Guns for Beginners: How to Aim a Pistol

Warren Wilson

This article was contributed by Warren Wilson, a lieutenant with metropolitan police department in Oklahoma. He is a former SWAT team leader, current firearms instructor and writer. He has been a full-time law enforcement officer since 1996.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever seen it explained that way,” a relatively experienced student told me after a classroom lecture covering the use of sights.  She told me she had a little better understanding by the way I’d presented it.  It would be nice to be able to say that’s because of my teaching prowess, but it’s really just because a lot goes into shooting a pistol well and there’s always something to be learned.  Experienced and new shooters alike should review those fundamentals regularly.

Let’s take a look at sights and their proper use. I’d like to start out by apologizing to all the instructors from whom I’m about to plagiarize.  After a while, it’s difficult to remember where you learned everything.

It should go without saying that one should never start working with firearms until receiving training from a qualified instructor – not your significant other or uncle who used to be in the military or law enforcement, but a qualified instructor who is intimately familiar with the four firearms safety rules.

Before getting too far afield, it’s important to be aware of your eye dominance.  Many people are cross-eye dominant.  For example, they are right-handed while being left eye dominant.  Shooting with one’s non-dominant eye can be difficult for some.  If you’re not certain which is your dominant eye, check out Top Shot Chris Cheng’s excellent video here:

Sight Picture vs. Sight Alignment

You’ve likely heard the terms, “sight alignment” and “sight picture.”  We’ll discuss sight alignment in more detail below, but it’s essentially the relationship of your front and rear sights.  Sight picture is the relationship of your sights to the target.  In other words, after your sights are aligned, they still must be properly aimed at the target throughout the trigger pull.

Picture the top of the front sight horizontally splitting the hole you’re about to make in the target. If the sights are perfectly aligned but not on target, you will miss.  If your front sight is on target, but not properly aligned with the rear sights, same.  Proper sight alignment and proper sight picture are equally important and dependent upon each other for solid marksmanship.

Equal Height, Equal Light

We’ve all seen illustrations and photos of good sight alignment.  I’ve included my personal version here.  You should see an equal amount of light between the sight posts (called “light bars”) and equal height of the front and rear sight.  That is good sight alignment. After you can obtain both good sight alignment and a good sight picture, it’s all up to your trigger finger.  In fact, a proper trigger pull is probably more important than a perfect sight picture and alignment.

Look at the picture included above.  You’ll notice it’s good, but not perfect.  Yours never will be either.  Don’t worry too much about perfection, because it doesn’t exist.

Hard Focus

The importance of a hard focus on the front sight cannot be overstated when working on improving your pistol shooting.  It’s not only important for marksmanship, but for follow through during and after the shot.  You should be able to detect even the slightest flaws on your front sight.  Focus on the front sight “like you’re trying to read a serial number off of it,” says my friend, Jerry Jones, of Operation Specific Training.

A great dry fire practice exercise to sharpen up your front sight focus is called the Wall Drill. The Wall Drill is much like any other dry fire practice, except it is done only an inch or two away from a blank wall with no particular aiming point. That requires the student to focus on the front sight.

Woobie

I tell my students to embrace their front sight like they would their childhood Woobie.  (I know you had some variation of an emotional support object when you were a kid.)  You can never be happy during or immediately after firing a shot until you have your Woobie in perfect focus.  Before during and after the shot breaks, always be trying to find your Woobie.

Lines and Boxes and Circles, Oh My!

Tom Givens is one of many great instructors I’ve had the pleasure of training with.  He taught me something during his Handgun Instructor Development class that helped me a great deal.  Tom teaches not just to focus on the front sight, but the top edge of the front sight (remember, that edge is where we want our bullet to strike).

The key is to let your mind process the front sight as a line because it takes less brain strain to process lines than it does squares or circles.  Which leads me to another shape:  circles. If your semi-automatic gun comes with those silly white dots sights as so many do, I highly recommend you black them out with a marker.  All they do is add one more distraction we don’t need.

The Gun Range

After your dry fire practice, go to the range and work those fundamentals live fire.  Avoid the instant gratification of steel targets when you’re perfecting your marksmanship.  Only paper targets will provide the kind of feedback necessary to hone your skills.  Steel targets are fun, but they make the same beautiful music with marginal hits as they do with solid hits. Paper targets never lie.

I hope this helps. Be safe and have fun, in that order.

comments

  1. avatar Geoff "Bring the EDIT button back, will ya, TTAG?" PR says:

    Next, ‘JD’ will be along shortly to inform us all that firearms instructor Lt. Wilson doesn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground.

    Because ‘JD’ is so superior to everyone else concerning guns.

    According to ‘JD’, of course…

    *snicker* 😉

    1. avatar Ginder12 says:

      JD?

      1. avatar jwm says:

        Some 13yo who shows up here to show his ass. If you don’t accept his word as gospel you’re a moron.

        1. avatar Specialist38 says:

          That made me snort….not funny with a swallow of Coke.

        2. avatar uncommon_sense says:

          That made me spit out a tiny bit onto my computer monitor as I started laughing out loud.

        3. avatar Broke_It says:

          Now now, JD is the only one of us mouthbreathers professional enough that I know of to carry that Glock .40

        4. avatar JD says:

          Wrong again….

    2. avatar SouthAl says:

      I’m betting that he will exalt Lt. Wilson and quote him from the above article:

      “It should go without saying that one should never start working with firearms until receiving training from a qualified instructor – not your significant other or uncle who used to be in the military or law enforcement, but a qualified instructor..”

      And use an appeal to authority to argue his point from the prior comment section.

    3. avatar JD says:

      HERE I AM!! Hahaha Well, for the most part Wilson is correct the thing I think he is full of shit with is when he said about blacking out 3 dot sights. That’s a boneheaded move…

      1. avatar Specialist38 says:

        LMAO…..knew there would be something.

    4. avatar JD says:

      And no I don’t carry a Glock .40. I carry a Glock 9mm.

    5. avatar frank speak says:

      if you can see both the front sight and the back sight you’re on the right track…getting them properly aligned takes a little effort…but it’s something you can master with a little practice while sitting on the couch in your living room…..and most owners manuals show you what it should look like….if not, just google it….

      1. avatar Wood says:

        Never google.

        DUCK DUCK GO!

  2. avatar strych9 says:

    “Guns for Beginners: How to Aim a Pistol” written by a cop.

    Man, the comments on this one are going to write themselves.

    1. avatar How_Terrible says:

      The only way it could be better is if he were an ATF agent.

      1. avatar Kenneth says:

        And this agent would make it even better:

        1. avatar strych9 says:

          Every time I see that video all I can think of is Archer.

          “Auuuggh! What’s wrong with you!?”

          “Me? Nothing. You on the other hand have a bullet inside of you.”

        2. avatar Specialist38 says:

          It would be funny except that ita real. Kinda sad.

        3. avatar rosignol says:

          The only person who got hurt is the guy who should have known better.

        4. avatar HuntingtonGuy says:

          DEA Agent Lee Paige (genius in the video) went on to sue the DEA for him shooting himself (WTF, but, yep).
          The guy had an ego the size of Brooklyn and almost singlehandedly turned responsible firearm handling and safety on its ear. Thank God the only person shot that day was the imbecile (mis)handling the pistol. In a room full of kids, it could have been tragic.
          Any normal Joe Citizen would have found themselves in a heap of legal trouble and likely had their CCW revoked permanently. This guy kept his job, sued DEA and lost and STILL kept his job 🤦‍♂️

        5. avatar frank speak says:

          PRICELESS!…his first mistake?….”this is a glock….”….[at least he wasn’t break dancing!]…

      2. avatar strych9 says:

        “It would be funny except that ita real. Kinda sad.”

        In my book the fact that it’s real is what makes it funny.

    2. avatar Clark Kent says:

      Then why don’t YOU become a police officer and show us all how it SHOULD be done? Put up or shut up.

      1. avatar G I says:

        Probably not dumb or incompetent enough.

        1. avatar Erotic Vulture says:

          Just ignore little Clarky. All he ever posts is this immature playground nonsense. He is either the 11 year old son of a bad cop; or the living embodiment of the main problem with law enforcement today:  the type of people that want the job.

  3. avatar jwm says:

    The first time I shot pistols I was taught by guys that had lived thru ww2 and Korea. They were all one handed shooters. A lot has changed since then.

    1. avatar strych9 says:

      Back in the day, way, way back in the 1990’s when my dad taught me to shoot he told me what every old timer considered to be the rule: Safeties are mechanical devices and mechanical devices break. Never trust the safety. Keep your finger off the trigger unless you intend to fire the gun and keep foreign objects out of the trigger guard.

      Today we have people crying like girls that Glocks are too dangerous because, apparently, they have a problem with the concept of keeping their finger off the trigger when they don’t want the gun making loud scary noises.

      “Make the potentially dangerous item safe because I’m not smart enough to treat it with respect!” is the mantra of the day. Pretty soon they’ll want a sawzall with a smooth blade because they can’t fathom not touching the blade while the saw is running.

      1. avatar Kenneth says:

        Democrips already tried that two decades ago when they proposed making buckets that leak. You know, so that one cannot fall into them and drown. That was the level of crazy at that time. One can only imagine the level today, because its way to high to see that far…

      2. avatar Edward Kenway's Ghost says:

        Back in the ’70’s (ahem) when I learned, we didn’t have “Safe Action” triggers available to anyone who wanted to walk around combat ready, cocked and locked on a live round, either. That said, my first semi-auto purchase was a Glock 19 that’s since been replaced by an older model Sig P239 w/decocker that’s more suited to personal preferences. Glocks are great tools but very unforgiving of mistakes.

      3. avatar MLee says:

        I wouldn’t crawl on top of the hate GLOCK soap box over strikers being more dangerous…except that in my view, all striker fired handguns are inherently at greater risk of an accidental, unintentional manipulation of the trigger which results in an unintended firing of the weapon.

        There is a cold hard truth to the matter, and that is humans aren’t perfect and make mistakes. We can learn and faithfully embrace every gun safety rule there is and obey it like the word of the almighty God but the fact is, people fu– up. Throw out the concept of “intentional” as I’m talking about the failures that every human has to embrace, we screw up.

        The FBI agent dropped his weapon doing flips in the bar and picked it up and fired the thing. Strikers have a consistent steady trigger pull each and every shot. We all know and accept that it renders operation of those weapons simpler with an easier learning curve.

        There is nothing on this planet that in the end, doesn’t have consequences. If everyone had swimming pools, there would be more drownings, no matter how many safety rules and procedures are adhered to. If a weapon has an lighter first pull, there will be more incidents involving an unintended firing of the weapon. There’s no way around that
        .
        I’m old school. I like a hammer, I like the DA/SA margin of safety afforded me in my P229. I carry it chambered and it’s ready to rock and roll, but I have to INTEND to fire it. It’s not going to fire because I got excited, panicked and dropped it, rushed to pick it up and squeezed off a round. Not with that heavy first DA pull.

        That being said, to each his own. I’m not getting into caliber, striker vs DA/SA, holster, carry position wars.
        That’s old as dirt. My sole intent is to highlight the inherent intrinsic reality of striker fired handguns.
        They fire with an easier pull, there are going to be more incidents of unintentionally firing them regardless of training and observance of basic safety rules because humans make mistakes.

        1. avatar jwm says:

          Crap. I got kids older than S9. Now I really feel old.

        2. avatar Clark Kent says:

          Off target, off trigger. This rule applies to any firearm type, style or mechanism. Firearm safety resides BETWEEN YOUR EARS. There are ZERO ‘unintentional’ discharges of firearms but plenty of NEGLIGENT ones.

        3. avatar Joe in San Antonio says:

          I have only seen 2 true ADs in my life. One a faulty seat on a 249 and a screwed up retaining pin. Luckily it was with blanks the other was a beat up M4 that somehow (lack of cleaning I believe) had the firing pin get stuck protruding.

      4. avatar Specialist38 says:

        Whoo….you’re a youngster Stych.

        I figured someone as grumpy and opinionated as you would have to be at least as old as me…..lmao.

        1. avatar strych9 says:

          35 in July.

        2. avatar Specialist38 says:

          Bambino

      5. avatar strych9 says:

        So perhaps Glock triggers wasn’t the best thing I could have chosen to make the point.

        I’m not arguing that Glocks are the safest gun ever or conversely that they’re unsafe. That’s a different kettle of fish altogether. Perhaps that was a bad example.

        My point is that what JWM said is true, the way the gun community looks at things has changed in certain ways and I don’t think for the better in all cases. This way of thinking pervaded the outside world first and then started to creep into the gun community.

        We’ve gone from being suspect of manual safeties to being concerned about not having them to the point that people argue that designs without them shouldn’t be allowed. From focusing on skills to focusing on gadgets. Etc.

        1. avatar Joe in San Antonio says:

          I almost prefer not having a safety because of the points you made. Simple manual of arms easier to remember. If you don’t want a bullet to fly don’t pull the trigger. When cleaning make sure the weapon is clear. If your too tired to remember that then you are too tired to be cleaning your gun. KISS is a great principle. Also as I have previously stated only in the last 15 or so years has firearm training with an expert been a thing. I have no doubt that certain skills can increase your competency, but for the basics my dad and uncles did a pretty good job of teaching me, they drilled the 4 tenants of safety into my head, taught me the fundamentals of good shooting and respect for the tool.

    2. avatar Nanashi says:

      One handed shooting is still a skill worth learning even if it’s not your primary stance.

      1. avatar Specialist38 says:

        I do as much 1 handed (strong and weak) as two handed.

        Figure there is a good chance that in a DGU one hand may be needed for other tasks.

      2. avatar Elaine D. says:

        Ya, been adding that to the end of my practice routine. Lot easier once I switched from a full size to a compact, but still, it’s gonna take some time to get anywhere near proficient beyond 3 yards. Developing trigger control on weak hand requires patience!!

        1. avatar strych9 says:

          Buy a gripper with individual finger resistance. You’ll see rapid improvement.

      3. avatar jwm says:

        Each range session I make a few passes one handed. Right and left handed. I really am not good left handed. But if I’m using my left things have really gotten bad and anything is better than nothing.

    3. avatar Greg says:

      Same here, one eye shut and one handed. No riding the safety on a 1911. If using two hands it was a revolver grip no thumbs forward. Amazing how these guys survived.
      That’s how I shoot and it works for me. I am a firm believer if it gets rounds on target do it.

    4. avatar Billy Bob says:

      Me too, my dad. He loved his Garand.

    5. avatar frank speak says:

      keeping your other hand free…[in actual combat]…probably made more sense to them than striking pretty poses….

    6. avatar Button Gwinnett says:

      I’m a better shot with one hand than with two. Everyone is different.

  4. avatar Pmac says:

    The fact of the matter is: front sight, front sight, front sight! No substitute. Get on it!

  5. avatar Tom in Oregon says:

    “Equal light, equal height”

    1. avatar bontai Joe says:

      Yeah, I liked that phrase too, easy to remember and easy (I hope) to teach.

  6. avatar possum says:

    Oh phooey, you don’t aim a pistol, you do the cowboy bullet sling. Start with pistol a little above your head, then throw the gun forward as if you were slinging the bullet out of the barrel and press , pull , or yank the trigger. I have seen many cowboys on TV knock people from a galloping horse from 100 yards away with this method.

    1. avatar Specialist38 says:

      That was a real thing. Called the “cavalry chop” and taught to calvarymen as the most effective way to shoot from a galloping horse.

      Nowadays, they would make them hold the reigns in their teeth, use two hands to shoot and ride the reset of their single action army.

      1. avatar jwm says:

        Old Crit. He only ever owned one handgun to my knowledge. A SAA in .45. He did that ‘cavalry chop’. I don’t know where he learned it. But that old fart never missed.

        1. avatar Specialist38 says:

          Taught back when gunfighting was an art.

      2. avatar Joe in San Antonio says:

        Not to be a know it all but the reason they fired that way originally was because they had to clear the expended caps out of the mechanism of the black powder pistol. From there people continued to do even after the transition to modern cased ammunition.

    2. avatar uncommon_sense says:

      That there was funny possum!

    3. avatar Elaine D. says:

      Wow. Would that work from a moto, possum? Ya think? Hmmmm….

    4. avatar bontai Joe says:

      I have no idea if it is true or not, but I read somewhere a long time ago that the “cowboy sling” move was done in early movies to give the sound effects guy a cue as to when to add the gunshot sound.

      1. avatar Elaine D. says:

        Now I really want to try this but I think my range would kick me out. Guess I’ll have to make a trip to the country and get on one of those tactical bays.

        1. avatar possum says:

          I would assume to get the galloping effect , speed bumps or perhaps a happy bouncing bouncer riding bitch?

      2. avatar possum says:

        No that’s wrong ,back then they used real bullets.

    5. avatar frank speak says:

      sort of like Andy Devine (“Jingles”)…in “Wild Bill Hickok”?….used to think he was actually throwing the bullets at the bad guys!…..

  7. avatar Specialist38 says:

    I learned to shoot from my mother…..God bless her.

    Handguns I learned from buying a Ruger Bearcat and reading everything I could find from Skeeter Skelton.

    One thing I learned was long range shooting with a handguns pays dividends in close-up shooting. Sight alignment is readily apparent when you stretch out to 100 yards.

    It’s also a lot of fun. Long range shooting and a friendly game of kick the can ( or shotgun shell) with a 22 is a cheap way to re-enforce the basics.

    Or you could pay 300 dollars and take a course where you throw you pistol on the ground.

    1. avatar bontai Joe says:

      You are not the only one to learn shooting from his mom. My mom bought my first handgun, a Ruger Single Six. By the time I was interested in shooting, my absentee Dad was with family #2 or was it family #3?…..

      1. avatar Specialist38 says:

        I hear ya. I saved up the money and mom signed for the Bearcat.

        Parents were divorced and dad was a hard man. Rarely had time for fun stuff, always working on something in his shop.

        One reason I like squirrel hunting so much is that’s what mom liked and took me often until I could go by myself.

        Good times….walking the woods with single shot shotgun and a pocket full of shells.

        1. avatar frank speak says:

          Dad taught me how to shoot a pistol….with his .25 automatic…if you could hit anything with that…and I did…then you were set for anything else that came along!….

  8. avatar uncommon_sense says:

    Oh, come one now. Another article telling us how we need all this formal training?

    I am sitting at my computer right now pulling out a handgun for dry-fire practice. See? I can pull the trigger without any problems at dddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddd (falls face forward onto keyboard after accidentally shooting self in head with firearm that was supposed to be unloaded).

    1. avatar uncommon_sense says:

      In case anyone is really dense, my previous comment is a joke: I did not accidentally shoot anything, much less my head.

      1. avatar Specialist38 says:

        I was “triggered”.

      2. avatar jwm says:

        bloomberg already has you listed as a victim of gun violence.

      3. avatar frank speak says:

        dry-firing a loaded gun comes under the heading…”instant lesson”…….

    2. avatar Gadsden says:

      That was pretty good, you should’ve just left off on the ddddddddd thing, then not posted for awhile…

  9. avatar arc says:

    If I have to focus in on my front sight and take well aimed shots, I’m using a pistol out of its intended role and I would be better off using a rifle. Pistols to me are immediate self-defense weapons and after 30-40 meters, a rifle is needed.

    1. avatar Specialist38 says:

      If you can hit stuff at 30 or 40 yards without using the sights on a handgun, you need to go on the road as an exhibition shooter.

      Or you could go to Europe and do it at 30 or 40 meters.

      1. avatar arc says:

        Use of sights and wasting invaluable time focusing are two different things, I suggest looking up “flash sight picture”. Its good enough to get the bullets where they need to go without wasting too much time.

      2. avatar frank speak says:

        there’s a snap-shooting technique…but it only seems to work [for me,at least] when you’re scared shitless…like the time I stepped on a snake in tall grass!….

    2. avatar Elaine D. says:

      I feel the same, but holster draw quals at my range require me to be able to land competent shots at 20 and 25 yards. Soooo, working on it, working on it….

      1. avatar frank speak says:

        yeah,..I remember having to shoot that far…maybe farther…during my last quals…they’d have you doing all kinds of convoluted stuff up close…then take us all the way to the back of the range to use up the rest of our ammo…never seemed to make much sense to me…if you had to engage at that range why bother?

    3. avatar Salty Bear says:

      Agreed. In a DGU situation, I’m going to be focused on the target, no matter how much I train to focus on the front sight. So I figure I might as well train to focus on the target while seeing the sights all blurry.

  10. avatar uncommon_sense says:

    In all seriousness good training is always a good thing and I highly recommend training to everyone.

    Having said that, we should also be honest: firearm operation is very simple and training to use a firearm responsibly and effectively is very easy and simple.

    And virtually the entirety of responsible and effective firearm operation lies in the famous “three rules”:
    (1) Always treat every firearm as if it is loaded.
    (2) Always keep your firearm pointed in a safe direction.
    (3) Always keep your finger OFF the trigger until you are pointed at a safe target.

    Sure, there are some subtleties that those three rules imply. For example the “safe target” rule (3) implies that you have to actually KNOW your target and that it is safe to shoot at that target — which includes that it is safe if you miss your target and your bullet sails beyond your target.

    And you could argue about a fourth safety rule which requires that you verify that a firearm is unloaded in the magazine AND chamber before dry-fire practice, disassembling, cleaning, demonstrating, transferring, or learning the manual-of-arms of your firearm.

    Again, all of that is very simple and just about anyone with average intelligence level can teach and grasp those simple rules.

    1. avatar Kenneth says:

      You forgot rule #4, “know your target and what is behind it”.

      1. avatar uncommon_sense says:

        Kenneth,

        I have heard that rule as well. If you look closely, I actually encompass that rule in my rules number 2 and 3.

        1. avatar Button Gwinnett says:

          All guns are loaded, always. There are no exceptions.
          Never allow your muzzle to cover anything you are not ready to destroy.
          Finger outside the trigger guard until you are sure of your target and*

          *I agree, that includes everything in front of, behind, and around.

  11. avatar Mark Richardson says:

    THANK YOU! SIMPLE IS BEST. CHOOSE A METHOD AND SHOOT, SHOOT SOME MORE, CHECK PROGRESS AND DO NOT MAKE CHANGES MORE THAN ONE AT A TIME. BLACKING OUT WHITE DOTS IS BEST FIRST STEP I HEARD IN YEARS FOR MOST NEW SHOOTERS. SIMPLE IS WISE. PRACTICE WITH SAME WEIGHT BULLET AS CARRY, SAME VELOCITY IF POSSIBLE, BUT PRACTICE LIKE YOUR LIFE DEPENDS ON IT. IT DOES. YOU WILL HAVE 1AND1/2 TO 2 SECONDS TO GET IT RIGHT WHEN THE TIME COMES. THAT IS AFTER MAKING GOOD DECISION (ANOTHER TOPIC), NO TAKE ANOTHER CHANCE. OPTION. GOD’S SPEED! MARK RICHARDSON

    1. avatar tsbhoa.p.jr says:

      “…by jove, you’ve certainly hit the nail on the head with that particular observation…”

      1. avatar Elaine D. says:

        I CAN’T BELIEVE SOMEONE POSTED ONE OF MY FAVORITE MONTY PYTHON SITS ON TTAG. NOW I KNOW LITERALLY ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE.

        1. avatar Billy Bob says:

          I DONT GET IT !!!!!!!!

        2. avatar frank speak says:

          “He’s a lumberjack…and he’s ok…”….should bring that one back…certainly timely….

  12. avatar yolo says:

    “It should go without saying that one should never start working with firearms until receiving training from a qualified instructor – not your significant other or uncle who used to be in the military or law enforcement, but a qualified instructor who is intimately familiar with the four firearms safety rules.”

    classist. a careful father/uncle/friend is a great way to be taught gun safety, id bet if we could measure it that would be most peoples first experience with guns. gun safety/basic marksmanship is not rocket surgery.

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