How Far To Extend Your Arms?

The social media/youTube era has given the average shooter many benefits – specifically free access to thousands (millions?) of videos and pictures of top shooters using match- and gunfight-winning technique. It’s also led to some odd artifacts: behaviors that weren’t common before youTube became the most influential firearms training source.

For the past 100 years, top shooters and trainers extended one or both arms to full extension. John Shaw in the 1980’s, for example.

Eldon Carl in the 1960’s:

The NRA in the 1950’s:

UK military trainer/combat veteran C.D. Tracy in 1917:

During the 1980’s, the locked elbows Isoceles technique was widely taught (and adopted by former Weaver-technique shooters who discovered that they shot better and faster that way). By the start of the 1990’s, top shooters in USPSA had transitioned to fully extended arms with unlocked elbows, which remains the dominant technique used by top shooters.

From 1970 to the 2020’s, there’s been a steady migration of shooters from .45 ACP to, to .40 S&W to 9mm pistols. Full power .45 ACP ammo has a USPSA “power factor” of 190+ (230 grain bullet at 800 fps = 184,000 = 184 PF). Full power .40 S&W ammo has a 180+ power factor (180 grain bullet at 1000 fps = 180,000 = 180 PF). Full power 9mm ammo is typically 140-150 power factor (147 grain bullet at 1000 fps = 147,000 = 147 PF). The full power .45 and .40 ammo were blamed for causing tennis elbow in locked-elbow shooters, typically those that fired a lot of rounds training for USPSA matches where major/minor scoring motivated most to shoot the major power factor ammo. Particularly for major power ammo, holding the frame securely, so the slide can cycle properly, is critical. The problem was commonly called “limp-wristing”, even when the cause might not have anything to do with wrist muscles.

In modern USPSA, 9mm ammo is the most popular, as most competitors are in the Production, Carry Optics, Pistol Caliber Carbine and Limited Optics division. The demand for speed, both in competition and for show-off videos for Instagram and youTube, has led to some shooters trying to speed up their draw (typically on close targets, since you get better video by having the target and shooter in frame), by shooting before full extension of the arms is reached. Less grip strength is required to hold the frame of a 9mm pistol securely enough to prevent “limp-wristing” malfunctions, so those pushing for speed by not extending can get away with it, if the targets are close enough and their grip is strong enough.

As a result, this seems to have led some internet-trained shooters (typically those under 40) to hear trainers say “don’t lock your elbows”, and see online gun celebrities shooting from partially extended arms, and thinking that shooting from 75% of full extension is the ideal technique. I don’t think it is.

The context is missing for many that have embraced that idea, though. In some cases, those shooting that way have significant upper body strength and grip. Those two factors minimize the importance of technique. Some that spend a lot of time in the gym trying to get “swole” end up with limited flexibility in their arms, particularly after a workout. Older shooters, and those with a variety of neck, back and shoulder problems (also common in veterans), find it painful to fully extend. Vision issues related to focal length (a problem for older shooters and those wearing progressive or bifocal lenses) and getting the front sight in sharp focus may affect where the ‘sweet spot’ for arm extension is. And for those shooting the ultra-heavy-frame-plus-weapon-mounted-light pistols currently popular in USPSA (particularly those that don’t have a lot of upper body strength), holding a big heavy pistol at full arm extension can be fatiguing. In all those cases, the presentation of not-fully-extended arms may not what is desired, but all that is possible.

Awhile back the USPSA magazine “Front Sight” (no relation to the now-closed training institute) ran a lot of pictures of top shooters in action from various national championships. There are not people who only shoot 5 yard targets for social media clickbait videos. They are folks that shoot tens of thousands of rounds annually, trying to maximize speed and accuracy to win major matches where the margins of victory are often very small. Thus I think it’s valuable to observe their technique, and note that their arms are fully extended, likely with unlocked elbows. I share a gallery of those pictures here to encourage those that are capable of, but choose not to, fully extend their arms when shooting a pistol to explore that issue more deeply — not just by shooting 7 yard Bill Drills for clickbait content, but by shooting a wide variety of drills, from 3-25 yards, with target transitions, movement and other tasks incorporated.