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Semi-Automatic Pistols


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Handgun Frequent Asked Questions

Because firearm designs are so diverse, the exact definition of 'handgun' is tricky. Most folks understand handguns to include pistols and revolvers, but there are some other factors that come to mind. According to the US Federal Law, a handgun is defined as…

"..any firearm including a pistol or revolver designed to be fired by the use of a single hand. The term also includes any combination of parts from which a handgun can be assembled." 18 U.S.C. Section: 921 A 29

Unfortunately, this definition hinges entirely on the 'intent' of a design and not any objective specification. Barring injury or extenuating circumstances, no one shoots their pistols one-handed anymore. Does that mean today’s handguns aren’t ‘handguns’ anymore?

It also includes 'any combination of parts', which opens the door to abusive misinterpretation through constructive intent. With this definition, you could own a pistol for keeping some spare piping and nails around the house.

The US Federal Government also has a definition for 'pistol':

"Pistol. A weapon originally designed, made, and intended to fire a projectile (bullet) from one or more barrels when held in one hand, and having (a) a chamber(s) as an integral part(s) of, or permanently aligned with, the bore(s); and (b) a short stock designed to be gripped by one hand and at an angle to and extending below the line of the bore(s)." 27 CFR Section 478.11

Sadly, this definition is just as confounding. They do specify some design features, but they are features found on many rifles too. Once again, we must refer to vague 'intent' for one-handed shooting.

In the end, there’s no perfect universal definition of 'handgun'. Every state and locality will have its own variation, and no matter how we try to categorize the specifics of a handgun, there will always be some firearm that calls the definition into question.

For example: Do AR15 pistols count as handguns? In federal law, yes. In many states, yes, but not in all of them. That's why it's always important to do extensive research—because the lack of specificity on things like 'handgun' can make it challenging for gun-owners to know their position in the law.

Outside law, there's little need for a perfect definition. If you're discussing handguns, don't get too tripped up on exact terminology. Focus on the context and don’t succumb to the mire of perfect verbiage.

'Handguns' could be found in China as early as the 13th century with the advent of the Hand Cannon. Accurate to their name, hand cannons are essentially down-sized cannons, though some hand cannons were even heavier than today’s rifles. While they might technically qualify as handguns, hand cannons aren’t really an accurate starting point for today’s 'pistol'.

The origin of today's pistol can be found with the invention of the Wheellock in 16th century Europe. Developing on the Matchlock, Wheellocks were the first firearm to be consistently operable with one hand. Wheellocks were later replaced by Flintlocks in the 17th century, which established the common prevalence of pistols and handguns for self-defense or military service.

In 1836, Samuel Colt created the first mass-produced revolver with his Colt Paterson. Decades later, the first semi-automatics arrived with the Salvator-Dormus and Schonberger-Laumann, culminating with the Mauser C96 'Broomhandle' in 1896.

Depending on your definition of handgun, the answer here might be different.

If you’re only looking at mass-produced pistols with 'pistol' cartridges, the S&W 500 Magnum would take the cake. This beastly revolver packs a punch, way outclassing the ballistics of the elder .44 Magnum. If you think to try one, take heed. It kicks like a mule, so you’ll want to keep a tight grip on it.

If you factor in niche and specialty pistols, the Triple Action Thunder is a Breech-loading single shot handgun chambered in .50BMG. Yeah, you read that right: .50 BMG—the same cartridge used in the M2 heavy machinegun and Barret M107 Anti-Material Rifle. Truthfully, this pistol serves no practical purpose other than to prove that it can be done, but until someone releases a 20mm pistol, it remains the most powerful handgun on the planet.

A divisive subject. The answer is yes and no, depending on the context.

Some will say that revolvers do not count as pistols because pistols require an integral chamber or a chamber that’s permanently aligned with the bore. These individuals would say that pistols and revolvers represent two different branches of the overarching handgun category.

Others will say that 'pistol' is just a synonym for handgun, and revolvers are a subsection of both. Interestingly, Samuel Colt’s original patent even used the phrase 'Revolving Cylinder Pistol', so it would seem the inventor believed revolvers were a pistol subcategory.

Still, the exact answer will depend on the situation. If you're looking at laws, there may be specific guidelines, which vary from state to state. For average, everyday discussion, there's no right answer.

Replacing the Beretta M9A1, the current standard-issue sidearms for the US Military are the Sig Sauer M17 and M18 handguns.

Based on the Sig P320 platform, the M17 and M18 are highly modular 9mm handguns with a corrosion-resistant FDE finish. Other modifications include a slide cut for reflex optics, ambidextrous safeties, a loaded chamber indicator, an improved slide sub-assembly, and a trigger ‘mudflap’ to prevent the incursion of debris into the action.

Sig offers commemorative and standard M17 and M18 pistols on the civilian market, alongside their standard lineup of P320 pistols.

Like other firearms, pistols come in a wide price range.

If you are looking for a reliable sidearm to use in self-defense or competition, we recommend sticking to the $350 mark and above. Pistols like the Canik TP9 offer a compelling feature set for their price, and their reliability is renowned throughout the industry.

America’s most popular pistols cost between $400 and $600, depending on the configuration and manufacturer. GLOCK Inc., Smith & Wesson, SIG Sauer, CZ, and Springfield all contend in this crowded middle price point, where you can find exceptional quality and accuracy from brands proven in service around the globe.

For high-end pistols from names like Heckler & Koch, you can expect to pay between $700-1200 dollars. The premium models will usually include features like match triggers, optic cuts, night sights, or a threaded barrel. For custom-grade pistols, expect to pay somewhere between $1500 and $4000. This price might seem exorbitant, but when you experience the brilliant craftsmanship of a tuned match pistol, you'll understand why they cost so much. When building these pistols, every piece is hand-fitted to ensure maximum reliability, accuracy, and control.

There is no 'best' pistol—no more than there is a 'best' golf club or 'best' vehicle.

There are only better and worse choices for your desired application. For example, if you are purchasing a pistol for concealed carry, then you should contemplate features like weight, size, and capacity before making a purchase. A compact pistol like a Glock 19 won’t have the same capacity or recoil reduction as a full-size Beretta M9, but it’ll be more comfortable inside the waistband, and you won’t worry as much about printing.

Just like with any other tool, engineers design firearms with a purpose in mind. As a shopper, your goal is to find the pistol where its purpose most closely matches your own.

Handguns come in many sizes, but the most popular categories are sub-compact, compact, and full-size. Generally, larger pistols are more effective than smaller ones, as larger pistols will be more accurate, more controllable, and offer a greater magazine capacity. Ultimately, the deciding factor is the importance of concealment.

For hunting, competition, and duty carry, you can trust full-size handguns to get the job done. In these cases, concealment isn’t a priority, so there's no reason to sacrifice the benefits of a longer barrel and sight radius. As long as the pistol is still comfortable to shoot and carry, a larger pistol will do better in these roles.

For concealed carry and mixed-use pistols, compact and sub-compact pistols tend to be the popular choice. The exact limit of a pistol's concealability depends mostly on the user. A 6'5 male will always have an easier time concealing a compact GLOCK 19 than a 5’4 female, so be realistic about your own personal limitations for concealment.

If you don't have a specific purpose for a pistol in mind and are looking for a great general-use pistol, we highly recommend that you look at compact-sized pistols. Compact pistols are small enough that most individuals can conceal them, but they’re large enough to provide a full grip with adequate magazine capacity.

Unless you have a special purpose in mind, stick to the big three: 9mm, .40S&W, and .45ACP.

9mm is the most popular general-purpose pistol cartridge in America, offering a tremendous variety of bullet options with capable ballistics, exceptional capacity, and minimal recoil. It's the standard caliber for our military, and following FBI recommendations, many Law Enforcement groups as well. There are tons of incredible 9mm pistols on the market, and you won’t be disappointed by the selection or quality.

.40S&W sits squarely between 9mm and .45ACP in size and power, but its high pressures give it some unique benefits over the other two. Many .40S&W pistols can be converted to 9mm by replacing the barrel, which gives them a benefit of added flexibility. In times of shortage, .40S&W is also sometimes more accessible than the more popular 9mm and .45 calibers. Just be aware that .40S&W's high pressure means you'll feel a bit more snap in the recoil impulse, but it’s nothing you can’t control with little practice.

For many, .45ACP remains their top choice. With over 100 years of service with the US military, .45ACP carries widespread respect for its effectiveness as a defensive cartridge. Of course, this is not without some compromise. To fit the larger cartridge, .45ACP handguns have to be bigger, but their magazine capacity is still less than most 9mm handguns. Recently, studies have also questioned .45ACP's ballistic advantage over 9mm when using quality hollow-point ammunition. No doubt .45ACP will always hit harder, but it’s up to you if that benefit outweighs the reduction in capacity.

Double-action and single-action describe the function of a pistol's trigger.

With double-action pistols, you pull the trigger to both set and release the hammer. Many gun-owners choose double-action for its reliability and consistency. If you get a light primer strike with a double-action handgun, you can always pull the trigger again—no need to worry about re-cocking.

In single-action, the trigger will only release the hammer. This means that single-action trigger pulls are much lighter and shorter than double-action, which has to overcome the hammer spring's additional weight. Most would agree that single-action pistols are easier to shoot accurately, especially at longer distances where a heavy trigger pull is most noticeable.

A DA/SA (Double-Action/Single-Action) handgun can fire from either double-action or single-action. 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. In theory, DA/SA offers the best of both worlds, but it also requires users to learn two separate trigger pulls. Without regular practice, a DA/SA handgun can be more difficult to learn than a basic double-action or single-action pistol.

You can explore the benefits of Single Action vs. Double Action in our article to see which style of pistol is better suited to your needs.

You will find a lot of striker-fired handguns, such as the GLOCK 19, Sig P320, or H&K VP9. Striker-fired pistols eliminate the traditional hammer-fired mechanism in favor of a simpler internal striker spring, offering a consistent trigger pull with improved safety features and a crisp reset. Technically, most striker-fired pistols are double action, since the trigger applies pressure on the striker assembly before release. However, most striker-fired pistols will only fire from a pre-tensioned position, where the striker spring is partially cocked by the action of the slide.

We cover the interesting subject of Striker Fired vs Hammer Fired Pistols on the Primary Source.

There are many ways to improve the performance of a pistol. By upgrading your parts and accessories, you can supplement your marksmanship skills to get the best results on range day. Here are a few upgrades you can make to a pistol:

- Nights Sights or Fiber Optic Competition Sights
- Aftermarket Match Slide
- Mini Reflex Optic (Must use compatible/milled slide)
- Weapon Light
- Match Barrel
- Match Trigger
- Extended Slide Stop or Mag Release
- Tuned Recoil Spring
- Enhanced Guide Rod
- Aftermarket Grips
- Magazine Baseplates
- Flared Magazine Well
- Frame Stippling/Remodeling

You can also improve your holster and magazine carrier for carrying pistols. Quality holsters from ANR Design, Safariland, and Raven Concealment are examples of top choices.

Most pistols come with a manual which will detail how to disassemble and clean your pistol. If you can’t find a manual, here are a few general steps that will keep most semi-automatic pistols running reliably:

1. Ensure the pistol is unloaded. Double-check the chamber, and separate the magazine. Most accidents happen because the user mistakenly assumes the gun is unloaded.

2. Disassemble the pistol. Every handgun will have its own procedure and controls, so if you don’t have the manual, search the internet for a video guide to disassembly.

3. Remove the barrel from the side, and use an appropriately-sized brass brush to help loosen built-up carbon deposits.

4. Apply cleaning solvent to a cotton patch and run it down the barrel. Repeat until the patches come out clean.

5. Use a brush to clean out the inside of the slide and frame. You can use cleaning solvent and cotton patches to help scrub away any caked-on carbon pockets.

6. Lubricate important friction surfaces. This means areas like the slide rails and the hammer (if applicable).

7. Reassemble the pistol. Double check the function by dry firing a couple times using snap-caps.

We also recommend you clean your magazines every so often, replacing the follower springs every 3000-4000 rounds at least. Once again, refer to the manufacturer’s documents for disassembly and cleaning guidelines.

Ultimately, the exact process of purchasing a handgun will vary from state to state. Be sure to research your state's firearms purchasing laws to understand the process, as you may need additional forms and qualifications to complete a transfer.

When shopping for a handgun online, the process will begin the same, regardless of where you’re from:

1. Research and select a pistol that fits your need and budget.

2. Locate an FFL-holder (Federal Firearms License) in your area who will accept a transfer. The common options are gun stores, gun ranges, and gunsmiths. We recommend you call your prospective FFL to confirm their availability and pricing, as transfers will usually incur a fee.

The FFL-holder can help you determine what details/forms you’ll need to complete the transfer. They can also help you identify issues that might later cause you to fail the required background check.

3. Add it to cart and fill out your billing/shipping information, just as you would any other online purchase.

4. When the checkout asks for a selected FFL, provide their information. If the information is not in the system, or if you don’t have it on-hand, no sweat. Most online retailers will allow you to submit FFL information after you’ve completed the order and reserved your pistol for shipment.

5. Once your FFL information is confirmed and payment is complete, the retailer will ship your gun to the requested FFL. There, you will complete the transfer as though you were purchasing the gun directly from them. At the very least, you will need to be 21 and complete a background check to confirm eligibility. We recommend new gun-owners read up on the ATF Form 4473, which details many of the reasons one could be ineligible for firearm ownership.

As we said before, some states will have additional waiting periods or mandatory registrations, so it’s important you know all of your local and state restrictions before completing the purchase.

If you have any questions, don't hesitate to send us a message at info@primaryarms.com or call us at 713-344-9600.