Skip to main content

How to Shop for a Handgun (Tips and Basics)

  • Author:
  • Updated date:
The Colt .38 Police Special revolver has a really sweet trigger pull.

The Colt .38 Police Special revolver has a really sweet trigger pull.

Personal Defense or Home Defense?

Depending on why you're looking to get a gun, your ideal model will be different. There are two basic kinds of firearms:

  • Long guns: rifles and shotguns
  • Handguns: revolvers and pistols

For self-defense or home defense, you probably want a handgun.

What Is a Revolver?

A revolver is a handgun with a cylindrical chamber that will hold five or six bullets, or "rounds." The cylindrical chamber turns after each round is fired.

What Is a Pistol?

A pistol is a handgun that is not a revolver. Its bullets are loaded in a separate holder called a "magazine" or a "mag". The loaded magazine is then inserted inside the gun's handle, better known as the "grip." A pistol is often called a "semiautomatic."

Now you know enough about handguns to go to the gun store or gun counter at a sporting goods store. It's good to get recommendations about which dealer has courteous service and an ample selection. Shop around before buying. Even if someone tells you what you "should" buy, your priority is to find the right gun for YOU.

Don't Pretend You're an Expert

We all wish to pretend to know about guns when we don't. But the clerk will see right through any posing. So don't be a poser. Think of yourself as a student of guns.

If you are a newbie, say, "I'm looking for a handgun for (give your reason). I'm new at this and would appreciate your advice."

Everyone loves to give advice!

The staffer should ask you some questions to help narrow your choices. A revolver is generally more reliable than a pistol, but pistols can be easier and faster to use. Another thing to consider is the gun's caliber.

What Is Caliber?

Broadly, caliber is a measure of firing power. Popular handgun CALIBERS, from smallest to largest (like waistlines!), are .22, .32, .38, .38 special, .357, .380 (pistols only), .45, and 9mm. The bigger the caliber, the bigger the projectile, and the more power and "kick" the firearm has. Do not feel as if you have to buy the most powerful handgun.

If this is your first firearm I recommend a .22 and after you are good at using it, you can graduate to a larger caliber. I guarantee that even if it is not the most macho caliber, you will always find a use for your .22.

You may see a petite type of handgun called a derringer. Often attractively pearl-handled or engraved, they are small enough to fit inside a pocket or an evening bag but have very short barrels, meaning they are difficult to fire accurately. Do not buy a derringer. They are mostly for collectors.

Prices and Makes

Consider the gun's price. A new handgun can cost $200 to $700, with the price of a very good one between $300 and $450. That's a lot, but a good and well-cared-for firearm is one of the few investments that does not lose value.

Another thing to consider is the gun's maker. Famous brands in the gun world tend to make superior items.

This is not like shopping for clothing. A cheap gun is no "bargain." Don't even handle a cheap weapon. A cheap one looks and feels cheap. It is not safe or reliable.

Women might see firearms specifically made for women such as pistols or rifles with pink or decorative grips. They can be very appealing. But keep in mind that you are shopping not for looks but for a firearm that is right for you.

Ruger LCR revolver, .38 special, "snub-nose." It kicks but it is the purse gun of the 21st century.

Ruger LCR revolver, .38 special, "snub-nose." It kicks but it is the purse gun of the 21st century.

What to Do at the Gun Shop

After asking for advice, ask to handle the recommended firearms. (Always assume every firearm is loaded, even if you are sure it is not! Always point the muzzle in a safe direction!) You will not get to fire them.

  • Ask about safety features.
  • Ask about bestsellers.
  • Ask if ammunition ("ammo") is readily available. Some calibers, such as .25 and .32, are hard to find.
  • Note the makes and models that feel good in your hand.
  • Ask about gun-safety courses in the area. It is highly recommended, before you own any firearm, to take a three-hour gun safety course. There are no tests and no shooting in the course; it is purely informational. But it is very very important lifesaving information.

If the clerk has made you comfortable, that is the right place to buy. If not, find another retailer.

Beretta Minx pistol, .22 short, manufactured about 1978. The Beretta Bobcat is similar. I call this my "piff" gun. The dealer calls it "a belly gun."

Beretta Minx pistol, .22 short, manufactured about 1978. The Beretta Bobcat is similar. I call this my "piff" gun. The dealer calls it "a belly gun."

Do Your Homework: A Firearm Is Forever

At home, before you buy, see online reviews and forums, and YouTube demonstration videos of your candidate guns. Do not rush your decision. Ask knowledgeable people.

A three-hour gun-safety course is highly recommended before you handle any firearm. Google "gun safety course" in your area, or ask at the gun shop or police station.

When you do buy, a lot of paperwork and even a phone call are legally required as the firearm and its serial number are newly registered to you.

Carrying a concealed firearm requires an official permit (called a CCW permit or license) issued by an individual state. You must attend a CCW course and be fingerprinted before applying for a permit. Those with criminal records may be denied a permit. Do not carry a concealed weapon just anywhere without a permit; in many states this is a felony with mandatory jail time, and ignorance of the law is not a defense.

Make friends with your gun shop. It is a resource. They know about firearm care, laws and safety, know who the local gunsmiths are, and the nearby gun clubs, gun shows, and shooting ranges, all of which will become part of your new world as a firearm owner. Very often an owner quickly becomes an enthusiast.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Rula Lenski


Thomas on November 25, 2013:

Just a word of advice when buying ammo be careful in what you buy for your self defence ammo as there is alot of low grade ammo that is being sold to the public, I purchased some cheaper grade CCI "Blazer"" .22 ammo the other day and the ammo was so dirty that it caused my revolver to bind up on me and I could not even pull back the hammer to fire the weapon, the cylinder had heavy black powder and once cleaned up I fired some Remmington .22 high grade ammo and had no problems.

ahorseback on July 23, 2013:

Rula , I comment you highly for this hub , It is also very informative , I've had guns my whole life and own way too many , I love the walnut stocks ,being a carpenter , cabinet maker , I also love to buy older guns and rebuild them , rebluing the metal parts and the wood ! The second photo of a Ruger LCR is the perfect gun for a woman or man ! Easy to use , easy to load and unload , I don't recommend semi-autos for inexperienced shooters , especially the "weaker " hand , my wife had trouble cocking the auto's mechanism , I also commend you for going against the P.C. anti gun types !.....Ed

Rula Lenski (author) from USA on March 28, 2013:

Excellent advice for all firearm owners and owners-to-be.

Thomas on March 28, 2013:

No matter what type of weapon you should buy , new or used, practice and practice, try different brands of ammo really get the feel of your weapon, don't do as so many people do go and buy a new gun and a box of ammo put it in your drawer and then hope they will never have to use it for self-defence ! Some new guns are like some new cars "lemons" I know as I purchased a new Kel-Tec P32 when these weapons first came out, nothing but misfires, failure to extract and a trigger pull that became so hard I couldn't pull the trigger ! Just a piece of junk that I got rid of ! The new Kel-tec's are much better ! Never take a gun salesman's word , test your weapon ! Is it good and works for you ?

Thomas on March 25, 2013:

These are rather interesting yet very unstable times that we live in, violence can happen at anytime as what happened to me this past weekend, the slightess thing can tick someone to the point of violence, no a .25 automatic is not the best weapon for self-defence, but the Beretta .25ACP model 950 is small yet dependable, does not attract unwanted attention and can be pulled out of one's pocket in seconds ! .25 ACP ammo is much better quality today than it was 30 years ago, practice with your pistol aim for head and chest shots, besides the mere sight of a weapon will scare the hell out of most criminals unless they are so stoned out on drugs !The old boy scout saying " be prepared" and what I learned while doing security work, " always expect the unexpected, crime can happen to you at anytime, driving, walking thru a park or even going to pickup your mail .

Jack Burton from The Midwest on March 25, 2013:

The .25 in your pocket is much better than the .45 left at home if you need one... but it is true that it is marginal in all respects. No rational bad guy wants to get shot with any gun, but the problem is that when they are hopped up on either drugs or emotions their rationality often goes out the door.

It is critical with any defensive firearm that you are absolutely, beyond a doubt, willing to use it if needed... and this be communicated to the bad guy. It's even more important when you have a smaller caliber.

Rula Lenski (author) from USA on March 24, 2013:

So you feel the .25 is a good enough deterrent? I've had people laugh at me for carrying anything smaller than a .38. Of course the whole point is to do all in your power never to use your firearm, big or small.

Thomas on March 24, 2013:

This past weekend I tried out several small pocket pistols to see which I felt would be best to carry behind my wallet, something small yet reliable, three weapons I tried the Beretta 950 in .25ACP, the Kel-Tec P32 and the North American mini-revolver in .22LR, I did not pick my S&W model 442 .38 Special as it was too large to hide behind my wallet and would attract unwanted attention ! The best hide away weapon I found was my Beretta model 950, small, reliable and accurate ! The North America Arms mini-revolver was not very accurate beyond a few feet , sights were terrible, plus very slow to get off a second shot ! The Kel-Tec P32 is very easy to hide plus a bigger bullet than either the .22 or .25 , but sights were not too good and hard to see, trigger pull was double action and I felt not as good as the Beretta model 950 , which could hit dead center in the target ! I decided to carry a pocket pistol after an incident in a park this past week, an individual had a rather hostile attitude towards me for no reason at all .

Rula Lenski (author) from USA on March 14, 2013:

Thank you for your report. Gun and ammo prices are going up, for reasons we all know! And from now on I buy my firearms new.

Thomas on March 09, 2013:

A couple of weeks ago I was at the CrossRoads of the West gun show in Phoenix, seems most people were looking for ammo, not too many good deals on guns, .22 LR. ammo that once sold for less than $2 now was selling for $8, I purchased a used .40 automatic a Star "Firestar" I was told that it worked great, well that was not exactly true, as the extractor was defective, great lesson, don't always believe what people tell you, buyer beware especially when it comes to guns !And always test fire your weapon before depending on it as your self-defence weapon !

Rula Lenski (author) from USA on November 23, 2012:

Jack Burton, that is the truth. I have several and still need a new one, one with a red-dot laser sight.

Jack Burton from The Midwest on November 23, 2012:

Guns are like women and shoes. Buy your first one and sooner or later you're going to wake up and find a whole closet full of them, each for a different purpose since one can't do it all for you. :-)

Rula Lenski (author) from USA on October 25, 2012:

Thank you. So many people want to purchase firearms these days and I wrote the article because I wish I'd read one like it before I went shopping. P.S. I heart Indiana.

Rick Oller Jr from Merrillville, Indiana on October 24, 2012:

Very nice article. I think this is a good way to go about buying your first gun. I think it is very helpful and well put.

Jack Burton from The Midwest on October 24, 2012:

Unfortunately, gunshops fall into the bad, mediocre and fairly good categories. Even the fancy big box store can be bad with advice and the way they treat new shooters.

If you find a store with a "know it all" arrogant attitude it might be better to shop around until you find one that will work with you on a more personal level.

Thomas on June 20, 2012:

From my own first hand experience, buying reloaded ammo is dangerous, a friend purchased and fired reloaded ammo for his .380 automatic, and what happened ? The barrel blewup destroying an expensive Walther PPK/S, I once purchased reloaded .38 special ammo at a swapmeet, shooting this ammo one bullet had no gun powder, the bullet stuck in the barrel, I had to go home and use a cleaning rod to remove the the bullet from the barrel ! And purchasing cheap ammo,once with imported PMC ammo, the ammo shot like black powder, smoke, my cylinder on my .38 special would not turn,I had to clean the gun so it could function ! And once with .22 short rimfire purchased at Walmart shooting my Colt Junior the rim from the bullet came right back into my face ! Thank God I had my sun glasses on this is why I say for self-defence stay away from cheap ammo !

Rula Lenski (author) from USA on June 10, 2012:

Thanks, Thomas, for all the tips and the warning about homemade ammo!

Thomas on June 07, 2012:

One last comment, no matter what handgun or other weapon you buy for self-defence, do not go cheap on your self-defence ammo, buy the best as your life or that of your family will depend upon it ! And avoid buying reloaded ammo from unknown sources, yard sales , swapmeets etc, some individuals know nothing about reloading ammo which could cause your weapon to blowup and causing you to loose a finger or your eye sight ! So be safe buy only factory made ammo !

Thomas on May 31, 2012:

The Beretta Bobcat or model 21 is the latest version of the Beretta pocket pistol, it is avalible in either .22LR or .25ACP, the difference is that it is double acton while the older Beretta Minx (.22 short rimfire)or the Jetfire .25ACP are single action, Beretta no longer makes an automatic for the .22 short . I do own both the Bobcat in .22LR as well as the older Minx in .22 short and the 950 in .25ACP, for target practice the .22's are great I have had only a few problems with different brands of .22 ammo, but for self-defence carry I prefer the Beretta 950 in .25ACP, ammo is far more reliable ! Another reason I like the older Beretta 950, these weapons were made right in Italy, hand fitted, while the newer Berettas model 21 (Bobcat) are machine fitted here in America ! I have no idea where you live , but here in Arizona, Beretta 950's in .25 ACP can be found used in good condition for as cheap as $140 as I have seen them at the Arizona gun shows !Ammo for the .25ACP made today is far superior to what was made 30-40 years ago,the .25 is no where near a power house, but offers good street potection for the person who wants a small well made pistol to carry behind their wallet ! I will never ever carry a large caliber weapon on the streets of any city ! Why ? There is far too much penetration with the larger calibers, you may shoot and kill your attacker but you may also kill a bystander down the street or a kid on a bike two blocks away ! Just something to think about when looking for a personal carry weapon .

Rula Lenski (author) from USA on May 23, 2012:

You know, Thomas, I believe you're right about the Beretta Minx in .22 short. It isn't as reliable as I hoped. Got any info about the Beretta Bobcat?

Thomas on May 22, 2012:

19 years ago my father passed away and my mother was living alone and wanted a handgun she could keep by her bed for protection, I had several guns which she tried out,do you know which gun she liked the best ? The Raven .25 automatic !The .38's too much recoil, and noise, the mini-revolvers North American Arms she felt were too small, but she could shoot the Raven hit the target and could strip the gun to clean it and put it back together That is the main reason women, mostly older women like the little .25 automatics ! I do not recommend the Raven automatics today, why ? Parts are breaking down on these guns and getting replacement parts is becoming more difficult to find ! Suggestion,find a Beretta model 950or the newer model 21 in .25ACP a great little pistol for grandma !Avoid the Minx in .22 short, the rimfire sometimes is not as reliable as the .25ACP !

Thomas on April 24, 2012:

Buying used guns in many respects is like buying a used car ! Know what you are looking for and what is a good deal ! And probably most important know your dealer espcially when buying a used gun ! I was at the Cross roads gun show this past weekend in Phoenix, and all I can say is I never seen so much over priced junk in my life ! Cheap Saturday night specials(RG) that were once $15 are now going for $160, and gun dealers that were nothing more than con-men, vultures always on the look out for elderly women bringig guns to sell from their deseased husbands, guns that these dealers can buy for next to nothing then resell for top dollar !That's why I always say know your seller like buying a used car ! Here in Arizona we have a few really good gun shops, J&G in Prescott and Old World guns in Camp Verde ! Police trade in's offer the best value in used self-defence handguns. and for women who want a small quality used handgun checkout the Beretta model 21 or the older model 950(.25ACP) both are very reliable and do not require pulling back the slide, just flip the lever to pop open the barrel !

Rula Lenski (author) from USA on April 22, 2012:

No matter who you are or how old you are there is a firearm to fit your needs. Do consider a used firearm. Many gunshops have trade-ins and previously-owned guns.

Thomas on April 20, 2012:

Yes ! Finding .32S&W ammo is more difficult today 2012 than it was back in 1965, but it still can be found, check out the internet especially places like J&G in Prescott as they do sell .32S&W as well as .32S&W long ! Many gun stores still sell .32 ammo, you will not find it at Walmart or K-Mart, but then you will not find .44 special or .45 long Colt there either ! Suggestion, check out your local gun store and ask if they can recommend an individual who will sell you reloads ! The .32 S&W Colt Cobra was probably the best self-defence revolver ever made in America for the older recoil shy woman, one who has arthritis and finds it difficult to pull back the slide on an automatic pistol .

Rula Lenski (author) from USA on April 10, 2012:

The only trouble with a .32 is that ammo is hard to find in that size.

Thomas on April 09, 2012:

The other day I got to try out my friend's .32 Colt Cobra revolver, all I can say is that it is the ideal revolver for the lady or older person who wants a defence weapon without recoil, something more powerful than a .22 but not as powerful as a .38 ! Unfortunately the Colt Cobra's are no longer made and .32 S&W long is not as popular as it once was, a shame as it is very accurate and with a 100 grain bullet, definitely more power than the .22 or .25acp !Check out the gun shows for the Colt Cobra they still can be had !

Thomas on March 23, 2012:

A person new to handguns should first read as many reviews as they can on the various types of handguns before buying a weapon, not just the reviews by the manufacturers of these handguns or the reviewers in the popular gun magazines, but the average citizen who purchased these weapons and have used them. My suggestion for the individual who has never owned a hand gun in their life, first buy a quality .22 revolver, as revolvers are simple and much easier to maintain than automatics, buy one such as a Smith and Wesson model 63, a Taurus .22 model 94 or a Ruger SP-101 in .22 and practice, then move up to a larger caliber weapon, say a Smith and Wesson model 10 .38 special ! Avoid buying older used handguns as many have safety issues especially older automatics, and some are pure junk, some of the weapons made in West Germany during the 1950's and 60's, Rohm,R.G's Clerke etc avoid at all cost ! These were very cheaply made , stick with quality !And one last word of advice do not buy a derringer as your first handgun !

jannet on April 21, 2011:

This was extremely helpful

ann on April 21, 2011:

This was not helpful