Handgun Primer for Liberals

Column by Paul Bonneau.

Exclusive to STR

The intended audience for this article are people outside the “gun culture” who nevertheless have decided they might need one for defense; particularly for those who imagine never getting more than one gun. I intend to cut through the gun-nuttery and give you enough information to get started. However far you want to take it from that point is up to you.

Much of what follows is opinion, and some of it is unconventional. For example, you will find no exhortations to get expensive handgun training from professionals, before you can carry and use a gun. I think that advice is backwards; professional training, if needed at all, comes later. Guns are pretty simple tools, after all. It’s easy to get significant utility from them, at least where defense is concerned. The “80 - 20 rule” applies here just like everywhere else.

For your first defense gun--to boil it down to a straightforward, basic recommendation--get a new, good quality (e.g., Smith & Wesson) stainless double-action .357 Magnum revolver with a four or six-inch barrel. To understand why, we first have to understand the utility of firearms.

Are guns only for killing? No, although you’ve no doubt heard that old chestnut many times. Only a tiny minority of guns has been used to kill someone. Statistically speaking, one might just as well claim that cars are only for killing.

Are guns only for self defense? For the same reason, I am going to say no. Only a tiny minority of guns have ever been used for defensive purposes.

Well then, what are they for? There is something they do every day you have one: They give you peace of mind. A gun on your nightstand means you can sleep. You can stop living in fear. I’ll bet most people don’t look at them that way, but it seems that way to me. They are very much like insurance--you do it more for peace of mind than anything (you sure don’t do it because you enjoy paying insurance premiums). However, they go insurance one better because they can deter harm rather than just compensating you for it afterwards. Guns are the cheapest form of insurance you will ever pay for, and you get an actual thing in your hand (the gun) when you buy it. You can pass this insurance down to your children and grandchildren.

So just the act of buying a gun yields significant utility to you. Why put up with living in fear, anyway? I’ve never understood it.

Buying a gun might even make you more ethical, another good reason to have one. Eric Raymond, one of the founders of Linux, explains how.

Another form of utility is shown by the statistics. Various studies have shown that, if you are attacked and you haul out your gun, the most likely thing by far is that the attack will end (and the attacker will run) without even a shot being fired. Another somewhat less likely thing is that you may shoot at him and miss but he still runs. Still less likely is that you will hit him, but he survives. Very unlikely will be that you kill him--although a gun owner should mentally be capable of doing that, otherwise things can go awry in the encounter.

Bottom line is, “have a gun.” That in itself provides significant utility to you, even in that rare defensive action. Certainly outside that case, for peace of mind.

The above shows that even a .22LR gun works for yielding most of the utility. That is so and in fact many people use such guns because they are cheap and ubiquitous. However, remember what we are talking about, very cheap insurance. One can get too cheap! If you have a significant caliber, that helps in all respects except for one (cost of practice). If you do end up needing to shoot, by using a major caliber you will have a lot more confidence in getting the job done.

Why a revolver? Many advise a pistol instead because it can hold more ammo and be reloaded faster. However, for a first gun, it’s not so good because there are so many varieties of operation, unlike revolvers, which are basic. It’s well known that people being attacked tend to forget the fine details and lose fine motor skills. “Keep it simple,” and revolvers do that best. If you later find yourself starting to like guns and buying more, get a pistol at that point if you like.

Also in the vast majority of attacks, the attack ends with either one or no shots fired, so you don’t need a 17-round magazine to harvest most utility from the gun. Finally, there are little devices called “speedloaders” that can load a revolver pretty quickly anyway.

Why a double-action revolver? This is a revolver for which pulling the trigger performs two separate actions: moving the hammer back, and then releasing the hammer to fire the gun. A single action revolver can only do the latter, so you have to manually pull the hammer back first (cowboy guns are like this). When the hammer is back, the gun is on a “hair trigger” which is not advised for defense unless you don’t mind being sued for negligence and maybe manslaughter. Yes, double action revolvers also allow a person to first manually pull the hammer back first, just like single action revolvers, and it’s a staple on TV shows for an actor to do this to demonstrate “he really means it”--but this is stupidity of gigantic proportions. Don’t do what TV actors do, seriously! Use that revolver ONLY in the double action mode, which should prevent you from accidentally shooting anyone. In fact, it’s not very expensive to have a gunsmith remove the single action notch from the hammer, so double action is all there is; some revolvers can be bought like this (sometimes called “DAO” or “double action only” guns). It truly makes for an idiot-proof gun, which is not a bad thing, heh.

Why .357 Magnum? It (especially in the full-power loading with a 125gr bullet) is the standard in effectiveness; you might dig into research about “one shot stops” to confirm this, or take my word for it. One can also use .38 Special ammo (which it turns out also uses a .357 inch diameter bullet--the name is a 19th Century marketing ploy), but I’d advise against it due to additional issues with cleaning the gun. Do, however, look for reduced-power loads in .357 Magnum, if you can find them. Full house loads tend to damage hearing and they discourage practice because of all the noise and recoil. They will, however, impress whomever you are shooting at.

Buying a used .357 Magnum gun can be iffy, particularly the older, smaller guns (e.g., S&W K-frames). These guns did not have the proper metal treatment and could stretch and go out of time under firing too many of the full power rounds. At least have a reputable gunsmith take a look, and get some guarantees if possible, before buying a used one.

Why at least a four inch barrel? To increase the bullet velocity (which helps effectiveness) and reduce a bit the noise (which helps your hearing--of course all practice MUST be done with eyesight and hearing protection). It also helps in placing your shots properly, no small thing (missing your target can mean hitting an innocent bystander). Snubbies are notoriously bad for missing.

Why stainless? To reduce maintenance. I suspect many guns do not get oiled enough.

Bone up on Cooper's four rules, get yourself down to a gun shop and buy that gun. Don’t worry about the fact that all those guys down there still have old Reagan bumper stickers on their trucks. They are in the business of selling guns and they will treat you respectfully (most snooty gun shops are out of business by now). Oh, also get yourself some hollowpoint ammo, the only kind suitable for defense.

Then take it out in the boonies and do some shooting. See what happens to a jug of water. The more practice, the better.

If you decide to get a second gun, it’s a toss-up between some kind of .22LR gun and a long gun such as this. The good thing about that Marlin or any long gun is that you can hit what you are shooting at. This turns out to be difficult with a handgun, under stress. You’ve no doubt read of shootouts between cops and robbers in which 30 rounds are expended and neither is hit. One wonders where all those bullets ended up.

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Paul Bonneau's picture
Columns on STR: 106


mhstahl's picture

This is a great article, Paul.
I totally agree that a revolver is the best choice for a first gun, or for a first time shooting experience. I have many many times taken newbies "out to the boonies" to pop off a few rounds, and I almost always steer them toward my S&W 686 6" in.357. It is simple, and big and heavy so recoil is not as shocking. I don't enjoy shooting snubbies in heavy calibers because of recoil(and noise) and I've shot all my life, so I always worry about that with a first time shooter.
In fact, the only quibble I might have is with the recommendation about not shooting 38 special in a .357. I've never noticed much difference in cleaning, and the benefit in reduced recoil and noise(which with .357, even with hearing protection, is still bodacious)-not to mention cost- is well worth any added cleaning effort (I admit, I'm not a clean gun fanatic-the actions and barrels of my guns are always ready to go-I just don't worry about the non-bangy parts as much as some folks.)
Indeed, the recoil on my 686 with standard 38 spec. target loads is comparable to a short barrel .22 LR...with a full lug, it just does not kick much at all, which makes for a great package to get over jitters, etc., and have fun.
In fact, back when we were dating, I took my wife out plinking for her first time, she loved my .357 shooting 38's, 9mm pistol, m4, and even a double barrel 12, but for some reason was afraid to shoot my .22LR rifle because it had a scope...people's preconceived notions are strange.
I also agree about "professional training", that may have its place but most programs that I'm aware of take themselves way too seriously, and are overly aggressive on the safety issue. Guns are safe, safer than cars frankly-the rules are really simple. I suspect if my wife had gone through some professional program, she would have been afraid to shoot at all. The best teacher is always experience.

Paul's picture

I did not elaborate on shooting .38's in .357's because I wanted to keep the article a reasonable length, but since you bring it up...

The .38 Special case is about a tenth of an inch shorter than the .357 Magnum case. When you shoot a lot of .38's, that area in the chamber gets crudded up with powder residue. If you then shoot .357's without cleaning that out, the case has a harder time releasing the bullet and pressures rise higher than normal, stressing the gun. At least, that's the story I have heard. Rather than nag people to be especially careful about cleaning that part of the chamber, it is simpler to tell them to only shoot .357's.

If you have info showing the above is just an old wive's tale, which it may be, then we can forget about this worry; but until then I'll stick with the simpler advice.

Of course if you load your own ammo it is easy to make .38 level loads in Magnum cases. That's what I do.

BTW I have that same gun, the 7-shot version. I have made some heavy loads with 180 grain bullets for carrying in bear country. The recoil of such loads really gets your attention! I had to change the grip to reduce the pain...

Glock27's picture

My two cents is that the .38/.357 will damage your hearing without ear protection. Unfortunately I am living proof of that after a mere three rounds I ceased firing and my ears rang for several days and I clearly noted a significant hearing loss. A .22 caliber became my first pistol for convenience of putting down annoying raccoons. The pistol was easier to manipulate than the .22 rifle and more convenient. Second hand gun was a Ruger GP100 .38/.357. The issue of a fouled revolver is not a serious problem as long as you thoroughly clean the revolver after shooting. I use .38 ammunition for practice and keep it loaded with Hornady Defense Hollow Point .357.
My choice for bed side is the Glock .40 cal, the 27. It is also my daily carry, along with a Tarus .380. I whole heartedly agree with Paul in that the exposure of a handgun to a potential threat seems to be the most one will have to do unless the other fellow is armed as well. I have never faced an armed individual. Since I carry I also have self-defense insurance to cover bonds, and attorney fees. At home or out on the street I would strongly suggest one look into Self-defense insurance. Most homeowner policies do not cover this.

Darkcrusade's picture

Good job paul, it reminded me of what maj. Caudill had to say and when I searched STR was
Surprised not to find results.

Maj.Caudill Makes an important point right from the start. That their are only two ways of dealing with individuals. Reason(contract) and force(force equates to criminality,TD+C )

"The Gun Is Civilization" by Maj. L. Caudill USMC (Ret)

Human beings only have two ways to deal with one another: reason and force.If you want me to do something's for you, you have a choice of either convincing me via argument,or force me to do your bidding under threat of force.

Every human interaction falls into one of those two categories, without exception. Reason or force, that's it.In a truly moral and civilized society, people exclusively interact through persuasion. Force has no place as a valid method of social interaction, and the only thing that removes force from the menu is the personal firearm, as paradoxical as it may sound to some.

When I carry a gun, you cannot deal with me by force. You have to use reason and try to persuade me, because I have a way to negate your threat or employment offorce.The gun is the only personal weapon that puts a 100-pound womanon equal footing with a 220-pound mugger, a 75-year old retiree onequal footing with a 19-year old gang banger, and a single guy on equal footingwith a carload of drunk guys with baseball bats.

The gun removes the disparity in physical strength, size, or numbers between a potential attacker and adefender.There are plenty of people who consider the gun as the source of bad force equations. These are the people who think that we'd be more civilized if allguns were removed from society, because a firearm makes it easier for a [armed]mugger to do his job. That, of course, is only true if the mugger's potential victims are mostly disarmed either by choice or by legislative fiat--it has novalidity when most of a mugger's potential marks are armed.People who argue for the banning of arms ask for automatic rule by the young,the strong, and the many, and that's the exact opposite of a civilized society.A mugger, even an armed one, can only make a successful living in a societywhere the state has granted him a force monopoly.

Then there's the argument that the gun makes confrontations lethal that otherwise would only result in injury. This argument is fallacious in severalways. Without guns involved, confrontations are won by the physically superiorparty inflicting overwhelming injury on the loser.People who think that fists, bats, sticks, or stones don't constitute lethal force watch too much TV, where people take beatings and come out of it with a bloody lip at worst.

The fact that the gun makes lethal force easier workssolely in favor of the weaker defender,not the stronger attacker. If both are armed, the field is level.The gun is the only weapon that's as lethal in the hands of an octogenarian asit is in the hands of a weight lifter. It simply wouldn't work as well as a force equalizer if it wasn't both lethal and easily employable.

When I carry a gun, I don't do so because I am looking for a fight, but because I'm looking to be left alone. The gun at my side means that I cannot be forced,only persuaded. I don't carry it because I'm afraid, but because it enables me to be unafraid. It doesn't limit the actions of those who would interact with me through reason,only the actions of those who would do so by force. It removes force from the equation... and that's why carrying a gun is a civilized act.

By Maj. L. Caudill USMC (Ret.)So the greatest civilization is one where all citizens are equally armed and canonly be persuaded, never forced.