When It Comes To Grips, What You
Think You Know May Not Be So
By Massad Ayoob
Photos: Gail Pepin
The interface between operator and machine is critical, as you know if you’ve ever sat behind the controls of a vehicle whose seat was set for someone shorter or taller. You know it if you’ve ever tried to type a message quickly on a tiny smartphone. And you find the same when holding a handgun. “If it doesn’t fit, you won’t shoot worth…” Well, you know.
A lot of folks see the stocks as more decorative than functional—a mistake except on a presentation gun. Slick, smooth grips don’t lend themselves to a solid hold when hands are sweaty, or when someone is trying to rip your gun out of your grasp and murder you with it. All that is just common sense. But some things, you just have to learn from experience.
One thing it took this old gun buff a while to figure out is, what feels great when holding the pistol in your hand may not necessarily give peak performance once the trigger pulling and recoil are underway. Trust measurable performance, not “feel.” Probably something that should be taught by a Life Coach, but definitely something that should be taught by a Shooting Coach.
Case in point: Back when I shot a lot of PPC competition, I settled on Pachmayr grips for my revolvers. They just felt the best in my hand. After I tried Hogues, not just in the gun shop but on the range shooting for score, I found I did just a wee bit better with them. I did what logic told me, and gradually switched over to the Hogues. My scores benefited.
Interchangeable backstrap panels, seen here on Gen4 Glock 19, help adapt the hand for size and trigger finger reach.
There are gradients between fancy and functional. Handsome Hogue hardwoods on Moran custom Python, above, are more
shooter-friendly than Eagle stags on S&W .357 Model 27-2 below, though a Tyler-T adapter helps the latter.
Not too long ago, on the way home from visiting a member of the extended family at Camp Lejeune, I stopped into a pawn-and-gun shop there and found a relatively rare firearm, attractively priced: the 3-inch barrel, roundbutt version of the S&W Model 547, a K-Frame revolver for 9mm Luger ammo without moon clips. I gave the shop some money and an FFL. When the gun got to home base, I removed its aftermarket rubber grips… and found the underlying grip frame brown with rust.
When cleaning guns, remove the grips, particularly after being out in inclement weather. This blue-finish revolver had lived on a humid, salty seacoast. We think of neoprene as waterproof—hey, didn’t Mom make us wear rubbers when it was raining? Unfortunately, water gets trapped underneath, and…
Another matter is recoil control. You’d think with a .44 Magnum you’d want the biggest, cushiest grips you could find. Not necessarily: you’re getting proportionally less flesh and bone wrapped around the totality of the gripping surface. I learned back in 1990, the period when S&W started making all their N-Frame .44 Magnums with roundbutts, that the roundbutt Pachmayr Compac grip seemed to absorb the kick of Elmer Keith Memorial Monster Loads better than anything else. Yeah, the grips were shaped small for concealment, but I had much more finger encirclement to keep it from shifting in my hand, and mainly, the broad spread of neoprene at the web of the hand cushioned not only tissue, but the proximal joints of both index finger and thumb against the jackhammer recoil.
The most important element of handgun fit to the hand may be trigger reach. On the gun, you measure it from the center of the backstrap where the web of the hand will sit, to the center of the face of the trigger. On the hand, you measure it from the web of the hand in line with the long bones of the forearm, to the point on your index finger you want centered on the face of the trigger. Hint: with a heavy pull—double action, or striker-fired auto with service-weight trigger—getting the finger in as deep as the distal joint can give you more leverage and therefore, more control.
Built to their name, these Pachmayr Compac grips are super recoil-absorbent due to the shape of
the backstrap as it contacts web of hand.
Not cleaning under the rubber grips put this rust on an otherwise sweet S&W 547.
Leverage is one reason so many polymer-frame pistols now come with interchangeable backstraps to change trigger reach, a concept pioneered by Walther many years ago. The Size Large, often with extended grip tangs, feel good but an amazing number of shooters, after experimenting, go with the smaller size. One large agency I followed went to the Gen4 GLOCK, and they tell me about 90 percent of the troops stay with the smallest grip size because they shoot it best.
We can’t leave the topic without discussing terminology. There’s a bit of gun snobbery here. “I say, old chap, those aren’t grips, they’re stocks!” You’ll probably be OK, unless you say “handles,” and even then you can get away with it if you’re talking about pearl grips and cowboy movies. And if your gun wears rubber, don’t be surprised if you hear a purist mutter, “Harrumph! Goodyears!” If a gun snob makes fun of your grips or stocks, just take ’em to the firing line and outshoot them. In the end, it’s the best revenge.
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