Competitive Shooting

Shooting 101: Recoil Control and Marksmanship

Man shooting colt python braced on car

I began shooting with a .22 revolver, moved up to a .38 Special, and then a .357 Magnum, firing quite diverse number of handguns along the way. The primary problem with handling the magnum wasn’t recoil. It was the muzzle blast. After a year or so of firing the magnum, I felt some tradition when addressing the .45 ACP.

Next 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.

man holding .22 LR 1911 pistol
Keep the thumb locked but forward and the grip 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. While 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, I learned to handle recoil.

Strength and Recoil

Anyone of normal physical ability may learn to handle the .38 Special, 9mm Luger, .40 S&W, .45 ACP, and .357 Mag — 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 Auto, 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 marksmanship. The greater the concentration on marksmanship, the less you will notice recoil. Flinch and failure to control recoil kills accuracy. Failing to control recoil makes accurate follow-up shots impossible.

man shooting 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 even catch on the web of the hand.

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. Of course, there is the problem of multiple assailants to consider as well. This means you must learn to control recoil effectively for rapid, accurate follow-up shots.

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 three-inch barrel and hand filling grips, is easier to handle than a two-inch barrel lightweight frame .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, but 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.

Three .357 revolvers with barrel lengths from 3 to five inches
All three of these handguns chamber the .357 Magnum cartridge. The lighter gun will kick more. The four-inch barrel revolver is perhaps the best compromise.

A snub nose .38 with aluminum frame and small grips may be good for 20 rounds, a standard carry-size magnum about the same. With .38 Special loads in the .357, I may fire indefinitely without pausing to rub my wrists. With a mid-size 9mm such as the Springfield Hellcat, the rule is much the same.

Get a 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.

Gripping a revolver while pressing the trigger and showing the hammer halfway to the rear
As you manipulate the handguns action, don’t allow your grip to slip.

But don’t over-ride 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 that allow the shooter’s hand to come into contract with the metal backstrap are painful in revolvers. The Taurus 856 and Smith and 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.

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The hand should be in line with the bones of the arm. A too small pistol is a problem, but 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. Be certain to try a few pistols in the shop or indoor range.

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 the consistent. This is very important. If the elbows are stiff, recoil drives the arm up and into the shoulders.

Top down view of an improper grip on a revolver
This is the proper firing grip.

With a light caliber, this may not be a problem. With a heavier caliber it may be best to bend the elbows slight 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 seem 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.

Poor grip on revolver demonstrating the hand position too low
This is a terrible hold on the revolver, the hand is much too slow. Yet it is a common mistake.

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 that is 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 that 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, so you must control it.

hand on 1911 pistol
Keep the web of the hand high on the backstrap.

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.

It is common with some handguns 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.” He stated that he did as well.

However, a beginning shooter should wait until they come out of recoil to allow the trigger to reset to avoid ‘doubling’ the trigger and firing twice when you do not mean to. Keep practicing, understand what you are doing, and adopt what works best while reinforcing good shooting habits.

wrist locked to control recoil when firing a revolver
For proper recoil control, lock the wrist, don’t leave a gap between the hands, and allow the elbows to flex.

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. You may be caught flat footed. If possible, you should get into a proper firing stance and plant your feet a shoulder width 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.

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 in a later article.) 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 do you practice recoil control? What’s the harshest caliber you shoot? Let us know in the comment section.

  • Gripping a revolver while pressing the trigger and showing the hammer halfway to the rear
  • Gripping an old, worn revolver while pressing the trigger and showing the hammer halfway to the rear
  • Poor grip on revolver demonstrating the hand position too low
  • demonstrating hand too high on the revolver
  • Top down view of an improper grip on a revolver
  • Man shooting colt python braced on car
  • .357 magnum colt python in recoil
  • wrist locked to control recoil when firing a revolver
  • top down view of the proper firing grip of a 1911 .45 ACP pistol
  • Finger off the trigger, but preparing for a straight up recoil
  • Firing a .22 LR version of a 1911 pistol for practice without the recoil concerns
  • Two .22 LR pistols
  • Three .357 revolvers with barrel lengths from 3 to five inches
  • Bob Campbell shooting a magnum revolver through recoil
  • Bob Campbell shooting a magnum revolver using a two handed 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 (5)

  1. Hello Mr Campbell
    Thank you for all your Great lessons. I throughly enjoy and learn from all your articles. I look forward to your next Great articles.
    Keep them coming!
    Thanks
    WH Gaddy

  2. Early in my training I was told, while gripping a weapon, if you exert force forward with one hand and to the rear with the other it will help with recoil control. What are your thoughts? Thanks…

  3. Rossi 44 Magnum- i bought a used one and am having feed issues on the cartridge. They don’t feed up into the chamber and come up at steep angle resulting in catching on end of the bullet
    My gun smith did not have tools to remove barrel so sent to Rossi. They said they would not work on it. He is now sending to Brownells in Grinell, Iowa. Just 20 miles away from us. I have not heard back for a week
    I was wondering if you had suggestions
    Craig

  4. Do I carry, yup.
    Don’t ask why or what.
    If you can’t be situational aware. Then you’re a dumbass.
    PERIOD.

    JC

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