I get this question a lot. Sometimes it’s from existing gun owners looking for something new to try or play with, but more often than not it’s from somebody who is looking for their first gun. More often than not, those first time buyers are interested in a gun for self defense. Over the years, I’ve published a couple of different posts on the topic and offered various opinions and tips. The most recent incarnation of this type of post was published about a year ago. It was pretty pointed and actionable, but nevertheless my perspective has continued to evolve and the suggestions I make today are a bit different from what they were a year ago. This made me ask myself, “if I was getting started with armed self defense today, how would I go about it?” That’s an interesting question. Let’s look at it.
I still hold the opinion that every single person who wants to arm themselves for self defense should get a fighting rifle and pistol. There are pros and cons to each of them and in a perfect world when a threat presents itself we would have both of them at the ready to deal with the threat. This however is not only idealistic, it’s also not practical for the average person for several reasons. The top reason is the entry fee. Buying two guns and the essential accouterments is a significant investment. Furthermore, training and practice to develop proficiency with both platforms requires resources in terms of time and money. I’ve realized this for a long time as well. As such, many moons ago I would ask folks if their initial intent was primarily for home defense or for defensive carry outside of the home. If the answer was the former, then I would suggest starting with a rifle. If the answer was the later, then I would suggest starting with a pistol. Today, I encourage folks to start with a pistol.
Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of reasons to own and have a rifle for self defense. In certain cases, a long gun is a preferable weapon. However, there are several benefits to a pistol that I think make it a more compelling weapon to begin with even though a pistol requires more effort and resources to develop proficiency with in comparison to a rifle, regardless of the primary self defense use case. Bear with me, I’ll explain.
One of the defining characteristics of a pistol is portability. It’s compact size and weight make a pistol extremely portable. So much so, that it lends itself to be worn in a holster on a person almost all the time. Hence it is extremely easy to keep within arms reach essentially in perpetuity. In fact as I am typing out this post, I have a pistol in a holster that is worn on my waistband. Sure, I have a rifle nearby. However, if an emergency occurred right now that required an immediate lethal response, all I have to do is reach for the pistol, draw it, and neutralize the threat. I would certainly prefer to respond with a rifle, but a rifle is something most of us can’t keep slung and ready for action consistently throughout a normal day.
An additional benefit of the pistol is that it lends itself to one handed operation much better than a rifle does. This might be important if one has to “multitask” in a defensive situation where one hand might have to operate a flashlight or manage loved ones (that is use a hand to keep them behind you or direct them to safety) while using a pistol defensively in the other hand. It’s easy enough to do this if one has both a slung rifle and a pistol as a side arm on their person since one can transition from one to the other. However, attempting to fight with a rifle in one hand while doing something else with the other hand because a pistol isn’t available is far less than ideal.
It is primarily for these reasons that I’m now an advocate of starting with a pistol first and getting proficient with it before introducing a rifle to the mix. Again, I’m not poo pooing the rifle at all. Heck, all else being equal in an ideal situation and having the choice between fighting with a rifle or a pistol, I’d opt for the rifle all day long. However, I would still like to have a pistol available as well.
Anyone still reading this who is looking for a suggestion for a first firearm for self defense is probably asking, “What pistol should I get first?”
That’s a fair question. It’s also a question that’s been answered time and time again. Nevertheless, I’ll make an attempt to offer some suggestions.
If one is restricted to revolvers or a a predefined list of guns by their local jurisdiction, then that’s the list to pick from in order to maintain compliance with local laws. It is what it is. Regardless, the formula for finding a suitable pistol is pretty straight forward.
First and foremost, the pistol must be reliable. This is not negotiable since we may have to rely on it to defend our lives. Thankfully, there are a lot of reliable pistols in the market today to choose from. However, reliability alone is not enough. It must also be effective which means it must be chambered for a cartridge with sufficient penetration punch through clothing, skin, muscle, bone, and other soft tissue in order to reach the vital organs of an assailant. Additionally, the pistol must be of a form factor that lends itself to be worn and carried all the time. The pistol won’t be much good when it’s needed but it’s not immediately accessible. Last, but not least, the pistol must fit the hands of the wearer. Tom Givens does a magnificent job of breaking down these requirements in a lot more detail in his book Concealed Carry Class: The ABCs of Self-Defense Tools and Tactics which I strongly suggest picking up and reading as it contains a vast amount of information every person who carries a defensive side arm should be familiar with.
Some of the typical suspects I suggest folks look at include the Glock 19 (or Glock 17), Heckler & Koch VP9, Walther PDP, CZ P10-C, Sig Sauer P320, or the Smith & Wesson M&P for duty sized options. I would also strongly urge folks to stick with 9mm as their starting cartridge since it is sufficiently effective with relatively low recoil and it’s arguably the most economical pistol cartridge in the market which makes it ideal for skill development.
I realize a duty sized pistol may be too large for some folks to carry regularly or simply too big to fit folks with smaller sized hands. For those in this camp, a few suspects I suggest to look at include the Sig P365XL (or the P365X), Glock 48 (or Glock 43X), and the Walther PDP F-Series. The one thing to keep in mind is that smaller form factor pistols are typically lighter. While this is great for conceal-ability and comfort, it also means they tend to have a snappier recoil profile which increases the learning curve. They also tend to have a lower capacity. Those are the tradeoffs we have to make and deal with.
There are other options in the market beyond the ones I’ve mentioned. If it is at all possible, I suggest finding a range that rents pistols and trying some of these before making a purchase. I also recommend taking a look at the custom holster market to see what’s available as a good high quality holster is just as important and as a pistol that meets the requirements I’ve mentioned. The pistols I’ve mentioned so far have strong support from holster makers (the exception might be the Walther PDP F-Series which is fairly new to the market). I’ll make it a point to write a post about holsters in the near future to dive deeper into the topic. However, I will once again urge readers to pick up a copy of Tom Given’s book as it covers holsters for defensive carry in great detail (in addition to covering a revolver selection for defensive carry).
Whatever handgun or rifle one decides to go with for self defense, it is critical to learn how to be proficient with it. It’s also imperative to learn about self defense in general. There is much more to armed self defense than having a pistol and being able to hit a target. As such, it’s important to find a good instructor to help us develop the proper mindset, learn good tactics, and develop marksmanship skills.