Getting It Right: Avoiding Shooting Mistakes – Part 1

Basic magazine training

Training in personal defense skills exists for one reason: To stop an attack.

We stop the attack by inflicting damage on the opponent’s body.

The need to stop the threat must be so severe and what they are doing so terrible that the attacker must be stopped.

It must not matter, morally or legally, if the assailant dies as a result of being stopped.

As I train, I keep communication, movement and fighting tunnel vision in my thoughts.

Why? It’s all about avoiding shooting mistakes. If you’re interested in my advice on getting it right, read on.

Editor’s note: This post was written by a former peace officer who has held police and security roles for more than 30 years. He has taught hundreds of shooters basic firearms, tactical and concealed carry classes. Additionally, he has made hundreds of arrests, has authored 15 books and has been injured in the line of duty more than once. The following advice is based on decades of real-life experience.

Proficiency Takes Time

There are many books focusing on target shooting and basic skills that present basically the same information.

That is because handgun marksmanship has been well understood for approximately 100 years or more.

Advanced tactics simply aid us in firing and hitting on the move or when in awkward positions.

Speed shooting is the challenge. Hitting a moving target that does not wish to be hit is difficult.

The advanced shooter will use exactly the same basic skill set as the beginner, but he will be much smoother and faster at what he does.

The professional was once a novice, after all.

Former military female shooter at the range
Proper form will go a long way toward avoiding shooting mistakes.

Despite the continual reinvention of one technique or the other, proficiency at arms requires the sweat of your brow and more than a little legwork.

Competency is firmly grounded in mastering the basic skills that make for hitting the target. And that is what it is all about.


Not making noise, not scaring the threat, and certainly not by putting a lot of ammunition downrange.

What we are interested in is hitting the target. A military term I find to the point is “punishing the target.”

If they are bold enough to attempt to attack our position, or if we find them in an exposed position, we will punish them with small arms fire.

You fire for effect. You do not fire for range or to get your bearings.

When confronted in a civilian scenario, there is simply no room for error. When the threat is on you, the first shot must be true.

Substance Over Style

A serious shortcoming with most trainers is that they seem to lack an understanding that you will not be the only one firing. There will be incoming fire.

That is why minimizing your target area by taking cover is important. Remember, the gun only implies shooting at the target. Cops and soldiers wear armor.

This implies incoming fire. Minimizing exposure to incoming fire is important. You have to break down the expectation that there will be a single solution for every problem.

I do this by stressing not only rapid-fire coarse shooting at close range, but also transitioning rapidly to longer-range fire that demands precision.

I cannot tell you what type of fight you will be involved in, but I can give you the basic skills that will be needed.

You must combine the philosophical framework of tactics with the physical skills necessary for defensive shooting.

shooting a revolver
Revolvers are never outdated! Getting good instruction with them is important.

I stress during training that every shot is the most important shot. Each shot is a single event in a string of shots.

A volley of shots means nothing. To get it right, we avoid mistakes.

The basics of combat shooting include the presentation, stance, sight picture, sight alignment and trigger press.

While the individual shot matters, the most important tactic includes firing twice—double taps. Any target worthy of one bullet deserves two.

A rapid follow-up shot is good insurance and greatly increases wound potential. As a boxer will tell you, several light blows do not equal one heavy blow.

Just the same with an adequate caliber: two shots is a good tactic. Taking cover is the mark of a well-trained individual.

I cannot imagine anyone firing in the open by choice. But the best advice I can give is to avoid mistakes.

As an example, many students come to my classes with underdeveloped gun handling skills.

If you cannot smoothly load the pistol, then you will never clear a malfunction in a combat situation. With this in mind, I have devised a plan on avoiding mistakes.

When you are involved in a fight, tunnel vision is one of the things that will be hampering your performance.

Communication during movement is also something that must be considered if your family is nearby. You do not wish to find your way to cover and leave your spouse in the open.

This is, after all, a grim business. You need to have a plan in place in case of a worst-case scenario. Avoiding shooting mistakes is one of those plans.

It is your responsibility to make a plan that will prove profitable in a critical situation. As for shooting skills, you will learn in class from a good instructor, but you must practice at home to get up to speed.

A Serious Business

You must make certain that you understand the finality of the result of deadly action. There is no erasing the action or calling the bullet back.

One of my favorite pastors and authors often makes profound observations. Some are dire prognostications. Others are sterling examples of common sense.

When commenting upon the death of a man we each admired, he remarked, “My first impression was… he is dead. By God, he is dead.”

This man is more than a friend who simply happens to be a preacher. At other times, he has mentioned that the mortality rate among men his age is shocking.

It is two in two. We are all going to die. While most concerned for our immortal soul, he isn’t getting up a busload to go home tonight either.

I am interested in postponing death as long as possible. In the short term, I am hoping to tame the violence of death.

And that is what we are discussing today, avoiding death by violence by avoiding shooting mistakes.

dim light practice shooting
Practice firing in dim light with the gear you are likely to use.

Unlike the animal kingdom, men have foreknowledge of violence. We know our body is not immortal. We realize what others of our kind are capable of doing.

A lot of what I see occurring today is simply old horror in a new dress, but our protein-fed ex-con criminal class does seem bolder and with less inhibition in performing acts of violence.

The pause for peace seems to be when everyone is reloading. Anyone who has found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time does not wish to repeat the experience.

The awful fear and stress aren’t easily described. I have not yet met the man with ice water in his veins in a lethal situation. Fear, stress, and trembling are part of the equation.

When the lead comes hissing hot from hell, you had best have a plan. Men are like the moon, they all have a dark side we do not see.

When that dark side is exposed you may be in for unexpected danger. We train for the worst and hope for the best.

Training is simply the application of logic and you need to develop a logically rigorous thought process. Remember, philosophical and physical skill sets are each important.

Having the Right Mindset

If there is anything I have learned, it is that complacency is deadly. We have to learn, and to learn, we must be teachable. Teach, listen and learn.

I am lucky in that my vocation and calling seem wedded together and I am in a position to observe and train. I have a good working relationship with local police agencies.

I also live and work in one of the highest crime areas in the country. I see a lot of mistakes, but I also see ways of avoiding shooting mistakes.

The bad guys make mistakes, but so do the good guys and girls. One of the greatest mistakes the good guys and girls make in training is setting on the lead.

If you have known the coaches I have known, and you are a football fan, then you know what I am talking about.

When you are ahead of the game, you may feel that all that is needed is maintenance. If you are running 21-0, you have the game sewn up.

I witnessed a game go from 21-0 to 41-40, and not in favor of the team with the early lead. Maintenance mentality is a killer.

(I realize the seemingly insurmountable problems in police training, but we are not discussing police training, but individual training.)

We cannot set on the lead. We may be a good shot and we may have won a few competitions and impressed the guys at IDPA.

But we need to maintain the lead and keep ahead of the game. Complacency is a peril. We must practice until we cannot get it wrong.

One-shot practice
When it comes to avoiding shooting mistakes, every shot matters. It isn’t a volley of shots, but getting that one hit that’s important.

The oft-stated truism is that most of us practice until we get it right, while professionals practice until we cannot get it wrong.

Let’s avoid that one deadly strategy of setting on the lead. When we practice whatever technique is most beneficial or when we master the fundamentals of marksmanship, we are striving for smooth motion.

Eliminating unnecessary movement is vital. I have trained quite a few shooters and witnessed their awkward pantomimes as they attempt to access the handgun.

They have developed a life-threateningly-bad habit. They turn the simple movement of drawing a handgun into four or more unnecessary steps.

At this point in their development, they are likely to fumble the presentation from leather if faced with a deadly attack.

If the shooter is caught in a personal defense situation at that point in time, they are at a serious disadvantage.

Becoming a smooth and practiced shot comes from the continued repetition of the drills. But proficiency will also come from avoiding mistakes.

Avoiding Shooting Mistakes: The Big Four

After investing quite a few years in training and training others, I have isolated the cause of the majority of mistakes. The list is not original; I read the basic outline some years ago.

I have added to the list and isolated the mistakes that most often occur. This list is clearly applicable to any of us who fancy ourselves defensive shooters, no matter how experienced.

While getting it right is the goal we all strive for, understanding the basis for mistakes and avoiding shooting mistakes (as well as correcting them) is an important part of proficiency.

Here are “The Big Four:”

  1. Panic-Prompted Mistakes
  2. Good Intentions
  3. Passive Negligence
  4. Blindspots

Panic-Prompted Mistakes

These are the type of mistakes that occur more often during a real situation than on the range, simply because folks do not take training as seriously.

Panic-prompted mistakes include the person who fumbles the draw and has difficulty in accessing the firearm under stress.

Then there is the person that draws his gun too quickly, shoots too fast, shoots and misses or forgets to aim.

Spray and pray shootings in which the shooter empties the gun and does not strike the target are included in this category. Spray-and-pray is a common panic-prompted mistake.

Avoiding shooting mistakes like the panic-prompted kind is crucial.

Good Intentions

These are mistakes brought about by poor instruction or by flawed techniques.

Failing to grasp the need to use your sights at all times and succumbing to new and unproven techniques such as a pole axis interlock sideways grip (a joke but not a stretch for the terminology invented by some) are examples of a good intention mistake.

A student attended a class in which students were taught to actuate the slide lock and magazine release with the weak hand, a violation of most every principle I have learned.

While we need to use two hands at every point possible, often the one-hand gun will become the one-hand gun in the truest sense.

The student would be caught helpless in a situation in which he or she was forced to fight with one hand.

They must be able to control the handgun with one hand and manipulate the controls with one hand. These mistakes may sometimes be the most difficult to prevent.

Passive Negligence

This is a common area for mistakes. Negligence is a product of laziness, a lack of discipline and inconsistency.

Many shooters practice their favorite drill over and over and become very good at it. They are a one-show pony.

They do not practice difficult things such as drawing from concealment, one-hand fire, weak hand fire, or malfunction-clearance drills.

Some shooters who are negligent in training are good shots—at their favorite shooting problems. They ring the steel plates with every shot.

When challenged with a different scenario, they pause and take too long to solve the problem.

Blind Spots

Shooters tend to ignore their own bad habits (or bad influences). They make light of their obvious shortcomings and continue to feel that they are good shots when they have serious deficiencies.

A good example is a fellow who practices with a full-size pistol, but carries a compact handgun he has not mastered. They have a blind spot in training they refuse to recognize.

How do we overcome these mistakes? What’s the key to avoiding shooting mistakes? Critical approaches to training and an honest appraisal of our ability come first.

Next, we must have motivation. When we are attacked, the motivation to react is external. We have to fight back to survive. In training, all motivation is internal.

We are creating something from nothing and must be able to stir ourselves to perform. I would much rather have a motivated student on hand than a genius student.

The drills you should master are few, but if you are able to master these drills, you will be able to defend yourself against 99 percent of the real problems that come up.

The important thing is to be well-grounded in important skills and to be able to think quickly.

Lacing an attacker with shots at close range should be understood, but if you need to transition to long-range fire, then you should be capable.

Mind Over Material

If you think that obtaining a quality handgun and completing a concealed carry permit course qualifies you as a competent gun handler, you have gone to the wrong church.

The NRA basic handgun course is a good start, designed by our premier training authority for civilians. Becoming a good shot (and avoiding shooting mistakes) involves considerable effort.

There are few things more satisfying than printing a tight group on the target. All of this slaughter of paper will not be beneficial to your survival unless you control the handgun.

You must realize that marksmanship comes from controlling upper body motion. Kneeling, prone or barricade—shooting is all the same.

You must control your shoulders arms and hands in every stance. The body aims and the sights confirm the aiming points. You have to handle and deploy the handgun correctly.

Feel is important, but feel is overrated in some respects.

Avoiding shooting mistakes
Avoiding shooting mistakes takes practice, even if you think you’ve mastered it.

A well-designed handgun with excellent geometry (such as the 1911 or the GLOCK 17) is a good place to be, but you can do good work with long trigger double-action first shot pistols as well.

Among the more serious thinkers and a good shot, my acquaintance uses the Arex Delta. It’s not an expensive pistol, but a good one.

Given a good function and usable accuracy, the shooter is most important. We need to know what it feels like and looks like to correctly deploy a handgun. Digital dexterity is vital.

Performing the prescribed action correctly is important. I respect those who have achieved physical feats in running and other sports. They often excel at gunhandling.

But in shooting, it is your mind that should be running at full speed. Some shooters have picked up unfortunate bad habits from self-training or unqualified instructors.

After years of erroneous input, it is difficult to absorb proper training but anyone willing to try will prosper.

Be sure to read Part 2 of this blog series, where we cover some specific drills and techniques to help you with avoiding shooting mistakes.

About the Author:

Wilburn Roberts

When Wilburn Roberts was a young peace officer, he adopted his present pen name at the suggestion of his chief, as some of the brass was leery of what he might write. This was also adopted out of respect for families of both victims and criminals. The pen name is the same and the man remains an outspoken proponent of using enough gun for the job.

He has been on the hit list of a well-known hate group, traveled in a dozen countries and written on many subjects, including investigating hate crimes and adopting the patrol carbine. He graduated second in his class with a degree in Police Science. It took him 20 years to work himself from Lieutenant to Sergeant and he calls it as he sees it.
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (6)

  1. You may cover what I am about to write in part 2 but if you do please don’t take offense when I say it should be here in the very first part of your great presentation.
    Before you fire the first shot you better be sure that if you miss or the bullet goes through the assailant there isn’t an innocent human behind or near to the fire zone. Case in point. Texas peace officer, on patrol, sees an elderly woman being attacked by a vicious dog. He jumps out of his car and gets the dog’s attention. The dog charges the officer, the officer draws and fires. Killing the woman, instead, of the dog. Know what your target is and everything else in the field of fire. Thank for a very good article well worth the read.

  2. I am so grateful for your having published this article. It is the best, most carefully thought out and effectively written article on this subject that I have read to date. I will share it with friends, save it and print it for frequent review.
    Can’t wait for Part 2.
    Thank you SO much!

  3. I was a fairly good pistol shooter when I was young. I survived several combat situations at close range, defending the helpless and myself.
    I realize, now, that those were all by pure luck. The result of pure determination and really good physical conditioning.
    The physical fitness is LONG gone. I have the determination but I also am 45 years older.
    I have the time to regain some of what I lost, but finding a training instructor or even a partner is tough.
    I will hand on every word this man writes.
    But, I’ll also continue to search for a training situation.
    My urgency is prompted by our current situation and environment, in this country. I just hope that I can catch up.

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