Buying your first pistol can be a complicated and challenging decision. This is especially true if you have never purchased a firearm before.
But you are in good company. 3 million more Americans than the average have purchased their first gun since the beginning of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.
Whether for sport, Every-Day-Cary (EDC), or home defense, buying the right pistol can serve you well for decades.
By the end of this article, you will have the know-how to buy a handgun with confidence.
Answer Key Questions
The right to own a firearm carries the responsibility of making an informed decision. Your first pistol is not a toy—it is a tool. Ask yourself, “Why am I buying this gun?”
Do you plan to use it for sport shooting at the range? Will it be part of your EDC as a concealed carry? Home defense?
A pistol meant for concealed carry needs to feel comfortable on your body. One that you only take to the range for target shooting does not.
Here is a tough question: If you are buying a pistol for defense, are you comfortable shooting another person? Are you comfortable taking that person’s life?
The potential to take a life exists every time you aim at someone.
Even practice ammunition can be lethal.
When your fight or flight response kicks in and you need to pull the trigger, can you do it? The question is not to scare you but to inform you because you are less safe in a fight if you can’t pull that trigger.
Remember that the choice to arm and defend yourself is not unrealistic. Millions of Americans choose to protect themselves, their home, and their family.
Knowing these answers first will help you suss out your reason for buying and help you at the sales counter when the time comes to commit.
First Pistol Research
Gun owners are not a secret community. 30 percent of Americans report owning a firearm and almost 20 percent of them are NRA members.
With a bit of research, you will find excellent magazines, forums, and online pistol reviews that will give you a sense of the pistol that is right for you. Some solid publications with handgun-oriented content include:
- Guns & Ammo
- American Handgunner
- Tactical Weapons
Part of this research should focus on caliber and purpose. While .357 Magnum might sound appealing because of the boom factor, you should start with a gun that you can comfortably hold and fire.
A pistol that you intend only for the range can of course be larger than your daily carry.
For concealed carry, a lot of owners decide between a 9mm and 380 for their size and relative stopping power.
A few pistols worth researching first are:
- Glock 26
- Smith & Wesson M&P 9
- Sig Sauer P320
All three are firearms from different manufacturers, with different features, and are the right fit for different people. Do not stop here if none of these are appealing. There are many excellent firearms for defense and sport.
Don’t be afraid to engage your community. Friends who own pistols can share a wealth of knowledge. Local clubs and groups can help you build confidence and experience before you make a purchase.
Finding like-minded pistol owners now will be a boon down the road when you need additional resources or want to expand your arsenal.
You don’t need to broadcast your ownership, but you also do not need to be alone.
Hit the Shooting Range
If you have never fired a gun before—and even if you have—you better hit the range! A good range will have plenty of rental options, giving you the chance to try most of the pistols that you researched and probably some that you did not.
Ranges also offer safety training and specific firearms classes. Even a seasoned hunter who is more familiar with rifles or shotguns can benefit from a course focused on pistols.
Likewise, a target shooter can benefit from a self-defense course.
Learning gun safety is essential for all owners. Even long-time owners have accidentally fired a bullet into their foot because they did not know a round was chambered and the safety was off.
Find Your Comfort Zone
The goal at this point is not to focus on accuracy. You don’t want to worry about your groupings being tight and centered. Figure out if you can handle the gun at all first.
Focus on how it feels firing the pistol. Assess all of the ways you will need to be comfortable with the gun.
Is the gun too heavy? Is it comfortable to grip? Is it too big for your hand?
Can you squeeze the trigger? Does it hurt to fire? Is the recoil manageable?
Can you fire shots back-to-back? Empty the clip?
When do your arms and forearms tire? Can you still hold the gun with sweaty hands?
At what point can you no longer squeeze the trigger?
While the answers to some of these questions will change over time with practice, this will give you an early sense of what works for you.
If that revolver you tested is awkward to hold or the recoil is hard to control, it is not a good fit. If you struggle to fire the gun once or multiple times, it is not a good fit.
A pistol you can hold and shoot all day is ideal.
Recognize that it will cost a bit of cash to rent different guns and do a lot of shooting. Investing in this learning will pay off though when you buy the right pistol.
You do not want to find that your ego won over practicality. A smaller pistol, a smaller caliber, can still have sufficient stopping power.
You don’t want to buy a gun that you can’t shoot. Don’t do it.
Find a Reputable Dealer
While gun shows and firearms conventions can be a great way to see all that different vendors have to offer, they are not always available.
Find a reputable local dealer who can help you make an informed decision.
Big box stores are convenient. However, their salesmen may not always be gun-savvy. You will find the exceptions are pro outdoor shops because their customers rely on expertise.
You might find that the right dealer is connected to your shooting range or your range pro might recommend a good shop.
Once you find the right shop, talk to them about all the reasons you are buying your first pistol. For protection? For concealed carry?
Make an Informed Purchase
Be sure to ask questions too. What if the gun you were most comfortable firing at the range is not comfortable for daily carry?
What if the gun you love is known to fail? What if it is difficult to properly clean and maintain?
You know what it is to fire the gun, but you do not yet know what it is to own it. Buyer’s remorse can set in after a month or two when you realize that pistol you practiced with at the range is miserable to keep strapped to your waist all day.
A reputable dealer will walk you through these issues. They will also help you find the necessary accessories.
For EDC, you will want a good conceal carry holster. For the range, you will want a locking hard case.
Many gun owners opt for a large safe because it can hold other valuables—cash, gold, jewelry, etc. However, a dedicated gun safe is not a bad choice depending on your storage and access needs.
What is better for you? A big safe in the closet or a small one under your nightstand?
Planning to stock up on ammo? You will need to properly store that too.
When you do choose to buy, buy new. This helps ensure that the manufacturer will honor the warranty.
Used pistols are less expensive but you won’t know the history of the weapon. If the previous owner did not properly maintain it or made shoddy attempts to modify it, you do not want your pistol to fail for reasons outside of your use and control.
There are a lot of options when looking at ammo for pistols.
Be sure to consider the long-term active costs of owning any particular pistol, too. A larger caliber handgun with more exotic ammo is more expensive than a smaller one with more common ammo.
For protection, ask yourself: Is your life more valuable than the gun?
This should not be a cheap investment. Keep practicality and reliability in mind. You want to know your gun will fire when you need it most.
Practice, Practice, Practice
You did not pay all that money to leave it locked up, did you? Your hands-on research at the range was just the beginning. Now it is time to improve your skills.
Definite skills you want to build (outside of basic aiming and shooting) are:
- Drawing from the holster
- Loading and reloading
- One-handed shooting
- Shooting under stress
- Shooting while moving
- Shooting moving targets
Take more classes. One-on-one lessons will show you drills and teach you to fire quickly and accurately. Advanced safety and defense classes can teach you skills for handling real scenarios.
Do not be afraid to explore tactical training or obstacle courses as well. These can provide immense opportunities to learn how to maneuver with and control your pistol.
You cannot get that at the range!
Practice responsible gun ownership, too. Learn to keep your gun safely stored. Learn to clean it, maintain it, and actually do it.
You would not learn to change the oil in your truck and then run spent oil for decades, would you?
If you plan on using your pistol for home defense to protect your family, get them trained as well. Everyone in your household should feel comfortable being around a gun and should know how to use it if the need arises.
There is no reason for your family to be afraid of the tool meant to protect them.
Remember that overall gun ownership is an active process. Parts deteriorate. Muscle memory and skills fade over time. Be committed to the practice for life.
Chances are that your first pistol is not going to be your last. Love it or not, you don’t have to feel married to the first handgun you buy.
Needs and wants change. Many owners explore different clip sizes, add attachments, or install modifications to adjust how their firearm handles.
If you know now that you want to upgrade certain parts or mount a laser sight, make it a serious factor before you buy.
You can outgrow your gun as your skills improve, and you will look for something that has a little more power. The 9mm subcompact you bought won’t meet all of your expectations. You’ll want more stopping power. You’ll want more boom.
In time, a 50 AE Desert Eagle could be calling your name!
Some people also buy the wrong gun from the jump (even after following our advice). What seemed like a great pistol turns out to be slightly too cumbersome to carry. Some buyers over-project their ability and purchase a gun that is too powerful.
All of this is okay. You don’t have to get it right to exercise your right.
Be open to exploring different options. Be passionate about ownership. Be an upstanding member of the community.