A basic, brief, semiautomatic pistol primer

You’ve noticed tens of thousands of terrorists and members of the Chinese Army are skipping across the border. The Mummified Meat Puppet Administration (MMPA) is delighted, and doing everything it can to keep them coming. Texans have known this forever, but you’ve decided it’s time to exercise your natural, unalienable right to self-defense. But what kind of handgun to buy? Perhaps a semiautomatic?

I learned to shoot with revolvers. Back in the 1400s, there were few semiauto choices, and reliability was an issue. Making just about any semiauto reliable required a trip to the gunsmith who would fix all the issues manufacturers just didn’t address. Circa 2024, manufacturers do address those issues, and semiautos tend to be reliable out of the box, though they are somewhat more ammunition sensitive than revolvers—Some guns simply function better with some makes and bullet weights than others.

All firearms, including revolvers, malfunction. There's an important distinction: a malfunction is a failure to function that with semiautos may be cleared within seconds without tools. A jam is a failure to function that requires tools, and often a gunsmith, to restore function.

Graphic: Author. Glock 17 with Crimson Trace Railmaster Pro laser/flashlight

A semiautomatic firearm fires one bullet for each pull of the trigger. Fully automatic weapons continue to fire as long as the trigger is held back and ammunition is available.  Modern semiautos hold their ammunition in magazines, not “clips.” Because magazines are the weakest link, it’s essential to carry at least one spare. A malfunctioning magazine turns a semiauto into a hard to load single shot pistol.

One of the advantages of semiautos over revolvers is ammunition capacity. The Glock 17, Glock’s first design, is a full-sized duty pistol. It has a magazine capacity of 17 rounds. With one in the chamber, that’s three times the capacity of a duty revolver. With two spare magazines, nine times.

Graphic: author. L to R: Glock 17, Glock 43X with Crimson Trace green dot sight, Glock 43 with Crimson Trace laser/light

All semiautomatic pistols work on the same basic principle: firing a cartridge harnesses the energy of firing to push a heavy metal slide back against a powerful spring that keeps the action closed until pressure drops to a safe level. On its backward travel, the slide extracts the fired case from the chamber and ejects it through the ejection port on the slide. When the slide hits the rear stop, it is propelled forward under spring tension, engages a fresh cartridge from the magazine and inserts it into the chamber. This process is very fast and appears a blur to most.

Semiautos are generally easier to conceal than revolvers. They are narrower and flatter, and particularly with polymer frames, lighter. They also tend to recoil less, particularly in calibers like 9mm and .380 ACP, which is essentially a less powerful and shorter 9mm.  Their triggers also tend to be much lighter and better than revolver triggers. The standard Glock trigger is 5.5 pounds, with a relatively short travel.  They are also easily equipped with laser and optical sights and flashlights. Semiautos, particularly those with polymer frames, tend to be much less expensive than revolvers.

There are essentially four trigger types: single action, like the Browning 1911, double action, double action only and striker fired, as are all Glocks.  Single action mechanisms have exposed hammers that must be manually cocked. They also feature short and light trigger pulls. Double action mechanisms have a long, heavier trigger pull for the first shot, but the slide cocks the hammer for all subsequent shots, producing a much shorter and lighter trigger pull. This does tend to send the first and second shot to very different places on the target. One can overcome this with training and practice, but why make things unnecessarily difficult? Double action only weapons reset the trigger between every shot to a longer, heavier trigger pull. They can’t be fired single action.

Striker fired semiautos--Glocks--have slightly heavier and longer pulls than single action designs, but are a good compromise. They do not have hammers. Think of a striker as a larger, spring loaded firing pin.

Graphic: Author. L to R: Glock 43X (10 round), Glock 43 (6 round)

In recent years, manufacturers, in many cases following Glock’s lead, have produced excellent, concealable semiautos like the Glock 43—six round capacity—and the Glock 43X—ten rounds. Their small dimensions and light weight make them excellent choices for virtually any shooter, particularly women.

There is no such thing as a perfect gun that will fit everyone. While I use Glocks for examples, and carry a 43X, I own and shoot semiautos from many manufacturers. For a more complete primer, go here. I prefer Glocks because they work reliably out of the box, and if you know the manual of arms for one, you know them all.

Graphic: Author. L to R: G17 magazine (17 rounds), G43X (10 rounds), G43 (6 rounds)

Some find the slides of semiautos difficult to manipulate, but with proper technique—go here--very few people lack the strength, and Smith and Wesson makes a number of “EZ” models with easy-to-cycle slides.

Semiautos, and Glock, own most of the handgun market for good reasons.

Mike McDaniel is a USAF veteran, classically trained musician, Japanese and European fencer, life-long athlete, firearm instructor, retired police officer and high school and college English teacher. His home blog is Stately McDaniel Manor. 

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