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How To Shoot A Pistol--And Hit Your Target

Updated on September 12, 2014

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The pistol is the most difficult firearm to shoot straight, but a few hints will start you on your way!

It's Simple If You Know How


First I suggest a review of the four rules of gun safety. Pistols are inherently dangerous, that is their purpose, but the danger can be controlled through correct gun handling.

I recommend starting your quest for pistol accuracy with a good .22. The .22 Long Rifle cartridge is inexpensive, widely available and capable of fine accuracy. It is not very powerful, but you do not want a lot of noise and recoil while you are learning. The mildness of the cartridge and its low cost encourage practice rather than discouraging it. Step up to a powerful pistol after you have become a good shot. The fundamentals of pistol marksmanship are the same with the .22 and easier to learn, so why not make things easy for yourself?

I think the fundamentals of practical accuracy with the pistol are three, and I call them hard hold, accepted wobble and surprise break.

Hard Hold:

Grip the pistol as if trying to crush its handle. This is to guard against tightening your hand as you trigger the shot. The natural tendency to squeeze tighter as the shot is fired makes your grip inconsistent through the firing cycle, but what you want for accuracy is a grip that does not change at any time while aiming and firing the shot. So, hold on tight.

How tight? A number of experts tell me that you tighten up until the tightness of your grip causes a tremor in your hand, then you ease up just to the point where the tremor disappears. That is no doubt good advice, for experts, but for beginners, the tremor of a very tight grip will not add much inaccuracy. So, hold as hard as you like.

Accepted Wobble:

No one can hold a pistol's sights dead steady on the target. Do not try! Attempting it leads to the fault of "chasing the bullseye," also called "snatching the shot," that is, trying to fire at the exact moment the target is perfectly aligned. As we will see in the next step, that is all wrong. Let the sight wobble on the target. So long as the area of wobble is smaller than your target, you'll hit the target if you get the next step right.

Surprise Break:

Operate the trigger with a smooth increase of pressure until, at a moment not of your choosing, the gun fires of itself. Begin your trigger pressure, increase it, the shot will fire at some point; let it happen. Don't tell it when. Letting it fire as opposed to making it fire, that is the essential point. This is the single most important step in achieving accuracy, and the hardest to do.

Why is this so important? It is only natural for your body to react to the sudden explosion, and if your reaction occurs before the shot is out of the barrel, inaccuracy will occur. It is just that simple. If you do not know when the shot will fire, you will not know when to flinch. Your reaction to the shot firing will occur after the shot is on its way. At that point your reaction cannot affect its flight.

As I use the term, and the term is controversial, a flinch is any reaction to the shot firing that occurs before the shot actually fires. It does not necessarily imply that you are afraid of the gun, only that you are getting ahead of yourself.

The surprise break is called that because the trigger releases and fires the shot--the trigger "breaks"--as a surprise to you. Combat and action target shooters learn to do the surprise break in a fraction of a second and still surprise themselves with the shot, but the technique is easier to learn, just starting out, if you take several seconds to fire each shot, with a slow progressive increase of trigger pressure.

I am sure you will hear many fine points of marksmanship offered besides, but that is what they are, fine points; I have described the fundamentals. Such matters as thumb placement, alignment of the trigger finger, focusing on the front sight, the difficult to define matter of "follow through" and all the other cracker barrel advice can wait until you can do the three basics every time: Hard hold, accepted wobble, surprise break.

Want hands on training?

There are many places you can receive practical instruction in pistol marksmanship. You can ask about them at your local gun store or shooting range. There may be a course near you. Sometimes the training is fantastic, from either a locally well known instructor or a traveling expert.

Some people travel to receive the highly regarded lessons offered at famous schools. Some well known destinations for firearms training include Gunsite, Thunder Ranch and Front Sight.

Further Reading

I've only hit the high points...

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