First-time handgun buyers, especially those with little experience, frequently make a mistake with their choice. They usually don’t know they’ve made a mistake, and they can still learn to shoot, but this mistake often sets them back months or years in their progress toward becoming a skilled marksman. The mistake is using the wrong criteria in choosing a gun. Many people will instinctively make that choice based on one of these factors:
Physical size (concealability OR who will use it at home)
Caliber (larger for men or home defense, smaller for women)
Salesman recommendation (you do realize they are on commission?)
Most of those are valid for a second or third gun, but not so much for a first gun. Why? You should give primary consideration to the learning curve, and also reliability. Let’s cover those in reverse order, as reliability is easier to quantify.
This is very simple; you get what you pay for. I learned many years ago, never buy the cheapest of anything, or, for that matter, the most expensive of anything. Granted, I have never owned a Rolls-Royce, but I have owned a small Mercedes. While it looked like a Toyota, it very definitely did not drive like a Toyota. Reliability of a handgun is closely related to its cost. If you pay less than $350, you will often be frustrated by jams and misfeeds, and it could fail you in an emergency. At this writing, $400-500 represents a decent value in a handgun, and $600-800 would be significantly above average in build quality and reliability. Above $1200 is an exceptional value in all respects.
Keep in mind that most companies that build $800 guns also build entry level models with a lower price tag. Their reputation should not be dismissed in this case, but the basic economic rule is still true: you get what you pay for.
When a gun is easier to learn to shoot, that user can more quickly acquire the skill set to become a better marksman, and accurate marksmanship is more important in self defense than caliber. I have a fair number of students in my Concealed Handgun License classes (now License To Carry) who are able to pass the minimalist Proficiency test required by the State of Texas, yet would be hard-pressed in a crisis to actually save their life. Many of them learned to shoot on a gun that was difficult to learn on.
What then, makes a handgun have a flatter learning curve, or be easier to learn on? Physical size, but in terms of being larger, not smaller. A gun with a longer barrel, and/or more weight, will always be easier to learn on than a little gun. I have proved this many times in pistol classes. When a group of 6 beginners were each given a chance to shoot all 6 guns used for the class, in every case, those beginners preferred and shot better the larger guns, and uniformly disliked the smaller guns. If they had only been allowed to experience the smaller guns, they would have simply thought they were not very good at learning to shoot, and this was not a lot of fun. As it was, they realized they could do quite well for the first day, with the right gun. In my experience, once a shooter has acquired a moderate skill level with a larger gun, they find it much easier to transfer those skills to a smaller gun, than it would have been to learn on the smaller gun in the first place.
In terms of physical size, handguns are typically put into three categories:
These are full-size guns of the type that would be carried by uniformed police or combat troops, and are not what most people would call concealable. Some examples include the CZ 75 (and virtually everything made by CZ, and the many clones of those), the Beretta 92 series, all full-size 1911-type semi-automatics, the S&W M&P series, and most models made by SIG Sauer, as well as 4- and 6-inch revolvers.
Most manufacturers of full-size guns also build a scaled down version, in an attempt to appeal to people looking for a concealable weapon. Springfield Armory, CZ, and S&W have all done this, often with great success. These are available in all calibers, including .45. The snub-nosed .357 Magnum revolver goes here as well. It is not fun to shoot, but has massive stopping power.
These are best described as “pocket-sized“, are usually lower priced, and are typically only available in .22, .32, .380, and 9mm, and also the 5-shot .38 Special revolver. The .22 and .32 are only slightly better than no gun at all. The .380 is practical at short range, although somewhat limited in stopping power. It has had enormous growth in popularity in the last two years, due to its small size and easy concealability. The 9mm is very practical, especially loaded with +P ammo. In this price range, the .38 Special revolver has an added benefit: it is extremely reliable.
However, with all subcompact guns, the learning curve is quite difficult, due to the short sight radius, smaller grips, and the light weight.
Start big, trade down
My recommendation? Start with a duty size home defense gun, and if concealed carry is the ultimate goal, add the smaller gun later. If the budget makes that difficult, still start with the duty size, then sell it later to get the compact (preferred) or subcompact. Although you will lose a little money, the smaller gun will likely be less expensive, anyway, so you will probably break even. Despite what you hear from the media, selling a gun privately (at least in Texas), is not difficult, and there are no legal issues. Unlike our friends in NJ and CA, Texans still live under the 1787 Constitution, at least for now. 🙂