While I have discovered for myself that accuracy and target hits are more important than equipment and handgun features, making the initial decisions about the key attributes you want in your handgun for the immediate purpose (be it concealed carry, personal protection, or target shooting) is very important. Of course, there is a natural interdependency between accuracy and handgun physical attributes and BOTH are very important. Yes, you can get sound training in the basics, practice them, and adapt to just about any handgun and their characteristics to achieve decent accuracy, given sufficient practice time, your physical and mental capabilities, and proper application of the fundamentals. But why not “stack the deck” in your favor up front when you are evaluating possible handguns to buy and use (thus saving time, money, and effort), by recognizing what crucial handgun attributes will help you be more accurate. Then select or buy that handgun with those physical features. Certainly, accuracy requires more than certain physical handgun characteristics. Especially, suitable training and practice in marksmanship basics like proper handgun grip, sight alignment, sight picture, and trigger control. But recognize that careful initial selection of a handgun that possesses certain vital features will also affect performance. Those characteristics may help to reduce movement, better control recoil, minimize or reduce flinching and jerking, eliminate more frequent malfunctions and stoppages, etc. It is my opinion that deciding initially what essential features you want in a handgun for your purpose will greatly improve your chances of stopping the threat or precisely hitting the target, when combined with fundamentals training and practice. I want to share my opinions about seven key handgun attributes which, along with proper training and practice, will help to improve accuracy, based on my limited experiences. For example, I prefer a light, consistent, and short trigger press and a somewhat heavier handgun that helps me control recoil and muzzle flip. Of course, I believe that you must develop the muscle memory and have the discipline to keep your finger off of the trigger until ready to fire and follow the basic safety rules, especially with a lighter trigger press-weight handgun, no matter what you use your handgun for. You probably have your own opinion and set of important, indispensable handgun attributes that aid your accuracy and performance. This is controversial, but I would like to know your ideas and opinions. Here is a list of my preferred 7 handgun features that have helped me. While not every one of my guns has all 7 of these features, most do. It is just my opinion that handguns that have these attributes will contribute to greater accuracy.
1. TRIGGER PRESS OF BETWEEN 6.5 and 4 POUNDS
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. Generally, Glock handguns come from the factory with between a 5.5 to 6.5 pound press and Springfield XDs, XD(M)s and other models vary from 5.5 to 7.0 pounds or so. S&W M&Ps have about 6.0 to 6.5 pounds press from the factory, but I have added the Apex trigger kit to mine to bring it to just less than 4 pounds. I use it especially for IDPA, but also as a backup for home defense. What is your preferred trigger press weight? I believe 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. Thus, 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, a trigger press of somewhere between 4 to 6.5 pounds is fine and controllable. So, it’s personal preference to a large extent. 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 users 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 7 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 and believing that your safe gunhandling skills are poor, why not get professional training, bring your gunhandling 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.
2. TRIGGER WITH SHORT TRAVEL DISTANCE
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. The factors that make a handgun easy to shoot also make a negligent discharge more likely. So, be careful out there.
3. CONSISTENT TRIGGER PRESS FOR EVERY SHOT
Some handguns 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 (cowboy sixgun) 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’ (hammer back with safety on). 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 generally 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 confrontation or in a situation where you really need your first shot to be an accurate and fast hit. Getting an accurate hit with a handgun that has 2″ of travel and a 10 pound trigger press is harder than with a gun with a 1/2″ of travel and a 4 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 strong reasons to regularly 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.
4. BARREL LENGTH OF 3.5″ – 5.0″
In general guns with shorter barrels have more recoil and are harder to shoot accurately because the sight radius is shorter. The farther the sights are apart, the less small errors in sight alignment affect the point of impact. With semiautomatic handguns often the “micro” and sub-compact models are usually (not always) less reliable and less accurate than longer-barreled handguns. (I recognize there are exceptions to this and practice is important.) This is because the semiauto’s cycling is dependent upon the speed at which the slide cycles and the speed at which rounds come out of the magazine. The short-barreled guns have shorter slides which have shorter slide cycle times and thus are less affected by variances in ammo, springs, and cleanliness than the larger models. The powders used in ammunition burn at a rate that fully consumes the powder in a full sized barrel. So, in a short-barreled gun you lose velocity and can have additional muzzle flash when some of the powder burns in the air instead of in the last 2 inches of the barrel. Concealibility often leads people to short-barreled guns. One solution is to carry them in an “inside the waistband” (IWB) style holster. With the barrel inside the pants the only thing that has to be covered by a concealment garment is the grip. This allows for greater flexibility in choice of concealment garment and allows easy carry of a handgun with a longer barrel length that allows more reliability and accuracy. For example, my four primary concealed carry guns I rotate among have 3″ to 4″ barrels, while my home defense guns have 3.5″ to 5″ barrels. Most women seem to prefer off-body carry methods, like purses, fanny packs, dayplanners, etc., especially for carrying a 4 inch or longer barreled handgun. Since men and women have different body shapes, the IWB holsters do not allow a comfortable draw for women.
5. SIGHTS THAT ARE BASIC & SIMPLE
“3 dot” sights may not always be the best, depending on purpose and practice. Most top competitors prefer a solid black rear sight with either a solid black front sight or a fiber-optic front sight. I prefer a fiber-optic front sight, especially for competition and range use. (Some factory front sights are too wide and some aftermarket front sights are too narrow.) This allows more contrast and makes it easier to get the front sight aligned for this old geezer. 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.
If you want to spend money improving the sights on your gun, perhaps consider a narrow fiber optic front sight. If you want sights that are useful for most handgun applications and situations, an option is to use traditional sights and get rid of the 3 dots.
6. PROPER GUN WEIGHT TO MINIMIZE RECOIL
Some people mistakenly think that lighter is better in a pistol. 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. a good quality belt and good quality holster support the weight of the gun. If you buy the cheapest belt and holster you can find without adequate reinforcement, then you need to upgrade your gear. A good pistol costs $500 or more. A good belt and holster together will likely cost you $100.-$125. or more, but in my opinion it is definitely worth the investment for comfort, concealment, support, and drawspeed.
7. CALIBER MATCH TO YOUR CHARACTERISTICS & ABILITIES
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 and relatively inexpensive at this time. 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. 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 because of the 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 recoil, have the medical and physical capabilities to deal with it, and have no problems with 9mm or .45 ACP calibers.
For Backup Guns, I recommend 9mm, .380 and .38 special. What about .22, .25 or .32? It is my opinion that those calibers are extremely marginal for personal protection. Some of the newer .380 caliber guns are very nice with improvements and I have two I rotate as backup guns for low-probability threat situations. But I still prefer the 9mm even as a backup. Consider that there are many good backup gun models in 9mm available in the market now.
Some Possible Options For You To Investigate Considering the Above Criteria:
The following list is not intended to be comprehensive or definitive by any means and is based on my above criteria. Just my opinion, but I do own and shoot almost all of the guns listed. It might serve, however, as a starting point for your investigation and as a useful reference to save you some time and help.
Primary Gun: S&W M&P and M&P 9C (9mm); Glock 19, 17, or 26 (9mm); Walther PPQ M2 or PPS (9mm); Springfield XD, XD(M), or EMP (9mm); Ruger SR9 and SR9C (9mm); and Colt XSE, Kimber, STI, Springfield or Sig 1911 style steel-framed (not aluminum/lightweight framed) (9mm and .45 ACP); HK P30 LEM V1(9mm); CZ 75B, CZ 75-SP01 or CZ P-07 (9mm); Browning Hi Power (9mm); Beretta 92A or Taurus 92 (9mm); Beretta PX4 Storm; Kahr K9, CW9, PM9, or P9; For small to medium-sized hands: consider the Springfield EMP (9mm); S&W M&P Shield (9mm); and SIG 938, a small 9mm that is essentially a small 1911 design.
Backup Smaller Gun: S&W M&P Shield; Springfield XD-S in 9mm or .45; SIG 938; Ruger LC9; Kahr MK9 or MP9; S&W 640 or 642 (.38); Ruger LCR revolver (.38 +P); Sig 238 (.380).
General-Purpose Gun: For general personal protection or Competition: Glock 34 (9mm); S&W M&P Pro (9mm); Springfield XD(M) 5.25″ (9mm); Kimber, STI, Springfield, Sig, or Para Ordnance 1911 style pistols (9mm or .45 ACP).
* 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.