Which Gun Do I Choose?



People get into guns for a lot of reasons. Most of the time, when you get into it for sport or for hunting there are plenty of folks around to point you in the right direction of “the gun you need”. When it comes to self defense, you hear this too. Unfortunately, you hear it from non-gun owners whose vast firearms knowledge is based on their DVD collection of all the seasons of NCIS. The advice is often based on stereotypes, hollywood lies, and antiquated thinking. I thought I would take a minute to try and offer some other advice.

We’ve all overheard these sage comments. “Get a shotgun!”, “Just hearing a shotgun being racked will make any criminal wet themselves and run away”, “A revolver is what you want, those semi-automatics jam!”, “What you need is a .45! It only takes one shot to kill a bad guy with that.” As with anything there’s truth in those statements but its in a pretty low percentage of the overall message. Here’s some basics to help make your decisions.

Handgun or Shotgun?

This is a polarizing argument that won’t die. Handguns are small, easily handled, stored and carried from room to room. Even in larger calibers, handguns can be quite comfortable to shoot as well. However, there is an accuracy required with handguns above an beyond that of a shotgun. At best your handgun’s bullet is going to be .45″ wide and will have to hit a target about the size of a dinner plate to be immediately effective. It’s no Annie Oakley trick but practice is advised to be proficient.

Shotguns, on the other hand deliver a devastating amount of energy and, because home defense shotgun rounds fire about nine .32″ steel balls at once, tend to offer a larger impact area on that same dinner plate sized target. They are easy to aim, can be fitted with tons of laser sites and flashlights cheaply, and pack a big punch. Even the mighty shotgun has drawbacks though. They are big. It’s tough to store a shotgun (in accordance with MA law) by your bedside and they require two hands to operate meaning you can’t easily be on the phone with 911 at the same time. They also deliver a lot of recoil. Smaller framed individuals will have a hard time firing one more than once or twice. In a self defense situation, adrenaline will cure that but it makes it difficult to practice with. Finally, you’re not as mobile with a shotgun. Shotgun barrels are easy for an intruder to grab as you come through a door and take time to get on target.

In my opinion, and your situation may vary, keep a handgun close and a shotgun in your final retreat area. The old adage “A handgun is what you use to get to a real gun” applies. Keep the handgun secured in your living area or on your person, and keep the shotgun ready in your bedroom or whatever room you plan to run to if an intruder gains entry to your home. And practice with both!


Caliber refers, in general, to the diameter of a bullet. A 9mm bullet is approximately 9mm in diameter and a .45 caliber bullet is approximately .45″ across. The caliber of a bullet, is often given a sort of mythical power. .45s are said to stop villains cold while some will have you convinced that 9mm rounds will simply bounce off a hardened criminal. It’s all bull. Mostly.

Contrary to popular belief, a sudden realization of one’s own mortality is not what most often stops a bad guy when the shooting starts. If a fear of his/her own life was going to be the deterrent, then you racking the shotgun or announcing you’re armed and have called the police would have sent them packing. If you have to shoot them, they are past that fear. In that situation, the only thing that stops a human body from moving (short of a bizarre paralyzing shot) is blood loss. Lose enough blood and your body refuses to move no matter how much will or meth amphetamines you have in your system. When we shoot to stop a threat on our lives, our underlying intent is to create blood loss.

This is where the big calibers get their reputation. A big bullet leaves a big hole and big holes bleed a lot. But, what if you can’t fire that big gun too well? What if the big gun is so powerful that you can’t handle it well enough to get the second shot right on target? In that case, wouldn’t two medium sized holes work better than one big one? Your comfort level with a gun is far more important than its caliber. Anything above .38 caliber for revolver or 9mm for semi auto is more than acceptable as a self defense round without debate. After that, you should find what you shoot well.

So what’s best? You tell me. You’ll need to shoot a few self defense calibers first and decide what feels best and what you shoot best with. For many, a 9mm is a great place to start. Continued practice with larger calibers will make you more proficient with them allowing you to move up if you choose.

Revolver or Semi Automatic

You may have heard someone tell you that semi automatics are always jamming and revolvers are the only reliable handgun. That person was probably an old man chomping on a three day old cigar and yelling at kids to get off of his lawn.

In the early days of the semi automatic pistol there were problems. The mechanics of an SA pistol are such that if it is not properly maintained, its operational tolerances are disturbed and malfunctions can occur. Revolvers, on the other hand are bit more forgiving. Because their mechanics are simple, they tend to function until something literally breaks or until they are so fouled that you can’t even put cartridges in them any more.

Today, the modern SA pistol is very reliable. When even moderately well maintained and fed quality ammunition, most will function flawlessly for hundreds and hundreds of rounds before needing to be cleaned again. Malfunctions typically happen when people neglect their guns. Your car won’t run for long without oil, neither will your gun.

So how do revolvers and semi autos stack up against each other? The biggest drawback of revolvers is capacity. Most only hold 5-7 rounds (in self defense calibers) and reloading takes a lot of time and manipulation of the gun. The other drawback is trigger pull. Because the revolver relies on a manual operation, you must either cock the hammer with your thumb or, in a double action revolver, pull the trigger to cock and release it. Cocking the hammer by hand is time consuming and the long double action trigger pull requires a lot of practice to execute while being accurate.

Semi autos are more mechanically complicated. Cleaning is a little more involved and, includes maintaining magazines (faulty or dirty magazines are the most common form of SA malfunction). However, semi autos are available in a vast variety of calibers, sizes, and shapes allowing for a nearly custom fit if one desires. Trigger pull (in many SAs) is generally much lighter and is very customizable with the help of a good gunsmith. Capacity is much greater, although in MA we are limited (in most cases) to 10 rounds, as well can reloading can be done with an hours worth of practice in under 3 seconds.

So which do you choose? My money is on semi automatics and this is my standard recommendation. However, if you are in love with revolvers and shoot them well, a wheel gun may be a good choice for you.

In Summary

Pardon the pun, but, there is no magic bullet. The same formula doesn’t work for everyone and we shouldn’t expect it to. When choosing your guns, consider your physical needs, experience, ability to practice, and any limitations you might have. Consider fit to be just as important in your gun decisions as it would be in buying a good desk chair, gloves, or a good jacket. It’s not going to fit any better later so if it doesn’t feel good in your hand at the counter, leave it there. Finally, don’t take anyone’s advice (including mine) as the final word. Take in all you can and make the most educated decision you can for your needs.