The Cornered Cat

Before you plunk down your hard-earned money for a handgun — especially a defense handgun — it is a good idea to make sure it will fit your hand. Here’s how to do that.

Check by sight and by feel to be sure that the gun is unloaded. For semi-automatics, remove the magazine and run a finger into the magazine well to make sure it is empty. Lock the slide open and visually look in the chamber. Then run the tip of your pinky finger into the chamber to be sure that there’s a hole in there rather than a live round. Visually check the chamber again before you close the slide. For revolvers, roll the cylinder open and visually count the holes. Then run your finger over the holes and count them again by feel. Visually count the holes again before closing the cylinder.

This sounds obsessive. Let me explain with a visual illustration why it is important to check twice, and count the holes by feel.

Take a quick glance at the picture below. Only a glance. Is the gun unloaded?

Visual illustration of how an 'unloaded' revolver can still be loaded. Always, always, always double check by counting the holes.

Position your mouse pointer over the image
to double-check.

This is why we check twice, and touch the holes. When distracted or under stress, it is surprisingly easy to miss seeing things we really didn’t expect to see anyway. And it is just as easy — or easier — to do the same with a semi-auto, and miss seeing the round in the chamber or the magazine in the butt of the gun. So use your hands as well as your eyeballs to check, and never take anything for granted. 1

Okay, gun’s empty. Now, with the gun pointed in a safe direction which includes a safe backstop, put the crease of your trigger finger on the shooting-hand side of the trigger face. Do not simply place the tip or the pad of your trigger finger on the trigger. Use the crease. 2

This part of the trigger finger …

Distal crease

Rests upon the shooting-hand side face of the trigger …


With your finger’s crease thus on the trigger and without pulling the trigger back, wrap the rest of your hand around the gun to get a good, one-handed firing grip.

Wrap hand around gun.

It is especially important not to cock double-action revolvers or to pull the trigger back on DA/SA semi-automatics, because doing so moves the location of the trigger in relation to the rear of the gun. That means the trigger is not in the same place it would be when you first pick up the gun. You want to know how the gun will fit when you grab it in a hurry — not just how it fits under ideal range conditions.

Notice the location of the trigger in this uncocked double-action Sig pistol.

uncocked DA

Now see how far the trigger has moved to the rear when the pistol is cocked.

cocked DA

There is a similar change that takes place when a double action revolver is cocked. Cocking the gun shortens the trigger reach, but this is no help to someone who plans to use the gun for defensive purposes. You need to know how the gun will fit when you first pick it up.

So keep your finger resting lightly on the trigger and wrap the rest of your hand around the gun to attain your firing grip. Now look at how the gun fits in your hand.

A Perfect Fit

With the crease of your finger on the trigger, if the gun’s backstrap is firmly centered in the web of your hand, midway between your thumb and forefinger, then the gun fits your hand perfectly. Notice how a correctly-sized gun lines up perfectly with the bones in your forearm. The recoil will go directly into the web of the hand and be transferred along the long bones of the arm, allowing a strong and natural grip without much strain.

perfect fit

A perfect fit

Small Gun

If your hand has a lot of extra slack, with your trigger finger curving far out from the side of the gun (so that you would be able to put a large portion of your trigger finger through the trigger guard), then the gun is small for your hand. Note that the small gun still lines up well with the forearm bones.

Small gun

A small gun

A gun that’s small is rarely too small for effective shooting, so don’t let this deter you if the gun is otherwise suitable for your purposes. Unless the gun is really radically undersized, it’s generally easy to adapt to a small gun. But you will need to pay special attention that you don’t get too much of your finger on the trigger while firing.

With as much trigger finger poking through as in the picture below, it is nearly impossible to pull the trigger at all — let alone to pull it smoothly and well. But this is an easily-corrected shooter error, not a problem with the gun.

Too much trigger finger

Poor Technique: too much trigger finger!

Too Large

If the gun’s backstrap cannot be centered in the web of your hand, midway between thumb and forefinger joints, while the crease of your trigger finger is on the trigger, then the gun is too big for you.

In the picture below, notice that the too-large gun does not line up nicely with forearm bones, and the recoil is going more into the thumb joint than into the web of the hand.

Too large

A too-large gun

Provided you are able to reach all the controls, you can probably work with a very slightly too-large gun. You may be able to work with it as-is simply by scootching your hand around, so the backstrap is slightly off-center when your finger is on the trigger. Or you might consider putting a shortened trigger in it, which will reduce the distance between trigger and backstrap. 3

However, if the gun is very much too big for your hand, the recoil will be going straight into the joint at the base of your thumb when your finger is properly on the trigger. You may be able to shoot that way, but it isn’t a very secure hold and it will probably be painful to fire a lot of rounds. Even if it doesn’t hurt, it can cause joint problems down the road and really isn’t worth it in the long run. You will need to look for a different gun.

Incidentally, one possible cause of limp-wristing may be firing a gun that is too large for one’s hands. Notice the direction the recoil will go in the picture above, and compare that to the solid platform provided by the long bones of the arm when the gun is the correct size for the shooter.

After checking for grip fit, also check to be sure you can reach and use all of the gun’s controls.

Thumb safety

Thumb Safety

Mag release

Magazine Release



It is okay if you need to shift your hand a little so you can reach the lever. But it is not okay if you need to shift your hand so far that you cannot lift up on the slide lock and pull the slide back at the same time.

Slide release

Slide Lock / Slide Release

It is good to be able to send the slide forward again by using the slide release without losing a solidly correct firing grip. But if you can’t do that, it’s really okay. Just plan to use the slingshot or overhand technique to send the slide forward. Note that if you want to play any of the action pistol games, however, releasing the slide using the lever is generally quicker than using slingshot or overhand. If you plan to compete, get a gun with an easily-used slide release.

Just as you would try on a pair of shoes before buying them, if it is at all possible, try to fire the gun or one like it before you purchase. Many gun stores and ranges have rental guns. While rental fees can be expensive, paying such fees can often save considerable money in the long run because of the mistakes thus avoided.


  1. It is important to note here that “check with your fingers” only applies to handguns. Rifles and shotguns get very much hotter than handguns, and will burn you if you reach into their chambers after firing.
  2. For defense work, it is generally accepted that the distal crease of the finger should be on the face of the trigger, or lined up with the trigger’s outside edge. For target shooting, the pad or tip of the trigger finger is often used. However, in both cases, you measure gun fit the same way — with the crease rather than the tip of the finger on the trigger.
  3. If you do this, be especially aware of whether you can realistically reach all important controls. Changing the reach to the trigger does not change the location of other controls. Also, see the illustration again. Notice how this large gun naturally lines up when the wrist is straight? This alignment is a perfect match for the Isosceles position. The red line I used to indicate recoil also illustrates a good sight alignment when the gun is held in the Isosceles position.