Tips for Women: Choosing a Semi-Automatic Handgun

Tips for Women: Choosing a Semi-Automatic Handgun
Be sure a gun fits well in the hand and that all buttons or levers are easy to work. Author Photo
Be sure a gun fits well in the hand and that all buttons or levers are easy to work. Author Photo
Be sure a gun fits well in the hand and that all buttons or levers are easy to work. Author Photo

Once so-called women’s guns were either revolvers—touted for ease of operation—or tiny, underpowered .22 or .32 semi-autos. Now, women can choose a semi-automatic handgun from an ever-growing selection, many designed for concealed carry.

With more options than ever, prioritizing desirable features in a self-defense semi-automatic helps women make good choices at well-stocked gun counters. Sadly, not all gun store clerks are savvy to the needs of their female customers, and too often confuse small and light with proper fit and functionality. Let’s consider semi-automatic selection priorities to ease the female gun owner’s first buying experience.

Of highest priority, the semi-auto pistol bought for self defense must function reliably. Rarely can one test fire a new gun before buying (after all, it would then no longer be new for the next shopper). Still, many opportunities exist at gun rental ranges to shoot samples of the same brand and model of the pistol under consideration.

How can you determine reliability? Ask what others have experienced. The Internet is a useful resource revealing positive or negative experiences of a big pool of gun owners with particular brands or models.

Take what you read with a grain of salt, but give serious consideration to multiple reports of premature breakage or feeding and extraction failures in a particular model of pistol. Confirm online anecdotes with information from firearms instructors, fellow shooters at the range and recognized experts like Gun Digest authors Patrick Sweeney, Grant Cunningham and Massad Ayoob, to name only a few. Remember, a gun must be sufficiently durable to fire thousands of rounds in training and practice.

In addition, a self-defense gun that will be in and out of holsters, carried for personal protection and used in training and practice requires internal safeties to prevent unintentional discharge if the gun is dropped. These are standard in high quality handguns like Glocks.

Trigger pull weight is another concern with most experts recommending a minimum five-pound pull weight for safety in circumstances that may call for presenting but not immediately firing a pistol.

Choosing a Semi-Automatic Handgun

Size matters in the caliber debate when considering guns for self defense. Faced with choices including .22 LR and .22 Mag., .25 ACP, a variety of .32s, .380 ACP, 9mm, plus all the calibers starting with .4, no wonder beginners become confused.

A good introductory class or mentored trip to a gun rental range is a big help, since recoil sensitivity varies from one individual to the next. Bear in mind that felt recoil changes radically from one pistol to the next, so caliber selection decisions have to be based on shooting the gun you eventually intend to own.

Most agree that calibers of at least .380 ACP or larger are best for self-defense. However, the buyer also needs to determine what is the largest pistol caliber she can fire with a sufficient balance of accuracy and speed. A simple evaluation entails firing five shots in five seconds, all inside a five-inch or smaller circle, from a distance of five yards.

Beyond caliber and recoil control considerations, the gun buyer has to deal with how the gun and its controls fit in her hand. The applicable term is ergonomics, though concerns are larger than one simple word can describe. Determine that you can easily and safely use controls, levers and buttons (which vary wildly from one brand to the next), including the manual safety, decocker, slide lock/release and magazine release.

In addition, for accurate shooting under speed, the distance between the gun’s back strap and the face of its trigger must let the shooter center the grip tang in the web of her hand and place the crease of her trigger finger’s first distal joint on the face of the trigger. Many semi-auto pistols are simply too large for small-handed shooters.

Don’t confuse a correct backstrap-to-trigger reach with simply buying the smallest semi-auto on the market. Even with small caliber options like the .380 ACP, the weight and overall dimensions of the pistol greatly influence handling, including comfortable recoil distribution and a solid hold in the hand during multiple shots and rapid fire.

Super small and light are not good criteria for a gun with which you may fight to preserve human life, especially if you can only hold it with a few fingers.

A final priority in self-defense gun selection is reasonable availability of aftermarket accessories and armorer services, as well as replacement parts for repairs and upgrades. This necessitates choosing a gun that is fairly common, not a one-of-a-kind collectible.

For example, thousands of holsters, replacement sight options and other aftermarket products are sold for the Glock pistol. That’s no surprise for a gun with three decades of popularity in the American marketplace. Often holsters or aftermarket pistol sights get their start selling to Glock owners, then branch out to the many other pistol options in use today. Consider that a hint.


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  1. In my opinion, the BEST weapon for a woman to carry concealed is the BERSA Thunder .380 ACP.

    The Bersa Thunder .380 with Hollow-Points is all she needs.

    It’s Light, easily concealed, and pack enough punch to do the job..

  2. Wow – I can’t believe that, first of all you would suggest a .22 or .32 is underpowered. I have a .32 by the bed. I am certain it will stop an intruder as would a well placed .22, but to think a revolver is not a good choice is foolish. The newer light weight hammerless are perfect. They are near snag free and are more reliable than an auto-load.
    Further, the newer model auto- loading pistols don’t have a traditional safety. Scary to get one of those bad boys snagged in your purse! I personally carry the XDS .45 but that wouldn’t be what I would want my wife to carry.

    All that said, I am all for women carrying. There are way too many bad guys out there!

    • Jwalt–you talk about the “newer model auto-loading pistols don’t have a traditional safety”. Did you know that Glock has 3 safeties and the XDS has 4? In addition, tell me exactly where on the revolver is the safety that you intend for your wife to carry? They DO NOT HAVE a traditional safety at all. I do not think that the author anywhere said that revolvers were a bad idea, but that the modern woman has the capability just like men to carry semi-auto pistols. All guns require training. When the chips are down I (and my wife) would rather have a higher capacity Glock with 15 rounds than a 5 or 6 shot revolver. Also have you had the opportunity to shoot one of the hammerless snub nose revolvers? They require LOTS of trigger time to get proficient with the long hard trigger pull that they have. They are POOR choices for any beginner to carry. Try shooting one 5 times inside the 5″ circle at 5 yards. It is not so easy.
      Finally, the idea of a .32 by your bed as a nightstand gun is confusing. Didn’t you just say you own an XDS in 45? Why then use such a pitiful caliber as a home defense gun? Yes it is true that well placed shots with a .32 or .22 are effective, but if you if have other and better choices why not make them? Making well placed shots in the dark, when you’re scared, when you just woke up, when you can’t find your glasses, when your wife is panicing, and when the bad guy is running at you from your doorway is darn near impossible!!! Use as big a gun as you can handle and that is available. Just my .02 and I will put my soapbox away now…

  3. I’ve repeatedly been ask that same question for over 32 years. Hopefully the full article this excerpt came from had more information than what was offered here. Sure, a gun is like a pair of shoes, everyone must be tried on before buying and there are newer models out every year. I was hoping to see some type of insightful input from varying levels of expertise across the demographic that would help women to narrow the search down by category and even by manufacture for them to go out and try.

    My best advise is to find a couple of local dealers that get feedback from other women buyers as to what they liked or disliked about a particular weapon. If they are good dealer, they should be your best resource of information and have the ability to match you up with several options.


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