Discussing handguns is about as controversial as politics and religion. Everyone seems to have an opinion on the subject and many men take it as a personal attack on their perceived manhood if anyone chooses a different gun than the one they own.
As a police officer I’m continually asked what type of gun I carry and what guns I recommend for personal defense. I currently carry my department issued, Gen 4 Glock 17, 9mm handgun. My department recently updated its policy on duty handguns and allows us to carry a mid-sized or large model 9mm, .40SW, or .45ACP caliber handgun – as long as it’s a Glock.
I carry a Gen 4 Glock 26 sub-compact handgun as a backup weapon on duty and as my self-defense weapon off duty. I chose it for a backup to my duty weapon because it’s also a 9mm and will accept the same ammunition magazines as my duty weapon. If I need to transition to my backup weapon, all the extra ammunition magazines I carry are still available to me and can be used if needed.
I carry the Glock 26 off duty because I want to maintain a perfect consistency between guns I may need for personal combat. The fit, feel and function of my Glock 26 is basically identical to my duty Glock 17. In a life or death moment, I don’t need to remember which gun I have in my hand and how it works. I know people who have a variety of guns they carry as if they need to match their gun to their outfit they are wearing that day. I believe this is a bad idea. It’s fine to collect a variety of guns you enjoy shooting but pick one that you carry and master its use for self-defense.
So, what handgun do I recommend? So far you might think I sound like a Glock salesperson. I’m not. I prefer handguns made by Glock, Sig Sauer and Smith & Wesson. Specific models I recommend (in no specific order):
- Sig Sauer P365 or P365XL
- Glock 43 or 43X
- Smith & Wesson M&P Shield
- Glock 19
- Glock 26
- Sig Sauer P320 Compact or Midsize
- Smith & Wesson M&P Compact
Additionally, I recommend CZ, FN, Heckler & Koch, Kahr, Springfield Armory and Walther. There are a lot of other good brands of guns out there, but I would not choose them for defending my life.
You need to buy a handgun that fits as perfectly to your hand as possible. Your grip on the handgun is one of the key factors in shooting it accurately and therefore with the confidence you will need in it as a personal defense weapon. My first piece of advice is buy a quality handgun that best fits your hand.
I recommend choosing a 9mm handgun. With the right self-defense ammunition, it has similar stopping power to larger .40SW and .45ACP calibers but has much less recoil and is easier to shoot. I typically don’t recommend calibers smaller than 9mm, but I know people who don’t like the blast and recoil from a 9mm and choose a smaller caliber like .380. It’s better to have a .22 caliber handgun you’re proficient with than a 9mm you don’t shoot because it has too much blast and recoil. If 9mm is too much for you right now, start with a smaller caliber you are comfortable with now and then try working your way up to 9mm. If you do pick a smaller caliber than 9mm, try to stay within the brands I mentioned above. Pick the gun that’s most comfortable in your hand and a caliber you’re not afraid of shooting.
Now I’ll get a little bit technical as there are four basic types of handguns; revolvers, single action semi-automatic, single actions/double action (SA/DA) semi-automatic, and striker fired semi-automatic pistols. For self-defense handguns, especially for new shooters, I only recommend striker fired models.
Revolvers hold only 5 or 6 bullets, are more difficult to reload, generally have tiny grips making them harder to manage and control, and therefore are not the best option for saving your life. Self-defense revolvers tend to be marketed towards women because they are considered simpler to use than a semi-automatic handgun. Ladies… don’t fall for this. A semi-automatic handgun is about as complex as a toaster. If the man in your life thinks a semi-auto is too complex for you then you might want to reconsider your relationship with him!
Single action handguns have an external hammer and require a manual safety to prevent the hammer from falling and firing the gun accidentally. The 1911 model handgun is the most popular single action style handgun and is widely recommended and used as a self-defense handgun. As I often do, I go against the conventional wisdom and don’t recommend 1911 model handguns for self-defense. They cost at least twice as much as most striker fired handguns, are less reliable and more prone to jamming, and require you to manipulate the safeties to fire the gun and then re-engage the safety afterwards to make the gun safe to carry again. I love shooting a 1911, but I wouldn’t choose one for personal defense. I would never recommend a 1911 to a new shooter.
Single Action/Double Action (SA/DA) handguns have an external hammer like single action models but have a ‘de-cocker’ switch that allows you to manually drop the hammer without firing the gun. This allows you to load a bullet into the chamber of the gun and then ‘de-cock’ it by flipping the lever and making it safe to carry. To fire the gun, the first trigger pull is very long and ‘re-cocks’ the gun in order to drop the hammer and fire the bullet. Each subsequent shot will have a very short trigger pull because the hammer is re-cocked when each bullet is fired. When you’re done shooting, you much flip the de-cock lever to make the gun safe again. I don’t like SA/DA guns for self-defense because I don’t like the variation in trigger pull. The first shot has the long, heavy trigger pull and then the next shot has the short, light trigger pull. Without a lot of training and practice, it’s difficult to learn to shoot them well. After incorrect grip, improper trigger pull is the biggest reason people do not shoot handguns accurately. With a SA/DA handgun, you must learn two different trigger pulls and are therefore not my first choice of a self-defense gun. They are often sold as being safer because you can physically see the hammer de-cock when you flip the lever and it somehow gives you peace of mind the gun is safe even with a bullet in the chamber. It’s not any safer than a striker fired handgun and because they have more internal, moving parts, they cost more.
Striker fired handguns are my choice for self-defense because they are simple, point and shoot weapons that anyone can become instantly familiar with and learn to shoot well. A striker fired handgun has the same trigger pull on every shot. This type of firing mechanism originated with Glock. The bullet is fired by an internal striker rather than an external hammer. The striker is ‘cocked’ as you begin to pull the trigger. As you continue to pull the trigger, the striker releases and fires the bullet. The trigger pull is slightly longer than a single action handgun but is the same each time you fire. Striker fired handguns typically have three internal safety mechanisms which make the gun safe to carry and use without the need of an external safety lever that you must switch off before firing the gun. You can load a bullet into the chamber of a striker fired handgun and throw it across a parking lot and it will not go off. Quality, modern handguns do not just go off. That’s a myth. If you hear of a handgun “just going off”, it’s because it was a piece of junk or someone accidentally fired it.
You DO NOT need a manual safety on your striker fired handgun. People cannot seem to get this through their mind, so manufacturers have actually added external safety levers to their guns as a marketing gimmick. Many people won’t buy the guns without an external safety lever. You don’t need one because there are three safeties built into the gun. An external safety on a striker fire handgun does one thing. It disconnects the trigger so the gun will not shoot if you pull the trigger with the safety on. Well why would you ever pull the trigger on a gun if you didn’t want it to fire? The whole idea is ridiculous to me, but I won’t waste time trying to convince you of the silliness of it. The whole concept of a manual safety on a striker fired handgun is irrational.
Let’s wrap this up. Buy a Glock, Sig Sauer, Smith & Wesson, CZ, FN, Heckler & Koch, Kahr, Springfield Armory or Walther handgun. Buy the one that fits your hand the best. Buy a 9mm unless you’re not comfortable with it. Many gun stores have indoor shooting ranges and allow you to rent guns and try them out before buying. Don’t ever buy a handgun you’ve never actually shot before. Try it out and make sure it’s the right fit for you before spending money on it. And last of all, buy a striker fired handgun… with an external safety if it makes you feel better!