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Women and guns

By Massad Ayoob

Massad Ayoob

Issue #121 • January/February, 2010

In a time when what used to be called "the women's liberation movement" has achieved many of its goals in terms of equality and empowerment, the concept that guns are somehow evil icons of male brutality has managed to survive as the longest-standing relic of the old "Suzie Housewife mentality."

Political enfranchisement? Of course! Entry into previously male-exclusive job markets? A done deal, for the most part. Economic power and self-determination? You bet.

But defend yourself and your loved ones against a deadly criminal, by resorting to a gun of your own? "OMG!!! You're just surrendering to the brutal male mentality!"

Aggressively forward stance helps the slender Jacqueline Smith, at right. She follows her training in an LFI qualification and leans farther forward than 160-lb. male author, left. Final score proved VERY close...
Aggressively forward stance helps the slender Jacqueline Smith, at right. She follows her training in an LFI qualification and leans farther forward than 160-lb. male author, left. Final score proved VERY close...

If I may say so in a family magazine...What A Crock!

The attitude part

In almost thirty years of teaching female armed citizens, and longer than that teaching female cops, I've come to the conclusion that once you get past old-fashioned cultural predispositioning, women may actually be better and more decisive students of the gun.

You don't jump up on a chair and shriek when you see a mouse in the kitchen? You don't exclaim, "I declare! I do believe I have a case of the vapors coming on," and faint when there's trouble? Good—indications are that you're on the way to getting past the cultural canard that women are supposed to be helpless and totally reliant on men to protect them.

Most firearms instructors agree that women have a faster learning curve than men in this discipline. They tend to have better fine motor coordination, as a rule, and pulling a trigger without deviating the muzzle off target is most definitely a fine motor skill. Their biggest advantage is that they are not born believing that because of their gender, they automatically know how to do something masculine. I've found that the female student more than the male wants to know, not just "how do you do that?" but "why do you do it that way?" With a proper explanation, she follows instructions, finds the results good, and moves on. With some of the males—not all, certainly, but some—the reaction is, "Ungawa! If Mongo do what instructor say, Mongo become 'beta' and instructor become 'alpha.' I, MONGO, am alpha! Mongo must keep doing it Mongo's way! Ungawa!" It's like de-programming cult victims sometimes...

There is a misperception that women won't have the intestinal fortitude to pull the trigger when it's necessary. That's only true with an armed female who has bought into the "jump-on-the-chair-when-you-see-a-mouse" mentality. The female of the species, once she understands the situation, has no illusions that she's supposed to kick the knife out of the attacker's hand, or knock him unconscious with a right cross like the Lone Ranger. She's less likely to hesitate. An outdoorswoman who is hunting to feed her family is not going to break down in weepy-eye flashbacks to Walt Disney's film Bambi when the venison is in her sights; she's going to hold her aim steady, and smoothly press the trigger back.

This Sabre Defense AR15 carbine has its collapsible stock closed, for its smallest-stature user...
This Sabre Defense AR15 carbine has its collapsible stock closed, for its smallest-stature user...

... and now the stock is extended for a user with long arms. This type of stock adapts the gun to all sizes of family members.
... and now the stock is extended for a user with long arms. This type of stock adapts the gun to all sizes of family members.

As I've watched women train over the years, I've seen other differences compared to the men. When the guys shoot a qualification, there's (usually good-natured) teasing. "Hey, Buddy, ya dropped a point there! I'm ahead of you so far!" When the gals do the same, particularly in an all-female class, the difference is stark. The theme is mutual support: "You're doing great, Sylvia! You're only one point down! You go, girl!"

The hardware

Most guns were designed by men, for men. The "pull" measurement (the distance between butt and trigger on a rifle or shotgun) will, in standard models, be designed for an average-size adult male. That means they may fit a tall woman. A lady of average height, or one of more petite proportions, will have to lean back off balance to hold it to her shoulder to aim.

The gunstock can be customized by a gunsmith (or by an individual who is really handy with tools and really knows the gun in question). Or, in many cases, it can simply be ordered with a "youth stock."

Why, you may ask, don't they ever call it a "women's stock?" Ah, a topic opens here. We are a nation that tries to put racism behind it, and can't quite achieve that. We are a nation that would probably like to put misogyny behind it, but can't achieve that, either. Historically and culturally, the gun has been perceived as a "male only" object. And frankly, in many respects, a male-only totem. How many young boys with even a hint of machismo about them would want a first-time hunting rifle or shotgun with a "women's stock" for Christmas? On the other hand, many slender women have grown accustomed to buying practical jeans in "boys' sizes," and more women have purchased sneakers or boots in "youth sizes," too.

It's a marketing thing.

If we can just set that part of it aside, the main point we take from it is: "youth stocks" fit smaller-statured people, among whom are a lot of women. Therefore, youth stocks are extremely useful for adapting shotguns and rifles to female shooters.

Kathy Jackson, author of articles, books, and the great www.corneredcat.com website, runs to slidelock with the last shot from her Glock 19, and her aggressive stance keeps the muzzle on target in "follow-through." Photo from an LFI class at Firearms Academy of Seattle.
Kathy Jackson, author of articles, books, and the great www.corneredcat.com website, runs to slidelock with the last shot from her Glock 19, and her aggressive stance keeps the muzzle on target in "follow-through." Photo from an LFI class at Firearms Academy of Seattle.

One of the little-recognized reasons why AR15 rifles have become so hugely popular in America—in the practical rural world as well as the defensive urban sector—is that, before the onerous Bill Clinton "Assault Weapons" Ban of 1994-2004, these guns could and now again can be had with telescoping stocks. The most common is the so-called "M4" variety, which offers four positions, though you can get more options than that. The most petite female can shoulder, aim, and effectively fire an AR15 with the stock closed to its most "collapsed" point. Tall folks can still handle the rifle comfortably and effectively by simply pulling it all the way out to its maximum length.

This makes an AR15 with a telescoping stock a "family gun," if you will. Momma Bear, Poppa Bear, and Baby Bear can all make it work if they know what to do with it, and in an instant can adjust the gun to fit them. We're seeing similar telescoping stocks made available for shotguns such as that classic "backwoods home" scattergun, the Remington 870 slide action. We're also seeing it available now for the popular Ruger Mini-14. It was not for nothing that one of the most popular models of Mini-14 was named by Ruger the "Ranch Rifle." Adaptability is good. In a rural family setting, whether the gun is needed to put food on the table, keep the fox from the chicken coop, or repel the proverbial wolf from the door, a gun which responsible young people, petite moms, and burly dads can all use interchangeably makes a helluva lot of sense, in this observer's opinion.

With handguns as well as rifles or shotguns, fit to the user is important. Nationwide, we're seeing a huge increase in not only sales of pistols and revolvers, but applications for permits to carry them loaded and concealed in public. Quite apart from what it says about social trends and crime predictions, for the self-sufficient rural family the issue is that when you need a gun, you often need it now, and don't have time to go back to the cabin, the tractor, or the horse to unlimber a long gun. A handgun on your hip or in your pocket is always with you.

5'0" Gail Pepin is about to put some .223 fire dead center into the target with a Ruger AC556 machine gun, the selective fire version of the Ruger Mini-14. (Note selector switch at rear of receiver.) Aggressive forward stance makes it possible for small women to control hard-kicking guns.
5'0" Gail Pepin is about to put some .223 fire dead center into the target with a Ruger AC556 machine gun, the selective fire version of the Ruger Mini-14. (Note selector switch at rear of receiver.) Aggressive forward stance makes it possible for small women to control hard-kicking guns.

The last time I saw someone threatened by a potentially lethal snake, there were lots of rifles and shotguns "available"... a hundred or more yards away. What was readily available was the 9mm Glock pistol holstered on my hip, which I used to blow the serpent's brain out and end the fear.

Handguns—like long guns—tend to be designed and built "by fighting men, for fighting men." If you look at the history of "fighting men" (more in the police service than in the military service, actually) you find that larger males were given preference over the smaller ones for certain duties. At the time little Audie Murphy became the most highly decorated soldier of WWII, there were many police departments back home that wouldn't have hired him because he didn't make the height and weight requirements. Read this late, great hero's autobiography, To Hell and Back, and you'll see that Murphy's preferred fighting guns were the little M1 carbine (not to be confused with the much bigger, much more powerful M1 Garand rifle in caliber .30-06, which weighed nearly twice as much), and the Model 1911A1 pistol.

A "backwoods home" kind of kid, Audie Murphy had grown up feeding his family with animals he shot in the woods. He had become a deadly marksman. The little M1 carbine fit his small stature, and he littered the ground of Europe with German soldiers he killed with his. The M/1911A1 pistol had been redesigned from the original M/1911 after WWI to fit smaller hands, because in a time when the average male was smaller than males today, the first model's trigger had been too long to reach effectively. Today, in a time when the average adult American male stands much taller than his counterpart in the year 1918 (thanks to better nutrition, better prenatal care, and similar factors), most makers of 1911-style pistols have gone back to the earlier, longer triggers. However, short 1911A1 triggers are still available, and they perfectly fit small hands with short fingers.

The dimension called "pull" factor on a rifle or shotgun is best described as "trigger reach" on a handgun. It is measured on the hand from the center of the web of the hand to the contact point of the finger on the trigger, and on the gun from the center of the curve of the trigger to the backstrap of the handgun's frame. A person with large hands/long fingers can make do with a short-trigger-reach handgun, but a person with small hands/short fingers may not be able to get enough leverage on a gun that has a heavy pull and a long reach to even pull the trigger to make it fire.

Ace instructor Vicki Farnam, far right, prepares some of her female students to go to the firing line and learn to master "male only (bwahaha!) technology."
Ace instructor Vicki Farnam, far right, prepares some of her female students to go to the firing line and learn to master "male only (bwahaha!) technology."

Whether we're talking rifle, shotgun, or handgun, one principle will hold true: the larger person can adapt to the smaller person's gun better than the smaller person can adapt to the larger's. I stand a more or less average 5'10" tall; my significant other barely reaches five feet in height. If she uses MY shotgun, she has to cantilever her shoulders backwards to hold it up, which takes her off balance, and she simply won't shoot it well. But if I take her youth-stock Remington 1100 semiautomatic shotgun, all I have to do is pull it in tighter to my shoulder, and I can run it just fine.

The bottom line is a simple one: make sure the firearm in question fits the smallest person authorized to use it, and the largest person in the family will be able to make do with it. The opposite is not true.

(Yes, Audie Murphy won his Congressional Medal of Honor firing a humongous .50 caliber Browning M2 machinegun from the top of a burning tank destroyer. However, the built-in stand for the gun compensated for his compact physical size. Yes, Audie Murphy once wiped out a German staff car and all its occupants with a roughly 20-pound Browning Automatic Rifle he grabbed from a larger soldier as the vehicle loomed near...but neither you nor I are the reincarnation of Audie Murphy.)

Shooting techniques

Women tend to have less upper body strength and hand strength than men of the same height. That's not an advantage, from the standpoint of shooting a gun effectively. The other side of the coin is that women tend to have a lower center of gravity than their brothers the same height, and pound for pound tend to be stronger from the waist down. This is why the twin sister beats the twin brother in something like "Indian leg wrestling," and it's why women need to pay more attention to shooting stance than men of the same size.

Can small women handle big shotguns? 6'-plus male holds electronic timer (left) as petite female (center) prepares to tear apart a man-size target with 5 blasts of buckshot in roughly 2 seconds with her shotgun. Average-size lady in LFI-II class, at right, is about to follow...
Can small women handle big shotguns? 6'-plus male holds electronic timer (left) as petite female (center) prepares to tear apart a man-size target with 5 blasts of buckshot in roughly 2 seconds with her shotgun. Average-size lady in LFI-II class, at right, is about to follow...

The stance—the body position when you fire the gun—requires upper body weight to be forward so it goes against the recoil force. The good news for the female shooter is that having that lower center of

gravity and approximately 30 degrees more flexibility in the pelvic axis than a typical man of the same height, she can flex forward and get into the gun better, if she has just been taught to do it.

With rifle, shotgun, or handgun, if a 220-pound male body-builder with 7% body fat leans backward as he fires, the recoil force of the gun will cantilever him backward and send the muzzle jumping so high that the next shot might hit a duck in the air, but not a deer on the ground. However, if a 110-pound female shooter has her body weight maybe 60% onto a flexed forward leg, and is digging her rear heel into the ground with the rear leg's knee just unlocked, and her upper body is forward of center, her body dynamics will almost instantly overcome the recoil force of the weapon and snap her gun back on target for an immediate second shot if that is necessary.

Physically small people with limited body strength who know how to use what they have to work with, will almost invariably outshoot big, strong people shooting with old-fashioned techniques. (Umm...did I mention Audie Murphy already?)

The proof is out there

Do a Google search of winners of National Championship rifle matches in the United States over the last several years. Your research will show you that a disproportionate number of the relatively few women who compete against men have won the overall National Championship titles. Rifle shooting involves firing from awkward positions, such as sitting. Female flexibility has an advantage here. We've talked about the fine motor skill factor, but consider also that little thing called "concentration," which so many professional educators say favors the female over the male. Is concentration a factor in shooting well? Do bears go potty in the woods?

Shotguns? One name for you: Kim Rhode. This young woman has for many years been America's superstar in Olympic shotgun shooting.

Women and Guns

Women and guns seem to go together naturally in my view—and in the views of some others: there's an excellent periodical by that title edited by my long-time friend Peggy Tartaro and published by The New Shotgun News and the Second Amendment Foundation. They have some of the top authorities in the field writing for them, and subscriptions to Women and Guns are available for one year/six issues for $18, or two years/twelve issues for $33 from SAF Periodical Group, PO Box 35, Buffalo, NY 14205. www.womenshooters.com

Handguns? Go to a top-level "practical pistol competition" and shoot against Jessica Abbate, Julie Goloski-Golob, Randi Rogers, or Laura Torres-Reyes. If you beat them, get back to me and then talk about "natural male superiority," Testosterone Boy.

The bottom line

For God's sake, people, we've seen the role models here, in the pages of Backwoods Home Magazine, over many years. Jackie Clay takes her Winchester Model 94 .30-30, the quintessential deer rifle, into the woods and shoots a white-tail, cleans the carcass, and takes it home and butchers it into steaks and chops and stew and burgers with which to feed her family.

Annie Tuttle, our editor at Backwoods Home, not only takes over from The Patriarch and runs the whole damn magazine, but makes sure that she and her babies are safe at home while her husband serves his country overseas in the United States Armed Forces. Her home protection system goes up to and includes a Springfield Armory SOCOM-16, short enough for a petite female to handle with aplomb, and chambered for 7.62mm NATO, deadly enough to do a remarkably convincing imitation of what Audie Murphy did to that WWII Nazi vehicle and every enemy combatant on board, with a Browning Automatic Rifle. If any violent home invaders attempt to intrude on this little mother's nest of babies, I know the attackers' autopsy reports will be ugly to read, but my own final assessment would be "Cause of Death of Intruders: Sudden and Acute Failure of the Victim Selection Process."

The lioness is often more formidable than the lion. No instinct is stronger than that of mother protecting child. There is nothing unfeminine about strength and empowerment. One of the best informational resources I can recommend for either gender is www.corneredcat.com, by the formidable Kathy Jackson. Armed and Female by Paxton Quigley is another great read, and Gila Hayes' new book, Personal Defense for Women came out last fall.

End of discussion as far as I'm concerned...but you can always debate the issue with me on my blog.




Read More by Massad Ayoob

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