EDITORIAL: Grandma's Got a Gun, or Shooting with Arthritis

I come from a big southern family.  We’re rural folk, for the most part.  Guns are part of our culture, and not just the men folk.  My grandmother lived alone in the woods of western Alabama for more than 20 years.  I can still remember the old break-action shotguns that she kept beside the front and back doors.  They were, she said, for wild dogs that plagued that part of Alabama, roaming in mangy packs.

If I’m to believe the rumors, my grandmother’s shotguns were loaded with rock-salt.  It would sting real bad, I was told, but wouldn’t kill a dog.  Sounds like hogwash to me, like something concocted to make a city kid feel better about his grandma shooting dogs.

The truth was, even at 82, she was capable of defending herself.  And prepared to do so.

beverly hillbillies grandma with rifle

Even a touch of truth in the old cliches.

One of my aunts still lives in the area.  She’s getting close to 80.   She was out in her garden not long ago when she spotted an armadillo rooting in her day lilies.  After some quick work with a 12 gauge, she had completely gutted her grandson’s football.  Maybe, some in the family whispered, it was time to take away the guns.

Hogwash, I say.  She tore up that football.

Meanwhile, back in the big city

My mother is 72, and has just received her first concealed carry permit.  She’s shopping for something to replace my father’s old Iver Johnson Cadet.  She called me six months or so ago and asked what she should get.

I had all kinds of ideas.  We talked for a couple of hours about different philosophies of concealed carry, home defense, and various caliber options.  Through a steady process of elimination, we decided on a common solution.  We landed on a traditional .357 snub-nosed revolver.  The Ruger SP101.

But we hadn’t considered her hands.  She has arthritis.  But she still has the right, and the will, to defend herself.  So what’s the best option?

Shooting with my mother (then)

iver johnson pistol on table next to bullets

My Pop’s Iver Johnson

The last time I had shot with my mom, I was still in elementary school.  My grandmother died in 1987 when I was 13, so it had to be before then (as my father and I only ever shot at my grandmother’s house).  I remember my mom embarrassing us with her skills and her apathy.  She could shoot accurately and we couldn’t, and she didn’t really care one way or the other.

My father and I would shoot (at) old tin pie pans.  We’d make excuses for distance, or wind.  We’d shoot for a while and run through the ammo.  But before we finished, my mother would step out onto porch and take the gun and poke five clean holes in the swinging target.  Every time.  And effortlessly.

Shooting with my mother (now)

So when she decided it was time for a new gun, I invited her up.  I had a couple of guns in for review, and she could try out a variety of styles.  I knew she would land on a traditional revolver, but I was going to let her decide.

It wasn’t as easy as I’d thought.  She’d been to shoot with a friend who had a 9mm of some sort (a Glock, we think).  She loved the way it worked.  But this friend had racked the slide for her.  We figured this out when she couldn’t rack the slide on any of the pistols I had in at that time.   Not even a .380.  The spring tension on even the lightest automatic was too heavy for her to overcome.

So we moved to the revolvers.  As she wanted something she could carry, we tried out two .357s.

  • The Ruger LCR has a lighter trigger pull, close to eight pounds, but requires some hand strength to hold on target.  Though she could pull the trigger back, she had trouble keeping the gun still enough for accuracy.
  • The Ruger SP101 has a heavy double action pull, above 10 pounds.  And my mother doesn’t have the hand strength to pull back the hammer with her thumb.

What to do?

The double action only revolvers were out, as she was too shaky.  The single/double action didn’t seem to be much better.  A good automatic would be ideal, if there was always someone there to handle loading and unloading.  What was left?  There aren’t that many break action handguns left.  A shotgun would be ideal, but a bit more complicated to conceal.

ruger revolvers on table

If you can’t work one of there, what do can you carry?

We figured it out.  One handed shooting was not an option.  With her arthritis, she needs two hands on the gun.  And that was the answer.  As she is right handed, I showed her how to hold the gun with one hand, and cock with the other.  I think this is the best way to cock a revolver.  But we added an extra step.

By pulling back on the trigger just enough to start the hammer back, and then following through with the leverage from her left thumb, she could easily and reliably cock the gun. Yes it requires the trigger finger on the trigger a bit earlier than I’d like, but the once the trigger and hammer are in motion, the finger goes back to the frame.

Problem solved

I don’t know how much longer she’ll be able to do it, but it works for now.  And her accuracy hasn’t diminished in the least.  With practice, she’s mastered the motion.  It is fluid and becoming a habit.  And she can pull double action shots one handed.  It just hurts a bit.  So she’ll practice with the easy motion, and prepare for the other.  And she’ll hit what she’s aiming at, which is something I’m still working on.

Everyone has the right to self defense.  For some, the options are limited.  But with a little bit of creativity, there are viable options.

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