I have been fascinated by the great buildings of the world all my life and always find architecture interesting. While Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower are monumental achievements, the Pirate’s House in Savannah, Ga., is another structure I find completely interesting. And Joyce and I love the mile-high bridge at Grandfather Mountain. For many years, folks have attempted to build the perfect building, perfect car or perfect knife. Just maybe, the late Bob Loveless already made the perfect knife, and I kind of like my Corvette.
The Golden Angle is a measurement I find interesting, and sometimes, I misapply the notion. I also have called lovely things part and parcel of the Golden Ratio by another name. I realize the Golden Angle is a small arc subtended by another, and it is useful in building a self-supporting dome. However, I also believe that the organization of material into shapes useful to man is what separates civilization from chaos.
It is entirely possible to find handguns that are absolutely difficult to hold and fire or manage. Some of the manually operated, and thankfully obsolete, repeaters of Europe are among them. The ghastly Mars pistol is another. However, there are also examples of excellent geometry in use today. To use another term, the Golden Proportion clearly exists in such firearms. There is one great drawback to designing a firearm that is a model of ergonomics—the great diversity of human shapes, sizes and forms—especially hand sizes.
Ergonomics is a term coined some hundred years ago that emerged, more recently, as a science. As equipment becomes more complex, it is only beneficial if we are able to use that equipment to its full potential. I think the first pistol maker who understood ergonomics was Sam Colt. There had been revolvers before the Colt that were horribly expensive, needed hand rotation of the cylinders and, for the most part, looked like flintlocks with bulky cylinders morphed to them.
Colt designed the plow handle grip that fits most hands well. The grip’s geometry allowed easy hammer cocking. Plus, when you fired the revolver, the muzzle tipped up in recoil (along with the rest of the revolver) and your thumb caught the hammer and cocked it again. Not rocket science, although it is good, sound ergonomics.
The Smith and Wesson Military Police Revolver
Fast forward to the double-action revolver era. Smith and Wesson introduced the Military and Police (M and P) revolver in 1899, and it is still made today, although in a much improved form. Smith and Wesson improved the lockwork and metallurgy but not the hand fit—there is little room for improvement there.
The M and P revolver is one of those friendly combinations that works for everyone, whether you have large or small hands. The trigger reach is ideal for most hands, and the action is smooth. The M and P revolver led to the Combat Magnum, Combat Masterpiece, Model 13 .357 Magnum and other variations. The double-action revolver must stabilize the hand to allow the trigger finger to extend and work the double-action trigger. The hump at the top of the grip does so, while earlier designs were based on single-action revolvers and did not work correctly because of insufficient leverage.
The late Tom Ferguson, one of the greatest police writers of all time, called the M and P .38 the “gunfighter’s gun of the 20th century”. He was right. Although the Magnums and big bores are more interesting or glamorous to some, many thousands of working cops carried the humble .38, and it served them well. As for the ergonomics, for many reasons, other similar revolvers are too small or too large for the hand. The M and P .38 fits most hands well, and just as importantly, rapidly comes to the eye and sights quickly. There is no revolver faster to a double action hit than the M and P.
The Colt Revolvers
Colt chambered its Police Positive revolver in .32 and the short .38, and later chambered the Police Positive Special later for the .38 Special. That swing-out cylinder revolver was smaller than the M and P, and while well suited to the .32 caliber (it was used by several police departments in this caliber), it also was chambered in .38 Special. It was light and kicked a bit more than the M and P.
In 1926, Colt created a revolver that became a sensation: the Detective Special with a 2-inch barrel and .38 Special chambering. It became one of the most popular concealed-carry revolvers of all time. Sensibly lighter than the Smith and Wesson six-shot .38, the Detective Special is also easier to fire and use well than the five-shot frame .38s. The Detective Special is as easy to fire accurately as most 4-inch barrel revolvers, with superb balance and excellent glassy smooth action.
As an example, a few weeks ago, I fired a 2-inch, 15-yard group, double action, in timed fire off the barricade with my personal Detective Special, using the Winchester 158-grain SWC load. While the older Detective Special revolvers are good handguns, the more modern examples, with the heavy barrels and hand-filling grips, are better shooters.
What makes those revolvers fit most hands so well? The grip design allows the hand to find a natural resting point, and the three fingers of the supporting group curl around the grip in ideally. They are neither handle-heavy nor barrel-heavy, and the result is good heft and real speed on target.
When it comes to self-loaders, the road is more difficult. Sure, the automatic loads itself, but the hand must operate a number of controls. Hand fit is sometimes excellent, although the controls leave something to be desired. For example, the grip angle of the German Luger is excellent, and the magazine release is an immortal design. (Why do we say Browning-type magazine latch and not Luger?) The take-down lever was years ahead of its time. However, it was difficult to manipulate the Luger safety with one hand. The German “Broomhandle” Mauser looks ungainly and, once it is in the hand, nothing is further from the truth.
The old M96 balances well. Winston Churchill wrote his mother that the Mauser was “the best thing in the world” in a gunfight. T.E. Lawrence said much the same and boasted in a letter to his mother of a generous profit he made on his Mauser, selling it in Africa before returning to England. The great African hunter Bell served in the Royal Air Force during World War I and shot down at least two German aircraft with his Broomhandle (take into consideration the structure of those dope and fabric aircraft and the penetration of the 7.63mm Mauser cartridge).
The first great, practical self loader with first-class ergonomics was the Colt 1911. With its low-bore axis, grip that fits most hands well and straight-to-the-rear trigger compression, the 1911 is in a class by itself. The Browning High Power was much the same.
Options for Those with Disabilities
Given the design excellence those handguns have, it seems there is little left to cover in the handgun line. However, the subject of disability and the need for self-protection come up often. While much depends on the particular disability, there are orthopedic handguns, as I call them, that are well suited to certain disabilities. Others simply make life easier for all of us. Some of our brothers and sisters have use of only one hand, and others have vision impairment. I once suffered a serious injury to my non-dominant arm, which made me a one-hand shooter for several months, so I have experienced this problem. These needs must be addressed.
By far, the most common complaint is a sensitivity to recoil. Seniors and those of slight build often complain the most. Any number of well-seasoned shooters find their personal choice of a lightweight .45 or .357 snub simply is not usable as creeping age causes joint complaints and other problems. There are solutions and aids; often the advice given to those shooters is not well thought out, and it is really important to keep everyone shooting and able to defend themselves.
Let’s look at the snub nose .38 first. The lightweight .38 has sharp recoil, no question there. The first approach is to use a heavier revolver. Even if concealed carry is the goal, you can carry a steel-frame snub-nose .38 as easily as an aluminum-frame revolver in a properly fitted leather holster. Perhaps a holster with dual loops rather than a single loop would fit the bill. Point made, the steel-frame revolver is superior to the airweight .38 for control, but the steel frame still kicks harshly to some when using full-power ammunition.
.22 or .32 Magnum
Another solution is to recommend a .32 Magnum or a .22 Magnum, although I am not willing to bet my life on the .32, and particularly not the .22, Magnum. The .22 Magnum presents a particularly poor choice. Rimfire cartridges are not as ignition-reliable as centerfire cartridges since the rim takes a hard smack to properly ignite the priming compound. As a result, .22-caliber revolver trigger actions necessarily are heavier than the centerfire. You may perform a trigger job on the .38 to get a lighter trigger action. (Let caution be the guide and reliability the goal.) But you cannot produce a lighter action with the .22 and maintain reliability.
With decreased hand strength as the instigator of procedure, you may tune the action of the .38. OK, you say, with the .32 Magnum we have six shots. No, I cannot recommend the .32 Magnum. But with the .38 Special, there are choices that cut a full .38-caliber hole but kick much less than the .38 +P that normally is deployed for defense. If the .38 kicks too much with +P loads, then load the 148-grain wadcutter. Offered by major makers, including Winchester, the flat-nose .38 punches a neat, round hole in paper targets and flesh and blood. Recoil is light, and the revolver is actually a joy to use and fire with those loads.
Add a set of recoil-absorbing Hogue grips, and you just may find that the snub-nose .38 is no longer a bear to fire but a puppy dog. I recommend the hardest hitting load you can control for personal defense, and if this is the hardest hitting load you can control, this is the one to use. It starts out at a greater diameter than an expanded .32 Magnum. Another overlooked combination is the Winchester 110-grain Silvertip. Recoil is modest, and there was good expansion during my testing. I prefer heavier loads, such as the Winchester 130-grain PDX, but you cannot use a handgun that scares you.
If the handgun is for home defense not concealed carry, a good six-shot .38 with the 148-grain wadcutter load is ideal. Hornady offers a first-class defense load with the same power factor or recoil factor, which should prove more effective than the non-expanding wadcutter. The 90-grain Critical Defense in .38 Special is well worth your while to check out. Designed for adequate penetration and good expansion, it is a light-recoil loading with much to recommend.
The six-shot revolver with rubber grips is an outstanding home defense handgun, offering a good level of protection for those who practice. With the Hornady load, recoil is light, and the wound ballistics are respectable. In self-loaders, a couple of designs are outstanding for those with limited hand strength. If they can hack the slack at all, a mid-size 9mm handgun is comfortable to fire and offers good protection. The Ruger LCP is among those, and the larger Taurus Millennium is one of the easiest handguns to use well. The Millennium is among the finest personal defense handguns for all-around use that I have yet to test.
I would avoid the .40 caliber compacts. I have seen too many come through my classes, and the majority of able-bodied students could not control those guns to a high standard. In this case, less is more. A good standard-pressure load, such as the Winchester Silvertip, is ideal for use in the small 9mm handguns. I am no fan of the .380 ACP cartridge; however, Ruger’s LC380 may be the best balance of a low-recoil and hand-filling pistol in the world. Unlike the smaller LCP .380, the LC380 locks open on the last shot, has a hand-filling grip and offers a good purchase for shooters. It is light and easy to handle. Recoil is light and accuracy superb, and it is a fun gun to shoot, which means a lot.
The SIG P Series
Very few handguns were designed from the start with ergonomics foremost. The SIG P-series pistols—beginning with the P220 and progressing to the P225, P226, P228 and the incomparable P229—are models of ergonomics. While many double-action, first-shot pistols have slide-mounted de-cocking levers that stretch the hand, the SIG features a frame-mounted de-cocker. The slide offers plenty of leverage for the average size and strength individual to rack the slide with minimal effort. The S-shaped grips fits most hands well. When all is said and done, the SIG P series is always a good idea and just may be the best choice for all-around ergonomics.
A Few Options for Aging Wrists
An older shooter who is used to carrying the Commander .45 asked me to help him find a load that will recoil less in his pistol. I receommnded that perhaps he should go to the steel-frame .45, although changing the load helped a lot. Winchester designed the 185-grain Silvertip for good control and expansion. It works as designed in the .45 ACP. Similarly, those who find the .357 Magnum too much for aging wrists may find the .38 Special +P, or perhaps one of the low recoil .357 Magnum loads, good options. The Winchester 110-grain JHP .357 Mangum is a choice that is sensibly less hot than the full-power loadings. Sometimes a different load and set of grips help a great deal. Many people have used the same handgun for years and are loath to change, so a slight modification helps a lot.
For Those with Impaired Vision
During the past few years, I have worked with shooters with serious vision impairment. Yet each was capable of using a handgun well enough to defend themselves to 7 yards or so. Both females with whom I worked considered themselves at a higher risk due to their vision problems. Each earned my respect for their hard work and dedication. In one case, using a laser sight measurably aided her use of the handgun. While the iron sights of the handguns were difficult for her to make out clearly, the red dot was not. Personal defense is often a short-range affair, and by using a good laser, the chances of hitting the target may be increased. When there is a loss of visual acuity, the laser-aiming devices come into their own.
There are other handguns well suited to those with physical handicaps, and there are many solutions. You should look hard at the many choices and try them on the range. An hour of range time is worth a month of conversation.
Do you have a physical impairment or know someone who does? Share in the comments section what has kept you shooting, whether in self-defense, out in the woods or at the range.