Arthritis and Choosing a Defensive Handgun

Adjustable back straps on this full-size Smith & Wesson M&P 9 make it possible to customize this pistol to your hand size.

Adjustable back straps on this full-size Smith & Wesson M&P 9 make it possible to customize this pistol to your hand size.

If you have arthritis, you know what pain and stiffness are, and you know how the disease affects your joints, energy level, strength, and functionality.


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

Hand Gun, Arthritis

The aftermarket Pachmayr Gripper Grips on this Smith and Wesson Model 386 7-shot medium frame .357 Magnum snubby are made from a specially formulated rubber compound optimized for control and recoil absorption. The factory rubber grips on this Smith & Wesson CS9 cushion the recoil of the 9mm in this compact pistol.

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.




Hand Gun, Arthritis

The Beretta 21 Bobcat and 3032 Tomcat. These kitties certainly hiss at criminal aggression or attack!



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.


Revolver Versus Semi-Automatic Pistol: Which is Better?

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: and ]

22 Comments (Add Yours)

  1. THANK YOU! I wish I had read this before my husband and I purchased my first defensive firearm. I have severe rheumatoid arthritis, and have been through three shotguns already that were either too heavy to hold during a flare or too difficult to operate the slide. Now we found The One, a Bersa Thunder that is light enough, easy enough to physically operate and can still get the job done if I am in danger. I was just complaining, “Why aren’t there any websites or classes for firearms for people with arthritis and other disabilities, when we really need to know how to defend ourselves?” And here you are. I feel so much less alone. Thank you for this excellent and informative article.

  2. This is a great article.

    My wife, although only 52, cannot rack the slide on any semi-auto due to some hand arthritis. This is a big problem for her as she loves to shoot my .45 and 9mm semi’s.

    We ended up buying her a .38 S&W model 642 – Although the round count is much lower she has no problem chambering and most accurately firing this firearm.

  3. My Bersa Thunder 380 works well for me. I am 71. The feel and fit are excellent. I have large palms and relatively short fingers. The Ruger LPC is too small for my hand, but the Bersa is concealable. The recoil is mild, easy on an arthritic wrist. The price is easy on the pocketbook.

  4. My wife carries a Bersa Thunder 380 and does a phenomenal job shooting it.
    When she took her CCW class, the instructor asked her how long had she been practicing, as all 15 rounds were in the center mass of the target. This was the first time she had fired this Bersa, She had fired other weapons in the past, though.
    The point is the Bersa is a good choice for concealed carry, and shooting without intimidating the shooter. It is also well made, accurate, and we have had no misfires. Pick the proper ammo for this pistol and it will do a good job.

  5. I’m 63 with some arthritis in my hands. I bought a S&W semi-auto 380 Body Guard with my heart instead of my head. It looks neat and fires well, but the grip is small so my purchase on the grip is only three fingers at best and if I do not grab it just right the slide will nick my hand. At this point I’ll keep as a back-up to my Ruger LCR 38 revolver. I’ve been thinking about trading it in on a Ruger SR9c compact 9mm semi-auto, any recomendations out there?

  6. Response to njjbird: I am a 64 yr old woman with arthritis in my hands. We have a Ruger LCR revolver, Ruger SR9c 9mm Ruger SR9 9mm, and LC9. I bought the LCR first because I couldn’t rack the slide on semi autos but the recoil hurt and bruised my hands terribly.

    I joined the YMCA 4 months ago and just the exercise my hands get from using the weight machines has improved my hand strength to where I can better grip the LCR and the recoil doesn’t bother me at all and even better, I can now rack the slide on all 4 handguns.

    Can you get an extended clip for your Body Guard? My husband does that with all compacts because he doesn’t like the feel and lack of control of only 3 fingers on the grip either.

    I still use my LCR for carry as it’s small and light and in a panic situation, I don’t have remember to take the safety off. But I absolutely love firing our other Rugers. (My husband’s carry is the Ruger LC9.)

  7. I wish they still made the Beretta Mod. 86, a .380 with a tip up barrel. It went out of production back when the only .380 ball ammo was for sale. I can still run most lock breech center fire autos but the blow back center fires like the Walther PP/PPK hand biteing jam-o-matics keep a revolver in my pocket

  8. 50 w/arthritis in hands – considering a Beretta 3032 – great advice. Fell in love w/a Beretta 21 at a local store. :) Only trouble, can’t fit a lazer site to it – any suggestions?
    Thanks & God Bless us all!!!

    1. Crimson Trace makes laser sight for the 21 A and the 3032 32 acp

  9. MLK, I have a brand new Ruger LC9 but am recovering from a broken middle finger -above the knuckle-‘surgery done with a plate and screws. I am not able to rack the slide and the doc said wait three weeks. I’m sure I will need strength training. What sort do you do. This weaopn’ spring is really tight! I am also in my 60’s and am itching to fire it! Yes, I am in PT for my hand. BTW, the doc loves the LC9 and is going to buy one for his daughter in the Navy .

  10. I have arthritis of both hands can someone please inform me if there is a way that a Walter PPK can be modified so I could shoot it with some comfort. It has become very hard in sliding the top so a bullet can injected into the gun.

  11. I have R/A and am going to buy a handgun for self defense. Great article and advise for people with arthritis. Thanks so much.

  12. I also have Rheumatoid Arthritis, and Lupus…both of which affect my hands, wrists, and shoulders. I have researched and tried probably close to 50 different guns. I own a Taurus 38 special, and practice with hollow points- this is my home defense gun. Cleaning it is simple, shooting it has become very painful due to the trigger finger strength needed, and also recoil. For a concealed Carry Gun(self defense) I just bought a SIG Sauer P238 380 and couldn’t be happier…so easy to rack the slide since the gun is all metal. Also, it shoots a whole lot smoother than the Taurus. This is a great gun for those of you with hand issues. Hope this helps!

    1. I would agree. I am a 40 year old with joint damage in my right wrist and fingers. I shoot right handed and carry a Targus 380 concealed. I tried the sig sauer 9mm a few days ago and it was so much easier to load, rack, and shoot. I’m searching for one now. I felt very comfort with the grip and recoil. I was looking for the 380 but only the 9mm was available to try. I’m going with the 9mm.

  13. Thank you so much for all of the information! I just recently had hand surgery, which turned out to be a botch job by the surgeon. I have a 357 handgun, not it is hard for me to pull the trigger. My index finger is headed West so you see my dilemma i do believe a smaller reduced recoil 9mm would be the best choice for me.
    As always safety first..God Bless.

  14. if you cock the hammer back it reduces the effort needed to pull the trigger. i suggest if you are starting out shooting or shooting a gun you are not familiar with only load one bullet when you are at a gun range that way R/a or other factors it will be safer if you have the gun come out of your hand and other bullets won’t fire or if you do a immediate double tap because of recoil.the M & P series have a grippy scalloping to the real of the slide that is real handy

    1. oops I forot to add id you cannot slide a semi-auto back try the revolvers. some can fire shotgun shells like the JUDGE

  15. I have pronounced grip strength which makes chambering a round in my Keltec 9mm very difficult. I am also unable. To handle much recoil and want a smaller CCW for my purse or pocket. I was looking for something like a Berreta Neos 22lr or a Taurus PT 22lr small frame or PT740 slim .40 ( but that might have too much kick? What would you advise for a disabled woman for self defense without it being too hard to use when needed? I used to have a .38 snubnose but could never handle that now. Thanks for your help.

    1. oopsI meant grip strength weakness! Big difference!

  16. How do people with arthritis handle loading thie clips ?

  17. @Jean. Get an auto loader, such as the UPLula.

  18. I’m 25 and have RA. I just wanted to say thanks for the article and for all the comments! I ended up picking out a Bersa Thunder 380 and am really happy with it!

Add Your Comment (Get a Gravatar)

Get a Gravatar! Your Name


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *.

All comments will be reviewed by the Delta Defense team before posting. If your comment is in poor taste, or contains profanity or racial slurs, it will not be posted.