Best Handgun for Beginners & Home Defense [2018]

Not sure what pistol to get for your first gun or home defense?

We’ll cover important decision points such as caliber, ammo, size, ergonomics, price, and safety.

And then end it with some of our personal suggestions.

Best Beginner Handguns
Best Beginner Handguns

Best Beginner Handguns

We also cover this topic in-depth in our video course, Gun Noob to Gun Slinger.  Only the most important handgun knowledge to get you competent in 2 hours.

Table of Contents

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Caliber

You ready?

Common Bullet Calibers
Common Bullet Calibers

In our previous caliber article, you saw the popular 9mm and .45 ACP cartridges as well as some different types of bullets such as the full metal jacket (FMJ) and hollow points.

Now, we drill down and recommend getting a 9mm for your beginner handgun.

Why?

The 9mm is easy to find and cheap when compared to other calibers (~20 cents for a 9mm FMJ and ~40 cents for a .45 ACP round).  It’s smaller size means it has mild recoil and higher capacity magazines (usually 15+).

Plus, the majority of police forces use 9mm and the FBI recently returned to the 9mm after finding that the current .40 S&W rounds were causing excessive wear on pistols and were less easily controlled by female agents.

Ammo

9mm 115 gr Federal FMJ vs 124 gr Federal Hydrashok, Top
9mm 115 gr Federal FMJ vs 124 gr Federal Hydrashok, Top

For home defense purposes, we recommend hollow point bullets for their stopping power.

5 Shots into Ballistic Gel
5 Shots into Ballistic Gel

Ouch…that’s gotta hurt!  Two of the most popular are Speer Gold Dot and Federal Hydrashok.  We cover everything in our Ammo & Reloading section.

Handgun Size

The most important thing about choosing the best handgun is fit.

We recommend getting a “full size” handgun which means close to 5″ barrels.  Having a full sized handgun makes it easier to shoot since there’s more mass to absorb recoil, a larger area to grip, and a longer sight radius from the front sight to the rear sight.

Glock 17 Grip
Glock 17 Grip (Fullsize)

But…if you think you might do concealed carry in the future and don’t want to get another gun…you can try out the compact size too.

You lose a little sight radius but free up some grip space which helps a lot in concealing.  But you don’t want to go so small that your pinkie is left hanging.

Glock 19 Grip (Compact)
Glock 19 Grip (Compact)

Here are all of Glock’s 9mm handguns, but other manufacturer’s sizes will be roughly the same.

All Glock 9mm Sizes
All Glock 9mm Sizes

Safety

Here, we recommend a lack of an external safety.  We believe that the mind is the best safety and that in the heat of the moment during a self-defense situation, you might forget to disengage the safety.

This takes out a couple of possibilities including the venerable 1911 which we think is a little too complicated and finicky for the beginner shooter.

Sights

Easy, get the night sights since most self-defense encounters occur in dimly lit locations.  There are usually night sight models for each of our recommended pistols.  Or you can always purchase aftermarket sights and have your gunsmith install them.

Glock Night Sights, USACarry
Glock Night Sights, USACarry

Action

We recommend a striker fired handgun for the beginner and home defense since the trigger pull is nearly identical every time (at least when compared to a double action).  An easy way to tell if a handgun is a striker is that the back of the slide is flat and has no exposed hammer.

Double action pistols such as most Sig Sauer’s and the Beretta 92FS have a heavy first shot since you are cocking back the hammer.

Beretta M9 Double Action Single Action
Beretta M9 Double Action Single Action

What about revolvers?

We love them for their reliability and ease of dealing with malfunctions (just press again), but we don’t like their low ammo capacity (5 or 6 compared to 15+ for our recommendations).

But we’ll be including one of our favorites that packs in 7 rounds of .38 special or .357 magnum goodness.

This leaves us with what many call the “plastic fantastic.”

So far with our discussion of caliber, size, safety, and action, we have the possible candidates that have had enough history that we can fully recommend them.

1. Glock 17 (Full) or Glock 19 (Compact), Gen 4

Editor's Choice
Glock 17, Gen 4

Glock 17, Gen 4

Everyone and their mom has heard of  Glock.

It is a polymer, kind of boring, but ultra reliable.  If I had the choice of only taking a random pistol into a situation…this would be it.

The newest Gen 5 Glock is out but you can still find lots of Gen 4 models that have much better traction on the grip and also adjustable grip inserts.  Makes it much easier to make it fit your hand.

If you don’t plan on concealed carrying…I would opt for the Glock 17 full-size.

Glock 17 Grip
Glock 17 Grip (Fullsize), Gen 3

If you are going to go the CCW route…try out the Glock 19.

Most Popular
Glock 19, Gen 4

Glock 19, Gen 4

Make sure you can get all your fingers on the grip.

Glock 19 Grip (Compact)
Glock 19 Grip (Compact), Gen 3

What’s your take on the compact and full-size 9mm Glocks?

Readers' Ratings

4.92/5 (167)

Your Rating?

2. Smith & Wesson M&P9 M2.0

Runner-Up (Beginners, Home Defense)
Smith & Wesson M&P M2.0

Smith & Wesson M&P M2.0

The newest version of the venerable M&P (military and police).  If there’s a list of best 9mm handguns, this usually makes the top 3.

M&P vs Glock 17
M&P vs Glock 17

The original version was rock solid but had a not-so-great trigger.

M&P Fullsize
M&P Fullsize, Gen 1

The M2.0 takes care of that and also adds a more aggressive texturing.

M&P9 M2.0
M&P9 M2.0

3. Springfield XD Mod 2, Service Model

Best Trigger
Springfield XD Mod 2, Service

Springfield XD Mod 2, Service

The newest version of the Springfield XD.  Another striker-fired reliable gun that got updated with more aggressive texturing and the favorite stock trigger in my opinion.  A little mushy but in a good way.

Glock 17 vs XD Mod 2 Service
Glock 17 vs XD Mod 2 Service

The Service Model means it has a compact barrel but full-size grip.  Best of both worlds for some!

XD Mod 2 Service Model
XD Mod 2 Service Model

Plus it has a grip safety which means your hand needs to be firmly on it to fire.  I’m ok with this kind of safety since it is more passive compared to an actual switch you need to flip when you unholster.

XD Mod 2 Grip Safety
XD Mod 2 Grip Safety

However, lack of adjustable backstraps means you gotta like how it feels in the store since you won’t be changing it.

4. Smith & Wesson Model 686+

Top Revolver
Smith & Wesson Model 686+

Smith & Wesson Model 686+

Here’s the revolver you’ve been waiting for…the S&W Model 686+.  The + means it holds 7 rounds instead of the standard 6 rounds you’ve come to expect from revolvers.

S&W 686+
S&W 686+

I like the 4″ barrel since it’s the Goldilocks length.  Not so short that it’s difficult to control in firing, but not so long that it’s unwieldy.

Plus it will shoot both .38 Special and the more powerful .357 Magnum rounds.

Honorable Mentions

Yes, I might not have included some that you think should have made it.  Here are some others that were very close to making my top list.  If you find they fit your hand better than the ones I recommended…go for it!

Finally, some Handguns Perfect for Women from the viewpoint of an accomplished female shooter.

Ergonomics & Trigger

How the handgun feels in your hand is probably the most important.

I have pretty big hands and like the chunkier and different grip angle of the Glock.  While my buddy with smaller hands likes the feel of the Smith & Wesson M&P.  Also, keep in mind that the latest Glock & M&P versions have removable grip inserts that can customize the ergonomics even more.

S&W M&P Palm Inserts
S&W M&P Palm Inserts

The triggers all have a slightly different feel too even though they are all striker fired.  For a home defense gun, we recommend not altering the trigger.  After some use the trigger will smooth out a little but pretty much what you feel at the store is what you get.

We recommend trying out all three guns for yourself at the range or gun store after re-reading our grip/stance and trigger pull articles.

Price

The prices are all pretty similar for the striker fired pistols.  You’ll also be able to find some sales going on at your local gun store.  But these are good starting prices.

Night sights will probably be $50-100 more to buy and add them.

  • Glock 17/19: ~$499
  • S&W M&P 9: ~$539
  • XDm: ~$499

Accessories

Again, most encounters happen in dimly lit areas/times, and you wouldn’t want to shoot with just night sights without verifying your target.  So we use and recommend a light that attaches to the rail.

My stash…#Glocks #M&P

A post shared by Pew Pew Tactical (@pewpewtactical) on

The one we use is the Streamlight TLR-2s (~$250) which comes with a laser and strobe function.  It’s survived thousands of rounds, being dropped on the ground numerous times, and full days of shooting in heavy rain.

TLR-2s on Glock 17
TLR-2s on Glock 17

For the more budget minded customer, the most basic Streamlight TLR-1 (~$110) with just the light will do just as well.  You might see some cheaper lights here or there, but we recommend that lights are not the place to cheap out on.

TLR-1
TLR-1

 

And for the person who wants the best of the best light only…the Surefire X300 ($200).

Surefire x300
Surefire x300

We go over all these lights and more in our Best Pistol Lights article.

Best Pistol Lights
Best Pistol Lights

I’m also a fan of lots of grip on your gun.  Talon Grips ($17) is the perfect non-permanent solution.

Talon Grips
Talon Grips

Conclusion

  • 9mm
  • Hollowpoint defensive ammo
  • Full-size frame
  • Striker fired
  • Night sights
  • Rail mounted light
  • Try out the feel of the Glock 17/19, M&P9, & XD

Of course, there’s a bazillion pistols that I left out…but the above specs are what we at Pew Pew Tactical recommend.

Already got a self-defense pistol?  Learn how to become a crack shot.

Or ready to check out our Beginner Handgun Course?

Let us know in the comments what pistol you picked!

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Wags
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Wags

No HK VP9?

Owen
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Owen

FN 509 is a good option. Out of the trials for the new service pistol that selected the SIG P320

Bravo Tango
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Bravo Tango

I’m a big guy, 6’8″, with big hands. I have fired the Glock 17, but find it a bit uncomfortable. I must say that I do love the sights. For my big mits, I have found the full-size CZ 75, the SP-01 Tactical, to be the most comfortable. It meets all the above standards, except that it is not striker fired. It’s double action the first round fired, unless you have the time to pull back the hammer, then the remaining shots are single action. It is easier to hold on target than anything else that I have ever fired,… Read more »

Juan L. Cruz
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Juan L. Cruz

How does the Beretta 92A1 compare to the S&W M&P9 M2.0?

Vesuvius Curmudgeon
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Vesuvius Curmudgeon

I went big first time, and bought a Glock 20 10mm. It’s powerful for sure and it holds 15+1 in readiness. Yeah – 10mms kick a bit, but Glock has it worked out pretty good. My wife (an ex-cop’s wife) likes to shoot this Glock, so it’s something a girl can do! She and I are both CCW for Montana; she was for California too. . About the goofy myth of no safeties on a Glock —-> I don’t want safeties and buttons to push, forget to push or switches to – er, switch. I need instantaneous firepower for bear… Read more »