Best First Handgun: Top-10 List
Plenty of authors have offered their “top 10” lists of pistols and other products. Too often, these lists are nothing more than the top commission earners for the person(s) writing or publishing the story.
Instead of shilling for commission earners, this top-10 list is based upon my four decades of shooting, including more than two as an active firearms trainer of thousands of people, young and old. At the same time, I remain a busy student of gun training with a who’s who of nationally known top-tier instructors in courses and seminars.
What Qualifies as a Great Beginner Handgun?
First off, the “best” handgun to buy for one shooter may be completely inappropriate for the next person. As an example? I bought my first 9mm pistol – a Beretta 92 – based on Mel Gibson’s portrayal of Detective Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon. “I’m a real cop, and this is a real effin’ gun!” Looking back, that was a huge mistake.
Not only was a Beretta 92 a poor choice for me, (a beginner handgun shooter) but I wasted thousands of rounds trying to teach myself how to master shooting that pistol rather unsuccessfully. In the end, nationally known trainer Mas Ayoob taught me how to shoot it, and learning those skills on that very difficult platform made me a far better shooter for every handgun.
You probably don’t want to spend 40 hours, a thousand-plus dollars and invest a couple of thousand rounds of ammo to do the same though. So, before we talk about specific guns, let’s talk about some generalities.
If you’re a beginner handgun shooter or you’re not going to practice, a revolver will likely better serve you for defensive purposes.
Revolvers are sometimes known as wheelguns and they have a lot going for them for both beginner handgun shooters and experienced pistoleros. These benefits include simplicity of use, including loading and unloading, that help make them safer for novices.
Wheelguns remain the ultimate point and click interface when it comes to defensive handgun use. Once loaded, the user points and then pulls the trigger. Malfunctions are rare, and overcoming them often involves simply pulling the trigger one more time.
What’s more, don’t get wrapped around the axle about not being able to carry half a box of ammo in your handgun. Five or six rounds will resolve most personal defense situations.
There are other pros of owning a revolver. It will reliably shoot milder ammunition for practice and recreation and hotter loads for personal defense. The only limit to light loads is ensuring the bullet will leave the barrel. Try that with a lot of semi-automatics. In fact, revolver users have been known to load paraffin “bullets” into primed cases for fun indoor practice. Again, try that with your semi-auto.
While I’ve never fired wax “bullets,” I have fired some custom .38 Special loads that clock at about 450 feet per second at the muzzle. These allow young people and recoil-sensitive shooters a very pleasant introduction to shooting a handgun.
Without further ado, let’s get into the Top 10 best, first pistol or handgun options. These aren’t presented in any particular order as they represent 10 guns that serve different purposes for new shooters.
Full-Size Revolver: Smith & Wesson Model 64/65/10/19 Classic
Smith & Wesson’s 4-inch-barrel K-frame revolvers in .38 Special or .357 Magnum are a classic that have served about 100 years or so. They are reliable, durable, accurate, versatile and ideal for beginner handgun shooters or those who aren’t going to practice. Among these are the Model 64, Model 65, Model 10 and Model 19 Classic.
For practice, these guns will provide endless hours of fun and enjoyment with practice loads. The .357 Magnum revolvers will also shoot the milder .38 Specials all day long and twice on Sunday.
Incredibly versatile, these same guns will serve faithfully for competition, recreation, even hunting — and everything in between.
And when lives are in danger, these revolvers will stop the threat and save innocents as they’ve done for decades with hotter, .38 Special +P hollow-point ammunition. The FBI carried these for many, many years because they worked well for their intended purpose. These same revolvers will still serve today for concealed carry as well as for home defense.
Don’t feel shorted if you buy one in .38 Special caliber as opposed to .357 Magnum. Firing .357 rounds out of a revolver is obnoxiously loud with very sharp, unpleasant recoil, especially for new or novice shooters. Instead of .357 Magnum loads, the FBI employed .38 Special +P 158gr. semi-wadcutter hollow points for at least a couple of decades, much to the chagrin of countless bad guys and gals.
What’s more, used S&W 4-inch K-frame guns, including police trade-ins of these models and similar ones, offer those with tight budgets or fixed incomes an affordable option as well.
Snub-Nosed Revolver: Ruger LCR
Ruger makes a very nice snub-nosed revolver that’s widely available in their LCR. Yes, Ruger uses polymer materials for a big part of the frame, but they use metal in all the critical areas.
The LCR revolver has an excellent trigger and shoots well in a fairly lightweight package. Light enough to carry it all day long without fatigue, but heavy enough that you can shoot 50 or more rounds of practice ammo in a day without crying out in pain or developing a nasty flinch.
Affordable Snub-Nosed Revolver: Taurus Model 85
Don’t have $500-$600 to spend on a small-frame revolver? No worries. Taurus makes some very good revolvers today and if you watch sales in normal times, you can find Taurus Model 85s for $300 or even less.
I’ve owned several and they’ve all had good, manageable triggers and provided flawless service and reliability. In fact, I bought my first one as a Christmas present for my first fiancée decades ago.
No, it probably won’t stand up well to shooting 100,000 rounds, but it’s a carry piece, not a plow horse.
Taurus keeps coming out with new incarnations of the Model 85. I’d avoid the exotic metal guns that weigh next to nothing. Those are quite unpleasant to fire, especially with defensive ammunition. But the blue steel or stainless 85s will serve you and your loved ones well at an affordable price.
SIG Sauer P365
This SIG Sauer pistol stands as the single-best general-purpose concealed carry defensive pistol on the market today, period. It comes with standard night sights, along with a very good factory trigger. It’s comfortable to carry and a pleasure to shoot.
Despite a very petite frame that specs out as smaller than its competitors, it packs 10- or 12-rounds (plus one in the pipe) in a very small form factor that’s easy to conceal and light enough that it remains comfortable enough to conceal 18 hours a day.
I recommend the version without the external safety, but not everyone feels comfortable carrying a semi-auto without an external safety.
The Hellcat is very close runner-up to the SIG P365 and many say they prefer it to the 365. Springfield’s Hellcat holds one extra round than the 365 (11+1 or 13+1 with the slightly extended magazine). It also has an option for an RMS red-dot optic which makes it probably the best handgun to buy for those who prefer red-dot sights on their carry guns.
Springfield Armory did well with their Hellcat. It garners top marks for a general purpose carry piece with a great trigger right out of the box.
For Young People or Those With Very Small Hands: Ruger SR-22
The Ruger SR-22 is a very small rimfire pistol with an equally petite grip. It’s ideal for sharing the fun and excitement of handgun shooting with small-framed women and responsible young people with small paws. I’ve used mine at youth shooting camps and kids as young as 7 or 8 years old had no problem holding this tiny pistol securely.
First-time or new shooters usually aren’t intimidated by the mild recoil and fairly mild muzzle blast. In skilled hands with good ammo, it will deliver respectable accuracy.
Insider tip: Buy four or five extra magazines, because when you hand this little gem to a beginner handgun shooter, they’re going to have a grin from ear to ear and want to shoot it — a lot. Loading magazines typically takes longer than excited shooters can empty them while they make memories that will last a lifetime.
Plus, while shooting rimfire .22s, you won’t land in the poorhouse watching kids and maybe even a few grown men giggle while shooting through 500 rounds in an afternoon with this sweet little handgun.
The Walther P-22 is a runner up in this category, but the Walther seems a lot more finicky when it comes to ammo that will make it run reliably. And nothing kills a good-time buzz faster than malfunctions.
Glock 19 9mm
The Glock 19 is a compact 9mm pistol that many today consider a full-size duty or carry gun. With its standard 15-round capacity, the G19 carried by a million or more in city, state and federal law enforcement.
Glocks run reliably. They’re simple and they’re quite durable. The other great thing: they’re as consistent as a McDonald’s Quarter-Pounder. If you borrow your friend’s Glock, you know it will handle just like yours.
Given the millions of these guns sold over the years, there are all manner of accessories widely available including an endless array of holsters and aftermarket products.
Plus, for those on a budget, perfectly serviceable police trade-ins and other used Glock 19s can be found in the wild at gun shops and from dealers on the Internet at a couple hundred bucks or more under new-gun prices.
Smith & Wesson M&P 2.0 9mm Series
Smith & Wesson’s M&P 2.0 9mm line is even better than their original M&P guns, especially their double-stack 9mm pistols. These semi-autos come with adjustable back straps to better accommodate various hand sizes. The gun comes with a great, crisp trigger right out of the box, along with a pair of 17-round magazines in free states.
The M&P 9’s shoot well and have been a great seller for S&W. That means lots of aftermarket parts and accessories are widely available. That’s good news when you’re looking for a holster or two for your M&P 2.0.
While it’s a pretty fair-sized gun for concealed carry (the compact version carries more comfortably and shoots every bit as well), it also doubles as a great casual competition and home defense tool as well.
SIG Sauer P320 Series
If I was starting over today, I’d probably buy one of SIG’s P320 series guns. They have a magnificent trigger, very comfortable grips, generous magazine capacity and shoot very well. Interestingly, the actual registered “firearm” in the modular P320 is an internal “fire control unit” that you can remove from one P320 chassis and insert into another larger (or smaller) one. Yes, the chassis might even mean a different caliber in addition to a different size or type of frame.
What’s more, the 320 series runs from a standard pedigree to the high-end Legion models. You won’t go wrong with any of them.
Smith & Wesson M&P EZ .380
Ordinarily, I champion revolvers as the best first handgun for novices or those who aren’t going to practice. However I make an exception for one specific niche: those with serious hand strength issues. For those folks, the S&W M&P EZ .380 represents a huge improvement over every other center-fire semi-auto pistol on the market.
The M&P EZ shoots every bit as well as traditional defensive pistols, but manipulates easier than most rimfire semi-autos. Even my 80-year-old mother who has serious hand-strength limitations can manipulate this pistol with relative ease. The trigger is also relatively light, making it very shootable for those lacking that finger strength.
S&W offers a 9mm version of the EZ, too. While it’s easier to manipulate than pretty much any other semi-auto out there, it’s not nearly as easy as the .380. Don’t believe me? Handle both at your local gun shop and experience the difference first-hand.
Order Magazines for Your Beginner Handgun
When you buy your first beginner handgun, make sure you stock up on plenty of pistol magazines to support your new purchase. At The Mag Shack, we sell a wide variety of handgun mags, from 9mm to 40 S&W options. Check out our products and place your order now.
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