One of the most important fundamentals in good shooting is grip. This makes perfect sense if you think about shooting in terms of golf, another sport where success and consistency are dependent on a full-body swing with hands and arms working in unison. Ben Hogan famously observed that “good golf begins with a good grip.”
In shooting a good grip is harder to achieve than one would think, as the hands are individual units, two gripping tools, one on the end of each arm. Because of this separation, they are difficult to synchronize and coordinate to work together. Anyone who has ever tried “the pursuit of the little white ball” will remember their early awkwardness in trying to master the Varden grip, yet this technique is so perfect that, 100 years after its development, it is still in use by more than 90 percent of all golfers, professional and amateur alike.
I believe that good shooting also begins with a good grip. But achieving a good grip is not as simple as giving a firm handshake. A good grip is a combination of the physical (hand size) and the mechanical—the gun grip’s shape, size and texture; the trigger position; and the relationship of the grip and forend to the gun’s overall design.
A good grip allows the correct, comfortable positioning of the hands on the stock, and proper placement helps achieve an unimpeded gun mount that maximizes pointability and direction to the target, with good after-shot control of recoil and muzzle flip for a better second shot.
To further complicate matters, gunstocks and forends come in all shapes and sizes. The classic straight, or game, stock combined with a splinter forend is traditionally seen with double triggers. This combination creates a svelte-looking gun with swift handling characteristics and easy access to the second trigger. But the grip on a straight stock, particularly in the smaller gauges, can be too slim for larger hands, and the splinter forend in all gauges stops short for the correct placement of the forward, or leading, hand, often requiring the use of a hand guard or glove to protect the hand from hot barrels. The best solution to this problem is to use a semi- or full-beavertail forend, which gives the forward hand protection and offers a better grip and more control. But beavertails are not as flattering to the gun’s lines and looks as the splinter forend. And because beavertail forends are larger and often matched to a Prince of Wales grip, the combination adds a few ounces to the weight of the gun.
A good grip is essential when shooting with a side-by-side, where the barrels are above the gun’s center of balance. On firing, the side-by-side is pushed back against the shoulder in the first phase of recoil, and then as the whole gun pivots on the shoulder axis the barrels rise up in the second phase of recoil.
When shooting a side-by-side, our hands are not in the same plane. The palm of the grip hand is vertical (thumb skyward) and the palm of the forend hand is horizontal. Hands naturally coordinate better shooting an over/under, where they are both vertical and in the same plane. This hand position when shooting an over/under harnesses our natural ability to point—in this case at the target.
Also, when holding a side-by-side the leading hand typically grips the gun with the side of the thumb and the tips of the fingers, as this is the only way to avoid having the fingers and thumb overlap the barrels and obscure the view of the target. (This may be less of a problem with smaller hands or larger beavertail forends, but it still affects most side-by-side shooters to a degree.) To overcome this lack of contact, the grip pressure and placement on a side-by-side forend needs to be far more assertive than on the forend of an O/U. Compare the grip pressure of the O/U and the side-by-side: On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is light and 10 is tight, a pressure of 3 or 4 is about right for the O/U whereas a 5 or 6 is needed for the side-by-side.
In both the side-by-side and the O/U, the leading hand should always be the pointing or directional hand and should start and lead the gun mount, so the grip of this leading hand needs to have firm authority throughout the shot.
With the O/U’s barrel configuration, the bottom barrel is in line with the gun’s center of gravity and the top barrel is just above the center of gravity. If the bottom barrel is fired first, there is only one phase of recoil and it is a direct line into the shoulder, so second-target acquisition is quicker. The deeper grip created by the stacked barrels and matching forend provides a more substantial gripping area, resulting in better muzzle control. And while firing the bottom barrel first offers the best recoil management, the hand orientation and grip surface of the O/U offer an advantage even when firing the upper barrel first.
Regardless of the shotgun’s configuration, I like to teach a forend grip that achieves control and direction. Both hands should work as a single unit, with the extended forefinger of the leading hand directing the barrels to the target, harnessing both eye and hand coordination.
There are many stock and forend combinations: straight, Prince of Wales, semi-pistol (round-knob) and full pistol grips. Forends can be splinter, semi- and full beavertail, round and Schnabel. Although the major makers’ guns come with stocks and forends in standard dimensions, one size does not fit all. In a perfect world, what is really needed is the option of getting grips of different shapes, angles, thicknesses and lengths to better fit each individual’s unique requirements. You will never shoot to the best of your ability if your stock has a grip like a pencil when you need a stock with a grip like a baseball bat.
Every piece of “handled” sports equipment has a grip—from a ski pole to a golf club to a baseball bat to a tennis racquet. Every top competitor wants that handle to fit his/her hand and provide a tactile grip. In shooting, the hands’ contact with the grip and forend surfaces are the connection from the brain to the gun. The better the connection, the better the coordination and the better the shooting. A poor grip is a poor connection, and that can only result in poor shooting.
The checkering on the grip of a shotgun is the equivalent of the neoprene grips on golf clubs and tennis racquets. The traditional slim and sexy small-gauge side-by-side typically has very fine 24- or 26-point checkering to match its size. This looks and feels great, but does it offer a good grip? No. The old wildfowling pieces had coarse 18-point checkering, and though it didn’t look as nice, it provided the grip needed to control the heavy guns and loads being used. It is not uncommon to come across live-pigeon guns and good-quality driven-game guns with larger-point checkering, and, not understanding the importance of the grip in that type of shooting, one could be forgiven for thinking that the maker gave short shrift to the finishing. That checkering likely was requested by a purchaser who placed function over form in his utility shotguns.
I’m not suggesting you order your new gun with checkering you could light a match on, but I’m trying to make a point on the importance of a good grip. If a gun has fine checkering, then a pair of well-fitted shooting gloves can make a world of difference in the control and handling of the gun. Gripswell gloves (www .gripswell.com)—with their padded palm on the grip hand for thinner stocks and protected palm on the leading hand for hot barrels—and MacWet gloves (www.londontradingcompany.com), for really wet and nasty conditions, can provide a firm grip on any gun.
Gunstocks are made of wood, and wood is soft—i.e. it wears—and taking guns in and out of cases and slips and general handling and use will result in faded finishes and worn checkering. Oil and dirt from your hands will also cause clogging and the natural degradation of checkering. The enhanced grip offered by crisp, well-cut checkering lets you control and direct the gun better, helps with barrel flip and recoil control, and promotes a better swing and move to the target. A worn grip will cause you to grasp the gun tighter, creating arm and wrist tension, resulting in a loss of control as well as fatigue. Further, in wet or cold conditions the lack of tactile feel and reduced gun control could create a potentially dangerous situation. It is not prohibitively expensive to get a gun’s checkering re-cut, and new checkering will give your gun a new lease on life in both its looks and handling.
When you are shopping for your next gun, I suggest you pay close attention to the size, shape, condition and position of the stock and forend and how the gun feels in your hands. It can make a huge difference to your shooting when you get a good grip.
Chris Batha’s book Breaking Clays and his DVDs, “Mastering the Double Gun” and “Take Your Best Shot,” can be ordered by visiting www.chrisbatha.com.
- By: Chris Batha