min read
buy the gun after you try it

How To Try Before You Buy When Gun Shopping

How do you know it's the right gun when handgun shopping? After all, if you're going to pick a gun to defend yourself with, you'd better pick one that you can rely on. You'll also want to pick one that you'll be able to use.

How does a person do that?

First by handling it, then by shooting it. While doing that, you're going to notice certain things about the pistol that will tell you whether or not it's a good fit for you. There are lots of good guns out there, but not every one of them is necessarily a great fit for you specifically.

How do you determine if a gun is well-suited to you? We're going to go over that, as well as some other gun shopping tips.

Guns Are Tools, So Do Your Gun Shopping Accordingly

act like guns are tools

One of the first things you'll want to bear in mind while gun shopping is that a gun is a tool. What sort of job do you have in mind?

In other words, keep the intended use of the pistol in mind. Are you looking for a home defense pistol or a concealed carry gun? A target pistol? A hunting handgun or backup gun for the woods? Or are you looking for a gun that can do a bit of everything?

Plenty of people have gone into a gun store without much idea of what they're looking for beforehand, and wind up leaving several hundred dollars poorer only to need to buy another gun later for a specific purpose.

There are lots of great guns, but not necessarily a great one for every purpose. For instance, a Smith and Wesson Model 10 is a fantastic pistol. It's been in production continually since 1898 because the darn thing just works so well. Six shots of .38 Special, and it even handles +P, and you choose whether you shoot in double or single action. However, the Model 10 - a K-frame with a 4-inch barrel - is not great for concealed carry because it's a service revolver, and isn't the best woods gun. A .357 Magnum would be better; a .44 Magnum or .45 Colt better still.

Plenty of people do carry a 1911 as a CCW gun, but not everyone would prefer to. They're heavy, capacity is limited by modern standards and not everyone loves freedom wants to deal with a manual safety.

Therefore, make sure to know what you need from a gun before buying. Be aware of the features you're looking for. That will help you avoid buyer's remorse and having to buy another one in a few months' time...though there's nothing wrong with having a collection! Variety, as it's said, is the spice of life.

The Fit Of A Gun

good gun fit

So, now that you have an idea of what sort of pistol you want, the first thing you'll want to pay attention to is the fit. It's imperative while gun shopping that you get a little hands-on with a gun before you lay down your money.

The fit is important with any gun, let alone handguns. The highest-end gunmakers (such as Purdey or Holland and Holland of England, Perazzi or Famars of Italy, Arrizabalaga or Aguirra y Aranzabal of Spain, AH Fox of the US and so on) actually have customers measured to ensure a proper fit. Granted, those are bespoke guns - with price tags to match - so they darn well better.

What, then, should you pay attention to?

First, pay attention to how it feels in your hand. Does it seem to fit naturally and comfortably? If you close your eyes and hold the gun, you should get something like a gut feeling that the gun feels good. If so, that's a good start. If not, try something else. A gun that doesn't feel good in the hand probably won't feel great to shoot to you.

Is it close, though? Here's why that may matter: a lot of modern pistols have changeable backstraps, which are at the rear of the grip. If a gun you're looking at is close to feeling perfect, but has either a bit too much or too little on the backside of the grip, you might just need to swap the backstrap. If, that is, the gun has swappable backstraps. A grip sleeve can also help in this regard (and they're cheap) in case the gun is close enough for you to want it anyway but needs that extra little bit.

However, take note of a few other things.

First, can you easily get your finger on the trigger? You should be able to easily get the distal joint of the trigger finger onto the face of the trigger. Your trigger finger should easily get into the trigger guard.

If you aren't able to do so, you likely are handling a gun with too large a grip circumference. This is why some people have issues with big pistols like the Beretta M9 and some Sig Sauer pistols. In fact, that was exactly why the military wanted the P320 platform for the new M17 pistol. Soldiers with smaller hands can swap the trigger group into a smaller frame size to fit their hands.

Note the tail end of the grip and the slide. Can you get a good grip? Does the backstrap of the grip sit well over the webbing of your palm? Ideally, the slide should terminate around the first knuckle of the thumb or close to it. Otherwise, you may be likely to deal with slide bite.

Gun Handling: How The Pistol Moves

handling gun well

After fit, test out some of the gun handling characteristics. You should be able to handle the gun well and operate it rather intuitively. Some practice is going to be necessary to commit the manual of arms to memory, so to speak, but it should "feel" right to you while moving it about.

Does the gun seem to point intuitively? A good-fitting pistol should feel like an extension of the hand, pointing naturally. If it doesn't, you may want to consider a different model.

Next, try sight acquisition. Start from low-ready position, with the pistol held in your hands at or even below the belt line. Pick a spot somewhere nearby - DO NOT AIM AT OR SWEEP BY A PERSON - and bring the gun up to it. Do the sights naturally get on the target for you? If so, that's a good sign.

Cycle the slide a few times. Can you easily move it, and do you get a good purchase on the slide with your hands? This will tell you how easy the gun is going to be to work. While time and lubrication certainly help, you have to be able to work the pistol well.

Some people take note of balance, or how the weight of the gun is distributed. That's something of a folly when handling guns at the store, largely because the gun will be unloaded. Polymer-frame pistols are very nose-heavy unloaded; steel frame guns still are but will be drastically less so.

However, once loaded...even plastic fantastics even out.

Note the controls. Can you access them easily? You should be able to reach and operate the slide release, magazine release and a decocker/manual safety with relative ease.

Bottom line, if the gun fits right, and you can handle it easily, then you have a gun that you're going to be able to easily work with. Granted, you might never find a gun that fits you 100 percent perfectly short of having a custom handgun made for you, with custom stocks and so on. However, you'll be able to tell which guns fit you and handle for you better than others. Those are the ones you want.

Take In The Views, See The Handgun Sights

pistol sights

We mentioned acquiring the target and thus the sight picture while handling the gun. One thing you should pay attention to if doing some gun shopping is the handgun sights.

You should be able to pick up the front sight easily when you get them on target. The front sight is the key to good shooting, whether it's with a shotgun, a handgun, iron-sight rifle or what-have-you. You need to be able to key in on it quickly when bringing the gun on target.

Granted, you shouldn't necessarily discard a gun that otherwise is great for you because you don't like the sights. Why?

Because one of the most common upgrades to a factory gun is a set of good sights. A lot of people plan on upgrading the sights as a matter of course. Many factory sights are actually fine, but they just aren't always the best. Three dot sights, the most common on most factory guns these days, are the beige of the handgun sights. They aren't bad, but aren't really great either; at best, they're inoffensive.

While the additional expenditure is a pain, doing so can still pay dividends. How much you part with depends on the sights. Some are quite cost-effective, some are quite expensive and others are somewhere in between.

Handgun Shooting: Try Before You Buy

buy after you try

Next, you're going to want to take a prospective new handgun shooting. Good gun shopping should include a gun store that has a range attached or a gun range that has rentals available. While everything else that's been mentioned is important, it's only part of the story.

Likewise, you must get an idea for how a gun shoots. What you're looking for is how accurate you are with the gun and how it feels to shoot.

As to accuracy, start with slow, careful aimed fire at relatively close distances; seven yards is a good starting point. What you're looking to establish here is how well the gun hits a bullseye.

Note the recoil. Is there a particular part of your hand that's getting the brunt of it, or does the whole hand seem to absorb the recoil? What you want is the latter; a good fit will spread recoil over the largest possible area.

Can you live with the recoil, or can you tell that you wouldn't want to shoot the gun too much?

Plenty of people have bought themselves a big magnum revolver like a Smith and Wesson Model 29, only to sell it a few months later after only a couple trips to the range because they can't stand the recoil. Similarly, a whole bunch of rifle shooters find they can't hit the broadside of a barn despite shooting their .270 like a surgeon. It then languishes in a safe, never to be used.

What happens in those instances is that a person either doesn't like to shoot the gun or the recoil makes it so they can't shoot it well.

In short, make sure you can live with the recoil. Don't get sucked into the caliber wars; there is no such thing as handgun stopping power. If you don't like the .40 or .45 caliber pistol you thought you wanted, a 9mm will still get the job done and do a better job of it too, because you'll shoot it better.

After you've done some simple target shooting, try a few combat shooting exercises. Use the front sight technique and shoot a few controlled pairs, some double taps, throw a Mozambique drill or two in there for good measure. Can you get back on target quickly? Hit reliably and so on? If so, good! You've found a gun that you can be combat accurate with.

Also, pay attention to how it feels overall when you shoot it. You should have a positive reaction to it. In other words, you shoot it and it feels kind of good to do so. Granted, you don't need to necessarily explode with joy, but if you think "I kinda like it!" then that's a good sign.

In summation, if you find that you can hit with the gun, and do so reliably and accurately, and that you enjoy shooting the gun, then that's definitely a good gun to get for you.

About The Author

Jake Smith gun blog writer