Which are the best first handguns?
Without experience handling a firearm (even at a gun range), buying your first handgun — or even determining what defines “the best” for a first-time gun buyer can be truly overwhelming. The array of gun styles, brands, calibers — and even basic questions like pistol vs revolver vs semi-auto — are tough to navigate.
Many beginners make their selection based on things like looks or familiarity from movies – all without thinking about what would actually be the most effective handgun for a first-time gun owner.
In this guide, we are going to explore a few important gun criteria — such as caliber, ammo, size, ergonomics, price, and safety features — 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 handgun choices to ones we think offer the right mix of proven performance and approachability.
Quick List: Best Handguns for Beginners
- Action Type: Striker Fired
- 4.25″ inch barrel
- Capacity: 17+1-Round
- Cartridge: 9 mm Luger
- Finish: Black
- Front Sight: Fixed
- Magazine Included: 2 x 17-Round
- Rear Sight: Fixed
- Length: 7.4″
- Polymer Frame
- Weight: 1.55 lbs
- Made in the USA
The Smith & Wesson M&P M2.0 pistol, the newest in M&P (for “Military & Police”) polymer pistol line is designed for a variety of users – from personal, concealed carry, sporting, and professional gun use.
We really like the M&P 2.0 and all its variants, as it has found itself on our lists of the best overall 9mm handguns, concealed carry pistol recommendations, and our subcompact 9mm list. It’s a great handgun — and not just for seasoned shooters — it’s easy to handle, feels comfortable in the hand, has a sturdy grip that gives first-time users confidence, has Smith & Wesson’s smooth trigger pull, and offers solid magazine capacity at 17+1.
It’s been a staple law enforcement pistol for years, and the 2.0 is largely unchanged in terms of dimensions from the original Smith & Wesson M&P.
This means your holsters, accessories, and even magazines will work with the M2.0.
If you’ve considered an M&P gun in the past but hadn’t pulled the trigger this new 2.0 version would be a worthy firearm for sure.
Also: made in the USA.
- Action Type: Striker-Fired Pistol
- 3.9″ inch barrel
- 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
- Polymer Frame
Often compared to the venerable Glock 19, the Sig P320 pistol is a very usable handgun with top-notch construction, fantastic stock trigger, comfortable grip ergonomics & surprising mag capacity – all wrapped up in a lightweight, easily adjustable package.
The Sig Sauer P320 also fires the standard 9MM round, which is ideal for new shooters & beginners, making for a handgun which is incredibly easy to shoot.
It’s a little more expensive being from Sig Sauer, but it stands out an exceptional starter pistol for most people.
In our 4 rounds of testing, we considered a number of different 9mm pistols and think that the Sig Sauer P320 is a great choice when it comes to semi-automatic, striker-fired handguns. It’s the best 9mm handgun for experienced shooters and beginners alike.
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 options (generally a little over $500.)
Comparing the Sig Sauer 320 Compact Pistol vs S&W M&P 2.0 Shield handgun
The Sig Sauer P320 pistol is also intuitive to use, has recoil that is easy to manage, and loaded with useful features such as a tool-free breakdown (making it easy to clean) and an ambidextrous grip.
It fires standard 9MM rounds, which is one of our critical criteria for beginner guns due to the approachability of that particular caliber round.
It’s also made by a gun company that people trust and has an excellent reputation for handguns: Sig Sauer.
- 3.39″ inch barrel
- Overall length: 6.26 inches
- Width: 1.02 inches
- Weight: 1.13 pounds
- Magazines included: 6-round magazines
- Polymer frame
Smaller than the Glock 17, this Glock 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 gun package.
Glock pistols are popular with many people for a reason – and the fact the 43 model offers reliability in a more affordable package, with features Glock enthusiasts love (like the integrated trigger safety and smooth trigger pull) makes it a top choice for people interested in a 9MM Glock pistol.
At just over a single inch in width (technically 1.06 inches) the Glock 43 fits comfortably in any sized hand – although that small footprint comes with lower overall capacity with just 6 rounds in the magazine.
- 3.8″ inch barrel
- Overall length: 7.2 inches
- Width: 1.02 inches
- Weight: 28 oz
- Magazines included: 2
- Capacity: 20 rounds
Springfield Armory’s XD-E 9mm pistol is great for beginners thanks to it’s full-size frame and melonite barrel finish that protects it from damage and corrosion, which may happen as one figures out how to store and care for a pistol.
The Springfield XD Mod 2 pistol comes with a double and/or single-action system that allows you to use both shooting style depending on whether you like a lighter trigger pull or the safer option of double-action.
Could that with the 1-inch wide frame, which makes it easier for smaller hands to use, and the low effort slide which smooths the action and makes it easier on the shooter, and the XD Mod 2 is a solid beginner handgun on all fronts.
- 3.2″ inch barrel
- Overall length: 6.3 inches
- Height: 5.1 inches
- Weight: 22 oz
- Magazines included: 3
- Capacity: 12+1 rounds
Much ink has been spilled writing about Taurus’ new entry into the polymer-framed pistol market.
There are those who would snub their noses at the Brazilian-maker’s products without a second thought, but the new G2C is a solid performer and offers unbeatable value – often $150-$200 less than competing striker-fired pistols.
The G2C comes with a 10 round magazine (but can accept G2/G3 15 rounders for more pow) paired with an updated & improved trigger from the original and Glock-style steel sights – all of which makes the Taurus an easy-to-handle option for those looking for an entry-level handgun that won’t break the bank.
Why should you listen to us?
To research this guide to the best handgun for beginners we leaned on our own experience and consulted multiple sources.
We tracked down gun sale 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 and pistol 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 gun performance testing for this guide, but we did draw on years of shooting experience across the team.
We also consulted the handgun reviews posted by real people at online retailers, which are guided by actual customer experiences.
We exhaustively read customer comments to identify owner concerns and read available 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 a first-time gun owner — for sport, self-defense, or concealed carry — and have little or no knowledge about things like price, caliber, ammo, size, ergonomics, or functionality this gun guide should be helpful.
Home defense & upgrade shoppers: If you’re interested in exploring home defense handguns (or have made the choice to replace an older handgun with a new gun) this guide should steer you in the right direction. Newer handguns offer improved performance along with the latest features and capabilities many people want in their firearm – especially when thinking about self-defense or concealed carry applications.
Sig instructor demonstrating proper handgun grip
Selecting the best handgun for beginners -- where to start?
While any handgun will certainly send lead down-range there are differences in how well they’ll perform for new shooters, making the best handgun for beginners generally land in a sub-set of potential pistols.
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:
Who uses the pistol? Any handgun or pistol’s standard of excellence becomes clear when you see who uses the firearm.
Now, this isn’t about YouTuber’s fawning over the latest from Smith & Wesson or random exhibition shooters covered in logos – we’re talking about organizations who pay to use the gun, rather than people being paid to be seen using the gun.
Think military and law enforcement users, who will torture test their handguns to ensure they both meet their high performance standards and then will fit within their budget.
This involves highly-trained professionals putting potential pistol candidates through field tests, trials, and evaluations before they’re ever purchased by the agency in question. Once a brand or pistol is adopted by these organizations you can be sure it’s a proven performer. The U.S. Army selected the M17 variant of the Sig Sauer P320 for their service pistol, most police departments in the U.S. shoot Glocks, Smith & Wesson M&P Shields, or Sig pistols. These are the kinds of endorsements that matter when trying to define the best handguns for beginners.
Brand/Name Recognition: Let’s be clear on this point — name recognition doesn’t mean “the most expensive pistol” or any kind of gun snobbery. This is about basic firearm logic. Established pistol makers have been around for decades and build upon proven designs to progressively improve their products.
If a company has made millions of pistols, regardless of how well-built, they will get hundreds returned to the factory for warranty and repairs, creating one of the best R&D feedback mechanisms for in-house engineers. They figure out what went wrong and how to fix it, eliminating those issues from future generations of handguns.
No-name brands don’t invest in R&D the way a Smith & Wesson, Glock, Sig Sauer or Ruger can — leaving them with a perpetually inferior product.
Caliber: We recommend getting a 9mm Luger for your first handgun. 9mm rounds are available anywhere & inexpensive to shoot when compared to other larger calibers, which helps with keeping the cost of practice & training down.
Plus it’s smaller cartridge size when compared to something like a .45 ACP means it has less recoil and magazines with much higher cartridge capacity (15 or more rounds), but the 9MM still offers considerable performance in terms of self-defense and it’s small enough to work well for concealed carry pistols as well.
Also — many police forces (and the U.S. 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 calibers like .22 LR due to the lack of stopping power and limited applications of these smaller handguns (even if they’re the easiest when it comes to practice shooting). If, however, you’re looking for .22 LR pistols we have a guide for that as well.
- A note on larger calibers – .45 ACP rounds 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 ACP round has been around for a very long time which means many choices of pistols. The M1911 is a very popular.45 ACP pistols (see our guide to the best 1911 pistols) but it doesn’t meet our lack of external safety requirement. The .45 ACP is a larger round than the 9MM (and .22 LR) and has noticeably more recoil. They will also generally be more expensive to shoot on a per-round basis but work well for home defense.
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 sights available for front and rear sights – but you can certainly use aftermarket products and have them installed by a trusty gunsmith. Additional options for handguns beyond night sights would be something in the way of a red dot, which is great for close-quarters and home defense situations.
Ammunition Style: For home defense purposes, we recommend hollow point rounds for their stopping power and no noticeable increase in recoil.
These kinds of rounds 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 rounds.
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 choices — often to striker-fired pistols — 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 semi-auto 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 both cocking the hammer and firing the chambered round.) They can also often include useful features like a loaded chamber indicator.
All of our experts told us that these striker-fired handguns are preferable to revolvers (even something as approachable as a 38 Special) 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, whereas striker-fired handguns are much more forgiving.
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, which full-size handguns provide with their larger grip area and softer recoil relative to smaller compact and sub-compact versions. We also considered things like grip inserts which enable a user to customize their pistol’s ergonomics well beyond stock dimensions and give a new gun owner a more custom fit.
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 first-time gun buyers try them out at the range or gun store to make sure the final fit is precisely what you’re looking for.
Even starter guns require gun handling fundamentals
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, and that little red dot can assuage doubts that can arise with first-time gun owners in stressful situations.
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+.
A solid performer but the Kahr CW9 can have issues when it comes to finish & machining. Also difficult to disassemble and clean.
Another fantastic handgun, the VP9 is probably our favorite handgun from the Germans, but it’s a shade too expensive for a first pistol at just under $900.
The Beretta PX4 Storm is beloved by many users but a little too awkward for new shooters in our opinion.
Who doesn’t love a Glock 19? The full sized frame is just a little too large for a first gun from our vantage point.
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.
Handgun Frequently Asked Questions
What is the most powerful handgun?
In 2003 Smith & Wesson introduced the Model 500 .50 CAL handgun – the most powerful handgun in the world. The S&W X-frame Model 500 is a massive handgun engineered to conquer the most intense hunting in the world.
What handgun is used by Navy SEALs?
Navy SEALs use 9mm semi-auto handguns like the SIG Sauer P226 – often with a suppressor, light, and laser sight.
What handgun does the FBI use?
FBI agents use a Glock 17 9mm handgun or an M1911A1 Springfield Armory .45 ACP pistol.
What handgun is most popular with law enforcement?
The Glock 22 is the most popular police handgun in America.
What is the best caliber bullet for a handgun?
There’s not much statistical “stopping power” difference between 9mm, .40 S&W, and .45 ACP cartridges, everything being equal. The 9mm is highly recommended as the best all-around caliber for new shooters, first-time gun owners, concealed carry licensees, home defense or self-defense applications.
- NRABlog Staff, NRA article on how pistols for first-time buyers, February 4, 2016
- AFT, Handgun Gallery, June 05, 2015
- Threat Dynamics firearms training
- Military.com, Army’s New Service Pistol Getting Rave Reviews at the Range
- Officer.com, Off Duty-Weapons Survey