There comes a point in every new handgun shooter’s life when their marksmanship hits a plateau. They can shoot so well and no more. The temptation: buy a better gun. If that means a more comfortable pistol, that can work. For a while. Truth be told, most modern guns are capable of far more accuracy than their shooters can produce. There are easy, simple ways to improve your shooting that don’t require much money, thought or effort. Here are my three faves . . .

1. Load one round at a time

To shoot a potentially lethal firearm safely you have to keep careful, consistent track of your equipment and behavior. That’s one of the reasons why people who like routines like shooting. People who like to limit/eliminate variables are the same sort who want indeed expect to shoot well.

Even if you’re not OCD, it’s easy to get frustrated at the gun range. When shots fail to cluster tightly on or around the center of the target it’s natural to ask “what [the Hell] am I doing wrong?:” Even a single “flyer” — a shot that lands well away from its friends — can lead to anger and self-recrimination.

Negative thoughts create negative feelings which degrade your ability to concentrate and perform.

To avoid descending into lousy performance and/or hitting a performance plateau, you have to realize that shooting excellence is process driven. Not results driven. If you stop worrying about how well you’re shooting and concentrate on how you’re shooting your shooting will improve. The simplest way to do that: focus on each individual shot.

Each shot is a new shot. Its accuracy should not depend on the previous shot. By loading one — and only one — round in the chamber/cylinder (for a revolver), you force yourself to slow down and concentrate on that shot. ‘Cause it’s the only round in your gun. You give yourself the mental space to return to basics: grip, stance, sight alignment and trigger pull.

Bonus! Shooting one shot at a time improves your shooting and saves you ammo money. How great is that?

2. Ask an expert for ONE shooting tip

I love instruction. But I get little value from instructors who correct everything I do. Multiple instructions make me feel like everything I know is wrong. Which it isn’t. So I ask an instructor (usually a range officer) for a single piece of advice: tell me one thing I can do to improve my shooting.

By getting one shooting tip I can concentrate on that shooting tip and perfect it. Which takes, on average, a thousands rounds. Yup, a thousand rounds. If I combine that tip with the aforementioned one-round practice, it could take three shooting sessions to get it right.

Again, don’t judge yourself on performance. Judge yourself — and ask the instructor to judge you — on how well you accomplish that one task. An example from a different competitive sphere . . .

A pinball wizard of my acquaintance watched my daughter play. He asked if she has a pinball machine at home. (We do, Tales of the Arabian Nights.) He told her to practice letting the ball bounce off the flipper. “Do it every time,” he counseled. “It will drain most of the time but don’t worry about that. You need to master the art of aimed shots before you can worry about your score.”

Bonus! Getting one [presumably free] tip from an expert eliminates confusion and saves you money on extended training.

3. Move the target closer

Accuracy is a function of distance. The closer the target, the easier it is to hit. So move the target closer. I mean really close: a couple of feet to start. [I recommend shooting at a blank piece of paper and “chasing” the previous round, rather than aiming at the center every time.]

You should be able to stack rounds on top of each other (one ragged hole) in fairly short order. Then — and only then — move the target slightly further away. If your shots start to spread out widely, move the target closer.

Bonus! A close-in target psychologically prepares you to shoot a bad guy at bad breath distance and gives you the satisfaction of easy accuracy and (when you use a blank sheet of paper) saves you money on targets.

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42 Responses to How to Improve Your Shooting Without Really Trying: Guns for Beginners

  1. Most indoor ranges require a minimum target distance. Usually around 7 yards. Difficult for some new shooters just trying to hit blank paper up close.

    • Indeed. Whenever I am taking less experienced shooters out, I let them shoot, I watch them and then I give advice on the single worst thing/habit/mistake I observe, letting everything else go for the duration of the session. I do this because I know that it gives them one thing to concentrate on, that will immediately and visibly improve their shooting and their shooting experience.

      Rinse repeat at the next session.

  2. In rifle marksmanship, it’s about *not* starting over with every shot. Set up and shoot a string (say, five) at the pace of one per breath, without breaking grip, sight picture, and everything else. Now you’ll have a group to meaningfully evaluate for size and shape and location, diagnose what’s wrong, and decide what to change for the next string..

  3. How to Improve You righting without really trying: Blogging for Beginners

    Step 1) Read what you type before you publish it for the entire world to see.

    • Someday we should have a big argument about this.
      Focusing on the front sight is best for marksmanship in a relaxed controlled environment. In the adrenaline dump of a DGU, our instinct is to focus on the threat.

      So… why not train like we will fight? Why not focus on the target, and see how good we can get? Because when the $h!t hits the fan, that’s what we’re gonna do.

      • +1
        Focus on the front sight only when you have no confidence hitting.
        The gun and the shooting are not the problem. The guy on the other side is.

        • @Stuki Moi
          Brian Enos’ Practical Shooting is a great read for what we’re discussing. After reading it and practising around it as a serious operator wannabe, here’s what I do. I’ll keep it concise.

          Focusing on the target or the front sight, neither is wrong, it depends on what you are shooting.

          I classify shooting into 3 types.

          Type 1, easy targets, close and/or big. Crushing grip and pectoral muscle. Focusing on target. Training goal: max speed, knowing where the sights are, sights going where you’re looking, shots breaking the moment the sighs realign without looking, slapping the trigger that it consistently disrupts the sights with consistency.

          Type 2, medium difficulty, depending on your personal ability, the distance/target size vary. Focus on front sight. Crushing grip and pectoral muscle just short of shaking. Training goal: absolute front sight tracking. See every single thing happening. Shots breaking when seeing the sights realign. Consistently fast tirgger slaps not disrupting sight tracking.

          Type 3, small and/or far targets. Focus front sight. Loose grip but dont limp wrist. No pectoral muscle. Goal: BASTC (breath, align, minimum swinging arc, trigger smooth and steady, coinciding an inward sight swing with trigger breaking with no pause in the trigger stroke).

          Regarding your comment below below my comment below:

          Here’s what i found when i do the eyes-move-before-the-sights-to-machinegun-bowling-pins: Use type 1. Dont think about the gun. Dont move the eye BEFORE the shot breaks, but “when it’s right ABOUT to break”. Practise from type 2 to 1 and you WILL machinegun it.

          Last but not least, YMMV

      • Focusing on the front sight isn’t just the best for marksmanship, it’s the only. Ignoring lasers for now, not focusing on the front sight just means you’ll miss. Which may well be exactly what we’ll do “when the $h!t hits the fan”, but isn’t really much using training for.

        Plenty of people who have survived violent encounters, have aimed their guns, focusing on the front sight, before squeezing the triggers. The natural, untrained, reaction, may well be to focus on the threat, but that is why we train. Not saying you, or I, will “remember” to aim properly, should we ever be in a situation calling for gun use, but it’s not like it is an outright impossibility, no matter the amount of training and conditioning. And, lining up the sights, is the only half reliable way to score hits with a gun. Training to squeeze the trigger without sights aligned, is just training to miss the target. Which most people are perfectly capable of without training.

        It’s a bit similar to starting boxing. The natural reaction to having a fist rapidly approaching your head, is to duck and look away. Yet, with enough training, fighters overcome this reaction and keep focusing on the opponent, until they are able to spot and exploit the openings made available by their opponent’s now outstretched arm. Realistic live sparring sessions with guns are a bit more complicated to arrange, but the training goal is remarkably similar. You want to train to be as effective as possible. And not be limited to be as ineffective as your untrained instincts at first render you. And effective in the context of guns, means using your sights to aim. Properly.

        • “not focusing on the front sight just means you’ll miss.”

          Maybe you should try it once. Focusing on the target, I can still see my sights. They may be blurry, but I consistently hit a 12-inch plate a ten yards that way. With practice, I’ll get better than that.

          That won’t win any bullseye contests, but since a typical DGU happens at a much closer range, it’s going to get the job done.

          Another thing – I’m at the age where I need reading glasses. Focusing on a handgun sight simply won’t happen without my cheaters, and there’s a pretty slim chance I’ll have them on when bad stuff goes down. So why train using a tool I know I won’t have?

      • That’s only what you’re gonna do when SHTF if you train that way. And nobody with any sense or real life experience would teach you that. If you want to see what happens when you focus on the threat, I’d like you to observe the historical NYPD and LAPD accuracy statistics. Bad training will get the wrong people killed, especially when it’s passed along as fact in some internet blog.

        • Focusing on the target is not wrong per se.
          Focusing on the target when your ability is not there, is wrong.
          Different types of focus have different uses regarding the size and distance of the target.

  4. Make sure your gun likes the ammo. My brother found that out last trip. his pistol does not shoot Remington UMC. His group opened up 3-4 inches. Lousy ammo can make a range trip miserable.

  5. I have been able to improve enough that it has really surprised me by working on three things: 1. Practice. So obvious that your eyes glaze over when you read this, but still oh-so-true. You can’t get better and stay better without regular practice. 2. “Seeing.” Huh? Yes, seeing. Working on, and concentrating on what your eyes see. Your brain and eyes in combo are like muscles that get better and stronger with exercise. If you practice actually “seeing” what your eyes are looking at, you will see your sights and targets better, and you will shoot better. 3. Trigger control. I have a LONG way to go with that, but I think most, if not all shooters do. After all, hitting your target means the sights need to be on the target when the gun goes bang. Doing that without jerking the trigger is the hardest part of shooting.

    • Not trying to bash, just my 0.02:
      To me, trigger control and sight alignment are the same thing. Run the trigger so that the sights stay aligned (or jerk in a consistent way), then work backwards to figure out how you just ran that trigger.
      Mentally this is much easier than pulling the trigger smoothly and try to figure out a way to not disturb the sights erratically. YMMV

      • “Your way” works the best for me, too. I know some fast guys (as in, machine gunning bowling pins) who claim to move on to the next target before the trigger breaks, but if I even try, my groups blow way up.

  6. For that one flyer:
    Try like hell to call the shot.
    That means seeing the swinging arc of the sight, then the flash, then the reciprocating front sight, then the original sight picture.
    Then try like hell to call the shot with the target in focus.
    You then just “know” where the shot lands, and why.

  7. My tip: use high quality ammo. I see a lot of people expecting great groups from Wolf, Herter’s, PMC range ammo, range reloads, etc. That may occasionally happen, but I wouldn’t count on it. Eagle Eye and Federal Gold Metal Match are my favorite factory ammo for accuracy.

    • It is quite amazing to see how much more accurate you are with high quality ammo. I recommend firing off your self-defense ammo every month. That’s a pricey proposition but gives you a lot of confidence in yourself – which is extremely important during a defensive gun use.

        • Meanwhile, my 6.8 spc shoots lousy with hornady’s. Handloaded Nosler’s though it will shoot 1 moa… Just shows that guns can be finnicky with quality ammo too.

    • To save a few bucks, I’d say shoot the cheap stuff for high volume “combat accuracy” speed work at 7 yards or less, but use higher quality stuff for more distance.

      Another thing, shoot training ammo loadings that’s similar to each other, and to your self defense ammo. In .40 and .45Gap, this is simple, and in .357 Sig pretty much a given, but in 9 and .45, there are so many different loadings, each who recoils and prints a little different, even among higher quality stuff. Whatever the terminal ballistic advantage of some exotic, inevitably too expensive to train with, loading may be, unless ballistically similar training ammo is readily available, the losses due to unfamiliarity, outweigh whatever gains the ultra plus velocity pressure gelatin destroying cavity, may bring to the table.

  8. Here’s some tips that worked for me, and still do.

    1. Go back to basics. When things start going bad, I repeat a mantra: sight picture, alignment, and follow through. Also work on position for natural-point-of-aim.

    2. Work on your physical fitness. I restarted lap swimming just before Christmas, barely able to do 20 laps (50m) in 90 minutes. Now I’m doing 40 laps in just over an hour. I’m finding holding the rifle steady is much easier and less wobble is tightening the groups for better scores.

    3. Do something different for a while. Either do something other than shooting or try a different form of shooting. If you are a semi-auto user, try a bolt-action for a while. Bonus points for old-school mi-surps.

    4. Handload. When you take time and effort to make each round, you try harder to make them count.

  9. I liked the three suggestions. Everybody is a pro but the suggestions from the original forum are good and easy to follow.
    By the way…shooting without aiming does have value for the reason mentioned. Law enforcement practice it ( in Michigan anyway) for up close and personal situations.

  10. I can’t believe no one has said dry fire. You learn that trigger, those sights, the connection between proprioception (look it up) and sight alignment, that trigger, gun handling, plus you can work drawing & moving which some ranges don’t allow. ALL FREE.

  11. If you handload you can experiment with your cartridges and find the best load for each centerfire pistol/rifle you have. If you don’t handload, go out and buy various Manufacturer’s cartridges and try them out until you find the one that works best. Range loads and “re-manufactured” cartridges are made for a purpose not necessarily including accuracy, so don’t judge anything by them. A range load that shoots well one time may change components and be entirely inaccurate the next time you buy it.

    When powder got hard to find recently, I changed a load for .45ACP by reducing .5 grain of powder to stretch powder on-hand a bit. My Govt Model continued to shoot the load just fine, but my Series 80 Gold Cup went wild until I added that half grain of powder back into its loads.

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