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guide to handguns

The Total Newbie's Guide To Handguns

Don't know a single thing about handguns and you'd like to change that? Look no further. This handy guide to handguns is the basic information you need. After you get to the end, you'll have the knowledge you need to find a handgun you want to purchase, or understand them better.

Handgun Safety Is Of Paramount Importance

safety training for handguns

Though it applies to operation of any, every and indeed ALL firearms, the most important thing is to ensure proper handgun safety is observed at all times. That includes the 4 Rules of Gun Safety, which are:

  • Treat All Guns As If They're Loaded
  • Never Point The Gun At Anything You Don't Want Destroyed
  • Keep Your Finger Off The Trigger Until Ready To Shoot
  • Be Sure Of Your Target and What's Beyond It

In other words, don't point guns at anything you wouldn't want to shoot and make sure they are always pointed in a safe direction.

Every make and model gun has certain safety features. It behooves you to know what they are BEFORE using one at the range or in any other situation.

Revolvers, Semi-Autos and Derringers

modern handguns

Modern handguns come in three categories: revolvers, automatics and single-shot/derringers. The latter are very simple, in that one round is placed in a chamber/barrel. The round is fired, then the round has to be taken out and a new one placed inside.

Revolvers use a revolving cylinder, containing four to six chambers in almost all cases. (Some hold seven or more.) Each chamber holds a bullet. Some revolvers require the gun to be cocked for each shot, and some don't - depending on the revolver you have.

Automatic, or rather semi-automatic handguns (while the two things aren't the same thing, the terms are still used interchangeably; anyone will know what you mean) automatically cycle the next round from a magazine into the chamber after firing and cock themselves. What happens is that the slide travels backward after a bullet is fired. This ejects the spent shell, cocks the hammer (or firing mechanism) and inserts the next available round from the magazine.

Some autos have a hammer, some don't. Additionally, there are hammerless revolvers as well. These guns only require a trigger pull to fire.

Automatics also come with additional control mechanisms, such as a magazine release (located on or close to the trigger guard, though some are on the heel of the grip) a slide release/slide stop lever and a takedown lever for disassembly.

Handgun Parts: The Anatomy Of A Handheld

handgun anatomy

It behooves a person to know handgun parts. This guide will omit the finer points of firing mechanisms in lieu of just the basic parts, but here are the parts you need to know about:

  • Barrel: the part the bullet comes out of. The end where the bullet comes out is the muzzle, the bit around the actual hole itself is called the crown.
  • Sights: these are what you use to put on a target. Most handguns have front and rear sights, though some just have a front sight.
  • Hammer: on pistols that use them, the hammer is the piece of metal that's brought down on the bullet to fire it or strikes a firing pin to do the same thing. It swings in a hammer-like motion, hence the name.
  • Firing Pin: literally a metal pin that hits the bullet.
  • Striker: a piece of metal at the end of the firing pin. In pistols that have them, they hit the bullet instead of the firing pin.
  • Slide: the slide is the top housing on automatic pistols. The slide is joined to the frame by means of grooves machined into the slide, which allows it to slide back and forth as the pistol is operated.
  • Chamber: a space at the rear end of the barrel. This is where bullets are put to be fired.
  • Cylinder: this is the cylindrically-shaped (they're often fluted) part of a revolver with a number of chambers for bullets.
  • Magazine: a spring-loaded box that contains bullets. The magazine is inserted into automatic pistols into the grip of the gun. Rounds are held in place by tension, but pulled up and forward by a cycling slide. This feeds the round below it into top position until the magazine is empty.

Centerfire vs Rimfire Guns

rimfire vs centerfire

Virtually all handguns made today are what are called "centerfire," though there are plenty that are "rimfire" as well. This refers to the type of bullet a firearm fires, as these are the two types of cartridge.

If you look at most cartridges, you'll see the projectile at the front of the case and a rim at the rear. If you look at the rear of most cartridges, you'll see a little button in the middle of it. That's the primer. When the primer is struck by a firing pin, it ignites the powder inside the cartridge case and propels the bullet out of the casing and then the barrel.

Since the primer is in the center of the rear of the cartridge...thus, it is a "centerfire" cartridge.

A rimfire bullet works a little differently. On the inside of the case, around the rim at the back, there's a bit of primer powder that is somewhat volatile. It won't go off if you drop the bullet, but it it's directly struck by an object - like the firing pin of a pistol - the bullet will discharge. Since the rim is struck, rather than the center, it's called rimfire.

Rimfire cartridges are very common, but they're only made for a couple of calibers, namely .22LR and .22WMR a.k.a. .22 Magnum and a few others. Most handguns, though, are centerfire, which can range in size from .25 ACP up to .500 S&W.

Double Action vs Single Action Pistols

double and single action pistols

Trigger operation comes in a few different varieties, but most common are double action and single action. Some pistols are double action, some are single-action, and some are both.

The difference between the two is that a single action pistol has to be cocked before it fires. Normally, though not always, a single action pistol has a hammer. By cocking said hammer fully to the rear, this primes the trigger so it can be pulled, thereby dropping the hammer and discharging the pistol.

The cylinder on a single-action revolver can only rotate if the hammer is at half-cock (allowing free rotation) or if one fully cocks the gun. Doing so rotates the next cylinder into alignment, allowing the next round to fire. A single-action auto, however, will automatically cock the hammer for the next shot by virtue of the action cycling after firing.

A double action pistol, however, can be fired simply by pulling the trigger. The trigger pull cocks the gun AND fires it. Double action pistols may or may not have a hammer; there are a few different designs.

Double-action triggers are harder to pull, since more pressure is needed to both cock the gun and fire it. The trigger pull is longer as well, as the trigger has to be pulled over a longer distance than with a single-action trigger. Some shooters find them difficult, but it's easily gotten over with a bit of practice.

Double-action-only (or DAO) revolvers require the trigger pull to rotate the cylinder and fire, so there's no getting around the stiff trigger. There are some DAO autos as well.

A good number of pistols are both double and single action. Modern revolvers and semi-automatic pistols both have this type of trigger, so it is very common. The operator can fire either in double-action mode, with a longer trigger pull, or they can manually cock the pistol and fire with a shorter trigger pull.

What About These Striker-Fired Guns I Keep Hearing About?

what are striker fired guns

Striker-fired guns are something of an anomaly, as they seemingly fit both single-action and double-action descriptions, but they also don't. Striker guns lack a hammer, instead relying on a mechanical "striker" mechanism - usually part of the firing pin system - that hits the primer and discharges the pistol.

Technically, striker guns are "pre-set" or in other words, half-cocked prior to the trigger pull. Pulling the trigger fully cocks and discharges. Striker pistols also have short, light trigger pulls, similar to a single-action pistol.

As a result, striker-fired guns aren't quite single-action, but aren't quite double-action either.

Safety Features Of Handguns

safety features on handguns

The safety features of handguns are different on every model. Some have comparatively few, others have multiple safety features.

The most common is a firing pin block, the most common form of drop safety. These are linked to the trigger, making it so that the firing pin cannot strike a cartridge unless the trigger is pulled. That way, even if a gun is dropped, it can't go off unless the trigger is actuated.

A thumb safety or mechanical safety has to be turned on or off by the user. These block the firing mechanism, so the trigger can't be pulled nor a round discharged. Some single-action pistols - such as 1911 pistols - can only use the thumb safety if the hammer is cocked, though there are some double/single action pistols (like the CZ-75) that similarly can only use the safety in single-action operation.

A passive trigger safety is a lever that's part of a trigger assembly. These block the trigger unless pressed, so the trigger cannot be pulled unless something depresses the trigger safety lever and engages the trigger.

A grip safety is a form of passive safety. Unless deactivated, these block the firing mechanism so the gun cannot be fired. Usually - but not always - located on the back of the gun's grip, the grip safety has to be depressed in order to deactivate it. In other words, unless a gun equipped with a grip safety is in your hand, it cannot be fired.

A decocker, or decocking lever, de-cocks a pistol. Mostly, these are deployed on double-action/single-action guns, taking them out of single-action mode and putting them in double-action mode. Decockers are exclusively used on autos and almost exclusively on hammer-fired pistols...though there are a few striker guns with decockers and double/single action triggers.

A decocker is a safety feature as double-action guns (see below) are harder to fire, making any accidental firing next to impossible. Decockers are different than mechanical safeties, though some guns have a decocking mechanism as part of a mechanical safety that also blocks the firing mechanism.

Some guns, though, only have a stiff trigger pull as a safety device, ensuring the gun cannot go off unless someone pulls the trigger...and the only way to pull the trigger on a stiff double action trigger is if you mean to.

All About The Hammer

gun hammer

A hammer is very easy to operate. You pull it back with your thumb, usually the thumb on the shooting hand. On a hammer-fired pistol, this cocks the gun and makes it ready to fire.

If you ever have to decock a pistol, do so VERY carefully as there is a potential for an accidental discharge. The first step is to point the pistol in a safe direction.

To manually decock a pistol, you have to take hold of the hammer, then pull the trigger and let the hammer down SLOWLY. Once the hammer is lowered, you can let go. However, try not to do this if you don't have to. Definitely don't do this if you don't feel confident in doing so.

To learn how to manually decock a pistol, put a snap cap (a non-firing dummy round) in the gun first. DO NOT do it for the first time with live ammunition. Practice until confident.

Picatinny Rail and Other Accessory Mounts

picatinny rail and mounts'

Some handguns have a Picatinny rail or other type of rail for mounting accessories. These are grooves machined into the slide that allow a laser, flashlight, or other accessory to be attached to the pistol.

Rails are very popular for "tactical" models of pistol, but aren't necessarily available on every gun.

Pistol Calibers

calibers for pistols

Pistol calibers are different than rifle calibers, as pistol rounds are larger around but shorter and far less powerful than rifle rounds. For instance, pistols chambered in .45 caliber are very common (the .45 ACP is one of the most popular pistol rounds) but .45 caliber rifles are not nearly as common. Rifle rounds of that caliber are very powerful and not many shooters enjoy nor use them on a regular basis, though a good number of hunters swear by the .45-70 and .450 Marlin rounds for short-range hunting and protection from large bears.

The most popular handgun calibers are .22LR, .22WMR, .380 Auto, .38 Special, .357 Magnum, 9X19mm Parabellum (also called 9mm Parabellum, 9mm Luger or just 9mm), .40 S&W, 10mm, .41 Magnum, .44 Magnum and .45 ACP. There are others, such as .25 ACP, .454 Casull, 9mm Makarov, 5.7mm, .44 Special, .45 Long Colt, .460 S&W, .480 Ruger and .500 S&W, but they are not nearly as popular.

The magnum rounds mentioned above (such as .357 Magnum, .41 Magnum and .44 Magnum) and the .38 Special round are generally only available in revolvers, as revolvers (being made with more metal) can withstand the chamber pressures generated by these loads. Additionally, each of these rounds has a long bullet case, making them incompatible with most autos. There are, to be sure, a small number of autos that can...but they are very rare and very expensive.

See The Sights

sights on pistol

Handgun sights are basic to use, but not the easiest to master. There is a rear sight, which typically have a notch or indentation cut into them, and a front sight. To use them, align the two over the target. The top of the front sight should be level with the top of the rear sight, which gives the bullet it's truest trajectory.

The most basic sights are blade sights, which are just pieces of metal.

Night sights have photoluminescent dots on them that glow in the dark, making them easy to use in low-light conditions.

A small number of guns are made with a notch cut into the top of the gun running from the muzzle to the rear of the gun. These are called trench sights.

Some sights can be adjusted and some cannot.

Welcome To The World Of Handguns

best handgun guide

Though some would see the whole world disarmed due to misguided ideals or for the purposes of outright villainy, handguns are a tool of self-defense and also a fun sporting pastime, as sport and target shooting of handguns has been enjoyed by millions of people for more than a century.

Want to know more? Keep an eye on the Alien Gear Holsters blog. We will be adding many more guides like this one.

Sam Hoober

About The Author

Born in southeastern Washington State, Sam Hoober graduated in 2011 from Eastern Washington University. He resides in the great Inland Northwest, with his wife and child. His varied interests and hobbies include camping, fishing, hunting, and spending time at the gun range as often as possible.