With a steady hand and green eyes cold as ice chips, Monda Chisum aimed her .357-Magnum Smith & Wesson revolver at the man-shaped silhouette and squeezed off five quick rounds, creating a tight pattern of bullet holes in the target's larynx.
When the gun was empty and the smoke had cleared, Ms. Chisum's eyes warmed and her lips bowed in a don't-mess-with-me smile. She was practicing combat marksmanship the other day at the Top Gun California shooting range in South San Francisco with the intensity of someone preparing for the real thing. And she was.
"I don't want to hurt anyone, but that's not the issue," said the 35-year-old San Francisco woman, who makes her living as a chauffeur. "I have been threatened and there is a potential for real danger.
"I'm taking responsibility for my own life. You can't hand that responsibility to someone else."
Ms. Chisum is one of millions of women across the country who are taking up guns to protect themselves, their families and their property.
The National Rifle Association, the country's most powerful gun lobby, estimates that there are at least 17 million female gun owners in America. About 70 million Americans possess some 200 million firearms, according to the NRA.
Women make up the fastest growing segment of the firearms-purchasing population.
Gun manufacturers and dealers have discovered the potential of the female market -- which rose 53 percent between 1983 and 1986 -- and have begun to make guns specifically for women.
New magazines, such as Women & Guns advertise such needs as thigh holsters, quick-draw purses, lightweight guns and rifle recoil pads that slip conveniently under a bra strap.
But it was not advertising that made Ms. Chisum learn how to use a gun. It was her neighbor.
Ms. Chisum said she is being terrorized by a man in her Sutro Heights neighborhood who has a history of mental problems.
"Enough is enough. . . . If he steps into my house, I will shoot. I'll probably warn him first, but I will shoot him before he kills me, because he is a threat to my life."
Ms. Chisum is not alone in her convictions. Her friend and shooting coach Jacqulyn Hamilton, who has operated the Hamilton School for Self-Defense in San Francisco for the past 12 years, has seen a clear shift in attitude among her clients.
"During the past few years my clients have changed from exclusively men to mostly women," said Ms. Hamilton. Of the 600 students she has trained to shoot in the past 2 1/2 years, 530 were women.
"A lot of women come to me with a feeling of total powerlessness," said Ms. Hamilton, "and I'm trying to empower them. . . . A gun is just a tool -- it gives the edge to a smaller person."
In 1989, former gun-control advocate Paxton Quigley published her best-selling book, "Armed and Female," regarded by many as a clarion call to arms for American women and a primer on the selection and use of pistols for protection.
"Criminals understand the power of a gun," Ms. Quigley said. "If more women understood the power of a gun, there would be less rape.
"Police, courts and prisons can't protect women. We have to do it ourselves."