The Truth About Guns

A Grip on Reality: How Much Does Grip Texture Matter For Self-Defense?

Not too long ago, I entered into a conversation with a notorious local gentleman of little knowledge and many opinions. To keep a grating and irritating story short, the man in question opined that not only was there no way to make the very common and popular Smith & Wesson J-frame revolver accurate, but he asserted that there was nothing better than a rubber grip to prevent the minute wheelgun from flying from your hand under recoil in self-defense situations. Being one who takes petty debates seriously, I decided to find out for myself . . .

I’ve been carrying a Model 642 for a little while now and I never really considered that there would be a better option than the standard black rubber panels that come standard on the piece. I liked them plenty and never really saw a reason to replace them. But curiosity took over and I decided to undertake a semi-scientific test involving innocent bystanders.

Model 642 as it comes from the factory

After a little bit of friendly back-and-forth, Hogue sent me two sets of their excellent G10 grips, both in their visually appealing Blue Lava pattern. I must admit that I was a bit unsure when it came to these grips. I’d shot a big 629 .44 Mag a while back that sported a smooth set of G10 grips from another manufacturer and proceeded to cut my thumb on the cylinder release under recoil. I flinched a bit thinking about that unpleasant sensation and took all my gear and tools to the range to look for some victims.

With me that day on the range were several other shooters I didn’t know. This is important because they represented a spectrum of possible end users that this information would pertain to.

Man #1: Tall guy, John Wayne type, about 60 with a scowl and an AR he couldn’t seem to figure out.

Man #2: Average guy, late twenties, police cadet. A bit overweight with big hands and a minty GLOCK 26.

Woman #1: Pretty girl in her late teens, possibly early twenties. Thin and lacking wrist strength. Seemed to be having a good time with Man #2, but wasn’t terribly happy about being where she was.

Woman #2: Fit, athletic, in her late forties. Identified as carrying while running and biking and had brand preference for S&W due to the Bodyguard .380 she packed.

Each of the people I showed the little revolver to had a different opinion about it. Man #2 expressed that his GLOCK was about the same size but held twice the ammo. Man #1 claimed he knew the man who designed the J-Frame and that he was an asshole. Woman #1 liked it and loved the blue colors. Woman #2 didn’t like that the pistol wasn’t as flat as her Bodyguard, but liked the smooth lines and colors.

My goal for the day was to have the four strangers fire the revolver with each set of grips installed. The conditions were perfect for the test, as it had rained fairly hard for about an hour a short time before I arrived and the range was wet and humid.

I decided to use my .38 SPL accuracy load for the test. It’s a stout and powerful little round that features an excellent Berry’s 158gr Flat Point over 4gr of Trail Boss in pick-up brass. The load gets about 750fps from the 642’s stubby barrel. I’d describe the recoil as a little shove akin to a 147gr 9mm from a Shield. Not bad, but plenty noticeable in such a light gun.

All of the Hogue grips tested were made for this gun out of the same material, but their textures are nothing alike. The standard Bantam grip is topographically smooth, but has a very fine texture in its own right. If you look closely, you’ll notice a slight dimpling on the surface. I’d say that it feels like a cloth canvass or perhaps wood that’s been hit with increasingly fine grades of sandpaper down to about a 400-grit.

Moving on, the next set of grips is what Hogue calls ‘Piranha’ texture. The highest exterior surfaces of the grips are outlined and aggressively dimpled. By aggressive, I mean pre-Holly Holmes Rhonda Rousey aggressive.

The dimples are actually somewhat sharp, kinda like the surface of a well-used cheese grater, but without benefit of delicious Parmesan. Now, this isn’t a bad thing, mind you. I was overly concerned when I first touched them, but when in the hand it feels firm and secure, just like how I imagine shaking Tom Selleck’s hand must feel.

Both sets of grips install with a small screw and are impeccable in fit and finish. The finger groove area on both sets had no flashing or overlap. The halves lined up so well on both that it’s difficult to discern where the line of separation is when assembled.

The control set I used was the standard black rubber grips that come with the gun from the factory. They fit well and are functional. I assume that most people have shot a gun with rubber grips, and these are no different. I’d describe them as tacky, but at the same time not hard like the G-10 plastic. There’s some give in the finger groove area, but otherwise feel stable.

On to the main event. I had each shooter shoot with each set of grips and tell me their observations. I watched them carefully to see if they were bullshitting me at any point in the process. I allowed each five rounds at seven yards to familiarize themselves with the pistol. They were allowed to dry fire as much as they liked.

The grips were randomly attached to the gun to remove any bias as to what the shooter started with. I asked that they fire quickly to simulate rapidly firing in self-defense so I could gauge the assertion that the gun would ‘fly out of your hands’.

I made several observations in the course of fire. First of all, the gun never once managed to take to the air or otherwise achieve flight. Every shooter with every set of grips was able to keep the gun firmly in place and on target. Secondly, the pistol was easily as accurate as anything at seven yards and compared favorably and even better than some other pistols, but more about that in a minute.

Standard rubber grips: Of all four shooters, none did well with the standard grips. The humidity, sweaty hands, and tackiness resulted in all the shooters producing their worst groups of the day. Woman #1 stated that the rubber grips were slippery and she had a difficult time holding on. Man #2 complained that the cylinder release kept slipping into his thumb and that they were sliding under recoil. Man #1 didn’t comment and Woman #2 noted that they were comfortable to hold. No shooter reported that there was a sensation of reduced recoil compared to the G10 grips.

Hogue Smooth grips: Three of the four shooters did well with these. They were universally preferred over the rubber grips. Man #2, though, seemed to have a very difficult time getting them to stop sliding in his hands. At this point I suspected that he may just have a case of swamp-palm, but I didn’t ask. Man #1 said that these grips reminded him of the old wood grips from back in the day, which I could only assume was a good thing. Woman #1 had no issue with them and easily out-shot her soon-to-be ex-boyfriend. Woman #2 said she liked how the grips felt and that they wouldn’t snag inside her running or biking gear.

Hogue Piranha grips: Despite her delicate wrists, Woman #1 was able to fire the best group of the day with these grips. All five rounds went into about 1” in under three seconds. Woman #2 also printed her best group of the day and said that the gun felt very steady in her hands, but didn’t like how aggressive the texture may be on her spandex gear. Man #1 shot his best as well and actually stated that he liked the grips as long as he couldn’t see the blue color. Man #2 noted that the gun no longer slipped in his hands, which he liked. He then stated that GLOCK’s were better, which didn’t at all impress Woman #1.

She proceeded to surprise us all by one-upping him two times over. Not only was she able to fire very accurately with these grips, but she was able to recover and fire faster than he was with the G26. The two then switched guns and neither did well. Man #2 simply couldn’t make do with the revolver while Woman #1 just thought that the GLOCK was a bulky POS that was hard to hold onto. Her words, not mine.

My overall impression of this little experiment was that it was telling. I think that the Hogue grips are indeed superior to the standard rubber factory grips. If you’re planning on carrying a hammerless .38, the 642 is the way to go and the Hogue grips are a very welcome addition.

So how does the little blaster fare with the +P loads it’s rated for? I took it upon myself to try both the Hornady 110gr Critical Defense load and the legendary Speer 135gr Short Barrel load using all three sets of grips.

My results were about the same. The clear winner for stability and recoil control was the Hogue Piranha. And I didn’t find the Speer load to be horrible to shoot like some people say it is. It wasn’t a day at the beach, but never once did the gun go flying or come off target. The Hornady load was my favorite of the two given its lower recoil and slightly higher muzzle velocity.

So what does all this mean in the grand scheme of things? My take-away is that rubber grips aren’t the best thing for a pocket snubbie. Of the five shooters involved (including me), nobody found the rubber grips to be better than the Hogue options. I think that the way Woman #1 shot was indicative of the fact that semi-auto pistols are not the end-all for concealed carry and that it is far better to fit the shooter to the gun that the other way around. She needed little training and had never fired a revolver until she fired the 642, yet was able to out-shoot the others by a wide margin.

Representative rapid fire targets by Woman #1. Piranha on the left, smooth G10 in the middle, and standard rubber on the right.

In conclusion, I must say that revolvers aren’t for everyone, but they are for some people. Short of covering everyone’s hands in butter and olive oil, the Hogue Piranhas prevented slippage and provided a very stable shooting experience when compared to the other options tested.

Without speculating, I will say that a firm and textured grip allows for a more consistent trigger pull and thus better performance in adverse conditions and arguably would make a difference in a defensive gun use. It seems safe to say that the claims of that sadly misinformed gentleman have been proven false, at least among my sample group.