Defensive Gun Options for New Shooters

Without the proper guidance, choosing just one gun for self-defense can be overwhelming.


Recently, one of my best friends called to ask if I would help him choose a defensive handgun. Now, we’ve been friends for years, and more than once I have brought up the topic of defensive firearms to no avail. He had no interest in owning a gun. So, needless to say, I was surprised to get this call.

Like many non-shooters, who suddenly decide to join the shooting community, he experienced what can be called a “triggering event.” Whether it’s a crime report on the news, an attempted crime against a friend or them personally, a triggering event nudges folks off of the fence and into the decision to become armed citizens. In my friend’s case, a family member in another town was protected from harm by two neighbors who were in the right place, at the right time, with their guns.

Realizing that he could have done nothing to help in a similar situation, my friend started researching defensive handguns. Since he’s Internet savvy, he had gone out and found miles of commentary and firearm specifications on the Web. However, the sheer volume of makes, models, options and contradicting opinions left him feeling completely overwhelmed. In this situation, it certainly makes sense to turn to someone familiar with firearms for advice.

As we talked, another point became clear. My friend’s desire to find a reliable defensive tool is not the same as a newfound love of shooting. He doesn’t want to become a shooting hobbyist, a collector, a hunter or to participate in a variety of shooting sports. He wants just one gun that he can learn to operate successfully and depend on in case he needs to defend his family and home.

So, how do you help a friend or associate pick just one gun from all of the models currently on the market? The best way to start is to narrow the list of infinite possibilities down to a short list of options, and then narrow the short list down to a few models your friend can try. Over the years, I've put together some mental checklists I like to review with new shooters to help them come to a decision. If they are new to shooting, want just one gun and the gun is primarily for self-defense, then the checklist looks something like this:

Rifle, Shotgun or Handgun?
The first question may not be which handgun to buy. Defensive shotguns and rifles offer much more stopping power than handguns. Their length, weight and configuration can make them easier to learn to shoot as well, and many pump-action shotguns cost significantly less than a quality handgun. Defensive rifles often cost more than a handgun, but they offer more flexibility since they can also be used for hunting and long-range target shooting if the person later decides to expand his or her shooting activities. If your friend has little or no shooting experience, this may be the time to plan a trip to the range to give him or her an opportunity to test fire all three types of guns.

House, Car, Concealed Carry or Mixed Purpose?
Identifying where a defensive handgun is going to be located for most of its working life can help to determine which one will be the best fit. For example, if a pistol will be used primarily for home defense and will spend most of its life stored in a lockbox in the master bedroom, size and weight are not much of a concern. This is also true for a gun that will spend most of its time stored in a vehicle. For both of these uses, a full-size duty handgun with good sights and a full-length grip will do nicely. It will also provide the best ammunition capacity and be more comfortable to practice with.

If the gun will be used primarily for legal concealed carry, then size and weight become factors. Many self-defense gurus and folks who carry are committed to making the lifestyle and wardrobe changes necessary to carry a full-size lead sled. But that's not the case for everyone. Most of the non-military and non-law enforcement types I know who choose to go armed use compact, lightweight handguns designed specifically for concealment. These pistols are much easier to carry, but often sacrifice caliber, ammunition capacity and other features that make pistols more pleasant to practice with.

If your friend wants just one gun to fill the roles of target shooting, home defense and concealed carry, then you may want to encourage them to research handguns that split the difference between duty size and concealment guns. These medium-framed handguns are chambered in popular defensive calibers, but have a smaller profile. They are large enough to shoot comfortably, but trimmed down to be more easily concealed. Most manufacturers have at least a few models that fit into this category.

Cylinder or Slide?
The current popularity of high-capacity, semi-automatic pistols have some shooters thinking that double-action revolvers are obsolete. However, the comparison of semi-autos versus revolvers has always been a discussion of apples and oranges. Both designs are useful for self-defense, but for different reasons. Semi-autos usually offer a higher ammunition capacity, but revolvers are simpler to operate. Semi-autos offer faster reloading times, but revolvers are far less ammo sensitive. The most important thing is to help your friend weigh the features that double-action revolvers and semi-automatics offer against their specific needs.

Readers may be surprised that I wait to discuss caliber options until this point in the conversation, but I have a good reason for doing so. If someone is new to shooting, then trying to talk through the technical aspects of pistol calibers, ballistics and bullet styles will often leave a person dazed and confused. By discussing the handgun's purpose and action type first, then the choice of caliber is already narrowed down to a manageable few.

From Checklist to Shopping List
Purchasing a gun can be an expensive proposition. A new shooter who has made it this far is usually ready to make the financial commitment, but they may not be aware of all the items, procedures and costs involved in owning a firearm. After the defensive pistol itself, their shopping list and budget should include:

    • A lockable storage device (strong box, safe, locking case, etc.)

  • • Permits or licensing fees, if required
  • • Cleaning supplies
  • Holster(s)
  • • Additional magazines or speed loaders
  • • Practice-grade ammunition
  • • Defense-grade ammunition
  • • Gun range fees
  • Education (classes, books, etc.)

As a general rule of thumb, I advise new shooters to decide how much they want to spend on the pistol, and then double that amount to cover the cost of everything else they will need. The item they absolutely must have on hand the day they bring their gun home is a lockable storage device. After that, other items on the list can be put on a purchasing schedule to fit their budget.

Just One More
I like to point out to budget-conscious one-gunners that they can curb shooting costs and maximize range time by purchasing a second handgun chambered in .22 LR. This suggestion seems counter intuitive until we talk about ammunition costs. For about the same price as 50 rounds of a popular defensive pistol caliber, shooters can usually buy upwards of 500 rounds of .22.

Several manufacturers build pistols designed to mimic the grip shape and controls of a defensive handgun. A .22 is a great way to warm up at the range before running defensive drills and focused practice to overcome a bad habit or to learn a new skill is much more affordable to conduct. I have also found that even the most reluctant spouse is usually willing to practice with a .22. If a new shooter is ready to commit to regular practice at the range, then a .22 will quickly pay for itself and will keep saving him or her money for years to come.

Meaningful Research and Testing
By now the infinite list of possibilities should be narrowed down to that short list I mentioned before. My friend’s short list included duty-size, polymer-frame semi-autos in popular self-defense chamberings that accepted high-capacity, double-stack magazines within a specified price range. With this information in hand, I was able to make his Internet research much more meaningful. I pointed him directly to a handful of pistols that matched his short list and price range, such as the Glock 17, Ruger SR9, Smith & Wesson M&P and Springfield XD. And, with these criteria clearly defined, he can also look up models I may not have included. When he identifies a couple models he wants to test fire, then it will be time for us to head to a range that provides rental guns and let him try the pistols for himself.

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42 Responses to Defensive Gun Options for New Shooters

Roy Odhner wrote:
May 25, 2013

Good article. The caliber war and revolver versus automatic arguments are never gonna end, and all calibers and operating systems have a useful purpose. I say carry what you feel confident with, and that you can effectively use. I prefer revolvers, but as far as caliber goes I carry anything between .22wmr and .357mag - each serves a purpose. I'm not going to posture that.22wmr is as effective as .357mag, but I will say that it is effective and two or three .22wmr rounds is gonna encourage most thugs to cease and desist.

clark wrote:
March 07, 2013

To the dude that said ya gotta carry sumthin powerful n dogged on the 9mm, well man you 45 aint really all that infact some 9,s got ya slow non penetratin 45 beat. The millitary ditched it for the 9, and if you want real man power.. throw ya sissy 45 away n get ya a 10mm hoss, then look in the mirror n say im tuff enuff, ive got me a real gun now, and gosh darnit, people like me. Ok buh bye now tuff guy.

STEVE wrote:
September 22, 2012


Reb wrote:
September 25, 2011

I have carried many different pistols and revolvers over many years mostly in shoulder rigs. I have always gone back to the Colt .45 ACP as the best for law enforcement and defense. During WW II, I was a paratrooper in the 101st AB Div, I saw many men hit by the enemy with 9mm hardball. I do not remember any of them being killed. I wore a M-1911 and used it to good effect when my BAR could not be used. Today I would recommend the Springfield XD in .45 ACP. REb

Claude wrote:
July 13, 2011

Yet another client of mine decided today that a .22 was the caliber for him. The unnecessary commitment to centerfire calibers that is so prevalent nowadays is a disservice to new shooters. It's a bad influence from the Law Enforcement community.

George wrote:
June 13, 2011

"IF" there is such a thing as an all around gun it's the 12 ga shotgun. "IF" there is such a thing as a general purpose handgun it's the Glock 19. IMHO the best choice for newbies is the Stainless Steel Ruger or S&W 2", 3" or 4" revolver loaded with premium LHP/JHP +P 38 specials. For someone who will dedicate themselves to it, the 1911 is King.

ROBO COP wrote:
March 22, 2011

I have found that a simple Smith&Wesson K frame 6 shot revolver is a good basic defensive weapon in 38 spl or 357 mag with a 3" heavy barrel or 4" barrrel. This served the police for many years. The .22 as a practice gun is an excellent idea.

SnubsieWubsie wrote:
March 12, 2011

I'm always blown away when I see a new shooter immeadiatly reach for a snub as a first CCW choice. Usually that choice has been pushed upon them by a saleman. Then they are punished by recoil and poor marksmanship and lose interest or confidence. My first and only true love are K frame revolvers. The firepower is more than adequate, recoil is minimal to manageable, and there is a class born from the simplicity and craftsmanship. I think they work well with teaching new shooters, and reluctant spouses. Unfair is the notion that somehow they are obsolete or they are a ladies handgun. It wasn't until I fully embraced the Model 17 and shot thousands of rounds of .22 that my skills improved and transfered into other makes and models. Firearm choices became less impulse and more studied. I can appreciate and enjoy an XD or Glock, but in the end I don't think new shooters will make the right choice without a few seasons of shooting. A $300 police trade in Model 64 is my reccomendation and choice for a simple "bump in the night" handgun... push a K frame.

smokndave wrote:
February 09, 2011

a friend ask ,what should I buy? I say ,come to the range with me and shoot what is available then make a decision. does he do this? no. He goes to the nearest box store and buys what is advertised the most. Will he go the range and learn to shoot it correctly and teach his wife? probably not. Sad and dangerous.

smcconnico wrote:
February 09, 2011

I've been helping my friends to choose handguns for about 10 years. It's a hit and miss type of thing to see what they can handle properly. Recently, I used a .25 Titan that belongs to my father in law that he has never fired, for a new friend asking for a reference. After using a Glock .40 & .45, an FNH 9mm, and this, she got hooked on the .25. We will be going to the next gun show It's all in having what you have to your disposal at the range to see what they are initially adapted to.

Tommy Elkins wrote:
February 09, 2011

Brought up around hunting with alot of rounds thru shotguns, rifles, and archery, but very little handgun experience. I've just purchased a S&W 340 PD for concealed carry. Fits nicely in the front pocket of my jeans and offers 38 special for practice and 38+P or 357 for defense. Won't be shooting the 357 until I have several hundred rounds and comfortable with this small frame cannon.

Shepard Humphries wrote:
February 03, 2011

Great article! It is nice to logic used in the decision process ... I think we all know the 1911 is the only real handgun ... but you offer great advice! ;) "When seconds count, the cops are only minutes away."

Gerry wrote:
January 28, 2011

There are lots of interesting points and comments being made here.If I were to recommend a first-time firearm to an inexperienced individual, my first consideration would be to fit the firearm to the person. Take my wife as an example. She doesn't want something that is too heavy to carry in her purse. She isn't an avid shooter. Yet she was raised with four brothers and a father, all who are presently life-members of the NRA. My wife carries an S&W Lady Smith Airweight, eight shot in .22 caliber revolver. As a former law enforcement officer of 28 years, my preference is a .45 ACP automatic. Of these two, highly opposing calibers and designs, which would I rather be shot with? Neither! The revolver my wife carries is easier to handle, has less recoil, and she can hit something with eight shots. And don't "poo-poo" a .22 long rifle round. It can be very, very nasty. My .45 ACP speaks for itself. Bottom-line is this: Evaluate the individual and fit the firearm to suit their needs. Any firearm is a better defense than no firearm.

james goy wrote:
January 27, 2011

my arms are current a taurus pt 111 9mm semi auto,i have a rugur mark 2 in 22 long a two 22 long rifles,a remington 597 and a 1/22 from ruguer.i do not shoot as mush as i want to.i useually go with a family member and family friend but those chances are far and in between.i prefer to go with someone for safety resons.but may join an indoor range this year.i am interested in a smaller defenseive hand gun,possiable in 308,i shot one that was owned by a family friend. any suggestions?

Steelheart wrote:
January 26, 2011

Ashton, there are various pistol safes designed for rapid access. The line that probably has the best name recognition is Gunvault. An internet search should turn up the site. I'd also expect that there's a good article on this site somewhere about the various options for these as well. For those that are slamming the 380's and 9mm's try to remember that there have been some significant advances in defensive ammunition design over the last several years. Yes, given an identical hit (location, angle etc) a 40, 45 or 357 will have a better chance to end the threat faster but there isn't a significant difference overall. Also, 9mm has less recoil and is cheaper so newer shooters can try to get better faster. I will say that one needs to be more careful with their defensive load selection in 9mm as some of the older, less effective loads are still in production. But it still boils down to the basic idea that only hits count. I've got full size 9mm, 45acp and 357 mag handguns in my home. Currently I'm using a 9mm as my primary home defense weapon and it's loaded with 124gr +P Gold Dots.

Ashton wrote:
January 25, 2011

@WTM I'm currently considering the XDm 3.8 9mm Compact as my first firearm for home defense and CC. My problem is how to store it safely away from my children but still have it available in an emergency situation at home. Any thoughts on best practices to store a firearm in the home safely away from the children would be appreciated.

Ranlo wrote:
January 25, 2011

Yes... bring enough gun; but shooting isn't always necessary. Some years ago two men were coming toward me in the wee hours of the morning in a deserted rest area. They turned back, when I "racked" my 7mm (.32 auto) Browning semi auto. Seeing (and hearing) a weapon ready to go changed their mind about whatever they planned.

Webs wrote:
January 24, 2011

May I suggest that should one choose an automatic handgun for home defense and they are new to guns, that they consider strongly one with a double action firing device, as a single actgion is in a ready to fire position after the initial shot is fired. Non familiiar shooters, and especially in a stressful situation may be pron to accidentally releasing a second round.

Kelly wrote:
January 22, 2011

I use a Taurus Millenium pro/3" barrel in 40S&W as my CC and a Ruger Speed Six 357 in the house. I like both for the "Bringing Enough Gun" to a fight argument. The 9mm is a bit light for stopping a determined (or deranged) attacher and the 45 is a bit of a challange to shoot well unless you never flinch at big recoil. Plus the 357 can also shoot the calmer (easy to practice) 38 special. I was also thinking a shotgun with some of the special purpose/exotic ammo might be the ticket if you want to try and not kill an attacker. There are pepper rounds (like pepper spray chemicals), flash bang, and blunt trama bag rounds that could be loaded ahead of buckshot if you wanted to try a non-lethal round before putting someone down forever. Can also do that with a birdshot round in 44 or 357 if you wanted to. Remember to practice with whatever your going to use and if possible practice loading in low light or darkness. Attacks in the home may be after dark! Adn of course there are lots of good articles on practice and technique right here in the Rifleman archives.

John Z wrote:
January 21, 2011

Great article with some idiot comments. Who in their right mind thinks a gun is disposable because it cost $350. Who thinks $350 is disposable money and who in the world would throw away a gun. That is just plain irresponsible.

Gil wrote:
January 20, 2011

Great article. I think another option for first timers to consider is a good quality used gun. They may be able to then afford all the options and accessories, too.

Paul wrote:
January 19, 2011

I have gone over a 55 yr period from my first 'squirrel huntin' gun (a 16ga, Thompson single shell shotgun), to many years later a 44mag S&W 4" I carried concealed to stop those who threatened me in my practice (yet, most importantly in my decision-making process, they threatened my wife and child), and a 12ga Remington 870 for my wife to maintain at home while she protected herself and my child, if I was away. Later, she and I were both USG trained and certified on Browning High-power 9mms, 38 S&W revolvers and 12 ga shotguns. Later, since one of us was a foot taller than the other and one right-handed, the other left-handed, we choose to supplement our home-defense shotgun with a Browning Mark III (that had an ambidextrous thumb safety). Many years later, I went to various "really unstable...read, bad places" around the world and got updated training and weapons masterycertifiactions, that switched me to the Glock 19 as my constant hand gun, the M-4 as my chosen long gun (while in the war zones where I served) and now have a Remington 870 and 1130 as "castle guns", plus with our size differences, my Glock 19 for me and, the 4th generation Glock 17 (same great reliability and characteristics, balanced with a smaller hand-grip that fits my wife). My point, needs change, levels of sophistication change, over time. IMHO, to be an effective "responsibly armed US Citizen" requires us to be open to changing circumstances, developments in weapons capabilities and availability, and the need to regularly re-evalute where we live, the present threat level, our physical characteristics and capabilities, our mind-set, and our willingness to use our training, decision-making abilities, moral values, and readiness to say "I will not be a victim, nor let those for whom I have responsibility, be victimized by the predators who exist in all our worlds". Message, knowledge, mind-set, skill-set, and willingness to act (or not act, when avoidable) define, for me, a good choice.

Ed Green wrote:
January 19, 2011

Bought my wife a Bersa Thunder .380 w/Crimson Trace laser. Excellent house/cc handgun for smaller hands. Keep my Glock 22 .40 cal. close at hand when I'm around the house as well as a 12 guage scatter gun. Good article for new shooters.

Kent wrote:
January 18, 2011

As an old law enforcement officer from the revolver era, now I use a Springfield sub-compact 40 for CC. Consistently, I still recommend to new handgun users a double action revolver. S&W makes several small frames that can handle .357's, but start them out with 38's and they will easily adjust. Revolvers are so much easier to teach the use of with the only moving parts the trigger, hammer and cylinder. No confusion about if it's loaded or not. No confusion if the trigger action is cocked or not. No confusion about using as double or single action. For a beginner - keep it simple but functional so they do not have any doubts if they have to use the weapon.

Lew wrote:
January 18, 2011

My final choice after carrying a S&W 639 38Sp+ for awhile. Is the M&P 340 .357 with Fed Low Recoil rounds that replaced it. One pistol practiced with frequently is more than enough...

Bill Earls wrote:
January 18, 2011

Bersa Thunder 45 offers a little more energy and IMHO is therefore better than the 380. I have carried the Bersa 45 for 3 years now. Great gun for the money and is disposable at only $350 or so.

Lee wrote:
January 18, 2011

Bersa 380 for CC for past 4 years. Compact and easy to conceal. Shoots well.

Mark wrote:
January 18, 2011

I recently changed my carry for a ruger SR9C. It has a 10 round magazine, and a 17 round... I find it manageable with the hottest loads. I believe it's, partially, because of the piggy-back recoil spring. I traded my Sig. 239 for a Glock 32; and I put a buffer to calm recoil for the gun's sake.

Tony wrote:
January 18, 2011

Carry enough gun! 380s, 9mms and such violate the first principle of self-defense: Use enough force to end the dispute quickly. All my handguns are 45 ACP including my CC. I'd rrather end a nasty situation with two rounds down range than to empty a magazine and be accused by a politically ambitious DA of Use of Excessive Force.

retiredAF wrote:
January 18, 2011

Good article. I see that 2 fellas recommend a Bersa Thunderer .380. I also recommed that pistol for deep cover concealed carry. I had mine honed & pinged to the slide and honed mag well. Trigger job to smooth out and lighten the action. All of which made that pistol a supurb deep cover choice. I have used firearms for over 60 years, military, law enforcement and civilian use including combat competition. I gave my wife & daughter S&W model 60s; top notch for small hands. For serious social encounters I prefer the 1911 platform as it will never fail altho I used to carry department furnished S&W model 19 and 66. Lately I choose Glocks model 20 & 29 hip carry. My house guns are Cobray 911 subgun and remington 870 customized ... Bottom line. The best gun is one that the owner can comfortably carry and use with 100% confidence. Stay safe & be well my friends

John wrote:
January 18, 2011

Of all my many pistols, rifles and shotguns I keep a L.C. .45 revoler close at hand, unlocked with cowboy loads its sweeter than a hot loaded .38 It doesn't kick or make a loud expolsion with it's slower burning power. I have had women and kids shoot the long colt .45's handleing and liking it fine.It will protect your home and not make the mess of a shotgun

WTM wrote:
January 18, 2011

Steve, you might want to check out the Springfield-Armory XDm 3.8 Compact (9mm). You have a flush fitting, 13rnd Mag for Concealed-Carry or a 19rnd Mag (w/extension) for home/vehicle defense. You can get into one for about $600.

Mike wrote:
January 18, 2011

The Ruger LCR fits nicely in your hand and is very light however ladies do not want to shoot too many rounds through the gun in order to get comfortable with it. Revolvers with a little more weight help reduce recoil and let the shooter practice a little more without sore hands.

Fred wrote:
January 18, 2011

I examined and tried all the major hand gun manufactures and dicided on the Sig Sauer 239 for ease of use and size. it is a 7+1 40 cal. DA/SA ansd is also available in DAO or DAX. I have to admit that I have owned many Sig Sauer handguns and think they are one of the finest guns made and always reliable.

rifleman 35117 wrote:
January 18, 2011

bersa thunder 380.its cheap,concelable,with a good holster draws easliy from the pocket.very reliable,good trigger pull,its a well made gun.

Richard wrote:
January 18, 2011

A Ruger LCR is a good fit for both women and men ,it's small enough for a womans hand, being a revolver it's simple to operate And being 38 special it has stopping power.

JJ Swiontek wrote:
January 18, 2011

Don't forget hand fit. Go to a show with an experienced friend and try the feel and fit of several makes and models. Then rent one at a local range to see if the recoil is acceptable. Better to try one before you buy and find out that it is too much.

Steve wrote:
January 16, 2011

I am new to concealed carry and in the market for a gun that is quality made, and not too small to be difficult to shoot but still rather easy to conceal. A short list of some medium-frame semi-autos would be helpful.

thedewman wrote:
January 13, 2011

Great article! Very thorough, thoughtful, and well organized. Great advices for others on how to introduce others to pistols. When my wife and I made the move to purchase, we had a trigger event as well. We already owned a Mossberg 500 12 gauge owned, but decided to purchase a Springfield XDm 9MM, a Ruger LCP, and a Bersa Thunder 380 CC. We also purchased a Ruger Mark III for just the reasons you pointed out.

chris wrote:
January 11, 2011

Did you ever think of The Judge?

BIG RED wrote:
January 11, 2011


Dave Gilbert wrote:
January 11, 2011

I to have been asked the same question many a time.Having owned and have been shooting for almost thirty years. I would usually recommend a revolver in 38caliber for a beginner for home defense and moving up to what the person is comfortable with.Afterall where as you and I may be OK with a 45 1911 or glock we aren't the ones carrying it or using it for self defense. I always offer to my friends a trip to the range with me as to where I take a variety of handguns for them to try. let them see the difference in the operation and the plus's and minus's of each type of firearm, explain single action autos as well as double action autos and the same in revolvers, my wife is a prime example she loves her little Taurus model 85 with crimson tide laser grips but doesn't like a glock with laser grips in 9mm. She is comfortable shooting the model 85 all day long and is comfortable in the operation loading and firing of it. After all in a defensive weapon isn't that what we are looking for, a weapon that we are able to shoot well, reload quickly and have confidence that it will work everytime we need it to. Just some thoughts from a not so old yound man. Remember gun control is being able to hit your target and keep your pistols safe from young hands and be safe out there