Ain’t She a Pistol? 10 Historic Gun Ads Featuring Women

It's well known that women are one of the fastest growing groups of shooters today. Not so well known, however, is that this isn't a new phenomenon. As early as and even before the American Revolution, women have been involved in the military –sometimes even passing as men in uniform. Some notable women, like Empress of Russia Catherine the Great (1729-1796), were avid shooters in an early age. And who hasn't heard of Annie Oakley?

Women have always been involved in firearms history, and by the late 19th and early 20th centuries, industries began marketing to this female clientele in various ways. In fact in 1902, Smith & Wesson marketed an entire line of pistols, known as the Ladysmith, to women. Although many of the ads miss their mark, or simply reflect the culture of the time and seem inappropriate today, their intentions were on target.

Here are 10 of those historic advertisements, ranging from the mundane to the downright cringe-worthy…but all are fascinating.

“The Summer Girl is always surrounded by admirers” Ad Originally appeared in Forest and Stream Magazine, July 23, 1898. Photo courtesy of Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, WY, USA; Gift of Roy Marcot, Tucson, Arizona. MS111 Roy Marcot Firearms Advertisement Collection, MAR.FORS.1898.7.23 In one sense, times haven’t changed much: Girls with guns get all the guys. This advertisement for a Marlin Model 1897 Rifle depicts a female shooter showing off her bull’s-eye target to male onlookers. While perhaps cliché, at least it was well known in the 19th century that women could be rock-star shots.
“Papa says it won’t hurt me” Ad appeared in McClare's Magazine, July 1, 1903; and Saturday Evening Post, 1913 Photo courtesy Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, WY, USA; Gift of Roy Marcot, Tucson, Arizona. MS111 Roy Marcot Firearms Advertisement Collection, IVJ.MCM.1903.7 & Google Images This Iver Johnson advertisement from 1903 proclaims “accidental discharge impossible,” which is good since Papa’s little girl has the muzzle of the barrel pointed straight at her eye. These types of ads depicting women and children were common in the early 20th century. Johnson continued that same type of advertising ten years later, in which Papa’s little girl is alive, well…and the same age? At least time has told her where not to point the barrel.
Johnson continued that same type of advertising ten years later, in which Papa’s little girl is alive, well…and the same age? At least time has told her where not to point the barrel.
“The Story of the Stevens, Tersely Told” Ad appeared in National Sportsman Magazine, September 1, 1905 Credit Line: Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, WY, USA; Gift of Roy Marcot, Tucson, Arizona. MS111 Roy Marcot Firearms Advertisement Collection, STEV.NS.1905.9 In 1905, Stevens not only used a female model for their ad, but also depicted her aiming her shotgun, apparently successfully, with her bird dog retrieving the result of the host. This advertisement showcases an open-minded nature of firearms marketing to acknowledge the female consumer. This is also a rare example of a female-centric gun ad that doesn’t have any text that refers back to the woman.
“It embodies the famous SMITH & WESSON qualities of beauty, grace, and extreme care in make-up and finish” Ad appeared in Munsey Magazine, July 1, 1907 Credit Line: Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, WY, USA; Gift of Roy Marcot, Tucson, Arizona. MS111 Roy Marcot Firearms Advertisement Collection, SMW.MM.1907.7 Here’s another ad that depicts a woman, yet doesn’t make any mention of her appearance because it was not peculiar for women to sport shoot. Note that the description of the gun itself has feminine beauty attributes.
“She will no longer feel a sense of helplessness when male members of the family are absent” Ad appeared in The Outing Magazine, August 1, 1907 Credit Line: Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, WY, USA; Gift of Roy Marcot, Tucson, Arizona. MS111 Roy Marcot Firearms Advertisement Collection, SMW.OM.1907.8 While Smith & Wesson was on point with the role of women in sport shooting, this advertisement from the same year sets a different tone. Advertisers then and now sometimes take a more fear-based approach to self-defense. In fact, the tone of this 1901 ad was not much different from a series of ads released over 50 years later.
“Isn’t it a Beauty?” Ad appeared in Outer's Book, October 10, 1914 Photo from Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, WY, USA; Gift of Roy Marcot, Tucson, Arizona. MS111 Roy Marcot Firearms Advertisement Collection, MAR.OB.1914.10 This Marlin Firearms ad depicts a woman and her slide-action shotgun with the caption, “Isn’t it a beauty?” At least we know they were referring to the gun, wink wink nudge nudge.
“Now you won’t feel afraid” Ad appeared in Collier's National Weekly, May 11, 1918 Credit Line: Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, WY, USA; Gift of Roy Marcot, Tucson, Arizona. MS111 Roy Marcot Firearms Advertisement Collection, IVJ.CNW.1918.5.11 This advertisement sits in stark contrast to Iver Johnson’s Papa Says It Won’t Hurt Me ad. It starts out with, “The thoughtful soldier gives his wife a good automatic revolver before he joins the colors.” Directed at soldiers going off to war, it doesn’t use overly flowery language to emphasize safety for the home front.
“It’s the greatest sport of man or woman” Ad appeared in Rod and Gun (Canada), June 1, 1919 Credit Line: Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, WY, USA; Gift of Roy Marcot, Tucson, Arizona. MS111 Roy Marcot Firearms Advertisement Collection, DCC.RGC.1919.6 This Dominion Shotgun Shells advertisement from Canada highlights the interest of sport shooting for both men and women. It doesn’t rely on gimmicks, but instead treats both as equals on the range.
“Mrs. Harrison says that any woman can break more targets with an Ithaca” National Sportsman, October 1, 1921 Photo from Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, WY, USA; Gift of Roy Marcot, Tucson, Arizona. MS111 Roy Marcot Firearms Advertisement Collection, ITH.NS.1921.10 Unique for its time, this advertisement features a female competitive shooter to help sell the product to women… although it would be nice to know her first name.
“Our women-folk are mighty independent now-a-days” photo from Wordpress.com The line “and yet, sometime, the handsome officer and his Colt may not be there to catch his cue and save ‘the maiden in distress” is particularly smarmy. At least the copy encourages women to shoot. After all, it safe…“even for ‘her.’”