"Fortunately, there is a weapon for preserving life and liberty that can be wielded effectively by almost anyone -- the handgun. Small and light enough to be carried habitually, lethal, but unlike the knife or sword, not demanding great skill or strength, it truly is the 'great equalizer.' Requiring only hand-eye coordination and a modicum of ability to remain cool under pressure, it can be used effectively by the old and the weak against the young and the strong, by the one against the many." ~ Jeffrey Snyder
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.