Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Myth of the Ladies' Gun

There’s an oft-repeated saw about the social utility of firearms.  It goes something to the effect of “G-D created men, Sam Colt made them equal” or “Abraham Lincoln freed all men, Sam Colt made them equal.”  The central (and very libertarian) ideas behind the saying are that because of the mass production and distribution of quality firearms at a reasonable price, no person can physically impose his or her will on another because of social, caste or physical superiority.  While the axiom is, at its core, true, it has unfortunately been rather sexist in its application.  More egregiously, at least from my perspective, it’s resulted in a class of literary heroines who are, because of their gender, weaker and less capable than they ought to be.

Ladies' Muff Pistol, circa 1820
I know what you’re thinking.  Something to the effect of:  “Adam, you’re out of your mind!” Or, for the more charitable among you:  “Guns are inanimate objects, they can’t be sexist.”  I assure you that I’m quite in possession of my faculties.  The rub is less one of technology and more one of promotion.  Specifically, I’m talking of that subset of firearms marketed to women as “ladies’ guns.”
The meaning of “ladies’ gun” has changed little over the centuries.  It refers to a small (petite, even!) pistol, firing a diminutive projectile and, generally, on which special attention has been paid to appearance and cosmetics.  Such guns have traditionally been marketed to both men and women who want to provide a means of protecting either their significant others or themselves, but with a feminine flair.  The marketing is effective; spend some time at any popular shooting range and it won’t be long before you spot a fashionably dressed woman with impeccable makeup and a perfect manicure shooting something dainty and, well, pink.

As both a professional in the field of weapon and firearms technology and an instructor who’s been teaching people the fine art of personal defense with a firearm for the better part of twenty years, I’ve got a number of issues with the concept of the ladies’ gun.  Note that NONE of these issues have to with the modern ladies’ gun’s “protective coloration” – that is, the fact that they come in pink.  A gun’s color is a purely cosmetic issue, not a tactical or a technical one.  If someone wants to play Barbie with their carry piece, that’s irrelevant to utility.  The factors with which I take issue apply to both practical (i.e., “serious social situations”) and literary applications.  A couple of contrasts might be useful to better illustrate the points.

Before I begin, let me state unequivocally that the availability of a firearm – any firearm – is far better than none; this post is about why traditional Ladies’ Guns are a bad choice.

Contrast Number 1:  Ladies’ Gun Cartridges vs. “Manly” Cartridges

I’m going to let you in on a (very) little secret.  Other than in places where it’s prohibited by law or by the property holder, I’m always armed. (Breaking the law with respect to firearms is BAD.) On top of that, I usually carry a primary pistol and a backup. (Kind of like having both a seatbelt *and* an airbag…).  

Compensating? .500 S&W above full size .44 Magnum
My primary is a semi-automatic pistol chambered for .45 ACP and my backup is usually a small revolver in .357 Magnum.  The choice of those two calibers was both deliberate and important:  They are the two most effective “standard” rounds available.  (By “standard,” I mean cartridges that mere mortals use, not Hand-Cannon, Thunderbolt-of-Zeus cartridges like the .500 Smith & Wesson or the .454 Casull, suitable only for The Hulk and Chuck Norris.)  And by effective, I mean “capable of causing a bad guy to stop doing bad things nearly instantly.”  For now, you’ll have to take my word on this; I’ll go into the mechanics of gunshot wounds in a future post.

Modern ladies’ guns, on the other hand, are generally chambered for smaller calibers that are considered less difficult to shoot, and that allow for the gun itself to be smaller.  A quick Google of “Ladies Gun” will yield numerous offerings in .32 ACP, .380 ACP, .38 Special and 9mm Parabellum.  Anybody want to hazard a guess as to why most American police agencies abandoned all but the 9mm Parabellum decades ago?  Or why elite military units have returned to the .45 ACP, choosing it over the 9mm Parabellum?

.38 Special "Pink Lady"
Answer:  It isn’t a matter of killing the bad guy, it’s a matter of stopping the bad guy.  Handgun cartridges are generally less than effective stoppers.  For the most part, they simply do not impart enough energy to the bad guy to get him to cease the objectionable behavior in a timely manner.  And by timely manner, I mean “Yes, he’ll bleed out and collapse, but not before he’s stabbed/strangled/bludgeoned you (or your heroine) to death.”  Very few handgun cartridges produce near instant incapacitation, and the two that lead the pack are the .45 ACP and the .357 Magnum.

Contrast Number 2:  Mechanics Matter

Size and operating mechanism differences impact the ease and effectiveness with which a gun can be both carried and shot.  Is it easier to haul around a smaller, lighter gun?  Sure.  However, choosing convenience when it comes to a gun’s weight represents a tradeoff against shooting characteristics, for two reasons. 

The first is nothing more than simple physics:  The smaller the gun, the lower the mass.  The lower the mass, the more readily the gun will be acted upon by motive forces such as recoil.  The smaller gun will jump more when fired, requiring more time to bring it back on target for a follow-up shot.  Time matters.  Think about it - when your heroine is beset by a burly beast of a brute (Hey, writers, did you dig the alliteration?) does she really have time to spare?  As an aside, this is particularly important when you arm your heroine with a revolver.  Revolvers have no reciprocating components to channel or buffer recoil forces, and thus the sum of the recoil is transmitted to the shooter’s hand.

The second reason obtains from the nature of the operating systems prevalent in small semi-automatic pistols.  Many pistols chambered in typical Ladies’ Gun calibers use a mechanism called “blowback.”  In blowback operated guns, there is no delay between the time the gun fires and the time that the breech, or slide, begins moving to the rear.  While simple and less expensive to manufacture, the blowback mechanism amplifies perceived recoil, increasing the time between shots.  Again, does your heroine really have that kind of time?  (As an aside, a new generation of small pistols using a locked breech mechanism is taking hold.  These include the Taurus TCP ,the Ruger LCP and the Kel-Tec P3AT.)

As a result of these mechanical differences, the typical Ladies’ Gun is more difficult to shoot and, as a result, requires more training and preparation time be effectively used.   

Conclusion:  Sexism and the Myth of the Ladies’ Gun

As can be seen, there are a couple of important corollaries to the axiom about Sam Colt making men equal.  

Pink as it gets...but in .40 S&W.  Useful!
-          Colonel Colt made all carbon based, bipedal Terran life forms, that is, people, equal, not just men;
-          But only if they are given an equal opportunity, ballistically and mechanically, to defend themselves.
The idea of the “Ladies’ Gun” is sexist.  It promotes the myth of feminine helplessness and the idea that women both seek and require tools that trade off effectiveness for putative aesthetics.  But then, maybe it’s just me.  I like heroines who are strong and capable.  Strong and capable heroines deserve the same tools and opportunities as strong and capable heroes.


  1. Excellent! Your use of layman's terms in regard to calibers, etc. increases the comfort level of the reader (and/or sociopath) with great explanations. Kudos again. BTW, can I get one with butterflies on the grip?
    Maybe sometime you can explain why a State such as ours, and most states I believe, require lengthy classes and/or road tests to obtain a driver's license to operate a one ton lethal weapon but you can purchase and carry a purse sized lethal weapon with a simple, often faked, signature?

  2. Noted - a post about the process for buying a firearm...

    If it will make you feel better, it takes a bit more than a "simple, often faked signature" to purchase a gun. Honest.

  3. I have never seen a flint lock muff pistol. It doens't seem very safe. Wouldn't it set the cloth on fire?
    Emily Lawrence, my protagonist's gun is a Merwin Hulbert XL,very small and light, single shot, and not much good for anything. Just right for a lady. When she is working she carries the same gun the guys on her team. She is so good with guns that she was given the XL two years before formation of the company that made it. Oh, well, sometimes we have to live with those historical errors. I wonder how long before someone finds the error and yells at me.

  4. Hi KB!

    My understanding of the muff pistol is that they weren't fired from WITHIN the muff; they were merely concealed there. One kept one's hands in the muff along with the pistol. When confronted with a ruffian, one extended/withdrew one's hand with the gun, cocked the hammer and...boom.

    About the XL...there were, if I recall, seven different series (XL No.1 - No. 7) and a *very* rare 2 1/2. All of them were multiple (five or six) shot revolvers. If there's a single shot XL variant out there, I'd sure like to know about it!

  5. My wife's 'house gun' is a Sig .45 which is too much gun to carry given its size and weight. Her carry gun is a Glock 19--and she can hit where she is aiming without a problem. She has no problem in shooting my 'big bangers' like the short barreled .41 magnum along with all of my rifles including straight stocked 03-A3 in full power 30-06.

    Having taught lots and lots of people basic shooting skills, I find that women have few bad habits learned from TV and movies and can pick up the skills required to handle all sorts of firearms without too much trouble.

    I would never buy her a pink gun as the required surgery to remove it from my body would probably be quite painful...

  6. I'm a huge fan of the Glock 19. Possibly the single most size-efficient pistol on the market.

  7. OMG...so need a pink gun!!!