The first time someone pointed out that I had problems with my handgun grip was at Tom Givens’ Rangemaster Instructor Development course in 2013. It was the most challenging class I’d attended to date, and it was the first time I was pressured to shoot faster than I was accustomed to.
Tom marched past me on a drill and said, “After every shot you readjust your grip.”
I wasn’t aware that I was doing it up to that point, but now that he mentioned it, it was glaringly obvious—and frustrating. Why couldn’t I seem to keep a consistent grip? Tom’s recommendation to me was that my double-stack Glock was simply too big for my hands, and once I moved to a smaller gun, I would likely see improvement in my grip. Unwilling to give up my double-stack capacity, I saw little improvement in my recoil control at high rates of speed. My left hand would break from the gun, and my splits (the time between shots) would increase.
I soon realized that asking the questions, “What’s wrong with my grip?” and “How do I fix it?” would lead me down a rabbit hole and through a Wonderland of theories and advice from competition shooters, strength coaches, engineers, and a half dozen more instructors. I went looking for a cure for my own grip issues and came out the other side with a better understanding of gripping mechanics, and a better instructor.
Reasons For Handgun Grip Problems
1. Lack of Strength
At the top of my list of people to talk to when I started researching grip issues was Karl Rehn. Rehn is a IPSC Grand Master who started competitive shooting around the time I was born. In addition to taking almost every shooting class available from every major gun school in the country, he’s also an instructor who is well-versed in the history of shooting and technique.
Rehn’s master’s degree in electrical engineering encourages him to look at things analytically. I contacted him after learning he’d done an extensive in-house study on grip strength and performance in relation to gripping techniques. Rehn began his grip study after seeing frustrated students (particularly women) who would experience their grip breaking.
“I got tired of dealing with people who kept pushing their thumb down,” says Rehn. “In my school, they call them thumb pushers. What happens is, when you go to pull the trigger your thumb moves in tandem with your trigger finger, and I kept trying to figure out why these people are having this problem, and why, when I tell them to stop doing it, they can’t.”
Karl began his research in grip with the two different types of grips humans are capable of: clamping, which uses the strength of the fingers without the thumb, and a crush grip, which adds the strength of the thumb in the form of a fist. He went on to explain that the modern thumbs forward grip commonly used in shooting schools today is using a clamping grip which, though optimal in performance, requires a certain amount of strength that some people just don’t have.
Rehn conducted his study by passing around grippers that required 60, 80 or 100 pounds of grip strength to close. He found that those with over 100 pounds of grip strength saw the maximum benefit of a thumbs forward grip, but those who had less than 60 pounds of grip strength were the ones who had the most problems utilizing it, or even operating their pistols in general.
“People that don’t have 60 pounds of grip strength generally can’t rack the slide on a 9mm pistol. They can’t grip the slide hard enough,” says Rehn. “That’s why, when they can’t operate this gun most of the time [it’s due to] lack of grip strength—grip and forearm strength… The thumbs forward grip works optimally if you are above the threshold strength, particularly in the little three fingers of your shooting hand. If you aren’t above the threshold strength, then having someone tell you to grip the gun that way and to just keep trying doesn’t work.”
His proposed solution was either to gain strength or switch to a crush grip that was advocated by Massad Ayoob in the 80’s and is still taught in some schools today.
“Folding both thumbs down and basically making two fists, that technique works for everybody regardless of grip strength. It’s not optimal, but it works for everybody,” Rehn says. “You don’t get the same wrist rotation. You don’t get as much counter-torque on the pistol, but people can actually grip the pistol.”
What if you are trying to shoot, practice, and improve, but you have an injury to your hand, wrist, arm, or back that is affecting your ability? Maybe its one you will heal from, but maybe not. How can you learn to grip a handgun that works around your physical issues? Paul Sharp might have some advice. He is certainly no stranger to an effective grip despite multiple injuries.
“I was having a hard time even closing my hands to make a fist…and I had an elbow injury, too… so that’s what got me pursuing that whole approach to recoil management.”
Sharp is a black belt in Brazilian Ju Jitsu, an eighteen-year veteran police officer, firearms instructor, weight-lifter, and has a particular affinity for fighting, having spent his childhood both wrestling and boxing. One of his particular passions, however, is firearms grip issues and recoil management.
“At the time, I started training the D.R. Middlebrooks FIST-fire method, and I had a bunch of hand injuries from mixed martial arts and boxing, so having a really strong grip was something that just wasn’t going to happen for me at that time,” said Sharp. “I was having a hard time even closing my hands to make a fist…and I had an elbow injury, too… so that’s what got me pursuing that whole approach to recoil management.”
In addition to the hand injuries, Sharp also had tendinitis and a partially torn bicep. His shooting slowed, and his hands came apart from the gun when he fired.
“It was really hard for me to make that torquing motion and squeeze at the same time,” says Sharp. “It was just really painful. I had to figure out a way to get around that and get around crushing the gun, so to speak.”
When asked what method he found to overcome these issues, he explained, “I started focusing more on pulling through the pinky of the left hand—the support hand, for me, because I’m a right-handed shooter. So, I started focusing more on putting a lot of pressure through the pinky, against the bottom of the front strap and that helped tame the gun—the lift of the pistol in recoil. That helped settle the pistol down and keep it flat. And I started focusing on driving my right hand into that pinky—almost like a Weaver-esque isometric tension-type thing happening there where I’m pushing with the right hand as hard as I can and pulling back with the left as hard as I can. It’s coming from the shoulders because I had that messed up bicep, and I couldn’t pull with my arm bent so I would use my shoulders to push and pull. And that really tamed the pistol, really made it settle down and sit flat for me, and I was able to get my follow up shots.”
Paul figured out how to work around his injuries to maintain a solid grip on his gun. In the process, he found that his ideas on grip often also helped those without a hand injury control their firearms more effectively.
3. Poor Instruction–One Size Does Not Fit All
Ernest Langdon is a full-time firearms instructor and industry consultant who has been teaching firearms and competing since the late eighties. He’s a graduate of 35 different formal shooting schools and holds numerous instructor certifications from the military, the FBI, the NRA, and has trained over 4,000 students in advanced shooting skills.
After taking a class with him and being thoroughly impressed with how well he evaluated my own shooting errors, I was compelled to collect his thoughts on grip for others. He was quick to point out the importance of physical strength.
“The first thing that I would say is that improving your grip strength is critical,” says Langdon. “If you want to shoot a handgun well you have to know the stronger your grip, the better you’re going to be able to shoot it. And being able to control recoil and put rapid shots on target relates to strength, and there’s no way around it. No technique in the world is going make up for lack of horse power.”
“For most people, a significant amount more effort with their support hand when they’re shooting a two-hand grip will help in controlling the gun.”
As to the actual technique, Langdon had this to say, “High on the gun as you possibly can. As much surface contact area and skin on the gun as you can. As few gaps as possible. Learning to lock the wrists—both strong and support hand—in a way that helps control the muzzle flip of the gun. For most people, a significant amount more effort with their support hand when they’re shooting a two-hand grip will help in controlling the gun.”
“For most people with smaller hands who do not have a lot of grip strength, I also advocate a push/pull between their strong hand and their support hand to try to help mitigate recoil and mitigate their support hand from slipping off the gun.”
Ultimately, however, Langdon explained that grip is a personal thing affected by many factors such as the gun itself, the shooter, their strength, size of hands, length of fingers, injuries, etc. Langdon cautions anyone against either teaching or accepting one universal technique for all shooters.
“It becomes difficult because what someone has figured out works for them, they want everyone else to do it the exact same way, and that doesn’t necessarily work for everybody because one size does not fit all,” says Langdon.
4. Gripping With Only Your Hands
As a small-handed shooter, I wanted to get the input from someone else who was small but also an accomplished shooter. I didn’t have to go very far to find my friend Annette Evans. She’s a petite lawyer with small, thin hands who is also a competitive shooter with Team SIG. She started her competitive shooting career in 2010 and is a IDPA Expert in ESP and USPSA Production B Class shooter with ambitions of going all the way to Grand Master. While she’s now a professional shooter and instructor, she’s had her share of struggles along the way.
“With the size of my hands, it was very difficult for me to find guns that were comfortable in my hands and that I could manipulate and shoot well,” says Evans.
Finding a suitably fitting gun was not her only problem. Her performance also suffered.
“When you don’t have average grip strength, when you think you’re gripping really hard, maybe [you’re] not.”
“Most of the problem was that the sights weren’t tracking predictably for me, and they certainly weren’t tracking up and down.” She could run the trigger fast but couldn’t get accurate follow up shots.
Her turning point was in a class with five time US IPSC National Production champion and instructor, Ben Stoeger.
“He demonstrated, hands on, exactly how hard I should be gripping with the left hand,” says Evans, “That really gave me a better tactile feel for what people meant by gripping really hard. When you don’t have average grip strength, when you think you’re gripping really hard, maybe [you’re] not.”
“That was the first, ah ha moment of, ‘Oh, when you meant hard, you meant really hard.’”
Evans explains that her grip and process for managing recoil relies on far more muscle activation than just her hands.
“I start my grip up in my shoulders now and in my core,” she explains. “I’m trying to make the back tips of my shoulder blades touch each other so I’m really bringing my shoulders back and I’m squeezing my armpits together. If you do that and stick your hands in front of you you can see how the bottoms of your hands start touching and it becomes a vice. That’s where a lot of my grip strength comes from right now.”
Symptoms and Diagnosis of Grip Problems
Many people can tell if there’s something wrong with their grip. Sometimes, however, it takes someone else pointing out their struggles to them.
Symptoms of a poor grip usually include:
- Hands breaking away from on another
- Inconsistent tracking of the sights
- Lack of consistent hits on small targets at 3-5 yards
Some people may immediately be able to identify the source of their grip issues, particularly if those issues are injury or strength related. If, however, the shooter is healthy and strong, identifying the particular issue can easily cause frustration.
“They just try to go faster for the sake of going faster, and they lose sight of the actual technique of what they are trying to accomplish.”
Diagnostic tools like slow motion video can help shooters see where they are having difficulty. Some smart phone cameras can even slow things down enough for you to see what is wrong with your grip. At some point, however, you may need to call in a professional. Annette Evans recommends finding an instructor with experience and skills in the fundamentals.
“You need somebody else who has that breadth of experience to observe, and it needs to be somebody who approaches shooting the same way that you do,” she says, emphasizing the need to find an instructor who understands or has already accomplished your shooting goals.
Ernest Langdon has a similar take on finding help and recommends people go back to the basics of making sure they are doing each step correctly.
“I often find that people start to get focused on the outcome and not necessarily the process, so they just want to go faster,” says Langdon. “They just try to go faster for the sake of going faster, and they lose sight of the actual technique of what they are trying to accomplish. And whether that’s trigger control or whether that’s actual proper technique… the reality is if they don’t slow down, force themselves to do things absolutely correctly, and break down the processes so that they learn how to do each component correctly, then it’s very difficult for them to progress.”
There Are Guidelines, But They Are Just Guidelines
All four of the instructors I talked to believed the modern method of gripping a pistol was the optimal way to manage recoil; getting a high grip with as much contact as possible between the gun and both hands and driving the thumbs toward the target was considered the best technique if the shooter has the requisite strength.
As to how hard to grip your pistol, all of the instructors gave the same advice: Grip it as hard as you can, with both hands, without inhibiting your ability to manipulate the trigger consistently.
“A lot of the tactical guys, they only teach super motivated, fit, really switched-on people. They don’t see the people that I see. I get the 60 year-old women with tiny fingers and small hands and arthritis and no grip strength.”
In the end, however, each shooter is unique and the combination of their gun, strength, physique, and goals will make for their own optimal way of using the gun, and each instructor had his or her own closing words to say on the matter.
Karl Rehn points out the specific needs of his students, “A lot of the tactical guys, they only teach super motivated, fit, really switched-on people. They don’t see the people that I see. I get the 60 year-old women with tiny fingers and small hands and arthritis and no grip strength.” He filters his students by strength and teaches them the technique that works for them, “I’m not going to waste your time teaching you this other technique because it requires a threshold of physical capability that you don’t have, and it’s not going to work for you.”
Annette Evans cautioned shooters not to get so caught up in copying that they fail to find what works for them. “Do people fail to figure out their own grip because they are spending too much time emulating what they think is the right thing?” she asks. “I think that’s true for all things shooting… and the rest of life. I think that when we copy without understanding why, we don’t have the tools to evaluate whether or not it actually works for us because we’re just kind of doing what our idol says.”
Paul Sharp said, “I learned to muscle the gun and make it do what I wanted it to do, and then when I got hurt, I didn’t have good enough technique to get me through being hurt, so I had to kind of start over… I would concentrate on technique because [shooters] can always apply strength to technique.”
Ernest Langdon encouraged shooters never to give up, “We have this tendency to always try to compare ourselves to the people that are the best in the world. Everybody can’t be the best in the world… At the end of the day you have to say, ‘Here’s what I can do. I’m going to go to the range. I’m going to practice. I’m going to be as good as I can be and strive to get better. And nothing else…’ You’ve got what you’ve got. Try to improve it. Try to get better, and, I would argue that, over time that will happen.”