Concealed Carry

Shooting Well With Small Handguns

shooting well with small handguns

Guns, handguns especially, are a lot like those famous potato chips: can’t have just one. Beyond appeal, each has a purpose.

Some are made more for enjoyment, some more for deployment. One of the more “serious,” in my mind, is a small handgun that’s carried and relied on to defend oneself.

“Finding your ultimate carry gun” is a whole ‘nother article or three, but if you’re in possession of a small-frame revolver or semi-auto, you didn’t get it for fun afternoons at the range, or hoping to win your club championship bullseye contests.

What’s really the difference in accuracy potential between a smaller and larger handgun?  Shooting well in a good group is easier with a bigger gun, and it’s easier to center each shot in that group. Why? That’s a better question, and the one to answer.

Why Shooting Well Matters

A well-placed shot is preferable (immeasurably) to a poorly-placed shot, and that’s even more true when, one, the purpose and point of the shot is to save oneself, and, two, the shot itself isn’t packing what most would call a whollop.

In my mind, firing a round from a .380 Auto, for good instance, puts more, not less, importance on “accuracy.” Now, for clarity, “accuracy,” here means hitting nearer to a bisection of the intended and supposed aiming point.

That’s kind of a roundabout way of saying that it’s best for the bullet to hit pretty near to where you at least thought the sight was directing it to. More in a bit.

What’s going against agreement between intent and end with small handguns? Long list! The guns don’t fit well in the hand.

Even folks with size XS hands normally can’t get all three supporting fingers of the shooting hand secure on the short pistol grip, which is also usually slimmer.

That makes it more difficult to settle and hold on target, and can also unintentionally, indirectly create poor grip mechanics. Another is the very short barrel, which means a very short sight-to-sight distance.

It’s easier to see a warp in a dowel rod than it is to see a warp in a putt-putt pencil, and likewise, it’s easier to see correct sight alignment ( front sight, back sight, target) in a full-size handgun than in a pocket pistol.

Handgun choice is important. Smaller errors are not as noticeable, but equally disruptive to shot location.

Light gun weight, as well as fairly heavy trigger pull weight, unbalances hold-stability dynamics. More physical effort is required to pull the trigger AND keep the gun still.

So now addressing each issue based on mechanics demands a good overview of the goal of said mechanics.

The ultimate expression I’ve yet been able to devise to nutshell for the essential fundamentals of firing a good shot is this: center the sight on the target and pull the trigger without moving the sight.

If you can do that you will hit wherever the sight is holding. Hold center and hit center— break center.

Gripping Small Handguns
Get a firm grip on the gun and pay close attention to the sight location all through the process of pulling the trigger, especially at the instant of firing. This is key to shooting well.

Pay Attention!

Simple as that. So what should you pay attention to? Sights first (and always): Be very keenly aware of the sight location all the time the trigger is pressured toward release.

It’s not seeing the sight, then pulling the trigger. It’s continually monitoring and adjusting sight position against trigger pull progress until the shot releases, and then knowing exactly where the sight was when that happened.

If that sounds just way too slow, it won’t be with enough attention and effort, which means time directed toward attaining that awareness. What’s next though, really helps get there.

Shooting Well
You may not see this in a confrontation— that’s just reality— but if you’ve practiced it over and over and over there’s a lot better chance you’ll have the gun centered and so too will be the shot.

Neutral Stability

To help keep the gun stable and lined up on center during a shot, get as “neutral” a hold as you can.

That means that pressure, overall, against the gun is equal left and right, and, importantly, that pressure applied to the trigger goes straight back from the fingertip contact point through the centerline of the pistol.

Pressures directed against the gun shifts the firearm away from the direction of pressure (usually), and any side pressure on the trigger itself is a leading cause of off-center shots.

Don’t press in, or down, with the thumbs (plus that can cause function issues if the slide is contacted). Let the hand gripping pressure be in the fingers— except in the trigger finger!

It is absolutely vital that the trigger finger touches only the trigger, never the trigger guard or frame. This is important to shooting well with any firearm, but really shows up in a small handgun.

Now, “neutral” doesn’t mean “same,” and I say that because I’ve found that a little more focused pressure from my shooting hand ring finger and my supporting hand (working the heel of my hand into the grip), overall, works best for me— but, again, equal forces against the frame.

Neutral is a result. For me, it’s a feeling of also pushing in on either side of the gun equally with my arms, pushing my hands together like I’m trying to pump up my pecs. This is even more important with a double-action trigger.

Note: In addition to standard flush-fit magazines, some small semi-autos include extended-length magazines to effectively lengthen the pistol grip. Better!

However, understand that going from one to the other is also changing gripping mechanics. I don’t advise it. Stick with the one used when it’s carried.

Handgun trigger placement
Very important! Only the first pad of the trigger finger should touch anywhere on the gun, and only on the trigger face. Don’t let the finger rub in against the frame if you want to excel at shooting well.

Putting It Together

Learning the fundamentals of shooting well comes from simply paying attention to the sight movement, which is also gun movement, all the way through a shot (ALL THE WAY THROUGH).

Adjust your mechanics— positions and pressures— against the movement, and go again, and again, and again…

It’s more difficult with a small gun to get a precisely accurate “shot call,” which is what I think of as a retained image of the sight location at the instant the striker falls.

The gun is liable to be moving more actively, meaning it’s not settling as still for as long as a larger firearm might. Two things that help: one is a laser sight.

No need now to debate its tactical value, but it can help immeasurably to develop better congruence between where you see the front sight on target and where the barrel is looking.

Another tool that really shows its merit with a small handgun is a MantisX device.

Look for a full review of the latest version soon, but it’s a sensor-driven training tool that’s pretty amazing, and incredibly effective, in my experience.

Proper Mindset

One of the main points going against hitting center has nothing to do with the gun, and everything to do with the perception of your own gun, and maybe somewhat of yourself.

Primarily, it’s what you expect, what you’ll settle for. I recollect reading accounts of Ed McGivern, legendary revolver fast-shot, hitting houseflies lighting on targets using a 2-in. barrel revolver.

That, to me, was just about as impressive as his superhuman rapid-fire speed. Don’t believe everything, maybe anything, that you have heard or will hear about the poor potential small-frame pistols have to position holes onto a paper target.

Don’t lower expectations or standards too much lest that will be all you’ll be able to attain.

Pocket Pistol Accuracy - Shooting Well
Gripping a small gun is a challenge. I get the best results with a balanced contribution (and pressure) from my support hand, meaning it’s holding as firmly as my shooting hand.

Last: Set the Sight!

If, and, of course, only if, the rear sight on your small pistol is drift-adjustable, by all means, adjust it! Drift adjustable means it’s wedged in place under pressure in a dovetail mount, and that it can slide left or right within this mount.

That means it can move. If the rear sight is no more than a milled channel in the slide top, well, that’s what you have to work with and that’s nothing much to work with.

A click-adjustable sight is easy. Dovetail isn’t, but there’s nothing to fear. Just tap the sight left or right. Use either a flat-end nylon punch (best) or a plastic tap hammer.

Move the sight in the direction you want the impact to go: Left on target? Move the sight right, and that moves bullet impact right.

Clearly, this zero needs to be done using the “important” ammo, which is what’s loaded into the gun when it’s tucked away.

Do you have any tips for shooting well with small handguns? Let us know in the comments below.

About the Author:

Glen Zediker

Glen Zediker is the owner of Zediker Publishing, which specializes in books and other publications focused primarily on AR-15s, handloading, and shooting skills. Since 1989, he has authored or co-authored 20 books.

He started shooting at age 5 and competing in NRA Smallbore rifle at age 8. He got his first AR-15 at age 15 and has now had 45 years of experience with that firearms platform. He’s worked professionally with some of the greatest shooters on the planet and leading industry professionals. And he does pretty well on his own! Glen holds a High Master classification in NRA High Power Rifle and first earned that using an AR-15 Service Rifle. He’s also competed in many other forms of competition, including USPSA, Steel Challenge, Silhouette Rifle and Pistol, Bullseye Pistol, ISSF Air Rifle, Practical Rifle and shotgun sports.

Since 1986 Glen has been a frequent and regular contributor to many publications, having had over 500 assigned articles published. See more at
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Comments (12)

  1. Practice, practice, practice as much as possible.

    Several years ago, when I had the time (and the gun) and the availability of a local public free shooting range, I spend a lot of time shooting a Remington-style derringer in .22 caliber. As a challenge, I would shoot at a 55 gallon barrel located at the 100 yard line. Eventually, I could put 7 or 8 out of ten rounds on the can. Surprised the heck of my shooting buddy, and we all enjoyed the whistle of the flying bullet and the rewarding gong ring when striking the barrel. I didn’t take home many of the cartridges at the end of shooting.

    The training I got out this illogical exercise helped me hone my skills and technique to a high level.

  2. Dry-fire a lot. From the holster, preferably (you got a small gun so you could carry it, right?). You can practice everything except recoil management and, for some guns, trigger reset. I use my TV as a target (there’s a very solid backstop behind it and acres of dense woods beyond that), because the constantly shifting images make for unpredictable targets that resemble the human being you might have to shoot at one day.

  3. I recently went target shooting with a friend who has a new Sig P365. I carry a 5-year-old Sig P938, and can usually shoot a 2 – 3″ group offhand at 10 yards. My friend shot a 1-1/2″ group at the same distance. We switched guns, and I was all over the target with his P365, while he shot about the same as I did with my P938. The difference between the single action trigger on the 938 vs. the striker fired trigger on the 365 is night and day. My 938 has an after-market stainless trigger and a polishing job, yielding a 4.5 lb. pull. I’ve read several articles on the 365 stating the out-of-the-box pull is 5.5 lbs., and my friend had not done any work on his. Not a big difference but a completely different feel. I would guess regular practice with a striker-fired pistol would make a huge difference, but to me nothing beats a single action trigger for quick, accurate followup shots. Just to test that theory we both loaded 8 rounds (the max that my 938 will hold) and shot as fast as we could aim and pull the trigger at 2 side by side standard law enforcement silhouette targets from 10 yards. The single action 938 achieved a 6″ group, and the P365 about double that. I suspect an experienced shooter could do considerably better, but, IMO, a striker fired pistol takes a lot more practice than a single action to achieve the same results.

  4. I am transitioning from a Glock 30 to a Hellcat. It is frustrating as with the Glock the bullets chase each other down the same hole. Not the same with the Hellcat. As I approach 2000 rounds through the Hellcat it is starting to come around. A few things I have done is first added a PRP trigger. Huge improvement. I was feeling I was jerking the stock trigger. Bullets were left and low.
    The next main improvement was thickening up the grip. I have fairly large hands and widening the right side has helped to stabilize my shots.
    The remaining variability in grouping with the gun I feel is that it snaps when it fires. The recoil with the .45 seems to be more in line and larger, perhaps weight of the slide? I would stay with the .45 but the weight difference is huge after a long day.

  5. I love shooting all the time, handguns or rifle, it doesn’t matter. I’m an amateur shooter, any articles that can improve my shooting, I read and digest it. Shooting well with small handguns, just gives me more info to improve my handgun shooting, a good article. Thank you for the info.
    Mike Russo

  6. I’m a want to be first time gun buyer. I know very little of firearms. I thought I did but there so many cal. and models. I have a son in law who thinks he knows it all and he really knows more than I do. So I listen to him , sure. Anyway I’m looking for a hand gun. If you can send me any info you may have on them , model, price.
    Also I’m in Henderson , NC. and I don’t think there any gun shops left here, would you know of any.
    Thank you

  7. This article is right on the money. I’ve found, in addition to the tips outlined is to literally put all your thoughts on the pad of your trigger finger and squeeze. Having been a shooter of handguns for over 60 years I’ve found that this tip helps eliminate the tendency to jerk the sight off of the target.

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