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1911s and the “Thumb-High Hold”

by James Tarr   |  April 30th, 2012 18

A lot of people don’t like the 1911, and just can’t understand what all the fuss is about.  Even more people love the design.  From the number of companies making 1911s today, over a hundred years after it was introduced, people aren’t just staring at them in gun stores, they are buying them.


Even someone who failed statistics should be able to figure out that a lot of the people buying 1911s today are new to the design—there are just too many of them moving off the shelves for things to be otherwise.


As great as the 1911 is, its design and method of operation is different enough from most other pistols out there that I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of new 1911 owners just aren’t aware of how to properly operate the gun.


The 1911 is a single action design—if the hammer isn’t cocked, you can pull the trigger all you want and nothing is going to happen.  The fun begins once the hammer is cocked.  1911s are equipped with manual “thumb” safeties which can only be activated once the hammer is cocked.  Flick it up and the safety is on, down for off.


That safety is right at thumb level, and most 1911s today feature thumb safeties bigger than the original GI design, so your thumb is going to have to go below it or above it.  1911s should always be fired with the thumb of your shooting hand atop the manual safety—the “thumb-high hold”.


There are two very specific reasons for this.  The first is the most important—if your thumb isn’t on top of the safety, there is a very good chance that, during recoil while shooting, your thumb will bump the safety up unintentionally.  At the range this is annoying, during a life-or-death confrontation on the street it could mean the difference between life or death.


This is not some opinion I formulated while watching the Matrix movies, Jeff Cooper was advocating the thumb-high hold when I was still in diapers, and he knew a few things about 1911s.  Over the last 20 years I don’t know how many times I’ve seen shooters not using a thumb-high hold accidentally bump the safety up on their 1911 during firing.


The second reason to put your thumb atop the safety is that it forces you to choke up on the pistol, and this allows for better recoil management and quicker recovery between shots.  After over a decade of shooting and carrying nothing but 1911s I now shoot everything with a thumb-high hold, and I’ve found this helps control the recoil of all types of pistols, even those without manual thumb safeties (such as Glocks).


The thumb-high hold does tend to pull the web of a shooter’s hand off the back of a 1911, which is one reason why aftermarket manufacturers of beavertail grip safeties started putting a bump at the bottom of the safety—to ensure it would be deactivated when the shooter had a firing grip on the gun.


Still don’t believe me?  Take a look at all the professional shooters out there, the ones who take a hit in the wallet if they don’t win.  All of them, and I mean ALL OF THEM, shoot with a thumb-high hold.

  • Craig

    Have a series 70 Series Gold Cup. Great shooter, but i just got tired of shooting it,like my Hi-Power better

  • Martin Ullstrup

    Right on! Yes, Col. Cooper demostrated the high thumb hold many, many years ago. It also to stops some of the twisting caused by the pistols rifleing as tha bullets makes a "jack rabbit start" up the barrel. I miss that fine man. If you can get a hold of some of his older books, buy them. He wrote one named Custom Rifles that really covered the subject very well. He wrote that before he began writing about pistol shooting. When I go I sure would like to be able to speak to him.

  • Tracy Thorleifson

    I'll add one other reason, pertinent to those of us with long thumbs. Although I've never accidentally flicked the safety on, my thumb is long enough to touch the end of the slide release on a 1911. Under recoil, on the last shot in the magazine, this sometimes results in just enough interference with the slide release to cause the slide to fail to lock open. Perhaps not a critical problem, but again, one you'd rather not experience in a gun fight. With a high thumb hold, this is never an issue.

    BTW, I learned to shoot semi-autos, like many of my generation, on a Beretta 92F. A 1911-style high thumb hold grip is not really possible on this pistol. My occasional slide release issues on my 1911 are due to muscle memory confusion; they only occur when I hold my 1911 like a Beretta.

  • Lee Martin

    I have little hands and the thum safety is to high for good control. Does anyone make a thum safety that is bent down lower to help this problem?

    • Alan_T

      Lee , Gunsite offers an aftermarket thumb safety with a low paddle for people with smaller hands or shorter thumbs . Brownell's carries it currently for $ 41.90 . Probably other suppliers carry it too .

      • Lee Martin

        Thanks for the help.

  • Mike Meserve

    I have shot over 80,000 rd in 1911 most in a Gold Cup or Officer Model. You pass over the problem of does tend to pull the web of the shooters hand off the back of the 1911. I too have read about the hight thumb but when I have used it my web come off and the gun doesn't goes bang. With the low thumb it work for me. I have never bumb the safty on while I have been shooting. I have shot IPDA and have my CHL here in TX. I am a CHL instructor. To date when I pull my Colt the safty snape off and the gun go bang. Low thumb work for me.

    • zenosincity

      I agree. I have never been able to use the high hold. When I've tried it (because someone told me I should) my hand comes off the grip safety. I hate it when someone tries to tell me the way I shoot is wrong or that I should use the high hold or some other technique. I've been shooting 1911s for more than four decades (42 years) and I've never bumped the extended thumb safety or the extended slide lock when shooting even during competition. Further, I don't think there is necessarily any correct or right way to shoot or hold a 1911. If the way you shoot works, stick with it. I'll give you an example of someone (me) telling someone else what is right or wrong: The thumb safety is not "ON" or "OFF."; It's either engaged or disengaged. So, who is right and who is wrong? Technically, my definition is probably more accurate, but does it really matter? Probably not. So, telling me that I "ALWAYS" should use a high hold is a bit off base (in my opinion). In addition, the high hold just ain't comfortable.

  • Geo1

    What kind of "CREATURE" is that coming outta the guys shirt sleve!!?? LOL!!!

    • Alan_T

      HAHAHAHAHA I saw that too Geo1 , I think it's a vine from a zombie watermelon !

  • Stewart

    I have a 1911 with an extended safty and slide release. The thumbs up technique works great for me. It took a little bit to break my old habits from my Army days.

  • Jeff Knox

    An over-sized safety is mandatory for this grip and it definitely can cause problems with the grip safety failing to activate. I personally believe in pinning the grip safety – or removing it altogether with something like Wayne Novak's "Answer" solid back-strap (though I don't see it on his web sight anymore).
    My next 1911 will be so equipped and also be relieved on the left side where my thumb wraps around the corner.
    Wilson Combat offers a "Low Lever Extended Thumb Safety" for around $75. I've wanted to try one, but haven't run into anyone at the range with one installed and so far Wilson hasn't volunteered to send me one for T&E. The price is a bit steep just to see if I like it.

  • Rick

    What that is coming out of his sleeve is kinesio tape. It is a physical therapy tape probably used to treat his tendinitis in his elbow.(Tennis elbow).

  • John

    Ah, another matter of opinion. I have worn out a couple of 1911's and the thumbs over the safety sucks for me. I have big hands and if I shoot one thumb over with serrated grooves on the slide, sometimes it can result in thumb shaving…especially in stressful situations. I keep my thumb down where it is safe. Besides, the way I hold the pistol in two hand shooting is more stable and accurate with the thumb down. So….all experts beware….I disagree. Be it also known that I have never won any national matches nor have I entered any. But I have popped thousands of caps in my time. Different strokes……

  • Alan_T

    Gunsite offers an aftermarket thumb safety with a low paddle for people with smaller hands or shorter thumbs . Brownell's carries it currently for $ 41.90 .

  • George

    Shot my father's WWII 1911A1 as a kid, spent 21 years in the Infantry, carried a 1911A1. Carried a 1911A1 in El Salvadore during the late 80s. Offered a M9 or a 1911A1 in Desart Storm and Op Provide Comfort, chose the 1911A1. Been owning and toting Colt and Kimber 1911s of all sizes since I retired in 92. Always loaded, cocked and locked. Thumb-high hold works for me.

  • Hooah Vet

    Another technique that was not mentioned is what I call the thumb lock. Normal grip on the 1911 (thumb below the safety), but use the thumb of the supporting hand to press down the shooting hand thumb. Same result, keeps the shooting thumb from possibly flipping up and really makes a steady grip for competition. Has worked for me in competition for about 40 years now.

    • Allan Gaddi

      I will try this one. Thanks.

      The thumb-high technique makes me feel like I’m not gripping the gun well enough. And yes, there is that constant fear of not deactivating the grip safety (due to my small hands?).

      I’ve had problems on activating the thumb safety if not on thumb-high.

      Good to have another method to practice. I hope this is the one. :)

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