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G&A Perspectives: 25 Ways to Make Women Feel at Home On the Range

G&A Perspectives: 25 Ways to Make Women Feel at Home On the Range

gun_safety_gearAttention, ladies: We male shooters haven't always been a welcoming bunch, but we want women to get involved in shooting and hunting and we have the stats to prove it. For instance, did you know that nearly two in five new shooters are women, and most were introduced to firearms as adults? 

You see, we men take the responsibility of introducing you to firearms seriously. With a little care on our part, we know that if you try shooting, you're probably going to like it and perhaps even develop a lifelong passion for the sport. Given these acknowledgements, here's why females are joining the shooting ranks at a record pace, plus 25 savvy tips for helping women feel at home on the range.

Female Shooters On the Rise

The rise in female shooters among our ranks is largely a result of changing attitudes and perceptions. Shooting ranges and hunting cabins are generally no longer men's refuges but places where women are also welcomed.

Click to enlarge.

Participation by female shooters has in turn skyrocketed, fueled by their interest in hunting, personal defense and plain old fun. According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), nearly half of the participants in its First Shots program for beginner shooters are female, 76 percent of whom said they were motivated by an interest in self-defense.

Thanks to programs such as First Shots as well as regular folks willing to introduce women to shooting, the female segment of the shooting community is expanding at a record pace. According to a report by the research firm Responsive Management titled "Analysis of Sport Shooting Participation in the U.S.," 37 percent of new target shooters are female, whereas only 22 percent of established target shooters are female. That's quite a jump, especially given the report's finding that 20 percent of all target shooters began in the last five years. This new crop of shooters is also far younger, according to the NSSF, with an average age of 33 compared with established shooters' average age of 43. Yet, says the NSSF, these aren't necessarily folks who grew up in gun-owning households; 77 percent got started after their 18th birthday.

Hunting participation rates among women indicate a similar trend. According to a 2009 report by the National Sporting Goods Association, the number of female hunters grew from 3,041,000 in 2008 to 3,204,000 in 2009, a 5 percent increase. Now, more than 16 percent of hunters overall are female.

Barriers to Entry

So, traditionally, why have fewer women participated in shooting, and what barriers may remain? A 1990 conference at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, "Breaking Down Barriers to Participation of Women in Angling and Hunting," identified what I believe to be the key culprits, problems that linger to this day:

  • Poor images and stereotypes of typical gun owners, particularly as portrayed in anti-gun media stories.
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  • Expensive startup costs. Many women don't want to spend a few hundred bucks to try an activity they may not enjoy.
  • Tradition puts social pressure on women to avoid shooting and choose activities that are perceived as more feminine.

These, among other things, have without question prevented some women from joining the shooting sports. When a large portion of the media is shaming female hunters such as Melissa Bachman and Kendall Jones for legally hunting or painting gun owners, and even guns themselves, as evil, it doesn't exactly encourage more female involvement in hunting or shooting. The high financial cost of shooting and the traditional societal pressures on women certainly don't help either.

However, I believe there is another common factor that serves as an additional barrier to entry, and for that, I have a story.

Bad First Experiences

A friend of mine wasn't even sure she wanted to become a hunter or shooter, but 30 years ago she did want to give it a try. "A few weeks after I turned 13, my dad was headed out the door to go pheasant hunting, so I asked to join him," she recalled. "He said, 'Well then, we have to see if you can shoot.'"

Her father escorted her to the backyard, handed her a lightweight, 12-gauge side-by-side with a high-brass shotshell in the chamber and — shamefully — told her, "Go ahead, shoot it."

"The gun kicked the snot out of me, and my dad just laughed," she said. "I went inside with tears in my eyes and never touched a gun again."

For more on the rise of female shooters, read Craig Boddington's "Making New Shooters" article in the Nov. 2014 issue of G&A. Subscribe or Buy a copy.

I wonder: Had my friend been properly introduced to shooting, would she have developed a lifelong love of the sport? Does her father regret doing literally everything wrong, from handing his daughter a heavy-recoil firearm to providing minimal instruction to intimidating her with his attitude? Or, more likely given the era, did he intend all along to scare his daughter away from shooting?

Many men (and women) are highly accommodating of women interested in giving shooting a try, but all too many exhibit the same reckless machismo as my friend's father. A YouTube search for "girl gun recoil" turns up countless examples of unsafe, unproductive acts of stupidity. Others have good intentions of introducing women to shooting but lack the knowledge to go about it properly.

Fortunately, all barriers to entry for female shooters, including that first introduction, can be overcome with a little care. Introduce women to shooting the right way: in a fun, safe environment that may just lead to a lifelong passion for firearms.

Q&A With Female Shooters & Hunters

Below are a series of interviews with female shooters whose instructors got it right, followed by a gallery with 25 tips to help introduce women to shooting.

Julie_GolobJulie Golob

Type of Shooter: Professional competitor, multitime world and national champion

Years of Experience: 30

Location: Montana

Q: How'd you become interested in shooting?

A: I have been around shooting sports ever since I was small. I was my dad's range buddy, and I learned so much about gun safety just by watching and being a part of the range experience. I didn't shoot until I was 14. After all those years of watching people compete in practical shooting and working as a range officer, I knew I wanted to give it a try.

Q: What was the first gun you ever shot?

A: It was a single-stack 1911 in .45 ACP. My dad loaded very soft ammo, and the slim grip allowed me to reach the trigger easily. After I shot my first practice and then my first competition, I was hooked.

Q: Was your father a good teacher?

A: Absolutely. He was also a school teacher and taught kids from 4th grade up to seniors in high school, so he already had a wonderful understanding of how to work with that age. More important, though, he never pushed me. I went shooting because I wanted to, and I think that's so crucial to the experience.

Q: What do people get wrong when introducing women to shooting?

A: Gun choice is critical. I think it's very important to start women out by explaining firearm safety, explaining how firearms work to help demystify them and then, when they are ready to shoot, to start with small calibers. The point is for them to learn shooting skills and have fun. That is so much easier without the distraction of heavy recoil.

Q: Why don't more women shoot?

A: I think a lot of women just aren't exposed to it on a daily basis. Many women choose to own guns for personal protection, but they aren't really shooters. They gravitate toward other hobbies such as fashion, crafts or yoga — activities they're more likely to be exposed to. Some women may be intimidated because they view guns as scary or even a "guy" thing. The real challenge is to find a way to expose them to firearms in a positive way in their day-to-day lives. I think the shooting sports are a great way to do that.

Q: Should female students be treated differently than male students?

A: I doubt they should. Any introduction should address the individual's level of comfort with firearms. There's a tendency for people to think women are scared of guns, but I have also met men who are terrified to shoot. It's not a gender thing. When fear is a huge factor, patient and respectful instruction is paramount.

I think men and women feel the same sense of pride and accomplishment when they drill the center of their target or develop a particular shooting skill. With women, we tend to call it empowerment. When they find they are able to physically and mentally control a firearm to deliver results downrange, it's addictive, fun and such a personal success moment.

shawnee_kellyShawnee Kelly

Type of Shooter: Beginner with interest in personal defense

Years of Experience: 3

Profession: Registered dietician nutritionist

Location: Pennsylvania

Q: How'd you become interested in shooting?

A: My husband really wanted to get a firearm for concealed carry and self-defense purposes. I supported that, but I was really nervous about having a gun around because I didn't know anything about gun safety or shooting. And although my husband is a lifelong hunter, neither of us had much experience with handguns. So, in 2011 we decided to take a two-day basic pistol course together through Armada Global in Altoona, Pennsylvannia, before purchasing a firearm.

Q: Were you nervous to take the course?

A: Yes, but all of the instructors were excellent, and the course introduction was really helpful and put me at ease. The instructors offered very basic info covering all the different types of guns, plus how to disassemble them, general safety and more. I'd say that's what really helped get me interested in learning more.

Q: How was your first experience shooting, and what type of gun did you use?

A: I used a borrowed Taurus 9mm, and the experience was really, really great. I had a lot of anxiety about guns before taking the course. I didn't even want to touch one, but I left feeling knowledgeable, empowered and competent handling a firearm.

Q: Did you continue shooting after the course?

A: Yes; the course gave me so much confidence that I knew I wanted to continue. I've since acquired my own firearm and obtained a concealed carry permit.

Q: What was the most important aspect of your intro to shooting?

A: I can't stress enough how important a basic shooting course can be for a beginner. I have a lot of relatives who "know guns," but I still would not have felt as comfortable learning from them as I did a group of professionals. In my course, there was just so much more detail and insight into safety, handling, shooting and even self-defense measures.

Denise_EnloeDenise Enloe

Type of Shooter: Concealed-carry permit holder and hunter

Years of Experience: 30

Profession: 6th grade science teacher

Location: Virginia

Q: How were you introduced to firearms?

A: My dad took me rabbit hunting when I was 9 years old. He got one, which upset me at first because to me, he'd just shot "Thumper." But I'll never forget him saying, "We shot it; we'll clean it; we'll eat it." He demonstrated his respect for the animal, and my mom made this awesome meat pie with it. That changed my perspective.

However, I really fell in love with shooting when Dad took me skeet shooting. The swing, the competition, the smell of burnt powder and shooting with my dad and sister — I just loved it. My 16th birthday present wasn't a car but a 12-gauge Browning Citori.

Q: When did you become interested in handguns and personal defense?

A: I was attacked at age 18. I knew then I wanted to carry a firearm, but unfortunately, I lived in Maryland and so I couldn't. At 25, I moved to Virginia, enrolled in the National Rifle Association's handgun marksmanship program and soon had my concealed carry permit. Back then, it was about protecting myself. Now, as a mom, it's about my family.

Shotguns remain my favorite firearm, but I love my handguns, too. My husband, John, says I cried harder when he gave me a SIG Sauer P228 than when he proposed.

Q: Are there special considerations when introducing women to firearms?

A: Women want to educate themselves in order to understand all sides of the equation. They want to know how the gun works, how they feel when they shoot it, how shooting will benefit them, etc. Yet I've run across some male teachers who lack the patience to answer these questions and just want you to shoot. As a teacher, you need to be patient with certain women and explain to them how a firearm allows them to protect their families just as well as a man can.

Linda_PowellLinda Powell

Type of Shooter: Hunter, target shooter

Years of Experience: 17

Profession: Director of Media Relations for O.F. Mossberg and Sons, Inc.

Location: North Carolina

Q: How were you introduced to shooting?

A: My first exposure to shooting was at the age of 37 when I was employed by the Remington Arms Company. I was hired as an administrative assistant in the PR department, a desk job, but the guys in the department asked if I was interested in learning to shoot. I jumped at the chance, and they arranged for an afternoon at the range to shoot a variety of rifles and shotguns. I do remember that first day on the range pulling the trigger on a 12-gauge shotgun and feeling not so sure about the recoil. That probably had more to do with my lack of proper stance, but in looking back, the guys should have started me on a smaller gauge. Overall, it was an extremely positive experience, and it left me with a desire to learn more about the shooting sports and eventually hunting.

To continue my journey, my supervisor arranged for me to attend a three-day shotgun course. The instructor started me off with a 28 gauge and had me breaking targets in no time. My comfort level and level of enjoyment soared.

I then attended a Becoming an Outdoors-Woman (BOW) program, which may have been the most helpful experience of all. I took basic muzzleloading, rifle marksmanship and basic shotgun classes. The key here was that I had competent, certified instructors, and they used positive reinforcement and encouragement. They made the experience fun!

Q: What are common mistakes made when introducing women to guns?

A: The key is to have properly fitted firearms, and that may mean a smaller gauge or caliber with less recoil, a proper length of pull and the right weight and balance for the individual. Don't use your dad's, husband's or friend's gun if it doesn't fit the student. Next, and in my opinion, the most important step, is making the experience enjoyable. Break targets, pop balloons, ring some steel — anything that is reactive for positive reinforcement. Remember, just because you are a shooter, it doesn't mean that you'll be an ideal instructor. If possible, I would encourage females to find a local gun club or national program, like BOW, that is geared to women.

Q: Why don't more women shoot?

A: For many women, intimidation does play a role. Our fear is entering what is still a male-dominated world and not fitting in or not being treated respectfully. Local firearms retailers and gun clubs should consider having females on staff and offering classes with female instructors to lessen the intimidation aspect. If you are a male gun club employee or sales associate, offer to help women, but don't be patronizing. Just as every male shooter's level of knowledge is different, you shouldn't assume that every woman is the same.

Q: Any advice for women who aren't sure about getting involved?

A: The shooting sports and hunting provide a world of opportunity for women and an immeasurable sense of accomplishment. My only regret is that I didn't get started early in life. If I can offer a bit of advice or encouragement, go out to your local range today and ask for some guidance in starting your own journey.

haley_heffleyHaley Heffley

Type of Shooter: Hunter

Years of Experience: 13

Profession: Educator/diver, Atlantic City Aquarium

Location: New Jersey

Q: What was your first experience with firearms like?

A: The first real gun I shot was a 20-gauge, Belgian-made Browning A5. It was bought from a family friend for me to use deer hunting, which was my primary interest. My first introduction to shooting was with my dad, practicing for my hunter's safety course. I remember being a little scared, but it was exciting at the same time — I was that much closer to shooting my own deer.

Q: How did you become interested in hunting?

A: I've been interested as long as I can remember. My paternal grandfather has a garage that is basically the Heffley's hunting club. Even before I was old enough to hunt, I still wanted to hang out there with all of the hunters. I would wait for my dad to return from hunting, anxious to see what he brought back. It was always an exciting moment when he brought back a deer, and I, too, wanted to know what it was like to provide for the family.

Q: How did your father help foster your interest in hunting?

A: I know he wanted to pass on hunting to me, but he never forced the idea or put pressure on me to go. He introduced me to hunting because that's what I wanted. I believe that is the best thing my dad ever did for me. I never felt the need to live up to expectations. My dad made hunting enjoyable, and I always looked forward to hunting season because it was the one thing that just he and I shared.

Q: What was the highlight of your first hunting season?

A: I took my hunter's safety course in October 2001 and shot my first deer that December. I remember that moment like it was yesterday, and to this day it is one of the happiest days of my life and one of the best memories I've shared with my dad. He was never one to be emotional, sentimental or talkative — maybe because he wasn't sure how to talk to a 10-year-old girl — but when I shot my first deer, he smiled like I had never seen before and told me how great a job I did.

Q: What's a big mistake people make when introducing women to hunting?

A: They put too much pressure on them. Hunting needs to be an enjoyable and relaxing experience for newcomers. For example, I started deer hunting when I was 10, but I didn't start duck hunting until my boyfriend took me around age 19. He cared more about me getting my first duck than I did, which was a big mistake. On one of my first hunts, I was enjoying watching a wood duck swim around in circles in the decoy spread. My boyfriend told me to stand up and shoot the duck. I told him I didn't want to do that because I wanted to shoot my first duck in the air. He then yelled at me, "Just shoot the duck!" I got ticked, unloaded my gun and was done. People sharing new hunting experiences with others should never have higher expectations than just having fun.

Bachman-2011-Louisiana-Gator-116-1024x604Melissa Bachman

Type of Shooter: Professional hunter, host of Winchester's Deadly Passion on The Sportsman Channel.

Years of Experience: 18

Location: Minnesota

Q: When did you begin shooting, and what type of firearm did you use?

A: I began shooting at age 5, first with a BB gun and then a Marlin "Little Buckaroo" .22 rifle. My first shooting experiences were great, as I had already been around guns a lot and often watched both my parents shoot prior to my first time. They waited until they felt my brother and I were responsible enough to shoot and handle guns.

Q: What are some smart ways your parents handled the introduction?

A: Above all, they never pressured me into it. I wanted to do it more than anything in the world, and they never forced me to go out and practice. It was also helpful that they showed me how loud a gun is and what the recoil is like first, so there were no surprises. The last thing you want to do is scare a new shooter on her first shot. That's also why a .22 or a light-recoiling gun is ideal for beginners.

Q: What's the worst mistake someone can make when introducing a woman to shooting?

A: Not providing enough information about the firearm, proper form or what to expect. The worst example I've seen is when guys think it's funny to hand a shotgun to an inexperienced woman and let her fire it with the stock away from her shoulder. Of course this ends in a very bad experience.

Q: Why don't more women shoot? Does intimidation play a role?

A: I do believe there is an intimidation factor. Most bow and gun shops are dominated by men on both sides of the counter. I think this is something that gun shops could take advantage of by offering courses for new shooters or specifically for women. In my experience, most women who want to get into shooting would prefer this formal training. Many women do not want their husbands teaching them or even a friend because professional introductory courses place no expectations on the shooters' skill. In my opinion, that really lessens the intimidation factor.

Q: Why is it important to reach out to new female shooters?

A: I think it is really important for us to go out of our way to welcome new shooters. If one woman has a great experience her first time shooting, she'll tell her friends and get even more people involved. The reverse goes for a bad experience, so I think it's extremely important to be open to new shooters and treat every question with the utmost respect and consideration regardless of whether you're a fellow shooter, gun shop owner or range operator. Word of mouth among women goes a long way.

25 Ways to Make Women Feel at Home on the Range

Help the ladies in your life feel at home on the range with these 25 tips for introducing women to shooting and hunting:

Be an ambassador of the sport.

As noted, many women shy away from shooting simply because of how it is portrayed by the anti-gun media. Therefore, it's up to gun owners to share the wholesome side of shooting. If the topic comes up in conversation, don't be afraid to tactfully share your passion for shooting. Invite women to see for themselves just how much fun it is.
Photo: Howard Communications

Avoid over-coaching.

Provide safety and basic shooting tips, but don't worry if her form isn't perfect to start. The goal is to have fun, not make your student feel self-conscious because you're analyzing her every move.

Get back to basics.

Depending on your experience level, you may take basic marksmanship and safety skills for granted. Review them prior to the lesson, and ensure that they're conveyed using language that a non-gun person can grasp.
Photo: NSSF

Buy her a firearm and shooting gear.

No doubt the startup costs of shooting are a barrier to entry for many women, so surprise your student with a firearm and shooting gear. She'll be outfitted and ready to go, and nothing beats the excitement of having a gun of your own to shoot.

Celebrate success.

Your student may miss 22 out of 25 clays — but hey, she hit three! Every success, no matter how small, should be applauded and celebrated.

Help her find a class.

Be honest: Are you a good teacher, or would a certified instructor with plenty of experience with beginners be a better choice? I've heard from plenty of women who felt more comfortable in a classroom setting surrounded by other beginners in the same boat.

The NRA offers several Women's Programs, while the NSSF First Shots program is a great introduction for all new shooters.
Photo: NSSF

Attend a firearms fashion show.

One such event was held, interestingly enough, in Chicago last spring. Though they are rare, these events do much to normalize firearms in the hands of women and may just help spark your student's interest. Can't find one? You could always plan an informal event of your own.

Introduce her to other female shooters.

Despite statistics proving otherwise, many women still perceive the shooting sports as male-exclusive. Prove to your student that this isn't true by introducing her to other women who shoot or inviting female friends to a 'ladies day ' at the range.

Keep the recoil light.

This is perhaps the most important tip on the list. Stick to rimfire or low-recoil centerfires and low-brass shotshells in 20 or 28 gauge. Your student won't have fun if she's getting thumped by a heavy round that her technique is not yet suited for.

Reduced recoil ammo such as Hornady Critical Defense Lite is a valuable training and self-defense option.

Don't make it a competition.

If you're shooting a round of sporting clays, don't keep score. If you're plinking, don't point out how much tighter your groups are. Your student may one day decide to participate in competitive shooting, but her first trip to the range is not the time. Most women do not enjoy competing while trying to learn for the first time.

Load one round at a time.

For at least the first half of the initial lesson, load just one round into the chamber per shot. Allow your student to gain comfort with the firearm and practice safety before moving on to multiple shots.

Attend the range on a slow day.

It can be intimidating for a beginning female shooter to enjoy herself if she believes — rightly or wrongly — that the eyes of all the experienced shooters around are upon her. Consider a private backyard lesson or attending the range during nonpeak hours.

Prepare a wild-game feast.

Not only does cooking a delicious dinner score serious points with your wife or girlfriend, it opens the door to conversation regarding the nutritional benefits of wild game. In the case of my wife, this sparked her interest in hunting and led to a trip to the shooting range.
Photo: Holly A. Heyser.

Use reactionary targets.

From popping balloons to knocking over tin cans, reactionary targets provide a satisfying exclamation point to a successful beginner's shot.

Provide good safety equipment.

Outfit your student with good ear protection and quality eyewear. She'll shoot safely, and, perhaps as important, she'll feel safe.

Explain the importance of self-defense.

Statistics show that the majority of new female shooters pursue firearms out of an interest in personal protection. A discussion of this topic, while providing information on the great effectiveness of using a firearm for personal defense, may lead to a range visit.

Consider semiautos.

Contrary to what some suggest, I believe that semiauto pistols, shotguns and rifles are ideal choices. It is my opinion that the grip angle on a single-stack handgun offers more pleasant ergonomics for first-time shooters than a revolver; that a gas-operated, semiauto shotgun's recoil-reducing properties make it superior to a pump action (I also disagree that you must learn on a pump first to shoot one well); and that a semiauto rifle such as a Ruger 10/22 is just downright fun for a beginning shooter. I've also seen women catch the shooting bug through introduction with an AR, but it depends on the woman. Some women (and men) have initial reservations regarding modern sporting rifles, thanks to imagery in the anti-gun media.

Set her up for success.

Keep the challenge low to ensure that your student gets to experience the joy of squeezing the trigger and hitting the target. If introducing a handgun, consider 10-yard targets; 25 yards is a good distance for rimfire or low-recoil centerfire introductions; and when introducing a shotgun, consider straightaway targets or skeet stations one and seven.
Learn from the growing culture of women shooters and hunters on popular outdoor TV shows, such as Destination Whitetail with Lauren Rich (pictured) and Brittney Glaze. Destination Whitetail showcases the people, places and ways to hunt whitetail in North America. Airing Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. EP on The Sportsman Channel.
The women of Hog Dawgs are deadly serious about eradicating nuisance animals from ranches and farms by putting their skills with the tools of the trade — rifles, shotguns, bows or knives — to the test and getting the job done€¦with a woman's touch. Premieres October 27 at 7 p.m. ET on The Sportsman Channel.

Take her shopping.

Does your student love to shop? Perfect. Take her shopping for firearms, accessories and concealed carry-friendly clothing. Show her all the options designed for the growing number of female shooters.

Take it slow.

Many beginners attack the trigger rather than applying a slow squeeze. Encourage your student to shoot slowly and apply the proper form. 'Take your time, and enjoy the shot, ' tends to be a good verbal cue.

Treat her like a man.

Don't put emphasis on the fact that your student is a female, and don't baby her any more than you would a novice male. She may perceive this as disrespectful.

Maintain a welcoming attitude.

If you'd love for your wife or daughters to take an interest in shooting, take care to ensure that they feel invited. You may talk positively regarding participation of female shooters, but do your sons? Do other males invited into your home? Make it clear that you will not tolerate any negativity or mockery of females interested in shooting or hunting with you.

Women's guns aren't always the answer.

It's interesting that many manufacturers make a 'youth/women's ' model firearm, when in fact many such guns are too small for women of average to above-average height. Ensure that you choose a gun that fits. Doing otherwise results in poor shooting mechanics and increased felt recoil.

Remember, pink isn't the color choice for every female shooter!

Start with dry firing.

Rather than immediately loading up the gun and sending rounds downrange, start with dry firing. It's a great way to familiarize your student with the firearm, demystify it by explaining how it works, provide safety tips and teach her basic handling prior to the 'big bang. ' LaserLyte makes a variety of excellent products to help achieve steady aim and good form leading up to a range visit. The new Trainer Target Plinking Cans are especially intriguing. Once 'shot ' with a LaserLyte pistol laser, they react by jumping up and falling over.

Don't force the issue.

Sure, you'd love for your wife or female friend to go shooting with you, but it has to be her choice. Kindly invite her to tag along, but never pressure her. She should always feel she's at the range because she wants to be. Tying her to the roof of your truck is not the right way to get her to the range!
Illustration: Doug Shermer

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