This question comes up so often, I've put together this FAQ For First Time Handgun Buyers Whose Interest is Personal or Home Protection.
This is more important than any other subject discussed here. [For some unknown reason, I neglected to include it in earlier versions.] Just about any gun manufacturer includes safety rules in the owner's manual. Any school of instruction, from basic to expert classes, includes safety rules in the curriculum. Some of the rules may vary a word or two, but the goal and intent are the same. For beginners, I prefer the NRA rules. These rules work ALL the time and for EVERYONE.They are:
1) Always keep the gun pointed in a safe direction. [The Golden Rule]
2) Always keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot.
3) Always keep the gun unloaded until you are ready to use it.
Rule #1 is the Golden Rule because violating Rule #1 is all that's needed for someone to get hurt or killed. If you stop reading this FAQ now, or disregard every single other bit of information included in here, practice Rule #1. A safe direction depends a lot upon where you are at the time. At the firing range, at home in a ground floor apartment, at home in a top floor apartment, and a cave deep in the center of the earth all have very different safe directions.
Rule #2 is simple enough, but allow me to further clarify. Once the gun is pointed AT the target and you are ready to shoot, then your finger can go on the trigger. Movie and television producers could benefit from this one when portraying police officers and others using guns.
Rule #3 sometimes requires a bit of explanation. A hunting rifle or trap shotgun locked in a safe should be kept unloaded until you're venturing into the woods to hunt or you're out on the trap range about to shoot a round. Conversely, a gun kept at home for protection, or a gun carried for protection, is ready to be used for protection at almost anytime and thus is usually kept loaded.
I should note there are additional NRA rules, but these are the first, essential rules everyone should learn, know, understand and practice. Fatal accidents involving firearms have been and continue to decline in the United States. If everyone practiced these three (3) simple rules, fatal accidents involving firearms would all but disappear. It's hard to imagine why the National Safety Council or government safety agencies would not run Public Service Announcements repeating these three (3) simple rules, but that's a separate issue.
Shooting ranges may also post additional rules. Be certain to ask about and obey the range rules. At the very least, failure to do so may result in you being asked to leave the range.
Before purchasing a gun, or even venturing out to a gun shop, call the NRA at (703) 267-1000. Ask for the Civilian Training Department, and request a list of local NRA Instructors certified to teach a class in either Basic Pistol or Personal Protection. Call the Instructors, and find out when they're giving classes. If possible, look for one where students will provide the opportunity to handle, load and fire handguns in a variety of calibers suitable for protection out on the range. Some will require you to bring your own gun.
The NRA Personal Protection class has recently been changed, and very MUCH for the better. I heartily recommend you take both NRA Basic Pistol and the NEW NRA Personal Protection classes. Be certain it is the NEW Personal Protection class. The final lesson plans only recently became available, and the course material is superb.
In the NEW Personal Protection class, there is a segment of class given by either a police officer or a lawyer. During his or her segment of the class, the police officer or lawyer will speak addressing the law in your state concerning use of deadly force. The best choice would be an attorney with either the local prosecutor's office [who actually tries cases] or one in private practice [who specializes in defending such cases]. Either would give you an excellent expert perspective. If they are in private practice, be certain to get their business card and keep it in your wallet.
NRA courses are generally very inexpensive and readily available in many locations throughout the United States. They are also recognizes by many states as a suitable training requirement for the issuance of a Concealed Pistol License (aka CCW, CHL, CWFL, etc.)
If after taking the NRA courses you desire additional training, which is a superb idea IMHO, there are many fine advanced training facilities available to armed citizens. I have personal experience as a student at the Firearms Academy of Seattle, and I highly recommend it to anyone in the Pacific Northwest. I've trained with students who've traveled there from as far away as Alaska and California. Other fine schools include: Lethal Force Institute, Insights, Gunsite, Thunder Ranch, KR, Rangemaster, and a host of others. If you are looking for something in your area, feel free to contact me and I'll see if I can't point you to something near you. Some of these schools have courses which they "take on the road" and teach at remote facilities. LFI (based in New Hampshire) is usually scheduled to be taught in Miami, Florida each year. Insights (based outside Seattle, Washington) is usually scheduled to be taught in Pennsylvania each year.
Pick up a copy of Paxton Quigley's "Armed and Female". There may be a copy in your local library, but it's a softcover and it usually retails for under $5. Gentlemen should not feel "girly" reading a book entitled "Armed and Female". There is plenty of useful information for both men and women. The entire book is worth reading, but for a brief summary of buying a gun, read Chapter 9: Buying A Gun. FWIW, IMHO, Ms. Quigley is too harsh on the .357 Magnum, and tends to favor lighter calibers. That said, her book was originally published in 1989, and many excellent .357 Magnum revolvers and commercial loads have come on the market in that time.
NRA's publication "The Basics Of Personal Protection" notes "The majority of law enforcement officers who use a handgun [for personal protection] choose a .38 [Special] caliber double-action revolver with an exposed hammer and a four inch barrel." The book was written back in 1988, and the issue sidearm of most police departments has changed from a revolver to an autoloader. However, the .38 Special was a sound recommendation back in 1988 and today.
Ms. Quigley recommends a revolver for a first handgun purchase, and a .38 Special for a first revolver purchase. I tend to favor a .357 Magnum for a first revolver purchase. There are essentially five levels of power, if you will, available in commercial ammunition for the .357 Magnum revolver. From least "powerful" to most "powerful", they are:
["Grains" refers to the weight of the bullet. There are 7,000 grains to the pound.] If you choose a .357 Magnum, you can begin shooting less powerful .38 Special ammunition, and work your way up to more powerful loads. Most firearm manufacturers that make a .38 Special revolver also make a .357 Magnum revolver that is almost the identical size.
If you've already purchased or been given a .38 Special, don't feel as though you've made a terrible mistake. A .38 Special is more than adequate for the job of Personal or Home Protection.
The Big Five handgun calibers for Personal or Home Protection are: .38 Special, .357 Magnum, 9mm Luger, .40 S & W, and .45 ACP
IMHO, and that of some others, these five are the most popular calibers. As such, there will likely be a greater abundance of both guns and ammunition available in these calibers. There are many other calibers suitable and available, but I recommend you stick with the Big Five.
If you've already purchased or been given a gun in some other caliber, do not despair. Here's an incomplete list of others calibers which may be suitable. In no particular order, they are: .44 Special, .45 Colt, .357 Sig, .380 ACP, 10mm Auto, .38 Super
Though reasonable people may differ (even reasonable gun people), IMHO I would NOT consider a .44 Magnum for Protection unless I ventured out amongst dangerous four-legged critters. If you own a .44 Magnum and carry it say when wandering through the wilds of Alaska where Grizzlies abound, then load and carry light .44 Magnums or .44 Specials when carrying in town. Light .44 Magnum and .44 Special loads are suitable for Protection from dangerous two-legged critters.
On the other end of things, I would ALMOST never consider a handgun for Protection in .22 LR, .22 WMR (Winchester Magnum Rimfire), .25 ACP, or similarly diminutive calibers. I do offer this ONE exception. If one suffered an injury or is afflicted with an ailment such that a 9mm or .38 Special is too much recoil to shoot effectively, then I would consider a revolver in .22 LR. The .22 LR cartridge has minimum recoil and lowest cost possible. As such, for the same money a shooter using a .22 LR could practice far more than a shooter using one of the Big Five calibers. If you use a .22 LR for Protection, by all means avail yourself of this advantage and practice, practice, practice. This will offset the disadvantages in relying upon a .22 LR handgun for Protection.
I would NOT consider a handgun for Protection in .32 ACP, .32 H & R Magnum, or similarly sized and powered calibers unless I absolutely could NOT conceal a handgun in .38 Special or 9mm.
NOTE: I lived in Miami, Florida for a year. As you might guess, it gets a little warm there several months of the year. I was able to comfortably conceal and carry a .38 Special or .357 Magnum revolver on a daily basis even through July and August.
Revolver versus Autoloader debates have been waging since long before I was born, and I suspect they shall continue long after I'm gone. I won't attempt to settle those arguments here. Instead, I offer these observations I've made, borrowed or stolen.
For this last reason, above all else, I tend to favor a revolver as a first handgun. Quite simply, most people who buy a gun for protection tend not to practice as often as they should. Not everyone is a "gun person" even if they own a gun, use a gun, or carry a gun [either for work or personal protection]. If you don't or won't practice with an autoloader, particularly the practice of malfunction drills (IOW, what to do when you pull the trigger and the gun does NOT go bang), you really should consider a revolver.
You could spend anywhere from $100, or less, on up into the thousands of dollars for a handgun. While you get what you pay for, what you get may not be what you want or need. You should reasonably expect to spend between $300 and $600 for a new handgun. Some high quality guns could run upwards of $800 to $1000, and some good quality used revolvers could run as little as $200, or perhaps even a bit less. [I once purchased a used .38 Special revolver for $250 from a gun shop that was traded in by a local county police department. There were plenty of guns from which to choose costing $200, $225 and $250. The only difference I could find was the $250 guns had almost no scratches, the $225 guns had a few scratches, and the $200 guns had a few more scratches. All were laser-engraved on the side with the police department's logo, so I opted for one I thought would have the most "collector value". That said, I do shoot the gun, I would not feel disarmed if I were to carry it for protection, and it's one of the guns I keep loaded at home.]
I recommend a first time handgun buyer purchase a new handgun from a local gunshop. Smaller gunshops may have better prices, but larger gunshops usually have a better selection. A larger gunshop is more likely to have a gunsmith onsite, if there's a problem. Also, a larger gunshop is more likely to have a better selection of holsters, ammunition and other accessories. Finally, a local gunshop means you won't have to traverse the state if there's a problem with your gun.
You are probably better off with a new handgun versus a used handgun. If you have a friend who is a firearms expert, they could advise you about a used handgun purchase. If you don't have that option available, or the expertise yourself, you probably can't determine the condition of the used handgun or whether this is a good deal. As such, you are left relying upon the word of the seller. If you do choose a used handgun, choose a reputable gunshop and avail yourself of someone knowledgeable.
In the course of handling guns in a shop, and shooting guns on the range, you'll probably find some guns fit you and some do not. Some guns will be easier for you to shoot, and some may take a bit longer to master. Too hot, too cold, just right. Too hard, too soft, just right.
Buying a gun has been equated to buying a pair of shoes. There are lots of good products on the market, and you need to find what's right for you. What has a good fit and feel? Some have a specific technical purpose while others can serve in several roles. Even after identifying what kind you want, the product from one manufacturer may not fit as well as the product from another manufacturer.
New shooters tend to be more sensitive to recoil and more experienced shooters tend to have developed some tolerance. There are far too many blanket statements made declaring one caliber handgun the undisputed king over all other caliber handguns. Every shooter is different. What works for me may not work for you, and vice versa. When you find a handgun and ammunition combination that works for you, stick with it and master it. Shooting something well beats shooting anything poorly.
I would be more than to happy to answer additional questions on the subject. Hopefully, I've not made unfairly biased judgements for or against any caliber or handgun in my efforts to paint a picture of where you proceed from here. My wife says I'm often wrong and sometimes human. I do wish she'd draw more of a relationship between those two conditions.