Sunday, September 26, 2010

Handguns: How to Choose What to Bet Your Life On

I'm sure I'm gonna stir up a hornet's nest among some people by writing this, but so be it. There's really nothing here that I haven't said online all over the place already, but now most of it ("most" because my "stream of unconsciousness" style of writing will probably cause me to miss something) will be in one place to be roundly ignored.

I work in a tactical gear store that also sells guns, primarily in order to sell more holsters. Even with our very narrow focus, we still see a lot of first time gun buyers, or people looking for a home defense/carry gun who have limited experience with handguns. The right call for most of them is also the right call for a more experienced (or even supremely experienced) person, too.

The first question is "what is the job for this particular gun"? Is this a home defense gun or personal protection/carry gun? Why it matters: smaller guns are harder to shoot well, so don't choose a compact unless you need to. A full size gun will be easier to manipulate under most circumstances, so if the purpose is home defense, there's no need to be concerned about concealability. If the purpose is concealment, then a compact or subcompact will be in order. Match the choice to what the purpose for the gun is, and be honest while doing it.

Most people get very wrapped around the axle on caliber choice. It doesn't a point. There is no way to make smaller and lighter equal to bigger and heavier in absolute terms; it just can't be done. 9mm and .45 are never going to be totally equivalent. There are many accounts of people absorbing large numbers of smaller caliber rounds, while there are none that I've seen of somebody doing the same thing with ten rounds of .45 ACP hollow points. There are other factors that mitigate the question, though.

Here's where the trades are, using 9mm and .45 because they're the most common and disparate. .45 ACP is a big bullet in a big case. It takes up a lot of space. On top of that, it's very expensive, running roughly twice as much as 9mm does per fiddy round box. 9mm is less expensive, has less recoil, and as of right now, far more available. What that means is that a shooter will be able to get more ammunition and train more often with 9mm, making them more proficient. If the budget allowed and ammo was readily available all the time, I'd shoot .45 exclusively and be happy about it. However, ammo cost and availability have to play a part, because training and proficiency with the chosen gun are the most important thing. So, while I'm fully aware that my carry gun is a 9mm and not equivalent to a .40 or .45, I don't feel undergunned because I train weekly and have a lot of practice with it. Also in the "balancing factor" column is 32 rounds of 9mm in the same space that my 1911 would have 17. A .500 Zombieslayer is useless if you can't fight with it (defined as fast, accurate, effective hits). Get what you can afford to feed and can logistically support in order to be as good with it as you can be.

I used to feel like night sights were absolutely required. I don't really think that so much anymore. They're still good to have, but what having a front sight I can reference easily is a lot more important to me than having three glowing dots. As a matter of fact, my preferred sight systems these days are black rear sights with either a tritium or fiber optic front sights and going further, I like a .140" rear notch and a .100-.125" front. The reason for that is that if you're proficient with your pistol, you'll line it up correctly automatically because that's what you've trained to do. If you haven't, you need to, and I'd still suggest night sights for that shooter. Sights can always be changed, so don't choose your protective piece based on sights alone.

I wanted to get a couple other ideas out before I came to the topic of what system to choose and why, because here's where the controversy will come from. There are a whole bunch of different actions out there: DAO, DA/SA, SA, and striker fired. There are probably more, but those are the common ones. I'm a big believer in striker fired actions for a couple reasons: first, they've got a trigger that's the same every time it's pressed, and secondly because they don't make 1911's with strikers. Striker fired actions like the Glock and M&P are much, much easier to master than either the single action of a 1911 or a conventional double action/single action of something like a SIG, Beretta or HK USP or P30, for example. They make it easier for a shooter to get proficient in less time. Let's face it: mastering that initial long double action pull and a short second pull or the preloaded DAK type action of the HK P30 are harder to accomplish than a Glock's or M&P's. Shorter, lighter pulls are easier to shoot well. It's pretty cut and dried. There may be a nebulous "safety" advantage, but poor gun handling is poor gun handling. You're either safe or you're not; there's not much in between.

My recommendations are almost universally for an auto rather than a revolver because of the revolver's ammunition capacity penalty and that they're not significantly more reliable than a duty quality auto is. With a little training, there's no manipulation advantage, either. In fact, revolvers take more grip strength than autos do.

A pistol needs support equipment. That means a duty-quality gun with holsters and magazine pouches for them. The typical shooter will probably want, if not need, more than one style of holster. I wear a belt slide, a Safariland 529, and I also use a Peters Custom Holsters Hold Fast inside-the-waistband rig for more concealed carry, for places like church.

Polymer is preferred. The "why" is simple: the guns cost less and the frames last longer than steel and aluminum do. That equates to a longer service life. Todd Greene shot an MnP to 65,000 rounds before the slide developed a crack and retired it. Glock 9mm's typically go to 35,000 rounds with no significant wear other than springs, which have to be replaced on any gun as they wear out. Glock has some test pistols that have gone to 100,000 rounds. Having a steel or aluminum framed handgun go that long is a rare thing.

Support gear limits choices more drastically than just about anything else, basically trimming the choices down to two: the Glock and the S&W M&P. Every new holster made comes out for the Glock first, and by a huge time margin. The M&P has come along very, very quickly in that respect, whereas all the other guns are a very distant third in release times and new development. The XD, while in the conversation in other areas, falls way, way behind in this respect. When you add spare parts to support gear, the choices really single out.

Are there other quality guns out there? Of course. HK makes probably the most accurate out of the box polymer guns twice the price of the Glock and MnP. I'd still consider it if they made a striker fired auto, even with the price disparity. Their triggers are just too hard to run at the same level that the Glock and MnP are. What about 1911's? That's a topic for another time, but my friend Doug came back from Larry Vickers' 1911 Operator's Course, calling it what most do: The Glock appreciation Course. They're specialist, enthusiast guns now, not duty guns.

Reasonable cost in the reach of most, easy to master, accurate, long service lives, easy parts availability, and accessibility to support gear all add up to the Glock and MnP as the duty guns of choice. They are the dominant duty pistols for a reason, and those reasons also make them the choice for defensive purposes for the individual, too.

Now, that said, let me go on record with this statement: I don't "love" either one of these guns. The guns I love can be counted on one hand, and one of the pistols on that list is my old friend Elle, my 1911A1 custom. When something better comes along, I'll be all over it, and may sell my MnP and Glocks to have it. If I was just starting out, I might have gone with the MnP first, but since I'm old the Glock was already there. I think it's a little too late to switch it all now.


DirtCrashr said...

Sorry it's been a while! I guess since money's an issue, I'm stuck with the '89 Sig P220 - I actually like the long trigger reset since I have long fingers. After GBR-IV I went and bought six more magazines for it, talk about committment!
The '43 Colt is Museum-worthy anyhow and shouldn't be messed-with.

Haji said...

What I've been hearing about recent SIG's-definitely NOT your '89 vintage gun-is that they're not very well made. The management team that damaged Kimber has been hired at SIG, and they're apparently cutting corners in manufacturing while offering a really huge number of finish and feature variants. One of our reps works for a large duty gear supplier who told me they were on their 9th mold to make SIGs fit properly. What that means is that the outside dimensions of the pistols vary more than the holster made to fit it.

Those old SIGs are good guns. Not my preferred gun, but quality firearms. The new ones are guns I'd stay away from. Don't let that gun go unless you get a premium for it!

DirtCrashr said...

Mine seems as solid as a brick out-house, just no light rail. The long trigger reset point is easier for me to catch than the short one on the very short 1911A1 trigger.
I've wondered about the Ginsu-knife variety of Sigs emerging and the somewhat tacky direction marketing has taken, I almost expect someone to yell at me from their advertising - also how come the only Mastershop Series pistols are 9mm's? Was their 1911 a flub?

Haji said...

They never seemed to try real hard to succeed with the GSR. They had some trouble with the first ones, but SIG never really got behind it too much.

Max Michel is SIG's main pro shooter. His open guns are both 1911 GSR's, and his limited guns are both X5's, according to