Book Review – Basics of Pistol Shooting Pt 2 (NRA, 2020)

The National Rifle Association recently released a major update to the Basics of Pistol Shooting book. This is part 2 of a multi-part review of the book. (Part 1 of the review is here.) Despite the review being full of complaints and criticisms of the content, most of the book is excellent, with significantly better graphics and content than previous editions. However, because so many instructors and students will be using this book, I think it’s worthwhile to point out some of the flaws.

On pages 48-49 the process of firing a semi-automatic pistol is explained. In step 2, the reader is told to move the decocker or safety to the fire position. That’s confusing, if the decocking lever is not also a safety, and could mislead novices into thinking they are supposed to decock the gun right before firing.

The best place for the thumb, when a shooter is firing a 1911, is on top of the thumb safety. This prevents the safety from unintentionally being engaged, and where the thumb naturally goes when the safety is pushed into the ‘fire’ position.

In the section on unloading a semi-automatic pistol, magazine ejection is shown with the gun canted sideways, instead of oriented straight up and down, so the magazine can eject most easily. (Gravity works up and down, not side to side). Canting the gun to eject a magazine is a common practice, often because canting the gun slows down the magazine ejection and makes it easier to catch the ejected magazine. But on some guns and for some users, canting the gun makes the magazine much more difficult to remove from the pistol.

This would have been an excellent spot to show how a left handed shooter might use their trigger finger to work the release.

The section on revolvers (both single- and double-action) is excellent, with great graphics and photos, including presentation of techniques for left handed shooters. Also, the section on ammunition is a major improvement over the old book, including discussion of how to dispose of “unserviceable” ammunition. In the caliber section, the ammunition shown for the .45 Colt caliber appears to be Hornady Leverevolution, which is an innovative round intended to allow lever guns to shoot bullets other than flat points safely. In the context of a basic pistol book, however, the presentation of this unique round as “typical” of what a .45 Colt round looks like, or what ammunition a novice might purchase is, is great product placement for Hornady, but the wrong information for beginners.

A traditional 255 grain lead bullet load would have been the right choice for that picture. In the limited time available in a basic pistol course, requiring the instructor to explain about the red tip on the round and get into the weeds about why lever action rifles require flat point bullets, all to accommodate Hornady’s product placement is unnecessary.

The section on grip is a big improvement over the old materials, but several fine points about the “modern” two handed grip are still off the mark. Forming the grip from the front strap, as opposed to joining the heels of the hands, often leads to the heels of the hands not connecting, with a large gap between the hands. Teaching students to join the heels instead of building the grip front-to-back would eliminate this problem. You can see that problem in the shooter’s grip in this video around the 1:29 mark.

In picture #5 below, the shooter’s thumbs are too low. The firing hand thumb should be at slide height, with the heel of the support hand cammed higher, so that the support hand is as high as possible on the frame. Many shooters use the low thumb grip, usually out of fear of their thumbs being injured by the slide, or to avoid the thumbs dragging against the slide to slow it down (which can cause malfunctions). But if you look at the way top shooters that use that grip technique grip their guns, the thumbs are higher.

The thumbs forward grip does not work for all shooters and all semiauto pistols. In some cases, the thumbs will press down on the slide lock lever, preventing the gun from locking open on the last round. Similarly, the forward thumbs can interfere or bump into decocking levers and other controls, depending on hand size and gun model. For subcompact guns with short barrels and shooters with large hands, it’s possible to end up with the support hand thumb in front of the muzzle (not a good idea). The modern thumbs-forward grip works great with duty-sized striker fired guns and 1911 pistols in the hands of shooters with 60 lbs or more of grip strength.

It’s very common, among shooters with limited grip strength, to push down hard with the firing hand thumb as the trigger is pressed, causing the support hand to be pushed off the pistol. The traditional thumb over thumb grip, as shown in the revolver picture, can be a solution for those that can’t stop “thumb pushing” when they try to use the thumbs forward grip.

A simple grip integrity test is to have a shooter fire 5-6 rounds, as quickly as they can work the trigger, at a large target at 3 yards. Observe their grip as they fire, and pay extra attention to how it looked before they started firing and what it looked like on the last shot. Have them do this drill using thumbs forward and thumb over thumb, and note which grip technique changes the last from first to last shot. It’s more important to have a consistent grip that won’t fall apart in rapid fire than to use the grip the “cool kids” all use.

On a positive note, the book now includes discussion of gun fit and trigger finger gap (aka “frame dragging”). This article from Tom Givens explains that issue in more detail.

The review will continue in part 3 (and beyond).