No, .22 Handguns Aren’t the Best Self-Defense Choice for the Weak and the Frail

range train guns save life
Image by Boch / GSL Defense Training

A quick check of the calendar reveals that this is actually 2024, not 1984. That being said, I see that some “firearms instructors” are still passing along advice that should have been put to bed forty years ago. Regarding today’s topic, the argument that “a .22 LR is a good self-defense choice for women with weak arms, the elderly, and the infirm” I thought we’d settled that one decades ago. Yet here we are once again. 

If my bona fides are in question and we haven’t met, I began my journey by taking professional training with John S. Farnam when I was 19 years old. During the last four decades I have earned numerous instructor certificates and participated in  several thousand hours of professional training from the United States Marine Corps, as a police officer, and as an executive protection agent. I have been a small arms and tactics instructor for over thirty years, and yes, I have done that full time.

But enough about me. 

Paul Markel for SNW

Reliability is the Top Priority

When discussing firearms to be used for self-defense, during mortal combat, in the gravest extremes, the first area we need to examine is reliability. No, not accuracy. Ask yourself: is the .22 Long Rifle round, which is a rimfire cartridge, more reliable than a centerfire cartridge? Are .22LR semi-automatic handguns more reliable — in apples-to-apples comparisons — than centerfire handguns?

I’ll go ahead and answer those for you; no and no. 

The original Henry Repeating rifle that was introduced in 1860 used the .44 Henry Rimfire cartridge. All of the original metallic cartridges were rimfire, but by the time Sam Colt released the 1873 Single Action Army revolver, the cartridges were centerfire. Why?

Isn’t rimfire cheaper and easier to make? It has one fewer component. Isn’t simpler better?

Centerfire ammunition is more reliable than rimfire ammunition. If you want to argue that point, you’ll need to get into a time machine and head back to about 1870 because that’s when that argument was settled.

Anyone who has a good deal of shooting experience will tell you that their .22 rimfire guns require more maintenance and jam far more often than any centerfire gun that they own. Please save your anecdotal stories about your Ruger Mark II that has “never jammed once.”

Can’t Handle the Recoil

When it comes to self-defense handguns or handguns in general, we have two types of recoil: perceived and kinetic. Kinetic energy can be calculated by computers and measured by machines. Perceived recoil is measured by the feeling of the person holding the gun. Perceived recoil is subjective. 

Let’s consider the .22 LR cartridge. When fired from the Ruger Mark IV, an excellent handgun, the perceived recoil is rather mild. However, put the exact same cartridge in a subcompact, 11 ounce pistol and tell me how the recoil feels.

For about twenty to thirty years, the gun industry played the silly game of selling Americans .22 LR pocket pistols. Those little guns were all snappy and “bit” the shooter’s hand. They were also jam-o-matics. Getting off a full magazine without a stoppage was damned near cause for celebration.

The same goes for 9x19mm and .380 ACP pistols. Diminutive pistols with polymer frames are snappy and rarely enjoyable to shoot. On the other hand, a compact or full-sized pistol in the same calibers has rather mild recoil. You can’t cheat physics.

It’s been nearly 20 years since my conversation with the man who invented the Hi-Point C9 pistol. He informed me that the reason he first built the CF380 (.380 ACP) was for a friend who had arthritis. For him, even the mild 9mm was too much. The .380 ACP Hi-Point pistol has a fat slide that’s easy to rack and recoil is practically nonexistent.  

Ruger Mark IV
Paul Markel for SNW

Weak and Infirm?

Going back to my experience with thousands upon thousands of students — men and women, young and old — for every 1000 students who says that they “can’t” pull the slide or they “can’t” handle the recoil, only one has a real, legitimate physical condition. Yes, arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome are real. They are also the exceptions, not the rule.

More often than not, the inability to handle a mild recoiling handgun, such as a 9x19mm pistol, is not due to a lack of strength, it’s instead due to a lack of physical dexterity or hand coordination. Women — and some men too — struggle with handguns because the mechanics and operation are foreign to them. They need to learn how to operate the machine and then they need to practice operating that machine. 

Weakness is Not a Permanent Condition

For those who are still screaming about weakness, you might consider the 72 year old grandmother who competes in powerlifting, and then you need to understand that a lack of strength isn’t a permanent condition. In our woke, gutless world we are encouraged to accept any excuse that anyone happens to offer and then get on board with it. 

If you don’t have the hand and arm strength to deal with the recoil of the .380 ACP cartridge, you need to get to the gym and pick up some heavy things. If nothing else, engaging in strength training will make you a better person overall and improve your overall health dramatically.

Are there people with genuine disabilities? Of course there are. Consider Miles “Smiles” Taylor, a young man with cerebral palsy. Miles weighs 100 pounds and deadlifted 200 pounds.

As a professional small arms and tactics instructor, it’s not my job to accept excuses. There is no room in my classroom or on my range for “I can’t.” My answer when someone says to me, “I can’t” is, “Yes, you can. Let me show you how.”

Telling someone who complains about the mild recoil of a centerfire pistol cartridge that they should just go ahead and use a .22LR is enabling behavior and it’s not helping the student. The job of any instructor should be to help their students improve and do things they never thought they would be able to do.

Students will always have excuses. It’s up to the instructor to filter fact from fiction. In my four decades of experience, when a student says “I can’t,” 99 times out of 100 that is fiction.  

Paul G. Markel is a combat decorated United States Marine veteran. He is also the founder of Student the Gun University and has been teaching Small Arms & Tactics to military personnel, police officers, and citizens for over three decades.

16 Responses

  1. Relative to .22s, I have witnessed more failures to fire(FTF) than any other malfunction.
    Clearing a FTF is time consuming and could lead to grave consequences.
    Of course, any gun can malfunction; however, it is pretty much settled science that .22s are more prone to malfunctions.
    The time lost clearing a malfunction could cost someone their life or great bodily harm/damage.
    My only .22 is used for target practice.
    However, my carry guns are either .380 or 9mm.
    The S&W EZ models are easy to rack and there are many aftermarket slide assist devices available online.

    Recoil, well get used to it. Spend more time at the range and seek help from a professional instructor.
    The gun of choice is left to the individual, butt it does make more sense to carry a gun that is more reliable and which may perform better when needed.

    1. You’re talking semi-auto, a 9-shot DAO .22lr revolver will go ‘bang’ with the next trigger pull…

    2. “Recoil, well get used to it”.

      Wrong! I am the customer. I want a handgun that is reliable and effective in a DGU….and has no perceived recoil. If we can put people on the Moon, and into cylinders in space, why can’t gun manufacturers create firearms that produce zero recoil. I find that people always offer excuses about how “it can’t be done”. Excuses need to be overcome, not remain excuses for making excuses.

      1. Gyrojet doesn’t have great performance at bad breath distance so back to the drawing board.

  2. Geoff, that is certainly correct and I had not thought about revolvers which is another story alltogther.

    1. I could see 32acp/30sc/32hr/327fed options doing well for some people depending on size/weight of gun and size/strength of person. As to the just lift bro mindset yeah it works great for otherwise healthy and whole people but crippling injury and illness are things that sometimes exercise does nothing to undo let alone keep up with so I tend to ignore that one even if I do lift.

  3. All of that is true. But we’re gun guys. Lots of folks aren’t but they have this “.22 in a box in the closet, and I have no idea why my husband ever bought it!”, no money for anything else thanks to bitemes “flourishing” economy, and they need something for SD. So are we to tell them to use harsh words? Or do we tell them that the .22 in the closet is better than their voice? Then show them .22 ammo that is designed for SD?

    Sure it’s not a first choice and as a stopper, well, it’s pretty much not a stopper at all except with a round to the pumpkin, but it just might make a perp turn tail and never even be fired, just by displaying it might be enough. Yeah, better than harsh words. Or it might just tick the perp off enough to do real damage. One plays the odds I guess. It’s just not a perfect world.

    1. “Or it might just tick the perp off enough to do real damage.”

      Federal ‘Punch’ in .22l is a nickle-plated solid slug that looks ideal for penetrating a skull.

      Impress on them the importance of headshots, and keep squeezing…

      1. My wife has poor hand strength, but is deadly accurate at Tueller distances with .22lr. She trains with her S&W M&P 22 Full Size with a red laser alternating shots to the groin and head. Both are equally incapacitating.

      2. If anyone remembers my mentioning this several times over the years on that “other” site…my childhood best friend died quickly from a single .22LR to the head (he was an adult at the time of his death). .22LR is not optimum, we probably can all agree, but don’t ever poo-poo it as useless.

      1. It can work, other things can work better, not everyone can effectively use other things. So just do the best you can with what works as everything else is counting angels dancing on the head of a pin. Now do I want to see a non rimmed 32acp equivalent become popular damn right but not the world we live in.

  4. Years ago a local bank was robbed in the middle of the afternoon. The chief of police caught the robber a couple of hours later.
    The chief told me when he interviewed the banker he ask the banker how big the barrel looked on the thug’s gun when he pointed at him.
    The bank president responded by placing his thumb on his forefinger making a huge circle after which the chief told the banker the gun was a .22.

  5. To all the people with a worthless .22
    It is unpossible for it to ever save you so send them to me for proper disposal.
    In all seriousness 22lr isn’t a great self defense round even in revolvers but it sure is better than harsh words and a pointy stick.
    If anyone had tried to drag my grandmother to the gym she would have shot them with the 22 revolver she always had in her apron pocket.

  6. Remind me not to come to your classes, Markel..not because of what you say, right or wrong, but because of the my way or the highway attitude. I don’t need you to hold my hand or tell me how wonderful I am, I just need you to teach me with out being an asshole. If you want to be one, do it on your own time. If I’m paying you for instruction, that’s all I need from you. Yeah, you might have to slap me around a little to motivate me, but understand the difference between true motivation and whatever it is you’re trying to sell in this article. If I wanted a Marine DI I’d join the Marines.

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