This article first appeared in Concealed Carry Magazine’s October 2014 issue and has been edited for length. For access to the full article and all CCM articles, activate your USCCA Membership now!
Charlie Palek served the United States of America for two years in Vietnam. Infantry RTO — radiotelephone operator — with the 9th Division the first tour. Scout helicopter gunner with the 1st Aviation Brigade the second. But that was a half-century ago.
Years later, when Missouri passed its shall-issue concealed carry law, not many people beat Charlie to the head of the line. But that was seven years ago. Now he’s not as strong as that kid who leaned out the door of the OH-6 Cayuse firing an M60. It’s hard to pull the trigger of his Glock smoothly. Hard to grip the double-stack and hold steady.
Charlie has diabetes. The old soldier walks with a cane. He has neuropathy in his hands and feet. His fingers are stiff, and balance is difficult. “Walking around on my feet is like cutting a foam rubber ball in half and taping them to the bottoms of your shoes,” he says.
Charlie is only 65 years old, but he remembers patrolling through clouds of toxic defoliant, Agent Orange. And none of his medical conditions occur in other members of his family.
On Aging and Becoming a Senior
There’s no definitive national statistic, but the average age of concealed carry permit holders must be around 50 years, maybe more. The body is giving us signs that we won’t live forever. Aging begins at the top of our heads with the hair, then seeps downward through the brain — lines around our eyes, sagging pectorals, bulging paunch, spots on our hands, skin with that lizard-look that fascinated and repelled us when we went to grandma’s house for dinner.
How we cope with the inevitability of growing old will define us to our friends and family. In a critical situation, our coping strategy might be the difference between a cold grave and bouncing grandchildren on our knees.
From the Top Down
Awareness of our surroundings is crucial for self-defense. It begins with eyes and ears, both of which, unfortunately, become problems as we mature. By the time we hit 50, three-quarters of our acquaintances wear glasses or contact lenses. Compensate for eye problems by experimenting with different sights.
Even gunmakers are catching on. Remington’s re-released R51 subcompact is chambered in 9mm +P. Sample models came with the usual white-dot front sight, although because Remington refers to the R51 as a “point-and-shoot” — meaning close action, very close — it may not need sights at all. With common vision difficulties, that little white dot, standard on most new handguns, is hardly satisfactory. (A case can be made for disregarding sights entirely for defensive handgun shooting.)
A variety of aftermarket sighting systems are available to support training and range shooting, but at night — when you’re nervously creeping down dark stairs, the same stairs that can be tricky to negotiate in broad daylight — these sights will be as invisible as the white-dot combat sights. A SureSight with innovative, bright yellow triangles may help you keep your focus on the target, aligning the sights but letting them blur. TruGlo began developing fiber optics for the archery market but has since adopted the technology for handguns (and shotguns), as has HiViz.
Tritium, a non-lethal radioactive element adapted for gun sights, will glow in the dark. Trijicon and Meprolight offer a number of bright tritium sights for low light and nighttime shooting. Such sights are visible, but that will do nothing to help older eyes focus.
Other options when coping with eye problems are a flashlight, gun-mounted or hand-held, or a laser-aiming system. A bright flashlight, such as the 420-lumen Kel-Tec CL-43, can help identify a threat and, turned on at the right moment, will give you an aiming point while briefly disorienting an intruder or assailant. And that word, “briefly,” is your lifesaving moment. (Waving a flashlight randomly in the dark is like waving a cape in front of a bull; use your head.)
Crimson Trace and LaserMax offer well-engineered laser-aiming systems for handguns. With “normal” eyes, a laser is precise, even exciting — like in the movies when the accomplice points out the softly swaying red dot on the perp’s forehead. But depending on your vision troubles, that tiny red or green dot may not work for you. Try before you buy.
Age-related hearing loss, or presbycusis, is the slow loss of hearing that occurs as we age. The rock concerts, the range time without hearing protection, the earbuds channeling loud music past all those tiny, delicate hair cells … well, not much can be done. Those hair cells don’t re-grow, and even crazy Aunt Thelma takes off her hearing aid before slipping into her pajamas.
You want to be able to hear an assailant rushing out of an alleyway or the click and slide of the glass door. The best — perhaps the only — compensation is vigilance, continued training and, for the home or office, passive aids such as effective lighting, motion detectors and camera systems. When shooting at the range, use both earplugs and muffs to protect the hearing you have left.
When Enough Is Enough…
Young and old, we are susceptible to the effects of blast. We call it “felt recoil” because it is highly subjective, specific to an individual rather than a class of individuals.
Whoever pulls the trigger, a universal physical law applies: For every action, expect an equal and opposite reaction. The momentum of a handgun’s reaction equals the momentum of the bullet and gas ejected from the muzzle, and this can be measured as energy and velocity of recoil.
The weight of the gun is also part of this equation. Heavier guns absorb more recoil energy than lighter guns, and because smaller calibers are usually fired from lighter guns, an older shooter must judge how much of a pounding to absorb or give up. A heavy load in a light gun results in much higher felt recoil than a lighter load.
Cartridge load recipes are practically endless, but as we grow older, we become more sensitive to recoil. Just ask Charlie Palek. Consider dropping down in bullet grain weight, even in caliber, to save the hands and wrists. It won’t matter in an emergency. Adrenaline will take over and you will most likely shoot only two or three times. It is the preparation, the practice, the hours at the range that are the destroyers here.
The other consideration is handgun weight. The Walther PPQ M2 is a 1.5-pound lightweight polymer striker-fired pistol. A heavier pistol, such as one of Smith & Wesson’s stainless 1911s, weighs twice as much. A steel gun is a load on the hip and in the hand, but felt recoil from a .45 ACP might be less than the .40 Walther, and the relative energy delivery is greater. The only way to know is to experiment with guns and loads … or to load your own.
Revolver or Semi-Auto
These days, few law enforcement and military professionals carry wheelguns, except perhaps as backups. They have all followed the call of the semi-auto, because the semi-auto carries more rounds and is lighter in weight, a factor if you carry all day in addition to pepper spray, Taser, flashlight, handcuffs, ballistic vest, baton, telephone, keys, knife and so on.
A revolver is also bulkier than a semi-auto, another factor to consider when carrying concealed. The new Springfield XD-S in 9mm has a 7+1 capacity and measures less than an inch wide in the grip. If you’re going to carry a gun on duty, day-in and day-out, you would choose something flat, something on the order of the 2-pound 9mm FN HP MKIII — 13 rounds — or even the 2-pound FNS-9 with polymer receiver — 17 rounds. But you’re not on duty. You aren’t a cop. And your hands are no longer rock-solid steady.
The semi-auto reloads faster than a revolver. For older hands, perhaps hands that aren’t as strong as they once were when they were pulling on scuba tanks or twisting the parachute lines, ejecting a spent magazine and ramming a new one into the grip will be easier and faster, more “life-preserving,” than loading bullet-by-bullet or aligning a speedloader. But you may have difficulty with the safety, with a stiff magazine release or with disassembly for cleaning or compressing the spring to load the 15th, 16th and 17th rounds. And if you buy a cheap semi, it will not be easy to care for or to operate in a stressful moment, guaranteed. Finally, semis can be finicky about ammo. Those low-recoil cartridges may not cycle properly, a problem that is never a concern with revolvers.
Actually, a revolver has several advantages, especially for older shooters. A revolver is simple, reliable and easy to maintain. It won’t readily jam and may take more abuse than a semi-auto. With a revolver, one loads and pulls the trigger. Anyone can operate it.
And Finally, Continuous Training
As a senior in the concealed carry world, you have a responsibility to find training that keeps you sharp, toned and able to make good decisions and handle (or at least not fall apart entirely) during threatening scenarios. This may mean a rigorous course at a prestigious training academy plus working the daily crossword puzzle. The more an activity challenges you, the more you benefit.
However, beware of the courses that emphasize rugged clothing, specialty combat techniques or extraordinary measures and gear. Training that respects your true situation is more valuable than training that simulates combat. With respect, leave that for the kids.
And So, Charlie
Charlie Palek wrote a book about his 22 months in Vietnam called Tattletale (available through Amazon.com). It is his account of 1967-68 as a radiotelephone operator and 1969-70 as a scout helicopter gunner. Both RTOs and scout helicopters were prime targets for enemy snipers.
“I took part in the Tet battles,” Charlie writes, affirming his participation in the bloody offensives of January 1968, “and our invasion of Cambodia in 1970. We played Jimi Hendrix acid guitar when we crossed into Cambodia. It seemed appropriate.”
Charlie holds a hand out, checks its trembling, flexes his fingers, squeezes his fingertips and wonders what it felt like to stroke his wife’s neck, playfully pinch his giggling children, peel the rough skin of an orange.
Charlie Palek was awarded a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars with V-device, not one but two Distinguished Flying Crosses, six Air Medals, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry (with Palm), the Combat Infantry Badge, the Helicopter Crewman’s Badge and three Purple Hearts. Charlie is a certified American war hero.
But today Charlie is concerned that a lawyer could spin his age and his combat-related physical ailments to his disadvantage if he were ever forced into a self-defense shooting.