Miss Fitz Buys a
I must confess I fudged a bit on her description.
She does indeed run Miss Fitz's Academy for Young Ladies. But the young ladies in question ... well, aren't exactly students. Or ladies.
If Miss Fitz really were the schoolmarm, she might have no particular need for a gun. Most of the students in Hardyville are well-equipped to handle the situation in the event, say, that an IRS agent showed up to impress the class with the virtues of the income tax.
But Miss Fitz's Young Ladies aren't always able to have their own firearms on their person, so to speak, since some other person is frequently on their person.
So Miss Fitz finds herself in need of the occasional self-defensive firearm.
For years, she patrolled the halls of the Academy with a little 25 caliber semi-auto. But the last time she put a round in the rear of some troublemaking out-of-town boy who didn't understand good Hardyville manners, he didn't notice. Until he got home and his girlfriend spotted the itty bitty bit of lead. The loving lady figured out what was going on and did him in with a much more effective weapon: a ceramic flowerpot to the cranium.
And Miss Fitz decided it was time for a grown-up sidearm.
But which? Of course, that's where the real trouble begins. Because when a person of the female persuasion is looking for her first serious firearm, the only thing she can be sure of is that she can't be sure of anything.
Miss Fitz, however, is the dauntless sort. (Has to be to survive as a ... schoolmarm.) So she cut through the quadrillions of pages of magazines and books and the gazillion Web sites about firearms. She figured out a thing or two. And she writes pretty well. So without further intro, here begins Part I of ...
Miss Fitz's Grown-up Girls' Guide To Guns
You need a handgun. Trust me on this, unless you're a bad guy, a die-hard pacifist, or a government agent, you really do need one. But if you're a female or anybody whose goal in life isn't to be a firearms fanatic this means you start out with some disadvantages.
Girls, you know how it goes. Ask the nearest gun-loving boyfriend or husband, and he's likely to say one of two things.
Thing one: "Baby, just stick with that itty-bitty girly .25. Yaw'll just know you'll get all fluttery if you have to shoot a real man's gun."
Thing two: (Puffs up pecs; goes into Super-Guy Mode) "Naturally, there's only one handgun anybody in his right mind would ever get and that's a Super-Wacken-Wacher Polymer-Resinated Triple-Action quasi-auto in the Southern Italian .486 cal. XY6 model, of course, not the completly inferior .392 Gnorf Magnum, but only if you add the custom No-Bump compensator, a trigger job by Bruce of Biloxi, and gold plated Trid-i-Glo sights, and load it with the Hydro-Blart self-fragilating 386.8-grain Teflon-jacketed bullets imported from Uzbekizmania, and hand-load your rounds with diamond-studded smokeless powder from the caves of Eastern Elphemia on a $3,000 Killersmorph reloading press, which'll give you a muzzle velocity of ..."
And by that point, too many of us girls get convinced we'll never understand anything about firearms.
Don't let it happen to you.
There certainly are some girls in the world and some women, and perhaps even some wymyn who have that sort of relationship with guns, and would be right in there talking muzzle velocity and hoisting Budweisers with the best of the guys. Those girls probably also know the RBI of the third baseman for the 1932 Chicago Cubs. And you go, grrlz! I'm impressed.
But the average woman even the average head of a Young Ladies Academy wants to know just four main things about handguns, once she's decided she needs one:
The experts are fine. We need 'em. But you don't have to become any sort of heavy gun guy to understand the basics of buying and using your #1 self-protection device.
This guide starts off with the age-old question: "Should a woman get a revolver or a semi-auto?" I'm not only going to answer it (the answer being Yes, No, and Maybe), but give you a list of the best guns to look at if you've never owned a real sidearm before.
I admit, I had a lot of help from the guys. Bless 'em, whatever would we do without 'em? Not all of 'em have their heads up their muzzles. A lot of information here is theirs. But the conclusions are all ours to make, girls.
Revolver Or Semi-auto?
Nearly everybody recommends a revolver for a woman's first handgun. But I'm here to tell you, it ain't necessarily so. Especially now when some of the newer semi-autos are nearly as fuss-free as revolvers. But wait a sec. Just what is a revolver, and what's a semi-auto, and what are the variations of them you need to know before you start your shopping?
What's A Revolver?
A revolver is a handgun where the cartridges*** are carried in a revolving get it? -- cylinder. It's the kind of gun you see in old cowboy movies because it was the hot-shot modern gun to have in those days.
What's so good about revolvers?
The bad about revolvers:
There are two kinds of revolvers:
What's A Semi-auto?
A semiautomatic, sometimes also called an autoloader, is a firearm where the cartridges are carried in a magazine. (The Big Boys'll laugh at you if you call a magazine a "clip"). The magazine is usually inserted into the gun's grip. Once you put a round in the chamber, the next round (cartridge) automatically rises into firing positon each time you pull the trigger. Pull trigger: gun goes boom.
What's so good about a semi-auto:
The bad about semi-autos:
There are only two types of revolvers, but there are three types of semi-autos. (Sorry, it's got to get complicated somewhere And just to confuse you, the identical terms have slightly different meaning when you're talking revolvers vs semi-autos.
The main thing to remember is that, unlike with revolvers, all three types of semi-autos are perfectly fine for self-defense. It's just a matter of what you prefer.
Be A High Caliber Girl
We'll have lots more to say about ammo when we get to Part IV of this screed. But this bit you need to know before you even think about what sort of gun to get.
You want a caliber that's big enough to have stopping power. Stopping power doesn't necessarily mean you kill the bad guy. It means that even if you don't hit him smack in the essentials, he's probably too bonked to keep coming at you. (That's the problem with that teeny .25. The bad guy might bleed to death an hour later, but he still has plenty of time to come after you with a baseball bat or his big, hammy fists. Because unless you've hit him in the brain or the heart, you might not stop him. And .25 rounds are so weak they've been known to bounce right off people's skulls.)
There are many -- many! -- ins and outs about ammunition, but the short version is that these are the main calibers you want to look at when you're ready for a serious sidearm:
9 mm Luger (also called 9 mm Parabellum)
Ammo names refer both to the ammo type and to the gun designed to hold the ammo. When shopping for the gun, you'll often just refer to "9mm" or ".45" or ".40 caliber" without using the rest of the designation. Still, you need to know that designation. Because unfortunately not all 9mms or .44s or .45s are the same.
More on that later. For now, if you just memorize these five calibers and know which ones commonly fit with revolvers and which fit with semi-autos, you'll be able to shop smart.
You also have to decide what length of barrel you want. Some gun models are available in only one barrel length (particularly semi-autos); others come in several barrel lengths usually 2-inch, 4-inch, 6-inch, or 8-inch.
Short barrels make your gun more concealable. Long barrels make it more accurate. But since most self-defense fighting is done close up, you probably don't need those long barrels for self-defense. A 4-inch barrel is usually a nice compromise unless you need a teeny-tiny concealed carry gun, in which case go for 2-inch.
When you pick up your first serious gun, you might think, "Too heavy!" Just remember: The lighter the gun (relative to its ammo), the more it's going to kick when it shoots. Heavy guns absorb more of their own recoil.
This makes 'em not only easier on ladylike hands, it means you can get back into position for a second shot a whole lot faster because you're not fumbling to control a gun that's trying to point at the ceiling. Heavy is good as long as it's not so heavy you really do get all fluttery every time you lift the thing.
You also want a gun that's reliable and that you can get parts for. So just do not, not, not buy some $125 gun made in Tierra del Fuego. Or a gun in some weird nineteenth-century caliber. Brand name. Common caliber. These are good things.
Yeah, But Which Gun?
"So put up or shut up, Miss Fitz. Which gun should I actually get?"
That's up to you. But the boys and I put our heads together (yes, just our heads) and came up with these. Here are some top guns to start looking at if you want to make things easy on yourself while still making sure you get a firearm that won't fail you when you need it.
Just remember that somebody else's "perfect" gun might not be good at all for you. The Glock 21 makes the list, for example. But unless you've got long fingers and big hands, forget that one. On the other hand, some Smith & Wesson revolvers might be perfect for you. The Ruger GP100 is a big favorite with my girlfriends. But I hate shooting the darned thing. And on it goes.
So it's personal. But if you start by looking at these you probably won't go wrong.
Remember that most .357 caliber guns can also be loaded with the lighter, less expensive, more-easy-on-the-hands .38.
The guys can go on all day arguing about what I've just written. And they will. And there's definitely more to know. But this will get you started shopping for a good, solid, reliable, knock-'em-over gun.
In Part II, we'll talk about how to shop to ensure you're getting a gun and not a turkey. Meantime, you might also want to take a look at Sunni Maravillosa's "A Woman's Primer on Defensive Firearms Use."
Before we hit the gun malls, check some prices. GunsAmerica is the spot. A click or three there and you'll see what every sort of common handgun in the world is selling for.
At this point, make a list of four or five firearms that sound good and that you can afford. Don't narrow your choices down to just one "perfect" gun yet. That gun might not be as right for you as it sounds on paper. Keeping options open also means we can grab a great deal on a good gun when one comes along, without wearing the soles off our shoes searching for one gotta-have-it gun.
The smart thing is to test-fire at least one revolver and one semi-auto in our serious calibers before you buy. (More if you can.) Do it with a friend who knows guns or even hire a local firearms trainer to come with you for an hour or two. Do not do it alone!
Big shooting ranges especially ones connected with gun stores -- often have handguns you can rent. Otherwise your shooting pal or trainer can loan you a couple.
Firearms training is Part IV. But you'll need some basics for test-firing. Again, your friend or trainer is there for that. Whatever else that person tells you, make sure it includes:
If your shooting buddy doesn't tell you these things (especially the first two) ... get a different friend.
Where to test-fire
There are two good places to do your test firing: at a shooting range or at some safe "plinking" spot your friend might take you to.
The shooting range is set up for safe, controlled shooting. But the atmosphere there can be mucho macho. Very intimidating to some newbies. (Me, I find the smell of gunpowder mixed with male pheromones to be tres sexy.)
The plinking spot an old quarry, maybe, or the side of a hill is just fine so long as you're able to judge whether that spot is truly safe for shooting. Your shots must go harmlessly into the dirt behind whatever target you set up. There should be no chance of a poorly aimed shot flying into the distance and hitting a person. Or a cow. Or a car. Or a house.
Where to buy
So now you've tested a few guns. You know whether you're happier shooting a .357 Magnum or .45 ACP. You know whether a SIG-Sauer fits your hand better than a Colt 1911, and whether a Ruger fits your budget better than a Glock. At least, you have some idea, even if you didn't get the chance to test every gun on your list.
Next, where to buy?
Gun store: Local gun store is an easy choice. They often sell both new and used firearms and are staffed by helpful experts.
But every gun store is also an "FFL" a federal firearm license holder. And that can be bad news.
FFL = paperwork. And a big, sticky paper trail right from you to the FBI and (sorry for the bad language, girls) from you to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, the ugliest, meanest agency of the federal government.
(See the sidebar below So you think you want to buy from an FFL for a description of what you'll go through.)
Gun show: Gun shows are fun. Think of them as flea markets for all things gunnish. Like shooting ranges, they can deliver Total Macho Overload. But get in the spirit and they're great. (All those lovely men roaming around ...)
But aren't gun shows bazaars of death, where the infamous "gun show loophole" lets murderers and thieves evade government gun-buying rules? Surely you've heard that.
Some people who set up tables at gun shows are FFLs gun dealers. Buy from them and you still have to go through paperwork and FBI BS.
Other people who set up at gun shows are private parties the same folks who might sell a gun via a classified ad or to a friend at a gun club. Buy from them and (in most states), the exchange is private.
It's not the gun show that made it private. There is no "gun-show loophole," no matter how many politicians scream about it. What made the transaction private is the fact that you're buying from a private party.
To find out whether a seller is an FFL or not, just ask. Quite often non-FFLs will have signs on their tables, telling you that.
Private citizens will also often walk around with rifles over their shoulders or signs on their clothes, advertising a handgun for sale or trade. And those sales, too, are private if your state allows it.
Private party (friend or local classified ad): Sometimes you can find guns for sale in the classified ads. Pity, a lot of big city newspapers have gone all chickenpoop and stopped allowing gun ads. But ads are still out there, in rural and gun-friendly areas. In most states you can buy from a friend or relative, legally and privately. Know the gun laws in your state.
Internet or gun publication: If you buy a gun over the internet or from an ad in a gun publication, and if that firearm is shipped across state lines, it will have to be shipped to an FFL and you'll still have to go through all the federal nonsense before being "allowed" to buy.
If you buy from an ad placed by a non-FFL in your own state, you might still be able to keep private. Again, know your state laws. I'm not a lawyer, and the lawyers I know usually aren't talking shop during their visits to my young ladies. So don't screw up, then say, "Miss Fitz told me so."
How to inspect a gun prior to purchase
When you spot a gun that looks good at a price you can afford (or can bargain down), the next thing is to perform some simple checks on it.
If a gun is new in the box, you probably don't need to inspect extensively but you'll still want to get a feel for handling it. (And there's a possibility it will have manufacturing defects.)
If a gun you're interetested in is used, definitely give it some scrutiny.
But never fear! The basic tests are easy, and merely by doing them, you'll let the seller know that although you may be a babe, you're not a babe in the woods.
(Before going further, take a look below at the sidebar on gun-handling etiquette.)
Overall condition of the firearm
Once the seller hands you the firearm or gives you permission to pick the gun up off his table, the first thing you do (being careful not to point it at anybody) is check out its overall condition. You're looking for the easy and obvious. Is there any rust on the metal or places where rust might have been covered? Cracks in plastic, rubber, or wooden surfaces? Any scratches or obvious signs of wear? If so, as a newbie you probably don't want that gun.
If you like the look of the gun, ask the seller if you can dry fire it. Dry firing is pointing the unloaded gun in a safe direction (toward the floor, or in a jam-packed gun show, over the heads of the crowd) and pulling the trigger to check its action. A few sellers will say no. Most will say yes.
If you get a yes, grip the gun as your plinking friend or trainer taught you, point it in a safe driection, and slowly, steadily, calmly squeeze the trigger.
Is the trigger too hard for you to pull comfortably? Don't get that gun. Is the trigger so easy to pull that you could fire it by accident if you flinched even a little bit? Don't get that gun, either. As you pull the trigger slowly, you'll notice that at first, you're simply taking up slack. The gun doesn't fire until you reach a certain point. On some guns (Rugers, notioriously) that slack period is long, long, long and feels "sloppy." On others, it's short and tight.
You probably want it medium. You certainly want it smooth, not jerky. You want to be able to fire the gun by putting steady, even pressure on the trigger.
Trigger action can be adjusted, to a certain extent, by a gunsmith after your purchase. But if you're not comfortable with the basic action, don't get that gun. If the trigger action is comfortable for you, go to the next test.
Inspecting the barrel
This is also simple. But it'll tell you a lot about the condition of a used firearm.
Pull your penlight out of your pocket. (A penlight is a must-have accessory for used-gun shopping; if you don't have one, the seller likely will.) Hold the gun in your left hand with its action open (see that handling-etiquette sidebar!). Hold the penlight in your right. Gently place the penlight into the open action that is, into the firing chamber of the gun. Angle the penlight until it shines into the barrel.
Now turn the gun to point straight at your face, keeping your finger off the trigger (this is about the only time you'll ever, ever point a gun at yourself). Look down the lighted barrel.
Here's what you should see: An ultra shiny, slick metal surface with a smooth, spiraling groove running through it. That's all that should be inside that barrel.
If you see dust or little black flecks of gun powder, ask the seller to clean the barrel and look again. (Crud in a barrel isn't a great sign; it indicates somebody hasn't been cleaning the gun. But it's not necessarily fatal.)
Now, do you see a smooth, shiny surface? Or do you see pits, dull spots, scratches, or other flaws? If you see a single flaw in the barrel of that gun, put it down and walk away.
(Actually, my friend Rick has an even simpler test. Just watch the seller's face when you go to shine a light in the barrel: "If there is anything wrong you'll see it at once BEFORE you'll peep through the barrel; the seller gets nervous.")
By the time you've checked overall condition, dry-fired, and inspected the barrel, you can fairly well judge whether you're holding a sound firearm. But you may want to ask the seller to disassemble and reassemble the gun for you. This not only lets you inspect its innards for signs of rust, wear, or other damage, but gives you some idea of how difficult it'll be to clean the gun after your shooting practices.
If you have any remaining doubts, you might also ask the seller to allow you to take the firearm to a gunsmith for a more thorough check. He might let you return it in X days if it doesn't check out.
And there you have it. You've just bought yourself a sidearm and a little bit of security.
But what ammo do you load it with? Oh, girl, that's another question! We'll get to that in Part III.
So you think you want to buy from an FFL?
Buying from an FFL -- a licenced gun dealer -- can be a PITA.
You have to show your drivers license or other state-issued ID. You fill out an ATF Form 4473 that contains a record of the gun you're buying (complete with serial number) and asks ridiculous things like what race you are as if that matters. The form also asks for your social security number, but that's optional. Don't give it unless you just love blowing your own privacy.
The 4473 stays at the gun store until the store goes out of business at which moment, your information goes off to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, where they still pretend they're not making a permanent registration file on you (since federal gun registration is illegal). The ATF also shows up sometimes and inspects (and even copies) 4473s in the store.
Anyway, it doesn't much matter what happens with the 4473. Because what happens right after you fill out the form creates another government "paper trail."
The gun dealer calls the FBI and gives them your name, sex, birthdate, state of residence, and race (there's that racial business again!).
If you're lucky, the FBI tells the dealer, "Proceed." And you go home with your gun.
If you're unlucky, the FBI says, "Denied." And you go home empty handed (and in rare cases, go straight to jail). This is supposed to happen only if you're a felon, a mental patient, under a restraining order, or otherwise ineligible to own firearms. But people with unpaid parking tickets, and even a man who didn't renew the license for his (dead) dog have been denied the right to buy guns.
I am not kidding. You see why some of us avoid FFLs?
The FBI might also say, "Delay." In which case, you come back in three days. If the FBI hasn't given the dealer further bad news about you, you get your gun then.
When a seller hands you a gun, he'll hand it to you with the action open. If it's a revolver, that means that the cylinder that holds the ammo will be pivoted outward from the frame. If it's a semi-auto, that means that the slide (the top of the gun) will be locked back.
In both cases, an open action enables you to look into the firing chamber and the ammo-carrying parts of the gun and verify for yourself that the firearm is unloaded.
Someone hands a gun to you, it's open. You look for yourself. Every time.
Then after you've inspected the gun, dry-fired it, or whatever else you do with it, you re-open the action and hand the gun back.
You hand the gun back to the seller open. He looks for himself. Every time.
If you hand the firearm to your companion, you hand it with the action open. Your companion looks for himself to make sure it's empty. Every time.
If you put the gun down on a table, you do it with the action open. Pick it up from the table, you look and make sure it's empty. Every time.
Any time that the firearm has been out of your control, even for a moment, you check it again when you pick it up to verify its loaded or unloaded condition.
If this little dance seems ridiculous to you, bear with it. Nobody, not the biggest Macho Man in all of Gundom, scoffs at these rules if he expects others to respect him. There is no such thing as being too scrupulous about safety when handling a firearm.
If this little dance seems so ridiculous to you that you absolutely refuse to bear it, then don't buy a gun. Don't even borrow one. And don't ever carry one around. Because you're not a safe gun handler.
Same with the four rules of firearms safety listed in the main article. If someone repeats them to you at the range, or in a firearms training class, and your response is, "Yeah, yeah, get off my case," then you're not grown-up enough to use guns. If you've already heard the safety rules 100 times, then be ready to hear them for the 101st. Or the 1,001st. And really hear them, every time.
Guns are amazing, life-saving tools when you're willing to use them properly. But one screwup could destroy your (or somebody else's) whole life.
So observe gun-handling etiquette at all times. It's one heck of a lot more important than using the right fork at dinner.
I ended up buying a used Glock 22 that's the full-sized .40 caliber model. It came with a 15-round pre-ban magazine -- a prize for just $375. I liked it so much I later went back to the same seller and bought a new Glock 23 the .40 cal. compact. One's for patrolling the halls of the Young Ladies Academy, where I want the rowdy out-of-town boys to understand that Mama packs a big, black gun to protect her girls, and one's for carrying discreetly in company that might be shocked, just shocked, by the sight of a firearm. I was spoiling myself, buying two where one would have done, but I'm worth it. And I can use the same ammo in both and call myself positively sensible.
Why a Glock? Because I wanted pull trigger go bang." I didn't want to have to worry about flicking a safety while some big bruser's roaring at me with a knife. I wanted reliability. I like the polymer frame. Glocks are super-quick to disassemble and clean. And the .40 cal seemed like a good compromise between the smallest and the biggest calibers in our list of five possibles.
Why not a revolver which everybody always says should be a woman's first gun? I could tell you it's because I prefer the higher capacity of the semi-auto. Which is true. But really, I'm just not a revolver kind of gal. It's just me, but I feel more reliable handling a semi-auto.
You can listen to all the experts in the world. But once you've considered some solid basics, you're going to make your decision on what works well for you. That's true for choosing a firearm. It might even be more true when you choose ammo. So on with it, shall we?
The first thing you need to know
The first thing you need to know is that most self-defense use of firearms doesn't involve shooting anybody. A bad guy usually gets the hell out of your way when he knows you're willing and able to shoot his valuables off.
Just having a firearm and the skill to use it can make a difference. Police interviews are full of statements from crooks like this: I chose her because she looked like somebody who wouldn't have a gun."
In most real-world contretemps, ammo isn't even going to enter the picture. But just in case, you want it to be good. You want ammo that won't malfunction in your weapon and that will do the job if it hits an attacker.
If you do have to shoot somebody, here's a pretty good description of both the psychology and the physiology of a gunfight.
Now, here's what you look for in good self-defense ammo ...
Your ammo should be 100 percent reliable
Always buy factory-new, brand-name ammo for self-defense (specific recommendations below). Do not use the hand-loads that Good Old Joe next door offers you no matter how careful a reloader Joe might be. Do not buy cheap ammo or ammo labeled "remanufactured" for self defense. Your life's worth an extra few bucks, isn't it?
You want a round that will perform 100 percent of the time. That means it'll perform the same way 100 percent of time not hitting high this time and low the next. That means it'll feed in your particular firearm 100 percent of the time and you know it will because you've tested it.
Your test will probably be simpler than the one described here. Don't be daunted by the material behind that link. Merely going to the range or the plinking quarry, and seeing how different ammos perform when shot under the same circumstances (same gun, same stance, same distance from the target, etc) is enough for most of us. But that link shows how the big boys do it.
Your ammo should have reliable penetration
Reliable penetration means it should be able to travel at least 12 inches into soft human tissue. A big man might have a chest 14 or 16 inches deep. If you have to shoot him, you want to be sure to have a round that can reach his spinal column through his chest. Or reach his heart even if he's turned half-sideways, his arm is in the way, or you're on the ground and have to shoot up at an angle through his body.
For revolvers and pistols, the type of ammo that penetrates best is usually full-metal jacket (FMJ a round-nosed lead bullet coated with copper).
However, most gunfolk don't carry FMJ as a self-defense round, because penetration is only part of the picture.
Your ammo should have good expansion
Most cartridges sold specifically for self-defense have jacketed-hollowpoint bullets (JHP). These bullets are designed to expand upon impact. When a bullet expands, it also slows down, so it tends to penetrate less.
There are two ideas behind JHP:
Check out these pictures of wound channels (don't worry; no actual gore, just experimental shots into ballistic gel) and hollow-point bullets retrieved after test-firings. You'll see the kind of expansion I'm talking about.
Penetration vs expansion
Most self-defense trainers and cops will tell you JHPs are the way to go. But not everybody agrees! If you thought firearms themselves could bring out some pretty heated opinions from gun guys, just mention the words "penetration vs. expansion" or "under-penetration vs. over-penetration" to those same guys and stand back. Waaaaaay back. Especially if you have the science lab guys on one side and the street-experience guys on the other.
(If you want to see the thick data from one of the top ballistics experts in the world, Dr. Martin Fackler, here it is.)
Everybody agrees, though, that if you don't have enough penetration to hit vital organs, expansion alone won't do it. They also agree that you can't count 100 percent of the time on expansion. If you had to fire at an angle through very thick, strong glass (like a windshield) or layers of thick clothing, your expandable bullet might not expand in the attacker's body at all. The bullets are designed to expand in such circumstances, but they might get damaged or deflected by thick glass. Or they might get "cocooned" in cloth, for example, and not be able to spread.
But as a couple of the guys kindly pointed out, failure to expand because of "cocooning," effectively turns your JHP into an FMJ and probably gives you greater penetration.
The premium JHP rounds sold for self-defense are designed to have a good balance of penetration and expansion.
So I'm sticking with premium-brand JHPs.
The best JHPs are tested to go through leather, glass, and even car doors and still expand when they hit flesh. And if some ninja's coming at you with body armor, shoot him in the gut if the chest shots don't teach him the lesson he needs to learn.
FBI Special Agent Urey Patrick, who wrote an analysis of police ammo needs for the U.S. Department of Justice, also points out: "No law enforcement officer has lost his life because a bullet over penetrated his adversary, and virtually none have ever been sued for hitting an innocent bystander through an adversary. On the other hand, tragically large numbers of officers have been killed because their bullets did not penetrate deeply enough."
But keep remembering: What you gotta do is what works for you. The gun you choose and your own personal preferences are going to be part of your choice. There are reasons you might choose FMJ over JHP and you'll hear some of them if you keep on reading.
The diameter and weight of the bullet
Special Agent Urey Patrick says, "Bullet selection should be determined based on penetration first, and the unexpanded diameter of the bullet second, as that is all the shooter can reliably expect."
The caliber of your firearm (as we saw in Part I) dictates the "unexpanded diameter" of your ammo. Your .357 Magnum revolver shoots a bullet roughly 36/100ths of an inch across. Your .45 ACP, 45/100ths of an inch, and so on. A 9mm bullet is about 35/100ths of an inch in diameter.
A heavier bullet is also generally more effective than a light one.
So all other things being equal, a .45 is superior to a 9mm. But all things aren't equal.
What works in your gun
ZooT_aLLures, one of the boys on The Claire Files forums, says, manufacturing tolerances "give each and every firearm a sort of personality. ...In most cases the 'personality' of a given firearm along with a certain brand and style of ammo will outperform all others in that particular firearm."
Revolvers have a reputation for being able to "feed" anything that is, to load and fire any variety of ammo (in the right caliber, of course), whether the bullet is jacketed or plain lead, whether round-nosed, hollow-pointed, or flat.
Semi-autos have a reputation for being fussier about ammo. They can malfunction if the bullet is an unusual shape or if a particular box of ammo was manufactured slightly off-spec.
But your gun is your gun. Even in my limited experience, I've seen revolvers malfunction like nasty little SOBs. And I've seen semi-autos feed and fire total garbage ammo without a hiccup.
So when you're looking at self-defense ammo, ideally you need to buy a box or two of every type of cartridge that interests you a process that can get pretty expensive. Shoot at least 50 rounds of each type of ammo through your self-defense gun. A good ammo shouldn't malfunction or misfire at all.
If you can't afford to test that much pricey self-defense ammo (and it does get pricey, -- figure 2-3 times the cost of your practice ammo), then you might just want to carry FMJ. Even then, though, make sure you carry a name brand you've practiced with.
Some old or cheap semi-autos might not feed anything but FMJ. If that's all your gun will shoot, then FMJ is also your best self-defense round, no matter what any ballistics test says. But if your gun feeds JHP without a problem, a premium-quality JHP is the round to use.
You and your self-defense ammo
Your ammo not only needs to work in your gun, it needs to work for you. Your gun & ammo combo has to feel right in your hands.
Once you've settled on the self-defense ammo that fires reliably in your gun and that you can shoot with confidence, you should get some less expensive practice ammo. Generally, your practice ammo should have the same (or similar) weight of bullet as your self defense ammo. That lets you practice with an ammo that feels like your self-defense choice when you fire it, but doesn't bust your budget. But above all, your practice ammo and your self-defense ammo should have the same point of impact. That is, when you stand in the same place and shoot in the same way, your practice ammo should make essentially the same bullet groupings on your target as your self-defense ammo does.
See Ammo Basics, below, for more about bullet weights and additional information about calibers.
No guaranteed results
Gun guys talk about "stopping power." That is, you're not necessarily out to kill your attacker just to halt him, make him fall over, stop him from coming at you.
But Special Agent Patrick and a lot of experienced people point out that there is no "magic bullet" for stopping anything as unpredictable as a human being or a large animal. Patrick writes:
In other words, some dude who's on serious uppers or who's so busy listening to the voices in his head that he doesn't see your firearm might not even notice a wound, even if it's bad enough to eventually kill him. Someone in the midst of an adrenaline rush might not even feel the pain of a fatal wound. These guys can keep coming at you unless you've hit them in the brain or the spine yep, even sometimes if you've hit them in the heart. On the other hand, as Patrick also says, most people who get shot and who know they've been shot fall down immediately. But barring a central nervous system wound, falling is as much a psychological reaction as a physical one.
In every encounter, luck, psychology, a good aim, good timing, and an almost infinite number of other factors play a part. Your job is to be as prepared as you can be with a substantial weapon, good ammo, good skills, and as much presence of mind as you can muster.
Because fortune favors the best prepared. And a woman pointing a serious-looking gun in a serious-looking way could be one heck of a psychological factor to any sane bad guy.
The top self-defense ammos
Cut to the chase. Although you'll still need to determine what works best for your particular caliber and your particular gun, these brands and types of ammo are both the most often recommended and the easiest to find at gun stores and sporting goods stores. They are all made especially for self-defense:
Less easy to get, but strong performers in lab tests are:
The quality and performance, even in these top brands, vary from caliber to caliber.
The Winchester Silvertip and Federal Hydra-Shok are older designs, and the Silvertip was also implicated in one of the most notorious FBI shootout failures of all time. But many trainers still recommend these brands and quite possibly if you live in a small town, one of these will be the only brand easily available to you.
If you want to do more deep evaluation, here are helpful, easy-to-follow photos and lab test results on various ammo, courtesy of Morgan Johnson, one of the helpful folk who reviewed this article. For a list of specific recommendations in our chosen calibers, look here.
As always, judge and test for yourself. Never forget, what matters is what works best in your gun and in your hands.
If your state doesn't allow hollow-points which all of the above are -- a Hardyville gent named "securitysix" recommends the Federal EFMJ (Expanding Full-Metal Jacket). But then, he also recommends moving to another state. In Hardyville, our itty-bitty government wouldn't dare "allow" or forbid us our self-defense tools. We use what works best, whatever that may be, and don't allow bad guys any advantage.
Next up: Training to use your guns and ammo.
The cartridge you load in your revolver or pistol has four parts:
In choosing a self-defense ammo, the bullet is your biggest preoccupation.
The bigger the caliber, the wider the diameter of the bullet. Bullet diameter, however, is only part of the question. Remember back in Part I, I said you'd be looking at five different calibers, and those were:
When you go to buy ammo, make sure both parts of the caliber designation both the number and the word -- on the box match what your gun is chambered for.
When you're buying premium jacketed hollow-points for self defense, this will be easy because those rounds are usually made in the above calibers. But with all ammo, and especially your FMJ practice ammo, you have to be careful not to accidentally buy .44 Magnum (rather than Special) or .45 Long Colt (rather than ACP) or 9mm x 18 or 9mm Makarov (rather than Luger). If you do get the wrong ammo, you'll usually know right away; it won't fit properly in your gun. Just something to be aware of when you shop.
When looking for self-defense ammo, bullet type is the big factor you're considering. So here's a tiny primer on bullets.
There are probably hundreds of bullet shapes and types. But they basically all fall into three categories.
Bullets are weighed in grains. Using a handy-dandy mass-weight conversion calculator, we discover that a grain is 0.002285714285714 of an ounce. (You had to ask, didn't you? Believe it or not, article reviewer Plinker-MS tells me that's an old English measurement, based on what one average grain of wheat weighs. Seven thousand grains to the pound. Seriously.)
In general, the bigger the caliber, the heavier the bullet. But within each caliber, you can buy a range of bullet weights. For instance: .45 ACP bullets from Cor-Bon come in weights from 165 grain to 230 grain. With .357 Magnum, you might choose a 110-grain bullet or 125-grain bullet. With my .40 S&W, I could have chosen 135-grain, 150-grain, or 165-grain.
Most self-defense shooting is done at short ranges where the weight of the bullet isn't the most enormous factor. A heavy bullet has a little more of a kick when you fire it. A lighter bullet usually travels at higher velocity. If you don't have the budget to try a lot of different types, go for the heaviest bullet for the sake of whatever little extra wallop it might give or a medium bullet for medium recoil.
Comments On The Spinal Column And Ammo Penetration
The matter of penetration is hotly debated, but bless you (despite my atheism) a thousand times for including the specification! My only concern is your mentioning of the spinal column.
Critics of the scientific approach to wound ballistics have remarked that the spinal cord is *very* thin, about as thin as your pinky finger, and not an easy target to hit. This is an accurate, and valid criticism. The criticism does not, however, destroy the argument for deep penetration. In shooting for blood, we aim for COM (center of mass) as accuracy is not likely, further, we keep shooting, until the threat has ceased.
The use of adequate penetrating ammunition allows for at least the possibility of hitting the spinal cord and disrupting the fight, particularly one that has enough penetration to reach the spinal cord, and then has enough energy to break through the bones protecting it (ammo that penetrates 10" probably will not).
The main, most probable, and most exemplary need for penetration is the arm, which can add several more inches, and was the tissue structure that got in the way in the 1986 Miami firefight, which lead to the adoption of scientific wound ballistics. The ammunition used in the 1986 Miami firefight was Winchester's Silvertip, which was designed under the old NIJ (National Institute of Justice) RII (Relative Incapacitation Index) standard. Silvertip ammo is Gen I engineeered, and does not reliably handle clothing, nor is it designed for adequate penetration. The RII was based on *assumed* criteria without *any* real world testing, the same is NOT true of the current gelatin testin
Morgan Johnson passes along these recommendations for handgun ammo
Barnes 105 gr JHP (copper bullet)
Speer Gold Dot 124 gr +P JHP (53617) *
Winchester "Ranger" 127 gr +P+ JHP (RA9TA)
Remington "Golden Saber" 147 gr JHP (GS9MMC) *
Speer "Gold Dot" 147 gr JHP (53619) *
Winchester "Ranger" 147 gr JHP (RA9T)
Speer "Gold Dot" 155 gr JHP (53961) *
Winchester "Ranger" 165 gr JHP (RA40TA)
Remington "Golden Saber" 180 gr JHP (GS40SWB) *
Speer "Gold Dot" 180 gr JHP (53966) *
Winchester "Ranger" 180 gr JHP (RA40T)
Speer 230 gr Gold Dot (23966) *
Winchester 230 gr Ranger Talon (RA45T)
Winchester 230 gr +P Ranger Talon (RA45TP)
Items marked with an asterisk are readily available through normal distribution channels. The other's a litttle more difficult, but acquireable.
For the Gold Dot line, Black Hills loads and distributes all of these, they are available through Georgia Precision
Winchester's Ranger line is available through ProLoad
Remington's is available commercially.
I cannot say with any degree of certainty what to choose for the .357 Magnum, or the .44 Special.
The Remington 158gr +P LSWCHP does well in pistol lengths above 3" for
the .38s, so it should do as well out of the .357s. I could venture a guess that moderate velocity 158gr, and 180 gr loads would tend to do well, though they are at risk for over-penetration. Speer makes a 125gr, and 158 gr Gold Dot load that is readily available.
For the .44 Special, which is even more neglected by ammunition companies than the revolver cartridges, I wouldn't know where to start. Full Wad Cutters wouldn't be bad though.
Miss Fitz' Guide to
Guns, Part IV
Oh yes, learning new skills that might save your life. And building your confidence while having one hellacious good time.
Seriously, ladies. Every woman who buys a handgun should get some form of formal training. This means you and means soon.
But don't think of it as a chore. Or as something petrifying. Even if you start out scared witless of firearms, even if you start out fumbling and embarrassed at your gun handling ... trust me, you are going to enjoy this once you begin to get the hang of it. And you are going to grow.
"I am woman. Hear my .45 roar."
Two levels of training
Beginners usually choose between two levels of training. The first is plain vanilla basic handling of the gun: How to load it, aim it, fire it, and above all, avoid doing something dangerously stupid with it. Classes that teach this stuff are easy to find. You might even learn these basics from your husband or boyfriend. But no offense, guys you're usually better learning it from somebody you're not emotionally involved with. Your early gun-handling experiences can be nervous-making enough without having all that "Me, Tarzan, you Jane" energy going on around them.
The second level of training involves learning specific techniques to defend yourself, your family, or your home. That's harder. Usually more expensive. But also usually more useful for the type of gun-work you might have to do in real life.
If you shopped per my advice in Part II, (and you did, didn't you?), then you already got some of the very basic basics. You had to, to test fire the weapons that interested you. It never hurts to "get" those basics again and again and again. And to practice marksmanship.
If the only training you can get (or afford) is some other one-day class to qualify people for concealed carry permits, then take it even if you're smart enough not to ask the government for a permit to defend your own life.
But if it's at all possible, sign up for a good, multi-day self-defense handgun class. Or a series of classes. Or get a local trainer to work with you individually. I'll have some pointers to classes below. But first, you might want to know what to look for in a good self-defense class.
Things you'll learn in a good basic class
A good basic class might be for women only or for both women and men. It should be small enough for you to get individual attention. And it should teach at least these things (or their equivalent):
In a basic class you might work entirely with stationary paper targets. These targets could contain a human silhouette, a menacing drawing of a criminal, or even a photo of a criminal holding a hostage. (Like some of these.)
Better still if your class uses some sort of moving target. But most basic classes don't.
More advanced self-defense
Here are some useful self-defense skills you might learn in a multi-day basic class or a more advanced class. All of these things might be lifesavers and often exciting to learn, as well.
It's a lot to learn. More, it's a lot to practice after you've learned it. But every one of these skills could be useful in a real-world encounter. Even if you never have to use them in real danger, they're good for helping you build up general awareness and an ability to think - and act - on your feet. Or on your back if your feet have been knocked out from under you. (As those macho Marines say, with their tongues just slightly in cheek: Rule 4 of gunfighting. "If your shooting stance is good, you're probably not moving fast enough nor using cover correctly.")
And don't forget -- you'll be surprised at what a rush it is to learn these techniques and what a confidence builder it is to be able to say, "I can do that!"
Where to find good self-defense classes
A lot of serious gunfolk travel to multi-day classes at some of the nation's top firearms training centers: Jeff Cooper's Gunsite (Arizona), Front Sight Training Institute (Nevada and Alaska), Thunder Ranch (Texas and soon to be in Oregon), or Massad Ayoob's Lethal Force Institute (New Hampshire).
Some of these big centers have special classes for women. And some big trainers, like Mas Ayoob and John Farnum of Defense Training International will also take their shows on the road, conducting courses around the country.
Big-time, multi-day classes might cost $450, $600, or more.
There are plenty of well-reputed regional training centers, as well, like InSights Training Center in Washington state (which also takes classes on the road) and Tom Givens' Rangemaster in Tennessee. (This page has a few more of them; you can Google for others in your home area.)
Some trainers specialize in women. In Massachusetts, AWARE (Arming Women Against Rape and Endangerment) conducts inexpensive classes in various kinds of self defense. (Classes like these might run as little as $50 for a full day.) And wherever you are, you can get famed self-defense trainer Paxton Quigley (Armed and Female) to teach a firearms seminar to 20 or more students women and couples only.
The only problem with most pro trainers is that they want your Social Security number. And since when should anybody have to have a government tracking number to know how to shoot a gun? They also run criminal background checks on you which, obviously, are only for criminals, not for respectable headmistresses of Ladies Academies. Even the nicest of them may expect you to bring a letter from your local sheriff or an attorney, certifying that you're a wonderful, moral person. And what cop or lawyer was qualified to judge your morality?!
I was lucky. My home town of Hardyville is way too small to have a training institute, and I'm way too busy on weekends to travel to some school, and I'd kick the backside of anybody who said I should have to prove I'm not a criminal. But I got good training one-on-one from the man who teaches the local cops all their moves Mr. Grouchy at the Guns & Liquor store, himself a former cop and present expert on tricks and tactics. His fee: Just $25 per hour. And nobody asked for any permission slips from our local sheriff. So in short, anywhere you are, you can get properly trained.
Recognizing a threat
Good self-defense classes can teach a lot. But one thing they rarely teach and one thing a woman shooter needs most of all is how to recognize a threat.
The best classes have "shoot/don't shoot" scenarios where one part of the target is designed as a bad guy and one part is a hostage or innocent bystander. Your job is to recognize which is which and when it's safe to fire. That's no doubt useful for cops. But it's hardly the situation a typical woman faces.
Here's the sort of decision you're more likely to confront:
What do you do?2
If you're like most women, you err on the side of giving the guy the benefit of the doubt. Your ex might be excitable, but he wouldn't actually harm you. The stranger might really have stumbled into the wrong house. Now, I'm not saying, "When in doubt, plug the dude." But I am saying that most women tend to react in two unhelpful ways when facing a possible threat.
One, we tend to think the other person can't possibly be as bad as our instincts are screaming that he is. We're nice people, right? So surely others are also well-intentioned and willing to listen to reason. (Riiiight.) Two, if he does turn out to be that bad and he starts to attack us, we doubt our own ability to fight him and as a result, we may be too busy panicking to react competently and confidently.
When it comes right down to it, nobody can make the decision for you about when's the right time to pull a gun or when's the right time to actually fire the gun you've pulled. The danger you face is unique. Your mind, your training, your skill, your degree of alertness, the attacker's mind, his size, his condition, his weapons, your location, your circumstances, your relationship to the attacker ... a million factors will combine to determine how you act, or react, in some terrible moment.
It's one thing for me to use my Glock to run off some rowdy, drunk good ole boy who's gotten out of hand at the Young Ladies Academy. That is, frankly, pretty easy for an old working girl. It's another altogether for you to deal with your abusive, stalking ex or a sexual predator who's threatening your child. Nobody can make your life-and-death decision for you or really prepare you for it, when it comes.
But being well trained, well-practiced, and well aware of our surroundings can give you an edge you wouldn't have otherwise.
And that brings us to the final thing and the really, really hard thing.
Practice, practice, practice
Practice, I admit, is where I fall down. And where a lot of us do. It's expensive to shoot serious-caliber ammo. It's hard to make time to keep up our skills. Unless you just love guns (which most women don't), it's hard to motivate to go to the range or your local plinking site once a week or so.
When it comes to steady practicing, I confess it's "do as I say, not as I do." But really, once I write down these good practice ideas for you, I'm headed over to Grouchy's Guns & Liquor to pick up a box of practice ammo and going out to the range to work on draws and controlled pairs.
Whatever you do, don't loose the skills you learned. After all this work and expense you've gone to, you wouldn't want to lose your investment. Or your life.
2 If any of my threat examples seem far-fetched, read "Bitches with Guns". Or the other women-and-guns success stories by Lyn Bates. Or read the books The Best Defense or Guns Save Lives, by Robert A. Waters. Both books contain true, detailed accounts of how ordinary people defended their lives and families with firearms.
If you're going to carry your sidearm instead of just sticking it in a drawer, and if you're going to go for any sort of good training, you're going to have to buy "leather" -- that is, some sort of holster rig.
Holsters really ought to be Part V of this guide. But that subject is too personal. Your holster or fanny pack or concealed carry purse is going to be a very individual choice and might be a choice that drives you slightly crazy for a while.
Finding the right carry equipment is hard for every shooter. But it's way harder for women. The problem is: hips. And waists.
We're usually higher waisted than the boys and we stick out further in just the places a holster shouldn't stick out. It's pathetic to see some woman cop, forced by regulations to carry her holster in the traditional place, have to practically bend herself double. She reaches way, way, way up and draws her pistol from practically under the armpit of the arm she's drawing with.
For me and only for me I've found that some sort of "cross-draw" rig solves the hip problem. Cross-draw means that, if I'm right handed, I carry my gun on the left with its butt sticking forward. Then instead of becoming a professional contortionist to draw it, I just reach across my body and pull. You can get cross-draw rigs that ride on your hip or hang from your shoulder. A gun carried in a belly bag is also technically cross-drawn because you reach across your middle to get it. So is one that's carried in a purse on the opposite side of your body from the hand you're going to draw with.
Cross-draw might not be your "hip" solution. You may also have to try four or five different holsters or concealment rigs before you find the one that fits you. You might then find you need one rig for under summer clothes and one for under winter clothes. Or one for carrying openly and one for carrying concealed.
Your trainer can help (and a lot of the big trainers also have gun gear shops
at their centers so you can try out different things). Fortunately, most
holsters are relatively inexpensive. Once you've spent all that money on guns
and ammo, you can experiment with carry gear without breaking the bank.
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