Choosing a Handgun for Self-Defense

A handgun shown at a gun range

You see a lot of lists of the “best” handguns for various things, but the truth is that which gun is best depends entirely on you. Choosing a gun is a very personal thing, especially when you’re relying on it to protect your life.

So instead of telling you which guns you should buy for self defense, I’m going to talk to you about how to choose a handgun and what factors you should consider when you’re making your choice.

Gun Size

As a general rule, I recommend compact-sized handguns, but if a full-size handgun feels better just do what works for you. I would choose a compact handgun for carry, and a full-sized handgun for home defense.

I think beginners should probably stay away from subcompact handguns. The small size can seem less intimidating to the inexperienced, but the smaller the gun, the more felt recoil, so smaller guns are actually more difficult to handle. 

On the other hand, larger-framed guns have less recoil and take less effort to realign your sights between shots.

However, if you have shot before and are a little more experienced, a subcompact gun in 9mm or .380 can be great because you can easily slip it into a pocket or a concealed carry holster without it being annoyingly heavy, overly conspicuous, or uncomfortable.


An image of three 9mm hollowpoints arranged on a wooden surface.
Image by Velizar Ivanov on Unsplash

.9mm and .45 ACP are the most often recommended calibers for a defensive handguns, and both are also common calibers for use by law enforcement. 

.45 ACP fires a larger projectile than the .9mm, but also greater recoil. For most people 9mm might be the best option. 9mm offers greater capacity, less recoil, and has better velocity to get through barriers.

Modern hollowpoint technology has gotten more than good enough to close the “stopping power” gap between 9mm and .45, so there’s really no reason to choose .45 ACP unless you just feel more comfortable with it.

If you prefer a revolver to a pistol, .38 Special is generally the go-to caliber. It has manageable recoil and was a popular choice for law enforcement revolvers back when wheelguns were the go-to. 

I recommend getting one that can handle +P ammo, and maybe one chambered in .357 Magnum just to give you a little more versatility.  


bullets and gun on black velvet desk
Image by somboon kaeoboonsong on iStock.

We’re assuming here that you’re planning on concealed carrying your defensive handgun, but even if you aren’t, it’s still helpful to choose a concealable firearm in case you decide later on that you’d like to concealed carry.

For a gun to be concealable, it can’t be either directly visible or print (have the shape of the gun show through clothing). How concealable a particular weapon is depends on the clothes you wear, your body size and type, and where on your body you carry.

But concealability doesn’t just mean how it works with your clothes, size, and build, and how you plan to carry.

Sure, if you’re torn between multiple guns, how it fits with your personal clothing is something to factor into your decision, but don’t choose a firearm just based on how well it fits the way you dress.

You should anticipate having to dress for your gun, at least to a degree, and you may need to change how you do certain things, like leaning over, to keep your gun concealed.

Gun Features

handgun with ammo
Image by Taliaferro on iStock.

I recommend beginners opt for a handgun without an external safety. External safeties require extra manipulation in a defensive situation, manipulation that will slow you down or worse, may be forgotten entirely.

I know this is a bit counter-intuitive, but that extra step is just one more thing that go wrong when your life is already on the line in a self-defense scenario. 

That doesn’t mean you have to go without a safety entirely, though. Many manufacturers, like Glock, include internal safeties in their firearms to prevent accidental discharge. 

In addition, you’ll want night sights on any defensive weapon you want. Night sights will allow you to protect yourself even in dim lighting. You don’t have to get a gun with them, though. You can get aftermarket night sights for most guns, so you can also opt to get a set of these and have a gunsmith replace your handgun’s sights for you.

While we’re talking about features, let’s talk about cost, too.

A cheap gun may be satisfactory for just plinking, but you probably don’t want to trust it with your life. Now you don’t have to spend a ton of money for a defensive handgun with all kinds of extra features, but you do want to make sure you’re getting a good quality piece that won’t fail when you need it most.

Some Guns to Try

Revolvers on the counter in the gun shop. Weapon
Image by DmyTo on AdobeStock.

Going over each individual gun on this list would take more space than I have here, so I’m going to give you a list of guns to look into, and a brief description. These are all guns I’ve personally tested, and I wouldn’t hesitate to defend my life with any of them.

  • Ruger American Pistol: A full-sized, polymer-framed, striker-fired gun that is imminently reliable. An excellent value.
  • Glock 19: The gold standard for carry guns these days, the Glock 19 is available in several different generational versions. The Gen 5 is going to be the best, but the most expensive. Earlier generations are still excellent. 
  • Ruger Security 9: Excellent, no-frills budget handgun. The cheapest handgun I’d willingly defend life and liberty with.
  • Walther PPQ M2: Best-shooting pistol in this price category with great handling, ergonomics, and trigger.
  • Smith & Wesson M&P Bodyguard: Quality revolver from the #1 name in wheelguns. Available with Crimson Trace laser grips.

Try as Many as You Can

arm pointing a gun to the left
Image by Tumisu on Pixaby.

Like I said at the start of this post, choosing any gun is personal. You may not like your friend’s favorite gun or even the most widely recommended defensive handgun. 

So, when it comes down to it, the best thing you can do to help yourself choose a handgun for self-defense is to try a variety of different handguns. To try a variety of different handguns, borrow guns from friends and rent them from ranges or clubs.

If possible, try to shoot with an instructor so they can help you determine what you need and want out of a handgun and what handguns will work best with your natural shooting style. 

Oh, and women should try to shoot with women instructors. While there are plenty of male instructors who have experience teaching women how to choose and carry a handgun, it’s hard to beat a woman’s first-hand experience when it comes to issues like concealability or off-body carry. 

Parting Shots

Choosing a handgun doesn’t have to be difficult. Focus on what’s right for you and not what’s right for others, and you’ll do fine.

If at all possible, find a range near you that does rentals, and actually try before you buy. There are a number of great options out there, so don’t be afraid to find one that really works for you.

Do you have anything you’d like to add? Do you have any questions or concerns? Leave a comment below!

Choosing a handgun for self-defense


One comment

  1. Hi my name is Pat. I bought a smith and Wesson 9mm SD9VE. To me o thought this looked like the rip one to have for self defense. But I am have my doubts. I’m afraid of the thin plastic. Also not sure of the trigger. Was waiting to by a Ruger security 9mm 3816. But waited a couple weeks and feared a new law may pop up beguiling get the chance to buy. Well it’s still in the box unused. I have a cpl class coming and I’m not sure about it . I’ve read some negative reviews about it and I’m worried if the trigger, will be ok, and the whole gun on general. I felt this was more thicker at handle than is. Any advice? I know I can’t take back.

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