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Education / Training Get a grip!: Part 2

Get a grip!: Part 2

Part 1

This report covers:

  • However…
  • LTC Bonsall
  • Distinguished Pistol Shot badge
  • Elmer Keith knew something
  • It’s all in the hold and the trigger action
  • The thumb controls the recoil
  • Stop!
  • Grip
  • Summary

Reader Bob Ryan suggested today’s report when he said about the Beeman P1:


The P1 always looked wrong to me with the skinny 1911 grips, just too top heavy and unwieldy looking.

Have you ever tried the Silver Star or Black Star variants? The grips on those seem much more ergonomic and imo improve the aesthetics to boot.”

Yes, Bob, the target grips on the Weihrauch Black Star and Silver Star (which is the same as the Beeman P11) do make the pistol easier to hold and to register on target. In fact, I own a set of custom wood 1911 grips that are just like those and do the same thing on a firearm or an airgun.

Beeman P11
Beeman P11 that is also the HW Silver Star.


However, when you are issued a 1911 to carry in the military, custom grips are out of the question. Maybe in a combat zone you can get away with them, but not in a peacetime situation. So, you have to learn to shoot the 1911A1 you were issued from the arms room. Okay, it’s 2021 and the military doesn’t issue 1911A1s to regular soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines anymore. But what I am about to tell you also does apply to the guns they do issue.

LTC Bonsall

This takes me to the story of lieutenant colonel Bonsall. Readers who have been with us for years know this story, but for the benefit of the newer readers, here is how I learned this technique. As a second lieutenant, I was running a pistol range for my cavalry squadron in the Army and the new squadron commander, LTC Bonsall, arrived on range in his jeep. I had never seen a lieutenant colonel at a small arms range before. I’m sure they went, just never when I was running the range. The colonel introduced himself, because I hadn’t met him yet — he was that new. Then, he asked to qualify. Well, sure, he could qualify. It was his range, after all!

I directed him to a table upon which we had about 50 pistols waiting for the next shooters. You’re supposed to qualify with your own weapon, but I had several hundred men to cycle through and to keep the range moving we had 50 pistols that the entire squadron used. That way there weren’t a lot of malfunctions. After weeding out the bad magazines in the first few relays, we had the range running smoothly. It was also much easier to clean only 50 pistols instead of 400.

Colonel Bonsall selected a weapon and took his place on the line with another 24 shooters. The shooting commenced and that’s when I lost track of him until my chief NCO came up and discretely asked me if I had noticed the colonel’s target. We were shooting at man-sized silhouettes at 25 yards. Each man got a fresh target when his relay began and the course of fire was 50 shots at the silhouette.

We called it qualification but it was really more like annual refresher training. Most of the silhouettes looked as though they had been peppered by a shotgun firing huge balls. But the colonel’s target had a small hole right where the heart should be. He had fired most of about 30 rounds through a one-inch hole when I caught up with him, and the rest of his shots didn’t stray far from it.

Distinguished Pistol Shot badge

The upshot of that day at the range was that our new commander wore the Army Distinguished Pistol Shot badge, a qualification badge so rare that not only had I never seen one, I had never even heard of it! And I was a gun buff serving in the Army! As of 2008, there were 1,709 Distinguished Pistol Shot badges awarded to Army personnel since its inception in 1903, making the badge rarer than the Army Medal of Honor that has been awarded over 2,000 times, though admittedly over a 40+ year longer span of time.

Army Distinguished Pistol Shot badge
This Army Distinguished Pistol Shot Badge is so rare that I hadn’t heard of it before meeting LTC Bonsall. Wearers automatically get to try out for the U.S. Olympic pistol team, if they want.

After we cleared the colonel off the range, I examined the pistol the he’d used for his demonstration. It was a typical loose-as-a-goose arms room M1911A1 with green phosphate finish and brown plastic grips. It had probably been made around or just before World War II, and the only special care we gave it was to bring it to the range in the bed of a 2-1/2-ton truck inside a wooden footlocker with 49 others just like it. When it wasn’t being shot, it laid on a table in the hot sun while dust blew over it and through it all day long. By the time the colonel got his hands on it, it had probably already been fired several hundred times without cleaning or lubrication. The parts inside were just good enough to avoid condemnation during a major inspection.

Elmer Keith knew something

That was the day when Elmer Keith’s last printed lie turned out to be true — you really CAN hit a man at 100 yards with a 1911 pistol. Repeatedly! But you have to know what you’re doing. Anyway, the colonel got my attention. Being a kindred gun buff, he taught me how to shoot the pistol. Now, I’ll tell you what I learned from him.

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It’s all in the hold and the trigger action

How you hold the 1911 or the 1911A1 determines how tight it will shoot. Yes, the gun can be gunsmithed to shoot even tighter, but even a tired old clunker will surprise you if it’s held right.

Always grip the pistol the same way every time you hold it. Hold the palm of your shooting hand flat with the thumb extended and place the pistol into the web of your hand. The three fingers that aren’t the trigger finger should be wrapped around the grips, and the thumb comes in on the other side of the grip.

Now — and this is the key — squeeze the pistol straight back into the web of your hand with the middle finger, which is the longest of the three fingers wrapped around the grip, and also highest on the grip. The other two fingers apply absolutely no pressure to the gun. They’re just along for the ride. The thumb also puts no pressure on the gun, although I will tell you something else about it in a moment. Only that middle finger is squeezing straight back. Let me show you what that looks like with an illustration I drew for the Beeman P1 pistol that has the same grip as a 1911.

1911 grip

The thumb controls the recoil

That thumb can ride against the grip, but if you rest it atop the manual safety switch that’s on the left side of the frame, it will cut the muzzle flip from recoil by half. Some worry that their thumbs will be hurt by the moving slide, but I have never seen that happen in 40 years of shooting. When the pistol comes back in recoil, the thumb doesn’t allow it to rise as much as it wants to. This is a trick I learned from reading the late Jeff Cooper.

This is possible with a stock Colt pistol, but most 1911s you encounter today have special wider safeties that are made for this. Some are even ambidextrous, for lefties.


Okay, that’s as far as I am going with this today. There is more, like the stance, breathing, trigger control and sighting, but that will be for another time.


Does the grip matter? Yes — however, it doesn’t stop with the grips that are on the pistol. It also includes how YOU grip the gun. And that is the point of today’s report. How you grip the gun is even more important than the grips that happen to be on it. And it doesn’t matter what gun you shoot, though those that are like the 1911 will seem easiest if that is what you practice on.

Your grip is a learned and practiced procedure. When you learn it, you can put many shooters to shame, even with their fancy target grips.


I’m getting ready for the Arkansas airgun show, so I haven’t started any of this yet. I want to be able to practice every day, so I will hold off until next week to start.

One thing has become very clear through. When I hold a 10-meter target pistol the perfection of its grip impresses me. So Bob Ryan is correct, the pistol’s grip matters quite a bit!

author avatar
Tom Gaylord (B.B. Pelletier)
Tom Gaylord, also known as B.B. Pelletier, provides expert insights to airgunners all over the world on behalf of Pyramyd AIR. He has earned the title The Godfather of Airguns™ for his contributions to the industry, spending many years with AirForce Airguns and starting magazines dedicated to the sport such as Airgun Illustrated.

30 thoughts on “Get a grip!: Part 2”

  1. B.B.

    Great start to what should be an exciting series. I always tell people that shooting a gun well is easy, shooting a pistol well is HARD.

    Does the thumb over safety trick work with most semi-automatic pistols?


    PS there are some pretty roads in AK.

    • Yogi,

      I will say a qualified yes to the all pistols question, because I haven’t shot all pistols. And pistols like the Luger don’t have safties in that place.


      • This is the best, most understandable explanation about pistol grip FM has ever read. Maybe it will help next time in a shooting session with the P38 – the last one was awful, though it was after surgery for retinal detachment. Enjoy the airgun show – above all, have fun!

  2. BB,

    Now you have me interested in acquiring a pistol do I can follow this series. Maybe a cheap airsoft just for the feel of it?


    PS: Section Grip 1st paragraph last sentence, “And it doesn’t matter what gun you shoot, though thosde (those) that are like the 1911 will seem easiest if that is what you practice on.

    • Siraniko,
      A few years ago, my company asked for volunteers to deploy overseas with a new drone on which we were working (civilian volunteers, as no Army personnel would be trained on the drone yet). The program manager (ex-Army) pointed out the the Theater Commander had authorized “any weapon you want” for the civilian volunteers. I did a little research; it was more like “any weapon you want, just as long as it’s a standard Army-issue M9 (the Army version of the Beretta model 92 in 9mm), and you must qualify with it before deployment in order to be issued one.”
      Hence, I volunteered, and bought an airsoft, Beretta-licensed copy of the model 92. While not as accurate as a rifled-barrel pellet pistol, it was pretty accurate out to 30 feet, and I practiced with it every night in my backyard. My plan was to practice with the airsoft pistol till we got the actual contract from the Army, and then go and get a firearm version and practice with that to ensure I would be able to qualify to be issued an M9 before deployment (like who would want to be unarmed in a battle zone? Not me!).
      Sadly, my company lost the contract at the last minute; hence, I did not get to go. Fortunately, I had not bought the Beretta model 92 yet, so I was not out much money, just the money I paid for the airsoft Beretta clone, which wound up going to my friend’s son, who thought it was “really cool.”
      Anyway, I later bought an all metal airsoft 1911-clone that was rated at 1 joule of energy. It also had hop-up, and shot flat to about 40 feet, at which range it could hit a soda can almost every time. So yes, there are some airsoft pistols which might suit your needs. The ones I bought were spring-powered, but you might be happier with a gas-powered one; the spring-powered ones of today seem to not be as well made as in years gone by; the gas-powered ones seem to be where the development money has gone; some of the gas-powered pistols are up into the price range of firearms, yet they are still “really cool.” 🙂
      God’s blessings to you,

      • thedavemyster,

        That is a really good prompt for me to look for a pistol to practice with. I’ll probably stick to a spring powered replica for two reasons though. First is the cost of the item, with our country’s economy catching pneumonia when America gets a cold, it will be easier for me to work into my very lean budget. Second is that it will more likely be looking like a toy rather than a weapon as far as the strict gun laws in my country is concerned. Thanks for the push.


        • Siraniko, I was very happy with both of my spring-powered airsoft pistols, and I pray you will be, too. Spring pistols are a great value…now you have me looking to get another one…which is good. 🙂

  3. B.B.,

    Since you began revisiting the P1, I knew it was a matter of time before you revisited the wonderful story of LTC Bonsall. That is one of my favorite anecdotes from this blog. Below I have included the URL for the Arlington National Cemetery page on LTC Edward H. Bonsall III. It is, I think, good reading. Among his military achievements were being awarded the Legion of Merit, two Bronze Stars for valor, and two Purple Hearts with oak leaf cluster.



  4. BB,

    If it don’t rattle, I don’t want it. As you well know, the reason the military issue 1911/1911A1 rattles is the tolerances for the slide and frame are loose enough to allow for mud, sand, fouling, etc. to be in the mechanisms and still operate. This pistol grew up in the jungles, in the trenches and on the beaches.

    When ready to fire, the barrel locks up tight with the slide. The sights are rigidly mounted on the slide. This is why an old rattle trap can fire so accurately. Mr. Browning had a pretty good idea what he was doing. I’ll take one of these one handed hand cannons any day over a bean counter pop gun.

    The Germans knew what they were doing when they designed the HW45. The heavy top allows it to roll around your middle finger and rest snuggly against the heel pad of your hand.

  5. Along with so many others, I have enjoyed revisiting the story of LTC Bonsall; a story almost too good to be true. But more than this, the anecdotal teachings of this story/blog, are entrenched in my brain for my own learning, and that I might be of help to others “out on the range”. Have fun at the show this week, BB.

  6. BB,

    That story about LTC Bonsall was very enjoyable. Interesting that a high ranking officer maintained such a great level of pistol marksmanship. I imagine most of the top brass would be very rusty in that area.

    The P1/HW45 can be fitted with any set of 1911 grips, but can the P11/Black/Silver Star grips be fitted to a 1911?

    I find 1911s easy to shoot well, in stark contrast to Glock 19s, which have never been accurate in my hands. And that’s despite the gentler recoil of the 9mm cartridge.

    Could the grip safety on the 1911, which forces you to squeeze the pistol between your middle finger and the web of your hand, be part of the reason it’s easier to shoot well?

    • Bob,

      No, the HW45/P1 (and also the HW75/P2) with the target grips have a shortened grip shank and the one-piece target grips screw in from the bottom. It’s not like they have a magazine well to accommodate.


    • Bob,

      The grip safety is certainl;y one reason for gripping the pistrol as we do, but it’s so light that I doubt it has much of an affect on accuracy.


      • BB,

        John Browning was a genius. I wonder what he could have given us if he had ever turned his attention to airguns.

        The Belgians released an electrically cocked springer under the Browning label back in the late eighties or early nineties. I can’t remember what the model was called, but it was reviewed in the UK airgun press at the time. Did you ever come across that air rifle?

        • Bob,

          Sure did. What a looser! It sounded like an impact wrench at a tire shop when it cocked! And it was underpowered, about 700 f.p.s. or so. And it was buzzy.

          It is made by a Belgian firm and I warned Walther not to buy it. They were fixing to at IWA in 2006 and they had never seen the gun operate!


          • BB,

            I found a video of it on YouTube and even in the clip it sounds very loud and unpleasant, so in real life it must be much worse! Not a product John Browning would want associated with his name.

            I am surprised to hear they were still being made as late as 2006, as apart from a couple of magazine articles in the late 80s or early 90s, I never heard of that gun again and figured it was just a flash in the pan, an overpriced, novelty airgun that may have appealed to elderly, arthritic or otherwise frail shooters, but hardly anyone else.

  7. I tried the recommended grip with my Colt Series 80 .45 auto. My slightly larger than medium hand would not surround the grip sufficiently to pull the trigger or to rest my thumb on the safety. However, the grip feels fine when I tried it with my Tokarev. This must mean that Russians have smaller hands than Americans, but in 1911 when the .45 was adopted by the US military, people were much smaller than today, so my hand would have been typical, or perhaps slightly large. I do not think your recommended grip was envisaged by John M. Browning.

    • Drago,

      The pistol grip on the Baikal MP61 is so small that there isn’t room for my little finger. I figured at first that the gun was designed for kids, but it has an adult sized length of pull when the stock is extended. So, I think you may be right that the Russians have smaller hands.

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