August 17, 2023
Years back, while attending an international law enforcement training conference, I sat with a number of firearms trainers and listened to them debate the correct grip for the semiautomatic pistol. One advocated thumbs locked down while another pushed for thumbs up. One even made the case for the thumbs being held away from the frame, so they wouldn’t apply undue pressure on the side of the gun, pushing the muzzle off target. I sat quietly and didn’t get involved for several reasons. One, if I’m talking, I’m not listening and it’s through listening that I learn. Two, I don’t really think the thumbs matter when it comes to applying a proper firing grip to a pistol, and I am going to tell you why.
What The Thumbs Do
Try something for me. Make a tight fist with your dominate hand and hold it. While retaining the fist, straighten the thumb forward and then up. Did the position of the thumb affect how tightly you could hold your fingers? Probably not, the hand is an amazing mechanism.
The truth is your shooting-hand thumb could be half gone and you’d still be able to grip a pistol. The shooting hand applies inward pressure, from front to back, as if you’re squeezing a pair of pliers. The front and back straps of the pistol are what the shooting hand engages, leaving the side-to-side pressure to the support hand. This front-to-back pressure is both good and bad: It’s consistent with the rearward travel of the trigger, thus the index finger can efficiently depress (apply a consistent pressure to a breaking point) the trigger. It also allows the three lower fingers to cam the muzzle down which will help control recoil, i.e., muzzle flip, by applying angled rearward pressure to the front strap. This is the same reason that it’s bad. Because the hand is a sympathetic mechanism, it’s very hard to separate the trigger finger from the rest of the hand, and, as we all know, a convulsive grip of the entire hand will take the muzzle off target. After all, the grip frame is a lever and depending on the distance, this could cause us to miss our target completely.
The shooting hand must be as high in the tang/beavertail as possible, as any gap will give recoil a path to travel. Many people think the tang is nothing more than a guard from “slide bite,” which is not true! The tang is actually a lever to hold the muzzle down. The higher and tighter the hand is to the tang, the harder it is for the muzzle to rise. In addition, getting the shooting hand high and as close to the bore line as possible will also help control muzzle flip while aiding the hand and arm’s ability to point the gun to the target naturally. The pistol needs to be in alignment with the bones of the forearm for the best leverage against recoil. A gun canted one way or the other in the hand will result in added felt recoil while also damaging the shooting hand thumb over time.
Side-to-side pressure is applied by the support hand, as if it’s squeezing a rubber ball. The finger tips are applying pressure toward the heel of the hand which is on the open side of the pistol grip and, once again, the thumb doesn’t come into play. If the support hand is going to make maximum contact with the grip, the heel of the hand needs to make as much contact as possible with the available grip surface. The finger tips should be working to keep pressure against the outer part of the shooting hand thus holding the heel tight to the grip panel. This being the case, you need to vacate that area allowing the hand to be seated. This means the shooting-hand thumb must be flagged or at least moved out of the way, which a thumbs-down grip can hinder. If the shooting thumb is locked down when the support hand attempts to apply inward pressure, there may be a gap in the grip. In addition, a downward shooting thumb can also create a gap at the grip tang. Again, any areas lacking hand-to-grip contact can provide recoil with a travel path.
By removing the shooting thumb from the exposed grip panel, the heel of the support hand can fill the space left by the shooting hand. Then, the support fingers can wrap around the fingers of the shooting hand. The support hand squeezes inward on the grip and shooting hand, creating 360-degree contact around the gun’s frame. The support hand should be high up in the grip and not be permitted to slide down. If the hand slides below the bottom of the grip and inward pressure is applied, it can move the muzzle off target, something that happens quite often with shorter-frame concealment pistols. This high grip also cams the support hand fingers down which, when wrapped around the shooting hand fingers on the front strap, will aid in controlling recoil, especially in rapid fire.
The 360-Degree Wrap
Why is full contact so important? Because it keeps the gun on target through bullet launch and the recoil that results. If the gun doesn’t return to its pre-fire position without effort, overall shooting effectiveness suffers greatly. When the gun fires, it sends a bullet down the barrel and the slide assembly moves to the rear. Recoil actually travels backward, but the shooting hand applying forward pressure makes the muzzle rise as it seeks the path of least resistance. By applying continuous 360-degree contact around the gun’s grip, which includes backward pressure to the gun’s front strap by the shooting and support hand fingers and applying a slight forward lean through the upper body and arms into the gun, muzzle rise can be greatly reduced or eliminated. If a gap in the grip is evident, the gun will torque in that direction making it more difficult (read, slower) to get back on target quickly for fast follow-up shots. We see this in action when shooters re-grip between shots or can be seen wiggling the gun re-acquiring or re-aligning the sights. All that extra work takes time that could be used to deliver accurate, follow-up fire.
I’m sometimes asked why fast follow-up shots are so important. As if, at the sound of the buzzer or realization of danger, no one ever misses with their first round. In a fight, any miss or delay could be life threatening. In competition, it could mean the difference between first place or tenth. In my opinion, the best indicator of whether or not you have a good grip and body position is the gun returning from recoil back on to target, right where it started before it was fired.
Another frequent question I get, “How tight should the two hands be?” After all, we’ve all heard of applying something like 60/40 pressure to the grip, meaning that 40 percent of the grip is applied by the shooting hand while 60 percent is applied by the support hand. Is this parsing necessary? I think not. As a matter of fact, I think it makes it harder to control the gun. Try making a fist with your shooting hand, and hold it as tight as possible. Now release just your index finger and move it as if it were pressing the trigger on your pistol. Notice how the other fingers loosen up a bit? It’s something that just happens, so don’t worry about how tight to grip the gun. Just apply as much pressure as you can maintain and your shooting hand will compensate for the movement of the index finger. Then, focus on proper trigger control, and the rest will fall in place.
To be clear, the key here is to keep the hands as tight as you can maintain consistently. You don’t want your hands “convulsing” while working the trigger. It is quite easy to let the hands loosen as the gun is fired. Also consider this; if part of the problem with trigger control is tightening and loosening the whole hand, then does having a loose hand to start with make sense? Keep in mind when bullets fly in your direction everything will tighten up. Trust me on this.
Now, back to the thumbs. Are the thumbs important for combative shooting? I think so, but it has nothing to do with applying grip pressure. I like the thumbs forward, as they offer a secondary sighting device when trying to get the gun on target during the pandemonium of armed conflict. The thumbs-forward grip also helps lock the wrists to control recoil. (That recoil thing seems to be a continual theme, doesn’t it?) Locked wrists and an aggressive upper body will keep the gun on target even when shooting quickly.
Please pay attention to what I am going to say next: You must place the gun on target! You can’t just fling it out quickly and hope for a hit. Way too many shooters are more concerned about the readout on the timer than they are the holes in the target. Accuracy trumps speed, always has, always will. And remember, you aren’t simply aiming sights at the target, you are pointing the muzzle. Since that’s where the projectile leaves the launcher, pointing the muzzle should be a deliberate act, not necessarily a fast one. Go slow to go fast and learn how to accurately point the muzzle. The forward thumbs can really help here.
Make a fist and point it at a friend. Have the friend grip your hand and work it back and forth flexing the wrist. Then, do the same thing again, except point the thumb forward. Notice how the wrist is locked and much harder to break? Now, take your empty hand and hold it as if you’re gripping a pistol with your thumb straight forward. Separate your index finger, as if it were on the trigger face. Look at an item on the wall 15-20 feet away, and point your thumb at it as if you were extending a pistol to shoot. Notice how the “gun” comes naturally into your eye/target line? The felt aspects of shooting are grossly underrated.
What do I mean by this? All too often, shooting is made into a visual exercise with instructions such as, “Look at the front sight before pressing the trigger,” or, “You won’t be able to see the front sight due to stress; you’ll focus on the threat.” The problem is that the eyes have nothing to do with shooting the gun. Shooting is a kinesthetic exercise and it should be thought of as such. When does the front sight/dot come into play when shooting a handgun? At the last moment before the trigger is pressed, after the gun has already arrived between the shooter’s eye line and the target. What got the gun to this point in the process? That’s right, body manipulation, thus the sights are just an aid to alignment, not the whole process.
Proper Body Manipulation
Does anyone really think they can thrust their pistol out in front of their body, chase down the front sight/dot and get a quick and accurate shot by relying on the sights alone? Even the father of front-sight use, Jeff Cooper, stated, “The body aims, the sights confirm.” Colonel Cooper advocated a “flash sight picture” which is not a hard sight focus but a quick reference of the front sight through the rear sight’s window. In reality, it is practiced body movement and manipulation that gets the gun to the eye/target line quickly and accurately. By using the felt index of the thumbs-forward grip — like stabbing a spear — the accuracy of this movement is enhanced.
Am I advocating point shooting? Not really, as I don’t see a big difference between the two techniques. If a person uses their sights to confirm proper body manipulation and weapon alignment when delivering their pistol to target, I’m not too concerned if they’re sight- or threat-focused during an actual event. And, as long as the gun arrives where it’s needed, does it really matter? The shot is more likely to be missed due to improper trigger control and grip manipulation than sight alignment!
The handgun is controlled by two things: A proper grip applied to the pistol in a 360-degree full-contact fashion, and the straight rearward travel of the trigger. Sights are nice to confirm that the body did what it was supposed to, but they’re not so critical in a close-quarters gunfight.
Should you use them if you can? Hell yes! But if you can’t, proper body motion will likely get it there for you if you’ve taken the time to note how it feels to properly deliver the gun to the target. Recreating that feel — from proper grip to pistol delivery — is worth practicing and, if sight focus/confirmation helps anchor this, then what’s the harm? Obtaining a proper grip on the gun including locked wrists, proper trigger control and forward body position are all kinesthetic exercises and must be practiced correctly or they’ll do you no good when you need them. These are basic, foundational skills — the fundamentals, or, what I prefer to think of as “essentials.” Remember, as Bruce Lee so eloquently said, “Advanced skills are the basics mastered.”
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