AR-15 Basics: Where To Place Your Support Hand

AR Support Hand 3
The traditional support-hand technique — positioning the support hand about mid-way between receiver and muzzle — works with the widest variety of rifles and carbines. Consistency, meaning one technique that will work with any weapon, is always best.

A hot-button topic among AR-15 aficionados, support hand placement can get tounges clucking. But is there really a prime piece of real estate to put your paw?

What Are The Support Hand Placements Covered:

  • Traditional — support arm underneath the handguard, with the support hand relaxed.
  • Magwell — support hand on the front of magwell of the lower receiver.
  • High-Bore Axis — support arm out as far forward on the handguard as possible, gripping the handguard between the thumb and fingers.

One of the most heated debates among hardcore AR users is where to position the support arm and hand when firing. The “traditional” shooters position the support arm underneath the handguard, with the support hand relaxed, located somewhere around the middle of the handguard. The “magwell-grip” supporters favor clamping the support hand on the front of magwell of the lower receiver. The “high-bore axis” group extends the support arm out as far forward on the handguard as possible, gripping the handguard between the thumb and fingers.

And there you have your argument: Which is best?

The ‘Traditional’ Approach

The purpose of shooting — regardless of application — is hitting the target. To hit you need stability, and the amount of stability depends on the accuracy necessary, which is dictated by distance and/or size of the target. To create stability, you lower the body’s center of gravity and/or establish more contact points between the body and a more stable, solid object. Prone is obviously the most stable position.

AR Support Hand 2
The magwell technique lets you use a fighting stance, but it has some balance problems and will not work unless you actually have a magwell to grip. Most users of this technique will apply pressure to the rear with the support hand, but with the hand this far back, any movement in the hand will be magnified at the muzzle.

Regardless of the firing position or placement of the support hand and support arm, the stock must be located in the pocket of the shoulder. To locate the shoulder’s pocket, lift up your primary arm. Place the support hand on the collar bone, inboard and close to the neck. Slide the hand outboard until feeling the collar bone dip below the muscle of the shoulder. This concave area is the actual pocket.

In prone, the body should be relaxed, relying on bones to support the weapon and hold it on target as opposed to muscle tension. Bones are always more consistent than muscles, especially over long periods of time.

The same principles used in prone apply to sitting, kneeling (preferably while bracing the support elbow on the support knee for additional steadiness), standing and offhand shooting. To be clear, “standing” is a deliberate, slow-fire position used for pure marksmanship. (Think Olympic shooters in the standing position, their body perpendicular to the target and the support elbow resting against the rib cage.)

AR Support Hand 5
The traditional technique also works well when using a hand-held light with the AR. The primary hand applies pressure to the rear to keep the stock in the pocket of the shoulder, and the support hand creates a rest for the handguard.

Offhand — which is what most people mean when they say “standing” — is a field position, quick to assume and make a hit. When shooting offhand, the support elbow isn’t resting against the body as it is in standing, but it’s still positioned underneath the gun. The support hand is relaxed and supporting the weight. The support hand cradles the weapon’s handguard without actually gripping it, and the primary hand applies pressure to the rear to keep the stock seated in the shoulder pocket. Offhand also allows you to use a more aggressive “fighting” stance, as opposed to a “shooting” stance with the feet parallel.

The ‘Magwell Grip’ Option

With the magwell grip, the support hand clamps onto the lower receiver at the magwell. Yes, the support hand is underneath the weapon and very near to the balance point. However, the primary hand is on the grip supplying some support, which moves the balance point of the weapon forward toward the middle of the handguard. Gripping the magwell positions the support hand too far back to provide the ideal balance, but the magwell grip seems to work well for small-stature shooters and with the stock shortened.

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With the support hand on the magwell, it’s lower than the handguard and the barrel — which is the heaviest part of the AR. It’s similar to holding a lollipop by the stick, except in this case is the lollipop is heavy. The upper receiver and barrel will want to tilt left or right, especially when the body is in motion. Any lateral movement in the support hand causes the muzzle pivot left or right in the shoulder.

AR Support Hand 4
The standing position, which is different than the offhand position, is a deliberate position used for squeezing out maximum accuracy. The support hand is fully underneath the weapon and the elbow rests against the upper torso.

And then there’s vertical movement up and down to consider. Now you’ve got movement in the X, Y and Z axis, and it’s magnified because the support hand is as far back on the rifle as possible and pulling rearward. It works for some shooters, but there’s a lot to master and overcome.

Taming The ‘High-Bore Axis’ Technique

In the high-bore axis technique, where the support hand extended as far forward as possible. One advantage of the high-bore axis hold is that it’s fast for transitioning between targets; you “drive” the muzzle from one target to another quickly. Plus, in order to use the high-bore axis technique, the feet of most shooters must be too parallel to provide a stable fighting stance.

A big factor to consider is consistency with other weapons platforms. The majority of aftermarket ARs sold today come with a full-length handguard, which allows you to position the support hand anywhere between the magwell and the end of the handguard.

AR Support Hand 1
In some positions, or for small-stature shooters, the magwell technique might work best. However, just be aware of the pros and cons of each technique so you can choose what will work best for you.

However, most weapons are not going to allow you to do this. The magwell technique doesn’t work if you don’t have a magwell to grip. The high-bore axis method won’t work with carbine-length gas system, or with a sub-gun such as the MP5. Pump-action shotguns require the support arm underneath the weapon to ensure you don’t bind up the action when cycling to eject and load. The stock of most hunting rifles doesn’t extend out to the muzzle.

I’m a big fan of consistency. I pretty much carry and use the same weapons all the time, but when I can’t be consistent with that, consistency in my firing platform becomes even more important. Remember, there’s no golden rule stating you’ll always be firing your AR.

Final Thoughts

So, what technique works best? It depends on your application of the AR. A technique that works for military applications might fit well with competition, but it might not with defensive or law enforcement use. Ultimately, using an AR properly — safely and efficiently — is an art, and everyone’s art is going to be different.

The equipment we use is pretty standard, but the way we use them is distinctly unique. The only way to determine what works for you is to experiment under realistic conditions. Then you can make an educated decision.

The article originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

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  1. Magwell. Full stop. Tighter control of the firearm and your support hand is exactly where it needs to be for operation of controls, IAs and stoppages and mag changes. Do whatever new sexy thing magpul tells you to do. I’m sticking with it.


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