Guns for Beginners: The Importance of Failure

Failures of gear or training can kill you. Pure and simple. Rooting those failures out and exposing them to the light of day is the reason TTAG’s staff works so hard, and burns through so many rounds, and spends so many hours on the range. The gear stuff is pretty easy. If it breaks or fails, don’t use it. But if it’s the operator, that can be a little harder to root out. Watch the video and make the jump for my discussion of my own failings.

In the last few months, I’ve seen several comments ask why we abuse guns when we review them. Truth be told, I’m a pretty cleanly gun owner. My personal firearms sit in the safe, carbon and copper free, coated in a light film of oil. But the guns that get sent for review get abused like a fully insured rental car. I run them as they come out of the box, with no regard for their health or well being because some gun owners treat guns like that in the real world. As a writer, I stake my reputation on providing the worst case scenario for a review. Similarly, it is important to expose the flaws in the operator. And the only way to do that is the same way, abuse.

I got my first exposure to stress induced failures early on in my pistol shooting career at a session with KR Training. As soon as the gun command sounded, I immediately forgot all the lessons I’d just learned, teacupped the gun, and started dropping rounds low and left. Then my gun ran out of ammo, and I fumbled a mag change. In reality, there wasn’t any actual stress, but it sure felt that way. Watching my mag slip free of my hands didn’t help my stress level one bit either.

Several years later, I found myself at the Bushnell Brawl shooting a moving target with a XD(m) 4.5 that Springfield Armory had loaned me for test and evaluation. I had already shot several hundred rounds through the gun in the months prior and found it to be endlessly lovable, accurate, and dependable. So dependable that I was carrying it daily. But within three shots in a mildly stressful environment, the slide locked back on a loaded mag. I quickly diagnosed the failure, racked the slide, and got back on target. And continued to have issues.

I lost count, but I think the slide locked back some four or five times over the course of that stage. Each time, I quizzically looked at the failure, racked the slide, and dropped a louder F bomb than the time before.. Like my failure with the FNS 9 at Run n Gun, I took it to the local indoor range, and sat idly by as round after round hit paper accurately with no failures. Perplexed, I took it to my ranch where I’m allowed to draw, move, and shoot, and wouldn’t you know, I got the slide to reliably lock back mid string. The failure? 100% operator.

I’m not able to the hit the range much, so I spend a lot of time creeping around my house, moving, drawing, and dry firing. It seems that in the preceding months, I had developed a very nasty habit of gripping the gun high with my support hand, smashing the meat of my thumb into the slide lock, pushing it upwards. Naturally, the slide locks back when you do that. And over the course of many thousands of simulated rounds, I had burned that movement into my muscle memory.

You can see in the video above around the :40 second mark where I change my grip, and the problem disappears. Thoroughly frustrated with myself, I tried the same drill with my RDS equipped M&P 9 and saw no such failures. Which meant that my M&P 9 got promoted to EDC gun. Yes, my red dot might die, but I’ll take a backup iron sight over a malfunction prone gun/operator combo any day.

So where do we go from here? The high support hand grip doesn’t seem to improve my accuracy, and it has been scientifically proven to diminish reliability, so it has to go. Which means many more thousands of simulated rounds with a keen eye towards proper presentation. And of course, lots more simulated stress to see if I still fall back on bad habits.

I remember talking to Smokey, the coordinator of Run ‘n Gun, who told me that if your gear can work 100% reliably at Run n Gun, it would do just fine in the real world. I don’t think running seven mile biathlons is completely necessary to give you and your gear a rough shakedown, but I do think you should step outside your comfort zone often. Competitions locally are great for this sort of thing, but if you don’t have them nearby or have another aversion, do anything you can to push yourself. Buy a shot timer (or download a free app to do it).

Sometimes the loud beep is enough to push you. Don’t own a smartphone or have a desire to own a shot timer? Take a friend to the range and have them give you a “gun” command with a loud shout. Better yet, have that friend load a random snap cap in your EDC pistol without letting you know. Exposing your weaknesses is very uncomfortable, but doing so is the only way to make yourself a better competitor. And who knows, one day it might save your life.


  1. mk10108

    Nice observation and correction.

  2. Accur81

    Looking at the video, your thumbs were indeed all over the place. That seems to be a more prevalent problem in shooters with larger hands. As you’ve said, thumb placement and a proper grip affect reliability. In so doing, you’ve done what many “operators” will never do – admit your own operator error.

    I would also consider the equipment neglect you mentioned to be another form of operator error. When I get a new gun, I’ll give it a thorough de-greasing and cleaning before hitting the range. My buddy had a new Glaock 36 that wasn’t reliable until he cleaned off that crappy copper – colored lube.

    I’ll admit a screw up I’ve made – not sufficiently tightening scope rings. That’ll wreck accuracy fast, and cause a scratched or ruined scope. I could come up with plenty more mistakes if I had to. Good shooters learn from their mistakes.

    Not every gun will work with every hand or every shooter. While square ranges have some use, it tends to be the run ‘n gun of various styles that expose operator and equipment issues. Hunting is also much more stressful on shooters and gear than sitting on a bench.

    Nice shooting, by the way.

    1. Geoff PR

      “My buddy had a new Glaock 36 that wasn’t reliable until he cleaned off that crappy copper – colored lube.”

      Interesting on the failure.

      That’s not copper colored, it *is* very fine particles of pure copper. It’s a high quality anti-seize compound. Between the harder metals of the slide and the rails, it will lubricate even if the grease carrier burns completely away. It’s messy as hell, but does the job (usually).

      I’d be interested in hearing Dyspeptic’s take on this…

  3. Michael

    Reverse hand reload 100 bonus operator points. But in all seriousness failing is as important as succeeding. Isolating what the failure is, mechanical or operator and 99.999999% the operator blames the gun so good on you for recognizing that it was an operator failure.

    1. Tyler Kee

      I forgot my mag carrier, so I just had them lumped in my pocket. Goes to show that a proper mag carrier really makes all the difference in case you need to reload.

  4. I thought you were going to say limp wristing was the culprit. At one point in the video, the brass hits the camera. When brass hits you in the face it is because you didn’t manage the recoil.
    This issue with inadvertently locking the slide back is why I always question anyone that wants to replace the “inadequate” slide lock lever on a Glock. Another “upgrade” to the Glock many people think they want is an oversize mag release button. I think that is a stupid idea. Same with the BAD lever on an AR15. The less protruding things on a fighting weapon the better. My wife’s Nano doesn’t even have a slide lock lever.
    She can’t accidentally lock the slide and neither one of us can accidentally engage a safety. Less is more.

    1. Geoff PR

      “This issue with inadvertently locking the slide back is why I always question anyone that wants to replace the “inadequate” slide lock lever on a Glock.”

      I installed them on both Glock .40’s I had.

      I was not able to consistently drop the slide with the standard slide release.

      With the larger replacement, it was then no problem dropping the slide each and every time.

      1. You should not use the slide catch as a release. It will wear it out and you should be racking the slide to chamber a round anyway.

  5. Wellthen

    I always wondered why more people don’t incorporate the “thumbs down” grip

    1. Independent George

      I have a tendency towards an entirely different, and potentially much more dangerous, error when I shoot thumbs down: my support hand thumb will drift inside the trigger guard if I don’t pay attention. I don’t know how prevalent that is, but ever since that was pointed out to me, I switched to practicing thumbs up only.

  6. Bob in VA

    I also own a XD and have found that when drawing and firing on a shot timer that I have a tendency to not fully engage the grip safety with my dominant right hand because using the two handed thumbs forward grip my right hand thumb tends to rest more than it should on top of the left hand and causes a slight disengagement of the grip safety so when I press the trigger nothing happens. I have large hands and I notice this does not happen with my XD .45 only my 9mm. I’m glad I learned this at the range and not in a fight.

    1. SteveInCO

      That could be what happened to me. When trying to pick the gun up (range rental) and shoot rapidly, I somehow didn’t disengage the grip safety. I’m glad I found that out. Meanwhile, my quest for a small 9mm single stack continues… everything I’ve tried has been a failure (we won’t go into my problems with the Nano I bought).

  7. TX Gungal

    I’ve been shooting for a few years but, especially with a new pistol, will take it home, read manual, clean/lube, load with snap caps, test for reliable feed and then still using snaps, induce as many operator errors I can think of, to practice clearing drills. Practice locking slide back. I’ve learned what is and is not a good choice for me. Sold the bad choice (DA only) and replaced with good choices (D/S action) And practice safety rules all the while and do not muzzle sweep my dogs while practicing from a seated position in the room with me. There is an advantage to acting like a new shooter with malfunction drills, even for experienced shooters

  8. MoveableDo

    Wow, I am glad that you self-diagnosed that support hand issue. You look very uncomfortably forward with that support hand, as if any moment you’re going to creep in front of the muzzle. I think your thumb knuckles should be right next to each other, with the support thumb less than an inch in front of and under the strong thumb.

  9. Ralph

    But the guns that get sent for review get abused like a fully insured rental car.

    Damn straight. I shoot ’em dirty, dry, wet, weak hand only, limp . . . The purpose is to see how the gun will react in the real world, where Mr. Murphy lives. If the gun malfs, I’ve learned some “do nots” that I can pass on to the readers so they can be safer if they choose that firearm. If the gun doesn’t malf, I’ve found a true friend.

    Oddly enough, most of the test guns (with one or two notable exceptions) did not malfunction despite my best efforts. But I’ll keep trying.

  10. David

    Massad Ayoob recommends the thumbs down and the “crush grip” especially for a combat pistol. Less chance of it being forced out of your hand(s). Try to think of anything that you hold in the palm of your hand where you don’t lock your thumb down. Why should it be any different for a pistol?

  11. Mark N.

    And Jerry Miculek says that you should keep your thumbs out of the grip entirely, that the grip is your palms and fingers, not your thumbs.

    1. mark

      While all kinds of grips seem to work for different individuals, I think there’s a lot to be said for Miculek’s view.

  12. ghost

    A two handed grip is for after the firefight, once the shakes set in, or when you have time for an aimed shot.

  13. LarryinTX

    I thought you were interfering with the slide with your left hand, looking from behind is deceptive, I guess. Good catch, and a REALLY valuable thread, with good input from many different people.

  14. LarryinTX

    BTW, Jeremy, just so I’m not TOO agreeable, after rewatching the video I am not real fond of how close you are aiming to the top of that berm. Maybe it’s clear for a mile or two back, but it looks shaky.

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