The two basic types of handguns are pistols and revolvers. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages. The handgun you choose is a personal preference and should feel comfortable in your hand and be the type required for the kind of shooting planned.


Pistols include single-shot and autoloading handguns. The single-shot pistol typically uses high intensity loads, often in guns with interchangeable barrels of different calibers. The single-shot pistol is a sporting handgun and is used commonly for hunting and in metallic silhouette shooting. 

Autopistols (autoloading) are commonly used by target shooters. A semi-automatic gun stores multiple cartridges in a magazine and instantly reloads and recocks itself with each pull of the trigger after the first shot is fired and will continue to do so until the magazine is empty. The magazine is usually located within the grip. The most popular calibers used are the .22 Long Rifle, .25 Automatic Colt Pistol, .32 Automatic Colt Pistol, .380 Automatic Colt Pistol, 9mm, .40 Smith and Wesson, 10mm, and the .45 Automatic Colt Pistol.


Revolvers are multiple-shot handguns with a revolving cylinder at the rear of the barrel that may contain five to nine chambers in a rotating cylinder. The cylinder is loaded by inserting one cartridge into each hole or chamber. There are different calibers available for revolvers, the most common are the .22 Long Rifle, .32 Magnum, .32 H and R Magnum, .32 Smith and Wesson, .38 Special, .357 Magnum, .357 Maximum, .41 magnum, .44 Special, .44 Magnum, .454 Casull, and .50 Caliber Action Express. 

An autoloader pistol usually has some kind of external manual safety feature that will lock either the trigger and/or the firing pine when engaged, or it will prevent the hammer from reaching the firing pin or striker. Not all revolvers have an external safety feature. 

An advantage of the revolver is its ability to eject fired cartridge cases at the shooter's discretion, because they are retained in the revolver after being fired. An autoloader will throw the empty cases clear of the gun immediately after firing. Also, if a revolver cartridge fails to fire, the hammer can be cocked again or with a double action gun the trigger can be squeezed and a new round will rotate into firing position. 

An autopistol is considered to be more accurate because it fires from a single fixed chamber rather than from multiple chambers that are rotated into place. Another advantage of the autopistol is a greater cartridge capacity, which allows for more shots before having to reload.


There are two "action" types for revolvers and autopistols, single-action and double-action. Single-action guns are manually cocked before they are fired. Double-action types are fired by just pulling the trigger, usually after manually cocking the gun for the first shot. Many target shooters prefer the single-action pistol because of the finer trigger pulls.

Hunting Handguns

Hunting with a handgun is challenging because your shot must be taken at close range, typically no more than 75 yards away. Handguns lack the power and long-distance accuracy of hunting rifles. A magnifying scope sight can be used with a handgun for sighting at an extended range. For big game, common handgun cartridges are the .357 magnum, .41 magnum, and .44 magnum. A rimfire .22 can be used for shooting small game, but should have a barrel length of at least 4 inches and include an adjustable sight.

Air-Powered Handguns

Air powered handguns use compressed air or CO2 gas to propel pellets or BBs. Air guns make very little noise. All have very little if any recoil. Air guns are not very powerful but are good choices for plinking, training, and hunting small game species (where legal) at close distances.

Barrel Lengths

Revolvers and autopistols are available in barrel lengths varying from 2 to 10 inches. Most shooters prefer a handgun with either a 4 or 6 inch barrel length. Short barrel handguns can lack the accuracy capability of longer barrels. A long barrel is used as a silhouette or hunting gun for its maximum velocity.

Handgun Sights

Sighting equipment allows for more accuracy when shooting. Most handguns come equipped with open iron sights. There is a front sight that projects upward from the barrel near the muzzle and a square notched rear sight. Most of the sporting handguns and all the target handguns have adjustable rear sights allowing for adjustments of windage (horizontal) and elevation (vertical) movements. 

Fixed sights are commonly used when precise long range shooting is not the primary consideration and allows for a fast draw. Magnifying scope sights are used when shooting at targets or game over extended distances. Electronic sights are non-magnifying and show a bright colored dot projected over the target when looking through the sight.


Grips should be sized to fit the shooter's hand. This will provide better control, a consistent grip, and make it easier to shoot accurately. Grips with greater contact area can also spread recoil forces around to lessen the shock of firing. Some of the common styles are wraparound neoprene and polished wood.

Trigger Shoes

A trigger shoe is a small piece of metal that fits over the trigger to provide a greater surface area for the finger when shooting, making it more comfortable to shoot and offering better control.

Rimfire and Centerfire

Ammunition classifications for handguns are the same as for rifles: rimfire and centerfire. Rimfire guns use a cartridge with the priming compound contained in the rim of the case. These guns shoot low-cost, low-recoil .22 caliber ammunition that can't be reloaded. Many learn gun basics with a .22 rimfire before using the more powerful centerfire guns. This is a good gun for beginners, plinkers, and those hunting small game. 

Centerfire cartridges have a primer located in the center of the base of the cartridge to ignite the powder charge when struck by the firing pin or striker. These handguns usually shoot bullets of larger caliber, generate a heavy recoil, and use more costly ammunition that can be reloaded. The centerfire's power is used for big game hunting and for heavy steel metallic silhouette targets. It is also used for most recreational and competitive handgun shooting. The cartridges used for centerfire in handguns can range from the .25 to .50 caliber.

Practice Ammunition

For some applications, plastic cartridge cases and plastic bullets can be used for practicing and are reusable. Less expensive, specifically manufactured practice ammunition is available in many calibers.

Speed Loaders

A speed loader helps to reduce the time required to load a revolver's cylinder by loading all six rounds in the cylinder at once.

Handgun Holsters

Holsters allow shooters to have both hands free until they are ready to use a handgun, and keep the gun properly positioned and secured. Common styles of holster include:  full flap, high ride hip, drop-loop, western style, cross-draw, and shoulder. When purchasing a holster, make sure that it fits you and your gun properly.

Hearing Protection

All shooters should wear ear protection such as earplugs or muffs to protect their hearing from the noise inherent with shooting. Eye protection such as shooting glasses should be considered mandatory and can protect eyes from possible empty cartridge cases that may eject into the shooter's face, and bits of flying brass or lead.

Safety Tips

  • Treat every gun as if it were loaded.
  • Always point the muzzle of your gun in a safe direction -- straight up, at the ground or at the target backstop when at a shooting range.
  • Guns should always be unloaded when not in use.
  • Immediately after picking up a gun, check to see if it is loaded.
  • Keep guns and ammunition stored separately.
  • Keep guns out of the reach of children.

    (Material courtesy of National Shooting Sports Foundation)