During the 2010 International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA) Conference, I sat with a number of firearms trainers and listened to them debate the correct grip for the semi-automatic pistol. One advocated thumbs forward and 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.
What Thumbs Do
What 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? I didn’t think so.
The truth is, your shooting-hand thumb could be half gone and you’d still be able to grip a pistol, as the shooting hand applies 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 apply pressure. 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. Depending on the distance, this could cause us to miss our attacker completely.
The support hand applies side-to-side pressure, as if it’s squeezing a rubber ball. The fingers are applying pressure toward the heel of the hand 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. Thus, it’s a good idea to vacate that area, allowing the hand to be seated. This means that the shooting-hand thumb must be flagged or at least moved out of the way, which a normal thumbs-down grip doesn’t provide.
If the thumb is locked down and the support hand attempts to apply inward pressure, the thumb creates a gap in the grip that provides recoil a travel path. By removing the thumb from the exposed grip panel, the heel of the support hand can fill the space left by the shooting hand with the support fingers wrapping around same. The support hand then squeezes inward on the grip and shooting hand, creating a 360° wrap on the gun’s grip.
The 360° Wrap
Why is a 360° wrap on the pistol’s grip important? Because it helps keep the gun on target through the firing cycle and the recoil that results. 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 a continuous 360° wrap around the gun’s grip, which includes backward pressure to the gun’s front strap, and applying a forward lean by the upper body and arms into the gun, muzzle rise is greatly reduced or eliminated depending on the weapon being used. 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. Why are fast follow-up shots important? No one ever misses with their first rounds, right?
How tight should the two hands be? After all, we’ve all heard of applying 60/40 pressure to the grip, meaning that 40% of the grip is applied by the shooting hand while 60% is applied by the support hand. Is this necessary? Not really. 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 of it were trying to work 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 and your shooting hand will compensate for the movement of the index finger. Just focus on proper trigger control, and the rest will fall in place.
Are the thumbs important for combative shooting? I think so, but it has nothing to do with applying the grip. 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.
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 15–30 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 under-rated.
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 come into play when shooting a handgun? At the last moment before the trigger is pressed once the gun gets to the eye/target line. What got the gun to this point in the process?
Proper Body Manipulation
Does anyone really think they can thrust their pistol out in front of their body, chase down the front sight and get a quick and accurate shot by relying on the front sight alone? Even the father of front-sight focus, Jeff Cooper, stated, “The body aims, the sights confirm.” It’s 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, the accuracy of this movement is merely enhanced.
Am I advocating point shooting? Not really, as I don’t see a big difference between the two techniques. If a person practices using their front sight to confirm proper body manipulation when delivering their pistol to target, but then during the actual event they focus on the threat, does it really matter as long as the gun arrives where it’s needed? The truth is that it’s more likely that the shot will be missed due to improper trigger control than to sight alignment.
The handgun is controlled by two things: a proper grip applied to the pistol in a 360° full-contact fashion and the straight rearward travel of the trigger. Sights are nice to confirm that the body did what it should’ve done, but they’re not 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 is worth practicing and, if front-sight focus/confirmation helps anchor this, then what’s the harm? Obtaining a proper grip on the gun, 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 skills—the fundamentals. Remember: As Bruce Lee so eloquently said, “Advanced skills are the basics mastered.”