Beginner’s Guide to CCW: Buying your first pistol

I find myself encountering more and more people who ask me for advice on getting their first pistol for self defense or, more usually, concealed carry. I’ve repeated the advice so many times at this point that I thought it would be wiser just to write it all down and send them a link instead of trying to explain it in person or over the phone. Now I know what some readers may be thinking…”Aren’t there about a billion blog posts on getting started with CCW out there?” and that may be true. I don’t read a lot of blogs, personally, but I’m sure I’m not the first person to tackle the issue. I do know that I regularly encounter some spectacularly awful advice being given out by people with lots of enthusiasm but absolutely no damn clue what they are talking about…so clearly what some would consider to be common sense isn’t really all that common.

So let’s start with Step 1: Buying your first pistol

There are a bunch of handguns on the market these days in all sorts of different calibers, configurations, and even colors. Picking one out of the vast number of options may seem like a pretty daunting task but take it from a guy who has bought more handguns than any human being could ever possibly need: It’s not that hard. All you have to do is keep focus on the requirements of your purchase. I highlight the word “your” there because if you ask people for advice you will often get their version of the gospel rather than what you actually need.

You don’t need to buy the same gun that the SEALs use.

You don’t need to buy the same gun that competition shooter X uses.

You don’t need to buy the gun currently endorsed by Tactical Youtube Celebrity whatever.

You don’t need to buy the gun some clueless neckbearded dork in a crappy gunshop tells you is the BESTEST EVER.


Yes, you may be new and people who have been gun owners “for years” may seem like they know what they are doing, but consider this: How long have you owned a car? Has owning that car for however many years made you able to drop the transmission out of it and rebuild it today? Does it mean you could drive it around a track faster than, say, a Formula 1 world champion? Same with firearms. The fact that someone has owned one for years doesn’t mean they have the slightest clue how it actually performs, how to actually fix it, or how to use it properly. I know it might sound smug, but the number of times I’ve witnessed violations of even the most basic firearms safety rules (like DO NOT POINT GUNS AT PEOPLE YOU DON’T INTEND TO KILL) on the range or in gun stores indicates that the batting average out there is pretty low.

There are plenty of knowledgeable people out there. There are also plenty of people who are dumber than a sack full of hammers. There are also people who have the very best of intentions and wish to be helpful but who just don’t know what they don’t know. If you start out thinking that you’d like to purchase something relatively small and easy to carry with the requirements of your lifestyle and the way you have to dress, do not let the advice of others talk you into buying a pistol you will leave at home the majority of the time because you can’t effectively conceal it. Having the most tactically awesome handgun ever made sitting at home does precisely zero for you when you’re staring down the wrong end of a felon’s Hi-Point in a supermarket parking lot.

So with all of that being said, what should you buy?

Something that’s reliable. 

Something you can afford to practice with.

Something that’s easy for you to carry. 

Something that’s relatively easy to customize. 

Note what isn’t on that list. I didn’t mention caliber, or brand, or polymer vs. metal. I didn’t even mention bore axis. Here’s a top tip for you as a beginner: If you are asking for advice on your first pistol or your first concealed carry piece and somebody mentions bore axis, go ahead and envision that person wearing a dunce cap and clown shoes because it’s about the same thing.

I would love to tell you to just go out and buy a hi-cap 9mm service pistol, but I know for a fact that a lot of you out there in reader-land can’t carry that kind of pistol every day. I try pretty hard and even I can’t carry that kind of pistol in every situation of my life. The Glock 17 is a superior weapon to the Glock 42 in every way…but the Glock 42 can go places that the G17 can’t.

Some gun is always better than no gun. Get as much gun as you can because unfortunately you don’t get to dictate the terms of a gunfight, but don’t become so fixated on buying a pistol that will let you survive the zombie apocalypse that you buy one you can’t keep on you to stop the street assault you’re much more likely to face. Choosing a handgun is a compromise between competing factors and you’re really the only person who knows enough about your situation to accurately weigh all of them and come up with a reasonable solution. There are enough handguns on the market that whatever you conclude you need, somebody likely makes it.

When you really sit down and think through your circumstances I think you’ll find that the vast handgun market is whittled down pretty quickly to a relatively small number of options…and then you can focus your research on those possibilities.






  1. Something that’s reliable. – A newbie isn’t really going to have a clue other than maybe recognizing a brand name.

    Something you can afford to practice with. – Again they won’t know how much they need to practice – 50 rounds a week, month, year?

    Something that’s easy for you to carry. – Until you’ve tried it, you don’t have a clue. With a good belt and holster, all my handguns are easy to carry – from LCP to 1911. The LCP gets the most wear because it is easy to CONCEAL. None of them are easy to carry without a good BELT and decent holster.

    Something that’s relatively easy to customize. – ???? I’m going to try thin grips on my 1911. Other than that the only customizing I’ve done is a complete chop and rebuild on a .45 Black
    hawk and it is not a carry piece.

  2. I would tend to agree with everything you had to say, and you do a good job of cutting out the hyperbole. The one thing you mentioned that I may revise was “Something that’s relatively easy to customize.” The vast majority of gun owners do not actually customize their guns. The group of people who do, generally do so because they have an increased level of interest, and therefore kind of already know what they want. I would instead say that a first gun should be good to go out of the box.

    The thing people who do change things usually change is sights, so I would not buy something that good replacements sights are hard to find for. Even more importantly I also wouldn’t buy anything that extra mags and good holsters are hard to find for (of course custom holster can be made for anything but for a first gun it’s easier if you have something common). Basically for a first gun I just would buy something reasonably common, so holsters, mags and maybe sights are easy to find since those are the things everyone needs. A Lionheart LH9 may be the perfect gun for you, but if you can’t get mags and a holster easily you are at a huge disadvantage.

    That may have been what you were getting at by saying “relatively easy to customize” but I figured I’d throw in my two cents.

  3. By “customize” I meant precisely things like replacing sights…little things that make the gun more suitable for the person using the pistol. So we’re on the same wavelength there.

    1. If by “customize”, you mean changing sights and grips, I agree. I personally would never change any of the internals on a carry gun. For a reason why, look at the case of Miami PD officer Luis Alvarez, who killed a known felon who was drawing a gun on him. The killing caused a riot, and the State Attorney (Janet Reno) needed a scapegoat (Sound familiar?), so Alvarez was indicted for murder.
      The prosecution claimed that, since Alvarez’s issued Model 64 had had two coils removed from the trigger spring to lighten the trigger, he was a wannabe gunslinger who increased the “firepower” of his six-shot revolver. (This was a factory-authorized modification at the time.As a result of this case, the factory quit recommending it.) The prosecution even got a “gun expert” to testify that clipping the spring, and slowing down the trigger return, was a reckless act to “increase firepower.” (Every trade has its whores.)
      Alvarez was acquitted, mainly because his union had retained one of the best lawyers in the country, a guy you or I couldn’t afford to talk to. I don’t have that kind of deep pockets, and you probably don’t, either.
      Just one case? Maybe. But I don’t want to be case number two.
      That’s why my carry guns are out-of-the-box stock.

    2. When my wife got her CCW we bought her a LCR in 357 Mag. Practice with 38 SPC and carry 125 gr. 357. She can shoot this gun very well and it is easy to carry. Now we live in Kalifonia so it dosn’t matter. Only the bad guys can carry here.

  4. I purchased my first handgun a month ago and so I was actually looking at this exact question. For me, the question was also framed by my experience in the military. I carried an m9 consistently for the duration and even though I never shot it outside of the range, I was comfortable with it’s manual of arms. Just to make it an interesting, I spent a goodly amount of time on my last deployment “concealed carrying” said beretta in a frigging serpa. The combination of weight and width on the m9, combined with being restricted to an owb for the duration really put a bunch of the gripes about hiding a gun into perspective. Based on those criteria, I eventually settled on the beretta px4 storm compact. It’s smaller than I’m used to, but maintains the same capacity and even though it’s a bit chunkier than some would prefer, the way I see it, fat guns need loving to. Ambidextrous slide stops, complete with twin thumb safeties and a reversible mag release make it southpaw friendly, no more shuffling the gun to clear it out. Reliability wise, I’ve had a few issues, but between lubing her up and me getting used to shooting a polymer gun, I chalk most of those issues to human error because she runs like a kenyan on bath salts now. Overall, I think it addresses all of the issues I had with the m9 and am kind of surprised it never gained as much traction from a publicity stand point as some of the other wonder nines.

  5. I would add- Try to shoot something like it first. I learned this the hard way and my attempts to help friends learn the easy way have mostly failed.

  6. I wish I had looked at the cost of accessories with my first handgun. You may need to budget for the gun, holster, mag holders, carry belt and ammo. Not just the gun.
    Consider the cost and availability of practice ammo if money is an issue. (Most handgun calibers have similar results when used defensively.) 9mm ammo is easier and cheaper to find than .380.
    .327 Federal is way cooler than .38 special but it cost more to feed. (Thanks for the recent article about .327)

    1. “You may need to budget for the gun, holster, mag holders, carry belt and ammo. Not just the gun.”

      Every time I see “what gun for $X”, I try to point out that they need to budget for holster(s), belt, ammo, extra magazines, etc. Nobody every thinks of that.

      (Holster’s plural, because you know you don’t often get the right one off the bat. Belt, because you know they’ve got some junk “leather-ish” stuffmart belt. Etc.)

  7. Some gun is better than no gun.

    That’s the best advice on CCW, everyone I know who truly carries ends up with a favorite little gun, we all prefer big guns but no one actually carries one very often.

  8. I think it’s important to buy a gun that you can enjoy shooting. Not that most people are going to enjoy the recoil from a CC gun, but it you can’t have fun and enjoy shooting your gun(despite the recoil), you are missing out in a big way.

    Do your best to become a shooter, who enjoys going to the range, vs just becoming a gun owner who never pulls the trigger for the fun of it. Many new people who feel the need to be armed probably miss out on this concept. In some ways it’s the most important thing.

  9. This fits the general gist of the advice that I give when I teach. My advice is to new shooters is to go rent an M&P and a Glock, and buy whichever feels better. Not because they’re “the best guns evarrrr!!”, but just because they’re like the Honda Accords or iPods of the gun world. Both are so popular that they have a ton of aftermarket support to tweak them to work better for you, to the point that you can build a “Glock” using absolutely no actual Glock parts, more holster options, and more guides available on how to maintain them. Then, if after 1k-2k rounds fired, they decide to upgrade, those two brands have a much better resale value. Heck, if you catch a good sale when you buy it, there’s a good chance you could run a couple thousand rounds through it and still sell it for more than you paid.

    You don’t need to buy the same gun that the SEALs use.

    You don’t need to buy the same gun that competition shooter X uses.

    You don’t need to buy the gun currently endorsed by Tactical Youtube Celebrity whatever.

    You don’t need to buy the gun some clueless neckbearded dork in a crappy gunshop tells you is the BESTEST EVER.

    I am so stealing this part for my classes.

    1. The classic rule of uncommon guns: uncommon guns are uncommon for a reason.
      The rule of three- better to get three of the same gun*, and practice, than to get multiple makes, models, and calibers and have a “carry rotation”.
      *one for carry, one for training, one as a backup for the other two.

  10. Ah, bore axis. If it was really as important as the neckbeards make it, we’d see a lot more pistols on the market with their springs arranged like Browning’s 1900 or 1910, instead of nearly everything having their springs set up 1911 style.

  11. “If you are asking for advice on your first pistol or your first concealed carry piece and somebody mentions bore axis,”

    I would also add “striker vs. hammer” to the list of things that Interwebz folks obsess over, that just do not matter.

    “relatively easy to customize. ”

    But should they, before they’ve run a bunch of rounds through it as it came from the factory?

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