Often, I am asked what pistol(s) I would recommend an individual buy when they begin shooting or, for that matter, experienced shooters as well.
If you are just starting out, select a pistol (I will not be discussing revolvers in this article) that meets two criteria:
- Make sure the pistol feels good in your hand, not to large or small, but comfortable.
- Point the pistol and ensure the sights line up quickly on target, that you don’t need to fight for a good sight alignment.
- A final tip: if you are a beginner, do not choose a subcompact pistol for your primary self-defense gun. They are difficult to shoot for even experienced gunners. Click here to watch video of topic.
The pistols discussed below are all full-sized pistols. You may be asking yourself what the difference in sizes of handguns are. Pistols come in essentially four sizes:
- Full size – 4.4 inch or longer barrel length; the grip fits the hand w/o a magazine in it.
- Compact – 3.5 to 4.3-inch barrel length; the grip fits the hand with or without a magazine.
- Subcompact – 3 to 3.5-inch barrel length; the grip does not fit the hand w/o a magazine.
- Pocket Pistol – less than 3-inch barrel length; grip does not fit the hand even with magazine
From training experiences, the latter two pistol types are difficult to shoot for beginners. As an example, I have large hands and for a subcompact pistol, I use my middle and ring fingers to hold the grip. Although I can shoot it fine due to my experience level, it is not my primary carry/combat pistol but, used as a backup. I own four Sig P226’s and a P229, as well as quite a few others including Glocks; Sig Sauer pistols are hard to beat. I have attempted to be unbiased in the following list because it comes from my use, teaching, and training experiences on five continents thus – other’s lists would naturally vary.
All the pistols discussed here will have a hammer and all come in double action/single action versions (DA/SA) excepting the 1911. I am not as fond of ‘striker-fired’ (without hammers) pistols. The main reason is that one cannot repeatedly fire them during practice, i.e., dry fire; these types of pistols tend to be equivalent to single action only (SAO) pistols. And, with ammunition costs as high as they are, it is my opinion that it is important to be able to practice drawing, trigger pull, and sight alignment without shooting hundreds of rounds of ammo.
I am not discouraging you from buying a striker-fired pistol, it is just that you should be aware of that specific limitation. Other than that, they work similarly to hammer-fired pistols. If you decide on a striker-fired pistol, keep in mind that to repeatedly practice via dry fire, you will need to have a ‘reset trigger’ installed in the gun to dry fire more than the initial round. With that said, I will list what I consider 7 of the best striker-fired pistols, but will not discuss them since operationally, they are virtually the same as the hammer-fired pistols that will be discussed.
The reader should be aware that for guns, just like everything else you buy, you get what you pay for! If you buy a $350 pistol, it will fall short of the quality of a $900 pistol. The materials used in cheaper guns are not as good as the materials used in more costly ones. As an example, compare the Glock versus the Sig Sauer. If the Glock were a car it would be comparable to a Dodge Challenger while the Sig Sauer is more aptly compared to an F-Type Jaguar. They really are not in the same league in either cost or performance. However, both will out shoot the user. The bottom line again, is that you get what you pay for. The real question is, will you be satisfied with what you buy? Let us take a look at the top seven pistols that can be used for combat or concealed carry – again, this is my opinion based upon experience on five continents; others may vary.
#1: The number one combat pistol in my opinion is the MK25 Sig Sauer P226. It was originally issued to the U.S. Navy Seals and they have used and tested it to the extreme. Other P226’s perform equally as well. Assuming the P226 meets the basic selection criteria above, you will not go wrong choosing this pistol as your primary combat/self-defense pistol and, you will not be disappointed. These pistols are well proven around the world by the various military and police forces in Israel, Germany, Italy, Special Operations Forces everywhere, as well as many others. This pistol is easy to disassemble and clean and is a titan of a workhorse. If you are looking for a more concealable version, pick its little brother the P229, which has a 3.9-inch barrel. If you have a smaller hand, try out the P239 although it went out of production in 2018, there is lots of good used ones on the market. One problem is the adequacy of good holsters for concealed carry for this pistol. Companies such as Garrett, IMI, We the People, and others do make quality holsters for this gun.
#2: Heckler and Koch P30L. Like Sig Sauer, H&K pistols are built to exacting standards and are put to hard use and are well proven by a great many military and police agencies around the world such as Germany, Ireland, Greece, and Spain. It works well for ambidextrous shooters so, for left-handed people, this may be a good gun for you. If you want a shorter version, try the P30, which has a 3.9-inch barrel. If you prefer a .45 caliber, try the H&K USP.
#3: Beretta M9/92 is another great pistol. This pistol is a legendary semi-auto handgun, which won the U.S. military contract in 1985 and then fell out of favor. Twenty years later, it has repeated that feat, along with the Sig Sauer M17 (the latter is striker-fired). As with the Sig and H&K, it is used around the world and is an excellent pistol. I had one and sold it to a friend who constantly pestered me to sell it to him; it is a great gun. It also has a longer barrel length (4.9 inches) than the top two pistols and may be easier for novices to shoot, but more difficult to conceal. It has the nick name ‘World Defender’ that is well deserved. You will find it in service around the globe.
#4: The 1911 from Colt or any manufacturer. The venerable 1911 was the mainstay of the military even before WWII and it is one of the most popular handguns in the U.S. It is easy to point and aim, being very slim, easy to handle and shoot. It is one of the most customized pistols in the world being made by Colt, Kimber, Sig Sauer, Taurus, Remington, Browning, Ruger, and a great many others. It is made in both 9mm and .45 caliber depending on manufacturer. This pistol was first designed in 1911 by John Browning and has served around the world for more than a century. Because most of these have single-stack magazines, they can also fit smaller hands, despite the size of the pistol. Many manufacturers make a shorter barrel version of about 4-inches, which makes for a good concealed carry gun.
#5: FNH FNX series pistols are great full-sized guns. If you want a shorter, more concealable version, go with the FNX-9, which has a 4-inch barrel. It is good quality, well built, and reliable; FNH has produced military handguns for years. Best of all, this pistol is comfortable in the hand and points naturally for most. Like the other pistols in the list above, it is widely used around the world by special operators, police, and the military of various countries.
#6: Browning Hi-Power has always been one of the most reliable handguns in the world. It takes a beating and keeps on ticking. Its design has been around for over 80 years and it is still in active service in military groups in Africa and elsewhere. It is single action (double action/single action versions are available) with a short and lighter recoil and more magazine capacity than the 1911 design John Browning created. Overall, it is a simple and effective design with great aesthetics that is hard to beat in handling. One of the wonderful things is that a variety of grips can be bought for it to fit your hand size more efficiently, although this is true for the other pistols listed as well. It is a nice, slim, pistol with great ergonometric features. It is also draws well from a leather holster – clean and smooth. This is because it lacks the equipment (picatinny) rail that most pistols have. Another gun you would not resent purchasing. However, it is likely going to become a collector’s pistol since production was discontinued in 2017, but companies such as Night Hawk Custom will sell you a very excellent, customized version.
#7: The Ceska Zbrojovka 75 or CZ 75 is one of the most reliable and also popular pistols used among law enforcement, as well as special forces in Europe. It is interesting to note that the CZ 75 represents a significant step forward in auto pistol design. Appearing 30 years ago, it has driven modern pistol designs around the world. It is the main sidearm or the Czech police (a compact version – CZ-75 P-01), as well as the Turkish police and various U.S. police departments. Most experts rate the CZ as one of the best combat pistols globally – it is a fine pistol
A complaint of many has been that hammers on pistols hamper quick draw due to snagging on clothing. I have done bodyguard work, have been in zones where carry is essential, and taught firearms training on 5 continents for a long time. I have not found this to be the case, however, I use a martial-arts principal to draw my pistol. And, to this date, have not had one snag. So, if you are worried about snags or want to look at some other very good pistols that are striker-fired, following is a list of very excellent pistols. They are listed in alphabetical order not in ranking because only you know what gun feels good in your hand and which has good pointing ability.
You should know that striker-fired triggers fall somewhere between single-action and double-action. The pull is generally shorter, and the trigger can break more predictably than a double-action trigger. The downside is that the pull is long and heavy compared to most single-action triggers. For example, a double action forces the hammer back and then forward as it fires. In so doing, the pull is around 12-14 lbs. After the first round is ejected (forcing the slide back and resetting the hammer to the cocked position), the remaining rounds are single action fired at about 4-5 lbs pull depending on the pistol. And, after the first DA round is fired, the remaining rounds at single action are generally quite crisp and predictable.
Therefore, for all pistols, including striker-fired guns, trigger control is important, especially in critical, high-stress situations. For this reason, gun manufacturers are trending toward lighter, crisper triggers. This is shown by the features on the Sig P320 and M17, Walther PPQ, H&K VP, and FNH FNS. I do not necessarily agree with this and I will explain why. During a high-stress situation, your adrenaline is really pumping and even a 14 lb trigger pull feels light, unnoticeable in fact. If you are a civilian you should shoot combat tactics, which means that you will not draw and fire your pistol unless it is truly life and death. In such a situation, the pistol fires as it clears the leather and levels, much like a gunfighter in the old western movies. A striker fired pistol has a noticeably lighter trigger pull by comparison so, the gun can go off prematurely as pressure is placed on the trigger. Regardless of the type pistol you buy, but especially if it is a striker-fired pistol, you need to practice safe, smooth, quick draws until you are very comfortable with it (use snap caps during practice) – follow the 4 basic gun-safety rules, which I will list below. Remember, if you are not in law enforcement, you cannot pull your gun and make demands of someone! On the other hand, if you need to assist someone, even a law enforcement officer and have a hammer-fired gun, you can always cock the hammer and align the sites, and be prepared to fire; the 4 lb trigger pull will then be about the same as a striker-fired pistol and as crisp if not better. If you are drawing and firing double action, it is usually at a remarkably close target and, the trigger pull, especially due to adrenaline flow, will be hardly noticeable. This is one reasons that people get shot – too much adrenaline that speeds reaction before rational thought occurs.
The Four Primary Gun Safety Rules (you need to embed these in your memory):
- All guns are always loaded.
- Know your target and what is beyond it.
- Keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot.
- Do not let the muzzle cross anything you do not wish to destroy.
Please note that the newer striker-fired guns feel like they have single-action triggers (and some are, technically speaking) but with an added amount of slack/take-up to help prevent accidental or negligent discharges due to increasing the length of the trigger pull. However, during an adrenaline rush, this goes out the window for most. In my opinion, striker-fired guns are still no match for a good single action or combined DA/SA trigger.
The Top 7 Striker-Fired Pistols
- FNH FNS – it is reliable safe and a good gun for beginners.
- Glock 17 and 19; there are also other good models and calibers. Glock is very popular around the world. One reason is because it is a good gun for a moderate price.
- Ruger SR9 – when it was released had a problem with trigger over travel, which has long since been fixed. The trigger pull is now smooth and crisp but takes about 200 rounds to break in the pistol. You should shoot this number of rounds with any gun you buy since it will help you learn the finer parts of how your pistol performs. For the price and longevity, it is hard to beat a Ruger.
- Sig Sauer M17 (P320) – another fine handgun and you would not go wrong selecting it because it has undergone stringent trials. A compact version can be obtained, labeled the M18.
- Smith & Wesson M&P – what can be said that has not been said already? This is a superb firearm.
- Springfield XD – hard to beat and in use globally.
- Walther P99-AS and PPQ; for a smaller concealed carry the PPK is very nice and has been the epitome of concealed carry for decades, as well as being used in all the James Bond films, although the new “No Time to Die” release shows Bond also shooting a Sig P226R.
Other combat pistols not mentioned but that are also particularly good include the Kahr (C and S series), Makarov PM, FNH FNS9, CZ-P09, and Desert Eagle (the latter is a bit heavy).
As a final note, when you decide on a pistol to buy, make sure it has night sights because most violent crimes occur during hours of darkness and you will find it difficult to obtain sight alignment when you are unable to see your sights. Most pistols have them, but many do not – the typical Glock is an example.