Thursday, April 22, 2010

Self-Defense Firearm Selection

I'm often asked for advice about what to look for when buying a self-defense handgun. I'll share a few of my thoughts here.

Before you make the investment in a gun, it's wise to shoot that model if you can (or something similar). Some commercial ranges have several guns you can rent. I did this once before buying a particular gun. I suggest you take a pistol or personal protection course from an NRA-certified firearms instructor. When sifting through the available courses and instructors, ask each instructor whether he has several handguns you can try. Many NRA instructors do and will let you shoot several different guns so you can find one you like. I'm so concerned about people buying guns that aren't suited for them, that my business card says I'll take first-time gun buyers to the range for free so they can shoot my guns before buying.

Your local gun dealers sell handguns of many sizes and weights. The guy behind the counter at your local gun dealer usually is not a good resource -- there are exceptions. I am annoyed by the many salesmen who sell small guns to women because they're "women's guns." I am concerned that many women buy them because small guns are "cute" -- especially in pink. The thought process goes something like this: "I’m a new shooter and I'm not confident I can really control a 'big' gun. I should start with something smaller and easier to handle." Many of the people behind the gun counter have the same mindset. But, it's a huge mistake!

Many people seem to think one needs a small gun for concealment. But, you really don't need a small gun. Sure, an LCP or a Keltec is easier to conceal, but even a big gun like a 1911, a standard-size Glock, or Ruger GP-100 are easy to hide with careful wardrobe selection and a good holster. It can be done without gimmicks such as fanny packs (Who wears a fanny pack? Only people with guns and Japanese tourists.) and vests (Who wears a vest in August in Phoenix? Only people with guns.). I carry a standard-size Springfield XD in .40 caliber year 'round and have no problem with concealment. A couple of my friends make a game of looking for my gun when they see me in public. An experienced eye might pick it out, but the general public will never know. (You'll never hide a monster like a S&W 500.)

A small light-weight gun with an alloy or polymer frame is comfortable to carry, but the sights are often difficult to use (short sight radius, and typically horrible sights) and the recoil can be uncomfortable. This is true for both small semi-autos such as the Ruger LCP, Keltec, and the Kahrs as well as "airweight" and "snubby" revolvers. A larger, heavier gun usually has much better sights and the gun's mass absorbs much of the recoil. Too many gun buyers buy a small light-weight gun because it's easy to carry and conceal. But they rarely shoot it because it's unpleasant to do so. Small guns are best described as expert's guns. Larger guns are much easier to shoot and to shoot well. Unless you are an experienced shooter, you're generally far better off with a larger, heavier gun -- which also can be easily concealed. People who shoot regularly generally do fine with small guns -- most people become accustomed to the recoil.

If you're worried about recoil in a small gun, you might consider an all-steel gun such as a Walther PPK or a S&W J-Frame all-steel revolver or a Ruger SP-101. My wife used to carry an "airweight" S&W J-Frame, but switched to a S&W Model 60 (pictured above, also a J-Frame) because it is all steel, has better sights, and a better grip. That switch to a heavier gun, even though is is the same frame size (slightly longer barrel), gave her something that is fun to shoot -- not punishing.

The most important consideration in gun selection is reliability. You're betting your life on whether that tool works when you really need it. There are a lot of good manufacturers out there, both imported and US-made. I suggest you avoid 3 brands: Hi-Point, Taurus, and Charter Arms. You might be able to buy a new Hi-Point for only $129, but you are likely to be disappointed with reliability and durability if you shoot it much. Taurus and Charter Arms make good guns, but they seem to have quality-control problems. Far too often, buyers need to send their new guns back to get them working right. For example, I've seen two Taurus revolvers with an out-of-the-box double-action trigger pull of over 40 pounds! After a couple of trips back to the manufacturer, they worked well. Nobody should ever have to send a new gun back to the factory because it isn't working right!

You need to consider ammo availability (you don't want a gun that shoots exotic, hard-find ammo such as the 9mm Largo), the availability of accessories such as holsters and spare magazines, and the availability of service and parts.

As for caliber selection, you should carry the most powerful cartridge you can comfortably and accurately shoot. Most experts recommend a minimum of the 9mm Parbellum (Luger) or the .38 Special (although some of the .380 Auto ammo is getting pretty good for self defense).

Pick a caliber that is common so you can easily and cheaply get ammo. In this regard, 9mm Parabellum is at the top of the list. Other popular calibers are .40 S&W, .45 ACP, .38 Special, .44 Special, and .357 Magnum. There are many other good calibers, but availability and price can be problematic. Some people worry about recent shortages in most calibers. I know .380 Auto ammo in particular has been more scarce than other calibers since the last presidential election. But, that will pass. I wouldn't make the decision based on transient ammo availability. If you shoot a lot, you can take up reloading, as I do, and never worry about shortages.

One nationally-known firearms trainer, Rob Pincus -- whose opinion I regard highly, is switching from the .40 S&W cartridge to 9mm Parabellum. He correctly argues that no self-defense handgun cartridge can be considered a one-shot stopper. In fact, wound characteristics are very similar among all of them. Therefore, he now prefers the more controllable 9mm. It enables one to carry more ammo and the lighter recoil enables faster follow-up shots. And, 9mm is usually the cheapest center-fire ammo you'll find for practice.

Some jurisdictions, such as California, limit the available firearm choices -- even the color of the gun seems to frighten some of the State's bureaucrats! So, make sure the gun you buy is legal where you live and where you will use the gun.

The most important thing about a self-defense gun is training. Get some training from a good NRA instructor and/or from one of the shooting academys such as FrontSight, GunSite, and Thunder Ranch.

Front Sight Trained

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