Coming To Grips With Grips

When one begins to ponder the many aspects of handgun design and how they influence the final results for which a handgun is employed, one element has an importance that, though not overlooked, is often taken for granted. I'm referring to the handgun handle, normally referred to as the grip or grips. I like to remind students that the grips of a handgun are much like the tires on a car, which are the only place that the car actually touches the road. Likewise, your hand, or hands, and your trigger finger are the only points where you are actually in contact with your gun. That contact influences all other actions that take place during your use of that gun.

Anyone shooting a handgun will be most successful with a gun that feels right in their hand. What has become known as ergonomics applies to handguns the same as with any other tools. Throughout the history of handguns, grips have sometimes been decorative, sometimes functional and even sometimes both. They have been used to express the individuality of the user purely for the sake of appearance and they have been used to enhance the effectiveness and performance of the shooter. For our purpose, which is the use of handguns for protection, we need to focus on effectiveness and performance.

In the old days, when revolvers were the norm in police service, we saw many variations on the theme. Some guns had stock grips, some had factory optional grips and some had after market grips or grip adapters. Most of the time, the decorative value of the grips was secondary to the functional aspects. When officers had the chance to choose their grips, they were trying to customize their guns to make them feel right. What that meant varied, depending on the shooting techniques used. Some preferred smaller grips, others preferred larger target grips. Grips could have various surface textures, checkering patterns, finger grooves, thumb rests, and could even be made from different materials.

All of this was aided by the fact that revolvers in police service had removable grips, so changing them was mostly a matter of department policy and the individual officer's choice or finances. Regardless, we somehow knew that adapting the grip to our hand size and shooting style was important and there was a lot of discussion about which was the best approach. When auto-loading pistols began to see law enforcement service, they too had removable, and therefore replaceable, grips. Again, the guns were adaptable to the hands that used them and adapt them we did! I still have a box full of various pistol and revolver grips that I've used over the years, most of which are no longer useful, but too good to throw away. Sort of like my holster collection.

What we've learned over the years is that handguns need to fit our hands in three important ways. One is to stabilize the gun during recoil. The second is to provide the proper angle between your hand and the axis of the bore and sights. The other is to provide the proper reach to the trigger. In my May column I discussed the importance of trigger control in accurate shooting. Key components of trigger manipulation are the placement of the finger on the trigger and the distance the finger has to travel to fire the gun. The important dimension to accomplish this is the distance from the web of your hand on the backstrap of the gun grip to where your finger contacts the trigger.

I won't repeat myself on what I consider to be proper trigger finger placement, except to note that hand position on the grip affects how well you can pull the trigger straight to the rear, without moving the gun off line to either side. The often under-appreciated aspect of handgun grip design is the angle in relation to the rest of the gun. When a handgun is brought on target, it should allow your eyes to find the sights quickly, without having to adjust your wrist position significantly in order to align the sights. In other words, a properly fitting handgun must come to hand instantly, align your hand, arm, eyes and target as naturally as possible and allow you to shoot quickly and repeatedly, all while maintaining a solid hold on the gun. When you stop and analyze it, there is a lot going on there.

We started to think about such things a lot more when polymer framed pistols became the handguns of choice in police service. Glock has the distinction of revolutionizing the law enforcement handgun world, bringing to it the ruggedness, reliability and cost-effectiveness of their now-classic design. Since its introduction over 25 years ago, the Glock pistol has found its way into the majority of police holsters. There was, however, a problem with the Glock design. The molded polymer grip was not removable, interchangeable or adaptable to different hand sizes and shapes. It is what it is, or, at least, it was what it was.

Over the years, Glock changed the texture on the grip and added finger grooves, but the critical dimension of trigger reach remained the same. With all of the different hand sizes now prevalent in the police ranks, agencies began to reevaluate the effect of grip ergonomics on handgun shooting. So did Glock's competitors. While such companies as Beretta, SIG Sauer and Smith & Wesson continued to sell pistols with metal frames and removable/replaceable grips, it was clear that the future was going to be polymer. So, how do you compete with the 800 pound Glock gorilla?

One important way is to make a gun that fits more hands. It is not a coincidence that all of the major players in the police handgun market now make polymer-framed pistols that have adaptable grips. Each goes about it in their own way, some examples of which are shown in the accompanying photos. The important thing is that a need existed and it was filled with some creative engineering. Even Glock realized that changes were necessary. They started with the SF (Short Frame) version of their large frame .45 and 10mm pistols, but the pressure was on to do something about the standard 9mm/.40/.357 models. Voila! Glock recently announced their Gen4 framed pistols, with interchangeable backstrap overlays.

It isn't possible to summarize all of the different guns in this short column. The various reviews of police handguns here at, and elsewhere, give plenty of coverage of what each make and model brings to the table. What is important is that it is being addressed effectively. If grip size and shape are not important, we would not have been adapting them for as long as police have been carrying guns. The fact that the newest designs are addressing that need is a reflection on the ingenuity and dedication of the firearms designers and manufacturers. Sure, they want to make money selling their guns, but the users are the ultimate beneficiaries. Police personnel again have choices that directly affect their ability to safely, accurately and effectively use their guns, whether for training or protecting themselves and the public. Another lesson from the good old days.