Why Was Hip Shooting Ever A Thing? By: Chris Baker


For a span of about 40-50 years in the middle of the last century, the majority of people who carried a gun for a living were taught to fire it from hip level at 10 yards or less. Shooters before and after this generation knew that hip shooting had an enormous accuracy penalty with no benefit to speed. Today, we’re looking at how one FBI gunfighter convinced the whole country that hip shooting was the next best thing.

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Details are in the video below, or keep scrolling to read the full transcript.

Hey everybody, I am Chris Baker from LuckyGunner.com. If you’ve ever tried to fire a handgun from hip level, it probably didn’t take you very long to figure out that it’s really difficult to hit anything that way. I’m not talking about firing from a retention position like a lot of instructors teach for maintaining control of your gun when an attacker is within arms reach. I’m talking about 1960’s Hollywood-style hip firing at targets 10, 20, or even 30 feet away. It’s really hard. It’s the kind of thing you might try once for a laugh, and then never again because it just makes a whole lot more sense to hold the gun at eye level.

But hip firing is not just a Hollywood thing. From the late 1930s until the 80s, it was one of the most common pistol shooting techniques taught in the United States, especially among law enforcement. Today, I’m going to talk about how and why this happened.

A Generation of Hip Shooting

If you were a cop, soldier, or security guard at the beginning of the 20th century, you didn’t necessarily receive any instruction in how to use your sidearm. That was still an emerging concept at the time. The training that did exist was based on slow fire, long range bullseye drills. This type of shooting remained a major part of most handgun training for the rest of the century.

However, by the 1920s and 30s, there was some promising momentum toward reality-based training for fighting with a handgun. A few influential instructors and authors began to emphasize the kind of close range encounters that make up the overwhelming majority of gunfights. They taught speed with acceptable accuracy over slow precision. The techniques might look dated now, but compared to slow fire bullseye shooting, this was radical progress. These were the first major steps toward the practical shooting techniques we have today.

The next big stage of that evolution came in the 1970s with the spread of Jeff Cooper’s modern technique. The modern technique is known for specific concepts like the Weaver stance and the flash sight picture. But the most important innovation was something we take for granted today – a two-handed grip with the pistol at eye level.

Even now, Cooper is kind of a divisive figure, but you can’t really argue with the magnitude of his influence. Any handgun technique in common use today has at least some pieces that can be traced back to the modern technique.

So that leaves us with a 40 year gap between the early attempts at practical handgun shooting and Cooper’s peak influence. That’s because those early attempts got sidelined for a generation by the hip shooting fad. And it was almost entirely because of one man: a legendary gunfighter and FBI agent named Jelly Bryce.

Quick Draw Jelly Bryce

Delf A. Bryce was born in Oklahoma in 1906. He was nicknamed “Jelly” because “jelly bean” was slang for a man who wears nice clothes and Bryce was always impeccably dressed.

Bryce was well-known as a phenomenal marksman even during his childhood. At the age of 22, he was hired to the Oklahoma City Police Department based on little more than his shooting ability. Over the next six years, he won numerous gunfights against gangsters and other criminals.

Based on that track record, Bryce was recruited to the FBI in 1935. Right away, he was assigned to a special squad tasked with tracking down the country’s most dangerous fugitives. In the early 1940s, Bryce was promoted to a leadership position in the Bureau, and his days of trading bullets with criminals eventually came to an end. But his influence on firearms training was really just getting started.

Bryce was not a typical FBI agent. He was one of Director J. Edgar Hoover’s personal favorites. Hoover saw him as a model agent, especially in terms of his shooting ability. From his earliest days with the Bureau, Bryce was asked to put on shooting exhibitions – first for groups of police officers, and later for the general public. He would perform all kinds of feats of marksmanship with rifles, shotguns, and revolvers.

He is probably best known for his quick draw demonstrations. Bryce could drop a coin from head level and then with the same hand, draw his revolver and put a hole in the coin before it fell to waist level. The public really ate up this kind of thing in an era when gunslinging Westerns were the dominant genre of entertainment media. It was great PR for the FBI, and also drew attention to Bryce’s unconventional shooting methods.

The Hip Firing Technique

Bryce posed for numerous photographs over the years showing his signature hip firing position and his technique is very consistent. He’s bent down in a low crouch, gripping the gun in his right hand. It’s roughly level with his waist, close to the centerline. His arm is bent at the elbow and his right shoulder is lower than the left. His left hand is open and kept close to the body.

The supposed benefit of firing from the hip was that it was slightly faster than bringing the gun up to eye level or using two hands. In demonstrations, Bryce could reportedly draw and fire a shot in four tenths of a second with his duty equipment. Crouching supposedly made you a smaller target and stepping into the crouch helped clear your suit jacket during the drawstroke. It’s a very deliberate technique and a lot of thought was obviously put into every piece of it.

Notice that the gun is not up close to his body like a retention position or like the later quick draw artists. He’s got it out in front of him with the barrel directly below his right eye. He used the peripheral view of the barrel as a kind of rough aiming index.

At least for Jelly Bryce, this technique worked incredibly well. Over the course of his career in law enforcement, he was involved in no fewer than 19 gunfights and won decisive victories in all of them. So it should come as no surprise that on top of his normal FBI duties, Bryce was often asked to help with firearms training for other agents and to advise the Bureau on firearm policy.

Based on his advice, the FBI modified their issued holsters to facilitate a quicker drawstroke. They required all agents to keep their revolvers concealed under suit jackets when out in public to prevent gun grabs. And most importantly, they completely overhauled their shooting instruction.

In an attempt to imitate the FBI’s star gunfighter, agents were taught to shoot from hip level for any targets inside of 10 yards. Any practices the FBI adopts tend to disseminate into state and local law enforcement across the US. And in the pre-internet era, some watered-down version of that would make its way into the gun enthusiast world. And eventually into Hollywood. So within a few short years, hip firing became the countrywide standard technique for addressing close-range targets.

This was not a good thing. It was probably a step up from the slow fire single action bullseye stuff (which was still the norm for longer range shooting, by the way). But out of all of the emerging practical shooting techniques in that era, hip firing was the worst possible option for the masses to adopt.

Uncommon Ability

Like we’ve already talked about, hip firing is very difficult. It worked for Jelly Bryce, but he was an uncommon human being. Bryce had two things going for him that most people do not. First, he had uncommonly good eyesight. His visual acuity was better than 20/20, but there was more to it than that. He could process visual information very quickly. It was like he could “see faster” than the average person. He claimed that he could see his bullets leave the gun and follow their path to the target. It would be a lot easier to aim a revolver from hip level if every shot you fired was essentially a tracer bullet.

The other asset Bryce possessed was a relentless dedication to constant practice. He spent hours at the range. And even more hours in dry practice, often in front of a mirror to perfect his quick draw technique. If aiming from hip level was ever any disadvantage for Bryce, he overcame it just by putting in more practice time than anyone else would think is reasonable.

Imagine if a mediocre high school basketball team somehow recruited a seven foot tall NBA all-star who was really good at dunking. So then the coach made the other kids practice nothing but dunking from then on out. They start winning games because of the 7-footer, so all the other teams start copying the dunking strategy. That’s more or less how Jelly Bryce inadvertently held back practical shooting for a whole generation.

To be fair, the fault doesn’t really lie with the players, but with the coach. By all accounts, Jelly Bryce was an upstanding guy and really good at his job. We can’t blame him for being a freakishly skilled marksman. If you want a scapegoat, you can probably blame J. Edgar Hoover. A good leader should know that just because someone is the best in the world at a specific skill doesn’t mean they’re the right person to teach it to other people.

Is Hip Shooting Really Faster?

For those of us who are not Jelly Bryce, hip firing is a very challenging technique to master. You can do it, but it takes a while and it’s tough to maintain. It’s also not actually faster than bringing the gun up to eye level. I don’t even have to demo that for you because the FBI already did it themselves.

In this 1956 training film, there’s a little bit about how hip firing is faster. But they cheated. Slowing down the footage, you can clearly see that the guy on the left doesn’t even have his hand on the gun until the other guy is almost on target. When we sync it up so they actually start the draw at the same time, their guns also stop moving at the same time. There’s no perceptible difference in speed.

Regardless of how you use the sights, or even if you don’t use them at all, humans tend to be a lot better at hitting something when we put the gun between that thing and our eyes. And there’s rarely any reason not to do it unless your opponent is within arms reach.

Progress Resumes

In the 70s and 80s, police instructors were starting to realize the limitations of hip firing, making room for the evolution of pistolcraft to pick up where it left off in the 30s. Two-handed eye-level techniques were being proven in the new practical action pistol competitions and in street encounters. The hip firing trend eventually shrank into obscurity until the only people still advocating it were fatigue-wearing gun store commandos.

I hope you guys enjoyed this dive into handgun history. If you want to know more about Jelly Bryce, check out the biography “Legendary Lawman” by Ron Owens. It’s a great read. Hey speaking of quick draw, you know what else is quick? When you order ammo from us with lightning-fast shipping at LuckyGunner.com.

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