There is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ handgun, but there are many ways that you can enhance a pistol to achieve the best result. For self-defense, the best handgun combines a variety of high-quality components that improve key performance characteristics under the stresses of combat.
Best Handgun Characteristics for Personal Defense
When evaluating a handgun’s performance, you must consider many different performance characteristics, which will vary depending on the intended application. For self-defense, these applications include concealed carry, duty/open carry, and home defense.
Some performance characteristics are common to all applications, while others are only important for concealment or everyday carry.
All self-defense handguns should be evaluated by three common performance characteristics: reliability, ergonomics, and accuracy.
For any self-defense firearm, reliability is always your first priority. In a competition or target setting, occasional stoppages are an acceptable trade for tighter groupings and faster splits, but self-defense settings are very different.
In combat, you’re always preparing for worst-case scenarios, and any jam or stoppage can be fatal when every millisecond can determine your survival. As such, you should never trust your life to substandard reliability.
After reliability, your second priority is ergonomics. Ergonomics describe the overall handling efficiency of the handgun, including elements of weapon manipulation and recoil control. Essentially, your best handgun feels natural to operate, allowing superior agility in aiming, shooting, and reloading. When so many self-defense scenarios are determined by speed of acquisition, ergonomics play an important role in any defensive firearm.
Following close behind ergonomics, accuracy is your third priority. Accuracy can be described either mechanically (as the limit of a gun’s components) or practically (as a limit of the user’s ability). An ergonomic pistol will have superior practical accuracy, but shot placement is easier when the pistol is capable of small groupings. After all, what good is a pistol if it doesn’t hit exactly what you’re aiming at?
If you’re carrying your pistol on your person, there are a few other key characteristics to consider when searching for the best handgun.
Size is a major limiting factor for concealed carry. Unlike other performance characteristics, size has direct tradeoffs that negatively impact ergonomics, accuracy, and overall combat effectiveness. In general, compact and subcompact pistols are less effective because they have less grip space, reduced capacity, and shorter barrels. However, these pistols are far easier to conceal, which is critical to inside-the-waistband carry.
Weight is another gateway issue for carried handguns. While a heavy pistol has less felt recoil, a lighter pistol will carry more comfortably on the beltline. For this reason, polymer and alloy frames are generally more popular for EDC firearms. As with size, weight is an issue that will depend heavily on an individual’s body type and tolerance. If you can tolerate a larger, heavier pistol, then your best handgun will leverage its mass for superior performance in the common characteristics.
Best Handgun Platform
When searching for your best handgun, your first major choice is the platform. There are many great pistols available on the market, so you need to identify the designs that excel in the performance mentioned above characteristics. Note: there is no objective best platform to build on. Glocks are the most popular pistols today, but personal preference plays an important role in finding effective ergonomics. Some enthusiasts prefer certain grip angles and control layouts, which help them achieve better overall performance.
Combat Efficiency vs Concealability
As mentioned earlier, size can be an important factor in handgun selection. If you are shopping for concealed carry, you should look at compact or subcompact handguns that will fit with your body type and clothing choice. It’s easier to conceal larger pistols in colder climates since layers will obscure a pistol’s silhouette. If you’re in the southern states, you may favor a smaller pistol to carry with a thinner t-shirt.
If you do not plan on carrying this pistol concealed, you should look at full-size handguns, since they will give you less recoil with better capacity and a longer barrel. All these features contribute to a faster-shooting, more precise handgun with a better sight radius.
Polymer Frame vs Steel Frame
Once you’ve settled on a size, you should choose a frame material. Some pistols use a polymer or alloy frames to reduce overall weight. Once again, for concealed or duty carry, a lighter pistol will be more comfortable to wear throughout the day. On the other hand, if you can tolerate the weight, a steel frame reduces felt recoil for faster follow-up shots. It’s no coincidence that many top competition pistols feature steel or weighted frames.
Ultimately, the benefit of frame weight is only marginal, so don’t eliminate top-performing polymer handguns solely for a few added ounces. After all, good technique will eliminate most of the perceivable recoil—regardless of overall weight.
Double-Action/Single Action vs Single-Action Only vs Striker-Fired
You will also have to choose between three common action types: Double-Action/Single-Action (DA/SA), Single-Action Only (SAO), and Striker-fired.
To understand the benefits, you must know the difference between double-action and single-action. In double-action, you pull the trigger to both cock and release the hammer. In single-action, pulling the trigger will only release the hammer. Since single-action only releases the hammer, a single-action trigger pull is considerably lighter and shorter than double-action, which has to overcome the hammer spring weight.
A DA/SA handgun can fire from either double-action or single-action and usually features an exposed hammer with a safety and/or de-cocker. When carrying these pistols, you can either cock the hammer and activate the safety, or you can carry it de-cocked and use the double-action trigger pull. Since double-action pulls are a lot heavier, DA/SA pistols can be challenging for novice gun-owners, who are unaccustomed to trigger- pull technique.
An SAO handgun (such as the venerable M1911) will only fire from single-action, so they must be carried with the hammer cocked. Since a single-action trigger pull is so short, most SAO pistols feature a manual safety, which is used to carry ‘cocked and locked’. To be effective in self-defense, the user will need to build a habit of activating and deactivating the safety whenever they draw or reholster.
Finally, diverging from the previous two actions, striker-fired pistols use an internal striker system that differs from the traditional hammer. In practical terms, though, striker-fired pistols are favored for their consistent trigger pull, which is just heavy enough to be carried without a manual safety. Over the last few years, polymer-framed, striker-fired pistols have surged in popularity with American gun owners. Striker-fired actions are very practical, reliable, and quick-to-learn, making them a great choice for self-defense.
Best Handgun Upgrades for Self-Defense
Once you have your chosen pistol, you can improve its performance with aftermarket parts and components. Depending on which platform you’re using, your available selection may differ, but most essential upgrades should be available.
Aftermarket Pistol Trigger
Most factory pistols come with an acceptable trigger, but you’ll find that a high-quality aftermarket trigger will greatly improve your trigger pull without compromising on safety or reliability. Aftermarket triggers are especially common for striker-fired pistols, such as Glock handguns, the Sig P320, and most other similar models.
Night Sights/Pistol Optics
Every self-defense pistol needs a sighting system that can operate in low light.
For most users, this will be a pair of tritium-powered ‘night sights’, which use radioactive isotopes to generate a subtle glow in the dark. Since tritium is one of the most expensive materials in the world, night sights can be a little pricy, but some pistol manufacturers will offer them standard from the factory. In this case, you might be able to save an additional budget for other accessories.
If you have a larger budget, we recommend considering a slide-mounted mini reflex sight, such as a Trijicon RMR or Holosun 507K-X2. With a red dot, you focus on your target instead of the front sight, giving you greater situational awareness, especially if your target is moving. These optics can be used in conjunction with suppressor-height sights for backup in case the optic battery dies.
Note: To mount an optic directly to a slide, your slide will need a milled slot to match the optic’s mounting footprint. Some pistols come with variable mounting plates, which can fit multiple optic types, but the optic will sit higher up than dedicated milling.
Match/Threaded Pistol Barrel
Like triggers, most factory guns come with an acceptable barrel. However, if you’d like a guaranteed way to improve mechanical accuracy, a match-grade aftermarket barrel can cut your group sizing by 50% or more.
In addition, you can upgrade to a threaded barrel, which will allow you to mount a suppressor or compensator. Compensators have become especially popular with professional users, as compensators significantly reduce recoil for faster follow-up shots.
Improved Magazine Release and Slide Release
Depending on your preference, you may also want to replace the factory slide lock and magazine release. Since the user is most vulnerable when reloading or remediating a jam, aftermarket controls can provide extra leverage when it’s needed most. In most cases, aftermarket controls are relatively affordable parts, so they can fit in with a tight budget.
Flared Magazine Well
Some pistols can be tricky to reload due to a strict factory magwell. Without a flare to guide your mags, you’ll have to insert the magazine at the perfect angle, which is a lot more challenging in the stress of combat.
Fortunately, aftermarket flared magwells attach to the base of your handgun’s frame and act as a funnel, guiding magazines in for a much faster reload. Magwells are designed to fit specific gun models, though, so double-check that a magwell is compatible with your pistol before completing check-out.
Best Handgun Accessories
In addition to aftermarket parts, you will also need a few critical accessories to have the best handgun possible for self-defense.
A large number of self-defense situations happen at night when you are more vulnerable. That’s why most professional instructors recommend a weapon light for any self-defense pistol. Illumination is a powerful offensive and defense tool in any tactical situation, and a bright weapon light can prevent conflict altogether. For more information on weapon lights, we wrote an in-depth guide to weapon lights earlier this year.
Some might also recommend a laser for your pistol. In stressful situations, a laser might be easier to track than iron sights, but a laser will only work if the ambient lighting allows it. If you do want a laser, be sure that it’s a combination light/laser. Never sacrifice a weapon light just to have a dedicated laser device, as white light illumination will always be more important.
Extended Magazines or Pistol Mag Baseplates
For most popular pistol models, aftermarket magazines and baseplates offer improved capacity without risking jams. High-quality magazines are usually more expensive, but when reliability is your primary performance characteristic, the price is worth the benefit.
On single-stack or subcompact handguns, some aftermarket baseplates can increase your capacity by up to 30%. Even when you’re maximizing concealability, you can always add baseplates to your backup magazines for a slightly improved total round-count.
The Most Comfortable Holster You Can Find
Holsters are a complex and personal subject, and the ideal design will vary greatly depending on how you choose to carry your pistol. Even so, everyday comfort can be much improved by a high-quality Kydex holster, which evenly distributes the weight of the pistol without added profile or chafing.
Always invest in a good holster that matches your pistol and carry style. When reading about ‘universal’ holsters, be attentive to its fitment and retention, as some holsters can pose a safety hazard if the pistol isn’t properly secured.
To get the best handgun for self-defense, you’ll need to invest a fair amount of time researching the products that best fit your applications. Of course, the most important aspect to your performance will not be the quality of your pistol, but the quality of your technique. While a fully-kitted Glock can give you an advantage, you still need the skills to back up its benefits.
If you have any additional questions about pistols or accessories, feel free to reach out to us on social media! We’re always happy to help our customers find exactly what they need at the right price, so feel free to send us a direct message on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.