Have you always wanted to learn how to shoot better? If you are a firearm owner, you probably think about it every time you miss what you thought was a well placed shot. Do you anticipate your shots? Do you jerk your trigger? Are you shooting with your non-dominant eye?
There are hundreds and hundreds of things that affect how you shoot and how you handle your firearm. Believe it or not, everybody is different and not a single one of us can shoot exactly the same as anybody else. However, physical and mental differences aside, fundamental marksmanship skills and structured practice are something that everybody can understand and implement. Remember, when it comes to shooting and shooting good, comfort will always be the king of the day. If shooting isn’t comfortable, people won’t do it so it is imperative that shooters learn about the fundamentals and then apply them to their own unique situations.
Learning how to shoot better is going to take time. Lots of time. A four hour NRA 1st Steps Pistol Orientation, like the ones we teach, will not make a beginning shooter an expert marksman. I have been shooting for over 16 years now and I have fired tens of thousands of rounds during that time. I know my AR-15 and Glock 23 like the back of my hand and I’m a good damn shot with both of them. But it took 16 years to get to my current skill level.
So where do we begin? Obviously, owning a good quality firearm is a fine place to start. There are few things in the world that produce the same excitement as bringing home a brand new gun. Choosing the right firearm, on the the other hand, is a bit more complicated than just going to your local gun store and buying it.
What gun should I buy?
This is a question that is asked of almost every firearms enthusiast. People are predisposed to follow the path of least resistance and that question exemplifies this predisposition. It is so much easier when people can make your decisions for you, especially when it comes to something unknown or mysterious. Don’t fall into this trap!
When somebody asks me what firearm they should buy, I always answer their question with a question of my own – what do you plan on doing with said firearm? This question forces the new gun buyer to examine the purpose of buying their firearm while also helping to narrow down their choices. A 98 lb woman probably shouldn’t rely on a full sized Mossberg 590 12ga to help her deal with home intruders or carjackers, unless of course she has the training to back it up. The same goes for a 6′ 2″ 250 lb man in that a Derringer .22lr pocket pistol probably isn’t the best choice for hunting, skeet shooting, or home defense.
And then there is the question of caliber. Some may over-complicate this by mentioning “stopping power.” I realize that I am going against the grain by saying this, but, ALL guns have some degree of “stopping power.” Most self-defense situations in the United States that involve guns end way before a single shot is fired. The mere presence of an un-holstered firearm pointed directly at the torso of an attacker is many times all that is needed to stop a threat. And in this sense, ALL guns have some degree of “stopping power.”
What firearm caliber is best suited for my needs?
This is the ultimate “Coke-Pepsi” debate within the gun community – which caliber is better?
Boy, isn’t that a subjective question…
When it comes to caliber, I usually refer to my previous answer – what do you plan on doing with said caliber? That may seem like a silly question… at first. The first thing that pops into the minds of your average shooter, and this is my guess, is – what caliber has the best stopping power? Again, stopping power seems to be the thing that people want to know the most about when they are purchasing a firearm chambered in a particular caliber. But instead of looking at this question subjectively (using the word best usually denotes a personal preference), we ought to look at it objectively (what activities will you participate in and what calibers need to be considered for each based on the desired outcome).
We need to also remember that firearms are tools and all tools are made to do a specific task(s). Firearms, in their basic description, are tools that are designed to punch holes through or into various objects typically using metal projectiles propelled by the byproducts of a chemical/thermal reaction.
Are firearms used to kill animals? Yes.
Are firearms used to kill humans? Absolutely.
Are firearms used to protect property, life, and national sovereignty? Without a doubt.
Are firearms used in sport that involves competition, skill, knowledge, and training? Of course.
Each one of those questions above have something in common: caliber choice is dictated by the desired outcome. If you are purchasing a gun to hunt with, a .22lr is going to be a great choice if you’re hunting varmints and pests. But what if you need to eat? Well, if you’re cool with eating rabbit, squirrel, birds, and gophers, a .22lr might be all you need. But what if you want to eat something other than rodents and small birds? Unless your shot placement is extremely accurate between 50 – 150 yards, and we’re talking about shot groups the size of a dime at those distances, a .22lr is probably going to be the wrong choice when hunting elk in Idaho.
There are countless resources available online that can help you choose a caliber right for you. All you need to do is consider the outcome you desire when you use your firearm. If your firearm is to be used for self-defense, the most popular handgun calibers include, but are not limited to (info in parentheses are my own estimations/guesses not based on any scientific testing):
.380 auto (low recoil, low energy, low speed, typically easy to conceal)
9mm x 19 (low recoil, mid energy, low to mid speed, typically easy to conceal)
.38 Special (mid recoil, mid energy, mid to high speed, somewhat easy to conceal)
.357 Magnum (mid to high recoil, mid to high energy, mid to high speed, somewhat easy to conceal)
.40 s&w (10mm) (mid recoil, mid to high energy, mid speed, typically easy to conceal)
.45 acp (mid to high recoil, high energy, mid to high speed, somewhat easy to conceal)
.44 Magnum (high recoil, high energy, mid to high speed, not very easy to conceal)
Rifles and shotguns also both have a large degree of options in the caliber and power department. The most common rifle caliber in the world is undoubtedly the .22lr. But as we’ve discussed before, this small but common caliber may not be suited for big game hunting, self-defense, of long range target shooting. In fact, no hunters I know of use a .22lr to hunt elk in Idaho because it just isn’t practical (or legal, for that matter). A .22lr just doesn’t have enough energy to effectively penetrate very deeply into a 1,200 lb animal. Sure, a well placed .22lr to the orbital socket and into the brain will most likely produce a kill, but are you that good with such a small caliber at 100 yards? Even I cannot claim to be that accurate with a .22lr.
Honestly, the very best way to determine what caliber to choose is to actually go out and shoot a variety of them. Most likely, there is a gun range nearby that will rent out a multitude of firearms to you. Ask your buddies, friends, and family members to take you out shooting.
I have my gun and ammo. Now, how do I shoot better?
Now it’s time to go shooting! However, if you’ve never fired a gun before, it is of my highest recommendation that you enroll in and take a firearms safety and training class (or two, or three, or four…). I don’t have to tell you that safety is paramount when it comes to firearms but you’d be surprised at how many so called “experts” break even the most basic of rules when handling their guns. Just do some Googling to find the thousands of stories, images, and videos detailing accidents and negligent usage that occur on an almost daily basis.
In short, regular and challenging practice and training will make you a better shooter.
Firearms training helps to develop confidence and skill. Remember, many accidents are the result of people not knowing how their firearm operates.
Regular and varied training helps to relieve the shooter of any beginners anxiety that many experience. Drills and structured classes instill discipline and encourage refinement of safety practices and attitudes. In short, practice and training will make you a better shooter.
Shooting faster comes with practice. Lots and lots and lots of practice. More than just rapidly squeezing the trigger over and over and hoping that just one of your dozen or so rounds hits its mark, shooting faster requires an almost instinctual application of the fundamentals of marksmanship. Being able to control your firearm’s recoil while also re-acquiring your sight picture and sight alignment at the same time you’re applying your trigger pull is at the core of shooting faster.
It’s easier said than done. It takes dedication and the desire to learn as much as you can when you can when learning how to shoot better. It’s going out of your way to get better whether it’s by utilizing the Winchester/NRA Marksmanship Qualification Program, joining a local shooting club, or practicing on your own. And it’s all about learning and utilizing the most basic of firearms knowledge.
How To Shoot Better By Learning The Fundamentals of Marksmanship
These are the things you must master if you wish know how to shoot better and become an expert marksman. No matter what kind of shooting discipline your pursue, all of them rely on all of the above fundamentals. As you expand your training to include self-defense training, tactical training, or other high stress shooting, you’ll find that properly performing these fundamentals gets… well… fundamentally more difficult. When that happens, finding and maintaining a balance of personal comfort and accuracy that is acceptable is crucial. And the only way to find this balance will rely on mastering the fundamentals of marksmanship.
The fundamentals of shooting can be boiled down to the following concepts.
Grip and Position
Holding your firearm properly will greatly influence your ability to shoot accurately and consistently. There is a lot of movement happening as you use a firearm. Recoil, aiming, squeezing the trigger. These things and more all translate into fine movements transferred to the firearm itself. And when that happens, the muzzle also moves thus affecting where the shot actually lands after it leaves the gun.
A proper and firm grip is probably the easiest fundamental to master. Practicing your grip can be done practically anywhere. Just be sure you are safe and unload your firearm when practicing anywhere you don’t want to risk shooting something.
A proper grip covers 360 degrees of the circumference of the actual grip of the pistol using both hands (or in the case of long guns, how the support arm aids in the stabilization of the firearm while the firing hand grips the stock). In other words, if the palms of both hands (and the fingers of the shooting hand) contact as much of the pistol grip as possible, while also being positioned as high as possible on the back strap, a shooter will have much more control over recoil and more control over target and sight re-acquisition. And once a shooter can do those things better, that shooter will become a faster and more accurate shooter.
A proper grip sees the fingers of the shooting hand wrapped around the grip and laying flat against the front strap and the palm contacting as much surface area as possible on the pistol grip. The trigger finger is placed along the frame or trigger guard. The shooting hand grip should be firm. Don’t white-knuckle it.
The palm of the support hand should then be positioned so that it contacts as much of the remaining exposed grip surface as possible. The thumb of the support hand should lay parallel with the thumb of the shooting hand or it can lay beneath the thumb of the shooting hand but NEVER crossed over the top of the shooting hand thumb.
Finally, the fingers of the supporting hand should naturally curl over the top of the shooting hand fingers. Try not to get into the habit of placing the index finger of your support hand on the front of the trigger guard. This will decrease the stability of the support hand grip and makes recoil harder to manage. Plus, it just looks goofy.
One more thing about grip… There is a lot of talk about whether or not you should be pushing or pulling your firing and support hand when aiming your pistol. The general idea is that as you’re aiming in you use your firing hand to push the pistol forward into the support hand while at the same time use your support hand to pull the pistol into your firing hand. The opposing forces are supposed to help keep the pistol stable while squeezing the trigger. Does it work? I can say that it does, when I do it. But I can also say that doing this push – pull technique will take away some of your focus on the fundamentals. I recommend that you practice doing it so that you know how well it works for you. This is all about comfort and if you can still hit what you’re shooting at without doing the push – pull technique, then you have one less thing to think about when you’re squeezing the trigger.
Shooting positions work hand in hand with how you grip your firearm. When shooting a pistol, a shooter typically supports the pistol with both of their arms and that’s it. Sometimes a bench rest position is utilized, but most of the time pistols are fired from a standing position. There are two stances that are typically utilized by pistol marksmen – the Isosceles and the Weaver stance.
The Isosceles Stance – Handgun
Do you remember basic geometry? Think back to when you learned all about triangles. You know, those three sided shapes that look like the pyramids of Egypt? Well, one of the basic pistol stances incorporates this basic geometric shape – the isosceles triangle. The reason why this stance is named as such is because if executed correctly, the position assumes the shape of an isosceles when viewed from above. The “triangle” is formed when the arms are straightened out in front of the body and the shoulders are squared to the target. Your feet should be about shoulder width apart. The shooter leans ever so slightly forward so as to help absorb recoil.
The Weaver Stance – Handgun
In 1959, L.A. County sheriff deputy Jack Weaver developed a new way to accurately engage targets more efficiently than traditional stances and training. This stance positions the torso and feet placement at about a 45 degree angle to the target. The shooter leans into the shot by bending slightly forward at the hips. Both knees should be slightly bent and not locked out. The shooting arm will almost be straightened out. The non-shooting support hand will be slightly to noticeably bent. The shooting hand will push the firearm forward while the support hand will pull the firearm back. This forward-backward pushing is intended to stabilize the firearm so as to help the shooter re-acquire their sight picture faster for follow up shots. Also, the Weaver stance allows for easier and faster position changes due to the placement of the weak side foot being forward of the strong side foot. I personally prefer the Weaver stance as it feels the most natural to me.
Standing – Rifle
This is by far the most challenging position to shoot a rifle from. Rifles are heavy. They can be awkward. They also happen to recoil more than handguns do. All of these things make the standing position the most unstable position to shoot from. But this is not to say that you cannot be accurate when shooting from the standing position. A proper standing position sees the supporting arm doing just that – supporting the rifle. The rifle is also pulled firmly into the pocket of the shoulder while the body is slightly bent forward at the hips. The butt pad of the rifle should ride high so your cheek can simply rest on the stock’s comb. Bring the rifle towards you head, not your head to the rifle. Both knees should have a slight bend in them; locked knees tend to become wobbly and shaky after holding their position too long (not to mention the risk of fainting grows the longer you keep you knees locked). The feet should be slightly further than shoulder width apart and about 45 degrees from one another. Avoid leaning back – that is how amateurs hold rifles. The rule of thumb is that the stance should look aggressive but not over-exaggerated.
Kneeling – Rifle
The kneeling position provides superior stability over the standing position in that the support arm (the one holding the hand guard or the forestock) rests on the knee that is raised off the ground. Because of this, the shooter only needs to concentrate on aiming and firing the rifle. A proper kneeling position has the small pocket just behind the elbow resting above the kneecap. In other words, the “pointy” part of the elbow should not be digging into the kneecap but rather just slightly in front of it. The body is slightly bent forward so that it can absorb recoil. The knee on the shooting hand side of the body is resting on the ground while the buttocks is sitting on the rear foot. Depending on the comfort of the shooter, the rear foot can lay flat on the ground or it can be elevated with the toes underneath, as shown in the images above.
Sitting – Rifle
For an even more stable shooting platform than the kneeling position, the sitting position utilizes both arms in keeping the rifle stable. This position can be a difficult position for larger shooters in that it requires them to bend forward even further so that both elbows rest in the pockets of both bent knees. Just like the kneeling position, the “pointy” parts of the elbows should not rest atop the bony parts of the knee joint but rather slightly inward where the bent joint creates a crease. In other words, imagine bending your knees to hold a pencil in the crease. That’s where your elbows should rest.
Prone – Rifle
The prone position is by far the most stable position to shoot a rifle from. In this position, the body needs to align with the center line of the rifle and stock as best it can. Think of a line that starts from the muzzle of the rifle that travels straight to the rear towards the toes; it travels through the buttstock, the shoulder, the back of the shooter, and down the shooting side leg as straight as possible. Both legs should be spread comfortably. The shooters support arm should be pulled in towards the rifle so that the elbow is as close to the rifle as possible. Remember, the support arm is a support and it won’t do any good if it is far from the rifle. The idea is to let the skeletal structures in your support arm (read: the bones support the rifle, not your muscles). The shooting arm simply rests naturally on the ground and should not be used as a support. That arm simply has the hand and fingers that pull the trigger attached to it.
There are only three things that you need to line up in your field of vision to hit what you’re shooting at:
- Rear Sight
- Front Sight
Aligning your sights to your target varies on different models of firearms. Check your owners manual for your specific model. However, the basic concept is that the front sight will be aligned between the notch of the rear sight and the top edges of the sights will be flush. Keeping these sights aligned during the trigger squeeze is paramount and is one of the most important things to be aware of when you’re shooting. Refer to the image above.
Sight picture is what your eyeballs are seeing as you align your sights to your target. Sight picture is your rear sight, front sight, target, and everything in your peripheral vision. However, human eyeballs cannot focus on but one thing at a time and most of your sight picture will be blurry except for that which your vision focuses on. So, what should you be focusing your vision on? The rear sight? The front sight? The target? You can only pick one.
Once you understand what proper sight alignment is, it isn’t too hard to see that trying to align blurry sights is difficult. Many beginning shooters choose to focus their vision on the target downrange. And why not? Reason stands that you would want to be 100% sure of your target and what is beyond it. The problem that results is that the shooter tries to align two blurry sights with one another. Think of trying to run thread through the eye of a needle without focusing on it… It isn’t happening. The same goes with finding a proper sight picture. Your target is not going anywhere. A big black or red target downrange will still be a big black or red target, albeit a blurry one. I’ll bet you can still guess where the center of a blurry circle or a blurry silhouette is. The shape doesn’t change, only its clarity. But it’s still there and you can see it.
So that leaves just the rear sight and the front sight to have to worry about. Focusing your vision on the rear sight requires you to try to align a blurry front sight with a blurry target. This is not what you want to do. A front sight that is out of focus cannot be accurately aligned with the rear sight.
The key, then, is to focus your vision on the front sight. A clear front sight is essential and will allow you to keep your rounds exactly where they need to go.
If you cannot control your breathing, you will never be able to consistently place accurate shots. Every breath you take moves your body and that movement is then transmitted to your firearm. Therefore, it is paramount that you understand your breathing cycle in order to take the best shot possible.
Everybody has a natural pause in their breathing cycle and that is between the exhale and into the inhale. When breathing, lots of movement is transferring from your body through your arms and hands and to your firearm. During this natural pause in your breathing cycle, your body will cease to have as much movement that you will have to compensate for. This is the time your firearm should be firing.
It’s okay to hold your breath during the breathing cycle, however, the longer that you hold your breath, the longer you will be depriving your muscles of oxygen. This will eventually lead to involuntary shaking as your muscles need oxygen to hold their position. If you feel the need hold your breath, only do so for just a few seconds at a time. If you find that you’re holding too long and begin to shake, go to the low ready and breathe. Get that blood flowing. Resume shooting when you are comfortable.
This is probably one of the most important fundamentals to master. The way you engage the trigger mechanism in your firearm is one of the most influential factors that affect where your shots hit the target. As your trigger is pressed to the rear, there are lots of things happening inside of the firearm – springs are stretching, sears are disengaging, and hammers may be cocking to the rear. All of these little movements will translate to movement in the firearm itself. A proper trigger squeeze is one that is controlled, consistent, and not too fast or too slow.
A proper trigger pull is one where the shooter is concentrating on maintaining proper sight alignment while focusing on a clear front sight. A proper trigger pull is not one that is jerked to the rear in anticipation of the shot. I proper trigger pull results in a surprise discharge. In other words, a proper trigger pull is one that is mastered only after lots and lots of practice.
Proper follow through will set you up for your next shot so that you won’t have to worry about spending too much time setting up the next one. You follow through by not immediately releasing the trigger as soon as the shot happens. Making a conscience effort to slowly release the trigger between each shot will allow you to reacquire your sight picture and sight alignment much faster. Failure to apply follow through is an indication that the shooter is probably jerking the trigger. Make it a point to hear the “clicks” your firearm makes when the trigger mechanism resets as you release the trigger.
How To Shoot Better Using The Fundamentals
The fundamentals are the foundation you need to master when you want to learn how to shoot better. All of these fundamentals take time to master as well as hundreds, if not thousands, of rounds of shooting to cement them in your mind. Learning how to shoot better doesn’t come from watching videos or playing video games. It takes range time. And lots of it. Refer to these fundamentals often and apply them in steps if you need to but the point is to get out and shoot.
How to shoot faster
Now that we’ve covered the fundamentals in detail, it’s time to apply them in a controlled and slowed down manner while also incorporating new movements and tactics. Learning how to shoot better will allow faster follow up shots and that results in faster shooting.
My advice is to go beyond regular target shooting and possibly join a shooting league so that you can compete against other shooters. I learned how to shoot better and faster by joining the USPSA and regularly competing against others. Competition provides practice and shooting situations that require you to leave your comfort zone. There are many options available when it comes to competition shooting. Call or email a local gun club and find out when their next competition is and go check one out. Ask the shooters questions and watch how they handle their firearm and gear as they shoot.
There are also plenty of online resources you can refer to for shooting tips and tricks. There are countless YouTube videos that detail how you can shoot faster with the gear your use. Find resources that are easy to understand and taught at a pace you are comfortable with.
Also, one of the very best ways to learn how to shoot better and faster is to do dry-fire training. Get yourself a good set of snap-caps and practice your draw, sight picture acquisition, and trigger/breath control in the comfort of your own home. 5 minutes of dry-fire practice a day will do wonders for your shooting speed.
Finally, once you have mastered your fundamentals, you can consider modifying your firearm to help make things like trigger squeeze easier. A lighter trigger squeeze will shave time off of your shooting time and can help you shoot faster. Beware, however, as any modifications you make to your firearm should only be done by a competent armorer or gunsmith if you have never done this type of thing before. Never use parts or modifications that aren’t approved for your firearm and never do anything to a firearm that can make it unsafe.
How to shoot safer
Shooting safer starts with the 3 main safety rules:
- Always keep your firearm pointed in a safe direction.
- Always keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to shoot.
- Always keep your firearm unloaded until ready to use.
In addition to these rules, there are others like knowing your target and what is beyond it and always using the correct ammunition for your firearm. Never modify a firearm without knowing what you’re doing. Consider having a gunsmith perform modifications for you.
Always use a holster when carrying a firearm and make sure it covers the trigger and trigger guard. Don’t store guns in in your waistband like a gang banger. Only use holsters designed for the model of firearm you’re carrying. Never rely on the safety mechanism on your firearm to keep you safe. Safeties are mechanical devices and they wear like any other part that moves.
Never allow children to have access to firearms. Children are curious creatures and an unsecured gun is a magnet for untrained and uneducated kids. Always keep your firearms locked up and unloaded when not in use. The NRA’s Eddie Eagle Program is a great way to teach children in your home about gun safety. Check it out and apply the lessons found in the Eddie Eagle Program to your children’s firearm education. Just like the three main safety rules, the Eddie Eagle Program implements easy to learn safety rules for children to know if they ever happen to find an unsecured firearm:
- Don’t touch
- Run away
- Tell a grown-up
Take a firearms safety course. A pistol or rifle training course will help to cement proper firearms handling and safety practices. Learning gun safety from certified firearms instructors is among the best training you can get.
Always maintain your firearm. Clean it often and with approved and high quality cleaners and solvents. Dirty firearms wear faster and can result in unsafe conditions. Follow your owners manual as it pertains to firearm cleaning and maintenance.
Safety is the most important factor when learning how to shoot better. Always be aware of your firearm and of your surroundings. Becoming familiar with your firearm and how it works will make all the difference in the world. Never get complacent and never forget that owning and using a firearm is one of the biggest responsibilities you can have.