I've written a fair number of articles about training disabled and handicapped shooters, and discussed their firearm and ammunition options (see the list of articles in the sidebar). However, I've never covered the field of handgun quality in general, and which 'brand names' are worthwhile purchases in today's market. I've had a couple of questions come my way about this in recent weeks, so I thought I'd try to give a generalized summary of what's currently out there and worth (or not worth) buying. These remarks are, of course, directed at American shooters in the US market. Elsewhere in the world, other considerations may apply.
I'm not going to get into the question of whether to buy a semi-automatic pistol or a revolver. That's a matter of individual need and preference, and has been exhaustively discussed elsewhere (see, for example, here, here, here and here for different opinions on the subject). In the interests of full disclosure, I primarily rely on Glock pistols in my defensive battery, with other weapons (including Smith & Wesson revolvers) as backup or alternative pieces under particular circumstances. YMMV.
Let's start with the simplest, most basic consideration. A defensive handgun has to offer at least three primary attributes, in the following order:
- Mechanical reliability.
- Ability to feed and function with a wide variety of ammunition.
(A revolver bypasses the second attribute, as unlike a pistol it doesn't have to load ammunition from a magazine, up a feed ramp and into a firing chamber. 'Feeding' problems are thus almost non-existent.) There are many other attributes (e.g. power, size, ergonomics, ease of concealment, etc.), but they're more related to the person carrying the weapon and the environment(s) in which it may be used. Each individual will have to research them for him- or herself, try out different handguns to find out which works best in his or her hands, and make a selection accordingly. However, the three criteria above are critical for all defensive handguns, irrespective of any others.
US police forces bet their lives on their duty handguns and ammunition every day. As a result they research and test their choices, looking for the above attributes, to a much more exhaustive level than most of us. Many smaller departments rely on testing done by larger forces (e.g. the FBI, the LAPD in California, the NYPD in New York, etc.). Since this testing has already been done, you can usually be sure that any handgun or ammunition approved for use by most major law enforcement agencies is likely to be 'state-of-the-art' and meet the requirements listed above.
(This has the added benefit that if [God forbid] you actually have to use your gun defensively, and a wounded Joe Scumbag hires a not-so-tame shark to assert in court that you deliberately shot his client's innocent ass with a super-powerful ultra-aggressive weapon of war loaded with über-nasty ammunition designed solely to cause excessive suffering to harmless hard-working
Defensive handguns approved and widely used by US police forces can be expected to meet the criteria above. Even so, you should still test any handgun carefully before relying on it, because even well-established and highly-respected manufacturers can have their problems. To name only a few, in alphabetical order by manufacturer, there's:
- The Glock kaboom! controversy, the NYPD's 'Phase 3' malfunctions with its Glock 19's, and recoil spring problems with 4th-generation Glock pistols (all since corrected):
- Ruger's recall of early-production SR9 pistols to correct trigger problems;
- Smith & Wesson's recall of early-production M&P Shield pistols;
- Springfield Armory's recall last year of its new XD-S pistols.
There have been many, many more problems and product recalls from many other manufacturers - those are only a few to illustrate the scale of the problem. Nevertheless, reputable manufacturers do recall and upgrade their weapons when problems arise, because they know they'll be driven out of business if they don't. Less reputable manufacturers, or those situated far away from the US market, may not be so scrupulous in fulfilling their responsibilities. Caveat emptor, and all that sort of thing.
It remains the purchaser's responsibility to test each individual handgun for fit, function and reliability before trusting his or her life to it. For example, Kahr Arms recommends that its pistols be 'broken in' with a minimum of 200 rounds. Frankly, I think that's too little. I suggest a 500-round break-in for any new pistol, of which the last 200 should be free of any problems, before being willing to trust your life to it. (I also agree with Massad Ayoob's long-standing recommendation that you fire 200 rounds of your preferred defensive round through your handgun, using the magazines you'll carry 'on the street', without a single malfunction, before relying on it to save your life in an emergency. If you encounter even one problem during testing, the count is reset to 1 again and you restart the cycle with another 200 rounds. If you continue to encounter problems, either send the gun back to the manufacturer for repairs or replace it with something more reliable. That's an expensive test, given the current price of premium defensive handgun ammo, but IMHO it's an important reliability check. To make the most of it, I'd put at least 300 cheaper rounds downrange to break in the pistol before starting to test it with costlier carry ammo.)
All that said, let's divide the market into three 'tiers'. The top tier comprises manufacturers whose weapons are widely approved for duty and/or backup use by US police forces (and by some military units). As such they've been extensively tested, and their manufacturers have demonstrated that they stand behind their weapons and can be relied upon to fix any problems that arise. This top tier includes, in alphabetical order by manufacturer (links are to their US Web sites, and were correct at the time of writing):
- FN (Fabrique Nationale)
- Heckler & Koch
- Kahr Arms
- Sig Sauer
- Smith & Wesson
A second tier of manufacturers produce handguns of good to very good quality, but which have not been widely approved for use by police forces. They often, but not always, cost somewhat less than first-tier handguns. Some people dislike second-tier firearms based on bad experience(s) with them (see, for example, fellow blogger PDB's very negative opinions of lower-quality guns, including his experiences with Ruger's SR series and Springfield's XD range, or Tamara's comments about Taurus handguns some years ago). On the other hand, there are those who are very happy with them, based on their own experience. I tend to be neutral. For example, although I mostly carry Glocks, I also currently own multiple examples of Ruger SR, Springfield XD and Taurus handguns. I simply ensure that each individual weapon can pass the function tests I mentioned above. If it does, I'm willing to trust my life to it, or the life of one of my disabled students (for whom those pistols are ultimately intended). If not, it goes back to the manufacturer for repair or replacement. (By the way, I respect PDB's and Tamara's opinions. They know their stuff, and I listen when they speak. You should too. I merely take the approach of testing each pistol individually to see whether it's up to scratch. YMMV.)
This 'second tier' of manufacturers includes (again in alphabetical order):
- CZ-USA (including Dan Wesson firearms)
- Springfield Armory
- Sturm, Ruger & Co.
(On a personal note, I trusted my life to a CZ 75 pistol in South Africa for several years. It never let me down. The only reason CZ isn't included in the list of 'first tier' manufacturers is that their handguns haven't been widely approved in the USA for police issue or use. Despite that, I think they're every bit as good as, say, Glock or Smith & Wesson - certainly the best of the 'second tier' manufacturers, IMHO. There are three CZ firearms in my gun safe right now, and I'm sure there'll be more in future.)
I think the 'third tier' of handguns includes every manufacturer not listed in tiers 1 or 2 above. Some of them are of execrable quality, so bad I'd only recommend them to thugs, gang-bangers and my worst enemies. Others produce reasonable-quality weapons, but have quality control problems that mean one can never be sure whether a particular example will be good or bad. To avoid complications, I simply say that under normal circumstances I prefer not to recommend any handgun from a manufacturer not listed above. If they're all that's available or affordable, I'd test them very, very carefully before trusting my life to them . . . and even then I'd probably try to replace them with a better weapon as soon as possible.
(There's an important exception to that. There are many specialist or 'niche' manufacturers turning out very high-quality pistols, usually at much higher prices. They include, for example, Les Baer, Nighthawk Custom, Wilson Combat and numerous other companies. I think anyone who can afford their prices will be very well served indeed by their firearms, but they're beyond the budget of most of us. The fact that I don't include them here reflects that reality rather than anything negative about their handguns. In a nutshell, if you see a handgun company charging well into four figures for its weapons, you can assume they fall into this select group - or are trying to pretend they do. A quick Internet search will soon reveal their reputation.)
There are many companies offering products that they claim will 'enhance' or 'improve' standard pistols. I respectfully suggest that if your chosen pistol needs many such 'enhancements' to make it suitable for defensive use, you either don't understand how to use it properly or you've chosen poorly. Out of the box, the only additions a basic defensive handgun should need include night sights (if not already fitted); a laser sighting system if you want one (I like them on smaller defensive firearms with difficult-to-use sights, and prefer Crimson Trace lasers over all others for their ease of use and instinctive activation as you grasp the grip); a clip-on light under certain (not all) operational circumstances; and a good holster. Lots of companies and lots of gun shops will try to sell you more or less expensive add-ons over and above those basics. (To name but a few examples, see the offerings of Apex Tactical, Galloway Precision or Glockmeister, or the extensive online catalogs of Brownells or Midway USA.) I don't think most of the 'enhancements' on offer are actually necessary, although some that improve ergonomics might be useful (such as extended slide or magazine release catches). However, such 'improvements' may actually bring new problems with them (such as extra-strength recoil springs that make it more difficult to retract the slide to check whether a pistol is loaded, or extended slide and magazine catches that are so big they might be accidentally activated when you don't mean to). I think a good-quality handgun should be entirely usable for its intended purpose with the parts and accessories provided by its manufacturer. Again, YMMV.
All right, let's assume you've found the handgun you want, bought it, tested it thoroughly, and decided to trust your life to it. The next step, if it's at all possible and affordable, is to buy another one just like it and test it just as thoroughly. That's very important. Your primary handgun can break down and have to be sent off for repairs; or, if you have to use it defensively, it'll disappear into a police evidence locker for weeks, months, even years. Even if you're acquitted of any wrongdoing, it may be a long time before you get it back; and when you do, it might have been disfigured by having an evidence number engraved all over the metal, or be rusted shut from having been put away dirty and wet without having been cleaned. The police will seldom look after your weapon as carefully as you do. For all those reasons, you need to have a second handgun available to you at short notice, one that operates in the same way as your primary weapon and is equipped with the same sights, lights, lasers, etc. (whatever you've installed on your primary weapon), so that it's familiar to you. If you have to shoot Joe Scumbag to stop him attacking you, and the police take your gun as evidence, then his fellow gang members come looking for revenge, you'd better have something available with which to defend yourself! There's a reason for the old saying that "Two is one and one is none". Think about it . . . and act on it.
As an alternative, you might want to have a second defensive handgun of similar design that's more concealable than your primary weapon. For example, a Glock 17 is a full-size service handgun. It's much too big to fit into a normal trouser pocket. The sub-compact Glock 26 can use the same full-size magazines as the Glock 17 if required, but (when fitted with its own smaller magazine) can be concealed in a pocket- or ankle-holster. If light clothing won't allow you to conceal the larger weapon, you might still be able to take the smaller one with you; and if your primary weapon is out of action, the smaller model works in the same way and can use the same magazines, sights, etc., making it an acceptable short-term substitute until you get the primary weapon back or can replace it. Even if smaller weapons can't use the same sights and magazines as their larger counterparts, they can still operate in similar ways and thus be relatively easy to interchange if necessary. (For example, the Ruger SR9 full-size pistol has controls similar to those of the much smaller and more concealable Ruger LC9s).
There are many other things that can be said about handgun selection, but I think I've covered most of the important bases here. I invite readers to contribute their own suggestions in Comments.