Competitive Shooting

Down South: Nice Place — Unless We’re Talking About Shot Placement

Shot group on a skeleton target that is is low and to the right

Do you sometimes leave the handgun range kind of disappointed in those low shot groups and poor shot placement? Have you tried fixing that problem by holding artificially high on target? If so, you’re part of a very big club! Generally, those low groups will trend left for right-handed shooters and right for left-handed shooters. For some, the groups are low at six o’clock. If any of that applies to you, this article is an attempt to help you get into the smaller, happier club of people whose shots consistently group in the center of the target.

No one trick works with everyone. So, I’m including the top three examples that have worked in my instruction — depending on the shooter’s learning style. They are listed in order of most to least often successful, but they’ve all worked — and often with a low investment of rounds and time.

Grey silhouette target with a bullet hole pattern that is left of center
Can you identify what the shooter’s issue was here? This low and left cluster of shots — fired from five to 15 yards by the same shooter — is indicative of a right-handed shooter with a shot anticipation problem. This is the most common of all shooting errors.

Platforms

For brevity, these instructions refer primarily to semi-auto pistols. With some common-sense modifications, they will work with revolvers as well.

Five yards on any of these is a good distance for beginners; seven yards for more confident shooters. The target area should be quite small, i.e., a 1.5-inch square at largest.

The Basics of Marksmanship

The aiming technique is consistent for each drill. Align the rear and front sights so that the front is level with the rear and there is equal daylight on each side of the front sight post. Then, superimpose those sights (or red dot) over the center of the small bullseye.

With the rear and front sight, or red dot, correctly oriented over the center of the target, focus your eyes on the front sight (or the dot of your optic, if you use one). The rear sight and target will be blurred. Focusing on the front sight and not the target is counterintuitive, but it works.

Max Michel Drill 

That’s my name for this drill after seeing a demo by professional shooter Max Michel. It’s a variation on the old ball-and-dummy-round drill, but this one works better for most people.

Pistol shown with the magazine removed
Performing the Max Michel drill with a loaded chamber and no magazine. I have found this drill to be more effective than the ball-and-dummy drill which uses a snap cap in the magazine. That drill is more effective for teaching malfunction clearance techniques.
  1. Load the pistol by inserting a magazine and racking or closing the slide.
  2. Remove and stow the magazine.
  3. Align the sights and acquire a sight picture.
  4. Press the trigger to fire the first shot.
  5. Assuming your focus was correct, you’ll be able to confidently state where the front sight was in relation to the target at the moment of firing.
  6. Maintain a solid grip and look for a perfect sight picture to come into view with a focus on the front sight.
  7. Press off the next shot. Call the shot in terms of where the front sight was aimed when the gun went click!

After five to seven reps of the Max Michel drill, a majority of shooters begin to understand what they were doing to cause the flinch — however slight it may be — that’s causing shots to go low. If it doesn’t work for you, try the next one.

Five Percent at a Time

It is Kyle Defoor of Defoor Proformance Shooting, to whom I’m indebted for this one.

In this drill, take aim on the bullseye with the loaded gun. With your finger on the trigger, take out any slack or excess travel your trigger may have. Striker-fired pistols usually have about ¾ inch of free travel before reaching a palpable wall. Most 1911/2011 pistols have a much shorter trip to that point. Stop at that wall to start this drill.

The “zero” point, with the finger laying on the trigger face of a striker-fired pistol
At the “zero” point, with my finger laying on the trigger face of a striker-fired pistol. Here, I’ve lined up my sights on target and am prepared to fire.
HK VP9 pistol with Streamlight TLR-1 weapon light
Now at the “50 percent” point, my finger has taken the slack out of the trigger and I can feel resistance. Now, my visual focus is on the front sight and I begin pressing the trigger straight back. My grip is firm, with strength from forearms not fingers, to keep the front sight where it belongs—on target.
The trigger of a HK VP9 pistol fully depressed
Trigger fully depressed. While this might be considered the “100 percent” point of its travel, in terms of the mental countdown from 50 percent of applying pressure on the trigger, this happened somewhere between the 55 and 60 percent points. Now begins the follow-through phase of the shot. I re-establish sight picture and decide to either place my finger on the frame and take a break, or to focus my vision on the front sight, release the trigger without breaking physical contact with it, find that 50 percent point, and fire again.

Some hammer-fired handguns, including most double-action-only models, lack the slack feeling in the trigger. Instead, the weight of the hammer is felt through the entire trigger stroke. For these, press through approximately ¾ inch of travel and then proceed.

Let’s call the wall or ¾ inch point, the 50% mark. Now, keeping a good focus on the front sight. Press the trigger to 55%, then 60%, 65%, and so on, until the shot breaks. If a person is able to make their finger move in 5% increments, the shot usually fires somewhere between 60–70%.

Remember, the best shots in any of these drills will be a surprise. Good shooting is simply keeping the sights on target until the shot is history. It’s simple, but not always easy.

I’ve adapted the language of this drill for some shooters. In this version, we use 50 cents as the wall. Depending on the type of trigger, add one nickel, penny, or dime’s weight of pressure on the trigger at a time. Pretty much everyone can picture how much weight a single coin, then another, and another, would feel like when resting on the pad of their trigger finger.

The Control-Your-Amygdala Drill

Credit for this one goes to sports psychologist Jane Pike for the phrase “Control Your Amygdala,” though she was referring to overcoming her fear of rock climbing.

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Some people have a high need to understand why and how a problem is happening before they can fix it. Those low shot groups are actually evidence of our survival instinct! In the absence of formal training, the part of the brain that deals with sudden threats jumps into action for every shot. That primitive part of the brain is called the amygdala.

The amygdala’s job is to keep you alive without you having to think about it. At the moment the shot breaks, the amygdala perceives an emergency — there is, after all, a small explosion happening right in front of your face and between your hands. It only takes a couple shots for the memory aspect of the brain to get in on the act, too.

Shot group on a skeleton target that is is low and to the right
The shot group between my thumb and forefinger is the typical result of recoil anticipation by a left-handed shooter.

At this point, the act of pressing the trigger is infused with the anticipation of stress. Often, the shooter’s eyes automatically close or squint when the shot breaks, which would make sense in the event of an unwanted explosion. Often, the hands get caught up in the “emergency” also. Typically, the trigger finger delivers a large or small spastic motion that’s akin to the first time you jumped off a high dive.

At some point you thought, “Oh heck, let’s get this over with!” and jumped without much of a plan. When trigger finger jumps or flinches, shots go low. The stress-induced error may also involve the wrists or other fingers, but the trigger finger is usually the culprit. The lack of a plan isn’t limited to the high dive. It can also be seen in most flinchers’ failure to follow through with the shot by visually hunting for a post-recoil sight picture.

Eve Flanigan shooting the Lone Wolf LTD pistol.
The author shooting the Lone Wolf LTD pistol. These drills will work with any semi-automatic pistol or revolver with a few common-sense modifications.

Once the need-to-know shooter understands the source of that flinch, a remedy can be found by making a firm decision that the finger is the slave of the intentional, thinking side of the brain, not the “knock the glass out of the red box” side, AKA the amygdala. Sometimes it’s helpful to remember not to consider the shot to be the climax of the shooting cycle. Replace that exciting prospect with ‘seeking the — thoroughly boring — second sight picture.

If you’ve suffered the disappointment of low shot groups, give at least one of these methods a try. When you’ve overcome this most common shooting error, give yourself a pat on the back!

Do you have issues with your shot placement or a tip to help others? Share your answer in the comment section.

  • Trigger pulled to the “50 percent” point of a double action trigger pull
  • Eve Flanigan shooting the Lone Wolf LTD pistol.
  • Index finger beginning to depress the trigger on Lone Wolf trigger
  • Lone Wolf LTD pistol held by Eve Flannigan
  • Shot group on a skeleton target that is is low and to the right
  • The trigger of a HK VP9 pistol fully depressed
  • HK VP9 pistol with Streamlight TLR-1 weapon light
  • The “zero” point, with the finger laying on the trigger face of a striker-fired pistol
  • Two-handed dry fire practice with an unloaded firearm
  • Grey silhouette target with a bullet hole pattern that is left of center
  • Pistol shown with the magazine removed
  • Pistol trigger depressed about halfway
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Comments (5)

  1. Nice write up. I absolutely do this, and often don’t take the time to practice doing it right.
    @grumpy49, good point. I mold my own plastic bullets… just haven’t in a while since primers have become unobtainium.

  2. Low and to the left (right hand shooter) is typical to new shooters. Too much finger on the trigger, past the first joint, causes you to “curl” the pistol to the left prior firing. (Too little finger, trigger closer to the finger-tip, can have the opposite affect causing curl to the right. Proper placement is the edge of the trigger just at the first joint crease.
    Too much grip can be the cause of low shot placement. Very little pressure should be applied with the “pinky” (little finger) with most of the grip being applied by the middle and ring fingers. If you look at your hand, you will notice that where the fingers join the palm there is basically a straight line between the middle and ring finger and the little finger is attached at an angle to the middle and ring fingers. If you squeeze the grip with the little finger it will naturally pull the pistol in a downward motion, giving low shots. Squeeze only with the middle and ring fingers.

  3. I just learned this technique in the last year, and am very impressed with the improvement in my accuracy. The instructor basically said: Really Focus on the front sight, like REALLY, REALLY, REALLY focus on the front sight. Great advice! Bright sights help old eyes too. That and just keep slowly applying pressure on the trigger until it finally goes bang. After learning this, one can then concentrate on doing it faster if need be.

  4. Excellent!

    After fifty years of shooting and living at the range some of that time -practically- I found this feature beneficial.

  5. Shooting a snub nose revolver, like a S&W “J” frame, without a heck of a lot of practice, will even make these types of errors worse. However, with a revolver you can use practice/plastic (SPEER) bullets or wax bullets and hot/magnum pistol primers to simulate “live” ammo. Shooting in your basement/garage with these practice loads quickly shows if you “pull” your shots. Please remember to use hearing protection even with these “practice” loads

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