Best Handgun/Pistol for Beginners & Home Defense

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.

Bunch of Handguns, Actions Open
Bunch of Handguns, Actions Open

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

We recommend getting a “full size” handgun which usually means 4-5″ 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.

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.

Action

We recommend a striker fired handgun for the beginner and home defense since the trigger pull is identical every time.  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.

What about revolvers?

We like 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).

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

Contestants

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.

Glock 17
Glock 17
Smith & Wesson M&P 9
Smith & Wesson M&P 9
Springfield XDm 9mm
Springfield XDm 9mm

BONUS: Shoot better. Download our exclusive shooting targets for FREE ($47 value)

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 versions of all three pistols have removeable 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.

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

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.  Note the Glock 17 and M&P have night sights included in the below prices already.  It will probably be $50-100 more to buy and add them.

  • Glock 17: ~$550
  • S&W M&P 9: ~$620
  • XDm: ~$550

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.  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.

Surefire x300
Surefire x300

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

Conclusion

  • 9mm
  • Hollow point defensive ammo
  • Full-size frame
  • Striker fired
  • Night sights
  • Rail mounted light
  • Try out the feel of the Glock 17, M&P 9, & XDm

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.  Otherwise…check out the rest of our Beginner’s Guide to Guns!

40 Comments

  1. Hi Eric, just read some of your awesome articles. The one for choosing a AR15 and the one for hand guns for Home defense. I was wondering if you have any input on the HK tactical COMPACT. Thank you

    1. Hi Carlos, thanks so much and glad to be of help. I’ve only tried a buddy’s full size HK45 which was a real tack driver and pretty controllable recoil for a 45. You can’t go wrong with it if you like how it feels in your hand and the manual safety.

  2. For me, the reliability of a double action revolver trumps any automatic. Just point and shoot….you know its going to fire.

  3. I agree with everyone of your points. I would just expand your list of pistols. The Walther PPQ and H&K VP9 need to be considered. They are a little pricier, but not way more. Also I favor the Glock 19 to the 17. It’s just as easy to shoot, but can be concealed much easier if you decide to later down the road.

    1. Thanks Liam! I’ll be revising the article soon and those two will make a guest appearance. They are relatively new (2011 and 2014, respectively) so I’d like to research them more. Good tip on the 19 vs 17!

  4. Hi Eric,

    I read your “best handgun pistol for beginners home defense” article and I think you should look into the Canik TP9. Great value gun that is worth emtnioning.

  5. Hi Eric. I am so happy I found this article. I shot my first gun this past Sunday and I instantly fell in love. (I guess it helps that I managed to fire all of the five rounds we were allowed directly into the bulls-eye area of the target… albeit with one eye closed.) My instructor suggested the Glock 19 as a beginner handgun and the information provided within this article has definitely supported his suggestion. I look forward to reading many more of the articles on the website. Thank you for clearly relaying the information!

    1. Hi Jess, thanks for the comment and congrats on your first shooting session! Glock 19 is also great since it is just slightly smaller than the full size 17. Great for possible concealment too if that’s in your future.

  6. A great article. Something I’d like to point out though is that going cheap on a light is not necessarily a bad thing.

    Streamlight and Surefire make great, virtually indestructible lights. That’s good news if you’re SWAT. But most people, especially those who are on a budget, just don’t need a light that can withstand thousands of rounds, being dropped numerous times, or full days of shooting in the rain. For those folks the $40 lights you see at places like Dicks Sporting Goods are more than good enough.

    Will the cheaper lights survive 50,000 rounds or being submerged in salt water for 30 days or thrown off the Empire State Building? No. But they will light up your field of vision when things go bump in the night. And for most of us, that’s all we’ll ever need.

    1. For sure Dave! Any light is better than no light. I’d just be sure that it can hold up against the rounds you intend on firing and that you practice with it on so you get used to the additional front weight.

  7. In my humble opinion, first time shooters (novices) should by that first pistol with a safety–so they don’t shoot
    themselves during carry, range time or plinking. They can certainly train the half-second to click the safety off.
    This is one reason that I recommend the S&P with optional safety over Glocks.
    Love your site, and love your mission, purpose and advice.
    Thanks so much,
    Steve C.

    1. Hi Steve, thanks for your opinion. I think you hit it on the head that they do need to train for clicking off the safety. Otherwise with a proper holster and following the safety rules (no finger on the trigger unless you’re ready to fire), they shouldn’t be shooting themselves even on a gun without a traditional safety.

    2. If someone NEEDS a safety to keep them safe from their gun, they shouldn’t own a gun. Period. I’m not against external safeties, per se, although I wouldn’t never buy a pistol with one. But if the reason you need one is you’re worried you’ll do something unintentional, you either need more instruction and studying, or you simply shouldn’t own a firearm. Someone who is a potential danger with no mechanical safety switch shouldn’t own a gun, period

      1. By the time they ever come close to a gun, the rules of gun ownership should be drilled into them so deeply and regularly that safeties are completely superfluous. Nothing wrong with taking someone to a gun range and helping them with the basics(guns are always loaded, point downrange, finger off the trigger until you’re ready to fire, etc), but until it’s muscle memory, until it becomes second nature to properly handle fire arms, they shouldn’t own one.

        Don’t forget, to fire a glock you have to pull the trigger. Pull the trigger. Send metal death away from you at hundreds or thousands of feet per second. It’s not like leaving your wallet at home. Pulling a trigger requires a conscious, voluntary movement of your body. You have to want to do it. Thus, only people who are responsible enough to only do so when appropriate should have guns. After all, the girl who accidentally shoots her boyfriend in the head with a glock probably isn’t going to less likely to do so with a gun that has a switchable safety. She’ll forget it’s on fire, she’ll be playing around or showing to her friends, he’ll be jokingly pointing it at his buddy(sorry if this seems sexist, guns and retarded people are an equal opportunity disaster waiting to happen). Not to mention a safety can actually complicate things and make people feel more overwhelmed. I find myself utterly in love with my Glock .23. I know if there’s a round in the chamber and I squeeze the trigger, it will fire. And that’s all I need to know. Considering the fact that my finger stays off the trigger until it’s time to fire(or systems check after clearing), it’s not a problem and will never happen. Because I know that there is no safety net, nothing standing in my way. People who use safeties feel a false sense of security. Not to mention they tend to panic when people are breaking into their house and they keep squeezing the trigger and nothing is happening. I find your argument specious, sir. The very reason you think novices should have a gun with a safety is why I think they should have one without. I think someone who has a safety switch is more likely to injure themselves, either through overconfidence, not understanding the position of the safety, or simply because you gave them a gun and then told them it was safe. Which is the worst thing you can tell a first time gun owner. Guns are only as safe as the person wielding them. Worst, it gives the novice false confidence. And I can’t think of anything scarier than a new gun owner thinking he or she is “safe” from negligent discharges because of a little switch

        Anyway, bottom line. If you accidentally fire a glock, it’s because you pulled the trigger. What’s one of the main rules of gun ownership? Keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to shoot. I think “Treat every gun like it’s loaded” applies, too, as people with the safety on tend to become rather reckless and careless with their gun. Safeties on, no worries guys…Right?

        So if someone new to shooting can’t even follow the most basic, life preserving tenets of gun ownership, a safety or lack thereof is irrelevant. It’s still a false sense of security for someone who should have no sense of security. Owning a gun should be an awesome responsibility, not something you can turn on and off whenever you feel like it

  8. Eric,

    Ive read a couple of your articles and find them interesting and informative. I retired in 2003 after 22 years as a correctional officer in a county jail. Due to that position, Ive know City Police Officers, County Deputies and State Troopers.
    Im nervous about owning a semi-auto with no safeties. I personally know two officers who would not have survived if their weapons didnt have safeties. Bad guys managed to overpower them and take their weapons. Because they apparently learned to shoot by watching television, they did not know how to work the safeties. People should be aware that sometimes the bad guys get your weapons.
    Anyway, thanks for the good info and interesting material

  9. I read a recommendation that the Walther PPQ be included. I had a PPQ and while enjoyed shooting it at targets, I found the trigger to be too light for home defense. I would be especially concerned for a beginner.

    I sold my PPQ, purchased a Sig P320 and I have been very happy with this choice.

  10. Looking t this setup:
    S&W M&P with thumb safety
    Guide Rod Laser
    trigger guard light

    I have a 1911, but I’m looking for a 9mm that my wife can handle. I was thinking of getting a S&W M&P with a safety. What’s wrong with a thumb safety? You can leave it off, and it functions the same as a Glock, but you always have the option of using it.

    If you’re clearing your house, you’d have the safety off, but what about after..? If you’ve finished clearing and are walking back upstairs and someone attacks you from behind. Would you rather have the safety off so you can turn and fire, or would you want a safety on, in case they get a hold of your weapon? They’d have two hands pre-occupied trying to fire your weapon as you put a knife through their throat.

    Also, what are your thought on guide rod lasers vs rail? Or, lasers in general. I’ve shot friends guns at the range and the laser was dead on and seems like anyone can hit their target, especially a woman under stress…I’ve heard people say that lights and lasers can give your position away…and some even say that you should clear with a light on your opposite hand (as it’s not good practice to essentially have a flashlight that fires bullets), but I’d rather keep a firm grip on my gun, and be able to see and acquire my target before pulling the trigger. The trigger guard laser seems pretty good as it can be activated with just the pressure of your middle finger, so you don’t have to move your hands from position to turn it off…

    Obviously, we would both train on this setup to become safe and proficient, but does anyone see a flaw in this?

    1. Hi TJ, hopefully I can help:

      Personal preference with the thumb safety. I just don’t like it since I’ve personally found I can forget to disengage it during stressful situations (for example…class with a knife attack simulation where the target is on a track “running” at you + my first few competitions).

      I don’t have much experience clearing houses so I’d leave that advice for someone actually seasoned. My primary plan is to barricade in the bedroom and call the authorities.

      I’ve heard of guide rod lasers but have no experience. I chose a Streamlight with light and laser combo.

      I’ve heard that argument of the light giving away your position which makes sense, but I’m with you that I’d rather see my target clearly.

      1. It makes sense that a safety is a potential issue if you’re attacked while carrying, and need your gun quickly. However, I’m not in a carry state, so I’m basing my opinion on just home defense…retrieving my gun from a fingerprint safe in my bedroom. I’d have my wife call 911, as I retrieve my gun, disengage the safety, and either escort my kids to our room or use one of their rooms as the designated safe room. I’d only clear in a worst case scenario…a family member was not accounted for, etc… I just thought that a firearm with a safety would be a good choice in my case, especially with kids around, even though my guns are in a safe…

  11. Hi Eric,

    Very happy I found this site! I am looking to purchase my first gun and learn all I can about it. I live in California and was wondering if you had any information (or planned to do an article) about purchasing weapons in this state. California makes purchasing just about anything more difficult and expensive than it needs be…

    Also, do you have any top revolver recommendations for beginners for self-defense/home invasion use.

    Thanks,
    Zach

    1. Hi Zach, thanks so much for the kind words! I have some CA regulation stuff scattered around but that’s a great idea to have one combined article…especially given the new laws that will come into play in 2017. For now, I’d say check out Calguns.net

      I’m getting my first revolver soon and I’m going with the Smith & Wesson 686+ 4″, which is a .38/.357 caliber 7-shot model. I’ll be writing an article detailing my decision.

  12. I have to say that I know this is the norm. But j believe for new to shooting people , safeties are great to learn and use and will probably teach more discipline and make them use the safety more. Since without one you cannot. I would definatlety recommend a 1911 or something with a safety to a new to firearms person. I think without safety leaves more room for error to a newbie. I’m in CA and my first gun was a sd9 and I think it is a horrible choice for a new shooter.

    1. Hi Mike, thanks for your input. I still lean towards that the mind is the best safety and that a physical safety gives a crux. If you don’t start off with a safe mindset you’ll probably end up more dangerous down the road as you get complacent. A wise instructor once told me that the most dangerous person in the room is the person with the most “experience.”

      As for the 1911 for a first handgun…I don’t recommend it unless you’re able to train a lot with taking off the safety before a shot. During a running knife attack drill I forgot to disengage the safety and the “attacker” reached me. And that was me in a ready position!

  13. For a new shooter I definitely do not think the mind is the best safety. They are new and don’t know anything about firearm safety most likely. Wisdom comes with time and practice.

  14. What’s going on with the gen 4 glock line in California? Can we still stop by the shop and buy one? Or what’s the deal I hear that we can’t buy it but haven’t heard a reason. Is it because of the unsafe handgun bs or what?

    1. Hey Darius…you can’t walk into a gunshop and buy it since it’s not on the safe handgun roster…only Gen 3.

      You can still get one though if you become a law enforcement officer or if you find one through private transfer, but be prepared to pay a premium.

    1. Hi William, yup I’m getting into CZ’s…waiting on my SP-01 and we have a couple CZ review articles coming out soon too.

  15. Hello Eric!

    Thank you so much for writing this article. This article and site is what got me started down the rabbit hole of owning a handgun. I went to a gun range and tried all of the recommended firearms in this list. Out of the three recommended, I liked the M&P 9 the best. However, I am also leaning towards the Sig Sauer P320, I have not fired it, nor have I found a range that offers to rent it so I would be buying it blind. Any Advice?

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *