This article emerged from an email discussion I had recently with a (male) firearms instructor in another state.  He will remain nameless, for reasons to become apparent before the end of this article.  It began as a discussion of teaching vs. mentoring, and evolved into considerations of equipment and tactics for women who carry guns in purses.

Let’s review a few things about gun and purses that are not in dispute.  Women are susceptible to the crime of purse snatching, and if you have your gun in your purse when it is stolen, the gun will go with it.  Yes, but has this actually happened?  I don’t know of any cases.  There are a few (notably, a female Secret Service agent) who forget their purses in some public place, but none of those have caused a problem. There are also occasional reports, I’ve heard 2 over the years, of male law officials who had to take their gun out of their belt holster to use a rest room or dressing room, and left it behind; women with guns in purses never have this problem. Most women are very conscious of purse safety, and are even more so when they know there is a gun there.

If you carry this way, you should use either a purse specifically designed for concealed carry (Gallo, Kramer, SecurePurse, Coronado, and many other sources are easy to find on the web) or one that has a separate compartment suitable for a firearm.  That means a compartment that won’t open even if your purse is dumped accidentally, and one that won’t allow other things in your purse to press through the divider to reach the trigger.

Whichever type of purse you use, you must keep it under your control at all times, to keep it away from any young, curious fingers that might be around, and also irresponsible adults.

Gun purses should always have a shoulder or cross-body strap, because the purse will need to be supported as you use two hands to get the gun out.  This also helps to distribute the extra weight of the gun.  Carrying a gun in a clutch purse or purse with handles is decidedly inferior to using a shoulder bag.

Never, ever allow your gun to mix with the other things you carry around.  That would put you in danger of flashing, or, worse, dropping your piece when you reach for your keys or your wallet.  It would also allow movie ticket stubs, candy wrappers, and other detritus to make its way into contact with your gun or holster, and contact can cause catastrophe.

Many concealed carry purses have internal holsters that are held in place with adjustable Velcro.  These holsters may slow down your draw a bit, but are extremely useful in protecting the trigger from unintentional operation, and in keeping the gun perfectly positioned where you need it for a smooth, consistent draw.  If you aren’t using an internal holster, you need to be scrupulous about protecting the trigger and muzzle, and keeping the gun from “printing” through the leather.  I’ve used pieces of cardboard to reinforce both the external and internal sides of the gun compartment to achieve these goals.

Here’s another undisputed fact.  Drawing from a purse takes longer than drawing from a holster on your belt.  Exactly how much longer depends on a lot of factors, including: the size of your purse and gun, the location and type of closure on the gun compartment (zipper or Velcro), whether there is an internal holster, and how often you practice this drawing maneuver.  Practice is essential.

Years ago, in another article for this very magazine, I carefully timed my draw from a purse and several other holster types.  The purse was as fast as a practiced draw from an ankle holster.  Since ankle holsters are considered adequate for backup guns for police, purse carry can be considered equivalent to having only a backup gun.  If you know that, and are OK with it, then a purse might be your choice, particularly if you live in a place, or work in a place where you could get into real trouble if your gun were to be seen.  Concealed must mean CONCEALED, and purses provide one of the deepest, most reliable forms of concealed carry.

There is another way around the problem of a slow draw.  If your attacker is close to you, say closer than about 20 feet, especially if he is moving toward you quickly, don’t take the time to draw the gun completely out of the purse.  Just draw it far enough to get a good shooting grip, point the purse and gun at your assailant, and pull the trigger, shooting right through the purse.

Yes, this works, and it works extremely well.  If there is time, of course, it is better to draw the gun completely, bring it up so you can get a sight picture before you fire, but there isn’t always that much time, and firing the gun from inside the purse is a tremendous shortcut.

Here, however, the guy and I had a major difference of opinion.  I know, from my early experimentation with shooting through purses obtained from Goodwill, that a revolver, particularly one with a hidden hammer, will fire all its rounds very reliable through the purse.  A semi-auto, however, will fire only one shot, and then will reliably stop working, usually with a stovepipe jam, because there is not enough room inside the purse for the slide to operate properly.  Every semi I tried turned into a one shot gun when shot through a purse; every revolver could fire all its ammo.

My conclusion was that if you are going to carry frequently in a purse, a revolver is a better choice.  The chance that someone will get close to you before becoming a threat is very real.  If he is close, or even grabbing you, shooting through the purse is your best option, and having 5 or 6 reliable rounds that way is much better than having a high capacity magazine that stops working after one round.

The man I was corresponding with had a different approach.  He recommended carrying a semi, drawing it fully and aiming if there was time, but if not here is the process he advocated.  Draw the gun enough to get a firing grip inside the purse.  Step into your attacker and press the muzzle hard against his body.  Fire one round, point blank.  The “expanding bubble of burning propellant” will disrupt vital areas of his body by suddenly “pressurizing the thoracic” cavity with “high-velocity blast forces”, and he will go down.  Then fully draw the gun, clear the stoppage, and continue to fire at any accomplices he may have who are still a threat.  He argued that if a woman practiced this process of shooting once, drawing, clearing, and then shooting again, she would save the reaction time that would normally be needed to determine that her gun had jammed.  She would always be able to go straight to the clearing after the first shot.

I see three problems with this, at least.  The first is that his process requires the attacker to be in contact with you when you fire your first shot.  That might happen, but there are many, many other, more likely situations in which you are better off shooting while he is still a few feet away.

The second is his assumption that just one contact shot is all that will be needed to take him out of action.  He believes that the gasses from the muzzle of a semi, at contact, will produce gasses powerful enough to kill, as well as the bullet.  But the space inside the purse, the material of the purse, and any coat or clothing on the attacker may dissipate the gas bubble, even if you do manage to get a contact shot.  Every major shooting school teaches that you can’t count on any gun/ammo/technique to result in a reliable one shot stop.  Sure, sometimes they do occur, but not reliably. That’s why police and private citizens are taught to expect to have to keep shooting until the attacker is no longer a threat. So, being able to shoot several quick shots from a revolver is better than having to draw the gun and clear it after the first shot.

The third is that no matter how carefully one practices his suggested maneuver, in real life, in a life or death situation where an attacker is already on top of you and perhaps has friends behind him, you won’t be able to smoothly draw the gun, rack the slide, and get back into the fight in a timely manner.

My conclusion is that, though a revolver might be preferable, carrying a semi in a purse is OK if you clearly understand the tradeoffs.  With a revolver, you can shoot multiple times through the purse if necessary to stop an adversary who is close to you, or upon you.  With as semi, you should draw the gun before shooting, which means that you have to be able to recognize a serious threat who is rather far away from you. (The exact distance will depend on your purse, holster, and amount of drawing practice.)

I’d really like to take a poll of Women&Guns readers.  If you carry in a purse, do you carry a revolver, or a semi-auto?  Do you plan to shoot through the purse if necessary, or to always draw the gun fully?

Answer via email, and I’ll provide the results in a future article here.

This article first appeared in the Mar-Apr 2010 issue of Women&Guns magazine.  Copyright © 2010 Lyn Bates