Anyone who still thinks big-game hunting is exclusively an outdoors gentlemen's club needs to think again. Women make up one of the fastest-growing segments of the community of hunting and shooting enthusiasts.
Educational programs such as "Becoming an Outdoors Woman" and others are having a solid effect on helping women enter what has traditionally been a man's world. Women are finding that teaming up with friends or challenging the woods solo provides new experiences.
Of 18.5 million active hunters in the United States, 12 percent, or 2.3 million, are women, according to 2003 statistics from the National Sporting Goods Association. The survey defines hunters as people 7 years old and older who hunted more than once in the past year.
The research also found that more than 700,000 women hunt frequently, defined as 20 or more times per year. In addition, 3.8 million of America's 17 million target shooters are women.
Matching a rifle to a shooter is one of the most important components of the hunting experience. Some of the heavier shoulder-thumping cartridges that may be acceptable for a man are unsuitable for most women or young hunters.
Fortunately, there are many excellent rifles and cartridges for women.
Kevin Howard, who manages media communications for Winchester ammunition, said most women are more comfortable with a cartridge that has minimal recoil.
But, he added, "It must be powerful enough to take the game."
He likes some well-established cartridges, including the .243 Winchester, .308 Winchester, 7mm-08 Remington and 6mm Remington.
"All these rounds are available with a variety of bullets that can meet the need of hunters seeking medium-sized game," Howard said.
Karen Lee, editor of the National Wild Turkey Federation's Women in the Outdoors magazine, hunts with the venerable .243 Winchester cartridge, long popular with deer hunters in the South. Like many female hunters, she finds that "youth model" rifles, sized for smaller frames, best fit her stature, although some women work with gunsmiths to have rifles -- and shotguns -- custom-fit.
"I killed my last deer with a Remington ballistic-tip bullet," she said. "And I used a 3-9x40 scope by Nikon. It was a good setup for me. I'm not an experienced deer hunter, so it was important that I had something I was comfortable with. And because I'm sort of small in stature, the youth gun was the ticket."
Karen Lutto runs her own public relations company specializing in the outdoors and has hunted big game in many locations around North America and Africa.
"Until recently ... [my] favorite all-around rifle was my Remington Model 700 in the .280 [caliber]," she said. "I have used this on deer, antelope and bear, mainly just changing the bullet.
"I also have a Browning .257 Roberts that I used to take my very first big game animal," she said. "While I absolutely love this rifle and this caliber, it is not always easy to find ammunition.
"I have gotten spoiled now by having a custom gun built," she continued. "I chose the .308 because it is a great all-around caliber, easy to find ammunition and can knock down just about anything in North America and abroad, except perhaps buffalo and elephant. ... This is the rifle package I'm taking to Africa this year for some plains game."
Buck Pope of Arizona is a longtime gun writer who has tested many of the calibers suggested for women hunters. His top recommendation for them would be the .25-06 Remington cartridge, closely followed by the 7mm-08 and the .260 Remington.
"The .25-06 is a good long-range, flat-shooting cartridge. It has a little more recoil, but it's manageable," Pope said. "It's a solid 300-yard choice. With the right conditions and proper bullet, you can hunt everything up to the biggest deer."
The 7mm-08 and .260 are short-action cartridges. The length of the cartridge is appreciably shorter than standard cartridges, making it easier to cycle the bolt on a bolt-action rifle. The cartridges' design creates an efficient rate of powder burn, which gives bullets serious velocity when leaving the muzzle of a short-action rifle.
Bullets for the 7mm-08 can weigh 140 grains, with 130 grains popular among hunters seeking deer. The rifle also has enough oomph to take on black bear.
A recent trend has leaned toward rifles chambered for ammunition, such as Winchester's "super short magnum" cartridges, that are shorter and fatter than anything previously designed, Howard said.
"The .243 Winchester Super Short Magnum and .25 WSSM ... deliver more velocity and energy but are shot out of a shorter action and lighter rifle," Howard said. "The .243 WSSM delivers more velocity than the .243 Winchester, and recoil is minimal. The .25 WSSM produces practically the same ballistics as a .25-06 but in a rifle action two sizes shorter.
"Both are excellent choices for deer-sized game but can also be used for other animals," he said.
Rifles chambered in a short-action or a super short-action are more compact, Howard added.
"The real advantage for women is they can handle the weight, length and recoil of these guns," he said. "Being able to easily hold and shoot the rifle will make them better and more confident shooters."
For more info
Women wanting to break into hunting or shooting sports have a wealth of resources available.
1. The NRA's Women on Target program offers shooting clinics and beginner hunts. (800) 861-1166; www.nrahq.org/women
2. In addition to firearms training, Becoming an Outdoors Woman offers classes and seminars covering a variety of outdoor activities. (877) 269-6626; www.uwsp.edu/cnr/bow
3. The National Wild Turkey Federation's Women in the Outdoors offers outdoor skills workshops designed primarily for women and girls 14 and older. Events are held throughout the United States. (800) 843-6983; www.nwtf.org/wito
4. A good way to select a hunting rifle is to try a few. Pick one that matches your physical capabilities and offers the performance for your needs. Check ballistics tables, comparing performance. Many major ammunition manufacturers' Web sites have this information. www.remington.com and www.winchester.com
Ken Perrotte is a freelance writer in King George, Va.