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Mastering of the fundamentals of handgun shooting

It’s a great day out on the range. You’ve just plopped your range bag down, tacked up a target, and pulled out your favorite handgun. Moment of truth! You’ve put some distance between you and that target, not too much, but enough to let everyone else know you mean business. Take aim… BANG! Your first shot hits paper, but not in that ten ring. BANG! High, right. BANG! Good elevation, shooting left. BANG! WHAT? Low left!?!

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It seems that even experienced shooters can struggle with achieving that dense little shot group right over the bullseye. The old adage “practice makes perfect” is true, for the most part. Later, though, someone pointed out, “perfect practice makes perfect.”

What this means is, it doesn’t matter if you go and fire 5 rounds a year or 50,000 rounds a year if you are using bad habits.

All you’re doing is committing those bad habits to your muscle memory. While no one can truly achieve perfection and no two shooters will agree as to what “perfect practice” really is, few people will argue that noticeably enhanced firearms proficiency can be obtained by mastery of the fundamentals of shooting: stance, trigger control, grip, breathing, and sight alignment. These five fundamentals should be focused on each time you get in front of that target.

Shooting Stance

Let’s start with stance. This is literally the foundation holding the results of your shooting. A solid, well-balanced stance gives you the stable shooting platform necessary to deliver consistent results shot after shot. While there are numerous shooting stances, the three I’ll be discussing are the Weaver stance, the Modified Weaver stance, and the Isosceles stance. Try each of them. See what works for you.

The Weaver stance has been around for decades and is still valid today. Weaver involves angling your body with the support side toward the target. Your support arm should be bent with elbow pointing downward, and your weapon arm should be slightly bent. Typically this elbow is pointed downward, as well.

Your support hand should pull the firearm back toward you while the weapon hand pushes it back.

This results in a firm, stable platform from which to fire your weapon. One noted advantage to this is the angle your body presents to the target gives a smaller target to shoot at, should you find yourself on a two-way range. When bullets start in your direction, it’s generally a good idea to expose as little of yourself as possible.

The Modified Weaver stance, as the name would lead you to believe, is very similar to the Weaver stance. The lower portion of the body is angled away from the target. The difference, however, comes in how you position your arms.

In this stance, the weapon side arm is fully outstretched.

The support arm is still bent with the elbow downward. I find this more natural that the Weaver stance, and I feel I can control recoil somewhat more. In this stance, the support arm still pulls back toward the body while the weapon hand pushes away. This practice leads to a nice, firm grip on the firearm.

The Isosceles stance has a totally different look. In this stance, your entire body will be squared up with your target, with your feet about shoulder width apart.

It is acceptable to move your weapon side foot slightly back to add to the firmness of your footing, but your hips should still be facing the target.

Both arms are fully extended in this stance. Because your arms are both extended, the push-pull grip is not used, but I’ve seen this allow the stance to be held for a longer time due to reduced fatigue. Your skeletal structure should absorb most of the recoil as both elbows can flex somewhat when firing. This stance presents a bigger portion of your body to your target, but this may not be as important if you are wearing some form of body armor.

Each stance, though different, has the same basic idea: solid footing and a stable platform made by your arms to keep that handgun as still as possible while shooting. I tend to use an isosceles stance as that is what I’ve been trained with. I don’t think any of these three stances are ineffective and I’d be comfortable with any of them. With all three stances, try to keep your upper body upright or leaned forward. Many times I’ve seen shooters take a stance and awkwardly hold their upper bodies in a backward lean. This is ineffective and handicaps your ability to control recoil & return to your target quickly after a shot.

Trigger Control

The next fundamental of shooting that should be focused upon is trigger control. Here’s where many shooters (myself included, at times) have found themselves to be lacking. A poor trigger pull can ruin any other preparation you’ve put into shooting.

Often, shooters “jerk” the trigger, quickly snapping it to the rear without much control.

This causes your hand to move, which usually results in shots going low and left for right handed shooters. As an example, hold up your weapon hand and stretch out all your fingers as if you were going to shake someone’s hand. Now, closely watch your middle finger, ring finger, and pinky as you quickly move your trigger finger as if you had just jerked the trigger on your gun. They moved, too! That’s what happens while you’re shooting. This movement pulls your shots off target. Now, hold your hand the same way and concentrate on slowly and deliberately pulling the trigger finger back. You should be able to do this with minimal movement in your other fingers.

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Other shooters anticipate recoil and flinch when they pull the trigger. This will also pull your shot off target. Snap caps or dummy rounds mixed into your routine are a good way to work on this, as they’ll come in unexpectedly and show you if you’re flinching.

If you are firing and come across a snap cap, your gun shouldn’t move much when you pull the trigger.

If you’re flinching, you’ll see an exaggerated movement caused by you unconsciously trying to anticipate the recoil and manage it. If you’re flinching, it may take a lot of work dealing with repetition behind the trigger, or it might be necessary to move down to a smaller caliber. The FBI recently moved back to the 9mm as their primary round and I feel it has improved into a completely adequate round for defensive use. Don’t feel that you have to tote that .45 to be effective.

As long as you do so safely (live ammunition nowhere within reach), I feel dry firing (pulling the trigger on your unloaded firearm) is another good way to hone trigger skills. Pick out a small target across the room, aim at it, and concentrate on squeezing the trigger.

The goal is to go completely through the trigger pull until the shot breaks while keeping your sights from moving off target.

Without a live round to make the gun recoil, you should be capable of doing this. The sights moving off your target indicate something’s wrong. While I’m talking about dry firing, I want to stress the firearm safety rules still apply, even though your gun is unloaded.

Treat every gun as if it is loaded. Never point your firearm at anything unless you are ready to destroy it.

Yes, dry firing is something I do in my home, but I take particular care in selecting a target that is unlikely to put anyone in danger should a negligent discharge occur. Usually I’ll aim at a corner in the ceiling or something like the screws on the air conditioner vent, which is also on my ceiling.

There is some debate as to whether your trigger finger’s last joint should rest on the trigger, or if the “pad” of the finger should do so. I personally feel that I get a more precise feeling on the trigger with the pad of my finger rather than the joint, but I’ve seen people shoot accurately either way. Pick one and stick with it. CONSISTENCY, in my opinion, is more important here. The size of the gun and the size of your hand may play a role in your choice.

Good Grip

Grip is the next fundamental of shooting we’ll discuss. A good grip with proper hand placement keeps your gun firmly planted in your hand and allows you to recover from recoil to make quick follow up shots.

A consistent grip allows your trigger finger to find that comfortable spot quickly when your adrenaline is pumping without thinking about it.

Too firm a grip can cause you to pull rounds off target, and too weak a grip can cause certain semi automatic pistols to jam. When shooting two-handed, your hands should work together to make you more stable.

Look at your hand and make a fist. Squeeze tightly, as hard as you can. Is your hand shaking? It works the same way while gripping a gun. Don’t crush it! Overly firm grip causes you to shake and it fatigues you faster, too. Too loose a grip will let the gun move around your hand as you fire and you’ll constantly have to readjust your grip.

Proper Breathing

Breathing, though sometimes overlooked, is another important aspect of shooting that will lead to better accuracy. It is a necessity to breathe (I know, no earth-shattering news here!), but it causes additional movement.

After physical exertion or during times of elevated adrenaline flow, you will find your breathing to become exaggerated, increasing the level of movement in your body.

Try to consciously control your breathing while shooting and take advantage of the natural break between breaths. This break is commonly referred to as the “respiratory pause” and you can slightly extend these pauses without negatively affecting yourself. Don’t hold your breath too long, though. Try to naturally time your shots during your respiratory pauses.

Shooting Sight Alignment

The final aspect of shooting is sight alignment. Most carry/combat pistols I’ve come across utilize fixed sights. This means you can’t adjust them beyond how they come set up from the factory. Because of this, you’ll have to find out how your gun shoots. Lets look at an example of typical pistol sights:

In this image, the top of the front sight is level with the top of the rear sights, and the front is centered left and right inside the rear.

This is the proper sight picture to take with your handgun.

The next step is to find how your gun shoots. There are several methods of aiming which are often used. I’ll discuss them now.

The first method, shown below, is sometimes called the “6 O’clock” or “Lollipop” method, because of the sights position relative to the target (6 O’clock) or the way the front sight and target make a lollipop shape.

I haven’t found a fixed sight handgun that shoots this way, but I haven’t tried them all, and I know shooters who purposely turn their adjustable sights to shoot this way.

The center hold (or cover hold) works best with most modern fixed sighted handguns. In this method, the sights are still aligned with the front sight level and centered in the rear sight, but the front sight actually covers the target. If you haven’t used this method, it may take some getting used to, but it’s worth learning.

Like stances and trigger pull, you’ll need to find which method works for you, practice, and stick with it.

While there are countless minor techniques and details to incorporate into your handgun shooting, mastery of these five skills will serve anyone in becoming a competent, confident shooter.

Any functional firearm should provide better results with practice than an expensive gun you can’t afford to feed with ammo.

Investing your time and money into taking these skills and committing them to memory will serve you far better than that $2500 competition gun ever will.

Lastly don't forget to practice drawing from your holster. Here are 4 reasons why you should, take a look: Practice Drawing Your Concealed Carry Weapon


About The Author

Clayton Collier is a police investigator who also serves as one of his department’s firearms instructors. Clayton holds a Bachelor of Science from Texas A&M University and an Advanced Peace Officer certification. He is an avid hunter, a bit of a gun nut, and has served as a police field training officer, a bike patrol officer, and is a member of his department’s Honor Guard Unit.