What’s the Deal with My Thumb?

The grip is one of fundamental components of marksmanship. In terms of pistol shooting, it is arguably one of the top three components. This begs the question, is deviating from a textbook grip a bad thing?

I have received a flurry of queries and criticism regarding how I grip my pistol in response to recent videos from competitive matches on social media over the past month. More specifically the queries and critiques are about the placement of my strong hand thumb that kinda hangs back and sticks out like… well, like a sore thumb. Some folks have asked if this provides better recoil mitigation? Others are simply curious as to why I do that? While some close friends have flat out told me that they hate my grip. So what’s the deal with my thumb?

The grip is one of fundamental components of marksmanship. In the context of pistol shooting, it is arguably one of the top three fundamental components. It’s the foundation. A bad grip or a compromised grip can wreak havoc on accuracy, limit rate of fire, and can impede improvement of marksmanship skills and ability. In other words, it’s elementary and critical.

Current dogma with regards to a two handed grip on a modern semi-automatic pistol calls for a thumbs forward or thumbs up grip. In both cases, the strong, or dominant, hand is responsible for applying front to back pressure while remaining nimble enough to actuate the trigger without disturbing the sights. The support hand is wrapped around the pistol applying lateral pressure while using the palm to make contact with the remaining exposed part of the grip between tips of the strong hand fingers and the back of the palm. Ideally, the barrel of the gun should be aligned with the forearm and the thumbs should align with each other. In the case of the thumbs forward grip, the thumbs will be pointed forward along the frame providing an index for the direction of the muzzle. In the case of the thumbs up grip, the thumbs are pointed upwards along the rear portion of the slide. Regardless of the thumb direction, neither thumb should apply any pressure to the pistol. These techniques have a proven track record for creating a strong foundation that allows one to hold the pistol securely, shoot accurately, and consistently. That’s about it in a nutshell. I’ll refer those interested in a more detailed discussion on the grip to this post on the topic.

Unfortunately, hands come in different shapes and sizes. Additionally, we don’t all have the same mobility and flexibility. These variables present challenges and obstacles that may preclude one from being able to apply a textbook grip to the pistol they are shooting. In other words, the primary reason folks are unable to apply a textbook grip to a pistol is because the pistol doesn’t fit their hands. This isn’t always the case, but it is very likely especially when the person can’t reach the trigger when the pistol is properly aligned with the strong side forearm. Truth be told, this is the main reason my thumb sticks out the way it does.

The most obvious and most common correction is to modify the firearm so that it fits properly. There are different ways to go about this and the options are limited by the firearm design. The VP9 that I most often shoot comes with three different sized side panels and back straps which allows for up to 27 different grips size configurations. Aftermarket grips for some pistol makes and models, like 1911s or CZ 75s, are available in different widths and shapes as well. Pistols like the Sig Sauer P365 and P320 are designed so that the entire grip module can be replaced with aftermarket ones. Sometimes, however, modification is not enough to achieve a proper fit. When this is the case, the next most common alternative is to replace the pistol. Both of these corrections may be nonstarters for some folks if they are constrained by their current financial situation.

In my case, I’ve tried both. I modified the VP9 to use the smallest possible grip side panels and backstrap and it’s still a bit too large. I’ve also tried smaller sized guns like the P365 XL and the Glock G48. In my case, I am able to get proper forearm and barrel alignment with those smaller pistols. However, those pistols present a different problem for me given my hand size and shape. That problem is slide bite – cuts and scrapes on the web of my hand from the rear of the slide as it actuates. This problem is more prevalent on the G48, but it is present with both pistols. The net result is I end up modifying my grip to avoid the slide bite and I’m back to having a thumb that sticks out.

I haven’t given up the search for a better fitting gun. In fact, I was excited about the introduction of the Walther PDP F-series pistols this year which I haven’t tried yet, but look very promising. I also haven’t given up tweaking my grip on the VP9 which isn’t far off from a good fit and I can manage a near textbook grip when I consciously work on applying one.

And the conscious aspect brings me to a very important part of the discussion regarding my thumb position. Does my thumb position really matter? I’m inclined to say yes. I was first introduced to the concept of gun fit, or gun fitment, by the late Sean Hoffman back in 2019 when I attended his Tactical Pistol/Rifle course. Working with him in that class, I learned how much of a difference a good hand to gun interface makes. That led me to retiring the P229 Legion I used to carry defensively in favor of the VP9. By that time, I had already developed a habit of positioning my thumb the way I do today. That habit was further ingrained by repetitive practice over the years and was once again identified by Karl Rehn when I attended KR Training’s Handgun Beyond Basics class early this year where Karl pointed out that I might be able to train through the grip issues I displayed that day. The main point is that more work would be required to reach higher levels of marksmanship. As such, my grip is something that I’ve consciously worked on throughout the year because I don’t want it to hold me back from reaching those higher levels.

The thing is that when I’m not consciously focusing on my grip I default to the wayward thumb position seen in most of the pictures on this post and on the match footage I’ve shared on social media. The wayward thumb position has worked for me so far as I’ve managed to attain higher classifications in competitive shooting sports, passed qualifications, and even earned awards, like a light pin from Gabe White’s class. The “it works for me” sensation and mentality is, in my opinion, an anathema to continuous improvement because it can lead to “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” complacency. Which makes me wonder could I have achieved the goals I’ve achieved sooner or are there goals I’ve yet to achieve that I may have had I “fixed” my grip? I will probably never be able to answer that, but it is something that weighs on me and why I keep working on marksmanship fundamentals like my grip. The flip side to this is wondering if the time I’ve devoted to working my grip would have been better used on more advanced marksmanship concepts?

I suppose one could say my thumb position bothers me as much as it bothers some of the folks that have commented on it. At any rate, that’s what’s up with my thumb.

There are a few things I’d like folks who read this post to take away with them. The first is that marksmanship fundamentals are critically important in order to become a high level pistolero. The grip is the foundation of that. Unconventional grips aren’t necessarily bad but one should recognize that it is an indicator of a hand to gun interface deficiency and may likely hold back or delay one’s marksmanship development. Don’t get complacent and keep leveling up.

1 comment

  1. You’ve incorrectly identified the problem. The issue is not your thumb. It’s the fact that the gun is misaligned with the structure of your hand, recoiling over the thumb knuckle, not the web of the hand. This is all a direct result of the gun’s frame being too wide/large for you. More than likely you are also laying the middle joint of your trigger finger against the frame, which is another gun fit problem related to the “too big for my hand” issue.

    The analogy is that yes, you can learn to run a 5K race in shoes that don’t fit. You can deal with the blisters or the other problems, if you tolerate the discomfort and bull your way through it, and eventually develop enough ability to run faster than others with properly fitted equipment that maybe have a lower tolerance for pain or simply aren’t willing to put in the effort you did. But none of that makes the decision to run a gun that doesn’t align properly with the hand, a good one, in an era where there are plenty of highly skilled artisans, for example Ben Simonson of Boresight Solutions, who can reshape polymer grips to do exactly what you want. If you were getting slide bit from the G48, the best solution would have been to install a $25 SandStorm Tactical grip adapter giving you a longer beavertail. Sadly, they have gone out of business and no similar product exists, but Ben and others can build out a beavertail on a Glock frame.

    Similarly, there are a bunch of slimmer/thinner gen 3 G19 frame alternatives, from Shadow Systems, Lone Wolf and others, that can replace G19 frames. Most of them have beavertails, and some of the frames are $99.

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