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(VIDEO) How to pick a handgun

A collection of handguns. (Tactical Rifleman)
August 16, 2017

Generally, most people who are looking to buy their first firearm want to get a handgun for self-defense. After that, it’s for hobby, sport or collecting.

One of the biggest problems we see is when a friend is helping someone chose a pistol. Unless they have a lot of experience in shooting handguns and different types, then normally they will give their biased opinion on the gun they own and will say it’s great. Similar to a person who owns a Chevy telling you only to buy a Chevy, Glock people will generally always tell you to pick a Glock, for example. There are a lot of different guns out there, and what is good for one person many not be what is comfortable or needed by another, and what is good for you today may not be tomorrow.

Due to my background and experience, I have had many new shooters ask me which handgun is right for them. First thing I tell anyone looking for a gun is it must be comfortable in the hand when you pick it up. If you don’t like the way it feels, you won’t want to shoot it.  The important part of this is that you won’t be familiar with it if or when the need arises that you have to use it.

Other factors to consider, are how do you plan on using the handgun. For example, do you plan on carrying it or will it just stay in the home? If you carry it, then how do you plan on carrying it? Will it be on your body or will you carry it in a bag or purse? If it just stays at home, where will you store it?  All of these are things to consider when pick out your handgun.

Next, with all the guns I’m about to mention is that I’m not being biased, just using examples of some of the popular make and models out there.

Double Stack vs Single Stack

Semi-auto pistols are referred to as either a double or single stack frame model, and this is due to the magazine that is used with the gun. The single stack will have the bullets stack one on top of the other in a single row. A double stack mag will have the rounds alternate side to side on a angle inside the magazine; this will allow for more rounds in a magazine of the same height but will result in it being wider. Because of this, the grip portion of the frame will be wider, such as a Glock 17 versus a standard 1911. People with larger hands will usually like a double stack frame for this reason. This is a bigger factor if you are planning on carrying on your body rather then in a bag as it will be harder to conceal on your body.

Full, Compact and Sub-Compact

When these terms are used it is mostly referring to the length of the barrel. These lengths are just approximate lengths; this is not a industry standard. Full size frames are around the less-than-5-inch to 4.5-inch barrel, the Compact is around 4.5 inches to 4 inches, and the Sub-Compacts are below 4 inches to 2 inches. Understand that with a shorter barrel, you normally will have more muzzle flip – the barrel wanting to rise as the bullet leaves the end. Some companies port the barrel to help compensate for this; one example is Smith & Wesson pro series Shield. Longer barrels will also generally be more accurate at farther targets. Again the length of the barrel might be something to consider if you are going to carry on your person.  


Most handguns have some type of safety. Some are a physical safety such as a thumb safety, which is the most common. A grip safety is where you have to squeeze in on the grip for the gun to fire. This is common on 1911s and Springfield XD series. Another common safety in today’s handguns is a trigger safety that has some type of safety bar or block that has to be moved before the trigger itself is allowed to move to the rear. These are found on all Glocks and Smith & Wesson M&P series semi-auto handguns. Then there are also internal or mechanical safeties that will not allow the handgun to fire unless the firearm is correctly in battery, or a specific position for the gun to fire. Any gun that has no internal or external safety is what I would consider unsafe and would not recommend it to anyone.

Sights and Lasers

There are many different types of sights on the market. Sights that are all black or have colored dots, sights that glow at night or even glow during day and night. Fat or thin, big or tall, fixed or adjustable are just a few types (my biggest point here, like everything else I’ve talked about, is to look around and see what is out there and what you may like for your needs). Some people prefer lasers on the handguns, but remember that whatever you point it at will know that you are at least pointing a laser at them. If using a laser, I suggest making sure that it is correctly zeroed (at about 10 meters away) – just because a factory or gunsmith put it on the gun does not mean that it might be correct.


Some people prefer to carry a revolver instead of a semi-auto for different reasons. Reasons include that they have a hard time pulling back the slide on a semi-auto when loading, they want something lighter in weight, smaller in size, or they might be afraid of having a negligent discharge (this does happen more often with semi-auto then revolvers). You can find revolvers that shoot either single action (hammer must be to rear before pulling the trigger; the hammer can be internal) or double action, where when the trigger is pulled, the hammer will move to the rear at the same time. In regards to hammer, there are models that have external hammers; some you can move to the rear (before pulling the trigger) if you want to fire it in single action mode (normally easier trigger pull and less likely to move the gun off target when pulling back on the trigger). Internal hammers that you can’t move without pulling back on the trigger (again, these are double action only). Finally, there are models that have a recessed hammer, that you can physically move the hammer but it is recessed to the frame so you don’t move it to the rear (or cock) the hammer when pulling the revolver out of concealment.

Some people want to ask about caliber sizes for the handgun. While this is a very debatable subject and is for another article, but I say use what you can comfortably manage.

Bottom line, shot placement is the key more then the size of the hole.

Master Sergeant (Retired) Pete Jones has more than 25 years military experience; 20 years of experience within Army Special Forces, conducting all aspects of Special Operations, to include training, execution and technical oversight at the detachment, company and combined joint task force level. MSG Jones has earned numerous awards, including Bronze Stars and the Purple Heart for actions in combat. His military schooling includes Ranger School, Military Free Fall Jumpmaster, Special Forces Weapons Sergeant, SFARTEATC and Special Forces Sniper, to name a few. His last job with Special Forces was being the Primary Flat Range Pistol and Rifle instructor at his unit. After retiring, MSG Jones now owns Alan’s Arsenal, LLC, selling Firearms to the public and stars of Hollywood.

All opinion articles are the opinion of the author and not necessarily of American Military News. If you are interested in submitting an Op-Ed, please email [email protected].