If you’ve been around the firearms training world for any length of time, you’ve probably heard your share of clichés. Bring up the topic of knife attacks, and you’ll invariably hear “Just shoot him. He shouldn’t have brought a knife to a gunfight.” Mention handgun stopping power and you’ll get, “Handguns are marginal stoppers. A handgun is used to fight your way to a rifle or shotgun.” While these may be mildly entertaining when you first hear them, they are no replacements for sound training or personal-defense tactics. When considered together they are also completely contradictory. Despite that, many impressionable self-defense students are more likely to blindly parrot these lines than to think for themselves.
When it comes to handguns, the bottom line is that they are uncertain stoppers. Regardless of your personal philosophies on stopping power, caliber and bullet design, the fact remains that there are plenty of documented incidents where bad guys hit numerous times have failed to go down. Accordingly, simple logic dictates that in addition to your handgun you should also have a backup plan. This is particularly true with a close-range threat since a failure to stop will leave you in intimate proximity to a wounded and very motivated attacker.
Let’s consider a reasonable example. You carry a five-shot J-frame .38 for personal defense backed by one or two speed strips. Confronted by a potential threat who is concealing his hand behind his leg, you wisely sneak your hand to your gun and prep your draw as you attempt to set effective boundaries and verbally manage the situation. Suddenly he launches forward and attempts to stab you with a knife he had hidden behind his leg. You move off line, draw and deliver five shots to center mass. Although you scored good good hits, isn’t down and keeps on coming. What do you do?
The conventional gun-focused solution would be to reload and keep shooting, but recharging a revolver from a speed strip while playing tag with a knife-armed attacker doesn’t offer a high probability of success. You could transition to another weapon if you have time, or revert to empty-hand skills. However, I think the most logical solution—one that is all too often overlooked in firearms training—is to strike with the handgun. Punching someone in the head with a pound or more of solid metal definitely qualifies as stopping power and in some cases may produce a more immediate effect than a gunshot. In my opinion, it is also a viable tactical alternative to firing shots.
If you’ve already shot your pistol dry, you can hit with it pretty much any way you want. However, since I believe there is also great utility in hitting with a loaded pistol, I approach the techniques of pistol hitting with specific guidelines:
1. MUZZLE DISCIPLINE In 1970s cop TV shows one stock-in-trade move was to hit somebody in the base of the skull (or the nape of the neck) with the pistol’s butt. Obviously that entails swinging the gun all over the place and pointing the muzzle at everything in sight. Since striking with a handgun can easily cause sympathetic tightening of the hand on impact and carries with it the possibility of squeezing the trigger, maintaining muzzle discipline when you strike is critical. If you can’t hit in a way that ensures the muzzle stays pointed in a safe direction throughout the entire path of the strike, don’t hit.
2. DON’T DAMAGE YOUR GUN A good pistol strike should have a telling effect on your assailant without adversely affecting the mechanical function of your gun. That way you maintain the capability to shoot him or his accomplices after you’ve delivered the blow. This is another reason not to strike with the butt of a pistol, especially a modern polymer-framed pistol with a polymer magazine and baseplate. Similarly, if you have a revolver with an unshrouded ejector rod, striking with the underside of the barrel could bend it and render the gun inoperable.
3. TRIGGER-FINGER DISCIPLINE Hitting during a life-threatening struggle is most likely going to be a gross motor skill. That means you will naturally want to grip the gun convulsively and the chances of inadvertently squeezing the trigger are high. Despite that, if you’re going to make handgun strikes part of your defensive tactics, you need to make sure you can maintain sound trigger-finger discipline when you hit. The best ways I’ve found to do this are to either wrap all four fingers around the grip below the triggerguard to make a complete fist before you hit, or to use your straight trigger finger as a guide when striking.
Based on the above criteria, my preferred hitting method focuses on punching with the muzzle of the gun and striking upward with the top of the slide or frame. The starting position for both of these strikes is my preferred weapon-retention position. In this position the palm of the left (non-dominant) hand is anchored firmly to the head just above the left eyebrow. The gun hand is indexed below the right pectoral with the thumb flagged, so that the base of the thumb indexes on the nipple.
In this position the gun arm should be naturally cocked as if it were ready to throw a classical karate-style punch. The muzzle, hand and elbow should all be naturally aligned, and the index finger should be completely straight and indexed firmly on the frame of the pistol. In fact, if you are properly aligned and ready to punch at your intended target, you will find that you are also kinesthetically aligned to shoot accurately from retention.
The key to punching powerfully and accurately from this position while maintaining trigger-finger discipline is not to think of punching, but instead to think of poking with the tip of your index finger. This technique is borrowed from the knife-fighting methods of the Indonesian martial arts, specifically the use of the rencong—a pistol-grip-style knife designed for thrusting. This knife is gripped with the handle anchored against the pad of the palm, with the index finger extended along the blade. With this grip the instinctive, inherently accurate action of poking with the index finger is naturally transformed into a powerful thrust with the blade.
Adapting this tactic to the handgun ensures an accurate strike, transfers the power of the strike naturally into the palm and keeps the index finger straight and off the trigger. With little practice it allows you to hit very hard with your handgun. It also keeps the muzzle of the gun oriented in a safe (for you and for bystanders) direction throughout the entire path of the strike.
At this point, the critics of pistol-hitting will usually start dredging up the common “wisdom,” so let’s take a moment to set the record straight. The first criticism you’ll usually hear is that, regardless of what technique you use, punching with a pistol will likely cause you to squeeze the trigger. I’ve trained hundreds of people in the above technique—we had no unintentional discharges. If it did occur, you need to remember that in order to have a handgun in your hand you must already have justified that you are in fear for your life. If you haven’t crossed that legal threshold, you are not justified in doing anything with your handgun.
The other criticism you’ll hear is that striking with the muzzle of a semi-auto pistol will knock the slide out of battery. That’s true—but only at the moment of impact. Once the strike is complete, the recoil spring will drive the slide back into battery and the gun will be mechanically ready to fire again. As long as you don’t continue to push into the target after you strike, the slide will return to battery the same way it does every time you squeeze the trigger.
Now that we understand the mechanics of the pistol punch, let’s put it into context. Assume you’ve engaged an attacker with gunfire that hasn’t stopped him, and he’s continuing to close on you with some type of contact-distance weapon. As he closes retract your gun to a retention position and raise your non-gun hand to establish a solid guard. Protect your head and neck with your guard and, when your assailant closes within range, punch straight forward into his face, neck, sternum or groin with the muzzle of your pistol. At the completion of your strike retract your arm to the weapon-retention position and prepare to either repeat the strike or engage him with gunfire.
This same tactic could be used if a threat armed with a contact-distance weapon attacks at close range. Rather than staying in range of his weapon while you fire, pistol-punch him to create immediate shock, injury and distance. You can then follow up with shots from a safe distance or take control of the situation with verbal commands backed with the threat of gunfire.
One other practical method of striking with a handgun is to swing it upward into the groin of an attacker at close range. Again, the starting position for this strike should be the close-quarters weapon-retention position. As you protect your head and neck with your non-gun hand, point your muzzle straight at the ground, whip your gun-hand shoulder forward and swing the top of the gun up into the attacker’s groin. As you do this either keep your trigger finger straight or curl all four fingers into a fist around the gun’s grip.
Although this strike travels in an arc instead of a straight line, throughout the entire motion the muzzle is pointed at the ground, so if an unintentional discharge were to occur it would do so in a safe direction.
At the conclusion of the strike pull the gun straight back to the weapon-retention position and prepare to follow up as necessary.
The best way to get familiar with pistol hitting is to use solid-plastic “blue” training guns. These provide reasonable heft and can be used to strike heavy bags and martial-arts training pads, for getting a feel for hitting hard, managing the shock of impact and developing trigger-finger discipline.
Once you get a feel for the striking motions as isolated actions, begin putting them into context with controlled force-on-force training drills and proper protective gear (chest protectors, helmets, training weapons). When your training partner attacks with a training weapon, retract to the weapon-retention position and guard to protect yourself. Then strike to create distance and practice indexing the gun to fire.
Once you’re familiar with handgun striking with blue guns, you should also validate its use with your carry weapon. To do this you’ll need to construct an appropriate target. For most of my training I use a freestanding wooden target that I constructed from 2-by-6-inch boards. It features a 2-by-6 upright about 6-feet-tall that faces forward on the flat. To the front of this I’ve mounted several layers of martial arts “jigsaw” mat material, a dense closed-cell foam. Stapled to the back is a cardboard target.
To practice striking with the gun, I assume a weapon-retention position and punch the padded area with the muzzle. I then return to weapon-retention position, check to confirm that my guard elbow is clear and shoot the cardboard target. As I progress, I make the movements more fluid, transitioning from strike to shoot without hesitation and confirming that the gun will in fact function after the hit.
Handgun striking is a valid and potentially lifesaving tactic that should be part of every gunfighter’s close-range arsenal.