Specific Recommendations: A quick foreshadowing: I will be making some recommendations on equipment, products, and brands. When I do this, I won’t tell you that any one is the best – instead, I will suggest several items or products, techniques or services that in my knowledge and experience have proved themselves to be of high quality and/or high value. Let me give you this advice to begin with –
don’t accept anyone’s advice or suggestions as the final or best answer – even mine. Anyone who tells you that there is only one way, or one best product is doing you a disservice, and probably has an agenda, or isn’t well trained or skilled.
Everyone is different and what works for me, may not work for you. Anyone who you train with should be able to demonstrate at least two or more ways of doing a technique – they should also be able to explain to you why one might be considered better than the other – but barring safety considerations, if one of those techniques works better for you, that is probably the one you should use.
What I have tried to do is give you several good options – any one of which would work well. The suggestions I give are based on many years of practical experience – a large part of which was helping others to get from a place where they were inexperienced or even afraid of firearms – to a point where they not only felt comfortable carrying a firearm, but being prepared to use it to defend themselves or others.
Based on my experience, I think my suggestions and opinions are worthwhile – I hope you will find them helpful as well.
Again, handguns often become a compromise. You would be best to start with something in the middle. Really big guns can be really hard to carry and conceal comfortably. Also, stay away from the tiny guns, they are hard to hold while shooting and in a good caliber often have a lot of recoil. If you can, go for a full frame model with a barrel about 4” long – they are so much easier to shoot well, the added effort to carry them concealed is very much worth it.
Focus mainly on the size of the gun grip or stocks. This is where you will have contact between your hand and the gun – it must fit well to work well. They should be long enough (either by themselves, or with a magazine extension) to give all your fingers a place to hold the gun. A shorter grip where your pinkie doesn’t have a place to rest will lessen the amount of control you have when shooting the gun.
You may have an option of a “double stack” or “single stack” magazine (the rounds are either next to each other, making the magazine wider, or in a single row, making the magazine thinner). The double stack magazine holds more ammunition, but the single stack – while it holds fewer rounds and may require re-loading more often – may fit your hand better, and might be easier for you to shoot well.
Some manufacturers have a “compact” version of their full size gun that is a little easier to conceal, almost as easy to shoot as the larger ones, while operating the same (including inter-changeability of parts, magazines and holsters) as the full size version. However, remember that you will have a smaller frame to hold onto and control the recoil, less mass to help absorb the recoil, and a shorter sight radius to get an accurate sight picture.
While used as a generic term for ammunition, “bullets” are actually only one part of the cartridge (or “round” of ammunition) – the part that is fired from the gun. There are four main components: the cartridge case holds the other components, the bullet – or projectile that is shot from the gun, the powder in the case expands and powers the bullet when ignited, and the primer ignites the powder when hit by a firing pin when you shoot the gun. Most of the name brand ammunition companies produce a basic cartridge that is good for use as practice ammunition, and they also make a better quality product line that is designed specifically for use as defensive ammunition.
Practice ammo only needs to function reliably in the gun and be reasonably accurate – it only needs to hit the can, or the bottle, or pass through the paper target you are using to practice. Self-defense ammunition has to at least penetrate clothing, and then enter a body deeply enough and cause enough damage, to stop the bad guy from continuing to harm you. The physics and science of self-defense bullet design is very complicated and must overcome a variety of hurdles to be effective – it also is more complicated to produce and as a result it is much more expensive. Use the cheap stuff for practice, carry the good stuff for defensive use.
The major ammunition companies (such as Remington, Federal, Winchester, Cor-Bon, Hornady, and Speer/CCI), each make a high quality defense ammunition in their product lines (Remington – Golden Saber, Federal – TAP & Premium Defense, Winchester – SXT & Ranger, Cor-Bon – high Velocity, Hornady – TAP & Critical Defense, Speer/CCI – Gold Dot). While they each may have specific benefits and minor downsides, they are all high quality defensive ammunition brands.
Instead of starting a big detailed discussion about the specific differences between each and every ammo brand, I’ll give this as best advice: get a quality self defense ammo from one of these major manufacturers, and make sure it feeds reliably in your specific gun. If you do so, you will be well served. As I stated before, an accurate shot with any of these quality cartridges will perform well.
We could spend a lot of time debating which caliber is the “best” for self defense use. It’s my opinion that most of that time would be wasted. A hit with a small bullet is better than a miss with a bigger one. Regardless of what kind of gun you have, or what size bullets it shoots, if you can’t hit your target reliably under stress, it won’t be effective. Because most modern self defense ammunition does its job well, the choice of caliber shouldn’t be your primary concern. Your choices should instead focus on getting a gun that is reliable, and that you can shoot well.
Best general advice: 9mm, .40, and .45acp for a semi-auto. These are also the most popular – which means you’ll also be more likely and able to find defensive ammo to carry and plain ammo for practice. My own specific suggestion: 9mm is generally the cheapest and most widely available ammo for semi-autos. It also has the mildest recoil, and as such is a great firearm to get for self defense purposes. If you have mild recoil, and cheap ammo – you’ll shoot more, shoot better, and those are great things in a self defense firearm. You can get some really good self defense ammo in 9mm, so don’t let people tell you it isn’t effective – with modern self-defense ammunition, the differences between calibers are minimal.
For revolvers, .38 special or .357 magnum in a revolver. If you have the choice get a .357 – it will shoot either the standard .38 special rounds, or the more powerful .357 magnum cartridges, giving you options. NOTE: I’m talking about the .357 (three-fifty-seven) magnum that has been around for many years – don’t confuse it with the new .327 (three-TWENTY-seven) magnum, that’s a different cartridge entirely.
I make the above recommendation because bullets that are too small won’t reliably stop a threat, on the other side, bullets that are huge are often hard to shoot. The .22’s, the .25, .32, and .380’s on the small end, and the .41, .44 and magnum rounds on the large end have their purposes – but they are generally not the best choice for defensive carry. Sure, I know that a lot of people are killed every year with little bullets – (usually hours after they are shot, and well after they lose the ability to bring harm upon you in a physical conflict) – but if I have a choice – I’m going to do whatever I can to increase my odds of prevailing in a self defense situation, and use a firearm that is capable of stopping the threat as quickly and reliably as possible.
Small bullets generally don’t have enough power to reliably cause a person to stop harming you – RIGHT NOW, which is the reason we use firearms, to stop the action causing us to be in danger. Due to the release of many small pistols chambered for the caliber, the .380 has lately been considered to be somewhat effective for defense – but on the very low end of being so. However, remember that a gun, even a small caliber one – is better than no gun at all. On the other end, the big guns look good in the movies (Dirty Harry had a .44 magnum after all), but are generally impractical to carry and shoot well in a self defense situation.
I’d recommend you start with 6 shot .357 with a 4” barrel. A .357 magnum can shoot the powerful magnum rounds, or the less expensive and smaller recoiling .38 special rounds. Higher power .38 rounds (.38 +P) will give very good self defense performance and won’t be as potentially painful as the full magnum rounds. A 4” barrel splits the difference between concealability and target accuracy. A 2” will conceal better, a 6” will be better for target shooting – the 4” is a nice compromise between the two.
Stainless steel is often easier to care for than the blued steel and as such is better in a gun you actually intend to shoot or carry. Stick with a Ruger (like the GP-100 series) or a Smith & Wesson (the “K” or “L” frame models). You can go bigger or smaller from there if you feel the need. Just as a warning – the five-shot, smaller framed, and lightweight frame guns are easy to carry – but a bear to shoot. They should be considered only for those who have a lot of experience with firearms, they are not good as a first gun – no matter what the guy at the gun store might say.
There are other manufactures out there, but none of them have as much of the share of the self-defense revolver market, or the experience and history building quality firearms as do these two brands. Ruger handguns (especially their revolvers) have a well earned reputation for being rugged and robust firearms. Smith & Wesson’s tend to have finer fitting of their parts, and as a result can have smother trigger actions. With some care and regular maintenance, either will serve you as a quality defensive firearm for many, many years.
If you go with a used revolver, there are some areas that you can check for wear, but the easiest way is to look at the overall condition and feel of the gun. Most pistol owners shoot a box or two of ammo a year, so a 10 year-old revolver can have some “holster wear” on the finish, but only have had 1,000 or so rounds put through it (at 100 per year). Considering the practical life of a quality revolver will easily reach 5,000 to 10,000 rounds with regular maintenance and some replacement of worn parts, a used revolver can be a good value.
Start with a striker fired 9mm polymer framed pistol – these are easiest to shoot & operate. Each trigger pull is the same, whether the first, second or subsequent trigger pulls. They generally don’t have any levers or knobs that need to be activated or moved to make them ready to shoot – and under stress the simpler the better. Several brands are very popular right now, and each have variations in size (full frame, compact, and some sub-compact) and if you so choose – caliber (9mm, .40, and .45). They have similar features, reliability, and magazine capacity. Full Disclosure: I’m a big Glock guy, and I also have a S&W M&P Shield – but that doesn’t mean these will be the best choice for you. Anyway, here they are in no particular order:
- The Smith & Wesson M&P series – In an attempt to get back some market share, they started with a clean sheet of paper and designed the gun that Glock should have today – if they would have changed and updated their 25 year old design. Their gun has gotten rave reviews by people who carry and shoot guns a lot in dangerous places, and as a result, they have started to make inroads back into the law enforcement market. The Smith & Wesson “Shield” pistol in either 9mm or .40 is a newer player in this arena, a very compact single stack pistol that is getting rave reviews, and because of its slim cross section is incredibly concealable.
- The Glock – they’ve been the big guy in this area for 20+ years, over half the cops in the U.S. carry a Glock. They aren’t pretty, some say they are downright ugly – but they do go bang every time, and in a gun you carry for defense – that’s the important thing. The only down side – they’ve stayed pretty much the same for 20 years.
- The Springfield Armory XD series (and the XD “M”) – they were designed and are made in Croatia, and are imported by Springfield. In the last 5 years they have achieved a good reputation, and as a result have become very popular. They do have a grip safety which requires you to have a good grip before you can shoot – some like that, others don’t.
- Another one in this category would be the Ruger “SR” series. The SR9 in 9mm (and the SR9c for compact), the SR40 in .40 S&W and the SR45 in .45acp. While not as popular as the other three, Ruger has a well earned reputation as making very robust firearms at good prices. These may not be as popular as the other three, nor will they have the smooth finish and sexy lines the others, but they will be solid pistols.
- Sig Sauer has recently released a new pistol, the P320. Even though it is new, it is already getting good reviews and has some very nice features. Instead of several models, the central metal mechanism in the pistol is the “firearm” the frames and slides can be swapped between compact and full size versions.
All of these companies have good reputations and if you buy one of their guns you will be getting a good product and be happy with your purchase. Because of their popularity, you will be able to find holsters and other accessories easily, as well as being able to have it serviced or repaired should that be required. The ones listed above are the biggest sellers and the most proven brands. Other name brands, that don’t have the sales numbers, but still make good products include: Beretta, H&K (Heckler & Koch), and Walther – beyond these, I wouldn’t go very far without some additional experience and knowledge to make sure you are getting a good product.
Make sure you either get or purchase at least three or four extra magazines with your gun (beyond the two typically supplied with the pistol) – eventually you’ll probably want even more. Having more than one or two is a good idea – magazines should be considered consumables like the tires on your car. They will wear out or break, and eventually stop functioning reliably. As that occurs, either destroy them (if it doesn’t work anymore for its intended purpose – why keep it around) or clearly mark those magazines as faulty and relegate them for training purposes only. Don’t carry a faulty magazine that could fail in a situation where you may need it to defend yourself.
If you get a compact model, the full capacity magazines used in the similar full frame pistol of the same brand will generally also fit. If you had a compact pistol with a 10 or 12 round magazine in the gun, you could have 17 round magazines to reload should you need to.