Switching hands

July 15, 2007
When would anyone switch their firearm from dominant hand to non-dominant hand?

Wanted for burglary, they were seen leaving the scene of a residential neighborhood where two daytime burglaries just occurred. Officer Blakely spotted the car only a few blocks away. He called it in, reporting three suspects in the vehicle.

From behind their vehicle, Blakely saw the heads of both passengers snap around suddenly. The driver "leg bailed" just as other units pulled into a cul-de-sac. Blakely and another officer took off running after the driver.

The driver sprinted over the first fence with Blakely close behind. He attacked the fence while maintaining visual contact with the driver and ripped his palm on an exposed nail — rendering his right hand useless.

At the next fence, the driver stopped, turned and reached into his jacket. Blakely already had his firearm in his hands.

Blakely realized the wound on his hand, quickly swapped hands and felt the wetness of his blood on the beavertail of the gun. After the arrest, Blakely realized he had instinctively switched hands when he acknowledged his right hand was out of commission.

When would anyone switch their firearm from dominant hand to non-dominant hand? Only when the primary hand is incapacitated? Using the non-primary hand is less reliable. Anyone who has practiced using the "weak" hand knows that accuracy scores are generally worse and movements lack the advantage of muscle memory. However, the officer who uses his primary personal weapon (his fist) to fend off a sudden violent attack will be more equipped when he breaks a knuckle on the suspect's jaw. Prioritize

Although every shooting situation is unique, a tactical emergency is more likely to happen within 7 yards with fewer than three rounds fired. This does not mean officers should not practice aimed fire and reloading during support-hand firing, just that officers should prioritize their practice.

During an on-duty shooting situation, survivability is significantly improved if finding cover is the highest priority over any other reaction. If the primary hand has been affected or neutralized, find cover first. While changing hands, keep eyes on the most likely location of the imminent and dangerous threat.

Officers should prioritize their actions in this order: find cover; communicate; eyes on threat; swap hands; then engage.

From cover, bring the firearm close to the centerline of the body, elbows in. Most weapon manipulation skills should be as close to the body as possible, as opposed to using outstretched arms. The closer one works to the centerline of the body, the easier one can perform tasks like work the slide and swap magazines.

Swapping should be done with the receiving hand on top. (See image on Page 126.) That is, if the firearm is going from left to right, the web of the left hand goes over the top of the web of the right hand. As the support hand makes contact, the shooting hand relaxes. Slide the web of the receiving hand over the other, beginning from the wrist. Wedge the web under the beavertail of the gun. Once the grip is achieved, the retiring hand is removed altogether.

Although it sounds like a shooter can simply slap the gun into the other hand and be done with it, swapping back and forth like a Hollywood knife fighter uses fine motor skills. This will work in practice but not with a rush of adrenaline and in the confusion of battle.

It is critical that the shooter gets the web of the hand in the correct place. Shooters should practice swapping hands with eyes closed or while looking at a distant target. After swapping, look at the gun. The line of the slide should bisect the web of the hand and align with the radius. Whenever possible, rewrap the other hand. One-and-a-half hands is better than one-hand shooting any day.

The support hand goes over the top for a couple of reasons. Depending on the firearm, one may need to deactivate the safety. This is appropriate for most single action .45s and products from the Springfield XD series. Second, the higher the grip, the better the recoil control. Brain support

While no one expects that support hand shooting will make a person a competent competitive shooter, practicing using the opposite hand will definitely improve the process of shooting.

Using the support side on a regular basis is brain stimulating. It improves the balance and communication between the right and left hemispheres. Neurologists regularly prescribe writing with the opposite hand to boost cognitive power. Not only does this improve concentration, it will improve overall shooting — sometimes noticeably.

When the human brain learns a new task, it forms new brain cell pathways as the components of the task are learned. These pathways are reinforced when something is learned correctly. With practice, "shortcuts" to these learning pathways are established until a task can be executed as if second nature.

After a task is learned, the neural circuits now form a network. When this is established, the brain can operate this network while the mind occupies itself with other tasks.

Switching hands while shooting will change the level of attention of the learner. The task is to create muscle memory and challenge the brain in order to improve training. Support-hand vs. one-hand shooting

Support-hand shooting should not be confused with one-handed shooting. For example, it is reasonable for an officer to be prepared to shoot with their primary hand one-handed. When clearing an engagement area, if a threat presents itself and a non-threat or obstruction (curtains, tall weeds, etc.) prevents a sight picture, the primary hand engages while the support hand clears. When the obstruction is cleared, the support hand rewraps.

One-handed shooting should have a consistent rule. It is done with the primary hand, even if a right-handed shooter needs to punch the gun out of a left barricade.

The first thing a shooter notices about using the support hand is the mirror effect of pushing out the firearm in front of the body. The second thing he notices compounds the confusion. If he has an eye dominance that agrees with his hand dominance (a right-handed shooter with a right-eye dominance), the sights are grossly misaligned.

There are certain strategies that help. First, switch up the footwork. Second, use a full-length mirror.

If the shooter uses a modified weaver stance — feet shoulder width apart with the non-trigger-side foot slightly forward — switching hands will feel unbalanced, and he will need to switch feet also. If the shooter is using the isosceles stance, the feet will be equidistant. Use the isosceles stance. Point of aim

One of the sources of confusion is the need for the body to find the natural point of aim. Before we even talk about this, let's get the gun into the sighting plane.

Using the non-dominant eye will confuse the sight picture. If the shooter can reliably shoot with both eyes open, use this method first. If this produces a double image when sighting, use the dominant eye by canting the gun 45 degrees toward the dominant eye. Remember, this will not win shooting ribbons, but combined with an instinct to prevail, it will win gunfights.

Natural point of aim is the direction in which the body naturally settles when using a firearm. For precision shooters, knowing where the body indexes prevents the shooter's body from fighting the firearm. Shooters test for natural point of aim by holding the firearm out in front and pointing it with eyes closed. Where the firearm is oriented when the eyes are opened is where the body naturally points — the natural point of aim.

If the shooter knows where the body naturally points a firearm, he can fire accurate shots faster. For combat shooting with the handgun canted, knowing how to orient in relation to the target can be critical.

Most shooters have found their natural point of aim using the dominant eye and primary hand. Use the full-length mirror to see it using the other hand and to help guide the body into unfamiliar territory.

Shooting with the support hand is probably a skill which most officers will never need over their entire careers. However, the officer who does need this skill will be thankful he familiarized himself with it.

Lindsey Bertomen is a retired police officer who teaches at Hartnell College in Salinas, California.

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