- It is not a discussion about which caliber is better. The arguments about "9mm vs. .45 cal" are right up there with politics, religion and sports. My only advice is "Try everything and go with whatever fits your stature, needs and budget." If you're comfortable with it, you'll practice with it and will be ready to use it when the time comes; if you're not comfortable with it, then it's an expensive (and useless) paperweight.
- It is not a discussion about whether revolvers or semi-autos are better. That's also a hot topic, but it resides more firmly in the realm of personal choice than the murky field of handgun ballistics. A great article on the pros and cons of each may be found here.
- It is not a discussion about price. Once you know what you want, some Googling should tell you what your weapon of choice is selling for these days (and it's almost always about 20% less than what the manufacturer suggests -- unless the piece is very rare it never sells for more than MSRP.) Find the best intersection of reliability, brand name, and logistical convenience*, and you'll know your price point.
* Example: 9mm is the most common defensive handgun caliber in the world, as it is the pistol of choice for police and military units. This means that the ammunition will be cheap and plentiful due to market pressure.
Buying a gun is no different from buying a car. You don't have to be a mechanic to choose the car that's right for you; in the same vein, you don't have to be marksman to buy a firearm. But you need to know what you want, and don't be afraid to ask questions.
A) Dress for the range
You are expected to test-drive a car before buying it, so why not test-shoot a gun before buying it?
Assume that you will be given the option to test-fire various guns (and if this is your first rodeo, yes, you really do need to try before you buy.) This means the following:
- No low-cut tops
- No open shoes of any kind.
Here's what you should wear while shooting:
- Crew-neck t-shirt
- Knee-length shorts, if not full-length jeans
- Lace-up sneakers or full-size boots
- Baseball-style brimmed hat
B) Look the part
I hate to say "dress like a redneck" but the fact remains that if you walk into a gun store with emo hair, baggy pants or long flowing sleeves, you will likely not be taken seriously by the folks (usually men) behind the counter. I'm not suggesting that you need to dress in fatigues and carry yourself like a SEAL, but you should look like someone smart, sensible and dependable enough to buy and own a gun. Looking like a thug, a raver, a party girl or a hippie will get you incredibly poor service, if not thrown out of the store outright.
If you aren't planning to test-shoot and are just window-shopping, then business casual attire is fine. Looking clean-cut in a polo shirt and khakis is fine for gentlemen; ladies should avoid skirts or dresses of all kinds and go with pantsuits. The more commanding, professional and executive you look, the better service you are likely to get. Remember, gun stores want your money. If you look like you have it, they will do their best to earn it.
C) Blend in
But what if you're not in a gun store, but are instead attending a gun show? The rules are similar.
The thing to keep in mind is that gun shows are basically conventions: lots of people milling around various tables. However, unlike gun stores, you'll have to deal with all the other show attendees, who will be jostling for position and may be competing with you for merchandise (prices at shows are more fluid and open to negotiation at shows, mainly because the majority of the vendors are from out-of-town and don't want to haul inventory back home). Therefore, if you look like a metrosexual or a hippie (or, god help you, a fag -- look, I don't judge, but a lot people in this culture do) your experience is likely to be unpleasant.
What to wear:
- Sensible shoes! You'll be on your feet a lot, and if it's really crowded, other people will be on your feet, too. Cowboy boots will also work.
- Pants with actual pockets (ladies...). Jeans are ideal for this.
- A sturdy belt. If it looks and feels like you could carry a gun on it, perfect!
- Either a button-up flannel shirt (striped cotton during the summer is fine) or a t-shirt. If the t-shirt has a design on it, make sure it's either patriotic in some form, or represent a local sports team or a classic rock band. If it's a plain shirt, get a bold color like red, blue, or army green.
- A hat. Either a baseball hat or a stetson.
Is this a little bit racist? Probably. But you wouldn't wear a dress to a football game, would you? Shooting is as much a hobby lifestyle as being a gamer, or a raver, or a sports fan. You need to be taken seriously when shopping for a gun, especially when you have questions you need answered. Gun shops are far more likely to take their time and explain things to you if you are dressed in a manner respectful to the culture.
D) How to act
As I said before, don't swagger. Don't pretend to know things. If you are confused or ignorant about something, ask! The manner in which they respond to you will speak volumes about what kind of people they are, and if they deserve your money.
Explain that you are new. Explain what you need the gun for, and what kind of features or performance you'd like. If you are scared of guns but still want to get one, mention that, too; most sellers will take extra time to assure you that it isn't loaded, how it works, how it cannot possibly "go off" if it's just sitting there.
If they are at all impatient or disdainful to you, leave and never come back.
Many salesmen (and they are almost always men) will first ask you "How much are you willing to spend?" My advice to you is that you never answer with a number. Just say something like "I'm exploring my options" or "I'm just doing price-comparisons." Then immediately pick a gun that looks interesting and ask "How much is that one?" The moment they have you pigeonholed into a price bracket, they will either try to sell you the most expensive thing within that bracket, or dismiss you as not worth their time. The only time you, the customer, should mention numbers is when you are ready to buy.
E) If you're a woman
Realize that you're entering a traditionally male-dominated area. This is not exactly a terrible thing; many men are very polite to female shooters. However, there is the possibility you will run into what is known as "little lady syndrome," where they will try to sell you the smallest, daintiest revolver possible, or (worse) ignore you and talk to your husband/boyfriend/brother/father instead. Usually, this last happens when the male relative decides that the female relative needs a gun and drags her along. Nine times out of ten, she doesn't really want the gun and it ends up gathering dust in a drawer.
Assuming you are a woman who wants a gun, there are few things you can do.
- Ask if there are any female salesclerks who can help you. If so, this will solve most of your problems right there.
- Don't be intimidated. If you want a gun, then don't be afraid to speak up. Think of it like shoe shopping: try things on, ask questions, be picky, find out of they come in other colors or have interchangeable grips or what kinds of accessories you can get with them.
- If you're there with husband/boyfriend/etc, make it clear to him that his only purpose is to buy you the gun. If he wants you to have it, then he wants you to shoot it; explain that you'll only shoot a gun whose looks and ergonomics meets your specifications. Ask him for advice, yes; don't be pressured to get what he thinks you should get.
- To reiterate: Get what YOU want, not what they think you want.
- Try lots of different calibers in different configurations. The recoil of a .38 from a revolver may be too much, but a semi-auto .45 might be just right for you (heavier gun means less kick from the round). If the grips from a double-stack magazine are too large for your hand, try a single-stack.