Selecting Your First Carry Pistol
Rifles are great. Shotguns are great. However, the most useful tools are the ones you have on you. Defensive handgun usage is a rather difficult subject to find reliable information on, and with more new gun owners than ever before it is vital on our part to help newcomers stay as informed as possible.
Maybe you have some experience shooting. Maybe you are on the hunt for your first piece. Maybe you just want some means of simplifying the myriad of information out there into something digestible. Whatever your motives are for reading this, my goal is to put out clear, concise information for the good of gun owners everywhere.
First off: Firearms are subjective.
Everyone varies in what their circumstances are, what they find comfortable, and what they need out of a gun. So, I’m going to break this down into 3 main categories:
-Default Gun Owner
-Low Income Gun Owner
-Gun Owner in an Anti-Gun State
Default Gun Owner
This is someone who is relatively uninhibited by their local laws and level of income. This is the category that most gun owners are going to find themselves in.
My recommendation would be a medium length (about 4″ barrel) 9mm handgun with a capacity in the 2 digit range. Glock 19 and CZ P-07 Duty are perfect examples. I would recommend a Glock or a CZ anyway because they’re good guns to build habits on that run at an affordable price range. They are simple, reliable, and not very costly. Then, train with that until you build proper shooting habits. Don’t be the guy who drops his dosh on all these sexy gee-whiz gadgets or rare niche guns like an FN Five-seveN but only has 100 rounds down the pipe. Even if you have a phased plasma rifle in the 40 watt range, a gun won’t be much use if you can’t hit the target. (I would even say that it’s worse than not having a gun because not only are you failing to stop the threat, you are sending lethal projectiles downrange into god knows where. Practice or don’t carry.) The question you must always ask yourself is: Will this actually be an improvement over the same money being spent on ammo and training?
Now, there are pros and cons to each of these handguns.
Glock pistols are simple and they run. Period. They are the Toyota Corolla of the gun world- simple, reliable, it just runs, and if you lust after its design you are insane. But they aren’t without flaws. The biggest of which are the ergonomics- it’s really difficult to go between Glocks and other pistols. You also have to hold Glocks a certain way, muscling the barrel back down onto target as you shoot. There’s also a lot of aftermarket components available, so you get a lot of people who fall into the “Glock Perfection™ that’s why I swapped out every single component” category. Bone stock Glock won’t ever fail you, so long as you do your part. Also check out RecoilGunworks who have the best deals on quality police trade in Glocks, bar none.
CZ pistols fit the hand great, they are a joy to shoot and easy to like. The DA/SA trigger is a lot more crisp breaking than the spongy striker fired triggers of Glock or similar. CZ’s most famous feature is that they have very little recoil due to their slimmed down design with inverted rails and a low bore axis. However, this also makes it a bitch and a half to clear a jam. (With proper shooting technique and ammo selection, you shouldn’t have an issue with malfunctions.) CZ also has a new striker fired pistol out: the P10c. Striker fire is the popular choice for defensive handgun usage because you just point and click- no fiddling with safeties, no cocking the hammer back, nothing. I am very much of the mindset that the less steps you have to take before shooting, the better. This is why I don’t use a safety, I carry with a bullet in the chamber, etc.
I have carried a variety of Glock and CZ pistols personally and professionally, I have no qualms trusting my life to either of those guns. There are other options out there such as M&P pistols, you have some quality options from Walther, Sig, H&K, etc. I’m not going to bore you to death over every single kind of handgun out there. The only one I’d recommend to stay away from that you’ll see turn up a lot is the Springfield XD line of pistols. Too many failure points on the XD, the magazines are garbage quality, and it doesn’t give one much margin for error in a high stress scenario. The biggest fault in the XD pistols is that grip safety. It’s a redundant design, offering nothing, and an additional failure point. That seer pin in the grip safety locks the slide, so if that grip safety fails and you have a round in the chamber you can’t clear it. This isn’t a “what if” scenario, either- people have had to ship XD pistols back to Springfield with live rounds inside.
Right around now is when people start to ask the question:
“But isn’t 9mm underpowered?”
Yes, it is. But here’s the rub: So are all handguns. There is a negligible ballistic difference between 9mm and .45 ACP, which comes as a surprise to many. Conventional logic says that if it makes a bigger hole, it must be more effective. This isn’t the case when it comes to ballistics, especially with handguns. The effects of handguns simply are not very violent or dramatic.
As long as your gun meets FBI specs, the only real difference caliber is going to make is cost and availability of ammunition (at least to new shooters). Anyone can handle a 9mm, there’s a 9mm handgun out there for anyone, and you can find 9mm ammo everywhere. It ain’t called Wonder 9 for nothing.
And on the subject of 9mm ammo: What should you load in your gun?
The best stuff for you will vary based on your gun and caliber. But generally speaking, the best ammo on the market currently is Speer Gold Dot, Hornady Critical Duty, Federal HST, Winchester Ranger-T, Corbon DPX, and Wilson Combat XTP*. Most of these rounds are standard issue law enforcement ammo, too, which is looked at with a less jaundice eye in court. (There are always two fights: The one for your life and the one for your freedom. On that note, I would highly recommend Law Shield or USCCA for legal coverage.)
When it comes to 9mm, the FBI recently went back to the Hornady Critical Duty in a new 124gr +P load. Previously, they used 147gr Speer Gold Dot. If you want the best value per dollar, you can buy 50 round bricks of Gold Dot and HST from many different places online and in gun shows for anywhere between $20-30.
There’s been some new stuff on the market in the form of Super Vel SCHP which looks good as well, but I don’t have much experience with them. Generally speaking, I’m not a huge fan of all copper hollow points in pistols (I much prefer them out of revolvers and rifle caliber carbines). The most consistent performing stuff I’ve seen has been the Corbon DPX and Super Vel SCHP though.
*Many people load the XTP bullet, but Wilson Combat is the best. Their shipping is a bit expensive, so I’d recommend buying a few boxes at a time so those costs don’t bleed your wallet. It also arrives fast, I usually get mine in 2 or 3 days.
I would also implore people to avoid Remington ammo. Even though they meet ballistic specs, numbers aren’t everything. Remington is notorious for a lack of QC, the inconsistency of their ammo’s expansion (pictured below) is proof of it. It’s also filthy and prone to inducing malfunctions. I and many others have had issues with bad primers, poorly seated bullets, and low grade powder. I’ve even seen Remington ammo blow up guns on occasion, too.
Low Income Gun Owners
These are people who usually find themselves in inner city neighborhoods or otherwise bad situations they can’t afford to move out of. These people need to make compromises, fortunately you have more options than ever before.
To these people, I would recommend 3 main guns: Tanfoglio pistols, police trade in .40 S&W pistols, and .380 ACP pistols. (There are also the Canik TP9 series of pistols but my experience with those is limited.)
Don’t get a Hi Point.
Tanfoglio pistols are CZ clones, using polymer or steel frames. They usually go for around the low $300 range MSRP. They come in a variety of calibers, but the 9mm ones will lock and feed CZ 75 magazines. Most of these guns will also fit into holsters for CZ pistols of the same size. The quality is better than the price tag would suggest, I’m actually a huge fan of the Pavona subcompact. Don’t be shy about owning a knock off pistol, either. If that’s all you can get, own it!
Police departments everywhere are going back down to 9mm just as the FBI has. As a result, there’s a surplus of used .40 S&W firearms available at pawn shops and online sites such as aimsurplus. Police guns usually have lots of external wear but low round count through them. There is nothing ballistically wrong with .40 S&W, but due to its inconsistent recoil training yourself to go back and forth between other calibers isn’t the easiest of tasks. However, if you can’t afford a collection of guns, you won’t have that problem. There are also a couple conversion barrels available from Lone Wolf so if you want to swap your Glock to 9mm or 357 Sig, you can do that with minimal tools and effort.
What about .40 S&W ammo to load into your gun?
The best of the best I’ve seen is the Winchester Ranger-T and Winchester PDX1 in this caliber. There are some other loads that are pretty good from Speer Gold Dot, Federal HST, and Hornady Critical Defense (the Critical Duty is much better in 10mm).
.380 ACP is not duty caliber. It will never meet the robust standards of duty calibers, and .380 as a caliber is always a tradeoff. You have to be more selective in your ammo choice than 9mm, they usually don’t hold as much ammo as 9mm, and pretty much anyone is physically capable of handling a 9mm. That being said, with modern ammo it greatly mitigates a lot of .380 weaknesses and .380 guns are good at other things. They’re cheap, too. My current summer carry pistol is the CZ 83 which I picked up used for $260. You have other options such as the Glock 42, M&P EZ 380, I know Sig and Rock Island Armory make a handful of baby 1911s in .380 ACP…
As for defensive ammunition, the best of the best is Wilson Combat XTP ammo. It reliably cycles even the most finicky of guns and it’s like a laser- no issues with POA/POI. Especially given how the sights on some .380 mouse guns are crappy, this stuff runs great even in something as problematic as a Ruger LCP. In fact, I’ve never had a reliability issue with Wilson Combat ammo in any caliber. I can highly recommend this stuff to people who have some specific needs for .380 ACP, .45 ACP, or .357 Magnum.
Aside from the Wilson Combat XTP, the Speer Gold Dot and Hornady Critical Defense are also good choices but you need to take your gun out to the range and see if it likes them. As with the .380 caliber as a whole, this ammo is acceptable but not optimal. However, if you invest in yourself physically and mentally, and you maintain your gear and fitness, then these will not fail you.
If you have more questions about .380 ACP or pocket pistols such as the Glock 43, M&P Shield, etc this gal here is a great person to talk to on Twitter about it. She knows her shit and will give it to ya straight.
Gun Owner in an Anti-Gun State
Whether out of ignorance or malicious intention, heavy gun control get pushed which winds up really screwing over the people who need it most (especially the poor and the blacks). There are ways around it without compromising performance though.
My top recommendations would be .45 ACP and .357 Magnum, I’ll get into the pros and cons of each starting with .45 ACP
I’ve made my love for .45 known a lot. (In fact, the only 2 calibers I carry in the line of duty are .45 ACP and 357 Sig. I have my reasons but I’m not going to bore people with 20 minutes of esoteric information. At least not in this article. If you do want to see that, however, I wrote about it here.) Be it .45 ACP or the always underrated .45 LC, this caliber is the best way to get maximum versatility out of your handgun without annihilating your wrists on Magnum loads for revolvers or dropping exorbitant money on 10mm. For example: When I worked security at a zoo, I carried a .45 with mags dedicated to hollow points as well as some mags dedicated to hard cast solids in case I needed to shoot a chimpanzee or something that got out. Versatility is the strong suit of this caliber. So what are the downsides?
The main one being that most .45 hollow points, in order to meet robust standards, are loaded to +P which makes them more of a beast to handle. The exception being the 230gr Speer Gold Dot, which is all around a great performer in .45 ACP without +P. Even those of us used to .45 can shoot 124gr+P and 147 9mm a lot faster and more accurately. It also usually costs more for .45 ammo (though I do get a police discount, so it’s not as much of a hurting on my wallet. I’m currently running 220gr +P Hornady Critical Duty in my Glock 21 that I carry on duty). 9mm is still the cheapest bulk ammo available.
There is a mentality that “if you have to carry less, carry bigger”. As previously mentioned, that’s a moot argument. The real reason I recommend .45 ACP is so you can train yourself to having less capacity in the gun. Also, if you move states, you won’t have to re-purchase magazines like you would with 9mm.
Now for .357 Magnum!
Revolvers are absolutely fantastic when it comes to circumventing anti-gun laws. They pretty much always meet capacity restrictions and have viable defensive options in non-expanding ammo. Similarly, for people who maybe don’t have the exposure to gun culture that comes from living in a pro-gun state, they may not have the knowledge that some of us heavy into shooting take for granted. A revolver is simpler and easier to operate, so that may be your best bet. (I usually start elderly folks and European migrants on revolvers because of this.)
The drawback is that it’s difficult to recommend a quality .357 Magnum load because hollow point performance can vary so wildly from one gun to the next. (Though if you’re having trouble with .357 Magnum ammo, I would highly recommend you try the 140gr Wilson Combat XTP.) You have to take the revolver to the range and see which ammo it likes best! Generally speaking: Newer revolvers love 115gr and 125gr hollow points. Older revolvers love 158gr loads.
Any of the all copper hollow points seem to be the best performing .357 Magnum ammo that I’ve seen at least from a numbers perspective. The best of these being the Federal Barnes Expander. Hornady Critical Defense and Critical Duty are also great choices, especially in snub nose revolvers. That ballistic tip helps them expand and you can find this ammo on the shelves of nearly any local store. Some states restrict the sale of online ammo (fucking commies) so you might have to settle for less. If you can get online ammo, Speer Gold Dot loads a 135gr Short Barrel that’s fantastic in snub noses and all the way up to 4″ barrel revolvers. Lastly the Winchester Ranger-T is a solid performer in this caliber.
You can also shoot .38 Special out of any .357 Magnum revolver, so for those who are low income or recoil sensitive and live in an anti-gun state this may be your option. Of the .38 Spl ammo out there, I recommend Hornady Critical Defense, Corbon DPX, Winchester Ranger, Federal HST, and Speer Gold Dot short barrel. There ain’t nothing wrong with .38 Special, at least from a self defense standpoint. The people who shit on it usually are the ones who can’t hit the target with a revolver at all.
Lastly, wadcutters. For those of you who have the misfortune of living in ass backwards New Jersey, you can’t have expanding ammunition. Keith Wadcutters are viable options and are more disruptive to tissue than one would think. When it comes to wadcutters, the Buffalo Bore brand is what I trust above all others. I do know that Federal and Underwood load some quality wadcutters as well though.
What are aftermarket options? They are spare mags, holsters, the laundry list of other things you will need when buying a gun. It’s also more expensive for your first gun because you have to drop the requisite money on these things that you’ll have later on down the line when you buy other guns. This is what usually turns off new gun owners after the myriad of convoluted laws. It can be daunting taking the first step into shooting. That’s where I come in- I do this regularly and I even drive all around the state of Texas teaching people firearm safety on my own dime. There are people way more qualified than I am to teach you things like tactics, I’m just here to get your foot in the door.
There are many things I’d recommend, such as a sling, red dot, light, silencer, etc for your gun but those will come later. For now, I am just going to include a little piece on holsters and cleaning. Your body type and circumstances will dictate which kind of holster you need. This video here will show you the basics:
Three Critical Qualities Of A Decent Holster
For me personally, I much prefer leather holsters for conceal carry. Of them, I have had great experiences with DeSantis, High Noon, and Vega Holsters. There’s also Milt Sparks which is super quality and a price tag to match. There are plenty of kydex options out there. I swear up and down by ALS and Safariland holsters, especially if you are going into law enforcement or private security. Their retention holsters are top quality. There are others such as Vedder Holsters, T.Rex Holsters, Bravo Concealment… Look around, see what you find. You may have to experiment with a holster until you find a right fit. I also must stress the importance of a proper belt. Need a solid foundation to support a gun and holster. Perry Suspenders in conjunction with a quality belt were also a major game changer for EDC.
And on the note of retention holsters: Don’t get the wretched Serpa holsters. The only thing those are good for is shooting yourself in the leg. I’m not a huge fan of shoulder holsters unless you’re driving. They’re cozy and they look cool, but hip holsters are much faster UNLESS you are seated. Shoulder holsters are supreme for long car rides or if you spend most of your day driving or otherwise seated.
For cleaning supplies you’ll want Strike Hold, some type of lubricant (I use Battleborn), and Hoppe’s No.9 solvent. Strike Hold is for the main stress points on a gun, lubricant is for the moving parts, and solvent is for the barrel. Don’t scrub it religiously like a crackhead would, that actually wears down the gun. Just a basic cleaning when you first get it, then clean it either every 6 months or if a malfunction occurs. You can use special cleaning tools such as wire brushes, large q tips, etc but I cut up old t shirts into strips and use those to wipe my guns down since I’m working class. I would also recommend phasing your carry ammo out every 6 months. I phase mine out every 3 months since I currently live in a humid area and paranoia has paid off for me.
So you got your gun and you got your holster and you got your ammo. Now what? Now, you break it in. A gun is not a magic talisman that wards of evil, a gun doesn’t stop bad things from happening to you. Furthermore, shooting is a diminishable skill. You must continuously maintain your gear and yourself. There’s a saying in the self defense community: “You’re either a weapon who carries tools, or a tool who carries weapons.”
For the break in you’ll want to put 500 rounds through your handgun (Federal American Eagle and Fiocchi are the ball ammo I go with) and at least 50-100 of those rounds should be your carry ammo. I know that is a lot and some people don’t have the time and money to do it all at once. You can do it in increments of 50 rounds of ball ammo and a magazine or two of hollow points. For this I would recommend shooting your ball ammo like the Texas CHL shooting proficiency test. That is: 20 rounds at 5 yards, 20 rounds at 10 yards, 10 rounds at 15 yards. Then for your hollow point ammo, I’d recommend practicing Wyatt Protocol. That is: Drawing your gun from the holster, getting 2 hands on the gun, putting 2 shots on center mass, and doing it all in under 2 seconds. Wyatt Protocol is essential, as the first person to get shots on target is almost always the winner.
Also, train and shoot with both eyes open. I would also recommend training to shoot with an elevated heart rate, even if it’s as simple as running back and forth then stopping abruptly and shooting. The reason being: When you are under duress, your adrenaline spikes. That is the body’s natural reaction. Acclimating yourself to this is vital- people are prone to mistakes in high stress scenarios. Which leads to my next point…
You’ll want to get proper training after breaking your gun in.
Shooting targets is nice, but it’s only a small part of training. It’s one thing to perform a task in a controlled environment under low stress, but in order to truly gain proficiency you need to perform under duress. I’m not going to get into the who, how, why, what ifs because that is best left to the discretion of your instructor. I will, however, tell you how to separate a quality instructor from Sensei Chad at your local McDojo.
Any instructor worth their salt will start you with aggressive physical contact from day 1. If you feel like a badass after the lesson wraps up, you aren’t being trained properly. Good training should show you where you need to improve. Get proper force on force, preferably with someone who knows their shit and will wipe the floor with you. Iron sharpens iron.
And for those of you with low income, fear not! There are other ways for you to practice and get training in. This video here explains some of them:
Self Defense Training On A Budget
You should also work out. Doesn’t need to be Navy SEAL requirements, but you should have a bare minimum workout requirement. From the tactical standpoint: Fighting is physically taxing. The more in shape you are, the more you can handle it. But more importantly, unless you live in a shithole I guarantee you that poor diet and sedentary lifestyle have a much, much greater chance of killing you than a criminal.
Lastly, first aid skills. What’s more important than carrying a gun? Carrying a first aid kit. I guarantee you’ll use it more than your gun. If you take nothing else from this, then at least take this to heart! Train yourself on how to use it and stock it full of good quality material. I have an article for that here.
And this concludes the barebones basics of choosing your first firearm.
If you are interested in seeing more on holster choices for your first carry piece, check out Outdoor Method’s article on picking the most comfortable IWB holster for your setup!
There’s only so much one can teach online, but I hope this has helped. For further reading on firearms I would recommend everything Massad Ayoob has written. He has many books and blog posts out there. For other blogs I would suggest LuckyGunner, Larry Correia, and Business & Bullets. I also recommend the YouTube Channels of ActiveSelfProtection, Paul Harrell, and Tactical Rifleman.
I’m also supporting these charities:
Warrior’s Heart – This charity helps veterans and first responders struggling with PTSD and addiction. I am going into EMS work myself, I know it’s a stressful job. There is no shame in taking steps to get help. The shame is in doing nothing until catastrophe occurs.
Saving Grace – This charity adopts shelter dogs and trains them to be helper dogs for veterans struggling with PTSD or brain injuries. I’ve always been a huge proponent of “adopt, don’t shop” but this effort is extremely constructive with that idea.
Black Rifle Coffee – These guys aren’t a charity but a portion of their profits go to helping veterans. They are also veteran owned and operated, employing those who served and giving wounded vets a second life. They’ve also helped raise money for Warrior’s Heart with their own coffee blend (which is linked).