Competitive Shooting

How to Control Recoil When Shooting a Handgun

.357 Magnum in full recoil

I began shooting with a .22 revolver and moved to a .38 Special. Later, I graduated to a .357 Magnum, firing a diverse number of handguns along the way. The primary problem with handling the magnum wasn’t recoil. It was muzzle blast.

After a year or so of firing the magnum, I felt some tradition when addressing the .45 ACP. Thus, came the 1911 .45. Various old timers told me tales such as, “Aim at the bottom of the target, because the kick will make it rise so much. The first time I fired a .45, I thrust the pistol toward a ditch and closed my eyes. I almost thought I had a dud round!

Top down view of a proper firing grip on an ATI .45 ACP 1911 semi-auto handgun
An important component of the firing grip is to keep the firing hand high on the backstrap.

I fired again with the same effect. The pistol kicked — sure — but not much more than a .38 snub and with less sharp edges. While there was a shove, there was little muzzle blast (sometimes called “report”). Time passed. There were quite a few handguns I did not care to fire, and some that were too much for all but the most hardened shooters. However, I learned to handle recoil.

Learning to Handle Recoil

Anyone of normal physical ability may learn to handle the .38 Special, 9mm Luger, .40 S&W, .45 ACP, and .357 — the last caliber must be a full-size handgun, however. Strength has some bearing, but agility and muscle tone are more important.

Some calibers are just too much for the occasional shooter. Working people on a budget (in terms of time and money), should not jump into the .357 SIG, 10mm, or a lightweight magnum of any type. It is a process to learn to control recoil. Once you have thoroughly mastered the .38 or 9mm, you may wish to move up in caliber. But not before you have mastered the standard calibers.

I have trained quite a few shooters and attended many classes as a student. Firing a pistol and hearing the report a few feet in front of your eyes isn’t a natural thing. Recoil control must be learned. Many focus more on recoil than on marksmanship. The greater the concentration on marksmanship the less you will notice recoil.

Flinching, and failing to control recoil, kills accuracy. Failing to control recoil makes accurate follow-up shots impossible. In a defensive encounter — if you fire accurately— you will probably solve the problem without using the full gun load. However, chances are you will need more than one shot. Handguns just are not that impressive concerning wound potential. Likewise, there is the problem of multiple assailants. This means you must learn to control recoil effectively.

Getting the hand too high on the grip strap of a revolver will allow the muzzle to flip upward too much. The hammer may catch on the web of the hand as well.
Getting the hand too high on the grip strap of a revolver will allow the muzzle to flip upward too much. The hammer may catch on the web of the hand as well.

A beginning shooter should not choose the smallest handgun in the caliber. A mid-size handgun, such as a Glock 19 9mm, is easier to control than the Glock 26, as an example. A Taurus 605 with 3-inch barrel and hand-filling grips is easier to handle than a 2-inch barrel, lightweight framed .38 special.

You don’t need the heaviest +P or +P+ loading. Some are counter productive and do not achieve full velocity in short barrels. That is the hardware side. Of course, heavier guns are easier to shoot well than light guns in the same caliber. Carry guns are a compromise.

The middle is a good place to be. As an example, with standard practice loads, I have no problem firing the .45 ACP in a steel-frame gun to the tune of 100 rounds. With a lightweight Commander .45, perhaps 50 is more the practical limit. A snub nose .38 with aluminum frame and small grips may be good for 20 rounds. When shooting a standard carry-size magnum about the same (20 rounds). With .38 Special loads in the .357 magnum, I may fire indefinitely without pausing to rub my wrists. Likewise, with a mid-size 9mm, such as the Springfield Hellcat, the rule is much the same.

As the action is operated, the hand must maintain a firing grip.
As the action is operated, the hand must maintain a firing grip.

Firing Grip

The firing grip is important. The hand should ride as high on the grip as possible with a self-loading pistol. The hand must ride high on a revolver backstrap as well — to offer good leverage for the finger to press the double-action revolver trigger, straight to the rear. But don’t override the revolver backstrap. This will result in what is called heeling.

The muzzle will rise high in recoil, and your shots will go wild. Some revolvers have very poor grips. Thin grips, allowing the shooter’s hand to encounter the metal backstrap, are painful in revolver shooting.

The Taurus 856 and Smith & Wesson 640 feature nearly ideal grips. The grip is practiced first with the ‘strong’ hand only — high on the backstrap, and thumbs pointed forward. The support-side hand comes in as tight as possible, and both thumbs are pointed forward. When the thumbs are locked, the fingers are also locked in place. Keep a firm grip.

Gripping Small Handguns
Keep the thumb locked but forward and the grip high on the backstrap.

The hand should be in line with the bones of the arm. A pistol that is too small is a problem. By the same token, a large pistol such as the Glock 21 is just too large for most hands and may drive the hands to one side in an H grip.

When you fire, the arms are extended in front of your body. Simply throwing the arms out, with the gun at maximum extension, is repeatable. Done the same every time, the grip will be consistent.

This is very important. If the elbows are stiff, recoil drives up the arm and into the shoulders. With a light caliber this may not be a problem. With a heavier caliber it may be best to bend the elbows — slightly — and let them absorb some recoil. This works well for most shooters.

The wrist must be locked. If the wrists flex, the pistol will recoil all over the place. Lock the wrists to allow the pistol to recoil against a solid firing platform, or a self-loading handgun may short cycle.

There are two main thumb-locking styles — thumbs forward and thumb locked over the support hand thumb. The thumbs forward seems to aid in driving the pistol forward and toward the target. The locked thumb grip works well. The shooter should decide which style suits them.

Proper one-handed firing grip for a revolver
This is the proper firing grip.

If you grasp something with the thumbs pointing upward, the grip is weaker. Lock the thumbs down and feel the grip tighten. The grip style with the tightest grip on the handgun, that also allows driving the handgun forward toward the target, is best for the individual shooter.

Be certain to minimize any gap between the hands. The greater the space (open on the frame), the greater slippage during recoil. A great deal of effort must go into convincing recoil to come straight back. Allowing recoil to move the pistol to one side or the other magnifies misalignment of the sights and limits recoil control.

Don’t forget, recoil does two things. Recoil drives the muzzle up as the bullet exits the barrel. The handgun recoils while the bullet is still in the barrel. That is why sights are higher than the bore centerline. As the bullet careens down the rifling there is also a certain torquing effect. You cannot stop this movement, but you must control it.

Three .357 magnum revolvers with varying barrel lengths
All three handguns chamber the .357 Magnum cartridge. The lighter gun will kick more. The four-inch barrel revolver is perhaps the best compromise.

The thumbs play an important role in recoil control. The web of the hand is hard against the backstrap, and the thumb points toward the target. Locked down and firm against the handgun, the support hand and both thumbs are properly positioned to control the pistol’s movement.

While recoil control is important, keep the thumbs stiff and out of line of the slide stop. With some handguns, it is common for the support thumb to ram into the slide stop during recoil and tie the gun up. I never deploy a pistol for serious purposes if it has an extended slide stop. Leave these to competetion and the guys and girls looking for a quarter-second advantage.

I have often stated that I allow the trigger to reset during recoil and come out of recoil with the sights on target. However, a shooting coach and a ‘winner’ with more trophies than I will ever have asked me how long I have been doing this. A long, long time I replied — more than 20 years.

The author is firing a lightweight, 5-shot .45 Colt.
The author is firing a lightweight, 5-shot .45 Colt.

He stated that he did as well, but a beginning shooter should wait until they come out of recoil to allow the trigger to reset to avoid ‘doubling’ the trigger (firing twice when you did not mean to). This is a valid point. Keep practicing, understand what you are doing, and adopt what works best.

Shooting Stance

A solid shooting stance is important. In combat shooting, you cannot always rely on getting into the perfect stance. You may be moving to ‘get off the X,’ or you may be firing from behind cover. Of course, you may also be caught flat footed. If possible, you should get into a proper firing stance and plant your feet a shoulder’s-length apart, with the firing-side foot behind the shooter. Get a little lower — lowering your center of gravity — and thrust your shoulders forward. This stance will make for efficient recoil control.

Bob Campbell shooting a magnum revolver through recoil
Recoil is often straight up!

Another consideration, when firing from a braced position (against a barricade), do not let the handgun touch the brace. There are certain exceptions for revolvers we will cover later. The pistol will recoil away from the brace. Use the elbows for bracing and be certain to brace evenly, or the shot will go either left or right.

Controlling recoil is an important skill. Get the basics squared away and practice hard. Your growth as a shooter will be steady and strong.

How much effort do you put into perfecting your grip? Do you have ‘new shooter’ grip tip to control recoil? Share your answers in the Comment section.

  • Strong-side hand gripping an ATI .45 ACP 1911 semi-auto handgun
  • .357 Magnum in full recoil
  • Top down view of a proper firing grip on an ATI .45 ACP 1911 semi-auto handgun
  • Firing a revolver, using the car's hood as a brace
  • The web of the hand high on the firing grip of an ATI .45 ACP 1911 semi-auto pistol
  • Proper one-handed firing grip for a revolver
  • Getting the hand too high on the grip strap of a revolver will allow the muzzle to flip upward too much. The hammer may catch on the web of the hand as well.
  • Gripping a revolver too low
  • As the action is operated, the hand must maintain a firing grip.
  • Pressing the trigger on a revolver showing the hammer partially to the rear.
  • Three .357 magnum revolvers with varying barrel lengths
  • Bob Campbell shooting a magnum revolver through recoil
  • The author is firing a lightweight, 5-shot .45 Colt.
  • Bob Campbell shooting a CZ 75 pistol with a high firing grip

About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.


Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Handloader
Rifle Magazine
Handguns
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns



Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (13)

  1. I have most of the magnum handguns, but that .460 s/w shooting the Hornady 200 gr. Bullet is relentless. Shoot the.45 through it and like a.22. The .454 has a little bit of kick to it.

  2. I agree with most of what you are saying here. I too am a firearms instructor and teach all my students the hand hold, locked wrist, and thumb position except that with a revolver I have them cross their thumbs out of harms way of both hammer and cylinder gap. What confuses me is your statement that recoil happens while the bullet is still in the bore. That was my mantra until I started watching ultra slow motion videos of firearms being filmed during discharge. It seems there is first a little smoke out the barrel (I assume burned powder slipping past the bullet/rifling junction), followed by the bullet and then the bulk of the propellant smoke. The muzzle doesn’t rise until the bullet is maybe two caliber diameters from the muzzle. While I don’t tell my students this, it still interests me. If this is true then it would seem muzzle brakes react after the bullet exits the muzzle or slightly before… reasonable it seems. At any rate, I have my students hold the firearm as you suggest, concentrate on the sight picture and slowly squeeze the trigger. I tell them that recoil and muzzle blast will both happen and so why not concentrate on making a good shot by concentration on sight picture and squeezing? Oh, I always start them on a 22LR handgun first. It works for all of them if they do as instructed. Incidentally, the women are almost always better at this than Y chromosome holders (in case you don’t know this, all males shoot better because they have the genetic disposition to shoot well carried on the Y chromosome). I enjoy all your posts, and thank you for helping us be better shooters and instructor. Cheers, Richard W

  3. I agree with most of what you are saying here. I too am a firearms instructor and teach all my students the hand hold, locked wrist, and thumb position except that with a revolver I have them cross their thumbs out of harms way of both hammer and cylinder gap. What confuses me is your statement that recoil happens while the bullet is still in the bore. That was my mantra until I started watching ultra slow motion videos of firearms being filmed during discharge. It seems there is first a little smoke out the barrel (I assume burned powder slipping past the bullet/rifling junction), followed by the bullet and then the bulk of the propellant smoke. The muzzle doesn’t rise until the bullet is maybe two caliber diameters from the muzzle. While I don’t tell my students this, it still interests me. If this is true then it would seem muzzle brakes react after the bullet exits the muzzle or slightly before… reasonable it seems. At any rate, I have my students hold the firearm as you suggest, concentrate on the sight picture and slowly squeeze the trigger. I tell them that recoil and muzzle blast will both happen and so why not concentrate on making a good shot by concentration on sight picture and squeezing? Oh, I always start them on a 22LR handgun first. It works for all of them if they do as instructed. Incidentally, the women are almost always better at this than Y chromosome holders (in case you don’t know this, all males shoot better because they have the genetic disposition to shoot well carried on the Y chromosome). I enjoy all your posts, and thank you for helping us be better shooters and instructor. Cheers, Richard W

  4. I have found that good hearing protection is the single most effective aid in good recoil, muzzle blast, and flinching control. If you anticipate the pain of unprotected ear drum pain, you absolutely cannot shoot even a .22 LR accurately.

    To put it another way; I get amazed at how much instant improvement in accuracy happens when I use my hearing protection.

  5. I have found that good hearing protection is the single most effective aid in good recoil, muzzle blast, and flinching control. If you anticipate the pain of unprotected ear drum pain, you absolutely cannot shoot even a .22 LR accurately.

    To put it another way; I get amazed at how much instant improvement in accuracy happens when I use my hearing protection.

  6. I love magnum pistols. I have 357mag, 40mag , 44mag, 460 raging bull and 460 S&W. The the 460S&W for sure is a blast to shoot. About 5 rounds is about all I can handle. It is a euphoric rush. But after 5 rounds I’m done.
    The Raging Bull about the same. The 44mag about 10 rounds. The 41 up to 20 rounds and the 357 20 rounds. They are all the longer barrel pistols. I hunt with them, deer and wild hogs. Accuracy and bullet placement is a key to one shot kills. Practice with the big 460’s is a must with a few shots every day to prepare for the hunt.

  7. I have a S&W 9mm EZ with a grip safety. Sometimes the recoil loosens my strong hand grip and I cannot refire until I regrip. Do I just need more practice or do you have some tips on that issue.

  8. Great article Bob. Good experience/knowledge/learning for new and experienced shooters alike.

    I started shooting handguns with a Ruger 44 magnum revolver. I didn’t (and still don’t) like to shoot the Ruger because of its (to me, anyway) stout recoil. I bought the handgun for bear protection while hunting in interior and and southeast Alaska. Soon afterward, I switched to a Remington 870 pump loaded with both slugs and buckshot for bear protection. This is what Alaska Fish and Game was using at the time. Plenty of recoil, but more effective.

    Regarding gripping the firearm, I follow Julie Golob’s advice when I asked her about how she grips firearms. She replied, “Death Grip.” This advice was recently confirmed by a Glock instructor teaching the red dot sight on Glocks: “Death Grip.” Grip the firearm high and tight.

    Concerning the 10mm vs. the 9mm recoil, my experience is as follows: I bought a Rock Island 10mm Ultra Match “Big Rock” several years ago. I had never fired a 10mm before. I was expecting the worst. This firearm weighs almost 3 lbs. I find that the recoil shooting the Big Rock is not much more than my model 45 Glock. Heavy is better.

  9. Good article. “Proper Stance” works great when shooting paper or any stationary target (ones that are not shooting at you.) It all goes out the window after the first REAL SHOT! “Proper Stance” most likely will get you killed or at least wounded. You need to practice off-handed shooting. Running and shooting, hiding behind things, laying on the ground etc. and multiple targets. Self defense shooting is a whole other ball game!

  10. I have quite a few pistols in many calibers. All are pleasant to shoot except my Taurus Tracker 44 magnum. It has a ported barrel and when using magnum ammo instead of rising when you shoot it pushes the pistol down on your middle finger. I have changed the grips three times ending up with a Hogue grip which seems to be the best. I cant shoot very many magnum rounds because of the pain it inflicts on my finger. I really wish the barrel wasn’t ported so the gun would rise instead of pushing down so hard. I know the concept is to be able to get back on target quicker but for me and this pistol it is not good. I can shoot 44 special rounds and they are comfortable to shoot though. Just letting everyone that plans on purchasing one of these pistols what to expect.

  11. Very useful article. I have fired most major and minor handgun calibers and agree with everything Mr. Campbell writes about here. My least favorite handgun is my Ruger Super Redhawk Alaskan with full house .44 magnum loads out of that stubby 2.75 inch barrel. Conversely I love my 3” GP100 with heavy bullet .357 loads. Go figure. That brings us to the subject of muzzle blast, Why would anyone want to fire an AR-15 or AK-47 “pistol” especially indoors? A 9mm or .45ACP carbine makes much more sense and will not be as damaging to one’s hearing. Carry on.

  12. Very useful article. I have fired most major and minor handgun calibers and agree with everything Mr. Campbell writes about here. My least favorite handgun is my Ruger Super Redhawk Alaskan with full house .44 magnum loads out of that stubby 2.75 inch barrel. Conversely I love my 3” GP100 with heavy bullet .357 loads. Go figure. That brings us to the subject of muzzle blast, Why would anyone want to fire an AR-15 or AK-47 “pistol” especially indoors? A 9mm or .45ACP carbine makes much more sense and will not be as damaging to one’s hearing. Carry on.

  13. Excellent article Bob. Bob, I think I went down at least part of the same trail you did. I went from a .22LR revolver, to a .45 Long Colt. Yeah, that really took a dare, to get me to do it. Needles to say my first shot with the .45 LC I used the grip known as DEATH. LOL. Like your experience with the .45ACP, the .45LC didn’t really have much report, and using the DEATH grip, not much recoil either. LOL Next up a long barrel .357 Mag, loud by comfortable recoil, and complimented my ego at the time. One large magnum caliber that did surprise me, in a good way, is the .44 Magnum, in a long barrel Ruger Red Hawk. Yes, it had fireball about the size of basketball (maybe a little exaggeration), but the recoil was actually quite tame, maybe even less than the .357 Mag SA, and I think it had a lot to do with the grip shape, and the fact that it was simply smooth wood, so as to leave my skin on my hand during recoil. On the other end, a Ruger SP101 .357 Magnum, well that one just hurts no matter what ammo, and even a Hogue grip, but if needed, well it works. Never really noticed if there is a fireball, because the pain in the wrist keeps getting my attention. Great information, thank you

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