Mastering the fundamentals of pistol shooting
By Dan Kidder
As a firearms instructor, I frequently see folks at the range blasting away at a target, trying to beat their last par time, using the latest high-speed, low-drag technique or generally attempting to shoot like their favorite television or movie action star. There is nothing inherently wrong with pushing the envelope and trying to get hits faster, but looking at their basic fundamentals, I can usually tell when they have moved far beyond their abilities and mastery of the basics.
Fundamentals aren’t sexy, but they are the basic foundation upon which all the rest of the house is built. If that foundation isn’t solid, then neither will anything built upon it be sturdy.
By spending time in each practice session focusing on the six basic fundamentals of pistol shooting, the shooter will be able to eventually increase difficulty and shoot faster, but by ignoring these basics, the entire skillset will crumble if the foundation isn’t carefully laid.
The fundamentals of pistol shooting look at grip, stance, sight alignment, breath control, trigger press and follow through. If any of these fall apart on their own, the others should ensure success, if you have mastered the basics first. For example, in a gun fight, stance or position is a luxury. You may find yourself shooting from your back, leaning around a door frame or running rapidly to cover while engaging threats. If your other fundamentals are solid, they will make up for your lack of a precise isosceles stance. For the sake of time and space, we will keep this article focused on semi-automatic pistols and leave revolvers for another day, though many of the principles are the same and any differences are the exceptions and not the rule.
A good two-handed shooting grip on a semi-auto must have both thumbs on the same side of the gun; not just for better control, but to avoid the slide coming back and leaving you a present in the form of a nasty bite on your hand or a jam of the gun when your thumb interrupts the free movement of the slide. This hurts and you won’t do it too many times before you come up with a different way of holding the gun. A good grip used by professionals and competitors has the hand high on the backstrap, the rear vertical portion of the gun, with the webbing between the thumb and pointer finger all the way up as high as you can get it without interfering with the slide. Your other fingers, with the exception of your trigger finger, should wrap firmly around the grip under the trigger guard. Your middle finger should be firmly in contact with the bottom of the trigger guard. The weak hand wraps over the strong hand, with all of the fingers beneath the trigger guard. No fingers should be on the front of the trigger guard. I once asked Peter Simon, the former president of Heckler and Koch Defense, why HK puts the hook on the front of the trigger guard and he gave me the most honest answer ever from a gun maker. He said, “It looks cool in the movies and if we get them to use our guns in the movies, we sell more guns.” Fair enough, but we aren’t in the movies and this increases movement as we shoot, rather than locking the gun in a vice created by our hands.
As we press our grip out to shoot, the thumbs should be one atop the other, with the strong thumb on top of the weak thumb and both pointing at the target. If there is a manual safety, rest the top thumb atop that safety to prevent it from being accidently engaged during the recoil phase of the gun firing. When extended, both of your palms should meet at the rear of the grip, with the weak hand palm slightly overlapping the strong. If they don’t meet, you may have too large of a gun for your hands and that is an issue for another article. This grip should be locked in and not need adjustment between shots. If you need to adjust between each shot or after a shot or two, you likely aren’t squeezing the weak hand firmly enough over the strong hand. Practice controlling the gun this way until you can’t get it wrong and then it will become second nature. A little trick for minimizing aiming time, is to point your trigger finger at the target along the side of the frame (index) before transitioning to the trigger. This will help you get a natural point of aim and reduce the time it takes to set up your sight picture.
For practice, a good solid stance is a key for minimizing unnecessary movement and providing a stable platform for practicing your other fundamentals. In a practice environment and for combat, the isosceles stance is the generally accepted most stable platform. For long practice or on uneven ground, a modified isosceles may work better. In both stances, the arms are fully extended out, locking the wrists and elbows. The head is up. This is vital. I teach students to lock their eyes on the target with their head up and then bring the gun up to the eye without shifting the position of your head. This prevents moving our head and changing our perspective on the sights without actually shifting our point of aim. This makes our head the fourth point of alignment in our sight picture and keeps it from moving around. For standard isosceles, the feet should be shoulder width apart and the knees slightly bent. You want the weight on the balls of your feet and leaning slightly forward with your nose over your toes and your tush slightly extended behind you. This gives you a forward center of balance and prevents you from leaning backwards as the recoil of the gun pushes against your locked arms. For a modified isosceles, simply place your strong foot slightly back, offline from your weak leg and perpendicular to the target, to form more of a tripod configuration.
Sight alignment is the relationship between your eye, the rear sight and the front sight. If you add in the target, you get sight picture. Practicing good sight alignment is a function of good body mechanics. Getting your head in the proper place and eyes locked on the target is the key. Once you develop that habit, then bringing the arms up and aligning the rear sight with the front sight, with even space on either side of the front sight and the sights even on top, will start to become second nature. Rapidly pulling the trigger doesn’t mean anything if the sights aren’t aligned and on target and the secret to shooting quickly and accurately is more in the sight alignment than it is in the trigger press. Developing the proper body mechanics and muscle memory is how you obtain rapid sight alignment. As you practice this repeatedly, your body will start to perform the necessary steps automatically, minimizing adjustment. As you start to add in the target to your completed sight picture, shift your focus to the top edge of the front sight, getting a crisp image of that horizon line. This is where your focus should be and the target and the rear sights may be a little fuzzy. That gives you a crisp and clean aiming reference and you simply put that reference on the thing you want to shoot. With practice, you will be able to quickly acquire a good sight picture quickly and with very little fine tuning.
Take your unloaded pistol and extend it out in front of you with the proper grip and stance. Inhale deeply and watch the gun move upward. Exhale and watch the gun move downward. The rise and fall of our chest as we breathe will be enhanced under stress or activity as our breathing rate increases. As we gulp larger quantities of air to prepare our bodies for flight or fight, we will increase the amount of movement of our firearm. Proper breath control requires you to think about your breathing as you make your shot. Take in a comfortable breath, let out just a little and then hold your breath for 6-10 seconds while you make the shot. Let out the rest of the breath, inhale and exhale a full breath and then repeat for the next shot. Once you get faster on your shots, you can make a few shots before you need to exhale.
The NRA and other manuals on the fundamentals refer to this as Trigger Squeeze. I don’t like that term, because you aren’t squeezing anything. Squeezing implies movement of parts of the hand other than the trigger finger. If your grip is solid, you shouldn’t be squeezing your hands as the shot is made. The only thing that should be moving is the distal and intermediate interphalangeal joints. That means the top two portions of the trigger finger. The proximal joint, the one that meets the palm, should not move. The only finger that should be moving is the trigger finger. The rest of the hand should be isolated and completely static.
The proper placement of your finger on the trigger is also important. Only the tip of your trigger finger should be in contact with the face of the trigger. Your trigger finger should be curled so that only the very tip of the finger is used to press the trigger. There should be a gap alongside the frame of the gun between your finger and the slide. The gap should be large enough to insert the pointer finger of your weak hand into the hole.
Once you make the decision to fire, remove any slack from the trigger by gently pressing it back until you meet resistance. This is the point where you begin your trigger press. From this point, slightly increase pressure steadily until the shot fires. All of this is done with minimal movement of everything except the pad of the trigger finger on the trigger.
In my early days as an instructor, I would marvel watching how Todd Green, the founder of Pistol-Training.com and his super secret squirrel cohort I will refer to only as “S”, could “drive” a gun. They were able to place highly accurate shots rapidly on target faster than you can imagine. They were able to do this because they had mastered the fundamentals and body mechanics of pistol shooting so that they could almost skip follow through altogether. Until you have achieved this level of mastery of the fundamentals, you have got to focus on “riding” the gun rather than “driving” it. Follow through is keeping everything exactly the same during and after the firing of the shot, without any adjustment or movement. When the shot is fired the gun will move and the arms will ride along with the recoil, but not exerting any extra influence on the gun. When the shot breaks, the recoil and muzzle-flip will carry the gun upwards and the gun should be pointing slightly upwards while your feet, head, arms and every other part of your body should remain locked in place. There should be no grip adjustment, no pushing of the gun back down and even your trigger finger should remain pressed back without coming off the trigger. This reduces any last second movement that can cause the gun to fire someplace other than on the target, causing a miss. Even though Todd and “S” were able to rapidly push the gun back into place for a follow up shot, thus “driving” the gun, every other part of their body was locked in place and because they had mastered how far to push the gun forward and developed the exact muscle memory of where to stop pushing, they were able to make the amazing follow-up shots they made without shooting under the target. Until you control all of your movement at the time the shot is made and learn to “ride” the gun, you will never achieve this level of mastery.
If you don’t take the time to focus on your fundamentals and actually work to master them, you can’t be successful moving past them and trying more advanced techniques. Jerry Miculek, Julie Golob, Jessie Harrison-Duff or any of the other great competitive shooters you know of, are able to do the amazing things they do with a pistol because they first mastered the fundamentals of pistol shooting. To learn more about these fundamentals, I suggest Julie Golob’s excellent book Shoot or the NRA Guide to the Basics of Pistol Shooting, provided to every student who takes an NRA Basic Pistol course. These resources will give you more depth than I can in a short article. Also, consider taking an NRA Basic Pistol class from a professional instructor. This class will give you a great foundation to build upon before you waste a lot of time and ammo trying to run the latest and greatest high-speed drill you saw on TV. Once you have mastered the fundamentals, you can truly master the sport. Be safe and keep shooting.