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Girls Just Want To Have Guns…That Fit:

Teaching Female Officers to Shoot

by
Patricia A. Robinson


Nowadays, urbanization and the all-volunteer army mean that many recruits have never held a weapon. A class full of novices has its advantages—the instructor can start fresh, rather than spending time correcting bad habits.  More women entering policing should therefore make life easier for the firearms instructor, since women are even less likely than men to have previous firearms experience.   Yet many agencies find that while some women excel, most of the expert marksmen are male, and women are over-represented among the “problem shooters” who barely squeak by at in-service qualification.  What’s going on?

The answer lies in the fact that although the fundamentals of good shooting are the same for men and women, physical and social differences mean the experience of learning them is not.  This article offers some suggestions on how to train female officers so they can perform at their best. 

Physical Differences

The relevant physical differences between men and women fall into three categories: size, shape, and strength.

Size.  Women generally have smaller hands than men do, with fingers longer in relation to palm length.  A woman thus has less palm to wrap around the grip of a handgun, and more difficulty bringing the heels of her palms together at the backstrap.  If she also has difficulty reaching the trigger, requiring that she slide her shooting hand around toward the trigger, the gap at the rear will be even greater, making it more difficult to manage recoil



The solution is finding a gun that fits her.  The key dimension is not the size or thickness of the grip it is the distance between trigger and backstrap


  
A Glock Model 17, with its big, blocky grip that holds a double-stack magazine, actually has a shorter reach to the trigger than many 9-mm pistols with single-stack magazines.  Remember, the recoil drives the gun directly back, not sideways.  The shooter must have enough hand on the backstrap to absorb that rearward force.



With shotguns, a standard stock is too long for many women, particularly when you add the bulk of a ballistic vest and winter uniform jacket.  With the butt seated in the “pocket,” a woman may need to fully extend her arm to reach the fore-end, making it harder to support the weight of the gun.  Additionally, women, with their generally narrower shoulders, have less  “pocket” extending beyond the vest.  If the stock is too long, the butt rests against the upper arm, rather than the chest or shoulder.  Shooting a few 12-gauge slugs can leave an impressive bruise—and a persistent flinch. 

One of the advantages of the trend toward tactical rifles is the option of an adjustable stock.  If your department still uses shotguns, try to have some available with shorter stocks—even as little as 1” can make a world of difference.  And remember, a large officer can easily shoot with a short stock—but not the other way around.

Another shotgun dimension often overlooked is the height of the comb. When the shooter’s eye is properly lined up behind the gun, the shooter should be able to make a “weld” between the comb and cheekbone—and use that reference point to ensure consistent placement each time the gun is mounted.  Women generally have smaller faces than men do, and the distance between eye and cheekbone is less.  With her eye lined up properly, the female is likely to find the comb either hitting the soft part of the cheek (between cheekbone and jaw), or hitting the jaw itself.  The former makes consistency difficult, because there’s nothing solid to use as a point of reference.  The latter is worse, because the lack of padding on the jaw makes shooting painful.

If an adjustable comb is not an option, an acceptable alternative (with individually assigned shotguns) is to build up the comb with strips of cardboard, taped down with masking tape and covered with moleskin. It looks a little odd, but it works.

Shape
.  The main concern with shape is finding a holster that permits a rapid draw. Women are, on average, shorter-waisted than men, so a high-ride holster is usually a disaster—it puts the grip almost in the armpit. Drawing becomes nearly impossible, and drawing quickly out of the question.  A much better choice is a mid-ride, jacket slot holster, or even better, a low-ride, where the holster shank actually drops the grip to a level even with the duty belt.



The second important difference is women’s wider hips.  The angle of the hip tends to push the bottom of the holster outward, leaving the grip digging into the woman’s ribs and making the angle of the draw awkward at best.  Fortunately, there is a simple solution.  A number of nylon holsters come with shims that can be inserted between the holster and its shank to bring the holster back to vertical, permitting a smooth and fluid draw stroke.



Strength.  Shooting does not require great strength.  On the other hand, if a recruit has little upper-body and/or hand strength, good form is critical.  With both handgun and shotgun, novices tend to lean back to counterbalance the weight of the gun.  While this is a natural, it creates significant problems.  First, if an officer is already leaning back a little, the recoil is likely to knock her off balance.  Second, the officer will fatigue rapidly since she will be using her lower back muscles to support her upper body and the gun.  Third, such a stance produces an unstable shooting platform, so consistent shot placement will be difficult to achieve.

A “tactical” shooting stance, in which the officer stands nearly square to the target, strong-side foot a just a few inches back, both knees slightly bent, and leaning just a little forward, works well.  It has the tactical advantages of maximizing the officer’s field of view in the direction of the threat and putting nearly the full width of the ballistic vest between the officer and the threat.  Additionally, it is less fatiguing (the position is supported by bone, not held in place by muscle), and it allows the officer to establish an isometric grip on the weapon. 


With the handgun, the isometric tension is established by using the strong hand to push the gun forward, while the other hand pulls it back.  With the shotgun, it’s just the opposite: the strong hand on the pistol grip pulls the stock back into the shoulder pocket, while the other hand on the fore-end pushes toward the target, as if the shooter were trying to stretch the shotgun.  The isometric tension permits a very stable shooting platform.  (Beginners tend to push-pull too hard, so that the gun starts to tremble from muscular tension—they may need to be told to relax—repeatedly.)

In this stance, the handgunner’s shooting arm is nearly straight—but not locked—and the other arm is slightly bent, elbow pointing down at about a 45-degree angle.  The barrel of the gun is in line with the forearm of the strong arm, and the wrist of the strong arm is locked straight.  The latter point is critical for the female officer.  A tendency of many beginners (men and women) is to use the isosceles stance: both arms straight and the wrists bent.  Since the recoil pushes straight back, it tends to force the hands apart and puts great stress on the thumb joint and the wrists.  With the proper tactical stance, the recoil pushes the gun against the web of the hand, which is backed up by the arm.  The wrist remains straight. Instead of the recoil “whipping” the muzzle of the gun upward, the entire shooting platform absorbes the recoil, rising only slightly.

While attention to form is important for both male and female officers, it is crucial for females.  Male recruits are often big and strong, and can control recoil by muscling it, even if their form is poor (although they will fatigue faster).   Women may not be strong enough to muscle the gun.  They will not only fatigue quickly, but may also develop a persistent flinch or anticipation of recoil that ruins their accuracy from the start.

Both female and some male recruits may need to work on finger strength. Without it, as they fatigue, they will use more hand muscles to try to assist the trigger finger.  Flexing the whole hand usually causes the gun to move off target. In addition to recommending grip strengthening exercises, the instructor may find that paying close attention to finger placement on the trigger may help.

Beginning shooters have a tendency to put “too much finger” on the trigger—they locate the first joint directly on the trigger.  This means that they must curl the finger to pull the trigger.  Not only is this fatiguing, it also tends to push the gun to the side, impairing accuracy.  A better method is to place the pad of the finger on the trigger, leaving the finger straight from tip to the second joint.  This allows the shooter to pull straight back and also to use the larger muscles at the base of the finger to do so—resulting in less fatigue.

Social Factors


When people think of social factors affecting female recruits’ learning to shoot, they typically think of overcoming traditionally feminine roles.  Such issues actually are relatively minor impediments, if they come into play at all.  After all, for a woman to decide to become a police officer already means that she is willing to step outside traditional roles.

More important is the female officer’s sense that she represents not only herself, but women in general.  Any novice shooter, male or female, is likely to feel an individual anxiety (“I don’t want them to think I’m stupid”).  The female recruit may feel a representational anxiety (“I don’t want them to think women are stupid”).  This representational anxiety may make female recruits reluctant to ask questions—particularly about the mechanics of guns.

Those unfamiliar with guns are frequently very nervous about handling them, worrying that they might “go off” unexpectedly.  The more a new shooter understands the functioning of the gun, the more comfortable he or she will be, and the better able to learn. Unfortunately, this part of the training is often given short shrift.  The instructor runs through a quick description, tossing in terms like extractor and sear with no explanation—assuming that recruits can follow the mechanics of the gun and understand the terms.  Instead, the instructor should take the time to show, for example, exactly how the extractor grabs the rim of the casing and pulls it out of the chamber.

Male recruits may have more mechanical experience, enabling them figure it out on their own, or they may be more willing to ask questions.  Female recruits, on the other hand, may assume they‘re the only ones who don’t understand—and keep silent.

Representational anxiety may also affect performance. An interesting study showed that the perceived burden of representing a group could negatively affect one’s ability to solve problems.[1] In this study, African-American and white college students were given a test.  When the students were told that the purpose was to evaluate their ability, the African Americans did worse than the whites, even though the groups had been matched for ability.  When the students were told that the purpose was to study the process people used to solve problems, African Americans and whites performed equally well. 

Without question, female officers—recruits and veterans alike—feel pressure to represent their gender well.  This pressure may be particularly strong when working on traditionally “masculine” skills such as shooting and fighting.  The instructor needs to be sensitive to this and express the belief that the female recruit can excel.  If a female firearms instructor is part of the teaching cadre, so much thebetter, for she is living proof that women can be good shooters.  Proper equipment and a positive learning environment can make all the difference in turning female recruits into “top guns.”


This article appears in the January-February 2003 issue of the ASLET Trainer, the official journal of the American Society for Law Enforcement Training.


[1] Steele, Claude M. “Thin Ice:  ‘Stereotype Threat’ and Black College Students; The Atlantic Monthly, August 1999, pp. 44-54.

 

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