Since the 19th century, modern materials and manufacturing techniques have changed the looks, price and availability of semiautomatic pistols. However, the basics of its operation have remained unchanged. Evolution in both technology and the relevant markets has resulted in variations that aren’t always obvious, so we’ve developed the following guide to help you navigate your way through your next pistol purchase.
One of the best advancements in modern semiautomatic pistols is their improved accuracy over their predecessors. Almost all polymer frame pistols produced today will deliver accuracy that was once only in the realm of customized target autos fifty years ago. These improvements are the result of designs that offer better realignment of the firearms barrel, after it returns to battery without the close tolerance that produced jamming in previous designs. Additionally, manufacturing methods have advanced, as well as the type of rifling in pistol barrels. This has led to tighter groups than ever before. With modern polymer frame pistols, accuracy is one area that the average shooter will not have to worry about today.
Disassembling modern semiautomatic pistols may not be as simple as it could be, however these guns have become much more user-friendly lately. The modern polymer frame pistols don’t require tools or much in the way of mechanical inclination to disassemble. That being said, it can’t hurt to ask a gun store employee to show you how to disassemble a pistol before purchase it. Keep in mind that if they object, struggle or simply can’t do it, that is an excellent indication that you will have trouble at home as well.
Modern pistols are extremely durable piece of equipment, because of the use of advanced polymers, stainless steel and tough-as-nails coatings during manufacturing. New pistols have fewer parts today, let alone fewer moving parts, which their predecessors offered. With many of the different gun models available today, almost all parts that may breakdown are stamped parts (versus more expensive machined parts) and are relatively inexpensive as well as easy to replace. If a prospective buyer is concerned about long-term durability, simply pricing replacement parts in advance can give you an idea of which firearm will cause the least amount of grief in the long run, in the rare event of a failure.
If a gun doesn’t feel good in your hand, all of the specs in the world are meaningless. By the same token, sometimes you may find a gun that fits your hand and balances so well that it feels like an extension of your body. Although this difference is often a matter of body shape and size as well as individual preference, there are a couple of things to look out for.
With any firearm you use, it is important to be able to reach and operate all the controls in a fluid manner. If you find yourself stretching to reach any of the controls, it will be much more difficult to become proficient with your gun in the long run. When choosing a firearm, it is also advisable to select a model that allows you to get at least the first knuckle of your trigger finger to rest comfortably on the trigger before you depress it. Your finger should also be able to pull back in a relatively straight manner, without having to “roll” your finger over the trigger. Shooters with small hands may have a hard time finding a model to fulfill the first requirement, while those with large hands often times have issues with the second requirement.
One of the major ergonomic advantages offered by many polymer pistols is the ability to change out the grip inserts in order to customize the feel of the gun in your hand. Proper fit can make a big difference in a pistol’s natural aim, which will directly impact the amount of time it takes you to learn to shoot the gun well.
The polymer pistol cannot really be judged on fit/finish the way guns of the past have been. For starters, the modern pistol is specifically designed to be a modular unit in which a random selection of parts will result in a fully functional weapon every time. This modularity makes upgrading components, swapping calibers and fine-tuning easier while keeping costs low. If it seems like the tolerances on a polymer frame gun are not as tight as those on a high-end 1911, it’s because they are not supposed to be.
When it comes to the finish on these guns, few use standard bluing. “Better Living Through Chemistry” is the order of the day, and the modern coatings on these guns are meant to be tough and durable, not necessarily attractive. Some firearms do look nicer than others, but it’s all in the eye of the beholder. In choosing a modern pistol it is better to focus more on feel and balance of the gun in your hand and less on eye pleasing aesthetics.
When it comes to pre-judging recoil with a semiautomatic handgun, it is important to bear a couple of things in mind:
- Chambering. Recoil is directly proportional to muzzle energy, and cartridges such as the 45 Auto will produce more recoil than smaller calibers like the 9mm.
- Bore Alignment. The closer a shooter can bring the web of their hand into direct alignment with the bore of a pistol, the less felt recoil they will experience. While the recoil is still there, but it is less noticeable.
When choosing a pistol it is important to be honest with yourself about the level of recoil you are comfortable with. Confidence and accuracy should not be sacrificed for increased muzzle energy.
The modern semiautomatic is a wonderful and reliable piece of equipment. It is impossible to say if any individual pistol will give you trouble with reliability, because even with modern manufacturing techniques sometimes, things do go wrong. The best advice we can offer is to check the reliability rating provided on our site or, if we’ve never reviewed the gun, seek people who have had the opportunity to run it through the paces. However it is actually quite hard to find a pistol that will give you too many issues, so don’t let it worry you too much.
Some common factors make reloading a semiautomatic pistol easier. Keep in mind; this is largely a matter of experience, the size of a shooter’s hand and personal preference. All the spec evaluation in the world will not replace five minutes spent handling the actual weapon at a gun counter. Eject and load the magazine several times and make sure the magazine and slide releases are readily accessible. If you’re a lefty, look for an ambidextrous slide release and a model in which the magazine release is either ambidextrous or can be reversed. The best utility in owning a semiautomatic comes from the ease in which it can be reloaded, so it’s important to find a model you are comfortable with.
While there is not a tremendous amount of variety in modern pistol sights, this isn’t really a bad thing for the prospective buyer. Over the last century firearms manufacturers have tried and found wanting a large number of sight designs and have finally settled on the basic versions available today. They all look pretty much the same, but it is almost universally agreed that they are as good as it gets for combat or self-defense purposes.
The only real choice in modern pistol sights is between night sights, which are visible in the dark and standard fixed or adjustable sights, which usually feature white non-luminescent dots to aid you with gun alignment. Most people will probably opt for the night sights. While they cost a bit more, they are very useful in both full dark and low light conditions.
Modern semiautomatic pistols are available in single-action (SA), double-action only (DAO) and double-action/single-action (DA/SA) variants. Although some folks swear by DA/SA triggers, they tend to present problems, so for a first pistol we suggest either the DAO or SA variant.
When considering a gun take into account the pull weight, creep and smoothness the trigger offers.
Pull weight defines the number of foot-pounds required to make the pistol fire. Shooters with large hands and presumably long fingers can bring more pressure to bear with less effort. A good rule of thumb is that the shorter one’s fingers are, the lower the pull weight should be.
Creep is the “slack” experienced when pulling the trigger, basically the movement of the trigger without accomplishing anything. While some shooters simply learn to live with this, choosing a pistol without creep is preferable.
Smoothness simply means that there should not be any “hitches” or “hang-ups” felt when pulling the trigger. To obtain full accuracy potential, the trigger pull needs to be a continuous, steady movement, the smoother the better. Some triggers will break-in with use and become smoother, but selecting a smooth one to begin with helps considerably.