A Woman’s Guide to Purchasing a Firearm (Men should read this, too)

Washington, DC (TFC) – Women are purchasing firearms in record numbers. They often rely upon advice given by well-meaning friends, retailers, and shooting organizations. As well-meaning as the advice is, it is probably wrong. It is steeped in stereotypes about women being panicky or too petite or just plain dumb.

While this article has a specific interest in providing women with honest information they are not likely to find elsewhere, the information is equally useful for men. Contrary to popular belief, there are not two sets of rules for firearms. Gender roles do not matter. A trigger does not care if the finger pulling it has nail polish on it. A bullet does not care if it passes through a bra before entering a person. The outcomes are the same.

The two most heard pieces of advice are: “Buy a revolver. It’s simple and easy to use” and “Buy a (shotgun or revolver) because it’s point and shoot.” The Vice-President offered even worse advice. It’s unlikely that his wife will have to wield a double barreled shotgun, which is possibly the worst weapon to choose for home defense, while her bodyguards are around.

(Certainly all of the women in the US military would disagree with the idea that they can’t handle an AR-15.)


The underlying message of these two statements, especially when combined, is insulting and could cost the shooter her life or the life of somebody she cares about.

“Simple and easy to use.” The only way in which a revolver is easier to use than any other firearm is the fact that it does not have a safety that the user has to disengage before firing. The underlying message is quite literally: women are too stupid or too emotional to flip a switch.

“Point and shoot.” This idea, typically pushed by retailers who want to make a sale, gives the purchaser the idea that they can buy the weapon, load it, toss it their purse or glove box, and forget about it until they need it. The main message could be summed up as: you don’t have to train with the firearm.

When these two pieces of advice are taken together, the purchaser now has a firearm with no safety that they don’t really know how to use beyond pulling the trigger. This is a recipe for disaster. Nobody would ever recommend that a soldier not train with their weapon, or not take advantage of the latest technology. If the purchaser ever has to use their weapon, they will be in a fight for their life. They will be in combat to the death. Advising that a person doesn’t really need to practice is reckless at best.

So how should a woman pick her firearm?

The same way a man should. There are no firearms that a man can field that a woman cannot. Not one. To illustrate the point completely, watch the video below and meet Katelyn Francis. She’s 15 now, but was 13 when this video was made. She shoots expertly with an automatic rifle, a shotgun, and a pistol.

Caliber: explaining the number systems

When a person starts talking about purchasing a firearm for the first time, they are swamped with the numbers that correspond to caliber. To many, the numbers seem more complicated than any math they’ve ever encountered. There are three methods of classifying the ammunition your weapon will take.

The metric system: The metric system, though looking the most complicated, is actually the simplest. It provides the width and length of the bullet in millimeters. For example, 9x19mm is 9 millimeters wide and 19 millimeters long. It really is that simple. The measurement refers to the size of the bullet, and not the casing. So it is only measuring the part that comes out of the barrel and flies at the bad guy. It doesn’t include the case that contains the powder.

The standard system: This system is based off measuring the width of the bullet in fractions of an inch and then adding initials or a word to classify the length. For example, .45 ACP is roughly 0.45 of an inch wide. The ACP stands for Automatic Colt Pistol, which tells the technical guys that the bullet will be about 23mm long. The letters and words serve as a marketing tool today. Originally “magnum” meant that a particular caliber had been lengthened or strengthened in some way. Today, you will find ammo bearing the “magnum” label that has no real predecessor. A round bearing .45 would be spoken as “45 caliber.”

Gauge: This is unique to shotguns. To keep this simple: the smaller the number, the bigger the shell. A 12 gauge is bigger than a 20 gauge.

What caliber do you need?

There are books, blogs, articles, and reams of studies that will all tell you which caliber is perfect. Almost all of them are funded or subsidized by firearm manufacturers, and almost all of them are wrong. There is no perfect caliber for all situations. Remember the first rule of choosing a weapon is to determine its role. If a person went only off of the literature, bigger would almost always mean better. Outside of academic study, you have to consider the real world application.

Determining the role

You wouldn’t go jogging in stilettos, and you wouldn’t wear Crocs with your little black dress. Just like shoes, every firearm is designed for a specific purpose (I’m sure that is an incredibly sexist analogy, but give me credit for trying to relate). So before you ever look at a firearm, you need to know what role you want it to fill. Do you plan on carrying it with you daily? Is it going to stay in your bedroom for use in the event of a burglary? Is it to take care of that rabid coyote that attacked your neighbor’s dog and might attack your kids? Do you want to be prepared for some “what if” scenario? It doesn’t matter what role the weapon is supposed to fill, manufacturers have a design for it.

To keep it simple, start with breaking it down into the main divisions of firearm:

"Rosario Dawson firing a M11 pistol" by U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Hastings

“Rosario Dawson firing a M11 pistol” by U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Hastings

Pistol: If you plan on carrying your weapon with you everywhere, this is the category you’re focused on. Once you’re past the myth of needing a revolver, the next myth to address is the myth of needing a specific caliber. There’s a common misconception that “stopping power” is related to specific calibers. This idea sprouted from experienced shooters comparing the effects of specific rounds. What isn’t considered in these studies is that some rounds. due to a variety of factors, are harder to accurately shoot for newcomers. The .45 is considered by many to be one the ultimate “manstoppers.” Judging strictly from technical data, this is accurate. However, a newcomer (male or female) will probably have trouble accurately firing the crucial second shot because of the recoil. As we will discuss later, anybody worth shooting once is worth shooting twice. Two well-placed rounds from a .22, which is seen as a “kid’s gun” by many, will be more effective than two poorly-placed rounds from a .45.

When choosing your pistol, it’s best to fire multiple calibers and styles before making a decision. If you don’t have friends that own firearms, many gun stores that have ranges allow you to rent pistols. Take advantage of the opportunity and try at least one of each of the many different variations available. It’s also good (but not mandatory) to attempt to find a weapon that is currently, or at one time was, an issued firearm from a military somewhere in the world. This allows the purchaser to obtain a battle tested weapon that was designed to be as simple and as safe as possible. Models that were previously used by governments also tend to be chambered in calibers that are easily found in most stores and repair parts are plentiful and inexpensive.

Recommended examples: Walther PPK, Walther P22, Makorov, Browning Hi-Power, Beretta 92F, M1911A1.

"US Navy 100714-N-4965F-174 Chief Mass Communication Specialist Paula Ludwick, assigned to Fleet Combat Camera Group Pacific, shoots at a target during a Navy Rifle Qualification Course" by U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James Foehl

“US Navy 100714-N-4965F-174 Chief Mass Communication Specialist Paula Ludwick, assigned to Fleet Combat Camera Group Pacific, shoots at a target during a Navy Rifle Qualification Course” by U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James Foehl

Rifle: If you have decided on a rifle for home defense, remember to not allow appearance or reputation to intimidate you. Two of the best weapons for home defense are military-style rifles that have been targeted by politicians and the media. The M4 variant of the AR-15 family of rifles and AK-47 style rifles are two of the best choices for home defense rifles for men or women. They are both light, compact, simple to maintain, and safe to operate. If you’re new to firearms, you have probably heard media reports calling them “high powered” or “military grade” rifles. They aren’t high powered. They’re about mid range, but they are powerful enough to take down a human and most predatory or nuisance animals that are a threat. They are “military grade” designs for the most part. That simply means that they were designed to be simple enough for a 17-year-old kid to use. Neither weapon has a great degree of recoil, and they are both compact enough to be successfully used for home defense while still being effective at any distance a person is likely to need.

Recommended examples: AK-47 style, M4 style, Mini-14.

"US Army 51487 Fort Stewart Skeet Shoot" by Photo by Randy Murray, Fort Stewart Public Affairs - United States Army.

“US Army 51487 Fort Stewart Skeet Shoot” by Photo by Randy Murray, Fort Stewart Public Affairs – United States Army.

Shotgun: The shotgun is probably the one weapon you won’t need to fire twice when engaging an intruder if you hit them. The most common shotgun for home defense is a pump action 12-gauge shotgun. Shotguns have serious benefits and drawbacks.

Stopping power: A blast from a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with “double 00 buckshot” is about the equivalent of being hit with a cop’s pistol…eight times. When you pull the trigger of a shotgun several small pellets come out instead of one bullet. This greatly increases the lethality of the shot. The downside to this is that the pellets spread out as they travel through the air. If a family member is in between you and the target, you cannot fire. There are also very rare instances of pellets traveling well beyond the average spread, which can endanger other people in the home even if they aren’t directly in the line of sight.

Intimidation: It’s often said that the sound of a shotgun being chambered is one of the most terrifying and distinctive sounds in the world. It’s true. However, relying on intimidation is a pretty effective method of getting yourself and your family members killed. “If you are dumb enough to pull a gun, you’d better be smart enough to pull the trigger.” The sound is terrifying, but it may not deter the intruder. They may not have heard it, or instead of triggering the “flight” side of the “fight or flight response” it might trigger the “fight” side. Now you have given away your position to somebody that is prepared to fight. .

Reliability: A good pump action shotgun is easily one of the most reliable weapons on the planet. In my entire life, I have seen one shotgun misfeed or “jam.” It took less than a second to clear the jam and chamber a new round, and this was one of the most abused and ill-maintained shotguns I have ever seen. It was covered in rust and hadn’t been cleaned since the Nixon administration. The cost of this reliability is the speed at which you can engage multiple targets. If caught in a hallway facing two intruders a person will have a hard time firing two shots quickly enough to engage both attackers because in between every shot the shooter must “pump” the shotgun.

Versatility: Shotgun shells come in a variety of types. Ammunition exists for shotguns that is designed to stop cars, take down people, take down birds, blow open locked doors, and just about anything else you can imagine. I’ve even seen rounds designed to turn the shotgun into a flamethrower or pepper sensitive electronic equipment with magnets to fry the computers. This versatility makes the shotgun perfect for the experienced shooter who can determine which ammo to use in a given situation. It makes it more confusing and difficult for the novice.

Understanding the difference between “cover” and “concealment”

Everybody is familiar with the phrase “take cover.” Most people believe it means to simply get behind something. It doesn’t. It’s an order to get behind something that will stop a bullet. If something hides you from sight but will not stop a bullet, it is concealment not cover. The biggest problem is that most people do not know what will stop a bullet and what won’t because Hollywood does a really poor job of demonstrating it in movies.

Things you may believe will stop a bullet that won’t:

A sofa or couch
Most interior walls unless the bullet happens to hit a support beam
End tables
Interior doors
Kitchen cabinets or an island
A car door (we’re talking about a 50/50 chance here)

Things that most likely will:

A book (fully packed bookshelves make great cover)
A full toy chest (the striking and exiting of different materials inside the toy chest gives a decent chance of stopping a bullet)
A heavy dining room table
The tire of a car
The engine block of a car

There are not many things inside your home that will stop a bullet. Your best chance is to take advantage of the fact that you know the layout of your home better than your attacker.

Controlling the area of engagement

Since you can’t count on your furniture to save your life, you need to develop a plan to use the layout of your home to your advantage. It’s best to sacrifice the majority of your home and focus on protecting the one thing that actually matters: human life. A TV is not worth dying or killing for. Secure your family members and protect only those areas. Floorplans vary greatly from house to house, but most include one critical feature: the hallway. In military terms a hallway is a “fatal funnel.” It’s a narrow area the enemy must pass through from which there is no escape except forward or back the way they came. If you can control one end of the hallway and engage the attackers from the point you “retreated” to (this term becomes important in some jurisdictions), you can destroy the opposition with little risk to yourself. A stairway is even better if you control the higher level. It has all of the benefits of a hallway, but also puts the opposition on uneven footing and firing up.

If your home doesn’t have a hallway or stairway, an entry point to a specific room that can be fired at from cover is your best bet.

Two Danish children handle an AK-47. "Skoletjeneste 2" by SFHM

Two Danish children handle an AK-47.
“Skoletjeneste 2” by SFHM

The biggest mistake women and men make when dealing with a home invasion scenario

In prehistoric times when the wolves literally came howling at the cave door, men rushed to engage the threat and women huddled around the children to protect them. Both of these behaviors are ingrained in our thought processes. In the modern world, both of these behaviors are unsafe.

Men have to be taught to avoid rushing their opponent. Bullets travel a great distance. There is no reason to leave cover and move closer to somebody trying to kill you.

Women should not gather and huddle near their children in the event of a home invasion. It stands to reason that if you are preparing to shoot at the attackers, they may fire at you. If your children are behind you when the shooting starts their chances of being hit are exponentially greater than if they were locked away in the bathroom of a room you control.

Training with your weapon

Your goal when engaging someone attempting to kill you or your family is to kill them. It is not to scare them, make them leave, or wound them. The only acceptable outcome at the end of an engagement is for you to be dialing 911 and informing the operator that he needs to send the cops and the coroner. You may ask for emergency medical services to be polite or to help build your self-defense case, but they should be completely irrelevant. If you are not comfortable with this, do not purchase a firearm.

When training with your weapon, you should strive to make the training as realistic as possible. Due to liability reasons, commercial ranges rarely allow this. If your plan includes you firing down a hallway from a crouched position, your training should include firing from a crouched position. If you carry your pistol in your purse, you should train pulling the pistol from your purse and firing. You have accepted the axiom that anybody worth shooting once is worth shooting twice, so you should practice “double taps” (two shots in quick succession). In case you are interrupted by intruders while repositioning your children, you need to practice firing while walking backward. At most ranges, you can’t do any of this.

Hopefully one of your friends has access to a location where you can practice. If not, never underestimate the willingness of rural people to be neighborly. Farmers might be willing to allow you to use a back section of their property or maybe there’s a hunting club that would let you use their facilities, especially if you explain what you want to do.

Something else to consider is the target you are shooting at. The best (and incidentally the cheapest) targets to use are paper plates. A standard picnic paper plate is about the same size as the chest’s “kill zone.” It is also about the same size as a human head. The main reason I advise paper plates is that it eliminates the “close enough” syndrome. On normal silhouette targets, people often succumb to the idea that the round in the lower abdomen and the round in the bicep are “close enough.” They aren’t. The only acceptable ending is the person that was trying to kill you leaving in a bag. Him bleeding on the floor until EMS shows up is not acceptable. If the assailant survives, he or she is still a threat. You open yourself up to lawsuits and prosecution because the attacker’s version of events will be different than yours. This is why cops continue firing until the suspect is dead. There is only one version of events if the other guy is dead.

Preparing yourself psychologically

Aside from the skill set you need to develop, you need to prepare yourself psychologically for the sights and sounds of actually firing at a person in what will most likely be an enclosed space. When any sane person practices, they wear hearing protection. This is especially true at an indoor range. It would be advisable to fire a few rounds without hearing protection so you understand the disorientation and pain caused by your own shots. Every ear doctor in the world is currently drafting an email because this can lead to permanent hearing damage. It isn’t something I would recommend doing often, but to me it is worth the risk to try it a few times. You don’t want the first time you experience this to be when your life is on the line. One of the most excruciating pains I have ever felt in my life was firing a weapon in a cinderblock stairwell. My ears felt like they were going to burst and it messed with my balance. You don’t want to be surprised by this pain or disorientation.

Hollywood has done an exceptional job of instilling the idea that a bullet wound is a tiny hole with a lot of blood. This isn’t entirely accurate. While you could troll YouTube or gore sites to see the actual effects, it is probably better for your mental health to simply purchase a roast or whole chicken and shoot it. Pieces of flesh separate, bones protrude, and the bullet generally makes a mess of things. The sights, sounds, and smells, cannot be reproduced. Again, it’s best not to experience these things for the first time when you are in danger.

The roast is also a good method of making sure everybody in the family realizes there is no reset button on a firearm. If you pull the trigger, something will be destroyed.

Winning the engagement

There are dozens of articles out there about how to shoot properly. The best way to shoot is the way you feel comfortable and are the most accurate. It doesn’t matter if it is an isosceles or a weaver or a “Dirty Harry” stance. Get somebody to practice with and practice, practice, practice. Once you have mastered the art of putting the round where you want it, it’s time to understand how to actually win the firefight.

To win in combat you need three things: Speed, Surprise, and Violence of Action. This theory was explained to me by Richard Marcinko. Marcinko isn’t just some ex-SEAL. He’s the guy that founded SEAL Team Six. After that, he founded Red Cell. He survived Vietnam. He received the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star (Four times), the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, along with other awards. The only difference between his service record and the service record of every action movie hero is that he actually did it. Oh yeah, when the TV show 24 needed a real life warrior to base Jack Bauer’s actions on, they asked him to be an adviser. So you can listen to the tactical advice of some random gun store owner, or you can take the advice of the guy that built two of the most elite units the US military has ever produced.

Speed: Once you are in fear for your life, your plan should be executed quickly and without hesitation. You are in a fight for your life.

Surprise: Don’t fire a warning shot and don’t announce yourself, unless required by law. Lie in wait, fire from cover, and kill them before they even know they are being fired at. Shoot them in the back if possible (and legal in your jurisdiction). This is not the time for morals, ethics, or heroics.

Violence of Action: Once the engagement starts, bring the maximum amount of firepower down on your enemy in the most shocking and violent way possible. Do not stop until the opposition has stopped breathing. Do not break in the offensive. Do not allow the opposition to gain the initiative. This is not the time for pity, compassion, or even a general sense of humanity.

So what about the women in my life?

They all own firearms. From my goddaughter to my grandmother, they all carry. More importantly, they all own very different types of firearms because they bought a weapon that suits their individual needs. You need to do the same. There is no magic firearm that is perfect for everyone. Without getting too far into Eastern philosophy, it is an extension of yourself. It is a personal decision that needs to be very well thought out and researched. It is not something to be decided on because of the advice of a guy who gets a commission if you buy something. That being said, the best firearm to use in an emergency is always the one you happen to have with you.