Experts in the field of personal protection advise their students to arm themselves with the most powerful defensive handguns they can manage. But how much felt recoil any one individual can deal with is governed by a variety of factors. Age, injury, illness or a lack of experience may result in the need for a low-recoil option. Here are a few of the handguns we've tested over the last few years that offer a balance of useful defensive features and modest to mild levels of felt recoil when loaded properly.
1. The Kel-Tec PMR-30 .22 Mag.
The Kel-Tec PMR-30 is a nearly perfect low-recoil defensive pistol if you need an exceptionally mild level of kick. Its low weight and full sized grip make it easy to hold and shoot. Fully loaded, the pistol weighs only about 20 oz. It has a light, smooth trigger pull, and the slide is exceptionally easy to operate. The pistol is topped off with large, bright fiber optic sights. The PMR-30's greatest strength, the almost non-existent recoil generated by the .22 Mag. cartridge, is also its greatest weakness. This is because the .22 Mag. has low level of stopping power when compared to other small caliber pistol cartridges. However, the lower power of the .22 Mag. round is offset by the pistol’s 30+1 capacity. MSRP: $455
2. Smith & Wesson Model 351C .22 Mag.
The 351C version of the Smith & Wesson J-Frame revolver is designed specifically for easy concealed carry and low recoil. With its internal hammer, 1.875" barrel and unloaded weight of just 11 oz., it can be comfortably tucked into a pocket or purse. Unlike hard-kicking feather-weight J-frames loaded with .38 Spl. +P or .357 Mag. cartridges, the 351C is chambered for the soft shooting .22 Mag. However, the abbreviated barrel does not allow the rimfire cartridge to develop as much velocity as longer pistol and rifle barrels. As a result, some gunwriters feel this particular gun and ammunition combination may be too light for self-defense. MSRP: $689
3. FNH Five-SeveN MK2
The FNH Five-SeveN MK2 semi-automatic pistol was designed with shooter ergonomics in mind. Every effort was made to reduce the weight of the pistol without sacrificing shooter comfort. The controls are user friendly and the slide is exceptionally easy to cycle. The 5.7x28 mm is a powerful round for the moderate level of recoil it produces. The Five-seveN can launch a 31-gr. bullet at 2,350 fps, yielding 394 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle. In addition to 10- and 20-round magazines, 30-round extended magazines are also available. MSRP: $1,299.99
4. Ruger LC380 .380 ACP
Ruger offers two easy-to-carry defensive options with the pocket sized LCP chambered in .380 ACP and the single-stack LC9 9 mm. But due to their size and chambering, both of these models can feel snappy to those who are sensitive to recoil. So, Ruger developed a best-of-both worlds option with the LC380. This pistol is the LC9 converted to fire .380 ACP. The result is a concealed carry pistol with an easy to rack slide and moderate level of recoil. MSRP: $479
5. Taurus PT638 Pro SA .380 ACP
Like the Ruger LC380, Taurus opted to modify one of its popular 9 mm pistols to shoot .380 ACP so as to produce lower levels of recoil. But unlike the LC380, the PT638 Pro SA takes a double-stack magazine for a total round capacity of 15+1. Other features include a hand filling textured grip, easy to see 3-dot sights and a short accessory rail for attaching a light or laser. MSRP: $483
6. Browning Black Label 1911-380 .380 ACP
John M. Browning's extensive list of shooting inventions includes the venerable Model 1911 handgun and the .380 ACP cartridge. The company that bears his name has recently united these two options in a new and unusual way. The Black Label 1911-380 is not a pocket pistol like most of the .380s on the market. Instead, it's a scaled-down semi-automatic that's 85 percent of the size of the original Model 1911A1 chambered for .45 ACP. The result is a well-balanced handgun that's comfortable to shoot. MSRP: $670
7. Rock Island Armory M206 .38 Spl.
Low-recoil defensive handguns don't have to be complicated to operate or expensive to buy. Modeled after the Colt Detective Special, the Rock Island Armory M206 .38 Spl. revolver has the benefits of an all-steel construction, 6-shot cylinder and a smooth trigger in addition to its affordable price tag. Its 25-oz. weight combined with standard velocity and reduced-recoil ammunition will work to keep the recoil to a moderate level. MSRP: Starting at $283
8. Charter Arms Pitbull 9 mm Revolver
This version of the Charter Arms Pitbull is chambered for the readily available and affordable 9 mm semi-automatic cartridge. This makes its ammunition compatible with a variety of popular pistols. Unlike other 9 mm wheelguns, the Pitbull does not require the use of moon clips to hold the ammunition in place. Using standard velocity or reduced recoil ammunition in conjunction with the hand filling rubber grip will make for comfortable shooting at the range. MSRP: $502
9. Springfield Armory EMP4 9 mm
Simply stated, the Springfield EMP4 is one of the most well-balanced pistols I've had the pleasure of shooting which in turn makes it a great low-recoil defensive option for hands of all sizes. This 1911 pattern pistol has a grip frame which has been scaled down from the traditional .45 ACP size to fit the smaller 9 mm cartridge. The magazines hold 10 rounds, the fiber-optic front sight is easy to see, and the single-action trigger is smooth right out of the box. Springfield ships this pistol with a full set of accessories including 3 magazines, a holster and a magazine pouch. MSRP: $1,179
10. Ruger American Pistol 9 mm
The new Ruger American Pistol chambered in 9 mm is to double-stack polymer framed semi-autos what the Springfield EMP4 is to 1911s. Thanks to the third removable grip insert (the smallest in the set), the American provides a compact grip profile that fits smaller hands very well. As a full-size duty pistol, its features include combat sights, a smooth trigger, low bore axis and a 17+1 round capacity. When loaded with Ruger's Polycase 80-gr. ARX ammunition, this pistol's felt recoil level drops to a mild level that most shooters should be able to manage with ease. MSRP: $579