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Best Handguns: Beginners & Home Defense [2024]

Best Handguns: Beginners & Home Defense [2024]

What's the best handgun for a beginner? How about the best home defense pistol? It's best to arm yourself with some basic knowledge before you go shopping.  

In this guide we give you everything that you need to know about handguns to be a knowledgeable shopper so that you can 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

There are many types of handguns to choose from

We'll start right off with our recommendations for a best first pistol for beginners and for home defense. For more in depth information on different handgun types and considerations please skip to our extensive info on that topic further down.

Best Handguns for Beginners

A person just starting out in shooting may be young or old. Tall or short. Fast or slow. What all new shooters have in common, though, is that they will benefit from a handgun that is easy to shoot.

The two key features that make a handgun easy to shoot are light recoil and proper fit to the hand.

Too much recoil can be a nasty distraction for the new shooter. It can quickly lead to a flinch which is a reflexive tightening of the hand and jerking of the trigger. This makes accurate shooting all but impossible.

Proper fit to the hand primarily means that the handgun allows good reach to the trigger.

One type of pistol that can solve both of these issues is a good 22 Long Rifle (22LR) caliber pistol.

22LR pistols on a table at the range

22 Long Rifle Pistols are a Great Choice for Beginners

The light recoil of these pistols makes shooting them a joy. The 22 Long Rifle (also called rimfire) ammunition is also cheaper than the larger centerfire ammunition like 9mm or 45 ACP so you can afford to shoot more.

Almost all pistols chambered for this small cartridge will have a grip size that is small enough for even the youngest shooter to get a good grip on. More importantly, these pistols allow good reach to the trigger.

One of the best and most popular 22LR pistols of all time is the Ruger Mark series of pistols. Their latest version, the Mark IV, is the best version yet. It's a 10-round pistol that is very easy to shoot, has light recoil, is reliable and is simple to disassemble for cleaning.

Ruger Mark IV 22/45

The Ruger Mark IV 22/45 is our #1 pick due to its great combination of features and cost.

This pistol has a grip angle that is very similar to the 1911 pistol and very comfortable.

It has a push button magazine release and takes a 10-round magazine.

Very reliable and soft shooting, this pistol would be a great choice for any beginner.

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Ruger Mark IV Tactical

The Ruger Mark IV Tactical is our second choice for a good beginner handgun.

It's configured with the steeper, more traditional grip angle of the original Ruger design.

It has picatinny rails on top and bottom which make mounting optics and lights very easy and convenient.

Ruger Mark IV Tactical 22LR rimfire pistol at the range

This Ruger Mark IV Tactical is a Ton of Fun to Shoot

It also has a push button magazine release and takes a 10-round magazine.

Just as reliable and soft shooting as all other Rugers, we recently reviewed this pistol and you can see that review by clicking on the link below.

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Best Home Defense Pistols

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 light.

Lights designed to be mounted on firearms are called "Weaponlights".

Current Glock pistols can have weapon mounted lights attached to them

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.

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More expensive, but considered by many to be top of the line is the Surefire weaponlight below.

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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.

Glock pistols are very easy to disassemble for cleaning

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.

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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 and 19 are popular auto pistols

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!

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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.

Sig Sauer P320 pistol is a popular choice

There are many variants but I like the original full size version for a beginner and for the home defense role.

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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.

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Handgun Basics

Handgun Types - Square vs 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.

Revolver pros:

Simple operation


Revolver cons:

Low capacity

Slow to reload

The most common type of revolver has a cylinder that swings out for loading and unloading.

Revolvers have easy swing out cylinders for easy reloading

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.

Common semi automatic pistols include Glock and Smith and Wesson

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.

Handgun Calibers

The most popular handgun calibers are 9mm, 45 ACP, 40 S&W, 38 Special, 380 ACP and 22LR

Most Popular Handgun Calibers

The top five 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 prevalent style of bullet

Full metal jacket bullets are the most common bullet style

For self defense you want a quality hollow point bullet.

Hollow point bullets look very different from fmj bullets

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.    

Are Safety Levers Necessary?

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.

The S&W 4566 pistol has a manual safety lever

This S&W 4566 auto pistol has a slide mounted manual safety lever shown in the down (on-safe) position

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.

Fitting the Handgun to Your Hand

One of the most important considerations when choosing a handgun is how well it fits your hand.

This was a topic at a recent Massad Ayoob MAG-40 class that I attended in Live Oak Florida. Massad emphasized that trigger reach was the important ctiteria for determining if a handgun fits your hand well.

With your hand properly placed on the backstrap of the gun, your index finger should have good control of the trigger. Too small of a gun will allow too much finger into the trigger guard and the shots will tend to pull to the right for a right handed shooter. Too large of a gun will do the opposite and tend to pull shots to the left.

If you would like to learn more about the MAG-40 class, see our review here: MAG-40 Massad Ayoob Group Class Review.


What is the Best Handgun for a Beginner?

A 22LR handgun is ideal for a beginner learning to shoot because of its light recoil. For self-defense we recommend a quality 9mm semi-automatic handgun. Our #1 recommendation is the Glock 17 9mm. See all of our recommendations here Best Handguns For Beginners & Home Defense.

What is the Best Handgun for Home Defense?

Since a home defense handgun can be larger than one dedicated to concealed carry, we recommend a Glock 17 with a rail mounted weapon light. See all of our recommendations here Best Handguns For Beginners & Home Defense.

Apr 10, 2024 SpiceTac

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