In teaching new shooters this is the question that I regularly hear before, during and after classes. It’s a fair question and one I also had to sort out when I started shooting. It will help you to understand that most often there is no single gun you can buy to answer that for you unless you really don’t plan on shooting much or do regular practice.
Semi-Auto Handguns come in:
- Large Format – I won’t discuss this one, it’s large enough to involve a shoulder brace and can’t be concealed easily.
- Full Size – Fairly difficult to carry because of the long barrel, the overall length tends to be around 8″ give or take. Often used for competition size. However, it is an extremely pleasant size to shoot and practice extensively with. You can spend hours at the range or shoot a thousand rounds a day through it and still not have the gun wear you out. (Samples are pictured in order)
- Compact – This is typically the larger format carry pistol. The overall length is around 7″ and will be lighter to carry than a full sized. Even if you don’t want to carry this large of a pistol I recommend owning one at least this large. Why? Because it’s large enough to be a pleasure to shoot for hours on the range. It is very comfortable to handle, typically can hold 15 or so rounds per magazine and by using it with extended practice you can dial in the fundamentals for practice. What you practice with this will transfer to your smaller carry choices below.
- Sub-Compact – This will normally be around a 6-6.5″ long pistol 10-12 rounds. This is a great sized small carry pistol and a size I choose to carry a lot. It is not as much fun to shoot for practice as the full or compact size. It’s lighter and because of the limited capacity has a shorter grip to hold on to. The short grip does give you better concealment because a long butt isn’t sticking out yet at the same time it limits your ability to get a full grip on the pistol. You will often need a pinky extension on your magazine to get that full grip. Also, due to having a typical 3″ barrel, it will not be nearly as accurate beyond 20′ as a larger gun will. 20′ should be good for most in home situations and even most outside situations.
- Micro-Compact – This tends to have a 2.5-3″ barrel, overall length of 5.5″ or so and usually a very thin single stack magazine. Single stack means the rounds are in a single line for a thinner magazine size and grip width size. These are nice for deep concealment. Being tiny you can use them for an ankle holster, under feminine garments in bands, pocket or general summer light clothing wear. You can forget it’s even there as there is so little bulk. They are not fun to shoot, just not. You tend to have a dangling pinky and the grip is so narrow small getting a firm hold on it is not optimal. If this is your only gun you will not practice with it very much. It tends to only hold 6 rounds in the magazine so you are reloading it all the time. It will kick more because it lighter and due to the tiny grip it will punish you during an extended time at the range.
When you are searching for handguns on websites you can normally sort what you see by these 5 categories, or small variations of them. I will suggest to you that if you’re really serious about self defense and wanting to carry a gun regularly you will be best served by owning 3 different sized guns, minimum. You may get by with only two. If you are never going to really shoot much or carry it and just need a “comfort” gun then it really doesn’t matter much which you pick. Any of them will work for never needing or wanting to actually shoot it.
#1 choice? Start with a Compact and get very familiar with it, practice with it, get a holster and magazine carriers for it. You will learn to shoot best on one of these. Then you can move to a smaller size to use according to your dress. Find a brand you like, CZ, Glock, Sig, S&W, Walther, and then if you stick with that for all sizes you will find it easier to transition.
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