High and Tight: Not Just For Haircuts Anymore
by CWO Knote
One opportunity for improvement I see at every range is the firing hand position. Most shooters I observe shooting an AR15/ M16 series rifle don’t really grab onto the pistol grip with the firing hand. It looks more like a perch for the hand to rest on while the finger moves the trigger. The shooting that goes along with it inevitably shows some errors. For those of you about to say “It works for me- I shoot expert most of the time.” Go watch “Maximum Effective Range Explained” and then come back and tell me why I should be impressed. Now open your mind and let’s all learn something.
When I was assigned as a marksmanship instructor for deploying soldiers in 2004 I thought I already knew everything there was to know about BRM. I was a SFC with 13 years in and I had been deployed three times. What was I going to learn about shooting? It turned out I had a lot to learn.
I started learning from some of the best Marksman and Marksmanship Instructors in the world. One of the Senior Instructors and Team Coaches emphasized that I need a higher tighter grip. What the hell did that mean? At Nationals I asked an AMU shooter: he told me to “grip the piss out of the pistol grip”. These guys told me what but they didn’t tell me the how or the why. As an instructor I always want to be able to explain the why and the how. If I am going to tell you that you should do something I need to be able to tell you why this something is different/ better than what you have been taught previously
So I researched, studied, analyzed, observed, shot in competition, coached at ranges all the while trying to figure out the mechanics behind this. This is what I learned:
1. The lower your firing hand is on the pistol grip the farther your hand is from the axis of recoil. This may not be an issue with slow fire- but in an engagement requiring multiple shots per exposure the less stability and control you have through recoil and the longer it takes to get the sights aligned and pointed back at the target.
2. If your firing hand is not holding the pistol grip high and firm the more grip pressure you must apply to the front end of the gun. The rifle becomes a lever in your hand prying your firing hand wrist down. You compensate by increasing your grip pressure with the non-firing hand. If this grip pressure on the hand guards (not free-floated) is not supremely consistent there will be a small amount of barrel flex. This barrel flex will cause shot errors as much as 3 minutes-of-angle (MOA) with iron sights and as much as 12 MOA with optics (barrel flex causes much greater error with optics than with iron sights. With iron sights the front sight is moving with the barrel flex. An optic does not.) That math means with iron sights you get a 9 inch error at 300 yards or a 36 inch error with optics.
3. If you are pulling the rifle back into your shoulder with the non-firing hand on the hand guard there is a natural mechanical rotation in the wrist, elbow, and shoulder joints that cause the rifle to cant slightly off the vertical axis. If you have a clear understanding of trajectory you should immediately understand that rotating the rifle off the vertical axis will cause the line of bore to point somewhere the line of sights are not pointing.
4. And lastly, with a low-loose grip and only the fingertip on the trigger the tendency for error in trigger finger pressure increases. Let me put it like this. It takes 8+ pounds of pressure to pull the trigger to the rear on a rack grade M16. We can compare that to a 1 gallon jug of milk. Think about that little loop handle on that milk jug. Do you normally pick up that milk jug with just the tip of your finger? Based on experience your brain already knows how much mechanical advantage it needs to overcome that weight- so your finger naturally slips through the loop to the spot that provides you the most mechanical advantage. Place your hand high up on the pistol grip so that the webbing of the hand is at the top and then allow the finger to fit naturally around the trigger. This will give you the mechanical advantage needed to move your trigger to the rear with the least amount of errant motion possible. I hate to point out the overly obvious here. It is called a pistol grip for a reason. Grab onto it like a pistol.
If this low-and-loose grip causes these problems, why do we do it? We were taught to- not directly- but the hand position most of us use is a side affect of something we were taught: trigger finger position. With a correct firing hand position the tip of the finger on the trigger feels very awkward. Since this is what was emphasized we adapted our hand position to one that allowed that finger position to feel more natural. Why has this been taught? Much of what we are taught is like an oral tradition. The trigger finger position has been handed down generation to generation from Sergeants to Privates for decades. Seriously- it has been taught that way since the dawn of the shoulder fired gun. Even the best instructors very rarely read the entire sentence from FM3-22.9 Ch4 para58: “The Soldier places his trigger finger (index finger on the firing hand) on the trigger between the first joint and the tip of the finger—not the very end of the finger—and adjusts depending on his hand size and grip.”
For most of us about halfway through that last sentence our mind wandered into that classroom or onto that range where the Drill Sergeant or the PMI (for you Marines) was explaining “tip of the finger” to the best of how he recalled it was taught to him when he was in basic Training. The tip-of-the finger has been taught relentlessly as the one true way- anything else would cause you to jerk the trigger, divide by zero, and cross the streams.
Let us look at that sentence one more time- this time applying some sentence structure lessons I had in gradeschool: “The Soldier places his trigger finger… on the trigger… and adjusts depending on his hand size and grip.”
Does that make more sense? All I did was remove the clutter from between the subject, the object, and verb. Now we have a clear picture of what we are supposed to do. It says to adjust the finger depending on the grip! Not the other way around!! Simple?
But it isn’t entirely that simple. It is important to understand why the FM was written that way in the first place and understand why we have been teaching it this way for so long. Understand that the finger tip- between the first joint and the tip- WAS the correct application of the trigger finger on the M14 and the M1. The M1 and the M14 were both built on a traditional wood stock-the type where the thumb fits over the top- the tip of the finger is about all that what reaches the trigger. If you get more than that on the trigger your hand position would be remarkably bad! Finally: trigger pull on the M1s and the M14s was closer to six pounds! It simply required less mechanical advantage to move the trigger error free.
The differences in stock design and trigger pull were not accounted for when the M16 was introduced. The trigger finger technique that has been around since the beginning of time has been continuously taught from generation to generation without change and without question.
Here is what I can promise you. If you learn to grip the rifle with a high and tight grip you will have more control over the rifle that can free your non-firing hand to open doors, throw a flash-bang around a corner, key a radio, point a flashlight, and/ or give a hand signal all while holding the rifle ready to fire. These skills make you a better warrior.
I promise- you will be more likely to maintain the rifle on the vertical axis, you will recover from recoil more rapidly, you will have better trigger control and follow through. These skills make you a better rifleman.
Every soldier- a rifleman and a warrior.