For $500 to $1000, you can outfit yourself with a very nice, name-brand pistol. And for people with $500-$1000 to spend on a handgun, it's a good situation. Unfortunately, not everyone can afford to simply ring up a brand new H&K P7 on the ol' credit card. Whether you're a PTer on a limited income, a nearly broke college student, or simply have fallen on hard times, there are still viable options out there for you. So let's take a look - how much handgun can you get for $200 or less? Before we begin, though, let's set some guidelines.
What do I want a handgun for?
If you're on a tight budget and looking for a competitive target pistol, you're out of luck. While there are some bargain target pistols, they're all still fairly expensive. I'm sorry, but you'll have to save up more money or arrange to use/borrow/rent someone else's. If you're looking for a hunting weapon, you're also out of luck. The bargain rifles on the market are far better suited for hunting use (and cheaper than the pistols, too). That leaves us with only one more possible purpose for a bargain handgun: self-defense. Fortunately, this is a task that an inexpensive pistol can perform quite well.
A defensive pistol should be really small, right?
Not necessarily. A small pistol offers only one advantage over a larger model: easier concealability, and this advantage is often overestimated. Appropriate methods for concealing a pistol obviously vary with climate and social standards of dress, but in general, a medium sized or large pistol can be concealed without much difficulty. This is easier in colder regions, but can be done in nearly any environment with some creative thinking.
Keeping in mind the one advantage of a small pistol, consider the disadvantages. Smaller guns are more difficult to operate than larger guns. Small pistols have small controls (safety, magazine release, and the like) and small sights (assuming they have any sights at all). Clearing a malfunction in a small pistol is much more difficult (particularly under stress) than clearing the same malfunction in a large pistol. The same general rule applies to reloading - it's easier with a bigger gun (and its correspondingly larger magazines and magazine well). Because of these factors, a small pistol is significantly more difficult to manipulate under stress than a large pistol.
Furthermore, small pistols use small cartridges. Common small pistol cartridges like .22LR, .25ACP, .32ACP, and .380 can undeniably kill a person, but they will not reliably stop
a person. The goal in a defensive shooting is to cause your attacker to cease attacking as quickly as possible. A large caliber can do this reliably; a small caliber cannot.
The only reason to purchase a very small pistol is if you need a weapon immediately and nothing else is available. Several of the pistols we will look at here are not much larger than the vest-pocket .25s and .32s, but pack much more punch and are much easier to operate efficiently.
Is there really anything good under 200 bucks?
Frankly, yes and no. For this kind of price (and keep in mind that prices vary from place to place), you will not get a superb pistol. It won't be particularly accurate and it certainly won't win any beauty contests. But it you choose carefully, it will be comfortable to shoot, accurate enough for all practical uses, entirely reliable, and durable enough to last you a good many years.
As is to be expected, not all pistols under $200 will be functional, much less desirable. Much of the time you get exactly what you pay for, and worthless guns are common in this price range. Rather than examining every pistol that you might find (a task worthy of a lengthy book, considering the number of different pistols made now and in the past) I've concentrated on the best and most common makes.
So why is it that so many pistols fetch prices of $1000 and up when a quite function piece can be had for less than a fifth that cost? Well, basic handgun technology is nothing new. The Colt 1911 was designed nearly 100 years ago, and is still one of the most common handguns around. Double-action revolvers date back even farther and are still ubiquitous today. New innovations are relatively few and far between, and none of them have rendered older weapons ineffective. A Colt Peacemaker will kill you just as dead as a Glock will.
One quick note about calibers - there are several different common cartridges which are 9mm in diameter, but differ in length. The standard 9mm known as 9mm Luger and 9mm Parabellum) is 9x19mm. Slightly shorter is the 9mm Makarov cartridge, which is 9x18mm. Shorter still is the .380, which is 9x17mm. None of these cartridges are interchangeable with each other.
Now that we've got all these factors in mind, let's have a look at some pistols.
Star Model B, Model B Super
Caliber: 9mm Parabellum
Approximate Price: $150-$200+
The Star Model B and B Super are Spanish-made loose copies of the Colt 1911. Few parts are interchangeable between the two, but the ergonomics are very similar. It has a slightly longer grip than the 1911, as it was initially designed for 9x23mm ammunition, but thanks to its single-stack magazine it is still comfortable even for people with smaller hands. Major differences from the 1911 include an external extractor, no grip safety, and a magazine disconnect.
* Because they have the size and weight of a full size .45 but fire 9mm, the Stars are very comfortable guns to shoot. Recoil and muzzle flip are light, allowing for fast follow-up shots.
* The 9mm ammunition they fire is the cheapest centerfire pistol ammo on the market.
* Accuracy is pretty good - no prize-winning groups, but shooting one ragged hole at 7 yards isn't uncommon for a Star in good condition.
* Their reliability is excellent.
* Being originally military sidearms, Stars usually won't feed hollowpoint ammunition.
* Spare parts are very difficult to find, as Star has gone out of business. Your best bet for spare parts is to simply buy two Stars of the same model.
A Good Buy? Yes.
Jennings Model J9
Approximate Price: $50-$100
Jennings is one of several manufacturers of very cheap pistols. They also offer smaller pieces in .22, .25, .32, and .380, but those are too small for our requirements.
* They look halfway decent.
* In an emergency, you can distract an attacker by throwing your Jennings at him.
* They're just about the least expensive new-production handgun around.
* Reliability is a term that generally does not apply to Jennings pistols. Don't expect any of them to cycle a whole magazine without malfunctioning.
* Durability is also an attribute ignored by Jennings. These pistols are made out of weak zinc alloys, and break in all sorts of interesting (and catastrophic) ways.
* Even if you can get your Jennings to fire multiple times, you'll still have nothing worth speaking of. Accuracy with Jennings pistols is poor to abysmal.
A Good Buy? No.
Caliber: 9x18mm Makarov
Approximate Price: $100-$200
The Makarov (mah-KAR-ohv) is a Cold War era Warsaw Pact military issue sidearm. They were manufactured and issued by several nations, including China, the USSR, Bulgaria, and East Germany. The best quality are the East German ones, but they are more expensive. The best buy today is a Bulgarian one - quality is quite good, and they are the most easily available. These are simple and fairly small weapons, and very popular with their owners. There are some Russian commercial Makarovs available that have widened frames and use 10- and 12-round magazines, but not very many. There are also a few available in .380 caliber. Skip these for ones chambered in 9x18 Makarov.
* Accuracy is usually very good with these pistols
* Makarovs have an excellent reputation for reliability, with both FMJ and hollowpoint ammunition.
* Their small size makes them more easily concealable than many other pistols.
* Their 9x18mm ammunition is the weakest caliber I would recommend for
* defensive handgun. It will suffice, but even 9mm Parabellum is more potent.
* Some shooters find the Makarov uncomfortable to shoot. Others find it just fine. Handling or firing one before buying is always a good idea, but particularly so for a Makarov.
A Good Buy? Yes.
Caliber: 9x18mm Makarov
Approximate Price: $100-$150
The FEG PA-63 is a Cold War era Hungarian pistol. FEG originally made copies of the Walther PP and PPK in .32 and .380, but later diverged a bit from the PP design and introduced the PA-63 in the 9x18 Makarov caliber. This pistol looks similar to a PP, but has a few differences. It was used for some time as a standard Hungarian military and police sidearm, and now many are available on the surplus market in the US.
* Small and concealable - the PA-63 is smaller and lighter than most other pistols in 9x18 caliber, including the Makarov.
* Being based on the excellent Walther PP design, the PA-63 is a very reliable gun.
* Like the Makarov, the PA-63 uses 9x18 ammunition, which is not a very potent cartridge. Better than .32 or .380, but not by too much.
* Because of its light weight, the PA-63 has stiff recoil. While some shooters may not mind this, shooting comfort is an important issue for a defensive weapon.
* PA-63s often have stiff and heavy triggers, making accurate shooting more difficult.
A Good Buy? Yes.
Caliber: 7.62x25mm Tokarev
Approximate Price: $100-$150
Another Cold War pistol, the CZ-52 was introduced in Czechoslovakia in (as the name suggests) 1952. It is a big hulk of a pistol, and fires the 7.62x25mm cartridge, a high velocity bottlenecked round. It utilizes a roller-locking action, rather than the straight blowback mechanism common in Warsaw Pact handguns. Some were converted to 9mm Parabellum, but these are much less common than the original 7.62 versions.
* Reliability is generally quite good with these pistols.
* Their long sight radius (the barrel is 120mm/4.75" long) makes aiming a CZ-52 easier than smaller pistols.
* The 7.62x25mm cartridge is definitely a step up from 9x18mm in power.
* The ergonomics of the CZ-52 are about what Ayn Rand would expect from a bunch of communists. They're blocky and awkward to handle.
* There are several weak part in the CZ-52, particularly the firing pin and rollers. Both can be replaced, and should be if you plan to trust your life to the pistol (new manufactured parts can be purchased through Makarov.com, at http://www.makarov.com/cz52/index.html)
* The CZ-52 is a large and bulky pistol, not well suited for concealed carry.
A Good Buy? Yes.
Caliber: 9mm Parabellum, .40 S&W, .45 ACP
Capacity: 10+1, 8+1, and 7+1
Approximate Price: $100-$175
Hi-Point manufactures a line of very inexpensive pistols including four models which meet our criteria - a 9mm, 9mm compact, .40S&W, and .45 ACP. They are all straight blowback operated, a mechanism generally considered appropriate only for calibers weaker than 9mm. Because of this operating mechanism, the slides of Hi-Points must be large and massive, resulting in uncomfortably top-heavy weapons. The opinion of most experienced pistol shooters is that a Hi-Point is no better than a Jennings, and only one step up from a surprise meeting with a gang of ATF goons. However, those who own and shoot Hi-Points almost always have good things to say about them. They are not inherently inaccurate pistols, although their ergonomics hamper good shooting. If a Hi-Point is all you can get it will certainly be better than no gun - but almost anything else will be easier to shoot well and more durable in the long term.
* .40S&W and .45 ACP variants are two of the few inexpensive pistols in major calibers.
* oint offers a very good warranty - they will fix any broken pistol free of charge.
* oints are made out of a zinc alloy which is not particularly durable. Expect some parts breakage is you put more than a few hundred round through one in a year.
* ergonomics of these guns are pretty abysmal. They are all blowback operated, and have huge slides in order to function properly. As a result, the balance and feel of a Hi-Point is quite poor.
Good Buy? Yes, barely.
Caliber: .45 ACP
Capacity: 7+1 or 8+1
Approximate Price: $200-$200+
The Ballester-Molina was developed as a military and police service pistol in Argentina in the late 1930s. The pistols were made between 1938 and 1953. Contrary to the false rumors that they were made using steel salvaged from sunken German warships, these Argentinean weapons are of quite high quality. They are a rough copy of the Colt 1911 - the main changes involve the removal of the grip safety and some modifications to the trigger mechanism. As a result, only the barrels and magazines are interchangeable with standard 1911 pistols.
* Ballester-Molina is chambered in .45 ACP, which is an excellent and powerful cartridge.
* It shares the Colt 1911's excellent ergonomics. Unlike many inexpensive pistols, the Ballester-Molina's controls are very well suited to combat use.
* Another result of its 1911 lineage (as well as being made with fairly loose clearances) is very reliable.
* As with the CZ-52, the long sight radius of the Ballester-Molina allows more accurate shooting.
* Parts (other than barrels) are difficult to come by for these weapons.
Good Buy? Yes.
Caliber: .38 Special, .357 Magnum
Capacity: 5 or 6
Approximate Price: $150-$200+
The different makes and models of revolvers are functionally very similar (and there are a lot of different models), so I won't break down the specific models here. The best of the bunch are Colt and Smith & Wesson guns, closely followed by Taurus and Charter Arms. Rossi revolvers are also good, although not quite up to the level of the other makers. The Spanish Astra revolvers should be avoided. There are a number of other smaller manufacturers, but stick with a Colt or S&W if possible - they're easy enough to find that it's not worth the risk of buying a revolver of unknown quality. While they are available in many calibers, the only two you are likely to find under $200 are .38 Special and .357 Magnum. The Magnum is a better choice (and often more expensive), as it can fire both .38 Special and the significantly more powerful .357. They are also available in a variety of barrel lengths, most commonly from 2.5" to 4". I would suggest a 3" or 4", as the really short snubbies can be difficult to shoot accurately, due to short sight radii and heavy recoil (particularly in .357).
* A revolver is simpler to operate and simpler to maintain than a semiauto.
* A revolver is a more versatile weapon than an auto, as it can be loaded with a wide variety of ammunition (birdshot, wadcutters, hollowpoints, etc) without any functionality problems.
* A .357 Magnum revolver offers about the most powerful cartridge available in a very inexpensive handgun.
* Without recoil springs, magazine lips, and feed ramps, there are a lot fewer things to break on a revolver, leading to better reliability than inexpensive autos. This is not to say that a revolver can't malfunction, but they will do so less than comparably priced autos.
* Revolvers can hold only 5 or 6 cartridges, as compared to 9 in most of the autos we're considering. (Taurus makes a .357 Magnum titanium revolver chambered for seven rounds. It's great fun to shoot!- Ed.)
* In addition to a smaller capacity, revolvers take longer to reload than magazine-fed automatics.
Good Buy? Yes.
Where do I find these pistols?
Because cost is the biggest factor, gun shows are your best bet for finding one of these weapons. Buying at a gun show allows you to avoid having to pay for shipping or transfer through an FFL (interstate pistol transfers are legally required to be made through a licensed dealer, who will charge about $20 for the service). As an added benefit, gun shows allow the possibility of buying from a private citizen rather than a dealer, thus avoiding (in many states) a government record of the sale being made. If gun shows aren't an option or don't pan out, other options include (this is not a definitive list by any means, but it should get you started):
Online gun auction sites -
Surplus gun dealers -
Private sales through internet forums -
Auction sites and major online forums are quite safe from scams, contrary to what you might think. Standard practice is for the buyer to send money, and the seller to send the weapon upon receipt of funds. One way to save some time is to open an account at http://www.paypal.com
and transfer money through it - many sellers will accept PayPal transfers as payment. And - before anyone asks - don't expect to find a seller willing to break the law by selling to you from another state without going through an FFL. Whether or not the danger is real, most sellers are too wary of ATF stings to be willing to break the law on an internet sale to an anonymous buyer. If you want to avoid government paperwork, gun shows are a far better alternative.
Gun shops are another possibility, although they have a number of disadvantages. Forst of all, you'll definitely have to go through all the legal paperwork (aka de facto gun registration) involved in buying a handgun. Also, gun shops have a significant overhead expenses, which they afford by charging more for guns than sellers on the 'net. On the other hand, it can be possible to find good deals at gun shops, particularly on used and consignment guns.
So, which pistol is best?
There is no such thing as a universal "best" firearm. Several important factors vary from person to person - what fits your hand the best, what you can find for sale where you are, and simply personal taste. Even so, some of these guns are generally regarded as better than others. A used Colt or Smith & Wesson revolver will be a very good quality gun. Makarovs in particular have an excellent reputation. Of the guns I have listed, I would feel uncomfortable only with a Jennings or Hi-Point. Why? Because in order to keep costs low on brand new guns, these manufacturers have to cut corners and use cheap materials. A used or surplus gun was built to higher standards, and is cheap because it is no longer as desirable as it once was.
Any of the pistols I've recommended will serve you well enough to get by. I strongly recommend that anyone considering one of these pistols save up a bit more money and buy a better gun - but if you can't, I hope I can help point you toward the best of what you can afford.