Friday, September 4, 2009

Patterning and Zones of Effectiveness

Okay, in this segment, we are going to talk about two related concepts. Patterning your tactical shotgun and the selection of ammunition for use in the self-defense shotgun. Patterning your shotgun provides you with valuable information on the performance of your gun and ammunition combination. This information will allow you to make informed choices on your load selection to match your particular shooting situation.

First it helps to consider the difference between fact and fiction. Thanks again to our friends in Hollywood, the average uninformed citizen sees a shotgun as a weapon that blasts an impenetrable wall of destruction from the muzzle to infinity, mowing down everything in its path. This is a dangerous misconception.

The shot load exits from the barrel of the shotgun at the same diameter as the bore it just left. It cannot do anything else. A shot load is then going to disperse from a cylinder bore barrel roughly at a rate of approximately 1” for every yard it travels. So, it will give you a pattern approximately 11’ in diameter at a range of 10 yards. I say approximately because, of course, this is going to vary, depending up on the type of barrel you are using and the type of shot charge that is being fired.

This is important when you consider the fact that a shotgun is a pattern weapon. In other words, it delivers its projectile (a shot charge) to the intended target in a pattern. Understanding the effect of distance on that pattern is very important.

The effective range of a shotgun can be thought of in terms of zones. In the first zone (call it “A”) which is from the muzzle to a distance of approximately 6 yards, you must consider the charge as a single projectile. In other words, despite what you see in the movies, you must aim your shot, or you can miss, just as with the case of the handgun or the rifle. Simply throwing the gun up and blasting away, confident that you will destroy anything in its path like you would with a Klingon death ray will not be effective and can get you killed.

In the second zone (“B” – what else?), the shotgun reigns supreme. From approximately 7 yards to 20 yards, it excels as a stopper. The shot charge begins to transition into a dispersed pattern and can deliver an extremely hard-hitting impact to the target.

Past 20 yards, we move into Zone “C”. The pattern continues to transition, but it is spreading wider and as it does, it raises the question of whether you are going to be able to put enough pellets on target to deliver a telling blow. This means you are back to aiming, and at some point, you will be considering moving from the shot charge to a single projectile slug charge, which can be effective out past 100 yards, based upon your ability to fire the weapon accurately at that range.

Since FBI statistics demonstrate that most law enforcement shootouts involving use of the rifle are at ranges that don’t exceed 75 yards, this shows that the shotgun can be an effective tool at that range if you are selecting the right load and are skilled at placing accurate fire under those circumstances.

So, how do you pattern your shotgun? Patterning for the tactical shotgun is done at 10 yards, or within the “B” zone. You should use a variety of shot loads and brands of ammunition at that range to see what the combination of your barrel and those loads will produce. In addition to everybody’s perceived favorite of 00 buckshot (“double-ought”), you should also consider using No. 4 buckshot as well as No.2 shot.

Many self-defense experts recommend sticking with No. 4 buck as a self-defense load (more shot that is still a large projectile and knowledgeable trainers will counsel you to stay away from the magnum 3” shells. Standard 2 ¾ inch shells pack a very hard wallop, more than sufficient for self-defense, without the heavy recoil that can interfere with your ability to put multiple shots, rapid fire accurately on a target or group of targets.

Take a look at your pattern. Is it concentrating shot in the center of your target, or are you experiencing a “donut effect” where there is a noticeable absence of shot in the center and more peripheral hits?

If so, you may want to try a different brand of ammunition, this often will correct the problem, and no, I do not know exactly why, other than to say the combination of barrel and ammo has a decided effect on where it throws the shot charge.

Knowing where your shotgun is sending its shot charge is critical to your ability to know and understand the value of your tactical shotgun in a self-defense encounter. The tactical shotgun is a very combat effective weapon, if you maximize its effectiveness by focusing its shot charge in the center of your intended target. It is capable of doing more things than any other weapon system and uses its energy very quickly on the target medium. For these reasons, it is a very efficient home defense tool.

Next I will be discussing some aspects of the tactical use of the shotgun as a self-defense tool.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Self-Defense Shotgun

A friend just asked me what I thought of the shotgun as a home defense tool. As I went through an explanation of my high regard for that application, I decided to turn it into a blog topic, discussing various modifications I have employed to create a self-defense shotgun, or what is often referred to as a tactical shotgun.

The shotgun is a very powerful self-defense tool, ideal for home defense for a variety of reasons. Many people do not realize that the shotgun has been part of our military combat arsenal for many, many years and continues to be so today. However, it can easily be put to a wide variety of uses from home defense to recreational, including trap shooting, skeet and hunting. It can employ a wide variety of ammunition, including birdshot, buckshot and single projectile ball (or “slugs”) and when compared with handguns and rifles (and their ammunition), it is a relatively low cost alternative. Clint Smith of Thunder Ranch has been heard to say, “I don’t need a $1,000.00 shotgun. I need to learn to run the gun I’ve got.” Very true. It is combat effective up to and with proper training, and ammunition, beyond 100 yards. The registration requirements are, at least at present, much less onerous than those for handguns and rifles, and it can be employed with equal success both in the home and in an open outdoor environment.

Properly set up, a tactical shotgun should include specific features and equipment. In this example, I started with a Mossberg 500A, 12 gauge pump shotgun that I purchased, used, several years ago for $125.00.

I swapped the 28” standard barrel out for an 18 ½” cylinder bore police barrel. This one had a typical bead sight mounted on the barrel, so I had a ghost ring sighting system installed on the gun. Adjustable rear sight on the receiver, and front sight silver soldered to the barrel. This created a permanent sighting system. I added a heat shield to the barrel, since rapid fire during range practice and the real thing can heat the barrel quickly.

I installed a “side saddle” 6 round ammo carrier on the non-port side of the receiver

and have the option of using a 6 round “butt cuff” on the butt as well.

I also placed a Pachmyr recoil pad to absorb recoil. It’s fairly stiff since an overly soft pad can grab at clothing and interfere with the ability to shoulder the weapon to ready for firing.

I also swapped out the standard magazine plug for a plug drilled and tapped for a sling swivel. By replacing the standard stock with a polymer pistol grip tactical stock, I also gained a sling swivel installed in the underside of the stock.

This enables me to use a 1” nylon web sling for carrying the shotgun. I have not installed a tactical light at this time, but intend to, since the ability to illuminate targets in the dark is a vital part of the response to a self-defense situation.

There is debate over the issue of using a magazine extension. The extension requires a bracket, bolting the extension to the barrel.

Many people, including the expert gunsmiths at Gunsite near Prescott, Arizona, argue that the use of the bracketing system will alter the point of impact every time it is used. There is also concern about the effect of an overly long magazine spring, which, of course, is required with the magazine extension. These experts advocate use of the sidesaddle and butt cuff systems, to carry extra shells on the gun, coupled with reloading discipline that demands that you to use speed-reloading techniques to replace what you shoot immediately.

Next, I am going to explain the very important process of patterning your shotgun and the use of various types of shotgun rounds in varying applications.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


An important part of the process of considering and selecting a handgun for self-defense is that of deciding what caliber of handgun you intend to employ. Considering the fact that there may just be one hundred and eleventy thousand different combinations of bullet caliber, composition, weight, and velocity, that you might have to think about, this can appear at the outset to be a daunting task. However, if I do this right, this discussion might make that an easier job for you.

Step one requires that we identify the primary objective sought in using self-defense ammunition in the first place. Simply stated, it is to stop an immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury that has been made upon the actor (or someone the actor deems it necessary to protect). The “actor” - that’s you – or me.

A bullet fired from a handgun may be effective in stopping that threat as a result of a number of different effects. Disruption of blood supply to the brain, impairment of the central nervous system, fracturing bones necessary for skeletal support, neural shock or the psychological impact some persons might experience as a result of being shot. A simpler way to put this is to say, the bullet needs to hit something vital to the operation of the human body and do enough damage to it that it stops working properly - real soon. If a fired bullet can repeat that process more than once during its travel into (or through) the body, that is even better.

It is not my intention to get into the physiology of wounds, or to try to do a lesson in human anatomy in this discussion. But hopefully, I have made the point that to be an effective self-defense choice, a handgun cartridge must be able to deliver its energy in such a fashion that it is capable of stopping the threat, right now.

Earlier, I did say “maybe effective” for a reason. Despite what a person might think, handguns are not terribly powerful tools and they can only do a limited amount of damage. Remember the story about the Sheriff who, when asked if he had brought his sidearm to a civic event because he was expecting trouble, replied, “No ma’am, if I was expecting trouble, I would have brought my rifle.” Funny story. Deadly serious point being made about the relative effectiveness of rifle cartridges versus handgun cartridges. Here, we are focusing on handgun cartridges and accepting the limitations that they inherently have.

But in the ultimate analysis, it doesn't really matter what the caliber of the bullet is or what the bullet is made of or how fast it travels. What matters is that it fulfills its primary objectives. And because there are any number of cartridges on the market capable of completing these tasks, debate rages in every corner of the kingdom about which is the “best” cartridge for self-defense. Some of the debate is healthy. Some of the debate is based upon claims that are so fanciful that they are ludicrous, or nearly so.

For example, let’s look at the widely popular 9mm parabellum:

”9 mm self-defense rounds are not capable of stopping an attacker and they never will be.” You’ve heard it, or read it, and so have I. So I posed that question to my father, a combat veteran from WWII Europe, who was hit by a single full metal jacketed 9mm round in the chest, fired by a German Officer commanding a machine gun emplacement. He said, “Well, it sure as hell stopped me.” “What happened to the German officer?”, I asked. “I killed him before I fell on my face and everything went black”. Do we have a “one shot” stop here? Sure, I guess, the officer fired once and it "stopped" my father. But thank goodness for papa (as well as me and my brothers and our progeny), the “stop” took him out of the action, but not before he inflicted several fatal wounds on his adversary with a Thompson .45 cal. sub-machine gun. However, numerous experienced self-defense experts do consider the 9mm to be quite effective in stopping an adversary. I know a number of them that carry the 9mm as a personal defense weapon, as do I and my spouse, from time to time.

Most commentators insist that it is imperative that you stick with hollow point ammunition as opposed to “ball”. ('Ball' is round-nosed ammunition with a full metal jacket). It is used for auto-loading firearms like semi-automatic pistols. It is often referred to as "full metal jacket" or “FMJ”. Ball ammo does not expand when it hits its target. The military use ball because it is not significantly prone to jamming in operation, and they are required to use ball under the terms of the Geneva Convention.

Former police detective and writer, Evan Marshall has written reports following studies conducted in 1992, 1996 and 2000. These reports are based upon the examination of thousands of actual shootings. However, his reports and conclusions are based upon the concept of the "one shot stop" where an attacker was incapacitated by one shot to the body other than the head. Marshall gave the 9mm Federal 115 grain JHP +P+ a 91% rating based upon it having been involved in 209 shootings with 190 one shot stops. My concern here is that while I do strive to achieve a one shot kill while hunting wild game, I do this to preserve edible meat. And if I am unsuccessful, I can always attempt a carefully aimed second shot. I do not intend to attempt to devour an assailant who attacks me in my home or on the street and I am not going to have time to stop and carefully assess whether my first shot was sufficient to stop his attack. So the concept of the one shot stop is virtually meaningless to me and I am suggesting that it is equally meaningless to you. It is sufficient to say that the 9mm cartridge possesses a sufficient level of stopping power to be considered a good self-defense choice. Which 9mm cartridge is a slightly different subject.

At least one handgun commentator has stated: “Be sure you have the heaviest grain bullet you can get.” Yet research has shown that the heavier 147 grain 9mm slug is not superior to the lighter, but faster 115 grain jacketed hollow point. Adopted by the FBI in 1988, it was found that the the 147 grain slug did not expand reliably and often passed through the suspect’s body without stopping, exposing innocent bystanders to injury. According to noted self-defense expert, Massad Ayoob, the lighter, faster 124 to 127 grain jacketed hollow point is considered by most experts to be the load of choice for the self-defense handgun chambered for the 9mm parabellum cartridge. However, the 115 grain jacketed hollow point also has an enthusiastic fan club as well.

So, in the end, you are still left with choices. .45 auto, or .40 S&W? .38 special or .357 magnum? What about the 9mm, or the .380? Is the .32 automatic capable of saving your life? Can you get by with a .25 auto, since the gun is small and easy to carry in a concealed fashion? What about a .22? I have a buddy that has a nifty .44magnum revolver with a special 3 inch barrel. Is this a good self-defense combination? Help! I'm lost . . . .

In the early 1900’s, General Julian Hatcher, a noted and respected firearms expert, developed an index to measure the relative “stopping power” of various cartridges. Known as the Hatcher Rating”, it has been widely quoted as the end all of discussions on the issue. According to its proponents, a rating of 50 or higher will produce a one shot stop approximately 90% of the time.

Problem solved? Not exactly. Any number of other experts consider Hatcher’s “ratings” to be based upon flawed research. Additionally, the Hatcher rating for a .44 magnum, lead wadcutter bullet is 136.8. Well then, that makes it simple. We should all carry the .44 magnum loaded with lead wadcutters, right? This is where the “one shot stop” crowd loses me.

You could use a bazooka for a one shot stop. But if you miss with your first shot, your ability to stay on target to deliver rapid follow up shots is non-existant. Have you ever fired a .44 magnum? Have you ever tried to fire three or four accurate shots from a .44 magnum in rapid succession? If you have, you realize that this is a very difficult task even for an experienced handgunner. I have one hell of a time doing it and I have been shooting big bore handguns for over 35 years. Okay, I can’t do it and I suspect that you can’t do it either.

And in the dark of the night, confronted with an adversary who is trying to kill me, whether by gunfire, or in the midst of a charge, armed with some other mechanical weapon, I am going to want to shoot accurately and keep shooting until that adversary is down and out of action. I cannot and will not shoot once, then stop to see if I have achieved the “one shot stop”. There are plenty of people in cemeteries who have tried that. I need to keep my gun in action, and firing as accurately as possible until the fight is over.

You can stop an attacker with well placed .22 rounds. But the .22 simply does not have the stopping power of a larger caliber bullet. Most experts will tell you that the .22 will have greater penetration than a .25 auto load. While the .32 and the
.380 cartridges have their own cheerleaders, the greater number of experts who study and write on the topic will tell you to stick with the .38 special in a jacketed hollow point, and up in order to maximize stopping power. This would include the
9mm, the .40 S&W, the .45 ACP as well as the .41 magnum and the .44 special. You can find an interesting discussion of a dizzying variety of cartridges at sites such as In this article, Chuck Hawks cites the reader to the work of Massad Ayoob. I do too, every chance I get. “Mas” Ayoob has made a lifelong study of such issues in his never ending effort to keep cops alive out on the street.

The one common thread that runs through the writings of people like this is the idea that you should find something that works for you and practice, practice and practice in a wide variety of situations and conditions to develop your own proficiency with, and understanding of the tool that you have chosen. After all, its your life, or the life of your loved ones you are trying to save. It should be worth your investment of time, energy and expense.

I did not set out to point you in the direction of the ubiquitous “best self-defense cartridge”. It does not exist because the variables do not permit it. But there is a good one out there for you. What do I use? As I have stated before, sometimes I carry a 9mm, the Kahr CW-9. Sometimes I use the .45 ACP in a full frame 1911. For home defense, I employ a Mossberg tactical pump shotgun, loaded with 2 3/4 inch number 4 buckshot. But that is backed up by a variety of other things that can be reached by either myself or my wife, depending upon the circumstances. With these ideas in mind, what you choose will be up to you. I hope that this discussion gives you some things to think about in making that decision for yourself.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Reliability and Recoil

A very important quality of a good self-defense handgun is its reliability. Despite the rhetoric employed by the anti-gun crowd, a firearm is simply a tool. It is no better, nor no worse than the individual employing it. In the case of a self-defense handgun, it is a life-saving tool. Therefore, by definition it is a tool which must function properly each and every time it is used. If you are confronted by a life-threatening attack (on you, or another individual such as a friend or family member) and your firearm malfunctions it could easily result in your death or serious injury, or the death or serious injury of those whom you wish to protect. In a very real sense, you are laying down a wager on your life. I don’t know about you, but under such circumstances, when I make that bet, reliability is damned important to me.

Now, it is true that there are a large number of very reliable handguns being sold by reputable firearms dealers today. Manufacturers like Colt, CZ, FN (Browning), Glock, Heckler & Koch, Kahr, Kimber, Ruger, SIG, Smith & Wesson, Springfield Armory, Steyr, Taurus, and Walther (to name but a few) all produce highly reliable firearms. I could try to list them all, but it’s a lengthy list and that is not why I am writing this piece.

There are many other places you can go to research the reliability of a particular make and model of handgun. Good sources of information include reputable firearms dealers, articles by leading gun authors, self-defense and firearms instructors teaching in your area, and the members of local gun clubs. They can all give you an opinion, and undoubtedly will if asked. However, they cannot do your thinking for you. Seek a number of opinions by asking about a particular handgun. If you simply throw out the question I started this blog with, you will get a predictable result. Lots of opinions and precious little in the way of specific facts.

But, it is important to remember that this is a manufactured piece of equipment. And what other piece of equipment do you rely upon that is manufactured? Your car. And what do we know about cars? We know that even the best manufacturer turns out the occasional lemon. So, this is why it is imperative that you test your self-defense handgun before betting your life on it.

You cannot rely upon the general reputation of the Glock pistols for reliability, you need to know that the Glock you have selected is reliable. This means going out with the handgun and burning up several hundred rounds of practice ammunition and a minimum of fifty rounds of your chosen self-defense ammunition before you bet your life on that handgun. Are you going to be willing to accept anything less than 100% malfunction free performance? I won’t. But you have to decide for yourself. Its your life you’re betting, not mine.

If you do experience a malfunction, then you must figure out what the problem is and correct it or take it to a reputable gunsmith (and I don’t mean your brother-in-law Ted, who managed to take his Wingmaster apart to remove the magazine plug and was able to put it back together without a bunch of “extra” parts) and have the gunsmith look it over. Some manufacturers actually recommend a break-in period before placing the handgun in critical service. Malfunctions that occur during a break-in period on a new gun are not necessarily cause for alarm, but you need to be sure that you are experiencing malfunction free use before relying on the gun to save your life, or that of your family members.

There can be any number of reasons for malfunctions., I will save that subject for a future discussion. Now I want to talk about recoil.

The concept of recoil is a very subjective issue. Quite seriously, the deer hunter who just scored a trophy buck might respond to a question by admitting, “I never felt the gun go off.” Likewise, individuals involved in an exchange of gunfire, or drawing and firing to save their lives from an onrushing attacker, may later have no appreciable memory of either the report from their handgun, or the recoil of the gun going off. Adrenaline has interesting effects on sensory excusion.

The most important issue in examining recoil is not the force being applied rearward at the point the projectile leaves the barrel. It is the tendency of the muzzle of the handgun to rise upward at the point the projectile leaves the barrel. This is often referred to as “muzzle flip”. This is important since with a proper stance, you are using your entire body to absorb the rearward force of recoil. However, how well you control the vertical rise of the muzzle is going to be dependent on how well you can grip your handgun. Controlling muzzle flip is vital to the placement of multiple shots on target. Why is this vital? Because, despite what you see in the movies, the average meth-head, with no teeth and weighing 120 lbs. soaking wet, charging you with a knife, is not going to go down with one shot. This is undoubtedly bad news if you have been led to believe (as many trusting souls have – by the media and other idiots with no experience with the issue) that with one well-placed shot, you can disarm your attacker without causing him any serious harm.

(More on that issue at another time)

And that muzzle flip is going to depend upon not only your stance and your grip, but also to a high degree upon the caliber and the design of your handgun. Its no secret that the more powerful a handgun cartridge is, the more recoil it will produce. But it is also true that the perception of recoil can vary depending upon the design of the cartridge. High velocity cartridges such as the .357 magnum and .40 S&W can be described as having a sharp recoil. Lower velocity rounds like the .38 Special and .45 ACP are usually experienced as a “push”. Many people (including a large number of female self-defense students I have worked with) are surprised to find that the recoil of the .45 auto cartridge in a full frame 1911 is easier to handle than that of the .40 S & W, despite the fact that the .45 is a larger, more powerful cartridge.

However, the handgun the cartridge is fired from also plays a big part in this calculation. The heavier the handgun, the more it will absorb the cartridge’s recoil. Handgun manufacturers commonly make the same gun in a variety of frame materials, and this will affect, to a great degree, how much they weigh. Guns are available in steel, aluminum alloy and polymer plastic frames. The alloy and polymer-framed guns are lighter and easier to conceal and carry, but they are more difficult to shoot (accurately). Longer barrels also help to reduce recoil and muzzle flip by adding greater weight and moving the gun’s center of gravity further forward. But again, longer barrels make the gun harder to carry in a concealed fashion.

Another often overlooked factor affecting recoil is the “bore axis” of the handgun.This is the measurement of the vertical distance between the top of the shooter’s hand and the imaginary centerline of the barrel running from the chamber to the muzzle. Guns with a higher bore axis measurement have more muzzle flip than a handgun with a low bore axis measurement. But at the same time, the handguns with a low bore axis also will have a more pronounced direct backward recoil into the web of your hand. Because of their design, revolvers have a higher bore axis that some semi-automatic pistols. Glock pistols are an example of a semi-auto that is known for their low bore axis due to their design. Semi-automatic pistols also have less recoil than revolvers because some of the recoil energy is used to cycle the slide. Effectively, the slide functions as a shock absorber.

So, by way of example, a .38 special cartridge, fired from a snub-nosed lightweight alloy frame revolver with a high bore axis will have a much more punishing recoil than a .45 fired from a long barreled, steel framed, semi-automatic. If you don’t believe me, go to a range where you can rent both models. It will not take many rounds for you to understand the concept.

Next we are going to talk about self-defense ammunition. In connection with the concepts of stopping power and also reliability and practicality.

Sunday, August 30, 2009


Wanna start a fight? Easily done. Just walk into a room filled with avid handgunners and ask in a loud voice, “Hey, what’s the best all-around self-defense handgun?” Then stay low, and hug the wall until you can beat a hasty retreat. The ensuing battle will be awe-inspiring. Everyone will have an opinion, emphatically stated, often with little agreement amongst the contenders and with precious little in the way of sound advice for the novice shooter seeking guidance and direction in choosing a handgun to own and use for self-defense. Actions, calibers, brands, size and materials. A bewildering array of arguments pro and con and more information than any one person could possible find useful.

The truth is you can’t answer this question, because it is a trick question. There simply is no best, all-around self defense handgun, because there are too many variables involved to allow for such a stand out, one size fits all, best of show response. The purpose of this series of articles is to digest the wisdom of experienced experts on the issue and try to provide some useful information.

Size Does Matter

Most thoughtful experts agree, however, that the most important factor in
selecting a defensive handgun is finding one that you can shoot well. This means a gun that fits your hand in combination with recoil you can handle. No matter what the caliber, or ammo capacity a handgun might have, if you can’t fire it accurately enough to hit an attacker with the number of shots necessary to stop an immediate threat, it will be of little use in protecting you from harm.

Another facet of the “shoot well” requirement is that the self-defense handgun must be reliable. A gun that jams in a fight, or experiences some other type of malfunction, is far less useful than a claw hammer and might very likely get you killed. A corollary of this concept is that it must be a firearm that you can operate without hesitation in an extremely fast-moving situation while you are subject to intense emotional and physiological stress accompanied by an inevitable loss of fine motor skills.

A final issue in this analysis is that the handgun needs to fire ammunition that is powerful enough to stop an attacker and it needs to hold enough of that ammunition to stop all the attackers. You may not be “lucky” enough to be facing just one.
Okay, with those ideas in mind, how do you go about selecting a handgun which is a good one for you?

To determine whether a gun is a proper fit for you, you must first examine it to determine its trigger reach, or the distance between the back of the grip and the trigger. To do this, grip the gun with your index finger extended and resting on the trigger guard, the trigger should be next to the index finger’s middle knuckle. If the trigger reach is too long, a shooter will attempt to compensate for this by using an incorrect grip on the gun. To grip the gun correctly, you must have the barrel aligned with the long bones of your forearm. Since it is very important to pull the trigger straight back when firing the handgun, if your grip is not aligned properly, it can result in “pushing” or “pulling” in which act of depressing the trigger causes the gun to move out of alignment with its intended point of aim, and, as a result, moving the point of impact.

If you are shooting a single action handgun (which requires that the hammer be manually moved to the cocked position before pulling the trigger to fire the gun) the pad of your trigger finger must rest on the trigger. With a double action handgun (where the act of pulling the trigger accomplishes cocking of the action and release of the hammer, discharging the round) the trigger should be contacted by the distal joint of the finger (the one closest to the tip of the finger). If the reach is too short, the contact point will move away from the tip of the finger, and a right handed shooter will pull the gun to the right. A left handed shooter will pull to the left. You can check this by “dry firing” the gun. Make absolutely sure you have the gun unloaded (check it twice, human beings make mistakes) and pointed in a safe direction. Then aim at a distinct target and pull the trigger through to release. Watch to see if the sights stay in alignment or if they move as you pull the trigger. On the range you can also check this by examining where you are hitting the target. If your point of impact is consistently to one side or the other of your point of aim, then your trigger reach may be too short or too long.

It is equally important that you are able to manipulate the gun’s other controls while gripping the gun. On a revolver, the cylinder release should be within easy reach with your thumb. On a semi-automatic pistol, you must be able to activate the magazine release and slide lock lever easily. If the gun has a decock mechanism or a manual safety, you must also be able to use these features without altering your grip on the gun. It is not an acceptable alternative to try to use these controls using your support hand. In a confrontation, you may be unable to use both hands to operate the handgun for a variety of reasons. Effective one-handed operation is a critical skill that may not be possible if the gun is too big for your hand.

If, alternatively, your hands are too big for the gun, you will have difficulty finding enough gun to hold on to, either because the grip is too short or the circumference of the grip is too small. While it is quite easy to determine if the grip is too short, it is often harder to determine if the circumference of the grip is going to pose a problem for you. If the grip is a proper size, there should be a gap between the tips of your fingers and the base of the thumb on your grip hand.

The base of the thumb on your support hand should fit into this gap when using a two hand grip to lock the support hand into your grip. This assists in managing recoil during firing and permits proper follow through so that you are able to fire multiple shots rapidly and accurately. In a situation where you cannot use a two hand grip, proper fit is even more important since the grip hand must also act alone to provide support for the firearm during operation.

You actually need to try a number of different grip sizes and styles to find a good grip, just as you would try on clothing to ensure that your purchase does fit you. A number of handgun manufacturers have come out with guns with adjustable backstraps which can alter the circumference of the grip to some degree by replacing a plastic insert that attach to the back of the grip. However, these also tend to alter the trigger reach to some degree. If you are looking at a gun in a gunshop and the grip seems too large or small for you, ask which backstrap is on it at the moment, and if they could let you hold it with a larger or smaller one attached.

In the next installment, I am going to discuss issues relating to firearm reliability and the various types of actions that are available on the market. From there we will move to the selection of the caliber of the handgun you are considering and the effects of size, weight and the caliber of the handgun you are considering on recoil and accuracy.