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The Thumb

The Thumb

Where Does It Go? Back To Basics Part IV

Proper placement moves your thumb from “hindrance” to “help” in handgun shooting. The opposable thumb, anthropologists say, was a biological reason for the rise of Homo sapiens to the status of dominant species. In handgun shooting, however, one of the most common questions instructors get from students is, “Where do I put my thumbs?”

The answer is, sadly: “It depends.” Let’s look at some of the common grasps, and analyze their good points and their possible contraindications.

Primary Hand Grasp

Let’s start with straight thumb. For 1-handed shooting, your bull’s-eye shooter will generally point the thumb straight toward the target. In most folks’ hands, this seems to allow the most-straight-back press of the trigger. However, because the hand’s digits move reciprocally, you’ll often see the thumb moving reflexively along with the trigger finger in rapid fire. The other fingers may be doing the same, and together this creates “milking,” in which the sympathetic extra squeeze of the other fingers with the one on the trigger pulls the gun a bit off target.

High-thumb grasp can be necessary on a pistol like the Beretta M9 with slide-mounted safety that flips upward to fire. Running the thumb 45 degrees upward very reliably pops the safety “off” and into the firing position, and verifies that it’s off if the gun is carried lever up. On the 1911 and others with downward-releasing, frame-mounted safeties, the theory is keeping the thumb on the safety lever prevents it going on-safe by itself. Personally, I think if your gun is putting itself on-safe, it needs either a gunsmith or an exorcist—but that’s just me. The high thumb also pulls the web of the hand away from a grip safety, and can cause failures to fire.

Finally, there’s low thumb, in which the thumb is curled down, bent at the median joint and perhaps even touching the middle finger. This takes the most advantage of that whole “opposable thumbs” thing, and significantly tightens one’s grasp. Try this exercise: hold your thumb up, squeeze your fingers tight, and mentally measure your hand strength. Still squeezing and measuring, slowly close your thumb down… and feel how much that strength has increased.

The low-thumb hold is particularly useful in stabilizing a gun against a heavy trigger pull. I use it all the time with revolvers, and most of the time with Glocks. It also gives you a much stronger hold if someone tries to twist the gun out of your hand in a fight. For that reason, it’s my primary default in defensive handgun training. Our winningest world champion practical shooter, Rob Leatham, helped popularize the straight-thumbs hold for 2-handed shooting; but emphatically suggests a curled-down thumb for very fast 1-handed firing.
By Massad Ayoob

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  1. Mack Missiletoe says:

    “On the 1911 and others with downward-releasing, frame-mounted safeties, the theory is keeping the thumb on the safety lever prevents it going on-safe by itself. Personally, I think if your gun is putting itself on-safe, it needs either a gunsmith or an exorcist—but that’s just me.”

    lol! Thanks

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