Small fish, steel fish, big fish, plastic fish.
When shopping for your first handgun, something you may concerned about is what size, and what frame material? Everyone has different needs and different capabilities.
In this portion of the guide we will be hitting on frame types and sizes. For both pistols and revolvers. As always, if you see something I missed be sure to message me on Facebook!
When it comes to frame materials or types you’re mostly limited to three options. Steel, aluminum, and polymer. Each one of these has its own unique advantages and disadvantages.
- Polymer. Polymer is the lightest frame material. Out of the three it does have the most felt recoil, but it is the most comfortable for carry. On top of being the lightweight polymer is completely rust resistant!
Pros: Comfortable for carry, especially in the summer. Doesn’t rust. Typically cheaper to buy.
Cons: More felt recoil. Not as much protection if the frame were to explode (from an overcharged round).
- Aluminum. Aluminum is advertised one of two ways, directly as aluminum, or as an alloy. Aluminum is typically lighter than steel, but this is not always the case. Aluminum framed handguns have less felt recoil than polymer, but more than steel. Aluminum frames can corrode, but they can’t rust.
Pros: Easier to shoot than polymer. Lighter weight options carry just as well as polymer, but you still get the decrease in felt recoil.
Cons: Susceptible to corrosion.
- Steel. Steel will be the heaviest option 90% of the time. The other 10% of the time it ties with aluminum in weight. Steel has the least amount of felt recoil due to it’s weight and density, but it’s the least comfortable to carry. Steel is also susceptible to rust, so proper lubrication is a must.
Pros: Least amount of felt recoil. Extremely easy to shoot.
Cons: Susceptible to rust, least comfortable to carry.
Weights for compact guns above: CZ P-07 (Polymer): 27.7oz, CZ P-01 (Aluminum): 28.1oz, CZ 75 Compact (Steel): 36.75oz.
Weights for three comparable full-size guns: Glock 17 (Polymer): 22oz, Sig Sauer 226 (Aluminum): 34oz, CZ SP-01 (Steel): 40oz
- Subcompact. Subcompacts are the 2nd smallest option on the market. Subcompacts are also the 2nd most difficult sized handgun to shoot. Due to the size felt recoil is increased as well as muzzle flip. Subcompacts are extremely easy to conceal and are very comfortable to conceal well, but at the cost of capacity.
Average Measurements: Overall Length: ~6 inches | Height: ~4 inches
- Compacts. Compacts are the “happy medium” between subcompacts and full-sized handguns. In fact, some people shoot compacts better than full-sized handguns and experience less muzzle flip. Compacts are comfortable to conceal and can easily be concealed with the right equipment.
Average Measurements: Overall Length: ~7 inches | Height: ~5 inches
- Full Size. Full-sized handguns are the largest option on the market. Full-sized handguns have the best capacity on the market (typically) and have the least amount of felt recoil. Full-sized handguns can be concealed, but it is the most difficult to conceal.
Average Measurements: Overall Length: ~8 inches | Height: ~5.5-6 inches
- Micro. Micro pistols are the smallest options on the market, typically they are chambered in .380ACP or smaller calibers. These pistols are the hardest to shoot on the market due to their size and (occasionally) lack of sights. Felt recoil is harsher than any of the above as well as muzzle flip. Micro pistols are the hardest pistols to get proficient with due to the size. Thanks to their size though, anyone can easily conceal them.
Average Measurements: Overall Length: ~5 inches (or smaller) | Height: ~3.5 inches (or smaller)
TacCat’s Opinion: Micro pistols are best served as back-up guns. Subcompacts are the smallest I would carry on a regular basis since they aren’t difficult to conceal at all; even in business attire. Typically, the biggest gun you can conceal well is what you need to be carrying. If you’re purchasing your first pistol, purchase either a compact of full-size. A subcompact or micro can turn you off of firearms due to the harsher recoil and muzzle flip. If your aim is to carry, these guns will require substantially more time to become proficient with; that’s the trade off for being very easy to conceal.
For revolvers sizes I will be using the Smith & Wesson line of revolvers, most of the revolvers on the market that aren’t Ruger or Smith & Wesson seem to be S&W copies. I will also only be going over DA/SA or DAO revolver frames.
- J-Frame. J-Frame revolvers are the smallest option you have for revolvers. Size comparison it’s placed right between a micro and a single stack subcompact pistol. J-Frames are the most difficult revolvers to handle, but are the easiest to conceal. Typically speaking J-Frame revolvers, or similar, only hold 5 rounds in the cylinder.
- K & L-Frame. K and L frames are essentially the same in size. Size comparison wise depends on the length of the barrel, but the grip is what would be full-sized for pistols. K-L Frames are typically hold anywhere from 6-8 rounds depending on the caliber. The difference between the two is that L-Frames were designed to better handle .357Magnum. As such the L-Frame’s cylinder is slightly wider and some other areas were beefed up. Due to the size of these frames, they can be difficult to conceal. Round Butt frames (round bottom of the frame) are easier though than Square Butt frames. Round Butt frames should be more comfortable for those with smaller hands. K & L-Framed revolvers are easy to shoot once you learn how to hold them.
- N-Frame. N-Frames are slightly larger than the K-L framed revolvers and was designed for use with the calibers .357Magnum and up. These revolvers are difficult to bordering impossible to conceal carry.
There are a few other frame sizes out there, but these are the most common as first time buyer will find.
TacCat’s Opinion: Revolvers are fun to shoot but I wouldn’t consider carrying one as my primary carry gun on a regular basis. Modern semi-autos are as reliable, have better capacity, and are easier to learn. If you are wanting to carry a revolver as a primary, take the time to learn how to use it efficiently.
There are… 3 types of magazines. Sort of. The first two being single stack and double stack. Pretty simple concept as you can tell by the image. Double stacks offer greater capacity but suffer from being wider. Single stacks are thinner and offer ease of concealability.
Some anecdotal claims out there claim that single stacked magazines are inherently more reliable than double stack magazines, but I have not experienced this myself.
Update: There is now 1.5 stack magazines on the market, you’ll see these with the Sig Sauer P365 and the Springfield Hellcat.
The third type of…magazine isn’t a magazine. It’s a cylinder, which is what holds the ammunition for revolvers. Cylinders come in varying widths depending on the caliber. The capacity of a cylinder also depends on the caliber and the width of the cylinder.
So, after browsing a lot of groups, hearing a lot of things, and just doing some thinking, I figured it would be beneficial to dispel the myths that I see out there encircling anything I covered in this article.
- “Revolvers are good for those with weaker hands.” I believed this because I had no experience on the matter. I have found, through the experience of those close to me, that this is unequivocally false.
The people that I know with weaker hands do have a harder time opening/closing a cylinder than they do racking a slide on some semi-autos; especially the Smith & Wesson E-Z .380.
- “Buying a gun for your girlfriend? She needs this pink Ruger LCP.” This is some gun store lore that has absolutely no rationale behind it. If you encounter it, just walk out of the store. Smaller guns=Harder to handle. If you’re a newer shooter, it’s going to be significantly easier to learn on a larger firearm (compact to full size).
Thank you for reading this part of the First Time Buyer’s Guide to Handguns! Be sure to check out the other parts linked below!
Part 2: Handgun Frames Explained (Currently On)