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Background Information: the question is asked by a person based in California, who is looking for help in making a purchase of a first handgun.
Question Asked: “What’s the real difference between a 3.8″ compact and the std 5.25”? My guess would be more accuracy and possibly less recoil? I am still deciding on a 40.-45. cal. For the wifey, I may go the distance to have the 9mm for her use more or even as a starter handgun for myself, still debating. Lots of manufactures to consider; many officers claim “Glock” is the way to go… seems like a trendy piece of gear. Comments?:
Answer: Based on your question and given the other information you included, I made the assumption that you wanted a semiautomatic pistol rather than a revolver, and that you wanted a duty style gun, as opposed to a target style or a traditional gun with multiple safeties. This assumption also leads me to believe that this purchase is for home defense use.
As for the best handgun to buy: there are thousands of choices, and it will be dependent on the things you want to accomplish with the purchase.
Glock is the most duty-proven has the most years of service in the current configuration (polymer frame). But Sig, HK and Springfield all have excellent polymer “duty guns” too. The price is why most people pick a Glock over say, a Sig, typically. A Sig is significantly more expensive than a Glock, apples to apples. An HK is also significantly more expensive than a Glock. Sig and HK are close to each other in price, but use different styles and materials. A Springfield XD and a Smith and Wesson Polymer handgun, might be closer to the Glock in price and configuration. If I was trying to get a good first gun, I might consider a Sig SP2022, what I consider to be one of the best value in duty style guns on the planet. I would also consider a Glock, because they are simple and easy to learn with. Glocks tend to be cheaper for the same reliability than others, despite being simpler and less well appointed (and some might say ugly).
I prefer HK over all of them, but I own Sig’s and am buying a Springfield as well, having used them extensively but never owning one yet. I own two Glocks: a 22 and a 23. I also own two HK’s that I use for carry guns (a P7M8 and a Compact .40 USP). I own Two Sigs, but do not yet use either to carry (my Elite P220 may become my carry gun in the near future after I finish my 10mm conversion on it). I am also considering a XD-s by Springfield for a carry gun.
The difference between barrel lengths is simple: if you need it to kill someone in less than 25 yards, then it won’t REALLY matter. If you are using it to shoot targets or make accurate groupings where time is not a factor, the longer the barrel:
1. The longer the sight plane (usually) and therefore the more accurate on point of aim/point of impact
2. The more velocity at the muzzle
3. The harder to conceal (usually) and the heavier the gun.
Recoil is more dependent on weight. The heavier it is, the less recoil; similarly, the cartridge is also important for recoil. If you have a decent budget, consider getting a used gun and a new gun (my suggestions would be): Sig SP2022 which is new for around $395-415; An HK USP compact 9mm-Used (I use an HK P7M8 and if they were legal still in CA in the European configuration, I would recommend that). That way you could experience the differences, have two different calibers and still only pay around $800 for both guns. Many high quality duty guns cost in excess of $750 EACH, new.
There are hundreds of options though and if you have a specific use in mind, I can recommend others-let me know.
As a final note: .40 and .45 are going to be heavily recoiling and muzzle snappy (compared to other calibers), maybe too much for your wife, it just depends. I would recommend choosing one caliber of the two (EITHER .40 OR .45), and then using a 9mm if you opt for a second gun; the benefit being cheaper ammo costs and easier use by your wife.
Because of the assumptions I made early on, we may be significantly reducing options, so you’ll need to tell me a few more parameters before we can dial it in. In determining the best handgun to buy it will be a combination of budget, usage, ease of use, reliability and long-term viability. Factor in each of these variables while ranking them in importance to you, when making a final decision on which is the best handgun to buy.
Bottom line: any gun can be used by any person with the proper training and experience (and practice). When purchasing a firearm, be sure to focus on the training that comes along with it. I know may small framed women who prefer .45 caliber handguns. I know many large framed men who prefer 9mm. Both calibers (and many in between) are certainly capable of stopping a criminal. It comes down to training and implementation.