Buyers Guide

Handgun or Rifle for A First Gun?

For most people, choosing whether to buy a handgun or a rifle for as a first gun is a subjective choice based on a wide range of factors and preferences. At the core of this decision is the perception that one choice precludes utility offered by another while the choice will also play a major role in how early marksmanship skills develops.

While this undeniable for certain categories of use and development, the “best” or “better” firearm choice should complement each person’s unique blend of stance, target acquisition, grip, and trigger pull.

Ultimately, the “right” choice of firearm is simply any firearm which a person can shoot and practice with on a consistent basis: Any accurate firearm that is fun to shoot.

General Comparison

Skill and practice will elevate the capabilities of any firearm for sport, defense, and hunting. The key is build the correct form and muscle memory to execute upon the 4 fundamentals of marksmanship.


  • Handguns require more training to gain proficiency than rifles.
  • Indoor ranges are usually 25 or 50 yards, maximum range for many pistol shooters.
  • Smaller and cheaper storage requirements.
  • Open carry and permitted concealed carry.
  • 21+ to buy a handgun in certain districts.

Rifles and Carbines

  • Easier to focus on the 4 fundamentals of marksmanship.
  • Ideal to have an outdoor range which extends to at least 100 yards.
  • Larger and more expensive safes.
  • Can only be carried openly.
  • 18+ to buy a rifle.

In terms of marksmanship, handguns are harder to shoot, and they require precise technique and training to shoot accurately and fast. A handgun’s shorter sight radius and barrel also limits its maximum effective range to roughly 50-75 yards.

By comparison, a rifle can be stabilized by the shoulder while utilizing an longer sight radius to fire a immensely more powerful cartridge. Even shorter-barreled carbines have effective ranges of 300-500 yards. If someone plans to hunt, a rifle or shotgun would be more appropriate than a handgun (though large-bore handgun hunting is currently a growing sport).

The main advantage of a handgun is the ability to carry and conceal it. Carry weapons are often restricted to handguns carried in a holster. These laws will vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction so it is important to check state laws and verify with law enforcement before carrying a firearm.

Common Calibers

Choice of caliber is an important consideration since this will dictate a firearm’s range and stopping power and the cost per round. The following is a quick overview of common handgun and rifle calibers. There are many, many other calibers and cartridge types, and this is only a quick rundown of commonly-encountered calibers.

Handgun Calibers:

  • 9x19mm.
  • .45 ACP.
  • .40 Smith & Wesson.
  • .38 Special.
  • .357 Magnum.

Rifle Calibers:

  • .22 Long Rifle
  • .223 Remington / 5.56x45mm NATO.
  • .308 Winchester / 7.62x51mm NATO.
  • 7.62x39mm.
  • .03-06 Springfield.

9×19 mm (Semiautomatic Handgun)
A pistol cartridge developed in 1902 by Georg Luger. Widely available and popular among military, police, and civilians for its low cost, effectiveness, and versatility. Often considered the standard all other handgun calibers are measured against.

.45 ACP (Semiautomatic Handgun)
A pistol cartridge developed in 1905 by John Moses Browning. Standard chambering for the Colt M1911 pistol. Notable for its greater mass and stopping power when compared to 9x19mm. It served as the US Military’s standard-issue sidearm ammunition until 1985.

.40 S&W (Semiautomatic Handgun)
A handgun cartridge developed to duplicate the performance of the FBI’s power 10mm ammunition. .40 S&W was designed to be backwards-compatible with pre-existing 9mm handgun frames. Notable for greater velocities and stopping power when compared to 9mm.

.38 Special (Revolver, Lever-Action Rifle)
A rimmed, centerfire cartridge commonly used in revolvers. It served as the standard service cartridge for American police from the 1920’s to the 1990’s. Notable for its accuracy and low-pressure recoil impulse.

.357 Magnum (Revolver, Lever-Action Rifle)
A rimmed, centerfire cartridge designed for revolvers. Notable for its highly effective terminal ballistics when used for hunting or defense. Firearms chambered in .357 Magnum can often chamber .38 Special, taking advantage of its lower recoil impulse and lower cost per round.

.22 Long Rifle (Rifle, Handgun)
A rimfire cartridge notable for its light weight, low recoil, and extremely low cost per round. It is popular among novice shooters while remaining thoroughly enjoyable for expert shooters. It often functions as a hunting and plinking round, and large quantities can be purchased inexpensively.

.223 Remington / 5.56x45mm NATO (Rifle)
Designed to fire a high-velocity, lightweight projectile, .223 Remington was developed for use with the Armalite AR-15. 5.56x45mm NATO was derived from .223 Remington and currently serves as the standard service cartridge for NATO forces. Both rounds are similar, but they are not identical. There are special considerations when mixing these cartridges.

.03-06 Springfield (Rifle)
A military rifle cartridge introduced in 1906 and served as the primary US Military rifle cartridge into the Vietnam War. High accuracy, high power, high recoil, and with a maximum range of approximately 3,300 to 3,400 yards (3,020 to 3,110 m), .03-06 is often used for large game hunting and long range target competitions.

.308 Winchester / 7.62x51mm NATO (Rifle)
7.62x51mm NATO was developed to duplicate the range and power of .03-06 Springfield in a shorter, lighter cartridge. It serves as standard-issue US Military ammunition, and it also used for big game hunting and long range target competition. .308 Winchester is a commercial cartridge based on 7.62x51mm NATO. Both rounds are similar, but they are not identical. There are special considerations when mixing these cartridges.

7.62x39mm (Rifle)
Used for sporting rifles, hunting, and defense, 7.62x39mm is utilized by SKS and AK-47 pattern rifles. Since both firearms are highly popular worldwide, the ammunition is also very popular and can be found cheaply. Many firearms designed to chamber 7.62x39mm have a reputation for ruggedness and power.

Perfect Pairs

Instead of having to decide between either a handgun or a rifle, why not get both?

Perfect pairs consolidate ammunition to reduce cost and storage while maximizing the ammunition available for two or more firearms. These pairs usually consist of a handgun and a pistol caliber carbine.

Pistol caliber carbines are long guns which shoot the same ammunition commonly used by pistols. Using a longer barrel, pistol caliber carbines boost the velocity, range, and power of pistol ammunition.

.22 Long Rifle: Smith & Wesson M&P 22 Compact + Ruger 10/22 Takedown

This perfect pair is the best pair of firearms to build pure marksmanship fundamentals while also being fun to shoot. While limited to 75-100 yards of maximum range, .22 Long Rifle is cheap and easy to shoot. It can help build and test proper marksmanship fundamentals such as trigger control and proper sight alignment.

9x19mm: Glock 19 + Ruger PC Carbine

Designed to fire 9x19mm, the Glock serves as a rugged all-around personal protection gun that serves as a practical and effective defensive weapon. The PC Carbine helps extend the power and range of 9x19mm using a longer barrel combined with a handy takedown feature.

.38 Special/.357 Magnum: Ruger GP100 + Rossi Model 92 Carbine

This perfect pair fires the soft-recoiling .38 special and the high powered, high velocity .357 Magnum cartridge. Both firearms can serve as defensive and target guns. Using .357 Magnum, the Rossi Model 92 can hunt medium game and varmint.


Shotguns represent their own category of firearm capable of loading buckshot, birdshot, and solid slugs. The ability to load a range of specialized ammunition allows a shotgun to excel in a variety of roles, including hunting, home defense, and shooting sports.

Shotguns are also one of the most cost-effective firearms, with reliable, well-built shotguns priced for under $200. The smooth bore barrel of a shotgun heavily reduces costs when compared to the manufacture of a rifle or handgun. In addition, many shotguns utilize a manually-operated actions or a very simple recoil-based semiautomatic actions: Both are cost-effective to manufacture when compared to most autoloading rifles and handguns.

Using buckshot, the effective range of a shotgun is limited to 50 yards (45.7 meters) or less. This pattern is ideal for hitting fast-moving targets at close range. Solid slugs extend a shotgun’s range to approximately 100 yards (91.4 meters) to bridge the gap between buckshot and rifle cartridges. Because of the large diameter and length of most common shotgun ammunition, shotguns are usually limited in shot capacity.

Shotguns have a reputation for being large and for generating large amounts of recoil per shot. While this is true for large shotguns firing powerful ammunition, smaller shotguns with many grades and loads of ammunition are also widely available.

.410 gauge
The second-smallest caliber of shotgun shell, .410 gauge is suitable for hunting small game and pest control. It is also a common shotgun bore for compact emergency survival weapons.

20 gauge
While smaller than a 12 gauge shotgun shell, 20 gauge is significantly more powerful and larger than .410 gauge. 20 gauge shotguns are suitable for youth and anyone who prefers lower recoil when compared to 12 gauge. 20 gauge buckshot is suitable for hunting game birds, and 20 gauge slugs are suitable for hunting medium-sized game such as deer.

12 gauge
The most popular shotgun gauge, 12 gauge is available in a wide range of loads and projectiles including buckshot and solid slugs: Both are extremely powerful with buckshot being capable of hunting deer, elk, and even larger game animals. The 12 gauge shotgun has also extensively been used in home defense.

Related Topics
Why Buy A Gun?
The 4 Fundamentals of Marksmanship
First Time Range Guide
What Makes an Ideal Home Defense Gun?
5 Best first Guns to Buy

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