Imagine a friend calling and asking you to buy a pair of shoes for him, then hanging up. Huh? Wait! What are the shoes for? What size? How wide? Slip-ons? Lace ups?

A gun buyer must answer a host of similar questions, whether purchasing a first firearm or adding to an extensive collection. Guns are like shoes–they have to fit.

It’s not just a physical issue. Like your shoes, your firearm also must fit the occasion. The fit of your gun is about what it’s going to be used for, and about how it works for you physically. And, just as in trying on various shoes, you are the best and only person who can truly judge what’s best for you.

The Gun’s Purpose

First, determine the handgun’s primary use. Will it be a training tool, a carry gun, a competition winner? If you’re just starting out, you’ll want a firearm that is easy to operate, larger than other firearms of the same category, and heavier in weight. The last two elements will help minimize recoil, ease the task of aiming, and allow for more overall comfort.

If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a firearm that can be carried concealed, you’ll want something small, light, and with other features that make for an efficient defensive weapon. If you’re going to participate in a competitive shooting sport, you’ll have still other needs.

Can you get one that’ll work for everything? Again, think shoes. The answer is no. (You’ll need many, but that’s a topic for another day….)

The author, shown here, is a firearms instructor at the Gunsite Academy, where she teaches hunting and self-defense with rifles, handguns, and shotguns.

The Gun’s Fit

Once you’ve focused on the need for the handgun and the features such a gun should have, you’ve narrowed the field of candidates. Now, it’s time to try them on for size. Just like your shoes, a handgun has to fit you. Even if the gun you’ve selected has all the function and beauty of your dreams, if it doesn’t physically fit you, you won’t shoot it well. An ill-fitting firearm may even create bad habits, and will certainly compromise your learning.

While there are many dimensions of firearms fit, the most visible and important with a handgun is its grip. The gun must fit your hands. One that’s too big can make it difficult or even impossible to press the trigger completely through. The firearm’s grip positions your index finger relative to the trigger. If the pistol grip is too fat, for example, it might prevent your finger from having enough contact with the trigger. If it’s too thin, it might result in too much contact, or an incorrect angle on the trigger. Any of these fit issues can compromise your ability to hit what you’re aiming at.

Keep in mind that many handguns can be modified by replacing their grips. When shopping, ask gun-store personnel a particular handgun’s grip can be changed to one that’s slimmer, wider, or just more comfortable.

It Felt Good in the Store, But…

Have you ever bought a pair of shoes that looked great and felt fine at the store, but made your feet bark when you actually wore them? The same thing can happen with guns. Used gun racks are rife with firearms that seemed perfect when hefted over the gun-store counter, but bit their handlers when fired.

How do you to avoid this? Many ranges have firearms to rent, which can be an excellent way to test-shoot potential purchases. You might also have friends who will loan you guns—and give you their personal opinions and experiences with them (as with shoes, firearms are very personal choices, so keep that in mind when considering others’ opinions).

If you don’t have access to firearms that you can actually shoot, go to the gun store, and ask the staff if you can dry-fire guns—that is, actually pull the trigger, without any ammunition in the firearm. It’s a distant second to firing live, but if you can dry-fire, you’ll get a better feel for the firearm. Specifically, you’ll have a better idea if its fit allows you enough finger strength, geometry of motion, and other biomechanical factors that go into shooting the gun.

Just as when buying an important pair of shoes, don’t rush yourself into a gun purchase. It’s an investment. But even more important—and unlike shoes—your life may depend on it.