Getting Started With Guns and Self-Defense

A friend messaged me the other day and said that he’s considering buying his first gun and wanted some recommendations.  Below is what I wrote.  I’m sharing here in case it can help you too.

[name withheld],


Congrats!  Stepping into the world of self-defense is way outside many people’s comfort zone, but I applaud you and congratulate you.


First things first: I strongly recommend taking a class.  You may not know what you don’t know yet.  Here’s what happened for us: when Jenna got pregnant, we had both been around guns, we owned a pistol that we rarely shot, but something clicked that said “hey, there is going to be someone who actually relies on you for safety now… better get serious about this.”  So we did.  We started taking classes, separately (I wanted Jenna to have her own experience not a shared experience with me).  After the first class, the doors to this new world opened up and we began to realize how little we actually knew.  So one class turned to two, turned to 5, turned to more books, turned to more classes, turned to more critical thinking, turned to more classes.  Some of the classes we took were life-changing good… some, not so much.  We had felony advice in at least one class.  So it turns out that just like every other discipline in human existence, there are good instructors and bad ones.


But make no mistake, we learned something in every class.  But do a little research and try and find an instructor you’re comfortable with.  Some questions that I’d recommend:

  • Who have you trained with?  Avoid someone who has their NRA instructor creds and that’s it.  When they give you names of instructors, google them.  There are probably 3 dozen nationally-recognized instructors that carry serious weight with me.  Many others may be great, but I want to see a commitment to learn from the best.
  • What are your goals for your students?  Many instructors seem divided into one of two camps: the “tactical” crowd (think SWAT or wanna-be Navy SEAL) and the civilian self-defense crowd.  The “tactical” crowd may look sexy wearing body armor and night vision goggles, but to me, that’s not real world.  That’s fantasy camp.  I recommend finding an instructor that seems just like a normal everyday person.  Both camps have their issues, but find an instructor comfortable with teaching what you’re interested in learning.  It sounds easy, sometimes it’s not.
  • Why are you an instructor?  There’s a misconception that all cops make great instructors.  I’ve taken some great classes from some in law enforcement, but don’t forget that cops have different goals than the armed civilian does, they have different gear, they can call for backup, they are held to different laws, they have union (paid for) attorneys, and the mindset is very different.  Honestly, I seek out instructors who are NOT law enforcement, though certainly there are great instructors on both sides of that fence.  But be willing to think outside the box that tends to say “well I need to take a class from a cop.”


When it comes to selecting an instructor, most people have two main criteria and then several others that are barely a blip on the radar.  Those two are typically geographic proximity to me and cost.  While important, don’t lose sight of the big picture: you’re getting training because you may need skills to defend yourself or your family… and those skills need to be legit and not obtained from the closest or cheapest source.  Don’t be afraid to travel a little further or save up and spend a little more to find the training you need.


Quick digression: there’s a difference between fear and danger.  Rory Miller puts it this way (paraphrasing): “To manage fear, you only need to think you can do things.  To manage danger, you actually need to be able to do things.”  Fear exists only in your head.  Danger is what might actually kill you.  There’s a difference.


Now, I said all that to get to your original question about what gun to buy.  Especially given that you said you’re likely not going to buy a lot of guns and that one gun may need to do the trick for you, it’s important to get that decision right.  You really need to shoot a new gun before you buy it.  A lot of indoor ranges will let you rent a gun (or several) and spending several hours doing that will be worth its weight in gold.  Here’s what I’d do:

  • Start thinking about features that are “must haves” or “can’t stand.”  Examples: grip safety, thumb safety, single action/double action, the magazine release mechanisms can be very different, etc.  Read some reviews, but take each review with a grain of salt.  Focus more on the specs from the manufacturer.  See if you can whittle your list of choices down to 4 or 5 guns.  It helps if all 5 are readily available.  But if you can get to, for example, a Glock 19, S&W M&P, HK VP9, Springfield XD, and Sig P320, you should be able to go rent all 5 and spend 20 minutes with each one.  You’ll be surprised how different each will feel both in your hand and as you fire each shot.
  • Don’t worry yet about what caliber to get.  Find the right gun first; nearly every major gun is available in the common cartridge types (9mm, 40S&W, .45ACP).
  • If possible, try and take a class before you buy your gun (if the class includes live fire, see if they have rental guns available to use during class).  Expect your tastes to change drastically after that first class – that’s the way it works with most people.  It often takes time to figure out what you like and what you don’t.  The grip angles are different, the grip sizes are different, the controls function differently and may be in different places on the gun, the triggers will be vastly different, etc.
  • Do NOT, under any circumstances, buy a gun because of one data point… like “Steve says this is the best gun on the market, period.”
  • Don’t worry about reliability… much.  If it’s a reputable manufacturer that you’ve heard of, trust it.  There can always be lemons, with every gun type and manufacturer, but they’re very rare.
  • After you buy a gun, STOP LOOKING.  Don’t fall into the trap of “my gun is ok, but I wish it had this one little thing different.”  That thinking leads to buying another gun based solely on one criteria, when the big picture is more important.  There’s a saying: “Beware of the man with one gun; it’s likely he knows how to use it.”  Stop trying to improve the tool and spend your mental energy trying to be as good as you can with that one gun.
  • Learn every detail of the gun – study it.  Know how it shoots different ammo types from different ammo manufacturers.  Find that good index point for your trigger finger so it’s not resting on the trigger until you’re actually in the act of shooting (keep that finger up on the slide or frame).  My philosophy is that no one in the world should be able to pick up my gun and outshoot me with it.  It’s my gun, and I am going to own this target.  Be comfortable clearing a malfunction in complete darkness… in self-defense encounters, you’ll need to do all that by feel anyway so that you don’t have to take your eyes off the threat.
  • There is some pressure to make as good of a decision when buying that first gun as possible, but understand that no gun is perfect.  They all have nuances, they can all be a little quirky, etc.  Just learn to love the quirks.


After you buy a gun, don’t skip on the other gear.  Buy several additional magazines (have at least 4 or 5 total; they wear out, they break, and most classes will require you to have that many anyway), make sure you have good eye and ear protection, and get a reasonable case if it didn’t come with one.  Have a good cleaning kit and clean your gun every time you use it.  If this may end up being a carry gun, buy a GOOD gun belt FIRST, then start researching holsters… not the other way around.


Since you mentioned safes, I’m a huge fan.  Pistol safes are small, easy to use, and relatively inexpensive.  Many are in the $80-$150 price range.  As you said earlier, they’re a necessity when you have little hands or visitors in your home.  Biometric locks have come a long way in the last 10 years, but in my opinion, they’re still not where I want them to be.  We had one that we used exclusively for a while and while the technology has improved since then, it was very unreliable: if your finger didn’t sit on the scanner just right, it wouldn’t open.  Or if your finger was cold.  Or sweaty.  Or too hot.  Or if your finger was at slightly the wrong angle.  So it would open about half the time, maybe… and that’s not good enough for me.  So we bought a pushbutton safe that has 4 buttons on the top where you enter in your 4-button code and it opens every time.  It’s quick and it’s kid-proof.  Ours is a GunVault, but there are many others on the market now that I like including Liberty Safe makes a few which look great.


I’m a fan of the 4-button handgun safes.  They’re quick, reliable, and reasonably secure.  As an added bonus, most include mounting hardware so you can bolt them to a shelf or a drawer, which is nice.


After all that is over, remember that going to the range for an hour doesn’t have to be boring and shouldn’t be the same boring “run the target to 7 yards, shoot a few magazines, go home” thing.  There are lots of great (and challenging) shooting drills that will push you.  Learn to shoot one-handed and off-handed.  We’ve heard the stat that 50% of all self-defense shootings happen partially or entirely one-handed.  So statistically, we should spend half of our practice shooting one-handed.  When you’re at that point and need recommendations for range practice, let me know.


Lastly, you may want to start doing a little reading on this subject.  Quick plug, Jenna wrote a book that is available everywhere that may really help:  Next, read anything by Massad Ayoob.  I first read “In the Gravest Extreme” years ago and it changed my life.  And one I personally recommend is called “In the Name of Self Defense, What it Costs, When it’s Worth it” by Marc MacYoung.  It’ll melt your brain (it did mine), but read it in small chunks and it helps.  Amazing book.


I hope that helps.  Don’t hesitate to give me a call or ask anything you want and I’ll try and help.  Have fun!



Carry on, Colorado!