Defensive Handguns for Women

Women today are significantly represented among the ranks of first time gun owners.

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Once considered an insignificant part of the shooting community, women today are significantly represented among the ranks of first time gun owners. With crime and stateside terrorist attacks on the rise, the vast majority of gun buying women (like men) are interested in self-defense handguns. But for women, 30 years of experience as a police firearms instructor has shown me that there are some additional considerations that need to be taken account before that first handgun is purchased.

Over 20 years ago, Smith and Wesson took the lead in manufacturing firearms more aptly suited to the female shooter, who generally have hands smaller than most guns at the time were designed to fit. They called it their "Ladysmith" line.

The original Ladysmith lineup consisted of a series of specially refined stainless steel revolvers with nicer finishes and smoother triggers than were available on standard revolvers. The also manufactured a variation of their 9mm 3913 semi-automatic pistol with a frame designed for a smaller hand.

Today there are only two Ladysmith models left in the lineup. Both are five shot revolvers with two inch barrels-one is a stainless steel .357 Magnum, the other is an aluminum framed .38 Special. This brings me to the main point of this article. Just because something is marketed as being ideal for the female shooter doesn't always mean it is the best choice for everyone in that segment of the market.

Take the .357 Magnum Ladysmith. The .357 Magnum is one of the most powerful defensive handgun cartridges of all time. In a heavy, full-sized revolver like a Smith and Wesson 686, it is reasonably controllable-but definitely not pleasant to shoot for extended periods of time. In a much smaller, lighter gun like the Model 60 Ladysmith (LS), firing .357 Magnum ammo can be downright brutal. Even experienced shooters don't want to fire more than five shots. Fortunately, the 60 LS can shoot the much lighter recoiling .38 Special, which is a more than adequate self-defense caliber. With .38 Special loads, the recoil is quite tolerable. The .38 Special chambered 642 Ladysmith's recoil is also tolerable, and it is much more conducive to pocket or purse carry than the 60 LS due to its snag-free concealed hammer design and lighter weight. I carry a standard 642 revolver off duty most of the time. The standard 642 is also an outstanding choice for female shooters, and less expensive than the Ladysmith version.

It was a number of years after the Ladysmith line was introduced that I noticed other companies tailoring-or at least attempting to tailor-their handguns to women. But rather than alter and refine their existing designs, these companies went a different route. They sought to entice female customers by manufacturing pink or turquoise colored handguns to make them more visually appealing. But just because their guns now had different color choices, it did not automatically mean that they were among the best choices for women new to shooting.

I was at a gun writer's conference recently in Florida. One of the manufacturers was displaying their line of single shot pistols which were chambered in .45 Colt/.410 Shotgun caliber. I had recently tested one of these guns and found that their narrow metal frames produced recoil that can only be described as "fierce", especially with .45 Colt loads. Shooting a light .410 shotshell load wasn't as bad, but still would have been bad for an inexperienced shooter. The trigger pull was also long and heavy. Imagine my surprise when I saw that these handguns are now being offered with pink and turquoise barrels. Guys, if you brought one of those on your own and took it home as a surprise for your lady, let me just say you would REALLY be surprised by her reaction after she fired it-and this time the surprise purchaser would be returning the surprise purchase to the gun store posthaste. Fortunately Vance Outdoors does not carry this particular line of handguns. Here are a few Dos and Don'ts as to how to avoid issues like this, and end up with a handgun that is right for you.

Ladies, if you know your boyfriend, husband or significant other is going to the gun store to purchase a defensive handgun for you, DO go with them. Guys, please don't leave them out of this significant life and death choice, because that's what it is. They need to be with you for the purchase and THEY need to be the one that is happy with the gun. Better yet, take them to our Vance Outdoor location at Alum Creek and 270 south first so you can rent the guns you are interested in and fire them on our indoor range before purchasing. Test firing before you buy should apply to everyone new to firearms. Our range staff will be happy to assist you.

DON'T be tricked into thinking that the smallest guns are the easiest to shoot. While they are sometimes, some of the newer compact .380 caliber semi-autos recoil more than you think. If you really need a deep concealment gun, they are great. You might want to try a larger 9mm handgun, rather than a mini-sized gun for better shooting comfort. On the flip side, don't get a handgun for concealed carry that is too large or heavy. It will end up staying at home more than being carried. For home defense a larger handgun can be an excellent choice.

DON'T feel that a semi-automatic pistol is the only defensive choice available just because that is all you see on TV or in the movies-or because someone is pushing you that way. The snub nose revolver, although nowhere nearly as popular for defensive use as it once was, still has a lot of fight left in it. It is especially suited for those people who are not interested in shooting a lot-something which is required to become truly safe and proficient if you choose a semi-automatic pistol.

A revolver is the simplest defensive handgun to work with. A lot of people don't realize this but revolvers don't have a manual safety-their 11-12 lb. trigger pull IS the safety. The only other control on the vast majority of revolvers is the cylinder release button. That's it. The revolvers simple design-especially that of the concealed hammer models like the Smith and Wesson 642 LS-makes it really hard to have an unintentional discharge and to NOT have an intentional one. If you feel the need for more than a five shot capacity there are 7 or 8 shot snub nose revolvers that are chambered in light recoiling and inexpensive to shoot .22 LR or .22 Magnum calibers.

If you want a semi-automatic pistol, DO make sure you can easily pull the slide back and lock it for safety, removal of live ammo, or cleaning before you buy it. For any handgun, make sure you find the trigger comfortable to use, and that the handgun just "feels good" in your hands. Also, the handgun you select should work with the way that you dress. You will want to find a handgun that adjusts to your wardrobe, rather than have to adjust your wardrobe to the gun.

DO remember that sales personnel at Vance's are there to help you. I can't tell you how many times people have apologized for "taking up too much time." That isn't a concern. We want to make sure you choose the firearm that is right for you, and are always happy to show you as many guns as you need to see to see to it that the right choice is exactly what happens.

Purchasing a self-defense handgun is a serious choice, and having confidence in your gun and your ability to use it is critical in protecting yourself. Following these bits of advice will help you make the right choice, and will put you on equal footing with anyone who seeks to do you harm.