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Gunmakers put women shooters in their sights

Shooting For Safety
Manufacturers are tweaking their products and changing how they approach the burgeoning female market Gunmakers will display their new wares Friday through Sunday in Milwaukee, where at least 50,000 people are expected to attend the National Rifle Association's annual convention.Mario Villafuerte / Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Kay Clark Miculek is a champion shot, especially with a handgun. Though she may be pretty deft with a shotgun, she's got to put some work into using that weapon.

That's because this gun shop owner in Louisiana usually must get shotguns shortened to fit her 5-foot-3-inch frame.

"Any shotgun I get, I have to get cut off. Not a lot of lady models are shorter," said Clark Miculek, 49, who owns Clark Guns, in Bossier City and runs camps throughout the country teaching women to shoot.

But she knows that gun makers are now coming out with shorter, lighter shotguns, new grips on handguns and flashier designs, all of which attract women buyers.

Manufacturers are tweaking their products and changing how they approach the burgeoning female market, which is estimated to be worth at least $285 million this year in firearm sales alone. Gunmakers will display their new wares Friday through Sunday in Milwaukee, where at least 50,000 people are expected to attend the National Rifle Association's annual convention.

"The women of America are very concerned about safety and security for themselves and their families," said Sandy Froman, president of the NRA. "I think many of us realize ultimately we're the ones responsible for our own defense."

Froman bought her first gun more than 20 years ago after someone tried to break into her home. She signed up for a gun safety class, realized she was a decent shot and stuck with it.

It was an NRA program — called "Women on Target" — that got her interested in hunting a few years ago. Her first hunt? Feral pigs in Texas.

These hunts had fewer than 500 participants when they started in 2000, said NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam. Last year, more than 6,000 women participated.

Women make up 15 percent of the marketplace when it comes to shooting sports and hunting, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the trade association for the shooting, hunting and firearms industry. Participation in hunting and target shooting has risen 50 percent to 6.3 million women from 1999 to 2004, the group said.

Women will spend at least $285 million on firearms this year, the group said, plus at least $135 million on ammunition, accessories and hunting equipment. It's a small drop in the entire market, which was worth $2.8 billion in 2004, but manufacturers believe it's worth pursuing, said group spokesman Steve Wagner.

Froman said, as a lover of shopping, she's particularly interested in what accessories and clothing items manufacturers will display this weekend.

"If I go hunting, I don't want to be slopping around in clothes where the sleeves are too long and the pant legs are dragging on the ground," Froman said. "I want to have hunting clothes that are comfortable and fit and I think manufacturers are responding."

Remington has been making lighter, shorter guns geared toward women and youths for the past 15 years, said spokesman Al Russo. The segment is among the fastest growing for the Madison, N.C.-based company, which declined to release sales figures. Of the company's 450 different guns, 5 percent to 7 percent are for women and kids.

"The more astute manufacturers are catering more and more to women and youth," Russo said.

Remington worked specifically to reduce the amount of force its guns give off, he said. The type of ammunition used also affects how much force — or recoil — guns give off, so that has been tweaked as well, he said.

Just a few months ago, the company released its lightest shotgun ever, the 105 Cti 12-gauge semi-automatic shotgun, which weighs 7 lbs., down from the full-weight version of 8.25 pounds. While the gun isn't technically targeted toward women, it has been doing well, especially in that segment, he said.

"We look at the niches that are truly unaddressed and exploit those. This is one that we continue to exploit," Russo said.

A self-proclaimed lover of pretty guns, shop owner Clark Miculek said one of her favorites is a 24-karat gold handgun she uses in competition.

"I don't wear any jewelry, so my gold is on my gun," she said.

But attracting women gun buyers isn't as simple as putting designs on guns or offering them in different colors, said Paul Pluff, a spokesman for gunmaker Smith & Wesson. Instead, manufacturers must focus on making their guns more versatile, such as changing the grip size so women can control the weapons better, he said.

"You're not buying a pair of shoes or a dress here. Women who decide to buy firearms want firearms they feel comfortable with and they can control," Pluff said.

Smith & Wesson, the country's largest producer of handguns, has long had a line called "Lady Smith." Its best selling product for women is a compact, aluminum alloy gun that shines a laser on a target, helping improve aim, he said.

The Springfield, Mass.-based company even opted not to use pictures of the military in some advertisements now, he said. Instead there are softer images, such as a woman on a mountain, evoking an independent nature, Pluff said.

Italian gunmaker Beretta released a pistol this year with adaptable grips, meaning people with smaller handsizes can use it, said Jeff Reh, vice general manager of Beretta USA, based in Accokeek, Md. The company has seen success with the weapon particularly among police departments, which are hiring more female officers, he said.

Where the company is seeing growth is in its line of clothing and hunting accessories, especially those for women, he said. Beretta sells items for women such as polo shirts for between $50 and $65 and cashmere-lined suede gloves for $135, both online and at its retail stores, including a shop on Madison Avenue in New York City and one in Dallas. The boutique atmosphere and elegant coats, dress shirts and other accessories help evoke an image of being in the countryside, which speaks to women, he said.

"You'll see a lot of women customers at Beretta stores who go there to buy a present for their husband or boyfriend and they end up finding things for themselves as well," Reh said. "They're a significant part of our customer base."