Girls Just Want To Have Guns
Teaching Female Officers to Shoot
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 advantagesthe 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.
Whats 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
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 bruiseand 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 stockseven as little as
1 can make a world of difference. And remember, a large
officer can easily shoot with a short stockbut not the other way
Another shotgun dimension often overlooked is the height of the comb.
When the shooters eye is properly lined up behind the gun, the
shooter should be able to make a weld between the comb and
cheekboneand 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 theres nothing solid to use as a point of reference.
The latter is worse, because the lack of padding on the jaw makes shooting
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 disasterit 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 womens wider hips. The
angle of the hip tends to push the bottom of the holster outward, leaving
the grip digging into the womans 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 officers 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, its 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 tensionthey
may need to be told to relaxrepeatedly.)
In this stance, the handgunners shooting arm is nearly straightbut
not lockedand 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 triggerthey 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 soresulting
in less fatigue.
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 officers 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 dont
want them to think Im stupid). The female recruit
may feel a representational anxiety (I dont want them to
think women are stupid). This representational anxiety may
make female recruits reluctant to ask questionsparticularly 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 explanationassuming 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 theyre the only
ones who dont understandand keep silent.
Representational anxiety may also affect performance. An interesting
study showed that the perceived burden of representing a group could
negatively affect ones ability to solve problems.
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 officersrecruits and veterans alikefeel
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
This article appears in the January-February 2003 issue of the ASLET
Trainer, the official journal of the American Society for Law Enforcement
 Steele, Claude M. Thin Ice: Stereotype
Threat and Black College Students; The Atlantic Monthly, August
1999, pp. 44-54.