So You Want to Buy a Handgun…

November 30, 2012

By Colin Despins

Purchasing a gun can be a tricky predicament—so many manufacturers and calibers and so many varieties to choose from. Many enter into a handgun purchase having decided in advance that they want a certain caliber; they then proceed to the counter of local gun shop and state that they are looking for that caliber of handgun: “I would like to buy a 40 caliber.” This is like pulling on to a car lot and saying that you are looking for a V6. It’s a little backwards.

After you have walked into the gun store and stated your agenda in this manner, the sales associate may size you up in certain regards and begin to offer you options. These options are typically driven by the sales associate’s own knowledge base, opinions and prejudices and how much you are willing to spend.

Having walked in saying that you want to purchase a .40 handgun, chances are that you will walk out with one because that’s what you asked for. The process typically goes like this – the sales associate will put a number of guns in your hands, ask you how they feel, then you buy one, and the rest is history.

When a firearms transaction takes place in this manner, you as the customer probably gained some knowledge about the gun from the sales person before you made your purchase. But there is a good chance you missed out on a great deal of fundamental information, and that you might not have realized some of the ramifications of the option you chose.

I am quite confident that I can do better. I can’t tell you I have a prior military background because I don’t. But I do carry Law Enforcement credentials. However, I assure you that no particular background lends itself as well to being an authority on the variety of handgun options as does working with and training civilians. In training civilians, I have learned many things, such as what they want to know about handguns and whom they go to for expert advice.

In my time training civilians I have witnessed even some of the most adaptive individuals I have ever met. Such as a combat-seasoned Special Forces operator who tries, and fails, to “wing it” while explaining the function of handgun built for a purpose other than military application. There is no substitute for being familiar with the firearms and the people.

In order to safeguard against some of the poor decision-making that often occurs when buying a handgun, I offer you the following:

Caliber Considerations

First thing’s first. Realize that your friend or relative who is a cop or was in the military is likely not a firearms expert. I would strongly suggest you avoid narrowing your mindset as the result of advice from any self-appointed handgun guru. If someone tells you to try out a gun that they found to be favorable, that’s one thing. But even if your college roommate, who now works for the FBI, tells you that you NEED a .40 gun, it’s probably not true. The fact is that many of the people we look to for advice of this nature have a very limited scope of experience beyond a handful of duty weapons.

I will let you search out the most recent compilations of handgun “stopping power” statistics for yourself. For the time being, I will simply challenge your handgun caliber logic in saying that when we are talking about bullets, we are talking about a projectile that can make a hole several inches deep in the tissue of a human being. Do you think that it matters if the diameter of that hole is .38 or 9mm or .40 or .45 for that matter? Truth is, it doesn’t.

The next matter typically discussed when it comes to caliber is recoil. It is only my opinion, but when it comes to common defense calibers, such as 9mm, .40 and .45, recoil is much ado about nothing. And as a note to women looking to buy a handgun, this is where a lot of prejudice comes into play. Many men have a certain drive to separate themselves from the girls. This can cause men to believe, and for some sales associates to suggest, that smaller guns and smaller calibers are more suitable for women.  This is, in most cases, flawed logic; poor decisions get made due to downright sexism. There is no gun in any caliber that a woman cannot handle just as well, if not better, than a man. Guys, get over it.

For the purpose of discussion, we’ll look at two components of recoil. In layman’s terms they are push and pitch. Push is simply the feel of the recoil as each round is fired, and pitch is the sound that it makes. No two calibers of handguns sound the same. For instance, the 9mm caliber has a barky, high pitch and very little push back toward the shooter. The .40 has a bit more push than the 9mm and is more abrupt in doing so. The pitch of the .40 is not all that different from the 9mm, but the combination of push and pitch makes for more of an overall punchy feel. The .45 is a bit unique in the sense that it has significantly more push but a far more tolerable, lower pitch. For this reason I have found many a firearm newbie to feel that the .45 is quite favorable, especially those who were not told beforehand that the .45 is the BIG gun. This has a tendency to psych people out.

The next factor to take into consideration that is related to caliber is magazine capacity—how many rounds the gun will hold. It is typical for .45 handguns to have a capacity of seven to ten rounds, while at the opposite end of the spectrum, the typical 9mm holds 15 to 17. Capacity becomes an issue when you consider your likelihood of landing an effective shot against an adversary and how many rounds it might take to fall the adversary. Some statistics say that thelikelihood is just one in three. Take the magazine capacity, divide by three, and tell me how you like your odds.

Form and Function, and, of course, Action

Before you go buying a gun on looks or whatever the cool guys use, take into consideration how the gun functions. There are several types of actions that are worthy of knowing the ins and outs of before you make your purchase. I am going to start with my buyer beware on double/single action handguns.

Most all double/single action pistols have a hammer. The hammer can exist in two states, at rest and cocked. Many of these guns are not carried in a cocked condition—the state where they are prepared to go off with a short draw of the trigger. Therefore, double/single-action pistols have either a decoking leaver, such as seen in a Sig Sauer model P226, or a combination decocker/safety, such as that of a Beretta model 92. In the case of the Beretta, the decocker/safety both decocks the hammer and deactivates the trigger from drawing back the hammer, unless the safety is flipped to the off position.

The double/single-action trigger has a special relationship with the hammer, in that the first pull of the trigger draws the hammer back to a point when it then falls forward, hits a pin, the pin strikes the primer, the primer ignites the powder and sends the bullet down range. The first draw of the trigger is significantly heavier and longer as it is accomplishing the action of drawing the hammer back. After the first shot has been fired, the slide cycles back, ejecting the spent cartridge and in the process the slide cocks the hammer. The second shot and every shot thereafter is a short draw of the trigger. Bonus, right? Not necessarily. It takes a lot of practice to master the transition from long (double action) to short (single action) trigger.

I have seen many owners with this type of pistol who never realized that the gun functioned in this way. This is mostly on the account that these people shoot at the range by simply loading and shooting, but never decocking. They then take the gun home empty, they don’t keep it loaded at home, and they don’t carry it on their person. Should you happen to choose to purchase this type of firearm you must learn and know the double/single action system well, lest you load the firearm and go to tuck it in your waistband on some unforeseen occasion and blow your goods off in the process.

The remaining types of pistol actions are quite a bit more straightforward. There is double action only. As you might suspect by now, this is a long trigger draw for each shot. Double action only pistols exist primarily for the purpose of safety, as a long drawn trigger is a deliberate action. This manner of trigger is typical of pocket pistols such as the Ruger LCP and Smith & Wesson 380 Bodyguard.

Single-action pistols operate off a cocked hammer. In this case, the trigger performs a single action, that being releasing the hammer to fall forward and fire the round. The 1911-style single action pistol is carried “cocked and locked” – hammer back, safety on. This type of action is typical of the 1911 varieties, there are, however, a variety of single action models and variations. The single action 1911 has two safety mechanisms: a grip safety on the back of the handle that does not allow the trigger to release the hammer unless the gun is gripped, and a manual safety switch near the back of the slide.

The last type of handgun action is the striker fired variety. This is one of the most modern incarnations of the handgun. The striker action can be found in handguns ranging from the Smith & Wesson M&P models to Glocks. Unlike the previously mentioned actions, the striker action does not use a hammer to strike a pin, but instead uses, you guessed it, a striker. The striker is basically a firing pin that does not require a hammer. The trigger simply draws the striker back and lets it go forward to make the gun fire. This action has been acclaimed for unparalleled reliability and simplicity. It is perhaps the most user-friendly variety on the market, and therefore a good choice for first-time handgun owners.


When making a purchase you need to ask yourself how many switches do you want to flip to make it safe and how many to make it go bang, how many types of trigger pull do you have the time and ambition to master, and how many rounds do you want it to hold? Ease of use is perhaps the most important consideration, combined with affordability of ammunition. If I were to choose what handgun to outfit you with, I would choose a Glock or Smith and Wesson M&P in 9mm, every time.


About the author – Colin Despins holds international certifications in Close Protection and High Risk Zone Operations and has worked abroad in the field of close protection and competitive intelligence. His work has been published in SWAT Magazine, The journal of the British Bodyguard Association, The Firearms Instructor, Command Magazine and COMBAT Magazine UK. Despins is the owner-operator of the Max Venom Product Group, works an adjunct instructor for a variety of training organizations and is a part-time instructor at the Gander Mountain Academy.  

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