FAQ For First Time Handgun Buyers Whose Interest is Personal or Home Protection

Copyright by Ken Grubb. (kgrubb@ix.netcom.com)

What handgun should I buy as a first time handgun owner?

This question comes up so often, I've put together this FAQ For First
Time Handgun Buyers Whose Interest is Personal or Home Protection.


This is more important than any other subject discussed here.  [For
some unknown reason, I neglected to include it in earlier versions.]
Just about any gun manufacturer includes safety rules in the owner's
manual.  Any school of instruction, from basic to expert classes,
includes safety rules in the curriculum.  Some of the rules may vary a
word or two, but the goal and intent are the same.  For beginners, I
prefer the NRA rules.  These rules work ALL the time and for EVERYONE.
They are:
1) Always keep the gun pointed in a safe direction.  [The Golden Rule]
2) Always keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to
3) Always keep the gun unloaded until you are ready to use it.

Rule #1 is the Golden Rule because violating Rule #1 is all that's
needed for someone to get hurt or killed.  If you stop reading this
FAQ now, or disregard every single other bit of information included
in here, practice Rule #1.  A safe direction depends a lot upon where
you are at the time.  At the firing range, at home in a ground floor
apartment, at home in a top floor apartment, and a cave deep in the
center of the earth all have very different safe directions.

Rule #2 is simple enough, but allow me to further clarify.  Once the
gun is pointed AT the target and you are ready to shoot, then your
finger can go on the trigger.  Movie and television producers could
benefit from this one when portraying police officers and others using

Rule #3 sometimes requires a bit of explanation.  A hunting rifle or
trap shotgun locked in a safe should be kept unloaded until you're
venturing into the woods to hunt or you're out on the trap range about
to shoot a round.  Conversely, a gun kept at home for protection, or a
gun carried for protection, is ready to be used for protection at
almost anytime and thus is usually kept loaded.

I should note there are additional NRA rules, but these are the first,
essential rules everyone should learn, know, understand and practice.
Fatal accidents involving firearms have been and continue to decline
in the United States.  If everyone practiced these three (3) simple
rules, fatal accidents involving firearms would all but disappear.
It's hard to imagine why the National Safety Council or government
safety agencies would not run Public Service Announcements repeating
these three (3) simple rules, but that's a separate issue.

Shooting ranges may also post additional rules.  Be certain to ask
about and obey the range rules.  At the very least, failure to do so
may result in you being asked to leave the range.

Before purchasing a gun, or even venturing out to a gun shop, call the
NRA at (703) 267-1000.  Ask for the Civilian Training Department, and
request a list of local NRA Instructors certified to teach a class in
either Basic Pistol or Personal Protection.  Call the Instructors, and
find out when they're giving classes.  If possible, look for one where
students will provide the opportunity to handle, load and fire
handguns in a variety of calibers suitable for protection out on the
range.  Some will require you to bring your own gun.

The NRA Personal Protection class has recently been changed, and very
MUCH for the better.  I heartily recommend you take both NRA Basic
Pistol and the NEW NRA Personal Protection classes.  Be certain it is
the NEW Personal Protection class.  The final lesson plans only
recently became available, and the course material is superb.

In the NEW Personal Protection class, there is a segment of class
given by either a police officer or a lawyer.  During his or her
segment of the class, the police officer or lawyer will speak
addressing the law in your state concerning use of deadly force.  The
best choice would be an attorney with either the local prosecutor's
office [who actually tries cases] or one in private practice [who
specializes in defending such cases].  Either would give you an
excellent expert perspective.  If they are in private practice, be
certain to get their business card and keep it in your wallet.

NRA courses are generally very inexpensive and readily available in
many locations throughout the United States.  They are also recognizes
by many states as a suitable training requirement for the issuance of
a Concealed Pistol License (aka CCW, CHL, CWFL, etc.)

If after taking the NRA courses you desire additional training, which
is a superb idea IMHO, there are many fine advanced training
facilities available to armed citizens.  I have personal experience as
a student at the Firearms Academy of Seattle, and I highly recommend
it to anyone in the Pacific Northwest.  I've trained with students
who've traveled there from as far away as Alaska and California.
Other fine schools include: Lethal Force Institute, Insights, Gunsite,
Thunder Ranch, KR, Rangemaster, and a host of others.  If you are
looking for something in your area, feel free to contact me and I'll
see if I can't point you to something near you.  Some of these schools
have courses which they "take on the road" and teach at remote
facilities.  LFI (based in New Hampshire) is usually scheduled to be
taught in Miami, Florida each year.  Insights (based outside Seattle,
Washington) is usually scheduled to be taught in Pennsylvania each

Handgun Selection and Calibers

Pick up a copy of Paxton Quigley's "Armed and Female".  There may be a
copy in your local library, but it's a softcover and it usually
retails for under $5.  Gentlemen should not feel "girly" reading a
book entitled "Armed and Female".  There is plenty of useful
information for both men and women.  The entire book is worth reading,
but for a brief summary of buying a gun, read Chapter 9: Buying A Gun.
FWIW, IMHO, Ms. Quigley is too harsh on the .357 Magnum, and tends to
favor lighter calibers.  That said, her book was originally published
in 1989, and many excellent .357 Magnum revolvers and commercial loads
have come on the market in that time.

NRA's publication "The Basics Of Personal Protection" notes "The
majority of law enforcement officers who use a handgun [for personal
protection] choose a .38 [Special] caliber double-action revolver with
an exposed hammer and a four inch barrel."  The book was written back
in 1988, and the issue sidearm of most police departments has changed
from a revolver to an autoloader.  However, the .38 Special was a
sound recommendation back in 1988 and today.
Ms. Quigley recommends a revolver for a first handgun purchase, and a
.38 Special for a first revolver purchase.  I tend to favor a .357
Magnum for a first revolver purchase.  There are essentially five
levels of power, if you will, available in commercial ammunition for
the .357 Magnum revolver.  From least "powerful" to most "powerful",
they are:
.38 Special
.38 Special +P (extra power)
.38 Special +P+ (even more power)
.357 Magnum, light loads (usually 110-grain to 125-grain bullets)
.357 Magnum, full power loads (usually 125-grain bullets or heavier)

["Grains" refers to the weight of the bullet.  There are 7,000 grains
to the pound.]
If you choose a .357 Magnum, you can begin shooting less powerful .38
Special ammunition, and work your way up to more powerful loads.  Most
firearm manufacturers that make a .38 Special revolver also make a
.357 Magnum revolver that is almost the identical size.

If you've already purchased or been given a .38 Special, don't feel as
though you've made a terrible mistake.  A .38 Special is more than
adequate for the job of Personal or Home Protection.

The Big Five handgun calibers for Personal or Home Protection are:
.38 Special, .357 Magnum, 9mm Luger, .40 S & W, and .45 ACP

IMHO, and that of some others, these five are the most popular
calibers.  As such, there will likely be a greater abundance of both
guns and ammunition available in these calibers.  There are many other
calibers suitable and available, but I recommend you stick with the
Big Five.

If you've already purchased or been given a gun in some other caliber,
do not despair.  Here's an incomplete list of others calibers which
may be suitable.  In no particular order, they are:
.44 Special, .45 Colt, .357 Sig, .380 ACP, 10mm Auto, .38 Super

Though reasonable people may differ (even reasonable gun people), IMHO
I would NOT consider a .44 Magnum for Protection unless I ventured out
amongst dangerous four-legged critters.  If you own a .44 Magnum and
carry it say when wandering through the wilds of Alaska where
Grizzlies abound, then load and carry light .44 Magnums or .44
Specials when carrying in town.  Light .44 Magnum and .44 Special
loads are suitable for Protection from dangerous two-legged critters.

On the other end of things, I would ALMOST never consider a handgun
for Protection in .22 LR, .22 WMR (Winchester Magnum Rimfire), .25
ACP, or similarly diminutive calibers.  I do offer this ONE exception.
If one suffered an injury or is afflicted with an ailment such that a
9mm or .38 Special is too much recoil to shoot effectively, then I
would consider a revolver in .22 LR.  The .22 LR cartridge has minimum
recoil and lowest cost possible.  As such, for the same money a
shooter using a .22 LR could practice far more than a shooter using
one of the Big Five calibers.  If you use a .22 LR for Protection, by
all means avail yourself of this advantage and practice, practice,
practice.  This will offset the disadvantages in relying upon a .22 LR
handgun for Protection.
I would NOT consider a handgun for Protection in .32 ACP, .32 H & R
Magnum, or similarly sized and powered calibers unless I absolutely
could NOT conceal a handgun in .38 Special or 9mm.

NOTE: I lived in Miami, Florida for a year.  As you might guess, it
gets a little warm there several months of the year.  I was able to
comfortably conceal and carry a .38 Special or .357 Magnum revolver on
a daily basis even through July and August.

Revolvers or Autoloaders

Revolver versus Autoloader debates have been waging since long before
I was born, and I suspect they shall continue long after I'm gone.  I
won't attempt to settle those arguments here.  Instead, I offer these
observations I've made, borrowed or stolen.

Advantages of autoloaders over revolvers.

- Most autoloaders have better ergonomics than most revolvers.
- Most autoloaders have greater firepower (more shots) than most
- Autoloaders can be reloaded faster and more easily than revolvers.

Advantages of revolvers over autoloaders.

- Revolvers are more instinctive and intuitive to shoot.  [An
untrained person can likely pickup a loaded, double-action revolver
and shoot it with a reasonable expectation they will hit an attacker
at the distances where most attacks occur.  The same cannot be said of
all autoloaders.]
- A good quality modern double-action revolver in good working
condition can be loaded and left alone with no fear that mechanical
parts will wear out.

For this last reason, above all else, I tend to favor a revolver as a
first handgun.  Quite simply, most people who buy a gun for protection
tend not to practice as often as they should.  Not everyone is a "gun
person" even if they own a gun, use a gun, or carry a gun [either for
work or personal protection].  If you don't or won't practice with an
autoloader, particularly the practice of malfunction drills (IOW, what
to do when you pull the trigger and the gun does NOT go bang), you
really should consider a revolver.


You could spend anywhere from $100, or less, on up into the thousands
of dollars for a handgun.  While you get what you pay for, what you
get may not be what you want or need.  You should reasonably expect to
spend between $300 and $600 for a new handgun.  Some high quality guns
could run upwards of $800 to $1000, and some good quality used
revolvers could run as little as $200, or perhaps even a bit less.  [I
once purchased a used .38 Special revolver for $250 from a gun shop
that was traded in by a local county police department.  There were
plenty of guns from which to choose costing $200, $225 and $250.  The
only difference I could find was the $250 guns had almost no
scratches, the $225 guns had a few scratches, and the $200 guns had a
few more scratches.  All were laser-engraved on the side with the
police department's logo, so I opted for one I thought would have the
most "collector value".  That said, I do shoot the gun, I would not
feel disarmed if I were to carry it for protection, and it's one of
the guns I keep loaded at home.]

Where To Buy

I recommend a first time handgun buyer purchase a new handgun from a
local gunshop.  Smaller gunshops may have better prices, but larger
gunshops usually have a better selection.  A larger gunshop is more
likely to have a gunsmith onsite, if there's a problem.  Also, a
larger gunshop is more likely to have a better selection of holsters,
ammunition and other accessories.  Finally, a local gunshop means you
won't have to traverse the state if there's a problem with your gun.

New Or Used

You are probably better off with a new handgun versus a used handgun.
If you have a friend who is a firearms expert, they could advise you
about a used handgun purchase.  If you don't have that option
available, or the expertise yourself, you probably can't determine the
condition of the used handgun or whether this is a good deal.  As
such, you are left relying upon the word of the seller.  If you do
choose a used handgun, choose a reputable gunshop and avail yourself
of someone knowledgeable.

Final Thoughts

In the course of handling guns in a shop, and shooting guns on the
range, you'll probably find some guns fit you and some do not.  Some
guns will be easier for you to shoot, and some may take a bit longer
to master.  Too hot, too cold, just right.  Too hard, too soft, just

Buying a gun has been equated to buying a pair of shoes.  There are
lots of good products on the market, and you need to find what's right
for you.  What has a good fit and feel?  Some have a specific
technical purpose while others can serve in several roles.  Even after
identifying what kind you want, the product from one manufacturer may
not fit as well as the product from another manufacturer.

New shooters tend to be more sensitive to recoil and more experienced
shooters tend to have developed some tolerance.  There are far too
many blanket statements made declaring one caliber handgun the
undisputed king over all other caliber handguns.  Every shooter is
different.  What works for me may not work for you, and vice versa.
When you find a handgun and ammunition combination that works for you,
stick with it and master it.  Shooting something well beats shooting
anything poorly.

I would be more than to happy to answer additional questions on the
subject.  Hopefully, I've not made unfairly biased judgements for or
against any caliber or handgun in my efforts to paint a picture of
where you proceed from here.  My wife says I'm often wrong and
sometimes human.  I do wish she'd draw more of a relationship between
those two conditions.

Ken Grubb
Bellevue, WA
NRA Firearm Instructor
Pistol, Rifle, Personal Protection
Firearms Academy of Seattle graduate (FAS-2, 3, 4, 5,
Knife/Counterknife, Handgun Retention)

Ken Grubb
Bellevue, WA
Last person who would ever shoot someone to protect my life.