Best Handguns for First-Time Owners in 2023
New to handguns and looking for some guidance on where to start? Here are our top picks for home defense, concealed carry, and more.
Licensed Concealed Carry Holder
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For the novice, venturing into the vast realm of handguns can feel like stepping into an endless labyrinth. The intricate dance of material, caliber, grip, and safety features may seem bewildering at first glance.
As a certified Chief Range Officer, I’ve spent years teaching firearm safety to men and women and individuals ranging from youngsters to Grandparents and gleaned a deep understanding of the beginner’s needs and their unique requirements.
Why Start with Handguns?
For many seasoned gun enthusiasts, our journey often begins with a rifle, especially a rimfire variant. This trend, however, is witnessing a shift.
An increasing number of individuals, unacquainted with the rustic charm of plinking with a rifle as a kid, are now gravitating towards handguns later in life, largely driven by personal protection needs. The modern era has seen a surge in concealed carry permits and a diverse population exploring firearms for self-defense.
Contrary to popular belief, not every new gun owner wishes to delve deep into firearm intricacies or debate the distinctions between a 1911, 2011, and Sub-2000.
For many, the primary objective remains self-defense, and for these buyers, the direct route to finding the right handgun is all that really matters. Let’s start at the beginning.
In This Article
Side By Side Comparison
Our Top Picks
Displaying 1 - 1 of 6
Fit & Finish
How We Picked
We focused on pistols that are uncomplicated, easy to use, and customizable.
The 9mm caliber gives new shooters the best mix of control, reliability, and capacity, so we excluded the larger .45 ACP and smaller .22 LR calibers.
We selected brands that have products geared toward new shooters.
The Right Options
We included pistols that give new owners useful feature & pricing options.
More on our testing process
The Best Beginner Handguns
1. Best Overall: Smith & Wesson M&P 2.0
- Action Type: Striker Fired
- 4.25″ inch barrel
- Capacity: 7, 8, & 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
- Grip texture is great for sweaty/wet conditions
- Solid slide texture
- Nicely balanced
- Trigger has a fair bit of creep
- Hinged trigger safety creates mushy feel
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.
It’s an excellent striker fired handgun — and not just for seasoned shooters — it’s easy to handle, feels comfortable in hand, has a sturdy grip that gives first-time users confidence, has Smith & Wesson’s smooth trigger pull, and offers a magazine capacity range depending on the model of everything from 7 or 8+1 all the way up to 17+1.
Smith & Wesson has expanded the M&P line in recent years — adding onto previous generations with the Shield Plus, 10mm, competition variant, and Shield EZ options, the latter of which is even easier to rack if you struggle with racking standard pistols.
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. If you want more detail, we reviewed the M&P in depth.
Also: made in the USA.
2. Runner-Up: Sig Sauer P320
- 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
- Huge model & size variety
- Easy to find one that works well for you
- True military-grade product
- Massive aftermarket support
- Full-size models are heavy for first-time shooters
- Remains to be seen if the modular chassis system will hold up to wear over time
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 that is incredibly easy to shoot.
It’s a little more expensive, being from Sig Sauer, but it stands out as an exceptional starter pistol for most aspiring gun enthusiasts.
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 a striker-fired semi automatic pistol. 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 is 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. Concealed Carry Pick: Glock 43
- Caliber: 9mm
- Barrel Length: 3.41 inches
- Overall Length: 6.26 inches
- Weight: 16.3 ounces, unloaded
- Magazine Capacity: 6+1
- Small size makes it easy to conceal
- Glock reliability
- Very limited maintenance
- No manual safety
- Ambidextrous slide stop
- Short grip makes for snappy shooting
- Glock triggers can be gritty and have creep
- Other handguns offer more capacity
- Tough to fire fast accurately
Glock being such a powerhouse in the gun world, it’s no surprise that they made the list, and their G3 Glock 43 is the classic striker-fired, polymer-frame, compact 9mm pistol that is lightweight, has manageable recoil, is reliable, and works in a bedside safe or concealed carry applications.
I’d go so far as to say it’s probably the best single-stack 9mm carry pistol on the market.
Smaller than the Glock 17, this compact 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.
If you look up “reliable pistols” in the dictionary you’ll likely just see a Glock logo – and the G43 offers that legendary reliability in a more concealable package. It also has all the features Glock enthusiasts love (like the integrated safety system to prevent accidental discharge, ambi slide stop, and reversible magazine release button) in a pistol that’s remarkably slim (just 1 inch over the widest part of the grip), making it a top choice for people who want to pair their concealed carry permit with a 9mm Glock pistol.
The Glock 43’s slim profile also means it fits comfortably in practically any hand — thanks in part to the lack of finger grooves — although that small footprint comes with lower overall capacity with just six rounds in the magazine and a smaller grip than other Glocks — a shortcoming that the Glock 43X attempts to resolve by pairing the G43’s smaller frame dimensions with the Glock 19’s grip.
Check out our in-depth review of the Glock 43 for a detailed take on Glock’s ultimate carry pistol.
4. Home Defense Pick: Smith & Wesson Equalizer
- Barrel Length: 3.6 in
- Overall length: 6.75 inches
- Width: 1.04 inches
- Weight: 22.9 oz
- Magazines included: 3
- Capacity: 10, 13, or 15
- Easy to rack
- Lots of capacity options
- Perfect amount of felt recoil
- Not a striker pistol
- Basic white dot sights from factory
The Smith & Wesson Equalizer pistol is seriously flying under the radar, and it’s a shame. This handgun is a great concealed carry pistol, chambered in 9mm, with the perfect amount of felt recoil for a semi-automatic handgun.
While most polymer pistols on the market today are striker-fired, the action on the Equalizer is internal hammer-fired.
The trigger is a single action with a short take-up and quick reset. The slide isn’t as easy as the Shield EZ pistol, but it is lighter than comparable guns on the market for easy slide manipulation.
The gun comes with 10, 13, and 15-round magazines, which gives you options for concealed carry and a higher-capacity backup magazine.
One area of improvement is the factory sights, which are basic white dot iron sights. Upgrading to night sights would be a good move if you plan to use it for concealed carry.
The Equalizer is also optics-ready, so it’s a cinch to mount a red dot to the gun straight away, and the magazine release is reversible so you can swap it to a left-handed configuration.
One note — it’s outfitted with a grip safety, so the main issue for most new shooters is probably going to be establishing a consistent, proper grip, as the gun will not fire without activating that additional safety. If you plan to carry daily with this pistol, you need to dry fire and live fire and intentionally practice getting the perfect grip on the gun every time.
5. Budget Pick: Taurus G3C
- 3.2″ inch barrel
- Overall length: 6.3 inches
- Height: 5.1 inches
- Weight: 22 oz
- Magazines included: 3
- Capacity: 12+1 rounds
- Both affordable and reliable
- 12-round capacity makes this a capable defensive gun
- Heavy for its short barrel length
- G3C triggers are known to be mushy
Much ink has been spilled writing about Taurus’ new entry into the polymer-framed pistol market. I’ve out thousands of rounds through my personal G3C and have gone deep into its pros and cons in our G3C in-depth review.
There are those who would snub their noses at the Brazilian maker’s products without a second thought, but the new G3C is a solid performer and offers unbeatable value – often $150-$200 less than competing striker-fired pistols.
The G3C 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.
6. Best Trigger: Walther PDP
- 4.5 inch barrel
- Overall length: 8 inches
- Height: 5.7 inches
- Weight: 25.4 oz (w/ empty mag)
- Magazines included: 2
- Capacity: 10 or 18 rounds
- Great trigger
- Consistent performance no matter the ammo
- Red dot optimized
- Customizable with interchangeable grip inserts
- Overly aggressive grip texture limits IWB use
- Limited aftermarket support
For those uninterested in the budget set, but aren’t jazzed by the Glocks and M&Ps of the world, Walther has something for you — their Performance Duty Pistol or PDP.
Long a dark horse in the firearms world after emerging from WWII in near ruin, Walther makes some of the best guns anywhere — they have a pedigree on par with any other manufacturer on this list — and the PDP gives you a lot to consider.
First off, Walther pistols are revered for their triggers, and the PDP holds up to that legacy. It uses a slight curve paired with a centered safety blade, so it will feel familiar to anyone who has ever fired a Glock.
The pull is in the Goldilocks zone at around 5.5 lbs once broken in, so you get a good mix of approachability and safety as that pull weight helps prevent accidental discharges.
The grip texture is aggressive — too aggressive for IWB carry for many — but when talking about first handguns, carry fit is less of a concern than getting a good grip and maintaining control, and the hexagonal design of the texture does that incredibly well. Lots of control on offer with this full-sized handgun.
The slide uses what Walther calls “Superterrain Serrations” — and the real value here for a new handgun owner is the degree of traction they offer. The serrations are deep and wide, making racking and manipulation straightforward.
The pistol also has 10 and 18 rounds mag options, so you’ll have plenty of capacity — and the sticks use witness holes so you’ll always know how many rounds are available by just dropping the magazine.
A red dot takes a lot of the guesswork out of getting on target and allows you to keep both eyes open, which increases awareness and peripheral vision.
One really useful aspect of the PDP is its grip ergonomics are red dot optimized — meaning it makes using a red dot even easier for those unfamiliar with an MRD or those lacking muscle memory. Locating the dot and getting on target feels more natural with the PDP than almost any other pistol I have shot. I was surprised at what a big difference it made.
It’s not all sunshine though — Walther’s underdog status means accessory support will be less than other pistols on our list, but that shouldn’t keep you from taking a look at the PDP.
Want more on the PDP? Check out our hands-on review.
7. Best for Women: Walther PDP-F
Walther Arms has always been ahead of its time in designing ergonomic and comfortable grips to fit different hand sizes. The Walther PDP was a huge hit for Walther, and eventually, they released the Walther PDP-F series made specifically for women and those with smaller hand sizes, which we liked enough to place it atop our list of best handguns for women.
In order to make this pistol more accessible for smaller hands, Walther reduced the trigger reach along with the grip circumference and the amount of force needed to operate the slide.
This makes the pistol incredibly straightforward and takes a lot of the intimidation if operating a pistol out of the equation. The PDP-F is available in 3.5-inch and 4-inch barrel versions with both guns offering 15+1 capacity of 9mm.
Just like the larger PDP, the PDP-F is outfitted with the Performance Duty Trigger, which Walther designed to shorten the length of travel and improve the definition of the trigger. The deep slide serrations have always provided me with solid traction on the slide for loading or unloading the pistol.
Another slight tweak on the PDP-F is the grip texture, which uses a slightly less aggressive tetrahedron design. It strikes the right balance of added texture for a good grip on the gun without being as aggressive as the standard PDP, which I find uncomfortable to carry on body. This added textured design helps in extreme heat, rain, ice, and conditions where getting a good grip can be challenging.
While the PDP-F is equipped with iron sights, it is red dot ready. Simply install the proper optic plate compatible with your choice of red dot and you’re off to the races.
I upgraded my Walther PDP-F with a LOK Grips backstrap, flared mag well, and their brass base pads to add a little weight balance to the gun. Even as a carry gun, I like to have texture on my grips, be able to reload easier under stressful situations, and the additional weight contributes to even less felt recoil.
Important Beginner Handgun Considerations
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 automatic pistol — 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 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 handgun choices to ones we think offer the right mix of proven performance and approachability.
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 and 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.
Hands-on performance testing was done for all guns in this guide, and we also drew on years of shooting experience across the team. Online handgun reviews posted by real people at online retailers were used, 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.
While any handgun will certainly send lead down range there are differences in how well they’ll perform, 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:
1. 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 YouTubers 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.
2. Do you recognize the brand?
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.
3. Is the caliber controllable?
There are many, many, different pistol calibers, each with different characteristics and proponents.
In general, I recommend getting a 9mm Luger for your first handgun. 9mm is one of the most popular pistol calibers, is available almost anywhere, and is inexpensive to shoot when compared to other larger calibers which helps with keeping the cost of practice & training down.
Plus its 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 in semi autos), but the 9mm still offers considerable performance in terms of self-defense, and it’s small enough to work well for carry without adding size or too much recoil to the shooting experience.
Also — many police forces (and the U.S. Military) use 9mm, so when it comes to handgun calibers “nines” have 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.
4. Do you need sights?
If your primary concern is self-defense I recommend night sights since most encounters occur after the sun has gone down — e.g. intruders generally operate at night.
The above-recommended pistols all have night sights available for front and rear – but you can certainly use aftermarket products and have them installed by a trusty gunsmith.
Additional options would be something in the way of a red dot, which is great for close-quarters and home defense situations, but requires a compatible mounting plate.
5. What style of ammo are you planning on running?
For home defense purposes, we recommend hollow point rounds because their design enables them to expand when hitting a target — which will stop an intruder in their tracks and prevent overpenetration.
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 (we cover FMJ vs hollow point if you need help deciphering the labels on your local bullet aisle).
For suppressor use, look for sub-sonic 147-grain rounds.
6. Do you need a safety?
This may sound counterintuitive but for beginners, it is often best to avoid a handgun with an external, manual safety lever.
We’re all taught that “red means dead” and weapons should always have the safety on – but training and preparation are the best safety in a real-world scenario to help develop instincts and familiarity with a home defense gun.
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 handguns which might prove too complicated for a beginner shooter.
7. Which action?
Most of the options in this guide point to striker-fired, semi-automatic pistols 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.
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.
They’re more complicated than revolvers, but often that is quickly overcome with some training time.
Revolvers are incredibly reliable but tend to be heavy, offer limited capacity, are slow to reload, and are more challenging to shoot consistently, whereas striker-fired handguns are much more forgiving and can pack a ton of firepower into a small, lightweight package.
8. Is it comfortable to shoot?
My recommendations include a number of full-size handguns due to the larger grip area and a longer sight radius — which improves user-friendliness, helps beginners establish a firm grip, and accommodate a wide variety of hand sizes as compared to more compact pistols.
The feel of a handgun is incredibly important. The more secure a gun fits in your hand — with an emphasis on comfortable trigger reach — the more confidence you’ll have when wielding it, which a full-sized handgun can provide better than smaller options as they have a larger grip area, roomier trigger guard, and softer recoil relative to smaller compact and sub-compact versions.
In addition, larger pistols provide room for advanced features like a low barrel bore axis which can soften shooting and help reduce muzzle flip for those who are recoil sensitive.
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 user a more custom fit to improve grip angle and comfort. This is key because the grip directly impacts trigger reach — if your that reach is too short right handed shooters will have their shots pull to the right. Too much reach will do the opposite and have shots pulling to the left.
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 shooting range or LGS to make sure the final fit is precisely what you’re looking for.
Given that most encounters happen without the benefit of sunlight, using a rail light will help with target verification in low-light environments.
We recommend a light that attaches to the rail for the most secure approach to personal protection.
A laser can drastically improve high-intensity shooting accuracy and is 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.
Price Ranges on Beginner Guns
Luckily, beginner-oriented handguns are often fairly affordable, even for top-performing firearms.
For around the $300 mark, it is possible to get some of the guns I have listed here brand new in the box. But, if you’re having trouble doing that, look for police trade in guns at your local gun store.
They often have a little finish wear thanks to being in a holster, but very few rounds fired thanks to the fact that many police departments do not ask their officers to shoot much for the training. These can be incredible deals on good guns.
For $500 or so, you can expect to get many of the models we’ve talked about here, and you might be able to squeeze in some nice add-ons like better sights, a holster, or a spare magazine. I do advise that beginner shooters don’t spend too much on accessories, though, until you have some range time and get some experience to better know your needs.
Do make sure to make room in your budget for ammo, though: bullets these days, even for 9mm, are expensive, so you’ll want to plan on saving up at least a few hundred dollars for ammo to get competent with your gun.
- 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
March 11, 2023 — We have reviewed and updated links and images throughout this piece, and replaced the Springfield XD-S with the new Smith & Wesson Equalizer, which offers similar capabilities in an easier-to-rack platform with more capacity options. We also added the Walther PDP F to our guide this year as it’s an ideal first handgun for women, a fast growing segment of the market.
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