Of course, the ultimate ease and effectiveness in shooting any gun and the resulting performance and accuracy are a blend of the shooter’s skills, thorough training, repetitive practice, and the gun itself. There is not one magic elixir nor a sole holy grail factor that will make a gun easier to shoot and be accurate. Many of us hone our skills through taking firearms courses, advanced skills training, and frequent practice throwing lead down range. Others insist on frequent gun features upgrades, the latest, greatest, and regular acquisition of everything firearm-related, equipment, and modification of parts of the gun itself, etc. Perhaps, all of these things individually and/or combined will make a handgun easier to shoot and accurate in our hands. But, I believe a large part of making any gun easier to shoot and accurate has a lot to do with the gun itself and its characteristics. So we can, when we buy our handgun, look for certain features and factors that it has, to help how well we shoot and handle the gun. To give us a “legup” at the start. While you probably have your own opinions about which handgun factors and features help with control, accuracy and performance, fit and function, what follows are mine. Here are my 10 key handgun characteristics which I believe will give me (and most shooters) a shooting advantage, to combine with proper training and practice. I look for all 10 of them when I buy a handgun and relate them to my specific purpose and use for the gun. While not every one of my handguns has all of these features, most do. Do you have any you want to add? Here are mine.
- Proper Gun Weight to Minimize Recoil
- Bore Axis
- Barrel Length
- Sight Radius
- Grip Size & Texture
- Trigger Press Weight & Consistency
- Trigger Travel Distance
- Proper Ammo & Caliber
1. Proper Gun Weight to Minimize Recoil
A handgun’s weight can be an advantage or a disadvantage. There may be tradeoffs in desired features, depending upon your use of the handgun, your experience level, strength and physical traits, etc. I have had several students who were getting a gun for carry tell me that they were told at the gun store or by friends to buy the lightest weight handgun so they could more easily conceal it and handle it. Some folks mistakenly think that lighter is always better in a pistol or revolver. Sadly, I had a senior lady student who bought for about $700. before our class a very small double-action snub-nosed .357 revolver that was very lightweight and weighed about 13 ounces with a 12-pound press and sub 2-inch barrel. The clerk told her it was small and she could easily carry it in her purse. Since I provide the handguns for class, she used mine which was exactly like hers. She had never fired her new expensive gun and it was still in the box. In class using my provided similar gun, she could not even press the trigger and when I helped her shoot it she could not handle the recoil. She said “I don’t want that gun,” then realized she already owned hers just like it. Needless to say, she could not return the gun and was out a large chunk of change. So recognize, as the gun gets lighter the amount of muzzle flip during recoil increases. That slows down the rate at which you can make follow-up shots and increases the likelihood that you will flinch in response to recoil. For most, a good quality belt and good quality holster help support the weight of the gun, but handling it is something else.
2. Bore Axis
This refers to the relationship between the barrel of the handgun and the shooter’s hand or where the barrel is positioned at the top of the hand. So a “high” bore axis means the barrel is well above the top of the hand, while a “low” bore axis means it is positioned closer to the top of the hand. A “low” bore axis will help make most of the recoil go directly into the hand, thus giving less muzzle rise. Usually, better recoil management will result, but other factors exist. As I just mentioned above, the weight of the gun, its frame, and other things like grip stippling, grip angle, the trigger, etc. affect muzzle rise and felt recoil. For most shooters, an ideal handgun would place the barrel of the gun directly or very close to the middle of the shooter’s grip in the crook between the thumb and forefinger for better recoil absorption. However, the slide must move to cycle the gun and it is difficult for a manufacturer to design a gun, accommodate this, and slide bite can result. So, the barrel and slide are located above the grip to allow the slide to cycle without obstruction. I know both of my very high quality Sig Sauer P226s have what is often called a “high” bore axis, since the barrel is positioned well above the top of my hand and the slide cycles easily. But, this means I feel somewhat more recoil, but it is controllable for me. PRACTICE with your gun and get accustomed to its design and features. Generally, less recoil means that the gun is easier to get back on target for follow-up shots and is usually easier to handle for new shooters. Again, there are other factors that affect felt recoil, its management, and control; this is a complex concern. I believe that too much attention can be directed at proper bore axis and some use it as an excuse to compensate for their diminished application of their fundamentals of shooting or lack of sufficient practice. Also, some manufacturers over emphasize it. Most modern striker-fired guns (even the Sig Sauer P320’s) have somewhat lower bore axes.
3. Barrel Length
This is just one of many factors to consider for ease and effectiveness of shooting a gun. It is so very personal and preferences vary a lot. Some say longer barrels allow a higher velocity because the bullet remains there longer for stability, but the type of cartridge fired is important as are other factors. Some say shorter barrels allow gasses to escape quicker and thus less are imparted directly to accelerate the bullet. From this layman’s view, probably the difference is not extremely important since most acceleration occurs initially following ignition of the powder. Others say accuracy is NOT dependent on barrel length once the projectile has spun enough to stabilize. For me, the relationship between the barrel length and, in particular, weight is important. Of course, a shorter barrel usually means less weight and a longer barrel with a longer sight radius and its added weight will help the sight steadiness, but IT DEPENDS. The lever effect of hand movement which creates a change in angle can result in loss of accuracy, which is especially noticeable on a short-barreled gun. But, my non-gunsmith opinion is that a shorter barrel in and of itself will not be absolutely or even significantly less accurate than a longer one. Other variables, especially the shooter’s skills (e.g. sight alignment), training, and proper practice are involved. I am an accurate shot with my 3-inch barreled Springfield EMP. I am usually NOT accurate with my sub-3 inch barreled guns, which “shake me to death” over long shooting sessions. I also like my 6″ barreled guns and am accurate with them. So it’s personal preference and subjective. Your call. I subjectively prefer a barrel length of 3.0″- 4.5″ primarily for concealed carry. For home defense, I like a longer barrel between 4.0″ and 6.0.” These just seem to work best for me with my particular guns and my idiosyncrasies.
4. Sight Radius
For me, a longer barrel means more distance between the front and rear sights and this distance is the definition of sight radius. The longer sight radius helps me with more precise sight alignment and thus accuracy. For me, the further apart the sights are, the easier it is to detect if the sights are not properly aligned. Also, I prefer the longer sight radius on a full-size pistol for home defense simply because my aging eyes pick up the front sight more clearly when it’s just a little farther away, especially in less than ideal lighting conditions. The longer sight radius makes it easier for me to line up my sights precisely… sometimes. On the other hand, when it comes to the accuracy required for closer carry encounter distances, a shorter sight radius makes it easier for me to line up my sights quickly… sometimes. It varies so much by gun and other factors, but overall I find the difference to be moot. What works for you?
Basically, there are subcompact, compact, full size/service, and long slide/competition frame sizes. But the problem is that there is no universal definition of each size. Terminology varies a lot. There is not a standard barrel length or standard total length, or standard weight, etc. that neatly pigeon holes each gun into a universally-accepted size. What is “compact” size for one manufacturer or shooter may be a “subcompact” size for another manufacturer or shooter. Well for me the dimensions and specifications are the primary differentiators among the guns. So look at the specifications to help you make a frame size decision, as well as your intended use for the gun and your preferences. Don’t get caught up in the definitions or what someone else says is a “compact” or certain size that influences your decision. Ruger describes my SR9C as a “compact” 9mm. But Ruger also describes my LC9S and LCPII (LC=lightweight compact) as “Compact” 9mm and “Compact” .380, when clearly to me they are “subcompact” in comparison. Sig Sauer, for example, calls the 320 with a 3.55″ barrel, 6.67″ total length, and 25 oz weight a “subcompact.” Consider the dimension differences among the SR9C, LC9S, and LCPII models:
The bottom line is what are YOUR preferences and match to your criteria for your specific use and physical attributes. How does the gun feel, function, and fit you? You alone determine the frame size that works for yourself for your purpose. If you want to define a gun as a compact or subcompact for carry purpose, no matter its size, do it and carry it. Your call!
One of the most practical and very beneficial parts of a handgun for intermediate to long distance shooting is a gun’s sights. Recognize that you may not use your sights at all in close quarters deadly force encounters… or have only a split second to acquire and use your sights… or you may use only a flash sight picture or point shooting. If you have the time, usually you do want to use your gun’s sights, but this is a very situational and serious consideration for you. Practice is important. Quality sights will help make you a better and faster shooter, as long as you do your part and practice. Standard sights are usually open sights and have a square post-style front sight and a rectangular rear sight with dots and a notch in the middle, e.g. a U-notch or a V-notch. If you line up the 3 dots, the gun could shoot higher or lower than it does when you ignore the dots and align the top of the front sight with the top of the rear sight. This happens because the physical placement of the dots on the sights is not always precisely correct by the manufacturer. One approach is to black out the dots and align the sights themselves. Sights can be and often are too small and shaped differently so as to be a distraction. The rear sight notch may be too small or too large or the rear white dots may stick out too much and overshadow the front sight. The shooter’s goal is to quickly pickup the front sight (fast sight acquisition) and draw your eyes to the front sight in daylight and/or in nighttime conditions, depending on your situation. Sights should enhance, rather than detract from proper aiming, sight alignment, and sight picture. Sometimes the shape, color, and type of rear sight dots can distract the shooter, causing eye strain and poor shot placement. Some prefer plain black rear sights, while others prefer a plain black front vertical blade and black rear sights. Others prefer a narrow orange, red, white, or green front sight post or a fiber optic front sight that glows brightly in normal light to draw their eyes to the front sight quickly for quick acquisition and better accuracy. Some like radioactive-enhanced tritium sights to help with sight acquisition in low light. Others use mini-red dot sights on their carry pistols. Sights can range in price from $50. to $300. or more. So choose your sights carefully by purpose, preference, and goal.
7. Grip Size & Texture
When the gun’s grip is grasped, the goal is to have the gun naturally point at the target and fire without having to adjust the hand or finger positions to reach the trigger or move to position the muzzle on the target. Remember, you cannot eliminate movement, but rather the shooter can control and minimize it. Subtle differences in grip size and angle can make a huge difference in how a gun fits, moves, and feels in your hand. This translates directly to shooting accuracy and comfort, since the better a gun feels and fits with the least movement, the better you will shoot it. The gun’s barrel should point where your strong hand’s index finger points when it is safely placed on the frame above the trigger. Just one guideline to test individual grip size and fit is to see if the shooter’s strong hand middle finger wrapped around the grip can touch the strong thumb, when gripping the gun. This indicates that the grip can be fully grasped for better control. As a test, I picked up my full-size Springfield XDm 5.25 barrel gun with my medium-sized hands and my middle finger and thumb did touch. Of course, I did not fire the gun that way, but I confirmed the grip size was correct for me. Then I asked my diminutive wife with small hands and short (but beautiful) fingers to grasp the XDm. As much as she tried, her strong middle finger and thumb could not touch and she had to move her hand and adjust her fingers to be able to fire the gun. NOT the grip size for her and the goal was NOT met for that gun. Grip size is related to trigger reach. The strong hand index or trigger finger should be long enough to provide full contact on the face of the trigger. This helps the trigger finger apply sufficient direct rearward pressure and move directly straight back to fire the gun without extraneous movement.Today, most manufacturers offer interchangeable backstraps, side panels or both to help the shooter personalize the grip. Also, various grip material is available, like rubber, metal, wood and synthetics to help customize the grip size and feel. Grip material is mostly personal preference, but recognize that function is the key factor, not just appearance and feel.
8. Trigger Press Weight & Consistency
I prefer a trigger press weight of between 4 to 6.5 pounds. This is just my personal, subjective preference that works for me. There are many opinions about what an acceptable trigger press weight is and some think it blasphemy that you have a trigger job done, have a custom trigger, or have a reduced trigger press weight. Some believe that any trigger press weight below 4 pounds or customized in any manner is unacceptable at anytime for any reason. They usually cite safety reasons or legal liability concerns about minimizing lawsuits and not getting successful rulings from juries and judges. Shooters may prefer a lighter trigger press weight for competition shooting, but an intermediate press weight for concealed carry purposes. Aside from personal preference, I think this is largely a matter of proper training, practice, and knowing your specific gun and developing the related muscle memory. What is your preferred trigger press weight? Recognize that the heavier the trigger press, the more force it takes to fire the gun. That force causes movement and increases the probability that you will pull the sights out of alignment before the bullet leaves the barrel, affecting accuracy. A lighter trigger press, when combined with the all-important proper trigger control and fundamentals, definitely assists in accuracy and can aid in faster shooting. It reduces the amount of time a sight picture needs to be held between the conscious decision to fire and the bullet actually leaving the barrel. In reality for most, I really believe that a trigger press of somewhere between 4 to 6.5 pounds is fine and controllable. So, know your gun, its intended use, and your preferences. Interestingly, double action revolvers all have harder trigger presses above that, ranging from 8 pounds to even up to 16 pounds or so. Some argue that handguns need heavier trigger pulls to act as an additional ‘safety’ to prevent negligent discharges. That may be a valid consideration for some where training time may be limited. However, I strongly believe that the instrument/tool/gun safeties (external safety, trigger safety, grip safety, firing pin safety, guard, etc.) are of secondary importance for negligent discharges. To my knowledge, there is no ideal or common trigger weight that will prevent negligent discharges. If you have a 8 pound trigger press (instead of a 4 pound press), you will not necessarily prevent a negligent discharge. Trigger press weight is irrelevant for negligent discharges because what really matters is the training and practice of keeping your finger off of the trigger, until you are ready to fire it. SAFETY and PROPER TRAINING are always the main influencing factors. The cliche “Your brain is your most important safety” is true! If you are a civilian purchasing a handgun for personal protection, recreational use, or carry, your training and practice time and frequency are under your control. Instead of buying a gun with a very hard trigger press that’s hard to shoot accurately, why not get professional training, bring your gun handling and trigger safety skills up to where they should be, and get a handgun with a trigger that is easier to press with less movement that increases your odds of getting good hits.
Some handgun models are designed to have a long, heavy trigger press on the first shot (Double Action) and have a shorter, lighter trigger press for the second and other shots (Single Action.) There are a lot of models with this Double Action/Single Action trigger design. Many of them, like the Sigs I own, are quality guns. Most shooters will generally shoot a handgun with the same trigger press weight from shot to shot better than a DA/SA handgun that has a long and relatively heavy first trigger press followed by lighter and shorter trigger press for each following shot. I own some and use them, but generally most should not unless they regularly practice with them and know that trigger. I know some of you will strongly disagree with that and that’s alright. You have to learn and transition between two different trigger presses. The double action design is a good concept as an alternative to a single action design that has to be cocked by hand for every shot. In a semiauto pistol the main reason for the double action first shot design is to allow the user to carry with the hammer down vs. ‘cocked and locked.’ The double action design requires users to ‘decock’ the gun after it’s loaded in order to carry it safely. I know students that buy the DA/SA guns and then carry them cocked which is unsafe. Or when they go to the range they do not practice the double action trigger press, or they carry the gun without a round in the chamber, assuming that there will be sufficient time to rack the slide before the first shot. But there may not be enough time for that when you are in a hostile situation where you really need your first shot to be accurate.
9. Trigger Travel Distance
I like a trigger with a short travel and reset. Personal preference. Some feel the trigger alone determines how well, how accurate, and how fast one can shoot the gun. So the gun with the lightest, shortest press, and shortest reset should always win? Well NO not necessarily, there is more involved. There are many characteristics of a trigger that influence movement and accuracy, like take-up, press weight, break weight, travel from reset to break distance, creep, stacking, over-travel, and reset, etc. Two important characteristics are Take-Up and Over-Travel. Take-up refers to the distance the trigger has to initially travel rearward before it starts to actually engage the action. The force required to press the trigger through the take-up phase is usually significantly less than when the action begins movement. Also, over-travel refers to how far the trigger can continue to travel rearward after the shot breaks. The less over-travel the less chance of moving the gun and disturbing the sight picture after the shot breaks. The less over-travel the shorter the trigger reset travel will be. The longer the overall trigger travel distance usually makes the handgun somewhat slower to fire followups. I believe that the shorter the distance the trigger has to move, the less likely you are to move the sights out of alignment before the handgun fires, so usually more accuracy results. Just as with the light trigger press, the factors that make a handgun easy to shoot also make a negligent discharge more likely. So, be careful out there. Getting an accurate hit with a handgun that has 1″ of travel and a 10 pound trigger press is harder than with a handgun with a 1/2″ of travel and a 5 pound trigger. With the many options for single action and striker-fired pistols that have the same trigger press for every shot, there does not seem to me to be very good reasons to carry a handgun that has a different trigger press between the first and second shots. It requires the shooter to learn more skills, master two trigger presses, make the transition between presses effectively with much practice, without realizing considerable advantages in operation and accuracy. Just my opinion and preference.
10. Proper Ammo & Caliber
It is my opinion that 9mm is the optimal caliber for your primary gun considering several factors. It’s the minimum caliber acceptable by law enforcement and military users based on supported research and their use and the defensive caliber with the most manageable recoil of all the defensive calibers. Ammo in 9mm is easy to find, relatively inexpensive at this time, and modern improvement in ballistics will get the job done. You are better off with a handgun whose recoil you can control and can shoot well in 9mm than a bigger caliber gun that you miss with. Also, additional magazine capacity is a factor. The F.B.I, Navy Seal Team 6, Green Berets, Rangers, L.A. Police Department, New York Police Department, Chicago Police Department, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations, U.S. Army, U.S. Coast Guard, Air Force Special Operations, Marine Corps Special Operations, and other Special Operations forces use 9mm pistols. After the 9mm, I usually recommend .45 ACP as the next step, not .40 S&W. On a scale of perceived recoil, .45 ACP actually has less recoil than .40 S&W, because .45 ACP uses heavier bullets at slower velocities and typically the guns are a little heavier which dampens recoil. The dull thud recoil of the .45 is different and more controllable by most than the snappy kick of the .40. The downside to .45 ACP is capacity. The high capacity .45 ACP pistols tend to be very wide and better fit people with large hands. If the handgun does not fit your hand and you cannot reach the controls, do not buy it assuming you can eventually resolve those problems. You usually cannot. I usually do not recommend guns in .357 SIG (extreme muzzle flip and muzzle energy) for most uses and for inexperienced shooters. Some disagree and I respect that. Also, it is my opinion that .40 S&W should only be considered by shooters that have time to regularly practice adjusting to the snappy recoil, have the medical and physical capabilities to deal with it, and have no problems with 9mm or .45 ACP calibers. Again, I recommend the 9mm caliber as your primary gun for carry and personal protection. My book lists and compares my TOP 21 9mm HANDGUNS as possible options for you to investigate, so consider my 10 factors here and relate them to my suggested 9mm options.
Photos by Author.
* This personal opinion article is meant for general information & educational purposes only and the author strongly recommends that you seek counsel from an attorney for legal advice and your own personal certified weapons trainer for proper guidance about shooting & using YOUR firearms, self-defense and concealed carry. It should not be relied upon as accurate for all shooters & the author assumes no responsibility for anyone’s use of the information and shall not be liable for any improper or incorrect use of the information or any damages or injuries incurred whatsoever.
© 2017 Col Benjamin Findley. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reprinted or reproduced in whole or in part by mechanical means, photocopying, electronic reproduction, scanning, or any other means without prior written permission. For copyright information, contact Col Ben Findley at [email protected].