Shooting is not rocket science, but is not as easy as falling off a bike, either. Among all the various firearms that one could endeavor to master, most will find that the humble pistol is the most difficult.
This presents a problem since it is the pistol, not the rifle or shotgun, which is the typical primary weapon of civilians in normal and not so normal times.
There are plenty of guides, how-to’s and videos on the internet that will explain the fundamentals of marksmanship to the uninitiated.
While they are certainly useful, they also often fail to transmit the deeper, crunchier esoterica that can help you excel with this most demanding of firearms.
In this article, I’ll offer up a few choice bits of wisdom that I gleaned so far in my shooting career.
With a little practice and professional instruction you’ll blow past your old personal bests and set a new high benchmark for performance.
If you’re looking for more accuracy shooting tips not just for pistols, check out this other article.
Table of Contents
Why Are Handguns So Hard to Shoot?
Without delving to deeply into the highly scientific and the extremely anecdotal, there are two major factors that make handguns tough to shoot as well as rifles or shotguns, and they have nothing to do with barrel length.
The first is that handguns, at least the huge majority of true handguns, lack a stock of any kind and lacking this third and fourth point of contact with the body (the buttplate/buttpad and comb/cheekpiece) their inherent stability is greatly reduced.
Instead stability is created by the grip alone, and improved or weakened through muscular tension and skeletal support. This calls for a higher degree of coordination and fitness for best results compared to a long gun.
The second is that handguns are highly sensitive to inadvertent or sympathetic movements of the arms and hands, which just so happen to be phenomena that plague even high level professional shooters.
Most shooters will know these instances as a flinch, the yips, or jerking the trigger. Compared to a larger, heavier long gun, pistols weigh little and require only a little imparted force to crank the gun off alignment with the intended point of impact.
For my own part, I can take your newbie and get them delivering solid hits consistently with a rifle or shotgun much faster than I can with a handgun, and I can take an average shooter and make them a proficient shooter with considerably more ease using the same.
Sure, there is a chance that I am just a terrible pistol trainer, but I don’t think that’s the case; handguns just take more work to build competency, and considerably more practice to maintain that skill level.
Keep both of these quirks in mind. We’ll come back around on them in just a bit.
The Fundamentals that Matter
As with everything, it is fundamentals that make the difference between a groupie and rock star. As with shooting anything, the fundamentals you should keep in mind when processing your shot with a handgun are:
Everything begins with a good, solid, balanced position that relies as little as possible on muscle tension to keep it rigid. Make sure your position is good to go before committing to a shot.
Grip: Without a proper, firm grip on the pistol, you will not be able to exert the fine control needed to manipulate the trigger properly enough to produce accuracy.
Additionally, a weak or broken grip will allow the pistol to move more under recoil, spoiling your follow-up and potentially producing a malfunction.
Movement of the diaphragm will radically move your trunk, imparting a sway to the gun.
Be sure to shoot when your lungs are empty, at the natural respiratory pause, when they are full or about halfway empty and you can hold your breath for a few seconds.
The front and rear sight must be in proper relation to each other so you may perceive the precise orientation of the pistol and your desired point of impact.
The sights, so aligned, are indexed on the target and held there through the trigger press. Sight picture must undergo moment to moment correction for shooter and target movements.
The trigger must be manipulated in such a way that the sight picture is not disturbed. Easier said than done.
Lastly, this is the continuation of focus and application of all fundamentals beyond the break of the shot.
What could be simpler! In seriousness, with practice, like anything, all of these things happen in a very short timeframe and often simultaneously at different phases of the shot process as a shooter gains proficiency.
So it is a less a preflight checklist than a list of ingredients for good shooting.
But hold on to your hats because I am going to let you in a little secret, readers. Take your seats because the Heresy Train is on the rails.
Most of Those Fundamentals Don’t Matter
Presenting the revised list of fundamentals you should be focusing 80% of your efforts on. Please keep your hands off your keyboards; you can bawl me out in the comments when the article comes to a complete stop. I’ll be explaining my rational for all of these in the next section.
- Breath Control
- Sight Alignment
- Sight Picture
- Trigger Press
- Follow Through
“How could he?!” I hear you out there all the way from over here. Settle down now, and hear me out.
Having a textbook perfect stance is a luxury in an actual defensive situation. In fact, much of the time your stance may be dictated for you, i.e. you get knocked ass-over-teakettle to the ground and get your bearings to see some mongo standing over you with a club.
Guess what? You won’t see “goofy supine” in most shooting manuals.
The point is this: get the very best position you can for the shot you have to take. Sometimes it isn’t very good at all? Do we just not shoot? Of course not, so long as we know the limitations of our abilities.
The importance of a strong, solid, consistent grip for good pistol shooting cannot be overstated.
If anything, most shooters do not grip their pistols tightly enough, and anticipatory movement induced by fear of blast and recoil is one of the most pervasive gremlins a shooter will have to cope with.
Beyond the classic flinch, myriad problems manifest when the grip is improper or just weak.
A slack grip can lead to real issues when, especially on a gun with a heavier trigger, the rest of the fingers clench in sympathy to the force being exerted by the trigger finger as it manipulates the trigger.
A “crush” grip where the gun is held just shy of trembling will dramatically lessen this effect and, magically, also ease the burden of an improper trigger pull. More on that in a second.
The anticipatory flinch is dampened down accordingly when the grip is very strong.
If the clamping effect of the muscles tensing is what moves the pistol in the first place, if one is already gripping near maximum strength the “flinch” has nowhere to run to, in essence. Starting to make sense?
3) Breath Control
Crucial at the bullseye match or if you are shooting at long or extreme range, but nowhere else. You can break a good shot if you are holding your breath or not.
What matters most is that breathing does occur in a high stress situation, both to help manage that stress and to keep your eyes gassed up with oxygen.
Low O2 in the body will hurt visual acuity. Plus it is far easier to teach pausing the respiratory process when you need to break a shot than drilling someone to wait until the lungs are halfway full, 2/3 full, fully full, or anything else besides empty.
So, breathe! Or don’t! You can do whatever you want because you’ll start breathing eventually, so it is best to work around rather than against it.
4) Sight Alignment
It is shocking how much slop there can be in a conventional sight picture and you’ll still come off with an acceptable shot at typical defensive ranges.
In fact, you often will not need a textbook perfect sight picture to deliver even a very good shot! It is best to start learning now how much slop you can get away with at what ranges.
If I have someone in the open at six feet, and I am tracking for a shot, the moment, and I mean the moment I can perceive any part of my front sight through the rear notch with the gun at eye level and a target focus I am getting on that trigger like the last bus out of Hazard.
Too high, too low, too left, too right, I take shots with sights looking like that all the time when because I know myself and know my pistol.
Would I do the same thing for a bad guy at 25 yards? Or one with an innocent near them or between he and I? God, no.
But that is part of becoming an advanced shooter is learning what you can take when you can take it, and not burning time past the “acceptable” marker. This is not to be construed as I am decrying a quest for improvement or refining your marksmanship to a razor edge!
Far from it, but speed counts and time may in fact be against you, so blowing off “entirely acceptable” for “perfect” if it costs you the one resource you can never get more of and never buy, time, it is a bad trade.
5) Sight Picture
I left sight picture alone because it is the one true indicator of where the gun is currently “at” that you can rely on and derive fine feedback from. Even at that, I have a few bones to rattle.
First, the relentless catechisms of “front sight focus, front sight focus, front sight focus,” while entirely valid and a necessary part of really taking off as a shooter, are only half the story.
Kinda like teaching someone the Bible and leaving off all the parts about sin and Lucifer. You are setting someone up for a fall, no matter how devoutly they follow your advice.
The “other half” I am referring to is the absolute necessity of switching the current focus, or “focal band” from the target to the sight and back.
Yes, of course, you can precisely deliver a round on a target with it a big blurry blob in your background, be it a human or a piece of paper or steel.
But let’s assume it is a person, and not just any person; a person who is potentially a lethal threat, one who wants to kill you.
Do you think it is in your best interest to keep your focus on that person, to keep them and their actions in total clarity so you can decide when and later articulate why you shot them with a pistol? You bet your butt it is.
Good shooters, even bad shooters who have to shoot for a living or to live will regale you with how much and how often their focus goes from the target, to the sights, quick back to the target. Now sights. Now target. Sights. Target. Sights target sights target and on and on.
Establishing your sight picture is one thing. Keeping a valid firing solution is another, and that requires more info than just the relationship of the sights to this thing you want to shoot.
I’ll let you in on another trick: I take shots all the time with a target focus. Gasp! The humanity! What’s next, cats and dogs living together? Mass hysteria! It’s true, and you can too.
Just like our sight alignment above, there are some shots you can deliver with total confidence using a janky or imperfect sight “package”, and at close range on high percentage shots my focus may remain on my target the whole time.
Same thing goes for larger targets at modest ranges, but I am an accomplished pistol shooter.
You can also bet, again, that as the target shrinks or gets further away I will be kicking in “strict” fundamentals harder and harder to compensate, though.
I have talked the most about sight picture so far compared to the others because it really is one of the most important fundamentals, truly a fundamental.
Think of it this way- all of the other fundamentals are only there to obtain, maintain and improve your sight picture, i.e. where the bullet will go. All other considerations are secondary.
6) Trigger Press
Trigger press is another fundamental that gets blown out of proportion because there is all kinds of pigeon religion, dogma, legend, myth and folklore around what is ultimately a simple goal: pull the trigger without moving the sights. I said simple, not easy.
Depending on your pistol, your hand size, strength and a few other factors, you might need to pull a trigger differently than your neighbor.
So all the advice of “just the tip of the finger,” or “the first pad” or “after the third joint but not to the second joint” are all completely subjective.
Get this: you may pull the same trigger on the same gun differently depending on your shot or shooting tempo! What the what?! Yes, it’s true.
Consider one of the most common pieces of advice given to novice shooters, that being that the trigger finger should never leave contact with the trigger when resetting it for the next shot.
Now, this is helpful advice in the interim, because it efficiently gets a novice paying attention to fine, fine trigger control and awareness of their trigger finger but it is not the paradigm of technique.
Plenty of high level shooters will come off the trigger inside the trigger guard when shooting rapidly. This is known colloquially as “gapping” or giving the trigger some “air.”
They do this because it allows the trigger to reset quicker and affords more power when getting back on the trigger.
Before you decry it as bad technique, you should go watch some of the top ranked competitive shooters run their guns. You’ll need a high speed camera to see it, but many of them will be doing what I described above.
No matter how it happens, no matter you achieve it, the key absolute when it comes to trigger pull is to pull it without disturbing the sights.
Some methods work more reliably for more people to achieve that, but what really counts is that the sights stay on your intended point of impact when the trigger breaks.
7) Follow Through
Another fundamental that gets hammered into a quasi-religious form. You’ll see some shooters become entirely too regimented over follow through, keeping the trigger pinned back even after the gun settles before waiting several heartbeats to release it and then coming back to a ready position.
It always reminded me of those formalized traditional martial arts blocks where they just hold their arm up there after stopping the “attack”.
There are two things that should happen concurrently as you break the shot: first, you should know, know, where your sights were indicating the shot was heading.
If you cannot call your shots, your mind may be misplaced, especially if you are deliberately focusing on the sights.
Second, once the shot is away, you immediately start prepping for the next shot: mitigate recoil-assess the target-reset trigger-prepare to press trigger. You don’t wait for the gun to settle before you reset the trigger.
You can outrun your headlights as the saying goes. If you are thinking about the next shot before you have completed the first one, that is an anxiety or mindset issue.
I don’t think so. If your technique works with powderpuff target loads or small calibers but is not viable with full-power or duty ammo I would advocate that you reboot your technique.
Now, there is always an exception, and this article is written with a generalist defensive or combative bent in mind. If you are shooting ultra precise, timed bull’s-eye style matches the way that you shoot will probably look far different than the method I have outlined here. That’s totally okay.
What is important is that your technique supports your mission. you should figure out what your mission is, be it a gold medal finish, surviving a gunfight, bringing down a trophy buck or anything else.
Once you have done that, learn if there are any foundational but esoteric differences in technique that could make a difference.
At the end of the day, shooting is shooting, and so long as you get the bullets precisely where they need to go, everything else is secondary.
This is the question of the era. All instructors have a different opinion on the matter and many of them will in fact be correct, or at least provide askers much food for thought.
Bottom line, I believe shooters who are professionals or serious enthusiasts are still best served learning to perform on demand with irons first if beginning from zero.
Let me unpack the reasoning. First and foremost, there are countless millions upon millions of legacy guns in the United States and around the world that do not have and cannot easily accept an optic of any kind.
I believe that a skilled shooter with a generalist foundation should be able to make use of any such gun to good effect despite not having an optic.
Second, optics fail, and concerning handguns in particular even the current crop of ultra durable and ultra long battery life MRDS’s still have failure rates high enough that make me want to have a backup siding system at the ready. Most of the techniques that people advocate for shooting using an optic after the reticle has failed or gone out flat out suck.
Once the fundamentals of shooting are mastered with iron sights, adding a dot or other optic is an exceedingly simple adjustment.
The reverse is not exactly equivalent, though the skills learned with a red dot or other optic still translate pretty well. however, I would not necessarily go so far as to say someone is wrong if they begin their shooting career learning on a red dot site and sticking with it for the entirety.
These siding systems are ubiquitous and will continue to be the standard going forward for all small arms.
The answer is an unequivocal yes, though with a small caveat. Dry fire is the key to developing dependable procedural memory, what is often called muscle memory in common vernacular, and becoming a better shooter all around. No questions, end of sermon.
And it is true that once proper shooting technique has been developed, even through dry fire, that results are assured. Assuming you break the shot with the sites correctly aligned and then don’t disturb the gun until the bullet has left the barrel you can be certain that the bullet will take care of itself.
But there’s the rub, the caveat. Learning to properly integrate your technique requires live fire of some kind. Inoculating your body against the stresses of recoil and muzzle blast means you’ll need to do some live fire at one point or another.
This is also the only way to make sure your recoil control is on point without developing a flinch, errant squeeze or any other glitch that will spoil your shooting.
This is a common misconception, though like much dogma was rooted in good advice and a sincere desire to see shooters prosper.
Other doctrine states that in order to get a good trigger press, you should place your finger on the trigger so that the pad of your finger is in contact with the trigger.
My question in response to this assertion is: should you always keep just the fingertip of the trigger finger in contact with the surface of the trigger no matter what? And to what purpose?
Ostensibly this advice was meant to provide the greatest possible sensitivity for the shooter so that they could perceive how the trigger was progressing up to and through the break and so attain better control over it.
In reality, all triggers not to mention all shooters and their trigger fingers, are a little bit different. Is entirely likely that you’ll need to place your trigger finger one way on one kind of gun but a different way on a different kind of gun.
You might even wind up changing how you place your trigger finger on the trigger entirely as you advance in skill or due to an injury or any number of other factors.
Chasing this bit of esoterica down the rabbit hole has been counterproductive to me in my career. a shooter should place their trigger finger on the trigger in such a way that it affords them the best possible control over the trigger in order to pull it, manipulate it, squeeze it, properly.
They should be able to do this without disturbing the alignment of the sights on the target. That’s it.
The fundamentals of marksmanship are the same regardless of the type of pistol you are using. However, there may be slight differences in technique when shooting a revolver or semi-automatic pistol.
For instance, the intrinsic differences between revolver and semi-automatic ergonomics will lead to some necessary adjustments in your grip. Obviously revolvers and semi-automatics do not reload the same way and feature entirely different controls aside from the trigger and hammer spur.
One of the biggest adjustments that will change is the placement of the trigger finger on the trigger as discussed above.
Shooting a double action revolver compared to most striker fired semi-automatics will necessitate significantly more leverage be acquired in order to manipulate it properly, particularly when shooting at a quick tempo.
For seasoned shooters this is usually done automatically with little thought. New shooters will probably have to go through the revolutions a couple of times when switching from one to the other in order to maintain parity.
That’s okay, and this is generally not something to worry about, just something to be aware of.
There are many different techniques out there, and many instructors who swear by their own method, be it one the day themselves developed, or claim to have developed, or the way they were taught by their mentors.
Maybe they advocate strongly for the isosceles stance, or perhaps they preach the benefits of the weaver stance as Cooper did, among other greats. I’ve got news for you: you should listen to them!
As I hope has been clear throughout this article, I am not claiming to be the end all, be all of shooters or instructors. I have learned, discarded and later relearned so much throughout the course of my shooting career that I truly could not begin to collate it.
Many of my mentors taught me things that helped me progress in leaps and bounds only for them to later discard the technique themselves for any number of reasons.
That doesn’t mean I discarded the technique, and by extension it does not mean that other proven techniques worked or showed worth for me with my requirements.
In my experience, this entire conversation never resolves itself and orbits people who are entirely caught up in their own ego or falling victim to the fallacy of appealing to some authority they see as greater than themselves and the other party in the conversation.
If an instructor has vetted references and seems competent, listen to them. Learn what you can. Try it. If it works, keep it and if it doesn’t work discard it.
The key is to find a technique that works for you and stick with it. There is no one perfect way to shoot a pistol.
So long as a technique or procedure does not violate core operational principles or fundamental safety rules everything is on the table and you should always be looking for a better mousetrap.
Practice Makes Perfect
Shooting a pistol well may be the one of the most difficult of the disciplines to master, but by training and practicing with a few bits of expert knowledge in mind can smooth your evolution from merely proficient to an advanced shooter.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.