By By GunsmithG

The task of selecting a handgun for personal protection can be a daunting one for a novice. It is my hope lend a little clarity to this process. First of all, I'm writing this for a true beginners point of view. I don't want to pass up anything that would be "common knowledge" to those acquainted with firearms.

To begin with, let's take a look at the different designs of handguns, and some pro's and con's of each.

The Revolver You can trace it's lineage back hundreds of years, but it wasn't until Samuel Colt introduced his designs for a loose powder, lead ball and percussion cap that it showed its practicality. With the advent of the metallic cartridge, handguns became much safer and more reliable.

Let's touch on some common terminology.

Single Action: This means the outside hammer has to be manually cocked to rotate the cylinder and fire the gun. Double action: this means the gun can be fired either by manually cocking the hammer, or simply by pulling the trigger to fire repeat shots. Most modern revolvers are double action.

Cylinder: The round steel part that holds the cartridges, and turns with each action, lining up a new cartridge with the barrel. The cylinder can be opened to eject the spent casings and reload either by a swing out mechanism, or a loading gate, which is a cut out in the frame to allow access to the ammunition. There is also a type called a break top, but only a few guns are made in this system, as it isn't as strong and more complex to make. With a revolver, there is a miniscule gap between the barrel and the cylinder, usually .006 of an in which allows the cylinder to rotate freely, but minimizes the escaping gases caused by firing.

Sights: There are two types of sights in common use today, fixed or adjustable. fixed sights have the advantage of being smaller and more rugged, where adjustable sights allow you to sight the weapon in for the individual shooter and cartridge being used. There are other types of sights, such as laser and night sights, but we'll touch on that a little later.

Grip Frame & Grips: This is one big advantage the revolver has over the semi auto pistol. By nature of design, a semi auto is restricted to a certain shape of the grip portion, as that is usually where the magazine, a separate piece of stamped metal or plastic contains the cartridges, which are lifted up to be loaded into the chamber by a powerful spring, there's not much you can do to alter that. Revolvers however, usually just have the hammer spring under the grips, and some companies actually make different frame designs for more compact firearms.

Safety: Can be either automatic, or manually controlled, a mechanism which renders the firearm incapable of firing. Most revolvers do not have a manual safety. They have internal safeties that keep it from firing until the trigger is pulled. OK, I know that I've passed over quite a bit of information, but you should have a basic grasp of what goes where and why.

Cartridges: Lets take a look at what makes for a good defensive cartridge. First of all, a cartridge consists of four components: the cartridge case, the primer, the gunpowder, and the projectile, or bullet. The primer is a small metal cup which holds a small amount of a pressure and shock sensitive material. When the firing pin hits the primer, the impact causes it to ignite, which sets the gunpowder on fire. The cartridge case holds the primer in a pocket at its base, plus holds the powder in a sealed container until fired. Upon firing, the case will swell slightly, creating a gas tight seal so you don't get sprayed by burning powder and also allows the bullet to travel down the barrel without bleeding off the pressure. The bullet can be made of a number of materials, usually lead with a copper material that covers the outside of the bullet, making faster speeds and heavier loads useable. Too much pressure or speed can cause a lead bullet to melt slightly in the barrel. This reduces accuracy and is very hard to clean out of the barrel. The barrel itself has grooves machined into the inner surface that twist in a spiral to stabilize the bullet in flight. Think of throwing a football, as it spins, the gyroscopic effect stabilizes it in its flight.

Cartridge Identification: The European metric system actually makes much more sense than the common American system. The military also uses the metric names for ammo, which is much simpler. The formula for this is simple. the first number is the diameter of the bullet, and the second number the length of the casing.

Cartridge Examples: 9 millimeter parabellum cartridge, is very common both as a military and civilian semi auto pistol cartridge. It's designation is: 9X19mm.

The round that the M4 military rifle uses is 5.56X45mm. Most medium range sniper rifles and some military weapons still use the 7.62X51mm, known in the civilian world as the .308 Winchester.

The American system is a hodgepodge of names that sometimes make sense, but often does not, like the 38 Special by SMITH & WESSON, which it's actual bullet diameter is .357. That's where you need to be careful to always know the correct name for the ammo your firearm can shoot safely. There's been many guns blown to pieces by someone not knowing, so this is imperative that you know.

Lets look at one popular cartridge that can be confusing...

Say I've got a old military handgun that says 9mm on it...

Are we safe?


Here is a shortlist of different NON COMPATIBLE cartridges:

  • 9mm Luger
  • 9mm Corto
  • 9mm Bergmann-Bayard
  • 9×18mm Makarov
  • 9mm Browning long

With revolvers, you do have some interchangeability in certain guns. The .357 Magnum revolver can also safely shoot the .38 S&W, .38 S&W special. That's one of the nice things about a revolver, is it is not dependent on the power of the cartridge to make the action work like a semi auto does. As long as you can pull the trigger, a revolver will fire regardless of the strength of the ammo.

Semi Auto Pistols: Most semi autos (keep that term in your head) owe their design to the firearms genius John Browning. His concepts and basic functions are still in use today. The classic American service sidearm, the 1911 and later, the 1911A1, or .45 auto, was in service from 1911 to 1984 as the standard pistol for our military, and is still in use by some special forces units today. Let me clear up a common mistake most beginners share, which is calling a semi auto an automatic. An automatic will fire continuously until it runs out of ammo or you let your finger off the trigger. A semi auto fires one round with each pull of the trigger.

Semi autos are fine handguns in general, but as a novice shooter, they are much more mechanically complex, require full performance ammo to function properly, and also require more upper body and hand strength to work the action to chamber a round, and need good form and a healthy grip to be able to perform correctly. If a revolver is held loosely, it might jump around in your hand, but will perform. A semi auto with that same grip may have a number of difficulties including jamming, empty brass not clearing the action, etc. I advise most novices to start with a revolver first, learn your grips and stances, it is truly as much a martial art as karate, breathing control, sight picture and sight alignment, all can be much easier without getting knocked around by full power loads.

Whether you choose a revolver or semi auto, you need to consider how you are going to use that gun. Longer barrels give you a longer distance between the front and rear sights, making it much easier to shoot well. The added weight helps both with dampening recoil, and also with making your jitters less noticeable. If it's something that's going to stay in your nightstand at home, I would recommend a 4 inch barrel length medium size frame revolver in .357 Magnum, but loaded with lighter .38 S&W Special ammo. If you live in an apartment, condo, or heavily populated areas, the are several small ammo manufacturers that make frangible ammo, which breaks up into small pieces when it hits, lessening the danger to others. You can also get bird-shot loads, but unless you live in rattlesnake country, would not use them for self defense. If you are going to be carrying this firearm on your person, you need to read and study your state's laws about carrying a firearm openly ( which I think is a bad idea) or carrying it concealed. Most states consider a woman's purse to be part of her person, so you have an advantage right there over us guys! If you are going to carry concealed, you need to consider several factors: size, weight, shape, and your clothing on the occasion. Remember too, ladies, that weapon won't do you any good sitting at home, so making it easy to conceal and comfort is a must.

I know that this has been fairly generalized information, however I could write a 500 page book and still leave something out! There are a number of great books out there, such as my friend Massad Ayoob's book, "In the Gravest Extreme" - and - "Armed and Female", by Paxton Quigley. She was a vehement anti gun activist who had an epiphany, and is now a big supporter of women's right to defend themselves, neat lady.

There are also a number of training courses given by the NRA, including a all female class, and outfits like Gunsite Ranch, the Lethal Force Institute,, I'm sure I'm missing lots of them, Google it and see what is available in your area. I know that Massad Ayoob's school, Lethal Force Institute, has instructors touring the country giving classes.

Well my brothers and sisters, that wraps up this tidbit. Go forth, study, learn, and most importantly, have fun, but stay safe!



By GunsmithG


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