Nearly everyone who buys a gun, especially people new to guns, started with the question, “What gun should I buy?” We all have experiences that shape our perspective and decision making. Maybe your grandfather took you hunting, or your boyfriend thought a shooting range trip would make a great date. My first time shooting was in the Boy Scouts, shooting .22’s and black powder muskets. The next time came about fifteen years later as a police academy cadet. Then, it was in boot camp with the Navy, and again later when I trained to deploy to the Middle East. All of those experiences had something in common, someone else made the decisions and I just carried out instructions. Once I started making decisions for myself, guns were bought and mistakes were made that resulted in lost time and money. My concealed carry guns alone started with a compact .38 caliber revolver, then a full size 1911, then three different Smith and Wesson M&P’s, and now a Glock 19. I spent a lot of time learning lessons the hard way while there were good people out who had been down the same road, trying to help. I would like to pass on what I have learned and suggest not only the first gun that gun people should buy, but the first several guns to buy and keep for the long run.
So, back to the question of, “What gun should I buy?” From a problem solving standpoint, and we are solving problems here, the next logical step is to ask, “What do I want to do with a gun?” We ask that question because our mission drives our gear decisions. You may want a gun to compete with, to hunt, to have fun at the range, or for personal defense. Because using a gun to protect yourself or your family is the most critical role of a firearm, even if you do not think you will ever need it, it is important that one of your guns can be used for that purpose. Next comes budgetary concerns. One can easily spend thousands of dollars on a single gun for any one of purposes listed above. That is not counting things like holsters, extra magazines, spare parts, ammunition, range fees, sighting systems, personal protection equipment (your eyes and ears SHOULD be worth a lot of money to you, protect them wisely), and, very importantly, professional training. Now that we are judging mission based needs as well as budget, the question of, “What gun should I buy?” becomes easier to answer. I would like to suggest four guns that any person should buy, keeping an eye towards filling the greatest number of mission needs within a budget. If you have specific needs that require a more specialized gun, like a deer rifle or a shotgun set up for small game, then that is something you need to weigh in on your decision making process. This list is simply a distillation of what I have learned through my progression of owning guns, using guns, and learning a lot from people who use guns professionally.
The First Gun: The very first gun should be a duty quality handgun chambered in 9mm NATO (9mm). A quality handgun can not only be used for target practice, and competition, but is also an excellent choice for self or home defense. Also, handguns in general are the only types of firearms suitable for concealed carry. I chose the 9mm round because the ammunition is very affordable, plentiful, low recoiling (compared to other defensive use calibers), and has sufficient terminal performance for self-defense against two-legged predators. While I have opinions on which gun brand or model is better than another, the basic need is going to be a reliable handgun that offers sufficient performance at a reasonable cost. A little research into which handguns a wide range of police departments, federal agencies, and smaller military units, buy will show several solid choices. Most duty quality handguns can be purchased new or used for as little as $400. When choosing the model of handgun for you, there are two things to consider; how well you can shoot it compared to other handguns, and how supportable the gun is as a system. For the first part, many people suggest buying the gun that “feels” better in your hand. While ergonomics play a part, you should instead buy the gun that you “shoot” better. Rent or borrow a few different models, shoot for speed and accuracy (using a timer is very beneficial), and see what comes out on top. Sometimes what feels best is not what shoots best. For instance, Smith & Wesson M&P handguns always felt much better than other guns in my hands, but I found out that I was faster and more accurate with similar Glock models. The timer and the target do not lie, and you should consider actual performance before you buy. With system supportability, things to look for are the cost and availability of additional magazines, different sighting systems (most stock sights are less than ideal), compatibility with weapon mounted lights, spare parts, and holsters. Some guns have harder to find holsters or spare parts than others. Magazines for some handguns can be very expensive or hard to find. The gun is just one part of the system, and considering the entire system will help make sure you get the most out of your first gun, your money, and your time.
The Second Gun: The second gun is a duty quality 9mm handgun. If this looks familiar, you are right, the ideal second gun is the same as the first. The reason is that the first gun is something of a do-it-all system, and it needs a backup because it will take a lot of use and abuse. Having two of the same handgun allows you to train, practice, and compete with one gun, putting the resulting wear and tear on it, while its twin remains lightly used, ready to go when the need for it arises. Also, in the unfortunate event where you must use your gun in defense, it will generally be taken as evidence. Having a fairly identical gun ready to take its place allows you to continue to defend yourself and your family just as well as before. The second gun does not have to be exactly the same as the first. It could be a more compact version of the first gun, or maybe a full size if your first gun is more compact. The idea is that you maintain the same controls, grip, magazines, sights, and, ideally, holsters. By sharing these attributes, you retain the most value of your practice, training, and spare parts. Whether it is identical to the first gun or not, it should still be able to fulfil whatever missions the first gun fulfills, and with the same support equipment.
The Third Gun: For the third gun, we get a little bigger, and probably more expensive. After a couple of duty quality handguns are out of the way, the next gun I would recommend is a duty quality AR-15 style rifle chambered in 5.56×45 NATO (5.56). Many will suggest a shotgun as a better third gun, and the shotgun is a very viable tool for many uses. However, compared to a shotgun, an AR-15 is more accurate, easier to shoot well, carries considerably more ammunition, and is more versatile than the shotgun. The AR-15 market is flooded with guns that generally look the same, but made of parts that have wildly varying quality and assembled by people with varying skills. A duty grade AR-15 will generally cost $800 to $1000 or more depending on brand, features, materials, and availability. Again, researching what forward thinking police departments, SWAT teams, federal agencies, and small military units buy and issue is a great way of separating which brands and models you can count on and what you should not. Talking to firearms instructors to see what brands generally perform well and what brands generally have issues in classes can be another great source of information. There are many quality brands out there, as well as different caliber choices that can all be good choices within their niche. An AR-15 type rifle in 5.56 is very well suited for target practice, range fun, competition, hunting (where legal), and is also an ideal choice for home and self-defense. Compared to a handgun, a rifle is generally much easier to shoot, provides increased terminal performance, and is generally more accurate than a handgun, especially at increased distances. Like 9mm, 5.56 is widely available, ammunition cost is low compared to most other rifle calibers, and modern bullet designs within the caliber offer excellent performance tailored to various purposes. Taking the systems approach, the AR-15 readily accepts all kinds of ergonomic enhancements (grips, stocks, handguards), sighting systems, weapon mounted lights, slings, and other accessories. Magazines for AR-15 style rifles are also plentiful and inexpensive. As an added bonus, the AR-15 is modular, meaning it is easily converted to other barrel sizes and calibers through changing upper receivers. They can quickly and easily be adapted to more niche roles like precision shooting, action shooting sports, hunting that requires a larger diameter bullet, and even shorter barreled versions that are better suited to easy handling inside houses for home defense.
The Fourth Gun: Just as the second gun is a repeat of the first, the fourth gun is a repeat of the third. The same reasons that apply to the second gun apply to the fourth gun. The second AR-15 might be a little different in setup than the first. Maybe it has a longer barrel for precision shooting or hunting, or a different handguard or sights, but it still should be using the same magazines and controls as the first, and be able to fulfill all the same missions as the first.
Caliber Choices: I briefly touched on calibers above, but it deserves a little more information. There are all out wars being fought over various rifle and pistol calibers. Thanksgiving dinners have been ruined over it. Fathers have disowned sons, best friends have become bitter enemies, and the hurt will continue long into the future when we will argue between 10mm Light Armor Piercing Explosive Tip Caseless ammo vs 40 Watt Phased Plasma. I decided to recommend 9mm and 5.56 here as they are excellent starting points in today’s market, with unmatched versatility. Both rounds enjoy huge amounts of developmental money and research in the designs of the bullets themselves as well as the guns that fire them. 9mm, compared to other duty calibers such as 40S&W and 45ACP, is less expensive, offers higher ammunition capacity for a given magazine size, is lighter weight, is lighter in recoil (which provides faster follow up shots and easier control), and thanks to the increased development of 9mm bullets, has nearly identical terminal performance to the larger calibers when comparing bullets designed for defense. Like 9mm, 5.56 enjoys the same benefits in comparison to its main rival, the 7.62×51 NATO / 308 Winchester round, as well as rounds like 300 AAC Blackout, 6.8 SPC, and 6.5 Grendel. It is less expensive, offers higher ammunition capacity in a given magazine size, is lighter weight, and lighter in recoil. Bullet designs have flourished as well, and bullets designed for cheap plinking, precision shooting, hunting, and self-defense are all available. While they are not the be-all, end-all of rounds, the 9mm and 5.56 rounds are the best place to start.
Deciding on what gun or guns to buy is a difficult endeavor that can easily result in wasted time and money. Knowledge and understanding are always evolving, and being able to take advantage of the hard lessons others have learned is a considerable advantage. A duty quality handgun makes a very logical first step, as it can fulfill most any role a person could have for a gun. A backup to the first is an excellent next step. From there, a rifle brings new capabilities to the table, able to do most things a handgun can do, but better. Finally, a backup to the rifle, perhaps a little bigger or smaller, or a little more specialized in one direction or another, is another step in the right direction. After that, the world is wide open. I did not mention training very much here, but I would recommend taking as much training as you can afford, and budgeting more for training and ammunition than you would for guns. Having the training and practice to effectively use the tools that you have bought is well worth the time and effort, and allows you to get the most out of the guns that you do decide to buy.