Predators seek out easy victims. Often, men with criminal intent seek out women as victims, counting on “easy pickings” from someone physically weaker and often less capable in a fight. Handguns are the great equalizer. So it logically follows that those most in need of defense would have the most to gain by obtaining a handgun, being trained in its use and carrying it regularly.
Thanks to concealed carry laws, women in most states can, if faced with the threat of great physical harm or death, mount a capable defense quickly and easily. But first, women have to make the conscious choice to defend themselves. And empowerment begins with knowledge. What gun should a woman carry for self-defense? To attempt to name one model of the plethora of fine guns available would be impossible. Everyone knows one of the three universal lies includes, “One size fits all.” But there are things women should know about handguns for self-defense in order to make the decision a little bit easier. The first is this: The best handgun to have in fight is the one you have when the fight starts.
Yeah, it’s a macho line laced with attitude, but the naked truth is that if you don’t have your gun on your person and ready to present in the face of an attack, there will be no time to go get it once the situation goes bad. To that end, the best gun is one that is light enough that you don’t mind carrying is all day, every day and small enough to be concealed unobtrusively. In short, you need a handgun designed for concealed carry. That is the information you will take to the gun shop as you search for your defensive handgun. And if I may digress here for a moment – women should shop for a handgun alone. There is no need for the husband or boyfriend to be leaning on the display case saying, “This is what you need.” The right defensive pistol is a personal choice based largely on how the gun feels in your hand, and only you will know when you are holding the right gun.
Having made the case for personal choice, there are some parameters for concealed carry defensive handguns. Typically, you’ll be looking for a short-barreled, round-butt revolver or a compact to mid-sized auto-loading pistol. In a revolver, you likely don’t want to go much smaller in caliber than the .32 H&R Magnum and in pistol, .380 ACP is approaching the low end of the power scale. Both of these rounds are marginal when it comes to stopping power, but their light recoil means inexperienced shooters are more likely to practice more often, thus becoming proficient more quickly. A well-aimed shot with a .32 is far and away better than several misses with a .38 Special.
With all that said, the .38 Special and the 9mm are everywhere and have been used successfully countless times in self-defense. Even a new shooter should give these rounds a try. If shooting either of these calibers proves uncomfortable, step down. If you really don’t mind, try stepping up. With the .38 Special, move up to +P loads. If you feel you can easily handle a 9mm pistol, try the .40 S&W. The goal is the have the most powerful handgun you can accurately and confidently shoot. To find that gun you should try several. This means you may have to seek out a gun shop that also has a shooting range. Rent the range time, get some instruction and try several guns. Any reputable gun shop will be happy to help you.
As you look into the display case, the choices can be overwhelming. Remember the goal. You want a gun that will be easy to carry, easy to shoot and provide adequate power to stop an attacker. The place to start, especially for an inexperienced shooter, is with a short-barreled .38 caliber revolver. Revolvers, while they have their drawbacks, are the simplest guns to use should the need arise. There are no external safety levers to manipulate and no magazine to worry about. Simply put, you grab a revolver, point it at the target and pull the trigger. Most self-defense situations happen just that quickly. There’s usually no time to think about anything else.
On the downside, revolvers limit you to five or six shots before they require reloading. And reloading a revolver requires more fine motor skills than does reloading a pistol. In a near-panic situation, it can be very difficult to reload a revolver quickly. Then again, reloading is a worst-case scenario. If you really need more than six shots, you are no longer in a self-defense situation; you are in a gunfight and you will need training far beyond that of simply reloading. A revolver will work for almost all self-defense needs.
In the end, it is the first rule that applies: The best gun is the one you have when the fight starts.
One of the key features to look for on a concealed carry revolver is a shrouded or concealed hammer. An exposed hammer spur can easily snag on clothing or the lining of a purse or handbag. Such an occurrence can cost precious time if you need your gun in a hurry. If you find a gun that fits you and feels good, but has an exposed hammer, ask if there is model with a concealed hammer. If not, you might be able to have a gunsmith remove the hammer spur for a reasonable cost.
The market leader in the small revolver category is Smith & Wesson. The Massachusetts-based gunmaker produces more styles with more options than any other firm. Charter Arms, Taurus and Rossi are also names to be trusted.
If you think you want an auto-loading pistol. Start with a 9mm and be ready to shoot it and train with it often. Auto-loading pistols are, by their very nature, more complex. The also offer the option of carrying up to 10 rounds of ammunition inside the magazine. With a few other loaded magazines in your purse or fanny pack you have enough ammunition to get yourself out of serious trouble. But there is a drawback to autoloaders that many shooters overlook: Cocking a pistol requires you to pull the action slide all the way to the rear. On shorter slides, strong springs are needed to keep everything working as it should. Some women simply do not have the strength to operate the pistol efficiently. My wife, for instance, is an accomplished revolver shooter who finds it difficult to handle the slide of most small auto pistols.
While all self-defense firearms require training, using an auto-loading pistol effectively requires more repetitions in order to truly master the mechanics and instinctively know where the controls are. Most pistols will have a slide- or frame-mounted safety lever, a magazine release and a slide release. If you are willing and able to train effectively so that you instinctively operate the controls as required, by all means, look into an auto-pistol.
Again, fit and feel will be the two most important qualities to look for in an auto-loading pistol for self-defense. The shorter guns are easier to conceal, but they can also be tougher to hold onto when it comes time to fire.
The benefits of an auto-loading pistol include more ammunition and faster reloading. Auto-loaders can be more accurate, but at basic self-defense distances most shooters won’t see much of a difference between autos and revolvers. Another benefit is that, being flatter, many pistols are easier to conceal than revolvers of the same basic size. A little Kahr 9mm will give you more rounds in a smaller package than your average revolver. That also means you can move up to larger gun in a larger caliber for roughly the same overall size. You may add some additional weight because of the extra ammunition, but just about every major company is making a polymer-framed pistol these days and they are light enough to carry anywhere.
Only personal information and hands-on experience will say conclusively which handgun is best each individual woman. As a starting point, inexperienced shooters should likely reach first for a revolver, even though it limits the shooter in some ways. Those women willing and able to effectively fire a pistol need to remember that faster reloads come at the price of a more complicated firearm.
In the end, it is the first rule that applies: The best gun is the one you have when the fight starts. Search out a gun that works for you and train with it until good shooting becomes second nature.
[ Kevin Michalowski is an NRA-certified pistol trainer and a member of the Waupaca County Sheriff’s Department Reserve. ]
Photography by Kevin Michalowski.