By Kjell Rosenberg MD, Rangemaster, USCCA, NRA certified instructor
One of the most common themes I see on gun forums and social media pages about firearms is “I’m new, what should I do?” Unfortunately, a lot of those folks have purchased equipment BEFORE posing this question to a credible source. There are several good instructors who have written good information on this topic. One could easily find this information by reading Concealed Carry Class by Tom Givens or any number of articles by Greg Ellifritz just to name a couple dependable sources. This article is an attempt to create a succinct “how to” list beginning with what to purchase and continuing through how to begin training.
Which handgun should I buy?
This is a far more difficult question than many people understand. I see all sorts of bad advice on the internet like; “The gun you have is the right one,” “If it works for you,” or “has never failed me.” OK, but under what circumstances has it never failed? What work did you do with it? What is the criteria upon which these judgements are being made? How many of those people have any expectations at all except that it goes bang most of the time and they can hit the broad side of a barn? Few of them. So when I say a gun is reliable, I mean that it can be fired without a gun related malfunction for a minimum of 500 rounds without maintenance and it does what I tell it to do for those rounds. And then I can repeat that experiment with the same results.
The guns that I have found to be reliable and have proven reliable by other reputable instructors are far fewer than you might think. While certain brands will do okay and a few guns from those brands might even be reliable, the chances of getting a gun from those brands that is not reliable is much higher. Nothing in life is certain, so for important things we create a risk-benefit ratio and a cost-benefit analysis to help us make those decisions. This list is not exhaustive but in general I recommend Glocks, the Smith & Wesson M&P line, the CZp10 line, and the Sig Sauer 365 and 365 XL (not the SAS). Is your gun “bad” because it is not on this list? Not necessarily, but unless you’ve had it worked on by a professional it might not be the best choice. For example, my friend John Corriea from Active Self Protection uses an HK to great effect, but the gun has been worked over by professionals to make it what it is. It’s a good choice for him, but it’s not a factory gun. CRR instructor Chris Cuney carries a Springfield 1911. If you’ve ever seen him shoot it, you’d be remiss if you said it’s not a good choice for him, but he also carries a Glock 19 depending on the situation.
The very first thing you need to decide before you buy a firearm is its intended use in context. As I mentioned above, Chris sometimes carries a Glock for its higher capacity even though he prefers the advantages of a reliable 1911 for most of his everyday needs. For the sake of simplicity let’s assume that we are talking only about defensive handguns and our decision is only between whether to carry it or leave it at home. If you plan to carry it, plan to carry it concealed. Depending on your body size, clothing options, and penalty for being “found out,” the size of the gun that works best for you will be different. Let’s talk about my carry pistols and discuss some context issues.
My preferred carry pistol is the 4.25” Smith & Wesson M&P chambered in 9mm. While those guns meet my reliability standards out of the box, I prefer to increase their utility to me by making the following changes. First, I have the trigger improved. I prefer a trigger that is 4-6 pounds but with a short pre-travel and crisp break. These changes allow me to maximize my speed and accuracy which are key to ethical self-defense shooting. Next, I send it to Bowie Tactical to have the frame shortened to accept a 12 round magazine instead of the 17. I do this to improve my ability to conceal the firearm. With one round in the chamber and a back up 17 round mag concealed on my waistline, I still have 30 rounds to defend myself. Finally, I get better sights and a Trijicon RMR installed. I have two carry guns that are identical except that one has Ameriglo i-dot sights, and one has an RMR. I carry this set up in a Zulu Bravo Kydex ‘Appendix in the waistband’ (AIWB) holster with leather straps that completely encircle my belt and fasten at the top of the loop. Alternatively, I can carry them with a weapon mounted light (WML) in an outside the waistband (OWB) holster at 3:00 on my belt. I carry in a number of other ways depending on the season or activity.
If I am wearing exercise clothing without a belt, I will use an M&P Shield9 in a ZBK holster that has a specialized metal clip which holds onto cloth as if clinging to life itself. Is a clip hanging on drawstring shorts as reliable as a pair of leather straps on a substantial belt? No, but it is still quite difficult for an attacker to simply pull the holster off my pants. Consider the effect of a heavy gun on drawstring pants. There are times when a smaller, thinner gun is necessary to take the place of my full-sized double stack M&P.
(Similarly, you may be forced to wear a smaller gun than you prefer in order to conceal appropriately for your context.) The other thing you may need to consider in terms of the size of your firearm is your hand size. If you wear gloves sized Large or larger a subcompact gun like the Sig 365 may be difficult for you to run properly at self-defense speeds. If you wear glove sizes Medium or smaller, you may have trouble getting a proper grip on an unmodified double stack Glock. You could have the frame trimmed down by Bowie Tactical or Boresight Solutions or another gunsmith, or you could drop down in size to an M&P or further into Glock 48, 43, or Sig 365. (I prefer those guns over the Shield9 as they require less hand strength for those with small hands) Alternatively, the S&W Shield 380EZ is a compact sized gun that seems to be reliable and work very well for those with weaker hands or debilitating arthritis. In my opinion the only reason to use a .380 in today’s world of quality “micro 9s” like the G43 and Sig 365 is because of hand strength concerns.
What about the good ‘ole reliable revolvers? Let’s start by dispelling a myth. Revolvers can quickly become unreliable if they are not maintained well. Furthermore, a malfunction in a revolver is a gunsmith issue not an on-site malfunction clear. A 9mm is nearly equivalent to a .357 Magnum in terms of energy when it is shot from a small “snub nose” revolver. Revolvers require more skill than semi-autos to use well although less skill to simply fire. Reloading “quickly” is an acquired skill and will never beat a simple semi-auto mag change. There are two significant advantages to revolvers in self-defense against bipeds. First the muzzle pressed against the attacker will not cause a malfunction like it would in a semi-auto. Second, if fired from inside a jacket pocket it will continue to function. Almost every other benefit goes to the semi-auto. Contrary to gun-counter-guy lore, snub nosed revolvers are not a gun for beginners, they are a gun for experts.
Choosing a holster is a little more complicated. There are key features that a good holster will have. First, it covers the trigger guard to prevent accidental discharges. We recommend holsters of kydex or heavy leather make as they are least likely to fold into the trigger guard and cause an accident. If the leather gets old and worn and no longer maintains the same stiff form it did when you first purchased it, its time to buy a new one. A holster also needs to be comfortable enough to wear. Almost no holster is completely comfortable Its a trade off between comfort and wearing a necessary piece of equipment. The holster needs to be readily accessible. If it is so secure and concealed that you cannot reach it, it will do you no good when you need it. Finally we recommend against holsters that utilize a trigger finger release for retention devices. These holsters have a very poor safety track record and we do not allow them at our courses as most major shooting schools do not.
A holster should not move around easily on the belt or be easily removed from the belt. The gun needs to be where it always is and it should not be easy for an attacker to rip the whole rig away. I prefer leather loops for my IWB holsters and kydex loops for my owb carry holsters. The “discreet carry concepts monoblock” and similar metal hooks also work reasonable well when used properly. If you can just pull it off the belt, its not secure enough. Some reputable brands include Dark Star Gear, Phlster, Spencer’s Keepers, My holster Co, Tier 1 Concealed, Vedder, and others.
For magazine pouches, I’m not as picky. I tend to buy them from the same people I buy my holster from because who doesn’t love a matching set? As long as they are sturdy, hold on to the magazine, and stay put on my belt, that’s really all I care about. Do you need a spare magazine at all? The possibility of needing extra ammunition is rare but a real occurrence. Having primary magazine failure is also a very real possibility. I recommend carrying a spare.
Finally, lets talk about belts. A belt is an important piece as it is the foundation that everything else is built on. I have not, however, found the fancy tactical belts to be any more useful that a well built belt of “non-tactical” design. It is especially important for outside the waistband carry to have a sturdy belt as the holster will constantly put an outward torque on it. For IWB carry, the belt does not require as much stiffness. I prefer a thicker belt because I like to grab my pistol frame and my belt in the same grip when I’m trying to prevent my gun from being forcibly removed from the holster. a Thicker belt is simply easier to grab ahold of. My favorite carry belt is the durable and inexpensive 5.11 Double duty belt, but there are plenty others that will work just fine. I have found that I don’t care for velcro fastened belts but many people do like them.
So now you’ve chosen a firearm, a holster, magazine pouches, and a belt. Where do you go from here? The well known NRA and USCCA pistol classes or your state’s required CCW courses are not a bad place to start but they are the tip of the iceberg. They aren’t what I would consider “training” so much as an introduction to gun safety and basic handling. Some companies such as ours offer beginner level courses which will include the necessary items from those courses and move you forward into becoming a competent shooter as well. Other companies will expect you to have a modicum of experience and skill to take their courses. Earning a gold badge in our level 1 Pistol Mechanics class should indicate adequate preparedness to take a basic course from some of these other schools. Many schools have mandatory prerequisites to take their advanced classes so if there is a place you want to take advanced courses, you might want to look at those requirements before you start to pay for expensive classes elsewhere. We have kinks to some of these places on our website conditionredresponse.com and I’d be happy to recommend additional trainers if the ones I have listed do not meet your needs.
Kjell Rosenberg copywrite 11/2/2020