There is a new trend among women and it has nothing to do with high heels or hemlines. Conversations about caliber and kick back are swirling as across the country, the number of female shooters is on the rise.
"More and more women are coming into gun ownership and the number of women participating in recreational shooting has risen exponentially," said Rachel Parsons of the National Rifle Association, which will hold its annual national convention April 29-May 1 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown. Included on the schedule is a women-only NRA Pistol Instructor Training class. (Registration ended Friday.)
The National Shooting Sports Foundation confirms the trend. In 2009, the last year for which the foundation has statistics, gun store owners reported a 73 percent increase in female customers. And while many of the women were using the guns for hunting -- there was a 28.5 percent increase in firearms bought for that purpose -- the number of women buying guns for personal defense increased 83 percent.
"Women are interested in learning how to use a gun," said Parsons, "not just frivolously going out and buying a firearm without being educated."
Men often tend to come into firearm ownership at a young age from the sporting side and later develop an interest in self-defense, but Parsons said women typically have an opposite introduction to guns, driven by feelings of vulnerability.
"Women tend to come in from the self-defense side and then realize this is really fun," she said.
In Wilkinsburg, Buddy Savage, owner of Braverman Arms, said training is imperative for women.
"They need it more," he said. "The average guy will grow up and slowly learn it from his dad because of some interest in hunting, but a lot of women didn't partake in that."
Responding to calls from women wanting to learn how to hunt and shoot in the company of other women, the NRA developed Women on Target in 1999 for women-only instructional shooting and hunting excursions. Parsons attributes the program's popularity to camaraderie among the women and a less intimidating environment in the absence of men.
The program has grown by almost 20 percent since its inception with 326 clinics and over 10,000 women attending events all over the United States and in Ireland. Three dozen shooting clinics were added this year, and attendance has jumped by more than 2,000.
"[Locally] there's no question that there are more females getting involved in shooting sports," said Savage. Interest in self-defense initially brings women into his store, with the pursuit of recreational shooting quickly following.
"Once they get over the stigma of associating the firearm with something negative, they associate it with something positive and they get more actively involved in it," he said. "They see there is some recreation involved in the use of firearms. They're getting more training while they're having fun."
Responding to the trend, shooting ranges and sportsmen's clubs are offering discounts to encourage women's membership and participation. Manufacturers also have taken notice and are issuing smaller women-specific guns with thinner grips and softer recoil.
Lori Lojak of Fawn and Tarra Hazlett of Curtisville were raised in families that hunted and have used firearms since they were children.
"It's just natural for me because I grew up with it," said Lojak. "I didn't even think twice about it."
Hazlett's firearm experience began at 8 years old with a BB gun and quickly progressed to target shooting and hunting. It's an interest she has passed down to her 8-year-old son, Cody, with whom she now hunts.
"At this age, I don't think he realizes that I'm not the norm," said Hazlett. "I'm definitely outside of the box."
Hazlett and Lojak plan to attend a Women in the Outdoors activity June 4 at Bull Creek Rod and Gun Club in Tarentum. The event is sponsored by the Allegheny Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation. Included among birding and gardening classes will be instruction on handguns, rifle marksmanship, trap shooting and archery. Lojak said Women in the Outdoors draws 30-40 women each year, most of whom have never handled a firearm.
She said fear among first-timers is present but short-lived.
"Once the women shoot that gun and they get comfortable with it, they love it," Lojak said. "It's hysterical, because the instructor starts out with these little guns and by the end of the class, they want to shoot the big guns."
Colleen Zaremski of West Deer said she was raised in an anti-gun family but changed her mind after attending a Women in the Outdoors event.
"I was born and raised by an Eastern Orthodox priest and you didn't touch [a gun]," she said. "There are gun advocates and then there is the polar opposite, which is what I grew up with."
Zaremski attended a Women in the Outdoors event with Hazlett where she signed up for trap shooting. It was an experience she said she'll never forget.
"It was amazing. It's such a powerful weapon, and just as powerful is the experience of shooting something out of the sky," she said.
Zaremski said she will definitely shoot again.
"It's very fun to shoot a gun," she said. "It's liberating and empowering. I would encourage every woman to try it."
At Yough School District in Herminie, firearms training starts early. The Yough Outdoors Club introduces boys and girls grades 9-12 to numerous outdoor activities, including recreational shooting. Paul Yackovich of West Newton instructs students on gun safety and oversees their hands-on experience at the Herminie No. 2 Game Association. Yackovich said he believes an early introduction into firearms training instills respect for their power.
"I think every kid should shoot a 12-gauge shotgun before becoming an adult to see what it's like," he said. "A lot of kids just don't have the opportunity."