The petite, silver-haired lady stood at the gun counter shaking her head reflexively as she eyed the guns I’d placed in front of her.
“I just don’t know,” she mused. “I’m 82 years old. I live alone and I suffer from bad arthritis and even worse reflexes. Am I crazy to even consider owning a gun?”
“Ma’am,” I smiled. “With all due respect, if you are 82 and live alone, I think you would be crazy not to own one.”
It’s a conversation taking place at gun counters across America. Depression-era babies range from 75-85, as the oldest Baby Boomer turned 70 in 2016. While there are numerous lessons to be learned by gun owners of any age, the senior shooter faces special challenges that instructors and gun salespeople would do well to address. Indeed, with some “personal defense experts” advising seniors to steer clear of firearms (seriously — a well-known gun mag ran an article on this), this is a conversation that needs to happen.
Assuming that she required an “easy” weapon, a previous salesman had sold my aging customer a .38 special Smith & Wesson Airweight. The customer had explained to him that she did not intend to carry but was looking for a home defense firearm. She said this was the first gun she’d ever purchased and that she had fired a revolver only once, many years prior. She had also showed him her hands, their joints thick with the tell-tale knots of arthritis. He, in turn, handed her the easy and efficient Smith & Wesson. She took it home, fired it once at a local range, and realized that she lacked the finger strength to pull the trigger. In fact, even though the gun boasted an exposed hammer, she could not even cock the hammer with her thumb to lighten the trigger pull. She was also intimidated by the recoil, which violently wrenched her wrist. Bottom line: she was a victim in the making.
“Everyone has to adapt to a new firearm, but seniors have more factors to consider,” explains John Falldorf, retired Sheriff’s Deputy of 28 years, law enforcement firearms instructor, former gun store manager, current LEO firearms salesman, and my hubby of the past five years. “Revolvers are very easy to load but most modern double-action revolvers have a heavy trigger pull. Arthritis and muscle atrophy make heavy triggers a challenge for many seniors. If you are shopping for a firearm and the person behind the gun counter won’t let you test the trigger pull, move on to another shop.”
He also notes that cycling, or “racking,” the slide is another important exercise if you are considering a semi-automatic, versus a revolver.
“Many seniors opt for a revolver, believing they are too weak to cycle a semi-automatic,” he says. “That’s simply not true. A Walther PK380 is one option because the slide cycles easily and the size of the gun keeps recoil manageable. If you are planning to carry, something like a Sig Sauer P238 or a Kimber Micro Carry are also easy to rack and comfortable to shoot, as long as you understand the importance of the safety on these particular models.”
John says seniors must also accommodate deteriorating eyesight. “The three white dots or the target style sights may not work well for aging eyes. Look for high definition night sights that will be clearly visible in low light. Seniors often think they need a laser, but if you’re just learning to shoot, a laser will interfere with proper form. You’ll find yourself looking beyond the gun at the target, when you should be focusing on the front sight. Best to start with high def sights and then perhaps add a laser later.”
John also urges seniors to budget for training and regular range time with their new firearm. Back when we were doing regular firearms training in Ohio, roughly 60% of our classes were folks over 70. They each brought a blend of experience and challenges that their younger counterparts lacked.
“Even if you were an avid shooter 30 or 40 years ago, these are perishable skills. If you are on a fixed income, you’d be better off to buy a less expensive – but still dependable – gun and set aside money for training and practice time,” John explains, adding that seniors should look for a trainer who offers one-on-one sessions. “Your situation may prompt unusual questions and you may need to modify your form slightly to accommodate physical limitations. A good instructor can help you address those challenges.”
Now that we’re in Florida (senior capital of the world!), we notice that aging customers sometimes get poor advice from loved ones when it comes to choosing a gun. Seniors need to understand that a firearm that works great for your 25-year-old nephew may not be the best choice for you.
For instance, you may want to consider buying a larger gun, especially if you aren’t planning to carry. New shooters tend to gravitate toward small guns (thinking, I suppose, that small guns equal small recoil and small bang. Au contraire.) And small is fine for concealability but a small gun can be more difficult to manage, especially in arthritic hands…and it will pack a greater punch, recoil-wise than a larger gun of the same caliber.”
Seniors should consider taking a class that emphasizes a variety of shooting positions. As a senior, it doesn’t matter as much whether you live in a ‘stand your ground’ state (like Florida) or a ‘duty to retreat’ state (like Ohio), you potentially lack the speed or dexterity to evade an attacker. You may have no choice but to stand your ground and you’ll need to know how best to do that.
Another consideration for seniors is how they secure their firearms in the home. You don’t want to have them so secure that it takes forever to retrieve them, but if you have grandchildren, you must keep your guns hidden. Kids find everything and you don’t want them finding a loaded firearm. If you’re at home and there are no grandchildren or visitors around, the more accessible your gun is, the better off you are in the event of a home invasion.
And John always tells students that what you point at an intruder makes a big difference. You can read all the articles you want about the efficiency of various guns and ammo, and how deep into the ballistic gel a particular bullet penetrated. Great stats, but when it comes to effective home defense, nothing beats a shotgun (and not a double-barreled one like our former Vice President famously advocated for the ladies…)
But trying to maneuver a full-sized shotgun in a narrow hallway or while concealed behind furniture is nearly impossible. John suggests trying our some of the tactical shotguns (yes, those scary black ones that the media says are “assault weapons.”) so popular today or the compact 13-round Kel-Tec KSG. But, again, if you have shoulder issues, a traditional shotgun could be a challenge to both lift and to fire.
Several pistol models have incorporated shotgun shells into their design. These include the Smith & Wesson Governor, a large revolver that can carry a .45 ACP, a .45 long colt round and/or a .410 shotgun shell.
“With a shotgun load, you don’t have to aim as precisely and the Governor is a large enough gun that the recoil isn’t as pronounced,” John explains, adding that seniors should still test the trigger pull and make certain it is manageable for them. The Governor also features an exposed hammer, making it possible to manually cock the gun and minimize the weight of the trigger pull.
This is by no means a complete discussion of the challenges faced by seniors who shoot. It is a topic you should explore for yourself (or for an older family member who is considering buying a firearm.)
Bottom line, seniors: Whether you lean toward a revolver or a semi-automatic, don’t make the mistake of assuming that your physical limitations prevent you from using your preferred style. New techniques can be taught, triggers can modified, different models offer different advantages. And don’t settle for the gun someone tells you is the right choice; go with the gun that fits your needs, lifestyle and limitations. In the end, you are better served by a .22 magnum revolver or a full-sized .380 semi-automatic that you can cycle and shoot with ease than you are by a featherweight .38 revolver or shiny .45 ACP 1911 model that looks great on the shelf but will require more strength, dexterity or skill than you can muster.
As with all gun-related decisions…ASK QUESTIONS!