin for error.


While I do think red dots are the future I don't think they are for everyone. Red dots require a lot of practice. Once you get the concept of aiming with iron sights you will be able to pick up your sights very quickly as you present your gun to shoot. In contrast if you don't line up your gun perfectly with a red dot you may find you cannot see that little dot at all. This can be a big problem and leads to many people finding themselves considerably slower with a red dot when they switch from irons. I was the same way when I switched. I would find myself losing the dot and your mind finds it very hard to pull that trigger without some kind of aiming reference. With iron sights you can see when you are "good enough" for your particular shot. If you are shooting close range that is all you need. With a red dot you might "close enough" but there is a mental block when it comes to pulling the trigger until you see that red dot.


If you are not willing to commit to hours of practice and many hundreds if not thousands of draws to get accustomed to acquiring that dot I would caution against them.


Another disadvantage to red dots is that they are inherently more complicated and require more work than iron sights. You must ensure the optic is securely mounted, you must zero it and keep up with battery changes when needed. If you are the kind of person who will probably never practice and will throw a gun in a drawer for emergencies a red dot might not be for you.



Holosun ACSS Vulcan Reticle


My advice overall? If you primarily want a gun to learn with, to shoot at the range and to have at home just in case, try a red dot and get proficient with it. If you strictly want something for conceal carry and you don't think you are going to practice much, go with irons (and make sure they are night sights!).


So there it is, all those guns out there, all those choices...get yourself a .22 trainer and a Glock 19, easy!


Hey! I've got a bigger budget and want something fancier or more upgraded, should I upgrade that Glock?


You certainly could upgrade your Glock. There are a million options out there but if you are new I would leave it stock until you know what you might want to change. Messing around with a Glock too much is a good way to ruin its reliability.


With that being said there is another option and it's actually what I personally use for my main handgun and that's a Shadow Systems gun, specifically the MR920 is the one I'd get. The MR920 is basically a Glock 19 with all the fixings. It already has many of the upgrades you might eventually do and its for a price lower than it would cost you to piece together. It comes with factory reliability and fits G19 holsters. This would be my go-to right now if you can afford an extra $200-$300 over a stock G19.



Shadow Systems MR920 Elite

Shadow System MR920 Elite




So there you have it, good luck with your first purchase and don't forget that awesome new gun of yours is no good to you if you don't know how to use it! Happy training!











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