Handguns for Beginners

For whatever reason you’ve decided to purchase a handgun, so you go to your local gun store where you are confronted by a bewildering array of weapons and the clerk starts throwing around acronyms SA, DA, SA/DA, DAO as well as brands and calibers. You are quickly overwhelmed and purchase something that looks cool but isn’t really what you wanted or needed.

Over the course of this series of articles we hope to give you the knowledge you need to make an informed purchase. Before we get started there are four basic rules for gun safety that you should always follow even when you are in the store picking one out.

The Four Basic Rules

  1. Always keep the gun pointed in a safe direction. This means watch where the muzzle is pointed at all times.
  2. Always keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot. When you first pick up a weapon the instinct is to find the trigger by putting your finger on it, train yourself to rest your trigger finger on the frame or trigger guard.
  3. Always keep the weapon unloaded until you are ready to use it. Never assume a weapon is unloaded. When you pick one up  verify that it is unloaded, keeping rules 1 and 2 in mind while you do this. Also never hand a weapon to someone unless you clear it first.
  4. Always be sure of your target and what’s behind it. When you are shooting at a paper target remember that it’s not going to stop the bullet. Look at what’s behind the target.

Choose your weapon

There are two types of handguns, a revolver and a semi-automatic. There are pros and cons to both and the arguments about which is better has been going on for a hundred years, but ultimately it comes down to personal choice.

Let’s look at some of the acronyms I brought up earlier, as they refer to “actions” and can apply to both a revolver and semi-automatic.

Actions (mechanisms)

There are numerous types of actions. The mechanism is the trigger, hammer, and safeties considered as a unit of interconnected parts. They are categorized according to which functions the trigger is to perform.

Single-action (SA)
A single-action trigger performs the single action of releasing the hammer or striker to discharge the firearm each time the trigger is pulled. For a single-action revolver such as the Colt Peacemaker used by John Wayne in most of the Westerns he starred in, you have to cock the hammer every time the weapon is fired. Each pull of the trigger thus performs a single-action.

handguns for beginners zombie education alliance

For a single-action semi-automatic pistols, such as the Colt 1911 (pictured below), the hammer or striker must be cocked before the first round can be fired, although most designs cock the hammer or striker as part of the loading process. Once the first round is fired, the automatic movement (recoil) of the slide cocks the hammer or striker for each subsequent shot, allowing the pistol to be fired by pulling the trigger once for each shot until it is empty.

handguns for beginners zombie education alliance

Double-action (DA)
A double-action trigger, also know as double-action only (DOA) means that you simply pull the trigger to make it fire. Pulling the trigger both cocks and releases the hammer, or in other words pulling the trigger performs a double action. Most modern semi-automatics like the Glock (pictured below) are DA only.

glock handguns for beginners zombie education alliance

Double-action/single-action (DA/SA)
A double-action/single-action firearm combines the features of both mechanisms. This means that you can cock the hammer or just pull the trigger to make it fire. As such it can apply to both a revolver or a semi-automatic. Most modern revolvers are SA/DA, and some semi-autos like the Heckler & Koch USP (pictured below) are this way.

HK-USP handguns for beginners zombie education alliance

I’ll go into a little more detail on how each type of weapon works but first let’s look at the different calibers that handguns are chambered in. There are a lot of calibers but for brevity we’ll look at the most common or most popular. So what are the most popular?

ammo handguns for beginners zombie education alliance

Ammunition

  • .22LR
  • .380
  • 9mm (9X19, 9mm Luger)
  • .38 SP/.357 magnum
  • .40 S&W
  • .45 ACP

Ammo comes in a variety of calibers as do pistols. Shown above are some of the more popular cartridges. A cartridge or a round should not be confused with a bullet. A bullet is the projectile that is discharged from the barrel of the weapon after the hammer strikes the primer, which in turns ignites the powder. See diagram below:

bullet cutaway handguns for beginners zombie education alliance

There are of course a lot of others out there like the .44 magnum, 5.7X28, 10mm and the list goes on and on with the exception of the .44 magnum. These rounds are not very common and can be hard to find.

What do all those numbers mean? Well quite simply they represent the diameter of the bullet, with .22 being less that ¼ inch and .45 almost ½ inch in diameter. Remember when asking about or for a specific caliber it is referred to as 40 smith or 22 long not .40 or .22. Each round will be marked as to its caliber, military ammunition is also marked with the date of manufacture and you may have heard this referred to as a “Head Stamp.”

markings handguns for beginners zombie education alliance

Your pistol will also be marked with the caliber make sure that you have the right type; there is more than one kind of 9mm.

Handgun Types

As mentioned earlier there are two basic types of handguns: the revolver and the semi-automatic. We’ll start with the revolver.

revolver handguns for beginners zombie education alliance

Shown here is a revolver with its major parts marked. There is obviously more to it than this, but for the beginner these are the high points. A revolver is very simple to use and maintain, as very little can go wrong with one. They come in just about any caliber you can think of and just about any size, and can be less expensive than a semi-automatic. The downside is the number of rounds they can hold, typically six. Some of the larger calibers are only five, while smaller calibers can chamber as many as nine.

The revolver shown is a SA/DA, and as previously explained it can be fired either by cocking the hammer or simply squeezing the trigger. In either case the cylinder rotates to place a round under the hammer. The hammer must be cocked or the trigger pulled to rotate the cylinder to fire the next round. One of the draw backs of Double Action is a long trigger pull that takes a lot of effort.

Once you have fired all six rounds press the cylinder release and it will swing out, and then hit the ejector rod to dump the empties and load in six fresh rounds. Sounds like a lot of work but with some practice and a speed loader it can be done pretty quickly.

Because a revolver is simple to use and maintain it makes a good choice for the beginner.

Next we will look at the semi-automatic shown here is the classic single action Smith & Wesson 1911.

semi auto handguns for beginners zombie education alliance

The semi-automatic is also a good choice for a knowledgeable beginner, it is however considerably more complicated to maintain. Some models like the 1911 use a single stack magazine, meaning that the rounds are loaded one on top of the other. Depending on the model of weapon a single stack magazine can hold 7 or 8 rounds. Models like the Glock or Springfield XD use double stack magazines, meaning that there are two stacks of rounds inside that can hold 17 rounds or more in the magazine.

single_mag Glock Mag handguns for beginners zombie education alliance

You will often hear the term “clip” used when referring to magazines, this is an incorrect term when referring to a removable magazine as shown above. The term “clip” refers to a stripper clip that is used to load rounds into a fixed or removable magazine like the one shown below.

stripper clip handguns for beginners zombie education alliance

Operation of the 1911 is pretty straight forward. The first round can only be fired if the hammer is cocked, the recoil causes the slide to move back, ejecting the spent shell and cocking the hammer. When this happens a spring is compressed, this spring pressure causes the slide to move forward loading a round into the chamber and the weapon is ready to fire again. A Glock or H&K works the same way, except that it can be fired by pulling the trigger without having to cock the hammer.

So now that you have an idea of the different types of hand guns, which one should you purchase?

There are a number of things to consider when purchasing a hand gun or any gun for that matter.

Cost
The most expensive is not always the best choice. A $3000 custom 1911 is a lot of money for an everyday carry gun. A $500 Glock would be a better choice.

Use
What do you intend to use it for, everyday carry, home defense or protecting your family from the Zombie Hordes? Glock, Ruger, Taurus, Colt and Smith & Wesson all make affordable weapons designed for everyday carry or home defense.

Caliber
For most applications a 9mm is a good round and in certain guns you can carry a lot of them in the magazine. You could get a revolver in .500 S&W, but unless you have a problem with rouge elephants in your neighborhood it’s really too much gun for home defense.

Revolver or Semi-Auto
Now this is where things get tough. This is going to be largely personal preference and the weapons intended use. My everyday carry gun is a Khar CW in .40 S&W. It’s small easy to conceal and was economical to purchase.

Proper Grip, Stance and Sight Picture

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So now that you have chosen and purchased a hand gun, and you are getting ready to head for the range for the first time. Let’s look at the proper grip and sight picture, but before we do let’s go over the The Four Basic Rules
again.

  1. Always keep the gun pointed in a safe direction. This means watch where the muzzle is pointed at all times.
  2. Always keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot. When you first pick up a weapon the instinct is to find the trigger by putting your finger on it, train yourself to rest your trigger finger on the frame or trigger guard.
  3. Always keep the weapon unloaded until you are ready to use it. Never assume a weapon is unloaded. When you pick one up verify that it is unloaded, keeping rules 1 and 2 in mind while you do this. Also never hand a weapon to someone unless you clear it first.
  4. Always be sure of your target and what’s behind it. When you are shooting at a paper target remember that it’s not going to stop the bullet. Look at what’s behind the target.

For the sake of this discussion we will focus on the semi-automatic. Keep in mind that while the principals are the same for a revolver the placement of your hands and fingers is different.

This a another one of those subjects were you are going to hear a lot of terms and even more opinions about what grip or stance to use. There are two main ways of doing it: the Weaver Stance and the Isosceles Stance.

I personally use the Isosceles Stance and since I am most comfortable with it, we’ll use it to illustrate grip, stance and sight picture. The pistol shown in this section is the NextLevel SIRT Laser Training pistol. The SIRT is based on a full size Glock, and uses a laser to show where your point of aim and shot are. It’s not capable of firing a live round but don’t shine the laser in someone’s eyes.

Grip

Now Let’s talk about the proper grip for a semi-auto handgun. If you are right or left handed the technique is the same, first grip the weapon in your strong hand, if you’re right handed that’s you’re right hand, grip it with the web of the hand between the thumb and index finger as high up on the weapon as possible and that is comfortable.

grip1

grip2

Remembering to keep your trigger finger off the trigger, I recommend that you find some spot on the weapon under your trigger finger and whenever you pick up the weapon you put your finger on that spot every time you pick up the weapon.

Next wrap your fingers around the grip, keeping your finger OFF the trigger.

grip5

The grip should be firm but comfortable, next take you other hand and wrap your fingers around your other hand, and align your thumbs with each other and the slide, when you are done it should look something like this:

grip6

grip7

Your grip should be comfortable, firm and you should apply equal pressure with both hands.

Stance

Now let’s talk about your stance and natural point of aim. I talked about a person’s natural point of aim in the article on long range shooting. The concept is no different when shooting a pistol.

First when getting into your shooting stance, you should be square to the target with your feet about shoulder width apart. You can have your knees slightly bent and extend your arms straight out in front of you with your elbows locked. When viewed from above it should look like an Isosceles triangle. There are two ways to stand, either erect or leaning slightly forward. Either/or is fine but try both to see which is position is more comfortable for you. Bring the weapon up in front of your face, don’t tilt your head to line up the sights.

stance1

Let’s check your natural point of aim. Before you do this make sure your weapon is UNLOADED. Get in your shooting stance and square up to the target with your weapon held low, and then close your eyes and bring the weapon up and align it with the target. Now open your eyes. If you are pointing at the target that is your natural point of aim, if you are not aligned move your entire body and try it again. DO NOT twist at the waist or move your arms to align to the target. You should practice this so that it becomes natural for you to get in this position when shooting.

Determining your dominant eye

Before we get into sights and sight picture, let’s determine which eye is the dominant one. For most people the dominant eye is the same as your dominate hand but not always. There are two ways to determine which eye is the dominate one. Point at an object about 6 feet away, lining your finger up with a point on that object. Focus on the object so that your finger is slightly out of focus. Now close one eye at a time. When you close the non-dominant eye the object will appear to move, and when you close your dominate eye it won’t move. This is the eye that you should use when shooting. For me my right eye is the dominant one.

Sights and sight picture

There are dozens of types of sights for a handgun, most people don’t change the sights on the weapon that they have, so we’ll talk about the most common that are found on production weapons. These are a simple “V” or a square bottomed “U” shaped rear sight and a blade or post front sight.

sights

sight1

Sight picture refers to the proper alignment of the front and rear sight to the target. Sight alignment refers to the proper alignment of the sights to the barrel or bullet path.

sights2 handguns for beginners zombie education alliance

Sight alignment is more important than sight picture. If you know where the bullet is going you can adjust the sight picture to compensate.

sights3 handguns for beginners zombie education alliance

When you are shooting with standard sights your focus should be on the front sight. The target and rear sight should be slightly out of focus, but you need to be able to see the target clearly enough so that you can align the sights with the target.

sights handguns for beginners zombie education alliance

Trigger Control

Okay, we’ve covered stance, grip and sight picture, so it’s now time to squeeze the trigger. Let’s talk a little bit about the basics of trigger control. As discussed earlier your hand must be properly positioned on the grip. The trigger should contact your trigger finger between the first joint of your finger and the tip of the finger.

trigger finger handguns for beginners zombie education alliance

In the picture to the right this is shown between the black lines. The area shown by the red lines should not be used on the trigger. Using this area will cause you to twist the weapon as you squeeze the trigger.

Your trigger finger should have a small gap between it and the side of the handgun to allow for a straight pull back of the trigger.

Squeeze with steady increasing pressure. When you begin to squeeze the trigger there will be certain amount of slack. You will then hit the break point of the trigger and the weapon will fire. If you have good trigger pull you will know exactly when the gun will discharge and you will not tend to flinch or jerk as the weapon fires. The weapon going off should not surprise you each time you pull the trigger. Remember to pull straight back towards you as you squeeze the trigger.

There are targets that are useful in determining bad habits when firing and you can download them from the links at the end of the article.

There you have it, hopefully you will have a working knowledge of handguns that will help you make an informed choice when purchasing a weapon and get you started on the range.

So what weapon would you choose? Tweet us @ZombieEdForAll and let us know.

Special thanks to model Tara and the NRA for the graphics.

Left Handed GunLink Pistol Correction Target With Score Rings

Right Handed GunLink Pistol Correction Target With Score Rings

Targets courtesy of GunLink.info

About Mike

Mike was an associate editor for Zombie Training before co-founding ZEA with former managing editor TS Alan. Mike has been in the aviation industry for over 30 years first in the military and then with an airline and manufactures, an avid racer and is a licensed ASA, NHRA, IHRA driver, Mike has taught performance driving and drag racing and has raced all over the world. He is a NRA Range Safety Officer and is working on an NRA instructors certificate. While writing for Zombie training Mike formed relationships with several manufactures and training groups that will help the ZEA bring the latest products and training to you Mike currently resides in the desert southwest.