Every person who is known in their circles as "the gun guy" gets this question with some amount of frequency. Maybe it's a boss that knows you shoot, or your wife's cousin that comes for dinner and sees a magazine on the coffee table, or even an acquaintance at church or a neighbor. Very few people looking to buy their first firearm in adulthood are looking to do so for the pursuit of sport but instead have a perceived need for a defensive tool. Increased threat of natural disaster, family changes making a man feel responsible for others, global economic problems making them fear increased crime, a neighbor or friend getting robbed.... the impetus is varied but the intended use, self and family defense, is the same.
I'm writing this in an attempt to be able to give people a link that gives them as much information as possible while intelligently explaining the reasoning for my advice. I could very easily just say "go buy an xyz" and very often I do so conversationally. The written word allows me to expound, and the web format allows me to include informative links for more information. My hope is that this is a soup-to-nuts answer to the above question and that you find the information contained herein to be useful. Please read it all the way through, as what I consider to be the most important advice is at the end.
What do I need to know first?
You first need to know the same thing that you need to know last, before, during, after, and any time that firearms are involved, and that is the four safety rules. Those Rules, as laid down by Col. Jeff Cooper, are:
The National Rifle Association has distilled this down to three, but I prefer Cooper's four
The genius of Cooper's rules is that you have to violate at least two in order to have a real problem. For example, if your finger finds it's way onto the trigger and presses it when you're not ready, as long as you have the gun pointed in a safe direction and are sure of your "target", the result is not catastrophic.
Commit these rules to memory. Do not violate them. Ever. Every stupid thing and "cleaning accident" you read about in the news paper could be avoided by strict adherence to these rules.
What bad advice might I get?
There are many varied stock answers that many people will repeat, often without evaluating those cliches and assessing whether or not they are still (or were ever) true. Let's first examine some of those cliches so that we can see if they apply.
"Everyone should start with a .22 caliber rifle."
When discussing the subject of starting out children in the shooting sports I agree completely. However when talking about adults starting out looking for a defensive tool the idea of starting with a .22 caliber anything is a complete waste of time. Reduced cost of ammo, reduced recoil, reduced initial cost of the firearm, etc. are all used to justify this advice, and are all applicable when talking about children with a lifetime of shooting ahead of them. Grownups, on the other hand, are on a compressed time-frame, typically have more funds available, and are bigger and stronger and thus able to deal with the increased recoil of a centerfire firearm. Starting them on a .22 rifle and then expecting them to progress could take months or years and is unnecessary and counter-productive. Adults are better served by getting right to the point and beginning their training with the gun they intend to use for the task at hand.
"Get yourself a .357 revolver."
There are lots of alleged reasons for this advice. From relatively inexpensive startup costs, to the ability to shoot .38 for reduced recoil and cost in practice ammo, to perceived reliability, to ease of loading... while all may have some merit they ignore the major problem with this advice, and that is that the double-action revolver is one of the most difficult firearms to shoot fast and accurately. Couple that with the added advice to get a "snub-nose" or other short-barreled version and it only gets worse with a shorter sight radius and smaller and harder to use sights as well as increased recoil in the smaller and lighter frame. And anyone that has taken a revolver-specific class, or participated in any revolver-heavy event can tell you that these guns are not more reliable than a quality semi-automatic over the course of the same number of rounds. And while loading a cylinder may be physically easier than loading a magazine, magazines can be pre-loaded making reloading when it matters a much easier task. Unfortunately this advice gets especially directed towards women where the negatives (increased recoil, long heavy trigger pull) make the gun very difficult for women to shoot.
"Shotguns are best for home defense."
This statement in and of itself is debatable, but even if true it misses many other points. First of which is that for any non-military user the handgun is a far more versatile tool than any long gun. Once purchased for home defense and with proper training, licensing (where needed), and the addition of a decent holster the handgun can be used for personal protection outside the home as well. Even without a concealed carry permit many states allow for handguns to be kept in vehicles provided they are properly secured. Shotguns are also often proclaimed as needing little to no training because they are just "point and shoot". Not only is this pure nonsense that doesn't stand up to logic or reason, the pump-action shotgun can be very difficult to learn to manipulate under stress, the heavy recoil of virtually any shotgun load worth using for defense makes it difficult to control, and the large size of the firearm makes it difficult to use in the close quarters found inside a home without training.
"Go shoot a bunch of guns and pick the one that fits your hand best."
This one still gets a lot of play, even from folks that should know better. It certainly sounds perfectly reasonable, doesn't it? Everyone wants to be comfortable, don't they? Well I say that's hogwash. First and foremost you may or may not know the first thing about firearms and chances are good that you don't. If you don't know anything, how do you know if you're holding the gun correctly? And if you're not holding it correctly, how do you know if it will be comfortable once you have it right? Combine that with the fact that any quality firearm is going to have had thousands, if not millions, of dollars spent making sure it fits the widest variety of hands possible. While one gun may feel as if it points more naturally that isn't the only criteria for choosing a gun. Many people will tell you that it is, and that you have to buy the gun that you can shoot the best. Where does that logic end? The gun I shoot the best is an AR-pattern carbine, but that's kind of a difficult gun to carry concealed into the local Home Depot with me, so clearly there are other criteria at play. While comfort and "fit" are important they can largely be changed with proper training and are not the only criteria with which you should be concerned.
What should I get then?
My suggestion is to start with a pistol, preferably a large-capacity, polymer (plastic) frame, 9mm pistol. My recommendation is for the Glock 19, Smith & Wesson M&P9, or the Springfield Armory XD Service. Any of these pistols will serve the buyer well whether for a home defense, concealed carry, car gun, or sport shooting end use. While many first-time gun buyers initially think that they are only interested in "having a gun in the house", many will go on to obtain their concealed carry permit, take part in various shooting sports, or wish to keep the pistol in their vehicle either on a daily basis or just for long trips. Buying "smart" the first time ensures that you're not re-buying later on and, just like cars, guns do depreciate the minute they leave the showroom floor.
Some people may object to the choice of 9mm, either preferring a larger caliber for so called "stopping power", or a smaller caliber for a smaller gun or for "recoil control". While there may be some application for this logic, starting out with a 9mm gives you a good caliber for a variety of uses, and hundreds, if not thousands, of people have been killed by 9mm bullets and a similar number of competitions have been won with the same caliber. The ammunition is also readily available, relatively inexpensive, and has a broad range of choices from lower-recoil target ammunition to a broad range of defensive or other special-purpose loads.
How do I decide which one to get?
Go shoot them and pick the one that fits your hand best! and then factor in things like cost, number of rounds carried, weight of the gun, overall thickness of the gun, how it fits your wife's hand, what your friends own (it's easier to get help if you have a buddy with the same make and/or model of gun), which one looks the best, etc. Everyone is different, and everyone's criteria is different. Only you can decide which pistol meets your needs. However there is one fundamental difference in those three pistols I listed, and that comes down to how they address the safety.
The Glock series of pistols has no external safety besides the one between your ears. Many new shooters will have a psychological problem with this. It may be helpful to remember that revolvers were the choice of law-enforcement departments for over 100 years and they didn't have external thumb safeties. It may also help to put your mind at ease to know that the trigger on a Glock is somewhat of a double-trigger affair whereby it cannot be pulled unless both pieces of the trigger are pulled at once. If not, there's certainly nothing wrong with that, and the Glock may simply not be for you. Of course, like all modern quality firearms (including the other two suggestions) it has internal safeties built into the gun to keep it from going off if dropped.
Glock 19 9mm
The Smith & Wesson M&P series of pistols also defaults as a no-external-safety pistol. However, they do offer a model that has this feature. This safety is frame-mounted and is located right where the right thumb of your shooting hand (provided you are right handed) will naturally rest when firing. The safety is also removable from the gun by a gunsmith or armorer if you later decide that you do not want or need this functionality. The M&P also has it's own version of the double trigger, as well as the drop safeties.
Smith & Wesson M&P9 9mm
The Springfield Armory XD line also has a double trigger and internal drop safeties, as well as it's own variation of an external safety. The XD has a "button" (for lack of a better term) at the rear of the grip right where the web of your firing hand makes contact with the grip of the gun. The gun will not fire unless this button is completely pressed in to the frame. An incomplete, or inconsistent grip will prevent the button from being pressed and the trigger can be pulled over and over again but the gun will not fire.
Springfield Armory XD 9mm
The Kahr Arms TP9 is a gun that I didn't mention above. It is small, with a capacity of only 8 rounds plus one in the chamber, has a very short trigger reach, and no external mechanical safeties on the trigger or otherwise. However, that small size is exactly why I list it here as an also-ran. For women or others with small hands, having that reduced capacity may well be a trade-off worth making to get a pistol with a grip that they can manage. It is definitely worth a look for those with small hands. While I downplay the initial comfort factor above, if you can't reach the controls that is an issue and the small diameter of the Kahr grip may address that issue.
Kahr Arms TP9 9mm
You can see a chart comparing the sizes, weights, and features of the pistols listed above, with the specific models that I've mentioned highlighted, by clicking here.
What else do I need?
You also need a holster, at least three magazines, and a pouch that will hold at least two of those magazines on a belt. If you don't own a man's belt already you will also need a quality belt. These items are non-negotiable. Just because you think you're going to store the pistol in a locked drawer in your nightstand and only load one magazine does not mean that you don't need these things. You do. You absolutely do. Good quality Kydex holsters typically come from companies like Raven Concealment, Ready Tactical, Comp Tac, and Blade-Tech and will cost you $60-$75. These same companies sell magazine pouches and you'll need either two singles or one double (I prefer two singles, personally). Yes you can use one brand of holster and another brand of magazine pouch. Any quality leather belt will do, in the 1.5" width variety, or you can purchase a quality nylon Instructor pistol belt from the likes of The Wilderness. Be sure that the belt loops on your holster are sized to match the belt you plan to put it on, or vice/versa. Total investment in support gear here should be $100-$200 depending on the brand and whether or not you already own a serviceable belt.
You will also, obviously, need ammunition. You will need two types of ammunition, with the first being inexpensive training ammo of the full metal jacket variety. This type of ammo typically comes in boxes of 50 or 200, with 1,000 rounds to the case. It typically sells for right around or just under $0.30/round, including shipping, if purchased mail order or in bulk locally. It pays to stock up by buying in bulk online, with 1,000 rounds typically going for $300/shipped give or take. This type of ammo will typically come in 115, 124, or 147 grain loads (which refers to the weight of the projectile). Any will do, but I prefer the 124 grain personally simply because it's what I'm used to. Buy what you can find for a price you can afford, but avoid the steel-cased ammo from Wolf for the best reliability.
Beyond that you will also want a higher quality round for defensive purposes that has both a higher quality control and is designed to do more damage to soft tissue. If you're one of those "I don't want to kill him, just wound him" types then a firearm is not for you. Buy a baseball bat, or a bottle of pepper spray. As with all things you need to search out a subject-matter expert to make your decision, but the gunshop employee or your cousin the cop are not subject matter experts. You can educate yourself by going here to learn more about what makes for a better performing self defense load, with the list of 9mm loads from that link listed below.
Barnes XPB 105 & 115 gr JHP (copper bullet)
Federal Tactical 124 gr JHP (LE9T1)
Speer Gold Dot 124 gr +P JHP
Winchester Ranger-T 124 gr +P JHP (RA9124TP)
Winchester Partition Gold 124 gr JHP (RA91P)
Winchester Ranger-T 127 gr +P+ JHP (RA9TA)
Federal Tactical 135 gr +P JHP (LE9T5)
Federal HST 147 gr JHP (P9HST2)
Remington Golden Saber 147 gr JHP (GS9MMC)
Speer Gold Dot 147 gr JHP
Winchester Ranger-T 147 gr JHP (RA9T)
Winchester 147 gr bonded JHP (RA9B/Q4364)
Is that it then?
ABSOLUTELY NOT! What you need now, and what you need more than anything else, is training. And not just any training, you need competent training from a quality instructor. Men are born thinking they know how to cook meat over a fire, drive an automobile, fornicate, and shoot a gun and in no case are any of those true without either trial and error, making a lot of mistakes, or getting good instruction and guidance. And in the case of shooting a gun you cannot afford to make a lot of mistakes as some of those mistakes may lead to bodily harm or death to your or others. You need training. Period.
Training can vary from a friend or relative teaching you the basics, to a local course with a local instructor, to a multi-day class out of town, to a full week at one of the larger and better-known full-service firearms instruction schools. Let's address each of those options individually.
The first is the friend/relative. This can be a dangerous option, depending on the person. Just because someone has owned guns for years, or owns hundreds of guns, or is a cop or a soldier, does not mean they know the first thing about what to do with those guns. There's a famous expression that goes "beware of the man with just one gun, he may know how to use it". The corollary to that is "how on earth can someone that owns dozens of different makes, models, types, and styles of firearms possibly be an expert with any one of them?" Competent, perhaps, but certainly not expert. This doesn't mean that they can't be a good teacher, or that you can't learn anything from them, but it means that you should trust, but verify. Go shooting with them, maybe even before you buy anything. Get a feel for how competent they seem in gun handling, how well they adhere to the four safety rules, how capable they are of hitting the target, how often their guns malfunction and how capable they are of dealing with it, etc. Take note, as well, of their attitude towards safety and defense, and their mindset as a whole. If their goals are not your goals, then they may not be the best teacher for you.
The second is the local instructor. This can actually be a fantastic training opportunity. The National Rifle Association has standardized courses taught by instructors that must go through many hours of NRA-specific training in order to be able to teach these courses. For our purposes here the NRA FIRST Steps Pistol Orientation class as well as the NRA Basic Pistol Shooting Course are both excellent options and may even be possible without owning a firearm of your own at all. As with all training the teacher can make or break the experience and while you need to go in with an open mind, you also need to turn your BS-meter up to ten and be sure that you can distinguish fact from opinion. Arguing the point in that venue is not productive, but anything that doesn't pass the sniff test should be further researched on your own after the fact. The NRA provides a great tool for finding instructors near you or you can check with your local gun shop or range.
Next would be an out of town multi-day class (or if you're lucky and live near a qualified facility, it may be in town to you). In this regard we are living in what I would consider the golden age of training. There are more qualified traveling instructors today then ever before in the past. Unfortunately this means that we're also seeing far more un-qualified instructors than ever before. Picking an instructor or a class for out-of-town training is far more critical than the local class because more is at stake. You'll be potentially taking vacation days from work, paying for travel to get there and lodging while you're there, tuition costs are higher, and you're shooting more which means ammo costs are higher. To do all that and either not learn a thing, or even worse learn something bad, can really sour someone on the experience. Choose wisely. Research the instructor heavily. There are many frauds, and even some felons, out there teaching classes. While it may be true that they paid their debt to society, or are equally capable of instructing on gunfighting having never been in one and only worked at a police department for 2 years in a town with a population less than 25,000, there are also a whole lot of very good instructors who do not bear these burdens and who can and will be honest and forthcoming regarding their past experience and qualifications. If you do a google search for a person's name and there is a lot of drama surrounding this person, go elsewhere. Good instructors that I would recommend and that I have trained with would include Randy Cain, Pat Rogers, Bill Jeans, and Louis Awerbuck. All travel the country teaching classes, and all offer classes at various levels. Contact any or all of them to find out if they will be in your area and if they are teaching a class that meets your needs.
The last option is the week-long, out-of-town class at one of the larger training facilities. I have not done this myself, due largely to both time and cost constraints. Typically these classes will be 5 days with at least one travel day each way. Examples of these facilities would include Gunsite in Arizona, Thunder Ranch in Oregon, and the US Training Center in North Carolina. All of these offer first-rate facilities, top-notch instruction, and very qualified instructor staff. Again, there are others out there but if you find that there are dozens or hundreds of detractors or a lot of drama surrounding them my advice would be to steer clear.
What do I do next?
What you do next is practice. Shooting is a perishable skill and requires sustainment training in order to maintain that skill. This sustainment training might consist of more classes, weekly or monthly trips to the public range, participation in local competitive shooting, or a combination of all three. I opt for the combination approach, and I take several out of town classes per year, shoot in local range practice sessions, go to the public indoor range to work on marksmanship, and shoot in competitions. Just like most people fail to stick with an exercise program because they get bored lifting weights, just going to the public range to work on your skills is likely to get boring as well. And just like exercise, people don't do things that become boring for long.
Participating in competitive shooting is a GREAT way to keep from getting bored. The two major action shooting sports are the International Defensive Pistol Association, IDPA, and the United States Practical Shooting Association, USPSA (the American arm of the International Practical Shooting Confederation, IPSC). Either, or both, of these pursuits can offer a fun and exciting way to get out and use your new pistol in a way that not only builds and reinforces good gun-handling and marksmanship skills but also increases your familiarity and comfort level with the weapon. Better clubs can even offer suggestions as to local training opportunities as well. Both websites have tools to find a club local to you.
What should I avoid?
Avoid the temptation to start over-accessorizing your new gun. Shoot it, train with it, compete with it, and you may start to discover deficiencies in the stock pistol that may be addressed in the aftermarket. Be careful, however, and resist the temptation to attempt to buy skill, as that's just not possible. If you encounter an area where the pistol is truly holding you back, and it's not a matter of simply training and learning to operate the gun, then, and only then, should you begin researching other options. Classes and matches are a great place to get to see what's working for others and maybe even get a chance to try it out. An example of trying to "buy skill" might include having a gunsmith overly lighten the pull of the trigger rather than working on your trigger control through dry-fire practice and at the range. An example of reaching the limits of the firearm might include adding a tritium (a glow-in-the-dark) front sight because you've done some shooting at night or in low-light at matches and classes and identified finding the sight in reduced lighting as an issue.
Avoid the temptation to overly broaden your "collection" of firearms. Variety is good, and no one gun performs all tasks perfectly. All of the pistols I suggested come in smaller versions for increased concealability and larger versions that may be better suited to competition. Many new gun owners get hooked on the buying and collecting side of things, and while there is nothing wrong with that, education, training, practice, and competition will sharpen your focus and you should stick to one type of firearm to maximize your training time and abilities. Remember that "beware of the man with just one gun" thing from above? It applies to "just one type of gun" too. A shooter that carries a Glock 26 (3.5" barrel) at during the week, a Glock 19 (4" barrel) on the weekends, and competes with a Glock 17 (4.5" barrel) in IDPA twice a month is more likely to be familiar with all three than the guy that carries a 2" snubnose revolver during the week, a Glock 19 on the weekends, and a shoots a .45 caliber 1911 in matches.
Avoid the latest trends. If you have a functional and reliable firearm, and you have been properly trained in it's use, keep up with your sustainment training, and are content with your level of skill, keep the damn gun. Don't go chasing off after every new-fangled gun or widget that comes on the market. If you simply must have a new gun, buy a double of the one you already have. If you still need another one, buy a smaller version, or a bigger version, or one for your kid (even if you don't have kids yet). Remember that guy with one gun; always. And also remember why you bought that first gun to begin with. It wasn't to have a safe full of crap, or to brag to your friends about that safe full of crap, it was as a tool to defend your life and the life of your loved ones. It may have become a tool that you use in pursuit of enjoyment in the form of sport, but don't let it become about the tool as the tool is just a means to an end.
and never, ever, forget those four safety rules, reprinted here so you can get started memorizing them.