I’ll freely admit that when I bought my first handgun, I wasn’t sure what I was doing. I stumbled into the shop, awkwardly handled a few guns and made what probably looked like a random decision. I had criteria to meet in terms of features, but when it came down to actually handling the guns to help make a decision, I realized — “I have no idea what I’m looking for.”
After spending my share of time checking out handguns, I built a loose system of inspecting a firearm to see how well it matches my shooting style. Hopefully this article will help you skip the aimless groping of handguns from the display case and help you meaningfully search for a gun with ergonomics that match your hands, body, posture and grip. Each point is listed in the order I check them from when I first pick up the gun, and prove a thorough top-down inspection of the way the gun will handle.
Before you try
It seems obvious, but you can’t learn how a gun will handle for you if you don’t know how to hold one. Don’t buy a handgun without knowing how to shoot it to some degree. Once you’ve built a baseline idea of how you shoot, these tests will let you see how a handgun matches up to your instincts and body mechanics.
There is a case of Nature vs Training here. A gun with desirable features that doesn’t agree with your instinctive handling may lead to you adapting to the gun. Over time, your techniques might change as well, leading to a shift in ergonomics. A gun with great features that matches the shooter poorly can be compensated for. But I don’t think it’s the ideal way to go, especially for new handgun owners. You want the gun to accommodate you, not the other way around.
Grip size and weight
The first thing you’ll notice about any handgun you pick up is its overall size and weight. If the gun feels uncomfortably heavy, you might as well stop. Straining to hold a gun up won’t make you feel inclined to practice. There is an instinctive line between ‘heavy’ and ‘too heavy’ you’ll form after picking up a few handguns.
Check the way your hands move around the grip. Can you easily place your fingers around the gun in a way that feels like you’re getting a proper hold? Does the grip feel fat or thin? Getting a firm, correct grip on the gun shouldn’t be a challenging. If you find yourself needing to adjust to compensate for your hand size and the gun’s size not naturally matching, move on. Also, see if you can move your dominant hand vertically and laterally with reasonable speed without spoiling your grip. Lastly, be sure to check how it feels with a two-handed and one-handed grip.
If you find the physical size of the gun and the grip passable, move on to examining the grip angle.
The angle at which the grip of a handgun protrudes from the frame can make a huge difference on the gun’s feel. It also has a major influence on the gun’s pointability.
To see a rough idea of your anatomical grip angle preference, mime holding a handgun in your dominant hand and pointing it at a target. Have a look at the way your hand cants at the wrist. The farther you dip your index finger forward and push the top of your hand out at the wrist, the more slanted your natural grip angles are.
Consider the Chiappa Rhino and the Smith & Wesson 686. I have a relatively flat natural grip angle so the closer to 90 degrees a grip angle is, the more natural. I find the Smith & Wesson L-frame revolvers work great. Conversely, the Rhino’s radical angle required me to cant uncomfortably to aim properly. It felt too weird so I sadly passed on it.
A gun’s balance is defined by the distribution of its weight relative to its central mass. Almost all handguns have their center mass in the rear because of the grip and action. Essentially, more material towards the front of the handgun (like an underlug or bulky slide), the heavier it will be away from the hand.
To further complicate the issue, the grip, shape and size of a shooter’s hands and the way they hold a gun also have a major impact on balance. When I shoot revolvers, my grip and hand strength makes some more forward weight comfortable, as my weak hand index finger helps support the gun. My wife, on the other hand, prefers to avoid front weight so she avoids full underlugs or bottom rails.
Balance also influences the way a gun aligns with a target and how easily the gun returns to zero after firing. I find some front-heaviness desirable, as it helps me avoid moving past a target when doing a transition (shooting’s equivalent of oversteering). Additional forward balance also steadies idle sway and soaks up recoil, enabling quick follow-up shots.
Too much weight at the end of the barrel can make the gun feel uncomfortable. If a handgun feels like it’s trying to front-flip away, the front is too heavy for you to be comfortable or natural. You know the front sight is level if it falls naturally in line with your hold, meaning you’re not putting forth a conscious effort to adjust it.
To test balance and front-weight, all you need to do is hold the gun up in a shooting stance. I also like to move the gun like I’m doing a few target transitions to test the influence of the forward weight. Is the front sight dipping after being held up for a while? Are you consciously holding it up, or is it staying aligned naturally?
Sight acquisition and pointability
Putting the above factors together, check how naturally you can find the sights on our target with minimal need for adjustment — this is what I consider ‘pointability’. A gun with a good size, natural grip angle and balance will let you instinctively raise the gun and have the sights line up where you want them.
This is easy to test. Don’t think too much. Essentially, just bring the gun up in a safe direction, as though pointing it at a target. How much time do you need to spend making minor adjustments before you have a good sight picture? Is the front sight lined up inside the rear sights at all, or do you need to look for it briefly? Can your eyes easily focus on the front sight?
The closer to proper alignment you’re naturally coming, the better. When handgun ergonomics are truly a good fit, the gun should come up and essentially be on target. If you need to shift the gun around a lot or find the front sight is consistently in the same wrong position, ergonomics aren’t right or you need to adjust your grip. If the grip angle is inappropriate for your wrist cant, the front sight will be too high or low. If the grip itself is too big or small, your hands may compensate by pushing the barrel laterally.
If the gun points well, we need to check out the controls. The most naturally pointing gun in the world is worthless if you can’t easily disengage the safety.
Control positions and manipulation
Whether they’re minimalist Glock controls or a 1911′s layered safeties, the ability to comfortably manipulate all the controls of a handgun are critical. This has two parts: the position and size of the controls themselves, and your personal ease of manipulation.
In terms of position, a great example of this is slide- and frame-mounted safeties. I find a slide-mounted safety awkward to disengage when I bring up the pistol, and it also interferes with me racking the slide. If engage the safety inadvertently or ram the switch with my hand, it’s a deal breaker for me on any gun, as I can’t instinctively use them.
Take a minute to make sure none of the controls will cause you this trouble. How much do you have to move your hands from your preferred firing grip? To reach the magazine release, do you have to significantly shift your grip (if at all)? How naturally can you disengage the safety? I find any safety that disengages upwards to be counter-intuitive. Essentially, I find the less my hands have to move, the better.
With pistols, it’s important to pay particular attention to the slide. Check the serrations by slingshotting the gun closed from slide lock a few times. Also, rack it repeatedly to see how the serrations feel. Are they too aggressive, hurting your hands? Are they not giving you much of a grip? For example, I like the CZ-75‘s smaller slide, but others find it tiny and can’t instinctively get a good hold on it.
Finally, we come to the trigger. I list it last for a reason. A good trigger pull is important, but I think for many inspecting their first handgun, they might not know how to find a good trigger. That could be an article unto itself. Most triggers can be improved with a visit to a gunsmith, but ergonomic foundations of the gun cannot.
So, instead of focusing on trigger pull, let’s check the ergonomics. Can your finger easily rest on the trigger without feeling like you’re stretching it? What about in double and single action (if applicable)? With your hand in a natural firing position, what part of your finger rests on the trigger? What part of the finger feels natural to pull with to you?
This is a consequence of grip size, hand size and distance of the trigger from the grip. If the wrong part of your finger rests on the trigger intuitively, proceed with caution. This can make the gun uncomfortable and trying to adjust your grip to compensate may mess up otherwise-excellent ergonomics.
If your finger sits comfortably on the trigger, give it a squeeze. As you pull back, does your finger’s contact point change? Sliding around the trigger during a pull can be problematic and often indicates the length to the trigger doesn’t match your finger’s well.
During the pull, also pay attention to whether your trigger finger also contacts any other part of your hands. This can indicate the grip is too small.
If you’ve made it to this point and the gun is agreeable without major red flags or discomfort, you’re likely holding a gun you’ll be happy with.
While it would be great if every person was born with a corresponding handgun for their body and shooting style, we’re not at that point yet (– yet). After bouncing between a few handguns, you might find there are a few models that fit you well but none that are perfect. Unless you’re buying a fully customized piece, we all experience this every time we buy a gun. At this point, you have to start prioritizing the non-ergonomic issues (revolver or pistol, polymer or steel, magazine safety or not, and so on) to guide your decision.
I’ve seen too many purchases that resulted in disappointment when the buyer realized the gun wasn’t a good fit. We can see that every day looking at guns with extraordinarily low round counts being resold. Hopefully, my experiences (and mistakes) can serve as lessons to help you avoid that heartache and expenditure.