What's the best handgun for beginners? How about a good home defense gun? It's best to arm yourself with some basic knowledge before you go shopping.
In this guide we'll explain everything that you need to know about handguns to be a knowledgeable shopper and get the handgun that is right for you.
Let's dive in!
Over 3.2 million people purchased a firearm for the first time during the first half of 2021 according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation® (NSSF®), the firearm industry trade association. Source
Best Beginner Handguns
Square or Round?
There are 2 basic categories of handguns - revolvers and semi-automatics.
Revolvers are sometimes called "Wheel guns" or "Round guns" due to the round cylinder that holds the cartridges.
The 6-shot revolver cylinder is an American icon
In ancient times (pre-1980s), revolvers were much more common than semi-autos. Semi-autos of the day had a reputation for being unreliable but a revolver gave you "Six For Sure". That's a big deal when you're betting your life on the outcome.
Slow to reload
The most common type of revolver has a cylinder that swings out for loading and unloading.
The S&W 686 revolver has a swing out cylinder for easy loading
Semi-automatic pistols are the "Square Guns", also called "Auto Pistols", "Automatics" or just "Autos" and they are more common now than ever.
Glock (Top) and Smith & Wesson (Bottom) are common Auto Pistols
A good auto pistol will be very reliable, but as a whole, auto pistols can have more reliability problems than revolvers.
Auto pistol pros:
Higher ammunition capacity
Faster/easier to reload
Auto pistol cons:
Reliability in some guns
More complicated manual of arms, i.e. manipulation and loading/unloading etc.
Best Caliber for Beginners
Most Popular Handgun Calibers
The top 5 most handgun calibers in order of popularity are 9mm, 45 ACP, 40 S&W, 38 Special and 380 ACP.
From this list, the auto pistol calibers are 9mm, 45 ACP, 40 S&W and 380 ACP. The 38 Special is used in revolvers.
In an auto pistol, the best choice for a beginner (and most everyone else) will be 9mm. It's simply the king of the hill. The larger calibers will have more recoil and be more difficult to handle.
In revolvers, the 38 Special has ruled supreme since it's introduction in 1898. There are a wide range of loads available making this a very versatile caliber.
Standard pressure loads are very common and a good choice. Extra pressure loads called +P loads are available and deliver increased velocity and performance, but with increased recoil, especially in small revolvers.
Wise Bullet Choices: Hollowpoints vs FMJ
For target shooting any bullet will do. Full Metal Jacket (FMJ) ammo is the most popular and generally the least expensive choice.
Full metal jacket bullets are the most common bullet style
For self defense you want a quality hollow point bullet.
Hollow point style bullet shown on the right
Reasons for using a quality hollow point bullet are:
1. Safer for you - The expanding bullet will be more effective at stopping the attacker because all of its energy will go into wounding instead of zipping down the street after it over penetrates.
2. Safer for bystanders - A bullet that doesn't penetrate through and through the attacker will not go on to injure anyone downrange.
3. Safer for the attacker - The fewer times the attacker must be shot to be stopped, the more likely they are to live. Remember, the goal is not to kill but to stop.
Safety Levers: Necessary or Not?
This S&W 4566 auto pistol has a slide mounted manual safety lever shown in the down (on-safe) position
All modern handguns will generally be safe in that they will not fire if dropped and will not fire unless the trigger is pulled.
The decision you must make is whether you want your handgun to have a manual safety lever. This is not an option on revolvers, but it is on some auto pistols.
Go with what you are most comfortable with. If the handgun you select has a manual safety you have to dedicate yourself to practicing with it until disengaging that safety is second nature for you.
Home Defense Considerations
A home defense handgun is one that is kept strictly for defending yourself at home (as opposed to carried outside the home). Because it will not be carried, I recommend a full size handgun for this purpose. These are easier to shoot and can hold more ammunition than smaller pistols commonly used for concealed carry.
One advantage of having a handgun dedicated strictly to home defense is that it can be set up specifically for that role. This may include adding a weaponlight.
Lights designed to be mounted on firearms are called "Weaponlights".
Glock 17 with rail mounted weapon light (Surefire X300 Ultra)
Many modern full sized auto pistols have a rail that can take accessories such as a weaponlight. Revolvers generally lack this feature. There are pros and cons to a weapon mounted light, but keep these points in mind.
- A weapon mounted light is not a substitute for a handheld flashlight because pointing your pistol everywhere you need to see in the dark is unsafe.
- Fiddling with gadgets on your pistol can distract you from dealing with the situation at hand and can be counter-productive.
One of the most popular weaponlights is from Streamlight shown below. It is very rugged and it's crazy bright 1000 lumen beam is easily activated with ambidextrous controls.
Streamlight TLR-1 HL
Prices Subject To Change
Prices Subject To Change
More expensive, but considered by many to be top of the line is the Surefire weaponlight below.
4 Best Handguns for Beginners and Self Defense
1. Glock 17 Gen 5
Glock is the 800 pound gorilla in the gun world. They are extremely popular because they are simple, reliable and low maintenance. The original model was the Glock 17 and it's still a favorite today.
First and foremost, Glocks are simple to use. Once loaded, they can be fired until empty with a short pull of the trigger. No safeties to worry about and the trigger pull is the same from first shot to last.
Maintenance requirements of a Glock are minimal. While it is best to clean your firearm after each range session, a Glock will go longer without maintenance than most other pistols.
Glock pistols have a low bore axis which is the distance the barrel sits above the top of the hand. This results in less muzzle flip while shooting and makes follow up shots faster.
Field stripping a Glock for cleaning is a breeze which makes cleaning easier.
The Glock Auto Pistol is easily disassembled for cleaning
I like the fifth generation (Gen 5) Glocks over all previous generations mostly due to the slightly smaller grip and better trigger pull. But it's only ahead by a nose, all previous generations are good-to-go!
A G17 was the pistol I bought my wife when she was learning to shoot. Comfortable and easy to shoot with total reliability, it's my #1 pick for a beginner.
2. Glock 19 Gen 5
The Glock 19 is is considered a compact pistol. It is a basically Glock 17 with a slightly shorter grip and barrel/slide length. Considered my many to be the ultimate Glock, the G19 does so many things well that it has earned a place in this list.
Glock 17 Gen 5 (left) Glock 19 Gen 3 (right)
The G19 shoots like a full size pistol but for many shooters it feels more balanced and appropriate sized for the 9mm cartridge. This pistol delivers all of the G17 goodness in a smaller package. I wish I still had my first Glock, a G19 I purchased in 1988. I've gotten several since then to make up for it!
3. Sig P320
The Sig 320 is giving Glock a run for its money because its a damn fine pistol. It's similar to Glock in many ways including having a polymer frame and being striker fired. It has improvements in other areas like modularity and manual safety options.
It was also the pistol recently chosen by the U.S. Military to replace the Beretta M9 service pistol.
There are many variants but I like the original full size version for a beginner and for the home defense role.
4. Smith & Wesson 686
As mentioned before, there are pros and cons to revolvers. The one area in which a double action revolver really shines is simplicity.
When it's loaded, it's loaded. No need to worry about if there is a round in the chamber or if the magazine is seated or if a manual safety is engaged etc.
Especially for someone that will not be able to put any time into learning a more complicated manual of arms, the revolver can be an ideal choice.
The Smith & Wesson Model 686 is a full size stainless steel double action revolver. It holds six rounds of 38 Special or 357 Magnum ammunition.
The 4-inch barrel length is a good choice. It combines a good sight radius with reasonable compactness.