First off, I would like to mention that I am most definitely not the best hand gun shooter around, and I am not claiming to provide information more valuable than any other person’s advice. I have learned a great deal about hand guns and firearms in general from Calguns and the internet throughout the last year, both from personal experience and research, and I feel that people will benefit from a straight forward guide from someone who was a beginner himself not too long ago. This guide is put together from my personal experiences and from my own opinions (italicized in the text) that I have arrived at from internet research, speaking to seasoned shooters at the range, and anecdotal evidence I have read all around the internet. Do not consider this guide as a bible of sorts from which to make your decision; only use it to help yourself in decision making process for finding a handgun appropriate to your personal characteristics.
This guide is for people who are just starting to get into handguns and who will likely be asking the same question that all new hand gun shooters ask – What is the best handgun (for me)? My answer to this question is almost always, “It depends on a variety of factors”. Below I’ll go into a few basic talking points. This guide may or may not be complete but it will definitely be more than enough information for a beginner to get an idea about what they should be looking for in the search for a hand gun that will fit them best. I may be missing content or have out of date content. If this is the case let me know! I'd like to hope that this guide will provide every new shooter with an up-to-date "handbook" on the basic legalities and processes of purchasing and enjoying handguns in CA. Acquiring a CCW license in CA will not be discussed here. For more information regarding acquiring a CCW license in your county, visit here
Documentation Required to Purchase A Handgun in California
You will need to be at least 21 years old. You will need a valid CA driver’s license or government issued ID. You will need a handgun safety certificate, which requires a very simple test of firearms knowledge and safety practices. If you fail this test, you do not deserve to own a firearm. You will need proof of residence such as your vehicle registration, with your current address listed. Some FFL’s may require more proof of residence, but unless you are not a resident of CA, this is usually not an issue.
The CA DOJ Roster of Handguns Certified for Sale, the 30 Day Rule, and C&R Pistols
Handguns for purchase in California are regulated by this
roster, and manufacturers send their new models to testing facilities so CA DOJ (Department of Justice) can decide whether or not the gun is “safe” for our use or not. If it passes, the manufacturer pays a fee that must eventually be renewed, and their handgun is added to the roster certified for sale in CA.
Only one new handgun (unless on consignment) can be purchased from an FFL every 30 days. PPT’s (Private Party Transfers) and consignment handguns are exempt from this rule.
C&R handguns (50 years old or more), are exempt from the CA handgun roster, but still needs to be DROS’ed through an FFL, regardless of whether or not you hold an FFL 03 (License to collect Curios & Relics).
There are so many semi-automatic pistols in today’s market, and each one fills a different role, but serve double duty in other roles as well. You may want to purchase a handgun for a couple reasons: Home defense, carry, range/plinking. The pistols that are available to fill these roles will vary in size, magazine capacity, and all around features which will be mentioned and elaborated upon in later sections.
As an example, if you are purchasing a handgun for home defense, you may want to consider a pistol with an integrated rail in the frame. This will allow you to mount a weapon light and use it to identify targets at night. This discussion will continue in another section regarding accessories and upgrades.
I will not go into a ballistics discussion debating 9mm over .45ACP in this section, or in any section for that matter. I will also assume that all of the new readers will be purchasing pistols that they do not own pre-ban magazines for, so I will assume that 10 rounds is the limit for all the new handgun buyers.
The three most popular centerfire calibers for today’s semi-auto pistols are: 9mm Luger, .40S&W, and the .45ACP. There are plenty of popular calibers for wheel guns, but that will not be discussed in this guide. What you choose as your caliber of choice may be dependent on your shooting budget, as well as the purpose for which you want to use your gun. 9mm will typically cost about half the price of .45ACP, and for most beginning shooters, especially women, will be more pleasant to shoot than a .45ACP (In terms of felt recoil). I see the .40S&W as an intermediate between the two, but do not have much personal experience with the round myself.
There are pocket semi automatic pistols chambered for .380ACP as well. The .380 round is basically a "9mm short", and is usually found in guns that easily fit into the pocket for a deep concealed carry (thus the name pocket pistols). Although the .380 is a popular carry option, it is not normally a round that is considered by first time buyers.
If you are a completely new shooter, or is someone who is looking into it for a friend or loved one, you may want to consider a pistol chambered for .22LR. .22 pistols are an excellent way of introducing people into the shooting sports, as it has very mild, manageable recoil, and very little noise compared to the centerfire options. Another advantage is that is it inexpensive (getting pricey lately however) compared to centerfire ammunition. This round is desirable for new shooters, as the loud explosions and heavy recoil of centerfire pistols may be upsetting to a completely new shooter to the sport altogether. There are many .22LR pistols on the market, with some being better/more reliable than others (this has been proven). Popular choices include the Ruger Mark III and 22/45, Browning Buckmark, Walther P22, and the Sig Mosquito.
"Thoughts": Some people prefer to purchase a .45ACP handgun as they trust it has more stopping power than a 9mm, and they figure that since we are going to be limited to 10 rounds per magazine here in CA, why not fill that magazine up with the biggest round easily available? Although sound logic, this should not be the advice given to every new handgun buyer. The recoil of a .45ACP will not be as easy to manage as a smaller caliber for some shooters, and you will need to choose your caliber based on what you are comfortable with. It's best to try out these guns before you buy. I'll talk about renting and testing the guns in a later section.
The biggest deciding factor for caliber of choice in my decision making process for my first handgun was price. I was a college student on a low budget that really wanted to shoot. I went with 9mm because ammo was readily available, and much cheaper than the .45ACP I wanted. Currently however, I have begun reloading for .45ACP, which has allowed me to finally afford to shoot this caliber, and has opened up a much wider spectrum of pistols for me to consider, as the cost of admission to .45 is no longer as much of a concern as it once was.