As an instructor, I see more and more people wanting to learn to shoot who have zero experience with guns. This is a tremendous blessing for our industry because all these new shooters are not only recognizing the value of firearms ownership and the ability to defend themselves, they’re likely to convince the people around them to reconsider their previous position on guns. Unfortunately, I also hear horror stories about the training (and lack of training) some of them have experienced. Learning to shoot is a serious undertaking and shouldn’t be approached in a haphazard fashion. Early success is important to a new shooter and bad habits established early must be overcome for a new shooter to reach his or her potential.
It’s possible to teach yourself to shoot and learn properly, but it’s difficult because, without an understanding of what’s truly important and what isn’t, you’re likely to focus on the wrong things. Further, without an experienced instructor to diagnose the problems that are holding you back, you may never realize what you’re doing wrong. The most prevalent problems new shooters experience are an involuntary response to the noise and recoil of the gun - and that's hard to diagnose when you're the one shooting.
Understand the basics
To someone who’s never fired a gun before, it’s important to understand the principles and why they’re a mandatory foundation. It’s easy for instructors to skip over essentials because those who deal with more informed shooters often assume the newbie knows the terminology that they take for granted. I was once teaching a new shooter the basic rules of gun safety, assuming he had a firm grasp of the concepts. At the end of my explanation, my student raised his hand and asked, “What’s the muzzle?” Make sure you understand everything and don’t be afraid to ask questions if you don’t.
Bad gun handling practices learned early are hard to unlearn. Many experienced people who call themselves “gun guys” exhibit gun handling that ranges from poor to downright scary. Quality instructors constantly watch the shooter and when the muzzle isn’t properly controlled, instantly remind the student. Best results aren’t obtained by yelling, but through repetition and constantly reminding the student of the value of safe gun handling. Learning to shoot is intimidating and often makes people self-conscious. This detracts from the student’s attention to detail, and the distraction can create safety issues. Learn how to handle the gun safely before beginning live fire.
Group size matters
Beware of high instructor to student ratios. The instructor’s eyes should be on the shooter and the gun at all times and corrections should be made instantly. This isn’t possible if each instructor is coaching five or ten students. Through constant attention, the shooter can develop safe gun handling practices that become a conditioned response. Techniques executed without conscious thought are not only the key to safe gun handling, but they're also of paramount importance in shooting performance later on.
The important stuff
While stance and breath control are important, they have little to do with handgun shooting performance. Proper stance helps, but it isn’t going to make or break early results. Mentioning breath control is important, but I rarely experience a student who has trouble because they breathe while they’re shooting. I do have problems with new shooters who hold their breath so long I fear they might pass out. On the other hand, trigger management is the biggest impediment to success and causes 90% of difficulties with both new and experienced shooters. We'll talk more about that in a minute.
A loose grip will cause a semi-auto to malfunction and has a negative effect on the speed of follow up shots. The strong hand should be high up for maximum contact with the grip of the gun. The heel of the non-firing hand should contact the grip of the gun. The four fingers of the weak hand should go over the three fingers of the firing hand, snug under the trigger guard. The thumb of the weak hand should never cross over the back of the pistol, but support the gun on the weak side alongside the frame. The thumb of the firing hand should be relaxed to prevent pushing the gun as the trigger is engaged.
Error at the target is multiplied by a factor of one, but error in aligning the sights is multiplied by the distance to the target. Older shooters who can’t focus on the front sight can be aided with a bit of magnification in their shooting eye. New shooters normally need to close one eye but eventually should transition to shooting with both eyes open. Cross eye dominance isn’t a problem with pistols; the only change required is a slight difference in head position. Ninety percent of the shooters I train can hold the gun steady enough and see the sights well enough to get good results.
Of primary importance
The factor that prevents most people from being able to shoot well with a pistol is trigger management. Modern pistols and revolvers have two kinds of triggers. Single-action triggers are activated like a button. True double-action triggers that require effort to cock the hammer are levers, and the two trigger styles require a different technique. Both methods require follow through. Almost all errors come from mismanaging the trigger, and most of that comes from anticipation of recoil.
The trigger is the key
The best way for the beginning shooter (and many experienced ones as well) to manage recoil anticipation or flinch is called the surprise break. This involves continuing to increase pressure on the trigger until the gun fires. If you don’t know the exact moment the gun will fire, you can’t flinch. This requires going slowly at first, but once you learn to shoot accurately, you can learn to shoot fast. It isn’t possible to learn to shoot fast first and then learn accuracy; you can be fast but with poor technique.
After the shot, the novice shooter should follow through. As the gun rises in recoil, the shooter should release the trigger and stay on the sights. With a firm grip, the gun will begin to settle back down as this occurs, the trigger should be released and prepped for the next shot. By the time the sights come back to the target, the trigger should be prepped and ready for the next shot, if required.
It’s fun to rattle through a magazine as fast as possible, but it teaches the new shooter nothing. You can’t miss fast enough to be effective. Begin shooting accurately; speed comes later. Combining grip, sight picture, and trigger management will result in accuracy and confidence. As those skills increase, the shooter can speed up, but remember to only shoot as fast as you can shoot accurately. Remember, you’re responsible for every shot that you fire. In a defensive situation, every miss is a potential liability. Though all this is a lot to manage when firing your first shots, repetition of using the proper technique will enable you to convert all these steps into one conditioned response.
Choose your instructor carefully
You can teach yourself to shoot. I know people who are great shooters who are self-taught, but time with a good instructor will prevent you from developing bad habits that may impede your progress later. Patches, tactical clothing, war stories, or even credentials, don’t necessarily make a good instructor. As a team captain at the national level, I quickly learned that some of my best shooters had no ability to verbalize what they do when they shoot and teach others. Choose an instructor who makes sense and explains why the points he makes are important. Talk to past clients and be wary of excessive stories relating to military or law enforcement techniques that don’t apply to civilians.
The ability to shoot a pistol well is rewarding, and if your goal is personal defense, it may be the difference between success and failure in a life threatening event. Your goal should be to learn to safely handle guns and shoot accurately and effectively as a conditioned response, as you drive your car. Learning the right fundamentals first and repeating them will allow you to achieve your ultimate potential. Should you ever experience a deadly force event, your skills will allow you to think about how to deal with the situation without worrying about whether or not you can perform.