This is the fifth in a series of articles by Susan. For her background and shooting resume, click here.

Auto-loaders, or semi-automatic handguns, seem to be very popular with the gun buying public. There will always be a place for revolvers; but as with most things - speed is a factor. Reloading revolvers, with or without a speedloader can be awkward and slow unless you train extensively - without a speedloader, it can seem to take forever!

Semi-autos can be re-charged and made ready to fire very rapidly when empty, by inserting a fresh pre-loaded magazine (often called a ‘mag’). However, if the chips were down and I needed to load and fire one more round from a gun, it can be quicker to load the revolver than to re-load a mag.

Unlike revolvers, typically the grip size of a semi-auto cannot be made to fit smaller hands by changing grips. However, there are exceptions to this statement. Due to the inner mechanical workings of the gun, if the gun is too large for your hand, you may need to try a different model from the same manufacturer or a different manufacturer altogether. There are some aftermarket grip options, but they are mainly cosmetic or will increase the grip size. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet found an exercise that will increase my hand size!

Shooting a semi-auto requires a firm grip and making certain that your wrist is locked straight out toward the target. Failure to do so is called ‘limp-wristing’ and may cause the gun to misfire and jam. This is not a good thing - although not typically harmful to the firearm, it should be avoided. More on this later.


OK, you think you’re ready to pick out a handgun? Nope, not yet. There are three main styles of actions that you must choose from. To make matters slightly confusing, some guns can be changed from one type to another - giving you a choice in how you will shoot it. Other models can be found that come one way or another from the factory, and some can be changed after being manufactured. Still other guns don’t quite fit into any of these categories, but are lumped in with one to make things a bit simpler (trust me, you’ll look back on this in 6 months and be amazed at how much you’ve learned!)

Single Action (SA) - Just as with revolvers, a single action semi-automatic pistol must have the hammer cocked prior to depressing the trigger. There are a few ways a SA pistol can be carried: with the hammer down - in which the hammer will need to be manually cocked before firing; or carried “cocked and locked” which is just as stated - with the hammer cocked and the manual safety on, which must be released before firing. Both methods take getting used to - otherwise nothing happens when you depress the trigger. Very rapid to draw and fire from a holster with training, very consistent short and light trigger pull.

Double Action Only (DAO) - Again, same as a revolver with no external hammer - this is a point and shoot gun. The DAO is considered by some police departments to be a safer firearm because of the simplicity of controls, the consistent longer and heavier trigger pull, and the lack of an external hammer. This is the ‘fuzzy’ location where Glock’s “safe action” semi-auto tends to be placed. There truly is an internal difference, but of the three typical descriptions, this is the best fit.

Double/Single Action (D/S) - Here’s where there is a marked difference between the controls and function of semi-autos and revolvers. These guns have exposed hammers, but the first shot is the same longer, heavy trigger pull of the DAO. This is because the gun starts off with the hammer down. All following shots will be single action, because after the first round is fired, the movement of the slide functioning will cock the hammer back for the subsequent shots. Usually, there is a decocking device on the gun in order to safely drop the hammer, which then places the gun back into the double action mode for the next shot or to safety reholster the gun. This type of gun quite probably has the most differences in controls between manufacturers - some guns have no external safety devices, as decocking brings the gun back to a ready position where the trigger must be depressed in order to fire, some have options to carry cocked and locked the same as the SA guns or the same gun may be decocked and carried with a manual safety on, or the same gun also can be decocked without the manual safety being deployed.


My best suggestion, after you have narrowed things down to two or three different guns - is to locate the same make and model (either by borrowing from someone or renting at a range) and shoot the guns. Be certain that that the gun will actually be comfortable for you to shoot, even though it appears to fit you correctly when you handle it. I suggest you shoot, at minimum, a box of 50 rounds of ammunition through the gun.

If you are borrowing the gun from someone, you should ask the owner what ammunition they typically use in that gun (get all details - brand, caliber, bullet weight in grains - and be exact, it is important). Purchase two boxes of ammunition - one for you to shoot and one to give as a thank-you. They may not accept your gesture and allow you to shoot the second box, as well - not a bad idea. If you’re too tired to shoot any more, then you can always save it for your gun.

Rental gun ranges may allow you to purchase ammunition elsewhere and bring it in - if so, you may need to purchase several different calibers of ammunition to narrow down your choices. Other ranges only allow you to purchase ammo from them, they will be certain you have the correct ammo. Calling first to find out their requirement and prices will help you plan. If there are no ranges nearby that rent guns, check further away - it is definitely worth the effort to spend a bit of time driving and a few dollars renting some firearms, rather than spending several hundred dollars or more on a gun that does not fit properly and that you are not comfortable with. Most reputable dealers will allow you a short amount of time to return a gun after purchasing, if the gun just does not work out for you. Typically, they may refund the full purchase price of the gun if it is in perfect condition and you have cleaned it properly or they may just charge you a minimal amount for cleaning and processing. However, this is done at their discretion, so if it is their policy not to take a gun back unless there is something wrong with the way it functions, you’re stuck with having to trade in or sell outright a gun you just purchased.


No matter which type of semi-auto you choose, be certain the controls are explained to you very well. It may not make a lot of sense at first, ask questions, make notes... hey, maybe take a class(!) although typically, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with the controls of your gun before taking a class; check first before signing up for the class. Perhaps someone at the gun shop or at a local range who knows that particular type of firearm and its controls is willing to assist you in learning all about it. Listen to the sales staff, but weigh in your own abilities - if you think that the controls will be difficult for you as a beginner to master, perhaps you should consider postponing the purchase of this model, no matter how much you like it, until you have a bit more basic knowledge of firearms and shooting; finding a gun with simpler controls for your first choice.

When you have finally made the decision on which handgun will be best for you, be certain to ask the salesperson to show you how to field strip the gun for cleaning and how to remove and install the separate components. Ask if there are any special tools required to do this and if they come with the gun or if they must be purchased. If you need to purchase a special tool, do so at time of purchase, before you need it. If you can visit the shop when they aren’t very busy they’ll spend plenty of time working with you. That way you can take the gun apart, go through all the steps to clean everything properly and then reassemble the gun. Take it apart and put it back together several times with them watching. When you get home, expect to forget a crucial step in the assembly process (ahhh, don’t ask me how I know this) - which is why an owner’s manual (and a phone) will be so important.


Make a few phone calls first, try to find someone who shoots and who is at least somewhat familiar with the gun’s controls to help you initially. They can assist in the steps to load and fire the gun, instruct how to make the gun safe, and how to check and be certain it is completely unloaded.

Typically this is the time when problems will occur... mostly because everything is so new and there is so much to remember that you just can’t help but forget about something important. At least if you know it’s expected, you won’t get so upset.

Racking the slide - It has been said by many men that a woman cannot shoot a large caliber handgun because she cannot rack the slide on a semi-auto. Unfortunately, sometimes this can be true - unless she knows a few ‘secrets’. There are two ways around this minor problem. There are a few manufacturers (Beretta and Taurus) who offer guns with a ‘tip up’ barrel design which allows you to load the first round directly into the chamber and then insert a fully loaded magazine into the gun. There are many people who find this to be the only type of semi-auto they can use, because of arthritis or some other infirmity. NOTE: Loading a round into the chamber and then inserting a magazine into the gun is NOT recommended for semi-autos, other than those with a tip-up barrel - it can and will seriously damage the inner workings of the gun.

For those that just don’t seem to have the strength, but don’t have any serious physical problem, there is a way around the difficulty of racking the slide of just about any semi-auto.

First, some background on why it’s difficult: The slide is held in place with tension by one or more springs. These compressed springs function as required when the gun is fired and the slide travels to the rear, ejects the empty brass and strips another cartridge off the magazine while traveling forward. It is the spring that forces the slide to the rear while extending and slows the slide’s forward travel while it is compressing. The spring’s strength is necessary for the gun to function properly, thus some semi-autos may have lighter springs and other heavier springs... each according to their specific requirements.

In order to use some strength you didn’t know you had, you need to brace yourself and the gun better. No, don’t bring a bench vice to the range; trust me, you won’t need it. I strongly recommend practicing this with an unloaded gun. First, (remember, finger off the trigger) while keeping the muzzle pointed directly down range, turn your body at a 45º angle toward your strong hand side. Brace the forearm of your support hand across your body and grasp the top, rearward portion of the slide - this portion of the slide should be just forward of your body and pointed directly down range (NOTE: some women find this works best when the handgun is held about hip high, others work with it up closer to their chest - whatever works best for you. Guys, you’re on your own here... perhaps your waist, rather than hip, would work better). Keep your support arm braced against you and hold firmly to the slide, while you use your strong hand to push forward on the frame of the gun. This should give you more leverage and allow you to manipulate the slide any time you need to, without any strain. In time, you may find that you have built up your strength and this dance step is unnecessary. Obviously, you will need to already have a familiarity with the controls on your gun in order to complete the task of locking the slide back.

If Things Don’t Go Right - I spoke briefly about limp wristing, which is caused by not maintaining a firm grip while shooting. Failure to do so with a semi-auto usually results in a jam called a ‘stove pipe’ which is caused when the loosely held gun is fired and the muzzle elevates severely. Because of this rapid muzzle elevation, the slide cannot function as it should. If the gun was not held securely in place, and the muzzle was allowed to flip upward, there was not enough support to allow the slide to complete its full travel distance to the rear. Thus, a stove pipe jam will typically occur when the empty case fails to be completely ejected from the ejection port: at the same time the slide has begun to go forward to its normal closed position, it has caught the empty case. Most usually there also will be another cartridge partially seated into place.

Often you can clear this easily by continuing to hold the gun firmly in your strong hand, reaching up with your support hand and grabbing the rear/top portion of the slide and racking the slide back forcefully, which will eject the empty case and allow the cartridge to seat itself properly when you release the slide and allow it to close by itself - think of this action as similar to drawing and releasing a bowstring.

There is another method which is used to clear a stovepipe jam that is called a SWEEP, but I feel that method is best left for more advanced shooters - as hand control and placement is critical from a safety standpoint.

Because the possibility also exists that along with the stovepipe, the magazine may not have fed the next cartridge properly when a stovepipe occurs, most semi-auto shooters will perform what is called a ‘TAP, RACK and READY’ - this consists of first using the heel of the support hand to TAP the floorplate of the magazine upward to be certain it was seated properly, then RACK the slide with the same hand (the draw back and release procedure), and then come to READY, that is, be ready to fire, if necessary. You may want to practice this procedure so that if you have a stovepipe occur you can quickly and easily clear the problem and get on with your shooting. Be aware, although limp wristing is the most common cause of a stovepipe, one can also occur from a general malfunction.

However, realize there may be a serious problem that has occurred with your firearm - it is strongly suggested that you be certain that the gun is safe to fire and has no other malfunction, jam, defect or internal broken part before proceeding.

Sound more complicated than revolvers? Yep, they are. Semi-autos are not the firearm of choice for everyone - but just as with everything, you need to learn about them in order to get the best results. They are typically easy to understand, once you have the basics of shooting down pat. Which is why I tend to recommend that most people learn the basics on a revolver, then transition to the firearm you prefer.

Believe me, I have barely scratched the surface on explaining semi-autos. If you have the interest, take the time to speak with your friendly salesperson at the gun shop - have them explain the differences. With help, working your way through examining and talking about the different types of actions, they will be easier to understand and you will be much more able to make an educated decision on which gun is best for you.

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