Many people I know are aware of my interest and experience with firearms. As a former licensed gun dealer, police officer, SWAT team member, rangemaster and armorer for my police department, NRA safe range officer, NRA certified Police Instructor, NRA certified Rifle and Pistol Instructor, Concealed Weapon Permit Instructor, amateur gunsmith, someone who has carried a firearm almost daily

for over 30 years, and all around firearms and shooting sports enthusiast, I am often approached by those who want information or advice on what gun someone should buy for themselves – generally for self protection purposes. As a result, I have compiled some suggestions that tend to answer the most common questions I have been asked. Remember that these are basic suggestions for those with little experience with firearms. Someone with more experience or different needs would be given different responses.


And this is where you need to be honest with yourself: can you actually shoot someone who is a threat to you or someone you care about? Contrary to some myths, “threatening” someone with a gun rarely works. You should expect that to stop someone from harming you when you have a firearm, you will have to actually shoot them. If you are not able to do that, you may be better off to get a dog, an upgraded alarm system, or even a baseball bat.

Don’t think that having a gun is the answer to your safety concerns – a gun is only a tool. A gun carried for defense has a limited use – to apply potentially deadly force against someone who is about to harm you. Beyond that, it doesn’t do much else. Don’t count on it to scare away someone who poses a threat to you – it might, but it probably won’t. As firearms trainer Clint Smith says: if you want to scare someone, get a Halloween mask or a big dog. The ultimate safety tool is your mindset, and being ready to defend yourself against those who may harm you.

Also, be aware that if you make the commitment to carrying a firearm for defense, you should carry whenever and wherever you can legally. If you have the ability to know in advance when you will need to defend yourself, then you should be using that ability to pick lottery numbers. People have been attacked and needed to defend themselves in church, at a movie theater, mowing their lawn, walking into a store to get a cup of coffee, or just going for a walk in the neighborhood. It’s better to have it with you and not need it – that to need it and not have it.

There can easily be a financial cost of $1,000.00 or even more. A quality handgun is only part of the equation. Other costs will include: ammunition, holsters, cleaning supplies, accessories and safety equipment. An initial training class to qualify for a concealed weapon permit, and the fees that accompany the background check and license will need to be considered. And, if at all possible, there should be additional training after you get your license or permit. This training would move from being able to use your firearm – to being able to fight and defend yourself using a firearm – a much different set of skills.

The responsibility will continue beyond that. A firearm requires care, maintenance, and additional expenses such as ammunition and a holster. It also brings with it the responsibility to keep it secured and out of the hands of those who are unqualified or at risk should they get access. This could be either keeping it on your person or in an appropriate storage container. You also have an obligation to maintain a minimum level of skill and regularly practice with its function and operation – this will require time, and cost for supplies.

Handguns in General:

If you knew you were going to be in a shootout tomorrow afternoon, you would probably decide to stay home. If that wasn’t an option, you would probably want to carry a rifle or a shotgun with you, and bring several friends with guns as well. A handgun is easy to conceal on your person and convenient to carry with you most of the time – that’s why we have them. Remember: a handgun, any handgun, is a compromise between having the big firepower of a long gun and the ability to carry and conceal a firearm.

Bigger guns and bigger bullets may work better – but they are harder to conceal and the heavy recoil can make them difficult to shoot. Little guns or really lightweight guns are easy to conceal or carry, but they can be hard to shoot, and if they have small bullets – little bullets won’t always be as effective as larger or more powerful ones. Often, and especially in this case, the best option is likely something in the middle.

While a specific gun and ammunition combination might be better than another in a specific set of circumstances, what is more important is being able to get good hits on the threat in a short period of time. A fast accurate hit in a vital area – is always more effective than a slower miss. Instead of looking at the minutia of fine differences of caliber, model, and type of gun – get something that you can shoot well – and then practice with it so you can shoot it quickly and accurately.

Without having a lot of experience with firearms, how do you make a good choice when deciding what firearm will work best? Common sense suggests that if tens or hundreds of thousands of people who carry a firearm to protect themselves choose a specific gun, that might be a good place to start. Law enforcement agencies, including federal, state and regional/local law enforcement agencies have to supply their sworn staff with firearms that will protect themselves and the cities, town, or areas for which they are responsible. This, combined with many years of history in what works and what doesn’t, will be a good place from where we can start.

For several years I was responsible for equipping the police officers in my department with firearms and ammunition. I did a lot of research, and spent a lot of time and effort in making sure what our officers carried would work when they needed to defend themselves or others. My experience suggests that certain firearms, ammunition, and training techniques are the most likely to work in self defense situations, and that’s what I offer to you.

Again, before I start getting into specifics, I want to remind you that in my comments and suggestions I strive to go for the most practical, popular and realistic answer to the question posed. There can always be exceptions and outliers in any situation, but rather than address each and every possible scenario, I will focus on the “best” answer for the “most” people and situations. Let’s start will some general information.

Self Defense Guns:

There are two primary considerations in choosing a firearm for self defense. Both are equally important. The first is reliability. If your firearm isn’t reliable, it may fail to work when you need it most. There are places in your life where you can cut back and same money – taking a sandwich for lunch instead of eating out, or buying the generic store brand soda instead of the national name brand. Saving a few dollars by buying a lesser quality firearm that may malfunction at a critical moment – doesn’t make sense to me. The question is often asked when considering the price of a critical, potentially life-saving piece of equipment: “What is your life worth?”

The second consideration is simplicity of operation – by definition when you are using a firearm for defense of your life or the life of another, it is a stressful situation. Things happen to a body under stress that make it more difficult to operate a firearm. The simpler it is to operate, the more likely you’ll be able to use it successfully when you need to.

While I believe these are the most important, there are other considerations that should not be overlooked either. One is your ability to shoot the firearm well, and maybe most important – your own confidence in the firearm. If you like the gun, shoot it well, and based on experience shooting it trust the gun will always work and work well – the peace of mind that brings cannot be overemphasized. Effectiveness of the caliber and the ammunition must also be taken into account to some degree, as well as the ability of the shooter to be accurate when shooting the firearm.

Semi-Auto vs. Revolver:

Each have their fans, and each can be a very effective tool. Semi-autos generally fit the hand better, are easier to shoot well because of their grip angle, and with most models hold more bullets. Their flat profile also can make them easier to conceal when carrying. These points have helped to make them the most popular handgun type for self-defense use – both for the public and for police. Although it may take a little more time at the beginning to become comfortable with a semi-auto, I would recommend a semi-auto as a self-defense pistol because of the many advantages they offer. There is a reason they are the leading choice for self-defense – they work well for that purpose.

While holding fewer rounds, revolvers can still serve as effective defensive guns. Because of their fewer visible moving parts, revolvers can be easier for some people to learn to operate and as a result many people feel more comfortable with carrying them. The best advice: try shooting a revolver and couple of the main types of semi-autos – and the one you shoot best with, or like shooting the most is the kind you should look at more closely when it comes to buy.

While each type of handgun can be effective, you need to accept the advantages and disadvantages with each, and then train to minimize the disadvantage each may have. If you have a five shot compact revolver, you will need to train differently than you would if you carry a semi-auto loaded with fifteen rounds.  While “average” shooting situations are resolved with only a few shots – if you are in a situation that doesn’t qualify as “average,” you are going to want as many rounds as possible. If you choose a small, five shot revolver as an example, the ability to reload it quickly would obviously be something you would want to be very skilled with.

New Guns:

When you buy a new gun, it has many rough internal surfaces from the machining done during the manufacturing process. These small burrs and irregularities will need to be smoothed before you can trust the gun will function reliably. The best way to do this is for you to fire 200 – 300 rounds through the gun. Not only does this help the internal surfaces conform to each other as they are broken-in, it also gives you the chance to get some practice with handling and operating your new gun.

Shoot most of those rounds using practice ammunition, and then shoot a box of 50 of the higher quality and more expensive self-defense ammunition. The practice ammo helps to break-in the gun, the self-defense ammo you use to make sure that ammo is reliable in your gun. If the defense ammo doesn’t work reliably, switch to another brand until you find one that does – you don’t want defensive ammo that you can’t count on to work – every single time.

Next… I’ll get into some specific recommendations.