So you have in your possession a quality semi-automatic handgun, and you need to verify that it shoots accurately and functions properly every time you press the trigger. Anything less is unacceptable for a personal defense weapon. I have purchased numerous handguns over the years, and in the course of my training I have seen countless students show up with new sidearms, and have learned a few things about testing a pistol to ensure that it meets the proper criteria for a reliable self-defense weapon. I’ve distilled my experiences into a simple routine that will reveal if a new gun is worth carrying on your hip.
Breakdown, Cleaning, and Lubing
The first thing I do is take the gun apart and conduct a thorough inspection of all the parts. This isn’t a full-armorer breakdown, just a disassembly of the basic components. I do a thorough cleaning and lubricate what needs lubing and verify that the safety and the de-cocker (if it has one) work, and that the trigger functions properly and resets. I also make sure the magazine release works. After this is done, it is time for live fire.
Since this is a personal defense pistol, you are going to need ammunition designed for self-defense. My advice is to purchase the best personal defense ammunition you can afford. But before buying a thousand rounds, try a few types with different bullet styles to see what your gun likes. Some handguns function better and shoot more accurately with certain brands and bullet weights.
Practice ammo or ball ammo is usually the least expensive and most readily available.
Break-In and Serviceability Testing
I fire a minimum of 300 ball rounds and 100 personal defense rounds through a new gun. In most cases, my actual round count ends up closer to 500.
If something is going to fall off the gun—like the sights—it’ll happen in the first 100 rounds or so. This isn’t a hard-and-fast figure, of course, but it is a good rule of thumb. The initial 100 rounds is also a great time to verify that your sights are on and that you’re hitting where you’re aiming. Keep in mind that the point of impact may change when you switch from practice ammo to duty or defense rounds.
Use the rest of this break-in time to work on your marksmanship skills and drills as well. It’s also a good time to make sure the magazines are working properly. I number all of mine with a silver Sharpie so I can identify problem mags and fix or replace them. There’s no reason to keep a bad magazine in the inventory. Remember, you purchased this pistol to potentially save your life. In the greater scheme of things, magazines are relatively inexpensive.
When evaluating a new pistol, I shoot it from awkward positions and with different gripping techniques to see if anything causes it to malfunction. I also have other people shoot it so I can watch how it functions. Most modern firearms gobble up ammo like Pac Man, but occasionally one comes my way that will malfunction when fired from a certain angle (such as the rollover prone position, used to shoot under a vehicle) or when used with a particular type of ammunition. I’d rather find out if something isn’t right on the range than when my life depends on it.
The verification process can seem a little expensive, especially after you just dropped a big pile of hard-earned money on a pistol. But it is a necessary procedure for a defensive weapon.
Finally, remember to periodically check and clean your carry gun even if you haven’t shot it in a while. Lint and other debris can accumulate in the action and impede function.