May 23, 2022
By Jeremy Stafford
According to a recent survey, many firearm owners do not have the physical ability needed to safely manipulate the slide, trigger or even manage the felt recoil of a handgun. For decades, the typical response would be to recommend a revolver or sub-caliber pistol. While that still might not be bad advice — and it is better than telling a person to call 9-1-1 and wait for police to respond — those type of handguns may not be the optimal solution for a concerned citizen wanting a defensive option.
While traditional double-action (DA) revolvers have their place, the long and usually heavy trigger pull can be difficult to manage. Thumb-cocking the hammer can lighten the trigger’s resistance but setting the hammer down gently while full of adrenaline could produce a negligent discharge. Recoil with popular defensive revolver chamberings such as the .38 Special and .357 Magnum can be prohibitive and intolerable for many, especially when fired from a lightweight revolver. But they are reliable!
The sub-caliber category is frequently changing. While the .22 LR, .25 ACP, and .32 ACP options are interesting to many due to concealability and recoil control, most of these handguns do not have consistent penetration needed from a serious defensive round. Federal introduced the .22 LR Punch for 2021 to address a growing demand in the personal defense category, and the results look promising for a 29-grain bullet with a muzzle velocity of 1,080 feet per second (fps). However, I need more test data before I’ll recommend it for self-defense.
The ease of use of pistols that chamber .22 is often what makes these desirable. Diminished hand strength means that traditional semiauto pistols can be tough to operate; slides, buttons, and levers all require a degree of dexterity that many tired hands do not possess. Smaller pistols often have lighter recoil springs, and with some designs such as the Beretta Tomcat in .32 and Taurus 22 POLY, a tip-up barrel that allows the shooter to forego slide racking in order to load makes it attractive.
Note that I wrote “ease of use” and not “easy to shoot.” These small pistols often have long DA triggers and small sights. If you can’t hit your target, it doesn’t matter how easy a pistol is to manipulate or how little it recoils. These pistols and calibers are viable options, but as compared to certain modern pistols, I wouldn’t be looking at them first.
The .380 ACP has always been considered a “barely there” cartridge, meaning that it “barely” has enough penetration and expansion to be defensive. When my department authorized the Smith & Wesson M&P Bodyguard 380 for back-up and off-duty use several years ago, only one >hollowpoint offering got close to 12 inches of penetration: Hornady’s Critical Defense 90 grain FTX load which would get us to about 11 1/2 inches in gel with a velocity of 1,000 fps and 200 foot-pounds (ft.-lbs.) of energy at the muzzle. Ammunition manufacturing has evolved since the Hornady load was introduced 10 years, and now there are several .380 options that routinely penetrate past 12 inches. Federal, for example, offers several .380 loads with reduced recoil (i.e., Personal Defense Hydra->Shok Low Recoil) or added penetration (i.e., Personal Defense Punch). The low-recoil offering produces 12 inches of penetration in gel, and the Punch delivers up to 15 inches.
Firearms manufacturers have responded to this segment, as well. Smith & Wesson offers the M&P Shield EZ in .380 ACP and 9mm. When it was first introduced in 2019, the EZ in .380 was derided by many. That’s the great thing about the EZ series, it’s easy to dismiss until you need it. The EZ offered a larger and easier-to-shoot platform for the .380 along with a slide that’s easy to rack due to a light recoil spring and ears to grab for leverage at the rear. The trigger on it the EZ Shield is very good, also, as are the sights.
The M&P Shield EZ, in my opinion, changed the game for many groups of shooters who need something shootable, easy to work, and provides an acceptable level of terminal ballistic performance. Guns & Ammo’s staff has fired thousands of rounds through the .380 and the 9mm EZ pistols. We have found them to be reliable, accurate, soft shooting, and consistent from gun to gun. While not a true “pocket pistol,” they are as small as many of the new generation of compact 9s. These are slim, offer eight-plus-one-round capacity, and are easy to shoot all day. Shooters with compromised hand strength should look at the M&P Shield EZ series.
The EZ line does give up a number of rounds to the new-for-2021 M&P Shield Plus, but the gain in performance is worth it for those shooters who have physical issues. I would not be surprised to see S&W offer a “Plus” version of the EZ someday, but I wouldn’t let my desire for more rounds interfere with my enthusiastic recommendation of these pistols as they are.
To The Max
I’ve been doing a lot of shooting with another gun that I’ve started to recommend for shooters wanting a small, easy-to-shoot option: Ruger LCP MAX in .380 ACP. The original Ruger LCP was introduced in 2008, and it is one of the most reliable pocket pistols in .380. But it’s not a joy to shoot for many. The trigger is serviceable and safe, and the sights are usable, but the pistol is so small (5.16-inches long, .82-inch wide, 3.6 inches tall) and light (9.4 ounces) that it is not comfortable to shoot all day. In fact, even getting through a box of 50 rounds is tough for some, especially the shooters that this article is geared towards. With the new-for-2021 LCP MAX, Ruger has improved this pocket pistol for shooters with hand limitations by giving it a longer grip (4.12 inch) to control, and thereby greater capacity (10-plus-one rounds).
Ruger has been mindful of these shooters for a while, and even offers the LC380, which is a .380-caliber pistol based on their EC9s 9mm micro pistol. It offers an easier-to-shoot package than the standard LCP with better sights, a better trigger, and a slightly larger frame. The LCP MAX, however, is a true pocket pistol. It weighs less than 11 ounces and measures under an inch thick (.81 inch).
The thing that really sticks out about the LCP MAX is that the slide is very easy to retract, even for those with small or tired hands. It features raised so-called “wings” at the rear, much like the S&W EZ pistols’ treatment. The double-action trigger is good, too, measuring 6 pounds, 12 ounces, with no stacking. The sights are great, consisting of a large, green tritium front and a generous, black U-notch rear, which is a very good combination for aging eyes. The slightly redesigned grip holds a flush 10 or extended 12-round magazine. (That’s double the capacity of the original 6-round LCP mag.)
In my initial session with Ruger’s LCP MAX, I brought 300 rounds of various loads to the range. I expected to shoot about 200 during accuracy tests, but I blasted through all 300 before I even had the chance to bench it! Even the stout Federal Punch 85-grain loads were comfortable — not just “gun guy” comfortable, but comfortable for all.
Never before have there been so many quality and effective choices for shooters of all capabilities. If you find yourself struggling, take a look at these options.
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