“In war, the moral is to the physical as ten is to one.” – Napoleon Bonaparte.
True, Napoleon got his ass kicked by the rest of Europe’s powers in the Sixth Coalition. And then by the same cast of characters in the Seventh Coalition again. So, however great he may have been, as a general he had his limitations. You could say, in fact, that he instantiated the Peter Principle: rising to his ultimate level of incompetence as Emperor and grand strategist. (He won a lot of battles, but lost the only one that counts: the last one). But he sure could coin an aphorism!
Many shooting beginners don’t take counsel from old Boney. Instead, they let the gun magazines and the YouTube guys be their guide. Now those sources of information have their place, but they’re not best for beginners, because they focus almost exclusively on equipment. (We’re assuming you want to start with a handgun for self-defense, because that’s the most common desire of beginners these days. If you have some other interest, then you’re welcome to take what you can from this post, and ask what you need to know in your situation).
When you start off shooting, you do not need to be in the Gun of the Month Club, however happy that may make you. (Scientists have shown that the act of acquisition releases the same sort of pleasure hormones and that you get from many other, er, pleasurable activities).
You do not need the very best this or the custom awesome that. Every year, lots of people get whacked with handguns,and it’s almost always with a bone-stock firearm. That’s what most cops, most soldiers, and practically all criminals carry. That’s what you need to start with, and what you need to do with it is practice.
So What do you Need?
We’re going to talk a bit about the hardware for beginners. But remember what Napoleon said; and if you need the most important message in this post, the tl;dr version, scroll down to the subheading The Most Important Thing.
And if you’re still with us, hardware-wise, here’s what you need.
You need a gun. A decent gun, in a decent defensive caliber, that fits your hand reasonably well, and that you can conceal in the sort of clothes you like to wear. You need at least two spare magazines, in standard capacity unless the laws of your jurisdiction restrict you to dwarf mags.
A decent gun is going to be made by a manufacturer you have heard of before. Like Glock, Smith & Wesson, SIG, Colt, FN, HK. A popular gun is easier to maintain, and much easier to resell. Beware of salesman who seem to promote a specific gun — he may be getting what the industry calls a “spiff,” a specific incentive to move some particular product (or he may just be a fanboy. Some gun-store clerks are deeply knowledgeable about their products, but a much greater percentage think they are deeply knowledgeable about them). Now, he may have a spiff to promote the gun that is just right for you, so don’t assume it’s Opposite Day when he starts talking. Just remember that his pitch may be completely orthogonal to what you need.
If you need more specific advice, your first handgun should be inexpensive, standard-capacity, 9mm. Why?
- Inexpensive — because most guns are going to shoot better than you do. This is not a lick on you: most handguns shoot better than most shooters. You don’t need to optimize your gun buying. You should be satisficing — picking the first reasonable choice that comes up. Don’t go all the way to cheap, however. You can get a $100 9mm, from Hi-Point for example. Unless it’s all you can afford, don’t.
- Standard-capacity — as a beginner, you want a middle-of-the-road firearm. You do not want a gigantic horse pistol, but you do want a decent quantity of rounds (unless, of course, you live in some hellhole like North Korea or New York, then the choice has been made for you).
- 9mm — the ammo is reasonably priced, usually widely available in many different loadings, and 9mm defensive ammo performs as well as larger calibers, both in the lab and on the street.
Why not .40? The FBI carries .40. The cops carry .40. There are a bunch of internet memes about “cartridges beginning with .4.” We heard Eeee—leet Jungle Jim Killer Force carries .40s or .45s when they kick hostages and rescue doors. Why not a .40 or a .45?
Because right now, in 2015, 9mm is your best balance of defensive effect — with proper ammo — and manageable recoil, which leads to better shooting. Gunfights are not won with sheer weight of shot; they are won, or lost, with bullet placement, period. And bullet placement means gun control (the good kind). Every agency that went from 9 to 40 saw qualification scores go down, and every agency that went the other way saw them go up. The .40 in particular has a nasty, sharp recoil to it. It’s not unmanageable, but 9 is easier.
This is going to be hard enough without you adding unforced difficulties to the hardship stack. Get the 9. (You will also find that, while the cost of warshots is fairly close, the cost of inexpensive FMJ for practice is a lot better on the 9mm end of the beach).
You need a holster. One that fits the gun specifically. Unless you are very lucky, and very easily pleased, your first holster will not be your last holster. Therefore you want an inexpensive, sturdy holster. Use it until you are sure that you need something else. But the same as with the gun, the best holster next week gets beat by a decent holster today. Your first holster should be an outside the waistband, Kydex holster. It should fit the belt you already own and wear. Learn what you like and don’t like about this. Do not buy an el cheapo Cordura holster — it will not fit, hold, retain or position your gun like Kydex will. Don’t buy leather, yet. You have a lot to learn about holsters before you buy an expensive one.
A couple of vendors, like S&W, sell a beginner kit which includes spare mags, a holster, and a cleaning kit.
You need ammo. Buy inexpensive, brass case, factory-loaded, FMJ ammo. Why?
- Inexpensive — because like the guns, most ammo is going to shoot better than you do. There will be a time, perhaps, when you worry about brands and features. This is not that time.
- Brass case — it’s more expensive, but it’s easier on the gun.
- Factory-loaded — the biggest single cause of kB!s, meaning, guns that return to kit form on a kinetic basis, is badly-loaded ammunition. Screwed-up ammo happens, but it happens with extreme rarity in factory loads. Uncle Bubba’s Handloads are Uncle Bubba quality.
- FMJ — this is practice, blasting ammo. So you don’t want to spend the extra ost of expanding tip ammo when you’re going to be shooting it into paper targets. In the meantime, you can use it as carry ammo. It’s not optimum, but it penetrates well and will disable a threat, given correct shot placement.
You need spare mags. Get two. (On top of the one in the gun). Factory are ideal, aftermarket are OK if you check them and they’re OK. How do you check them? Load ’em up and cycle them through the firearm a few times dry, and a time or two, at least, at the range, firing. (The feed loads are a little different in a firearm being operated by hand and one being operated by recoil).
You need a cleaning kit. Note that the solvents and oils used with firearms smell nasty and they’re probably toxic, too. Cleaning is an outdoor activity when and where weather permits. The reason you need to think about it, even with modern guns that have demonstrated very long firing strings without failure, is that disassembling, cleaning and reassembling your firearm will help you yo understand it.
The Most Important Thing
OK, so now you have all this good stuff. What else do you need?
You need training. You need training in the laws of self-defense of your jurisdiction (and in general, as license reciprocity is increasing), and you also need training to use your firearm effectively. Indeed, what is in your hand is immeasurably less important than what is in your head and what is in your heart.
You need training more than you need your own firearm; lots of instructors and ranges have rental and loaner firearms for beginners attending courses. Using a rental or loaner is actually a good way to get a first impression of a model of firearm you’re curious about, without actually buying the thing to experiment with. (What if you hate it with a purple passion? A lot easier to fix that when it’s a range rental than if you already brought it home from the pound because you liked its looks).
What training? Where to get it? That’s food for more posts in this series, which will be in the new Training category. Also, we’ll tell you how to get a good deal on a good used gun, and save yourself some money for ammo.
I recommend to new, and not new shooters, this training opprtunity: Small Arms Firing School. It’s taught by the US Army Marksmanship unit, usually at Camp Perry (Port Clinton),Ohio, in July during the National Matches. You show up with ear plugs and safety glasses, they supply weapon and ammo! Rifle & Pistol course are separate.
Underpriced at $45 for adults, and $30 for juniors.
On the training topic; Perhaps some recommendations from blog readers could be listed State by State? Those attended by readers, not a wanna be on the free advert post. This might also allow some “user feedback” from others for a thumbs up or the other direction, if, the experience was less than hoped for.
This could help the local readers find a good place to go to and help reinforce those trying to assist the general public, where so allowed.
Awesome advice! Thank you for your blog and taking the time to write this.
Good article. I do think a good gun belt is very important. Can be had for less than $50, either a double thick leather model or one of the web “instructor” type jobs.
I would also suggest looking around to see what competition shooting is available in your area. I find that it is a huge motivator to practice.
I love these posts.
First rate advice.
I didn’t realize how important the right belt and holster were until I started taking classes, it took 3 tries to find the right one.
To me the most important criteria for a defensive handgun is reliability.
With today’s ammo choices a 9MM works fine.
I still hang with my ancient 1911 in .45 because it’s what I began with in the 1970’s but if I were starting out today it would be with a reliable 9MM that fits my hand.
Very well presented – excellent advice. Training: In the Western WA area I can recommend Firearms Academy of Seattle and Insights.
+1 on Firearms Academy of Seattle. Disclaimer – I’m just a dweeb, but I’m the training I’ve gotten there seemed good to me. I’ve had classmates there who were currently serving big city police officers who were attending on their own nickel, which speaks well of the place.
Excellent post! The only thing I could add, which our excellent host has posted in the past, dry fire. The Army Reserve Shooting Team Videos really helped me understand the importance of dry fire practice. I was a casual dry fire practitioner prior to watching those videos, where I would practice a day or two before a range session. Now, I dry fire about 4-5 times a week varying from in the 15-30 minute range. Have a plan on what you want to accomplish for your next range session, but practice the plan dry firing, so you can better attain the intended results you desire.
Totally OT but hopefully of interest, especially to those wanting to print their own AFV, or Eiffel Tower, or something.
I’m not gonna pretend I understand that Napolean quote.
I’ve looked through Google and nada.
If you wouldn’t mind please explain?
Trone, at the time Napoleon was writing the word “moral” encompassed all those factors we today would refer to as psychological: morale, self-confidence, persistence, etc.
Napoleon was simply stating that in war, such factors outweigh all but the greatest disparities in arms and equipment.
I may have misquoted M’sieur l’Empereur. According to Napoleonguide.com he said “three is to one.” His basic point is that will, and thought, and ésprit, taken all together, can overcome physical strength or strength of numbers.
For instance, in May 1940, France had more men, more aircraft (and more modern aircraft), and more modern (and more powerful) tanks than Germany. But the French were trounced in the brain housing groups of their own men, and especially in their German opponents, who had taken on, mentally, a mantle of invincibility.
The Trauma of having a war such as world war one fought on their own soil and the fear of another trench style holocaust scared the French to death, they were defeated on the first day by memory alone.
I wouldn’t say that, Obsidian. The French accounted quite well for themselves at the tactical level. At the cost of 90,000 dead they (with some British help) killed 49,000 German soldiers and destroyed nearly 800 of Germany’s 2500 tanks. Suffice to say, it wasn’t a walkover for the Wehrmacht.
The French were defeated by poor C3, more than anything. That and the Germans got ridiculously lucky with their punch through the Ardennes. It could have easily been a disaster, after which the war would have settled down to the sort of attritional affair the French had spent a decade preparing for.
There were certainly morale problems that contributed to the defeat, but they were less in the fighting battalions and more in the headquarters.
” The French accounted quite well for themselves at the tactical level.”
I haven’t studied the campaign in depth, but I recall an anecdote that shows rather a lack of tenacity: French infantry was holding a village/road intersection. German armor drove through w/o doing much damage (the French unit didn’t have any effective anti armor weapons) and kept going, and stopped 20 miles later to wait for fuel. Hours later non motorized German infantry arrived and the French – who had enough forces to make a fair fight with the German infantry – surrendered w/o a fight. Hours later the fuel trucks went through.
If they had fought off the infantry, the German armor would have been stranded. You don’t have to surrender a still effective unit just because the enemy is behind you.
I don’t know how many times that happened, but even a few times can matter; e.g. the Bulge would have played out a little differently w/o Bastogne.
May I say I think you skipped over an important part of gun ownership, basic safety rules.
I’m not saying this to make gun handling like handling rattlesnakes sorts of scary, but to train the mind away from the moron way of doing things.
Having been issued several over the past 15 years, I think .40S&W is a fad that is thankfully going away.
The last defensive handgun I bought with my own money was 9MM.
As to training, when I needed a school for my Bride (’cause teaching your Beloved a skill is just bad practice IMO) there were two places in the running; Thunder Ranch and FTF in Culpepper VA. We are much closer to Thunder Ranch so that’s where she went. She had such a great time she wanted to take another class together – which we did. Can’t recommend either of those schools highly enough.
Sorry the VA school is FPF, not FTF. Run by a guy named John Murphy.
One thing to consider about magazine capacity is that, if concealed carry is a major decision factor in one’s choice of a first handgun, then a compact-to-subcompact pistol (e.g., the Ruger SR9c or the GLOCK G26) may be appropriate. Even though both of the pistols I just mentioned have a magazine capacity of only 10 rounds, they both can accept the standard-capacity magazines of the larger pistols in their respective families (the SR9c even comes with a magazine sleeve for the 17-round SR9 magazine).
Thank you for a great and timely article.
One other bonus with 9mm; the whole family can practice with the same caliber (anyone can handle the kick), and it reduces the odds of caliber confusion.
Good post, I use a Beretta 92 for myself, I figured since Uncle Sam paid for me to train on it and I’m comfortable with it I’ll use it. Favorite 9mm is a CZ75 though it fits better then any other I’ve found so far.
I picked up a EAA Witness in 9mm with the 22 LR conversion for my wife. $400 and has been reliable so far. She’s put about 200 rounds of each through it.
I owned a Colt Commander in 9 mm I’ve regretted selling it a hundred times over to buy a 1911A1 Series 70 Gov model, that pistol could shoot.
Funny, a lot of people have a hard time getting a 9mm 1911 to run but I’ve never heard that about a Colt 1911. The .38 Super, too, is a great cartridge in the 1911, but it’s too oddball a round for a beginner.
Hognose, the Commander was redesigned as a 9MM forthe army trials in the early 1950’s. It tends to run well in the caliber.
I have a LW Commander in 9MM from 1970 and it runs like a scalded cat. The biggest thing that helps is getting the right mags for it. When I found it in a gun shop it had one original mag with it. I bought some more colt mags and no issues.
/me looks at all the 1911 types in the house…
*NOW* you tell me. ;-)
“Indeed, what is in your hand is immeasurably less important than what is in your head and what is in your heart.”
There is enormous truth to that. The entire post was great, especially about training and legal knowledge. Too many out there just buy the thing and strap it on. You’ve really outdone yourself on this one Hog. Bravo!
My training class AARs on on THR and Lightfighter under the same user name if anyone wants to look at my thoughts.
And Hognose, happy to sum up my thoughts for you, even though I’ve never stepped foot one on FT Bragg….. (Evil Grin)
I took into account my non-gun knowledgeable wife when selecting a Glock for nightstand duty ( an Ithaca 37 had the watch beforehand). If you are getting a first gun, and there is a chance your significant other is going to shoot it, 9mm is even a better decision. You might relish the recoil and blast of a 10mm or a 44mag, but if she doesn’t share your passion, you are doing her a disservice by not getting something wife compatible.
And don’t forget to include her in the training…
Spent part of an afternoon down at FLETC years back, talking to Jim Cirillo about this and that. He said pretty much the same thing.
A nifty gadget for training when you haven’t access to someone to throw cans for you. Multishot pellet gun required, I doubt it will survive long under real gunfire.
Pretty much agree with all points but this one: “You need training more than you need your own firearm.”
Who is in a better position, being attacked in a parking lot? A) A woman with a loaded revolver in her purse, who has never shot it, and whose “knowledge” consists of what she saw on TV cop shows; B) A woman with training in all the best schools, but who happens not to be armed at the moment.
It’s clear the answer is “A”. The most revolutionary part of the concept of personal firearms is that with one, a person can produce a respectable amount of deterrence and protection WITHOUT training or with very little training. This is much different than martial arts or edged weapons.
When that woman pulls that revolver out of her purse, the goblin is not going to ask what school she trained at!
This is not to say training is worthless, or that people shouldn’t bother with it. But let’s get our priorities straight. The number 1 rule is, “Have a gun.”
Uh, I disagree on what pj said, if she fumbles with that thing and the dirtbag is close at hand and realizes she is inept with that weapon. Take a look at some reality videos with bad guys wrestling with cops…nahhh, im not convinced, all the women I know wouldrather throw that thing at them or drop the weapon, pre trainning, of course.
Then again I could be wrong…but living in da hood between watts and compton, I get a daily sense of predators.
yeah and if the woman gad a geanie in a battle she could wish the bad guy away
this smacks too much of the old anti gun claim. that you are more likely to die from your own gun in an encounter with a bad guy than blah blah blah
indeed. the first rule is HAVE A GUN, if you are in a position you need a gun. she is going to get raped and die. or win through some how, even with no experience. without the gun. she is gonna die and get raped
so its die or rape without the gun. or maybe die or get raped with the gun or maybe not
its absurd to think you are better off without a gun if you dont have training when some one is ready and willing to do you mortal harm
lots of untrained have saved themselves and others because they had a gun. its that simple.
not saying its pointless to get training. but it makes no sense to me to not have one in the meantime
Forgot to add one on one, in a bad guy rush.
I could be wrong, but I doubt it.
The gunless one with some training will likely not be in the parking lot at a dangerous hour or in dangerous circumstances, since she has the mind. Let’s hope the armed one doesn’t think since she’s tooled up she can go anywhere anytime and automatically be safe.
Terrific article! You are starting a beginner out correctly. If they follow your advice they will get professional training from experienced instructors and hopefully at a range that offers rentals. Once they shoot a couple of compact pistols they will positively go with a full size 9mm for the first pistol. A lot less recoil.
It takes 10,000 rounds fired over a period of about 8-9 months to learn a pistol, along with substantial dry fire with dummy rounds for the weight. It’s a cinch you will cover these things an a lot more in future posts. I look toward reading them.
excellent advice, but stipulating brass cased ammo only is a nitpicking detail. you guys wouldnt stipulate that without good reason, but most people, let alone beginners, just dont put tons of rounds through their weapons. nevertheless, if you guys could explore the topic in more detail it would be a great read…
With all due respects to the weapons sgt, to the poster who said I was an anti gunner, sorry man, I aint’ drinking your Kool-Aid.. I believe in SA first, intel second, yadda yaddathird, yadda yaddafourth, so forth, and of course what the legitimate sme state.
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