What Do Women Want? Guns, Actually

They're crowding target ranges--and firing up weapons sales

Riva Freifeld, a film and TV editor based in New York, was a raging handgun-hater when she began doing research two years ago for an antigun documentary. A child in her family had been injured by a friend playing with his father's gun. "I had never touched a gun," she recalls. "I was horrified by them." But when a friend persuaded her to try shooting, "I found I loved it," the 52-year-old Freifeld now confesses.

Freifeld is one of an estimated 7 1/2 million American women who regularly participate in shooting sports such as targets, clays, and skeet, up 80% from 1988. And 2 1/2 million more hunt--double the number in l988--according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), a trade organization for the firearms industry.

A decade ago, the NSSF was projecting growth of no more than 1% a year, concedes Vice-President Douglas Painter. Now, with the industry aggressively attempting to attract women, growth could increase as much as 15% to 20% per year, he says. The influx of women has given business a boost, greatly expanded demand for training and shooting ranges, and inspired new lines of shooting wear.

At the Blue Trails Range in Wallingford, Conn., owner David Lyman estimates that women now account for 40% of his clientele. "It used to be maybe 5% to 10%," he says. Smith & Wesson Corp. offers "women only" courses at its new $3 million firearms training center in Springfield, Mass. And women's shooting competitions around the country, many of them for charity, are booked solid.

Gun manufacturers recognize a hot target when they see one. Some have tailored firearms to female proportions and tastes. Smith & Wesson's LadySmith offers several models--.357 magnums, .38 specials, and 9mms--all in rose-decorated cases. Vice-President Jonathan E. Mossberg of O.F. Mossberg & Sons Inc. in North Haven, Conn., calls weapons for women the fastest-growing segment of the business.

Browning, a Utah-based subsidiary of France's Giat Industries, enlisted the aid of Sue King, executive director of the Women's Shooting Sports Foundation in Houston, to design its lightweight turquoise shotgun. And Beretta USA Corp. reports its small-caliber pistols with tip-up barrels (for easier loading) and adjustable-stock shotguns are particularly popular with women. Both Browning and Beretta also offer lines of women's shooting wear.

"MACHO" BAGGAGE. Other clothing and equipment makers have women in their sights, too. Orvis Co. in Manchester, Vt., long a leading supplier of sporting gear, operates several shooting schools. It runs 1,000 students a year through its two- and three-day programs at $900 to $1,100 each. "About 35% of our students are women," says an Orvis spokesman. "Ten years ago it was 5%."

It's so chic to shoot that Chanel Inc. last year acquired Britain's tony Holland & Holland Ltd. and opened a shop on Manhattan's West 57th Street. "With clothing, it can cost you almost $7,000 to get equipped for serious competitive shooting," says Deborah Lyman of the Blue Trails Range. So many women shooters tend to be corporate executives or professionals like Lilly Sieu, 34, an independent computer consultant who won first place last month in the World English Shooting Clays Championship in San Antonio. "Every contract that I get I negotiate for time off to go shoot," says Lyman. Boulder (Colo.) Physician Barbara A. Phillips, 42, who learned how to use a gun for protection, calls shooting "a good family sport."

Why are all these women going gunning? In many cases, it's husbands or boyfriends who get the women interested. Then they realize they can compete at the same level as the men--or higher. Freifeld believes that women make better shooters than men because they don't bring "macho" baggage to the sport. But the WSSF's King, a former instructor, dismisses the female superiority thesis as "mostly nonsense." Who's right? Only the bull's-eye knows for sure. But women have definitely found a home on the range.

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