Right out of the gate, I would not consider myself an expert on this topic in any way! That said, I’ve learned from people who certainly are experts, and in this article, I’ll pass on to you what they’ve taught me as best as I can.
Additionally, no internet article or YouTube video compares to actual instruction from a qualified firearms instructor. If you’re interested in bettering your handling of firearms, I recommend relying on the internet only until you can get some face-to-face instruction.
Most of my instruction has come from law enforcement officers (LEOs), so that’s most of what you’ll see in this article.
How Do You Properly Hold a Gun
The number one thing to remember about properly holding the gun is one of the three basic rules of firearm safety: keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to shoot. Your finger should not even be touching the trigger until you’re sighted in on your target and ready to obliterate it.
No matter how you choose to hold your gun, maintaining strict trigger discipline is mandatory. A lot of other things will vary based on the type of gun you’re using (rifle, handgun, shotgun), but that is one thing that stays the same no matter what.
How To Properly Hold Different Kinds of Guns: Rifles, Shotguns, and Handguns
How to hold a gun depends on the context – are you shooting, walking, or running? I’ll do my best to cover different situations and how you should hold each type of gun in each context.
How to Hold a Rifle
1. Holding a Rifle When At Rest
A good way to hold a rifle when at rest is to keep your trigger hand on the pistol grip and place your stabilizing hand on the handguard, as you see in the picture above. Since there’s often no room on the pistol grip for your trigger finger anyway, a common way shooters maintain trigger discipline is to keep the pointer finger extended on the receiver above the trigger.
Depending on the rifle you’re using, you may not have a pistol grip. In that case, the rifle stock should be molded in a way that is reasonably comfortable to grip with your trigger hand.
Also, on the handguard, you may have a foregrip of some kind. You don’t have to have your stabilizing hand on the foregrip if it’s not comfortable, but you certainly can.
2. Holding a Rifle While Shooting
Holding a rifle while shooting can be quite similar to holding it properly at rest. Your hands remain at the same positions, with your trigger hand on the pistol grip and stabilizing hand on the handguard. It’s important to note that the angle changes because you’ll be leaning into the rifle and holding it up in front of you to line up your sight picture.
The rifle stock should be tucked firmly into your shoulder, and not your chest or clavicle, and your stabilizing hand should be in a cupping shape on the bottom of the handguard unless you have a foregrip.
I’ve seen some LEOs use an overhand grip on the handguard instead, but none of them have been able to articulate a clear and compelling reason why such a grip is superior, and I have found it makes everything more difficult – stabilizing before and between shots, lining up my sight picture, even reloads.
An overhand grip is only possible on a modern sporting rifle, as you see in the picture above, since a traditional rifle would have an exposed barrel on top instead of a handguard.
3. Holding a Rifle While Walking or Running
Honestly, you can carry it however you want. The one thing to make sure you do is to remember to follow another one of the three main safety rules of firearms: never point the firearm at anything you aren’t willing to destroy.
For the most part, while walking or running, this means keeping your gun pointed at the ground. If you want to keep your rifle at the ready, you can keep the butt of the stock in position on your shoulder as you move, similar to how you see in the photo here.
How to Hold a Shotgun
Holding a shotgun is very similar to holding a rifle, but because a shotgun is usually much longer and often heavier, it is common to hold it in a slightly different way.
1. Holding a Shotgun When at Rest
In the picture is a shorter shotgun, but it’s common to hold a shotgun with both hands close together on the stock near the trigger guard. While it’s not the only way, it’s a good “at-the-ready” position if you’re waiting to shoot.
Another option is hanging it on your forearm. This is more common with over-unders but I’ve seen it with pump actions as well. The weight balances on your forearm, and as long as you keep the gun angled downward, it’s no problem.
You can also hold it with one hand and let the barrel angle down as you see here.
2. Holding a Shotgun While Shooting
The way to hold a shotgun while shooting is essentially the same thing as holding a rifle. One hand on the grip near the trigger, the other on the handguard/pump. Keep the butt of the stock tucked in the shoulder.
Depending on who teaches you how to shoot, you may go elbow tucked like you see here or elbow up higher to be parallel with the ground. I’m not sure there’s a right or wrong way to do it, and I haven’t yet detected a correlation between elbow positioning and better shooting.
3. Holding a Shotgun While Walking or Running
This is going to be very similar to carrying a shotgun while at rest. As long as your finger is off the trigger and you’re not pointing the gun at anything other than the ground or the sky, you should be just fine.
How to Hold a Handgun
Handguns are a little trickier than long guns, and this is where there are a lot more differences based on where someone received their training.
1. Holding a Handgun When at Rest
You don’t have to hold the handgun with two hands unless you’re staying in a ready stance. You just need to hold the grip with your trigger hand and keep your trigger finger extended safely.
If you do want to be at the ready, hold with two hands exactly as you would while lining up your sights, just down at waist level with the gun pointed at the ground.
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2. Holding a Handgun While Shooting
Your grip while shooting will change a little bit based on the size of the gun you’re shooting and the type – revolver or semi-automatic, but it’s pretty close to the same either way.
Your trigger hand should be higher up on the grip where your trigger finger can comfortably get to the trigger when you want it to. Your stabilizing hand will be a little lower on the grip and overlap your trigger hand.
One important thing to keep in mind is your thumbs. Both thumbs should be pointing in the same direction as the barrel of the gun, with the thumb of your trigger hand resting on top of the thumb of your stabilizing hand. For a revolver, it should look similar to the photo above.
For a semi-auto, the grip doesn’t extend so far back from the rest of the gun, so your thumbs will actually overlap much more closely.
Once you’ve got your grip on the gun properly managed, then you have to worry about everything else. Every instructor I’ve had the pleasure of learning from has had slightly different recommendations on how to hold your arms and elbows.
3. Holding a Handgun While Walking or Running
If there’s any risk of someone taking your handgun from you, the best way to carry the gun while moving is to tuck your elbows in. Keep both hands on the gun, and hold it very close to your chest. It’s natural to keep your arms extended so you can shoot quickly. However, it’s important to note that it’s easier for someone to take the gun away from you if your arms are extended, especially if you’re going around a corner.
There’s not much point in keeping your arms extended unless you’re moving in a manner that allows you to keep your sights lined up while you move. There are very few situations where that is the case.
You can also keep your arms extended but drop them down, so the gun is carried around your waist, and you just swing them up when you need to shoot, but this is neither as quick nor as comfortable as just tucking it into your chest.
If you’re not needing to be at-the-ready while you move, I’d recommend not carrying it at all – holster it. It’s safer and more comfortable anyway. If you don’t have a holster, there’s nothing wrong with just holding the grip with your trigger hand and keeping the gun down around your waist with the barrel pointed toward the ground.
Factors to Keep in Mind When Holding a Gun
Behave as if the gun is always loaded
Never point the gun at anything you aren’t willing to destroy. Even if you know the gun is empty, you should always behave as though it were loaded with the safety off. Preventing accidental deaths from firearms is about developing proper habits that make it next to impossible for an accident to happen. If you never point a gun at something you aren’t willing to destroy, it’s much harder to accidentally destroy it.
Don’t put your finger on the trigger
Keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to shoot. This means that you’ve got your gun up, your sight picture lined up, and you’re ready to let a round loose. If your finger is never touching the trigger until you’re actually ready to shoot, it becomes much more difficult for you to accidentally discharge your weapon and hurt someone.
Make sure your gun isn’t loaded when you aren’t using it.
Always keep your firearm unloaded until you’re ready to shoot. This is always true at the range, but it doesn’t apply as uniformly anywhere else. It is often wise to carry with one in the chamber if you’re carrying concealed, and can make sense to keep a home defense firearm hot as well, depending on your situation. If you have children in the home of any age, I would think twice about keeping any firearms loaded there.
Note: You must clean your gun with utmost protection. To know how to clean them safely, read here!
Try and avoid one-handed shooting unless you absolutely need to.
As a general rule, shooting one-handed will not give you anywhere near the accuracy or the precision of shooting with both hands. It is much more difficult to control the firearm and reacquire your sight picture between shots when you’re only using one hand.
If you find yourself in a situation where you need one hand for some other task while you want to keep your firearm ready to shoot. For instance, in the event of a home invasion, you may need a free arm to carry a child or tend to an injury. While this scenario is unlikely, I’d recommend that you devote less time to one-handed gun training.
Your preferred method of holding a gun will always be subjective.
Your instructors might believe a certain type of thumb positioning or posture will help you achieve the best hold, but as much as I like to defer to experts whenever possible, I firmly believe that most of the little details like that are subjective and trainable. In other words, if you pick a way of holding a gun and sticking to it, you’ll be able to get good results.
If it’s a handgun, have the thumb of your stabilizing hand underneath the thumb of your trigger hand and the stabilizing fingers on top of the fingers of your trigger hand. If it’s a rifle or shotgun, have one hand on the grip and one hand on the handguard.
Don’t hold a gun and flashlight together. If you want a light with your gun, equip your gun with a weapon light. Holding a flashlight while shooting a gun one-handed is a complex task that requires a lot of training to do properly.
Don’t hold it sideways, don’t shoot one-handed unless you absolutely have to, and don’t keep your arms extended when you’re going around corners.
Holding a gun isn’t complicated, but there are some nuances that can be surprising and counter-intuitive. If you hold a gun correctly, though, it can drastically increase your accuracy while shooting and help keep everyone around you safe while you’re carrying.
Holding a gun in the wrong way can make it more difficult to hit what you’re aiming at, and can even put other people at risk when you aren’t obeying the basic firearm safety rules.
If you’re a firearms or range instructor and have insights or advice to add to this article, I welcome your thoughts and comments to help instruct other readers.