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How to Shoot a Handgun
First of all, I'll start off my saying that I grew up shooting guns, but I didn't learn how to shoot a handgun until much later in life. As a boy, I spent countless hours shooting my trusty Daisy pellet gun. I grew up going to the shooting range with my Dad to shoot .22 rifle, later shotgun, and then high powered rifle. All those years shooting, I never shot a handgun. You'd think that once you became familiar with shooting guns in general, that you'd be a natural at shooting handgun. Well, that's not necessarily true. At least it wasn't the case in my experience. True, a lot of the basics about safety, proper gun handling, cleaning, and maintenance are much the same whether you are shooting a pistol or a rifle. However, there is a big difference in the way you shoot a handgun and a long gun like a rifle or shotgun. I'll share some of my own experiences in making the transition between shooting long guns and handguns. Perhaps you can learn from some of my mistakes and this may help you as you learn how to shoot a handgun.
My very first handgun was a Taurus .357 Magnum revolver. I decided that it would be prudent to be able to protect my family from criminals and a handgun seemed like a good choice for home defense. Long guns like rifles are shotguns are much more powerful and much more likely to stop a dangerous threat in the home, but they are harder to handle in narrow hallways and other tight spaces commonly found in a home. At the time that I bought that .357 Magnum, life was busy and places to shoot were not abundant. I think I only went to an indoor range one time and shot it very little. I shot that gun so little that I don't even remember my first impressions or how things went. That revolver sat unused for many years. Years later, I moved to an area where there were more options for places to shoot, and so I had opportunity to shoot this handgun some more. Unfortunately, that didn't last long because the revolver blew apart in my hands one day! As already mentioned, the gun was not used very much and it was in like new condition. I was shooting standard ammunition, nothing unusual or high powered, just your basic .357 ammo. I can still remember the day when it happened. I was shooting at a target and had made my first shot. I pulled back the hammer and made my second shot. Everything seemed normal. The bullets were hitting the paper target. As I was preparing to make the 3rd shot, I noticed something unusual as I looked down the sights. The barrel looked like it was drooping! WHAT? Instinctively, I reached out with my left hand to see what was going on, and when I touched it, the BARREL CAME OFF IN MY HAND!
Taurus .357 Magnum Revolver that Blew Up
Upon closer examination, I discovered that a part of the frame where the barrel was attached had blown away. The puzzling thing is that I still don't know how this happened. At first I thought that maybe the cylinder did not rotate to the right position and the bullet struck the frame causing the damage; however, there was not sign that this actually happened. The bullet went down the barrel and struck the target as expected. The firing pin mark on the primers of the shell were centered. If the cylinder had not rotated to the correct position before firing, then I would have expected so see an offset firing pin mark on the primer. That was not the case. To this day, I still don't know what caused the gun to blow up. I was just thankful that no one was hurt (me or any bystanders) during this mishap. Naturally, this should never happen, so I contacted Taurus and they honored their lifetime warranty. I shipped back the damaged gun and they sent me a new one. Even though I was pleased with the way Taurus handled the situation, and even though I do think that Taurus makes decent firearms, I just felt uneasy about shooting the new revolver after what I experienced with the first one. I ended up getting rid of it, and decided to move up to something better - a semiautomatic handgun. I won't go into detail of every handgun that I've owned, but I thought that this experience was worth sharing. If nothing else, it was a powerful reminder to me why it is important to always wear eye protection while shooting! Stories aside, let me share some of the mistakes that I made in learning how to shoot a handgun.
MISTAKE #1 - UNREALISTIC EXPECTATIONS - Maybe it's just because I grew up shooting guns and became accustomed to a certain level of accuracy from long guns. Maybe it was because of years of watching handguns being shot on TV and in the movies. Just point the pistol in the general direction of the target and WHAM it's a done deal. In any case, having shot rifle and shotgun a fair amount, I figured that a handgun would not be that much different. Boy, was I wrong! When I first started shooting handgun, I could not hit a target with any respectable consistency. In other words, my handgun shooting stunk! I can remember thinking that something must be wrong with the gun itself. The sights must be way off. Something must be defective with the gun. Surely it can't be me, because I've been shooting a long time. Well, it was me! Shooting from a bench with sandbags showed that the handgun was capable of hitting the target as it should, but shooting freehand was a very difference experience for me. I've never been known to have the steadiest hands, and that doesn't help the situation any, but I was making some mistakes that were causing me to shoot all over the place. That brings me to the next mistake that I was making, which I will touch upon next, but let me finish up this section. If you are just getting into shooting handguns, just be aware that a typical handgun will not be able to shoot to the level of accuracy of a rifle. Set your expectations accordingly. There are just physical limitations which can not be overlooked. The shorter barrel of a handgun not only means that the bullet has less distance to be propelled and stabilized while it travels down the barrel, but there is the reality that a shorter barrel usually means a shorter distance between the front and rear sights. That shorter sight distance makes it harder to aim accurately. Any misalignment between the front and rear sights on a short barrel handgun will result in a greater error downrange. It's just harder to line up the sights consistently on a short barrel handgun. Add on to that the fact that some compact handguns have non-adjustable, fixed sights, and it makes it even more difficult to shoot accurately. Some tiny guns don't even have much in terms of real sights. Before moving on to the next section, take a look at this small revolver that has a front sight more for cosmetic purposes than anything else. There's not even a rear sight to line up with the front sight. This is a point and shoot type gun. Even so, I've been amazed at how accurate a tiny revolver like this can be. The key is practice. More about that later.
Compact Pistol Designed for Pocket Carry
By the way, before moving on, let me say that if you are selecting a gun for home defense, then try to get one with a little longer barrel if possible. In the case of my .357 revolver, I opted for a 6" barrel and it proved to be quite accurate once I got some practice. A handgun with 6" barrel may not be a good size for concealed carry, where a snub nose revolver would be preferable for easy concealment, but for home protection purposes a longer barrel has it advantages. Not only will a handgun with a longer barrel typically be more accurate, but the longer barrel will contain the bullet longer and allow the burning powder charge to propel the bullet to higher velocities before exiting the barrel. This in turn means that all other things being equal, a bullet exiting a longer barrel will typically have more power and energy than the same bullet traveling through a short barrel. There are limitations where this is no longer true, because if the barrel is too long, then the powder charge has already fully burned and already accelerated the bullet to the maximum velocity. When that point is reached, a barrel that is any longer than this optimal length will only result in more frictional drag between the bullet and barrel that slows the bullet down. In terms of handguns, this is just a point of trivia, because the point where this occurs is in barrel lengths that would only be encountered in rifles. In any case, with a pistol if you have the choice of a longer barrel (and that additional length works fine for your intended purpose), then go for the longer barrel. In that picture above showing the small North American Arms pocket revolver, you can even choose between a 1-1/8" barrel and the "extended" 1-5/8" barrel (as shown above). Every little bit counts, especially when you are dealing with such a short barrel! With all that being said, there are some exceptions to the rule of "longer barrels are more accurate". For example, I've shot a target pistol with 6" barrel that was more accurate than a rifle with a 20" barrel. The difference was that the target pistol had a competition trigger job with a match grade barrel with porting. That gun was manufactured as a precision target pistol from the ground up. The rifle was just a common, inexpensive gun that was mass produced for plinking and recreational shooting. So there are exceptions.
MISTAKE #2 - NOT ENOUGH PRACTICE - As I mentioned earlier with my experience with the .357 Magnum revolver, I made the mistake of buying it and then just letting it sit around. Ammunition is not cheap (unless you happen to have a .22 handgun), and depending on where you live, it can be inconvenient to find a place to shoot. Even so, if you ever want to learn how to shoot a handgun well, then you will need to invest some time and money into making this happen. In my situation, because I didn't shoot that .357 enough, I didn't become very proficient with it. You need to become familiar with your gun, and practice is the key to shooting any gun more accurately. Find a place where you can shoot your handgun regularly. Getting a membership at a local outdoor shooting range or going to an indoor shooting range are a couple places where you can shoot. If you are not very familiar with guns, then you might consider signing up for a gun training class at a local shooting range or gun club. That way, you can learn the basics about gun safety and also receive some good training to help you learn to shoot a handgun more effectively.
In addition to finding a convenient place to shoot, another thing that makes practicing easier is if the ammunition is not so expensive. High quality, high power, self defense handgun ammunition can easily cost $.50 - $1.00 per round. That really adds up fast if you are going to shoot all the rounds necessary to become an experienced shooter. If you have a handgun chambered in a popular caliber such as the 9mm, then you can find ammo priced much more reasonably. At the time that I am writing this, I've purchased quality 9mm defense ammunition for as low as $.30 per round. I've purchased Sellier and Bellot 9mm Full Metal Jacket (FMJ) ammo for closer to $.20 per round. You can even find 9mm ammo a little cheaper if you shop around for some of the cheaper Russian made steel case ammunition. In my opinion, the small price savings with this type of Russian steel case ammo is not worth it if you have a nice gun. When I've shop around, I have been able to find good quality brass case ammunition for very close to the same price as the steel case ammo. The best bang for the buck that you are likely to find is if you have a gun that shoots .22LR. It's hard to beat the price of bulk 22LR ammo. In the past, I've bought Federal .22 in the 550, 525, and 375 round bulk packs for as low as $.03 per round. You can do a lot of shooting for very little money with prices like this! If you have high powered handgun for home defense purposes, then you might also consider picking up a .22 handgun in order to hone your handgun shooting skills. If your larger caliber pistol is a semi-automatic pistol, then you can find inexpensive semi-auto .22 pistols for a reasonable price. Brands like Chiappa and Puma offer semi-auto 22 handguns that are modeled after the .45 caliber 1911 style pistol and also the 9mm Beretta 92FS. I've seen the Chiappa handguns sell for close to $200. You will offset that cost in a very short time in ammunition savings by being able to shoot the economical 22LR. If your home defense gun is a revolver, you can also get an inexpensive Heritage Arms revolver for around $170. For around $40 more, you can even get one with an interchangeable cylinder that allows you to shoot both the 22 LR and the 22 Magnum through the same gun. Once again, this is pocket change when you consider how much money you can save while practicing with 22 ammo. Granted, the Heritage Arms pistols are single action only (meaning you have to cock the hammer back before every shot), but you can still get some valuable experience shooting a pistol like this. Obviously, you need to shoot the actual firearm that you intend to use for self defense, but you can also practice many of the same principles of shooting a handgun with an inexpensive 22 pistol. There is still another option. Some companies manufacture .22 conversion kits that allow you to switch over your existing, larger caliber semi-auto handgun to shoot 22LR. The only problem is that most of these kits are very expensive. In some cases, you can buy a couple guns like I described above, for less than the cost of one of these conversion kits. Of course, the advantage of a kit like this is that you are practicing with the actual gun that you will be using for defense purposes. You have to weigh the cost-to-benefit about going this route. Personally, I'd rather save some money and have a good excuse to buy another gun! Regardless which route you take, the end result will be that you can get a lot of good practice while shooting inexpensive 22 and not break your bank account in the process.
MISTAKE #3 - IMPROPER TECHNIQUE - Another mistake I've made when learning to shoot handguns is to pull on the trigger too abruptly. If you pull on the trigger too hard, then you are likely to pull the gun off target in the process. This is true not only with pistols but with any gun, but it seems to be more pronounced with a handgun. Even with a 2 hand hold, a pistol is harder to hold steady than a gun with a full stock that also anchors against the shoulder. With arms extended out in front of you, if you abruptly yank the trigger of a pistol, then you are likely to be very inaccurate. This is one of the problems that I encountered when first learning to shoot handgun. Another problem that can occur with powerful handguns is the tendency to flinch in anticipation of the strong recoil. When pulling the trigger, the body naturally wants to flinch in reaction to the blast and kick of a powerful gun. The way to overcome this problem is to either practice to the point where you can overcome the flinch reaction, or you can switch to a gun with a tamer recoil. Another way to improve accuracy while shooting a pistol or any kind is to learn to shoot between breaths. Actually, I tend to hold my breath all together when pulling the trigger. Not breathing while pulling the trigger can help keep the gun more stable and your shots more precise. The reason for this is that your chest moves while breathing and since your arms are attached to your upper body, when your chest moves your arms will move. In fact, small movements of your chest will be amplified at the ends of your hands where they are leveraged out away from the body. I've even heard of people who try to fire their shots in between heartbeats. While it's true that the beating of the heart will create some movement that can translate out to some additional movement at the end of the gun barrel, I personally find it impractical to be too concerned with this. I can't control the beating of my heart, but I can control my breathing, so I find that this is much more practical to accomplish. Breathing control is a good technique to learn while shooting any gun. By the way, my experience has been that I can never hold a firearm completely still. Like I said, I don't have the steadiest hands around. As a result, I've learned to shoot in between motions of the gun barrel. In other words, while I am aiming the gun at the target, I'll try to time the pulling of the trigger to coincide with when the sights line up with the center of the target. When shooting with a laser sight, this is also true. The laser will be dancing around the bullseye of the target. I've learned to try to time the pulling of the trigger so that the gun is on target when the bullet leaves the barrel. Easier said than done! I have a long way to go, but more practice is the key to getting better at any of this.
Another point to consider when learning how to shoot a handgun is your grip on the gun. How should you hold it? You want to have a firm hold on the pistol grip, but I personally find that there is no advantage in having a death grip on it. It is good to hold the grip up as high as you safely can, so that your hand is more in line with the barrel axis. This is because the more your hand is positioned below the barrel centerline, then the greater the tendency for the gun to kick upwards. If you hold the grips up higher, then more of the force is transmitted straight back into your hand with less muzzle flip. In any case, you need to make sure that your grip is firm enough to hold against the recoil. In addition, if you are shooting a semi-automatic handgun, then gripping too loosely can lead to malfunctions caused by "limp wristing". Since most semi-auto pistols use recoil to propel the slide back and work the gun's action, a handgun like this needs to be held securely enough so that this recoil can be transmitted adequately to the guns slide. If you have a limp wrist, then your hand will move too much and absorb more of the recoil which might cause the firearm to malfunction. For someone that has never heard about this before, limp wristing can sound like an odd thing, but it's a proven fact when shooting semi-auto handguns. Not to mention, limp wristing a high powered handgun can hurt you. Not only can you hurt your wrist, but if the gun flies back you can harm your face. I had a friend who was inexperienced in shooting, and he was shooting a powerful revolver that had a scope. He made the mistake of holding the pistol wrong and when the gun jumped under the powerful recoil, the gun kicked back into his face and the scope gashed him badly above the eye. This injury could have been avoided by using proper techniques in holding the gun. Speaking of injuries, that brings us to the next common mistake made when shooting handguns and guns in general... poor safety practices.
MISTAKE #4 - POOR SAFETY PRACTICES
If you've ever received any kind of instruction in firearm safety, then you should know the basics such as: treat every gun as if it were loaded, never point a gun in an unsafe direction, always anticipate where the bullet might go if you miss your target (or if there is a ricochet). These sort of basics are crucial when shooting any gun. A pistol can be particularly dangerous when improperly handled, because it is easy to freely swing it around with its compact size. Below is a video showing an unfortunate accident that occurred to a law enforcement officer who was well trained. Anyone can make a mistake, but when handling a gun, you want to do everything you can to minimize the possibility of a mistake that can have disastrous results. Even though this person thought that the gun was unloaded, there was a round in the chamber that fired off when the trigger was pulled. Had the rule of "always treat every gun as loaded" been followed, this mistake could have been avoided.
Another mistake that I've made is to not be careful about where I keep my free hand. I'm right handed, so I hold the pistol grip with my right hand and I support my right hand with my left hand to keep the gun more stable. Shooting two handed is better for stability, but you have to make sure that the fingers of your free hand are not in the wrong place at the wrong time! One time, I was helping a young person shoot a semi-automatic pistol. I had my hands around their hands to absorb some of the recoil and to help them hold the gun more securely. That was all well and good, except I wasn't careful about where I kept the thumb of my left hand. It was sticking up a little too far. When the handgun was shot, I immediately felt a sharp pain in my hand. My hand instinctively jerked away. When I looked at my thumb, blood was pouring out of it. When the pistol was fired, the slide flew back and the sharp corner of the back of the slide ripped into my thumb. It was a painful lesson, but I've often said that "pain is a good teacher". Even better than that is to learn from the mistakes of others and try to avoid making them yourself! Watch where you put your free hand and keep your fingers in a safe place. This is not only true when shooting a semi-automatic handgun with a slide that flies back, but it's also critical to pay attention to this when shooting a revolver. Every revolver has a small gap at the front of the cylinder where it meets the barrel. This gap is necessary in order for the cylinder to be able to rotate freely. A high quality gun will have a minimal gap, but all revolvers will have some sort of gap to prevent the cylinder from rubbing against the forcing cone at the entrance to the barrel. The larger the gap, then the greater the amount of blast that will come out of this gap while shooting. Some of the pressure and hot gasses escape at this gap and if any of your fingers are in the wrong place at the wrong time, then the results can be very painful. Below is a good picture to demonstrate what I am talking about. Notice the large flames shooting out of the gap at the front of the cylinder. Stick your fingers in the line of fire (literally) and you will get hurt. Take note that the person shooting the handgun in this picture is very smart. They are keeping their fingers safely away from the danger zone.
Fire Blast from Cylinder-Barrel Gap on a Revolver
I've shot revolvers with my free hand positioned in such a way that my
thumb was too close to the end of the cylinder. You can get burned
(or worse) from the escaping gases. In my experience, I just got
some blackened skin from the escaping gases because the revolver I was
shooting at the time was not very powerful. Worst case, if you
are shooting a powerful enough revolver, you can blow the end of your
finger off! REALLY! I know this may be hard to believe, but it
is true and unfortunately it has happened before. Since this is a
graphic picture showing what can happen if you put your finger in the
wrong place on a high powered revolver, I won't post it openly on this
page. If you are interested, you can see the picture by clicking the
following link. Don't open it if you don't like to see blood!
WARNING - GRAPHIC PHOTO! CLICK HERE TO SEE REVOLVER FINGER INJURY
With proper training and adequate practice, you can become surprisingly accurate in shooting handguns. Not only can a good pistol be accurate at reasonable distances, but learning how to shoot a handgun is also a lot of fun! If you know someone that is already experienced at shooting pistols, then you can see if they would be willing to help you learn. In addition, you can contact your local gun range (indoor or outdoor) and see if they have any training classes available. Regardless of how you learn to shoot a handgun, just be sure to avoid some of the common mistakes, be careful, and have fun!