Selecting Your First Handgun

By David Nash

Preparing to buy your first handgun can be quite daunting. They aren't cheap, new handgun prices range from about $250.00 to $2,500.00. And to complicate the matter even further, there are many different manufactures and choices.

I tell people in my carry permit course that there are as many different types of handguns as the manufacturers can talk people into buying. What is probably most confusing to new shooters is the fact that for every make and model of handgun there are 3 gun magazine writers telling their readers that particular brand or caliber is the best, and 3 others saying that the gun in question might get the reader killed.

Yesterday I was asked my opinion about Glock pistols. I said that what I thought didn't matter; it wasn't my money or my safety on the line. My preferences do not matter in the decision to buy your gun. My wife likes Glocks; I feel the same about revolvers. Our preferences differ, and as long as you know your gun, why you chose it, and it fits your needs then it's the best gun for you. Now, that being said, let's discuss the benefits and drawbacks of the two main types of service, concealed carry, and home defense handguns: semi-automatics and revolvers.


Revolvers are a type of pistol that has a rotating cylinder containing a number of firing chambers. They traditionally hold six rounds, each in its own firing chamber. They are generally cheaper to purchase than a semi-automatic, with the 2005 MSRP of typical .38/.357 caliber revolver from a major manufacturer such as Ruger or Smith & Wesson being in the neighborhood of $450-$675. The major benefits of this type of handgun include:

  • Easier to learn to manipulate, because there is generally fewer functions than a typical semi-auto.
  • Easier for weaker handed persons to operate. This is due to the lack of a slide.
  • More reliable
  • More choice of ammunition
  • Typically more accurate out of the box
  • Not as training intensive as a semi-automatic pistol (more about this later).

I prefer revolvers for home defense, as a home protection weapon will be stored loaded for an extended period of time and the springs in a revolver are relaxed when the gun is loaded and ready to go. Revolvers have fewer moving parts, which in turns makes them less sensitive than semi-automatics to a lack of cleaning and maintenance.

I also recommend them for someone who is not going to train as intensively as recommended, because this type of handgun has fewer functions to remember. In order to manipulate a revolver, one only has to operate the trigger and the cylinder release, whereas a semi-automatic pistol generally has a trigger, a magazine release, a slide lock, and usually at least one safety lever.

Revolvers do have disadvantages, and it is because of these disadvantages that police departments around the county have changed from them to semi-automatics. These disadvantages should be understood if the reader wishes to make a decision; therefore I will list them:

  • Slower to reload than the typical semi-automatic (if previously loaded magazines are available for the semi-auto and a speed loader is not used to reload the revolver). Using a speed loader (which loads all six chambers of a revolver simultaneously) it takes only about one second longer to reload a revolver than to insert a new magazine in a semi-auto.
  • Sometimes harder to conceal, due to width of cylinder.
  • Normally not as many rounds (6 rounds compared to 8 or 10 rounds in a semi-automatic.), although there are 7 and 8 shot .38/.357 revolvers on the market.

Because a revolver contains separate chambers for each round, to fully load a revolver the operator must put a round in each chamber (6 actions for 6 rounds), and close the cylinder (one final action). Then the trigger may be pulled to discharge the weapon.

To fully load a semi-automatic the operator has to insert cartridges one at a time into a magazine (one action per cartridge), and then load the magazine into the pistol (one more action), plus the final action of racking the slide to chamber a cartridge. Then the trigger may be pulled to fire a shot.

But, if previously loaded magazines are available, the chore of loading a semi-automatic pistol is reduced to only the last two actions mentioned in the paragraph above. Loading magazines is, however, a slow process. Starting from an open box of ammunition, it is much faster to load a revolver than the magazine of an auto pistol.


A semi-automatic pistol fires a single cartridge each time the trigger is pressed. It automatically extracts the spent casing and prepares to fire another round. A semi-automatic is sometimes (erroneously) called automatic; the difference being that a true automatic weapon can fire multiple rounds per trigger press.

A modern semi-automatic pistol holds its rounds in a single device called a magazine (it is possible to offend some hard-line gun enthusiasts by calling a magazine a clip). This magazine is normally inserted into the grip of the handgun. These handguns are the most popular, and they are that way for several reasons; some of the most recognized reasons are:

  • Holds more rounds than a revolver. Normally a semi-auto magazine holds 8 to 10 rounds, but there are magazines capable of holding 15 to 30.
  • Faster reloads from previously loaded magazines.
  • Due to popularity, there is a wider choice of accessories such as holsters available.
  • Easy carrying of spare ammunition via preloaded magazines.
  • Usually easier to conceal for a similar caliber gun due to thinner action than a normal revolver.

It is due to the amount of rounds easily carried upon ones person in magazines, and the amount of rounds in the pistol that caused the semi-automatic to replace the revolver in the arming of most of our nation's police forces. What has kept it there are all the different features that are possible in a semi-auto. A police force (or a private user) can decide the type of safety devices or modes of operation that they want in a firearm and buy a brand or model that has those features.

Semi-automatic pistols also have disadvantages. Examples of some common disadvantages are:

  • Very training intensive. Before one begins to carry a self-defense semi-automatic it is recommended that the user fire 2 to 3 thousand rounds of the type of ammunition they intend to carry in their firearm in order to fully understand the function of their firearm.
  • More complex. That means more prone to failure. While modern firearms can fire thousands of rounds without malfunction, malfunctions can and do happen more frequently with semi-autos than revolvers.
  • Can be more expensive than a revolver. A typical 9x19 caliber autoloader from a major manufacturer such as Ruger or Smith & Wesson has a 2005 MSRP of $425-$950.
  • Harder for people suffering from arthritis or of weaker stature to manipulate slide.
  • Typically less accurate out of the box, although there are some very accurate autoloaders.
  • More sensitive to ammunition type. Some types of semi-automatics are more prone to jam with certain types of ammunition, which is another reason that it is suggested to train with the type of ammunition you intend to carry.


The semi-auto type of firearm is very well represented in the world of guns. Because of this sales popularity there are many different functions and characteristics. Comparing this is like comparing pickup trucks to cars, there are many brands of pickups (revolvers), but generally they all are basically the same. In the car (semi-autos) world, they have sedans, sports cars, wagons, convertibles, limousines, economy cars, and luxury designs.

You can buy a vehicle or a firearm based only upon an arbitrary reason such as looks, what the marketing hype in a gun magazine tells you, or popularity. You may also buy a tool such as this by intellegently determining your needs and weighing your options.

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Copyright 2005, 2015 by David Nash and/or All rights reserved.