When it comes to handguns, it seems to me there’s a tendency to assign fictional female characters smaller calibers than males. I’m here to tell you that’s a mistake, and ironically I’ll use one of the most famous womanizers of all time, James Bond, to explain why.
Even Ian Fleming Knew Gun Size Doesn’t Equal Dick Size
In 1956, British firearm writer Geoffrey Boothroyd wrote to James Bond creator Ian Fleming with a complaint about the spy’s handgun. This became known as the “lady’s gun” letter. Up until that point, Bond used a .25 caliber Beretta 418, pictured above. Here’s a portion of that letter, courtesy of Letters of Note:
I dislike a man who comes into contact with all sorts of formidable people using a .25 Beretta. This sort of gun is really a lady’s gun, and not a really nice lady at that.
Here’s a cheeky video about Boothroyd’s firearm criticisms of Bond that’s worth the watch. He repeats the “lady’s gun” comment.
Fleming took the advice and switched Bond’s pistol to the iconic .32 caliber Walther PPK, although that doesn’t mean Boothroyd’s was right about the “lady’s gun” comment. I think that came from a place of latent misogyny more than anything else (not entirely out of place considering the Bond movies), because Fleming was no idiot when it came to firearms. (Unlike someone who fires indoors into a dresser like in the video. Seriously, WTF was that about?)
In World War II, Fleming served as a real life secret agent for the Strategic Operations Executive (SOE). His experiences served as the basis for James Bond. So why would he pick a “lady’s gun?”
I suspect Fleming knew what matters more in the world of firearms than gender: shot placement. Where a target is hit, if at all, is more important than how hard it’s hit. Fleming likely used a smaller caliber handgun in the war because it was easier to shoot and transport than a hand cannon. In fact, he might’ve even used a .25 caliber Beretta Model 418. After all, there are some striking similarities between the Bond universe and the secretive Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, of which Fleming was a member.
That .25 caliber handguns may have been popular with women doesn’t make the Beretta Model 418 a “lady’s gun.” Just like there are different knives for different tasks, the right gun for a character is the one that suits the shooter and the situation. That’s what matters when it comes to matching a firearm to a character, including females.
What Matters: Firearm Experience
It’s tempting to outfit a character with the biggest handgun available. That might work considering you’re writing fiction, but I’ll throw this rule of thumb out there anyway: The larger the gun’s caliber, the more experience the character needs to shoot it successfully. That goes for males and females. The .22 is a great introductory caliber. Experienced users could go with the .45, .44 magnum (Dirty Harry’s favorite) and beyond.
All the firepower in the world doesn’t matter if you can’t handle it. Here’s why:
What Matters: Hand Size
A character’s hand size is an overlooked part of matching a handgun to a character. Larger hands are best suited for physically large handguns. It’s the same with smaller hands. That doesn’t mean the calibers would be smaller, though. Just the actual size of the gun.
I actually wrote a guest blog post all about hand size and handguns. Check it out.
What Matters: Physical Condition
A shooter in solid physical condition can generally handle more firepower. This has less to do with weight and more with overall health. Big muscles can be a benefit, but muscle memory is more important. Locking into a sturdy shooting stance better absorbs recoil regardless of bicep size, and that takes practice. Some stances actually direct recoil into the skeletal system instead of muscles, but that’s for another day.
A character with a physical disability may find larger calibers too cumbersome and erratic to operate reliably. Older characters might opt for something simpler than a handgun, like the classic grandma-with-a-.410-shotgun set up.
In my crime novel, The Invisible Hand, one of the major characters is in a wheelchair. In that case, I gave him goons instead of guns. It fit the character better.
What Matters: Purpose
Matching a gun to a specific purpose is going to take more space than what I’ll cover here. Just keep the overall purpose in mind. A spy like James Bond needs something small and concealable. A character who needs to shoot through a vehicle door might go with a .45.
A Step-by-Step Guide to Matching a Firearm to a Character
If you’re interested, there’s a step-by-step guide that walks you through this process in The Writer’s Guide to Weapons. You won’t wind up with a “lady’s gun” at the end, either.
Good Examples from Fiction
I haven’t seen either of the Avengers movies, but I did notice the Black Widow character (a female superhero) used a Glock handgun in some of the promos. I didn’t get a good look at it, so I popped over to the Internet Movie Firearm Database (highly recommended) to check out the model. It turns out Black Widow uses not one but two 9mm Glock Model 26 pistols.
The 9mm is an all-around, intermediate caliber that seems to make sense to me (and the Marines, as of earlier this year). It’s an example of someone getting this concept right, although I can’t speak for the rest of the movie.
A little closer to home, writer bud Laura Roberts wrote a guest post here at CrimeFictionBook.com about choosing a handgun for one of her characters. Her female protagonist is a detective familiar with the seedier side of life. In the post, Roberts outlines how her character’s small hand size and weapons familiarity led to the Glock Model 36.
As a subcompact pistol, the 36 is easy to hide and hold. Since it’s a .45 (a bigger caliber best for experienced shooters), it’ll rip that smile off your face and then some. Great pick for that character.
Political Correctness? Nope, This is All Practicality
I don’t mean to say that female characters shouldn’t go for smaller calibers, or that all genders should meet in the middle with intermediates like the 9mm and the .40 for the sake of political correctness.
The point is that matching firearms, especially handguns, to characters should exist outside of social conditioning. A gun is a mechanical object that only works as well as the shooter using it. It doesn’t care which gender is pulling the trigger. And when it goes bang in a scene, neither should you.
Get the Book
The Writer’s Guide to Weapons: A Practical Reference for Using Firearms and Knives in Fiction (Writer’s Digest Books) comes with everything but the ammo. Pick up a print or digital copy from these fine retailers:
7 thoughts on ““Lady Guns” for Female Characters? Not So Fast”
What do you think about the .38 Special as far as experience goes?
I think it’s one of those calibers someone could start out shooting and never switch to something else. The .38 has a bit of kick to it, but not too much. It’s a revolver caliber, so it’s quick to learn the ins and outs. And if someone needs an extra punch to the round, they can upgrade to a .357 magnum without buying a new gun, since .38 and .357 ammo is interchangeable (although the .357 mag is far more powerful).
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I’ve tried out several types of guns at the local firing range when I first researched guns for my Emily Stone character. I found that the Beretta and Walther PPK were actually easy to use and made my shooting very accurate. I like them. The .38 special and larger calibers made me look like a cartoon character firing a cannon — LOL I ultimately settled on the Glock, because, one I like it, and I felt it was a good choice for my character. Her back up is a smaller Beretta that she conceals 🙂
I know not everyone has the opportunity to do so, but I wish more writers hit the range like you did. There’s so much information you can take away from the experience. And Emily Stone is all the better for it!
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It was the little details like loading bullets or the weight of the gun that made the difference for me as a writer with hands on experience. I highly recommend it.
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James Bond was a secret agent, not a cop, soldier or other. Having a small, easy to conceal pistol was all he needed. Coming up on someone and sticking into their eye socket is all he had to do.
I just got a wonderful condition Beretta 418, because it was James Bonds first gun, and I love it. It is quite accurate. It is also very well made. When I shoot it it drops the empty cartridges right smack dab on top of my head. I find that amusing.
Right on, bert. It’s all in the application. What kind of loads are you putting through the 418?