As we all know, none of us are getting any younger. My birthday is rapidly approaching, and I will barely remain under 50 years of age. I like to think that I am still close to my prime; but I can certainly see how my parents are no longer near their peak. This is very evident with my mother’s arthritic hands.
Roughly 10 years ago, she purchased a Ruger LCP (the original) as her every day carry (EDC) gun. Her hand strength was fine for recoil control, slide manipulation and her finger was certainly strong enough to manage the trigger. Over intervening time, those processes have become much more difficult. As an example, she must now use both index fingers to make that gun go bang! This is far from an ideal situation.
Small carry guns fall into two broad camps—semi-autos and revolvers. I will tackle the semi-autos first.
The mostly metal composition of the SIG 938 goes a long way toward taming the recoil of 9mm. The increased grip size also helps in this regard for all but the smallest of hands. The slide is fairly light to rack, especially if done on an unloaded magazine. Removing the empty magazine and inserting a full one, then releasing the slide chambers a round and the gun is ready. The limited capacity of the magazine also makes for less compression on the magazine spring, so loading the last round is not as difficult as most double-stack magazines. For those with smaller hands, this gun is a great fit. For those with larger hands, half to a whole pinkie may be left without a perch. The trigger breaks at around 7 pounds, and although somewhat heavy, it is a crisp 1911-style, short throw break.
For some the need to carry cocked and locked may be a deal breaker.
Smith and Wesson M&P 380 Shield EZ
The 9mm Shield is a marginally effective pistol for those affected by arthritis. The new 380 EZ Shield is much better, in several ways. Out of the gate, the gun weight is the same as the 9mm but shoots a significantly less energetic round. This makes for better recoil mitigation. The slide is also significantly easier to rack with a lighter recoil spring and reminds many of racking a rimfire semi-auto. It comes in thumb safety or grip safety models. The grip safety is likely best for purposes of this article. Also the factory 5# trigger is quite light for a factory offering. Lastly, the magazine spring is easy to depress when loading bullets. This might be the gun that breaks the stranglehold on small revolvers for this market.
The Walther is the largest of the group, being slightly larger than the 380 Shield EZ. It is chambered in 9mm and part polymer and part metal, much like the Shield; but it has an active gas / weight system to combat muzzle rise. This greatly reduces felt recoil. The slide is not the easiest of the three to rack, but is much lighter than most offerings from other companies. For those with average to larger hands, its size adds real estate from the entire hand to grip the gun. This assists in comfortable shooting. The 5.5-pound trigger is second lightest, but they do tend to have a moderately long travel and some grit until broken in. This usually happens between 150 and 250 rounds, which is a minimal number of rounds for a carry gun, before declaring it ready for service.
There are a few revolver options as well. These are better described as categories as they are not standardized like their semi-auto brethren; each sub model can be dramatically different in construction material, barrel length, grips size, and weight. Most of the options discussed today will have a roughly 2-inch barrel, 5-shot cylinder, and be chambered in .38/.357. I will be looking at both Smith and Ruger options. Both brands are equally good firearms, so try both to see which works better in your hands.
Smith and Wesson J Frame
The lightest model I am aware of is the 340 PD, an aluminum and titanium gun. This five-shot revolver is chambered in .357 Magnum and weighs in at 11.4 ounces. We will leave it as very not appropriate for this discussion, even shooting .38 Special. Although the ultra-light weight makes carry easy, recoil is brutal. At the other end of the spectrum, the Pro Series Model 640 is an all stainless-steel gun weighing in at 22.4 ounces, and the Model 60 3-inch barrel or Performance Series Pro Model 60 at 23.2 and 23.4 ounces respectively.
These steel guns are heavy for their footprint, but that greatly aids in absorbing recoil. For those with weakened grips due to arthritis, this helps to prevent flinch, quickens follow-up shots, and for some, may even be the difference between retaining or losing grip of the gun upon discharge. Often, the ultra-light revolvers are not able to use bullet weights below 125 grains, safely. This removes all ultra low recoil .38 Special rounds from consideration. This is not helpful as these cartridges are an additional way to aid to those with arthritis.
With the great variety in this category, I would highlight several choices. I prefer the hammered options as it allows manual cocking of the hammer with the off hand and drops trigger pull into the 2- to 3-pound range. Most non-Performance Center options have a double action trigger pull exceeding 9 pounds. A qualified gunsmith can easily reduce this into the 7-pound range without compromising safety or primer ignition. With practice, manual cocking of the hammer can be made automatic and uses a gross motor skill. This is often a great choice for reliability and to encourage training.
Ruger LCR and SP Revolvers
Ruger’s LCR revolvers take a different path than the Smith J frames, but end up in a similar space. Their ergonomics are different as are the options.
The lightest of the Ruger LCRs is the 5401 and its compatriots that vary mostly in color choice. They weigh in at 13.5 ounces. One comes with a pink grip and another with a purple frame. If those options make the shooter happy, by all means get them. Otherwise they are functionally the same. These, much like the lightweight Smith and Wesson are not good choices for those affected by arthritis. Also realize that all LCRs come without an exposed hammer. Ruger does have different caliber options in addition to the standard .38 Special and .357 Magnum. They also offer 9mm (5456) and .327 Magnum (5452) choices. Both of these guns tip the scale at or just over 17 ounces. They are not nearly as heavy as the all steel Smiths, but the extra 4 ounces is helpful in mitigating recoil.
The 9mm option is great from the standpoint of bullets, as choices are plentiful and fairly cheap, but the super short barrel will effectively reduce them to .380 ACP velocities and likely create a large fireball. This option also requires the use of moon clips, as 9mm is not a rimmed cartridge. With training, this can be an aid in quick reloading, but is also renders the gun next to useless if you manage to lose the moon clips.
The .327 Magnum is designed for shorter barrel weapons, so it is less affected by the 1.87-inch barrel. Recoil is in the neighborhood of .38 Special but packs quite a bit more penetration power and velocity. Unfortunately, it also is not commonly stocked in most gun stores.
Ruger’s LCRX line has a few heavier choices that offer larger grips and longer barrels such as the 5444. This steel revolver has a 3-inch barrel and weighs in at 21.3 ounces. It is capable of shooting .357 Magnum, although that should not be a consideration for those reading this article. The LCRX line is also Ruger’s carry category with an exposed hammer.
Another Ruger option is the SP101 family. They are overbuilt tanks, and with .38 Special, quite soft shooters in comparison to the lightweight variants from Ruger or Smith. They are slightly larger in size and weight (26+ ounces), and have a longer minimum barrel length of 2.25 inches. All of these help with ergonomics and recoil control, but they will make them a bit more difficult to conceal. A variety of longer barrel lengths are available, and they can be purchased in all the calibers available in the LCR line.
To recap, in the semi-auto line the choice is between size, weight, ease of racking the slide, and ergonomics for the individual shooter. There are few low-recoil ammunition choices, as a semi-auto needs a minimum amount of energy to cycle the slide. There are smaller, lighter guns, but the recoil penalty is brutal for those with grip issues.
Having said that, my mother chose to stay with the same platform she was used to, the Ruger LCP. Her choice was to upgrade to the LCP with the much-improved (less than 5 pounds) red trigger. This no longer seems to be available in the Ruger catalog and five years later is becoming much less viable for her. Her arthritis is also in the hips and knees, which makes EDC of a “heavy” gun painful as it changes her gait. Living in Florida, she is not able to open carry in public like she does at home. This means her most comfortable carry choices are forbidden. This also keeps her in a lighter than optimal gun.
Despite the family stubbornness trait, even the lower trigger pull LCP is now tough for her to manage. Soon, she will likely switch to a Smith or Ruger, 5-shot revolver of intermediate weight (16 to 18 ounces), and load the Hornady .38 Special Critical Defense Lite 90-grain rounds. This will remove the struggle with magazine reloads, not increase the weight of the gun substantially, and actually decrease felt recoil. Not to mention, she is a better shot with revolvers.
For a practice session, I reloaded lead projectiles that mimic the Hornady round. Using a friend’s J frame, she shot much longer strings than with her LCP and had zero hand pain during shooting or the next day. Currently, she is using the mindset, that if I need to shoot someone, hand pain is the least of my worries. At some point soon, that will not be a functional option just as it wasn’t with her original LCP.