Testing/Renting Handguns Prior to Purchase Decision
There are only so many ways you can go about doing this. I can only think of two. The first is to ask any friends you have that own the guns you would like to try out. Ask them to take you to the range and allow you to shoot their guns. You’ll likely receive a “yes” out of them, especially if you offer to pay for your own ammo. Most gun owners are very receptive to new shooters and will go out of their way to make shooting a fun and pleasant activity for beginners. If you don’t have any friends that own guns, post a thread or ask a local Calgunner if you can try his/her gun out. I have often seen Calgunners generously offer beginners the chance to shoot their guns, even providing ammo for them.
Your second, more expensive option is to visit your local range, and rent every handgun on your list of handguns. If you get lucky, you’ll visit a range that has a flat rate on gun rentals, and won’t charge you for every single gun you rent. Most ranges however will make it mandatory for you to purchase their ammo, as they do not want people shooting potentially unsafe reloads through their guns and damaging them. When shooting the guns, remember that this evaluation is part of your decision making process, and you need to be able to analyze the feeling of each gun while you shoot it. See if the gun slips around in your hand under recoil. See how easy the gun is to point and how easy it is to acquire a sight picture with it. Get a feel for the trigger, and its separate stages. This should be one of the biggest deciding factors in purchasing a first pistol. Your first stage will just be a light take up of the trigger. The resistance you will feel here is mostly from the trigger return spring. Your second stage will be a slightly
heavier pull, which is when your trigger is under tension from the striker or hammer about to break free from the sear. A good trigger should have a light and smooth first stage, with a very crisp break, and minimum overtravel. Guns with great triggers can come with a price, but if you find one you shoot well with, consider it.
Popular Accessories and Upgrades
Weapon lights. Good or bad won't be debated here. Its use is self-explanatory. If you decide to use one on a defensive handgun, know that identifying your target does not require you to point your weapon at the person. If you are unsure of your target, you may shine your weapon light at the floor in front of or to the side of your target and the reflected light will be enough for you to identify and make your decision.
A Streamlight TLR-3 on my CZ P-01 with Kadet .22LR conversion slide. (Note adjustable sights on the rear of the slide as well. Adjustable for both windage and elevation using the screws that make up part of the rear sight.)
Night sights are a very popular upgrade for handguns, and may be used in conjunction with a weapon light for even faster target acquisition/sight picture. Night sights usually consist of three vials with a mild radioactive substance called tritium. Quality tritium vials will glow for years without significantly dimming, and do not need to be charged by light prior to use like glow in the dark paint. The glow is most easily visible in complete darkness, but is still visible in low light conditions. The tritium vials are usually encircled by a white ring that mimics that standard 3-dot sight that most stock pistols are sold with. These are to aid in aiming during daytime conditions.
Diagram of Trijicon Night Sights.
Another popular accessory is a laser. This may come in the form of rubber grips such as Crimson trace, in which the laser is integrated into the top edge of your grip panels. The laser is actuated by a pressure switch usually located on the front strap of the pistol grip. You may buy a separate laser unit that mounts directly to your weapon’s rail integrated frame. Some manufacturers such as SureFire and Streamlight offer a combination weapon light/laser unit that mounts to your pistol’s rail. A third option I have encountered is a laser recoil spring guide rod. Your factory guide rod is replaced with a hollow guide rod housing a laser unit.
The laser can also be used as an excellent training resource, as it will reveal your errors made during shooting. It can show you if you are flinching or jerking the trigger the instant before the shot, and it can show you if you are making errors in your aiming. For self defense, it will be very useful if you find yourself in an unconventional position where you cannot get a proper sight picture and must shoot from cover. You need only place the red (or green) dot on your target, and pull the trigger. Assuming your trigger pull is perfect, your round will go where the laser is pointed.
A combination light/laser (Streamlight TLR-2) and Crimson Trace Laser Grips.
Modifying Your Handgun/Aftermarket Parts
One consideration prior to purchasing your handgun is whether or not you may want to modify your pistol in the future for various purposes. You may want to turn your stock 1911 into a race spec 1911, or you may want to lighten up and smooth out the trigger pull on your home defense M&P. Whatever changes you decide on, I strongly recommend learning about the products you're considering, as well as the risks that come with self-modified firearms. There will be aftermarket parts for most modern semi-autos available today, but some more than others. Some of the common modifications/upgrades that shooters make to their pistols consist of the following:
Lighter triggers – can be achieved with gunsmithing, drop in parts such as sears, hammers, and springs, or a combination of both.
Sights – Any shooter that wants to progress beyond the novelty aspect of shooting guns eventually upgrades their factory sights to either night sights or adjustable competition sights (unless provided by the manufacturer). As discussed in the section about accessories and upgrades, the night sights will help you in low light conditions. The competition sights will allow you to make any adjustments necessary, so you can maintain the same point of aim while using ammunition that has different points of impact. Heavier bullets will have a higher point of impact than a lighter, faster bullet shot out of the same barrel. Adjustable sights will allow you to adjust for elevation so that you will not have to use a specific holdover depending on your type of ammo. You can tailor your gun to your ammo, or even vice versa if you reload your own ammunition.
There are numerous modifications you can do to your pistol, and I’m just going to leave you with these two most common ones that came to my mind.
A little input about lightening your trigger pull. For defensive pistols, you do not want a competition light trigger pull. 2-3lbs is too light for your defensive pistol, and can make you more prone to an accidental or negligent discharge.