Handguns: Size Matters

The author takes aim with a revolver during a hunt in Africa. She trained with this handgun while wearing the shooting gloves she’d be using on the hunt.

He looked her over in a kind way, smiled, and said, “You’re not a very big gal. I’ve got just the thing for you.” And with that—as with many good intentions—the range manager launched my future student into handgun hell.

The tiny pistol jumped in her inexperienced hands. The more she tried to control it, the worse her shooting became. Her inability to see the low-profile sights on the gun further threw her off. By the time she came to my class, she was blistered, flinching, and most damaging of all, she was utterly discouraged.

I can’t tell you how many students I’ve met who have been fitted to their handguns based on the completely incorrect assumption that gun size should match shooter size. This doesn’t apply just to women, either. Big guys don’t necessarily need big handguns any more than smaller shooters require tiny ones.

Gun Fit is Personal

The fit of a gun affects the positions of your fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, face, neck, and torso—in essence, your entire shooting platform. That's why your body parts should dictate the firearm you shoot. Anyone can be set back in her learning, performance, effectiveness, and confidence by ill-fitting firearms. As we've said elsewhere, guns are like shoes—you need to find a handgun that fits you instead of trying to fit yourself around the firearm.

It’s not just a matter of discomfort, or even pain! The proper gun size for you has more to do with ergonomics than with its size. A poorly fitting firearm works against your ability to properly hold, manipulate, aim, and control after the shot. And, firing a handgun inaccurately or ineffectively can make you unsafe.

What to Consider with Handgun Fit

Your handgun’s size and shape will affect the most important touch points between you and your gun: the position of your hands. This is necessary so you can press the trigger smoothly and from the front of the trigger. If your hands are too small, for example, you’ll have to reposition them so that your trigger finger can reach the trigger, which might cause a variety of problems. You might find your trigger finger angling too much, or not enough, on the trigger; both cause your handgun to move sideways when you shoot. If your hands or fingers are too big for the handgun, you might find your trigger finger actually blocked by your thumb as you try to press the trigger.

Hand and finger positioning is different for different types of guns, too. As your finger and hand positions change, your leverage and strength on the trigger may change—and that can affect your ability to press the trigger completely and properly.

The author training with a full-size Model 1911 in .45 ACP. This fits her as a competition and self-defense gun.

Smaller May Not be Better

Though smaller-statured shooters generally do better with smaller-framed handguns, there are trade-offs. If a handgun has a short barrel, the distance between the rear and front sights (known as the sight radius) will be short, which makes precise aiming more of a challenge.

Smaller handguns also often come in lighter calibers that shoot smaller projectiles. This trade-off can mean you’ll get reduced terminal performance. If you’re buying a gun for self-defense, for example, a .380 ACP doesn’t provide the power of a .40 S&W cartridge.

Reduced size also usually means less mass, and a lighter gun may increase perceived recoil, actually making it more difficult to control.

Use Dictates Size

Gun size also must take into account a person’s intended use of the firearm. Are you concealing? If so, smaller and lighter would probably work better. Are you training for a competition? Smaller firearms have less mass to absorb recoil, so in this case, a larger frame might allow for better training.

The weight and size of any firearm directly impacts your connection to it. Indeed, many consider gun selection and fitting to be every bit an art as much as a technical issue. Before you buy any handgun, you should—at minimum—dry-fire it. Pulling the trigger when the gun is unloaded will give you a general idea of fit, weight, balance, ease of trigger press, and your ability to efficiently align the front and rear sights. Ideally, you’ll also be able to go to a range to shoot and manipulate a gun you’re interested in purchasing.

Before you choose your firearm, remember that size does matter, as it just might be the biggest thing that affects your ability to use it.