Everything You Need to Know To Get a Grip on a Pistol
Out of all the new shooters I have ever worked with, and I mean the people who have never fired a pistol, there seems to be one thing they are all afraid of: the pistol flying out of their hands.
Don’t get me wrong, that can happen. It’s impressively unlikely though and requires pretty unique circumstances to pull off. Point notwithstanding, they all seem to fear that one thing over all else.
And why wouldn’t they? Through modern machining, humanity has developed the ability to take a tiny explosion and contain it. We wrap that little ball of kinetic energy in some metal and moving parts, and we hold it in our hand.
When you put it that way, maybe there is something to be concerned about….
So why don’t pistols go flying across the range? Why should we not succumb to this fear that is seemingly universal to new shooters? Because we get a grip on it. (shooting puns anyone?)
The grip on a pistol is where the rubber meets the road in marksmanship. A shooter can have a perfect stance, body position, and breath control. They can also have rock-solid sight alignment, proper sight picture, and silky smooth trigger control.
So what ties those two sets of fundamentals together? Their grip.
An improper pistol grip will tweak their stance, throw off their sights and wreak havoc on their trigger control. The grip is the glue that ties the plan together.
What is a Good Pistol Grip?
Before we get down to brass tacks with gripping a pistol, we must address a fundamental matter of inequality. Not all hands are the same size or capable of the same grip strength; therefore, not all pistol grips will fit all hands. There, got that out of the way.
Having a proper grip on a pistol does require a certain amount of grip strength. Consider that you are effectively holding a small explosion in your hand, and you’ll begin to understand why we need to have grip strength.
Now, you don’t have to have Popeye forearms to properly grip your pistol. Far from it. The average adult has more than enough grip strength to effectively fire a pistol. It is, however, important enough that you can’t just dismiss it. And if you find that your grip strength may be lacking, there are easy to perform exercises to correct that.
Key Features of a Proper Pistol Grip and Why We Need It
Since we’re talking about grip strength, when employing any good shooting grip, how much pressure should the shooter exert?
The textbook answer is that it should be a 60/40 split support hand to strong hand. Or is it 40/60 split…..? The real answer is, you won’t know anyway. Do you know what 60% grip should feel like? I know I don’t and I’ve been shooting over a decade. Don’t get lost in the numbers.
As it turns out, the grip pressure you need is developed through practice.
Coaches used to say “squeeze the gun until your knuckles turn white.” Not only did that rapidly fatigue the hands, but it didn’t really improve accuracy. More than likely, it detracted from accuracy. What happens when you grip something really hard? Your hands shake. A pistol is no different.
We also don’t want to simply hold the pistol in a loose grip either.
Semi-automatic pistols require recoil to operate the slide, eject the spent casing, and feed a new round from the magazine. If the shooter holds the pistol too loosely, a ‘limp-wrist’ malfunction can result. This occurs when the shooter does not provide enough resistance for the slide to cycle.
Think of it this way. If I mounted your pistol to a bench (something that doesn’t move at all) then all the recoil would be forced toward the only thing that will move: the slide. But if I somehow laid your pistol down on a table and magically fired it, the recoil would send the entire gun sliding across the table. In the second scenario, the slide would not cycle because the path of least resistance is by sliding across the table.
So a certain amount of force is necessary when gripping our pistols. Aside from possibly causing a malfunction, if the grip is too loose your hands may come apart after every shot. Not only is this ineffective for the initial shot, but you will have a hard time maintaining repeated shots when you have to reset your grip after every round.
Practice. Learn to work the balance between shaking hands and having to reset your grip after every shot because the pistol moved your hands apart.
While practicing, concentrate on using your bottom three strong hand fingers to firmly pull the gun straight back into the webbing of the strong hand. Also work on using the meaty portion of the support hand to squeeze the gun into the palm of the strong hand. Concentrate on firm even pressure all the way around the grip.
If it helps, imagine the pistol grip is made of very dense clay in a long cylindrical shape. You need to maintain the cylindrical shape, but you want to make it thinner. Applying improper pressure at any one spot will miss-shape that part of the cylinder. But, even pressure all the way around will maintain the cylinder shape and make the hypothetical clay piece thinner.
A proper pistol grip, with good grip pressure, serves a major function: recoil management.
Any pistol is essentially a handheld explosion. Granted, we’ve engineered mechanisms to contain that explosion but the fact remains. When the pistol fires, there is recoil.
So we can break the recoil management task down into two parts: initial shot and follow-up shots.
The initial shot can be defined as the very first shot you fire after assuming a shooting stance, or, the first shot you fire with a newly assumed grip.
Regardless of how we define it, the initial shot is the first test of your grip. When the bullet is fired, the pistol will begin cycling (the slide will come back) and the muzzle will rise. A proper pistol grip will be able to maintain positive control of the pistol while it is cycling and will allow the gun to ‘track’ straight up and down.
Ever seen anyone physically drop a gun from the recoil? It happens.
Here is where a proper pistol grip truly shines. After you’ve fired the initial shot, and maintained control over the pistol, the muzzle needs to return to the target in a way where the sights are still aligned and you can take additional effective shots.
The most effective grip will allow you to actually fire those additional shots, repeating all the facets of the initial shot.
To put it all in a nicely wrapped box, a proper pistol grip will help you get your sights on target, will maintain control of the pistol during the actual recoil process, will return the pistol to the original position with sights still aligned, and be able to repeat this process without being adjusted.
Aligning the Sights
Good grip technique is also a core facet of proper sight alignment.
Want to brush up on sight alignment before moving on? By all means! Check out the Definitive Guide to Sight Alignment and then come on back!
So, sight alignment is when we properly align the front sight post within the rear sight aperture, having equal space on either side of the front sight post and the top of the front sight post even with the top of the rear sight aperture.
Part of achieving sight alignment is physically taking the time to manipulate the pistol to a position where sight alignment is achieved.
The other part of it is when your pistol ends up in a position where sight alignment naturally falls into position. If you consider all the ways a pistol can fit in the human hand, it seems almost impossible that a particular grip could effectively do most of the alignment work before the sights are even up to your eyes.
I’m here to tell you that, not only is it not impossible, but a proper grip will do most of the alignment work for you.
As you get further into this article, I will point out key ‘landmarks’ for certain parts of the hand to be. By applying those landmarks, and with practice, you will find that the sights are mostly aligned already as you bring the pistol up to your eye line.
Pro Tip: Once you master your grip, and with a lot of repeated practice with that grip, you will find that you will spend far less time aligning the sights. After a long while, you may even find that the sights align themselves… That’s all in your grip.
Keeping Possession of Your Pistol
This is an ancillary benefit of a good pistol grip, but it solves a very important problem. In the tragic event that you are in a situation where you are using your firearm defensively, it is incredibly important to make sure no one takes it from you.
Defensive gun events overwhelmingly happen at close range. If you present a firearm with the intention of defending yourself, there is a very distinct possibility that your would-be assailant may try to take it from you. The type of solid grip that makes for good shooting is also the type of solid grip that makes it hard to take your gun away.
Food for thought.
Properly Sized Handgun Grips
Let’s talk handgun grips and back straps. When I said that not all handguns fit all hands, it wasn’t just a fun play on words. Handgun grips come in all shapes and sizes; largely due to the size of the round fired by the pistol and capacity of the magazine.
Note: I should point out that magazine capacity means different things to different people. For someone in NY, for instance, magazines are limited to 10 rounds regardless (Author’s note: the NY SAFE Act allows magazines that can hold up to 10 rounds but may only be actually loaded with 7). The fact is, the pistols those 10-round magazines go in are capable of holding more than 10 rounds. The actual pistol itself is designed to hold a certain maximum amount of ammunition, and that amount is what determines grip size.
For instance, a Glock G43 is a compact 9mm pistol designed to hold six 9mm bullets. According to Glock’s website, the G43 grip is 1.06 inches wide, and the pistol is 4.25 inches tall.
In comparison, the Glock G19 is a 9mm pistol designed to hold 15 bullets. The grip is 1.26 inches wide, and the pistol is 5.04 inches tall.
“That’s only two-tenths of an inch difference!”
Keep in mind, both those numbers are for the diameter of the grip. So, if that grip was a perfect circle (they’re not, this is for demonstration purposes only) then the numbers would look more like 3.27 inches in circumference for the G43 and 3.96 inches in circumference for the G19. Now, we’re almost ¾ of an inch in difference. And I promise, the actual difference is greater than that.
There are a few reasons for this size difference but the prevailing one is magazine capacity. Both pistols fire the same caliber bullet, but the extra capacity of the G19 comes from the bullets being stacked almost next to each other in the magazine. In the pistol industry, the G19 is termed a ‘double stack’ pistol, and the G43 is a ‘single stack’.
Why is this important to grip? Well, like I mentioned previously, not all guns fit all hands. When the time comes to purchase a pistol, take your hand size into account. If you have small hands, consider trying a single stack pistol first.
In my experience with new shooters, frustration mounts easily. Trying to use a pistol that is too big for your hands can lead to a lot of missed shots and creeping doubt that maybe shooting isn’t for you. Don’t fall into that trap; shooting is for everyone! But don’t accidentally set yourself up for failure from the giddy-up. If you have small hands, consider learning on a single stack pistol.
Thankfully, some pistol manufacturers have also included interchangeable pieces to help us along the grip adventure. For instance, most Glock pistols purchased new will come from the factory with a few sets of interchangeable grips. These grips can add girth to the gripping surface, or extend the ‘beaver tail’ or ‘tang’ on the back of the gun.
Beaver tail? Tang? You got me. Let’s get the lingo out there so we all understand what I’m referencing.
On this amazing graphic of a Beretta 92, I’ve outlined the important pieces I will be discussing. Different guns will have different features, and I will try to call those out as it becomes necessary. For now, we will use this trusty Beretta.
Starting from the left and working our way around.
- Trigger Guard – surrounds the trigger. Your finger should remain outside the trigger guard until you are ready to fire.
- Magazine release – Can be in different places on different pistols but that is a fairly universal location. Knowing where that is located is important later on.
- Backstrap – The backstrap is the rear-most portion of the pistol grip.
- Tang – Also known as the ‘beaver tail’. You will hear me reference this often during this article.
- External hammer – Not all pistols have these. If your pistol does, it’s important to know where it is and how it moves.
- External Safety – Not all pistols have an external safety either, or the safety may be in a different place. Or, the pistol may have multiple safeties. Very important to know where your pistol safeties are, and how they operate.
While we are on the topic of safeties… This bad boy is the venerable 1911; an extremely popular handgun.
If you look on the backstrap (aren’t you glad I did the graphic?), you will notice that small piece sticking out under the tang.
That is a grip safety. In order to fire this weapon, that safety needs to be depressed. Thought grip was important before? Well with this 1911 the gun won’t even fire without a solid grip.
Enough with the backstory; moving on to actually gripping the pistol.
How to Hold a Handgun
If you haven’t figured out by now, most ‘guns’ have a huge variety of different parts. Different handguns require different grips, so I will be addressing grip as it relates to that particular style of handgun.
Also, the following is not the only way to grip a pistol. Consider this a foundational approach where I show you the pieces that may matter. Grip is ultimately a personal preference, so take what works and make something of it.
Semi-Automatic Pistol Grip – ‘Thumbs-Forward’ Two-Handed
Semi-automatic pistols are the variety of pistols that do not have a revolving chamber to hold ammunition and are recoil operated (meaning they have a slide). Both of the pistols in the graphics above are semi automatic.
For the demonstration of these grips, I will be using a Glock G17, a SIG Sauer P226 and a Smith & Wesson .38 Special.
To properly grip your semi-automatic pistol, start by taking your strong hand and firmly gripping the handgrip high up on the tang, with the center of the pistol roughly in line with the center of the wrist This is crucial to a good shooting grip.
Looking at this graphic, you can see the area inside the circle is where I am referencing. If you look closely, you can see that the meat of my hand is firmly up against the tang, to the point where the tang is creating a small ‘wave’ in the tissue. There is no space to be found there.
Now, it’s important to understand what too high on the tang means. The graphic below is a good demonstration of that.
This is a mistake you will only make once. The reason is when you fire the pistol the slide travels backwards to absorb recoil, eject the spent casing, and chamber a new round. Guess what happens when your hand is in the way of that slide moving?
If you guessed “my hand will not stop the slide from moving and I will get injured” then you’re right! Shooters affectionately call this ‘slide bite’. In all seriousness, the slide will travel in a very forceful way and the sharp edges on the bottom will slice your hand wide open. It hurts.
High grip on the tang is important. Not being too high is also important.
The fingers of the strong hand will wrap around the pistol grip. It’s important to note that the top of the middle finger should be directly underneath the bottom of the trigger guard, and there should be no open space between the palm and the side of the handgrip.
If the middle finger is not touching the trigger guard, then there is a good chance the pistol is not properly ‘seated’ in the hand.
Gaps in the palm grip will allow the pistol to move inside the hands when firing. No gaps means maximum surface contact between palm and pistol grip surface.
Now, your trigger finger should be placed alongside the slide (referred to as ‘indexing’) until you are ready to fire.
While aiming, manipulating or otherwise handling a pistol, the trigger finger never enters the trigger guard until you are ready to fire. Hence one of the ironclad firearms safety rules: Keep your finger straight and off the trigger until you are ready to fire.
Herein lays a trap, though. Many shooters, myself included occasionally, will press against the slide with their trigger finger. It’s an unconscious process and happens namely because the finger is there and touching the gun. As far as the brain is concerned, that finger can be used to stabilize the pistol.
That creates a problem.
The image below shows what happens when the pressure is removed from that finger. The sights will shift.
If the shooter is not carefully aware of this, their sights will shift every time they take the pressure off the index finger and place it inside the trigger guard.
The space for the support hand on the grip is created by the ends of the support fingers and the bottom of the strong hand thumb.
The image to the right has a red line showing where the meaty portion of the support hand thumb will rest.
This is important to recognize because the goal is to have as much flesh in contact with as much pistol grip, as possible. The more surface contact, the better stabilized the grip will be.
This grip is called the ‘thumbs forward’ two-handed grip. It is widely considered the most stable two-handed grip for recoil management and repeated shots. It is also the only grip taught by the US Marine Corps and many leading US law enforcement agencies.
Key Features of the Thumbs-Forward Two-Handed Grip
Some key things to consider when employing the thumbs-forward grip.
- To achieve maximum stability and recoil absorption, the support hand wrist needs to be ‘locked’. We achieve this by pointing the support thumb straight at the target, fingers angled towards the ground. By doing this, we create a straight line from the thumb joint, through the wrist and up into the support arm, allowing the bones of the wrist and arm to absorb recoil.
- The strong hand thumb needs to be over the support hand, at an angle, to lock the grip in. More importantly, by attempting to leave the strong hand thumb along the slide, there is a really good chance the thumb will rest on the slide release, providing just enough pressure to keep the slide from locking to the rear when the magazine is empty.
Semi-Automatic Pistol Grip – One-Handed
The one-handed grip for a semi-automatic pistol is very simple and is something you’ve already learned. Remove the support hand from the thumbs-forward two handed grip. Tada! You have now mastered the one-handed pistol grip.
The only extra trickery involved in one-handed shooting comes at the shooters own preference.
For one-handed shooting, the shooter can either keep the pistol straight upright as they normally shoot, or they can slightly tilt the weapon to the inside. Either are acceptable practices for one-handed shooting. Keep in mind, pistols want to recoil straight up from the top of the slide. If you tilt the pistol, the weapon will still want to recoil up in relation to the top of the slide. That new direction may make the pistol act in ways you won’t expect at first. Practice with it.
The revolver is a different beast entirely from the semi-automatic pistols we were just discussing. Revolvers are entirely mechanically operated, as opposed to the recoil operated semi-autos. They can be either double-action only, single-action only, or capable of both (SA/DA).
For a double action shot, the shooter pulls the trigger, the mechanical parts inside the gun rotate the chambers (the ‘wheel’ part of the gun that gives it the name ‘wheel gun’), and pull back the hammer. The hammer will reach its release point (called the ‘sear’) and the hammer will fall, striking the primer and firing the bullet. Two actions performed at once (rotate chamber, pull back hammer).
For a single action shot, the shooter has to manually pull back the hammer until it locks into place. As the hammer is being pulled back, the chambers will rotate. Pulling the trigger simply releases the hammer which then strikes the primer and fires the bullet. Single action performed (releasing the hammer).
A combination DA/SA revolver can be operated in either fashion at the shooters preference.
“What does this have to do with grip??”
Rest easy, my friend. Our grip will be different depending on the type of revolver we are firing. Let’s get into it.
Single Action Revolver Grip
Since it’s not terribly likely that any of us are competition ‘wheel gunners’, we can safely assume that single action revolver shooting is more of a slow-paced process.
The strong hand will grip the revolver much like it would for a semi-auto. If the gun is equipped with a tang, then the meaty part of the strong hand will up against it. Not all revolvers have tangs, though, so you have to be careful where you place your hand. My .38 Special does not have a tang.
The support hand is going to assist in the grip much like a semi-auto, except for one glaring difference. The thumbs.
SAFETY STAND DOWN
Before we move any further, I need to make sure we all understand the following point.
Under no circumstances should your revolver grip ever resemble this photo.
The reason is that revolvers are not like semi-autos. Semi-autos have chambers that are entirely enclosed within the slide and barrel. When the weapon fires, the ejection port is angled away from the shooter, preventing them from getting hit with any products of combustion.
Revolvers do not have ejection ports.
Directly underneath the red arrow is where some explosive gases from firing the bullet will come out. Essentially, right into my thumb.
Depending on the shot load and how the revolver is designed, this can result in grievous injury to that poor thumb. Please, please, be careful in this respect. Many people have been seriously injured by not respecting this critical design difference.
OK, back to the regularly scheduled program.
Two-Handed Single-Action Revolver Grip – Thumb-Wrap
So when the support hand meshes with the strong hand we need to put our thumbs somewhere that isn’t next to the chamber. Since we are operating a single-action revolver here, the preferred grip will be the ‘thumb-wrapped’ grip.
For a good thumb-wrapped grip, the strong thumb will fall down alongside the weapon frame and the support thumb will go over the top of the strong hand. The key feature here is: we use the support thumb to work the hammer.
Remember, unless the hammer is already back, single action only revolvers will not fire by pulling the trigger alone. The hammer must be manually pulled back by the shooter.
Since we can never have a one-size-fits-all approach to firearms, you may discover that a thumb-wrap grip does not work for the revolver you are shooting.
That’s completely possible and understandable. This grip needs a fairly good match between pistol size and hand size. Too small or too large pistol frames will produce awkward and ineffective grips.
Don’t worry, we have a solution.
Two-Handed Single-Action Revolver Grip – Thumbs Tucked
As the heading implies, this grip involves tucking the thumbs versus wrapping the thumbs. The ‘tuck’ is nothing more than the support thumb pressed on top of the strong thumb, and both thumbs tucked into the side of the gun.
In the image to the right, you can see that the support thumb is almost ‘hiding’ the strong thumb underneath it.
For this grip, the support thumb will still operate the hammer for single-action shots. The downside is, the support thumb has to move slightly further distance to accomplish this.
Two-Handed Double-Action Revolver Grip
Double-action revolvers can use either of the above-mentioned grips. Because the revolver is cycling by simply pulling the trigger, no extra action is required on the part of the shooter.
Keep in mind, if you choose to use the thumb-wrap grip, be careful that your support thumb does not drift down and take up the space the hammer needs. That will prevent the hammer from reaching the sear and the shot from firing.
DA/SA revolvers can also be used with either grip at the shooter’s preference. I recommend that the shooter become familiar with one technique that works and stick to it. There is no benefit to constantly confusing muscle memory by trying different grips.
Research has shown that the human brain generally works appendages as groups. Your fingers, for instance, will usually move together unless you make a very conscious effort to isolate any one finger. This is referred to as ‘inter-limb interaction’. For shooting references, it is more commonly known as ‘sympathetic squeeze’.
This is primarily a trigger control issue so we’re only going to touch on it briefly.
Inter-limb interaction can be a grip issue because, as the brain moves the trigger finger on the trigger, the other fingers of the hand can move as well. This can subtly disrupt the grip and affect the shot.
The following image will show you exactly what I mean.
Pardon me while I toot my own horn here for a moment. Creating this image was difficult because I have put a lot of effort into isolating my trigger finger and preventing this. So un-learning that isolation was……interesting.
The point stands, you can see as my trigger finger pulls the imaginary trigger, the other fingers tighten as well. You can all see this in real life, right now. Just put your hand up and copy the what my hand is doing. I’ll wait.
Neat, right? Like I said, we can learn to isolate this effect and lessen its impact on our shooting. There are a few drills to be found online but I’ve also found doing exactly what is in the image is fairly effective. Watch your other fingers while you work your imaginary trigger. With practice, this effect will deaden considerably.
Note: pulling an air trigger does not require any effort. This effect is much more impactful when pulling an actual trigger.
So, for a right-handed shooter, this effect can often produce low-left shots. The reason is in the details. If you look closely, you can see that the tips of my fingers move the most followed by the first knuckle. With a pistol in my hand, those fingers will be ever so slightly twisting the gun to the left and pulling it ever so slightly down.
If you are a newer shooter, work on the big grip picture for now. File this under ‘things I should work on in a few months’.
If you are a more experienced shooter looking to dial in your shots, then see how your trigger finger is affecting your grip. It may be more noticeable than you first think.
Now let’s cover some improper grips.
- The Teacup – This grip is so famous it has a name. The real problem with the teacup is that your support hand is not exactly in the fight. Sure, it’s helping you hold up the pistol, but it really isn’t managing any recoil or helping you get your sights aligned.
- Now, this grip requires special mention. Tucked thumbs on a semi-auto used to be an acceptable grip. Right up until the thumbs-forward grip was pioneered in the early 1990s.
- The problem with the tucked thumbs grip on a semi-auto is it creates a gap between the support hand and the pistol grip. That gap allows movement.
- It may seem like putting the support index finger forward of the trigger guard is a great idea (provided your hands are big enough). It may even seem like the pistol is designed that way (some guns have a molded part of the trigger guard).
- The unfortunate fact is, getting that index finger out there will cause the barrel to pull downwards. A proper grip needs the support index finger under the trigger guard to keep the sights up and aligned.
- As mentioned previously, the thumbs are an integral part of locking in the two-handed grip. Not only does this feel unnatural to do, but it takes away the locking function of the thumbs.
- While I’m not particularly sure why someone would do this, I have seen it done.
- This concept may help stabilize a pistol for, what would otherwise be, a single-handed shot, but it also removes all the advantages of a two handed grip.
- If the strong thumb is inside the palm of the support hand, the support hand will not be able to get as much skin contact with the handgun.
- This will create gaps in the grip and cause the pistol to move when fired. Not to mention that this is likely to be very uncomfortable for that thumb.
Hit the Range
If there is something I always preach it’s “get out there and try it!”
Proper pistol grip is one of those things where I give you the foundation of the technique, but you have to fill in all the rest with what works for you, your body, and your situation.
Early on we covered that not all pistols fit all hands and not all hands fit all pistols. There are steps we can take to correct some of those things, like different hand grips, different pistols, strength training, etc., but we won’t know what won’t work until we try it.
Try out different grip pressures while keeping within the proper techniques. Practice keeping control of your pistol, getting the sights back on target, and executing good follow-up shooting.
More importantly, the proper pistol grip will make your accuracy better. The more accurate we are, the more fun we have, and the more shooting we will likely do. As it follows, the more shooting we do, the better we get, rinse and repeat.