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10 Best Low-Recoil Handguns for Self-defense

By Patrick Long

shooting handgun recoiling

If you go looking for self-defense handgun suggestions, you will likely get flooded with large caliber pistols that have a lot of recoil or little handguns normally used for concealed carry. If you want a handgun for your nightstand that you do not plan to carry on your person every day, it would be beneficial to get a larger standard-size handgun.

If you want a handgun that is not going to have a large amount of recoil, then a light caliber and heavier handgun is the way to go. The more powerful the cartridge, the more recoil. Although the same cartridge fired out of a standard size pistol is going to have less recoil than a small or compact pistol.

Today, we will help you find a happy middle ground for a quality self-defense firearm that also has relatively low recoil. Let's start by understanding recoil in the first place.

The Simple Physics of Handgun Recoil

As a physics student, I could talk about this all day, but I will keep it brief! Recoil happens because of Newton's third law, known as the conservation of momentum. This law states that the force we apply to an object will be applied right back to us. For example, if you push down on your desk with 10 pounds of pressure, the desk technically pushes back on you with the same 10 pounds of pressure.

handgun recoil diagram

In our case, the force we are applying is the explosion of gunpowder. This accelerates the bullet and gives it momentum, which is mass times velocity. To conserve momentum, an equal and opposite momentum is applied to the pistol chamber(where pistol weight has an effect), which then travels into the shooter's hands, and dissipates through their body and into the ground.

Thankfully, the handle of your gun is a lot larger and slower than your bullet. This means you do not experience the same deadly force as something on the opposite end of your barrel, but you have to experience the force dissipated in the chamber and the force from a reciprocating slide.

The slide absorbs some of that force and spreads it out over time. On the other hand, Revolvers experience all of their recoil nearly instantaneously. This can make the recoil of a revolver feel worse than a pistol, assuming they are the same caliber and weight.

What Factors Affect the Recoil of Your Handgun?

Now that you have had a crash course in the physics of recoil, it is time to apply that to a real-world decision, which handgun to buy! Two main things affect the recoil of your handgun: caliber and weight.

Size & Weight of Your Handgun

Weight is going to be a major factor in your low recoil pistol search. You will likely see dozens of concealed carry sized 9 mm's or even 380's at the gun counter but let me warn you; they will kick like a mule.

The 380 ACP is a fairly light load compared to the majority of calibers on the market, but once you shoot one out of a tiny pocket pistol like the Smith & Wesson Bodyguard, it will not feel so small. That same caliber in a much larger pistol is a super smooth shooter. The extra weight of a larger firearm can soak up a lot of recoil.

Compact 9mm handguns are extremely popular for concealed carry nowadays, but they will always have more recoil than a standard size 9mm pistol. While those small pistols may be popular, you will want something bigger if you strictly use this firearm for self or home defense. People with smaller hands should get the largest firearm they can reasonably hold.

Handgun Caliber

The next thing to consider is the caliber. This is probably the most important question you have to ask yourself when buying a gun, no matter its purpose. If you want a handgun with lighter recoil, you must use a lighter caliber.

Although you still have to use a caliber that is suitable for self-defense. You do not exactly want to try to take down a bad guy with a 22. It will work, but your chances are much better with a suitable caliber. A few potentially light recoil calibers are the 38 Special, 380 ACP, 9mm, and sometimes the 357 Magnum.

Sportsmans Handgun Recoil Score

Here are a few measurements for these calibers and a few other popular handgun calibers. The rightmost column is the Sportsman's recoil score. This normalized recoil score makes it easier to compare calibers to one another if you have shot at least one of them before. To learn more about calculating this, check out the Sportman's rifle recoil table and scroll to the bottom.

Caliber
(Grains, Velocity)
Weight(OZ) Recoil Energy
(ft-lbs)
Recoil Velocity
(ft/sec)
Normalized Score
.38 Spec. (130 at 819) 36 2.2 8 1.528
.38 Spec. (140 at 825) 36 2.7 8.8 1.779
.380 ACP (90 at 1000) 24 2.5 10.4 1.924
.38 Spec. (130 at 950) 36 3.1 9.5 1.988
.357 Mag. (140 at 1022) 44 4 9.6 2.269
.357 Mag. (158 at 925) 44 4 9.7 2.281
.357 Mag. (110 at 1300) 44 4.1 9.8 2.324
9x19 (115 at 1155) 32 3.8 11.1 2.401
.357 Mag. (125 at 1220) 44 4.6 10.4 2.550
9x19 (124 at 1157) 32 4.4 11.9 2.682
9x19 (147 at 1000) 32 4.6 12.2 2.780
9x19 (115 at 1155) 24 5.2 15 3.316
9x19 (115 at 1155) 24 5.2 15 3.316
.357 Mag. (125 at 1450) 44 7.2 13 3.657
9x19 (124 at 1125) 24 6 16 3.682
.45 ACP (200 at 1010) 40 7.6 13.9 3.891
.38 Spec. (125 at 850) 16 5.6 18.9 3.933
.357 Mag. (140 at 1323) 44 7.9 13.6 3.942
.45 ACP (185 at 1000) 36 7.7 14.8 4.035
.45 ACP (230 at 850) 36 7.9 15 4.121
.357 Mag. (158 at 1250) 44 8.7 14.3 4.270
.380 ACP (95 at 900) 9.6 5.4 24.2 4.551
.357 Mag. (125 at 1209) 28 8.9 18.1 4.815
9x19 (115 at 1100) 16 7.4 21.8 4.840
.357 Mag. (158 at 1070) 28 9.4 18.6 5.027
.40 S&W (165 at 1080) 24 9.3 19.9 5.164
10mm Auto (180 at 1295) 36 11.4 18.1 5.560
.40 S&W (180 at 1027) 24 10.4 21.2 5.658
.40 S&W (155 at 1200 24 10.6 21.3 5.730
*Data from Chuck Hawks Handgun Recoil Table. The Sportsman's normalized recoil score for this table uses a .32 S&W Long (100 at 700) as a 1 and the .45 Colt +P (300 at 1150) as a 10.

What Makes a Good Self Defense Handgun?

As I mentioned before, caliber is an important choice for any firearm purchase. If you want to plink targets on the range all day, the small and inexpensive 22 long rifle is perfect. Although if you want to stop a target quickly and effectively, you will want something more powerful.

380 ACP is generally considered the weakest caliber available that is still viable for self-defense. It has a fraction of the energy of the 9mm or 357 Magnum, but it is still very effective. Many 380 ACP cartridges hover around 200 ft-pounds of muzzle energy. The average 9mm has 1.5 to 2 times that amount of energy.

So you do not want to get anything less powerful than a 380 ACP. As it turns out, the 9mm will be our golden standard for low recoil self-defense handguns. This is because the 9mm produces a good amount of power, and is exceptionally good at penetrating considering its size. It will be important to compare whichever caliber you are thinking of buying to the 9mm, which is the go to choice for many.

You can see from the above table that a 115 grain 9mm out of a standard size pistol gets a 3.3 recoil score. I left some larger calibers on this table (like 40 S&W, 45 ACP, and 10mm) so you could see that they score over 4 and sometimes 5. This should help you get an idea of how they compare to each other. To have a low recoil handgun, you will likely want to pick a caliber and grain that scores less than 3.5 to 3.8, depending on your tolerance.

Capacity

The next thing you want in your home defense pistol is a large ammo capacity. The more bullets the better when you are facing a threat. Statistics show that trained police officers hit their mark less than 30% of the time. Most people have much less training than an active duty police officer, so the average person's accuracy is expected to be even lower.

When looking at capacity, I would stay close to the standard capacity the firearm comes with. If you buy a Glock, you can easily buy a 50-round drum mag, but that is much more than you need and makes your pistol very unbalanced and heavy. Some magazine extensions are okay, but don't go crazy with them.

Capacity is an advantage for smaller calibers simply because you can fit more cartridges in the same amount of space. So a smaller caliber pistol is going to keep the recoil minimal and maximize your capacity; other factors held constant.

Our 10 Favorite Low Recoil Handguns for Self-Defense

Now that we have the background information out of the way, here are ten self-defense handguns you can count on. These firearms are not in any particular order. Many of them are quite similar (standard size 9 mm's), but I also tried to mix in other calibers and a few handguns you may not have seen before.

Glock 17

glock 17

Glocks are insanely popular firearms. No matter your purpose with your handgun, there is likely a Glock out there that can do it. For our purpose, we want a smooth shooting, light recoil pistol for self-defense. The 9mm Glock 17 does that for us.

The Glock 17's slide is 7.32 inches. The overall width is 1.26 inches, and the distance from the back of the handle and the trigger is 2.83 inches. This pistol weighs 24.87 ounces empty. So with a 115 grain 9mm cartridge, this pistol would score around 3.2 on the Sportsman's recoil table.

Its standard magazine holds 17 cartridges, and this pistol sells for around $500 - $600. This is a standard/duty-sized pistol, so if you think it may be too large for you, consider the the Glock 19, which is a slightly smaller compact version of the Glock 17. In general, less weight equals more recoil, but the Glock 19 is still a very smooth shooter.

Name Glock 17
Caliber 9mm
Price Range $500 - $600
Size (L X W X H) inches 8 X 1.26 X 5.47
Unloaded Weight (oz) 24.87
Magazine Capacity 17 + 1
Sportsman’s Recoil Score 3.2 (115 grains)

Smith & Wesson Performance Center M&P 9 M2.0

image alt text here

Smith & Wesson has been making high-quality handguns for over a hundred years. Their Performance Center M&P M2.0 is the perfect 9mm for anyone who wants to defend their home. Plus, their Performance Center models are even better than their standard pistols.

This pistol weighs 30 ounces, and since it is 9mm, it has a very comfortable recoil score. This pistol gets a score of around 2.55 with a 115-grain projectile. It is 8.5 inches long and has a magazine capacity of 17. These are great pistols for self-defense or the range. You can pick one up from your local Sportsman’s Warehouse for around $650 - $750.

If the standard size M&P is too big for your hands, the M&P M2.0 Compact is also a great choice. You lose 1.25 inches in length, about 3.5 ounces in weight, and 2 rounds from your magazine. However, it is a little cheaper and fits better in most people's hands.

Name Smith & Wesson Performance Center M&P 9 M 2.0
Caliber 9mm
Price Range $650 - $750
Size 8.5 inches long
Unloaded Weight (oz) 30
Magazine Capacity 17 + 1
Sportsman’s Recoil Score About 2.55 (115 grains)

Beretta 92FS

beretta 92fs 9mm

The Beretta 92FS has been setting the standards for the best military, police, and tactical pistol for over a quarter-century. It was designed to be the most accurate, durable, and reliable semiauto handgun on the market. Easy to use, absolutely safe, and delivering impressive firepower, it remains the sidearm of the US military and allied forces throughout the world and countless police and law enforcement agencies.

This 9mm pistol is a go-to home defense firearm for thousands of Americans, especially veterans who used them while in service. Since this pistol weighs 33.3 ounces, it soaks up a bit of recoil and gets a Sportsman's recoil score of around 2.25 with a 115-grain bullet.

Its magazine holds 10 rounds. The Beretta 92FS is 8.5 inches long, 1.5 inches wide, and 5.4 inches tall. You can pick up this iconic pistol from your local Sportsman's Warehouse for around $600 - $700.

Name Beretta 92FS
Caliber 9mm
Price Range $600 - $700
Size(L X W X H) inches 8.5 X 1.5 X 5.4
Unloaded Weight (oz) 33.3
Magazine Capacity 10 + 1
Sportsman’s Recoil Score About 2.25 (115 grains)

Smith & Wesson M&P 380 Shield EZ

image alt text here

Built for personal and home protection, the innovative M&P 380 Shield EZ pistol is the latest addition to the M&P M2.0 family and provides an easy-to-use protection option for both first-time shooters and experienced shooters alike. So far, Smith & Wesson has sold over one million units of the M&P Shield.

This pistol is much smaller than the others on this list, being 6.7 inches long, 1.15 inches wide, and about 5 inches tall. However, since it fires a 380 ACP, this 18.5-ounce pistol can still soak up a fair amount of recoil. This pistol gets a Sportsman's recoil score of about 3.1 with a 90-grain projectile. Its magazine holds 8 rounds, and this pistol costs around $350 - $450.

Sportsman's Warehouse also carries the Performance Center Model of the M&P 380 Shield EZ. With the Performance Center model, you get an improved trigger, ported slide, and improved sights. Of course, this upgrade also comes with about a $100 price increase.

Name Smith & Wesson M&P 380 Shield EZ
Caliber 380 ACP
Price Range $350 - $450
Size(L X W X H) inches 6.7 X 1.15 X 4.98
Unloaded Weight (oz) 18.5
Magazine Capacity 8 + 1
Sportsman’s Recoil Score About 3.1 (90 grains)

SIG P320 Full Size

sig sauer p320 full size

The 9mm P320 is a striker-fired modular, polymer-framed service pistol designed from the ground up with the input of law enforcement officers. It offers a smooth, crisp trigger, an intuitive, 3-point takedown, and unmatched modularity to fit any shooter and any situation.

The P320 Full-Size model features a stainless steel frame and slide and an M1913 Picatinny rail. This model has a black frame and slide, 4-point safety, and contrast sights, and comes with two 17-round magazines. This pistol retails for around $450 - $550.

This 29.4-ounce pistol scores about 2.75 on the Sportsman's recoil table with a 115-grain projectile. It is 8 inches long, 1.4 inches wide, and 5.5 inches tall. The Sig Sauer P320 has been around for decades and certainly is not going anywhere.

Name Sig Sauer P320
Caliber 380 ACP
Price Range $450 - $550
Size(L X W X H) inches 8 X 1.4 X 5.5
Unloaded Weight (oz) 29.4
Magazine Capacity 17 + 1
Sportsman’s Recoil Score About 2.75 (115 grains)

Ruger 57

image alt text here

The Ruger 57 fires a 5.7x28mm cartridge designed by FN in the early 2000s. This is a cartridge that some of you may not have heard of before, but it could be your next nightstand pistol. This is a tiny and super-fast round. Its design looks more like what you would see in a rifle cartridge rather than a pistol.

Nonetheless, this little round packs an incredible punch and is especially good for self-defense. Thanks to the 5.7x28's small size, the Ruger 57 has a 20-round magazine capacity. FN claims the 5.7x28 has around 30% less recoil than a 9mm, and out of this 24.5-ounce gun, it is extremely light to shoot. The Ruger 57 scores less than a 1.8 on the Sportsman's recoil table with its 40-grain bullet.

The 8.65 inch long Ruger 57 costs between $700 and $800. Although with the large capacity, and minimal recoil, that is a good deal. The 5.7x28mm has an incredible amount of penetration power and actually outperforms the 9mm. The only drawback is the 5.7x28mm ammo is a little expensive in today's market. The best price I found was $0.80 per round.

Name Ruger 57
Caliber FN 5.7x28mm
Price Range $700 - $800
Size(L X W X H) inches 8.65 X 1.2 X 5.6
Unloaded Weight (oz) 24.5
Magazine Capacity 20 + 1
Sportsman’s Recoil Score <1.8 (40 grains)

Walther PDP Full Size

walther-pdp-full-size

Walther's timeless innovation has once more achieved a breakthrough never seen before in firearms with the PDP elite handgun. You can protect your family confidently with the advancements afforded by the Walther PDP. This pistol features revolutionary ergonomics, SuperTerrain Slide Serrations, and a brand-new Performance Duty Trigger.

Walther has made great guns for a long time, and the PDP is no different. It is 7.5 inches long, 1.34 inches wide, and 5.7 inches tall. The 9mm Walther PDP weighs 26.9 ounces, which gives it a solid 3.0 on the Sportsman's recoil table with a 115-grain bullet.

This pistol has an 18-round magazine capacity, which is huge for a 9mm. With the Walther PDP, you will have more than enough firepower to stop any home intruder. You can pick up a Walther PDP at your local Sportsman's Warehouse for around $600 - $700.

Name Walther PDP
Caliber 9mm
Price Range $600 -$700
Size(L X W X H) inches 7.5 X 1.34 x 5.7
Unloaded Weight (oz) 26.9
Magazine Capacity 18 + 1
Sportsman’s Recoil Score About 3.0 (115 grains)

Taurus 856

taurus 856 38 special california compliant

Trying to break away from the norm, I wanted to include a 38 Special revolver on this list. The Taurus 856 fits the bill perfectly. Revolvers are extremely reliable, and their design has been used for over a hundred years. These revolvers are especially good at ending close-range fights as well.

This revolver is 6.5 inches long, 1.41 inches wide, and 4.8 inches tall. This is a revolver that you could potentially conceal carry, although it works well for home defense too. The model 856 weighs 22 ounces, which gives it a score of around 3.4 on the Sportsman's recoil table with a 130-grain projectile.

I should also note that there are "ultralight" versions of these pistols available. Those models are more suitable for concealed carry, but remember, the reduced weight is going to lead to more recoil, so I chose the heavier model here.

One disadvantage to the revolver is that it can not hold nearly as many cartridges as the former pistols. This 856 holds 6 rounds in its cylinder. One additional benefit, though, is its price. You can get these pistols for less than $350.

Name Taurus 856
Caliber 38 Special
Price Range $300 - $350
Size(L X W X H) inches 6.5 X 1.41 X 4.8
Unloaded Weight (oz) 22
Magazine Capacity 6
Sportsman’s Recoil Score About 3.4 (130 grains)

CZ P-10

cz p-10 f pistol

CZ is well known for making high-quality firearms, and you are bound to see a few if you go to a shooting competition. It is possible you may even see a CZ P-10 F. This is a full-sized 9mm pistol that is ready to defend, compete or both.

CZ's P-10 pistol features a mild palm swell, deep beavertail, and three interchangeable backstraps, which make the P-10 fit a wide variety of hands as if it were built for them. Its trigger is designed to minimize creep and stacking and rebounds with a short, positive reset, meaning single shots can be meticulously placed while follow-ups are effortless.

The P-10 F has a 19-round magazine and weighs 28.2 ounces unloaded. This gives the P-10 F a score of 2.9 on the Sportsman's recoil table with a 115-grain bullet. It is also 8 inches long, 1.26 inches wide, and 5.9 inches tall. You can pick up the P-10 F for about $550 - $650.

If the full-sized version of the P-10 is too big for your liking, CZ also makes a compact version. The CZ P-10 C pistol is a little shorter, two ounces lighter, and about $50 cheaper. You also lose 4 rounds from your magazine, but 15 is still plenty. The P-10 C measures 7.3 X 1.26 X 5.2 inches.

Name CZ P-10 F
Caliber 9mm
Price Range $550 - $650
Size(L X W X H) inches 8 X 1.26 X 5.9
Unloaded Weight (oz) 28.2
Magazine Capacity 19 + 1
Sportsman’s Recoil Score About 2.9 (115 grains)

Ruger Security-9

image alt text here

The Ruger Security-9 is a solid pistol that is more affordable than most on this list. As the name would suggest, it is a 9mm. It is categorized as a full-sized pistol, but it is a bit smaller than most full-sized handguns. The Ruger Security-9 is 7.25 inches long, 1.02 inches wide, and 5 inches tall.

The smaller size comes with a lighter weight. It weighs just 23.8 ounces, which gives it a 3.3 recoil score. That is still not bad for a full-size pistol that is potentially small enough to conceal carry, depending on how big you are.

This pistol comes with 15-round magazines, which is more than enough for nearly all situations. The Ruger Security-9 is a great pistol, which you can pick up from your local Sportsman's Warehouse for around $350 - $450.

Name Ruger Security-9
Caliber 9mm
Price Range $350 -$450
Size(L X W X H) inches 7.25 X 1.02 X 5
Unloaded Weight (oz) 23.8
Magazine Capacity 15 + 1
Sportsman’s Recoil Score 3.3 (115 grains)

A Reminder!

I hope you found a pistol or two on this list that you can seriously consider as your self-defense weapon. Although if you are not quite sure yet and want to look elsewhere, make sure to keep two things in mind, caliber and weight.

If you want a pistol with low recoil, it will have to be a smaller caliber and most likely standard-sized. Standard size pistols have enough weight behind them to soak up a lot of recoil. It just so happens that a standard size 9mm fits this low recoil bill to a tee, which is why most of this list also fits that description.

If you get a chance to shoot a standard size 9mm before buying and think you can handle a little more recoil, consider a 357 magnum or a 40 S&W. However, you can't beat the added capacity of a 9mm.