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5 Best Handguns for Self-Defense (Says an NRA Instructor)

Smith & Wesson Model 586
Image: Smith & Wesson.

5 Best Handguns for Self-Defense: As I write this article of what I consider the 5 Best Handguns for Self-Defense, I’ve already submitted drafts for pieces on the 5 Best Glock Pistols and 5 Best Concealed Carry Guns. All of these are highly subjective lists, of course, not to mention highly contentious. They are sure to brew up controversy, both for what they include and what they leave out. Those other two lists ran quite long, so I’m going to try to keep this one shorter ‘n sweeter.

Since I already covered CCW pistols, this time I’m not going to factor in compactness or concealability, as the more general Big Picture notion of self-defense handguns is applicable to home defense, uniformed duty carry, private citizen open carry, and so forth. 

That said, I am going to employ the same criteria that shaped my previous Top 5 lists: (1) industry-wide reputation for quality, and (2) hands-on experience that enables me to personally vouch for the guns’ practical accuracy, reliability, and handling characteristics.

So then, without further ado, and in no particular rank order…

5 Best Handguns for Self-Defense: Glock 17 9mm 

The Timex of semiautomatic pistols, it, “Takes a Licking and Keeps on Ticking.” This handgun carries right on, functioning reliably and firing accurately even after being subjected to mind-blowing torture tests. These test include: being frozen in solid blocks of ice, exposed at length to temperatures in excess of 100 degrees Celsius, immersed for hours on end in saltwater, dropped from helicopters at an altitude of 1,500 feet, having 10,000 rounds through it without being cleaned, and so on. Service life has been known to exceed 250,000 rounds! Thanks to the Polymer 2 frame, it weighs less with a fully loaded 17-round magazine than traditional all-steel and steel-aluminum alloy combo pistols do when empty. The Tenifer finish is more rust- and corrosion-resistant than stainless steel. 

Joe Biden Gun Control

Glock 17. Image: Creative Commons.

Gun Sales Crime

Image: Creative Commons.

Also, goshdarnit, they’re just plain fun to shoot. I’ve put roughly 20,000 rounds though my Generation 2 Glock in 17 years.

5 Best Handguns for Self-Defense: Glock 21SF .45 ACP

Yes, a second Glock made the list. Though it hasn’t yet established the G17’s mind boggling same reputation for reliability and survivability, the G21SF (“Short Frame”) definitely has carried forward the Glock brand’s reputation for quality, and with a bigger bore to boot. In spite of the bigger .45 ACP cartridge, the gun is remarkably ergonomical. 

It is also super accurate; I daresay it’s the most accurate handgun in my so-called “Orr-senal of Democracy,” as I used it to win (1) 1st Prize at the GSSF Indoor Pistol Match at LAX Firing Range back in 2009 and (2) multiple gold and silver medals at the Nevada Police & Fire Games (NPAF) Semiauto Pistol matches between 2008 and 2010. 

Glock 21SF

Glock 21SF. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Plenty of other gun writers have noted the G21SF’s accuracy. To quote my friend Lou Chiodo, President of Gunfighters Ltd. in Chula Vista, Cali., “The 21 is a tack driver if we do our part.”

I’d guesstimate that I’ve fired in the neighborhood of 15,000 rounds through my Gen3 G21SF in the 14 years that I’ve owned her.

5 Best Handguns for Self-Defense: Beretta 92FS AKA M9

Ah yes, the controversial Beretta, the pistol that replaced the legendary M1911 .45 ACP as the U.S. Armed Forces’ standard issue pistol. In spite of all the controversy, it served in that same official capacity for 33 years before being replaced in turn by the SIG P320 AKA M17/M18. 

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: Beretta is not only the world’s oldest gunmaker. They are the world’s oldest industrial firm of any kind, dating back to 1526, so you figure they must be doing something right. And when old-school M1911-loving authorities like Bill Wilson and Ken Hackathorn praise the Beretta 92 as “the most reliable handgun I ever used,” that oughta make you sit up and take notice.

Beretta 92FS

Beretta 92FS. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

As I’ve also said repeatedly, the Beretta 92F was the first firearm I ever truly fell in love with, back in November 1989 at the age of 14. I actually own three of them — two collectors’ editions, and one in the factory-standard matte black Bruniton finish — and since 2002 they have combined for probably 20,000 rounds of superb functioning. I’d consider the Beretta M9 to be a very close second to the Glock 21SF as the most accurate handgun in my collection. (Well, okay, it is tied for second place with the next gun on my list.)

In 1999, in my first year as a USAF Security Forces troop (HOOAH!), the M9 helped me earn a device for an AF Small Arms Expert Ribbon. Fast-forward to the 2010s, and this beloved pistol helped make me the top shot in training classes for my Japan and Kosovo security contract assignments, as well as being recognized as the most accurate shooter at my local International Defensive Pistol Association matches.

5 Best Handguns for Self-Defense: Ruger GP-100 .357 Magnum 

Gotta have at least one double-action revolver on the list, right? The Ruger GP-100 is my favorite wheelgun, hands down. If the Glock 17 is the Timex of semiautomatic pistols, then the Ruger GP-100 is the Timex of revolvers, thanks to the investment casting construction and triple-locking cylinder. To reiterate what I said in my standalone article on the gun, “The GP-100 will keep on perking right along after being subjected to loads that will literally blow up a Smith or Colt. When you see reloading manuals with sections that state ‘For Ruger Guns Only,’ that oughta tell you something.”

Ruger GP100

Image: Creative Commons.

Not only that, but between that heavy-duty construction and the rubber grips, the gun is an absolute joy to shoot, enabling superb accuracy and shooting comfort even with full-house Magnum loads. A factory stock GP-100 enabled me to win several gold and silver medals during the Revolver matches at those aforementioned NPAF events, even though all of my fellow competitors were using tricked-out Smith & Wessons.

19 years and 20,000 rounds later, my Ruger shows no signs of slowing down. 

5 Best Handguns for Self-Defense: Springfield Armory Mil-Spec M1911-A1 .45 ACP

So much has been written about the iconic and ubiquitous M1911 .45 auto — arguably still the most popular combat and competition pistol of all time — that I’m not going to go into too much detail here. As I previously mentioned in my standalone article on the M1911 platform, on one hand it was the second pistol I fell in love with after the Beretta M9, but on the other hand, only one out of the six M1911s I’ve owned in my lifetime has been reliable out-of-the-box, that being my Springfield Armory Mil-Spec. It is accurate, reliable with “hardball” and jacketed hollowpoint ammo alike, features slim ergonomics, and, since I got the stainless steel option, it is maintenance-friendly as well. This handgun is still going strong after 19 years and 20,000 rounds. (Yeah, I know, starting to sound like a broken record here). 

Springfield Armory M1911-A1

Springfield Armory M1911-A1. Image Credit: Industry Handout.


So then, which of my selections do you agree with and which ones do y’all absolutely despise?  Which of my omissions were the most glaringly egregious in your humble opinions? Please let us know in the Comments section, but please also keep the hate-filled obscenities to a minimum, heh heh heh…

Christian D. Orr has 33 years of shooting experience, starting at the tender age of 14. His marksmanship accomplishments include: the Air Force Small Arms Ribbon w/one device (for M16A2 rifle and M9 pistol); Pistol Expert Ratings from U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP), Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) Criminal Investigator Training Program (CITP); multiple medals and trophies via the Glock Sport Shooting Foundation (GSSF) and the Nevada Police & Fires Games (NPAF). Chris has been an NRA Certified Basic Pistol Instructor since 2011.  

Written By

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).



  1. Paperpushermj

    July 27, 2022 at 7:19 pm

    357 mag. is too powerful to be discharged in an apartment building

  2. Charles R Thomas

    July 27, 2022 at 9:01 pm

    Colt Commander ,5 in mag one in chamber 3.5 barrell ,plenty of knock down !

  3. Jim

    July 27, 2022 at 10:38 pm

    Depends on the ammo.

  4. Robert Byczek

    July 28, 2022 at 10:00 am

    Having also been with the local Sheriffs Department, now retired, I have to agree the Glock 21 which we carried just plain works. Great duty weapon, not paticular on the fodder you feed it nor the cleanliness. We had the Gen 1, which for smaller hands could be a problem. Before the “blocks” we carried S&W 686’s which we found excellant. The S&W 3913 was also carried for a few years. Small frames, everyone could handle. As a reserve officer my first carry weapon was my 1911 Gold Cup and yes, there were times I was one of the few to qualify 100 %. As a NRA Certified Instructor also, in my classes I cover with the students when they choose a weapon 1st, Purpose.. 2nd Fit.. 3rd Shootability.. Don’t buy something you can’t handle recoil wise nor something you can’t afford to practice with. The only choice I personally disagree with you on is the Glock 17. I would replace that with the FNH FNX 9. DA/SA and ambi controls. Especially for new shooters the DA in itself is a safety advantage over a 4 lb striker fire, just my two cents. Shoot fast, Shoot straight, Shoot safe L1844

  5. Reggie Lenard

    July 29, 2022 at 12:34 pm

    Honorable mention goes to the S&W 9mm MP Shield!

  6. Pablo Molo

    July 31, 2022 at 9:26 pm

    I like your list. BUT (there’s always a “but”) I disagree with your choice of a revolver -of any kind or maker- as a viable self defense gun.
    I have no military or police background, just an opinion from a guy who shoot since the 90’s

  7. phil stacy

    August 17, 2022 at 1:53 pm

    Glock 40 for large men. Heavy bullets almost as wide as .45, three times the load of a revolver, ammunition more powerful than .357. Not a gun for women.

  8. Daddy

    August 24, 2022 at 4:55 pm

    If you can only have one gun, get a Glock 19.
    Fine for home defense, and you can conceal carry it if you really have to.

  9. Ken

    August 24, 2022 at 7:24 pm

    I will stick with my old reliable friend Mr 1911-45. With almost 80 years of service to our military killing America’s enemies, its good enough for me. All those other weapons have their place, But I know him very well and trust he will not fail me, when SHTF!

  10. Saxons Wrath

    August 24, 2022 at 10:15 pm

    The Glock 23 is a better choice. It shoots, stock, the .40 S&W, and with conversion barrels, the 9MM and .357 SIG. One gun capable of shooting 3 separate calibers. Cheaper than 3 guns!!

  11. Mike Nicastro

    December 25, 2022 at 8:30 am

    I might have added S&W M&P 9MM 17 Rd. & Shield, plus Sig Sauer P238 to the list. Both are great pistols.

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