The Proper Pistol Grip

Close-up detail view of shooter practice handgun shooting on target in row group of people on the shooting range

Many words and much debate has gone into discussing the proper way to grip an autoloading pistol. Some argue that the proper grip is to have your thumbs forward, some that the thumbs should be up, while others insist that the thumbs be locked together. I’ve even heard it recommended that the thumbs be canted away from the gun to ensure they do not interfere with the action or inadvertently hit the slide lock.

Which is correct?

The Role of the Primary Hand and Support Hand

One point of agreement among nearly all experts is the role of the primary hand and the support hand.

  • The primary hand should apply slight pressure to the front and backstrap of the grip
  • The support hand squeezes from the right and left side.
  • In order to maintain positive contact with the gun, the support hand should be such that the heel of the hand is nestled within the gap left by the shooting hand on the left side of the grip.

Your support hand should do most of the work here—your shooting hand has enough to do working the trigger, safety (if equipped) and magazine release. Most instructors explain that your support hand should provide 60% of the grip, squeezing side to side, while the shooting hand provides 40% of the grip squeezing front to back.

While you’re practicing your grip, make sure you don’t have a death grip on your pistol. You want a firm, solid grip to be sure; you don’t want a “white knuckle” death grip. Think of it like holding a small squirmy animal: you’re not trying to crush it, just keep it from getting away from you.

Now, what about those pesky thumbs? What do you do with them?

What About the Thumbs

As far as I can tell, it doesn’t really matter too much so long as they are not interfering with the slide or controls. That said, I don’t recommend using the locked thumb method.

The locked thumb method can interfere with the support hand’s ability to have good solid contact with the grip panel. By wrapping the thumb of your support hand over the thumb of your shooting hand, it pushes the heel of your palm out away from the grip. The presence of this gap makes the gun tend to turn towards the support hand under recoil.

Many competition and tactical shooters recommend the thumbs-forward grip as it is a more intuitive method to point the pistol at your target. The question then becomes: Do you lay your thumbs along the slide, or hold them away to minimize any interference? Here, the experts are split.

  • GLOCK pistol shooter Dave Sevigny keeps his thumbs laying right along the side of the pistol.
  • Brian Enos on the other hand keeps his thumbs away from the pistol.
  • Some SIG Sauer pistoleers have noticed that having the thumbs along the side while using a thumbs-forward grip causes the slide lock lever to be pushed down so the handgun will not go into slide lock on an empty magazine. Conversely, GLOCK pistols can be inadvertently locked back by riding the slide lock lever.

The Benefits of the Thumbs-Forward Method

The thumbs-forward method demonstrated by Todd Jarrett in the photo is perfect for shooting 1911 handguns. With this method, the frame-mounted safety is positioned directly underneath the shooting hand thumb, making it incredibly fast and intuitive to draw and disengage the safety selector in one smooth motion.

With a gun equipped with a high-ride beavertail making it easier to get a higher grip on the pistol and extended safety lever, the thumbs-forward method is very natural and comfortable.

Shooting semiautomatic pistols using the thumbs-forward method really becomes useful when used in action pistol or tactical applications where speed and accuracy are both needed.

By positioning the thumbs-forward along the slide (or slightly off of the slide) you are in essence creating a second sighting device: wherever your shooting thumb is pointing is where the pistol is pointing.

This makes it incredibly fast to draw the pistol, get your proper grip, and press forward to the target without needing to hunt around for the front sight. As Colonel Jeff Cooper explained, “The body aims, the sights confirm.” If you are watching the target (which you should be) as you press forward using this grip, the front sight should naturally come up into your view, presenting you with a very fast and natural sight picture.

Do you have a preferred grip to get the best results when you’re shooting? Tell us all about it in the comments section.

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 (16)

  1. Im a pretty big guy with big hands. I shoot one handed. With the semi autos, I shoot two,one in each hand. AKA Bruce Willis in “Last Man Standing” and I do have a double shoulder rig. Taking the advice of an officer of many years with hits on EIGHTEEN perps, he uses the silhouette of the pistol rather than the sights, per se. I have quick shot like that for quite some time.
    NOW, I enter my disclaimer here. I am not responsible for any person who attempts this position and is injured. Although I have shot my long barrel revolvers like this for many years on long range shots, I have never been injured and I personally feel quite safe myself using this technique. ALL THE REVOLVERS I shoot this method with are longer than SEVEN INCHES. That is 7 inches. Otherwise you will probably shoot a hole in your arm. You got that? From my .45 Colt Peacemaker, 7.5 to my 8.5 SW Target Model .44 mag I can make stuff go away at long distances.
    Here we go. For a right handed shooter: FIRST AND FOREMOST, use a blacksmith leather guard with the stretch strap on your left arm so that it covers both above and below your left elbow. DO NOT SHOOT using this position without it!!!!!! Place your right hand on top of your left elbow, at the protective leather piece. The protective leather is turned so that it protects both the top and outside of your left arm. Shooting this method with a long sleeve heavy cotton shirt will only catch your shirt on fire if you dont have on the leather guard. Stay with me here, its worth the trouble. Grab your right upper arm with your left hand thumb facing your chest. Put your shooting hand on top of your left elbow. Practice this a number of times without a firearm. Do it for at least TWO days before you attempt to fire. That way you give your subconscious an opportunity to absorb and dissect the process. Again, listen to me on this. You have been shooting all this time without this stance so two more days wont hurt you. Your pistol will be facing to your left, not straight ahead as most people shoot. I only use this for long range shooting and it will put you on the money like nothing else. Practice the stance with an UNLOADED pistol the second or third day before you load up.
    Since this is the first time I have ever given up this technique, you readers are damn lucky, first of all, and you will not believe your newly gained revolver accuracy. I suppose we can call it the HAYBURNER, in memory of what it can do without a leather guard and in honor of the inventor of this technique, Samuel M. Hay, III. Good shooting AMIJOE (In my best Sam Elliot from “Roadhouse”)

  2. I owned a .38 revolver for many, many years and became very accurate and comfortable with a two handed grip that seemed very natural. I used to grip the wrist of my main hand with my support hand. Basically, it was like firing with one hand but the support hand kept my aim more accurate and prevented fatigue when firing many rounds.

    THEN I GOT A 9mm SEMI-AUTO. What I discovered almost IMMEDIATELY (and was frankly surprised NO ONE brought this point up yet on this page) was that the grip of a semi is MUCH more important than a revolver. Recoil is necessary for ejection of spent shells, chambering and cocking and without a proper grip YOUR WRIST absorbs some or much of the recoil, NOT THE SLIDE. We all know what this means…JAMS! I actually thought there was something wrong with my gun or the type of ammunition I was using when I first started firing my new pistol. It seemed one in five rounds jammed. Hardly a percentage you want to stake your life on. By simply changing my grip and preventing this recoil my gun suddenly never jammed.

    My point here is that when discussing how to hold a semi, this point MUST be brought up. Sure, some semis jam more than others. But ALL (no matter the cost or reputation) WILL jam at some point. How the gun is held GREATLY effects this.

    For instance, I would NEVER use a one handed grip with a semi-auto. I know some will differ, but, that’s my humble opinion. Preventing recoil in the wrist is the BEST way to prevent jams (well, besides keeping your action very clean), I think most would agree.


  3. I started shooting in 10-11 (07-12 now). Initially pushing shots to 7 o’clock, then pulling to right.
    After reading this, i practiced with no thumb pressure.
    All shots dead center (some high or low, but no more pulling to the right)
    Extremely helpful article.
    Wish i would have read this 9 months ago.

  4. I usually grip my 1911 with the support hand wrapping around the shooting hand and the support hand thumb on top of the shooting hand thumb, with the shooting hand pushing into the support hand. Feels very natural to me. At close range I do tend to shoot one handed quite a bit as well, when I feel it’s longer than I can shoot one handed or needs to be very precise I go to a 2 handed grip.
    Not something I really think about, but I’ve spent too many years doing it that way to change!

  5. It’s not the thumbs, but the wrist angle, that’s really significant. In teaching beginner/intermediate level shooters I’ve noticed that most want to keep the support hand wrist in a neutral position (the “shaking hands” wrist angle). In that position, the forearm muscles are neutral & idle. If the hand and wrist are cammed forward (fingers pointed at the ground, which rotates the hand making the thumb point forward parallel to the barrel) this causes forearms muscles to extend and contract into an ‘active’ state that works much better for driving the gun. The thumb angle is the indicator of wrist angle, nothing more.

    Putting the wrist at the cammed forward angle puts a sort of isometric counter-torque on the pistol that resists the rotation of the pistol that occurs in recoil.
    In the grip photo above, the shooting hand thumb is too low. It should be up at slide level, creating space underneath the thumb safety for the support hand to go up higher on the pistol and rotate farther forward so that the “thumb line” is not pointed at the sky, but is straight parallel to the barrel.

    The #1 problem I see in teaching beginners and intermediate level shooters is a misguided belief that it’s necessary to push down hard with the shooting hand thumb on the support hand. What usually occurs when this error is made is that with each successive shot, the shooting hand thumb literally pushes the support hand down off the pistol. The thumbs are just pointers and don’t require any significant pressure down or sideways -all the work is done by the fingers.

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