Some glory in their birth, some in their skill… ~ William Shakespeare, Sonnet 91
I am among many who argue that the first and best weapon for family defense is the handgun. Compared with rifles and shotguns, handguns are the most accessible form of firearm for the average citizen. Larger weapons are bulkier, louder, and naturally more intimidating. An inexperienced shooter might equate holding a 12-gauge shotgun or tactical rifle with holding an ax or shovel, which (normal) people do not carry around every day. Holding a handgun, on the other hand, is like holding a newborn: it demands a slightly uncomfortable level of diligence, but its innate attraction is undeniable. You do not want to put it down.
If handguns have one major drawback, it is the fact that they are probably the most difficult type of gun to shoot effectively. Most people do not realize this at first, but as soon as they pull the trigger for the first time and the firing pin strikes the chambered cartridge, they understand that this is not something to be taken lightly. The good news is, almost anyone can learned the skill. Unfortunately, we cannot expect the "experts" at the gun store to offer pointers in a kind, helpful manner, if at all. Not that this is a grave travesty – after all the fact that unarmed citizens are in a gun store exploring family defense options speaks volumes – but it is somewhat sad when one all too often sees these innocently ignorant people being ridiculed by self-proclaimed experts for not knowing how best to wield a handgun.
If you have never been in a gun store before, the scenario you can look forward to is simple: Customarily, the gun-nut salesman will sell you a gun, then laugh at you behind your back. (Over the years, they have learned that making you feel like an idiot to your face doesn't help their business, so they wait until you leave before they begin the comments you suspected they were withholding.) In fairness, we can't lay too much blame on them. Just as you never learned to hold a gun, they never learned to be polite, or humble.
Nevertheless, gun store owners and guns store regulars are an interesting, if not contradictory, breed. They want more business and more people to rally behind their cause, yet they expect to accomplish this by, on the whole, acting like weirdos. It is true that this rule does not apply to all gun store personnel, but for the most part, even if the guy behind the gun counter has good advice, he generally does not offer it kindly. Hopefully enough people will continue to realize that their family's safety is more important than outright avoiding these wannabe soldiers of fortune, and thus they must on occasion enter an FFL (Federal Firearms License) holding establishment to purchase a gun. A father's instinct to protect his family should be strong enough to overcome any other inclination.
Like a newborn, there are a number of right and wrong ways to hold a handgun; however, people cannot master the skill by osmosis. Although humans are born with the instinctual knowledge of how to hold their babies, the same is not true for their handguns. It is a skill that must be learned, and the best learning environment is one free of ridicule.
Therefore, the remainder of this article will seek to offer some small guidance into beginning good habits when holding a handgun, which can be learned and practiced in private, away from disparaging onlookers. These tricks will hopefully offer some assistance to those who, at the very least, need to be able to look like they know what they are doing so as to avoid unnecessary judgments. The focus here will be on two-handed shooting. Also, we are going to be talking pistols here as opposed to revolvers.
Before proceeding: Please remove the magazine from your pistol and rack the slide back three times. Then visually inspect the chamber to make sure it is empty. Then have a second person visually inspect it. I am not responsible if you shoot something.
Initial Strong Hand Grip. Your strong hand is probably the hand with which you write. Your weak hand is frequently referred to as your "off hand" in some know-it-all shooting circles. Grab the gun as you naturally would with your strong hand. The trick here is to put the space between your thumb and index finger as high up on the back of the gun's grip as possible. Be sure that you are not too high! Remember, when the gun fires, the slide will move very quickly and violently to the rear, so make sure you are high, but not too high.
Strong Hand Fingers. Your index finger should remain off the trigger unless you intend to pull the trigger. Place your index finger on the frame of the gun, pointing forward, just above the trigger. Your other fingers should be wrapped around the lower front portion of the grip. Some pistols feature finger grooves here.
Strong Hand Thumb. Your strong hand thumb should follow suit from your initial high grip and thus be pointing forward , high on the frame of the gun. For right-handed folks, your right thumb will be on the left side of the gun, where there is usually to be found various controls, such as a slide release lever. Make sure your thumb does not interfere with these controls.
Strong Hand Grip Strength. This is simple, but difficult to master, since most people, for whatever reason, naturally grip the gun with either too much or too little muscle. It is a firm, but not show-off, handshake. Just practice maintaining that firmness of grip.
Weak Hand Grip. Many people never learn to do this, but when they do, they realize how it greatly adds stability. Hold your forearm out in front of you, parallel with the ground. Turn your hand so that your palm faces inside, as though you were clapping your hands. Next, keeping your four fingers together, flex your wrist so that your fingers point downwards towards the floor at about a forty-five degree angle. Point your thumb straight out in front of you, on the same axis as your forearm, towards your "target." Now, cover as much of the gun's grip as possible with the palm of your hand. At this point, your strong hand thumb should be resting along the top of your weak hand wrist as you grip the gun with both hands.
Weak Hand Fingers. Your weak hand fingers should rest comfortably over your strong hand fingers.
Weak Hand Thumb. Your weak hand thumb should be as far forward as possible, firmly against the side of the gun, while still maintaining proper palm placement on the grip (i.e. do not sacrifice your overall grip in order to place your thumb too far forward).
Weak Hand Grip Strength. It is ordinarily better to grip the gun slightly stronger with your weak hand than your strong hand.
Stance. There are two stances: Isosceles and Weaver. Isosceles is simply facing your target head-on, with your feet a little more than shoulder-width apart. The term is derived from the triangle, which is visible from a bird's eye view, with the three points being your two heels and the gun. The Weaver stance is essentially the same as the Isosceles, except with the strong foot dropped back a bit. The term Weaver is derived from a person's name. Many people naturally fall into a Weaver stance when they first begin to shoot. Neither stance is more correct. Just use the one with which you are most comfortable. Most cops prefer Isosceles because their body armor is stronger in the front than on the side. Isosceles can also help new shooters balance and line up on their targets easier.
Balance. Using your lower back, lean forward. For whatever reason, many new shooters tend to lean back unknowingly. Bend your knees slightly. Now, holding the gun out in front of you, as though you were ready to shoot, firmly extend your arms all the way out. Try not to bend your elbows.
Aiming. Although the focus here is on holding a gun, new shooters can benefit from knowing a thing or two about sight picture. First and foremost, your focus should always be on the front sight. Secondly, although not all sights are designed this way, a good all-around sight picture is to line up the top of the front sight with the top of the rear sight. Then, horizontally cut your target in half with the top of the front sight.
Trigger Finger. How much trigger finger simply means where along your finger you touch the trigger. Too much finger and the right handed shooter may shoot right. Too little and he may shoot left. A good starting point is about three-quarters of the way down from the tip of your finger before the first crease.
Trigger Pull. With your gun completely unloaded, practice this frequently. You will gain much discipline from dry firing your pistol, and little, if any, wear will befall your gun from doing this. Do this especially before buying a gun, so that you can compare its trigger with other specimens. Do not jerk the trigger. Steadily pull it straight back.
Again, practice dry firing and do it frequently. This will help you overcome the anticipation of recoil. After a visit to the range, take home a less embarrassing target, hang it in your basement, and practice these techniques while dry firing at your target from different distances. Good shooters can be effective even at twenty-five yards.
Nick Hosford [send him mail] has studied Economics and Political Science for many years, including as an undergraduate at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is also a graduate of the Birmingham School of Law. He lives with his wife and two children in Vestavia, Alabama.