by Justin Hinckley, LPNC 2A Issues Coordinator
Rule 1: Buy a Gun You Will Shoot
First and foremost, Rule 1 is dedicated to the idea that if you are buying your first gun, you will need to spend a lot of time training, shooting, and practicing with it. Your focus should be on that singular aspect and there are a variety of reasons why. The biggest reason to buy a gun you will actually shoot is the learning curve from "no experience shooting" to "competent enough to defend my life with this gun" is a steep one which takes thousands of trigger pulls and many range sessions. Buying the wrong gun can all but ensure you never train enough to be confident in a life-or-death scenario. Conversely, buying the right gun can send you down a path of consistent practice, eager planning and preparation for live-fire range days, and constant pursuit of better training and skills.
So what does "buy a gun you will shoot" even mean, practically? We’ll break this down in several factors. In fact, there is really only one rule, buy a gun you will shoot. The rest are in service of this concept. As we go down this list, you may imagine a list of suitable guns in your mind getting shorter and shorter. This is intentional, since many guns are unsuitable for new shooters, and should help you make a decision by narrowing the options. These metrics are used for application to most people most of the time. There are always exceptions and if you walk into a gun store with the intent of following a rule but find yourself unable to find a gun that fits you and meets all the requirements here, adjust as necessary.
Rule 2: Make it a Handgun
There are so many reasons to purchase a handgun over a rifle or shotgun. What it all comes down to is practical use. Handguns are simpler, easier, and faster. The logistics of shooting handguns are better. Handguns can be taken to the range in one briefcase-sized bag. Additionally, the sights on handguns are generally fixed and pre-zeroed. No need for you to spend the time, ammunition, and frustration of trying to mount and zero sights correctly when you are brand new to all this stuff. Some may laugh this off, but the first time you spend an hour of your 90-minute range trip zeroing you will realize the truth here.
Lastly, handguns provide the joy of near-instant feedback due to the ranges at which most people train with them. You can see the target immediately after you shoot it. This cannot be overstated as a value for keeping new shooters interested and engaged while training. You also do not need to wait for the line to go cold, then walk 25, 50, or 100 yards downrange to assess your shots, repair targets, or post new targets. Awaiting "line cold" periods can easily turn what should be a 30-60 minute range trip into over two hours of waiting, boredom, and wasted ammunition.
Rule 3: Stick to Calibers of .22lr, .380acp, or 9mm
Calibers .22lr, .380acp/auto, and 9mm luger (9mm NATO, 9x19) are cheap, easy to find, and available in many options. They also happen to have very manageable recoil compared to other common handgun calibers, such as .45acp and .40S&W. These three calibers are also common enough in different handgun platforms that you can still shop numerous options to find something you like. It is important to note that .22 is fairly different from .380 and 9mm, categorically. While .380 and 9mm are true self-defense calibers with respectable terminal performance (and the moderate recoil to go with it), .22 is on this list because of how great it is for new shooters to learn on. Particularly of interest is the ability of .22 to be given to timid or fearful shooters and those same shooters being able to still learn and train, without the training scars imposed by larger recoil, muzzle flash, and noise. That said, .22 is not only for the less enthusiastic shooters, it happens to be cheaper and the guns lighter than .380 and 9mm, which makes for a good intro into the realm of training. A .22 can be shot all day and the shooter's hands and wallet will both be in good shape at the end of shooting.
Rule 4: Keep the Weight at Least 15 Ounces
This is a combination rule that considers recoil and size. Broadly speaking, a heavier gun means less recoil (unless all that weight is in the slide). When browsing, you will also notice most guns below 15 ounces are a subcompact or pocket pistol, which tend to be difficult guns to shoot, especially for new shooters. The smaller size usually indicates greater recoil and more difficult ergonomics than their larger and heavier counterparts. With a smaller size also comes less area on the gun to form a proper and stable grip. Being unable to form a proper grip easily provides an unwanted barrier to training as it makes it more difficult to train the fundamentals of shooting. This rule does not apply to .22s as the smaller round means barrels, slides, and recoil springs can all be much smaller, making them incredibly light, on average.
Rule 5: Start With a Barrel at Least 3 Inches Long
Your actual minimum should be 3.5 inches, but I put three inches because there are some good guns less than 3.5 inches in barrel length. This rule is another recoil consideration, but also factors practical accuracy. First, a longer barrel allows the powder from the cartridge to burn longer before exiting the barrel, creating less of an "explosion" at the muzzle, which is what actually causes recoil. When discussing practical accuracy, I am talking about what's called sight radius. This is the distance between the front sight and rear sight. This is not a function of the gun being objectively more accurate (although longer barrels do tend to do that as well), but of the ability for the shooter to be more accurate in his/her aim. The greater the sight radius, the more accurate you become. The longer sight radius provides some forgiveness for imperfect sight alignment.
Rule 6: Go Big on Your Grip Size
For your first gun, it is essential you find a gun big enough to be able to form a proper two-handed firing grip. While this is possible with most guns, focus on the guns that make it easy. When new to shooting, you do not want to spend your focus on how to achieve a good grip in spite of the size. Instead, just start with a gun large enough to have a grip which suits your hands. For some people, this means you can buy a pretty small gun and still be able to build that grip properly, easily, and quickly. For others, it means anything smaller than a full-sized handgun may feel small. Find what works for you and do not settle for cramped hands and floating fingers for your first gun.