Top 5 Budget Defense Pistols

You get what you pay for. That is a reality no one can escape, no matter if it is real or personal property. In the realm of handguns, manufacturers that go to the bottom dollar are not doing so out of altruism. At best, lower prices signal innovative proprietary processes and, at worst, cut corners. Fortunately, many of the ultra-cheap handguns out there are also very inefficient to use or carry. In the step above, those kinds of handguns, economies of scale rule, and budget defense pistols that are both easy to use and reliable are not hard to find. I have encountered plenty of them, whether it is through my random buying and shooting or moonlighting at my local gun shops. Here are my top five budget pistols that you might consider for your own personal needs.

ruger lcp
Although not the best pistol for every application, the LCP represents a valuable package for everyday carry.

Ruger LCP

The Ruger LCP comes in several different variations and has been in continuous production since 2008. It was among the first single-stack polymer-framed micro-pistols chambered in .380 ACP, and millions have been sold. Originally, the LCP came with a six-round capacity, low fixed sights, and a long trigger press for safety. The original is still made, but you can also opt for the LCP II, which has a shorter trigger pull and better sights.

Although they can be pressed into service for bigger home defense tasks, the LCP is popular because of its small size and lightweight, making it ideal as an everyday carry gun, especially for pocket carry. But because of its small size, the LCP can be hard to hold onto and shoot well. With my own personal LCP, I came to prefer an extended 7-round magazine for a bit of extra control. You could also opt for an LCP II in .22 LR if the .380 is too snappy.

The LCP series has been around for a while, and finding extra magazines and .380 ammo is easy. Buying an LCP is also easy. Although prices vary from place to place and from time to time, it is not hard to find one for under $300. In the world of small, concealed carry handguns, it is hard to get a reliable handgun in and under that price range, but the LCP manages.

taurus 856 toro defender
Our own Travis Pike is a fan of the 3-inch 856 Toro model, which is cut for a red dot. [Travis Pike]

Taurus Model 856

The Taurus 856 is an updated version of the firm’s famous Model 85. The original Model 85 is a double-action revolver chambered in .38 Special with a 5-round capacity. It was built similarly to the Smith & Wesson J-Frame and was economically priced. A few years ago, the 856 debuted. Like the old Model 85, it featured either an all-steel frame or a lightweight aluminum frame, but it has a six-round capacity instead.

Taurus has gone to great lengths to rehabilitate their semi-auto pistols recently, but their revolver line is underrated. Revolvers require more hand fitting than semi-auto pistols and are now more expensive today. Thankfully, CNC machining and investment casting processes have taken care of a lot of the hand-fitting procedures for us. Although externally not as well finished as a more expensive Colt or Smith & Wesson, the Taurus 856 is a durable draw-and-shoot platform.

The 856 can be had with an aluminum frame and two-inch barrel for everyday carry or with a steel frame for additional recoil control. It is also available with a three-inch barrel, which lends itself well for belt carry and home defense. Relative prices range between $300 and $400.

Smith and Wesson SD9VE - budget pistol
The Smith and Wesson SD9VE is a classic budget gun.

Smith & Wesson SD9VE

The Smith & Wesson SD9VE, or Self Defense 9 Value Enhanced, is one of Smith’s best sellers, and with good reason. It is based on the old Smith & Wesson Sigma, which itself was close enough to a Glock to invite the threat of lawsuits. Conceptually, the SD9 is a Smith & Wesson M&P double-stack 9mm pistol, but without the extra finishes. It has a matte stainless-steel slide and a light polymer frame. The SD9 is a full-sized handgun with a 4-inch barrel and a sixteen-shot capacity. The main criticism of the SD9 was its long and heavy trigger pull, and a popular aftermarket option was installing an Apex spring kit to make it more M&P-like. In 2024, the original SD9 was discontinued in favor of the SD9 2.0, with an improved trigger and improved sights.

The SD9VE fits into the same niches as the Glock 19. It can be a bit large, but doable for concealed carry. But its size makes it ideal for home defense. I was pleasantly surprised at how much rode in the holsters of security guards and armored truck couriers. Between old stock SD9s and the new 2.0, it is not hard to find one between the $300-400 range.

smith & wesson m&p 22 compact
.22 LR is not a perfect round, but the M&P 22 eats them like a champ and is a worthwhile look for those who are looking for a first handgun and those who are recoil-sensitive.

Smith & Wesson M&P 22

.22 pistols are controversial in the realm of personal protection. Although .22 is considered underpowered, the main issue is the ammunition reliability paired with designs that do not work reliably with rimfire ammo. But for more recoil-sensitive shooters and new shooters, don’t turn your nose up at the Smith & Wesson M&P 22.

The M&P 22 is conceptually a compact or full-size M&P 9mm in size but chambered in .22 LR for training purposes. Mechanically, it is a bit different. The .22 models are hammer-fired, bear aluminum slides, and wear fixed barrels. The full-size M&P 22 uses 12-round magazines, while the Compact holds ten. The M&P 22 makes the list primarily because it is one of the few conventional semi-auto pistols in that caliber that I found to work reliably. Although using the best .22 ammo will help, it also helps to have a solidly designed handgun, and the M&P 22 can do it for under $400.

PSA Dagger Handgun
The PSA Dagger is a trustworthy and economical Glock clone. [Brian Armstrong]

PSA Dagger

Palmetto State Armory is a relative newcomer to the firearms manufacturing business, having first made a name in firearms sales. Their own brand of AR-15 has proven to be a safe choice for those looking for their first rifle without spending a fortune. The PSA Dagger comes in full-size, compact, and even micro versions and is PSA’s stab at a Glock clone.

Glock clones are nothing new, but there is always the temptation to improve on the Glock by going upmarket with fancy finishes, grip angle differences, trigger, and sighting upgrades. The original Dagger was dispensed with these refinements, but PSA sells other Dagger models to those who want options. The base PSA Dagger is a Glock 19 clone with a 15-round capacity and a four-inch barrel that retails for just north of $300. The Dagger can be had with a smaller frame, higher visibility suppressor-height sights, threaded barrels, and even optics cuts for under $400.

Budget Defense Pistols: The Bottom Line

Although it is possible to go too cheap and end up with a handgun that neither fits you nor works reliably, finding a good handgun that will excel on both counts can be had without breaking the bank. None of the pistols on this list will excel at all applications, but that is the name of the game when it comes to handguns. While budget should always be accounted for, a handgun has to fit you and be able to accomplish the most likely tasks before thinking about what is least likely. These are my top five budget defense pistols as I have experience with them all to different extents, but these are, by no means, the end-all and be-all. Finding a budget pistol is not hard, but picking the right one comes down to how it performs in the hand and the cash at hand.

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