As the name implies, a handgun refers to a gun that you can fire with one hand. While they certainly can be lethal, handguns are far less powerful than their larger siblings, rifles and shotguns. The advantage is portability and convenience: you can carry a handgun around much more easily than a ten-pound rifle or shotgun.
“Handgun” is actually a catch-all term for an entire category of firearms. Here, we’ll focus on the two most common ones, pistols and revolvers. You might also hear of other types of handguns like derringers or single-shot handguns, but those are specialty guns, and topics are for another day.
TYPES OF HANDGUNS
A pistol is defined as a handgun in which the chamber is integral with the barrel. In plain English, this means that a pistol has one tube that holds the unfired cartridge in place until it’s fired. This tube has two primary areas, the back, known as the chamber, and the front, which is the barrel. In other words, not a revolver.
The chamber is machined to the exact shape of the specific type of cartridge the pistol is intended to fire, so that cartridge fits perfectly in place. When the handgun fires, the bullet separates from the cartridge case, exits the chamber, and travels down the barrel. The empty case automatically ejects from the chamber, and a new cartridge automatically takes its place.
Those new cartridges are stored in the magazine, which is a spring-loaded container that fits inside the grip. Reloading a pistol is easy: You simply eject the empty magazine and slide a new one into place. Another benefit to magazine-fed pistol designs is cartridge capacity. It’s not unusual for a pistol to hold as many as 15 or more cartridges.
A pistol is semi-automatic, meaning that it fires one shot each time the shooter presses the trigger. The “automatic” part simply refers to the fact that some of the energy of the firing cartridge is used to unload the spent (and now empty) cartridge case, reload a fresh cartridge, and cock the hammer for the next shot. If you thought in terms of “automatic-loading” instead of “semi-automatic,” you would be pretty accurate in describing the operation. (As a matter of fact, some semi-automatic long guns are referred to as “autoloaders,” which means the exact same thing.)
EDITORS NOTE: For those new to firearms, you will likely hear the term pistol tossed around a lot and the meaning of the term might become a bit muddy. Before the invention of semi-auto handguns, any firearm that wasn’t a rifle or a carbine was referred to as a pistol. Afterward, the the term morphed to specifically mean handguns that aren’t revolvers. However, you will still find some people who use the term pistol and handgun interchangeably.
Pick a pistol if:
You want you are comfortable with learning a slightly complex operation. Pistols have controls for functions such as releasing the magazine, opening the slide, and disassembly. The slide is the part that covers the barrel. It’s designed to move back and forth during the firing sequence. T
he backward movement pulls the spent cartridge case out of the chamber and ejects it. After it travels all the way back, a recoil spring pushes it forward. During this movement, the slide scrapes a new cartridge from the magazine and pushes it into the chamber.
The slide is the differentiating component that makes a pistol semi-automatic. Also, consider a pistol if you want high capacity and ease of reloading. While not always true, pistols are usually “thinner” as they do not have a cylinder to store cartridges like a revolver does. Let’s talk about that next.
A revolver, on the other, well, hand, is a handgun on which the chamber and barrel are separate parts. The cylinder is a big round hunk of steel that contains individual chambers for each cartridge. During the firing sequence, the cylinder rotates for each shot, allowing each chamber to line up with the barrel in preparation to fire.
Both revolvers and pistols can hold multiple cartridges. The difference is that a pistol loads each new cartridge into the same chamber, while a revolver already has a cartridge in each of multiple chambers.
Revolvers are simple to operate but hold fewer cartridges than pistols. Most revolver cylinders can accommodate between five and eight cartridges. Because you must feed cartridges individually into the cylinders, reloading a revolver is slower than reloading a magazine-fed pistol.
Pick a revolver if:
you want extremely simple operation. Revolvers work by simply pressing the trigger. The simple design means they’re unlikely to malfunction, and if they do, you can usually just pull the trigger again. While revolvers come in all sizes, ones that hold more cartridges tend to be wider than pistols because they can’t store ammunition stacked vertically like a pistol.
Within the two categories of pistols and revolvers, there’s another set of definitions to consider that describe how the handgun operates. The word “action” describes the process by which the gun works, so let’s take a quick look at the most common types.
TYPES OF ACTIONS
As the word implies, the “action” refers to how the gun operates. Like diesel and gas-powered cars, the result is similar, but there are slight differences in types of gun actions.
The most common types of handgun actions are single-action, double-action, and striker-fired. Single and double-action designs apply to both pistols and revolvers while striker-fired actions are found in many modern pistols. Let’s take a look at each.
The easiest way to understand single-action handguns is to think literally. Single-action means that pressing the trigger does just one thing, or a “single” action. Pressing the trigger releases the already cocked hammer. The falling hammer drives the firing pin into the cartridge, thereby firing the bullet.
One example of a single-action gun is an old western style revolver, on which the shooter must pull the hammer back before each shot. Another is the 1911 style semi-automatic pistol. The act of loading the gun includes cocking the hammer for the first shot. Because pistols are semiautomatic, each subsequent shot cocks the hammer again as a spent round is ejected while a new one is loaded.
The difference between a single-action pistol and single-action revolver is this: On a single-action pistol, the hammer must be pulled before the first shot only. On a single-action revolver, the hammer must be pulled back for each shot.
What you need to know about single-action handguns: since a trigger press does just one thing—release the hammer— it doesn’t require much pressure on the trigger to start things rolling. Single-action guns are very easy to shoot in part because it’s easy to press the trigger.
Also, since the trigger press only releases the hammer, the hammer must already be cocked somehow. Either the shooter must manually cock the hammer before firing, or, as we’ll talk about in a minute, the operation of the gun might cock the hammer for the next shot as part of the firing process.
As you might guess, “double-action” implies that two actions are performed by a trigger press. Pulling the trigger cocks the hammer and then releases it—two actions. When shooting a double-action handgun, you don’t need to cock the hammer to fire the gun, you just press the trigger.
Common examples of double-action handguns include revolvers like Smith & Wesson and the Ruger LCR. Pistols like the Ruger LC9 are also double-action designs.
What you need to know about double-action handguns: Both revolvers and pistols can be double-action designs, but the concept is the same. Since the trigger has to do extra work cocking the hammer, it requires more force to press the trigger on a double-action handgun.
For example, where a single-action gun might only require two to four pounds of pressure on the trigger to operate, a double-action may require eight to twelve pounds of pressure. This can be a desirable feature for self-defense handguns, as the extra pressure required adds a layer of safety. The shooter must make a very deliberate trigger press to fire the gun.
Some pistols blend the best features and benefits of both double-action and single-action designs.
A double-action/single-action (DA/SA) pistol operates just like a double-action handgun for the first shot only. A longer and harder trigger press both cocks the hammer and releases it to fire the gun. However, since double-action/single-action pistols are semi-automatic, the energy released ejects the spent cartridge, loads a new one, and cocks the hammer. Since the hammer is cocked, the second and all subsequent trigger presses are lighter and easier.
Pistols like the military’s Beretta M9, or civilian Beretta 92, are DA/SA. So are many Sig Sauer pistols like the P226 and P229 models and the Walther PPK.
What you need to know about double-action/single-action: a lot of people like DA/SA pistols for self-defense and concealed carry, because the first trigger press has to be very deliberate. In a high-stress situation, many shooters appreciate the fact that you have to be sure to press the trigger.
On the flip side, practice is required to manage the transition between the feel of the trigger for the first shots and subsequent shots. The first trigger press might require ten pounds of pressure while the remaining ones may require just four pounds. It’s up to the shooter to keep the sights on target even though the feel of the trigger press changes between shots.
Also, most DA/SA pistols feature a de-cocking lever that safely un-cocks the hammer. If you decide to stop shooting before the gun is empty, you don’t want to leave it in a cocked position where a light trigger press can make it fire. The de-cocking lever restores the pistol to its original double-action status.
Striker-fired pistols don’t have hammers at all. Instead, the firing pin is compressed with spring pressure. The trigger press releases the firing pin, allowing it to move forward and strike the cartridge.
Most striker-fired pistols operate somewhere between double-action and single-action mode. The striker (firing pin) may be partially pre-cocked and the trigger press completes the compression cycle before releasing the firing pin to strike the cartridge. As a result, the force required to operate a striker-fired pistol is generally somewhere between that of a single-action and double-action pistol.
Common examples of striker-fired guns include Glocks, Smith & Wesson M&Ps, and Springfield Armory XDs, just to name a few.
What you need to know about striker-fired pistols: the force required to press the trigger will generally be in the five to seven pound range. Also, each press of the trigger will feel exactly the same, because it is performing the same action of partially cocking and releasing the striker. The force required to fire the pistol is more than that of a single-action, so many striker-fired handguns do not have manual safety levers because they are considered redundant. However, many handgun manufacturers provide the option.
In theory, caliber refers to the diameter of the bullet, in inches. A .40 caliber bullet has a diameter of .40 inches. Unfortunately, gun people have to make things confusing, so caliber doesn’t always equate exactly to the measurement. For example, .38 caliber revolvers fire bullets that are .357 inches in diameter, while .357 Magnum caliber also fires bullets that are .357 inches. Fortunately, caliber names and measurements correlate closely enough for our purposes here.
More arguments have been fueled by debate over which caliber is best than any other handgun topic. When you boil everything down, however, handguns just make relatively small holes in targets. That’s all. They simply don’t have the power of rifles and shotguns. Larger caliber handguns make slightly larger holes than their smaller caliber cousins. None of them launch people, animals, or inanimate targets through walls and plate glass windows. That’s a Hollywood contrivance.
The most common handgun calibers fall in the range of .22 to .45. Roughly speaking, larger caliber handguns fire heavier bullets. As the diameter increases, so does the weight. However, just because a handgun fires a larger caliber doesn’t necessarily mean that it has more recoil.
Recoil felt by the shooter depends on many things, including the design and weight of the gun (more on this below), the weight of the bullet being fired, and the velocity at which the bullet travels.
As a result, handguns in calibers such as .45 ACP and .44 Special might feel like they have less recoil than smaller calibers like .40 S&W or .357 Magnum.
What You Need to Know About Handgun Calibers
If you’re buying a gun for self-defense, try to stick to calibers equal to or larger than .380 ACP for pistols, and .38 Special for revolvers. While any size caliber is lethal, smaller ones may not be capable of stopping a determined attacker quickly. When it comes to self-defense, it’s not lethality that matters—it’s the ability to stop an attack as quickly as possible.
Since many caliber names sound similar, always be sure to use the right ammunition for your handgun. Every gun is inscribed with the name of the cartridge that it accepts.
HANDGUN SIZE AND WEIGHT
Handguns are a great example of the saying that size matters. Many new shooters are fearful of a “large” handgun. Contrary to assumptions, a larger handgun is usually easier to shoot and has much gentler recoil. That’s because physics always wins: The heavier the gun, the less recoil the shooter will feel with any given caliber.
In fact, those small, light and portable handguns that seem so appealing on the gun store shelf can be quite unpleasant to fire. You might find that a full-size, all steel, .45 caliber handgun is more comfortable to shoot than a tiny little .380 ACP pocket pistol.
If you can, try out different guns at a local shooting range. Pick the one that feels good in your hand and is comfortable to shoot. The better the feel, the more you’ll practice, and that’s what really counts.
What You Need to Know About Size and Weight
when choosing your first handgun, you’re better off erring on the larger side. As long as the gun fits in your hand and you can reach the trigger properly, you’re going to be more successful with a larger gun. The longer distance between the front and rear sights will make it easier to shoot accurately, and the size and weight will help mitigate recoil for whatever caliber you choose.
FIVE SMART CHOICES FOR A FIRST HANDGUN
Which handgun is best for your first? Well, that depends. Just like the decision over whether a sedan, pickup truck, or minivan is the “best” car for you, it all depends on what you want or need to do with it. The following are give good options for your first handgun, along with the scenario in which each excels.
Smith & Wesson M&P22 Compact
What it’s for: Plinking, practice, and fun!
The Smith & Wesson M&P22 Compact is more fun than should be legal. It’s small and compact, yet has virtually no recoil because it shoots the small and quiet .22LR cartridge. It’s a scaled-down version of the full-size M&P striker-fired pistols, so it also makes a good practice gun.
Those new to the sport love shooting it. Even in these days of hard-to-find .22 ammo, the cost per round is still well less than half that of 9mm handguns. Oh, the best part? The M&P22 has a threaded barrel. If you get this gun, highly recommend going through the mild headache of acquiring a .22 suppressor.
What could be more fun than a pistol that makes virtually no noise and has no recoil? MSRP: $389.
Smith & Wesson Model 66 Combat Magnum
What It’s For: Home defense.
If you like the simplicity of a revolver, check out the Smith & Wesson Model 66 Combat Magnum revolver. It’s a “K” frame revolver, which probably means absolutely nothing to people who aren’t revolver aficionados. In plain English, that means that this gun is built on a more medium sized frame rather than a big, bulky and heavy one. That means that people with normal hands and arm strength can grip and handle this handgun easily.
This revolver is chambered for .357 Magnum, and you can certainly use that powerful and stout cartridge if you like. But, as we talked about earlier, gun people tend to make things confusing. In this case, that works to the new shooter’s benefit, because you can shoot much more tame and less expensive, yet still plenty effective, .38 Special ammunition out of the same revolver.
You’ll find it easy to control and gentle on the hands regarding recoil. This is a great gun for home defense. There’s certainly no reason you can’t carry it concealed, but it’s not exactly tiny, so you’ll have to adjust your wardrobe accordingly. MSRP: $849.
What It’s For: Concealed carry and home defense.
The Glock 19 is arguably the most popular concealed carry gun out there. Here’s why. It’s chambered in 9mm, so ammo is inexpensive and readily available. Capacity is also excellent, with 15 rounds in the magazine plus one in the chamber.
The size is larger than a true compact but far more portable than a full-size gun, so recoil is perfectly manageable. In other words, the Glock 19 is fun and comfortable to shoot. The newest model, the Generation 4, has replaceable grip backstraps that you can customize to fit your hand size.
I’ve not yet met anyone who can’t get a full and proper grip on this pistol with all of their shooting and support hand fingers. The trigger press weight is 5.5 pounds for the standard model. It’s a striker-fired pistol, so the pull is exactly the same from the first shot to the last.
Due to its popularity, you’ll find an infinite number of accessories like holsters, lights, lasers, and replacement sights on the market for the Glock 19. MSRP: about $600.
Springfield Armory XD-S 9mm
What It’s For: Concealed carry.
Of all the compact carry guns in all the gun stores, why does this one make the short list? Not only is it a quality gun that’s entirely reliable, the XD-S 9mm is also fun to shoot. It’s just big and heavy enough to offer a pleasant shooting experience, yet small enough to conceal easily in a pocket, an inside-the-waistband holster, or a purse.
The fiber optic front sights make aiming a breeze. Oh, and depending on which model package you purchase, Springfield Armory includes an extended nine-round magazine that not only offers more cartridge capacity but adds nearly an inch of grip area too. Be sure to check out the newer four-inch barrel model. It’s almost as concealable as the original, yet comes in a slightly larger package.
One more thing: Springfield Armory makes the XD-S in .45 ACP too. This is also a great gun, but not necessarily one you want for your first purchase. Start with the 9mm, and as you improve technique and gain confidence, consider adding the .45 ACP model to your collection. MSRP: about $600.
Smith & Wesson M&P9 M2.0
What It’s For: Home defense, recreational shooting, and concealed carry.
As far as handguns go, the Smith & Wesson M&P9 2.0 is an excellent choice for new shooters. It’s a full-size pistol, meaning that it’s large enough to get a proper grip and heavy enough to absorb recoil. That means it’s easier to shoot.
It’s is available in other calibers than 9mm, including .40 S&W and .45 ACP, but for a starter gun, consider sticking to 9mm. It’s also available in compact, and subcompact sizes with Performance Center variants also available.
As with the other 9mm pistols on this list, you’ll get the benefits of more capacity, less expensive ammunition, and gentler recoil. The combination of well-rounded grip contours and a low barrel relative to the grip make recoil exceptionally manageable.
You can order the M&P either with our without a manual safety lever, and the standard model holds 17 rounds of 9mm plus one in the chamber. If you want a carry gun, check out the compact model. It still packs 12+1 rounds and is large enough to control, but small enough to conceal easily. MSRP: $569