Competitive Shooting

Natural Point of Aim, Trigger Control, and Breathing

Man drawing a pistol after sweeping away a cover garment

The object of the exercise is hitting the target. Unlike Hollywood movies, hitting a target with a bullet fired from a firearm — especially a handgun — is a very complex affair. It requires an understanding of what happens before, and after, you squeeze the trigger.

Like any physical activity, to be good and excel requires controlling the variables of that activity. Accurate shooting, like any physical endeavor, requires that the shooter control as many variables as possible. Let’s examine what those variables are, starting with the basics of accurate shooting.

Isosceles and Modified Weaver/Chapman stance
The Isosceles and Modified Weaver/Chapman stance. Which target would you rather be?

Shooting Stance

Once the mechanical and ballistic issues of firearms are understood and dealt with, the physical skills required by the individual defensive shooter need to be addressed and practiced. First, it must be understood that accurate shooting is a learned reflex, the goal of which should be to fire two aimed shots into the area the size of a salad plate at 21 feet in under two seconds. The key elements that one is required to master for good shooting are similar to those involved in acquiring proficiency in any physical sport. A strong, stable platform supports everything, so let’s start with the stance. A stabile shooting position is the most basic element to build technique on.

Let’s examine the requirements of the most basic athletic stance. A good stance allows for fluid response to the unexpected in sports such as boxing, tennis, baseball, football, etc. Shooting is a martial art. Like all martial arts, the stance should be a “Fighting Stance,” not unlike that of a boxer. The boxer’s stance has evolved into one that allows for explosive power and movement while providing the smallest target for the opponent.

Currently, the two most widely used standing positions for handgun shooting are the Isosceles stance and my recommendation, the Weaver stance. There are additional formal positions, such as kneeling, prone, and others that are used to take advantage of available cover. However, we will only concern ourselves with the basic standing position in this discussion.

My preference for the Weaver Stance is because it is based on a fighting stance. It is also more stable than the Isosceles. The Weaver stance presents a smaller target to an opponent. Let’s start with a little history concerning the Weaver stance.

Jack Weaver demonstrating his stance
Jack Weaver demonstrating his stance.

The Weaver stance was developed by a San Diego County Deputy Sheriff, Jack Weaver. This happened during his participation in the early days of Jeff Cooper’s Leather Slap Events in Big Bear California. Jack reasoned that if he used two hands, his shots would be more accurate, and so they were.

The stance, as Jack envisioned it, requires standing with your feet approximately shoulder width apart at about a 45° angle to the target. The foot opposite your shooting hand should be forward. Approximately 60° of your weight should be on the balls of your feet. You should be leaning slightly forward, aggressively. Knees should be slightly bent. The elbow of your off arm is raised at a 45° angle and is bent considerably more than your strong arm. Jack’s stance was modified by another competitive shooter Ray Chapman.

The primary difference between the Chapman and the classic Weaver stance is arm position. In the Chapman stance, the strong arm is fully extended and the support arm is bent with the elbow pointing toward the ground. This contrasts with the Weaver stance, which calls for two bent arms and an isometric push-pull effort between the support arm and the shooting arm.

left to right: Ray Chapman, Eldon Carl, Thell Reed, Jeff Cooper, and Jack Weaver
The originals from left to right: Ray Chapman, Eldon Carl, Thell Reed, Jeff Cooper, and Jack Weaver.

Some shooters use the extended strong arm of the Chapman stance, as they would a rifle stock. These shooters lean to create a “cheek weld” against the shooting side bicep. I personally use a modification of that arm position for extended-range shooting such as ground squirrels at 75 yards.

Point of Aim

Once the stance has been mastered, and you can repeat presentations on demand without the need to make conscious adjustments, it’s time to find your natural point of aim. I stole this from High Power shooters. Frankly, I find it surprising that other instructors overlook its importance in handgun shooting. Truth be told, even in High Power classes, the natural point of aim is a subject that is often only briefly mentioned.

Of course, you are told how important it is to establish your natural point of aim, but you are not told:

  • What it is
  • How to check it
  • How to establish it
  • How to maintain it
  • What happens when it is off

A good explanation to help understand its relevance is to imagine a spring. If you compress it, stretch it (a little), bend it to the right or left, up or down, you use a small amount of force. When you release the force, the spring will return to its natural state or resting position. Your muscles are pretty much the same.

Make a tight fist, and the muscles in your forearm will tighten. You will have to hold it to keep the fist tight. If your mind wanders, or you concentrate on something else (sight alignment and trigger control), your muscles want to relax and return to their resting position (natural state). Maintaining a “natural point of aim” prevents us from fighting our body’s natural alignment and aids in greater, faster accuracy.

To teach it to my students, I have them close their eyes, assume their stance, and make their presentation to the target. When they open their eyes, most are surprised to see how far off they are. I have them adjust their stance and repeat until they are aligned to the center of the target. That becomes their natural point of aim and how they will position themselves to address targets going forward. Simple, elegant, efficient, and very fast.

Trigger Control

The next most important variable to master is trigger control. The trigger is to be gently squeezed or pressed, not jerked or pulled. To accomplish that, gentle pressure is applied only when the correct sight picture is achieved. Breathing must be regulated. The breath held as pressure is applied to the trigger.

When the sights drift off target, pressure pauses until the correct alignment is once again established. Then, the pressure is once again applied. When additional breath is needed, the application of force to the trigger is suspended until the breath is held once again.

The discharge of the firearm should come as a surprise. That is what is referred to as the surprise break. Follow through is also important. Follow through is the act of maintaining the sight picture and concentration, during and immediately, after the gun fires.

Infographic describing the periods of unsteadiness and steadiness when shooting a pistol
A graphic description of the periods of unsteadiness and steadiness.


The next all important aspect of accurate, effective shooting is your breathing. You have been breathing your entire life and no one had to tell you how. New shooters put the pistol up to the target and notice the sights are moving as they breathe. Common sense seems to tell the new shooter to hold his or her breath to stop the movement.

That becomes the extent of the shooter’s knowledge: he or she tries to hold their breath for the full string of rapid fire. When they turn blue, they find that doesn’t work either. So, the shooter holds their breath for two or three shots and takes a quick breath between shot strings. That is not a good way to learn.

When you inhale, you take in oxygen and let out carbon dioxide as you exhale. This process clears your mind and your vision. When you are ready to make a shot, take in a full breath and let it out. Then, take in another full breath and let it out to your normal respiratory pause, holding your breath as you squeeze off the shot. You are trying to get the same lung pressure each and every time. You must be consistent.

Col Jeff Cooper shooting a handgun
Col. Jeff Cooper, the master at work.

The amount of time you hold your breath should be no more than 7–10 seconds. When you put the firearm on the target and take aim, from the point you hold your breath, your steadiness will be about 3–4 seconds — provided you have a good position and preform all the other techniques correctly. The firearm will settle during that period of about 4–5 seconds.

With proper sight alignment and trigger control, that will be the period during which you should break the shot. Any time after that, the unsteadiness will return and it will not settle again. You must have the courage to lower the firearm and start the process over. Failure to do so will result in blurred vision, loss of mental concentration, and a tendency to slap the trigger.

During a sustained fire string, breath between each shot. Take in a full breath and let it out. Then, take in a full breath and let it out just to your respiratory pause, before holding or cutting off the breath. Maintain the same lung pressure each time. Breathing is done as you are recovering from the last shot and picking up your sight alignment. Do not try to hold your breath for the entire string or for more than one shot.

The result of improper breathing will be the failure to maintain consistent lung pressure. Once you understand, and have mastered, this breathing technique, and match it to your natural point of aim and trigger press, you can increase the speed of your shots. You will be able to shoot very fast without conscious effort because it will become natural.

Target showing a narrow, but tall, group on the target
A rapidly-fired group that is typical of improper breathing.

Final Thoughts

Perfect practice, makes perfect. You should spend as much time as possible getting acquainted with your new best friend. You need to understand its operation and the functions of its major parts. You should also be able to field strip the firearm for maintenance.

Numerous dry fire sessions should be used to reinforce the basics and develop the learned response to the point that it is automatic. Dry fire periods should be limited to 10-minute sessions of highly concentrated repetition. Your focus is to build the mental imagery that is so important to a good sight picture. Reenforce this with self-talk, a verbal on going review of the fundamentals.

It is important to get the conscious and subconscious working together in harmony. Range sessions are also important and should be undertaken as often as possible. Once every two weeks is recommended. Live fire sessions should be restricted to no more than 100 rounds per session. Stay relaxed and calm while maintaining maximum focus. Self-perception determines what you become.

Natural Point of Aim, Trigger Control, and Breathing… Do you have a tip for other shooters? What was the best lesson you learned? Share your answers in the Comment section.

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Comments (5)

  1. rather then telling them not to slap the trigger, tell them about “trophy trigger” or “sear reset”
    That helps tighten up groups real well and keeps you from lifting your finger off of the trigger and then SLAPPING the trigger.
    Very good article! I will use it to teach rookies.

  2. I have tried both stance and prefer the Weaver stance for two reasons.
    1) I shoot more accurately with this particular stance vs the Chapman stance.
    2) The Weaver stance provides less of a target for the bad guy to hit in case you got into a gunfight with one.

  3. Good information great presentation. I’d like to comment on my own stance. It is derived from my thirty plus years in the martial arts. I start with my years of practice in a ready to fight position, similar to the Weaver stance, With my hands in the ready to fight position I hold my hand gun in my right hand and steady it with my left. Both arms are slightly bent. Both elbows are pointed at the ground. I bring the weapon up to eye level, lock on the target and fire. Works for me. I am eighty-three years old. I shoot fist sized groups at 7 yards (21 feet) with a Glock G30. Longest sight picture in my house is twenty feet.

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