The question is asked often, answered often and often answered wrong: "What's the best gun?" There are several important criteria for selecting a gun that will be used for defensive purposes. My list looks like this:
Of those criteria, there is one that is absolutely inflexible: reliability. I want to talk about just that one in this column.
There is more to reliability than some folks realize. A gun is not just a tool, but a working mechanical system. People who don't understand that often have problems that could easily be avoided. For example, reliability in a modern semi-automatic pistol is not just dependent on the build quality of the basic firearm. It is also dependent on its maintenance, magazines, ammunition and its operator. Any machine, including a firearm, must be well made if it is to be reliable and continue to be so throughout its useful life. Actually, that's the easy part. Today's competitive firearms market has pretty well shaken out the junk, as least in the realm of serious defensive handguns. But a well-made gun is only the beginning. A relative of mine has a small, easily concealable Beretta pistol that he has carried for years. It wasn't until recently, however, that he actually tried to shoot it for more than the odd round while walking in the woods. He found out that, although it is certainly well made, it is certainly not reliable for self defense use. It is designed to function with full metal jacketed ammunition. Not a good choice for self-defense. It jams nearly every round with any decent quality hollow-point ammo. And the ball ammo even jams frequently with certain of his magazines. To top it all off, it is .32 ACP caliber. He now carries a Glock 30.
So, let's look at magazines. Often, students arrive at classes with a decent quality gun that they have not really put through its paces. They find out about reliability very quickly. The bargain price magazines that they bought (because the class required more magazines than they already owned) will cause problems pretty quickly. The magazines are an integral part of the system that is the functioning firearm. When they don't work, the gun doesn't work. Sometimes the students are ready to give up on the gun, when the only problem is one (or more) magazines. Once they change to decent magazines, they are back in business. Sometimes the magazines start out okay, but become damaged. Again, fix or replace the mags and you've fixed the gun. You need to test every magazine you have for a particular gun. And, you need to keep them clean. If you find any that are problems, fix them, replace them or throw them away. Just understand how they relate to the functioning of the whole system and you'll be able to sort it out. This, by the way, is one place that revolvers really have it over the auto-loaders.
The other most common problem is ammunition. Not all guns work well with all ammo, even quality ammo. Some guns run great on range ammo, which for most of us means full metal jacketed (FMJ or "ball") bullets. But hollow points, which are best for defensive purposes, can be another story. We tell our students that they should be able to run 200 rounds of their self-defense ammunition through their carry gun without a single malfunction. If it doesn't meet that test, don't trust it. Some ammunition and some guns just don't get along. That doesn't mean that either are inferior; they just are not the right combination. If you find that, be prepared to make the necessary changes. Sometimes the gun just needs a break-in period. Sometimes a little gunsmithing will solve the problem. In any case, there are enough choices in premium defensive ammunition that finding one that works with your gun should not be a problem. A good example became evident fairly recently, with the introduction of very lightweight revolvers. The substantial, if not downright brutal, recoil of the ultra-light revolvers is causing some types of bullets to work forward out of the casing crimp, at least enough to bind the cylinder rotation. This is usually associated with un-jacketed bullets and the newer guns have a "jacketed +p ammo only" warning. However, I've seen it happen even with some brands of jacketed ammunition. That's why I say, revolver or auto, primary or backup, test your gun with your carry loads. You need to KNOW that they will work together.