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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