Cheap handguns used to mean junk. Thirty or fifty years ago, cheap meant anemic calibers, lousy triggers, poor quality construction, and malfunctions galore. No more. Thanks to a number of improvements in manufacturing and design, and a competitive marketplace, plenty of manufacturers offer affordable handguns that provide reliability, performance, comfort – and decent triggers.
Yeah, back in the day we had those .25 caliber autos that, assuming they penetrated an attacker’s leather jacket, might only serve to seriously anger him. Or there were the cheap .380s that would fire a shot or two, then malfunction a couple of times. By the time you cleared the problem, you had maybe a couple of rounds left in the magazine, assuming your attacker hadn’t already taken it from you and commenced beating you to death with it.
The last decade, though, has given us some great guns in serious calibers that actually shoot well, especially considering their price point. In fact, many of these guns come from big-name manufacturers as basically no-frills versions of more full-featured models.
For those facing employment troubles related to COVID or just due to general economic uncertainty, millions of Americans don’t have $600 or $1000 to buy a handgun, an extra mag or two and a holster. At the same time, during an era of zero bail and prosecutors who won’t, they feel they need to embrace gun ownership in order to protect themselves and their families.
If this describes you or someone you know, here are some quality, affordable defensive handgun options.
At the same time, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know gun stores have faced a huge run on guns and ammo. Supplies have tightened considerably, and due to the laws of supply and demand, gun prices have climbed. However, there are some good firearms out there that still sell for near or under $300 – in normal times at least. What’s more, you may find some of these in used gun counters or available through a private sale at even better prices.
Here are a few defensive pistols that will perform well for those on a budget, which frankly describes most of us mere mortals.
The Taurus G2c stands out in my experience as one of those rare bargain guns that outperform its price tag by a wide margin. In normal times, judicious shopping and occasional rebates can bring the price down on this one to under $200. In fact, I’ve seen it at as low as $159. It’s reliable, accurate, very comfortable to hold and shoot, and comes with a pair of 12-round magazines.
Add in a $30 trigger upgrade from Keep Tinkering and, well, here’s what I wrote about it back in 2019 under “Things That Don’t Suck: Taurus G2c With a Keep Tinkering Trigger Upgrade“:
Taurus USA has no love for me, and I have no love for them. However, their uber-affordable G2c pistol is a very good value for a handgun, especially with a price of under $200 if you shop around. What’s more, with a $30 trigger upgrade from Keep Tinkering, the G2c becomes a terrific performer for its price point…
To Taurus’ credit, even with the stock triggers, the G2c guns represent, in my mind at least, a big improvement for Taurus over the harsh triggers so common five or ten years ago in their production semi-autos.
So, not only does the Taurus G2c not suck (four stars from Sam Hoober), but with the Keep Tinkering trigger upgrade, it’s a truly stellar performer. I’ll even suggest its handling and performance reminded me of the couple hundred rounds I fired in a SIG P365 some time back. Yeah, that good, albeit minus the tritium sights.
Fair disclosure: I received no goods, services or good old cash money from any of the aforementioned companies.
How much did I like the G2c? I might have bought one for each of my twin boys…prior to their first birthdays. I don’t know of a stronger endorsement a person who knows their way around a handgun could make.
I’d add that the smallish grips will allow them to comfortably hold and shoot these well before their 10th birthdays. Those smallish grips also allow others with petite hands — like a lot of women — an equally pleasant and controllable grip.
I have limited experience with the G3 line from Taurus, but believe it to be in the same category of affordable, all-round performance, reliability and shootability. Either the G2c or the G3 mated with an affordable Kydex inside-the-waistband holster will provide a terrific value you can stake your life on. This is the best “budget” gun I’d first recommend for those wanting a semi-auto.
The TP9SA is a Turkish-made, full-sized 9mm handgun. The Canik TP9SA has generous standard-capacity magazines (18-ish+1), terrific, crisp triggers and tremendous reliability. Their sub-$400 price point on the street make them quite appealing to bargain hunters. Even better, the ones I’ve seen have come with three magazines, a Kydex range holster, a mag pouch and more.
Prices have inched up in the last couple of years as word has gotten out on the value and performance of these guns, but you can find the Mod.2 version online even now for $399.
Their recoil and ergonomics are also novice-friendly. My lovely bride isn’t a gun person and isn’t all that fond of most semi-auto 9mms. She prefers .38 revolvers. However, she admits she enjoys shooting the Canik TP9SA. For novices or those who will shoot to live (as opposed people like me who live to shoot), the Turkish semi-auto offers a lot of onboard boolit capacituy in an affordable package that’s beginner-friendly.
Yeah, some may think it’s boxy, or odd-looking. All I know is that fit and finish are very good and it shoots well. What more do you want (or expect) for about $400?
Taurus PT-145 Millennium Pro pistol
The PT-145 Millenium Pro was a predecessor to the G2c. It looks different, but it checks all the same important boxes: reliability, good trigger, a solid performer.
How does it differ from the G2c? It’s a little clunkier in its design and wasn’t as popular. As such, there are fewer aftermarket accessories like holsters widely available. However, if you see one in a used gun case at your local gun store, I urge you to at least try it out.
These have great triggers — and trigger control is the single most important ingredient to good hits. The specimen I hypothetically have the most experience with runs flawlessly as well. If you see these in the used gun displays or bargain bins, check it out.
Ruger SR9E family
Like the Turkish Canik, the American-made Ruger SR9E offers great capacity and reliability for under $400. In fact, until recently, I’d seen them on sale in the low $300s. Again, the fact that these are American-made, full-sized pistols is all the more impressive. They don’t come in a fancy box with a lot of extra magazines, but they shoot well.
Unlike the old P85/P89/P90 series, these newer (since discontinued) affordable Ruger pistolas aren’t excessively bulky, or clunky. They have great triggers compared to the long, often-times lurching double-action triggers found on the older “affordable” line of Ruger handguns.
Have you seen the price of Smith & Wesson revolvers lately? They’re approaching $700 to $800. Colts have returned as well and they’re well past $1000. Meanwhile, Taurus produces wheel guns that look and perform a whole lot like Smith & Wesson products for a fraction of the price.
Personally, I’m a big fan of the Taurus Model 85 (now the Model 856) as a great value-performer in small-frame, five-shot revolvers.
The simple, no-frills Taurus 85s used to go on sale occasionally for just under $200. Probably not now, given the strong demand for all defensive handguns, but they should still be well under $400. Taurus has replaced the Model 85 with the Model 856 line of six-shot, small-frame revolvers. Keep your eye out for used or remaining 85s for even lower prices.
I’ve had a few over the years and they have performed very well. The stock triggers are usually pretty good, approaching that of Smith & Wessons which have set the market standard for decent revolver triggers. What’s more, with a little gunsmithing, those triggers can be slicked up and made even better.
If the 856s are anything like their smaller brothers, then they should serve well in the self-defense role. Given how I gave the Model 85 4-stars here, and Virgil gave the Model 856 4-1/2 stars, I’d say that’s a pretty fair assumption.
The Ruger LC/EC series serve as another American-made great value. Depending on the caliber (.380 vs. 9mm) and the model, prices can range from mid-$200s to closer to $400. Avoid the long trigger pull found on the double-action only models as they prove challenging for novice shooters. Buy the more recent striker-fired versions and you’ll be much happier.
Another more worthy entrant into the affordable handgun niche is SCCY. Yeah, the company that half of folks reading this won’t know how to pronounce their brand name. These are another inexpensive defensive pistol that has been as low as $125 in the past couple of years, but are running roughly $200 today. Still, at $200 it’s a good value. The only downside is the long, relatively heavy-ish trigger pull.
Moving up a little in price-point, the newer SCCY lines with Crimson Trace red dot sights run about $350 including the sight! They still have that long trigger pull but I don’t know of anywhere else you can get a good defensive handgun with a reputable red-dot sight for $350. In fact, many of the better pistol red dots sights run almost $350 or more all by themselves.
SCCY’s website talks up their newest model, the DVG1 that’s a 5.5-pound trigger that might solve the biggest drawback to the SCCY line of guns…the long, 9-pound trigger pull. The gun will likely sell at that same mid-$300 price point.
Bottom line: Don’t give up hope if you can’t afford a GLOCK, SIG or S&W defensive pistol. You can get virtually identical performance for a fraction of the price.