Thursday, April 12, 2007

Shooting Pistols Like You Mean It

"Front sight, trigger squeeze"

How many times have you heard that? They're two of the universal fundamentals of good shooting: Maintain sight picture, and trigger control.

Front sight, Trigger squeeze.

I was having a discussion today with a non-shooter, and a casual shooter who hasn't shot since he moved to California (I'll be taking them both shooting some time in the next couple months. They live in CA and visit a couple times a month), and we talked about what it takes to shoot well.

The first part of the discussion was about rifles vs. pistols. Rifles, on the whole are more inherently accurate than pistols are, so a lot of folks aren't much interested in pistol accuracy. Actually a lot of folks seem to think there is no such thing.

The fact is, it's a lot harder to shoot pistols well, than it is to shoot rifles well; because of pistols inherent mechanical inaccuracy in comparison to rifles, as well as the far less stable platform with a shorter aiming radius.

What do I mean "a lot harder"?

Well I'm not talking about sniping, competitive benchrest shooting, highpower and the like. Those are disciplines which need tremendous skill and ability to perform well; and in which the standards of performance are so exacting that any mechanical advantage rifles have over pistols is factored out.

What I'm talking about is the various practical pistol shooting disciplines; as opposed to the casual benchrest shooting that most people do with their rifles (long range handgun shooting, like metallic silhouette, is a very different discipline, with different equipment and parameters; as is bullseye shooting).

The accuracy and precision at 25 yards of the very best practical pistol competitors, with the very best guns; is quite literally 1/10th of what even a relatively casual shooter can do with a half decent rifle (or rather the inaccuracy and imprecision is 10 times that). That is simply the nature of the weapons.

With a rifle, on a bench, with a good rest, and good iron sights; achieving 2" accuracy at 25 yards requires essentially no skill. Providing you don't jerk your trigger or knock the gun offline, any reasonable rifle should shoot into 1" or less at 25 yards.

Any match grade rifle should be shooting into 1/4" or less (5 shots making one large hole) at 25 yards; with only a slightly skilled shooter.

Offhand (standing up without a rest), any reasonable rifle should shoot into 2" or less at 25 yards with just a little bit more skill. In fact, I'd say most rifles and most shooters with just a little training and practice, should still be shooting into 1" or less, even offhand (though it is certainly more difficult than on the bench).

In comparison, most skilled shooters with high end pistols, can't consistently make 2" groups at 25 yards off the bench without a very good rest; never mind offhand (best groupings are another thing entirely. My best 25 yard group ever with a service type pistol, was 4 shots into 3/4" with one flyer opening it to 1-1/4". Groups like that are rare) .

The thing with pistols, is that there are lot more variables and factors working against you. The process of shooting well is the same, but the process of "not screwing up" is more difficult.

So, how do you shoot pistols well... or maybe more importantly, how do you "not screw up".

Well first... how do you define shooting well?

The first thing most people think of when you say "shooting well", is "accuracy". Of course they may not know what they really mean when they are saying accuracy. Some people think that accuracy means good groups, some people think good groups automatically means accuracy. Some folks think shooting close to "the bullseye" automatically means good groups.

Basically, there are two factors to good shooting (actually four, including speed and safety, but two are what most people think of); precision, and accuracy... unfortunately most people confuse or conflate them.

Precision is the ability to shoot into the same spot repeatedly (grouping), accuracy is the ability to put a bullet at (or as close as possible to) point of aim. In a gun fight, accuracy is more important; but in terms of the fundamentals of shooting, precision is FAR more important; because if you can shoot with precision, you know how to shoot; you just need to figure out where to aim to hit the target.

OK, so how do you shoot good groups?

Well, the very factor is the mechanical accuracy of the gun itself. This comprises the direct mechanical accuracy potential (how precise the pistol is capable of being with all other factors removed), as well as the trigger, design of the grip, the chambering, and other mechanical factors (like slide speed, recoil etc..).

The fact is, some guns will never shoot all that well, no matter how skilled the shooter. Some guns are harder to shoot accurately than others. Some guns are so mechanically accurate, and ergonomic, they almost seem to shoot themselves (I'm thinking competitive .22s, pre model 17 K22s and the like).

The second factor is consistency. Grouping well is about doing the same thing, the same way, EXACTLY, first time, every time. Breathe the same way, acquire the sight picture the same way, and settle it on the exact same point of aim, the same way.

A common rookie mistake, is to unconsciously shift your point of aim to the bullet hole you just made. DONT’ DO THAT. Right now you are trying to learn how to be consistent; after that you can figure out how to be accurate.

Very important, SLOW DOWN. When you’re shooting for group (or for accuracy), take your time. Take 20 or 30 seconds for each shot if that's how long it takes you to get settled in (actually probably not that long. If you take too long errors can creep in). Shoot as slow as it takes for you to get into that same groove every time.

The last factor is technique. Now, there are a hell of a lot of ways to shoot a pistol, and a hell of a lot of opinions and variations on those techniques. Different techniques are appropriate for different people, different guns, and different situations.

The thing is, there is no "one right way"; everyone is different, and every situation is different... but there are some fundamentals that apply to almost all techniques; and are just good basic skills. If you have the fundamentals down, you can adapt to different situations as you need to.

The Fundamentals of Pistol Shooting

First fundamental - Safety: Nothing ruins your day faster than shooting something you didn't mean to; or worse, shooting someONE you didn't mean to.

Safety is the most important fundamental of shooting. If you aren't safe, I won't shoot with you, or anywhere near you; and you shouldn't be shooting. I won't deny anyone their right to self defense, but with rights come responsibilities; and you have a responsibility to be safe.

Now, there is a lot more to gun safety than the "four rules", but they are good and important rules; and I think the most important, most fundamental (theres that word again) elements of firearms safety, and they should be understood and followed appropriately by all shooters at all times.

The four rules are:

  1. All Guns are ALWAYS loaded

  2. Never point a gun at anything you are not willing to destroy

  3. Never put your finger on the trigger until you are ready to shoot

  4. Always be sure of your target, and what is beyond it.

Second fundamental - body position and stance: Different people, prefer different stances; and different shooting situations may require different stances; so don't assume there's "the one true stance". You choose what fits you, and the shooting that you are doing.

Whatever you do, chose a relaxed, natural, stable stance; that doesn't fight against your natural muscle mechanics, or skeletal support.

Easiest for beginners or for shooting offhand groups, is a basic isosceles stance. This is a stance where your feet are spread apart slightly more than shoulder width, and square to the target. Your shoulders are square to your feet, and you extend the pistol exactly centered along the midline of your body, evenly supported by both arms; with your elbows straight but not locked. Do not lean back (you may want to lean slightly forward but most recommend keeping your nose over your toes, or your shoulders over your toes at the most), and do not bring your eye down to the sights, bring the sights up to your eye.

Important to any stance, is making the gun an extension of your body. When you have established your stance, the weapon should move with you. Don't move the gun, move your body; and you will be smoother, more accurate, faster, and safer.

Third Fundamental - grip: Again, there are a lot of different preferences among shooters, as to shooting grip. Whatever you chose, you need to have a firm, consistent grip, that maintains control and position throughout the shooting cycle.

Establish a grip that has as much of both hands firmly wrapped around the gun as possible, and grip firm, but not hard. Gripping the gun too hard is one of the most common mistakes of beginning shooters (as is gripping too soft and not controlling the gun). Don't get all white knuckled or have your arms shake. Remember, every twitch in your hands goes directly into your bullets.

You may still hear folks saying "Hold it like a dove" or "like a kitten" or "like a womans breast"; by which they mean just firm enough to be in control, but with as little pressure as possible. This reduces that tendency to shake or twitch.

When you are hunting, or slow fire bullseye shooting (where rapid repeated pistol shots aren't emphasized), this may be a good technique. Over the last 35 years of practical pistol shooting competition however, shooters have found that in general, a very firm, and very controlled grip, is better for recoil control and followup shooting.

I personally prefer the high forward thumb over thumb grip (I’ve described it before on my blog), because it allows for rapid recovery and recoil control; for fast followup shots and transitions.

Remember, the point here is to make the pistol an extension of your body. There should be NO independent motion of the gun; if the gun moves, your body moves; if your body moves the gun moves.

Fourth fundamental - breath control: Do something for me. Take your arm and make a gun shape with your hand. Now extend your arm straight out, and aim along your finger.

Now, keep your arm locked in position, and take a couple of deep breaths.

How much did your "sight picture" change, at the top and bottom of your breath?

This is why breath control is important. As I said in the section on grip, every twitch you have in your body is transmitted directly to the flight of your bullets. Breathing is a surprising amount of motion, that you don't notice when you aren't specifically paying attention to it (like just about everybody). That motion can and will be transfered to your gun to some extent, no matter what you do. The trick it to control it, and even to use it to your advantage.

Slow down. Breathe full but not "deep" breaths. Breathe slow. Then, when you are set, ready, and have your breathing regularized, fire on the same part of your sloooow breathing cycle each time. You can either breathe deep in and hold at the top, and fire; breathe shallow and hold in the middle and fire, or breathe out and hold at the bottom and fire; but whatever you do, hold that breath through the followthrough of the shot (that followthrough is important, and we'll get to it in a bit).

Fifth fundamental - sight picture: You can't hit what you can't see; and you can't hit what you can see, if you can't figure out what direction you are pointing in (instinctive point shooting aside - that's not about grouping, it's about shooting to survive in the close and nasty).

Now, there are a lot of different sight types out there; but they all have the same goal: align the font and rear of the barrel with your eye, and with the target, in a straight line (Yes, the bullet actually shoots in a curve. We havent figure out how to make your eyes see in a curve;that's why point of aim changes over different ranges. The best we can do is a straight line at a known range).

The most common type of pistol sights are "partridge" style open sights, which have a front sight blade, and a rear sight notch. You align the blade in the notch to show the weapon is aligned; and set the target either on top of the post (dotting the I) or through the top of the post (crossing the T); depending on the particular sight type, and the distance to the target (some sights are calibrated so that the point of aim is set for 10 yards shooting on top of the sight, and 25 yards through the top for example).

Aiming should always be done with your body as a whole, not by tilting or twisting the gun. Once you establish your grip and stance, you aim the gun by twisting your body from your hips, and bending from your hips or shoulders. You bring the sights up to your eyeline, don't bring your head down to the gun; and line everything up.

Now, with iron sights, the important thing is front sight focus. The front sights are hanging out there in the breeze, and that's where the misalignment really creeps in. What front sight focus means, is that the FRONT sight is your aiming reference, and your eyes natural focus point. The rear sight and target should be visible, and aligned, but should not be where your focus lies (this can be very hard for people who are nearsighted, who have bifocals, or who are severely astigmatic. They make special glasses that help for those who have these problems).

Look through the rear sights, focusing on the front sight, and aligning the top of the front with the top of the rear, exactly centered in the notch, and with no canting (presuming partridge style sights as most pistols have) or twisting. Do not focus on the target, or the rear sight; keep the front sight in sharp focus, and align the blurs of the rear sight and the point of aim.

Again, the point here is consistency. Point the gun at the same spot, using the same sight alignment, each time, every time. I cannot emphasize this enough, I've said it several time already, but I'll say it again: AIM WITH YOUR WHOLE BODY. The pistol should be locked in as an extension of your body, and you aim from the hips shoulders, with the pistol solidly fixed in your hands.

Sixth fundamental - trigger control: Remember what I've said about motion. Every motion of your body is transferred to your bullets in flight. The one motion you HAVE to make in the shooting process, is squeezing the trigger. It is important to do so gently, smoothly, and CONSISTENTLY.

Don't put your finger on the trigger until your sights are roughly aligned , and you are ready to fire. At all other times, index your finger along the frame or the trigger guard.

When you are ready to fire, rest your finger, (either the very tip, the pad, or the first knuckle crease, depending on the trigger type and weight - try out all three to see what works for you) on the center of the trigger (or just below it - never on the top, or bottom), check your breathing, make your final sight alignment and hold that position, feeling, and spot, while you squeeze through.

Squeeze through.. what does that mean?

Most people who haven't received firearms instruction think "pull the trigger". The problem with "pulling" the trigger, is that it also pulls the gun, usually down and to the right just a bit. Remember, any motion of your body, means motion in the bullets right?

The point of a trigger "squeeze" as opposed to a trigger pull, is to have a smooth, consistent, linear motion. When you're pulling, you're moving your finger back and a bit to the side, which moves the gun back and to the side. When you're squeezing, all your doing is tightening up your grip on the gun with one more finger.

Now, another experiment. Take your hand, and make a loose gripping shape with it; like you were holding the butt of a pistol. Now, squeeze your trigger finger in towards your palm. If you're like 99% of all human beings on the planet, all your other fingers squeezed as well. When you're shooting, this will tend to pull the gun off line a bit.

This is called reflexive motion, and it is natural, automatic, and impossible to eliminate completely; but you can train your way out of almost all of it, to the point where a firm squeeze just firms your grip up a bit; and with proper grip won't pull the gun off line significantly.

When you squeeze the trigger, what you are looking to do is impart the minimum force necessary to do the job, in a way that doesn't move the gun too much. That means use the finger position that gives you the most power without jerking of moving the gun; and squeezing straight back.

Generally speaking you want to squeeze all the way through from takeup (where the trigger starts to give resistance) to break (where the trigger releases) and overtravel (the small bit of motion after the break). Overtravel actually reduces accuracy, because any motion of the trigger after the sudden release of pressure from the break, is going to throw the gun offline; but trying to stop overtravel with your finger will actually make the problem worse (you stop overtravel with a good trigger job, and an overtravel adjustment stop; and it makes a HUGE difference in the feel of the trigger and often the precision of the weapon).

Some double action shooters prefer to "stage" or "set" their trigger pulls; bringing the trigger back to a point just before the break, holding there for a moment to reset the sight picture, and then squeezing through jsut like a single action trigger. The technique can work very well in some weapons, with experience; however it is not something you want to do unless you are on a range, very aware of safety, and very familiar with the mechanics of your weapon; because it's very easy to both pull the gun offline, and to fire when you are not ready (which means you could shoot something you don't want to).

At all stages of the trigger pull, you need to maintain your front sight focus, and sight alignment. Hold that sight alignment through your squeeze, and all the way through the followthrough.

Seventh fundamental - followthrough: Another common rookie mistake is to assume that once you pull the trigger, your job is done.

Dead Wrong.

The shot isn't over until the bullet hits the target, and you've recovered and are ready to shoot again. VERY IMPORTANT, hold your sight alignment, stance, breathing, and trigger control, all the way through the shot, and through recovery.

If you've established a good grip, and a proper stance; recoil control is easy (with practice... lots and lots of practice). You aren't trying to fight the gun, or the recoil; you are just trying to maintain control. Use your grip, and your musculo-skeletal support, to flow with the recoil; but also to restrain it. Your entire body should be acting like a firm shock absorber; and your natural grip and stance should return you to the same point of aim that you started with; just resetting like a spring loaded machine.

With the aforementioned "lots and lots" of practice, it is possible (though not exactly a great idea on the range), to empty a 1911 (8 rounds), in a series of 4 controlled pairs (doubletaps), in less than two seconds; and have them all impact within 4" or less at 10 yards.

That isn't a result of superhuman skill, it's the result of proper stance, grip, and trigger control, making followthrough and recoil recovery automatic; resetting naturally to the correct shooting position each time.

Let's say it one more time: The shot isn’t over when the round goes off, it’s not over until the bullet hits the target, and you’ve recovered from recoil and are ready for the next shot.



  • Safety

  • Stance

  • Grip

  • Breath control

  • Sight picture

  • Trigger control

  • Followthrough
Finally, remember, SLOW DOWN; you can’t miss fast enough to win.
Thats it... Simple really. Simple... but not easy.