Using science to improve decision-making is something for which I strive. As a result, I have devised a systematic process to follow when I’m purchasing a new handgun.
A systematic process allows you to create an objective model for evaluation and often results in better decision-making. The model can be as simple as creating an honest list of pros and cons for each option under consideration.
Such a list-based model can easily be adapted to purchasing a firearm. It can help you choose the best gun regardless of if you are buying your first, your 10th or your 100th. But what factors should you consider for such a list?
Choosing a Handgun Within Your Budget
A commonly used model for evaluating projects and products is called the “good, fast, cheap: choose two” model. In other words, you can have a good and fast but not cheap product, a fast and cheap but not good product, or a good and cheap but not fast product. Though not always supported, it provides a model to think about when you’re looking at firearms.
Good and cheap is not impossible, but it generally takes a longer time to perfect. Good and fast will not be cheap, and cheap and fast will not be good. This is a more complex way to say that you get what you pay for.
In my experience, there is no universal rule, but there are some rules of thumb. Many budget handguns (in the $300 to $400 range) usually suffer in reliability, durability, quality or some combination thereof. Conversely, in my opinion, there is a diminishing level of return on investment for most handguns that cost more than $800. If you are looking for a firearm that may be used for self-defense, the initial concern is to pick out a brand and model that has a proven track record.
Although there is a lot of good information online and from manufacturers’ websites, there is a lot of unreliable information too. Just make sure that when you’re talking to friends, watching videos or reading articles, you take every recommendation with a grain of salt. Even the best advice is given through the lens of what that person wants from his or her firearm, which may not be what you’re looking for. Be politely skeptical and ask what data the individual is using to support his or her claims. If all else is equal, consider firearms that have a history of successful duty use in various police departments and military organizations.
What Is Your Firearm’s Purpose
Once you have decided on the firearms that are in your price range, the next step is to determine the intended purpose of the firearm you seek to purchase. This knowledge will help you decide what is important to you as you systematically evaluate your choices. Will it be carried? If so, weight and concealability will be more important. Will it be mostly kept for home defense? If so, ease of use and attachments may be more important. Will it be used in competition? If so, balance, legality in competition and trigger may be more important.
Finally, when you’re evaluating buying a potential firearm, you need to — at minimum — handle it at a gun store. If you’re able, you should fire it, either by shooting the same model a friend owns or by renting it. There are many factors you can assess by dry handling a handgun, but to really know how a gun fits your needs, it is best to fire it.
Others, including sales staff, can be great sources of information on the reputation and reliability of various guns and those guns’ service histories. They will certainly have their own personal experiences with the guns too. But everyone is different, and your goal should always be to find the best gun for you and your specific needs. Be honest with yourself as you evaluate these factors. Start with what size you need: small and concealable, or can it be larger? Does it need to be able to accept accessories, such as a light or a laser? Do you want it to be pre-cut for an optic?
Once the gun has been handed to you, recheck that it is unloaded, especially if the salesperson didn’t check it or if you did not see him or her check it. No one will fault you for double-checking to make sure a firearm is unloaded.
Evaluate how the gun fits you, beginning with your dominant hand. Does your hand naturally fit the gun? The heel of your hand should contact the rear of the grip, with your thumb naturally aligning with the side of the frame. Your trigger finger should naturally find the top of the frame and easily transition to the trigger and back to the frame. Your remaining fingers should complete your grip directly under the trigger guard. You are looking to see if the grip is too small or too large for your hand.
If your dominant hand fits the gun well, add your support hand to the grip. Is there sufficient space left by your dominant hand to allow the support hand to contact the grip area as well? Once your support hand is in place, does your support thumb come to rest on the frame, below and forward of your dominant hand’s thumb?
For the purposes of dry handling, you are trying to assess how well the gun fits your hands. For the purposes of live-fire, you are assessing how well you can control recoil with your grip. Remember that a smaller gun may not offer an optimal grip, but if you desire easy concealment, you want to make sure you can still get a comfortable grip on the gun. This is the point at which a qualified instructor can be very helpful.
Angle and Balance
Different guns have different grip angles and shapes. Once you have determined that you like the gun’s grip, the next step is to present the gun to your line of sight.
Make sure the gun is pointed in a safe direction (specifically not at other customers or the salesperson) and, while holding the gun close to your chest with your chosen grip, present the gun by straightening your arms into your firing stance and bringing the sights of the gun to your line of vision.
Does the gun naturally present with the sights being on target, or do you need to adjust once your arms are extended? How does the balance of the gun feel? Is it front-heavy? How about back-heavy?
The initial grip needs to feel somewhat natural. The same applies here. Does the gun help or hinder your natural presentation style?
Once you’ve presented the firearm, what does that sight picture look like? Are the sights hard to pick up against darker backgrounds? Once aligned to your line of sight, your sight picture (meaning your focus on the front sight through the rear sights) should feel natural and intuitive, which means your preferences will play a role here. Do you prefer night sights, three white dots, blacked-out front and rear sights, or fiber optics? Sights can be replaced, but that comes with additional expense, skills and time.
Are the sights that come with the gun a good fit for you and your planned use? If you find that no firearms are passing these tests, you may need to seek additional training that focuses on the fundamentals of presenting a handgun and acquiring a proper sight picture.
There are more options with regard to triggers than ever before, and a large part of that is due to the proliferation of aftermarket replacement triggers. Everyone has an opinion, but I base my evaluations on the following criteria:
Trigger uptake is the point at which the trigger rests once cycled. This location should be the same with every cycling of the gun.
Trigger consistency is whether the level of force needed to move the trigger from its starting position to when the gun fires is the same for each cycle. Ideally, this should be a smooth and consistent amount of force from start to finish.
Trigger pull is the force required to move the trigger from its starting position to firing, usually measured in pounds of force. A double-action revolver may require 8 to 10 pounds of force, a striker-fired-semi-automatic 4 to 6 pounds, and a single-action revolver or semi-automatic as little as 1 to 2 pounds. Many people look only at the weight of the trigger pull, but I would rather have a smooth and consistent 5-pound trigger than an inconsistent 2-pound trigger.
Trigger break is the point at which the gun will fire. This should be a crisp break and occur at the same place in the trigger motion with the same force every time. Trigger reset refers to the point at which the gun is ready to fire again after the trigger has been released from its rearward position. I look for a crisp, palpable reset that consistently occurs at the same point every time. Remember: With a trigger, consistency is the name of the game.
As far as trigger safeties, I evaluate whether the handgun in question has a trigger-safety device and how hard it would be to get the gun to unintentionally fire.
My final evaluation is on the remaining mechanics, including the slide lock, magazine release and how easy it is to rack the slide. Is the slide lock conveniently placed for my grip to allow for locking the slide back when needed? Is the magazine release easy to use and placed in such a way as to allow easy access? Does the magazine easily fall free of the pistol when the magazine release is pressed? Can I easily rack the slide for the purposes of chambering a round or clearing a malfunction? You need to answer all of these questions before you can decide whether a pistol is a good fit.
Your Gun, Your Criteria
Obviously, the importance of each of these factors will change with each person and how he or she plans to use his or her firearm. And, of course, the buyer needs to possess a certain level of competence in shooting fundamentals and mechanics to optimize his or her determination of fit on each factor. Beyond basic reliability and safety, each person needs to find the right gun for his or her needs. Hopefully this systematic approach will provide a framework to help you better analyze each gun before you purchase it.