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A Woman's Primer on Defensive Firearms Use

Sunni Maravillosa

Boston's Gun Bible

Whether we like to admit it or not, there are differences between men and women. Some of these differences are enjoyable; others are not. One difference is that men commit more violent acts. This means that a woman who is concerned about defending herself must be able to successfully ward off a threat from a man, who will often outweigh her and be stronger.

The best way to accomplish that is to own and be able to use a firearm for defensive purposes. While there is a lot of solid information around on how to choose a firearm and train with it properly, I've not seen anything that addresses issues unique to women shooters. This article is an attempt to fill that void.

Is a firearm a good choice for you?

Many people, including myself, have written on this topic already. I won't repeat a lot of what I've already said; if you want more basic information, please read my article "So You're Thinking of Buying a Gun" for a good introduction.

For a firearm to be an effective deterrent, you must be willing to use it. You can't count on the sight of your gun to be enough to stop a bad guy. Often the attacker will have a gun too, making the fight come down to whoever shoots better. Because the attacker will have the element of surprise on his side, you must be able to respond quickly and effectively to stop or neutralize the threat. If you aren't willing and able to use a firearm for self defense, then you absolutely should not buy a gun.

If you're going to buy a gun, don't suffer fools who tell you to buy a small gun or one that shoots a lightweight caliber, because "you'll be able to handle the gun better." Women can handle larger guns just as well as men. Don't be lured by items marketed just to women, such as Smith & Wesson's "Lady Smith" line. You don't need specially-made guns; you need the most powerful defensive weapon you can successfully handle.

There are other matters to consider, too. What steps are you willing to take to make your gun the best defensive weapon it can be? Are you willing to get defensive training? Are you willing to continue the drills you learn in order to hone your skills? Are you willing to invest the energy into becoming a more aware individual so that you can avoid potentially dangerous situations? Are you willing to make modifications to your clothing and grooming habits to accommodate your gun? All these are part of using your gun wisely.

The hands have it

Your hands need to be able to handle your gun. First and foremost, this means some amount of hand and wrist strength, in order to properly aim the gun, fire it, and take the recoil. A grip that's too loose can cause a gun to malfunction. If you are inexperienced, borrow various guns to get a feel for their weight, how much effort is required to pull the trigger, and the amount of recoil (this will vary enormously depending upon the type of gun, the caliber of ammunition, and the size of the gun). You need to find a combination that works well for you. While some attributes can be changed -- for example, a gunsmith can alter the trigger pull -- you can take that too far. If necessary, do exercises to strengthen your hands and wrists.

Do you take great pride in your long, beautifully-polished fingernails? If you want to be a capable shooter, you may want to rethink the value of your perfect manicure. Your nails, whether real or artificial, can cause trouble for you. They could hang on the trigger or the hammer. Loading a magazine can be tough on hands and nails, too (although depending upon the type of gun, you may be able to buy a loader that will help reduce this). And of course, doing regular drills with your gun can result in scrapes and chips in your polish.

All this doesn't mean that you have to forsake all femininity regarding your hands. If you're serious about using your gun for your safety, however, you need to make sure your nails don't interfere. Trimming them shorter, and saving the polish for special events may be all you need to do. If you really adore the look of long "claws," get artificial nails applied for special events. But do make sure you practice your gun drills with those nails in place, so that your motor memory knows how to do things with them on. The best thing to do, though, is not to try to learn to shoot two different ways.

If you like to wear lots of rings and bracelets -- especially big rings and dangly bracelets -- those could interfere with your ability to shoot. Again, the idea isn't to stop wearing jewelry, but to choose items that won't interfere with your ability to defend yourself should you need to.

The well dressed woman accommodates her gun

For your gun to protect you, it must be with you. I'll leave discussion about permits, permissions, and legalities to others, and just say that your gun can't help you protect yourself if you don't have it with you when you need it. However you carry your gun, the primary concern is that it be easily available to you.

If you can, carry your gun openly (it's strictly forbidden in fewer states than you'd think). It lets potential bad guys know you aren't someone to mess with, and may keep an attack from happening. It also performs a valuable "public service," that of getting people used to seeing responsible individuals with guns. That used to be the norm in the United States.

If you prefer to conceal your firearm, lots of options are available. Concealability depends in part on its size (smaller ones are more easily concealed, but tend to have more recoil than larger guns shooting the same caliber ammunition), but a large part of it depends upon your wardrobe. If you prefer skin-hugging, skimpy clothing, it'll be more difficult to conceal a gun. A simple solution is to slip a loose shirt over your clothing, one long enough to cover the gun just behind your hip or in the small of your back. You'll need to practice whipping the shirttail out of your way to get your gun, but this offers an acceptable compromise.

Other concealed carry options include a holster bra (see the March/April 2001 issue of Women & Guns). While some women, particularly those who like looser-fitting clothes, find shoulder holsters and inside-the-pants concealment acceptable, most of these rigs are designed with the male body in mind, and they may not be comfortable for you. If that's what you want for your concealed carry rig, shop around and try several before settling on a choice. What feels comfortable in an air-conditioned store for 5 minutes may be irritating beyond belief in summer's heat and humidity after 3 minutes. Your concealment rig needs to work with your lifestyle and climate.

Stowing your gun in a purse or bag is another concealment choice. These do have higher risks, though. If you set the bag down others will have access to your gun. If your bag is stolen, there goes your weapon, too. Most purses aren't made to accommodate a handgun, and leaving it loose in the purse isn't a good idea. At best, dirt can get into it, and either cause a malfunction or render it inoperable; at worst, the trigger could snag on something and negligently fire the gun. Galco is one company that makes purses and bags designed for concealed carry. Their items are top quality and fashionable. For professionals, they offer briefcases with holster compartments. The zippered holster compartments can be locked -- a nice security feature. My only complaint is that the shoulder straps appear to be leather, which makes them vulnerable to a slash-and-steal operation; adding a chain inside the leather strap would eliminate that.

Most likely you'll end up with several holsters and other carry or concealment rigs. That makes sense, as your needs will vary depending upon how you're carrying, the clothing you're wearing, and where you want to carry your gun. Save yourself some money and check into used holsters and accessories at gun stores. Often when a gun is sold, the accessories are included; you can get great deals on decent equipment. At the very least, you can try a new accessory, and if you like it, then invest in a high-quality version. Uncle Mike's offers good equipment at very good prices. I'm partial to their Kydex concealment holsters.

Mommy packs heat

Contrary to what the fear mongers would have us believe, guns and children can be a safe mix. The keys are: 1) teaching your children gun safety as early as they begin to understand; and 2) being very diligent about gun safety and re-examining your situation as your children grow up. Different ages require differing approaches to gun safety. I'll address teaching children about guns and shooting in a separate article, but the main thing you need to do is demystify the gun.

With very young children, the primary concern is not leaving things where they can ingest them. Babies are notorious for sticking everything they find into their mouths, and Hoppe's No. 9 and lead wadcutter cartridges aren't good things for them to be sucking on. At this age, they don't have the strength or the coordination to handle a handgun (let alone any long gun), so fears of Baby getting a gun and shooting someone are unfounded. But do keep all guns, cleaning supplies, and ammunition out of Baby's reach; those chemicals just aren't good for him or her. Make extra certain you wash up well after handling your guns, too.

If you want to carry a gun while you have an infant, you may need to shift your preferred carry location. The gun shouldn't be difficult for you to access while carrying Baby, nor should it rub against Baby or you. You might want to practice defensive draws with a suitable simulation of a baby on your hip; a 10- or 25-pound bag of flour is an inexpensive (but rather unwieldy) option. Whether you do that or not, you will need to think through what you want to do should you be assaulted while carrying an infant or small child. That's also a topic in and of itself, and I'll address it in a forthcoming article.

Children should be acclimated to gunfire as soon as possible, preferably in utero. My son heard me practicing regularly while he was gestating, and has never flinched at the sound. Keep them well back of the firing line and under close supervision, of course, and use protective gear once they're old enough to watch closer up.

Once the child is older and stronger, regularly check to see if he or she can manipulate the controls of your gun and storage system. If the child can, you'll need to take new steps to keep your firearms secure. Part of this involves teaching gun safety. The child needs to understand that a gun is not a toy, and should never be treated as one.

An older, responsible child can and should be taught to shoot. At this age, the focus should be on safe gun handling, good technique, and appropriate uses of lethal force. Once the child is a teenager, defensive training can begin, if she or he is interested and competent enough to handle it.

If you're responsible and mature in your handling of a gun, and treat your child's interest similarly, you'll be doing your child a great service. You'll be a good role model, as well as providing the child with sound information and experience which will serve him or her well as he or she grows up and needs to make decisions about personal safety and self defense. Your children will also be much less likely to believe the media hype about guns, because their experience will contradict it.

Defensive handgun training

For the sake of brevity, we'll assume a handgun is the firearm being used for self-defense. It's the best choice for day-to-day personal defense, because it's the only firearm small enough to always be handy. Shotguns and rifles are preferred in specific situations, but aren't practical to carry on your person. The first rule is to always have a gun. Much of the time that means having a handgun. If you want your handgun to serve you well in an emergency situation, you must invest in defensive handgun training.

Not too long ago I thought otherwise, and advocated target shooting as adequate practice for defensive purposes. I was wrong. Thankfully, I wasn't proved "dead wrong." While target shooting can be an important aspect of learning to handle a firearm well and safely, you must have good technique before your shots will make their mark. If you simply go out and try to teach yourself, or rely on a friend who hasn't had defensive training, you can form bad habits that may cost you your life in a firefight. One such habit is closing the nondominant eye when aiming. Doing so narrows your field of vision dramatically, and could cause you to miss a second bad guy's approach as you're engaging the first.

So, how do you get good defensive handgun training? Go to a professional course, if you can. I recommend Thunder Ranch, Gunsite, Firearms Academy of Seattle, and the Lethal Force Institute. There are many others around, but I have it on authority from individuals I trust with my life that these are the best. (As soon as my toddler is old enough I plan to attend several myself.)

Can't get to any of those places easily? Can't shake loose the cash from the budget? Check into road show options (the Lethal Force Institute offers them). Boston T. Party, author of the definitive firearms book, Boston's Gun Bible, has gone through lots of courses and offers his expertise for hire. If you can gather 12 individuals for a course and pay $100 each, plus his travel expenses, you'll get a solid grounding in defensive handgun techniques (and advanced studies once you're ready).

I've both observed and participated in Boston's basic handgun course. He is a terrific teacher, patient but no-nonsense. Much of his course emphasizes mental preparation, which is essential but often overlooked. His drills include good defensive technique as well as clearing various malfunctions. Boston is very respectful of women shooters -- there won't be any talking down to you or taking it easy on you. I enthusiastically recommend Boston. His basic course is an excellent introduction for anyone just getting into defensive handgun training, whether experienced or novice shooter. (He also offers rifle courses that are similarly topnotch.) To contact him about a course, email javelinpress@yahoo.com.

It isn't easy or pleasant to contemplate taking another person's life. But if you don't take responsibility for protecting your life, and the lives of your children, the consequences could be much worse to live with. In the end, it all comes down to this: in a confrontation with a bad guy, whose life is worth more to you -- yours, or his?


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