How to Shoot a Handgun – Basic Tips

Pistol Shooting

Pistol Shooting

Actually shooting a handgun is very easy. Pull the trigger and you have fired a shot. But shooting a handgun accurately and effectively is a whole different matter. One of the very first world champion pistol shooters, Ray Chapman is claimed to have said, “Shooting well is simple, it just isn’t easy.”

It is true that a handgun is much harder to shoot accurately than a rifle. Some reasons are obvious such as you have a much shorter barrel than with a rifle which greatly reduces accuracy.  You can’t hold it as securely as a rifle because of how you grip a pistol with your two hands compared to a rifle where you put the stock up to your shoulder and you spread your hands out giving you three steadying points.  It is also much easier to ‘move’ the weapon when pulling the trigger on a pistol because of the shorter distance between the front and rear sights. This movement sometimes called trigger jerk can cause you to miss the target if it is too excessive. With a rifle you usually take your time and line up the sights. Handguns used for self defense do not allow that luxury as you need to align the sights and fire quickly making it even more difficult.

There really is no ‘trick’ to shooting a handgun accurately but there are several things that need to be taken into consideration and they all come down to good marksmanship. If you hold the weapon consistently, have a consistent and correct stance, align the sights properly on the target and smoothly pull the trigger you should hit the target. Imagine that, if you do something properly and practice you will become proficient. What a novel concept!

The first two items to consider is how you stand or your stance and how you hold the pistol or your grip.

The Weaver Stance – If you want to shoot accurately you need to have a proper stance. Similar to the concept of a golfer standing properly aligned to hit the ball straight a shooter needs to stand in a way that allows them to shoot straight.

Most instructors today teach what is called the “Weaver Stance” (or a modified version of it) named after Jack Weaver, a range officer at the L.A.

Weaver Stance

Weaver Stance

County Sheriff’s Mira Loma pistol range. The story goes that Weaver was in a type of quick draw contest shooing balloons and he developed this technique to draw the handgun quickly and shoot accurately reportedly winning the contest.

Here is how Wikipedia describes The Weaver Stance

The Weaver Stance has two components. The first component is a two-handed technique in which the dominant hand holds the pistol or 

revolver and the support hand wraps around the dominant hand. The dominant arm’s elbow is nearly straight while the support elbow is noticeably bent straight down.

The shooter pushes forward with his dominant hand while the support hand exerts rearward pressure. The resultant isometric tension is intended to lessen and control muzzle flip when the gun is fired. The second component and most commonly known, is the positioning of the feet in a walking stance, with the off-side foot ahead of the strong-side foot. A right-handed person will have the right foot angled out to the side and further to the rear. Most of the weight will be on the left foot, with the knee slightly bent.

The shoulders will be leaned forward over the left toe. The right foot behind will help catch the force of recoil, as well as allow for rapid changes in position. A left-handed person will have the right foot forward.

As a side note there are many modifications of this stance but the basics are sound and give a good starting point especially for a beginner. Some shooters don’t like the shoulders being forward, some like straight arms, and then the stance is somewhat different if you are shooting single handed. As with anything everyone is different but starting with the Weaver Stance and adjusting if necessary seems a logical approach.

High Grip Glock 19

High Grip Glock 19

The Grip – A high grip is almost universally accepted as superior. The higher the grip the more control you have over the handgun and this makes the movement caused by recoil to be less thus resulting in a more accurate second shot and each shot after that. Gripping high on the weapon also allows you to pull the trigger straight back more easily which is very important for on target shooting. Try it for yourself. Hold the handgun up high and dry fire a couple times and then put your grip lower and you will see and feel the difference. Of course, with live fire the differences will be much more pronounced but I don’t suggest fooling around with your grip on live fire.

A high and firm grip also can eliminating potential handgun malfunctions. Gripping a semiautomatic handgun too low (or too loosely) can cause it to jam. Most instructors favor a very firm grip and many suggest holding it as firmly as you possibly can. A strong grip gives you much more control over the handgun when firing as it will jump around less with each shot. Get yourself one of those doughnut hand exercisers and work on getting strong fingers and grip. The hard grip also makes it much less likely someone could take the gun out of your hand.

Pulling the trigger straight back is critical to an accurate shot but just as important is pulling the trigger smoothly and not ‘jerking’ the trigger pull. Your natural subconscious tendency will be to flinch when the trigger is pulled because you are expecting the ‘boom’. This flinch will cause you to move the handgun sights and probably miss your target. So another dry fire drill! Practice pulling the trigger smoothly and with uniform pressure so you don’t jerk the trigger. A common mistake many shooters make is they jerk the trigger when they think they have the sights aligned. Remember to aim for ‘center mass’ of your target and don’t have the mindset of aiming for a bulls eye shot. This will help you stop jerking the trigger when you think your sights are on target. You don’t want your trigger pull action to ‘pull’ the sights off the target.

Front Sight

Front Sight

The Sights – Front sight, Front sight, Front sight. Keeping your front sight on the target is the key to hitting the mark with a pistol. Align the front sight in the middle of the notch on the two rear sights and level with the rear sights but focus on the front sight and NOT the target. Your eyes should be focused like a laser on the front sight and your target should be blurry. Obtaining good pistol shot groupings is not possible until you learn to focus solely on the front sight.

In the 1950’s Jeff Cooper, a firearms instructor developed the “Modern Technique of the Pistol”. One of the elements of his technique is worth noting here and was called the “Flash Sight Picture”. This is how Wikipedia describes the method.

The Flash Sight Picture is a method of allowing the cognitive faculties of the shooter to align the target and the sights without the delay involved

Flash Sight Picture

Flash Sight Picture

in the conscious alignment of sights, as used when slow-firing a rifle at a distant target.

During a gunfight, waiting to align the sights is too slow.  It is physically impossible for the human eye to focus simultaneously on the rear sight (nearest to one’s eye), the front sight (further away from one’s eye), and the relatively distant target at the same time. The muscles of the eye adjust to focus sight on one specific distance optimally at any one instant, so 3 different distances mean the shooter’s focus must hunt (muscular physical adjustments) between all three points of mental concentration. The greatest adjustment of focus (relatively more ocular muscle contraction) is required to view shorter distances, such as the gun’s rear sight. In the Modern Technique the shooter is taught to focus on the front-sight of the pistol and align it against the target, ignoring the rear sight for quicker aiming and minimal physical requirements. This prevents the focus of the eye from hunting between rear-sight, front-sight and target, wasting vital time in refocusing.

The technique is called ‘flash’ sight picture because the cognition is best able to perform this function when the target and front sight are presented quickly as a single image, in a ‘flash’, as if the shooter had just turned around to face a threat appearing from close by.

There is much to learn when taking on the responsibility of owning and using a firearm so don’t ever stop learning and practicing. Be safe out there!

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2 Responses to “How to Shoot a Handgun – Basic Tips”

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  1. MJ says:
    I like that video at the end. Nice write up. I personally use a modified Weaver stance but used it as a starting point. I also don’t like to hold the pistol real tight but that is me. When I shoot my Springfield 1911 I kind off let it float in my hand a bit and it seems to work for me.
  2. jsilverton says:
    Great post on firing a handgun. My handgun grip is very firm. I have heard about Jeff Cooper. That is a good video about pistol shooting.

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