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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.