You are ready to become a gunowner. How big a gun do you need?
The factors involved in choosing what size gun you need include its purpose, the size of your hands, how much strength a gun requires for correct use, its cost, its caliber, where you keep it, and its capacity.
The Purpose of Your Gun
For concealment, you need the smallest gun that does the job without too much kickback. A small revolver or semi-automatic will conceal well.
For home defense, choose a midsize gun with stopping power, but pay attention to maneuverability because you may need to peek around corners with it. A midsize revolver or semi-automatic will be easy to store, and a shotgun or rifle will inspire confidence.
For fun activities such as plinking and target shooting, pick the most fun gun. Smaller calibers and larger guns equal less stress on your hands. A .22 is great for plinking.
Size a hunting gun to the animal you are shooting. Bolt action rifles work well for large animals. Lever action is great for small animals. Bigger revolvers can also work.
Your first gun is likely to be for home defense. If you are not planning to leave home with it, you can choose a bigger model because you will not have to conceal it.
Revolvers for Home Defense
If you want a simple gun that is easy to load and shoot, consider a midsize revolver such as a Smith and Wesson J Frame Model 19 or a Colt King Cobra with a capacity for six or more rounds.
A four to six inch barrel will be more accurate and easy to shoot. Smaller guns have more kickback because they don’t have sufficient weight to offset the velocity of the explosion that sends the bullet down the barrel. The Smith and Wesson 686 Plus is also a good option.
Smith and Wesson J Frame Model 19
This midsize revolver is chambered in .357 Magnum. This has a little more bite than .38 Special but is manageable in a midsize gun. The Model 19 is a double action revolver with a six round capacity. It is most commonly available in four to six inch barrel lengths and can weigh up to 39 ounces. It is out of production but I found internet listings starting at $800 and running into the thousands.
Colt King Cobra
The Colt King Cobra is a classic beauty with curves that won’t quit. It can be chambered in .38 Special or .357 Magnum with up to an 8 inch barrel. It is a medium size double action revolver with a six round capacity. It weighs 28 ounces. The MSRP for the 2018 version is $899.
Smith and Wesson 686 Plus
The 686 Plus is an L-frame revolver with up to a seven shot capacity. It is chambered in .357 Magnum or .38 S&W SPECIAL +P. It is a single action/double action revolver, meaning you can cock the hammer yourself or just squeeze the trigger and let the trigger pull activate the hammer. With a barrel length of up to 6 inches it weighs up to 43.9 ounces. MSRP is $899.
Semi-Automatics For Home Defense
If you prefer a semi-automatic for home defense, go for a full-size model such as the FN FNS-9 or the Sig Sauer P226.
The FNS-9 is striker fired, which means that it doesn’t have a hammer. A spring loaded rod called a striker activates the firing pin when you pull the trigger. It is located in the slide. The lack of a hammer makes the gun simpler and less likely to snag on your clothes during the draw stroke.
Chambered in 9mm ammunition, it has a magazine which holds 17 rounds plus one in the chamber–plenty to fend off a small band of thugs while a family member calls 911.
An FNS-9 with a 4 inch barrel weighs 25.2 ounces. It is considered a full size semi-automatic. For the lefties, this one is ambidextrous, meaning the slide stop lever and magazine release are on both sides for right or left handed use. MSRP is $639.
Sig Sauer P226
The P226 is hammer fired, meaning that the firing pin is struck by a spring powered weight called a hammer when you pull the trigger. The impact drives the pin into the primer of the cartridge, causing the explosion that shoots the gun.
The P226 is a full sized, service type pistol chambered in 9x19mm Parabellum, .40 S&W, .357 SIG, or .22 Long Rifle. The magazine has a capacity of up to 20 rounds plus one in the chamber. With a 4 inch barrel, it weighs 25.2 ounces. MSRP is $999 to $1549.
Shotguns for Home Defense
Shotguns make a good home defense option. Choose a shorter barrel of 18 inches or less in case you need to maneuver around corners in the middle of the night. Good calibers for home defense include 12 gauge, 20 gauge, and .410, which all provide enough stopping power without being excessive.
When defending your home, remember that bullets don’t necessarily stop when they encounter a wall. You could shoot a gun in the living room and hit something in the next room over.
Benelli Nova Tactical
The Benelli Nova Tactical pump action shotgun is a 12 gauge with an 18.5 inch barrel. Pump action shotguns are known for their reliability, making them ideal for home defense. The Nova Tactical chambers four 3 1/2 inch shells. It weighs 7 pounds. MSRP ranges from $459 to $749 depending on features.
Rifles For Home Defense
Rifles are another popular choice for home defense. The smaller bullets such as .223 and 5.56 still make a powerful punch that will dissuade an attacker. An AR-15 suitable for home defense will have a 12 to 18 inch barrel.
A bolt action rifle takes too much time to reload and will not be suitable for home defense. If that’s what you have on hand, by all means use it, but better choices are available.
The AR556 MPR is an AR style rifle chambered in 5.56 NATO. It holds 30 rounds. The barrel length is 16.10 inches and it weighs 6.7 pounds. MSRP is $899.
Once you make the decision to carry a concealed weapon, size becomes an issue, especially for the petite among us. You have to strike a balance between stopping power and ease of carrying.
Off body carry is easier and may allow you to choose a larger gun, but you have to be in complete control of where your gun is at all times–no laying your purse down and walking away from it.
On-body carry means finding a place on your body generous enough to conceal several inches of cold steel without causing too much discomfort. For an in-depth discussion of concealed carry options, see my posts on what to wear when carrying concealed, male and female editions.
Revolvers for Concealed Carry
If you like revolvers, consider a .38 special. Weight becomes an issue with concealed carry and you can find small revolvers that weigh less than a pound.
Concealed carry instructors tend to discourage .22 as a defense round because of its decreased stopping power, and .357 has more of a punch that becomes more noticeable with a lighter gun. Some concealed carriers don’t mind the punch and will carry .357 or the even bigger .44.
The K6S is a small revolver with a 2 inch barrel and a capacity of 6 rounds. It weighs in at a moderate 23 ounces. It specifies .357 Magnum but is also compatible with .38 Special. Kimber is a premium brand with beautiful and well made guns and the MSRP is $1177.
Ruger LCR .38 Special +P
The LCR weighs only 13.5 ounces with a 1.87 inch barrel, improving comfort of carry but also increasing the velocity of the kickback. Its cylinder holds five rounds. The extra powder in the +P model increases the velocity of the round as it exits, giving it more stopping power but increasing the kick that you feel in your hand. This is my concealed carry choice. MSRP is $579.
Semi-Automatics for Concealed Carry
Semi-automatics are easier to conceal because they are more streamlined. Capacity is remarkably more with a semi-automatic than with a revolver. For comfortable concealment limit yourself to a 17 round magazine or smaller.
For most concealed carriers the choice comes down to the simplicity of the revolver versus the capacity of the semi-auto. For the pros and cons of each read my articles on the merits of revolvers and semi-automatics for concealed carry.
The G26 is a 9mm option with a 3.43 inch barrel. It weighs in at 21.52 ounces with an empty magazine. It has magazines for as many as 33 rounds but for concealment you will not want more than a 17 round magazine. MSRP is $599 to $647.
HK VP9 SK
The HK VP9 SK is a slightly larger 9mm with a 3.39 inch barrel. It weighs 23.07 ounces and can accommodate a magazine with up to 15 rounds. MSRP is $749 to $849.
Shooting For Fun
Plinking is target shooting. Since you can carry your plinking gun to the range in a bag, you can choose the size that feels best in your hand. A .22 is fun because it has very little kickback. You can get a semi-automatic, a lever action rifle, a revolver, or a bolt action rifle in .22 caliber.
Semi-Automatics for Plinking
Find a semi-automatic that gives you the pleasure of shooting without too much work to rack the slide.
Ruger SR22 3600
A good beginner model is the Ruger SR22 3600, semi-automatic with 10 rounds in the magazine plus one in the chamber. It uses .22 LR rimfire rounds. With a barrel length of 3.50 inches, it weighs 17.5 ounces. MSRP is $439.
The Ruger 10/22 semi-automatic rimfire carbine has an 18.5 inch barrel and weighs five pounds. It hold 10 rounds of .22 LR and weighs 5 pounds. MSRP is $327.
Revolvers for Plinking
Revolvers are easy and reliable with no need to rack the slide. With small caliber ammunition the kickback is minimal. You can spend hundreds of dollars on a plinking gun, or you can get a used gun for significantly less.
Smith and Wesson Model 617
Model 617 shoots .22 LR with a 10 round capacity. With a six inch barrel this revolver weighs 44.2 ounces, significantly more than a concealed carry revolver. MSRP is $833.
The Ruger Wrangler revolver chambered in .22 LR holds 6 rounds. With a 4.62 inch barrel it weighs 30 ounces. The difference in your hand is palpable.
When I shoot my personal defense weapon at the range, I quickly reach the limit of how many shots I want to take because of the kickback.
Shooting this gun is buttery smooth in comparison, allowing me to focus on the target. I can shoot more rounds in shorter time because I don’t have to prepare myself mentally to take the kickback. MSRP is $249.
Plinking With a Rifle
My ten-year-old loves shooting the Henry Lever Action rifle. For her it is primarily about the noise. A lever action and an AR-15 are comparable in terms of trigger pull weight and kickback, but the AR-15 is loud enough to dissuade her from shooting it for fun.
To watch both of us shoot, go to our YouTube site. My husband does tutorials and reviews, and periodically Emma and I will participate in demonstrations of different types of guns.
Henry Lever Action Rifle
The Henry Lever Action .22 S/L/LR has a capacity of 15 for LR, 17 for L, or 21 for the S model. It has a tube fed magazine, meaning that the bullets are inserted end to end, allowing you to use different sizes of cartridges in the same gun. The barrel length is 18.5 inches and it weighs 5.25 pounds. The MSRP is $378.
Rock Island Armory
The Rock Island Armory is a bolt action rifle chambered in 22TCM. With a 22.75 inch barrel, it has a magazine capacity of 5 rounds with an optional 17 round magazine. It weighs 6.3 pounds. MSRP is $454.
What size gun you need for hunting depends on the game. For large animals such as deer, a lever action or bolt action rifle is the usual choice. You may also use a larger revolver.
Rifles for Hunting
Popular hunting rifles include the Henry Lever Action and American Predator bolt action models.
American Predator Bolt Action
The Ruger American Predator bolt action rifle is chambered in 6.5 Creedmoor. It weighs 6.6 pounds. It has a 22 inch barrel and holds four rounds. MSRP is $569.
Henry Lever Action .30-30
This heavy duty lever action gun holds five rounds of .30-30 caliber ammunition. With a barrel length of 20 inches, it weighs 7 pounds. Henry recommends it for large game such as deer and elk at a distance of up to 125 yards. MSRP is $850.
Henry Lever Action Small Game Rifle
The Henry Lever Action Small Game Rifle in 22 S/L/LR is a .22 long rifle rimfire with a tube fed magazine capacity of 16 long rifle or 21 short rounds. It weighs 6.5 pounds and has a 20 inch barrel. This one is for small game. MSRP is $536.
Hunting with Revolvers
Larger revolvers chambered in .44 Magnum, .410 or .500 will take down a large animal.
The Taurus Judge comes in a 3, 4, or 6.5 inch barrel. Chambered in .45 Colt, with a light option that weighs only 27 ounces, this one will have serious kick, but the coolness factor outweighs the kick. It can also shoot .410 to deal with varmints. The Judge holds 5 rounds. MSRP is $485.39
Smith and Wesson .500
The Smith and Wesson .500 is a monster revolver that shoots bullets half an inch in diameter. With a barrel length up to 10.5 inches and a weight up to 79.6 ounces, this gun has all the recoil you could want in a package that Yosemite Sam would appreciate. This double action/single action gun holds five rounds of .500 and the MSRP is $1616.
Hand grip is an all important factor in choosing a gun. You want your thumb on one side of the grip and all four fingers on the other, with an easy reach to the trigger, hammer and release lever for the cylinder or slide.
For two handed shooting, you wrap your supporting hand around the shooting hand to stabilize the shot. There needs to be enough room for both hands to fit comfortably around the grip.
Small Gun for Small Hands
For my small hands, a small gun works well. That is why I own a Ruger LCR. See the description above.
M&P 380 Shield EZ
For those who prefer a small semi-automatic, the Shield EZ is small and easy to grasp. It is chambered in .380 with a magazine capacity of 8 plus one in the chamber. It has a 3.675 inch barrel and weighs in at 18.5 ounces with an empty magazine. This one has minimal recoil and a flat profile that helps with concealment. MSRP is $399.
Larger Gun for Large Hands
My husband’s large hands demand more space and my LCR grip does not leave enough room for him to leave his pinkie on the grip. It has to wrap around underneath. He carries the Sig Sauer P320.
Sig Sauer P320
The P320 is chambered in 9mm, .357Sig, 40 S&W, or .45ACP. It has a magazine capacity of up to 17 plus one in the chamber. With a 3.9 inch barrel it weighs 26 ounces, nearly twice the weight of my little revolver. He carries the .357Sig version which holds 13 rounds. The MSRP is $628.
Your hand strength will factor into your decision about the size of gun you choose. My small hands were made for more delicate work, so when I racked the slide of my husband’s FNS-9 the other day to use it in a photograph I had to expend significant effort to lock it into an open position.
The trigger pull weight is the key variable. I can pull a 12 pound trigger once, but I can’t keep pulling it over and over because my fingers are not that strong. An AR-15 will have a very light pull weight, around 4 to 5 pounds. A semi-automatic will be a manageable 6 to 7 pounds.
A small revolver may have a trigger pull weight up to 12 pounds. I bought one like that and quickly discovered my mistake. Shooting a gun in the model you are thinking of buying will help you discover how much trigger pull weight you want.
Within manufacturers it is generally the case that bigger is more expensive. When considering the size of gun to buy, figure out how much money you can spend first, and then determine whether you want premium quality or a bargain.
Good Guns That Don’t Cost As Much
Once you get past the least expensive manufacturers you are generally going to get a reliable product, but the luxury brands offer more features and better styling.
Entry level manufacturers with competent products include Taurus and the lower end of the Smith and Wesson and Ruger lines. You can get into gun ownership with less than four hundred dollars.
You won’t have problems with these guns. I have omitted the brands that are likely to disappoint when the parts wear out quickly.
Spending a Little More to Improve the Experience
Midlevel manufacturers include the next step up in Smith and Wesson and Ruger, along with Glock and Sig. At this level you get a good-looking gun that is well made and will last for five hundred to a thousand dollars.
Going All Out
High-end manufacturers include HK, Wilson Combat, and Nighthawk Customs. Here the fit and finish are nicer and the attention to detail is the reason for higher prices: rounded edges, a slide that moves easily, a more comfortable grip, and more expensive materials.
The MSRP for the Sig Sauer P226 listed above is $1549.
The Smith and Wesson .500 revolver listed above has an MSRP of $1616.
Colt Aztec Jaguar Knight
The Colt Aztec Jaguar Knight 38 Super is a 1911 style semi-automatic single action pistol. Its capacity is 9 rounds of Super 38 ammunition plus one in the chamber. It has a 5 inch barrel and weighs 4.7 pounds. The MSRP is $2,279.
Choose your level of function and luxury, adjust for the amount of money you want to spend, and then you will determine the size of the gun that you can afford in your chosen manufacturer.
Remember that you don’t have to buy your guns new. Gun shows, pawn shops, and private sales are avenues to find the gun of your dreams at a price you can afford.
The gun you choose will determine the ammunition you use, so think about the purpose of the gun and which caliber meets that needs. Then you will know what size gun is available.
Smaller calibers work for recreational shooting and varmint hunting. .22 is the perennial classic for plinking.
Home defense and concealed carry require a midsize caliber such as 9mm, .38 special, and .357.
Hunting will have specified calibers for specific animals, so check your local regulations before you buy. Generally, bigger calibers shoot bigger prey.
Where you store or carry your gun factors heavily into your decision of what size to buy. A gun in a drawer can be a compact snub nosed revolver or a full sized semi-automatic.
A gun for your car needs to fit in the glove compartment or another locked area in case you need to leave it in the car while you go into a place that does not allow guns. A small or midsize gun works well.
Of course a pickup with a rifle rack requires a rifle or a shotgun. Check local regulations because this may no longer be legal in your area.
A long gun fits behind the front door, though I don’t recommend this particular placement. The risk of it falling over or attracting the attention of little visitors makes behind-the-door placement risky. Hang it on the wall instead. Better yet, place it in a locked display cabinet. See my article on home gun safety.
You need a gun big enough to carry the number of bullets you need. If you want to carry thirty rounds of ammunition you will not be able to achieve that with a small revolver.
You can increase your capacity by carrying extra magazines or speed loaders. For concealed carry you can get magazine holster to attach to your belt. For home defense you can keep an extra magazine or a preloaded speed strip in your staging area.
For recreational shooting you can take an extra box of cartridges with you in your range bag.
The final consideration is the limits of the law in your area. You may be allowed to carry the biggest, baddest gun around, or you may be in a state or city that considers “high capacity” to be a synonym for “more than one bullet.” Don’t take any chances here. Know the law and adhere to it.
The Final Word
Choosing a gun is a personal decision that involves your money and your physical safety. Do your research before you buy, and try out a few options at a shooting range before you commit to one. I researched prices and specs for the models listed above by going to the websites of their manufacturers.
As your needs change, you may find yourself adding to your gun collection. That’s perfectly fine. Double Eagle Gunworks LLC is an authorized FFL Dealer and can help you make your choice. Visit shop.doubleeaglegunworks.org to buy directly from us.
If you want to buy your gun online and pick it up in the store, click this link to see what Cabela’s offers.
Use our coupon code “double10” for ten percent off your first purchase at the following online stores:
Come meet Chris at Double Eagle Gunworks LLC. He can show you a variety of guns and help you determine what size is right for you. One-on-one sessions are available, or you can schedule a class with a group of your friends.
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