Skip to main content

Mastering what matters with Pistols

Mastering what matters with Pistols

Following these tips will improve your handgun shooting skills.

As Col. Jeff Cooper wrote, "If there is one thing that is most vital about pistolcraft it is concentration on the front sight."

Those looking to learn or improve their ability to shoot a handgun should commit his quote to memory. For without mastering the ability to concentrate with dogged determination on the front sight you will only be guaranteed of learning to do two things: waste ammunition and miss. You must also learn the proper manipulation of the trigger. Or, said another way, you have to learn how to operate the trigger without disturbing your sight picture.

Handguns are purchased for a variety of purposes: personal protection, competition, hunting, and recreational shooting. Often the same handgun used for self-defense will be used for plinking and informal competition. To fully enjoy a handgun you need to be able to hit what you aim at, and many shooters find handguns more difficult to shoot accurately than rifles because the sight radius is greatly reduced and because with handguns there is only one point of contact with the shooter.

Regardless of the handgun you choose or the circumstances in which you plan to employ it, the handgun must have sights of some sort. Some hunting handguns, and in some cases handguns used for competition, may use an optical sight, but most come equipped with some variation of a post front and a notched rear sight.

Shooters who seek precision marksmanship favor the square notch and post sight, and short of optics, it does offer the most precision. However, for the defensive handgunner, law enforcement officer, or tactical competitor, there is another option that shooters are fast learning works better. (It is also very beneficial when teaching first-time handgun shooters.) It is a large dot front sighted and a shallow "V" rear sight.

Handgun sights like the notch and post require fine alignment before they provide that "perfect" sight picture we expect to see before we squeeze the trigger. The problem is many shooters struggle with trigger control.

This is mainly because many double-action triggers require a long and sometimes heavy pull and double-action, fast-action, and Ultra-Safe-Assurance striker-fired trigger systems are very prevalent today. As shooters work through trigger travel they can find it difficult to maintain that "perfect" sight picture required by the notch and post system before their brain gives the go-ahead for trigger break. That's why and how trigger panic sets in.

The notch and post system sight picture will only tolerate minimal movement before it gives the appearance that you will miss. But the large front dot and shallow "V" rear system provides a picture that does not seem to be saying you will miss. This helps shooters learn proper trigger control faster and easier.

This is not a new discovery. When the famous Western gunfighter Bat Masterson ordered two Peacemakers from Colt in 1885 he specifically requested they come with a front sight that was "a little higher and thicker than the ordinary pistol of this kind."

However, if your purpose for a handgun is hunting or precision target work, you will be better served with a more traditional sight. If you are just learning to shoot a handgun, and intend on using a handgun for personal protection or for participation in one of the many practical shooting disciplines, consider the large dot and shallow "V" rear sights.


One very important and often-debated aspect of handgun shooting deals with hand position. The web of your shooting hand should be tightly inserted into the web of the grip on a semiautomatic pistol or as high as comfortable on a revolver.

The handgun's barrel should be an extension of--point in the same direction as--your forearm when your wrist is straight. This will help you better control recoil and reach the trigger comfortably. The support hand should wrap around the shooting hand, and your thumbs should be extended or folded comfortably. Many shooters find that extending their thumbs in a relaxed manner makes it easier to manipulate the trigger without jerking.

The position most often debated is the position of the body and arms. In general terms the body should be slightly canted forward from the hips, arms fully extended, and the feet shoulder-width apart. Beyond that, it is really personal preference. This was best described by famous exhibition shooter Ed McGivern over 30 years ago in Ed McGivern's Book of Fast and Fancy Revolver Shooting. He said, "In my estimation there is no one best position that is suitable for everybody. The main object to be considered is steadiness and comfort, freedom from muscular strain, discomfiture or fatigue."

Regardless of your body position, it all falls back on sight alignment and trigger control. If you can keep the sights aligned and operate the trigger until the handgun fires without disturbing that alignment, you will hit the target even if you are standing on your head or sitting on a stump. Master pistolsmith and top-level IPSC shooter Jerry Dove considers the practice of sight alignment and trigger control essential elements of every range session for a handgunner.

For beginning handgunners dry-fire is the place to start. If you notice during dry-fire that you are having trouble controlling the sights during trigger squeeze, consider installing a Crimson Trace.

Lasergrip or other laser sight. Lasers can greatly enhance trigger control and sight alignment training. Simply pick a spot on the wall as an aiming point and with an unloaded gun (double- and triple-check your gun to be certain it is not loaded), dry-fire at that spot. Watch how the laser moves on the wall as you squeeze the trigger and work toward keeping it as still as possible during the firing stroke.

Dry-fire practice is also the place to learn about trigger reset. Trigger reset is very important any time you are firing more than one shot in succession. Each time a trigger is squeezed it must be reset in order to fire again. When you get a feel for where this rest is, it becomes much easier to properly manipulate the trigger for follow-up shots. To find a trigger's reset position hold the trigger in its most rearward position after it has been squeezed then slowly ease off on trigger pressure. When the trigger reaches reset you can feel, and most often hear, a click. This is the point where you should start the trigger pull for the next shot.

The two-man trigger is another way to develop good habits and can be used in dry-fire or live-fire drills but requires an experienced instructor. It works like this: Hold the handgun normally, with your finger on the trigger. The instructor places his finger over yours and applies pressure to the trigger as you maintain the sight alignment, teaching you what proper trigger control feels like. Don't be surprised if you shoot better when someone else is squeezing the trigger.

An effective live-fire drill is using the shrinking target. Place a sheet of notebook paper at a distance where you feel confident. (Seven yards is a good starting distance.) The goal is to get five out of five shots in the paper. If you do it with ease the first time, speed up until you only hit four out of five times.

Continue at that speed until you achieve five out of five hits. Fold another sheet of paper in half and repeat. You can keep folding the paper in half as many times as you like. When you increase the distance go back to a full-size piece of paper. Incorporate a shot timer to record an exact measurement of the time it takes you to complete the drill.

Practice often, go easy on the trigger, and remember the front sight. The trigger tells your handgun when to send the bullet, and the front sight tells it where. They must work together with your eyes and your finger to produce hits you can be proud of.


Proper management of a handgun is essential and often overlooked even in law enforcement training. Proper handling of the handgun encompasses the loading, unloading, presentation, and operation of the firearm. Handgun handling can be broken down into four positions. Different tasks are performed in each, but a handgun should never be in any position not described below. Savvy handgunners develop techniques so they can transition through each position, stopping as the situation dictates.

Holster Position: Used to secure the handgun. You should be able to holster and unholster smoothly and without looking.

Ready Position: Taught differently by different instructors, it is essentially with the handgun held close to the body somewhere above the waist and below the shoulders. Here you conduct reloads and deal with malfunctions and become ready to face a threat or target.

Cover Position: Most often used after a target has been engaged. Arms are extended with the muzzle lowered to allow the shooter to take in the totality of the circumstance. It is applicable to all forms of handgun shooting. Use it to assess the target before and after shooting to determine further action.

Engage Position: Used for squeezing the trigger/ engaging targets, The position is most often taught with both arms extended fully and the sights aligned on the target.


Let's face it. A handgun is a defensive gun, which means it is a reactionary gun. For a reaction to be effective it must be fast. The "quickdraw" seemed to die off with the Wild West gunfighters, but to an extent it has a place. Those who look to a handgun for protection should be prepared to employ it swiftly and at a moment's notice. How fast? The answer is as simple as it is complex: As fast as you can. Well-trained police officers can draw their handguns and hit the vital zone of a human target at seven yards in less than three seconds; competition shooters can do it in half that time.


1. Dry-fire practice is invaluable. Do it often.

2. Rimfire pistols offer affordable practice.

3. Handguns with longer barrels are easier to shoot.

4. Defensive handgunners must balance accuracy with speed.

5. Lasers are helpful aids in learning trigger control and improving accuracy in low light.

6. Limit practice sessions to

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

Recent Videos

Shooting Times Magazine Covers Print and Tablet Versions

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!


Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services


Buy Digital Single Issues

Magazine App Logo

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Shooting Times App

Other Magazines

See All Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Shooting Times stories delivered right to your inbox.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Shooting Times subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Enjoying What You're Reading?

Get a Full Year
of Guns & Ammo
& Digital Access.

Offer only for new subscribers.

Subscribe Now