Yours truly has degenerative disc disease and low back pain—a package that makes some days more of a challenge than others. As such, I am aware of how my body can conspire to make difficult many everyday activities that folks without these genes take for granted. I’m talking about flexion, extension, and weight bearing activities such as walking, running, bending, kneeling, twisting, reaching, pulling, pushing, lifting, and so forth, all of which are pretty relevant to carrying a gun and self defense. Similarly, if you have hand or arm pain, deformities, or weakness as a result of rheumatoid arthritis or some variant of this disease, you are no doubt well aware of your functional limitations.
If you are a defensive or competitive shooter, these issues can present a load of problems. In this article (which is the first in a two-part series) we shall discuss considerations in choosing a defensive handgun that you can actually use if you have arthritic genes that have blossomed. In our next issue, we shall look at some ways to get around the problems caused by arthritis so that you can still improve, practice, and maintain your defensive handgun skills with your chosen handguns.
Handgun Selection for the Person with Arthritis
When you choose a handgun, there are a number of considerations you must take into account. You should handle it before buying. It should feel right to you.
Gun weight. Typically, a heavier handgun will soak up more recoil. If you are choosing a bedside home-defense handgun, size and weight should be less of a consideration than if you are choosing a carry gun. However, the heavier the gun is, the more strain it will place on your arms, shoulders, back and hips when you extend your arms to shoot it, and so, if you have limited upper body strength, you may need to find a lighter handgun that doesn’t feel like you’re pushing out a brick. Also, a lighter handgun will not pull your pants down as much as a heavier one will when you are carrying it on your waist or in your pocket, and it will place less strain on your hips and back.
Perceived recoil. One of Isaac Newton’s Laws states that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. The force of a bullet being shot out of a gun causes recoil. In the same size gun, larger calibers generally create more recoil than smaller calibers, and lighter guns typically have more recoil than heavier guns of the same caliber. So, if you choose a lighter handgun, you need to make sure that the caliber of that gun is not too much for you to handle. With that said, some people are more sensitive to recoil than others, hence the term perceived recoil. Typically, the greater the recoil, the more difficult it is to control the gun and bring it back on target for follow-up shots. Also, if the recoil is too sharp, it can hurt your hands and arms. If you have arthritis, this is likely to be a big problem. It is likely to cause you to flinch as you press the trigger which will throw your shots off. None of these effects will encourage you to practice with your weapon, and they will hinder your ability to effectively use your weapon for self defense should the need arise. Therefore, it is a good idea to shoot several different handguns to determine which has the most acceptable level of recoil before settling on one to purchase.
Caliber. If you cannot handle the recoil of a 9mm pistol, look at pistols in smaller calibers such as .380 ACP, .32 ACP, and even .22 LR. If you cannot handle a .38 Special revolver, look at revolvers in smaller calibers such as the .32 Long, .32 H&R Magnum, .22 Magnum, or .22 LR. Accurate shot placement is more important than caliber. A center hit with a small caliber is better than a miss with a larger one.
Reduced power loads. Choose a handgun for personal protection that is not ammunition-sensitive. With that said, recognize that different ammunition loads in the same caliber have different properties such as bullet weight and design, cartridge length and composition, amount and type of powder, and primer type. “Hot” loads in a given caliber are cartridges stuffed with more powder such that when detonated, they spit the bullet out faster and with greater pressure. Hot loads are hard on your gun as well as on your hands and arms. Ammunition with the designation “+P” is generally hotter than ammunition without this designation.
If you have arthritis you probably want to choose reduced power loads such as Federal Premium Personal Defense Reduced Recoil 9mm 135 grain Hydra-Shok jacketed hollow point. All other things being equal—which they seldom are—a bigger caliber in a lower recoil load may be a better choice than a smaller caliber in a +P load. The bigger caliber lower recoil load may be easier to handle, and it will make bigger holes. Those are good things.
Grips. The handgun you choose to buy for personal defense should fit the size of your hand. The handgun’s grips should be comfortable and not too big. You need to be able to get a good grip or purchase on the gun and be able to reach and work the trigger without having to change your grip or strain your hands. Nowadays, many semi-automatic pistol manufacturers are offering multiple backstrap configurations so that you can adjust the girth of the grip to fit your hands. It’s a good idea to consider the composition of the grips. Soft rubber grips offer more cushioning and protection from recoil than do hard grips made of other materials such as wood. Ruger’s Light Compact Revolvers (LCR) come from the factory with ergonomic rubber grips that do a great job of cushioning the shooter’s hands from the fierce recoil of the .357 Magnum in a small, lightweight revolver.
In a two-second self-defense situation, how much do you want to have to think about, and how many controls and thingies do you want to have to fiddle with, before you are able to stop the deadly attack?
Firearm controls. You want to be able to operate your handgun’s levers and switches. Some handguns have magazine releases, slide stop levers, manual safeties, decocking levers, and other thingies that are hard to reach or operate, or that require too much fine motor dexterity. Additionally, some handguns are just too complicated and give you too many things to think about to operate the handgun. Often, simple is better. Be certain that you will be able to learn to operate the controls of the handgun you choose. Some handguns, such as the 9mm Smith and Wesson M&P 9 Compact and the Kel-Tec P-32, are simple, double-action only, point and shoot firearms with one consistent trigger pull for every shot. In a two-second self-defense situation, how much do you want to have to think about, and how many controls and thingies do you want to have to fiddle with, before you are able to stop the deadly attack? When you are being threatened with death or grave bodily harm and your body is in fight or flight mode, your fine motor dexterity deteriorates and you are left with gross motor skills. Lots of levers and switches require fine motor dexterity.
Trigger control. When you want your gun to go bang, you must press the trigger through its full range of motion. In order to keep the muzzle on target long enough for the exiting bullet to follow its intended trajectory to the target, you have to operate the trigger smoothly. To keep launching bullets, you need to be capable of exercising good trigger control. You will be able to do none of the above if your firearm’s trigger is too heavy for you to press smoothly, too heavy for you to keep operating when you have to take multiple shots, or if you cannot reach the trigger. The bottom line is that your trigger finger must be able to maintain good contact with the face of the trigger, and you must be able to press that trigger rearward and reset it smoothly multiple times in succession.
Revolver Versus Semi-Automatic Pistol: Which is Better? This has been the subject of endless debate and there is no final answer.
Natural pointers. When you pick up your handgun, it should point well for you. What this means is that when you present it and punch it out to the target, you should be able to see a good sight picture or good silhouette of the gun superimposed right over your point of aim on your target. If you continually have to re-adjust where the handgun is pointing after you’ve punched it out onto your point of aim, the handgun probably does not point well for you and should be rejected for your personal defense.
Ease of maintenance. Naturally, you must be able to properly maintain and clean your firearm so that it can serve you well. Make sure that when you buy a gun you are able to disassemble it as described in the owner’s manual for cleaning (also termed field stripping) and reassemble it after cleaning and function checking. Unless you have someone to do this for you, if a handgun is too difficult for you to field strip for cleaning it may not be your best choice.
This has been the subject of endless debate and there is no final answer. The proper question is which is better for you? If you want to train with a semiautomatic pistol, in addition to it having passed all of the above tests, you must be able to operate the slide.
Slides. Many semi-autos have heavy slides and stiff recoil spring and guide rod assemblies. This means that you need a lot of hand, arm and shoulder strength to hand cycle (or rack) the slide. Also, some semi-autos have slides that do not offer your hands enough purchase to get a good enough grasp on the slide so that you can work it. Such pistols will not work for you. Remember, if you cannot comfortably operate a semi-auto’s controls, which include the slide, the gun is not right for you.
These reliable mini-guns are easy to operate and have minimal recoil. They are so lightweight and small, if you own one, you have no excuse ever to be unarmed.
Tip-up barrels. Beretta continues to manufacture two ultra-compact pocket pistols: the Model 21 Bobcat in .22 LR, and the Model 3032 Tomcat in .32 ACP, with a very special feature, a tip-up barrel. For both the experienced professional and the novice, this handy feature makes these little pocket pistols the easiest and safest firearms for performing a chamber check to determine if the chamber is loaded or not. With this system of operation you can place a fully charged magazine in the magazine well, tip up the barrel chamber, load a round into the chamber, close the barrel, and be ready for engagement without having to cycle the slide. The operator can also eject a round to unload the gun without cycling the slide, just by tipping up the barrel. These pistols also have a frame-mounted manual safety and are double action on the first shot and single action on all subsequent shots. This provides for greater accuracy over longer distances, and an easier trigger to work than most similar size pocket pistols. Given their low recoil, either of these little guns could make a good concealed carry choice.
Revolver triggers. Revolvers typically have heavier triggers with a longer length of pull than do most semi-automatic pistols. While a professional trigger job can lighten the trigger pull, if the trigger is lightened too much, this can make the gun unsafe and be the cause of misfires and other mechanical problems. It is usually best to send a new revolver back to the manufacturer for this kind of work so as not to void the manufacturer’s warranty.
While a revolver with an external hammer can be cocked and fired in single action mode, recognize these three things: (1) You must have the fine motor dexterity and strength to cock the hammer. (2) You must have the fine motor control and strength to be able to decock the hammer without unintentionally firing the revolver (if firing is contra-indicated). (3) This is why cocking the hammer is not generally recommended for most defensive work. For personal defense, revolvers, in most cases, should be fired double action only. One notable exception is the line of single action .22 LR and .22 Magnum mini-revolvers manufactured by North American Arms. These reliable mini-guns are easy to operate and have minimal recoil. They are so lightweight and small, if you own one, you have no excuse ever to be unarmed.
Ease of clearing jams. Revolvers, when kept clean, typically jam or malfunction a lot less than do semi-autos. However, when a revolver does jam, the stoppage is not likely to be fixable in a fight when you have seconds to save your bacon.
If you have arthritis, choosing the right handgun may be more of a task for you than it is for the average bear.
Ease of loading, unloading and reloading.
Loading, unloading and reloading revolvers and semi-autos require manual dexterity and practice. If the functionality of your hands is too impaired, this can be a problem to: (1) operate your revolver’s cylinder release latch in order to open the cylinder to insert rounds of ammunition, (2) operate the ejector rod of your revolver to eject empty brass, (3) charge your semi-auto’s magazines‑that is, insert live cartridges into the magazines, (4) cycle the slide of your semi-auto (with the exception of the Beretta Bobcat and Tomcat with the tip-up barrels) or (5) insert and eject magazines from your semi-auto.
You may have to depend on someone else to do it for you. However, when a semi-automatic pistol or revolver has a stoppage in the field or at the range, they typically have to be unloaded and reloaded quickly to restore their function. In such a case, you had better be prepared with a backup gun. In any case, all of the above operations require proper instruction by a qualified instructor, and then, adequate training and practice.
If you have arthritis, choosing the right handgun may be more of a task for you than it is for the average bear. However, if you take into account the considerations discussed above, you will find a handgun that works for your purposes.
[ Bruce N. Eimer, Ph.D., psychologist and NRA Certified Law Enforcement Firearms Instructor, trains law abiding citizens in the defensive use of firearms. His company, Personal Defense Solutions, LLC, also runs the classes required to obtain the Florida, Virginia, and Utah non-resident multi-state CCW permits. To learn more, visit: www.PersonalDefenseSolutions.net and www.DefensiveHandguns.com. ]