Competitive Shooting

Self-taught or trained? Are you really prepared for a fight?

Orange and white shooting target showing a scattered grouping.

One of the chief concerns trainers have — People don’t know, what they don’t know. When it comes to guns, for many, they are so ingrained in our culture, folks just assume they know what to do, and how to do it. Often, what they’ve seen on TV or in the movies is not a good example of safe and proficient gun handling.

In most states, the training required for carrying a handgun on your person, concealed or open is minimal. While in my heart I’m a firm believer that a right shouldn’t be legislated, my experience as a License to Carry Instructor has taught me people need training, and if they won’t get it on their own, maybe it should be required, like Driver’s Ed. Almost daily I watch people handle guns like they were a set of keys or a monkey wrench, with no regard for where they are pointed and with their finger on the bang! lever. Scary.

Hand pulling a handgun from a bag with the shooter's finger on the trigger
Handguns are designed such that it’s natural for your finger to go inside the trigger guard and on the trigger comfortably.

Training Starts With Safety

The title of this article promises training can help you at any level, so let’s start with the basics. Your initial training should cover the well-established safety rules. They may be worded differently, and the order may be changed slightly, but these rules start with:

  1. Always keep the gun pointed in a safe direction.
  2. Keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to shoot.
  3. Always treat every gun as if it were loaded.

There are additional rules such as knowing your target and what’s in front of and beyond it, knowing your gun and ammunition, being healthy, alert, and sober when shooting, and others that may be related to where you shoot and the firearms/ammunition used.

Telling someone the safety rules usually doesn’t sink in immediately. For the first hour or two of instruction, we’re constantly having to remind people to keep the gun pointed in a safe direction and keep their finger off the trigger. When they finally get it, I often wonder if they really got it or they just want the instructor to stop bugging them about it.

Seriously, it takes concentration until the habit is learned and ingrained in your muscle memory. This rarely happens without some instruction and does not automatically kick in with instruction. The safety rules associated with handling firearms are listed, usually in red letters, in every firearm instruction manual on the planet — but who reads instructions?

Hand pulling a handgun from a bag with the shooter's finger off the trigger
Initial training should help you overcome this natural tendency by understanding how important it is to keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to shoot.

Gun Handling

Every gun has parts that move during the shot, including the gun frame. Especially with semi-automatic handguns, these parts have pinch and scrape zones that can do considerable damage to your hands — if you don’t know how to properly hold the gun and execute the required movements/grip. There are parts that must be loaded, and parts that must be put in the proper starting position before firing. There are parts that move rapidly during the shot.

In a basic firearms course, you should learn how to:

  • Load and operate your gun
  • Stand comfortably
  • Grip the gun for maximum control
  • Mitigate recoil
  • Align the sights
  • Smoothly operate the trigger
  • Breathe and follow through to get the next shot on target.

Many people assume they know these things, but in class or at the range, we see a wide variety of positions and grips that are not effective and some which can get you hurt.

Holding pistol with the right hand while the second hand supports the wrist
There are many ways to hold a gun.

Hitting the Target

Accuracy doesn’t come about by instinct or luck. It’s a process of learning to align the front sight properly with the rear sight, point the aligned sights at the target, and smoothly move the trigger straight back until the shot is fired. If we all did that correctly on every shot, we’d all be world champion shooters with very tight groups around the aiming point.

However, that’s not what we usually see, is it? Mastering sight alignment and a smooth trigger pull is facilitated by learning to stand comfortably, holding the gun correctly, positioning your finger on the trigger properly, and moving it smoothly straight back instead of pushing or pulling it to one side or jerking the gun so that the shot goes wide. Good technique also involves follow-through that helps get you back on target and ready for the next shot.

Without training, people develop a variety of ways to hold a gun. However, rarely do they discover what a little time with a qualified instructor can teach them.

Shooting a gun with a one-handed grip with the second hand supporting from the magwell
A good instructor can have you holding the gun where it doesn’t hurt you to shoot it.

If you took the step to get some basic training, good for you. Let’s say you passed the proficiency test — if one was required in your state — and got your permit. If your training stopped there, you should probably make an honest assessment about whether you’re really ready to defend yourself with your handgun under the pressure of a surprise attack.

How can you tell?  Find an instructor who can teach you to draw from a holster or purse, move to cover while having to defend yourself, and reload when you’re under fire. You should learn to clear a jam quickly and under pressure. The same goes for engaging multiple targets, targets converging on you or moving laterally to you. For most of us, initial exposure to this type of training is a real eye-opener. I know it was for me. I not only played army when I was a kid, I was in the Army, in a war with a job that got me shot at. Oh, how much I’ve forgotten!

Performing Under Pressure

The first thing you learn during intermediate training is often, “I was not ready to defend myself!” Okay, buckle down and learn. You’ll sweat, get frustrated, and eventually get better. You’ll learn to become more confident. Hopefully, you will realize the skills you develop must be practiced and practiced often enough they become automatic.

I’m not talking about training for SWAT, Personal Protection Details, or SEAL Teams. I’m talking about training for ordinary people like you and me. I’m a Granddad who gets around on a mobility scooter, but I intend to be ready and competent should the need arise. My family also expects this of me.

Even though I’d grown up owning and shooting guns, when I got serious about being armed on a daily basis, I did some training and was confident. I practiced my newly-learned skills concerning stance, grip, aiming, breathing, and trigger control until I could consistently put all my shots within a small group. But this was shooting at paper targets at relatively close range at my own pace.

Wrapped hands grip on a pistol
With a proper grip, you are much more likely to hit the target than while using an improper or weak grip.

Recently I had the opportunity to try another type of training at a live-fire indoor shooting cinema. This is not simulation training — all shooting is done with live ammo. The targets are projected onto one or more large white screens. Cameras and microphones triangulate and capture your shots electronically. You see your hits and misses, and the simulator produces responses based on where your shots land. The response may be a visible hole, or the target may fall, disappear, or spin, depending on the programming.

I started my session shooting at fixed silhouette targets to ensure I was aiming and grouping correctly, and the computer was picking up my shots. Then, I moved to a projected version of steel plates that I knocked over easily. Next, came moving silhouette targets at various ranges coming in from the left and right. I nailed them. Then onto targets mounted on spinning wheels — one going clockwise, the other counter-clockwise.  I missed a few.

Thumbing the slide stop to put the handgun into battery
It’s natural to thumb down the slide lock to put the gun in battery.

Next up were timed targets, pop-up targets, shoot-don’t shoot scenarios, and I was missing all over the place. The instructor knew I was an experienced shooter, so he gave me some latitude to figure it out myself. I didn’t. When he told me to look at my grip, I couldn’t believe it. I know the basics of how to grip a gun. I teach the basics of how to grip a gun. When the pressure was on, I had loosened my grip, opening it up and, therefore, allowing my shots to go wide.

I determined to practice every week until I got it right. The next week I started off doing better, so the instructor cranked up the speed. Sure enough, I started forgetting the basics again.

Charging the slide of a semi-automatic handgun using the slingshot method
There are advantages to using either the slingshot method to save wear on the gun. Hand strength may be an issue with this method.

The basics do matter. I learned this through advanced training. That’s not all I learned. I have several “favorite” handguns. My first choice for a carry gun is typically a Commander-sized 1911. I have several and usually shoot them all well. One of them is 9mm, but I’m really a .45 ACP guy. Let me rephrase that. I was a .45 ACP guy. Sometimes, the arthritis in my thumbs, wrist, and shoulders whispers 9mm to me. On those days, I carry a Ruger LW Commander 9mm or one of my other favorites — a SIG 229 or an M&P — both 9mm. Guess what I learned as the shooting challenges got faster and faster? The width of the grip matters.

One of the instructors running the Cinema range held my hand up and said, “Short, stubby fingers.”  I said, “Yes. That’s what I’ve always been told, and why I don’t play the piano.” To which he responded, “I’m not talking about music. I’m talking about shooting a gun that fits your hand, so you can keep your grip closed and your wrist behind the gun.” I’m an experienced instructor, but every time I train under another instructor, I learn; I get better. Practicing with an experienced eye to provide insight and instruction is even more beneficial. Try it and you’ll be amazed.

Are you prepared to perform in a gunfight or high-stress shooting situation? How do you know? Do have a shooting or training tip? Share your answers in the comment section.

  • Orange and white shooting target showing a scattered grouping.
  • Orange and white shooting target showing a tight grouping.
  • Hand pulling a handgun from a bag with the shooter's finger on the trigger
  • Hand pulling a handgun from a bag with the shooter's finger off the trigger
  • Holding pistol with the right hand while the second hand supports the wrist
  • Shooting a gun with a one-handed grip with the second hand supporting from the magwell
  • Wrapped hands grip on a pistol
  • Both thumbs forward handgun grip
  • Thumbing the slide stop to put the handgun into battery
  • Charging the slide of a semi-automatic handgun using the slingshot method
  • Charging the slide of a semi-automatic handgun using the overhand method
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Comments (12)

  1. Kirk B Mullins

    Get training! If you deviate from training you have made a mistake, but this is more of a concern in the gun comic books we call the popular press than in real life.

    Good thoughts on finding an instructor- the problem is- many instructors dont know how to execute drills themselves! It is easier than ever to be certified. Few police and military, every Joe teaches and they are hobbyist not professionals. Massad Ayoob, Tom Givens, some of their certified instructors. A fellow that works with Wilson Combat used to be a cop in Knoxville, name escapes me, he is another to recommend.
    Stay safe.

  2. Training is a double edged sword in a few ways. Documented training from a qualified instructor will improve your skills. You can get basics to full fledged combat/security force training these days. What happens when you actually have to use your firearm in the protection of yourself & others. Chances are you’ll survive, hopefully uninjured. Then the lawyer of the family suing you for wrongful death finds out you are highly trained in the use of firearms. He will go through your training & instructors with a fine tooth comb. If he finds you deviated from your training he will attack you in court with a vengeance. Hopefully, a jury of your so called “peers” will see things your way. Hopefully you live in a pro-gun state. If not, you might find yourself on trial for negligent homicide or murder. Something to contempt plate when considering training, how much, what kind & how often.

  3. Every time I am at the range I see bad habits and bad handling.
    The range masters are very good at helping people and ensuring the safety procedures are followed.
    I have had a number of people asking how can I shoot better with a hand gun than they can with a rifle. My reply is get training and practice.
    Most people their are new or occasional shooters. I have stopped several new shooters before the had the slide open their thumb. I live in Florida and the class I had to attend for concealed Cary had a number of people that had never fired a handgun. I felt the instructor should have done a better job covering basics. Your comment was spot on People only know what they know.

  4. One additional detail to consider, albeit one mentioned here already in a few comments: Firing a gun inside your house is basically going to bitch-slap the hell out of your eardrums, and they may never fully recover back to the reasonably good hearing you used to take for granted before doing that. I keep a pair of electronic earmuffs on a shelf within easy reach in my bedroom, so IF and that is a big IF, if I am ever awakened to the sounds of a home invasion or whatever other emergency self / home defense situation, *IF* I believe I have time then I am most certainly going to take a whole 2 seconds to put those headphones on and crank the volume knob to maximum on each side, right along with grabbing my flashlight equipped handgun and preparing to clean house if necessary.

    Countless American police / detective / crime shows & movies over decades of time ALL seem to completely ignore the eardrum destroying aspect of firing guns inside confined spaces, be it inside your house, car, garage or anywhere else that will maximum damage onto your ears. It’s bad enough that often like to show the fiction of people who get shot always INSTANTLY fall down and become motionless

  5. “I don’t believe rights should be regulqted, BUT…”. Sorry, but there is more than a touch of elitism in that statement. Your neighbors have the liberty, just like you do, to make the choices and decisions that work for them; until those choices and degisions impede upon the liberty of somebody else. Then there are consequences, AFTER THE FACT. the ever-increasing attmpts to legislate all bad things from ever happening has resulted in this nation that I do not recognize as the country I grew up in.

  6. There are no good solutions. You could try using 38 Special or 38+P, but both loads will still be well beyond hearing safe levels. A silencer/suppressor is a poor fit for a revolver and it adds bulk and possible legal consequences. You might try keeping a set of electronic ear muffs with the revolver and practice donning them in the dark. A good set will allow you to hear faint noises but cancel loud ones.

  7. One of my home defense firearms is a Ruger GP 100 Match Champion in .357mag.

    I hope to never fire it in a genuine defense mode, but I do like to be prepared. When I shoot at the range, I wear ear muffs. I already wear hearing aids, so I want to preserve all of my remaining hearing.

    So, if I ever needed to fire in a reactive defense mode, what do y’all do to protect your hearing? I see no practical hearing protection solution since my natural state is wearing hearing aids sitting in my easy chair. Man I hate the thought of how loud shooting a .357 mag indoors would be. Practical suggestions welcomed.

  8. Some very good points in the article. I still occasionally wind up bleeding from the thumb on my non-trigger hand when the slide takes a small slice of skin off my thumb. I will be trying a few alternate ways to hold my pistol. Thanks for the tip.

  9. The captioned photos say it all. People who own Taurus pistols don’t know how to shoot handguns properly. People who own S&W pistols do. Got it!

  10. Great article. I would add a couple of thoughts to safety tips. Muzzle discipline is critically important especially when the unexpected happens like a hot brass casing ending up going down the back of your short or ending up lodged between your eyebrow and shooting glasses. It takes incredible discipline not to waive the muzzle wildly when hot brass hits bare skin. As you mentioned, this muzzle disciple must become instinctive.

  11. The issue of training for a gunfight is a two-way street. Obviously it’s important that in a self-defense situation, these things are vital: you’re comfortable using your weapon, it’s in good repair and has been recently cleaned and oiled, and — it’s loaded.

    If it’s your self-defense, will your assailant have observed all of these? Here’s a hint — if he turns his semi-automatic sideways like in the movies, he’s probably untrained, unprepared, stupid, and not long for freedom in society.

    The first three things I mentioned are vital; programmed and professional training will obviously give you a major competitive advantage, should you need to pull the trigger. Since my handguns are intended only for home defense inside my brick-veneer home, my “what’s in front, what’s behind” issues are lessened. My maximum range to target is measured in feet, almost in inches. And my go-to semi-auto handgun is 17+1, and will empty out in about three seconds. Yes, I’ve practiced on this, and if I had extra magazines, I know it’ll empty at least three (that would be about 50 rounds) as fast as I can change them without malfunctioning.

    So if it comes to shooting, my assailant will probably die of fright before he dies of anything else.

    Death by fright is a plausible scenario. Years ago, I had a legally-blind friend who lived on the wrong side of town. He had that white cane, and a pocket-sized semi-auto. His plan was — if there were to be an issue — he’d show up with his cane in one hand and his pistol in the other, and shout “I’m blind and I have a gun!” And then open up. Although he was not totally blind, that was one of his competitive advantages. His directional hearing was much more acute, and what assailant wouldn’t be terrified by a blind guy with a gun? Especially when he can see you …

    Oh yeah, he never had to do that. I don’t know whether he had trained to do that. Still, I could benefit from training. I still have to remember to put my trigger finger on the side of the frame. It’s not programmed into my muscle memory yet.

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