Reliability First

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to be able to take a handgun class from the great Ken Hackathorn. Ken not only has one of the most impressive mustaches in the industry, but also one of the most impressive instructor resumes, dating back to the earliest days of Gunsite Academy. During one segment of the class, Ken shared his recommendations for gear, and the criteria he uses to select it. Regarding handguns for self-defense, he says there are five factors to consider, and the first three are reliability*.

I tend to agree with that priority, and have passed along Ken’s wisdom numerous times when people have asked me for advice on shopping for their first handgun for concealed carry. And that’s why I always prepare to cringe when I ask the follow-up question, “what’s your budget?”

Folks tend to answer either with some form of “tell me how much I should spend and I’ll make it work”, or with a distressingly low pre-determined figure that, by some strange coincidence, almost always happens to be “about $300.” Ideally, after giving the novice shooter a better idea of what a quality handgun actually costs, they are willing to raise their budget by a hundred bucks or so, which would open up their options significantly. But not everyone is willing or able to stretch the budget past their initial limit, and I really hate to tell somebody that their only options are “something terrible or nothing.” 

The way I see it, there are three possible ways to approach the problem of buying a reliable concealed carry pistol on a tight budget of $300 or less.

Option 1: Budget-Priced New Handguns

This option is almost a non-starter. There are a handful of carry pistols on the market that typically retail for under $300 new, but none of them are guns I would recommend without some serious hesitation, especially for a new shooter. I’m not saying you can’t get a reliable new carry handgun for $300 or less. I’m saying you can’t get a reliable new carry handgun for under $300 that you’ll actually want to shoot. 

Budget pistols come with low price tags for a reason. Most of the time, the sacrifice is usability, quality, or both. Poor quality means spotty reliability due to inferior design and/or poor quality control at the factory. Sure, 9 out of 10 of the guns off the line might work great, but what about the rest? I’m not recommending a pistol to a new shooter than has a 10% chance of being a lemon.

Ruger LCP
The diminuitive .380 ACP Ruger LCP is one of the most popular carry guns on the market, but a terrible choice for novice shooters.

Then there are the pistols with decent reliability but are difficult to shoot. An experienced shooter might be able to deal with poor usability, but it takes a lot of trigger time. The Ruger LCP is a great example. It often retails for under $300 and as far as I know, there is nothing inherently wrong with the design that would make it particularly unreliable. But the extreme light weight makes them really miserable to shoot. Novice gun owners are instantly turned off by shooting these kinds of pistols, and even if they carry one, they will have no confidence in their ability to use it.

If someone already owns a “cheap” gun and they like shooting it, and it’s not prone to malfunctions, then there’s probably no good reason to persuade them to upgrade. But if they haven’t made the purchase yet, I usually skip over the “under $300 new” budget-pistol category and move right on to…

Option 2: Used Handguns

There are a few halfway-decent options that may be a bit over the $300 limit when new, but with a little luck, a used one will be priced right within reach. Something like the single stack 9mm Kahr CW9 comes to mind. Decent reputation for reliability, easy to conceal, and still has a large enough grip for most people to hang on to. It has a long DAO trigger, and enough recoil to be a challenge to handle, but it’s not painful the same way the inexpensive polymer micro .380 pistols tend to be. It wouldn’t be my first choice for an inexperienced handgun shooter, but it’s also a gun that a dedicated novice could learn to manage with a moderate amount of practice. On a budget, you could do much, much worse.

Kahr CW9
Kahr makes budget versions of their own pistols, like the CW9, which is functionally identical to the more expensive Kahr P9, minus a few bells and whistles.

Finding a real bargain on the used market typically means showing up early at gun shows, calling around to local shops, or daily checking various online classifieds and auction sites. It can take a lot of work to find a good deal, but that’s the easiest workaround for defying the oxymoron of budget quality handguns. But if someone is willing to put in that much effort, there are some additional options within the used category that a lot of people forget about…

Option 3: Trade-In and Surplus

When you can find them, another potential source for sub-$300 carry pistols is the police trade-in and military surplus market. Usually this means full size handguns like .40 S&W Glock 22 pistols that police departments sell off in bulk when they acquire new firearms. However, sometimes compact size trade-ins sometimes show up on the market, often from Europe where small, single stack semi-autos were at one time very common side arms for military and police.

These pistols usually come in batches that may last only days before selling out, or they may come in larger lots that sit on store shelves for months before the supply is depleted. If you keep an eye on shops and websites that tend to carry this kind of thing, there are some amazing deals to be had. For example, about six years ago, a European police trade-in Sig P6 pistol in excellent condition could easily be found from several retailers for right around $300. For an 8-shot 9mm, they are large by today’s standards, but sticking with the “reliability first” mantra, you’d normally be hard pressed to find that much quality for that little cash.

Makarov PM
Once one of the best deals available in budget-priced carry guns, prices have quickly risen on the much-loved Makarov PM pistol

Then, of course, there is the beloved Makarov PM; heavy, rugged, reliable, and the closest thing we have to “the AK of handguns.” For a long time, these were the favorite for the budget-minded carry permit holder. $250 for a pistol and another $75 for a case of ammo. Of course, the dirt cheap surplus 9mm Mak ammo dried up, and eventually so did the once-ample stream of imported pistols. They are still great handguns, if you don’t mind the weight and tiny sights, but with today’s prices creeping up closer to $400, they’re not quite the bargain they once were.

I don’t bring up these bygone deals just to be nostalgic. The good deals tend to hit U.S. shores in waves, so if you watch and wait, something cool will eventually show up again at bargain basement prices. But even now, with just a few minutes of searching, I did find some CZ-82 and CZ-83 pistols for sale, some at well under $300. For a few years prior to the gun buying frenzy of 2013, the surplus 9×18 Makarov-chambered CZ-82 pistols were available from multiple sources for even less than $200. Today, most retailers that had them have sold out, but smaller lots of both the CZ-82 and its .380 ACP brother, the CZ-83 have been occasionally popping up. The prices are a few dollars higher and the finish on the guns a little rougher than the ones that were being sold a couple of years ago. But for a carry gun, I would put the little Czech pistols up against any “budget” priced pistol on the market in terms of reliability and shootability.

Coming Soon: The Lucky Gunner Sub-$300 Carry Pistol Experiment

The CZ-83 is a compact, double-stack .380, and currently one of the best values available on the trade-in market.

Of course, it’s easy for me to just say that. “Oh, you’re on a budget? Don’t buy a slim little polymer pistol that’s easy to carry, get this beat up looking chunk of European steel, instead!” But I really do think reliability comes first, and that budget-minded shooters don’t have to settle for guns that either don’t work or they don’t want to shoot. To prove the point, Lucky Gunner has acquired a surplus CZ-83, and over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to carry it, shoot it, and let some novice shooters to try it out in order to demonstrate that it is possible to buy a shootable, reliable carry gun on a tight budget. 

In the meantime, let us know what budget guns you own or have tried. I’m sure I’ve missed some of today’s best bargains, so if you think it’s possible to get a quality carry gun on a budget, tell us about it.


* For the curious, the fourth factor is “chambered in a caliber you can fire effectively” and number five is “chambered in a caliber that is capable of stopping a threat.”

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  • Claude Wilson

    I have two CZ’s a 75b and an 85. Both are nail driver. Best I have ever had. I use to own Glocks until I shot my cz’s. Got rid of the glocks

    • LG Chris

      The CZ-75 is a larger gun than most people want to carry, but I have seen surplus ones available for around $300-350 on occasion.

  • Claude Wilson

    OH: by the way mine were a little more than $300……..

  • Dan Miller

    Just a hair over $300, depending on your area, I recommend the Taurus PT111 Millennium G2. Superb carry piece, great ergonomics, and 12+1 capacity.

  • Joseph Lombardi

    I agree about the ruger 380 had one did not like it at all!! I love my glocks 19& 23

  • Jonathan K Bolick

    Sig arms B6P, Bersa Thunder 380CC. Not bad guns for around $300. No Issues nearly 1000 rounds through both. 2 friends with Kimber and Sig more issues than my guns.

    • LG Chris

      I think you mean SAR Arms B6P.

    • John Branham

      Both great guns

  • Joseph Labeck

    Ruger SR9c for about 400 with 2 mags. Pretty much the perfect balance of budget, ease of carry, and quality. no malfunctions, ever, and I took out the mag disconnect because it’s stupid.

  • Shawn Hinzman

    You forgot about Bersa!!!

    • LG Chris

      I wouldn’t say I forgot, exactly…

  • Kagan Strayer

    Arcus 98DA is a great gun. It is a copy of the HP and is just as reliable. You can get one for around $300-$400.

  • Dan Moit

    SCCY makes a inexpensive, quality compact 9mm.

    • Tom Hoffmaster

      I bought a SCCY 9mm dbl. stack for around $300. Really like it, like the safety, never liked a s/auto with out a safety.

  • Tod Wilkens

    Taurus slim PT740 is a great little hand gun. Just over $300.00 handles great.

  • Dean Graunke

    Ruger Blackhawk .44 mag 4000 rds. through it not one problem.
    ccw Para-ordnance .40 cal 2000 rds flawless.( much more than $300.)

  • Dan Moit

    Can’t wait for the follow up on the CZ 83. I have one and like it, but never considered carrying it.

  • Brian Hainsworth

    Article stresses reliability – what about a revolver? A snub nose .38 fits the bill and if you shop around, the price.

    • LG Chris

      For the purposes of the artcile, I’m assuming the shopper is a fairly inexperienced shooter, and for them, a snub nose revolver would be a poor choice. I’m also not aware of any quality revolvers that are commonly available for $300 (S&W, Ruger, or Colt).

    • Brian Hainsworth

      Agreed! A snub would do sh*t for aim at say… 10+ft.? And a new revolver with good rep at $300? Yep, a hard find, to say the least. Used are even typically more, but as you advised, take your time and shop around.
      As regards inexperience, though, a simple, proven design might be best. Either, or – good article and always a good idea to seek out someone experienced to help with this.

  • Eugene Green

    Most dealers are selling LCPs for over 300.00

  • Gene Lester

    Bersa Thunder 380, super reliable, shoots great, easy to carry. Kel-Tec PF9, very reliable, easy to conceal, well made. Kel-Tec P11, double stack 9mm, super reliable, still easy to carry concealed, easy to shoot. All of these can be had new for under 300.

    • LG Chris

      I know a lot of people really like their Kel-Tecs, but far too many of them exhibit serious problems for me to recommend them. And the PF9 probably has some of the worst handling characteristics of any gun I’ve ever fired. If you like yours, then great, but they are terrible for the shooting novice.

    • Gene Lester

      LG Chris, strange, I’ve known lots of people with them and have yet to find anyone that have had any problems with them. At least, unlike some expensive handguns like Glocks, they will shoot almost any ammo you put through them, and they will shoot reloads. Most of the reviews by other “experts” give the Kel-Tecs good marks. I might not be an “expert” since I’ve only been shooting all types of weapons since about 1965, and spent over 20 years in the Army teaching people to shoot various weapons from handguns to machine guns, but I have a pretty good idea what I like in a inexpensive hand gun, and the only problem I have with the Kel-Tec is pretty much the same I have with most DA handguns presently out there, is trigger pull, and the plastic grips. There are solutions for both, but for the most part, it is one thing to recommend a cheap handgun, the most important thing with any handgun is safety training, practice, more safety training and practice, no matter what brand it is.

  • Guy Byers

    I carried a CZ82 for several yrs, until I bought my Glock 23.

    • thisisntajoke

      glock 23’s are nice first gun i ever shot probably the only reason i like em hahaha.

  • Andy Rounds

    love this site

  • Christopher Savoie

    I love my 9*18 makarov

  • Steven Loucks

    Good DA Revolvers are all over the place. I payed $150 for a S&W Chiefs special Air – Weight 38, in a pawn shop. You can’t get any simpler to use and there is nothing more reliable than maybe a club. There is also a potency factor, a .380 has about as much knockdown power as a rock. I paid the same for a Dan Wesson .357mag a few years ago and with 142gr truncated cone FMJ’s it will stop a wild Boar head on, try that with .380 or 9mm. (The analogy is body armor).

  • Scott Loiselle

    Would like to see you review the Smith & Wesson M&P Shield. Comes in both 9mm and 40 calibers and isn’t too bad on the pocketbook ($430). I purchased one for concealment purposes and it’s a GREAT little gun for the money, in my humble opinion.

    • LG Chris

      The S&W Shield will be covered in an upcoming video. Can’t say when exactly, but sometime in the next couple of months. Here’s a preview: 9mm Shield is good.

  • Jimmy D’Alessio Jr.

    Does your life have a price tag ? Then spend a few hundred more , and get a Sig/Sauer P226 !

    • LG Chris

      Does your life have a price tag? Hire a full time body guard! Seriously though, “a few hundred more” is a LOT of money to someone who is already struggling to get by. I wish I could persuade everyone who’s shopping for a budget pistol to “just save a little more” and get something better, but it’s not always that simple. As long as they’re pinching pennies on a firearm purchase, I’d rather them get something decent than the first POS in the gun counter that happens to be in their price range.

    • Jimmy D’Alessio Jr.

      LG Chris O.K. , Then why a semi-auto when a revolver is much cheaper , a name brand one used in .38/.357 can be bought used from $200.00 , and won’t jam , and an inexperienced user having a business jam on a cheaper semi can be deadly for the user ….I have gotten one in .357 hammerless for my wife (Ruger SP series) , if it doesn’t fire …click again …what’s the chance of 2 bad rounds .

      • thisisntajoke

        what about broken firing pins? cylinder misalignment? trigger breaking? i know all these could happen to a semi (minus the cylinder) but don’t ever say something works 100% every time because thats just foolish and a lie.

  • Brian Lawn

    I agree with you Chris…if the individual could save up a little extra, that would open up a better selection. Just bought a new Walther ppx, 4″, 9mm, $400.00 out the door. Even trying to find ammo these days become a chore!

  • Don Fortune

    I don’t claim to be an expert, but a good cc gun is the one you will carry all the time.

  • Bob Kline

    I love my Sig P230. 15 years not faulty action of any kind!

  • Jesse Stone

    Ruger LC9. Bought it brand new just under $400 before taxes, just over after. 9mm is some of the cheapest ammo so it makes practice much cheaper, admittedly because you may need it. On the down side it has a fist full of snappy recoil but not unmanageable, with a few hundred rounds of practice, it’s not that bad. Plus side, cheap 9mm ammo, it will eat nearly anything stuffed in it with little complaint, even cheap remanufactured junk and I’m not a great shot but I’m putting down 3-4″ groups at 10 yards after 700 or 800 rounds. I personally love the little guy, one of my favorite handguns.

  • Jonathan Jones

    Sig P250 9mm is as low as $330 right now. Bigger side of carry but it seems almost too good at that price.

  • L.A. McKenney

    I’m seeing the beretta nano for $299 at my local buds gun shop

  • Janet Austin

    I need to carry in my lab jacket pocket…lightweight small is necessity
    inexpensive ammo would be good too
    what do you all recommend?

    • Erik Dickison

      Ruger LCP or Kel Tec P3AT. Both are .380 autos and very slim. No snag and no manual safety. They are snappy because of their size…but you arent trying to hit a bullseye at 50′, their purpose is to hit an assilant at less that 10′, and they both will do the job.

  • Michael Goldman

    New Glock 42 in .380 for $400

    • thisisntajoke

      might as well get a bersa thunder

  • David Armstrong

    High point 9mm or 380 inexpensive

    • thisisntajoke

      heard some horror stories blow up in your face reports not chancing it

  • Bradley Friday

    I like the hi point handguns like the c9 never seen one jam

  • Tyler Cavaness

    Jimenez 9 mm. For $100 its not bad. Heavy as hell and won’t cycle hollow point but its reliable for the most part.

  • Jonathan Green

    Helwan 9 mm aa little heavy barrel around 4 12″ ,rather heavy kick 1990 model , somewhat reliable and dependable , will trade for smaller good 9mm

  • Amanda Doolin

    I have a ruger lc9 for trade. I want a bigger size 9mm its too small for me handsize wise

  • thisisntajoke

    ruger p94 p95

    • Rick

      P95 best ever most reliable gun I’ve ever owned, yet I admit I haven’t owned many. Nevertheless,I’ve put thousands of rounds, never a hang!

  • Pilonius

    Had a Makarov many years ago – should have kept it. But traded away on a HP clone. Everyday carry nowadays is now an LCP. First time I shot it… I hated it, it’s not fun. But I later bought it, and then carried it… perfect for when you don’t want to dress around it. I’ve gotten used to shooting it. Now if only 380 ammo was cheaper…

  • Will Leigh

    People often forget that semi-autos aren’t the things that sling slugs downrange. You can pick up a used S&W Model 64 at a gun show for under $300 (I picked up mine for $250). Granted, you’re not gonna be wearing hip-huggers with this sucker, but, for a budget price you get an accurate handgun that hits decently hard (with +P ammo) and is reliable enough to cart around with you during the Zompocalypse.

  • Derek Youlander