For seasoned gun owners and enthusiasts, there is scarcely a better feeling than that trip to the gun shop to pick up a new addition to the family. Everyone there knows your name, you can fill out the background check form upside down and backwards and you coordinated delivery of the latest object of your affection yourself to ensure you got exactly the right model. Only Christmas morning is better. Maybe.
This jolly expedition is often an unknown feeling for the brand-new gun owner. Novices don’t know much about guns, the buying process, or even what they want or need. All they know is that they need a gun, and are ready to take their first steps on a path that often leads to considerable lifestyle changes.
The whole idea of picking out a gun that is appropriate for their task, filling out the requisite forms and getting the background check completed probably feels pretty intimidating, especially if their local gun shop or big-box store is not noob-friendly.
If you are new to guns and about to become a new gun owner, what’s best to do then? Buy from a private seller? Should you haul a more experienced friend into the shop with you to assist? There is nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed over if you have anxiety and reservations; everyone started somewhere and “horror stories” abound of unprofessional or arrogant salesmen belittling or mocking newbies who don’t know any better.
In this article, we’ll leave most of the minutiae of guns behind and discuss precisely what the trajectory of an over the counter or private purchase of a gun should look like, as well as other purchases you should consider to make the most of your first gun buying trip. Forearmed with this knowledge, the entire experience should be much smoother and more pleasant.
Determining What You Need
You don’t have to know the specific model of gun you are setting out to buy, but you should know what you intend for the gun to do: Is it a handgun for defense? Great, so for concealed carry, just at-home defense, or both? If it is for carry, how do you plan to carry it on your body? Those questions will start to determine what size of handgun you need, and what caliber the gun should be.
Do you need a gun for hunting? What kind of animal? Does it fly, walk or crawl? Will you want a shotgun or rifle for that? Both your game and hunting method, along with state laws, will dictate what type of long gun you should use and what its caliber should be also.
An individual’s unique situation or goal will strongly influence their choice of firearm. Some common examples:
- A parent desires a handgun to carry concealed in order to better protect their family from harm.
- A homesteader or farmer needs a rifle to protect his livestock from predators or crops form pests.
- A hunter will need a firearm optimized for taking his choice of game, or a versatile one that can take many kinds of game.
- An elderly widow has lost her husband, and wants a simple, easy-to-use gun to keep at home to help her feel safer alone at night.
- A relative wants to buy a gun not for themselves, but as an heirloom gift for a family member’s special occasion.
In each of these examples, the priorities will be different: the defensive parent intending to carry will require a compact handgun that is easy to conceal, powerful and reliable. A homesteader intending to eliminate coyotes or prairie dogs will need a rifle with good range and excellent accuracy.
Our elderly widow will in all probability struggle to use most handguns outside of small-caliber semi-autos or revolvers, and her physical ability will restrict her choices.
For the kind person that wants to give the princely gift of a gun, they may be searching for one they already know the recipient will like, one with special ornamentation and engraving, or one that serves a particular purpose in the recipient’s life.
These are just a few instances of what could send the average person into a gun shop for their first gun, and as you can probably surmise form a few examples, sometimes life chooses you: it may not always be a choice you make voluntarily.
Know what your budget is, and always try to purchase as high-quality as you can. Understand that you will not need to buy the very best example of a given type of gun on the market for success, but there are all kinds of guns where real quality is impossible at a given price point. You needn’t spend too much but it is far, far worse to spend too little.
The cheapest handguns, ones like Lorcin, Raven, Hi-Point, Jennings, Jimenez, Phoenix Arms and other similar brands are notorious for using poor quality materials and incurring high rates of malfunction and breakage. H&R and Norinco pump shotguns are cheap copies of other shotguns, and will have very rough actions, often leading to feeding and extraction issues.
Bargain-Basement rifles, especially AR’s are as common as ever, with brands like Del-Ton, DPMS, Anderson Mfg. and Windham Weaponry cranking out guns that look and feel just like their higher quality brethren, but are made with lesser materials and poor, uneven quality controls.
The classic pitfall for a new owner is that they are swayed by the siren song of false economy: “I won’t be shooting it very often,” or “I’m not a gun person, and I don’t need a fancy gun,” or something similar are common refrains, and used to justify saving one or two hundred dollars over a more quality firearm that will ensure consistent, reliable function and last for decades with no issues. Let’s say your budget is $350 for a handgun.
You’ll be able to get a couple decent examples, new, in that price range, (Taurus Charter Arms or Canik are a few popular budget makers) or a pretty good gun bought used. Or you could save your money for just another month or two, call it a total of $500 or a little more, and you are in an entirely new class of quality, with such excellent makers as Glock, Smith and Wesson, Walther and Beretta offering top-quality pistols in that range.
Of course, you can always go way up from there on price. There are dozens of popular handguns with prices over a thousand dollars, but at that point you may start hitting diminishing returns on your selection. T
here is no doubt that many hot-rod pistols are certainly capable of extraordinary performance, but it is a level of performance that you may not be able to take advantage of as a beginner.
A $400 used Glock will often work just as well in a defensive situation as a $950 Heckler & Koch. Both are excellent guns, mostly because they are both very reliable, robust and easy to shoot well. Either can accomplish the mission of self-defense effectively.
If you were to compare the Glock with a $150 Jimenez, the difference would be far more drastic: the Jimenez would likely malfunction a couple of times within a box of rounds fired, and you should not expect a long service life from a gun so cheaply constructed.
The Jimenez is a poor choice for self-defense, because it lacks the necessary reliability that a defensive gun should possess. The point to all this is that there is a “sweet-spot” of price and performance, and it is probably less expensive than you are imagining. While every one of us would love World-Beater quality for pennies, it just does not exist.
Since you are reading this article on this site, you are probably not shopping for a recreational gun, so your life and the lives of loved one may very well depend on your new gun functioning as intended. In that regard, treat its purchase as you would any piece of lifesaving equipment. If you wouldn’t waste money and risk your life on a bargain-bin fire extinguisher or parachute, don’t do the same on a gun.
Another thing to keep in mind is that your opinion and tastes will likely change over time as you gain experience. In a few years’ time, you may have outgrown your first gun, or you may not have. You may have discovered that you would be best served by a different model, and that your original purchase didn’t set you up for success the way you hoped- You should have bought the ACME Blaster™ instead, or the Big Frigger MK30™.
Don’t worry about it: unless you go precipitously off course in your journey to find a decent, quality gun, you’ll be ok. The majority of modern guns are affordable and will perform fine if you put in the work, and you can always trade up later. Focus on getting a decent gun that you like, and then putting in practice and training with it.
Cheat Sheet for Selecting a Good Gun
A section examining who makes the best gun in every category would be exhaustive, if done properly, and is beyond the scope of this article. I’ll instead give you a set of criteria that you can take and apply to whatever kind of gun you are shopping for to help you home in a few good models for selection, or at the very least cut out the bad choices and also-rans. If you need a specific recommendation for your unique needs, feel free to email me (my address is in my sig line) and I’ll do my best to help you.
When comparing manufacturers be sure to pay attention to what the most common or best selling guns are. True, following the crowd on anything may not be the best choice, but any item that has universal or widespread appeal among a demographic of people usually has something to commend it and deserves your consideration.
For instance, speaking of handguns you will rarely go wrong with a Glock semi-auto, or a Smith & Wesson revolver. Pump-shotguns are typified by Remington and Mossberg models. Marlin makes excellent modern lever-action rifles, and so forth.
Below is the no-fluff list of manufacturers and their models that you can scarcely go wrong with. Obviously, this does not factor in your unique situation as discussed above, and these guns are all biased toward defensive or hunting use, but all of the manufacturers also make guns suitable for recreation and competition.
The models listed are all solid, popular performers that will work in the majority of situations they would be called on.
- Glocks: Glock makes pistol models in every caliber and size to fit any requirement, from deep concealment tiny backup guns to long-slide versions suitable for hunting and competition. Affordable, and utterly reliable. The most ubiquitous pistol there is.
- Smith & Wesson: Similar to Glock’s lineup above, but the M&P pistols have options for manual safeties is you prefer one. They also make incredibly popular and reliable revolvers in all sizes.
- Springfield Armory: Another popular striker pistol that competes directly with the above two makers. Many options, and often about a hundred dollars cheaper. Still solid pistols.
- Remington: The 870 is America’s most popular pump shotgun, with cause. Versatile, affordable and effective in any role, from hunting to home defense.
- Mossberg: The Model 500 and 590 are America’s second most popular pump-gun, and a little more lefty friendly thanks to an ambidextrous safety lever. Many models available for any role. The 590A1 is the heavy duty military version, and a fine choice for home defense.
- Remington: The Model 700 has been around for ages, and is available in many versions to suit your objective, be it a flyweight rifle for backcountry camping and hunting or a heavy, precision gun for sniping. Infinitely customizable.
- Colt: If you are cruising for a rifle for defense, don’t pass up Colt’s Model 6920 AR-15. This classic “M4” pattern rifle has everything you want in a quality AR, and can be had for under $1000.
- Marlin: Marlin is the most prolific and popular make of lever action rifles today in a wide selection of calibers. If you like the classics for hunting, and still want a gun that is fine for defense in a pinch, check out a Marlin and get your cowboy (or cowgirl) on.
Whatever your task is, reliability is always the prime attribute. All other factors are secondary to the gun going “bang” when called on to do so. Contrary to popular opinion, comfort or “feel” is not crucial so long as you can safely grip or mount the gun and reach all the controls easily enough.
You can learn through practice and training to make the gun work for you. Of course, if you can have a reliable gun that so happens to also fit you like a glove, that is a definitely a perk.
Try not to get sold on any oddball, venerable or exotic gun, no matter what claims the manufacturer or salesman makes. Exotic, very old or rare firearms and their sometimes unique ammunition are invariably too expensive for what you get and often hard to find parts and service for, no matter how rad you think it’ll look on your social media page.
An exotic gun is a design that itself is rarely seen or of such radical departure from typical aesthetics and function that are held in a class of their own. Or they may be an entirely usual design that chambers a rare specialty cartridge.
Take the FN Five-Seven pistol, an exotic that uses an equally exotic, tiny 5.7x28mm cartridge that, while ballistic it performs closely to a .22 Magnum, is far from common in most shops, as there are only a handful of commercial guns that even chamber it, including the Five-Seven’s relatives the PS90 carbine and P90 sub machinegun. All are high quality, reliable guns from a much esteemed manufacturer, but the round itself is designed for a special purpose, and thusly expensive.
For any gun and any purpose, sticking with modern “bread and butter” cartridges like .380 ACP, 9mm, .40 S&W, .45 ACP, .38 Spl, .357 Mag., and .44 Mag. in handguns, or .223 Rem., 5.56mm NATO, .308 Win, 7.62mm NATO, 7.62mm Soviet, and .30-06 in rifles and 12ga or 20ga for a shotgun ensures you will have comparatively cheap and plentiful ammo from coast to coast.
A venerable design is one that is an antique, old, vintage, you might say. Think a classic 1911 or Browning Hi-Power. While still capable of great performance and undeniably awesome, guns like this require more upkeep for good performance, and most of their parts require hand fitting and careful installation when replaced to ensure reliability.
While very cool and excellent shooters their increased cachet with enthusiasts is wasted on a new owner who needs less to worry over with their new gun, not more. In the event of breakage or when performing simple maintenance a more common, modern gun will make the process simpler and less expensive.
Should I Buy New or Used?
A perennial question and a good one! Buying a used gun is much safer than buying a used car, especially if you purchase from a reputable gun shop. Think about it: guns are the ultimate in long-lasting devices.
There are firearms that have served families for generations that are still plugging along today with only minor replacement of wearable parts; Guns that are 100 years old, and older, still shooting, still doing their job. That’s amazing!
Needless to say, any modern gun that was owned for a only a few years, perhaps carried often but typically shot little and then traded in will have more than enough service life left to give you decades of use.
This is a great way to save money and get into a higher grade of gun and stay within your budget. Just ask your dealer if they inspect and certify their pre-owned guns, and in the event you get a lemon that they will either make you happy or assist with getting it back to the manufacturer for servicing.
Note that for the novice or new owner, I recommend you only buy used from a reputable dealer or trusted friend or family member; the potential exists to get fleeced by an unscrupulous stranger when you don’t know enough on your own to inspect and function check the prospective gun.
Buying new is a good choice for different reasons: A new gun will have the advantage of guaranteed manufacturer support or warranty, and like other products may have incentives or rebates you can take advantage of, offers of extra magazines, holsters, store credit and such. This is another way to help defray costs.
When looking at used guns, don’t bother over worn finishes. Again like a car, worn “paint” on a gun will drive the cost of a gun down steeply even if it is mechanically flawless internally.
If you don’t mind the aesthetic you can save a fortune on a well-seasoned gun. Unless it is badly rusted or corroded, finish wear will not affect its durability or performance, and you’ll be putting plenty of shiny wear and scratches on it yourself. If the gun is mechanically sound and has been inspected by the dealer, you can trust it will shoot better than it looks.
Should I Buy From a Dealer or Private Seller?
The answer, like many, is “it depends,” but in this case I would direct you to buy from a dealer for your first purchase unless you are planning to buy a gun from a trusted friend, family member or associate, as mentioned above. Buying from a dealer, a good one anyway, will give you a point of contact in case you need assistance with your gun, whatever it might be.
Perhaps you need help ordering holsters or parts for your gun, or a how-to on disassembly for maintenance. Maybe your gun breaks or malfunctions; any dealer worth their salt will pack and ship a gun to the manufacturer for you and typically liaison with them as well.
The point is you’ll be building a relationship with professionals who you can turn to when you are in a jam and expect them to assist you. Sure, a friend or family member will not try to screw you, but they also may not have the answers to your questions, or even know what to do in the case of breakage or you having parts leftover after reassembling your new gun.
The only major procedural difference between the two is you will be required to complete a Form 4473 Firearms Transaction Record, the federal background check paperwork, and possibly undergo a waiting period before taking possession of your gun, whether new or used. You won’t have to do that when buying from a private seller. More on that in a minute.
If you do decide to buy from a private seller, typically you will not have to fill out any paperwork for the transfer. The onus is on you to be reasonably sure you are buying a legal gun, and on the seller to be sure that they are not selling to a person prohibited person.
Some sellers may want a copy of your driver’s license to cover their butts, or just record the pertinent info off of it. Some do not. There are many variables, and that is why I advise my clients to typically only buy from known parties or federally licensed dealers.
The Background Check
If you decide to buy from a dealer, you’ll be required to complete the Form 4473 described above, and pass the background check that the dealer will submit your information to either via phone or computer. The Form itself is simple; questions about your vital statistics, birth date, legal name address and yes/no questions about your background and other things. It is one page, plus a signature and date, and takes only a few minutes to complete.
You must have current, valid government issued ID, like a driver’s license, submit along with the form, so make sure you bring it. If you already have your concealed weapons permit, you may submit that also to waive any required waiting period on taking possession of the gun. All states laws vary on those specifics, so call ahead and ask your dealer what you need to bring with you, if anything, besides your DL.
Once you complete the form, and the sales associate completes the background check submission, it will come back with one of 3 results: Approved, Conditional, or Denied. Approved means you are good to go, and will be able to take possession of the gun as soon as the waiting period, if applicable, has passed.
Conditional means “Good to go, probably” but the Feds are doing a little more checking to make sure you are allowed to take possession, or ensure you are who they think you are. This often happens if you have a common name, and they want to be sure they don’t mix you up with someone else who may not be allowed to own a gun. This will usually entail another few days of waiting before you can pick up the gun.
Denied means just that. Something appeared on your background check that is a disqualifier for legal ownership of a firearm. Instances that will disqualify you are any felony, a domestic violence charge, being adjudicated “mentally defective”, and a few other things.
If you know you have been a very good boy or girl, mistakes do happen, and the dealer can give you a number to call and contest the result in order to get you cleared.
Whatever happens, unless you are wanted by the law, no lights and sirens go off before you are hauled away in the case of a denial, so there is nothing to be nervous about, aside from the typical loss of a few bucks for the background check fee.
The entire process takes a few minutes unless the dealer is very busy or the background check system is down. Assuming you are cleared to take possession that day, you will pay for the gun, get a receipt and then be on your way home (or to the range)! Be sure to file your receipt with other important documents so in the event the gun is ever lost or stolen you can prove the serial number and your ownership of it.
As mentioned above, you can buy a gun yourself with the express purpose of gifting it to someone else, so long as it actually a gift and the recipient can otherwise legally own the gun. If you are purchasing a gun for someone to “gift” it to them because they cannot legally buy the gun themselves, meaning they cannot pass or don’t want to submit to a background check, that is called a straw purchase, and you’ll be in serious trouble.
Picking a Dealer
You may choose to set out looking for simply the best prices in town, but by doing a little homework and putting a little care into selecting a good shop you can make your buying experience more fruitful. Despite all the drama surrounding guns in today’s political climate, they are bought and sold like any other good through merchants. Not all merchants are created equal, and some business will have earned their reputations be they good or bad.
Some shops are old institutions, smelling of wood and leather, sepia hued and cave like, with guns densely packed into every showcase and gun rack, and often having been in the same place in the same town for years. They may cater to hunting, competition, self-defense, or all three more or less.
Some are welcoming of newbies and very professional, where others are more like a sort of clubhouse, where the “members,” that is regulars and friends, hang out. Getting good service at the later joints can be frustrating, as anything that detracts from the proprietor’s time spent gabbing is usually treated as an annoyance.
Other shops are large, sparkling, modern showrooms, all glass and shining aluminum or stainless steel, often replete with onsite ranges. These facilities may cater to any kind of shooter, and often endeavor to staff their sales departments with personnel from a variety of backgrounds to best serve their potential customers. Don’t be afraid to chat with the various salesmen and women until you find someone you enjoy working with.
Your last option is a big-box sporting goods, outdoors store or department store retailer. Their stocks will range from minimal to extensive depending on which you choose, but you can be assured that unless a gun is on sale here you will typically pay more here than another dealer. The expertise of their gun counter staff varies wildly depending on staffing policy, and you may not be able to form the type of client-service provider relationship you should seek.
Whichever type of dealer you choose, you can look for warning signs when you walk in. Customers should be promptly greeted and attended to, and you should not see clumps of staff sitting around talking socially among themselves when there are clients in the building. Also, eavesdrop on conversations: questions and comments from customers should be answered politely and with care, not derision or exasperation.
Any sales rep that enjoys flaunting his purported expertise over someone of lesser knowledge is to be avoided, and unfortunately such people are often indicative of the company culture as a whole. Do not tolerate a moment’s mistreatment or someone’s bad attitude because they think they are Johnny Too-Cool because they peddle guns for a wage.
When you interact with a sales rep, see if he asks good, leading and clarifying questions to ascertain what kind of gun you are in the market for. If you tell him what you are looking for, especially a specific gun, he should be able to articulate why or why not it is a good choice. If he makes a recommendation that is counter to what you are wanting, he should be able to give you good reasons why he recommends it.
This is where most beginners get led astray; the average gun-counter salesman is in all probability an enthusiast, or if of a professional background they may not have the depth and breadth of experience and expertise to truly analyze what gun is best for a given person and why.
They will make recommendations based off their training and experience, or what they were issued, as well as their base likes and dislikes, and that is that. This is not the best way to objectively assist a new owner with their needs, as every person’s unique circumstances are the result of a dozen factors specific to their life.
Nevertheless, everyone has something to teach you, and while it may take a little time to get there, you can learn from your fellow shooters and gun owners and arrive at a selection that will serve you well, or at least well enough.
If you are a new shooter, you needn’t fear setting out to a dealer, even on your own, to purchase a new gun. Today’s shooters are a very diverse lot, formed from all backgrounds and demographics, and many gun shops are more than happy to guide a novice down the path to selecting and purchasing a firearm they are happy with.
Nevertheless, knowledge always pays, and knowing what you are looking for is entailed in the buying process as well as how to ensure your sales rep is taking best care of you will go a long way to ensuring your first gun buying experience is pleasant, quick and enjoyable.
How did you get your first gun? Do you have any stories of a great experience with a dealer? Or really bad ones? Let’s hear them in the comments!
Chad Nabors specializes in firearms, with a strong focus on concealed carry and pistols. His background is in commercial sales and training, and armor development and testing. He has trained many citizens on the pistol from basic to advanced skills. He is a vociferous proponent of the 2nd Amendment, and believes that defense of self and family is a moral obligation. He can be reached at grimgunner (AT) gmail.com.