Shopping for a handgun can be a difficult task for anyone—there’s a staggering number of models available, a plethora of misinformation, and a nearly infinite amount of opinions being thrown at you by friends, salespeople, and articles like this one. For women, there’s the added complexity of all the specialty models marketed as being the perfect pistol for ladies; but how do you separate the marketing hype from the fact?
At the end of the day, buying the right handgun comes down to the same handful of factors for anyone. Things like size, capacity, and reliability all play a part, regardless of your gender. How women engage with these criteria can be a little different, though.
Below, we’ll take a look at the primary considerations women should evaluate before buying a handgun, some of the misconceptions that can be safely ignored, and a few of the most popular models for concealed carry.
Myths and Misconceptions
Sadly, the world of firearms is absolutely rife with bad information regarding women’s handguns. Most of it is well-meaning, but ultimately counterproductive.
Women Need Small Guns
The first of these myths is that women need tiny, petite firearms. It seems to come from the idea that women are generally smaller than men, and so to be able to effectively carry and conceal a handgun, it needs to be proportionately smaller as well. There’s a little truth to this—if you’re on the small side and want to carry on your hip, something small will be less likely to print—but the truth is, nearly anything can be carried if you’re willing to dress around it.
Moreover, many women choose to carry off-body in a purse or bag. While the wisdom of off-body carry is sometimes debated, there’s no question that it does allow for a full-sized handgun to be carried. As such, women need not limit themselves exclusively to small firearms, particularly since larger guns are generally easier to shoot.
Women Should Carry Revolvers
The old idea that revolvers are the perfect concealed carry handgun for women largely stems from a revolver’s perceived simplicity. They have fewer controls than semi-automatics and require fewer steps to operate. There’s also the common misconception that revolvers never jam, meaning that the operator need not learn to clear a jam.
The truth, though, is quite the opposite. While revolvers are simple to operate, that does not make them easy to use. Small, snub-nosed revolvers are among the hardest guns to shoot accurately, owing primarily to their long, heavy double-action-only trigger, tiny grips, and short sight radius. Moreover, with even a modicum of practice and training, anyone can learn to proficiently operate a semi-automatic and even clear malfunctions under pressure.
Of course, there are times where a J-frame revolver is the ideal carry option, but that should be determined by practical circumstances and not some patronizing adherence to simplicity.
Women’s Editions / Bright Colors
There’s nothing wrong with a nice Cerakote job, and if you like Robin’s egg blue, then by all means, paint your gun that color. But far too many firearms are painted in a bright color, bumped significantly in price, and then marketed as the perfect little carry gun for women. Most of these editions make no modifications of any substance, meaning that women can get a firearm that is identical in function for a lower price by choosing the standard model.
For that reason, we generally eschew these types of firearms as a practical defensive weapon, but if you appreciate the aesthetic (and some do look quite good) and don’t mind the extra cash, you certainly aren’t giving up any performance, either.
Women Need Smaller Calibers
It’s a fact that in general, women tend to be more recoil-sensitive than men. Men usually have more forearm muscle, bigger hands, and stronger grip. But, that doesn’t mean women can’t or shouldn’t carry a full-power cartridge. It’s all too common for a salesman to suggest a .22LR or .22 Magnum for a self-defense handgun when both are sub-par compared to .380 ACP or 9mm Luger.
In many cases, recoil sensitivity is a simple matter of training, and can be reduced or eliminated with practice. In our experience, a female USPSA competitor will almost always out-shoot your average male handgun owner, even with full-power handgun cartridges. While grip strength and body mass provide some advantages, they should never dissuade someone from choosing a more effective defensive cartridge when all it takes is a bit more range time.
Even for the truly recoil-sensitive, other options exist for mitigating recoil that don’t neuter your effectiveness, such as opting for a heavier firearm or choosing a model with a compensator.
Factors to Consider When Selecting a Handgun
There are a handful of factors everyone needs to evaluate before buying a new gun. Some are utterly universal, such as reliability, ammo availability, and ergonomics. Others are more situational; magazine capacity may not be much of a concern for a target pistol, for example, but it certainly would be for a defensive one. For women, these four attributes in particular deserve a little extra thought:
Size and Weight
As stated above, there’s no wrong size or weight of handgun for a woman. But, some sizes lend themselves to certain applications better than others. If you’re planning to carry your new handgun on your person, particularly concealed inside your waistband, both size and weight are going to be crucial.
The larger your handgun is, the more difficult it will be to conceal it effectively. At a certain point, size can begin to have a detrimental effect on comfort, as well, particularly barrel length if you carry in an appendix position.
Weight will also usually have a negative correlation to comfort, as anyone who’s ever carried a full-steel pistol for an extended period can tell you.
Of course, if you’re planning on carrying off-body in a purse or other bag, size and weight can work to your advantage. Heavier pistols tend to recoil more softly, while larger grips spread the force of the recoil over a larger portion of your hand, making it feel less sharp. Larger guns also typically have a longer sight radius, which can be beneficial to accuracy, although the point is moot if you plan on mounting a red dot.
Recoil is a big consideration for anyone, but it tends to be particularly important for women. If your pistol is painful to shoot due to stiff recoil, you’re not likely to want to practice with it very often, which is detrimental to your performance with it. Hard-recoiling pistols can also contribute to flinching, further degrading your capability.
Users who are unfamiliar with recoil or with handgun shooting in general should probably stick to a 9mm or softer caliber. Even 9mm can be fairly snappy in a subcompact or microcompact handgun, though, so users who struggle with controlling recoil should consider a .380 or a compensated pistol. If you’re a long-term shooter and know you can handle it though, feel free to get that featherweight .357.
Anyone considering a handgun for personal protection should take its ammo capacity into account before purchasing. While it’s true that most defensive uses only involve a small number of rounds fired, it’s also true that no one ever walked away from a gunfight wishing they had less ammo.
Statistically, you’re unlikely to need more than a handful of rounds, but that’s not to say exceptions don’t happen. Just in the last few years, there have been plenty of examples of home-owners defending themselves against multiple intruders simultaneously. At the same time, many muggings and carjackings are perpetrated by teams rather than individual assailants. If your goal is to fully protect yourself, then it’s better to have capacity and not need it than to need it and not have it.
Luckily, with many modern handguns, size and capacity are no longer opposite ends of a sliding scale. Many firearms, like the Sig Sauer P365 or Springfield Hellcat, offer double-digit ammo capacity and subcompact sizes.
But, if you truly must have the smallest possible handgun for your personal concealment requirements, some ammo capacity may have to be sacrificed, as with J-frame revolvers.
In some ways, this goes hand in hand with overall handgun size, but not all. While it’s true that larger guns tend to have larger grips, both in length and circumference, there’s a great deal of variation in handguns as well.
Take the 1911, for example. Despite being a full-sized pistol by any measure, it still has an exceptionally thin grip. The Glock 36, on the other hand, has a rather chunky grip even though it’s a subcompact.
Grip size can be particularly important for women because most handguns are designed around the average size of a man’s hand, although there are exceptions, such as the Walther PDP F-series. As such, many common handguns can be difficult to grip properly for women with medium to small hands.
If you fit that category, grip size will be a particularly important criterion when selecting a handgun. If you can’t grip your pistol properly and securely, you’ll never be able to shoot it to its full potential. An oversized grip can also make it difficult to get a proper firing grip quickly when drawing from a holster, which creates an obvious liability for a defensive handgun.
Popular Handguns Choices for Women
We’re talking about a category that includes nearly 4 billion people, so obviously there’s no one perfect handgun for all of them. Choosing a handgun, particularly one for concealed carry or defensive use, is a very personal decision. But, there are a few that stand above the rest as popular choices for women.
The Glock 43x is an incredibly popular concealed carry handgun, regardless of demographic, but it’s particularly well-suited to those with small hands. The same could be said of any of Glock’s Slimline models; the only salient difference between them is grip and barrel length.
Slimline Glocks offer all of the functionality customers have come to love and expect from Glock’s standard models. They’re utterly reliable, simple to operate, and have a truly massive aftermarket to choose from for holsters, parts, and accessories. Even if you choose to add a weaponlight and optic, finding a holster will be a breeze.
But, they also offer slimmed-down grip profiles, as their name would suggest. The Glock 43x and 48 offer a grip with the same length as that of a 19 but with a noticeably thinner width. This is especially valuable for users with small hands that have trouble forming a proper firing grip on a Glock 19.
The 43x and 48 do suffer from some loss of capacity as a result of the reduced grip size, with a standard capacity of 10 rounds compared to the Glock 19’s 15-round standard. However, this is yet another area in which Glock’s incredible aftermarket shows its worth.
Shield Arms offers all-metal aftermarket magazines that make use of a thinner magazine wall to increase the 43x and 48’s capacity—all the way back up to 15 rounds. These magazines fit flush with the pistol grip, adding nothing to the firearm’s size or profile, and require nothing more than a simple swap of the magazine catch to use.
With a Slimline Glock and Shield Arms’ magazines, users can have all the capacity and functionality of a Glock 19, one of the most popular carry pistols of all time, but with a grip better suited to their ergonomics.
Sig P365XL Rose Edition
Sig Sauer‘s P365 series of handguns are currently among the most popular concealed carry handguns in the country, and for good reason. They’re small, thin, and available in a range of sizes, all suitable for carry, but still manage to pack impressive capacity, with the smallest P365 magazine fitting 10 rounds and the largest 17.
There are a myriad of different models available in different sizes and configurations, but the one that stands out to us is the P365XL Comp Rose. As we said above, we generally eschew women’s models of handguns, but make an exception for the Rose since it actually is materially different from other models, rather than just a paint job.
The primary draw is the integrated compensator—the P365XL Rose features ports machined into the top of the slide and a shortened barrel to create a recoil-reducing effect but without the usual complexity of a normal comp. There are no additional moving parts, no set screws to fiddle with, and no need for threadlocker. And, it adds no additional length to the firearm compared to other XL models, which is a significant boon for concealment.
While other models do feature the same compensated slide design, none of them also feature a manual safety, as the Rose model does. The benefits of a manual safety on a concealed carry gun are subject to some debate, but many users appreciate the additional peace of mind they provide.
The P365XL Rose also features laser engraved stippling on the grip, rose gold controls, and comes bundled with dummy rounds for training and a Vaultek safe for storage.
Ruger LCR/S&W J-Frame
Small, pocketable revolvers are often one of the first things recommended to women when they go shopping for a concealed carry handgun. Proponents will tout the simplicity, the reliability (whether real or imagined), and the size as reasons why these small-frame guns make the perfect concealed carry guns for women.
The truth is a bit more complicated. Petite revolvers like the Ruger LCR or S&W’s J-frame series are among the most concealable guns on the market. Their tiny size and curved lines make them easy to hide and less susceptible to printing than the hard corners of a semi-auto.
They also are quite simple to operate, but a modern semi-automatic like the Glock 48 isn’t really all that complicated, either. With a modicum of practice (which you should be doing anyway if you’re going to carry a handgun) any user can become proficient with either a revolver or a pistol.
Revolvers do bring certain unorthodox benefits that may be valuable for specific use cases, particularly small hammerless ones. Unlike semi-automatics, hammerless revolvers can be fired from inside a pocket—a trait that is highly prized by cold-weather users who would struggle to draw a firearm from a conventional belt-holstered position underneath a heavy winter coat. They are also more resistant to jamming when used close to your person, where a semi-auto could catch on a fold of clothing or skin and fail to reciprocate.
Unfortunately, the drawbacks of small-frame revolvers are equally pronounced. Both the Ruger LCR and S&W J-Frame series hold a mere 5 rounds in their .38 special models—less than half the capacity of a P365XL and either half or a third of the capacity of a Glock 43x, depending on whether or not you opt for Shield Arms magazines.
Small revolvers are also fairly difficult to shoot, particularly for new users. Their heavy, double-action-only triggers take a great deal of practice to master, their short sight radius limits accuracy, and their light weight exaggerates recoil. All of this adds up to a package that’s easy to carry, but hard to shoot when you need it.
Still, for users who are already proficient with revolvers or need the most concealable firearm possible, they are a very valid option. S&W even offers a version of the 642 designed for women, called the Ladysmith. As with many women’s models, it’s functionally identical to other 642s, but for the wood grips and Ladysmith engraving on the right-hand side.
S&W Shield EZ
It’s not uncommon for many women to struggle with racking the slide on a pistol, particularly on small, concealable models. The thin slides offer precious little grip surface, and the recoil springs tend to be on the stiff side, which can make charging the firearm a struggle. This can often be trained around, but Smith & Wesson also offers an alternative solution in the form of the Shield EZ.
A part of the Shield family of pistols, the Shield EZ is uniquely designed to be easy to rack. It also features both a grip safety and a manual safety, making it an excellent option for teaching new shooters. It’s a bit larger than most of the other guns on our list but offers a long sight radius and soft recoil to make up for it. In the .380 ACP chambering, recoil is particularly gentle.
Like all S&W Shield pistols, the EZ delivers absolute reliability, and while it hasn’t achieved quite the same level of ubiquity as the Glock 43x or Sig P365XL, it still enjoys a robust aftermarket, particularly for holsters.
For users who are sensitive to recoil or struggle with racking a slide efficiently, the Shield EZ is the answer.
Or a Sig P320. Or a S&W M&P. Or any other full-size or compact handgun that you can shoot well and still conceal. The truth is, there is no perfect handgun for women, and there isn’t even really a perfect class or group of guns either.
Humans are a diverse bunch. We come in all shapes and sizes, and all have different needs and wants. While handgun models marketed to women tend towards tiny and pink, if you prefer a full-size gun, there’s no reason not to get one.
Full-size pistols come with a range of benefits, including softer recoil, larger magazine capacities, longer sight radii, and often a more robust aftermarket. They’re simply easier to use, which is why you see police carrying 17s and not 26s.
But, they do tend to be quite a bit more difficult to conceal. Some will be comfortable with their firearm printing a little, or with dressing around the gun to conceal it adequately—others will not. Ultimately, the choice of what to buy, shoot, and carry is up to you, and as long as you’re buying a reliable model from a major manufacturer, there are no wrong answers. The only wrong gun is one you can’t hit the target with.
Purse Carry: Unique Considerations
As concealed carry is becoming more popular and common, so too is purse carry seeing a surge in use. Off-body carry is somewhat controversial, but we won’t pass judgment on it one way or another here. If it’s something you’re considering, though, you should be aware of the pros and cons.
The primary benefit of purse carry is comfort and concealability. As the saying goes, having a gun on your hip is comforting, not comfortable, and the adage tends to hold true. With a lightweight gun and a top-of-the-line holster, the discomfort can be minimized or even eliminated, but that’s a rare accomplishment. For most, carrying a pistol on their person means sacrificing some amount of comfort.
Purse carry eliminates this discomfort. You’ll never have a barrel digging into your hip or a safety scratching your side. You won’t have to deal with a belt sagging or back pain from the asymmetric weight on your hips.
It also allows for perfect concealment. With purse carry, printing is a non-issue, and you’ll never need to worry about your shirt riding up or getting caught and revealing your firearm. It also allows carriers to pack any firearm they desire—so long as your purse is appropriately sized, you can carry anything you want. This allows women to choose the handgun they shoot the best, rather than compromise on one they shoot alright but can conceal well.
Unfortunately, the downsides are substantial. Off-body carry is inherently less secure than carrying on your person. You’ll have to keep your bag with you at all times; it can’t ever be left behind at a table or your desk while you run to the bathroom or grab something from another room.
It also creates a unique liability for muggings; if someone tries to steal your purse, you’ll be hard-pressed to get your firearm out of it to protect yourself, and surrendering it means handing your assailant a loaded weapon.
Drawing your firearm in general is a much slower process from a purse. It’s all but impossible to build muscle memory of your draw stroke when the exact position of your firearm varies every time you reach for it. Unlike belt holsters, purses move freely, which makes a two-handed draw slow and a one-handed one slow and difficult.
When it comes down to it, the best handgun for women is the same as the best handgun for anyone else: it’s the one that you shoot well and can conceal effectively. The models above are popular for a reason, and each lends itself well to solving a particular problem many women face, but if you can shoot the wings off a fly with your pistol, don’t let us dissuade you from carrying it, no matter what it is.
For those shopping for a new firearm, though, take the time to carefully consider essential attributes like size, capacity, and recoil before making a purchase. If you’re still not sure what gun is right for you, check out our beginner’s guide to guns for self-defense or single-stack pistol guide.