article

03.11.11

Ladies Lock and Load: American Women Buying More Guns

Women are gaining on men in the purchase of firearms for hunting and personal defense, according to the NRA and others. Thousands of women are learning how to shoot—and going hunting together, reports Shushannah Walshe.

When Gina York married an avid hunter six years ago, she tried going out with him, but said it “just wasn’t fun,” because men “are so serious about getting the buck, getting the prize,” and she didn’t learn the skills she needed to enjoy herself. That all changed last year when she joined DIVA...WOW (Women Outdoors Worldwide), a shooting and hunting group for women only.

“The first clinic I had attended was last fall and I had never shot a shotgun before,” York said. “When you are starting to do some of these shooting sports, it’s very frustrating, and they are very good with support and teaching you the proper way to use your firearms.” On her first big hunt with the Divas, as she calls them, she bagged not one, but two deer. She said the DIVA women were happy and supportive and her family ate the venison she brought home. Her husband, she joked, was “jealous.”

Hunting isn’t just mostly for men anymore. Gina York is just one of the many women flooding the firearms market, including some picking up a hunting rifle for the first time. It may seem surprising to the non-gun-toting women in America, but women are packing heat in increased numbers—for personal defense as well as hunting. The market is focusing on the female demographic in a way it never has before. And it’s working: In addition to buying firearms, more and more women are purchasing accessories made specifically for them, and going out with other female hunters in record numbers.

York bought accessories for her weaponry, and hunting clothes tailored for women—she even snagged a leopard-print rifle case for Christmas. And she said hunting with women is very different from being in a male hunting group. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, you got one and I didn’t.’ They were just so happy that I did, even though some of them did not come home with anything,” she explained.

Attendance at the National Rifle Association's shooting clinics for women, called “ Women on Target,” has increased 20 percent. Diane Danielson, coordinator of the clinics, said that last year the clinics taught more than 10,000 women to shoot. That number doesn’t even include other programs the NRA sponsors for women, including self-defense classes and overnight hunting trips.

Some gun products for women are more extravagant. One woman saved for three years to buy a Swarovski scope for her firearm.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation keeps track of the increase among women purchasing firearms. In 2009, the last year for which the foundation has statistics available, gun-store owners reported a 73 percent increase in female customers. And while women were using the guns for hunting—there was a 28.5 percent increase in firearms bought for that purpose—the number of women buying guns for personal defense also increased 83.2 percent.

Those numbers reflect what many of the women in Danielson’s shooting clinics have told her. “Many of them find themselves alone for the first time in their lives. Some are widows, some are single mothers, some are just looking for a way to protect themselves, and this is why they’ve come to the program to learn to shoot,” Danielson said.

The National Sporting Goods Association, which also tracks hunting statistics, says more women than men took up hunting in 2009. The number increased by 5.4 percent from the previous year, adding 163,000 new female hunters. The NSGA also reports a 20 percent increase in the number of women taking up firearms for hunting or any target shooting activity in 2009. That's 6.42 million women, up from 5.35 million three years earlier.

“You don’t have the men-only shooting stigma that was there for so many years; the good-old-boys clubs have long disappeared," Danielson said. "The club managers and the board of directors have realized in order to continue to grow the sport we love, the biggest audience is women."

At the NRA’s annual meeting next month in Pittsburgh, 40 women will participate in a pistol-instructor training course for women only. Over the course of three days, women will learn what it takes to teach other women to shoot.

Kirstie Pike founded Prois, a women's hunting-clothing brand, four years ago, and has had 100 percent growth every year. Just this year, she’s had a whopping 600 percent increase in sales from the same time last year. Women used to have to borrow their husband’s hand-me-downs or buy children’s sizes, but not anymore.

“I think a lot of dealers historically have been pretty slow to move into the women’s market, not really sure how much is going to roll,” Pike said, describing sales. “And I think they are finding out that it really does roll and they are starting to be more willing to invest in that, because women do buy it. And if they make a quality product, they [women] will pay for whatever they need.”

Lighter guns with special hand grips made specifically for women are on the shelves, but Danielson cautions women to choose the weapon that’s right for them. “So many times a loved one will say, ‘Oh, yeah, you need to get this big .44. It will really knock them down.’ But then they realize they can’t handle a firearm that big, and we tell them they don’t need one that big. It’s more important that they have one that fits them and they are confident shooting, rather than one that is big and scary,” she said.

Peggy Tarturo, executive editor of Women and Guns magazine, has seen the market change over the publication's 25 years. “You’ll see guns scaled down in terms of grips more attractive for women. Average women tend to be smaller, and so especially with a long gun, you’ll notice between a gun that didn’t fit you and a gun that did,” she said.

Plenty of products are aimed at women aesthetically, but they are not to every female hunter's taste. Pike said “the pink stuff” isn’t for her. There are pink ammo rifles, pink shotguns, and even purses specifically designed for women with conceal-carry permits. John Castillo, spokesman for the sporting-goods chain Cabela’s, says his store carries pink pistol cases and even bedazzled camouflaged hats. It’s not something one might have seen a few years ago, but Castillo says the chain is “embracing” the female hunter.

And some products are much more extravagant. Judy Rhodes, the founder of DIVA…WOW (Women Outdoors Worldwide), said she saved for three years to buy a new Swarovski scope. “I always tell women, buy the best you can because you are only making that one-time investment,” she said.

Rhodes says her Texas-based group is the largest women’s-only outdoors organization in the world and that it “empowers women” by teaching them hunting and shooting skills. “For every one woman we introduce to the outdoors, she brings seven. And men will just stick with the same hunting partner for 70 years,” she said. “Women, we love the camaraderie, we love to cheer each other on. We love the success.”

And, now that Gina York has trained with the Divas, will she venture out with her husband? “I probably will,” she said. “I do feel like I can stand up to him and say, ‘No. This is the way I learned, and my way is just as good as your way.’”

Shushannah Walshe covers politics for The Daily Beast. She is the co-author of Sarah From Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar. She was a reporter and producer at the Fox News Channel from August 2001 until the end of the 2008 presidential campaign.