Do you remember the first time you fired a gun? If you're like most, you were somewhat apprehensive, perhaps more worried about what the gun would do in your hand than whether or not you hit your target.
Shooting is unnatural, especially for the neophyte. Even experienced shooters often flinch as they press the trigger—an instinctive effort to counteract the effects of recoil. In fact, anticipation of recoil is often touted as the No. 1 shooting error.
As if missing your first shot wasn't bad enough, if you don't effectively manage recoil, follow-up shots will be slower and less accurate. In order to be confident in your shooting ability and in control of your gun, you need to tame the beast known as recoil. But given the fact that Newton's Third Law—for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction—is unyielding, how can this be accomplished?
One way to control recoil is through equipment selection. Selecting a heavier handgun with a full-size grip and chambered in a smaller caliber will be much easier to control than a lightweight, subcompact gun in a larger caliber.
Of course, a robust handgun in a smaller caliber such as a full-size .38 Special chambered revolver might not be the most practical concealed carry option because it's relatively big, heavy and hard to hide.
Big-gun carry problems aside, I am a firm believer that the self-defense-minded shooter should learn to manage recoil through proper technique rather than be dependent on equipment.
Recoil management techniques vary quite dramatically from one shooting school to another—and even from one shooter to another—but they start with a thorough understanding of the fundamentals of marksmanship.
Of the fundamentals, grip is the most significant in controlling recoil, although it often goes hand in hand with stance.
Twenty years ago, as a cadet in the police academy, I was taught a thumb-over-thumb hold. With this grip, the thumb of the non-dominant hand wraps over the dominant side thumb, with both thumbs bent downward at the knuckle. The fingers of the non-dominant hand encircle the knuckles of the dominant hand.
If you give it a try, you'll see that this makes for a pretty solid grip. But the grip is augmented considerably by your shooting platform. After establishing the thumb-over-thumb grip, extend your arms partially and apply forward pressure with your dominant hand and rearward pressure with the other hand.
This creates isometric tension that helps control the gun during recoil.
Many will recognize this grip and presentation as a component of the Weaver stance, named after Jack Weaver and popularized by Col. Jeff Cooper. It was prevalent in both law enforcement and competitive shooting circles for decades, and there are many variations.
As early as the mid-1980s, competitive shooters started employing a more squared-up stance—as opposed to the bladed stance used in the Weaver—and adopting a thumbs-forward grip. This is the way I was retaught to shoot at the police firearms instructor course I attended in 2005.
In the thumbs-forward grip, you grip the gun with your dominant hand, but rather than bend your thumb down, you allow it to remain straight, aligned with the muzzle. This creates a void on the grip between the heel of your hand and your fingertips. Insert your other hand into the void and allow your fingers to overlap the fingers of your firing hand.
The heels of your hands should be in contact with the gun and each other, and the thumb of your non-dominant hand is also pointed forward, resting against the frame below the other thumb. This results in your hands covering virtually 100 percent of the gun's grip, and it's why many shooters favor thumbs-forward over thumb-over-thumb.
Thumb-over-thumb results in a gap between the heels of your hands. This gap gives recoil a place to send your muzzle—in this case to your non-dominant side, which makes it harder to shoot to the same spot consistently.
As I mentioned, thumbs-forward brings with it a change in stance to more of an isosceles—square to the target with the arms fully extended for consistency and recoil absorption. The stance taught to me is not an exact isosceles because the gun-side foot is slightly rearward of the other foot.
With the true isosceles, while your fully extended arms don't send your muzzle left or right, they send the muzzle up, perhaps more than necessary. To compensate, many of the top competitive and tactical shooters advocate keeping a slight bend in your elbows.
Recently, I took a course from Way of the Gun's Frank Proctor, a former Special Forces operator and current competitive shooter. It made me rethink several aspects of shooting I had taken for granted, not the least of which was recoil management.
For starters, Proctor stresses that the arms play a huge role in recoil control and that grip counts a lot more than stance because you can't count on being able to assume a proper stance in a gunfight.
He advocates shooting with arms bent, allowing the elbows to flex during recoil. The result is less muzzle flip, which translates to faster follow-up shots. And since one handgun round (regardless of caliber) is unlikely to immediately incapacitate your adversary, being able to hit your target in rapid succession until the threat is stopped is critical to your survival.
Also, with your elbows unlocked, you can more easily transition between targets.
Proctor also rebuffs the popular notion that the non-dominant hand should account for the majority of your grip; I've heard other world-class shooters say this, too.
He points out that when the pistol is properly gripped with the firing hand, it aligns with your forearm—a critical factor in managing recoil. Further, the firing hand is better able to control recoil because the pistol is in the web of that hand and the thumb wraps around the back of the gun.
Proctor advises that each hand should grip the pistol as though engaging in a firm handshake—in a "parallel grip," with both thumbs as close as possible to parallel to the slide.
Proctor stresses that controlling recoil has a lot to do with striking the right balance between leverage and traction in your grip. One of the advantages of the thumbs-forward grip is that pointing your non-dominant thumb toward the target requires you to cam your wrist forward, essentially locking it in place.
But when this camming is exaggerated, you can lose contact with the heels of your hands. In this case, you have a ton of leverage because your thumb is so far forward, but you are lacking the traction created by the heels of your hands remaining in contact.
On the flip side, some shooters maintain good contact with their hands but don't have their non-dominant thumb forward enough. They are good on traction but lacking in leverage.
Proctor also has an interesting take on the role the thumbs play in establishing a solid grip.
Many firearms instructors claim the thumbs play no role in your shooting grip other than to remain clear of the slide (contacting the slide could slow down reciprocation and induce a malfunction) and the slide stop lever (which could cause the slide to remain forward after the gun is fired empty).
However, Proctor says the thumbs are critical in establishing a proper grip and thereby reducing the effect of recoil.
In a technique Proctor attributes to world champion shooter Dave Sevigny, a right-handed shooter's left thumb should be in contact with the frame of the pistol and actually apply slight inward pressure to counteract the natural tendency (for a righty) to push the gun left when shooting rounds in rapid succession.
And instead of the dominant-hand thumb merely resting atop the other thumb, it applies downward pressure to minimize muzzle flip during recoil. (When shooting a 1911 pistol, the thumb safety serves as a built-in shelf for the dominant thumb to press down on.)
While Proctor emphasizes grip over stance in terms of recoil management, an aggressive stance helps a shooter stay on balance and mobile. A solid stance also provides stability to stay on your feet if shot or struck.
As Kyle Lamb of Viking Tactics teaches, a good fighting stance enables the shooter to drive the gun back onto the target after each shot, as well as to transition from one target to the next. Lamb compares the hip motion required in driving the gun from target to target to that used to deliver an effective punch.
My shooting stance has changed several times over the years. I've settled on a stance where my body is square to the threat but my shooting-side foot is well behind my other foot. This enables me to easily engage targets to the left and right and move explosively in any direction.
While they are major factors, stance and grip are only two components of recoil control. The trigger plays a role as well. Trigger reset is associated with recoil control in that it signals the shooter to prep the trigger for the next shot.
Some highly proficient shooters actually prep the trigger while the gun is in recoil, which saves them from having to wait until the slide reciprocates to reset the trigger. However, this is an advanced technique that requires extensive training.
For most of us, our finger remains in contact with the trigger after firing, and when the gun recovers from recoil, we release the trigger just enough for it to reset, which is often something you can hear and feel.
If you let off the trigger completely, you need to take out all of the slack in order to fire again. This makes for a longer trigger press that opens the door for a shooting error to creep in and alter the trajectory of what should have been an accurate shot.
Prepping the trigger is not only a component of trigger control but also of follow through. As mentioned, Lamb advocates aggressively driving the gun to the target after each shot, thus minimizing down time, enabling you to increase your rate of fire. This is an element of follow-through.
Competitive shooters actually train to use recoil to their advantage. For example, after knocking down the first plate of a plate rack, they use the recoil to transition the gun to the next plate, upon which their eyes are already focused. (In the real world, it's important to make sure the rounds you've fired have neutralized the threat before moving to the next potential threat.)
Regardless of your skill level, you can't eliminate recoil, but you need to understand how you can control its negative effects with proper grip, stance, trigger manipulation and follow-through.
And, of course, there is more than one way to skin a cat. You need to experiment to see which method works best for you. Unlike many aspects of shooting that can be practiced during dry-fire exercises, to tame the beast called recoil, you need to actually shoot your gun.