What is the Best Handgun?
At various gun boards we see "What is the best automatic for me to buy?" In areas dedicated to wheel guns the same question concerning revolvers is common as well. Sadly, what too often occurs is that opinions will be given and the thread gets hijacked due to others arguing and sometimes calling names. I get several Emails and Private Messages a week on this very subject so I thought I'd post how I see this issue.
If the person asking the question does not give their skill or handgun experience level, I assume that they are probably new to handguns. In most instances I've found that "best handgun" is with reference to self-defense and this makes sense. The majority who hunt with handguns are pretty well seasoned shooters and those who simply enjoy handgun shooting at the range or who compete in various matches have probably already decided for themselves what's best. Most reading this article have decided this issue for themselves as well, but some will not have.
It is my belief that more important than action type, caliber, "stopping power", or brand firearm is competence. It has been said that the mind is the weapon and the firearm the tool and this is true. If people simply cannot bring themselves to actually shoot another person who's trying to serious injure or kill them, it really doesn't matter what handgun they have. Paraphrasing John Wayne in The Shootist, "They have to be willing."
Assuming that they are willing (so far as can actually be "known" without having done "it"), they have to be competent. This word means different things to different folks, but my meaning in this context is that they must be able to operate their chosen handgun in but an instant without fumbling or having to remember what to do to make it fire. They must be able to do this almost without thinking as sudden attack with its attendant fear, excitement, or terror is a given in the defensive scenario. Simple things like disengaging a thumb safety are too easily forgotten in a panic situation by folks who do not regularly practice with that firearm and from the way in which it is carried or stored. If the attack is not sudden, but imminent it's been my observation as well that a large number of folks will instinctively put their finger on the trigger. This will sometimes lead to the negligent discharge. So, after being willing and able to make the gun discharge without hesitation, the person should be versed in safe gun handling so that it is second nature and just automatically done.
Obviously this means that I believe in training and practice, but I'm also realistic enough to know that quite a few will not really do this. They'll buy a handgun, go to a range or place in the country and bang away at a target or two and call it done. Unless the handgun is a DAO, most shots will be fired single-action even though a majority of defensive handguns are not set up to be carried in such a manner.
Does this mean that these folks should not be able to have a handgun for protection? Not to me, but I think their chances against a determined aggressor are much lower than those of the competent shooter. In many instances, being able to actually hit the target is not the problem; making the gun fire when needed is. Most deadly force scenarios seem to be at extremely close range where police scenarios can involve greater distances. Marksmanship in the line of importance is secondary to being willing and being able to quickly fire the weapon.
With marksmanship, there are factors to be considered as well. A decent trigger pull, ease of use by the person in question, and recoil seem to be the most important from what I've seen. After that come sights, finish, and other options.
In self-defense circles, the .45 ACP 1911 has a huge number of supporters and I'm one, but this might very well not be the "best" handgun for some folks. For the non-shooting enthusiast simply interested in protection, this single-action's manual of arms will very likely be forgotten in a heart-pounding, terror-filled life-or-death situation. The very attributes that make it extremely efficient in competent hands can work against the less experienced user. This pistol frequently comes with a trigger light enough to be negligently fired by panicked people who've forgotten how to use this type weapon. This assumes that they remember to disengage the thumb safety.
In experienced hands, I think the single-action automatic is a top choice and it is my first choice if I knew I was going to be in a pistol fight and there was no other way. Does that mean it's best for all people? Nope! Such a weapon would probably very well serve some police officers or shooting enthusiasts, but a person not interested in firearms would be better off with something different. Remember that I'm talking about folks who will actually wind up with minimal shooting and training with whatever gun they choose. Folks who actually learn how to use 1911's, Hi Power's, etc, will have what I consider very fine defensive arms.
I really don't find the DA/SA automatic much better in this regard. The hammer will usually be cocked if there's time and I'll bet the trigger has a finger on it with all the slack taken out. In most instances, there will be no safety engaged, as many such pistols don't have one allowing for cocked and locked. Assuming that shooting does occur and the first shot's fired double-action, the gun is now cocked and a much lighter trigger pull is all that's required for subsequent shots. Will the person who's not fired the gun but rarely remember this under stress? The potential for an unintended, negligent shot looms.
The SIG-Sauer pistols are generally well-respected for their reliability and accuracy. This P-225 has never malfunctioned, but like so many of this type action, it does not have any external safety. Like the double-action revolver, it relies on a long, somewhat heavy double-action trigger pull for that and an external decocker for lowering the cocked hammer after a shot's been fired. It's surprising how many times I see folks manually decocking such firearms by easing down the hammer after pulling the trigger. Would this even be remembered after a shooting? I wonder if keeping the pistol pointed in a safe direction might not also be forgotten?
What about Glock pistols or DAO automatics?
I think that in general they are better, but the Glock has a trigger pull that is easier than most DAO automatics' and I've also seen non-shooters cause normally very reliable pistols to malfunction, usually from not a firm enough grip.
You probably see where I'm going.
It's my opinion based on several years of teaching my state's concealed handgun licensing course that the "best" handgun for the new shooter or a person into protection but not handguns is the double-action revolver. I do not necessarily think a snub is the way to go, particularly if the gun's to be carried in the glove box or just kept at the home. The very things that makes the snub desirable as a carry gun work against it for the inexperienced shooter: light weight enhances felt recoil, shorter sight radius, and they don't point so well as longer barrel versions, and they do usually hold one less shot. Yet, women seem to really like these "cute" little guns. More than a few gun shop folks will recommend these for first-time defense handguns. It's been my observation actually watching newer shooters that they do significantly better with a medium frame revolver having at least a 3" barrel and preferably 4". Certainly this contributes to marksmanship via the longer sight radius, but also because the guns don't recoil as much as their lighter, smaller cousins. The felt recoil transmitted is also over a wider area and doesn't feel nearly so "sharp."
To me, the best handgun for the less-experienced person is the K-frame (or L-frame) S&W chambered in .357 Magnum and having a 4" barrel. I also strongly suggest the use of .38 Special ammunition in such cases. Probably the very best is something like the 4" Model 65, 3" Ladysmith, or now discontinued Model 681 as they have the universally popular K-frame grip and fixed sights and heavy barrels to reduce muzzle flip. As these revolvers are stainless steel, they're more tolerant of less than ideal maintenance. These can be fitted with grips that are compact to oversized, whatever the owner prefers. The discontinued Colt Police Positive would also serve well in my opinion, but is usually in blue. Next up would be the blue versions of these guns like the Model 13 and the Model 10 even though the latter is chambered only in .38 Special, precluding possible future use of magnums should the owner actually get into shooting.
While not the "best" or most powerful defensive round, I think the .38 Special strikes an adequate blow when loaded with proper ammunition and in a medium frame revolver, the vast majority of inexperienced shooters can still handle the recoil. A person who can actually operate their gun when terrified is a plus and it gets better if they can handle it so that they actually get hits. I think the thirty-eight lends itself well to this. The person not having fired their gun in a year or two is probably going to do better with the lighter kicking .38 than a .357 Magnum especially if more than one shot is required.
If a snub just must be chosen for the inexperienced, I'd definitely recommend an all-steel one like this Ruger SP101 and I'd go with the 3" version if possible. Likewise, with the S&W revolvers, I'd go with steel, either stainless or blued over the lightweight models. Felt recoil is considerably less, but not as reduced as when firing the same loads from a larger framed revolver.
In this picture we see the K-frame S&W Model 19 (top) and the J-frame snub. Yes, the Model 19's heavier and harder to conceal, but IF the gun's not being carried on the person, this makes no difference and it's much easier for most folks to handle when loaded with .38 ammo. It would probably be better if these guns were stainless if owned by people not really into shooting and how to properly care for their handguns.
These two S&W J-frame revolvers are of stainless steel and chambered for .357 Magnum. If a very compact revolver is insisted upon, their extra weight will be appreciated when shooting. I strongly recommend that they be loaded with .38 ammunition for the inexperienced. While I firmly believe that the K or L frames are better EXCEPT for concealment, these or the Ruger SP101 would be high on my list for small frame revolvers. A 3" Model 60 in .38 Special would also be a top choice IF going with the snub. At one time a 3" version of S&W's hammerless Centennial was available in .38 Special and in stainless. This would also be a good choice in snub-nose revolvers as only a deliberate double-action shot could be fired in a panic situation. Certainly, any of the revolvers shown can have their single-action capabilities removed, but I seriously doubt that many people actually do this.
My idea of the "perfect" revolver for the non-enthusiast would be a K-frame (or L) having a 4" heavy barrel and has an internal hammer like the S&W J-frame Centennial snubs. While I personally prefer blued firearms, a better choice might be stainless steel. It would have fixed sights and chambered for .357 Magnum, but again, for the inexperienced, I strongly suggest thirty-eight's.