Safety and Training

Training: Shooting Well — Shooting to Win

1911 pistol on top of several shooting patches

There have been many books written on shooting from Hit the White Part by my friend Massad Ayoob to Paul Weston’s book on combat shooting for police and Ed McGivern’s Fast and Fancy Revolver Shooting. Some are dated and while Chic Gaylord’s Handgunner’s Guide is worth a look, the gear is outmoded. All are worth a read. Anything by Jeff Cooper and his able student Gabriel Suarez, is worth the money.

Drawing from a concealed holster
You should incorporate a draw into much of your practice.

Getting started by taking the NRA beginners course is one of the best thing you can do. Safety is stressed, and you will have a solid foundation for growth as a shooter. Like everyone else, there are times when I am just shooting for fun. Not often, but occasionally, I break out the .22 TCM or a long-barrel single-action revolver, and see if I can hit the rock on the 100-yard berm, or alternately, how quickly I can hit a tennis ball on the 10-yard line. It is all great fun.

However, if you are serious about growth and need to learn defensive, competitive, or hunting skills, then the time spent on the range should be productive. How much time you spend just shooting versus practicing, should be examined. All of the time and money spent on guns and ammunition should be a payoff in marksmanship. I recently had a good discussion with Rod Goforth, a real athlete of a shooter, and a man who fires many thousands of rounds on a yearly basis. He practices dry fire diligently and fires until he gets it right—which is more often than not. Shooters like Rod don’t just shoot more than I, they practice the right way and follow strict rules concerning practice.

Starting From the Bottom

Most shooters advance quickly. They go from having difficulty controlling their shots to what they think is good shooting. If they do not have other shooters to gauge their accuracy by, they often have an overinflated idea of their own skills. A few rounds of IDPA competition will put things in perspective. It is tempting to get pretty good with the handgun, and then empty the pistol into the target. Machine gunning a paper target is fun but it isn’t viable training, and you do not learn much.

Pistol shooter aiming toward camera
Recreational shooting is a fine pastime but we should learn something every trip to the range.

Unless you are properly executing the Bill Drill in rapid fire, you need to learn marksmanship first. That means slow-fire precision. Accuracy is final. Noise and brass in the air is sometimes fun, but you must hit the target. Unfortunately, some shooters begin with a handgun that will destroy their confidence. I know a fellow who purchased his wife a compact Kimber .45 for their wedding anniversary as her first gun.

A hard-kicking, single-action .45 isn’t something most folks relish firing at the range. We do it because we must to master a carry gun. I have lost track of the compact .357 SIG and .40 Smith and Wesson self loaders that resulted in shooters picking up a terrible flinch before attending my class. Their results were poor.

Another big brawny guy showed up with a Springfield XD in .357 SIG and his wife, who had never fired a gun before my class, had an identical Springfield in 9mm. This guy barely passed the class and scared everyone on the line with blast and flash. I am certain he practiced trigger jerk—not trigger press. His wife on the other hand, rose to the occasion and passed the class with a 90% score.

Practicing combat shooting
Firing with one hand quickly at short range could be a life saving skill.

The .38 Special revolver in a four-inch barrel handgun, and a medium-size 9mm self loader are ideal personal defense handguns for beginners and not too bad for the most experienced shooter. The .357 SIG, .40 Smith and Wesson, and .357 Magnum cartridges require much time and effort to master. They should be left to shooters who have trained extensively and understand recoil control.

I most often carry a .45 caliber self loader, and it has more of a push than a sharp rap. With a steel-frame pistol, or something over 30 ounces, the .45 is a reasonable choice. However, once you develop a flinch, it is very difficult to get rid of this involuntary muscle contraction. Hard kicking handguns are not for most of us. An equally poor choice is a pistol that is too small.

Small, subcompact handguns have small grips that cramp the hand. The controls are difficult to manipulate efficiently. Shooter-induced malfunctions in which the shooter allows his hand and fingers to strike the controls are common with these handguns. A short sight radius is also a limiting factor. Pulling a heavy trigger against a light handgun isn’t conducive to good accuracy. While it is good to begin with a .22, unfortunately, too many who are interested in personal defense shooting can afford only one handgun. That is the one they practice with—regardless of whether it is a plinker or a self-defense caliber.

Proper sight alignment with a pistol
Sight alignment is among the most important skills to master.


Repetition and delivering performance on demand means mental discipline. This means firing the handgun time after time in exactly the same manner, with the same trigger press, and the same sight alignment—repetitively. You may be moving, or the target may be at different ranges, but the chore is the same.

Align the sights properly. Superimpose the sights properly over the target. Press the trigger to the rear smoothly. Keep the grip strong in follow through, allow the trigger to reset, and fire again. If you fire a double tap at 5 yards, or a 5-shot group from the bench rest at 25 yards, the process is the same, the details differ. I often see folks at the range who are using a poor stance. They are not holding the pistol correctly, too weakly, and their feet are not planted correctly.

When I work into a stance, I have a mental trick that helps. I imagine a steel rod anchoring me to the earth and running at least 20 feet into the ground. I may pivot on it or turn in any direction, but that rod running from my leg through the earth is my anchor. I keep a rock solid stance. I often hear folks at the range emptying their piece.

demonstrating the proper trigger press of a pistol
Proper handfit and trigger press pays off.

Five shots, a .38 snub; six reports, a .357 Magnum; eight or nine deep booms, a .45, and the inevitable 13 to 18 rounds from the 9mm, often followed by a fast reload and repeat. I don’t believe they are learning much, even if they are having fun. As I said, ammunition is expensive, and you should be getting your money’s worth. A solid hit in the X-ring beats 50 rounds all around the B 27 in my opinion.

Groups do not save your life. You need to practice often and have the image of a perfect sight picture firmly implanted in your hard drive memory. My practice regimen works well for me since I test a lot of handguns. I fire for reliability and combat shooting at 5, 7, and 10 yards with five controlled shots per group. The 10-yard range is important. It is far enough to stress the need for good marksmanship habits, but close enough to avoid frustration as the beginner practices.

The handgun must be properly sighted. As an example, last week I tested an expensive factory handgun that fired four inches to the left in relation to the point of aim at 20 yards. I am confident in my skill and managed to properly adjust the sights. (I keep an extensive range kit with proper tools.) A combination of speed, accuracy, and power is needed. This accuracy isn’t easy to build without careful attention to the basics of marksmanship. Without proper marksmanship skills speeding up simply means you will miss faster.

Chrome revolver with wood grip on holster and a box of open ammunition
Good gear and good ammunition is important but in the end the shooter is most important.

Practice Specifics

Shooters who do not have enough time to practice, do the best they can. A job, family, and other obligations loom larger for some than others. Just the same, the time you manage to devote to training should be utilized properly. If you have achieved a high level of skill, then you may practice a number of skills in each trip.

The draw, presenting the handgun to the target, firing accurately, and even weak-hand fire and barricade shooting may be pressed into the range time. This isn’t ideal. I think shooters are often duplicating their qualification exercises. There are drills such as the El Presidente that include several skills. It isn’t difficult incorporate speed loads into every practice session. But, when working to build skills, you need to specifically build that skill.

Work with short-range control during the entire session, or long range and hitting small targets—depending upon which skill you are short at. Perhaps weak-hand fire is your shortcoming. Work with the non-dominant hand during the range session. Devote each range session to one skill in the beginning. It takes a lot of practice to become reasonably good at combat pistol drills. Practice hard on the skills you have not mastered. It is easy enough to go to the range, and practice the drills you are good at. It takes that thing called mental discipline to master the other drills. This process is often called learning to learn. Once you have learned the practice and attention to detail that goes into mastering a skill, you will be prepared for other skill building exercises and approach each the same way.

Do you have a training or shooting tip? How about a favorite shooting drill? Share your answers in the comment section.


About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.

Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Rifle Magazine
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns

Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (13)

  1. It is certainly a good idea to get training and practice all this stuff
    However, handguns are the original point and shoot interface
    There are plenty of reports of the revolver in the bedside drawer pulled out after 10 years, pointed and fired by a little old lady with no training
    I say it is better to have a gun and no training than no gun at all
    At typical self defense distances, training is not needed

    1. that is quite a nonchalant attitude on a life and death subject. Having a handgun you have not trained with is similar to keeping a Harley Davidson you have not ridden in the barn, just in case you need to get somewhere in a hurry

  2. I have been a real cop for 35 years and have taught 25 years in Law Enforcement Firearms and Defensive Tactics. I do not mean to pee on anyone’s parade, but for years I have seen instructor teaching to pull the Gun hand to the chest when they are teaching the off hand shooting (this is designed to prepare the officer for being shot or disabled in the shooting hand). However, after review of several gunfights where it was necessary to use the off hand to fire because of an injury, several officer said they could not return fire because they could not raise the injured limb as they had been taught (clasp your lapel). I can not believe the myth of holding the shooting arm is put out there still. We teach a dueling type stance with the arm dropped straight down by the side (as it would be if actually injured) and that way the officer is accustomed to shooting with the arm down and not having to go through the thought process of (Damn, my arm will not come up to my lapel, what do I do not). As I say I needed to blow off because of improper training getting people hurt

    1. Thank you, Mike, for your input regarding the flaws to the pulling the hand to the chest training. My son and I are in training for self defense and I greatly appreciate the real life experience you share that benefits all of us.
      Thank you, too, for your many years of service.

    2. That isn’t weak side shooting but one hand shooting and there is a difference. The free hand is often pulled up to avoid shooting, particularly when executing a fast draw.

    3. Weren’t you just a Reserve police officer?? I too have an extensive background as a firearms instructor and police officer in both AZ and CA .Few OIS play out as the officers have been trained on the range, even in the expensive Gun Fight Schools all around the country. With the exception of your friend who by his own telling has been in dozens of gun fight in his career, and he was a police officer in a small 5 person department in New England somewhere. WOW, I don’t want to live there. Even today, most officers are not involved in a gun fight, nor are private citizens. Shooting an intruder does NOT equal a gun fight.I was on duty in Kern County, CA just north of Lancaster the night of 5 April, 1970. Where were you? Oh well, I don’t write and sell books.

  3. Nice article! I can honestly say when I was looking for the first gun in along while to purchase, everyone around me kept saying ” you have big hands, a .40 caliber would be a great choice with the stopping power and fit.” Not true. I have arthritis in my wrist and didn’t want the big felt recoil. The ol timer at the gun shop saw I was interested in the glock 19 but wouldn’t sell it to me until I did some research on the CANiK TP991st. Needless to say I was back the next day and not to purchase the glock! What a great choice I made listening to him! You can get plenty of hard stopping power out of some of the newer 9mm ammo. Not to mention save your wrist! Great article!

  4. I can attest to the need to start with an easy-shooting gun. I started out with a CZ-82 in 9×18 Mak which fit my hands well but was light and had a sharp kick. It took me forever to get past the “brace for impact” reflex.

    1. I had a former student who joined the Navy. Before he shipped, we went to the range to train in handguns. When I had been in, we used the old Colt .45. My small hands hated that weapon but qualified anyhow.

      He bought the ammo, and I brought the gun. I started him on my Walther .22, stance, breath control, trigger control basics. He was a natural shooter, so we moved to my Walther P99. He had one nasty habit of throwing at least one round away LOL Still, at boot camp he qualified at Sharpshooter, missing Expert by, you guessed it, one round!

  5. Excellent piece. No preaching, no macho BS. Just excellent points from someone who obviously has years of experience.

  6. As a full time firearms instructor with over 40 years teaching Law Enforcement, Security and private parties, I want to applaud this article! EXCELLENT advice for not only the new shooter, but the “experienced” shooters who have had to teach themselves and the habits they have developed might not be helping them to improve.

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