It’s a woman’s world out there — or at least that’s what the nation’s most influential firearms industry advocacy group thinks.

Retailers and dealers are seeing more women in their shops and on their sites. More guns are coming out with pink furniture, zebra-striped camo and dainty sizes. We’ve all heard the anecdotal evidence that women are the fastest-growing consumer market in the gun world — and manufacturers seem to be responding — but are the numbers really there?

According to the National Shooting Sports foundation, they are.

In a wide-ranging report that took over a year to complete, the research arm of the NSSF found that females are entering the gun market at an increasing rate. But while that customer demographic represents a major opportunity for retailers and manufacturers alike, some of what many thought about the woman gun owner and what she wants are wrong, and these findings could have a profound effect on the industry as it grows to meet demand.

How Big Is The Female Gun Market?

While most independent surveys show a small fraction of the nation’s estimated 120 million gun owners are women — about 15 percent in most polls — the NSSF found that 74 percent of new gun purchasers last year were women. Women spent an average of $700 on a firearm and took several months to make the decision to buy, with the vast majority using family advice and manufacturer websites to help narrow down their choices.

The NSSF study, titled “Women Gun Owners: Purchasing, Perception and Participation,” examined the opinions of about 1,000 female gun owners aged 18 to 65, most of whom were white and half of whom lived in the southern United States. The survey weeded out women who were anti-gun by asking on a sliding scale whether they believed civilian gun ownership should be banned.

About 20 percent of the women in the original pool were rejected, the study showed.

Not surprisingly, most women involved with the survey purchased semi-automatic pistols, and their key motivation for buying a gun was personal and home protection.

“The single most important reason women decided to purchase or otherwise own a gun was for defense, both self (26.2 percent) and home (22.0 percent),” the study says. “Wanting to learn to hunt (15.3 percent) was third most important and the social aspect of wanting to go shooting with friends and family was important to a little over one in 10 women.” 

But while personal and home protection were the main motivators for buying the gun, the study showed that of the average $400 spent on accessories, holsters and other carry options weren’t at the top of the list. Instead, cleaning products, targets, ear and eye protection and carrying cases tended to be the most frequent purchases.

Nearly 60 percent of the female firearms owners in the study lived in suburban or urban areas, belying the myth that most women who own guns live in rural areas. And the average household income of the women gun owners was over $70,000.

Training Is The Key

One of the most consistent findings in the NSSF women shooters study is that training plays a big part of a female gun owner’s overall firearms strategy, with more than 70 percent having at least some kind of training before or after a gun purchase, and most taking an average of three classes.

“Women with training rate their enthusiasm for guns and shooting activities significantly higher than women who have not had training,” the study says. “Likewise, women rate their confidence in handling guns significantly higher than women without training. This suggests that training has an indirect impact on gun spend through influence on women’s enthusiasm and confidence regarding guns.”

The data shows that retailers who want to get women in the door and keep them coming back for more guns and accessories need to make training options available right up front.

“The offer for training should be level-appropriate for a woman’s familiarity and skill level with guns,” the study claims. “Women, like men, have varying skill levels, and retail personnel should not make assumptions about a woman’s level of knowledge and familiarity with guns.” 

“The objective is to support and encourage and not insult or demean.”

The most popular kind of training among those surveyed was basic handgun handling and care, with over 30 percent of women gun owners taking a concealed carry permit class. About 26 percent of female gun owners haven’t had any firearms training at all.

How Guns Do They Shoot?

One thing that’s for certain is that women who own guns and have at least received some kind of training keep shooting. Most, the survey found, prefer target shooting, with hunting coming in a close second.

And once you’ve got a woman to the range, she’s usually hooked — and that can mean more sales in the long run.

“Women who participate more frequently in shooting activities spend considerably more on guns and accessories,” the survey says. “Women who shoot more frequently are more enthusiastic and confident with guns and shooting activities.”

Large majorities of women don’t participate in 3-gun competitions or cowboy action shooting, so it wouldn’t seem to make sense to invest much time in strategies to sell more women into those markets.

Surprisingly, however, there’s an increasing interest in tactical shooting events, shotgun sports and even zombie shooting events among female shooters.

“The activities that women are most interested in and likely to try in the next year are practical pistol shooting, long-range shooting, zombie target shooting and clay sports,” the NSSF says. “Women who have not tried target shooting already are not likely to try it in the future without strong or aggressive prompting.”

Nevertheless, nearly 60 percent of women shooters intend to keep up their current shooting rate over the next year, while nearly 40 percent intend to do more shooting than they did the previous year.

What Guns Do They Want?

The one thing that’s glaringly obvious from the NSSF study is that despite about two years of intense marketing and attempted sales, female shooters don’t want pink guns.

“It is evident that a significant proportion of women do not respond well to guns in feminine colors and patterns,” the study shows. “If retailers are interested in encouraging women to purchase guns, shops should stock a number of guns that are appropriate for women in terms of their size, weight and use that are more traditional in style and color.”

The most significant factors for women in deciding which gun to purchase were usefulness, fit and quality, with “look and feel” coming in at the bottom of the list.

“This suggests that only after other primary and secondary considerations are satisfied will the look and feel of a gun be taken into consideration, if at all,” the study says. “Manufacturers should begin understanding the needs of women gun owners, especially as it pertains to fit. Women come in all shapes and sizes and the choices in guns and apparel should reflect this.”

And that’s good advice for retailers. Don’t just shoo female customers to the girly guns — they want honest advice and don’t want to be talked down to.  

“Counter personnel should be willing to interact with women in the same way they would interact with a man under similar circumstances,” the research recommends. “It is through positive interactions with personnel that women’s comfort level, confidence and enthusiasm for guns and shooting activities can flourish.”

Just like you would with Joe gun buyer walking into your shop, ask Jane gun buyer what her firearms needs are and how she plans to use her gun. Take the time to chat, and you’ll be in a better position to make the sale. Nearly 20 percent of those surveyed said retailers made them feel stupid or ignored them when they walked into a store.

And while the study shows women respond well to female sales associates, you don’t have to be a girl to sell to a girl. Only 20 percent of women said they’d be more comfortable buying a gun from another woman than from a man, with nearly 80 percent disagreeing or saying it didn’t matter.

A Woman’s Mind

No, a shooting sports industry advocacy group didn’t single-handedly unveil the secrets of the female mind. But what the new NSSF study does offer is a deeper insight into how firearms and accessory retailers — and manufacturers — can scratch the surface of what motivates women in the shooting sports and how they can meet their needs.

It’s not about foofy-colored guns and Hello Kitty t-shirts. It’s about practical needs and fit.

It’s not about just selling them a gun, but also delivering the knowledge and confidence to operate it effectively and safely without depending on someone else.

It’s not about rushing out to employ women to sell to women, but instead taking the time to chat with a female customer and make them feel welcome.

If retailers just take heed of a few of these lessons and put them into their normal everyday business operations, the industry will go a long way to bringing more shooters into the fold, the research suggests.

And the future of the shooting sports may depend on it.

“A swell in the ranks of women gun owners has enormous implications for the industry both economically and politically,” the NSSF concluded. “Clearly women can sway public policy, and their needs, wants and desires for additional firearms, equipment and services will significantly impact the industry’s future as a whole.”