Guns 101 | A Beginner’s Guide to Buying Guns

Why do you really want a gun?

So. You’re considering buying a firearm following the recent infamous day (or after reading the latest news on crime). Or following a change in your views about guns. Why?

This is a question that demands an answer because a firearm purchased specifically for reasons besides hunting or target shooting is a firearm bought for its potential to injure, to kill, but mostly to STOP. You can dress up the idea of buying a gun in many reasonable sounding disguises. Your excuses may be many, but it all boils down to one thing: Guns are, simply put, small machines of potential “lethality,” regardless of the reason(s) they are bought.

“Some types of firearms are more efficient at killing, more lethal than others. But there is no such thing as a ‘harmless’ firearm.”Making a Killing by Thomas Diaz

NEVER FORGETyou may have a choice to flee from danger. But if you are not armed and if you cannot flee, you’re flat out of luck.

Whether you are a first time buyer, whether you are buying an additional gun, or even if you are a so-called “Slob Buyer” (with more money than brains who buys a gun only because of its looks or popularity), you must come to terms with this fundamental issue. Otherwise, it’s just another dangerous (very dangerous) toy that will end up in a drawer or stored away somewhere quietly rusting in the dark. Rusting and waiting for the day when someone discovers it. loads it, and points at something or somebody and pulls the trigger. BAM!

Okay, terrorists (or local criminals) have made you afraid. Will your gun purchase stop terrorism (or result in a net decrease in crime)? Will your new gun slow down or even reduce these terrible things? Not!Okay, you feel a need to be ready to defend yourself against any eventuality. Is your gun the right instrument of defense (or offense) for your situation? Perhaps, perhaps not.

Okay, you want to hedge your bets against The Day Everything Goes to Hell, when the fabric of society starts unravelling and you have to defend you and yours. Is that day likely to come? Maybe, maybe not. Will you be ready? Not without preparation, not without the skill to load, aim and shoot. And to shoot, and shoot, and reload, and shoot… and clean, lubricate, then properly store the weapon afterwards.

Okay, you want to put your loved ones at risk by keeping a potentially deadly and terrible tool within their reach. Is this your desire by intention or by omission? Surely not, but it is one of the greatest risks of gun ownership.

Kids playing with gunsHey, every growing boy knows where the family gun is hidden or locked away. And, sooner or later, will use it as a toy, load it, point it at things which it could destroy. Don’t delude yourself by trying to believing otherwise. Making children “gun savvy” will not prevent this. In many cases, that will simply make them better shots.

Okay, you want your new gun purchase to end up in the hands of criminals or in the hands of an enraged someone, anyone, intent on causing you grave bodily harm. Right? No, but yet another very serious risk.Okay, you want something around that, while intoxicated, you or somebody you know will use to kill or maim someone with, right? No? But drunk drivers don’t typically wish this, either. THAT happens in the best of families, to people with the best of intentions. And you don’t even have to get dressed and go outside to use a gun.

So. we’ve established that buying and owning a gun, or buying more than one gun, is a risky proposition. Are these reasons NOT to buy a gun? For some, we can only hope, yes, they are. But for most gun purchasers, it is just not reason enough not to exercise their controversial 2nd Amendment rights. (Whether or not such rights actually exist is a moot point. Guns are available if you have the inclination and the money.)

The point of this section of Online Data for the Informed Armed Citizen is but one: Think. Before you buy. While you buy. After you buy. Just think. That’s all, just think.

Are You Ready to Accept Responsibility?

As the owner, or possible future owner, of an instrument of potential lethality (a firearm), certain responsibilities must be considered. If you are going to “do this right” (and it’s hoped you are, else perhaps you shouldn’t be here) there are certain parameters involved in the gun ownership matrix.


Know this: Good guns ain’t cheap. Not ones that are truly reliable and really accurate.

Whichever gun you buy, you should know something about its history and the best option is for it to have none (i.e., it’s new). This is why used guns bought from strangers, in pawn shops, at gun shows, sometimes even at established dealers you only meet once are not necessarily always the best first choice.

A moment, please, for a few good words about most gun dealers. Those running gun stores are typically the salt of the earth. They are worth getting to know. Understand that in the course of running a business it is not their function to educate the unknowing. If you can find a gun dealer who has the time to help you understand the benefits of one firearm over another, support what’s happening in that store by buying there. You may find the same gun a few dollars cheaper at some huge sporting goods outlet before you buy, even after you buy. But there is a cost in providing true help and support for firearm purchases. One which very large stores save by not providing it, hence their lower price.

While properly maintained guns essentially never wear out, past firing of overpowered hand loaded ammo, excessive use, and cheap replacement parts can all make a used weapon less reliable that it should or could be. For something on which you may one day rely on to save your life, a gun with a questionable past might be a mistake.

This is not to say there are not many good and reliable used guns available. Just exercise due caution if you choose to buy or assume ownership of a gun that may be on the second hand market for reasons you’d probably not want to know. Just be wary.

Buy a gun, especially your first gun, manufactured by widely known, reputable manufacturer. Information on just which gun makers are the most widely known and the most reputable may get down to personal opinions, though. But consider if you have never heard of a company that made the gun, that may be a clue. Not always, but something to consider if the gun you’re considering is your first.

While opinions about the appearance of different guns will vary, good rule of thumb number one is, if a gun looks nasty or poorly manufactured, consider another choice. Cheaply manufactured and low quantity firearms are not hard to spot.

Good rule of thumb number two is that better new/unused firearms will usually cost in excess of $300-$400 (many will be priced over $500) and the reliability of used guns generally falls off sharply when the price drops under $200. Since the terrible events of September 11th, used guns of quality may be priced like new ones. These days, a gun selling for a very low price (say, under $150) is usually not a good investment.

Buying a gun from someone you have never met, especially in an informal setting on the street, risks buying a stolen gun. However low the price, you don’t want the grief of having the police discover you have such a gun in your possession.

Know this: There is more to the cost of owning a gun than its purchase price.

Ammunition for guns with true stopping power will typically run in excess of $15/box of 20, even for reloads used at the range. Factory loaded ammo can run in excess of $20/box. “Personal defense” or “premium” ammo can run $15-$20 per box of 20. Or more.

Premium ammunition with the most stopping power which you will probably keep in or near your weapon when not at the range is expensive. You should get in some practice with such performance ammo because it will perform differently (i.e., better accuracy, sometimes more “kick”) than less expensive bullets you use for target practice.

Going to a managed indoor or outdoor range will involve the expense of range time ($7-$10 an hour, or higher), targets and those extra boxes of ammo you buy at the last minute. You may also have the necessary added expense of making other family members gun savvy and able to load and accurately fire a gun.

You should use both eye and ear protection. Something other than standard glasses and wads of Kleenex is recommended at all times during target practice, even while blasting away at an abandoned auto on someone’s back forty.

Your gun should have a holster or, at the least, a zippered bag or “gun rug.” Good holsters (leather, Kydex or nylon) can run from $20 to over $60, perhaps higher if you will be carrying a concealed weapon. Generally, you get what you pay for, though there are some very good buys in non-leather holsters (such as Fobus and Uncle Mike’s). Avoid storing guns for long periods of time in a leather holster which may draw or collect moisture.

If you are considering buying a gun for concealed carry, it’s not a bad idea to narrow down your holster choice before you buy, as pointed out in a 1995 issue of Guns&Ammo and by many experts.

Presuming you are considering concealed carry, for a moment, there is a cost to obtain state licensing. $50-100 is a good round figure for the state fee and the cost to have a fingerprint check. Some states will also require completion of a formal training course for about $100 (or more). The responsibilities of concealed carry of a weapon are covered below.

A good gun safe may end up on your list of accessories. One with finger-touch controls that can be opened by touch in the dark will run about $200 or higher. While most new guns come with a gun lock, some even with built-in locking mechanisms these days, locks that allow keyless opening may be a better choice than the ones coming with a new (or used) gun.

And there are other accessories you may find worth considering such as plastic storage boxes, pistol carrying bags, range bags. Even such basics can add up. And if you wander into the realm of laser sights, scopes, special gunsmithing, watch out!

You’ll need cleaning and maintenance supplies as well and those are generally incidental expenses. But in the total scheme of things, they do add up.

Finally, if you should ever be so unfortunate as to actually shoot someone, regardless of the reason or justification, attorney fees to establish your innocence or your justification will easily exceed all other gun ownership costs.


Lockboxes for gunsYou must, you must, you m.u.s.t. give consideration to how you will limit access to your firearm. A gun stored in the home must not be accessible to children, to the cleaning person, to thieves, to drunken party guests who may wander in the bedroom to flop down for a short nap. If you have children at home, you will always be conflicted between two priorities: access to the weapon and the potential danger to your kids. You must think about such risks before you ever bring a handgun home.

Who has access, who may potentially have access to your firearm is important. Your gun, your responsibility. T.h.i.n.k. Dropping it into a drawer in the bedside nightstand and leaving it there when you are not present isn’t thinking. It’s stupidity.


Will you keep your gun loaded and ready to fire? Or will you keep the gun and the ammunition in separate places. Many would argue that a gun in the home should not be loaded. But opinions vary. You must give this serious consideration when deciding where to keep your gun.


Target ShooterIf you have not had training in using a firearm, if such training was minimal or many years in the past, if the model of your gun is new to you, get some help in learning how to load it, fire it, clean it and store it. Again, another reason to consider getting to know your local gun dealer.

Adrenalin and fear have profound effects on one’s aim and therefore accuracy. The only way to be prepared for that is to get a reasonable amount of regular practice at a firing range. Then, when you are comfortable you can generally shoot what you aim at, put the gun down, go outside and run around the building three or four times. Come back in, pick up the weapon and see if you can still hit the target, much less the ten ring or bullseye.If you will not train yourself (and others who will have access to your gun) how to load and shoot it, it will lose much of its value in self- or home defense. Effectively, it will become an expensive and very loud noisemaker which you hope will frighten off who or what you point it at. But it may not frighten everyone nor under all conditions. It will have no stopping power if you keep missing.

Center of MassGetting professionally sponsored or supervised training in the company of others is a good idea. Many shooting ranges can help and there are many fine NRA-trained and certified instructors who can help at little or no cost. (You do not have to join the NRA to benefit from this valuable service it sponsors and provides.)

The point of training yourself to use your firearm is twofold. First, you need to be able to load, point and shoot the weapon. Second, you need to hit the target in roughly the middle, called the Center of Mass (COM) with the first shot possible. If you must fire several bullets or all the bullets before you hit anything of significance, you give the target time to shoot back or otherwise inflict harm upon you. But, when training yourself or being professionally trained by others always remember: “Paper Targets Don’t Shoot Back.”

Image by Oleg Volk
Even the anti-gun think tank, the Violence Policy Center, can easily point out the grave risks of guns owned without proper training and preparation. They cite a study which shows “the overwhelming majority of people who own handguns:”

“* are ignorant of —or ignore— basic handgun safety rules”* do not have the necessary handgun combat marksmanship skills to effectively defend themselves without harming innocent others

“* are not prepared for the extreme physiological and psychological effects that the experts… agree inevitably occur in an armed life-or-death confrontation…”

If you will own a gun, you must be prepared for how and when to use it. Very simple. Is good marksmanship enough? Not if you’re scared to death, or, as self-defense expert Massad Ayoob puts it, “almost paralyzed with fear.”


Responsible gun ownership involves complying with all applicable laws whenever and wherever possible. However, comma, if there are reasons you cannot comply with all laws, comply with as many as you can. Then get into compliance as fast as you possibly can. Be aware of the laws. This could save you considerable inconvenience, save you time in the slammer, save you lots of money in attorney fees. ‘Nuff said?

Those of you who might take exception to this position must understand that even today, right here in America, in the land of the free and the brave, there are still some bad laws on the books. The power of one individual to change the law is limited and it may not be practical, possible, nor even enough time to join others in a civic-minded effort to work within the system to get bad laws amended or taken off the books. Ideally, yes, but…


A firearm, whatever the model, is a small machine. Without regular care and maintenance it will become progressively unreliable and, eventually, dangerous to its user. Learn how to clean it. Store it in a manner that will protect it from moisture, rust and corrosion. Failure to take care of something you may desperately need to rely on is just plain dumb.


The debate over whether there is constitutional justification for Americans to own and keep guns in the home, to keep and bear arms in general, will probably always be with us. The precise arguments and nuances of the law are secondary to being able to protect hearth and home, kith and kin. If you use your firearm in a valid defense of your home, especially to thwart danger to your life you are not likely to go to prison, probably not even to the local jail overnight.

But you will have one hell of a mess to clean up. When they come cart off the perpetrators or their bodies, the mess left behind is yours to resolve. Blood, bone, teeth, miscellaneous body parts… home defense, in the final analysis, is not really for the squeamish.


If you will keep a gun in your car, it should be in compliance with local laws whenever possible. Laws vary, but storage in the trunk, sometimes even in the glove compartment of an unloaded gun will get you in much less trouble than a loaded one will. Keeping a loaded gun handy on the seat beside you so you can brandish it at the next jerk who cuts you off in traffic is a bad life choice.

If you will keep your gun in your car, you have a responsibility to minimize the risk that it will be stolen, used in a crime, or fall into the hands of a children who will accidentally shoot each other. Or you.

Lock your car whenever you leave it, even for only a few minutes. This is a good habit anyway, even when you don’t have a gun with you.Do not leave your gun in your car any longer than is necessary. Take it out whenever you will not be using the car for more than a day or so. Pain in the backside? Leaving your gun in your car is a responsibility you must bear with this understanding.

If you leave your gun in your car for any length of time, it should be in a non-leather holster or protective bag which will prevent corrosion and keep it from becoming fouled or getting banged up. If you can find or get one or two of those little bags of silica gel, add those.


Whereas the information provided here equivocates in terms of a gun in the home, there is no doubt that legal, licensed concealed carrying of a weapon is the best first choice. And the second, and the third…

If you elect to carry a concealed weapon without a valid permit to do so, your risk of trouble starts when you pull it out. It gets worse when you pull the trigger. It can screw up your life forever if you wound or kill someone. Unlicensed concealed carrying of a firearm is a BIGmistake. If there are not laws in your state that permit concealed carry, you have time now to join up with folks who would like to help get that changed. (For information regarding carrying knives concealed, Click Here.)

Also very important is that, as a civilian, whether or not you are licensed to carry, it is a big, big mistake to carry a concealed weapon into the workplace. Your employer has every right to (and perhaps should) kick your sorry butt out the door and off the job if you do and there is a policy against such carry.

To this, Tom Nelson at had this to say: “I came across your site by accident. I don’t entirely agree with what you said about carry at work. Some employers have no problem with employees who carry concealed [weapons]… Some people work in high risk for robbery jobs. It’s been in the news more than once where folks were at work and someone came in shooting everyone they could find. While I don’t expect that to happen where I work I’m sure the folks who this DID happen to didn’t expect it either. My opinion for carry at work is it’s up to the individual and I’d hope they would be legal with a permit and [be] responsible about it and that they would carry in a way that no one would ever know about it unless a situation made it necessary to reveal the weapon for use.”

Image by Oleg VolkOnce you make a decision to carry an instrument of potential lethal force on your person outside your home, off your property, be aware of two basic “rules” that should govern your behavior. The first basic rule is simple: never do anything while you’re armed that you wouldn’t do if you weren’t. The other rule is that if you pull the trigger, make your shots count. Don’t try to wound, don’t try for shots aimed at anything other than the Center of Mass (COM). Stop the threat. Period.

Gun expert Chris Bird points out: “[B]e aware that when you start carrying a gun, your personality may change. You may become more confident but also more aggressive. You may go to places that you would not have gone before simply because you are armed. You may think you are invincible, but you’re not.” Refer to the first basic rule, above.

The point of unholstering the weapon is to end a threat of deadly force facing you, in your immediate proximity. Pulling your gun, even brandishing it for any other reason is a serious mistake that could “put you into the legal system” for years following the terrible events in which you find yourself embroiled. This is deadly serious stuff and if you are using a stolen gun (even if you don’t know it’s stolen) and if you are carrying the weapon with out a license to do so, Katy, bar the door!

Massad Ayoob warns, “…the license to carry concealed, deadly weapons in public is not a right but a privilege. To be worthy of this privilege, one must be both discreet and competent with the weapon. The gun-carrying man [or woman] who lacks either attribute is a walking time bomb.”

A dozen or so basic terms…

  • auto – also, automatic or full-auto; fires multiple shots with a single trigger press; such weapons require special federal licensing
  • ball ammo – a standard copper jacketed lead bullet for semi-auto pistols as would be used by the US military. It has the least amount of deformity when recovered. Because of price, this ammo is a good choice for target practice and for breaking in a handgun.
  • cock – to pull back a handgun’s hammer to a locked position making it ready to fire
  • double action – also, DA, requiring a singled continuous trigger pull both to cock the hammer and to fire the weapon
  • double action only – also, DAO, like double action but often lacking an external hammer which can be cocked for single action fire; not capable of single action firing and very safe if the weapon is dropped
  • CCW – concealed carry/carrying of a weapon
  • CHL – concealed handgun license
  • clip – often used mistakenly when the referenced object is actually a magazine. A clip, technically, is holder that is discarded or set aside after bullets are loaded into a rifle or machine pistol.
  • CQB – close quarters combat
  • magazine – a metal spring-loaded container to load and hold bullets in a pistol or other firearm and which remains in or attached to the firearm when it is fired
  • pistol – often misused to refer to all handguns; it is a semi-automatic handgun which uses a magazine (not a clip) to load and carry ammunition
  • revolver – handgun in which bullets are loaded into a revolving cylinder, sometimes referred to as a “wheel gun”
  • semi-automatic – a pistol or rifle which requires a trigger press each time it is fired; often incorrectly referred to as an “automatic” (pistol)
  • single action – also, SA, a trigger press releases an already-cocked hammer which must be recocked for each firing and these weapons can be very dangerous if dropped
  • single/double action – a semi-automatic pistol or a revolver which can be fired single action after the hammer is cocked manually and which can also be cocked and fired, double-action, when the hammer is not pre-cocked by pulling the trigger.
  • speedloader – a mechanism which holds ammunition ready to be quickly loaded into a revolver which releases the bullets after they are loaded into the cylinder
  • mousegun – a less than a respectful reference to handguns of small caliber, always .22 and .25, sometimes .32 and even, for some, .380
  • pocket rocket – a general reference to a large caliber handgun model of reduced or concealable size; typically .357 revolver or 9mm pistol and above


As stated at the top of this very long page of information, “…guns [can be] venerated objects of craftsmanship and tangible symbols of such fundamental American values as independence, self-reliance, and freedom from governmental interference.” They can be a fascinating (and expensive) hobby. So be careful if you find yourself drawn to obsessive or compulsive behavior involving buying multiple guns. There are no recovery groups, no 12-step programs to get you back to a normal life if you “fall in” and find you don’t just have a gun in the home, that you have accumulated an arsenal.

Not that accumulating an arsenal is, in itself, a bad thing. Owning more than a single handgun may be a direction in which you move, especially if you find the gun for the home is not really the same one you want for concealed carry.

Vital Considerations When Buying Your First Gun

The basic point and shoot interface.

The easiest handgun to learn to use, to load and to shoot, is a revolver. Two inch snub nosed revolverYes, it typically fires fewer rounds than a semi-automatic. But statistically, the average number of shots fired per gun in a gunfight is 2.5 rounds. The point being that if you know how to shoot, the mission is to stop an assailant, not turn him into hamburger. If you are diminutive in stature, advanced in years, or just plain nervous about guns, a revolver may be your best first choice.

This is not to say a semi-automatic pistol should be avoided out-of-hand. But, for many, it is just not the first or only option that should be considered.

How many shots will you fire?

Under most conditions, a semi-automatic is an advanced level weapon which can be difficult to handle for any user, especially novice users. It’s biggest shortcoming is its potential to jam after the first (or subsequent) shot. Unjamming a pistol, especially in the dark or under stress, can be a challenge when there is no time to spare. Even when there are a few extra moments.

Size may count.

Among the many choices in handguns are many very tiny and highly concealable ones. The appearance of the weapon to someone you point it at may not be too convincing if it is too small. The potential lethality of any caliber gun may not be a deterrent if it looks like a toy to your assailant. For a first or only handgun, consider something the size of a .38 revolver as the minimum size someone charging at you full of adrenalin or rage will see. Additionally, barrel length has considerable effect on accuracy. While snub nosed revolvers have their own deadly appeal, being able to hit something with a first or second shot can take a fair amount of practice. You may be best served with a minimum of a 3″ barrel. Certainly no less than 2″.

Things to think twice about

1. Derringers – while these (one or two-shot weapons are highly concealable and are available in small to large calibers, their potential for accidental discharge is very high. Their limited bullet capacity and very short barrels make them generally unsuitable as a first or only choice for self- or home defense.

2. Aftermarket magazines – there are many good suppliers of extra clips/magazines but original manufacturer’s products should be generally be used first or carried with the firearm for the greater reliability they afford. Extra clips should always be range tested for potential feed/jamming problems. Where extra clips were originally made for another brand or model of a handgun, the potential for jamming is higher. Keep them clean and very lightly lubricated.

3. Avoid “hot:” loads – extra performance hand loaded ammo always has the potential to damage or destroy a firearm, but more importantly could cause death or injury to you and yours. Use only recommended factory-made ammo to gain extra muzzle velocity and never use ammunition which exceeds the handgun manufacturer’s specifications. For example, don’t use +P bullets if the gun isn’t rated to use them. Also, avoid hot hand loads for routine self-defense carry. Defending oneself against charges of using “killer ammo” to maim an attacker can get complicated.

4. Avoid very high powered ammunition inside the home – Otherwise, you run a risk of shots which miss the target penetrating interior or exterior walls and hitting someone on the other side. There is also the problem that firing of magnum or +P ammunition loads can deafen you in close quarters.

5. Avoid relying solely on a rifle or shotgun inside the home – The problems are that maneuverability of a long gun indoors is a problem and it may be easier for an attacker to wrench a long gun away from you. If you keep long guns, they should be a backup weapon left behind with your life partner or stored so they are not accessible to a home invader.

Larry Pearson is an NRA certified pistol instructor and a member of the American Society of Law Enforcement Trainers, as well as a former police officer, former military firearms instructor and lifelong student of the martial arts. He also felt that he had something of value to share with the firearms community, and wondered which gunzines he should approach with the above essay. The problem was that he was dealing in ideas and concepts, and virtually all of the present gunzines only want articles about products and services so that their advertising department can sell space and everyone can make money. This is the American way. This is his first published work.

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