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Improving the Grip

Grip, in terms of pistol shooting, is the foundation on which marksmanship is built on. As such, I believe it is a fundamental skill that all pistol shooters should seek to master. It’s not as simple as just grip the pistol as hard as you can.

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):

  1. Strong hand middle finger knuckle pressing against the side of the trigger guard undercut
  2. Webbing of my strong hand pressed up under the “beaver tail” on the back of the pistol
  3. Feeling the slide stop under the meaty part of the support hand palm nearest to the thumb
  4. Feeling the bottom of the slide under the tip of support hand thumb
  5. Pressing the support hand finger tips between the strong hand fingers near where the string hand fingers meet the strong hand
  6. 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.

7 comments

  1. The 70/30 grip myth was never well understood and typically only taught by low quality trainers who were themselves low quality shooters. The absolute value of available grip strength in each hand is a major issue – one very few shooters bother to pay attention to…but the top shooters all have 100+ lbs of grip strength or more in each hand. The typical male office worker has 60-80, typical females have 50-70. It’s easier to put enough grip pressure on the gun when the amount you need to exert is a smaller percentage of what you have available.

  2. Gun fit is a bigger issue than you think. In your earlier post on gun fit, the picture you use for “good fit” shows the middle joint of the trigger finger rubbing against the frame, which is undesirable. Putting more finger on the trigger can make it easier to press the trigger straight to the rear without moving the gun out of alignment. Running a thinner gun with shorter trigger reach makes that possible without laying the trigger against the frame. Probably 1/3 of the people I see in classes running G19 sized guns have frame-dragging problems and would benefit from a thinner (G48 sized) gun. Many in this situation refuse to consider giving up capacity to gain any advantage in the mechanics of shooting. (Similarly, those trying to run guns with 3-finger-length frames, that must use a pinky shelf magazine to grip the gun with all fingers, give up a lot and would be better off with a 4-finger frame gun, particularly for dry firing and reloading.)

    1. I’ve learned a lot from you on that topic since I wrote the gun fit post and trying your G48 in person was eye opening. I’ve already retired a few guns from carry duty as I find guns that fit better and I’m currently contemplating a G48 or a P365XL in the near future. Interestingly, I’ve been spending more time handling 1911s in the collection and have found the single stacks with thin grips to fit my hands better than the VP9, but I haven’t carried them due to the capacity compromise you mentioned in addition to lacking a dot, and the additional cost of shooting 45.

      1. They make 1911’s in 9mm, but really the sweet spot for carry guns is G48, SIG 365XL, and a few other models that are thinner than G19 but still offer 4 finger frame. If you study actual incidents enough, you’ll get over the capacity thing. Consider that in nearly 70 incidents, none of Tom Givens’ students needed more than 11 rounds to get the job done. I run 14+1 in my G48 using the Shield Arms aftermarket flush fit mags, and SIG 365XL holds 15 also. I was surprised (and pleased) to see so many G48’s at the most recent Rangemaster Tactical Conference, including those used by many trainers.

  3. The best approach I’ve found to helping people improve their grip is to give the student a SIRT pistol and have them aim at a small spot on the wall, running the trigger as hard and fast as they can, to observe how much movement the lasers have. Then they can adjust all the parameters of grip, to minimize the range of laser (aka muzzle) movement. That visual feedback is unique to the SIRT gun and really can’t be replicated in dry or live fire. Often the thing that the student has to concentrate on to get best results varies from person to person, and the SIRT drill allows much faster evaluation of all the variables than shooting Bill Drills or doubles or dry fire with a dead trigger will provide.

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