Why There is No Such Thing as a “Cheap Gun” for Self-Defense

Some guns are cheaper than others, but there is no reason to sacrifice quality to save money. In the service life of a gun, the price difference of the gun itself will be the least of your concerns compared to all the other costs.

Why There is No Such Thing as a “Cheap Gun” for Self-Defense

I recently acquired a Kel-Tec P32, which will be the subject of a forthcoming review once I’ve had a chance to shoot it more. However, the purchase brought to mind another topic that I find myself discussing somewhat frequently: how far you should go to save a buck when it comes to a defensive firearm.

Shooting is an expensive hobby, so it is unsurprising that people want to save money where they can. I know I do. But if you intend to use a gun in any capacity as a tool for self-defense, it isn’t very wise to cut corners. I am not saying that you should buy the most expensive gun out there, as there is a point where you are no longer getting practical benefits for your additional spending. Once you hit a certain point in quality (such as the flagship models of any reputable manufacturer, i.e., the $300-$600 price range), spending more doesn’t really get you any more reliability or (practical) accuracy. The trouble is when you look at it in the other direction – how much cheaper than “average” can you go and still get a “good gun?”

One problem I see in this debate is that, like many debates, we always end up talking about the wrong thing. There are “cheap” guns that are quite functional and reliable. Many people swear, for example, that Hi-Points are extremely reliable. I don’t have any meaningful experience with them, having only shot one once years ago. Assuming that they are adequately reliable, they are still much heavier, hold fewer rounds, have fewer accessories and holsters, and just don’t handle as well as their more expensive counterparts. You may be getting a gun that “works,” but you’re still sacrificing something.

Many cheaper guns are simply less reliable than their higher quality competition, but that still invites the debate over “how unreliable is too unreliable?” Semi-automatic handguns have become extraordinarily reliable in recent years, and many cheap guns are very reliable (probably more reliable than many of the best semi-autos were decades ago). Further, the “good” guns from the “good” manufacturers keep getting cheaper and cheaper, likely due in part to politically-driven supply and demand fluctuations and the evolving online market pressures. The questions, then, become something like this – “is one more malfunction on average per 1000 rounds worth saving $100?” or something like that.

These are still the wrong questions, though. It isn’t really necessary to make value judgments about how much performance is acceptable to sacrifice to save a given amount of money. At the point you have perceived any kind of real “sacrifice,” you’ve already likely made a bad choice in your purchase. The reason for this is simple: a gun is a durable good that will provide you with many years of service. If you intend to actually use and keep the gun for any amount of time and are doing even the minimum necessary training, the price differences of the guns themselves will quickly become the least significant expenditure you face.

I’ll now turn back to my new P32, as it provides an excellent illustration of my point. I bought this on an impulse. I turned 32 last September, and I thought it would be fun to treat myself to a .32 caliber gun. However, there aren’t too many on the market, and fewer still that are “worth the money.” There is a sea of European surplus ones such as the CZ70, and while I’d love to pick up one of those, prices online are a little higher than they really should be for a beat up, surplus gun that I wouldn’t even get the chance to inspect before committing to it personally. Enter the P32.

The Kel-Tec P32

The Kel-Tec P32 is one of the very few .32 ACP pistols being made today. As far as I know, it is also the cheapest one. The lack of popularity is unsurprising, of course, as .32 ACP can’t meet the FBI standards of penetration and expansion (at least not in the small guns chambered for it), and these days there are tons of compact .380 ACP options that are just as small while being more powerful. The .380 ACP renaissance didn’t really spill over to .32 ACP, and for a good reason.

So in my vanity-driven, impractical quest for a .32 caliber to add to the collection, I happened upon an online sale on the P32, new in box, for a measly $136.00. After $19.99 in shipping, I only spent $156 on the thing. I am a gold member at my local range, and one of the perks of that membership is free transfers for online purchases. Impulse buying has never been easier!

The reviews I read on this gun said that the little guy works well, which I will get into when I finish my own review. Suffice to say, the $156 wasn’t a big overall price tag for a gun, so you can’t ask for a much better example to make the point of this article. Even if it just works OK, it will not be my primary gun for self-defense. I have loads of options for carry guns, and this will, if anything, be a backup gun or extremely short-term pocket carry convenience option.

But of course, a gun is nothing without ammo. I went to my local big box store to pick up one box of .32 ACP so that I could shoot the gun after picking it up. I was shocked by the price tag – $24 and change! Online prices are much lower, but I couldn’t both wait for shipping AND get my instant gratification, so I bit the bullet (pun intended) and bought one box.

We all know that one box is nothing, though — barely even enough to have a little fun, much less to properly test a gun out. I would need to get more, and I would need to pay a much more reasonable price (for my own sake and to make the math in this article fair). Online shopping turned up 50 round boxes by Geco for $8.48, which is comparable to what you pay for 9mm. Brass cased, boxer primed, FMJ. Perfect training ammo. I’ve used Geco brand before and liked it a lot, and all the reviews were glowing. The deal was a solid one, so I bought two boxes.

I also bought a box of Buffalo Bore hard cast 75gr flat point +P. This will be what I load for carrying. .32 ACP hollow points exist, but if they actually expand, they will ultimately fail to penetrate adequately. The power just isn’t there. With a .32 ACP, a flat point bullet (or something like the Lehigh Xtreme Cavitator) will be more effective at wounding than a hollow point would be due to penetration, and still better than a round nose due to the wider permanent wound channel that the wide meplat/sharp shoulder creates. It is one of the few circumstances under which I would recommend against hollow points for defense. Either way, the cost of the Buffalo Bore is on par with any other high-quality defensive load for any other caliber – $20 for a 20 round box.

So now I had bought three boxes of practice ammo and one box of defense ammo. With shipping, I was already at $80. But ammo isn’t the only expense for a defensive pistol. If you plan to carry the gun (and why would you buy a 6.6 oz, ultra-compact gun for any other reason?), you need a holster. As I will be using this for pocket carry, I was able to get a cheap holster that will still work well. I ordered a DeSantis Nemesis pocket holster on sale, so after shipping, I was only looking at a little over $20. This is about the cheapest you can get a holster for, and it is easy to spend much more. Further, almost everyone will end up with more than one holster for a gun as they try different options to see what works, or buy a variety of different wardrobe needs.

By now, I think my point should have begun to emerge. Less than one week into owning my “cheap” $150 gun, I had already spent $100 more on ammo and accessories. And that’s barely scratching the surface. 150 rounds are not nearly enough to either test a gun for reliability OR to have put in the minimum necessary practice with it for defensive use. Most people, myself included, consider at least 500 rounds through a gun (about $100 worth of ammo) to be a much better baseline for acceptability, both for reliability and your own familiarity with the gun. If you have to pay range fees, you’re probably looking at another $20 per range trip, too.

And that’s just to start. If you’re owning this gun for self-defense, you should be training with it regularly. How much training is required is also up for debate, but I would say that any instructor would recommend shooting at least quarterly, and at least 100 rounds through the gun on each trip. This is a deliberately low amount of training used for the purpose of this hypothetical math, as I recommend training more often than that, at least at first. I hate to use such a thin training regimen even as an example in an article aimed at newer gun owners, lest someone misread this as a recommendation. Still, the point is that you’re looking at a minimum of $100 a year in ammunition to barely practice at all, not to mention range fees. More regular practice, say shooting a box or two of ammo monthly, and you’re easily spending twice that.

You also need to buy cleaning and maintenance supplies. This is cheap of course, and you can get everything you need for around $20 which will last a few years. But maintenance is beyond just cleaning. What if something breaks? Will the part for your cheap gun (and labor cost for the gunsmith) end up costing more than if they were just doing an easy fix on yet another Glock? Will your cheap gun be more likely to break in the first place? How long will it be out of service if something does break? My P32 also only came with one magazine. I’ll probably buy one or two more at least, and they are about $25 each (oddly expensive, considering what I was able to get the gun for!).

The moral of the story is this: any gun that is going to be used for self-defense, even with the minimum amount of practice, is going to cost you way more in ammo, range fees, maintenance, and accessories than the gun itself. More than $100 per year. Likely WAY more. So, if you are buying a gun that you intend to bet your life on and use for a good number of years, saving $100 or so on the initial purchase just isn’t worth it compared to its lifetime cost.

I’ve seen a few other thought processes of new gun owners, too, that are easily dismissed. If you’re buying a cheap gun just to figure out what you want, or if you even want to carry in the first place, or as a “this is all I can afford for now” stopgap measure, you’re just going to have to buy another gun later and spend even more still. Better to spend money renting guns to decide what you like, or to just save up your money for a little more time to buy the gun you’ll be satisfied with.

Beyond that, if you really can’t afford the gun you want and feel like you need to just deal with what you are able to afford, this means you really can’t even afford that, either. If you can’t afford to spend $100 more right now for the gun you want, you can’t afford to shoot enough to be competent with the cheap gun you end up with. This is especially true since a lower quality gun often requires more shooting to become competent with, training around poor sights, a bad trigger, or reliability issues.

Some people want a gun just to have one. They don’t really care how well it works, as long as it (at least sort of) works. They don’t really intend to practice. Lots of people buy a cheap gun, shoot one box of ammo, and then put it in their nightstand drawer forever to collect dust. Anyone interested in guns enough to be reading this article, though, knows how pointless this is. While it is true that the mere presence of a gun often deters crime without a shot being fired, that’s not really what you want to rely on in self-defense. I would strongly discourage anyone from owning a gun without training adequately. While that might be an argument in favor of the cheapest gun that goes bang, it is a terrible argument in favor of inexpensive guns, generally, and a terribly irresponsible view of gun ownership. If you don’t intend to train with a gun, the money is probably better spent on a security camera. Those, too, are cheaper than ever.

None of this is to say that price shouldn’t influence your decision of what gun to buy. I love a good deal, and I try to find the lowest price on the gun I want. There is a huge difference, though, between looking for a good price on a gun you want and wanting a gun for its good price. If you are stuck choosing between a few similar models, they all work well, and you like them more-or-less equally, why not choose the cheapest? But at the point where you recognize that the cheaper option will disappoint you in some way, or you may be sacrificing some minimum desired performance, or you may need to train a bit more to be able to shoot it well, you’ve already recognized that it is not a good buy.

For example, I carry a Smith and Wesson Shield 2.0 9mm as my EDC. There are tons of similar sized, striker fired, single-stack 9mm pistols on the market right now, as it is among the most popular style of a carry gun. The Shield is cheaper than, say, the Glock 43, and that lower price was definitely a point in its favor when choosing it. However, the price was only a consideration because I didn’t perceive there to be a meaningful quality difference between the Shield and a similar Glock. Both are very popular guns with great reputations for reliable function. Both have broad aftermarket support and holster selection. I shot both guns, and I didn’t like the G43 better, so why not get the cheaper of the two, equally good guns? However, had I found the G43 more to my liking in any way, the price difference between it and the Shield would be far in the rearview mirror by now after all the ammunition, extra magazines, holsters, etc. that I’ve purchased for the Shield. All I would be left with for my ~$100 savings in buying the Shield would be regrets, and the pain of spending the ~$100 extra on the Glock would be a distant memory.

Again, I know that guns are expensive, and I know that money is tight for a lot of people. This is not to say that self-defense is only to be reserved for people of means. My point is that the price savings between a good gun and a not-so-good gun are not as pronounced as it seems at first glance. They are, in the long run, essentially meaningless, at least if you intend to actually practice with a gun. If you can save up $200-$300 for a gun you’ll always be a bit disappointed in, you can save up $300-$400 for one that will give you a lifetime of satisfactory service. It might take you a bit more time to save the money, but compared to the time you’ll be spending with the gun it is nothing more than a blink.

As always, piece be with you!

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Everett C. Baudean is an attorney and concealed handgun permit instructor in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, operating as PaciFIST Firearms, LLC. He has been actively involved in shooting, concealed carry, handloading, and the legal issues surrounding firearms for all of his adult life. For more information, visit Pacifist Firearms.
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