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The Perfect Handgun? Maxims and Reflections

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Selecting a handgun can be confusing, and at times they can all look the same. What differences are important to you?

This piece is meant to help folks find the right gun. If it helps let us know, if you've bought a few pistols let us know what your journey has been like.


After reviewing a few hundred handguns I'm often asked for recommendations. Such an inquiry is harmless enough and certainly makes sense. Why not ask a guy who's tried hundreds of guns and spent dozens of hours in training?

The challenge for me in answering this question is because I've come to learn that just about every model has an intended purpose or application around which it was designed. Within those parameters are also the manufacturer's attempt to differentiate their product from others in the same category. Such differentiation is usually accomplished through aesthetics, minor details, and price point since general features have pretty much standardized. Further making the need to differentiate is the fact that most manufacturers stick with the Browning tilting barrel action as it's relatively easy and inexpensive to manufacture and has a long proven track record of reliability. It's maybe not the best way to make a semi-automatic handgun operate, but it's simple to make, reliable and leaves a bit of margin for the company to consider offering other features without adding much cost.


Chevy Silverado 1500 Vs Ford F-150 Vs Dodge Ram 1500

or

Honda Civic Vs Volkswagen Golf Vs Toyota Camry

I've used this parallel a lot, but that's because to me it makes the most sense. Handguns and cars are similar in the following ways:

  • There are a lot of options, with a lot of competition.

  • Some differentiations are purely cosmetic.

  • Some people have fierce loylaty or disdain towards certain brands with or without objective supporting evidence.

  • Personal style, image, and trends play a role.

  • Brand image plays a role.

  • If you gather any ten people, chances are their choices are different.

  • Those choices were made based on personal taste, budget, availability, what was recommended, and needs.

  • Skilled drivers can perform regardless of vehicle.

All of this is to say that is mostly comes down to personal preference and unfortunately that preference is something that is developed over time with experience. I understand that I've been very fortunate to try so many different makes and models, and were I not a recognized professional reviewer I'd likely not have shot, handled, or even heard of a lot of the guns we've reviewed. Further compounding the issue is that preferences, needs, and means change over time. In the last 12 years I've carried about as many guns as my EDC. Each one of them was the right choice for me at that time, some I only carried for a couple months, others I've carried for years.

Each time my decision was correct, and each time I decided to change was correct.


So what advice can I give? I believe I've found a few maxims over the years that should help guide you in trying to select a handgun from the ever-expanding sea of options. Not every one of these points needs to be met, but keeping them in mind will likely help ensure you're at least close to your perfect handgun.

While most of these pistols could fill multiple roles, they all have a specific intent behind their build.
  • Application: The "skilled drivers" analogy can somewhat negate this, but in general your intended application is going to serve as major factor of your satisfaction with any particular handgun. If you're looking for a bear gun forget the snubby .22lr. If you're looking for a home defense tool then why limit capacity and handling with a micro compact? Yes a 5", 17rd 9mm can be carried concealed, but not as easily as a smaller pistol. These hyperboles are examples of how your intended application will serve as the base against which your choice will be evaluated. Figure out what it is you want to do with the gun and let that guide considerations of caliber, size, capacity, and features. If it's a first pistol I highly recommend the "compact" size family as it tends to be a good size blend that is comfortable enough to train with but still small enough to carry for most folks. (See our writeup on Compacts)

  • Budget: Spending more doesn't always mean getting more, especially if the extra cost comes from attributes you never intend to use, or may even be counter-productive to your intended application. We've seen plenty of good pistols in the $300 range (see our Affordable Pistol roundup) but that's not to say that spending $500-600 wouldn't make you happier. Bouncing the argument back again is the fact that some prices are purely a result of branding. If it's polymer squirted into a mold for the frame, and uses a Browning tilting barrel action chances are they didn't cost much to make. Aside from branding, the rest of the cost comes from warranty, quality assurance, and the company recouping design costs. If you're not comfortable affording it, you may not be comfortable using it.

  • Recommendations: What works for your friend, or significant other may not be what will be best for you. With that in mind, ask them what they like about the gun they recommended. If they can't give you a convincing argument chances are they don't even know and it's simply the pistol they own. Some, but not all manufacturers and distributors offer incentive programs to retails for pushing a particular product. This is not to say that the folks at the gun store are lying to you, just be aware that if they really want to push a particular brand it might be because there's something in it for them.

The Walther PDP. Same gun, three different barrel length options.
  • General Size Guidance: With application in mind, here are some maxims about pistol size. There are occasional exceptions, but in general physics always wins.

  1. A heavier gun will recoil less, lighter gun more.

  2. A longer slide is easier to rack, shorter slide tougher.

  3. The more hand you can get on the grip the easier the gun is to control

  4. The longer the slide, the longer the sight radius, and easier it is to control aim (with iron sights)

  5. The longer the barrel, the more energy you'll produce from the same round. (see the science here)

To boil those down even further:

  • Smaller, lighter guns are easier to carry but tougher to use.

  • Larger, heavier guns are easier to use but tougher to carry.

Select the largest pistol you can comfortably carry if you intend to spend any quality range/training time with it.

  • Triggers matter a lot less than people like to fuss about. It is true that to some extent some triggers can mask shooter error while others can be difficult to master, Regardless of trigger characteristics, if you're dedicated to really knowing your gun almost any trigger can be overcome. You've seen us shoot quickly and accurately with triggers others thought were terrible. What's most important is that the trigger is predictable to you. For more information about this see our piece on The Perfect Trigger Fallacy.

The Tisas PX-9 Gen 3 we've reviewed comes with a complete kit like many Canik models.
  • Other Considerations: Beyond just having a pistol, don't forget to consider other things that make the pistol practical such as holster availability, spare magazines (they wear out: 2 is 1, 1 is none) and other aftermarket support. I'm not talking about how many companies offer alternative parts. Good guns don't need to be altered, but good guns may need parts availability. Unfortunately for many imported pistols that is a downside as they can change importers over the years and potentially lose warranty support unless they have a dedicated "____ USA" company.

Conclusion: What's right for you may change, and you may not find what's right on your first try. With the factors listed above as a guideline though you can hopefully avoid a total disappointment, and no matter what you buy learn from it.

I started with a 1911 that was too heavy for carry, then tried a Glock 19 that was too small for my hands. From there the list went on, each time I felt the need to change, and each time I felt right in my next decision. Fortunately it's easy enough to sell or consign and try something else.


If you're new, let us know if this helps or any questions you have. If you've been through this please let us know what your journey was like in the comments below.

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6 則留言


RBMD2020 2A
RBMD2020 2A
2023年4月21日

Graham, as one Oregonian to another I really wanted to read this article but the misspellings prevented me from doing so. I know you are extremely busy, but I would really like you to run this through a spell checker and the repost.

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Graham Baates
Graham Baates
2023年6月12日
回覆

Thank you. As with almost all of our content, everything is single-draft, unscripted, just the real bits. I do re-film things sometimes if I know I've made an egregious error or the footage is unusable.

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