Guns are more popular than ever, contrary to what anti-gunners may try to tell you. America, before the pandemic, was home to around 340 million guns. The pandemic changed gun-buying habits. According to thehill.com, “Americans purchased nearly 60 million guns between 2020 and 2022, according to an analysis by The Trace, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that tracks gun violence. Yearly gun sales are running at roughly twice the level of 15 or 20 years ago.” Today’s gun total for the U.S. hovers around 393 million – we have about 60 million more guns than people!
Accounting for the fact that many of those pandemic purchases were by gun owners, that still means that millions of folks who had never before bought a gun got into the act and became a new gun owner.
This article will be broken into two sections… first, some basic firearms information, including types of guns, pros and cons, and usage information. The final part will be some specific recommendations. It is addressed to the first-time gun buyer, but experienced shooters may find it useful, as well.
A Quick Recap
Before we start, let me tell you a bit about myself so you know where I’m coming from. I have been an active shooter, reloader, and hunter for about 50 years and a freelance gun writer for several of those years. I’ve owned and shot all kinds of guns – rifles, shotguns, pistols, revolvers, muzzleloaders, and air guns – and have reloaded my home-cast bullets for many of them. I am also a member of what I’ll call the One-Percent Club… approximately one percent of Indiana deer hunters hunt with a handgun (according to 2020 statistics – actually it’s more like a “Half-Percent Club”), something I’ve done for years. Gun ownership can allow you to branch out into different parts of the shooting sports and some of those can put meat on the table. As a new gun owner, you might want to think about that. Anyway, you get the point… I’ve been around guns for most of my life.
Let’s move on…
First: Firearms 101… What You Need To Know
There’s never been a better time to bring a gun home than right now, with all the uncertainty and violence. But, you say you don’t know where to start… how on earth would I go about narrowing my choices down to just one? you ask. Allow me to shed some light on the issue as we look at long guns and/or handguns that you might consider for purchase.
Where To Buy A Gun
Let’s get this out of the way… if you are a first-time gun buyer, please go to a dedicated gun store to start your journey. Your local gun shop owner will point you in the right direction – he or she talks to new buyers daily. They can give you advice that employees at the big-box store generally won’t give you, either because they don’t know or they are being told to “push” certain guns out the door. Also, avoid online stores as a rule. Nothing wrong with them… it’s just that, as a first-time buyer, you need specific advice best delivered by folks at your local gun shop.
The Two Most Important Questions
The most important questions that you need to have answered before you venture into that gun shop are these:
Why do I want a gun? What will I use it for?
If the answer to either of these is “I’m not sure” or “I don’t know”, you have more research to do. Going into a gun shop to buy a gun when you don’t know why you want one is a bit like going into a supermarket before you’ve had lunch – everything looks good! It is easy to walk out of a gun store with something wrong for you if you don’t know why you’re there in the first place.
Let’s look at some specific reasons people buy guns.
They would include:
- Self Defense. We’re talking carry guns here, for the most part. They are typically not the same as guns for…
- Home Protection. Guns purchased for this reason are usually larger than carry guns.
- Plinking. Think “making a tin can dance in the back pasture”. Plinking is just informal target practice, usually with a .22LR handgun or rifle.
- Target/Competition. We can get very serious here, very quickly. These sports cover everything from static bullseye matches to action pistol contests where running is required. Handguns, shotguns, and rifles may be involved in the same match. Guns for these pursuits tend to be very specialized and not cheap.
- Hunting. As mentioned above, hunting is an excellent way to supplement your food supply. There are many guns out there that work well in the field.
- Collecting. Many folks buy guns without ever shooting them, but that’s beyond the scope of this article.
So, we need to look at each of these categories (except collecting) and see what types of guns are best. But… before we do that, we need to look at different gun types. New buyers may not know the difference between types of guns or are confused by them.
Let’s start with what I call “long guns” – rifles and shotguns. I have written on this and related topics for this blog… the article is Types Of Guns. You would do well to read that, as I went into some detail on various aspects and specifications of gun types. Another post of mine that might prove beneficial is my article on How to Buy A Gun – again, I go into more detail there than I can here. Hopefully, my articles will help you.
Before we continue, let’s do a quick review of some firearms-related terms so that we’re all on the same page as we explore firearms in depth. It will help in your communications with current gun (or gun shop) owners if you use the right terminology.
Here are a very few of my definitions…
Barrel: The tube that the bullet or shot load travels down after it leaves the chamber. It can be rifled or smooth.
Bullet: What comes out of the end of the barrel when you pull the trigger. Not to be confused with:
Cartridge: The complete assembly that includes the cartridge case, primer, powder, and bullet. A cartridge should not be referred to as a bullet. If you ask me, a reloader, for a bullet, I’ll give you one… a 115-grain 9mm full-metal-jacket number or another bullet from my inventory. The cartridge is the full meal deal.
Chamber: The part of a gun’s action that contains the cartridge or shotshell upon firing.
D/A: Double Action. The gun can be fired by simply pulling the trigger, as that action cocks the gun before firing, once the chamber is loaded.
DA/SA: Double Action/Single Action. The gun can be fired by either manually cocking the hammer or by simply pulling the trigger, once the chamber is loaded.
Hammer/Striker: The part of the gun’s action that, when released, hits the cartridge primer and fires the gun. Hammers can be visble or hidden.
S/A: Single action. The hammer or striker must be manually cocked before firing.
Stock: That part of a rifle or shotgun that contacts the shooter’s shoulder. It can be plastic or wood. The separate grip panels of a handgun that accepts them are also technically stocks, although we normally hear them referred to as just grips.
Trigger: The actuating lever on any gun that releases the sear and allows the gun to fire.
Types of Guns
Rifles and shotguns are very useful for purposes that don’t require the gun to be hidden. Home protection, target, competition, hunting, plinking… these are some of the most common purposes that folks buy rifles to fulfill. (Please remember that, in a home defense scenario, a serious-caliber rifle can over-penetrate and go through your target into the next room or apartment… care must be taken). And, even though I’m pretty much a handgun type of guy, I have to admit that if you are looking for a new gun (except a carry gun), a rifle or shotgun might be the better choice over a handgun. Rifles are, by and large, easier to hit targets with than handguns for most beginners. They just make sense for a new shooter.
Long Gun Types
Rifles and shotguns come in a few basic types. There are guns that hold only one cartridge at a time – single-shots – and more than one (all the rest). The types can include:
Bolt Action: You must manually work a bolt to extract the fired case and load a fresh cartridge.
Single-Shot: As the name implies, you have one shot at a time. This is an excellent training rifle, very safe. The sample shown below has a .22LR barrel over one in .410 gauge.
Semi-Auto: The rifle will fire the cartridge, eject the spent case and load a fresh cartridge with each pull of the trigger, once the chamber is loaded.
Lever Action: You work a lever that ejects/loads the cartridge. Think about a John Wayne western…
Pump: A sliding foregrip works action bars that ejects/loads the cartridge.
Double Barrel (over/under, side-by-side): Two barrels are attached to the receiver, either superposed or beside each other. The receiver breaks open to allow extraction and reloading. This type of action is mostly found on shotguns (at least here in America). Double rifles tend to be very big in Europe, Africa, India… any place that allows hunting for dangerous game. Those rifles are in very serious calibers and are beyond the scope of this article, so I will address only shotguns below.
Your use or purpose will help determine which of these types of rifles you might be interested in. For example, if you are wanting a deer rifle, any of these action types would suffice. But, if your purpose is to train a young shooter, you probably don’t want the ability to fire 10, 20 or 30 rounds quickly from a magazine – a single shot might be the better choice. What about home defense? Many shooters own semi-auto rifles for that usage, as the ability to have fast follow-up shots is important to them.
Shotguns are pretty much the de facto gun that many shooters keep in the house for home defense. The thought pattern might go something like this, but may or may not be true: “a shotgun puts out a spray, or pattern, of lead shot pellets that spreads as it goes. I won’t have to be a good shot, or even take careful aim – I’ll just point the gun and pull the trigger.”
BZZZT! WRONG! Why? Because at typical living-room-type distances, the shot pattern will have not had time to spread much, if any. You’re going to get one concentrated collection of lead pellets that go together to make one big hole in whatever you shoot that is not much larger than the bore of the gun. And, oh what collective damage they can do, all those little-bitty lead shot pellets! Shotguns make good home defense weapons but know what you are doing before stashing the gun behind the kitchen door. (On second thought, unless you live by yourself and never have any visitors, put it in a gun safe! Loose guns cause too many accidents). Also remember what I mentioned above about over-penetration. It’s not quite the same as what a rifle can do, but in apartments with very thin walls, a concentrated shot pattern can do some serious damage. Again, be careful.
Types Of Shotguns
It used to be, when I was a kid a century or two ago, that you would see at most three action types in the hands of hunters – there were pumps (most common), semi-autos (the Browning A5, my dad’s Sweet Sixteen comes to mind) and twin-barrel designs, either over-unders or side-by-sides. The other types existed, but you didn’t see the others as often. That was for hunting, the reason most non-military shotguns existed. Back then, most folks kept their hunting gun handy for home defense – this was before niche-specific guns were built. Today, you can get a rifle or shotgun for very selective uses. (An example of a niche gun… the Mossberg Maverick 88 with a top-folding stock for truck use, for under $300). We are living in good gun times!
Today, you tend to see more types of shotguns than you did in the late ‘50s through the early ‘70s. For instance, I had not seen too many lever shotguns until Henry came out with theirs a while back. I live in rural Indiana, close to a large Amish population. They tend to buy (according to my gun shop owner buddy Duane) lots of single-shot 12-gauge guns for both deer and turkey. So, most of the various types listed above are represented in the field, on the farm, and in the home. Over-under or side-by-sides were not too popular (unless you were into trap or skeet) around here until lesser-expensive models started to be imported from places like Turkey. Some of these guns are very well built and sell for under $500. They are not, though, a beginner’s gun in my opinion. A pump shotgun makes a great first shotgun, especially in 20 gauge… 12 gauge can beat you up if you’re inexperienced.
Pros and Cons
Here are some things to think about if you are considering buying a long gun. I will lump rifles and shotguns together by action type since the actions work basically the same for either rifle or shotgun.
When you consider buying a handgun, the same questions from above must be answered. Why do you want a handgun, and what will I use it for? I could copy and paste a lot of the text from above that talks about uses for, and types of, guns but I won’t. Suffice it to say that you have, for the most part, similar action types and uses as we saw in the long gun section above.
Pistol or Revolver?
Handguns generally come in one of two forms: pistols and revolvers. (We won’t talk about single-shot pistols – unless you are doing some very specialized target competition or hunting, they just don’t figure into an article like this one).
What’s the difference between pistols and revolvers? Typically, pistols by definition are self-loaders, semi-autos. Once the chamber is loaded (which also cocks the gun), you simply pull the trigger as many times as there are cartridges loaded in the gun’s magazine.
(Here’s an important side note about magazines and loaded guns… please remember that just because you remove a pistol’s magazine, that does not make it safe. Chances are there is a cartridge in the chamber. You must clear the chamber before the gun is totally safe).
Again, With The D/A, S/A, DA/SA…
Semi-autos come in three basic flavors, like Neopolitan ice cream (and some long guns above). To mention quick definitions again, a single-action pistol must be manually cocked for every shot (think 1911). Or, they can be double-action, or double-action-only, whereby pulling the trigger, you both cock and fire the gun (many striker-fired guns are DAO). The final flavor, the strawberry of the actions, is DA/SA. You can either manually cock the gun (which you must do after you load a fresh magazine with nothing in the chamber). Once fired, the hammer/striker stays cocked for the next shot. (Here, think CZ75 and its clones). The advantage of many DA/SA guns is that the safety also functions as a de-cocker. Pressing the safety lever down drops the hammer onto the frame for carry, so you’re not carrying a “cocked” pistol. A pull of the trigger pulls the hammer back and fires the gun.
Revolvers, on the other hand, hold their cartridges in a round cylinder that revolves around a central axis (get it? Revolve-ers, sorry…couldn’t help myself!). Capacities of revolvers can vary, from five in small, carry guns to nine or more in rimfire models. Revolvers can be single- or double-action, just like semi-autos. You will have to manually cock a single action before firing (my Blackhawk above). Here, think John Wayne again and his favorite Colt SAA he carried in many of his movies.
Or, you could go with the smallest single-action revolver I know about… the North American Arms line of guns. Below is my Black Widow with an unusually long (for the series) 2-inch barrel. It’s chambered in .22LR and Magnum. It’s a fun little gun but I don’t recommend something this small for beginners… the muzzle is too close to your fingers! The whole thing is only 5.8 inches long. It makes for a decent hideout gun but new shooters are better served with larger guns.
Thanks for staying tuned! At last, here’s the part where I name some guns that I think would be good for new shooters.
Let’s look at what I consider to be some of the top rifles and shotguns out there. Narrowing long guns down to a single model, type or purpose gets a little tricky. For example, when you discuss carry guns, handguns are usually indicated – we’ll look at those below. Long guns open things up, a lot. There are so many different uses that we touched on above for long guns that I think I’ll just name one in each action type that I think represents a good buy.
I freely admit that these choices are purely subjective on my part… there are tons of great guns out there. I just had to narrow it down so that you would have a place to start your search.
Best Single-Shot: CVA Scout
There have been many single-shot rifles over the years; most have fallen by the wayside. CVA, a company known more for its blackpowder muzzleloaders, came out a few years ago with a line of single-shot cartridge rifes, in many calibers. All CVA Scouts come with a scope mounting rail. If you are looking to experiment with a new caliber but don’t want to sink a lot of money into a new gun, these Scouts are very handy – and affordable. Prices in the real world start at under $300.
Best Bolt Action: Ruger American
Boy, am I gonna get comments about this! As I just said above, this is very subjective. There are more great bolt action rifles for sale today at great prices than ever before. Winchester, Savage, Bergara, CZ… the list could go on and on. I merely am suggesting that a good place to start with a decent bolt action that won’t cost an arm and a leg is the Ruger American. I’ve reviewed many bolt actions over the years, and found that (for the money) the Ruger was about as good as it gets. They are made in several versions (the Ranch is shown here), many finishes, and many calibers. For under $500 before adding a scope, they’re hard to beat.
Best Semi-Auto: Bear Creek Arsenal 7.62x39
Anymore, when you say “semi-auto” and “rifle” in the same sentence, you’re usually referring to an AR-pattern rifle. So, we’ll look at one.
Hoboy, here I go again. What? No .223? Why, sure… there’re more .223 ARs out there than Carter’s has Little Liver Pills! (All you seasoned shooters out there will remember those ads). I just thought I’d be different than the zillion other reviews and articles that are all about the .223.
After all, you can get any AR in .223, and I do recommend that caliber for beginners. It’s just that I own ARs in different calibers. They do include .223, but I also have this 7.62x39 and one in 9mm, of all things. I’m not done collecting ARs in different calibers… stay tuned.
So, when a gun site asked me to review something from BCA, I talked to Tim (my contact there at that time). He suggested this 7.62x39. What a great idea! That box of ammo under the gun in the pic was obtained by trading my friend Ed an inexpensive 9mm pistol. I was set up! I killed a deer at a measured 151 yards with the combination of this rifle and SP ammo. (I have a scope on it now, not this red dot).
Are there other great ARs there? Certainly! I could write a really long article on them, but we’re going for a bit of brevity here – it’s long enough already. For under $600, you can own one of these (or one in .223 if desired, or other caliber – they make a bunch!). Go here for more info.
In terms of pump rifles, the only one I’m aware of that’s currently in production is Rossi’s Gallery .22 pump. (I know Remington made at least one pump rifle for a while but I haven’t seen them for sale recently).
Available in either a black polymer ($349) or wood stock ($399), you can recreate the nostalgia of the time you spent in shooting galleries when you were a kid.
Best Single-Shot: Rossi Tuffy
The Rossi Tuffy is a relatively new model of single-shot shotgun. Available in all popular gauges and finishes, the Tuffy gets the job done of putting a deer or turkey down for a reasonable price, usually around $150. Go here for more info.
Best Double Barrels (At Both Ends Of The Price Spectrum…)
Affordable: ATI Crusader Field
I said above that I wasn’t sure if a double-barrel gun was suitable for beginners, but I’ll go ahead and list a couple, anyway. I’m going to break with my format here and list not just one, but two over/under shotguns. This is an area, like bolt or semi-auto rifles, where you could literally go nuts trying to research all the models out there. So, I chose two – one under $500 and a second, pricier, model.
The ATI Crusader Field is a 12-gauge Turkish import that sports two 28-inch barrels. It features an extractor, not an ejector so you don’t have to chase empties. A vent rib dresses it up. This gun can be bought for around $450 and represents a very good option for shotgunners on a budget. The Crusader is available in 12, 20, 28, and .410 gauges.
For those looking to buy one of the best top-of-the-line over/unders out there now, this Carrera fills the bill. Made in Italy by the Italian Firearms Group, comprised of F.A.I.R., Pedersoli, and Tanfoglio, this shotgun truly captures what a beginner needs in an over/under, if he or she is so inclined. Available in 12- and 20-gauge with barrels of 26, 28 or 30 inches, this $2308 shotgun moves to the head of the class.
Pump: Remington 870 Wingmaster
Again, there are so many good pumps out there. Remington, Mossberg and a bunch of others make good pumps but I think I’ll show the Remington 870 Windmaster here. (I’m sticking to guns good in the field; there are many pumps made for home defense. You can find tons of reviews of those online). Whether you want a tactical version with a black stock or a high-end bird-getter, this line of pump gun will do the job. Made in New York by the new RemArms company that emerged after Remington’s bankruptcy, the 870 is back and stronger than ever. With over 11 million sold, it is the best-selling shotgun – ever. You can pick one up like the one shown here for around $400 or a little more.
Semi-Auto: Beretta A300 Outlander
The Outlander is one nice shotgun. Sporting Beretta’s legendary design, quality, and construction, the A300 is at home in the field or on the range. You have the choice of choosing either 12- or 20-gauge. Four finishes help you to further customize your selection.
Semi-auto shotguns are not typically recommended for beginners – I mentioned above that pump guns might be better suited to that task –, but their simple controls and recoil reduction over non-semis help. I will stop at recommending “tactical”-type shotguns – beginners are best served by sticking with conventional hunting-type guns, in my opinion.
This gun’s “Kick-Off” recoil reduction system and oversized bolt handle and loading port make it one easy gun to use. If you want more gun from this company, consider the A400 Xtreme Plus. Expect to pay around $850 for the Outlander. Go here for more info.
I could fill up many pages with all the suitable long guns out there that would work for a beginner, but hopefully I’ve given you something to think about. Even if you disagree with my choices, at least you have a place to start in your quest for your first gun.
I figure that most readers of this report will be looking for the best carry gun, so I will oblige. I will discuss what I consider to be the best handguns for carry.
Why just carry guns? Because, if you are into serious targeting or hunting, you will not be a beginning shooter. So, we’ll cut to the chase…best budget/mid-range/top-end guns for semi-autos and revolvers. If you want more info on specialized hunting or target handguns, information is out there.
Best Beginner Carry Guns, Semi-Autos
Most new shooters who buy a carry gun will make it a 9mm semi-auto, so let’s start there.
Best Budget 9mm Semi-Auto: Taurus GX4
For around $300, you can get one of the hottest-selling, reliable compact 9mms around.
Best Mid-Range 9mm: Glock 19
I do not own a Glock (I did in the past), so I had to find a photo. I’m not a Glockophile. But, there are millions of them out there so something must be working right. Here is the gun that other 15-round 9mms are perenially compared with. You can own one for around $500. Glocks are reliable, and are easy to find to buy.
Best Top-End 9mm: H&K VP9
The H&K VP9SK (VolksPistole,”people’s pistol”) represents a good value in a top-notch carry gun. H&K has, for decades, built some really great guns. Being left-handed, I appreciate the paddle mag release at the rear of the trigger guard – it’s automatically ambidextrous. You can pick one of these up for around $800. This is the one pistol on my bucket list.
What about other semi-auto calibers? I recommend 9mm as a minumum for self-defense, although many carry .380s and even .22s. There are many models of each of those calibers out there, but I believe that you will find your best selection if you stick with 9mm.
Best Beginner Carry Guns, Revolvers
I carry a revolver most all the time. There’s nothing wrong with that – you just have to understand that reloading is considerably slower than with a semi-auto. Having said that, revolvers tend to be simpler and easy to use. Most carry revolvers will be in .38 Special or .357 Magnum calibers. Here are a few…
Best Budget Carry Revolvers: Taurus 856
The Taurus 856 is one solid gun for not a lot of money. I tested one for another gun website and found it to work as advertised. Featuring a 6-shot cylinder, tons of options in grips, sights, etc, and +P capability, you could do worse.
Best Mid-Range Carry Revolver: Charter Arms Mag Pug
For well under $500, you can own this 3-inch, adjustable-rear-sight 5-shooter in a serious caliber. The gun pictured here is the review sample I got to write about Charter Arms guns for another gun site. I liked it so much I bought it. This thing is solid and accurate. Of course, you would want to put mostly .38s through it but it will handle the .357s just as well. The blingy finish was an extra goody – I like shiny guns! Charter Arms has really stepped up its game recently and is turning out some really nice guns for the money.
Best High-End Revolver: Colt Python
I chose the new version of the Colt Python for my choice for a beginner’s high-end revolver. Why in the world would you pick a $1700-plus wheelgun for a newbie, I hear you ask. Well… for the same reason that parents buy their new drivers a decent car that is not at the bottom of the food chain… higher-end items tend not to break as easily as the cheaper ones. And, if they do, they usually have great customer support. The new iteration of the legendary Python is every bit as well-built (and even better in some ways) a revolver than was its predecessor. lI’ve reviewed both the new-production Python and the Anaconda, and I was totally impressed. Prices range anywhere from $1500 – $1800. Go here for more info.
So, you want to buy a gun? Good for you! I hope this little foray into the world of firearms has helped you narrow down what type of gun you want – long gun or handgun, and so on. If you have any questions, please feel free to post them below and I’ll do my best to answer them. Happy hunting for your first gun!