Since attending Ben Stoeger’s Practical Shooting Fundamentals course a couple of months ago, my primary skill development focus has been making improvements to how I grip a pistol. The way we grip a pistol is the foundation for all marksmanship skills. I know that sounds very absolute and frequent readers know I’m not a fan of any absolutism, so bear with me for a moment. There is a lot more to pistol marksmanship than the grip. However as my pistol shooting skills have progressed, I’ve become more aware that more often than not I can attribute fast and accurate hits to a good grip. This begs the question, “What constitutes a good grip?” And that’s not an easy question to answer.
Let’s establish some context here. I’m talking about shooting a pistol with a two handed grip. I certainly have some thoughts about one handed shooting grips. In fact, I’ve written about the challenges I’ve faced shooting one handed with my support hand previously. However, for this post I’m limiting the discussion to the two handed, or freestyle, pistol shooting which, in my academic, recreational, and competitive experience, makes up the vast majority of all pistol shooting. More specifically, I’m strictly talking about the “thumbs forward” two handed grip that is most often used with semi-automatic pistols. Even with that limitation, there is quite a bit to cover. I’ll do my best to distill it to the things that I’ve found to matter most with examples on what I’ve changed.
There are two components to the two handed grip I believe have to be addressed independently. These are the strong hand and the support hand. These two components work together in both a complementary and supplementary fashion to establish the two handed grip. Let’s look at those.
The strong hand is generally the first hand to grab the pistol. Generally, it’s the hand that is responsible for initially drawing the pistol from a holster. The main responsibility of this hand, in the context of a two handed grip, is to work the trigger well. That is to say, the most important job the strong hand has after a two handed grip has been established is to press the trigger straight back without disturbing the sights. Under pressure, this job also includes pressing the trigger quickly and repeatedly until all the shooting that needs to be done is done. On the surface, this is simple. As such, it might sound easy, but it’s not. There is a lot going on here.
While there are a few different ways the strong hand can disturb the sights while shooting, I’ve found the sympathetic squeeze to be the most prevalent. A sympathetic squeeze is then the middle, ring, and pinky fingers tighten as the trigger finger presses the trigger. Ideally, the index finger is the only finger moving when we are working the trigger, but it’s difficult to consciously fight sympathetic movement under pressure and pursuing speed. A common suggestion I hear to combat this is to “grip the pistol as hard as possible”. The idea, I think, is that the additional sympathetic pressure will be negligible or negated. However, there is such a thing as gripping too hard which can introduce a tremor that can disturb the sight picture or reduce the dexterity of the index finger which is not desirable for fast accurate shooting.
Combining what I’ve learned and what I have experienced, here are the things I focus on regarding the strong hand component of the two hand grip:
- Position the hand so that grip pressure is applied from front to back
- Relax the grip to maximize trigger finger dexterity
Both of those points are important. The hand position is critical and may be near impossible to do with a gun that doesn’t not fit the shooter’s hand well. This is because the position limits the amount of potential lateral movement that can be introduced by the sympathetic squeeze. Additionally, this hand position seems to make it easier to press the trigger straight back with the trigger finger.
The support hand drives the gun and provides additional stability while the strong hand works the trigger. This supports the concept of the 70/30 grip pressure rule I’ve heard over the years where 70% of the grip pressure comes from the support hand and only 30% comes from the strong hand (which is a rule I found confusing and counter intuitive).
Suffice it to say, the support hand’s primary focus is to provide grip pressure. Done well, this will do more to negate deficiencies in the trigger press and error introduced by the strong hand’s sympathetic squeeze than anything else. However, it’s important to recognize that the support hand is also susceptible to increased sympathetic pressure as the trigger is pressed and decreased sympathetic pressure as the trigger is released.
Here are the things I currently focus on regarding the support hand component of the two hand grip:
- Rotate the fingers downward so that the thumb naturally points forward and is parallel to the forearm
- Position the hand as high as possible on the frame and cover the support side of the grip with the meaty part of the palm
- Apply as much grip pressure as possible in a lateral direction perpendicular to the point of aim, but not so much that it introduces a tremor
Done well, the support hand will provide the vast majority of recoil recovery and will be able to drive the gun when transitioning between points of aim or leading moving targets while the support hand works the trigger at the pace most appropriate for the difficulty of the target. The best analogy that I can think of to describe the roles of the hands comes from driving a car. The support hand steers the gun while the strong hand operates the throttle. They are both essential and necessary.
Since both hands are doing different things, I find it helpful to feel for two things actively when shooting:
- A tension free and relaxed strong hand
- A crushing grip from the support hand
One last thing to mention that is critical to a good grip is consistency. More specifically, a consistent position or placement. To achieve this, I’ve been focusing on indexing reference points as I establish a grip on the pistol. The actual reference points will vary from gun to gun and from person to person based on their hand size and shape. However, I’ve found that when I actively check off the reference points when establishing a two handed grip the result is a grip that provides a fantastic foundation for accurate shot placement even under pressure and while pursuing speed. Here is the ordered list of indexed reference points that I am currently looking for when shooting a Heckler & Koch VP9 (which is the pistol I currently shoot most often):
- Strong hand middle finger knuckle pressing against the side of the trigger guard undercut
- Webbing of my strong hand pressed up under the “beaver tail” on the back of the pistol
- Feeling the slide stop under the meaty part of the support hand palm nearest to the thumb
- Feeling the bottom of the slide under the tip of support hand thumb
- Pressing the support hand finger tips between the strong hand fingers near where the string hand fingers meet the strong hand
- Resting the strong hand thumb behind the support hand thumb where it meets with the support hand wrist
While that might seem like a lot of little things to check off while establishing a grip under pressure quickly, it’s something that can happen quickly as the indexed reference points become habit. Frequent and deliberate repetition and practice is crucial here. As these checks become a habit, the process of establishing the grip becomes familiar.
I’ve yet to find a grip technique that is the “end all, be all” silver bullet for everyone. In fact, I’m not suggesting following the bullet points I’ve listed will yield a good grip for every one. This is simply what I’ve found to work best for me right now and I will continue to seek improvements because grip improvements pay marksmanship dividends.