In 1970s detective shows, using the butt of a handgun to whack people on the back of the neck was apparently a stock-in-trade skill. This is also known as the pistol whip. Amazingly, the person who was hit always obediently took a nap and then just as obediently woke up after the commercial break none the worse for wear.
Outside of that rather cliché application, most people probably haven’t considered the subtleties of “pistol whipping” someone. However, in a close-range lethal-force encounter, it isn’t just a viable tactic—it’s sometimes better than squeezing your pistol’s trigger.
The Art of the Pistol Whip
Serious students of defensive shooting understand that handguns are uncertain stoppers. Even with state-of-the-art ammunition, there are no guarantees, so savvy shooters always train and practice to keep shooting until they decisively stop the threat. They also have contingency plans for malfunctions and other Murphy’s Law events that can easily spoil your textbook tactics. With that noble goal in mind, using a handgun as an impact weapon quickly starts to make a lot of sense.
The most logical reasons to strike an attacker with a handgun include:
- You have suffered a catastrophic malfunction that you cannot clear in the middle of the fight, and you are still facing a close-range threat
- You have expended all of your ammo and do not have the time or resources to reload before facing a close-range threat
- The dynamics of your situation do not allow you to shoot without endangering innocent parties behind the attacker
- Because of the particular dynamics of the encounter, it makes more sense to strike first before firing your handgun.
A Solid Foundation
Hitting someone with a handgun sounds deceptively simple. However, there are a number of things you should bear in mind when choosing your methods.
First of all, your technique should work with all types of handguns. Hitting with the butt of the grip works great with large-framed revolvers, but not J-Frames or pocket-sized semi-autos. There just isn’t enough gun in that spot to offer a solid striking surface.
Your striking technique should also not damage your gun or its component parts. Hitting in a way that keeps your gun healthy and functional allows you to shoot immediately after the strike (if possible), or as soon as you can make your gun operational again. The B-movie strike with the butt of the grip may look cool—until you break the baseplate off your magazine and all of your ammo pours onto the ground.
Similarly, your gun hits should not damage your hand. Slapping with the side of the gun can easily result in a hard impact on your fingers, potentially injuring them and maybe even causing you to drop the weapon.
Finally, good gun handling always starts with muzzle discipline. This is particularly important when striking with a handgun. Why? Because it’s natural for you to grip it tightly to brace for impact. Sympathetic contraction of the trigger finger could easily lead to an unintentional discharge, which is particularly dangerous if your striking method involves swinging the gun in arcs.
For all of these reasons, my preferred method of striking with a gun is “pistol punching,” as I call it. A linear punch with the muzzle allows you to maintain sound muzzle discipline and decisively point the gun at the bad guy. The strike is very focused on a durable part of the gun. The impact shock is directed through the grip and into the hand—just like recoil. A linear thrust also drives the attacker back, creating distance, time and other opportunities to finish the fight.
Pistol Whip Mechanics
Since it is a contact-distance tactic, the pistol punch should start from a solid weapon-retention position. If you are right-handed, anchor your left palm to your forehead, just above your left eyebrow; this creates a solid guard for your head and neck. Index your gun hand along your right pectoral muscle with the base of your thumb over your nipple and your elbow, hand and muzzle in line. Since you’re not shooting (yet), your trigger finger should be straight and solidly indexed along the gun’s frame.
From this position, think of using your extended index finger to “poke” the target as hard as you can. Using the index finger as a guide ensures accuracy. It also keeps you from squeezing the trigger while at the same time making sure the force of the impact is transferred straight into your palm. As you strike, let your shoulders turn naturally; this maximizes power and draws your left arm—still in a guard position—safely back and out of the path of the muzzle.
What do you hit? In general terms, the bad guy. Any solid contact will hurt. However, the attacker’s face, neck, sternum and groin are ideal targets.
Battery Not Included
One common criticism of pistol punching is that, if done with a semi-auto, it will knock the slide out of battery and prevent the gun from firing. Yes, hitting with the muzzle will probably push the slide slightly out of battery at the moment of impact. Fortunately, as soon as you remove the pressure from the front of the muzzle by retracting the gun, the recoil spring does its job and the gun returns to battery—just like when you squeeze the trigger and fire a shot.
This is easy to validate if you have a range that allows dynamic close-quarters shooting training; it’s also good if you have an appropriately “punchable” target. It can also be performed “dry” with an unloaded weapon, a punching target and a safe environment and backstop. Either way, the idea is to learn to trust the function of the recoil spring.
If, after delivering a pistol whip, your slide does not return to battery, no worries. The effect of the punch should give you time to reorient, perform a “tap, rack, ready” and be prepared to fire if necessary.
Striking with a handgun is a very viable tactic when used in the proper context. If you’re serious about your gunfighting skills, you owe it to yourself to make it part of your close-range arsenal.