Practicing with a handgun will not make you a better shooter or better prepared in a self-defense situation. Training with a handgun gun will. It may be a matter of semantics, but going to the range and pulling the trigger does little more than reinforce habits—good or bad and most likely more bad than good.
Training involves a well thought out plan and addresses your ability to develop or improve specific skills. In the process, you will develop the muscle memory necessary to perform the action as a subconscious act. This is particularly important in pressure situations such as competition or self-defense.
Due to the limits of space, the following is an overview rather than specific instructions; more of a meal plan than specific recipes for each dish. If you are interested in specific instruction based on your individual weapon platform and situation, work with a professional firearms instructor.
Yes, yes, I understand. You have a new gun and are dying to get out and shoot it. Go. Have fun and pop off as many rounds as your heart desires. After that, come home; clean your gun and start your loading drills.
In a survival situation, it would be important to be familiar with a wide spectrum of guns, however, for our purposes stick to your primary, back-up competition or self-defense gun. Start slow and remember: “Slow is smooth; smooth is fast; fast is deadly accurate.”
Practice using snap caps. There is no reason to chamber live rounds during this drill. With a handful of snap caps, practice loading the magazine or speed loader. Next, load your magazine or speed loader into its carrier or pouch. Then, remove the gun from the holster and make it ready to fire. Once finished, unload the gun and the magazine and repeat. Practice this drill until it becomes second nature—until you can quickly and easily load your gun without looking at your pistol, hands, magazine or speed loader.
Your next step should be dry fire drills. With modern revolvers and semi-automatic pistols you should be able to safely pull the trigger—without a round loaded—and not worry about damaging the gun. However, if there is any doubt, check with the original manufacturer. Of course if you followed the reloading drills, you’ll already have the snap caps handy and can use those.
With this second step you are going to start building a shooting routine. Perform the loading drill first. Once loaded, return the gun to its holster, nightstand etc. Draw, line up the sights and slowly squeeze the trigger. Once the hammer falls, return the gun to its storage position, bedside table or holster and repeat the drill.
Eventually, you will add multiple targets and incorporate advanced shooting techniques such as Mozambique or Fail Safe, malfunction drills and more depending on your personal goals.
This can be a tricky topic. Personally, I like to use the cheapest ammunition my gun will reliably feed and accurately print groups with for practice. Ammunition selection for self-defense or competition is a topic all of its own, but I would offer this piece of advice. The best bullet in the world is useless if it does not hit your target.
Bullet placement will always be more important than the bullet itself.
After becoming proficient with a few of these basics, join a league or shooting organization. I shot International Defensive Pistol League (IDPA) for years. It is not about people who have spent their life savings building the ultimate competition gun. It is an organization dedicated to practical self-defense situations and scenarios. The creative scenarios each shoot brings make an excellent gauge of your abilities and will point out deficiencies in your training plan.