Sadly, the myth that women are somehow less able or too weak to shoot a powerful handgun exists; it exists in gun stores, on the web or anywhere a woman might go to purchase a firearm or perhaps even within her family or social circles. I was at a gun show and approached one of the vendors to look at the guns he had for sale. The first thing he said to me was “so, you are looking for a smaller, lower caliber handgun that you can handle, right?” I gave him a “look” maybe “stare” is a better word, and walked away. Just because I am a woman doesn’t mean I automatically want a small handgun, what we WANT is a gun we can effectively shoot that will do what a gun needs to do…. Stop an attacker in his tracks! What gun is that? Only you can answer that question based on a number of factors, unique to you. The best type, size and caliber of that gun depends on the same factors it would for a man or anyone looking for a gun for self-protection.
Most agree that a small handgun in a caliber of .22 or a .25 or .32, in most situations, just isn’t powerful enough to stop an attacker, who might be larger and/or high on drugs. A low caliber bullet is less of a deterrent or even worse, could make him even angrier. In my opinion, a larger caliber gun is really more of a necessity than a choice. I must say however, ANY GUN IS BETTER THAN NO GUN.
Let’ start with the first question that must be asked. What type of handgun is best for a woman with the purpose of self-defense? There are two choices, a revolver or a semi-automatic pistol. Your decision will be based on your specific and unique needs, physical traits and your likes and dislikes.
Revolvers and semi-automatic pistols each have their own characteristics, advantages and disadvantages. The one best for you will be based on how you prioritize or rank these advantages and disadvantages.
The size of the firearm must be considered if you plan on concealed carry. The ability to effectively and comfortably carry it depends on being able to hide it on your body in appropriate holster(s) that will work on your body. There are numerous holster options available for women now and further research is encouraged. I am petite, 5’1” I could not carry my 1911 on any part of my body without creating a huge bulge. The smaller the gun, the easier it is to hide and the harder it is to grab away from you, but the smaller the gun, the greater the recoil and the less accurate it will be, which means they require a lot of practice and training. Hand strength and your tolerance for recoil are other issues to consider.
There are smaller barreled options in both revolvers and semiautomatic pistols available in the recommended self-defense calibers.
For some reason many people recommend that a woman start off with a revolver and then “grow into” an automatic. This is illogical and you should resist the urge to accept this chauvinistic advice. A beginner is a beginner and there is no reason you cannot learn to shoot a semi-automatic pistol as easily as a revolver. I believe this logic is sadly based simply on the fact that semi-automatic pistols are a more complex machine and that somehow women are not comfortable with complex machines. Of course, I have no comment! If you feel that a semi-automatic pistol is the best choice for personal defense then go for it! If you like the simplicity of a revolver, then that is the right choice for you.
I am a FIRM believer that each woman should choose her own gun. Just like a pair of good shoes – feel, fit and wear-ability are things that only you can know. You wouldn’t have your husband or boyfriend choose and buy a special pair of shoes for you would you? If you take anything away from this article let it be this – try as many as you can before buying. Find a store or range that offers rentals or ask to try theirs. Believe me, you will know the right one once you hold it in your hand and shoot it.
Let’s take a look at each type of handgun, how they work and at their advantages and disadvantages to help you make the right decision for yourself.
Revolvers have a cylinder with multiple chambers and each chamber holds a round of ammunition. Most models hold 5 or 6 rounds. Pulling the trigger rotates the cylinder and aligns the loaded chamber with the barrel and the gun then fires. A revolver is a very simple machine; therefore there is little that can go wrong with the firing process. This makes a revolver a good and reliable choice for self-defense. Although all guns should be cleaned regularly, the simplicity of the mechanics makes the effectiveness of a revolver less dependent on meticulous cleaning. Revolvers however are bulkier and heavier than pistols and tend to hold fewer rounds. Revolvers lack many of the safety features commonly found on semi-automatic pistols. Revolvers have long and hard trigger pull, which makes it very difficult to accidentally pull the trigger; this acts as a safety feature.
The best defensive calibers in a revolver are: .38 Special, .357 Magnum, (If you buy a .357 caliber revolver, it can also shoot the less powerful, but sufficient .38 special ammunition,) .40 S&W and .45. There are a number of lightweight and smaller, hammerless revolvers. (“Hammerless” revolver still has the hammer that works to fire the round, but it is shrouded within the gun) The .38 Special and .357 models are very popular with women. The larger the caliber, generally the larger the recoil.
Revolvers are available in three different action types. The action type describes the way a gun functions. The three action types of revolvers are; Single Action (SA), Double Action (DA) or Double Action Only (DAO)
In a single-action revolver, the hammer is manually cocked, usually with the thumb of the firing or supporting hand. This action rotates and advances the cylinder to the next round and locks the cylinder in place with the chamber aligned with the barrel. The trigger, when pulled, releases the hammer, which fires the round in the chamber. To fire again, the hammer must be manually cocked again. This is called “single-action” because the trigger only performs a single action, the releasing the hammer.
In a double-action revolver, the stroke of the trigger pull generates two actions: (1) the hammer is pulled back to the cocked position while the cylinder is being rotated to the next round, and then (2) the hammer is released to strike the firing pin. This allows for uncocked carry while also allowing draw-and-fire using only the trigger. A longer and harder trigger stroke is the trade-off, but this drawback can also be viewed as a safety feature, as the gun is safer against accidental discharges if dropped.
Most double-action revolvers may be fired in two ways. The first way is single-action, that is, exactly the same as a single-action revolver; the hammer is cocked with the thumb, which aligns the cylinder, and when the trigger is pulled, the hammer is tripped and the round fired. The second way is double-action, that is, from a hammer-down position, which means you do not have to manually cock the hammer into position. In this case, the trigger when pulled, first cocks the hammer and revolves the cylinder, and then trips the hammer at the rear of the trigger stroke, firing the round in the chamber.
Certain revolvers, called double-action-only (DAO), lack the latch that enables the hammer to be locked to the rear, and thus can only be fired in the double action mode, using the trigger to perform this action. With no way to lock the hammer back, DAO designs tend to have bobbed or spurless hammers, and may even have the hammer completely covered by the revolver’s frame (i.e., shrouded or hooded, shown above). These are generally intended for concealed carrying, where a hammer spur could snag when the revolver is drawn from clothing or from a concealed carry purse, so makes a good choice for concealed and carry use.
For self defense, a Double-Action or Double-Action-Only are recommended as a single action revolver requires cocking for each round to be fired which takes precious time and it is harder to shoot multiple rounds quickly.
Let’s list and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of revolvers.
A semi-automatic pistol is a handgun where the magazine that holds the ammunition, slides into the grip of the gun. A semi-automatic pistol uses some of the energy created from firing of the gun to eject the spent cartridge and load a fresh one. Semi-automatic pistols have the benefit of magazines that can hold a larger number of rounds. They also typically have an easier trigger pull, have the ability to shoot multiple rounds very quickly and are slimmer and more compact in shape. Semi-automatic pistols; however, are not as mechanically simple as revolvers and require very good cleaning to insure proper function. Their semi-automatic action is dependent on the first round firing successfully so the next round is cycled into the chamber properly. The reliability of modern pistols is exceptionally high though and makes this less of an issue. The best defensive semi-automatic calibers are: .380, 9mm, .40 S&W, .45 ACP. All of these calibers are available in small sized (compact) pistols suitable for concealed carry.
Special note: In general, a pistol with a long trigger pull that requires a very deliberate and strong pull of the trigger in order to fire is recommended. Under stress when the adrenaline is flowing you want to be sure you really want to pull the trigger and not do so accidentally.
We have a collection of gun reviews written by women. Here you can learn what they like or dislike about a variety of gun models. Once you make your selection, get some training and practice. Learn all the safety rules for the proper handling of a gun and handle it often (unloaded only) to get acquainted with it. Learn how to disassemble and clean your gun. And finally, find a suitable firearms instructor and learn how to use it properly. Once you are proficient at using your gun and have had some good training, you’ll be amazed at how natural the gun feels. Most importantly, you will be armed with the confidence that you can handle the unthinkable, should it ever come your way.
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Your choice to carry and own a gun for self-protection says that you are willing to take the life of someone if necessary in order to save your life or the lives of those you love. This is a very significant statement that has very serious ramifications. Could you use it? We of course don’t own a gun to “kill”, we own a gun to “defend” and the firing at a human being is the absolute last resort and is only justified to prevent death or grievous bodily harm from being inflicted on yourself or a loved one. The decision to possess a gun carries with it the moral responsibly to use the utmost care and good judgment.