What to Expect the First Time You Shoot a Handgun

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I wish I’d been able to shed my pride and ask someone what to expect the first time I shot a semi-automatic pistol. Let’s say the episode ended prematurely and with a lot of my blood covering my gun, my shooting bag and the indoor range.

No, no one got shot. I just managed to cut the dickens out of my hand — so much so that it took a box of gauze pads and tape to stop the bleeding. How on earth did this happen? Well, let’s get into some things you can expect when shooting a semi-automatic pistol for the first time. If you pay attention to some basic instructions, unlike the way I did it, there will be no blood involved!

What Makes a Semi-Automatic?

Contrary to what breathless reporters might say, a semi-automatic pistol isn’t a “machine gun.” The “automatic” part of the name means that the design automates the routine steps of removing a spent cartridge case and loading a fresh cartridge. Like any other standard firearm, it fires only once for each trigger press.

While there are different design details for semi-automatic pistols, the basics are pretty much the same. When you fire, recoil energy wants to move backward, in the opposite direction of the bullet’s travel. So, clever engineers figured out how to put some of that recoil energy to good use and capture it for extracting the spent case, re-cocking the pistol and loading a new cartridge into the magazine. Nifty, huh?

From a functional perspective, you can expect that a semi-auto will fire each time you press the trigger until the magazine is empty. While models vary in terms of whether or how you need to cock it for the first shot, the operation is similar.

A white male uses his right hand to point a black 1911-style SIG Sauer 9mm pistol with the external hammer spur cocked. Green leaves, gray tree trunks and blue skies dominate the background.

When you shoot a semi-automatic pistol one-handed, the firing hand thumb is already out of the way.

Slide Action!

So, we’ve figured out that these pistols re-cock themselves. Here’s how: The slide that surrounds the barrel will move backward as soon as the shot is fired because of the recoil energy. That moving slide grabs the spent case from the barrel and yanks it out. As the slide travels farther back, it either cocks the hammer or resets the striker, depending on the gun type. When the slide reaches the end of its travel, the recoil spring moves it back forward, scraping a fresh round from the top of the magazine and pushing it into the chamber.

Here’s why you need to care about that, at least if you want to prevent a bloody event. The slide travels right over the area where the web of your hand (between thumb and fingers) rests. If you’re shooting one-handed, that’s fine. If you’re shooting two-handed, that’s fine too, as long as your support-hand thumb doesn’t get in the way.

Shooters point of view of white male hands incorrectly gripping a black semi-automatic pistol — the thumb of the support hand is crossed around the back of the firearm and will be injured by the slide if a shot is fired.

Do NOT grip a semi-automatic pistol like this. That crossed support hand thumb will likely get cut when the slide moves back during cycling.

So, now that you expect the slide to travel in that area, you want to grip the pistol so that you don’t cross your thumbs across the back of the gun. Your support-hand thumb should be on the same side as your support-hand fingers so that it’s out of the way.

Is It Loaded? Or Not?

Of course, a gun is always loaded! That’s safety rule No. 1. However, moving beyond the safety procedure, how do you know if a semi-automatic pistol really has no ammunition in it?

Before shooting a semi-automatic pistol for the first time, you need to understand that there are two parts to the meaning of “loaded.” There is the source of the ammunition. That’s called the “magazine.” Most pistols house the magazine inside of the grip. The second part refers to the chamber itself.

To make sure a pistol is unloaded, you have to do two things. First, you have to remove the source or supply of ammunition from the gun by removing the magazine. However, that’s not enough. After removing the future supply, the second step is to open the action to make sure there is no cartridge in the chamber.

A black .45-caliber semi-automatic handgun rests next to an empty black steel seven-shot single-stack magazine and an open box of .45 ACP ammunition with two fat little ball rounds removed from the package.

With a semi-automatic handgun, unloading requires two steps. First, remove the magazine, then make sure there’s not a cartridge in the chamber.

The order in which you do these things is critical. If you empty the chamber first, the act of closing the slide will load yet another cartridge from the magazine still in place. Make sense?

So, expect to be very careful and deliberate about unloading a semi-automatic pistol!

Loading

Like unloading, loading is a two-step process. You first have to insert a supply of cartridges by inserting a full magazine into the firearm. That’s not enough, however. To prepare the pistol to fire, you have to cycle the action (rack the slide) to load a fresh cartridge from the magazine into the chamber.

Expect It to Fire!

Of course, it will fire, so this one may sound a bit strange. Here’s what I mean. A semi-automatic pistol can have a light trigger pull for the second shot onward, depending on the type. Be careful with your trigger finger and be sure you’re very purposeful and deliberate about when you want to shoot. It can be surprisingly easy to inadvertently fire a subsequent shot once you get going. Using a firm grip can help, as the gun won’t move around as much during recoil.

Recoil

Speaking of recoil, all else being equal, you can expect a semi-automatic pistol to feel like it has less recoil than a revolver shooting a similar load type. That’s because the redirection of energy to cycle the semi-automatic action takes some of the “straight back” recoil out of the equation. If you have a revolver and pistol of equal weight that both shoot the same cartridge, you’d almost certainly feel less recoil with the pistol. It’s a nice feature.

Here’s the net-net about what to expect when shooting a semi-automatic pistol for the first time. There are a few more operating controls and procedures to learn as compared to a revolver, but the benefit is that, all else being equal, it will be a “gentler” shooting experience. Just remember to be careful about that grip!