It bears repeating: Women have joined in legion the ranks of millions of handgun owners, and continue to be the fastest-growing demographic in the firearm industry. Whether our motive is personal protection, home defense or because a dormant sense of empowerment has emerged, matters not. This is not a fleeting trend, nor is it a momentary hashtag movement.
Now more knowledgeable and conversant about firearms, women are regularly target shooting and competing alongside their male counterparts. So as the female comfort quotient at the range has increased, have our handguns reflected similar parity? The fact is, although we share a common need for a properly fitting handgun, our choices may be different.
In 2016, the first American Rifleman Ladies Pistol Project (LPP1) set out to determine whether certain guns purported to be “great for women” were indeed preferred by them. That the women could experience real range time with numerous choices before committing to buying a gun was an appealing proposition.
Certain results of that first study were enlightening. While not a universal conclusion, the majority shared an intense dislike of the smaller-frame, center-fire revolvers (despite their simplicity of function), with harsh recoil and a long, double-action trigger pull identified as the main reasons for their aversion. Conversely, the semi-automatics—the guns that women by and large have been dissuaded from shooting due to their “complicated” nature—were ultimately the preferred guns, in particular, the SIG Sauer P238 (right), with its soft recoil, bright sights and smooth 1911 trigger pull listed as their favorite features.You can read the full story of the first Ladies Pistol Project at americanrifleman.org/ladiespistolproject.
Ladies Pistol Project 2 (LPP2) took place in the summer of 2017, with a focus on semi-automatic pistols that women might choose for concealed carry, whether on or off body. The results of LPP2 corroborated much of what we learned in LPP1 regarding features women prefer in their pistols. The full methodology and results of LPP2, with the Glock 19 emerging as top gun, can be found at americanrifleman.org/lpp2.
LPP3 On The Horizon With two LPPs in the rear-view mirror, momentum for a third Ladies Pistol Project had developed. Donna Worthy and Casey Jackson, mother/daughter co-owners of Worth-A-Shot Firearms in Millersville, Md., who had assisted, on request, with the analysis and presentation of results for the first two LPPs, became much more involved. As female owners of one of their state’s busiest gun stores, they sell to, and train, a considerable number of women.
Our selection of the 26 LPP3 handguns came from trying 2018’s new models, plus retaining some popular models from LPP1 and LPP2, as well as others that Worthy and Jackson had deemed popular among their female clientele. We chose handguns that might be considered ideal for concealed carry, home defense or both. The semi-automatics were in 9 mm Luger and .380 ACP—popular self-defense chamberings for women—as well as several .357 Mag./.38 Spl. revolvers, some of which Worthy and Jackson say have found favor among their female gun buyers, particularly for those who, for one reason or another, ultimately cannot operate a semi-automatic.
With an enthusiastic team of motivated women, LPP3 had grown in scope and taken on a new energy thanks to a well-organized former police officer, Worthy (once responsible for firearm training for the Baltimore Police Academy), and Jackson, her firearm-savvy daughter.
Ready To Fire All told, 68 novice and experienced shooters alike comprised LPP3, ranging in age from 25 to 76. Unlike the first two studies, in which women took turns firing on a single-lane indoor range, the event relocated to a private outdoor venue that boasts 40 lanes—the 12th Precinct Pistol and Archery Club in Harwood, Md., which generously cleared its calendar of regular activities to donate two full Sundays of range time to accommodate our women in split shifts. This study owes a debt of gratitude to the range and its members for their cooperation.
Here’s how it worked: On each of the two Sundays, 34 women lined up simultaneously in their individual shooting lanes and, when given the order, fired five rounds, then completed an 18-question true/false survey before transitioning to the next firing lane. As with LPP1 and LPP2, accuracy was not the primary factor, rather how well the gun fit, felt and functioned. Could she manipulate the slide? Could she easily access the safety or slide release? Could she load the magazine without difficulty? Was recoil manageable?
Many of the handgun models incorporated into this year’s survey were newly introduced, such as the Smith & Wesson M&P380 Shield EZ and the Taurus Spectrum and the Springfield XD-S Mod.2; some were existing models but were new to the survey, like the Glock 17; still others were considered perennial favorites, having scored at the top of the first two LPPs—the Glock 19, SIG Sauer P238 and Walther CCP, for example—and were brought back for an encore performance to see if they would yield similar results when tested by a different group of women. A few M1911-style pistols joined the sea of polymer, and four revolvers returned to the lineup. With the exception of five .380 ACP pistols, 17 guns chambered in 9 mm Luger made up the collection of semi-automatics.
By A Nose When the results of LPP3 were tallied, a new favorite had emerged. The pistol that scored highest in the survey was the new Smith & Wesson M&P380 Shield EZ, introduced in early 2018. The EZ averaged a score of 17.382 out of 18 possible points—nearly perfect on the study’s scale. Despite reporting a general dislike of the grip safety, the pistol’s other features were so pleasing that the participants believed they could adapt to it with use. “If you’re not familiar with what it is, it can confuse you a little bit until you learn,” Worthy said, “but it didn’t factor into the rating because the other factors outweighed it.” She cautions those who might choose a carry gun featuring a grip safety to be very sure of how to engage it before relying on it for self-defense.
As far as the EZ was concerned, “Most were able to rack the slide back very easily, which is something a lot of women struggle with,” Jackson said. “They could load the magazine easily and could manipulate the gun without a lot of difficulty.”
Casey Jackson, co-owner of Worth-A-Shot Firearms in Millersville, Md., ran all of the pistols used in LPP3, including the Smith & Wesson M&P Shield 380EZ, which emerged as the top-scoring firearm. (Remote camera)
Even infrequent shooters were observed loading their own magazines. “I don’t ever load ... my husband loads for me,” was something we heard from several women. With this gun, said Worthy, they were able to do everything on their own, even the women who had issues with arthritis could easily pack rounds into the magazine.
We expected the S&W M&P380 Shield EZ to do well in this survey. That these 68 women validated it gave us cause to award it the 2019 American Rifleman Golden Bullseye for Women’s Innovation Product of the Year.
Not accepting defeat lightly was Glock, with the Model 19 Gen5 just behind the EZ with an average score of 16.940. It’s hard to argue with this very popular gun’s ease of use, manageable recoil and simple operation. “The Gens 4 and 5 are slimmer right under the backstrap of the gun, so they tend to fit smaller hands better, and, of course, there’s its simplicity,” Worthy said. (She carried a Glock as her duty gun during her time in Baltimore law enforcement.) “Tried and true, most people tend to be happy with it.”
Three of the top five pistols were Glocks, including the 9 mm Model 19 Gen5 (left), and the .380 ACP Model 42 (right). Below is the SIG Sauer P238, which has placed in the top five for all three Ladies Pistol Projects to date.
The SIG P238 also maintained its respectable showing by placing third, with an overall average score of 16.508. Two other Glocks—the subcompact .380 ACP Model 42 and the full-size Model 17 Gen4 (below)—placed in the top five, with scores of 16.323 and 16.176, respectively.
The Glock 17 Gen4 was the only full-size pistol to break into the top five. Had we divided categories into concealed carry and home defense, the new SIG Sauer P365 (below), which placed sixth overall at 16.058, would have moved up into the lineup as another of the ladies’ favorite small 9 mm carry pistols.
Analysis Do the results corroborate previous results and gun sales at Worth-A-Shot? “Up until now, Glock 19 was our most popular,” Jackson said, “but after the study, some women came back and purchased the P238, the EZ and the SIG P365, which placed sixth.”
The SIG P238 continues to be a strong seller at their store, Worthy said. In fact, the two senior women in the project—in their 70s—each bought a P238, she said. “The P238 is one we will always take out of the case for women who are having trouble locking the slide open,” she said. “Most of the time we would not recommend something that small for women, but because it’s metal, the recoil is not bad. Ease of use is really high.”
Pistols are like Corvettes and motorcycles: You usually must buy them to find out whether you like them because there is little or no opportunity to "test" them.—Kathleen Elmore, LPP3 Participant
While the top five pistols were within tenths of points of each other, the average—the guns that appear in the middle of the rankings—scored within a range of what could be considered a virtual tie. These are guns like the Glock 43, the Kimber Micro 9, Ruger Security-9, Springfield XD-S and others. The newer M2 iteration of the Walther CCP, which had scored high in the first two studies, also fared well in LPP3.
Clockwise from top left: Springfield XD-S 3.3"; Kimber Micro 9 CDP; Ruger SR1911; Walther CCP M2
Surprises included the Remington R9, a full-size 9 mm polymer semi-automatic. While the gun has been the target of a host of insults, lobbed at it by some male gun bloggers when it was introduced, the women in our study found it to have the perfect balance of size, recoil and ease of operation. It scored an impressive 15.367.
The guns at the bottom of the scoresheet received point deductions for long double-action trigger pulls or poor sights. As in the first study, the smallest of the revolvers was reported as “hurting their hands.” A few mid-size semi-automatics were deemed hard to clear, which lessens operational safety. “If you can’t clear the gun it’s not the one for you,” Worthy said.
She reminds us: “This project is meant to give you a starting point. New guns are always coming out. Your favorite gun might not even be on this list. But because the top guns keep recurring, this tells you the project is working.”
So what about the other revolvers that returned to the lineup—the Chiappa Rhino, the Ruger GP100 with 3" barrel and the Kimber K6s? “If you weren’t a brand-new shooter, you were more prone to like the Chiappa,” Worthy said, “but typically it was a ‘love it or hate it’ gun. A lot of women had never even shot a revolver, even experienced shooters, which was kind of surprising.” Among those who had never shot revolvers, they still showed a preference for larger ones. The Ruger GP100 (shown here) was the most popular among the revolvers, with many of the women vying to purchase it once the study ended.
The Chiappa Rhino was a "love it or hate it" revolver for most of the LPP3 participants.
Industry Interest? So, is the industry paying attention to studies like the Ladies Pistol Project? “The industry doesn’t have a choice right now,” Worthy said. She noted that two of her regular customers, both male, reported that during a recent gun show, they observed that many of those who were completing the paperwork to buy guns were women. Worthy said that during the past 10 years at Worth-A-Shot, the number of female gun buyers has increased by 50 percent, with many more of those numbers slowly increasing to concealed carry. “Our goal is to get them involved,” she said.
Jackson, who has initiated a women’s gun group at their store, meeting monthly for refresher training and to learn more about gun handling in general, said, “Most women generally want to learn more about firearms and don’t want to rely on their husbands. It helps they are surrounded by other women.”
Worthy said the whole point of everything they’ve instilled in their female customers—but especially since the Ladies Pistol Project—is “you make your decision based on you.” This does not just apply toward women, she said. “This is every customer we sell to. And just like the study, we’re not telling you to go buy a Smith & Wesson EZ; we still want you to buy the gun that’s right for you, not what someone else tells you is right for you.”
Women do not have to wait for an official Ladies Pistol Project to replicate what we have done for the past three years. “Go to a gun store and do a fitting,” Worthy said. “If you don’t have a gun store that will do that for you, find another gun store. They should be able to let you take as many guns out of the case to fit as you want, and you will be able to eliminate 75 percent of the guns off your list just by doing that, without even live firing once, based on whether you can reach the controls or manipulate a slide,” she said.
With the Ladies Pistol Project, however, much of it was about empowerment—even above and beyond the guns.
“It pulled on my patriotic heartstrings to see so many ladies from all over and all different backgrounds unite in one common interest, a critical demographic all there upholding the Second Amendment,” said one participant, Suzanne Robinson. “It was fantastic to see all of these women test, grade and discuss such a wide variety of handguns in terms of how they performed specifically for women. I think everyone walked away armed with enlightenment, empowerment and the confidence to independently choose a handgun suited for her specific use and skill set."
Six range officers ensured that LPP3 participants were adhering to proper firearm safety procedures, and were also available to assist with any issues with the firearms, such as failures to feed or other malfunctions.
Worthy said women want to “do it right; they don’t want to wing it,” and will take as much training as they need to get it right. For the women recruited for LPP3, many opted for advance private training so they would be prepared for the live-fire event.
“To hear some of their stories and to see where they came from and where they ended up at the end of this—having thought they could never accomplish this and then to watch them accomplish it ... that’s why we do it. That’s why we do all of this,” Worthy said. “To see the ‘I can’ts:’ turn into ‘I did,’ and to watch them say ‘I can do this alone, with just me’ ... What that translates to is, ‘I can defend myself.’ ”
For Worthy and Jackson, that means they may have achieved their ultimate goal: saving a life.