New Shooter Series: A Handy Guide To Buying Your First Gun

An individual newer to the firearms industry can be overwhelmed at their first visit to their local gun store. Even with smaller storefronts, the choices available can feel quite mind-boggling! As a new shooter considers purchasing their first firearm, they can experience trepidation over the number of choices and the sheer range of options. They may also realize just how much they don’t know yet.

While I don’t work behind a sales counter, I have been asked by many newer shooters questions such as,

“What gun should I carry?”

“What’s the best gun?”

“Which caliber is best?”

“What’s the best gun manufacturer?”

The answer is—of course—it depends. It depends on what your needs are, what you are envisioning using the gun for, what you are interested in, the type of look you might be into, your experience level, the build of your body, and so on. There is no right answer, which is why it can feel so overwhelming.

The firearms industry is rapidly expanding, with many first-time (or about-to-be) gun owners flocking to their local gun stores. Whether this describes you, or someone you may know, there are a few tips and tricks to shorten the learning curve so that a visit to a local gun store can result in a positive, helpful experience. I spoke with Mark Welter, the Retail Manager at Indy Arms Company (a range/retail/training facility in Indianapolis, IN) to gain additional insight. Here are his recommendations for a newer shooter visiting a gun shop for the first time:

Do Your Research

While you don’t need to have in-depth knowledge of exactly what you intend to purchase, it can be helpful to research a few things, such as:

  • Budget: How much can you afford to pay?
  • Brand: Are there any particular brands you are interested in?
  • Caliber: Do you know what ammunition you are wanting to be able to shoot?
  • Intended Use: Are you wanting to use this for hunting? Home defense? Concealed carry?
  • Size: Handgun or long gun (rifle or shotgun)? Small handgun or larger handgun?

Even if you aren’t sure about the answers to all these questions, narrowing it down to a few key points can be incredibly helpful for the retail staff who are going to do their best to assist you.

For instance, “I’m looking for a shotgun that I can use for home defense, and I’m looking to stay under $800,” or “I need a handgun I can conceal, the smaller the better, but I want something in 9mm and I have a budget of $450” is much more helpful than, “I am looking for a gun.”

If you only provide the obvious, the salesperson has to be skilled enough to ask leading questions to try to ascertain what your goals are; even a bit of information presented can be very helpful so that the staff can help you narrow down what you should be looking at. Then, once you get these narrowed-down options into your hands and feel how each fits you, it may help you make easier choices.

handguns in a display cabinet at a gun store
Decide on your own personal criteria, and understand others may have another set of criteria they use to evaluate their own purchases.

Listen to the Right People

When you are newer to the firearm industry, you may quickly realize that in the absence of your own knowledge, others will be quick to offer their opinions on what they think you should own, shoot, and train with—but listener beware. Those you talk to may offer advice that isn’t all that helpful to you; not because they are wrong, but because they may have a very different frame of reference and need for their firearm(s) than you do. Their personal criteria for why they enjoy a particular gun may not be the same criteria you should evaluate your needs against.

This is very common with family members, friends, and/or work colleagues, who want to help you out with their very well-reasoned suggestions. Make sure you understand that while their input can be helpful, it is important to realize your own personal criteria—why do you want to buy a firearm? Only then can someone really make informed recommendations.

For instance, a very common mistake I see with new female shooters is that there is a male in their life that insists that they “just need a super light revolver!” Of course, as they first learn to shoot, so many turn away in disgust just because that super light revolver is not a good fit for them—but the danger here is, they may stop after that one encounter and vow to never shoot again.

Be careful who you take advice from. It may be well-intentioned but is sometimes misguided.

women in classroom at Indy Arms
Consider taking a firearms class prior to purchasing your own, as this will usually answer basic questions you may have.

Put in Effort Up Front

Time and effort spent in a training class, or on a range rental, is an initial upfront investment, but will actually save a new shooter money in the long run. Training classes, such as an Introduction to Handgun type course, will generally resolve most “first-time shooter questions,” which is preferable to trying to answer them with less context at the sales counter. You are likely to discover a few incredibly helpful strategies that will help you in evaluating a firearm purchase.

As noted later, you can potentially save hundreds of dollars by paying for range time and renting a firearm type you are considering. There are so many students that take firearms courses from me, and other instructors, who buy a gun first and then come take a class. I would encourage you to do the opposite: take the class, then pick out your firearm! Your now more educated opinion and experience are far more likely to be of value!

firearm rental wall
If possible, try out the firearm before you buy it! Many ranges will have popular handguns available to rent.

Try It Before Buying (If Possible)

The best possible scenario is to try the firearm on the range before making a purchase. This option is not always available at local gun stores that do not offer a range, but you can also ask around to see if anyone you know owns the particular firearm you are interested in. You can also try and find out if any of the ranges in your area have the gun available to rent. Often people are very happy to let others shoot their firearms; it’s fun to share and make new friends that way! (Hint: always offer to pay for or reimburse them for ammunition).

If you do have an opportunity to shoot before a purchase, this can reveal some very critical information! It’s one thing to read about options and specs online, but it is entirely different to then hold the gun in your hands and experience the recoil of that particular firearm. Is it comfortable to shoot, or does it have any odd edges that don’t fit your hand well? Is it easy to operate, or is it particularly fatiguing to you? Does your hand size allow you to operate the relevant controls on the gun, such as an external safety (grip safeties can be tricky!) and the magazine release? Are you able to manipulate the slide easily? Does the gun feel well-balanced?

Regrettably, I have run across a number of new shooters who have a firearm someone else purchased for them (legally). When they actually shoot their gun, it’s incredibly unpleasant because it isn’t a good fit for them. If you can, try before you buy.

Try Not to Skimp

Firearms are an investment, there is no question. If a firearm is potentially going to be used to defend your life, don’t skimp. If you can only afford a $300 firearm, for instance, consider saving a little longer and purchase what you will actually be happy with longer-term.

Used guns can also be a really helpful option to get you into the next tier. There are more firearms than firearm owners, which means many used guns have not been fired much and are perfectly acceptable and in good working order! If it is a firearm from a prominent gun manufacturer, you can generally rest assured that any customer service needs will be met, regardless of if you are the original owner of the firearm. That being said, use good common sense when buying used.

If you are concerned about damage, function, or safety, it is advisable to have a professional gunsmith conduct an evaluation. Most retail stores will ensure basic functions are present before making a gun available for purchase, but in case the used gun has a modification that is not visible it is incredibly important to have a professional ensure the gun is in safe working order.

Handguns in a display case at handgun store
Gather as much information as you can without becoming overwhelmed, and recognize there are many choices available to suit many needs.

Buying the Gun is the Beginning, Not the End

New gun owners often get very excited about buying their firearm and they sometimes forget that there are other components that go along with it! Be prepared that you will need to also pay for ammunition, a lockbox or similar method of safely storing your firearm, a holster or case as needed, and any training you are also planning to seek.

Since there are many other accessories to consider, put some thought into how you plan to store, carry, and/or secure your firearm. How will you train with your firearm? How often will you practice? 

Just as it is best not to skimp on the firearm, it’s also a good idea to think carefully about what you are wanting to do with your gun. Many long-time gun owners joke about their drawer, or box, of holsters—rejected holsters that were bought with great intention, but just didn’t fit the firearm, the person, or the activity. Same with lockboxes, fast-access safes, or larger storage options. If you have an inkling that you may be acquiring more over time, it may be more financially wise to shop with an end goal in mind. This can be hard to anticipate, but like most things, try to research options before going too far.


Your visit to a local gun store as a newer shooter to acquire a gun should be a pleasant, fun experience, not a stressful, overwhelming one. Without going down too much of an internet rabbit hole, try to do some research in advance. Make sure that as you listen to people, you also consider their personal criteria of importance.

Try before buying, put in the effort upfront, don’t skimp, and remember that while buying the firearm is the fun part, it’s just the beginning. The great news is, retail staff are there to help you find the very best gun for you, and are happy to answer your questions.

I hope this has been a helpful thought exercise for you, either as a newer shooter or as someone who knows newer shooters.

See you at the range!

Known as “the eclectic one,” it’s probably easier to tell you what she hasn’t done. Meghan is an accomplished professional, consultant, wife, competitive shooter, researcher, writer, proud Army mother, and instructor. Her day job keeps her quite busy, but in the evenings and weekends, you are likely to find her outside on adventures with her horses, teaching a wide range of firearms classes, hosting shooting events, practicing fine art, and building a weird set of emergency skills that may or may not come in handy someday. There is no question she’s beneficial to have on a trivia team and is likely to be high up on anyone’s zombie survival lists. You can follow her on her Instagram account (@SmackRackandRoll) which is a play on words with firearms but also incorporates her former roller derby moniker from an internationally competitive team.

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