So, you’ve done it. You have made the decision to become a gun owner. Huzzah! That’s great. No doubt you have a few questions or even a little anxiety over how the whole process works. You might not even have any idea what kind of gun you want to buy, or need. Today’s your lucky day, since trusty Charles is here to help show you the way.
Assuming you know what you want, buying the gun is actually the easy part in the majority of states. It is figuring out what you want that is so often the tricky business!
Regardless if you have zeroed in on a particular gun or not, this article is going to break down the process in to manageable steps so you won’t be unsure or bewildered when you walk into the gun shop or up to the table at a gun show.
So grab your notepad and let’s get with it.
Table of Contents
What Is Your Gun For?
The hardest part of buying your first gun really is figuring out what you want. Us seasoned pros out here chuckle about it, since that feeling of bewilderment when confronted with a seemingly infinite number of models, types and variants of guns, each promising to serve and solve our problem just so was so long ago we cannot remember what that feels like.
But to you, reader, the prospective new gun owner, that feeling is likely very real!
You can start stamping out this feeling of being overwhelmed by choice by getting clear with a simple mission statement for your new gun: what do I need this gun for? Is it for hunting? If so, what kind of prey? Is it for self-defense? If yes, inside the home, outside the home, or both? Is it a gun you need to carry concealed?
Just with those questions alone you will have removed an enormous swath of choices. A gun for hunting will dictate a rifle or a shotgun. A rifle for critters that walk or crawl and a shotgun for ones that fly though they can also be used against ground-bound animals.
A self-defense gun can be almost anything though the best are optimized for quick and easy handling. A handgun is the most common choice by far and useful both in your home and outside of it since it can be easily concealed and brought along with you.
Who you are and what you do will further determine you requirements. If you work on a farm or ranch and want an all-around gun to help you see off predators harassing your livestock and lock down the farmhouse, a rifle will be your do-all choice, preferably one in a middle-of-the-road caliber.
If you are older or infirm and have little strength or dexterity, a light recoiling and easy to operate handgun will make the best choice for defense versus an unwieldy long gun.
These are just a few examples of the kinds of people that require different solutions to their own unique problems.
A Note on Pricing
No matter what kind of gun you are shopping for, and for what purpose, always try to buy as nice a firearm as you can, even if you do not see yourself “getting into guns” with any seriousness.
Guns, like anything else, run the gamut of quality from nearly useless to sublimely crafted, and anything north of utterly useless is going to be a tool that, with some care, can serve for decades and potentially be handed down to a family member.
To say that guns are the ultimate in durable goods is no overstatement, and investing in a nicer gun will help ensure that it can keep performing its duties with no trouble long after it has left your hands.
Also consider that your nicer guns retain significantly more value as time passes, and this means that, should you want to, you can trade or sell it for a significant portion of what you paid for it at a later date.
Not for nothing, but guns must withstand incredible forces every single time you pull the trigger on a live cartridge. While serious accidents and injuries to shooters resulting from material defects in a gun are rare, they do happen, and can be very serious.
That is another good reason why you want top-quality materials and manufacturing between you and that tiny explosion happening inside the gun.
Below certain price thresholds (think a couple hundred bucks) quality becomes, in a word, impossible. You don’t need to spend a fortune on your first gun but you should be very cautious of spending too little.
I’ll go on and assume that since you are reading this piece on this site, you are more of a mind to get a gun for self-defense versus hunting or some other purpose. If this is so, always keep in mind that your life, as well as the lives of your family members or anyone else in your charge may depend on your firearm functioning perfectly.
In this arena, your gun is as vital as any other piece of life-saving emergency equipment. Make sure you prioritize accordingly.
With all that said, don’t fret too much about your first purchase: there are so many good guns of all kinds on the market today, that unless you are extremely unlucky or wind up way, way out in the weeds on make and model you will most probably get a gun that will work just fine.
If you have no or passing little experience with a gun, you need to change that before you commit the funds to buying one. Buying a gun is a little like buying underwear: no one else can really try it on for you!
Only you will have the whole story of how a gun handles, how you like or dislike certain types or calibers, and a hundred other little impressions that only surface from experience. So make sure you get some!
Sign up for an intro to firearms or beginners class for the type of firearm you are shopping for. Any trainer worth the title should be able to put you in front of several types of firearms and explain the merits and drawbacks of each in a simple, easy to follow manner so you can make sense of what you are experiencing.
If that is still not enough to help you zero in on what will work best for you, take the time to call up friends with guns similar to the kind you want so you can try them.
If you don’t have friends with guns, make some. And if that fails, look up ranges local to you and inquire about rental programs so you can “test drive” several kinds of guns before buying.
Criteria for Selection
There are so many guns, so many models and variations and options available today, new and used, that a detailed breakdown of all of them would be a work of Sisyphean effort. So instead of doing that, I’ll offer a few characteristics that you should shop for when searching for your new gun no matter what type it is.
- Reliability: Make sure the model of gun you are buying has a reputation for being reliable in all conditions. This is especially vital for guns intended for self-defense roles. Any gun that has a reputation for being fussy or prone to breakdowns is to be avoided.
- Standard Model and Caliber: Avoid any exotic or oddball makes, models and calibers. When I say exotic, I mean guns made by small boutique manufacturers or manufacturers that hardly anyone has heard of. This goes for caliber, also. You want common, inexpensive and easy to find ammo, don’t you? Ask your friends and gun seller if the ammo is common and they’ll tell you.
- Modern: A vintage gun is just too cool- a living legend, a tangible link to a bygone age. What secrets could this blued steel and warm, worn wood tell if it could only talk?! Yep, the mystique of old guns is very, very real, and you should not dismiss it as hokum until you have held one in your hand. Even so, stick with modern, or at least current era guns for your first. They need far less maintenance, are easier to repair, and last longer in hard use than our old warhorses could have ever hoped to.
New or Used?
A common question and source of anxiety for the prospective gun buyer and nascent gun owner.
Bottom Line Up Front: You can usually buy a used gun from a reputable dealer with no worries, but tread carefully if buying used from a private seller. As I said above, guns are devices that are made to last, and nothing short of terrible neglect or damage will stop them or render them useless.
Also, most gun owners carry their guns often, but shoot them little. Police department trade-in guns are a perfect example of this. Most guns that show a significant amount of exterior wear can be broken down to reveal internals with hardly any mileage at all.
This is not always the case, but when you understand that it is the rare user who will even begin to scratch the operational lifespan of a given gun you will know that buying used is often safe and a great way to save money or just get into a better class of gun on the same budget.
The reason I would urge you to buy used from a dealer rather than a private seller is simply to have a bit of insurance in case you do wind up with that dud gun.
A good shop should at least try to help you get the gun working to your satisfaction, even if that is just liaising with the manufacturer for service on your behalf. A private seller, though, may not care or may just not be accessible after the sale.
If you are planning on buying used from a private buyer that you do not trust, make sure you bring along a gun-savvy buddy who can give the gun a once over looking for the most obvious signs of mistreatment or malfunction.
Now, buying new also has plenty of advantages: new guns have factory warranties and more dealer support, and many manufactures offer rebates and coupons on new gun purchases so you can load up with helpful gear like additional magazines, cases and holsters.
You also have the assurance that the last time that particular gun was fired was the test fire at the factory. You need not worry about a previous owner’s proclivity for neglect or abuse like you do with used guns.
Buying from a Dealer
For your first purchase, I am a staunch advocate of buying your first gun from a dealer, with only two exceptions to that rule. The first exception being that you plan on purchasing a gun from a trusted family member or friend who you know will not betray you by selling you a defective gun.
The second is if you have a companion who is a true expert along for the ride when buying from a private seller, to ensure you do not wind up screwed.
Buying from a good reputable dealer will do several things for you as a new gun owner. You will have people to turn to when you need assistance with your gun, if it is factory service you are seeking or just new parts.
You will have helping hands for troubleshooting, disassembly and maintenance. You will be building a relationship worth having when things go wrong with your gun, as they sometimes will.
Any dealer you buy a gun from will have you complete a background check form prior to selling the gun to you. This form, called a Form 4473 (Firearms Transaction Record, aka Background Check Application) is a federal form that you fill out and sign so the dealer can run your specifics and ascertain that you are not prohibited from owning a firearm.
Depending on your state and local laws, you may have to wait a certain number of days before you pick up your firearm or you may be able to walk out with it the same day.
This form is simple, short and easy to complete, and the only piece of identification you need is your official state issued driver’s license or state I.D. Some dealers will copy your ID to keep with the Form for their records but this varies.
At any rate, once you fill out the form with your specifics, answer a short series of questions regarding your background and sign it, the dealer will whisk it away to enter the info you provided into a terminal or to an operator by phone call.
Either way, in just a few short minutes you will have an “Approved,” “Denied,” or “Conditional” response. They mean “Yes,” “No,” or “Maybe” in that order.
Approved means you passed the background check and may take delivery of your firearm after the wait period is up, if any. Denied means exactly what it says- something in your background prohibits you from owning firearms, usually a felony or domestic violence misdemeanor, but can also crop up for past mental health issues.
Mistakes due happen though, especially if you have a very common name, so if you know you have been good and there is nothing that should be prohibiting you can call and contest the decision.
A Conditional decision means “maybe” and usually occurs when the feds are doing a little more looking into your background to make sure you are who you say you are.
If this happens, don’t fret: if is common for those with common names to pop with one of these, or you may just have the rotten luck that someone who can’t own a gun has similar specifics to yours.
All it boils down to, usually, is another few days of waiting time before you can pick up the gun and take it home.
No matter what happens, there is nothing to be nervous about. A short form, a couple of minutes and you’ll be all set (unless you have a warrant out for your arrest)! If you are allowed to cash-and-carry guns in your locale, you will pay for the gun, get a receipt for it and be on your way home a proud new gun owner! Huzzah! You did it!
Okay, Now What?
Now that you have your new gun in tow, make sure you keep the receipt or larger bill-of-sale with any other important documents you possess.
It is a very good idea to take a picture of both sides of the gun and keep these pics with that receipt so if the gun is ever lost or stolen you can provide both police and your insurer evidence of the serial number and other specifics of the gun like where it was purchased and when.
Now all that is left to do is give your new gun a thorough cleaning to remove the factory preservatives and then sign up for training and practice sessions.
Congratulations on your new purchase! Now let me tell you 7 things you should do next.
Buying your first gun does not have to be an intimidating experience. Armed with the right questions and knowing what you should look for, you can get a gun that will meet your needs and perform to your expectations. Make your first shots memorable with this guide.
Charles Yor is an advocate of low-profile preparation, readiness as a virtue and avoiding trouble before it starts. He has enjoyed a long career in personal security implementation throughout the lower 48 of the United States.