The features that make a gun easy to shoot:
A frame that lets you reach the trigger properly. Ideally when you put your finger on the trigger, the trigger contacts your finger in the middle of the first pad. More importantly you want your trigger finger to make a right angle with the trigger and you want the inside of your trigger finger away from the frame, not laying along the frame all the way to the trigger guard. Why? Every time you flex your trigger finger to manipulate the trigger, you will be moving the frame (and thus the sights) as you move the trigger. That can cause you to pull the sights off target and cause a miss, typically a left or low-left miss. If you are a trigger-yanker or trigger-slapper contact with the frame only magnifies this problem. Many larger caliber semi-autos have very fat frames (double stack magazines), and those with double action first shot designs typically have triggers with long reaches. If you pick up one of those guns and you cannot reach the trigger without rotating your grip on the gun -- get a different gun. The gun is too wide for your hand and you'll never shoot it well. If you have short fingers, a pistol with a single stack magazine is probably the best answer for you.
A frame you can get all your fingers on - it's much easier to hang onto a pistol if you can get all your fingers on it. In reality the additional ½" of grip required for all your fingers really doesn't make any significant difference in whether the gun can be concealed. It absolutely does make a difference in how well you can shoot the gun, so buy a gun you can get all your fingers on.
A trigger pull of 6 pounds or less - The heavier the trigger pull, the more force it takes to fire the gun. That increases the likelihood that you will pull the sights out of alignment before the bullet leaves the barrel. Rifles and shotguns typically have trigger pulls of less than 6 pounds. Pistols should too. Some argue that pistols need heavier trigger pulls to act as an additional 'safety' to prevent negligent discharges. If you are purchasing a handgun for personal protection or recreational use, your training time is under your control. Instead of buying a gun that's hard to shoot on the assumption that your safe gunhandling skills are poor, get professional training, bring your gunhandling skills up to where they should be and get a gun that increases your odds of getting good hits when you need them!
A trigger that has a short distance of travel - The shorter the distance the trigger has to move, the less likely you are to move the sights out of alignment before the gun fires.
Barrel length of 4"- 6" - In general guns with shorter barrels have more recoil and are harder to shoot because the sight radius (distance between front and rear sight) is shorter. The geometry of sight alignment is simple: the farther the sights are apart, the less small errors in sight alignment affect where the bullet goes. With semiautomatic pistols often the "micro" models are less reliable than their longer-barreled cousins. This is because the semi-auto's cycling involves the speed at which the slide cycles and the speed at which cartridges come out of the magazine. The short semiautos have shorter slides which have shorter slide cycle times and thus are less robust to variances in ammo and springs and cleanliness than the larger models. The powders used in ammunition are typically selected to burn at a rate that fully consumes the powder in a full sized barrel. This means that in a short barreled gun you lose velocity and can have additional muzzle flash when some of the powder burns in air instead of in the last 1-2" of barrel. Concerns about concealability often lead people to short barreled guns. For men the simplest answer is to carry in an "inside the waistband (IWB)" style holster. With the barrel inside the pants the only thing that has to be covered by a concealment garment is the grip. This allows for greater flexibility in choice of concealment garment and allows easy carry of a pistol with a barrel length that makes it more reliable and more shootable. Due to differences in body shape between men and women many inside the waistband holsters don't allow a comfortable draw for women. Some of our women students use off-body carry techniques (gun purse, faux "daytimer", etc.) as a way to carry a 4" or longer pistol.
Sights that are crisp and simple - "3 dot" sights, while popular, are not necessarily the best idea. Most top competitors prefer a solid black rear sight with a front sight painted a bright color or a fiber-optic front sight. Most factory front sights are too wide. TRUGLO® offers great sights which have great contrast between front and rear color - orange front, green rear.
Some people like night sights. Between bright ambient light in many urban areas and the flashlight/gun techniques commonly taught, you will have sufficient light on your sights from ambient light or your own flashlight to use whatever sights are on the gun. If you want to spend money improving the sights on your gun, consider a narrow fiber optic front sight. The tritium makes the sights glow in the dark, the fiber optic pipes make them glow with ambient light.
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Sufficient gun weight for the caliber - Many people mistakenly think that lighter is better in a pistol. As the gun gets lighter the amount of muzzle flip during recoil increases. This slows down the rate at which you can make follow up shots, and perhaps more importantly, increases the likelihood that you will flinch in response to recoil, which causes missing your target. You need a good quality belt and good quality holster that supports the weight of the gun, gun weight is not an issue for carry. A good pistol costs $500 or more. A good belt and holster combined will cost you $100 or more but it is absolutely worth the investment in comfort, concealment, reliability, access and draw speed.
Caliber recommendations - 9mm (9x19) is the best place to start, as well as the best defensive caliber period! It's the minimum caliber deemed acceptable by law enforcement and military users and the caliber with the most manageable recoil of all the defensive calibers. It is the caliber issued my most law enforcement agencies. Ammo is readily available and inexpensive. You are better off with a pistol that you can shoot well in 9x19 than a bigger caliber gun with which you miss. If you want something bigger than 9x19, try the .357 Sig, 10 mm or the .45 ACP. On a scale of perceived recoil, .45 ACP actually has less recoil than 10mm, because .45 ACP uses heavier bullets at slower velocities and typically the guns are a little heavier which dampens recoil. The general rules about gun fit always apply. If it doesn't fit your hand, don't buy it assuming you can 'work around' that problem. You can't.
For backup guns we still recommend 9mm [9 x 19] and .38 Special. Why not .380 [9x17], .25ACP or .32ACP? For starters those calibers are extremely marginal (at best) for personal protection, although better ammunition has been developed for .380 [9 x 17], but still grossly under powered. While no one wants to be stabbed repeatedly with a knitting needle, larger calibers have far greater stopping power. Secondly the guns in those calibers have long heavy trigger pulls, so now you have a pistol that you are probably going to shoot poorly in a caliber that won't perform well even if you get a hit. There are many good backup gun models in 9mm [9 x 19] in the same dimensions as these small sub-caliber "mouse guns". An additional plus is having both the backup and primary firearm use the same caliber ammunition, one of the basic firearm safety considerations.
Good choices in a primary gun: Sig 229 or Sig 320, FN-FNS, S&W K Frame revolvers, S&W M&P9, Glock 19, Walther PPS-M2.
Good choices in a backup gun: S&W J-Frame revolvers in .38 +P/.357 Magnum, Sig P365, Sig 320, Sig 938, S&W Shield, S&W M&P 9 Compact, Glock 43, Glock 26. For revolvers: S&W makes the best and the triggers on the S&W guns are very good.
Guns not recommend (and reasons why):
Anything in .25, .32, .380 [9x17]: insufficient power, heavy trigger pulls, no sights. There are so many 9x19 subcompacts from reputable manufacturers available in the same overall exterior size as underpowered calibers, objective evaluation shows the 9mm [9 x 19] superior in all criteria.
A .22 Magnum shares the same ballistic qualities as the .380 ACP [9x17]. For defensive purposes, a S&W J-Frame revolver in .22 Magnum is a far superior choice to the .380 ACP from any manufacturer. Since the ballistics are superior/comparable and you have a larger capacity pistol, the S&W J-Frame tips the scales as the better platform, not to mention superior reliability. While this is not a preferred defensive caliber, for some people, it may fit the criteria of carrying the largest caliber that you can shoot accurately, that you can easily conceal and will be comfortable to carry all day.
Always look into the reputation of the manufacturer and model of any pistol under consideration. The best choice is a standard model of proven design, made by an established, reputable gunmaker. Newly introduced or “innovative” designs from new gun companies should be avoided. The company and/or model may not succeed; parts and service may be hard to find, as well as holsters and other accessories. Check into holster and other accessory availability before you buy a gun, so you know cost and availability before you make your investment.
A variety of information resources can be found by researching, including books, magazines, gun dealers, gun clubs and, of course, the internet!
Choosing A Pistol That Is Right For You
There are many pistol models on the market, in a wide variety of calibers, barrel lengths, action types, sizes, finishes, and other mechanical features.
If your main interest is recreational shooting or learning to shoot well, a .22 LR semi-auto or revolver pistol is the best choice. Most of the guidelines apply to .22’s as well as larger caliber self-defense guns. Nearly every major gun manufacturer produces a good quality .22. These guns are great choices for learning because ammo is inexpensive, recoil and noise are less than larger calibers, and usually these guns have good sights and triggers. Many manufacturers have .22 conversion kits for their pistols so you can practice with a .22 barrel and carry with a 9mm (9 x 19) barrel for maximum protection.
Generally the self-defense handgun market can be separated into two categories: primary guns and backup guns. A primary gun is a gun that's the one you prefer to carry or use for home defense. Ideally it's the 'no compromise' gun: the one that you shoot well because it's got all the right features (size, caliber, capacity, etc.). It's the one that is appropriate for recreational shooting, the one you will probably bring to our classes, the one with which you could shoot competition. A backup gun is the 'all compromise' gun: the pocket/micro/superlight/mouse gun that you carry when you can't figure out how to carry the primary gun easily. If you are buying a first handgun, start with the 'primary gun' and not the backup gun, because it's much easier to learn to shoot with a good primary gun.
Starting out with a backup gun is very hard and most people that try it typically never learn to shoot well. If you pick the right equipment, becoming proficient with a handgun and using it effectively will be much easier.
When most people venture out gun shopping or get advice from gun salespeople or gun owner friends, typically their 'search criteria' list looks something like this: size (small is good), weight (light is good), cost (cheap is good), caliber (bigger is better), magazine capacity (bigger is better), night sights (good), laser (cool), color (blued, stainless, black?)
A lot of those assumptions are wrong. As it turns out, what really matters when you try to hit a target with it is this: gun fit (can you reach the trigger), trigger squeeze weight, trigger squeeze distance, barrel length, sight radius, sight quality, gun weight proportional to caliber.
Let's put this in perspective. The whole point of shooting is to hit your intended target quickly. If you miss or you are too slow, the consequences could run from just wasting ammo to losing your life. There's no award for 'had a big caliber', 'carried the lightest gun on the market', or 'had plenty of ammo in the gun'. You either hit or you don't. Choosing the right equipment will get you to a higher level of skill in less time!