There have been many books written on shooting from Hit the White Part by my friend Massad Ayoob to Paul Weston’s book on combat shooting for police and Ed McGivern’s Fast and Fancy Revolver Shooting. Some are dated and while Chic Gaylord’s Handgunner’s Guide is worth a look, the gear is outmoded. All are worth a read. Anything by Jeff Cooper and his able student Gabriel Suarez, is worth the money.
Getting started by taking the NRA beginners course is one of the best thing you can do. Safety is stressed, and you will have a solid foundation for growth as a shooter. Like everyone else, there are times when I am just shooting for fun. Not often, but occasionally, I break out the .22 TCM or a long-barrel single-action revolver, and see if I can hit the rock on the 100-yard berm, or alternately, how quickly I can hit a tennis ball on the 10-yard line. It is all great fun.
However, if you are serious about growth and need to learn defensive, competitive, or hunting skills, then the time spent on the range should be productive. How much time you spend just shooting versus practicing, should be examined. All of the time and money spent on guns and ammunition should be a payoff in marksmanship. I recently had a good discussion with Rod Goforth, a real athlete of a shooter, and a man who fires many thousands of rounds on a yearly basis. He practices dry fire diligently and fires until he gets it right—which is more often than not. Shooters like Rod don’t just shoot more than I, they practice the right way and follow strict rules concerning practice.
Starting From the Bottom
Most shooters advance quickly. They go from having difficulty controlling their shots to what they think is good shooting. If they do not have other shooters to gauge their accuracy by, they often have an overinflated idea of their own skills. A few rounds of IDPA competition will put things in perspective. It is tempting to get pretty good with the handgun, and then empty the pistol into the target. Machine gunning a paper target is fun but it isn’t viable training, and you do not learn much.
Unless you are properly executing the Bill Drill in rapid fire, you need to learn marksmanship first. That means slow-fire precision. Accuracy is final. Noise and brass in the air is sometimes fun, but you must hit the target. Unfortunately, some shooters begin with a handgun that will destroy their confidence. I know a fellow who purchased his wife a compact Kimber .45 for their wedding anniversary as her first gun.
A hard-kicking, single-action .45 isn’t something most folks relish firing at the range. We do it because we must to master a carry gun. I have lost track of the compact .357 SIG and .40 Smith and Wesson self loaders that resulted in shooters picking up a terrible flinch before attending my class. Their results were poor.
Another big brawny guy showed up with a Springfield XD in .357 SIG and his wife, who had never fired a gun before my class, had an identical Springfield in 9mm. This guy barely passed the class and scared everyone on the line with blast and flash. I am certain he practiced trigger jerk—not trigger press. His wife on the other hand, rose to the occasion and passed the class with a 90% score.
The .38 Special revolver in a four-inch barrel handgun, and a medium-size 9mm self loader are ideal personal defense handguns for beginners and not too bad for the most experienced shooter. The .357 SIG, .40 Smith and Wesson, and .357 Magnum cartridges require much time and effort to master. They should be left to shooters who have trained extensively and understand recoil control.
I most often carry a .45 caliber self loader, and it has more of a push than a sharp rap. With a steel-frame pistol, or something over 30 ounces, the .45 is a reasonable choice. However, once you develop a flinch, it is very difficult to get rid of this involuntary muscle contraction. Hard kicking handguns are not for most of us. An equally poor choice is a pistol that is too small.
Small, subcompact handguns have small grips that cramp the hand. The controls are difficult to manipulate efficiently. Shooter-induced malfunctions in which the shooter allows his hand and fingers to strike the controls are common with these handguns. A short sight radius is also a limiting factor. Pulling a heavy trigger against a light handgun isn’t conducive to good accuracy. While it is good to begin with a .22, unfortunately, too many who are interested in personal defense shooting can afford only one handgun. That is the one they practice with—regardless of whether it is a plinker or a self-defense caliber.
Repetition and delivering performance on demand means mental discipline. This means firing the handgun time after time in exactly the same manner, with the same trigger press, and the same sight alignment—repetitively. You may be moving, or the target may be at different ranges, but the chore is the same.
Align the sights properly. Superimpose the sights properly over the target. Press the trigger to the rear smoothly. Keep the grip strong in follow through, allow the trigger to reset, and fire again. If you fire a double tap at 5 yards, or a 5-shot group from the bench rest at 25 yards, the process is the same, the details differ. I often see folks at the range who are using a poor stance. They are not holding the pistol correctly, too weakly, and their feet are not planted correctly.
When I work into a stance, I have a mental trick that helps. I imagine a steel rod anchoring me to the earth and running at least 20 feet into the ground. I may pivot on it or turn in any direction, but that rod running from my leg through the earth is my anchor. I keep a rock solid stance. I often hear folks at the range emptying their piece.
Five shots, a .38 snub; six reports, a .357 Magnum; eight or nine deep booms, a .45, and the inevitable 13 to 18 rounds from the 9mm, often followed by a fast reload and repeat. I don’t believe they are learning much, even if they are having fun. As I said, ammunition is expensive, and you should be getting your money’s worth. A solid hit in the X-ring beats 50 rounds all around the B 27 in my opinion.
Groups do not save your life. You need to practice often and have the image of a perfect sight picture firmly implanted in your hard drive memory. My practice regimen works well for me since I test a lot of handguns. I fire for reliability and combat shooting at 5, 7, and 10 yards with five controlled shots per group. The 10-yard range is important. It is far enough to stress the need for good marksmanship habits, but close enough to avoid frustration as the beginner practices.
The handgun must be properly sighted. As an example, last week I tested an expensive factory handgun that fired four inches to the left in relation to the point of aim at 20 yards. I am confident in my skill and managed to properly adjust the sights. (I keep an extensive range kit with proper tools.) A combination of speed, accuracy, and power is needed. This accuracy isn’t easy to build without careful attention to the basics of marksmanship. Without proper marksmanship skills speeding up simply means you will miss faster.
Shooters who do not have enough time to practice, do the best they can. A job, family, and other obligations loom larger for some than others. Just the same, the time you manage to devote to training should be utilized properly. If you have achieved a high level of skill, then you may practice a number of skills in each trip.
The draw, presenting the handgun to the target, firing accurately, and even weak-hand fire and barricade shooting may be pressed into the range time. This isn’t ideal. I think shooters are often duplicating their qualification exercises. There are drills such as the El Presidente that include several skills. It isn’t difficult incorporate speed loads into every practice session. But, when working to build skills, you need to specifically build that skill.
Work with short-range control during the entire session, or long range and hitting small targets—depending upon which skill you are short at. Perhaps weak-hand fire is your shortcoming. Work with the non-dominant hand during the range session. Devote each range session to one skill in the beginning. It takes a lot of practice to become reasonably good at combat pistol drills. Practice hard on the skills you have not mastered. It is easy enough to go to the range, and practice the drills you are good at. It takes that thing called mental discipline to master the other drills. This process is often called learning to learn. Once you have learned the practice and attention to detail that goes into mastering a skill, you will be prepared for other skill building exercises and approach each the same way.
Do you have a training or shooting tip? How about a favorite shooting drill? Share your answers in the comment section.
Bob Campbell is a former peace officer and published author with over 40 years combined shooting and police and security experience. Bob holds a degree in Criminal Justice. Bob is the author of the books, The Handgun in Personal Defense, Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry, The 1911 Automatic Pistol, The Gun Digest Book of Personal Protection and Home Defense, The Shooters Guide to the 1911, The Hunter and the Hunted, and The Complete Illustrated Manual of Handgun Skills. His latest book is Dealing with the Great Ammo Shortage. He is also a regular contributor to Gun Tests, American Gunsmith, Small Arms Review, Gun Digest, Concealed Carry Magazine, Knife World, Women and Guns, Handloader and other publications. Bob is well-known for his firearm testing.
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