A Beginner’s Guide to Buying a Handgun

So, you’re in the market for a new handgun — but where to start? There are millions of options on the market and several calibers to choose from. Buying one takes an investment of time and money, so you want to get it right the first time (and hopefully you do). Today we’re talking about some important details to consider when shopping for your next pistol. 

Revolver or Semi-auto?

This is an age-old question. When the question comes up, it is typically followed by an argument between generations of self-declared know-it-alls claiming one is always better than the other. Well, I’m here to tell you that both are great options. Just like all good things, each has its uses. 

About Revolvers

Revolvers have a revolving cylinder that normally holds five or six rounds (sometimes more, but it’s not common). Reloading is typically a slower process in comparison to a semi-auto pistol since the user needs to either individually load each round or use a speed loader to load the cylinder all at once. 

Understanding types of actions can come in handy here as well, with revolvers typically consisting of single-action, double-action-only, or a combination of the two. Generally in single-action revolvers, the user will cock the hammer manually before pulling the trigger for the first shot, which releases the hammer. Double action does everything for you by cocking the hammer, rotating the cylinder, and releasing the hammer when you pull the trigger. 

Revolvers can be great due to what’s seen as a simple structure, but contrary to popular (or at least old) belief, they do have the full capability to break down. No gun is perfect and all have the possibility to fail. 

About Semi-Auto Handguns

Semi-auto pistols use a magazine that automatically feeds a round to the chamber when the slide returns to battery after each shot fired. Similar to revolvers, semi-autos also can be single-action, double-action, double-action-only, or also striker-fired. Striker-fired pistols don’t have a hammer. So, instead of the trigger pulling the hammer back to release the firing pin, when the trigger is pulled the firing pin or striker itself is released. This can get complex, so let’s not get off into the weeds here.

loading a revolver
Slowly reloading a revolver isn’t the best thing to do when it comes to self-defense. [Photo credit: Mconnors]
Some users prefer semi-auto pistols over revolvers because, in the instance of a failure, semi-autos are perceived as being able to rebound a lot faster (unless something is seriously wrong). In comparison, a failed revolver is likely to end up with your gunsmith. On top of that, the limited capacity is often seen as a huge downside if you quickly need more ammunition. With semi-automatic pistols, as long as you have a spare magazine, reloading takes no time at all. And, the benefit of the ability to carry more ammo is obvious, especially since many semi-auto pistols can have custom magazines able to carry double the typical load.

Still, some people would take a revolver over a semi-auto any day. Many feel revolvers are incredibly simple with only three moving parts (trigger, hammer, and cylinder), and can be picked up easily by a newbie. Of course, it’s important to understand revolvers still have a lot of moving parts and aren’t as basic as they might first appear.

And, though the revolver is known for its simplicity, this doesn’t mean semi-automatic pistols are difficult. In a sense, they’re just as simple and can be learned just as easily. Objectively, cleaning does take longer, but that isn’t a deal breaker for most gun owners. Either handgun platform is a great option, it just comes down to personal preference and its purpose. 

What fits your body best?

Several factors come into play when it’s time to choose a handgun.


The easiest one to check is weight. Holding a weapon straight out from your body for an extended period of time can become difficult if you have less arm strength. Be honest with yourself when buying. Even though some strength will come with time and practice, you need to get what fits best. If you’re looking for a lighter gun overall, seek out a polymer or aluminum frame instead of steel. 

closeup of semi auto pistol trigger
Each trigger is different and it’s up to you to figure out which works best (safely, of course). [Photo credit: Grace Stevens]


Similarly, check out the trigger pull weight. There’s no use in a gun if you can barely pull the trigger or if it’s so heavy your method of trigger pull messes with accuracy. Learning trigger control takes time and practice, and shooting is a perishable skill. You’re going to have to keep the practice going even after you feel you have the hang of it. As for pull weight, make sure the trigger on the gun you’re considering isn’t overly difficult — or even too easy — for you depending on your own hand strength and/or injuries.


Grip, of course, is a huge deal. Some gun owners can’t stand certain kinds of grips. The two seen most often are angled grips (think Glocks) and grips closer to a right angle (think 1911s). Grip can also be affected by other aspects of the gun such as the trigger guard and overall size. There’s no perfect formula for figuring out what will fit. In reality, you need to handle a few handguns to figure out what fits your hands best. Hand size and grip size are definitely related, too.


Handguns come with several kinds of safeties as well. You’ll see an external style in the form of a switch or button, or an internal style typically in the trigger. This comes down to personal preference since some styles can just be more comfortable than others. So, when shopping for your handgun, observe what style it has and see how it feels to operate it. 


Lastly is recoil. A common mistake at gun store counters is believing the guy who tells you that micro compact 380 ACP will be easier to control than a larger gun in 9mm (it’s not true). If you can test fire guns, do it. Recoil affects aspects of firing the gun like muzzle rise, but remember, with some training, your ability to control the gun and shoot accurately will improve. Heavier guns can counteract felt recoil as the material absorbs the shock. If you want to minimize felt recoil, choosing a larger gun in a caliber like 9mm is a good way to do it.

The Task at Hand

handgun held in front of playing card target
Once you’ve chosen a handgun based on your needs, consider what accessories may be helpful such as specific optics. [Photo credit: Tom Walls]
Stop and think about why you are buying a handgun. There can be several reasons, and depending on what it is, there may be a better gun for your needs. 

Concealed Carry

For concealed carry, semi-automatic pistols in 9mm are popular. It’s the most commonly used due to its ballistic effectiveness, wide availability, and typically more affordable ammunition. Make sure whatever you choose is the right weight and size to be carried on your person, whether that be on your belt, chest, or in a bag. The Glock 19 is a classic choice among gun owners when it comes to self-defense and concealed carry. If you prefer a steel pistol, there are endless options for those as well.

Revolvers are also a reasonable choice for concealed carry. So, if revolvers work better for you than a semi-auto, rest assured they can be good for self-defense. Ladies, don’t choose a tiny pink revolver just because it’s recommended to you on a whim. There are several better options — but if you like it, and it suits you, then go for it. Also, remember that snub-nosed revolvers produce more felt recoil and muzzle rise than larger revolvers do.

Though your concealed carry gun can double for home defense, a gun strictly for home defense can have some flexibility that an EDC can’t. Many gun owners prefer a full-sized handgun for home defense. Don’t forget to add a weapon-mounted light for threat identification. 

taurus raging hunter
The Taurus Raging Hunter is a great choice for handgun hunting. [Photo credit: Taurus]


Hunting requires some extra research based on the game you’re going for. However, there are a few kinds commonly used. Generally, a handgun for hunting isn’t going to be that compact or simple to holster and carry. Longer barrels, which can be as many as eight or nine inches in length, are great for accuracy and longer shots at game. Common handguns used for hunting are the Taurus Raging Hunter and the Smith & Wesson 629 Stealth. 


Lastly, if you’re looking to invest in gunsmithing as your next hobby, consider starting with a Glock. They’re affordable, versatile for other uses, and for the specific interest in gunsmithing, aftermarket parts are widely available. The polymer frame offers endless opportunities for customization and adjustments. 


three revolvers
Each gun is wildly different, but one is bound to be perfect for you. [Photo credit: Katie Stevens]
Regardless of what exactly you need a handgun for, if I haven’t already emphasized it enough, make sure it’s a good fit for you. What’s most important aside from a gun’s effectiveness is its compatibility with the owner. No one can choose the right gun for you. You need to do it yourself. So, while you shop, make sure to do your research and handle your options well.

Grace Ainsworth Stevens is an outdoor writer and political cartoonist who writes for a number of industry publications including The Truth About Guns and Breach Bang Clear. She's been hunting everything from deer to feral hogs since grade school and started honing her handgun skills at the age of 13. Grace's art is Second Amendment focused and speaks to current events and gun world cliches. She's also a college sophomore and will fight you over robotics and early education issues.

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