One of my consistent goals of late has been to focus on my pistol fundamentals, and become as good as I can with the weapon that I’m most likely to have on hand in an armed encounter. To that end, I usually attempt to get to the range at least once a week, dry fire more at home, and as always, continue to take classes from professional instructors.
One very important fundamental that I have been continually refining is my grip on a handgun. My perception is that my grip strength is not what it once was, and I worry that this affects my accuracy, especially at distance. More on this a bit later.
In this article, I’m going to briefly discuss the evolution of my grip, share some links to resources that I’ve found valuable regarding grip, and finally explain what I’m currently doing and why. (If you see a hyperlink in the text, it’s either a link to a relevant article, or in one instance, an Amazon Affiliate link.)
I first formally learned how to grip a handgun from Tom Givens. Although I’m hard pressed to remember specific details two decades later, I had a decent grip established early on in my shooting career. Later at Gunsite, running a 1911, my firing grip was modified slightly with the right hand thumb riding on top of the safety and the Weaver stance emphasizing front to back isometric tension. When I later switched to running a Glock, I essentially adopted a modern thumbs forward grip (click the link to read an excellent explanation from Claude Werner, the Tactical Professor). Next, I learned Kyle Defoor’s preferred grip on a pistol, with the trigger guard pinched between the support hand thumb and index finger. However, since really dedicating myself to the Glock platform and serious training, I’ve been continually frustrated with my grip. I think there is something to how well a gun fits your hand, especially in terms of index and trigger reach. I’ve also largely concluded that the Glock grip is a bit too large for my hands, which is why one of my Glocks is currently having a grip reduction performed by Boresight Solutions. A stock Glock is many things, but perfection isn’t one of them!
Over the course of my shooting experience, I’ve primarily trained with Tom Givens, Gunsite, Suarez International, Mike Pannone, Kyle Defoor, and Greg Ellifritz, and I’ve read blogs and books or watched videos from Melody Lauer, Massad Ayoob, Mike Seeklander, Daniel Shaw, Travis Haley, Ernest Langdon, Dave Spaulding, Frank Proctor, John “Shrek” McPhee, Claude Werner, and probably some others that I’m forgetting. Now, I’m sure that readers will agree, hearing opposing views from multiple instructors is a frustrating experience. Having said that, I think some common themes can be discerned from the various sources.
Most everybody agrees that a tight grip, with the strong hand high on the backstrap of the gun, and with as much friction being applied to the grip by the hands as possible, are all ideal tenets of a good grip. Most of the disagreements center on thumb position and specific support hand placement. I think they’re probably all offering correct perspectives, just explaining different interpretations based on their own experiences. This makes sense if you consider that no two people have the exact same hands. Individual variations in overall hand size, finger length, grip strength, and hand anatomy will all play into the best way to grip a handgun. Overall, however, one’s grip should rely on basic anatomical principles and kinesthetics to effectively control the pistol and minimize movement of the gun during the firing cycle. This is in fact the concept that was recently reinforced for me by John “Shrek” McPhee’s analysis of a video of my handgun grip. Obviously, your grip also needs to be conducive to operating all the controls on a handgun, without impinging upon proper function of any of the controls.
To further confound the issue, especially as it relates to thumb position, a while ago I read an excellent blog post penned by Massad Ayoob in which he explained the “crush” grip on a handgun.
The physiology behind his explanation, including the effect of interlimb interaction, makes sense to me. As mentioned earlier, I have been concerned about my grip strength. To work to improve, last year I ordered a simple forearm strength tool from Black Diamond. Intended for climbers to use to improve grip and forearm strength, it is simply a thick round of rubber (think of a large o-ring) that offers resistance to squeezing.
One of the unique things that I’ve discovered in using it on my long commute to and from work is that the bit about interlimb interaction mentioned above is absolutely true! You can see this for yourself quite easily… curl and tense your fingers in a circle, much as if you are holding a beer can. Now, attempt to move your index finger (like you are pulling a trigger) without any of your other fingers moving. This is what is often attributed as being the cause for “milking” a handgun grip when shooting. (In fact, I’ve also noticed movement of a flagged thumb when pulling the trigger during dry fire…) What I discovered with the Black Diamond forearm ring is that with a crush grip, I can actually feel this in the polymer ring flexing under my middle finger! Yes, relieving the tension on the ring with my index (trigger) finger changes the forces that are applied to the ring, but this directly translates into how much force I am able to apply to a handgun grip. This alone was worth the six dollars and change that I paid for the ring.
Returning to the issue of thumb placement, I believe I was initially taught a flagged thumb grip from Tom Givens, and both Mike Seeklander and John “Shrek” McPhee advise to flag the strong hand thumb when building the grip or firing one handed. Conversely, I gather from my reading that Mas Ayoob suggests curling the thumbs down to strengthen the grip and I’ve been taught to curl the thumb down in a one handed grip from both Kyle Defoor and Mike Pannone to increase pressure on the grip of the gun. While I’ve always instinctively preferred thumbs down for a one handed grip or when transitioning the gun between hands, lately I’ve also been experimenting with thumbs down when shooting freestyle with both hands, primarily because of my frustration with the Glock grip. The one notable exception to this is that I definitely prefer my thumb flagged when shooting from a retention position with the pistol indexed against the ribcage. (As taught by Greg Ellifritz in his Extreme Close Quarters Gunfighting class, in this position the ribcage is essentially acting as the support hand and the flagged thumb ensures that the slide will have adequate clearance.)
As I alluded to above, with a proper thumbs forward or thumbs flagged grip on a Glock, I invariably suffer slide bite and have trouble maintaining my grip and accuracy and getting enough finger on the trigger shoe. I can grip the pistol in such a way as to avoid slide bite, but then my support hand is really not clamping down like it should. This isn’t so much of an issue at close ranges, but it really shows when I try to shoot accurately at distance. When I build a really strong thumbs forward grip, I find my proximal thumb knuckle being chewed up under the reciprocating slide. If I employ a crush grip with my thumbs down, then the gun feels much more secure in my hand and my issue with slide bite is eliminated. Rather than the proximal knuckle of my thumb being shoved up under the reciprocating slide by my support hand, it is clamped down around the grip while maintaining the web of my hand in a high grip, as it should be. Under time pressure, I still tend to subconsciously default to a thumbs forward grip, and I’ll certainly revisit the thumbs forward grip when my Glock is returned from Boresight Solutions, but for right now I remain frustrated with “properly” gripping a Glock handgun.
Incidentally, a thumbs down crush grip also works really well with revolvers for a couple of reasons. First, thumbs down works well with the small grips that are often found on small revolvers. Second, a thumbs down grip doesn’t expose your support hand thumb to powder burns when forward of the cylinder on a small revolver, and also keeps your support hand thumb from interfering with the rotation of the cylinder. A tight thumbs down grip is what I use when shooting my Ruger LCR or a J-Frame.
Finally, I’ve found that not only does the crush grip work well with revolvers and guns that may be too large, it works equally well for me for gripping a gun that is small, such as my RM380.
I suppose the moral of all of this is that if your handgun grip isn’t working for you, then figure out what does work! Ultimately, your grip on your handgun is a very personal thing dependent upon your unique hand anatomy and interface with the firearm grip. What works for one may not necessarily work for another, as evidenced by my rambling above. Fundamentally, get the web of your hand high up on the backstrap of the gun, get a good index, and grip the gun tightly with both hands. Find a gun that fits your hand. Everything else should fall into place with training and practice. While the crush grip described above has yielded some positive results and insights for me, I still think some variation of the thumbs forward grip is probably the ideal way for most people to grip an autoloading pistol.
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