This story has a cast of thousands.
All the usual suspects. There is a charming blonde who wants to buy a handgun and learn to shoot. There is a non-shooting husband who has a friend in the business. There’s a gun salesman devoted to one brand of pistol. There’s a well-meaning neighbor who belongs to a gun club.
Finally—and most important—there is the charming blonde lady’s iron determination to learn to shoot despite all the obstacles. And, man, were there obstacles. This story is an object lesson in the pitfalls that await the unwary when they set out to do something as simple as buy a handgun and learn to shoot it.
It’s simple to you or me. It is not simple when you know little or nothing about guns. Chris’s odyssey began when her husband took her to meet a friend who was in the gun business. He sized her up, prescribed a Glock .380 carry gun, converted it to left-hand operation, and gave her a 10-minute course in how not to shoot herself. Finding she had great difficulty loading the magazines, he sold her a loading tool as well. Her only previous experience with guns had been a .38 revolver when she was studying criminal justice in college 30 years before. The Glock—or any semiautomaic pistol—was as foreign to her as a copperhead.
You should know that Chris is in her early 50s and has never weighed more than 105 pounds in her life. She’s devoted to physical fitness, so although she is slim and petite she is far from weak. We are members of the same boxing club, and I became part of this story one morning when she came in for a workout and was telling me about her first experience on a shooting range the previous Saturday morning.
Hearing that she wanted to learn to shoot, a well-meaning neighbor took Chris and her Glock to his indoor club, gave her a set of foam earplugs, crowded into an empty stall amid the banging and flying brass, and started giving her some lessons. It was a disaster. The noise was deafening, both from her own gun and those around her. The grip was uncomfortable, the recoil was startling, the pistol repeatedly stove-piped, and she had difficulty manipulating the slide to clear jams. When it came time to reload, out came the tool, but it did not make things easier. The first lesson could well have been her last, had it not been for her determination not to be defeated.
At this stage, there had been so many missteps, it’s hard to know where to start. Let’s begin with a general observation. In my experience, when a man goes out to buy a first gun for his wife or girlfriend, he doesn’t buy a gun for her, he buys one that he wants and then tries to convince her she should learn to use it. In this case, the friend liked Glocks, so he was pushing a Glock whether it was right or wrong. And it was very wrong.
My view is that you should listen carefully to what she wants to do with a gun and proceed from there. Chris’s goal was to acquire some proficiency and then keep her handgun beside the bed for times when her husband was out of town. She was not going to shoot IPSC or 50-yard Bullseye competition. She was not interested in anything complicated—and any semiauto pistol is complicated compared to a double-action revolver, such as a Smith & Wesson J-Frame.
The problems with the Glock stemmed from several factors. One, Chris has small hands, and years of martial arts have left her with arthritis in both. Two, she is left-handed. While her wrists are strong for her size, they are not strong in terms of holding a gun rock-solid. Without that, a small semiauto will often fail to feed and eject properly. This is where those stove-pipe jams originated. Her arthritis also makes gripping the slide, as well as loading the magazines, difficult.
I brought in my .38 Special S&W Airweight Model 442, the modern rendition of the old hammerless Centennial. It fit her hand perfectly and felt good to her. The hammer is entirely inside the revolver’s frame, making it a double-action-only handgun. It’s very simple to operate.
The next step was to take her to a shooting range. About 30 miles from us is an outdoor pistol range with a variety of steel plate targets and no crowds on weekdays. Shooting outside, with just a roof for shade, the noise even from her own handgun was reduced considerably. With no one else there, there was no flying brass or booming magnums. I outfitted her with a good set of earmuff hearing protectors, proper plugs, and a pair of shooting glasses.
Just as a test, I also took my S&W Model 60 J-Frame that is heavier than the Model 442 Airweight but with a smaller grip. And I brought Walther PPK and Bersa Thunder 380 CC semiautomatics. The semiautos were no better for her than the Glock, and the Model 60’s grip was not as comfortable as the Model 442’s. So it was decided: We went with the Model 442 Airweight.
Chris’s neighbor had tried to teach her to shoot using the IPSC isosceles stance. I switched her to the Weaver stance instead, which she took to naturally. She exclaimed, “Oh, this feels much better!” That’s because it is almost exactly like the “ready” stance we use in boxing. Unlike the isosceles, it is also a versatile self-defense position.
I assembled 50 rounds of very light practice loads. For her tactical load, I’d already decided on Hornady Critical Defense Lite, which is what I keep in my own Airweight. In testing a half-dozen factory tactical loads, it was the only one that expanded reliably with the reduced velocity of a snubnose revolver, and while its 90-grain bullet is fast, recoil is manageable.
A phone call to a friendly gun dealer (Top Gun Shooting Sports in Arnold, Missouri, which also owns the Sportsman’s Club in Lonedell where we were shooting) arranged an almost even swap: Chris’s Glock and loader for a new S&W Airweight J-Frame. She was now in business.
Before anyone gets excited and starts writing letters to the editor defending semiautos and arguing that they are superior self-defense guns, let me say this: Some years ago, I had occasion to discuss this very question with Sheriff Jim Wilson, who has vastly more experience with handguns (and real-life defense experience) than I do, and we agreed on the benefits of the J-Frame and revolvers like it. There is no safer handgun, no simpler multi-shot handgun, and no gun that is more foolproof. In an emergency, you pull it out of the drawer, point it, and squeeze the trigger. If it misfires, you squeeze the trigger again. It’s the perfect handgun for someone who is not interested in guns for their own sake.
Some would criticize it for its five-round capacity and the relative difficulty of reloading, especially in the dark. But consider the probable scenario. Chris does not intend to carry concealed, but even if she did, such a gun is there to get you out of trouble, or as Wilson says, it is your ticket out of a dangerous situation. The intention is not to get into a gunfight.
For a gun beside the bed, it is nearly ideal. If you are in bed and think you hear an intruder, the thing to do is not to investigate. You dial 911, report an intruder, then get down behind the bed (Wilson’s advice) facing the bedroom door. As long as the intruder stays out of the bedroom, you’re in no danger. If he comes into the bedroom, you don’t start firing wildly. You’re still in no danger until he’s close, at which point five rounds of .38 Special should handle it nicely.
The idea that you need magnum firepower, adjustable sights, and two full magazines is just not realistic. And all those things can cause problems, not solve them.
The “what ifs” could go on forever, and if you follow those to their logical conclusion, you would keep a howitzer beside the bed.
Make Shooting Fun
We had gone to great pains to ensure that the S&W Airweight’s double-action pull was not too heavy for Chris’s hands, but she found it both very smooth and manageable. I’ve had a trigger job on mine, but Chris’s was almost as good right from the factory. No further work was necessary.
Another difficulty with people who are not particularly interested in guns is that they don’t spend much time at the range. In fact, many buy a gun, shoot it a few times, and that’s it. When going shooting consists of visiting a crowded, noisy indoor range to punch holes in paper and dodge flying brass, it’s no wonder they avoid it. Even for hardened Bullseye shooters, shooting at a piece of paper is not the most fun you can have. Steel plates and other such moving targets are another thing entirely.
My theory is that if you make shooting fun—that’s Fun with a capital “F”—then people are going to do more of it because they enjoy it. Going to the range becomes an experience to anticipate, not a chore to be avoided.
I also subscribe to Jeff Cooper’s belief that to become proficient with a gun, you should handle it every day, whether you shoot it or not. Take it out, open it, unload it, do some dry-firing, open and close the cylinder. Handle it, check every function, then reload it and tuck it away until tomorrow. Do this a few minutes every day until handling the gun is as natural as pointing your finger. Better still is to keep it near your desk and do this throughout the day—but that’s not always possible.
This is how a gun becomes an extension of you, with every operation second nature. It’s how you drive a car, and it should be how you handle your self-defense handgun.
Too many occasional shooters go to the range, fire a few shots, then put the gun away and don’t touch it until the next time. Letting weeks go by without handling the gun negates many of the gains made in the range sessions, such as becoming familiar with its shape, feel, weight, and balance.
Having inculcated Chris with this belief, every day at the boxing gym I’d ask if she’d petted her new darling. She assured me she had, and it showed when we went to the range the next time. Her determination to learn to shoot extended to being determined to do it right. She might have questioned everything I told her, but she was the best student shooter I’ve ever had.
As it turned out, she was a natural when it came to pointing the gun, squeezing the trigger smoothly, and hitting what she was shooting at. Incidentally, I tried to teach her to shoot with both eyes open but found that while she is left-handed, she’s right-eye dominant. So now she closes one eye.
In order to overcome the negative effects of that first outing with the semiauto that just wasn’t right for her, I loaded some very light ammunition and then some that was ballistically between the light and the Hornady tactical load. The light stuff was so light it barely knocked over the steel plates at 10 yards, but that wasn’t the point. Chris quickly became accustomed to it, so we moved up to some with a little more bite, and it didn’t bother her a bit.
Her first target was an 18-inch steel mini-silhouette. We started her at seven yards, then moved it out to 10. Of course, the target just sat there motionless and took it, twang after twang, but that ringing noise told us she’d hit it, and the whitewashed surface showed every shot. By the second or third session on the range, she was hitting it so consistently that it was remarkable when a shot missed.
From there, we moved to steel plates on a rack, and then to plates on a revolving wheel. The latter is addictive, and we found ourselves going through 50 to 100 rounds a session. We finished every session with one or two cylinders loaded with the Hornady Critical Defense ammo so she could gradually become accustomed to its increased blast and recoil, but it was never really an issue.
It is now almost a year later. Chris is comfortable and proficient with the S&W Airweight and has great confidence in her ability to hit targets with it. She doesn’t go to the range as often as she should, but she does think shooting is fun, and she’s become good at it.
Of course, there is more to learning to shoot, such as ejecting empty brass, reloading blind, drawing and shooting, and so on. But such instruction is not the point of this article. What I wanted to show was how a new shooter should be carefully matched with the right gun, and how many different factors, large and small, determine what works best. What a shooting fanatic thinks is the best gun for self-defense may actually be a very poor choice in inexperienced hands.