For a new shooter, finding a gun that they like can be a daunting task. Many new shooters want the mythical "perfect gun," one that carries 30 rounds of ammunition, is small, lightweight with very little recoil, and chambered in a caliber that can stop an attack with a single shot. Such a gun, to my knowledge, does not exist.
When shopping for your first pistol, compromises must be made. What those compromises are depend heavily on what role you want the gun to play. Will it be solely a target pistol? Do you need a bedside nightstand gun? Or are you looking for a weapon to be used for self defense that is suitable for concealed carry? What you look for in a pistol varies depending on these roles. An N-Frame .357 magnum revolver with a 6" barrel, or a full size service pistol may be OK for the bedside table, but they won't do well as a concealed carry pistol. And while your Ruger LCP is a nice handy concealed carry pistol, it doesn't quite pack the punch the Government 1911 in .45 ACP that you keep at home.
Once you've decided on what qualities you are looking for in a pistol, we recommend using the following procedure to determine what handgun fits you best.
- Can I reach all the controls?
- Is the grip angle and fit natural?
- Can I work the slide/drop the cylinder?
Grasp the pistol with a proper two hand grip. Make sure that all controls (mag release, safety, slide release/cylinder release) are easy to reach and manipulate without breaking your grip on the pistol.
Check that the grip angle fits your natural aim point. Close your eyes while holding the pistol and push it out towards your target into a firing position. When you open your eyes, your sights should naturally be very close to aligned in your sight picture. If not, consider a pistol with a different grip angle.
For semiautomatics, ensure that you can easily and comfortably work the slide by pulling it all the way back before releasing it to let it snap forward. On a revolver, make sure you can drop the cylinder.
- Perform the Middle Finger/Thumb Test to check for proper grip size.
Not every pistol grip will fit every hand. You should be able to wrap your fingers around the grip such that your thumb and middle finger overlap. If you cannot touch your middle finger to your thumb with your shooting hand, the grip is too big for your hands. Ideally, your middle finger should be able to overlap your thumb by the length of your thumbnail. It's also possible to have a grip that is too small. If your middle finger overlaps your palm when gripping the pistol, the grip is too small for your hands and you could have difficulty controlling recoil. Not all of your fingers may be able to fit on the grip on some subcompact models. Be aware that this affects how well you can manage recoil.
- Perform a dry fire trigger test
On double action pistols, sometimes the trigger pull can be difficult for some people. The trigger should be able to be smoothly pressed with your trigger finger without undue effort. If you cannot pull the trigger without losing your sight picture (having the gun shake, dip, etc.) you may need a lighter trigger or a pistol with different ergonomics or a different grip shape/size.
- Consider the caliber of the gun and the weight/size
Recoil among handguns can vary greatly depending on caliber and handgun size.
||Subcompact P3AT, LCP, G36, Bond Arms .45LC, S&W Airweight J-Frame, NAA, etc.
||Compact Sig P229, USP Compact, G19,
||Full Size 1911, G22,Sig P226
||Large Redhawk, Desert Eagle|
|High Caliber (.357/.45ACP/.40 S&W)
||Extreme Recoil, difficult to manage
|Medium Caliber 9mm/.38 SPL /.380
|Small Caliber .22/.320 ACP
||Virtually no recoil|
Note that the material a pistol is made from also affects felt recoil. Heavier steel pistols have less felt recoil than a lightweight Scandium or polymer pistol.
- Perform a timed weight test
Using two hands, can you comfortably hold the pistol in a firing position for at least 30 seconds? If not, the pistol may be too heavy. Remember that a lighter pistol will have more recoil than a heavier pistol of the same caliber.