Competitive Shooting

Correcting Common Handgun Shooting Problems

Woman wearing pink hearing protection and holding a handgun with a two-thumbs forward grip

When the editorial director came up with assignments that included outlining personal defense handgun shooting goals, I felt he was doing something beneficial for the reader. The world is full of bad information. We publish qualified information based on legitimate training concerns.

What I am doing is giving you some orientation in the field. There is nothing speculative about these training goals, they are proven to work for students. You must meet me halfway, up your training schedule, and implement these suggestions. While study is good, you must pay the rent.

Inserting a loaded magazine into a Taurus pistol
Be certain to practice slapping the magazine home in a positive manner.

You must hit the range. There is a lot of misinformation cloaked as training information. Some of it is silly, and some is dangerous. It is difficult to tell the difference without experience. As an example, grocery shopping is easy. Laundry detergent is clearly marked, so is breakfast cereal. With some trainers, you often get detergent in the box when you need cereal.

Neat little tricks that work on the range with lots of practice don’t work when the threat is real. Choose an NRA-certified instructor with gray in his or her hair. If they deviate from a proven program, there should be a good reason.

Among the most common shortcomings of students is a lack of familiarity with the handgun. When you come to a class to learn safety and shooting, the instructor should not have to take the time to show you how to load and unload the handgun or how to manipulate the controls. This is time-consuming across the spectrum.

Most instructors will meet you before the class to provide personal one-on-one instruction. After all, they want you to succeed, and this makes for smoother training time. Many shooters do not properly load the pistol. When you load the self-loading handgun there is one technique that should be used for every pistol.

Thumb placed on the safety or decocker lever
Learning to manipulate the slide release, decock lever, or safety in a positive manner are vital skills.

Lock the slide to the rear. Insert a loaded magazine. Drop the slide either using the slide lock or simply grasping the rear of the slide. Racking the slide over a loaded magazine sometimes results in a short cycle and a cartridge not fully chambered. Some pistols such as the Kahr demand that the slide be ran fully to the rear to properly set the trigger and striker. Loading in this manner is good practice for speed loads and ensures the magazine is properly seated.

Failure to Release the Safety

Fortunately, most pistols today have ergonomically designed safety levers. Most of the striker-fired handguns don’t have a manual safety at all. A slide-mounted lever is a drawback to real speed. However, by practicing a strong thumbs-forward application, the slide-mounted safety may be quickly addressed.

Frame-mounted safety levers are much easier to address. Keep the thumb up as you affirm the firing grip, and bring the thumb down to snap the safety into the fire position. Practice this manipulation during your dry fire drills. In a similar manner, learn to quickly use manual decocker levers on double-action first-shot pistols.

The Grip

Correcting a poor grip is sometimes difficult. Too many shooters have chosen a firearm that is too large for their hands. Not much to be done if you cannot properly wrap your hands around a Glock 21 or Beretta 92 save trade guns. (I have problems with the Glock 21/Glock20 and a few other handguns.)

Woman firing a pistol with a two-handed thumbs forward grip
This is a perfect grip with the Taurus GX4 9mm handgun.

With a handgun that offers an ergonomic grip, the hand must ride as high as possible on the rear grip strap. A common fault is to allow a space between the top of the grip tang and the web of the hand. Ride the hand high against the grip tang.

The support hand must grip the handgun over the strong-side hand and assist in pointing the handgun toward the target. The support hand pulls the handgun to the rear, while the strong side hand pushes the handgun forward resulting in a solid lock. The hands should overlap the other without a gap between the hands.

Handgun Shooting Stance

A common problem with shooters is a weak stance. The handgun shooting stance is a fighting stance. The feet are planted, apart, with one behind the other for stability. The firing side foot should be to the rear. The arms extend to hold the firearm steady. The eyes do not drop to the sights. Instead, the pistol’s sights are brought to the eyes. The shoulders are forward.

Bob Campbell demonstrating a proper pistol firing stance
A proper handgun shooting stance helps with sight picture, recoil control, and even absorbing impact.

I have seen shooters lean their shoulders back and look through the bottom of their glasses at sights. A good breeze would have blown them over. Develop a solid boxer’s stance. There is always a chance you will be shot. An assailant may run into you. You may bump into something during tactical movement. The strength of your stance will determine how well you absorb these blows.

Trigger Control

Trigger control is sometimes called an art, not a skill. I disagree. Trigger control is a simple physical skill. It probably takes more skill to successfully strike a baseball with a ball bat or perhaps drive a golf ball to a hole in one. Trigger control is pressing the trigger straight to the rear without disturbing the sights. With the proper grip and a solid stance, trigger control is easier.

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Without a proper grip, trigger control isn’t possible. With a weak grip, when you mash the trigger, the sights will be all over the place. The trigger must not be snatched, or the pistol will drift off target. The trigger must be pressed smoothly in one motion. While the different parts of the trigger press must be understood —take up, press, and trigger reset — the trigger press is simple enough.

Press the trigger smoothly to the rear. This makes for smooth handgun shooting and good marksmanship. It is important to understand the effects of speed on marksmanship. At closer range, the trigger is pressed more quickly, but it is not slapped or jerked. The press is smooth, straight to the rear. As the range to the target increases, more time is needed. The trigger compression is still rapid, but the sights are aligned more closely.

Handgun with the trigger partially depressed showing proper trigger finger placement
A smooth, steady, straight-to-the-rear trigger press must be mastered with every type of trigger action.

At one time there was an unfortunate reliance upon laser sights. I think this has passed; it was a trend. I had several shooters chasing the red dot on a target during class. They hesitated and tried to keep the red dot still. This is practically impossible as there is some wobble in the handgun no matter how good the grip. This is exacerbated by a greater distance to the target.

Sight Alignment

Sight alignment must be understood. The front sight is superimposed on the target and the light between the front post and rear posts must be the same between each blade. The top of the blade is even across the rear sight. This makes for a proper sight alignment. The sight picture is the superimposition of the sights against the target.

Follow Through

The proper firing grip and trigger control also led to developing follow-through. Follow-through is maintaining the firing grip after the pistol fires. The firing grip must be maintained as the pistol recoils while the bullet is still in the barrel. This may result in a miss if the grip relaxes during firing. Keep a firm firing grip. Maintain the trigger press and concentrate on sight recovery driving the front sight back into the rear sight notch after controlling recoil.

Flinch

Working to eliminate flinch is perhaps the most difficult chore you face once you have this malady. Part of the problem is whether the shooter uses too much gun for their skill level. I have seen students make terrible showings with the .357 SIG, as an example, as the .357 was their first handgun. Good gun, bad choice at that point in their shooting life.

Bob Campbell shooting a 1911 .45 ACP pistol with three spent cartridge cases in the air
With a one-hand grip, the author has three spent cases in the air. This is a stunt. However, if need be, good accuracy may be delivered with real speed once you have mastered the fundamentals.

Muzzle blast is more to blame than recoil in most cases. The .40 caliber doesn’t seem difficult to control and doesn’t have the muzzle blast of the .357 SIG. Flinch is an involuntary clutching of the hand before the gun fires. It may be compared to the tightening of the muscles before we receive an injection — even though we are aware we should relax those muscles.

No matter how hardened the shooter, flinch sometimes intrudes and affects your skills. New shooters will jump involuntarily when they hear a firearm discharged at the other bay, as an example, and sometimes we all do.

The shooter who has handled the firearm a great deal and is familiar with the trigger action and controls is much less likely to flinch when the pistol fires. Firing and acclimating to the handgun makes for less flinch. Focus on the grip, sight picture, sight alignment, and trigger press and you may limit flinch.

Dry fire practice helps. Your body will understand that most of the time the gun isn’t going to fire, because of the many repetitions you have finished in dry fire. Often, it is good to practice with the .22 rimfire. Recoil and muzzle blast are not a consideration, and you will find this practice profitable. These are cures for common problems.

By beginning with proper instruction, perhaps you will never develop these problems. If you do, don’t let the problem continue. Address the problem with remedial effort and a qualified handgun shooting coach or instructor.

Do you have a shooting tip or a story about how you overcame a handgun shooting shortfall? Share it in the comment section.

  • Black man firing a pistol at an outdoor range
  • Bob Campbell firing a handgun from a braced position using 55-gallon drums
  • Bob Campbell demonstrating a proper pistol firing stance
  • loading a magazine in a Taurus GX4 with the slide locked to the rear
  • an example of a proper two-handed thumbs-forward grip on a semi-automatic handgun
  • Manipulating the slide of a Taurus GX4 9mm semiautomatic handgun
  • Bob Campbell shooting a 1911 .45 ACP handgun with a spent cartridge case in the air
  • Bob Campbell holding a 1911 .45 ACP pistol with the slide locked to the rear and a magazine being loaded into the magwell
  • Woman wearing pink hearing protection and holding a handgun with a two-thumbs forward grip
  • Thumb placed on the safety or decocker lever
  • YOung woman shooting a red dot optic equipped pistol outdoors
  • Bob Campbell shooting a 1911 .45 ACP pistol with three spent cartridge cases in the air
  • Inserting a loaded magazine into a Taurus pistol
  • firing a pistol with a red dot sight from the hip
  • Handgun with the trigger partially depressed showing proper trigger finger placement
  • Bob Campbell with a shaved head to support a friend with cancer shooting a FN 40 pistol during recoil
  • Woman firing a pistol with a two-handed thumbs forward grip

About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.


Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Handloader
Rifle Magazine
Handguns
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns



Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
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 (7)

  1. If you shoot a revolver while using many of the grips pictured, you will be in for a painful experience. I use a grip that keeps my hand from the front of the cylinder. I use this grip when shooting any handgun so I am comfortable shooting either revolvers or semiautomatic handguns.

  2. I work with a shooting coach about once a month. Would like to have him more, but my time is limited. Because my day job involves lifting saddles, my muscles are more developed for lifting and retraction, not good for pistol stabilization, so he suggested some small weights and a few exercises to balance out my muscles. Well Qualified Coaches are a great thing!

  3. If you flinch because the person in the bay next to you shot something loud, like say an AR, something that can help is; to DOUBLE PLUG. Meaning wear ear plugs UNDER your ear muffs. Also to help cure flinching, focus more on the FRONT SIGHT, while slowly adding more pressure to the trigger, until it goes bang, ALL WHILE FOCUSING ON THE FRONT SIGHT, LIKE REALLY FOCUS! On You-tube, Lena Miculek (like 8-time world champ) has some great videos sharing her techniques for grip, and explains the why, sighting without staring at or losing sight of the target, and my favorite of hers is how to get the most gun HANDLING out of a box of 50 shells while at the range, as this includes many magazine changes, WHILE NOT LOOKING AT THE MAGAZINE, and practicing sling-shot, and slide-release techniques when changing magazines. Basically she only puts like 2-3 rounds in multiple magazines. This also spreads out your enjoyable range time, and really helps get more familiar with your firearm, do to more gun handling, as was her goal, instead of loading to the max, and doing mag dumps. Doing magazine dumps correctly, you may want to take tips from her father, Jerry. LOL

  4. One comment – I was taught that the finger position was important, i.e., nearer to the tip should be on the trigger, not near or in the first crease because that caused you to pull the handgun to the inside. This could cause an inaccurate shot.

    Your thoughts?

  5. All good tips! Unfortunately still see many of the same basic errors being made on the range.

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