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Pistol Marksmanship 101

Discussion in 'Handguns: General Discussion' started by Mike OTDP, Nov 11, 2012.

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  1. Mike OTDP

    Mike OTDP Member

    Oct 31, 2007
    Somewhere in Maryland
    This is a repost of material I put up on another forum, but thought might be useful....

    I think we can all use some refresher training on marksmanship. Or advanced training. I'm therefore taking the liberty of starting a thread on fundamentals.

    There are many good resources on line. http://bullseyepistol.com/ is a whole Web site dedicated to NRA Bullseye Pistol. YouTube has some really good videos put out by the Army Marksmanship Unit. And there's an enormous amount of information at http://pilkguns.com/menu_coaching.shtml .

    Now, I know some of you will be wondering why I'm showing you sites on precision shooting. It's because the precision disciplines are to shooting what ballet is to dance - they teach the fundamentals. Dig into the combat shooting books written in the 1970s and 1980s (before it became big $$ to run schools), and they all said the same thing...Spend a year on bullseye first. Get those solid fundamentals. THEN add speed, movement, and shooting from the draw. But there is no way you can miss fast enough to save your life in a gunfight. Firepower is bullets hitting people.

    But let's begin with basics. Firing a good shot requires three things.
    1. Align the front and rear sights with each other.
    2. Align the sights as a unit with the target.
    3. Release the shot without disturbing the sight alignment.

    Do these well enough, and you can get yourself an all-expense-paid trip to the Olympics.

    Part 2 - Sight Alignment

    Sight alignment is essential. I'm short of graphics here, I'll assume everybody has been exposed to the basic idea of aligning the front and rear sights and go on to some Useful Tips...

    It is critical that the shooter focus on the sights. Not, repeat not, the target. I suspect that many people lose track of this. A minor error in sight alignment will produce major errors in your shooting, just work out the geometry. This is why Olympic Free Pistols have a long sight radius, often more than a foot between front and rear sights.

    Then you have the question of where the sight unit (front and rear) should be placed in relation to the target. For defensive arms, a center hold (bullet goes where the center of the front sight is placed) is customary. For target pistols? You'll get a debate. Some shooters like a center hold. Others favor a 6 o'clock hold, putting the bullseye on top of the front sight. But many of the best shooters have gone to a deep sub-6 hold, with a substantial amount of white target between the top of the front sight and the bottom of the bullseye. This encourages the shooter to focus on sight alignment, leaving placement of the sights in relation to the target as a secondary focus. It works.

    Me? I use either center or a deep sub-6, depending on the gun. My preference is the latter.

    Part 3 - Shot Release

    OK, you've got the sights aligned, now it's time to fire the shot.

    The key is doing so without disturbing the sight alignment. And that is where a lot of people make their big mistake. You cannot jerk the trigger fast enough to avoid disturbing the sight alignment - yet I see plenty of people get the sights on target and jerk the trigger with just that hope.

    No. The key is a smooth pressure, straight back. Keep the pressure building. Even when your sights wander...unless totally off target. Even in slow fire, if it's taking more than 6-8 seconds to get the shot off, it's taking too long. Either speed up your release, or put the gun down (a skill I'll address in detail later). If you need to shoot faster, speed up the process. Jeff Cooper laid tremendous stress on the "compressed surprise break" - the classic bullseye trigger pull, but at a faster tempo.

    This is where dry fire comes into play. Unload the gun. Aim at the target. Release the shot. Note what happened to the sights when the shot released. If the sights moved, that shot would have gone wild. Try again. Work on pressing the trigger straight back. You may have to adjust the position of your finger on the trigger to get this to happen - that's fine. Memorize that position (or write it down - most top shooters have a shooting notebook for that sort of thing).

    Dry fire is the cornerstone of accurate pistol shooting. People keep asking me how I became such a good shot. There are many factors, but the foundation was that I dry-fired 30+ rounds per day, every day, between my 14th and 17th birthdays.

    And dry fire is cheap. Very cheap. And you can do it at home, where it's cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

    There's a YouTube video up by Keith Sanderson, an Olympic shooter from the Army Marksmanship Unit, about dry fire. Turns out he spent a 6-month period where he only shot about 500 rounds of ammo, then turned around and won a National Championship. Because he was dry-firing every day.

    It's something we should all be doing.
  2. Mike OTDP

    Mike OTDP Member

    Oct 31, 2007
    Somewhere in Maryland
    And here are some tips I wrote up for the U.S. International Muzzle-Loading Team in preparation for the World Championships in Germany...

    As members of the USIMLT, we compete at the highest possible level of muzzle-loading shooting. Shooting well enough to win local matches, or even to do well at national-level competitions, is no longer enough. Only the very best possible performance will win at Worlds. Which means that it’s time to improve our game.

    To misquote Clausewitz, “Pistol shooting is very simple. But even the simple things are very difficult.” All that is required is to align the sights properly with each other, align the sight unit with the target, and release the shot without disturbing the sights. Very simple. Doing it poses a bit more of a challenge. But it’s a challenge we can meet and overcome.

    Stance and Natural Point of Aim

    Over the last few months, you’ve received a lot of information about “building a position” and “natural point of aim”. Most of it is directed primarily at rifle shooters, especially those shooting prone. A prone shooter must have the rifle, sling, and body so situated that the rifle is held on target without effort. At least if he wants to win. Pistol works a bit differently. There’s no sling, and you get to wobble on your feet instead of wallowing in the mud. Several very highly ranked NRA Bullseye champions have gone so far as to deny the entire idea of a Natural Point of Aim for pistol.

    That being said, there is something to be said for adjusting the line of your body so that the arm comes in line with the target without having to be forced there with muscle. If nothing else, it makes follow-through a bit easier. A shooter should therefore stand up with the axis between feet at about a 45º angle to the line to the target, and raise the arm. If it is not aligned with the target naturally, don’t move the arm, move the feet. Personally, I find myself shooting nearly edge-on to the target, so don’t hesitate to vary a lot from the starting position. I use muscle memory for foot position, but I’ve seen other shooters use masking tape to mark foot positions to ensure 100% repeatability. And I won’t say they are wrong.

    One point worth making: Most MLAIC events use two targets. Align on each target separately. The difference in shooting angle can be enough to put unnecessary side force on the arm. Line up on one target, get off 6 shots, then line up on the other target and finish the match.

    Sight Alignment

    Sure, you know how to align the sights. Or you wouldn’t be reading this. But there are some fine points that can make the difference between a 9 and a 10, and you’ll need every 10 you can shoot at Worlds.

    I cannot emphasize enough how vital it is to have the front sight in crystal-clear focus. If you aren’t using prescription shooting glasses set up to put your relaxed focus on the front sight, the Europeans will be very happy. You won’t. Get a pair ASAP, you’ll be shocked at how much of a difference it make.

    Then we come to the Great Question. Center hold or 6 o’clock? In truth…neither! Most of the top air and free pistol shooters have long ago switched to a deep sub-6 hold. I’ve switched to it for Mariette (percussion revolver) and Kuchenreuter-R (percussion single-shot pistol), as well as for air and free pistol. With excellent results.

    You hold a comfortable distance below the bullseye (I find that about ½ a diameter works, but it will vary), and focus on aligning the front and rear sights. Don’t worry about where the sight unit is in relation to the bull, align those sights with each other. It’s an act of faith…but you’ll find that it pays off in keeping your attention focused on those sights. And in significantly higher scores. It may be too late for you to resight your pistols for the 2012 cycle, but definitely do so for the 2014 cycle.

    Center hold can also work, as well as a true 6 o’clock (I use center hold for several events), but I’m switching.

    Wherever you have the sights, it is imperative that you work on sight alignment. Especially alignment of the front and rear sights. This is critical! Forget the target, focus on the sights!


    Grip can also pose problems. The key is to come up with a grip, including trigger finger position, that does not pull the gun to one side or the other when you release the shot.

    In general, the grip should be held as tightly as possible in the fore-and-aft axis without trembling. The middle and ring fingers should do most of the gripping – it’s easy to put pressure on the small finger and start pulling shots down. Kuchenreuter (percussion single-shot pistol) and Cominazzo (flintlock single-shot pistol) shooters are particularly prone to this problem. It’s usually best to minimize side pressure on the grip with the fingertips, as any inconsistency will throw shots to one side or the other.

    Revolvers are a special case. I have always tucked my small finger under the grip. This moves the gun up in the hand, and puts your trigger finger in a much better position to press straight back.

    Which brings us to trigger finger positioning. Some people will tell you to press with this or that portion of the trigger finger. It’s all a bit of a crock. You press with whatever portion produces pressure that is straight back. This will require experimentation. Dry fire, and watch the sights. If the sights moved when you released the hammer, that shot would have gone wild. Adjust the trigger finger position until the shot releases without movement. Then practice it.

    FWIW, it sometimes helps to think not even of pulling “the trigger”, but part of the trigger. When I shoot revolver, I find I have to pull the right side of the trigger…which prevents me from hooking my finger around the trigger and pulling shots off to the right.

    Shot Release

    The key to shot release is making the process automatic. Many shooters will either try to yank the trigger as the sights come on target, or will try a stop-and-go buildup of pressure. These shooters do not do well. You’ll get the best results with a smooth buildup of pressure…and you need to make that buildup automatic. The goal is to get the gun in coarse alignment, hit the “shot sequencer” mental button, and focus on fine sight alignment while the “shot sequencer” increases pressure.

    And that “shot sequencer” should be fairly fast. Tests of Olympic shooters have shown that you’ll frequently have your most stable position 5-7 seconds after starting fine aiming. You want to have the trigger pressure starting well before then, to break the shot at the most stable moment. Don’t spend all day trying to fine-tune the sight picture, it’s a recipe for disaster. Break the shot…or abort it.

    Aborting the Shot

    Aborting the shot is one of the hallmarks of the championship-level shooter. Sometimes, the sights don’t want to align, or the eye doesn’t focus, or the trigger finger freezes, or you just don’t feel confident. ABORT! Put the gun down, do not shoot that 7…and come back in a minute and shoot the 10.

    Some shooters lower the pistol. I’ll often put it down, step back, and sit down for a moment. Anyone who’s watched me shoot at Fort Shenandoah knows that I take a stool with me. This is why. It’s not for convenience, it’s a shooting aid.

    It also pays to be able to load quickly, so you have plenty of time in hand to abort a shot without being rushed to make time up. Practice will improve speed, so get out there and practice.

    Work on mastering the shot abort. Use it when you train. Knowing when to abort and doing it without hesitation will save you from a lot of embarassment.

    Training Methods

    Most people train by going out there and shooting. Pull the trigger, shoot a score. A good score...but not a championship score. If you want one of those, you have to train with more deliberation.

    The first and most powerful weapon in your training arsenal is dry firing. There are Olympic medalists who claim to fire 100 dry shots for every live one. Which might be a bit of an exaggeration, but clearly one should do as much dry firing as live firing…if not more.

    Dry fire isn’t just about pulling a trigger. It’s about perfecting your technique. Focus on the sights. Focus hard. Release the shot.

    Did the sights move? Adjust your hand and trigger finger position until they don’t.

    Were the sights misaligned? Work on focus, and make them align.

    Did you try to overhold and force a shot you should have aborted? Learn to recognize the problem, and abort the shot at the first sign of trouble.

    And follow through. Don’t just pull the trigger and put the gun down immediately. Release the shot…and hold the gun in place for at least a full second. Then lower the pistol.

    And don’t just dry-fire against a target. I suggest spending at least half of your dry-fire time (preferably more) against a blank white wall or white target. This encourages you to focus on the sights, not the target.

    Another training tool is holding practice. Raise the pistol, align the sights, dry fire…then hold the pistol for twenty or thirty seconds after the shot breaks, focusing on sight alignment. Repeat.

    And finally, shoot other guns. Black powder may be our first love, but it’s too slow to make for a steady diet of shooting. I strongly recommend buying a good air pistol (an Izh-46 or better) and shooting air pistol matches. You can shoot air pistol indoors…which is very convenient in the middle of the winter. NRA bullseye matches are good, too – especially if you make a point of using iron sights for all events. And if you live in an area where there are free pistol matches, they are highly beneficial. Free pistol is shot on the MLAIC target (it’s where the MLAIC gets them)…but at 50 meters. Like the new Malson revolver match. It’s a harsh test of skill.

    Mental Aspects

    A positive mindset is essential. Bassham’s book “With Winning In Mind” puts great stress on it – and has methods for building it. Simple stuff, like having notes on the mirror to read every morning. Simple, seemingly silly – but effective.


    Shooting the pistol or revolver at a championship level is simple. Challenging to execute, and very unforgiving of any error in technique, but simple. Follow these tips, train hard, and shoot your way onto the podium in Pforzheim.
    Last edited: Nov 11, 2012
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