Whether you’re a long-time handgun owner, have only recently purchased your first handgun, or are looking to do so soon, there are a few universal truths we can all benefit from knowing.
You might have prior knowledge of the topics covered in this chapter, in which case it will serve as a supplementary source for revising your understanding of handguns. And in any case, as responsible handgun owners, it serves us well to not neglect these basic, but fundamental concepts.
WHAT IS A HANDGUN?
Knowing exactly what a handgun is will make the rest of this chapter – and indeed the rest of this course – more streamlined and focused. It’s a very basic set of knowledge often overlooked in the community, yet it serves as the very foundation of handgun ownership and use.
So what is a handgun?
It might seem obvious to you that, as Merriam-Webster’s dictionary puts it, a handgun is “a firearm (such as a revolver or pistol) designed to be held and fired with one hand.”
But is this all there is to handguns? Is the term merely a descriptive means of designating a collection of firearms based on their size? We don’t think so – and history can back us up on this one.
You see, before Samuel Colt patented his Colt Paterson revolver in 1836, handguns were not as common as they are today. In fact, they were so expensive to produce they were considered something of a badge of office, much like swords had been (despite the popular misconception that swords were the most common weapon of the Medieval Period).
Handguns are obviously no longer considered a badge of office in America, though this might still be true in some other countries where their use is limited to that of law enforcement. Instead, handguns developed into primarily a firearm of self-defense – the topic of Chapter 3.
This is not, of course, to dismiss the use of handguns in competition shooting! But this is why our understanding of handguns hinges on the word “primarily.” Even when used as a secondary weapon by military personnel, a handgun is primarily a defensive firearm.
So what’s a better definition of a handgun?
We think it should be “a handgun is a firearm (such as a revolver or pistol) designed to be held and fired with one hand, though better stabilized when the second hand cups the first, primarily carried and used for self-defense.”
A BRIEF HISTORY OF HANDGUNS
While understanding the history of handguns is not strictly necessary for handgun owners, having this knowledge helps foster a greater respect for the firearm. And having a healthy respect for your firearm is, of course, always beneficial.
It all starts with the discovery of the first gunpowder by Chinese alchemists, circa 850 CE. Originally a mixture of potassium nitrate, sulfur, and softwood charcoal, the black powder was concocted in the alchemists’ attempts to develop an elixir of life. In fact, for many years, its primary use was in the treatment of wounds.
The ingredients were experimented with for a while before a more effective mixture was developed and the powder’s explosive qualities discovered.
A Chinese Buddhist who practiced alchemy reportedly wrote “Some have heated together the saltpeter, sulfur, and carbon of charcoal with honey; smokes and flames result, so that their hands and faces have been burned, and even the whole house burned down.”
Shortly after, the powder found a new use in fireworks. The military applications were quickly experimented with to develop the world’s first primitive cannons (likely comprising hollow bamboo loaded with gunpowder and a large projectile) and grenades (likely bags or even pots of gunpowder).
Matchlock handguns first appeared in use by the Ottoman army’s Janissary corps sometime between 1394 and the 1440s CE.
While the Chinese Heilongjiang hand cannon of the mid-13th century and the fire arrow launchers of circa 969 CE China might be considered the first forays in handgun design, the matchlock was the first such firearm to truly facilitate the older handguns most of us are familiar with.
To fire a matchlock, the trigger had to be released to move a spring-loaded lever known as the serpentine.
The serpentine held a slow-burning match, typically lit at both ends, which would be lowered into the flash pan and held a small quantity of gunpowder acting as a propellant. These could be likened to the firing pin and primer of modern handguns.
Once the primer was ignited, the force of its explosion propelled the projectile (typically a small metal ball).
Around 1500 CE, the matchlock’s design was improved by the invention of the wheellock, which gets its name from a rotating wheel. The steel wheellock is forced to spin when the trigger is pulled; creating friction against a piece of pyrite to generate sparks. These would then ignite the gunpowder primer and cause the weapon to discharge.
The wheellock pistol can actually be thought of as the first true handgun matching the dictionary definition. While the matchlock required both hands to operate, the wheellock could be readied and fired effectively with one hand.
Flintlock pistols were developed in the 17th century and used a flint-strike as their ignition mechanism.
The hammer held a piece of flint and was cocked back to ready the firearm. Pulling the trigger released the mainspring, bringing the hammer down at a rapid speed so the flint struck against a piece of steel called the frizzen.
This would create intense sparks, which were actually tiny flakes of steel that burned at an incredibly high temperature. When these came into contact with the gunpowder primer, held in a pan, the flintlock discharged.
Caplock pistols replaced flintlocks in the early 19th century. Instead of a flint striking against a steel frizzen, the hammer struck a “nipple” (also called a “cone”), which was a small protruding piece of steel that contained a percussion cap.
The percussion cap held a small amount of mercury fulminate, which acted as the primer. When the nipple was struck, the mercury fulminate exploded, igniting the gunpowder charge in the barrel and propelling the loaded projectile.
Caplocks removed the flintlock’s powder pan smoke, which preceded the actual discharge by long enough for birds to escape the shot. It was also more weatherproofed than the flintlock, as well as more reliable.
Revolvers have a long and fascinating history of their own, but it all started with the one we mentioned earlier: the 1836 Colt Paterson.
The Colt Paterson was the first handgun that could be practically mass-produced. Once the hammer was released by the trigger, its strike ignited the black gunpowder charge held in the first chamber of the revolving cylinder. This in turn propelled the bullet, either a .28 caliber or (starting in 1837) a .36 caliber.
Colt went on to improve the design, starting with a loading lever and capping window in 1839. In 1846, Colt and Captain Samuel Hamilton Walker designed the Colt Walker, which added a sixth chamber and used .44 caliber lead rounds.
It remains the largest and most powerful revolver in history.
However, the 1857 Smith & Wesson Model 1 was the first revolver to use metallic rimfire cartridges, with self-contained primer and projectiles.
Colt’s Model 1889 (named after its year of introduction) then became the first true double-action revolver, as well as the first to use the “swing-out” cylinder rather than the prior “top-break” and “side-loading” cylinders that preceded it.
Derringers were first developed in 1852 as single-shot pistols using a muzzleloading action and percussion cap. They were designed to be used as self-defense firearms and have become synonymous with the terms “pocket pistol” and “palm pistol” used to describe similar handguns produced by others.
Modern variants include the 1983 four-shot COP .357.
Semi-automatic pistols first emerged in 1896 with the Mauser C96 “Broomhandle.” Like all semi-automatic firearms, the spent casing is ejected after a round is fired, and the next round is automatically chambered. The Mauser C96 used recoil energy to chamber the next round.
Blowback was first introduced as a semi-automatic reloading operation with the 1929 Walther PP. Rather than using recoil energy, blowback pistols used the casing ejection’s energy to load the next round.
Semi-automatic pistols are the most common handguns in modern use, though there are of course modern revolvers too.
Machine pistols, like all fully-automatic firearms, are capable of firing a round, ejecting the spent casing, automatically loading the next round, and repeating this process for as long as the trigger is compressed (held down). Pistols that offer selective-firing (the ability to switch between semi-automatic, burst mode, and/or fully-automatic) also fall under this category. Fully-automatic pistols first emerged in Austria during World War 1 with the Steyr Repetierpistole M1912/P16.
Such handguns are notoriously difficult to use effectively with any measure of sustained aim. For this reason, most have an attachable shoulder stock, while others (such as the Beretta 93R) have a forward handgrip for two-handed use.
It’s worth pointing out it is currently illegal for citizens of any state to own a fully-automatic firearm manufactured after 1986, as per the Firearm Owners Protection Act of that year, which builds onto the National Firearms Act of 1934.
Fully-automatic firearms produced before 1986 need to be registered with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). The manufacture, selling, and ownership of fully-automatic firearms requires a special license, issued by ATF, which involves a lengthy and extensive background investigation.
UNDERSTANDING CARTRIDGE TYPES
Cartridges – the self-contained combination of primer, gunpowder, and projectile (most commonly a bullet) – are differentiated according to the primer’s placement, the cartridge’s caliber, and its casing. It’s important to understand these differences because they can (and will) influence the type of handgun you use.
The primer’s placement is typically divided into two categories: rimfire and centerfire. Rimfire cartridges have their primers built into the casing’s rim, whereas centerfire cartridge primers are placed in the center.
Centerfire cartridges are further divided into two subcategories: boxer and Berdan primers. Boxer primers tend to be self-contained and channel their charge through a narrow gap in the divide between the primer and the projectile’s propellant (gunpowder). Berdan primers, on the other hand, aren’t self-contained and feature a small centerpiece that further separates the divide between primer and propellant into two small gaps.
Next, you get different calibers. “Caliber” refers to the barrel’s internal bore diameter and is typically measured in either inches or millimeters. This, in turn, dictates the diameter of the cartridge.
Here are the 5 most popular handgun calibers (bear in mind many others do exist):
Finally, we come to the casings.
Jacketed hollow points are highly similar to the open-tip, but have some fundamental differences beyond the scope of this text.
As a handgun user, you’re most likely to be using hollow points for defense and full-metal jacket cartridges for practice. This is an unwritten rule, but one that makes sense, as full-metal jacket rounds tend to be significantly cheaper. Hollow points are also less likely to over-penetrate (go right through your target), as they expand inside the target.
With that said, your handgun will also handle slightly differently depending on the casing used. So it’s still important to practice with hollow points, even though using full-metal jacket rounds are cheaper.
There are other casing types (including soft tip, ballistic tip, open tip, and jacketed hollow points), but you aren’t as likely to use any of them with a handgun. An exception would be the use of ballistic tips in competition shooting.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT HANDGUN FOR YOU
Now that you know what a handgun is, have a basic understanding of the firearm’s history, and understand caliber, it’s time to start thinking about what the right handgun for you is.
This section is specially designed for those looking to buy their first handgun. However, even if you’re a long-time handgun owner, you might find this information useful in helping guide your next purchase.
First, when setting out to choose a handgun, don’t simply ask your gun friend. While they’re likely to be enthusiastic about the matter and might have a wealth of knowledge to impart, their advice is ultimately going to be shaped by their own experience, likes, and dislikes.
No matter how good their intentions are, they’re not really going to think about what’s right for you as an individual. At best, they might approach the matter thinking about what might be right for you as a beginner instead.
You also don’t want to take the advice of the guy behind the counter too literally. Again, they might have a wealth of knowledge and good intentions, but ultimately they’re looking to make a sale. This means their recommendations might be influenced (even on a subconscious level) by the handguns that yield the most profit per sale and/or the models they’re struggling to sell.
By all means, sit and discuss your options with them. But first, and most importantly, answer the following questions for yourself before making a decision.
1. What’s the Intended Use?
You probably have a good idea of the answer to this question already. After all, it’s likely what shaped the decision to get a handgun in the first place.
There are many different uses for handguns, but they all boil down to one of two things: sport and self-defense.
The sport might include competition shooting (something first-time gun owners may want to leave for later) or simply spending time at the range. Self-defense might include home defense, personal defense while in public, or work-related reasons for needing a firearm.
As a general rule, low caliber pistols are better suited for sport-related use. Examples include a .22, .32, and .380. These calibers and the handguns made for them tend to have less felt recoil, making them easier to handle and more comfortable to use.
For defensive shooting, on the other hand, you might want something that packs more punch. While a low-caliber handgun can still be used effectively at close quarters, a higher caliber – such as the 9mm, .40, and .45 – is generally more appropriate.
2. What’s Your Budget?
Remember you’re absolutely going to get what you pay for. Even if you’re a first-time gun owner, your budget should ideally fall between $400 and $800.
This way, even the cheaper models falling into this price range are going to have a proven track record of reliability, be ergonomically designed for comfort, and are more likely to have an excellent warranty.
As an example, the Springfield Armory XD Service 4” 45 ACP costs in the region of $470. It’s a lightweight, basic model that’s easy to load and has a convenient guide on the fixed rear sight. The drawback is it has fairly strong recoil, the safety features aren’t as easy to set up, and the firearm requires some extensive cleaning and maintenance.
A little higher up the price range is the Glock G19X G5, a 9mm Luger with an extended 17-round magazine and a price tag of around $600. The benefits include better grip and a built-in night sight to assist in aim, though it still requires regular cleaning.
If you have more experience with handguns, a more expensive model with more extensive features will be more appropriate. However, you shouldn’t feel compelled to increase your budget if you’re quite happy with a handgun that falls in the same $400 to $800 price range.
3. What’s Your Experience Level?
If this is your first handgun and you’re using it to learn how to shoot as a complete novice, then you’re better off choosing a handgun that’s relatively comfortable to use. This is because, as a first-time shooter, using a firearm won’t be exactly comfortable to begin with. Comfort will come with time and practice.
You also want to steer away from compact and subcompact handguns. While their smaller size makes them a lot easier to concealed carry, they have a higher level of felt recoil making them harder to control as a beginner. You’re better off sticking with a full-frame model instead.
On the other hand, if you already have a decent level of experience with full-frame handguns and are looking for something more compact, don’t hold back. As long as you have a relatively high level of competency with full-frame firearms, a compact or subcompact could be the new challenge you’re looking for.
You should also take the safety and decocking mechanism into consideration when considering a handgun. The more complicated these are, the steeper your learning curve will be.
This is also where the price range tends to increase.
4. New or Second-Hand?
This is largely down to your personal preference and purchasing habits.
Buying a second-hand firearm can help you shop for a handgun in the higher price range at a lower price. Most used handguns sell for 25% or even 50% off the original price, so it can help your budget.
However, you still want to stick to a known and trusted brand, as most of them offer lifetime warranties that are attached to the gun rather than the owner. You’re also less likely to end up with a problematic handgun this way.
Additionally, when buying a second-hand firearm, it’s always good practice to ask if the seller is willing to accompany you to a firing range so you can test the handgun. This isn’t always possible and may not always be practical though, so don’t walk away if the seller isn’t able to accommodate this kind of request.
5. How Does It Feel?
Perhaps the most important question to ask yourself at the end of the day is how the handgun feels when you’re using it.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re buying new or second-hand. Do yourself a favor and rent a handgun to practice with on-site, if the option is available. It’s best if you have a few different models in mind, based on your answers to the previous questions, in case you find you don’t like the feel of the one you originally chose.
This way, when you make the investment of purchasing your handgun, you already have a fair idea of what your experience using it is like.
With the basics out of the way, it’s time to move on to Chapter 2, where you’ll learn how to use a handgun safely and improve your skills through dry firing.