Alongside these practical concerns are the unique political questions that arise when women and guns are brought together. A fantastic resource for both the political and practical sides of women owning handguns is the Second Amendment Foundation’s publication Women & Guns. For a woman gun owner, the issues discussed in this magazine are invaluable, and for any gun owner, the clear and concise instruction is also invaluable. A subscription to this excellent magazine can be obtained through:

Women & Guns
Second Amendment Foundation
P. O. Box 488, Station C
Buffalo, NY 144209
(716) 885 – 6408

W&G; is published bimonthly, and a subscription is $18/yr, a substantial savings on the newsstand price.

Another good resource is Paxton Quigley’s Armed & Female, a discussion of the issues at hand for women gunowners from how to load a revolver to the subtle ins and outs of handgun control and the laws pertaining to it. If you are considering purchasing a handgun for self-defense reasons, this is the first book you should buy.

Another excellent source of information not only for firearms but also for pepper spray, the Kubotan(tm), and other options for self-defense for women, is the organization called AWARE, for Arming Women Against Rape & Endangerment. (Again, despite the “Arming” in their name, they are very involved in all manner of self-defense options if you still feel that a firearm is not quite for you.) They can be reached at:

We are AWARE
P. O. Box 242
Bedford, MA 01730
(617) 893 0500

and they are also on-line at and

You will receive information on courses they will teach, books and videos, and their quarterly newsletter. Donations are tax-deductible, and those above the basic $25 amount include complimentary copies of such books are Quigley’s and Ayoob’s, mentioned above, and Gila-May Hayes’s Effective Defense: The Woman, The Plan, The Gun. (I hope I’m getting that title right.)

All of these books can be purchased on-line at You don’t need to use a credit card — you can just place your order and they’ll ship it to you when they receive your check. They also ship very quickly. I once ordered a book from them on Monday and had it by Thursday. They also have a service to search for out of print books as well, so you’ll find lots of great stuff there.

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1. Racking an Autoloader’s Slide
Most gun stores will automatically direct a woman toward revolvers, assuming that the supposedly weaker sex cannot handle the slide on an autoloader. While revolvers are fine machines, with reliability and mechanical transparency on their side, autoloaders are preferable for some reasons as well, and the stiffness of the slide should not be a consideration for anyone deciding on the right handgun.

Contrary to popular opinion, there is no reason why most women cannot rack the slide on an autoloader. Proper training, not brute strength, determines this. I have very weak arms — bench pressing even 30lbs is a chore best not attempted for me — but I can rack the slides even on the .45’s I’ve handled.

It all comes down to the proper way to hold the handgun while you do it. When you pick up an autoloader with your dominant hand and grip the rear of the slide with your other hand, you have two hands on the gun — use both of them in racking the slide. With your finger lined up along the trigger guard — NOT on the trigger; you must never place your finger on the trigger until you are about to shoot — push forward against the grip while holding it firmly at the same time you pull back on the slide. Do not simply attempt to pull the slide back. With this push-pull method of racking the slide, you cut the demands on the muscles of either arm in half. Since you have two hands on the gun, use them both! This is the proper way to rack the slide on an autoloader and renders even the stiffest slide easily racked by most women.

If after practicing, you still find it difficult to rack the slide on your favorite autoloader, don’t hesitate to bring it to an EXPERIENCED gunsmith in your area to have the recoil spring replaced. Inserting a lighter spring will make the slide easier to pull back, but it may also increase the chance of a jam or stoppage. Stoppages on autoloaders are fairly easily cleared, but you may want to discuss it with someone knowledgeable before you decide to get it done. Most gun stores can point you in the right direction. Also, some autoloaders (Beretta makes a line of wonderful small-frame handguns like this, but sadly they are NOT convertable for lefthanders) have a special tip-up barrel that allows the user to chamber a round without HAVING to pull back the slide. Many disabled handgun owners use these for personal and home defense, and they are ideal for people who are lacking the arm strength to rack an autoloader’s slide.

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2. Holsters For Women
A common complaint by most women interested in holsters is that the holsters are built in such a way that they cant the grip too far inwards, making it dig into the ribs and making drawing the gun extremely awkward. This comes about because most holsters are designed for men, whose hips and waist are far straighter. A woman’s waist, however, is usually smaller than her hips by a significant fraction — more so than with men, and this is true even for larger-sized women. Because of this, the grip of the gun will slant inward at the waist.

There are several holsters that attempt to correct this design flaw, but few are adequate for concealed carry except for the shoulder holster. As the author is a resident of southern California, with its excessively restrictive policies on CCW permits, I am inexperienced regarding the suitability of holsters for concealed carry and am likely to remain that way. If you know more than I, and you probably do, please don’t hesitate to let me know via e-mail. I’ve already gotten some great advice from readers!

The most common way to correct this flaw in most holsters is to insert a wedge of plastic that pushes the holster out from the waist. This is usually what’s done, and more information about this will will appear here soon. Gunsite makes a MARVELOUS holster that is beloved by the W&G; staff that does just this. Check out the Glock 17 holsters for best price.

However, Mitch Rosen Extraordinary Gun Leather manufactures a holster called the Ayoob Rear Guard that is beloved by women, and another called the “Nancy Special” (so named for his wife) that many women love. Both take various steps to insure that the bulk of the handgun is carried forward of the hipbone and that the gun grip doesn’t dig into the ribs.

Another option is a small-of-the-back holster, called an SOB holster, of course. 🙂 These holsters place the gun against the small of the back at the waist, and are reported to be extremely successful for concealed carry, though they would be uncomfortable with a revolver; SOB holsters are best suited for autoloaders. Also, they can be a problem for women in particular since, unlike men, we are often knocked to the ground in an attack. If you should land on your back when you are wearing an SOB, you could be in for a lot of pain — not to mention having a hard time drawing your weapon. However, if you are vigilant while walking, you will be difficult to surprise, and the ergonomic advantages of an SOB holster might outweigh the possible problems.

Most of the SOB holsters angle the grip of the handgun down toward the floor, and many women find this a difficult position from which to draw a gun — though I find it fine. Others that women seem to prefer angle the grip of the gun upward, essentially holding the gun upside down; with an SOB holster, drawing the gun then is similar to scratching your back near your spine. With the addition of a favorite sweatshirt or a roomy blazer with this sort of holster or the inside-the-waistband ones, concealment is simple, even for slim-waisted women who would have a terrible time with a hip or shoulder holster. The waistband of any pair of jeans, as well as most dockers and dress pants, is fine for holding up the holster of most medium-sized handguns. If you have a magnum revolver with a 6″ barrel, though, don’t bother. Such a gun doesn’t lend itself well to concealment, and if you desire something that you can carry concealed, you should purchase another handgun.

One thing you will want to watch out for if you are wearing any holster is clothing catching conspicuously on the grip or hammer of the handgun and advertising what you are trying to conceal. Often, this problem crops up when the gun in question has rubber grips and using wooden ones can alleviate it. The second cause of this problem is often the hammer spur which sticks out and causes clothing to catch on it. Most gunsmiths will remove the spur if you ask, but this is tantamount to ensuring that you can only use your handgun in double-action mode.

If you are carrying concealed, this is the best policy since it will cut down the likelihood of your startle-shooting someone, and if you are carrying in public, this is a serious consideration. In fact, it is often standard police procedure for officers who carry revolvers to remove the hammer spur for this reason, since it makes it much harder to put the gun in single-action mode. (If you decide to do this, your best option is to purchase a handgun without the spur from the manufacturer, or to find an EXPERIENCED gunsmith to modify your handgun; don’t go to a hack!)

While catching on clothing is a problem for any holster, it is especially acute with SOB holsters since you don’t see or feel that your sweatshirt is caught on your gun when it’s behind you. Just making sure that it’s not caught discreetly when you get up should present no problem, and — like checking to make sure you’re not tucked into your nylons — it will soon turn into habit.

One minor problem that you will want to consider when thinking about holsters is the location of the gun on the body for more pedestrian reasons: guns are heavy, and carrying an asymmetrical weight around for a long time in a bad place can cause back pain.

For this reason, I would never use a shoulder holster even if I were legal to carry since I have scoliosis and sciatica. In my case, an SOB or fanny-pack holster — more on these in the holster purse section — would be perfect — carrying the weight close to my body and symmetrically placed.


(I should say here, though, that many shoulder holsters include a magazine pouch on the opposite side as the handgun — this improves matters an eensy bit, but carrying that weight in that fashion is just no good for your back.) This is an excellent reason to do away with ankle holsters COMPLETELY! Strapping even an extra pound to BOTH ankles much less doing so asymmetrically is enough to make most orthopedists and chiropractors blanch. As with other things that are personal, your opinions may vary when it comes to holsters, and again I am inexperienced when it comes to concealed carry.

* * * * *
3. Holster Purses
Women’s clothing is not as uniform as men’s, with their standard shirt, blazer, and sturdy trousers, and is often nowhere near as robustly constructed. (Sure doesn’t cost less, though, does it?) As a result, if a woman opts for concealed carry of a handgun on her person, her options for where to carry are often more limited. (And how many of us would truly want to get stuck in the same old boring suit-and-tie combination the men have to endure every day?)

The natural fallback place to carry a handgun is often the purse, but there are drawbacks to this method. Some are alleviated by purchasing a special holster purse, designed to hold a handgun snugly and safely and allow you instant access to it, but some problems remain. I’ll discuss these first before going further into the various types of purses out there.

Most of the problems can be summed up in the following list, and I will treat each separately. These are:

* the rapid access and safety concerns of carrying a gun in a handbag,
* flashing your gun when you open your purse,
* forgetting your purse in places as most of us have done, and
* pursesnatching.

Some of the problems associated with each of these concerns can be solved or alleviated with the choice of a good holster purse; others cannot. There are also other more esoteric considerations when choosing from between several different kinds of holster purses.

* Rapid Access And Safety
The first problems with carrying a handgun in an ordinary purse are safety and access. If you simply drop the thing into one large compartment where your checkbook, hairbrush, lipstick, and Danielle Steele paperback are also swimming around, access to the weapon is impaired.

You’ll have to dig around quite a bit to get to the thing, and there’s a good chance that that lighter or eyeliner pencil will be stuck through the trigger guard when you’re doing so, increasing the chance of an accidental discharge. Simply put, you don’t ever want to keep a handgun in any compartment that isn’t specially designed for it.

Tossing it in the big central pouch with your car keys, mascara, cellular phone, and hand mirror is a huge mistake. It will impair your ability to draw the thing quickly if you need to and will be unsafe since there is a good chance that something in there will be resting on the trigger when you don’t want it to be. Also, as the gun shifts around, you won’t have a clue as to where it’s pointed.

* Eek — A Flasher!
Another problem that often doesn’t occur to someone carrying until it crops up is that you’ll often be forced to open the thing and flash your handgun to anyone who might be standing around you or looking over your shoulder. This is definitely a bad idea — not only will it make those around you uncomfortable to know that you have a handgun in your purse (and it’s pretty natural for most people to get the creeps around firearms), but you will also be letting anyone with pickpocketing or pursesnatching tendencies know exactly who they can hit if they want to get a free gun. If you are carrying in public, you must be ultra discreet. And throwing your handgun in your purse as if it were just a checkbook is not the way to insure discretion. Also, if the purse is made of lightweight, flimsy material and isn’t that full, the weight of the handgun may well pull the fabric taut and silhouette the thing, making it plain to anyone who looks at you from a distance that you are “walking heavy.”

* Now Where Did I Leave That Thing Again?
Another problem crops up when each of us who carry a purse recalls the several times we’ve set it down in a restaurant and promptly walked away forgetting it, or set it down where unauthorized (and often very young) hands could get to it. No special purse design will prevent this; the only solution is for you to increase your vigilance. Absentmindedness could result in your handgun being stolen and hence in the hands of a thief.

* Purse snatching
Still, another problem is the ubiquitousness of purse snatching in most large cities. There are some things you can do to prevent this from happening — increasing your vigilance and carrying the thing close to your body with your hands on it at all times — but having your purse stolen is a more serious consideration if you are using a holster purse.

The first two problems can be alleviated by purchasing a holster purse; the third cannot, and the last can be alleviated a tad bit by purchasing the right kind of holster purse.

Characteristics Of A Holster Purse
A holster purse is a purse that is specially designed to hold a handgun (of a variety of sizes) in a compartment separate from the ones into which your checkbook, car keys, etc. will be tossed. In a good quality holster purse, this compartment will be padded and reinforced to hold the heavy weight of your handgun discreetly and safely — some models even contain a removable internal holster. The handgun is held securely, in the same position every time you insert it into the compartment, and separate from your stuff, so that you can go rooting around for that lighter without the slightest fear that your handgun will be revealed. The best purses seal with velcro or snaps or both along a central seam on the top or side, and when this seam is pressed closed, there is NO visible evidence that the purse is any different from any of a dozen other kinds, provided it is not overstuffed.

The concerns of leaving the thing behind when you walk out of a store or restaurant won’t be changed by the type of purse you own, nor will the concerns of having adult or children’s hands around when you take it off your shoulder and set it down. These issues will just take increased vigilance on your part. Absentmindedness is just going to have to become a thing of the past. You can get yourself to the point where you won’t forget the purse; after a while, checking to see if you have it on you will become second nature, like checking to see that you have your car keys on you before you slam your trunk shut.

Pursesnatching is another consideration entirely, and the one over which you have the least control. Most people recommend that you carry your purse over one shoulder only, so that if someone does run up behind you and grab the strap, you will not be thrown to the ground. But (and keep in mind that this is my opinion only), if you have a handgun in there, you have GOT to be ready to take the risk of hitting the ground to keep that purse on your body. Wear it slung diagonally from one shoulder to the opposite hip ALWAYS. And keep your hands on it AT ALL TIMES, holding it close to your body. You don’t need to clutch thing fearfully like it’s a life preserver — but just make sure it’s not dangling out there swinging back and forth and bouncing on your hip.

And let’s face it if a purse snatcher sees that, he’s probably just going to give you up and go looking for easier prey anyhow. Making it MORE difficult for someone to steal from you is never a bad move. The advice that tells a woman to wear her purse on one shoulder only so that she won’t be tossed to the ground if she is nailed by a thief always struck me funny anyhow — why the hell are we being told how to make THEIR damned job easier? *SOAPBOX ALERT* It reminds me of the crappy old advice that tells you not to resist if you’re raped. With “advice” like that given solemnly to women, it’s no damned wonder many criminals target us especially — we’re told all our lives how to cooperate with them and make their victimization of us easier! While you’re at it, make sure that you don’t lock your front door and that you do leave your keys in your car with the windows down as well. Heaven forbids someone should dent your doorknob while robbing your house or scratch the paint on your car door while stealing it.

So you’ve got to make sure that you are as poor a target for a purse snatcher as you can be. Wear the thing diagonally.

Another way that some purse-snatchers go for their victims is to cut the strap of the purse when you are standing in a crowd, standing in a train, or in some other big, stationary mass of people. Many holster purses come with braided wire inside the strap that prevents this from happening, and it’s worth the extra cost to get one that does. You’ll want to make sure that you get one that’s made of leather as well; denim won’t cut it since after a lot of use the fabric might wear the braided wire. Go for the leather or sturdy burlap purses.

So there are your major considerations and the ways that a holster purse can help alleviate the problems they involve. Now, where the hell do you get one of the things?

Gun shows are sometimes a good place to go, but they are often geared towards the male market (lots of macho shit), and will often have only a few purses for sale. The amount of marketing directed toward women is increasing, but still, you shouldn’t rely on finding even a halfway decent selection of holster purses at a gun show. And if like me, you are left handed and would need one that opens on the other side, you’re in for a pretty thin selection.

Mail order is a much better way to go, and one issue of Women & Guns will have a plethora of companies and prices listed for a variety of purses, or for catalogs through which you can get one. Their January 95 issue had an article devoted to a variety of brands of holster purses and is a nice place to start. They sell back issues, so you should be able to get this one without a hassle.

A Holster Fanny Pack
Another excellent possible option is a holster fanny pack — this solves the problem of run-and-grab purse-snatching as well as holding the thing closer to your midsection and hence more comfortably (your chiropractor will appreciate it, as will your spine).

They are also more comfortable to leave on, so that also solves the problem of absentmindedly leaving it behind. Since these are purchased by men as well, their availability at gun shows and simple swap meet is greater (they are often sold under the name “law enforcement fanny pack” or “belt bag holster”), as is the availability of lefthanded ones. If I were able to carry concealed, I’d opt for a fanny pack instead of a purse, but then I don’t carry a purse anyhow. The only drawback, and it’s not even a serious one, really, is that you can’t carry larger firearms in them — but if you are carrying concealed, you’ll want a .38 snubby or slim autoloader anyhow. Keep the fanny pack option in mind!

One drawback to fanny packs that applies to certain areas is that, depending on where you live, they can be very uncommon. Many readers of rec.guns live in areas where fanny packs scream “concealed carry.” In southern California where I live, everyone wears the things, so a fanny pack would be the most unobtrusive means of carrying you could get.

The following is a list of companies with addresses that make holster purses from W&G;, but I heartily encourage you to grab the nearest issue and dig around in it for yourself. Some also carry fanny packs and are marked.


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4. Finding the Right Gun For Your Hand
Before I begin this section, I’ve got to warn the reader that I have large hands and as a result, finding smaller handguns simply is not an issue for me. My index finger rests too far up the trigger even on my .357 Magnum. Consequently, you may find better information elsewhere. Again, Women & Guns is your best resource as they routinely review handguns with this criterion in mind.

Many manufacturers are starting to recognize the increasing female market in handguns and are making some of their favorite models with smaller grips. The grip and how it fits your hand is crucial when purchasing a handgun, as it will affect your reaction in a pinch as well as your aim. If your finger does not rest easily on the trigger or if you feel you have to reach for it, DO NOT PURCHASE THE GUN. For a revolver, your finger should rest very easily on the trigger, close to but not butted up against the first joint and behind the fleshy pad at the tip. With an autoloader, the preferred grip is one in which the fleshy pad of your index finger rests just atop the trigger.

Pick up the gun and see and feel if it is the right size for your hand; don’t automatically assume that you must get a smaller handgun if you are a woman. I have very large hands capable of palming soccer and volleyballs, and despite this, I am sometimes admonished to get a smaller frame handgun because I am female. My 5’2″ friend handles a Ruger GP100 large frame revolver (a very large .357 with a 6″ barrel) with no qualms and no problems at all. While women statistically have smaller hands than men, this is not always the case, and many men seem to think that a grown woman’s hand is the size of a five year old’s. Pick up the gun and see!

Many companies are now putting out handguns specially designed for customers with smaller hands. (Ruger makes a lovely revolver that is scaled down — the SP101. This is the smaller companion to their standard GP100 large frame revolver; the GP100 is my total fave-rave handgun! It’s built like a tank and shoots smooth as silk.) I’ve also heard good things about the Browning HiPower. There are others, but I am in the process of researching this right now and hope to have more information in the future. If you find a handgun you’re interested in, write the company for more information. Most companies are more than willing to tell you about their products, and as I stated above, more are making products designed for users with smaller hands. And there are many special grips you can use to replace the factory grips the handgun came with that will reduce the reach from the rear of the grip to the trigger.

* * * * *
5. The Types Of Handguns And How They Work
A single, complete round of ammunition is composed of the following four items:

The bullet: Although many people call a complete round or cartridge a “bullet,” strictly speaking it refers only to the piece of lead that is held in the front of the casing. Attempting to buy a “box of bullets” in a gun store will result in a box of bits of lead, and not fireable cartridges.
The casing: Most often made of brass, this holds the bullet, crimped in the front of the casing, and is filled with a measured amount of powder.
The powder: This burns very quickly — it does not explode — and the pressure of the resulting expanding gases pushes the bullet out of the casing, down the barrel, and out of the gun.
The primer: A chemical compound which sparks when struck. This spark then ignites the powder.


When the trigger of a handgun is pulled, the spring-loaded hammer at the rear of the gun is propelled forward and strikes the firing pin. The pin then strikes the primer. This causes the primer to spark, which ignites the powder. The powder then burns very quickly, and the expanding gases push the bullet forward into the barrel.

Once in the barrel, the bullet, made of soft lead, engages a series of grooves that spiral down the inside of the barrel, called the rifling. These cause the bullet to spin like a well-thrown football. The bullet then exits the handgun spinning; this gives it extra needed stability to insure that it will go where it has been aimed.

Types Of Handguns

How this all takes place depends on the kind of handgun you have. A revolver, which is what most people think of when they think of a handgun, keeps the now-empty casing in the cylinder, the round section that was swung out of the handgun’s frame and loaded with fresh rounds prior to firing. (Typically, the cylinder will have six chambers, or spaces in which these rounds are placed — a “six-shooter.” Other revolvers which have 5 and 9 chambers in their cylinders are not uncommon.) Pictured is the Taurus model 85.

When all six rounds have been shot, and the six empty casings are left in the gun’s cylinder, the shooter then presses a cylinder release latch, swings the cylinder out, and presses the ejector, which pushes the empty casings out of the gun so that it can be reloaded.

Revolvers can either be single-action, or double-action; which one depends on what the trigger is designed to do. In double-action revolvers, pulling the trigger back will cause the hammer to lift, then fall forward and strike the firing pin. The trigger thus performs two tasks: cocking the hammer (lifting it back) and releasing it.

The trigger on an exclusively single-action revolver, however, is not designed to lift the hammer before releasing it. This kind of revolver must, therefore, be cocked manually, using the thumb, every time it is fired — like the cowboy six-shooters in Old West movies. (Rent “Silverado” and watch Kevin Costner’s hands as he shoots up the stairs outside the jail in Turley. You can see his thumbs working the hammer every time he shoots — in fact, you can see this whenever any of the actors shoot. Trust me; you’ll like the movie, too — it’s not some macho preposterone-laden crap. Four sensitive cowboys have adventures and relate to each other in a loosely-plotted movie. And you get to see Scott Glenn in leather pants and high-heeled boots. :-)) As a result, these revolvers are clumsy, slow, and very poor for defense, although fun to shoot.

Most double-action revolvers can be fired in single-action mode, however — simply by cocking the hammer manually. Other revolvers are permanently double-action — either because they have internal hammers, or hammers without spurs so that the shooter cannot cock them before shooting.

Autoloaders, also called semi-automatics, are a bit more complex; they employ an ingenious system to eject the spent casing from the gun automatically. The most obvious difference between revolvers and autoloaders is that the latter is flat-sided, without the round cylinder of the revolver. Instead of loading it by swinging out the cylinder and putting rounds in the chambers, a container called a magazine, about the size of a small TV remote control, is filled with rounds and then pushed up into the handgun’s grip. (Taurus’s model PT 58 is pictured.)

When the trigger of an autoloader is pulled, the hammer falls forward and begins the process by which a bullet finally exits the handgun. After this, the pressure of the expanding gases pushes the slide on the top of the handgun back as the bullet leaves the gun. In this manner, a hole in the slide called the ejector port is lined up with the spent casing, and the ejector automatically pops the spent casing out the hole and out of the gun to land a few feet away from the shooter. A stiff spring in the bottom of the magazine then pushes the next round into the chamber to be fired, and the entire process starts over again. All of this happens in the merest fraction of a second after the trigger is pulled, almost faster than the eye can follow.

(This also explains the difference between a semi-automatic firearm and an automatic one. A semi-automatic loads a new round by itself after the first one has been shot (the spent casing is automatically popped out of the gun, and a fresh one takes its place). However, the trigger must be pulled once for every round fired. An automatic, however, fires round after round as long as the trigger is held down, like those big rifles that suck up belts of ammunition in old WWII movies.)

The terms single- and double-action apply a bit differently to autoloaders than to revolvers. In many of these handguns, the slide acts to cock the hammer as it is moving back each time the trigger is pulled. Thus, even though the handgun can be fired in double-action mode (with the hammer down), it is effectively in single-action mode after the first shot. An exclusively single-action autoloader is not as slow and cumbersome as a single-action revolver, however. Although the trigger on a single-action autoloader is not capable of cocking the hammer, the slide performs this function handily.

Derringers are the tiny handguns similar to that used to assassinate Abraham Lincoln, shown at left. A derringer has neither the rotating cylinder of a revolver nor the spring-loaded magazine of the autoloader. Indeed, it has no mechanism for putting a fresh round in front of the firing pin: it is designed to shoot one round only. To load a derringer, the barrel of the gun is swung down from the grip at its hinge, allowing the shooter to place a fresh round inside. The barrel is swung back into place and the gun is then fired. It must be opened again; the spent casing picked out by hand and a new one put in its place before it can be fired a second time. (Some derringers, with two barrels and a separate trigger for each, can fire two rounds before being reloaded.)

Such guns are often very small and designed to shoot only the smallest caliber of ammunition — the tiny .22 and .25 rounds. Since they often shoot only one round at a time (and the weakest rounds to boot), they have been traditionally regarded as dueling weapons (where you are permitted to shoot only one round), or as “ladies'” handguns (heaven forbid we should give an attacker anything worse than a boo-boo). For defense purposes, derringers are utterly worthless, good only for collectors. Don’t waste your time or money on these handguns as defensive firearms.

* * * * *
The Types of Ammunition
There are many complex-sounding numbers associated with different kinds of ammunition, and they can be daunting and arbitrary at times, particularly those associated with longarms — rifles and shotguns — which are ridiculously cryptic. The most common kinds of ammunitions used in handguns, however, are much easier to understand. Characteristics such as

* bullet size,
* cartridge strength,
* bullet shape, and
* bullet jacketing

all contribute to description of the ammunition.

* Bullet Size
Simply speaking, the caliber of a round most often refers to the bullet’s diameter in inches. A .22 round is 0.22 inches in diameter, fairly small. A .45 round is 0.45 inches in diameter — just under a hefty half-inch across. A 9mm round, a caliber comparable to the .38 which originated in Europe, is 9mm in diameter — larger than a .22 but smaller than a .45. A handgun is called by the caliber of the most powerful ammunition it is designed to shoot (more on this later); thus, a handgun designed to shoot .45 caliber rounds is called a .45 caliber handgun.

However, it can’t all be this simple (of course). There are deviations from this rule that seem confusing at first, but are fairly easy to understand. One of the most common calibers of handgun ammunition is the .357 Magnum. You might expect that this is a different diameter from the .38, but in reality, they are both the same size — around 0.36″ across.

* Cartridge Strength
Another characteristic of a round is the amount of powder it contains. This is often designated by a letter or word after the number. For example, .22 caliber rounds come in .22-short, .22-long, and .22-long rifle (.22S, .22L, and .22LR), which refer to the lengths of the casing and hence the powder contained and the strength of the ammunition. There are handguns designed to shoot all of these.

The common .38 caliber rounds, an excellent choice for a defensive handgun, can be any of the following:

a .38-Special (.38Spl), the basic, most common variety of .38.
a .38-plus-P (.38+P), with more powder and hence more punch than a .38Spl.
a .38-plus-P-plus (.38+P+), with yet more powder.
a .38 Regular (.38R), archaic and not easy to find. This caliber was designed in the mid-1800’s and was quickly replaced by the .38Spl.

The next step up in cartridges of this diameter is the .357-Magnum (which, despite the different number, is the same diameter as the .38). Considered a different caliber of ammunition even though it is the same diameter, it holds quite a bit more powder than the .38’s and is held in a longer casing. Since the cartridge is longer overall, most .38 revolvers cannot hold or shoot .357M cartridges, although a .357M revolver can hold and shoot .38’s handily. This is not dangerous — .357M revolvers are meant to shoot both .38’s and .357M’s.

Magnums exist in many calibers suitable for defense. There are .357M and .41/.44M (9mm and .45, the other popular defense loads, do not have Magnum calibers).

* Bullet Shape
There are many different kinds of bullet shapes; this primer will go through the most basic ones that a knowledgeable gunowner should be familiar with. The basic types are:

ball or round-nosed ammunition: the type that most often springs to mind when people think of bullets, with a round nose. Touted as more humane, and required by the Geneva Convention in warfare, it penetrates dangerously due to its small surface area and can easily pass through a target to endanger people or objects behind.
Wadcutter ammunition: flat-tipped ammunition where the front of the bullet is flat across the casing. This was used to score shooting matches when it was seen that ball ammunition tore jagged holes in the paper. Wadcutter ammunition acts like a paper-punch, making neat holes that are easier to score. A further refinement of this type of ammunition is semi-wadcutter, in which the front of the bullet looks like a cone with the tip cut off. The front of the bullet is still flat, but the tapering tip makes it load into revolvers and feed into autoloaders more easily.

Hollowpoint ammunition: where the front of the bullet is hollowed out. The shape of the bullet makes it mushroom out when it hits a target, increasing its surface area dramatically. As a result of this, it is almost guaranteed to come to a stop inside the target and not pass through to endanger someone or something behind. There are various refinements on this basic design, such as rounds that expand into a shape similar to a five-petaled English heraldic rose, called Starfire rounds, and Hydro-shock rounds, with a little tongue of metal inside the hollow tip to improve the mushrooming effect. Another refinement is the Black Talon, surrounded by more media hype than the round merits. The Black Talon’s single departure from the standard hollowpoint design is that it is coated with a black metal which expands into sharp petals surrounding the mushroom shape. Supposedly, these petals do more damage to the target than simple hollowpoints, but the damage is not appreciably greater. They are often claimed to go through targets “like buzz saws,” since handgun bullets rotate as they travel. However, in reality, any round will complete much less than one rotation passing through something the size of a person.


Black Talons do not increase the stopping power of the standard hollowpoint by much.frangible ammunition: Even more esoteric than the 1,001 variations on the hollowpoint design is this bullet type. Instead of the typical little lead pellet at the end of the casing, what is there is a little brass cup with a bunch of metal fragments inside, capped with a plastic tip. When the cup is blown out of the casing and impacts the target, the plastic tip is pushed inside the cup, and the metal fragments are released. These are guaranteed against ricochet and overpenetration (passing through the target) and are also a “hot load”: since they are lighter than conventional lead bullets, they must be given quite a kick to perform properly. More on these in the defense section of the page.

Following this convention, “.38Spl semi wadcutter hollowpoint” ammunition is that which is roughly .38″ in diameter, filled with the least powder of the various .38 rounds, and shaped like a truncated cone with the front hollowed out.

* Jacketing
Although the bullet itself is made of lead, it may be coated with a thin layer of other material. Shooting a handgun or any firearm invariably involves cleaning it later, and a considerable part of that cleaning process is removing “lead fouling” in the barrel — bits of lead which have been stuck to the inside of the gun due to the soft bullet scraping along either the forcing cone — the first part of the barrel that the bullet engages, slightly tapered so that the bullet can slip into the barrel and engage the rifling grooves more easily — or the rifling grooves themselves. One way of solving this problem of lead fouling is to “jacket” the bullet in another material which will not prevent the bullet from engaging the rifling grooves. (The most common material is copper, although other easily shaped metals can be used as well. One such brand of ammunition is called NY-Clad and employs a nylon coating.)

There are varieties of jacketing — those that do not cover the very tip of the bullet, and those that cover every bit of the bullet, called “full” or “total metal jacket,” and sometimes denoted by FMJ or TMJ on the round.

In summary, you want to note these four characteristics of a round:

amount of powder or strength,
bullet shape, and
bullet jacketing.

And that should suffice to start. Thus, a .357M SWCHP FMJ round is:

around .38 inches in diameter,
the most powerful round of its diameter,
holds a bullet that is shaped like a cone with the tip cut off with a hollow nose, and
that is coated in metal, most likely copper.

Other Stuff
Cartridges also differ in where they place the primer. .22 caliber rounds most often have the primer inside the little rim at the rear of the casing; this is called a rimfire round. Most other calibers have the primer in a little depression in the rear center of the casing; this is called a centerfire round.

There are other types of ammunition that you may have heard of — Teflon, or “cop killer” bullets are familiar terms. The proper term for such ammunition is armor-piercing ammunition. Despite its media name, of “cop killer” since they can pierce body armor (bullet-proof vests), armor-piercing bullets have been sold only to law-enforcement agencies practically for as long as they have been around, and no police officer to date has been killed with an armor-piercing round while wearing body armor. Also, despite their “scary” name, most police officers prefer to use hollowpoints for their superior stopping power.

Can A Handgun Shoot More Than One Caliber?
Sometimes a handgun can shoot more than one caliber; this depends on the robustness of the handgun itself. The gas pressure generated from the burning gunpowder is extremely large — shooting a round more powerful than the handgun is designed to handle can result in damage or injury since the gun may not be able to withstand the greater pressure. For example, a shooter who owns a handgun rated to shoot only .38Spl must never load her gun with .38+P or .38+P+. (Since the casing is larger, the .357M will simply not fit in a .38 handgun.) A .357M, however, can shoot any of the .38/.357M rounds safely. A .44M handgun can shoot both .44M and .44Spl.

* * * * *
6. Larger Caliber Guns And Women
Many people say that a .22 caliber handgun is as strong as a woman can manage, and some men will actively discourage a woman from purchasing anything stronger. Unless you are weak from illness or have a motor or neurological problem that prevents you from holding onto something firmly, this is plain malarkey. Women may not be Arnold Schwartzenegger sized, but I have yet to hear of the woman so weak that she could not fire even a .45 with the proper training and shooting stance, though you will want to avoid the .41/.44 Magnum as your primary handgun purchase. (As a pistol to shoot at a range, with proper ear protection, it is so powerful that it can be downright fun — it’s delightfully weird to have a Howitzer in your hand 🙂 — but as a primary home and personal defense handgun, it’s too much. Save it for your third or fourth purchase, if you are able to afford more than one, and stick with the .380, .38, 9mm, or .45 for a primary weapon.)

But if someone tries to foist off a small caliber handgun on you because “That’s too big a gun for a girl,” you can tell them about my friend Cindy, who at 5’2″ was the person to introduce me to Ruger’s .357M, and another friend of mine Sidra, who at 4’10” shot both my own Ruger and a Smith & Wesson 686 .357M, a larger handgun, with no problems whatsoever and a delighted smile on her face. It’s stance, not brawn.

The most important determiner of how you can handle the recoil from a larger handgun is your stance. There are three shooting stances that are usually taught, and I will not be able to explain them adequately here. I have included pictures, but IT IS VITAL, PICTURES OR NO, THAT YOU ASK SOMEONE WITH EXPERIENCE TO DEMONSTRATE THESE STANCES TO YOU BEFORE YOU TRY THEM OUT.

The three most common two-handed stances are:

* the Isosceles
* the Weaver
* and the Chapman or Modified Weaver.

* The Isosceles Stance
The Isosceles is the basic stance that most people will take instinctively — thrusting the gun forward with both arms straight out, shoulders perpendicular to the target, and elbows locked. The arms and shoulders make an isosceles triangle, hence the name. This stance is the fastest to assume and does not depend on handedness and eye dominance, a crucial factor if like myself, you are cross-dominant. (To be cross-dominant means that you are left-handed, and yet rely on your right eye to aim, or vice versa. It is more common to be left-handed and left-eyed, or right-handed and right-eyed, but it is not unheard of to be cross-dominant as well. And switching eye dominance is no simpler than switching hand dominance; if your brain is wired to rely on your right eye, there is little you can do to change this.) It is important not to merely thrust the gun forward and shoot, but to lean your entire upper body forward and curl your hips to flatten out the curve of your lower back. This allows for maximum recoil absorption, even with large caliber handguns, but I have found that it also results in a disconcertingly random-feeling bounce in the recoil that the last stance I will discuss cures handily.

* The Weaver Stance
The Weaver stance seems odd at first and can be tricky if you are cross-dominant, but it allows for excellent recoil control and reacquisition of the target in your sights. This means that, after the gun bounces up a bit from firing a round, it is much easier to align it with the target again very quickly. In Weaver, you are standing with the shoulder of your gun hand back a bit from the target and your dominant foot back a bit as well. You hold the gun toward the target with your upper body at a 45-degree angle to it, and bend both elbows. At first, this seems very unstable, but the secret to the Weaver is the isometric nature of the stance. When you grip the gun, push forward with your gun hand, and pull back with your other hand; this push-pull grip makes the gun bounce down from the recoil and end up right back on target! It also makes for extremely strong recoil control and would allow even a small woman to handle a .38 easily.

It is very difficult to describe the Weaver stance in words, so please ask someone to demonstrate it to you before you try it. The most important part of the stance is the push-pull isometric grip, so as long as that is understood, the rest should come quite easily.

* The Chapman or Modified Weaver Stance
The Chapman stance is related to the Weaver and may be a better alternative for most women. In this stance, the body is held identically to the Weaver (at a 45-degree angle to the target with the dominant hand and foot back), but the gun hand is locked out straight like a rifle stock. This reduces trembling, and allows me — with a very weak upper body — to shoot .357 Magnum rounds with no problems whatsoever, as long as I maintain the push-pull nature of the grip. (Truthfully, I can manage the recoil in Isosceles stance as well, but there is a disconcerting bounce to it that I don’t like.) If you are cross-dominant as well, the Chapman may be easier for you since it allows you to lay your cheek across your arm and line up your right eye with a gun in your left hand, or vice versa. Again, proper use of these stances should allow a woman to shoot just about any round she desires.

Most people state that the Isosceles stance allows for greater recoil control, but I have found that the Chapman, with the rifle-stock gun arm, is far and away the best stance when shooting powerful rounds. The disconcerting random bounce from recoil is mostly eliminated and doesn’t make you feel as if the gun is trying to kick its way out of your hand, as with the Isosceles. Also, target reacquisition is a breeze.

Keep in mind, though, that all of this must be put into practice before you make a decision. Ask someone to demonstrate the stances to you.


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