Which handgun works for both home defense & as your first pistol?
Without experience handling and selecting firearms, buying your first handgun can be truly overwhelming. The array of styles, brands, calibers – and even basic questions like revolver vs semi-auto – are tough to navigate.
Many new shooters make the mistake of getting their first handgun based on things like looks or familiarity from movies – all without thinking about what would actually be the most effective handgun for a new shooter.
In this guide, we are going to explore a few important criteria – such as caliber, ammo, size, ergonomics, price, and safety – to arm you with everything you need to understand when it comes to selecting your first firearm.
When we combine all the critical considerations we’ve successfully winnowed down the massive list of potential beginner handguns to options that have the right mix of proven performance and approachability.
Quick List: Best Handguns for Beginners
Our Top Choices
We considered a number of different 9mm pistols and think that the Sig Sauer P320 is a great semi-automatic, striker-fired handgun that is the best 9mm handgun for experienced shooters and beginners.
It’s a battle-tested, customizable, polymer-framed pistol that should fit the bill variety of applications and is priced very competitively when compared to handguns with similar features (generally a little over $500.) It’s also intuitive to use and loaded with useful features, such as a tool-free breakdown for cleaning and an ambidextrous grip.
It’s also made by a company that has an excellent reputation for handguns: Sig Sauer.
Often compared to the venerable Glock 19, the Sig Sauer P320 is a very usable handgun with top-notch construction, fantastic stock trigger & mag capacity – all wrapped up in a lightweight, easily adjustable package. It’s a little more expensive being a Sig but it stands out an exceptional starter pistol.
The G3 Glock 43 is the classic striker-fired, polymer-frame, compact pistol that is lightweight, reliable, and works in bed-mounted biometric safe or concealed carry application.
Smaller than the Glock 17, this entry into the smaller, single-stack 9mm handgun market was well behind other brands, but that in no way diminishes the value of this particular Austrian package.
Glock pistols are popular for a reason – and the fact the 43 offers reliability in a more affordable package makes it a top recommendation.
The M&P M2.0 pistol, the newest in S&W’s M&P (for “Military & Police”) polymer pistol line is designed for a variety of users – from personal, sporting, and professional. It’s been a staple of law enforcement for years, and the 2.0 is largely unchanged in terms of dimensions from the original M&P.
This means your holsters, accessories, and even magazines will work with the M2.0. If you’ve considered an M&P in the past but hadn’t pulled the trigger this new 2.0 version would be a worthy first handgun for sure. Also: made in the USA.
- EVERYTHING WE RECOMMEND -
Why should you listen to us?
To research this guide to handguns we leaned on our own experience and consulted multiple sources.
We tracked down sales trends data from multiple online retailers, the ATF, as well as local firearm showrooms.
We interviewed local gun buyers & dealers in Oregon, Washington, and Montana; as well as representatives from the major firearm brands.
In addition, we spent time at handgun showrooms getting a feel for the design, ease of use, build, and user-friendliness of some of the most popular handgun models. We did not do any hands-on performance testing for this guide, but we did draw on years of shooting experience across the team.
We also consulted the handgun reviews posted at online retailers, which are guided by real customer experiences. We exhaustively read customer comments to identify owner concerns, and read available only handgun manuals to define the most important features for new handgun enthusiasts.
Who should consider these handgun recommendations?
First-time handgun buyers: If you’re buying your first handgun – either for sport or self-defense – and have little or no knowledge about things like price, caliber, ammo, size, ergonomics, or functionality this guide should be helpful.
Home defense & upgrade shoppers: If you’re interested in exploring home defense handgun options or looking to replace an older handgun this guide should steer you in the right direction. Newer handguns offer improved performance along with the latest features and capabilities.
How to choose the best handgun for you
While any handgun will certainly send lead down-range there are differences in how well they’ll perform for new shooters. Based on our extensive experience, as well as conversations with firearms experts and comparisons of more than 18 handgun models we think that these are the most important features to look for in a pistol:
Caliber: We recommend getting a 9mm for your first handgun. 9mm ammunition is available anywhere & inexpensive to shoot when compared to other larger calibers. Plus it’s smaller size when compared to something like a .45 APC means it has less recoil and magazines with much higher capacity (15 or more rounds).
Also – many police forces (and the US Military) use 9mm so it’s a caliber that has been tested in the most demanding environments and consistently handled by both men and women. We avoided smaller capacities like 22 LR due to the lack of stopping power and limited applications of these smaller caliber options.
- A note on larger calibers – the 45 ACP can be a good choice for beginners looking for something larger than a 9mm – or those interested in suppressed applications – with a couple of caveats. The 45 APC round has been around for a very long time which means many pistol options. The 1911 is a very popular 45 ACP pistols, but it doesn’t meet our lack of external safety requirement. The 45 APC is a larger round than the 9mm and has noticeably more recoil. They will also generally be more expensive to shoot on a per round basis.
Sights: If your primary concern is self-defense we recommend night sights since most encounters occur after the sun has gone down – e.g. intruders generally operate at night.
Our recommended pistols all have night sight models available for front and rear sights – but you can certainly use aftermarket sights and have them installed by a trusty gunsmith. Additional options for handgun sights would be something in the way of a red dot, which is great for close-quarters situations.
Ammunition Style: For home defense purposes, we recommend hollow point bullets for their stopping power.
These can be purchased in bulk online with a little planning and hunting for sales, which ensures you have plenty of ammo available for practice.
Buying bulk can also significantly reduce your price per round (to well under $0.18 per round) which is a fantastic benefit as well. 9mm ammunition comes in a huge range of loads and styles – we recommend purchasing 115 grain full metal jacket loads for practice, and 135 grain for other applications. For suppressor use look for sub-sonic 147 grain loads.
Safety: This may sound counter-intuitive but for beginners, it is often best to avoid a handgun with an external safety.
We’re all taught that “red means dead” and weapons should always have the safety on – but training and preparation is the best safety in a real-world scenario – especially for new shooters without the instincts that come from developing familiarity with their weapon. In the heat of a self-defense situation, it’s possible to leave a manual safety engaged for a moment too long.
This recommendation limits the scope of options but we wanted to avoid and handguns which might prove too complicated for a beginner shooter.
Action: Most of the options in this guide point to striker-fired handguns because these provide the most consistent firing experience (much more so than double-action handguns which tend to have a heavier initial shot as they are cocking the hammer.)
All of our experts told us that these striker-fired handguns are preferable to revolvers due to their greater ammo capacity, smaller size, lighter weight, recoil reduction via recoil spring, and better overall performance. Revolvers are reliable as can be but tend to be a little more challenging to shoot consistently.
Ergonomics: Our recommendations stuck to the world of full-size handguns due to the larger grip area and a wider sight radius – which improves user-friendliness for beginners and accommodates a wide variety of hand sizes.
The feel of a handgun is incredibly important as the more secure a gun feels in your hand the more confidence you’ll have when wielding it. We also considered things like grip inserts which enable a user to customize their pistol’s ergonomics well beyond stock dimensions. When it comes to a home defense handgun we recommend sticking with the stock trigger. You’ll want the maximal reliability in your handgun, and that often comes from using it as it was initially designed.
Although our recommendations are deeply researched we absolutely recommend trying them out at the range or gun store to ensure the final fit is precisely what you’re looking for.
- Review Roundup -
- Lightweight, durable polymer frame
- Interchangeable polymer grips
- Contrast sights
- Ambidextrous grip
- Compatible with .40 S&W and .357 with conversion kits
- Not drilled for RMR sights
- Night sights & holster sold separately
- Initial QA issues – customers reported mold injection marks
The Sig Sauer P320 stands out among approachable handguns thanks to its ease of shooting, build quality and Sig’s great reputation for firearms—for just slightly more than you’ll pay on average for this category of handgun (~$500).
The defining feature of the P320 is how well everything is integrated into one tight package – from the rail to the magazine release – which will make it a fantastic sole handgun or a top addition to any collection.
There have been some reports of injection marks left on some models, which is completely counter Sig’s reputation for quality – but these issues appear to have been ironed out with production tweaks.
The 4” barrel length is both agile and sturdy – coupled with the 1.6 lb weight and you have a remarkably performant handgun. While night sights and a holster are not included we didn’t consider those stong marks against the P320 because both of those items should be purchased with reference and application in mind. You do get two 15 round magazines with the gun, which is a nice consideration.
Shooting performance is another strength. Sig Sauer is consistently a top choice of firearms experts & professional shooters as being a top performer in this category.
Time and time again, dealers & retailer representatives told us that Sig does an excellent job of designing and building firearms, particularly handguns.
And in my years of shooting a variety of brands/makes/models, Sig has always excelled across the board. While the P320 is a newer model (lots of online retailers have fewer than 4-5 reviews for it) Sig handguns consistently have very positive reviews. Gunsmiths we spoke with had little to mention with recent Sig models – both when considering handguns, rifles, and SMG form factors.
- Action Type: Striker Fired Pistol
- Barrel Length: 3.9″
- Capacity: 15+1-Round
- Cartridge: 9 mm Luger
- Front Sight: Fixed
- Length: 7.2″
- Magazine Included: 2 x 15-Round
- Rear Sight: Fixed
- Weight: 1.63 lbs
- Very lightweight
- Works for concealed carry
- Ultra-reliable Glock product
- Smaller frame means less grip area
- 6 round magazine may feel limiting to some shooters
- Less customizable than the P320
If you’re working with a slightly tighter budget or are looking for a smaller overall package but still want a high-quality, reliable compact 9mm handgun, we think the Glock 43 is an excellent option.
Like the P330, this Glock uses an internal safety & polymer components in a single-stack, subcompact, striker-fired 9mm handgun. Since it’s a Glock, the 43 will be a reliable performer, based on the excellent reputation Glock’s products have. And it’s outfitted with the renowned Glock® Safe Action system which loads no pre-charged energy until the user pulls the trigger.
Unlike the P320, the Glock has a much smaller magazine capacity at just 6 rounds, but that does have the benefit of creating a smaller overall package at just 3.4” in length and slightly over 1 pound in weight. Of course that may create issues with if you have big hands or need a bigger platform to shoot confidently.
- Barrel length: 3.39 inches
- Overall length: 6.26 inches
- Width: 1.02 inches
- Weight: 1.13 pounds
- Magazines included: 6-round magazines
- Compact but magazine with extender improves grip
- Works well for CCW
- American made
- Some issues with quality/fit & finish
- Rear sights can be less than centered out of the box
- Trigger can be inconsistent without adjustment
For a full-featured handgun that is extremely easy to use—we recommend the SMITH & WESSON – M&P Shield 9M 2.0. This 2.0 version of the original M&P model has improved on the original with a much better trigger and more aggressive grip texturing.
The original pistol featured an adjustable-size grip, stainless-steel chassis and solid ergonomics. The first-generation M&P series wasn’t perfect, and the engineers at Smith & Wesson took the feedback from police & civilian users to design a serious upgrade to the entire platform. The result? Well, you can’t say the M2.0 doesn’t look the part – it seems like a weapon built for combat.
The grip texturing is much improved and long gone is the light stippling on the grip and palm swells.
The M2.0’s texturing now covers the entire circumference of the grip adding a ton of control and making the gun much more difficult to wrest from your hand in an altercation. The M&P 2.0 is a solidly useful platform for the new shooter.
- Action Type: Striker Fired
- Barrel Length: 4.25″
- Capacity: 17+1-Round
- Cartridge: 9 mm Luger
- Finish: Black
- Front Sight: Fixed
- Length: 7.4″
- Magazine Included: 2 x 17-Round
- Rear Sight: Fixed
- Stock Material: Polymer
- Weight: 1.55 lbs
- Made in the USA
Which handgun accessories are good for new shooters?
Given that most encounters happen without the benefit of sunlight using a rail light will help with target verification. We recommend a light that attaches to the rail for the most secure approach:
A laser can drastically improve high-intensity shooting accuracy and are remarkably useful in the dark – both for accuracy and de-escalation. Bad guys really don’t like seeing where the bullet will enter their bodies.
Competing handgun options
Sure, it nearly jam-proof and has all the bells and whistles you’d want – but it’s fickle, needs tools to maintain – and it’s pricey at $800+.
The Springfield XD is accurate out of the box and super reliable, but there are a number of reports of significant trigger creep and with a heavier pull than other options. This can mean the Springfield requires a very firm grip to shoot accurately and would be challenging for medium to smaller hands.
A solid performer but can have quality issues when it comes to finish & machining. Also difficult to disassemble.
Wrapping it up
New shooters would do well to stick with a 9mm – they have plenty of stopping power, cheap & readily available ammo, proven performance, and are easy to handle for a variety of people.