Defensive Pistols: Low Recoil Options

Recoil sensitive shooters, or those who suffer from hand problems, must consider caliber, weight, size and capacity when choosing defensive handguns.


Having spent time on both sides of the gun counter, I've heard the following question time and again, "What's the best handgun for self-defense?" If we put this seemingly simple question into a different context, the problem of answering it becomes clear. What is the best food to eat? What are the best shoes to wear? What is the best car to drive? If people were simple, the answer to the question would be easy. However, each shooter has a unique set of preferences, circumstances and requirements that must be taken into consideration, and when the shooter is recoil sensitive, even more consideration must taken into account.

Spotting the Problem
When I worked behind the gun counter of a local sporting goods store, one of my co-workers thought he had the answer to every defensive handgun problem. In fact, he had just one answer: One gun fits all. It didn't matter whether the customer was a 300-pound football player or a 100-pound soccer mom, he handed out the same gun, over and over again. It was an excellent choice in terms of quality and performance, but, the handgun just was not a good fit for every customer.

I would watch as customers fumbled for controls they couldn't reach, struggled to rack the slide or made faces over the weight of the pistol when held at arm’s length. Sometimes they would ask to see something else, but he wouldn't show it to them. He would press the same gun back into their hands and explain that if they would just hold it long enough, the gun would fit them perfectly. If the customer wanted to talk about caliber options, well, that was just a waste of time since this gun was already chambered in the “correct” caliber. Needless to say, these people left the store looking perplexed and dissatisfied.

My goal was to help customers find that just-right gun. My job was made easier by working at a well-stocked store. Whether customers were looking for a gun for target shooting, pest control, hunting or self-defense, I usually had something to fit their needs. My favorite part of working in the store was seeing that little light go on in the customers’ eyes when they found a firearm that was a perfect fit. It was pleasant work most of the time, but I occasionally had customers whose situation would give my heart a little tug.

These customers would explain that they had a relative or very good friend who was in need of a defensive handgun. However, their loved one was small statured, elderly or suffered from physical limitations brought on by illness or injury. The customer would ask me the same, well-oiled question I had heard so many times before, but with an important twist, "So, what's the best handgun for self-defense that doesn't kick hard?" I understood their concerns, and I knew first hand just what they were looking for because I had already gone through the process with my wife, who had been injured in a car accident.

Choosing the Best Fit
A variety of handguns on the market today can be used in a defensive role by those who are dealing with physical challenges. However, most low-recoil defensive handguns are seen as too large for concealed carry, too small for use as a duty pistols and are chambered in calibers often rejected as being too small for self-defense.

When considering the purchase of a low-recoil defensive pistol, we have to ask some important questions. Is a bigger handgun the better handgun if our loved one can’t tolerate the recoil? Is using the correct model of handgun as important to their self-defense plan as finding a model they will practice with? Should we write off pistols that our friends or family would buy and shoot on a regular basis because the pistol is chambered in a low-power caliber? When we take a hard look, we all know someone who would benefit from a low-recoil defensive pistol. All they need is the opportunity to find a pistol that’s a good fit for them.

Researching low-recoil defensive pistols means working outside of the traditional self-defense box. So, what qualities should we look for? Working with the AmericanRifleman.org staff, we developed a measuring stick for defensive handguns with less kick, then selected examples that we felt were a good fit for this category.

Keep in mind that the goal of this exercise was not to identify the best handguns for self-defense, but to find a variety of handguns with features to suit shooters with special considerations. Our review process included consideration of the following pistol features:

Caliber: Recoil, or the fear of it, is always high on the list of reasons why non-shooters stay non-shooters. For some, this fear can be overcome with positive shooting experiences and regular practice. However, for those with physical limitations, recoil is a serious concern. Most self-defense Gurus set 9 mm and .38 Spl. as the minimum defensive caliber choices, then invite their students to work up to the largest caliber they can successfully manage.

For this review, we had a different goal in mind. We set aside more powerful pistol cartridges in search of calibers that recoil-sensitive individuals would be able to practice with on a regular basis. Proper shot placement is the key to a successful defense plan, and shot placement is developed with regular practice. After some serious consideration, we set .380 ACP and .327 Fed. as our maximum low-recoil defensive calibers, with .22 Magnum (WMR) as the minimum. While the .22 Magnum is a light round for defensive applications, it has enough power to fill the better-than-no-gun-at-all niche.

Ammunition Capacity: When using smaller, lighter calibers for self defense, having more rounds to work with is important. Low-recoil defensive pistols with large ammunition capacities were generally favored over similar pistols with lower capacity. For those who prefer the benefits of defensive revolvers, we set the ammunition capacity at a minimum of six rounds. This ensured we didn’t ignore some excellent wheelguns.

Size & Weight: This is possibly the most subjective criteria we considered. A pistol of greater size and weight can reduce felt recoil, but beyond a certain point, the pistol becomes too heavy for some shooters to use comfortably. A smaller, lighter pistol is easier to hold at arm’s length and to manipulate, but as the pistol shrinks, the felt recoil increases. We decided the rule-of-thumb would be to look for pistols in the 20- to 25-ounce weight range.

This range, especially for softer shooting calibers, seems to hit the sweet spot between having enough pistol weight to offset felt recoil, while still being light enough to handle with relative ease. We found a few low-recoil pistols in this review that operate outside of this weight range, but to the benefit of the shooter.

Sights: A large, easy-to-see sighting system is an important feature of any defensive handgun, but the sights become critical when shooting small-bore calibers. It’s more than likely that someone using a low-recoil pistol for self-defense will have to fire multiple well-placed shots in order to successfully protect themselves. All of the pistols we selected come from the factory with good sights, and some even come off of the assembly line with night sights or large, bright fiber optics.

Price: As I’ve worked with people looking for low-recoil defensive handguns, price has almost always been an issue. Usually the buyer or recipient of the pistol has been on a tight budget. The knot in their purse strings has been caused by any number of financial challenges, including prolific medical bills or a fixed income. Luckily for us, we currently have a market place filled with a variety of pistols for recoil-sensitive shooters. Though we didn't exclude any pistols because of price, we did strive to include several options currently available in the $500 price range.

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34 Responses to Defensive Pistols: Low Recoil Options

Eric wrote:
April 28, 2014

so I see people mentioning galleries for these type of guns but for some reason i cannot locate a specific gallery with a list of these types of low recoil self defensive handguns. any ideas where to look?

Raynegage234 wrote:
February 16, 2014

I purchased a Walthers PK380, which I dearly love and am very proficient with. The problem here is that 380 ammo is extremely hard to find these days, and is more expensive than most ammo that works in a low-recoil gun. This has left me in a lurch, and searching for a second weapon without too much recoil for a woman my age (60). I have already bought and traded or sold four other handguns that didn't 'fit' me like my Walthers, and am at a total loss on what to consider next. The guns I've already tried are: Ruger LC9 (too much kick), Charter Arms Lavender Lady [[]38 special] (too wide grip and bothersome it only holds 5 rds), HiPoint 9 mm(chambering problems), and the other I dcon't even remember. I was cionsidering getting a Ruger SR9C, but the reviews discuss chambering problems and other that I simply don't have time for (money involved). I have already probably lost several hundreds of dollars on the fact that new guns are used as soon as they walk out the door, nonetheless after you fire 50-100rds through them, so I take a susdtancial loss with each trade (thus I started selling them instead). i want something comparable to my 380 in comfort and recoil that I can actually buy ammo for. What gun would that possibly be that doesn't have major chambering/jammimg problems? I sure could use some advice here!

joe wrote:
September 26, 2013

so which pistols have less recoil?

Cindy wrote:
September 18, 2013

The link to the photo gallery doesn't work and I would really like to know what the choices are at the time of this article. Can anybody help with this?

Mike C wrote:
March 21, 2013

I recommend the bersa 380. several of my friends and my father own one. I shoot the gun without closing my eyes because the report and recoil are so minimal. I am trying to find one for my wife right now(for concealed carry) because of the size, recoil, safety features, ease of use, and last but certainly not least price. it is probably one of the most inexpensive guns on the list at 350-390 new. if you can find one. if there were such thing as a one gun fits all, in my opinion, this gun would be it.

Bo wrote:
February 11, 2013

If you are so sensitive to recoil/kickback that you flinch & hit targets poorly, then really your only choice is a .380 Sig P238 @ 15oz, small/conceal/subcompact, 4.25ft# kick, 60% defense rating. You can consider a Ruger LCR .38spl revolver with similar specs but the kick increases to 7.43Ft#. If weight, size, conceal ability doesn't bother you, then you will have better options in the larger calibers but watch those recoil numbers.

Daniele Wheeler wrote:
January 26, 2013

I am 32 yr old female with tendonitis and hands small enough to wear my 9 yr old daughters gloves. I definitely need a low recoil hand gun for personal protection. I also need it to be light weight and have a small grip. I need the slide to be easy to pull and the trigger to be easy to squeeze. I'm not really picky about the caliber. But I am on a tight budget. Could you send me an E-mail with some suggestions. Thank you!

xzfgog wrote:
September 14, 2012

I want one so bad

Ann wrote:
August 03, 2012

This is a great article. This information is just what I was looking for. Thank you very much!

WVGIRL wrote:
May 21, 2012

I just got the SR9C. It's a dream. It has low recoil doesn't weigh a lot and is a lot of fun to shoot!! I was surprised by how little kick there was and how easy to aim.

Cindy wrote:
April 02, 2012

@ Rachel.I just bought a Ruger Lcp and got to shoot it for the first time this weekend. And it has some serious kick in it. I am 5'1 130 pounds and its not overpowering, but yeah, u feel it when done. I shot 100 rounds through it and afterwards, my grippin hand was a little sore. I also just let that ride to it being my first time as well. Its pretty acurate though for such a tiny little gun.

Rachel wrote:
February 16, 2012

Anyone suggesting the Ruger LCP. 380 is a handgun with low recoil have obviously never shot one...

firemoon wrote:
January 27, 2012

This information is very good I would also recommend before making a purchase that you go to your local range and try several models for comfort and ease of use. You need to be comfortable with the gun if you are planning on using it.

Wisconsin - NRA Member wrote:
November 24, 2010

Over the years of being trained by different professionals from military experts/special forces to police firearm instructors I’ve heard the same message “Shot placement is king”. A 9mm round (which is currently the caliber used by Navy Seals and Special Forces units) will stop your attacker if you place it in a vital area. If you have a hard time handling/shooting the style or caliber of the pistol you currently have, it will only get worse during a stressful situation. My advice is similar to the above article 1) Find a defensive pistol that is comfortable in your hands 2) Find a caliber between .38spec – or above that you can handle well by placing multiple rounds accurately from a minimum distance of 21’ 3) Practice, practice, practice and when you feel you have gotten really good, go practice some more. In the end there is a very low probability that you will be in a situation where someone is using deadly force against you. However, if you do end up in that scenario you usually only get one opportunity to live through it, so be diligent in your training.

Grandpa wrote:
November 03, 2010

I train my children and their spouses (except the one who is a natural shooter) with low-recoil ammunition in practical stopping calibers. To me, that is 9mm or .38Spl minimum. The key is to remember that when confronting a real-deal bad guy, just as in combat, there is zero perception of recoil. Adrenalin conquers all, at that point. So, Grandpa's advice is to equip your loved ones with a gun of a caliber that for-sure can stop a bad guy, then start them out with wimpy loads as practice, so that they get the get the cycle/function of the weapon down cold. On game day, they will never remember the "kick" they feared would throw them off. A Veteran.

Jack C. wrote:
October 29, 2010

"Up close and personal". Those are the key words in a self-defense situation. Good sights are a necessity when taking the CHL class here in Texas, due to the ranges that you shoot, but no sights needed at 6-10 feet, at night, in the hallway of your house. Caliber is a subject that will never be settled. One must find a handgun in a caliber that is manageable. As a point of information, more people, through firearms history, have been killed with a .22 caliber than with any other. A handgun must fit the person using it, both physically and mentally, or it might as well be a brick that is thrown. I prefer small caliber, small size handguns for concealed carry, such as Ruger LCP in .380, Taurus Slim in 9m/m, Walther PPK/S or a small frame Llama, both in .380. Have been known to carry a S&W Md. 61 Escort, in .22LR. Fits nicely in a vest pocket! What it all boils down to is: fit the handgun to the person; fit the action to the person; fit the caliber to the person. With a personal defense handgun, definitely, one size does NOT fit all! Stay safe.

Bill johnson wrote:
October 27, 2010

There is no such thing as one fits all. Just remember you're talking personal defense, if your attacker is high on drugs you need something to take him out of the game. i prefer 45 auto for all around carry but "Any gun will do if you will do" Front sight motto.

jlp wrote:
October 26, 2010

Most .380's are definitely out because most of them are blow back operated and have very unpleasant recoil. They are often as big as the newer mini 9mm's and often cost just as much. I have often seen women buy automatic pistols only to then sell them because for them they were too complicated to clean and too complicated to learn and remember how to use. They always switch over to the small snub nosed 5 shot revolvers. More simple to load and unload and more simple to clean. This is what I have experienced with most women who have ccw licenses.

Mark M. wrote:
October 26, 2010

When I'm carrying for animals I like my .357 sig in glock; but for general carry (that I never expect to use); I like my walther pps in 9mm. I didn't think much of the 9mm years ago; but I do now. it is very accurate.

Jim wrote:
October 26, 2010

I sure wouldn't recommend the Walther PK380 to anyone. The safety is a joke, the trigger still works the hammer even when it is on. You need a tool to strip it for cleaning, magazine release is awkward at best, and there is no way to hold the slide open. All in all certainly not my favorite gun. Mine is for sale. I also agree with David everyone should start with a 22LR. I know two women who bought self defense guns and were sold the 38 SPl and 9mm. These were their first guns and in both cases just mastering the fundamentals has been almost impossible because of the recoil and muzzle report.

Bones wrote:
October 26, 2010

Hey the Cv-82 ( not the Cv-83) 9x18 makarov is a nice accurate auto-pistol. it shoots accurate even if it is dirty. I saw it used to shoot through a steel helmet and explode the melon inside-nice for close distant defence.

J.R. Carpenter wrote:
October 26, 2010

I didn't see the Taurus model 327 mentioned, though thge Ruger SP101, and S&W 632 are in the gallery. It's a good pocket gun!

J. Klawitter wrote:
October 26, 2010

Godd article, very interesting. I saw a few examples in the "photo gallery" of weapons I wuold have chosen to meet this criteria. Keep up the good work.

Frank Fox wrote:
October 25, 2010

I would take a Charter Arms or a Ruger over ANY Smith and Wesson. I get third of hearing "S&W" this and that, I have a friend that has a S&W PPK-38 that only works about 1/2 the time. Stove pipes the empty. The old S&W were OK but the new stuff is junk. Frank

Stuart Sonne wrote:
October 25, 2010

Excellent article! I agree with his basic premise that "What goods a weapon if you can't fire it accurately." Each member of my family uses a different handgun. My wife & daughter both carry a S&W .38+P which fits into a special purse they carry. I carry a Beretta .32 in my pocket. My son carries a .40 Warthog or Sig .40 in a belt clip holster. Each one of us has different preferences. I like ease of carrying a very compact gun in my pocket rather than one in a holster. I sold my son his Warthog because it had too much recoil for me. I'm happier with a maximum of 9mm. IMO a good gun salesman should fit the gun to the shooter! There's no such thing as One Size Fits ALL!!!

Joe Henderson wrote:
October 25, 2010

How do you get your hands on a PMR-30?

mt wrote:
October 25, 2010

goood well thought out comment. the 22Long rifle was the bullet of choice for the the wars in chicago in the 70's. so if they use that rounf it can'y be all bad. 7 shots fron head to groin will do the job with hollow points,

Gordon Heggenes wrote:
October 25, 2010

I believe that first of all, a gun must feel "right" before it can ever be a useful tool. If one doesn't like the way it feels in his hand, it will never be of any use. Then the proper grip has to be taught. Once these are both accomplished, the gun should be fired on a range. If the gun feels right in the hand, and the proper grip and wrist control are known, almost any caliber will probably be good. I'm a "little" guy, with small hands, but I love my Star PD, .45 Auto. I could fire it all day and not get tired of it.

Dave wrote:
October 25, 2010

It has been my personal experience that BLOWBACK .380 pistols are really unpleasant to shoot, all out of proportion to their modest caliber. If the desired gun is a blowback, go with .32 ACP version if available (just as Mr. Bond did), or go with a locked breech .380 I feel a Ruger LCP is much more pleasant shooter, tho' the KelTec .32s would be another viable option. I'm a certified NRA instructor, and the comments about fitting the gun to the shooter are well taken.

J.P. Jones wrote:
October 25, 2010

I agree with much the writer says--except for the sights. I do think decent sights are important, but defensive situations often occur at very close ranges. Think about it; a person defending him/herself isn't going to be in a position to hold the gun out, take a good sight picture, and squeeze the trigger. That would be a great way to have the gun taken away. Combat shooting, target shootin, competitive shooting, hunting, ect. all necessitate good sights. Defensive shooting is going to be up close and personal.

Michael Jones wrote:
October 25, 2010

"Equivablely written"

Mike wrote:
October 25, 2010

Your photo gallery was missing the Walther PK380. Great pistol with a mild kick. Very comfortable to shoot.

Alexander Diamond wrote:
October 25, 2010

This is the best most well thought out piece on the question of what defensive handgun is best. It also occurs to me that the idea of using smaller caliber ammo didn't come about until the ammo shortage hit. Then, .380 became so popular virtually overnight that the shelves emptied quickly. There's a moral to this story somewhere.

David wrote:
October 25, 2010

I think "everyones" first pistol ought to be a 22LR Rimfire. Their easy to operate, lowest recoil, cheap to buy and shoot, fun, and very useful. A person should learn the basics with a 22 rimfire pistol before moving up to any larger caliber. And I think you sell short the defensive nature of this round. Yes, they won't knock down a drug crazed SOB, but that might take nothing short of a 45ACP. No person I know would want to get shot with a 22lr, the noise is big enough to scare and hurt the ears, and 6 or 10 holes from a 22lr could easily get the job done in a close quarter self defense role.