I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to teach both beginners and veteran shooters. When I am teaching a group of new shooters there are always in-depth lessons on the fundamentals of pistol shooting. Fundamentals are the core rules and principles that your overall technique is based on. There are gun handling fundamentals and shooting fundamentals. Safe handling requires the shooter to have intimate knowledge of the particular gun’s controls and how the firearm loads, fires, and unloads. Safely and effectively putting the gun into operation requires an additional knowledge base of the shooting fundamentals. Identifying the shooting fundamentals and explaining them does not stop with the first trip to the range of the beginner, nor does it exempt a veteran from having to revisit those same fundamentals. As I continue to further my own training, I am reminded why those principles are called “fundamental” in the first place. Every shot is made (or missed) from there. I have learned that the importance of each fundamental depends on your shooting situation. Take a few minutes to look at the shooting fundamentals once again and I will discuss how their emphasis and application might vary based on your situation.
There are many actions, considerations, and intentions that go into making your shot, enough to fill entire books on the subject of pistol shooting. That may be overwhelming to a beginning student, so I try to make it more digestible and easier to remember by putting it into bite sized chunks. As a starting point, I cover what I refer to as the Four Food Groups: Stance, Grip, Sights, and Trigger. I explain them this way not in order of importance, but in the order they appear to the shooter as they set up and make their shot. The first two are the building blocks of fast and accurate follow on shots, while the last two ensure you get your rounds down range where you intend them to be on the target.
Four Food Groups:
When your shot breaks, your position is what it is. Regardless of what your stance is at that instant, the shot has been sent. The key is to have a stable and consistent stance so you can be ready for the next shot, not just for the one shot you are taking. You build that from the ground up. Set your feet shoulder width apart and your body square to the target. Bend your knees slightly, and shift your weight forward on the balls of your feet. It should feel as though you can lunge or move rapidly from this position and your center of gravity should be lower than when you are standing upright. Lean slightly forward at the waist and when you push the gun out your shoulders will also be forward. Contrary to what some folks will say, go ahead and lock your elbows. The result is a solid platform to steady the gun. With semi-autos this is critical so the gun has a solid platform to operate from. This is the classic insoles position.
A two handed grip is preferable if it is available to you. Start by placing the web of your firing hand as high up on the pistol’s backstrap as possible with your trigger finger indexed. The middle finger should be in contact with the trigger guard as you wrap three fingers around the grip of the gun. Your support hand fills the empty space on the other side of the grip and your index finger of your non-firing hand should also be in contact with the trigger guard when you wrap around your other fingers. Both thumbs should point straight toward the target along the frame of the gun, with the thumb of your firing hand above the other. This is the “thumbs forward” grip. There should be more than just grip pressure to the rear. It should feel reminiscent of wringing a rag. As your support hand rolls into position you should be applying side pressure as well.
Bring the gun to your line of sight, don’t send your face to the gun. This is easily achieved with the process of the stance I outlined previously. Most handguns utilize some form of post and notch sighting system. Proper sight alignment is achieved when the front post is centered in the rear notch and the post and notch being level across the top: equal height, equal light. Sight picture is the act of putting your properly aligned sights into relation with your intended target area. Everyone talks about front sight focus. The deal is, most people cannot focus on three planes at once; rear sight, front sight, and target. If you have to focus on one plane, it should be the front sight. The reason for that is, the shot will follow the front sight. If you think about that a moment it makes sense, where the front sight moves is where the gun is pointing.
Proper trigger engagement allows the gun to be fired without disturbing the sight alignment and sight picture. Squeeze, press, or pull? Whatever you call it, your job is to move the trigger directly to the rear smoothly as to not move your sights out of alignment. You may activate the trigger faster or slower based on your shooting situation but being smooth is the key. You should not start and stop or hesitate during the motion of moving the trigger. Even a subtle misalignment of the sights while pulling the trigger can send your shot off target at distance because of the short sight radius (distance between the front and rear sight) of the gun.
Fundamentals are fundamental, right? Well, as I stated in the outset the answer is yes and no depending on your shooting situation. Learning the fundamentals is how you learn to shoot and all of your technique will build from there. However, I have also learned your shooting situation dictates your focus on the particular fundamentals for the task at hand. Target or bullseye shooting is a different situation than a self-defense incident. Knowing the difference in shooting styles and training appropriately is the key.
For example, if you are most interested in consistent 10-ring hits in a bullseye competition, then by all means sights and trigger are the key, and you may even choose a different stance and grip than I outlined. Imagine Annie Oakley making a trick shot at a target behind her while looking through a mirror. She could make that accurate single shot without the benefit of a solid position or even a proper grip as long as those sights were properly aligned and the trigger press did not disturb them. Put yourself in a defensive mindset however, and it is an entirely different game. Although shooting well is the best defense, absolute bullseye type accuracy is not your goal because it will take too much time. In a defensive situation you need to be “accurate enough”, that is you need to hit the target effectively, but you also need speed. Somehow you need to shave every 10th of a second off of your response time and get multiple shots on target in the shortest possible time. As you can see, this is an entirely different shooting problem than target shooting or the trick shot scenario.
I will submit that trigger control is still of paramount importance, but what about sight alignment and sight picture? Maybe not so much, but a solid stance and grip will be critical for follow-on shots. Let’s examine that claim a little bit. The typical distance involved in a defensive encounter is relatively close. I say 15 feet or less based on a common sense examination. I can explain that without citing statistics. Imagine a location or situation where you might need to use your handgun for self-defense. A typical room in your home. At the ATM. Around your car at a gas station or in a parking lot. A robbery at a convenience store while you are buying beef jerky. The list goes on of where trouble breaks out or comes looking for you. I hope you get the idea from just a few examples that normally your defensive use of a handgun will be at a relatively short distance. Note, I am not addressing every possible scenario, just the most likely ones, and they all fall within a relatively short distance.
You should substantially train for the most likely scenario because you cannot effectively train for every possible situation. I submit to you that the fundamentals of pistol shooting in their entirety make sense for target or bullseye practice and those fundamentals are the building blocks for more advanced techniques. I will also say that those fundamentals are exactly where a new shooter needs to start in order to get familiar with the gun and the process of shooting. When you start looking at alternate needs or requirements for your shooting situation is when you should pick and choose which of those fundamentals you should emphasize.
Making the proper training choices is important. If defensive shooting is what you are training for you will need lots of repetition. When it comes to shaving 10ths of a second off of your response time you need to concentrate on your draw and presentation. In the self-defense situations I outlined where distances are close, good muscle memory in your stance and grip will be key to getting appropriate shots on target without actually using your sights. Perhaps the biggest variable is the draw and presentation of your firearm. That needs to be consistent and efficient. I will discuss that further in future articles.
When you are ready to advance your shooting skills seek out a qualified instructor and get some training. Train safe, but realistically.