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.
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 a 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.
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.
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.)
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 sights are brought to the eyes. The shoulders are forward.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in June of 2022. It has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and clarity.