Everything You Need To Know For Handgun Shooting
Republished from StayHunting.com with permission from Brandon Cox.
Pistols are uniquely American. Few countries in the world allow their citizens to own guns. Americans can not only own guns, they can own pistols. That is very rare on the planet and you should be taking advantage of this.
Learning to use a pistol like a carpenter uses a hammer, takes time, skill and expertise. If you’re completely new consider training. If you’ve been to the range a time or two, and you’d like to channel your inner John Wayne and sling lead from your sidearm, you’re in luck.
This is the start of your pistol education for people who’ll be carrying a pistol for protection from predators, both 2 legged and 4 legged, and people wanting to get a start in handgun hunting.
Whatever you want to do with your handgun you have to know these things…
1. Pistol Shooting Fundamentals
1.1 Sight Picture
This is very simply how you’re engaging with the sight. Be it a red dot, a notch and post, or a magnified optic, you’re going to have to look at it and you’re going to have to use it properly.
This is where the adage ‘focus on the front sight’ come from. The rear sight should be fuzzy, the target should be slightly fuzzy but the front sight should be crystal clear. This allows your mind to completely level the top of the pistol and aim it perfectly at the target.
If you’re using a red dot or a scope, focus on the target and make the reticle slightly fuzzy.
1.2 Sight Alignment
This is how the sights are supposed to be aligned together. On 99% of pistols you’re going to be using a notch and post style sight.
All you have to do is put the post in line with the top of the notch and put an equal amount of light on either side. Most sights will have dots to line up or a line and a dot. Either way, put the post in the middle and shoot. On scope or red dot’s going to vary but you’ll want the reticle to be centered and even as much as possible before you shoot.
1.3 Trigger Control
This is usually the fundamental that gets people. Trigger control is the hardest fundamental to master because it’s the only physical part of shooting a gun. Shooting is 99% mental, there’s no physical reason you can line up a scope a nail a target at long range. The mental reason is because you’re freaking out from the recoil of the gun.
Guns scare everyone just a little bit when it goes off, everyone! Humans have a fear of sharp loud noises and a gun does exactly that and the reason most people can’t shoot pistols well is because they jerk the trigger and skew the shot. Essentially there’s two steps to a perfect trigger press.
- Take the Slack out of Trigger – The trigger will have tad bit of travel when you first touch it. That is called the “take up” well take up that slack in the trigger. Then press slightly harder and feel the flesh of your finger “take up” and flatten out. That is the first step to a proper trigger press. Even if you’re afraid of the gun, if you take up the trigger calmly you’ll shoot better than if you just jerked it from the very start.
- Smooth Pull directly to the Rear – This is the difficult part of shooting. If you’re having trouble pulling the trigger smoothly the answer is to do it very, very, very slowly. The best shooters can do what is called a “surprise break.” All that means is they pull the trigger so slowly it surprises them when it goes off.This is a great tactic until you master your trigger pull because it’ll allow you to put rounds on target and get used to the trigger. Speed will come in time as your skill picks up.
That is all you have to do to have a perfect pull. In an ideal world, you’ll have pulled the trigger to the rear without disturbing the sights and the shot will go exactly where you intended it to. If not, some other fundamental was disturbed.
1.4 Follow Through
Follow through can be called +1 when you’re shooting. All you have to do is make sure you hold the shooting position for a half second after the bullet leaves the gun. You need to hold the position because your mind will make you drop the gun or move the gun while you’re pulling the trigger.
There’s multiple ways to do ensure a proper follow through but the easiest is to do two things. Keep the sights aligned with the bullseye or target after the shot no matter where the shot went, and ease the trigger forward to the rest point without losing hold of it.
1.5 Breath Control – Sometimes
This is a hokey one. It only applies for those people shooting the smallest of groups and at the greatest of ranges. A great example would be a handgun hunter shooting out to 150 yards or more. The amount your chest moves when you’re breathing can be as much as an inch.
That inch up or down will make it impossible to hold your sight alignment still. The solution, hold your breath while squeezing the trigger. That’s all that’s required. No special rests, no weird equipment just hold your breath for the half second you need to pull the trigger.
If you do it with your breath all the way in or all the way it doesn’t matter as long as you’re completely motionless. If you’d like more advice, the “best” way to go about controlling your breath is to take a normal inhale, then exhale half your breath and hold it until you break the shot. That way you have a little breath in you but your muscles aren’t working to hold in too much air.
- Shooting Low – You’re worrying about where your bullets are going and they’re aligned vertically but all low. That’s because you’re dropping the gun to see the point of impact before the bullet is out of the gun. Stop worrying about where your bullets are going.
- Shooting High – You’re getting nervous and lifting up the gun because you’re afraid of the recoil. Calm down and pull the trigger very slowly and surprise yourself when it goes off.
- Shooting Left or Right – You’re putting too much or too little of your finger onto the blade of the trigger and canting the gun to one side while you’re pulling it rearward. Concentrate on a slow pull rearward and use less, or more finger.
2. Applying the Fundamentals
When you go to shoot a pistol there’s five factors of the shot that determine where the bullet goes. These are called the five fundamentals of marksmanship and they apply to both rifles and pistol but they’re amplified by a pistol’s lacks a shoulder stock, is much lighter weight and has a much smaller sight radius.
The fundamentals of marksmanship are ways to manipulate the gun to get the most accuracy from the gun. They are the only things that determine where the bullet goes. Not your grip, not the direction your feet are pointing, not which hand you’re using, will determine your accuracy barring any mechanical defects of the gun you’re using.
Too many people overlook the role the shooting fundamentals play and instead try to mask it over by talking about grip and stance and gun related problems. The truth is if you can apply the fundamentals, you’ll hit the target no matter what.
Anyone who tells you that the way your feet are pointed or the way your arms are bended will change the path of the bullet is either grossly misinformed or unqualified! – This includes the Army field manual with over 17+ “fundamentals”
3. Measuring Your Progress
As you shoot more and more it’s easy to fall into the trap of only doing drills and shooting at targets and ranges you’re good at. Eventually you’re going to have to get worse to get better.
What I mean by that, is you need to tackle what you’re bad at. If you’re really good at bullseye shooting except for when you go fast, start getting faster. Your groups are going to get larger for a while and then they’ll start to shrink again as you get better. You’ll be bad for a little while until you’re good.
Measuring progress by your group size is bad because there’s too many variables. Set a standard like shooting an index card at 25yards and then time yourself it takes you to draw, get a sight picture and shoot. Try and shrink that time down rather than the group size on the paper.
Same thing with distance, put smaller and smaller targets out and strive to make first round hits. Always draw from the way you’ll carry your gun in the field otherwise your practice isn’t going to be as realistic as it needs to be and you won’t be progressing in the right direction.
4. Technique Vs. Fundamentals
Fundamentals are the basis of shooting. Technique is how those fundamentals are delivered onto the target. So-called tips or arguments like “Weaver vs. Isosceles” or how your feet are pointed, or how you grip the gun help you deliver your fundamentals better but you’ll never miss a shot because your feet are pointed the wrong way.
You’ll miss a shot because your fundamentals are off. Don’t believe me? What stance are you in when shooting from a bipod? How about shooting from your driver’s seat in a carjacking?
You can successfully make both these shots while having a bad grip, poor body alignment and a nonexistent stance, but have the fundamentals delivered and make a successful shot. People get wrapped around the axle about everything besides the fundamentals because they’re very very simple, but very very important.
Next time you go to the range remember your fundamentals before you start playing around with grips or drills or which arm you bend or which finger goes where. Everyone’s body mechanics are different so the way this person holds their gun, and the way that person follows through with their shots is going to be different.
5. Situational Accuracy
How accurate do you really need to be?
5.1 Self Defense
Self-defense shooting most always happen in bad breath distance and almost always in low light. Rarely will it happen in complete darkness and almost never past 15 yards. That means the best you need to be able to hit a 4-inch circle at 25 yards in low light, while drawing from concealment.
If you can do this, you can make a head shot at 25 yards and a 100-yard body* shot should you need to. You need to find a range that will allow you to draw from concealment and shoot. Everyone can shoot from the bench, but no one ever defended themselves with the gun already in their hand. *This is not a legal brief, follow all laws for self-defense and lethal force.
I would add in the caveat you should do it while tired and slightly stressed. I would say sprint 100 yards, do 10 pushups and then put 5 rounds into a 6-inch circle at 100 yards without missing a shot. If you can do that with your gun, sight, bullet combination, you’re good to hunt with that gun. If you change calibers, sights, or guns you need to redo the test and make sure you’re still that good.
5.3 Getting More Accurate
Accuracy is a nebulous term. It is really a tradeoff of time vs. precision. In a scientific sense, accuracy is placing a bullet in the right spot, precision is putting it there more than once. Accuracy in the real world is a compromise of how fast do you need to shoot vs. how accurate you need to be. A defensive shooter will likely put more weight in speed, whereas the pals betting lunch on who can hit the Zima bottle at 200 yards with one shot will care much more about accuracy.
Therefore, to be become more “accurate” in the field you need to work on placing precise rounds faster and faster until you’re the understudy of Jerry Miculek. Everyone can hit bullseyes if they get 10 minutes to break the shot, the key is doing it quickly and under pressure.
A few helpful hints for accuracy:
- Focus on your fundamentals – No amount of teaching, ergonomic equipment and enhanced firepower will help you if you can’t use the fundamental shooting skill to put rounds on target. For example, grip is a technique NOT a fundamental. If you have a perfect trigger control and follow through, you’ll hit the target. The gun might fall out of your hand but you’ll hit the target.
- Train with full power ammo – Don’t short cut yourself by training with reduced power loads or putting .38spl into a .357 magnum. That is going to give you a false sense of skill and will hurt you in the long run. Try and use the same load you’re going to use in real life while you’re at the range.
- Train at longer ranges – Train at a longer range than you’d expect to use your gun. If you think you’ll never shoot your gun past 20 yards, shoot out to 35. IF you plan on hunting to 100 yards, practice on realistically sized targets out to 150. Not only will it build skill, it’ll build confidence and competence.
- Wade through the “Fog” – There’s lots and lots of “experts” around. Double check everything you hear. Everything. If you hear something new try and double check other sources. Especially when it comes to a matter of tactics for self-dense or firearms safety. With guns, you don’t get a second chance, make sure you heed the right device.
- Use Negative Targets – If you find yourself anticipating the shot and looking for your bullet holes. Get a pair of scissors and cut out the bull’s eye. Shoot at that target until you’ve overcome the anticipation. This works especially well with new shooters because they aren’t good with aiming and most can get all their rounds into a 9-10” circle. That’s great for a total newbie.
- Dry Practice – Dry practice is helpful, almost essential. But it isn’t the end all be all. It is easily to mess up and practice the wrong thing so get a good instructor to teach you some drills and evaluate what you personally need.
- Shoot One handed – When you lean to shoot one handed bullseye style. You will start to see and get a feel for how much each and every movement manipulates the point of aim. Shoot with both your off hand and your dominant hand and concentrate on bullseye shooting. You’ll probably never shoot your gun one handed for hunting or self-defense.
6. Dry Practice
Dry practice, also called dry firing, is when you pull the trigger of your gun with no ammunition inside the gun. This is used to practice weapon manipulation and trigger control without recoil and without worrying too much about gun safety.
Too many people make this solely about trigger control. In fact, you can find video online where for several minutes at a time people will stand in front of a mirror and hand cycle their semi-auto pistol and try and make perfect trigger pulls. This is a problem; a good trigger pull is only part of what your dry practice should be and should be trained at the range with ammunition because recoil changes everything.
Instead try this…
Dry practice should be more about loading and unloading, grip, drawing from concealment and picking up the sight quickly. Only pull the trigger when you absolutely must.
6.2 Dry Practice Safety
It is import we stop here and say you must follow the firearm safety rules. That means knowing absolutely sure, 100% sure you gun is completely unloaded before your dry fire. Infect practice in a room devoid of any ammunition. If that means you go outside with empty magazines and dry practice in your back yard, that works. Get away from all ammo sources.
The second safety rule for dry practice is pointing your gun in a safe direction just in case. That means away from a highway, away from the rest of the house and preferably towards a backdrop that will stop the bullet.
When you’re done dry practicing, resist the urge to pull the trigger again. That is when most negligent discharges happen, resist that urge. Overall, just be conscious of you muzzle and be 100% you’re being safe.
6.3 What Dry Practice Should Include
Dry Fire practice is important and the first thing you need to do is concentrate. Don’t watch TV, don’t listen to music. Focus. You have a gun in your hand, albeit unloaded, still you need to focus.
The main thing you should be focusing on during dry practice is a perfect draw stroke from where your gun will be, to a perfect trigger pull and follow through with a perfect sight picture.
Notice I didn’t say “good” or “alright” it need to be “perfect” go slow as it takes but o nothing incorrectly and do everything smoothly and slowly until you can go faster while still being perfect.
If you’re a hunter, practice a hunting shot. If you’re training for defense, train for a self-defense style scenario. The ways and reason’s you’d use a handgun are as many as the handguns themselves. Seriously take the time to simulate a real-world scenario and train based off of that.
6.4 What Dry Practice Shouldn’t Include
Do not, under any circumstances use any live ammunition during dry fire practice. I’ve known two gentlemen, who used live ammo in place of snap caps to practice malfunction cleaning and both of them had a negligent discharge.
During your dry practice never accept any distractions or interruptions. Turn off your TV, your cell phone and if it helps wear your hearing protection while you’re practicing. If someone is dying and you need to attend to them, reload and holster your gun. Dry fire practice is over. If you have time to come back make absolutely, 100% sure your gun is empty and there’s no ammunition in the room.
Some of the things you’ll hear people say are things like “I watch The Walking Dead and dry fire practice at the zombies on the screen.” This is a very bad idea. Even a deadly idea for beginners. Every time you draw a weapon you must have 100% concentration on the wepon in your hand. If not you’re more likely to have a negligent discharge and you’re going to learn a bad habit because you’re not paying enough attention.
Not to mention the fact you can’t enjoy the show if you’re trying to improve your trigger control.
6.5 Final Tips on Dry Practice
- Hang Targets! – Hang targets for you to aim at when you dry fire. I hang three targets at eye level and stand back at 7 yards. Practice dry firing at multiple angles and switching smoothly from target to target. Draw your gun and get on target, go slow and do it right. Focus, go slow, get it perfect.
- Practice in low light and bright light – Go outside and dry fire in a safe direction in low light and then again at low light. This important for you to make sure you can see your sights at night and be prepared if you need to use your gun in the dark.
- Draw from concealment or Holster or Nightstand – However you plan on drawing your gun for use, practice drawing the gun from that position. If that means drawing your big bore revolver form its bandoleer, do it. If that means retrieving it from the bedside safe, do it. Realistic, specialized training is often devoid of fancy barrel rolls, summersaults, or other tactical movements.
- Don’t Over Do it – Resist the urge to dry fire until you have blisters. Yes, it’s fun, especially in the beginning. Limit your time practicing to no longer than 10-12 minutes. Practice every day though. Just 10 minutes of focused high quality practice a day is better than two hours of practice once a week.
- Balance your Dry Practice with Range Time – The ratios of 10:1 or 12:1 or whatever flavor of the week thing “they” say you should be doing in regards to a magical ratio of dry practice to range time are arbitrary at best. The truth? Try and get 10 minutes of good practice in a day and shoot for an hour no less than twice a month. Hours and hours of range time without dry practice is just as bad as hours and hours of dry practice with no range time.
- Have High Standards – Go slow, do it right. Weather reloading, drawing getting on target or trigger pull it needs to be done slow and perfect. How slow? Go as fast as you can while still doing it perfectly. If it takes a full minute for you to draw properly and perform a perfect trigger pull on a perfect sight picture. Do it all in a full minute, not a second faster until you can do it in 59 seconds and still do it perfect.
- Get Technology! – There are several things you can get to help you train during your dry practice sessions my two favorite are the Laserlyte and the Mantisx. Both help you hone your shooting fundamentals and are just plain fun!
7. Moving Between Calibers
Inevitably you’re going to buy a second handgun and probably one in a different caliber. If you’re looking to move up in caliber you’re going to want to know a few things.
7.1 Moving Up in Power
The biggest problem with moving up in caliber or cartridge capacity is getting a definite answer to how much more the recoil is. Remember there’s 3 parts to recoil, the push, the noise and flash, and the muzzle flip.
Some guns don’t flip the muzzle at all and have a strong push backwards like the .45acp. Other have very “snappy” recoil that brings the muzzle up and doesn’t push very hard, much like a .357 mag J-frame revolver.
The noise and muzzle flash will largely depend on the individual gun you’re shooting. When in doubt try to rent the gun you’re considering buying, before you buy it. That way you can be sure about moving up in power and be confident in your purchase.
7.2 Should I Practice with .22lr?
Unless you’re going to be hunting to shooting .22lr when you use your gun, don’t use .22lr to train or practice. For example, if you carry a 9mm for CCW don’t shoot self-defense drills with .22lr. For some reason, people have become obsessed with shooting buckets and buckets .22lr.
It’s not as cheap as it used to be and doesn’t off the same training stimulus as a centerfire cartridge. If recoil is a problem, buy reduced recoil loads and work up. If cost is an issue, don’t shoot as much. The .22lr is a poor substitute for centerfire ammo. Shoot the cartridge you’re going to have on your when you’ll need your gun.
Need any more proof? Name a single professional agency, Government or otherwise, that trains their agents with .22lr. Good luck finding one.
As we sought peer review pushback for this article, we spoke with adult shooting education expert Shepard Humphries, who just about had a coronary when he heard about our “No!” 22lr advice. We challenged him, and this was his input about compartmentalization.
Your article, “How to Shoot a Pistol?” is one of the best and most comprehensive articles available on the subject, however, I disagree about your nearly total condemnation of including a 22 pistol in one’s training for shooting larger caliber handguns. In learning new skills, I have found great benefit in dividing up the many elements of an activity.
Just as a pro golf player might spend an hour swinging his driver at thin air with perfect form or a baseball player might spend time in a batting cage, then go for a run later that day, so it is with shooting a pistol. Not every practice routine has to include all aspects of the activity. It is acceptable and advisable to practice a draw stroke 50 times without pressing the trigger, and it is fine and even good to practice trigger press without combining recoil management.
I even encourage compartmentalizing smaller sub-categories like the draw stroke. Not every step has to be done every time, and they don’t even always have to be done with a gun in hand. For example, for the category of person that sits on something porcelain once a day, would it not be a useful routine to practice going from retention position to full extension 10 times each time they are seated? A year’s worth of this empty-handed practice adds up to 3,650 repetitions. Repeated properly, this is a good thing, even absent holding a gun or feeling the recoil.
Another reason I encourage training with 22’s is for psychological reasons. Shooting 200 rounds slow fire with a return to retention position and then back to full extension for each shot, and seeing all shots go through a beautiful small jagged hole 5 yards away that would not be possible for most of us with a larger caliber, imprints in the mind a certain confidence. This positive “state of mind” is very important as the shooter moves on to another practice drill.
Training methods can optimize the learning potential in a mammal’s brain, and even if we feel less macho doing some of these things, the great athletes do them. In our tactical toilet routine, we did not include the draw from a holster or the recoil management aspects, but like a boxer that spars “at 10%” and does not receive the repeated full-strength punches to the face, it is just fine to include in a training regiment.
After comparing my 10 years as a cop, including time on the SWAT team as the Sniper Team Leader, to my time competing in shooting matches to my private sector training of over 10,000 students, I have learned that copying governments is NOT always the best way to achieve excellence. The best methods of mastering a thing should include psychological aspects and innovative and more sophisticated adult sports training methods. Shooting ONLY 22’s is not appropriate for the subcompact 45ACP pistol packing person, however, it is very appropriate as a part of their training regimen.
8. Handgun Hunting
Handgun hunting is my favorite way to hunt. I love the challenge of limiting yourself to archery ranges is fun and gives an adrenaline rush you can’t beat. It’s also a joy to carry a short, lightweight weapon in the field when you need to cover long distances to chase game.
The downside of handgun hunting is that you really need to be a skilled marksman with hard to shoot cartridges. Big bore revolvers are considerably more expensive than a budget oriented rifle. A worthy semi-auto will be more expensive still. Not to mention the price of ammunition for sharpening your skills prior to your hunt.
If you’re still so inclined, get yourself a good pistol, a sturdy belt and holster and start practicing. When you can shoot a 6-inch paper plate 5 times in a row at 100 yards, you’re certainly ready for the hunt.
8.1 Handgun Hunting Ethics
When you hunt with a handgun, it’s much like hunting with a bow. You make an agreement with yourself to do a few things when you decide to use a handgun for hunting, first you agree that you’ll only take shots you know will quickly kill the animal you’re trying to harvest.
This means doing a few things; practicing until you’re skilled enough to hunt in the situation you’re going to face, it also means that you agree to hunt with the proper equipment in regards to cartridges and proper field rests for your gun.
These might seem like idle comments but you really need to be an above average hunter and take handgun hunting even more seriously than you would other form of hunting simply because more can go wrong. You should assume you have every limitation of archery tackle when you step into the field.
8.2 Handgun Hunting Calibers & Cartridges
Hunting calibers still have their share of debate and controversy but not nearly as much as the CCW cartridges. The best Hunting cartridges can be divided into two different categories. Semi-auto pistols and revolver cartridges. No doubt for hunting the revolver is a much better choice but the semi-autos are quickly catching up. Here’s a breakdown:
Semi Auto Pistols
- .22lr – If you ever want to really sharpen up your handgun skills, hunting or CCW, squirrel hunt with a .22lr pistol. Good lord is it fun! A great introduction it’s very hard and very rewarding, not to mention very cheap.
- 10mm – The work horse of the semi auto hunter. The 10mm has the most options for hunters and the greatest selection of ammunition while being one of the cheapest. This is on the level of a stout .357mag with a hot load so don’t worry about lethality.
- .45 Super & .460 Rowland – The “expert’s”semi-auto guns. Almost always custom guns based on 1911 pistols these are decent calibers for medium game hunting but have range limitations. They are excellent at close ranges and are some of the strongest in semi-autos. They are rare and very expensive to shoot though.
- .22WMR – A great small game cartridge and excellent varmint cartridge. Anyone who has ever been coon hunting will tell you it’s a blast, but exhausting. Imagine not lugging around a rifle at night in the woods. Get you a heavy, .22mag revolver and enjoy the ease of carry and new challenge of the hunt.
- .357 Magnum – The legend. The .357mag/.38spc revolver is good for game up to the largest of deer at close ranges. A heavy revolver in .357mag would be about the best hunting handgun you can get for a beginner.
- .44 Magnum – By far the best all-around cartridge for handgun hunting. This would be a decent starter cartridge if you choose a heavy gun and start with reduced recoil loads and move up.
- .454/.460/.500 – These are big bore rounds made in few revolvers and are more geared for experienced handgun hunters chasing dangerous game. Do not start out with one of these pistols, it’s a waste and will hurt you in the long gun.
When you start to hunt for game with a pistol, you’ll rarely go after game with just a pistol and ammo to increase your chances you might want to carry a few choice pieces of gear:
Tripod – Having a good tripod is great for taking long range shots. With rifles, you can often get away with just shooting sticks but I really would recommend the extra weight and bulk of a tripod for a pistol, it really does make a difference. Especially past 65yards.
Rangefinder – Handguns have steeper curves and shorter ranges than even the slowest rifles. That means you need to know an accurate hold for the distance to the target. Make sure you have the ability to know the exact range to your target by bringing a laser range finder.
Scope – Consider using a scope for handgun hunting. Yes, it adds weight, bulk, cost, and complexity but if you plan on killing out past 50 yards on small or medium sized game, a scope helps simplify aiming and helps you see.
Ground blind – With handguns, just like bows, you have to get close. Unlike with bows, elevation can be a hindrance with handgun hunting because the angle of the shot encountered with treestand hunting is often straight though large bones that can hinder a handgun bullet. An eye level shot out of a ground blind, is much better and you’re much more likely to get a double lung hit.
9. The Verdict
Pistol shooting is where every shooter should start. The ability to hit targets at distance with a pistol is one of the best things you can learn before you move onto shooting a rifle. Besides that, it’s cheaper to shoot most handguns than it is most rifles, and more ranges allowing pistol shooting than rifle shooting you have little excuse not to have John Wayne level skills with your chosen handgun.
You’re far more like to need a pistol than you’ll ever need a rifle for self-defense. The simple fact your life or the life of your family or friend may someday depend on your ability to shoot straight and use a pistol, should be reason enough to motivate you to become the master of your handgun.
Get in your dry practice and get to the range to put some full house loads through your gun.
Please welcome the Stay Hunting team contributions to the Daily Caller.