Similar to my First Gun buyers guide, this article will break down the choices you should make before buying your first handgun.
Your first handgun should be in 22LR. In my experience 80% of people buy a 9mm first, then follow up shortly with a 22LR. So I'm going assume you are going to ignore my advice to buy a rimfire, and I'll start with your options for a 9mm (or 40S&W, or 45 ACP).
There are few actions to cover here.
Single Action: The hammer must be cocked before each round is fired. On a revolver, this means cocking the hammer manually, on a semi-automatic the hammer is cocked by the slide racking, either manually to load the firearm, or from firing the gun. Semi-automatics usually have a manual safety that blocks the trigger and/or the hammer from falling. Examples: Most 1911's, Tokarev TT-33
Double Action: The trigger performs two actions. Traditionally this covered revolvers where the trigger would cock the hammer and release it after indexing the next round in the cylinder. On modern semi-automatics the two actions are usually disabling a firing pin block, releasing a striker (firing pin). Examples: S&W 686, Glock 17, M&P9
Double Action/Single Action: These are single action firearms with the option of using double action for the first round. After the first round is chambered, the hammer must be lowered manually, or by a decocking lever. The trigger cocks the hammer for the first round, and then single action for the remaining rounds in the magazine. Examples: Beretta 92FS, CZ-75, Sig Sauer P226
Here is the tricky part, which one do you buy? There are many uses for a handgun, and because we are in Canada, self-defense is not one of them. If you have ever looked through a U.S. gun magazine, it's filled with guns we can't buy, and filled with reasons that don't apply to us.
If you are just going to join a gun club and shoot every once in while, then all you really want is a gun that is comfortable in your hands and fun to shoot. Most people pick a handgun from their favorite movie or the sidearm a relative used in the war. You can't make a bad choice here. All guns are fun to shoot, and if you are like most of us, the first handgun you buy is not going to be your last.
If you are planning to participate in competitions, the selection process gets much more difficult.
I don't want to get angry emails about why I left out someone's favorite gun, the following is my opinion only, if send me an email and I will do my best to add your input here.
There are four popular shooting disciplines to consider:
IPSC (International Pistol Shooting Confederation) is an action shooting sport. Shooters carry their firearm in a holster and you are timed while engaging targets. You time and score and combined for a hit factor to compare to the other shooters.
There are five classes in IPSC. I'm not going to cover all the rules, but I will skim over the classes with some popular choices for each class.
The classes (except for Production) have two sub classes. Major and Minor. The power factor of the firearm is calculated by multiplying the weight of the projectile by the velocity measured by a chronograph and divided by 1000 to make the number neat. Minor power factor is 125. Major is 170 for Standard, Classic and Revolver. Major is 160 for Open.
Open Class: Anything goes. 2011 Double-stack, compensated, with a red-dot in 38 Super. You will end up spending $2000 to $10,000 on the gun, and it will be fast, reliable and accurate, except when it isn't, which will be often. If I count all the expletives I've heard at an IPSC match, 99% come from Open shooters yelling at their guns.
Standard Class: Except for shooters that have built guns for this class specifically, this is where a lot of shooters end up because the gun they own doesn't fit well in the other classes. There are a lot of 2011 Double-stack guns with a lot of work done to them to make them shoot fast and accurate. No optics or compensators are allowed in this class.
Production Class: There is a list of guns allowed in this class. Basically, double action, and double action/single action pistols are allowed with no modifications. The most popular guns in this class are:
CZ75 SP-01 Shadow
Tanfoglio Stock II, Stock III
GrandPower K100, X-Calibur
Classic Class This is for 1911 pistols. If shooting minor you may have 10 rounds loaded per magazine. If shooting Major you are limited to 8 rounds. This class is becoming very popular.
Revolver Class: Any revolver works here. At most 6 rounds may be fired before reloading. Popular firearms are Smith and Wesson 686, and Ruger GP100.
IDPA (International Defensive Pistol Association) is similar to IPSC with rules based more on defensive situations.
There are several classes, there are the most popular. You can read the full rules here.
Stock Service Pistol Division (SSP): Double action, double/single action pistols. The pistol must be under 43 oz. with an empty magazine. Glocks, S&W M&P's, Sig P226, CZ-75 all fit here. The minimum power factor is 125.
Enhanced Service Pistol Division (ESP): Similar to SSP except it allows a few more modifications and allows single action pistols.
Custom Defensive Pistol Division (CDP): This class requires the pistol be chambered in 45 ACP and have 8 rounds in the magazine.
PPC (Police Pistol Combat) is shot in strings of a combination of 5 different positions. Standing unsupported, Kneeling, Sitting, Prone, Left handed on the left side of a barrier, Right handed on the right side of a barrier. Shooting is done at a silhouette target at distances between 7 and 50 yards within a time limit. This was traditionally shot with revolvers but you can use any pistol loaded with 6 rounds. Popular firearms are heavily modified target revolvers, but you can use most handguns listed in all the examples above.
Bullseye is focused more on accuracy within a set time. Shooting is done standing with the pistol in one hand at 25 yards.
You can get away with shooting Bullseye with a rimfire pistol only, but most competitions have a centerfire round. Popular firearms are very expensive target pistols, most can switch between rimfire and centerfire by swapping the slide and barrel assembly.
In conclusion I will offer up my personal opinion on the gun I see people buying as their first pistol most often.
CZ SP-01 Shadow 9mm: You can not go wrong with this firearm. It will last your lifetime if treated well and maintained. There are some maintenance parts like extractors, recoil/hammer springs, slide stops, and trigger springs that have life span of 5,000 to 15,000 rounds (or more). Even if all of them break and wear out in the same day, you are looking at a repair bill of less than $150 including labour.
Smith and Wesson M&P9 9mm or M&P40 40S&W Range Kit: You can't beat the price on this kit. It comes with the pistol, 3 magazines, Holster, Magazine Pouch, and an UpLula magazine loader. You can shoot IDPA out of the box, and IPSC with 2 more magazines and another magazine pouch.
Glock 17 9mm or Glock 22 40S&W: The Glock is reliable and fun to shoot.
GrandPower K100 9mm: The GrandPower is lightweight and with its rotating barrel give the recoil impulse of a much heavier gun. This is my firearm of choice right now for IPSC.
Norinco 1911 9mm or 45ACP: This pistol comes in at around $400. I do not recommend this as a first pistol. Of all the firearms I have to send back for warranty work, the Norinco tops the list... by far. This is a great pistol for someone that wants to tinker with the gun and learn to fix and modify 1911's. It's also great if you have a few guns, and just have to add a 1911 to the collection.
Smith and Wesson 686 .357 Mag.: If you like revolvers, this is a great gun and will last forever if you take care of it. It will shoot 38 Special ammunition to keep the price and recoil down. You can shoot action sports with it also with speed loaders.
Here are some rimfire options:
GSG 1911 22LR: This is a full-size 1911 chambered in 22LR. They are a great first pistol and provide good practice for the real thing. The grip size and controls are the same as a 1911 in 9mm or 45ACP.
Walther SP22 M2: This is an inexpensive pistol that is much more accurate than the price would have you assume. Some people are turned off by its futuristic design.
Smith and Wesson M&P22: If you are going to buy and M&P9 (or M&P40), or you already have one, this makes a great practice pistol.