How to Control Recoil When Shooting a Handgun

I began shooting with a .22 revolver and moved to a .38 Special. Later, I graduated to a .357 Magnum, firing a diverse number of handguns along the way. The primary problem with handling the magnum wasn’t recoil. It was muzzle blast.

After a year or so of firing the magnum, I felt some tradition when addressing the .45 ACP. Thus, came the 1911 .45. Various old timers told me tales such as, “Aim at the bottom of the target, because the kick will make it rise so much. The first time I fired a .45, I thrust the pistol toward a ditch and closed my eyes. I almost thought I had a dud round!

Top down view of a proper firing grip on an ATI .45 ACP 1911 semi-auto handgun
An important component of the firing grip is to keep the firing hand high on the backstrap.

I fired again with the same effect. The pistol kicked — sure — but not much more than a .38 snub and with less sharp edges. While there was a shove, there was little muzzle blast (sometimes called “report”). Time passed. There were quite a few handguns I did not care to fire, and some that were too much for all but the most hardened shooters. However, I learned to handle recoil.

Learning to Handle Recoil

Anyone of normal physical ability may learn to handle the .38 Special, 9mm Luger, .40 S&W, .45 ACP, and .357 — the last caliber must be a full-size handgun, however. Strength has some bearing, but agility and muscle tone are more important.

Some calibers are just too much for the occasional shooter. Working people on a budget (in terms of time and money), should not jump into the .357 SIG, 10mm, or a lightweight magnum of any type. It is a process to learn to control recoil. Once you have thoroughly mastered the .38 or 9mm, you may wish to move up in caliber. But not before you have mastered the standard calibers.

I have trained quite a few shooters and attended many classes as a student. Firing a pistol and hearing the report a few feet in front of your eyes isn’t a natural thing. Recoil control must be learned. Many focus more on recoil than on marksmanship. The greater the concentration on marksmanship the less you will notice recoil.

Flinching, and failing to control recoil, kills accuracy. Failing to control recoil makes accurate follow-up shots impossible. In a defensive encounter — if you fire accurately— you will probably solve the problem without using the full gun load. However, chances are you will need more than one shot. Handguns just are not that impressive concerning wound potential. Likewise, there is the problem of multiple assailants. This means you must learn to control recoil effectively.

Getting the hand too high on the grip strap of a revolver will allow the muzzle to flip upward too much. The hammer may catch on the web of the hand as well.
Getting the hand too high on the grip strap of a revolver will allow the muzzle to flip upward too much. The hammer may catch on the web of the hand as well.

A beginning shooter should not choose the smallest handgun in the caliber. A mid-size handgun, such as a Glock 19 9mm, is easier to control than the Glock 26, as an example. A Taurus 605 with 3-inch barrel and hand-filling grips is easier to handle than a 2-inch barrel, lightweight framed .38 special.

You don’t need the heaviest +P or +P+ loading. Some are counter productive and do not achieve full velocity in short barrels. That is the hardware side. Of course, heavier guns are easier to shoot well than light guns in the same caliber. Carry guns are a compromise.

The middle is a good place to be. As an example, with standard practice loads, I have no problem firing the .45 ACP in a steel-frame gun to the tune of 100 rounds. With a lightweight Commander .45, perhaps 50 is more the practical limit. A snub nose .38 with aluminum frame and small grips may be good for 20 rounds. When shooting a standard carry-size magnum about the same (20 rounds). With .38 Special loads in the .357 magnum, I may fire indefinitely without pausing to rub my wrists. Likewise, with a mid-size 9mm, such as the Springfield Hellcat, the rule is much the same.

As the action is operated, the hand must maintain a firing grip.
As the action is operated, the hand must maintain a firing grip.

Firing Grip

The firing grip is important. The hand should ride as high on the grip as possible with a self-loading pistol. The hand must ride high on a revolver backstrap as well — to offer good leverage for the finger to press the double-action revolver trigger, straight to the rear. But don’t override the revolver backstrap. This will result in what is called heeling.

The muzzle will rise high in recoil, and your shots will go wild. Some revolvers have very poor grips. Thin grips, allowing the shooter’s hand to encounter the metal backstrap, are painful in revolver shooting.

The Taurus 856 and Smith & Wesson 640 feature nearly ideal grips. The grip is practiced first with the ‘strong’ hand only — high on the backstrap, and thumbs pointed forward. The support-side hand comes in as tight as possible, and both thumbs are pointed forward. When the thumbs are locked, the fingers are also locked in place. Keep a firm grip.

Gripping Small Handguns
Keep the thumb locked but forward and the grip high on the backstrap.

The hand should be in line with the bones of the arm. A pistol that is too small is a problem. By the same token, a large pistol such as the Glock 21 is just too large for most hands and may drive the hands to one side in an H grip.

When you fire, the arms are extended in front of your body. Simply throwing the arms out, with the gun at maximum extension, is repeatable. Done the same every time, the grip will be consistent.

This is very important. If the elbows are stiff, recoil drives up the arm and into the shoulders. With a light caliber this may not be a problem. With a heavier caliber it may be best to bend the elbows — slightly — and let them absorb some recoil. This works well for most shooters.

The wrist must be locked. If the wrists flex, the pistol will recoil all over the place. Lock the wrists to allow the pistol to recoil against a solid firing platform, or a self-loading handgun may short cycle.

There are two main thumb-locking styles — thumbs forward and thumb locked over the support hand thumb. The thumbs forward seems to aid in driving the pistol forward and toward the target. The locked thumb grip works well. The shooter should decide which style suits them.

Proper one-handed firing grip for a revolver
This is the proper firing grip.

If you grasp something with the thumbs pointing upward, the grip is weaker. Lock the thumbs down and feel the grip tighten. The grip style with the tightest grip on the handgun, that also allows driving the handgun forward toward the target, is best for the individual shooter.

Be certain to minimize any gap between the hands. The greater the space (open on the frame), the greater slippage during recoil. A great deal of effort must go into convincing recoil to come straight back. Allowing recoil to move the pistol to one side or the other magnifies misalignment of the sights and limits recoil control.

Don’t forget, recoil does two things. Recoil drives the muzzle up as the bullet exits the barrel. The handgun recoils while the bullet is still in the barrel. That is why sights are higher than the bore centerline. As the bullet careens down the rifling there is also a certain torquing effect. You cannot stop this movement, but you must control it.

Three .357 magnum revolvers with varying barrel lengths
All three handguns chamber the .357 Magnum cartridge. The lighter gun will kick more. The four-inch barrel revolver is perhaps the best compromise.

The thumbs play an important role in recoil control. The web of the hand is hard against the backstrap, and the thumb points toward the target. Locked down and firm against the handgun, the support hand and both thumbs are properly positioned to control the pistol’s movement.

While recoil control is important, keep the thumbs stiff and out of line of the slide stop. With some handguns, it is common for the support thumb to ram into the slide stop during recoil and tie the gun up. I never deploy a pistol for serious purposes if it has an extended slide stop. Leave these to competetion and the guys and girls looking for a quarter-second advantage.

I have often stated that I allow the trigger to reset during recoil and come out of recoil with the sights on target. However, a shooting coach and a ‘winner’ with more trophies than I will ever have asked me how long I have been doing this. A long, long time I replied — more than 20 years.

The author is firing a lightweight, 5-shot .45 Colt.
The author is firing a lightweight, 5-shot .45 Colt.

He stated that he did as well, but a beginning shooter should wait until they come out of recoil to allow the trigger to reset to avoid ‘doubling’ the trigger (firing twice when you did not mean to). This is a valid point. Keep practicing, understand what you are doing, and adopt what works best.

Shooting Stance

A solid shooting stance is important. In combat shooting, you cannot always rely on getting into the perfect stance. You may be moving to ‘get off the X,’ or you may be firing from behind cover. Of course, you may also be caught flat footed. If possible, you should get into a proper firing stance and plant your feet a shoulder’s-length apart, with the firing-side foot behind the shooter. Get a little lower — lowering your center of gravity — and thrust your shoulders forward. This stance will make for efficient recoil control.

Bob Campbell shooting a magnum revolver through recoil
Recoil is often straight up!

Another consideration, when firing from a braced position (against a barricade), do not let the handgun touch the brace. There are certain exceptions for revolvers we will cover later. The pistol will recoil away from the brace. Use the elbows for bracing and be certain to brace evenly, or the shot will go either left or right.

Controlling recoil is an important skill. Get the basics squared away and practice hard. Your growth as a shooter will be steady and strong.

How much effort do you put into perfecting your grip? Do you have ‘new shooter’ grip tip to control recoil? Share your answers in the Comment section.

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