Get a Grip—Part I

Those of us who have been shooting, even for a relatively short time, (should) have discovered that good shooting is entirely dependent upon consistency. One reason why the military is so inextricably wedded to regimentation is that it enforces the notion of consistency—dependable results come from dependable behavior. I abhor regimentation as it comes from other people, which is why I never went into the military, consequently enforcing it upon myself has always been a challenge. Nonetheless, I have managed to screw together enough—just barely—self-discipline to develop some consistency to become a passable shot.

As most of you know, I have been teaching a few seniors from my church the basics of pistol shooting. The foundation of good pistol shooting—after committing to the four (some now say five) rules of safety—is a consistent grip on the firearm. Without that, nothing else matters. You can get a great sight picture; have excellent trigger and breath control, but if you grip your pistol or revolver differently each time, your accuracy will suck. A few of my students seem to have difficulty with this.

It is an unfortunate byproduct of our modern society that many of us obtain much of our behavior from actors—people whose primary skill is the ability to entertain. An aesthetically pleasing (read sexy) actor or actress can convey a notion of behavior that has no basis in reality, and if we are not careful, we will accept that behavior as desirable and correct. This is where we get the ridiculous point shooting (a 100-yard, single-round kill shot with a 2-inch snubbie revolver drawn and held at the hip), cup-and-saucer or wrist holds and what I call the fling shot (the handgun is drawn and the shot is let go as the shooter flings is gun hand in the general direction of the target). Theatrical blank ammunition is capable of incredible accuracy and terminal performance.

Recently I watched for the umpteenth time the movie “Silverado.” I’d much rather watch a good old western that I know by heart than sit and be force-fed the same bovine residue over and over from some talking head or wannabe politico. Anyway, for some reason I paid more attention than usual to the final gunfight scene played by Brian Dennehy and Kevin Kline. If you look carefully you will see that Dennehy’s gun discharges almost straight down just as it clears the holster and before Kline’s gun discharges. The blanks do have a path of flight, and Kline’s blank lands safely into the ground about 3 feet in front of him. Had the duel been real, neither man would have been hit, but since this is Hollywood (make believe), Dennehy dutifully falls to the ground, dead, as Kline somberly re-holsters his revolver.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: The purpose of the Modern Technique of the Pistol is to provide a discipline response to a potentially deadly threat. A disciplined response is not a natural thing for people to do. In terms of gripping the handgun, the purpose is to hold the piece in such a way that the shooter can: manipulate the fire-control components, any manual safeties, magazine or cylinder releases with the strong hand and with minimal repositioning of that hand; control the handgun to allow for accurate shot placement and control the recoil of the handgun so that an accurate follow-up shot can be made quickly, if necessary.

Given these parameters, the first consideration is to grasp the handgun with the strong-side hand in such a way that the centerline of the barrel is in line with the radius and ulnar bones of the arm. Having the recoil impulse travel in this direction allows the entire arm to support the handgun and soak up the recoil. Often, people with smaller hands and/or short fingers—like me—will have to have the thumb bear the brunt of recoil absorption in order for their index finger to reach the trigger properly. At best this offers inconsistent support; at worst it’s painful to the shooter. If you cannot reach the trigger with the first joint on your index finger and the centerline of the barrel in line with your arm bones, you need to either acquire smaller, thinner grip panels or stocks, or trade that handgun for one which you can reach the trigger properly.

Double-action revolvers have a shoulder on their frame that—when gripped correctly—prevents the revolver from rolling in the hand the way a typical single-action revolver does with the old “plow handle” grip profile. Semi-auto pistols have a hook-like profile where the web between the thumb and index finger goes to facilitate the transfer of recoil to the hand and arm in a manner that helps the shooter to better control the gun. It is very important that the web of the strong-side hand be in intimate contact with these parts of the handgun. Any gap in this area will allow the handgun to accelerate during recoil, increasing muzzle flip and making the piece more difficult to control. Trainers often refer to this as getting a “high grip on the gun.” Grasping the handgun this way also puts the centerline of the barrel closer to the hand, further reducing muzzle flip.

On single-action semi-autos based on the Browning design—1911 and P35 pistols—there is a manual safety positioned so that it can be operated with the thumb. The strong-side thumb should be on top of this safety lever—we call it “riding the safety”—to prevent that thumb from inadvertently engaging that safety and rendering the pistol inoperable during the fight. This seems to be a very unnatural way to grasp the pistol, given the difficulty it is to get new shooters to keep their thumb there. It is for this reason that one of the primary enhancements to the 1911 pistol is refitting it with a manual safety that has the “paddle” where the thumb engages it lower and further forward than the standard 1911 A1 has.

Double-action semi-autos have safeties that do not operate the way that the single-action semi-autos have, often combining it with a hammer-dropping feature to lower the hammer with a round in the chamber without firing the pistol. Some prefer this style of pistol, but I find it unnecessarily complex to operate. Most striker-fired semi-autos do not have a manual safety, the notable exception being some of the Smith & Wesson M&P series of striker-fired pistols that have a manual safety added to them. With all of these pistols, the strong-side thumb is extended along the side of the frame, carefully avoiding to touch the reciprocating slide.

Next week we will look into depth the role of the support hand, its position during the firing process and why it is taught that way.

Dave Campbell
Dave Campbell began his hunting career with a spear off the southern California coast in the late 1960s. It did not take long for him to graduate to the gun on land. Campbell is the founding editor in chief of the NRA’s tremendously successful Shooting Illustrated magazine. In 2006 he also edited the iconic book of terminal ballistics, Rifle Bullets for the Hunter—A Definitive Study. He returned to his beloved Wyoming in 2007 as a freelance writer, though he usually refers to himself now as a “recovering editor.”

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