This is a choice that literally has your life based on it. If you have children and a family their lives are also resting on your decision. After all, the entire purpose of a defensive handgun is, you guessed it; defense! As with all life-affirming decisions you have already considered this and discarded the notion that fancy bells and whistles are necessary, right?
Unfortunately, like most markets, firearms sales rely on the newest gadgets and features to sell many products. Combined with slick advertising and paid reviewers like the Truth About Guns, IV8888, hicock45, and dozens more firearms companies sell you every new gadget and “innovation” often without any real focused testing being involved.
It should be noted I still enjoy many of the videos put together, even those that are obviously trying to sell a new product or approach or the newest add-on!
This is why some newer handguns which made such a splash originally have either ceased production or been sold or renamed in an attempt to prevent loss of the line. From Glock through Ruger and more several new approaches have proven to be made up of more marketing than reality.
So how do you avoid wasting money on firearms that are not solid defensive tools? This is where things get difficult, and where I will garner the largest amount of disdain especially from gun store employees and owners and lastly from individuals who still believe only flintlocks are best, and revolvers are for those new age types.
I am going to list the questions you must ask before buying a firearm and also what you must do before settling on a firearm for self-defense.
- What is most reliable?
- To maintain a solid level of skill, I will need to practice regularly, how much can I afford monthly?
- What offers the greatest amount of defense within my skill set?
- What is legal where I live, for me to carry?
These are some of the questions you will want to ask yourself. You will notice I did not ask what looks best or is most comfortable, these are not relevant questions when enhancing your own “safe space”. Next, you will want to look at as much unfiltered data as possible, for instance, look at what is used by local and national law enforcement.
In the United States, law enforcement uses a variety of calibers and approaches but most of them agree on a simple reality. Reliability, accuracy, and performance are paramount with defensive firearms.
What is most reliable, this is not a subjective question. It is a very cut and dry question, brand new from the box which handguns are most reliable. Which handguns can be used straight out of the box, without additions or changes, for self-defense?
Again, this can be answered clearly with very little thought by most individuals who have carried professionally and relied on their firearms at some point. Certainly, if you have several thousand dollars you can invest in that engraved, polished and handled in mother of pearl 1911 that the older generations embrace.
Of course, my challenge to this is the same I put on myself and my choices. Can I shoot 500-1000 rounds of different quality and manufacture flawlessly through this firearm? If the answer is no, then choose another firearm.
How much can I afford? This includes regular practice as well as the initial firearm. Practice that should include a magazine (at a minimum) of your chosen defensive load each time you go out as well. To make sure your chosen defensive load works in the firearm, initially shoot 250-500 rounds flawlessly through your handgun!
The 500-1000 is for firearm reliability, the 250-500 of defensive ammunition is to ensure that that ammunition is 99% reliable as well. With solid basics and regular dry fire practice, you can easily maintain your skills with 50-100 rounds a month in focused practice. However, this requires focused attention and solid practical training.
Easily the 9×19 or 9mm Luger cartridge is the least expensive overall. Less than half the cost per round of the .45acp and a few cents less than .40sw this round is the least expensive and has the numerical advantage when it comes to loads that are available.
Just from today alone using AmmoSeek.com the least expensive non-defensive .45acp round is 20.3 cents a round, while .40sw is 18.2 cents a round and 9mm is 13.2 cents a round for the least expensive loadings available from the factory.
You can reload, however, reloading is a skill-based approach and requires absolute adherence to safety guidelines and rigorous QC of your handiwork. I have reloaded tens of thousands of rounds over the many years I have been shooting.
I have used LEE hand loaders and presses through my favorite setup a Dillon 550 or the better 650. I can say that unless you are willing to invest time in learning how to load and what works best in your firearm, location and with local climate reloading is like having a homestead; it sounds good on paper but is a lot of work and most who start tend to stop quickly.
Defensive loadings for the 9mm, .45acp and 40sw (other calibers exist however these are the big three in the USA) run on average .30 cents through two dollars apiece. Stay away from exotics rounds, again, when looking for self-defense you have to test what you plan to use!
If you cannot afford to test a MINIMUM of 250 rounds in your chosen handgun of DEFENSIVE ammunition (jacketed hollow point or JHP) than that ammunition CANNOT be used defensively with any real peace of mind. I and many others have documented our testing over the years and there are several solid loads available for the consumer.
I prefer to use LE/FBI tested ammunition for two reasons, primarily this is legal in nature, however, the FBI also uses a test approach that allows for the greatest overall effectiveness of a rounds performance through barriers and soft tissue. No test is foolproof and ALL firearms and ammunition can and have failed.
This said, if you run 250 rounds of your chosen defensive ammunition through a firearm without ANY failures you can rely on that ammunition. I prefer to run 500 rounds, however, 250 is still a solid baseline for performance. It should be noted that you should have already run 500-1000 rounds of practice/range ammunition with NO firearm based failures occurring.
This is to ensure the reliability of the firearm, modern firearms should not need a break in period. If yours does, understand that the test rounds start AFTER the break-in period ends! Do NOT rely on any firearm or ammunition combination that has not been tested completely!
What offers the greatest amount of defense within my skill set? For the purposes of defense against four and two-legged threats to your life what offers the greatest amount of defense.
This question has a subjective answer, after all, there is not currently a handgun in existence that is the fabled “golden gun” from James Bond, eg., no handgun in existence today is capable of killing through its existence alone and all handgun cartridges are anemic when compared to any carbine or rifle specific cartridge.
That being said, with well-aimed regular fire you can stop most two and four-legged threats with even the lowly 9×19 or 9mm Luger cartridge. In the past few years alone there have been incidents proving that 9mm will with well-placed shots stop even a charging grizzly bear.
The tipping point really is ammunition type, while other incidents have shown that 9mm will stop even a charging moose, this does not mean I would suggest using one in these cases. I will say I never feel under armed with my chosen carry firearm and ammunition combination.
Understanding your skill set is essential to being able to choose a firearm that fits you best! Locate a good firearm range and go out to it on Tuesday through Thursday, weekdays are when the serious reloading/ rifle building/ shooters hit the local ranges. Weekender traffic is light and you can nicely strike up a conversation and usually within a short period of time can ask one or more to help you asses your skill level.
These individuals are invaluable additions to your circle and regardless of personal beliefs or political motivation can contribute much to your evolving desire to defend yourself. An alternative to this approach is attending a local IPSC match and being willing to take advice.
The individuals running the match are usually quite nice and want to see new people shooting and competing, be nice and ask for help. They can set up a qualifier for you and this will also help assess your practical knowledge and ability. Lastly, there is this approach to assessing your skill set.
- Have you shot a firearm before?
- What training have you had?
- Where have you gathered your knowledge of firearms?
If you have not shot a firearm before, you are a beginner. If you have only basic military training and NO rounds fired in the field (action) you are a beginner. If you have basic military or basic NRA or fresh out of academy training with no action you are getting closer to intermediate levels.
Add on practice and regular additional training and use and your skill set quickly rises. I have carried 10mm and shot .500sw accurately and well, I would not suggest these rounds unless you have several years of experience shooting and not just on a static range. Contrary to what most people say I do not believe that bigger is better unless your skill set matches your ability with the bigger side.
What is legal to carry? Where you live it may not be legal to carry military calibers, Mexico and many South and Central American countries allow firearms to be owned, just not in military calibers. This means that for many their choices will not include 9×19 or .40sw.
In the United States, individual state law restricts magazine capacity and sometimes firearm type based on politically motivated bias. These are all things to consider when choosing a handgun for self-defense purposes. Make sure you know the laws.
Well there you go, I hope this information has been helpful and if you see any glaring mistakes or issues please comment below!
- Mastering The Concealed Carry Quick Draw!
- Glock 19 vs. Glock 17 Which Is Best For Carry?
- A Look At .22 Caliber Handguns For Concealed Carry?
Free the mind and the body will follow…
Very good article full of nuggets for everyone to think about.
I purchased my first handgun round 1992. I chose a S&W, .40 Model 4006. It’s a heavy stainless steel brute that is absolutely reliable. I also have a S&W, .40 M&P.
Since retiring in 2012, I have finally taken to testing each weapon. The dilemma is that both shoot the rounds as well as the other. I’m still fighting with my decision to carry either. But, I’m sticking to the premise that you practice with what you carry or vice versa.
Regardless, thank you for an insightful article.
Oren, well said! And all I tell people is make sure its reliable …the 4006 is a really nice gun. Always liked them…I carry striker fired these days but yes. That was one of my first adult pistols 🙂