how to shoot a handgun better
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how to shoot a handgun better
US Marine Corps/Wikimedia Commons

Want to improve your handgun shooting? Well, there’s no substitute for good training and a metric crap-ton of trigger time, both live and dry fire. Skill at anything just comes down to getting in the reps.

But there are some things that can make a handgun easier to shoot well for the individual who’s shooting it. Key characteristics and so on that make the job of putting in the reps easier on the shooter.

1) Caliber

Let’s start with an appropriate caliber for the individual shooter. This is one of the few aspects where caliber actually matters, but how much? Well, it depends a lot on the person.

how to shoot a handgun better
A Springfield XDM in .45 ACP. While an excellent pistol, arguably not the best gun for a newbie. Credit: Brett_Hondow/Wikimedia Commons

For the newbie, 9x19mm or .38 Special (which is NOT fired from a snubbie!) are about the upper end of what a complete novitiate is going to be able to tolerate in terms of recoil.

New shooters are arguably best off with something chambered in .22LR to learn the fundamentals and put bullets on the target before graduating to higher calibers, but 9mm Luger in a compact to full-size pistol shouldn’t be too intimidating in most cases. Likewise shooting .38 Special from a revolver about the size and weight of a Model 10 is manageable for most adults.

2) The Right Fit

Another aspect is good fit. Handgun fitment comes down to two key aspects, namely that of trigger reach and the shape of the grip relative to the size of the hand that will grasp it.

Trigger reach — the linear distance straight back from the trigger face to the back of the grip —  is equivalent to length of pull on a shotgun or rifle in terms of fitting the gun to the shooter. Too long or too short, and shooting it well is not as easy or as accurate as with a properly-fitting gun.

how to shoot a handgun better
Creator(s): Palmer, Alfred T., photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
If your hands and fingers are small, the trigger reach of, say, the double-action trigger of a Beretta 92 is likely too long, which – of course – was a common complaint about the M9 in military service. (I’m about two steps away from becoming a Beretta fanboy, but I get it.) By contrast, the short trigger reach of, say, the Smith & Wesson M&P Shield may be awkward if you have big hands like Johnny Bench.

This also applies to frame size. An H&K Mark 23 is not going to be a good fit for someone with small hands. Anyone having fitment issues with their Mark 23 should also send it to me immediately so I can make sure that’s the problem. I promise I’ll return it…eventually.

The same idea applies to, say, a S&W Model 29 or a Desert Eagle. Part of the reason the compact size GLOCK 19 is so darn popular is they fit just about everyone.

As to shape, the pistol should fit naturally and comfortably in the hand. You shouldn’t feel gaps between the gun and the meat of the thumb and palm, and you should be able to naturally acquire a high, tight grip on the pistol. The shooter should feel as if the pistol is comfortable and points naturally. This is an indication of good fit.

how to shoot a handgun better
(AP Photo/ Rick Bowmer)

There’s an old saw about picking up a gun and closing your eyes. If it feels like a natural extension of the arm, or if you can pick a target to aim at (without flagging anyone) and the sights align naturally on said target…you have a good gun for you. There’s something to that.

3) The Right Operating System

Next is an operating system that’s well-suited to the shooter and their skill level. We mentioned the Beretta 92/M9 platform. The DA/SA control system of the 92FS takes some time and practice to get used to. Single action 1911 pistols are also not as easily learned by the newbie as, say, a striker-fired GLOCK or, for that matter, a double-action revolver.

how to shoot a handgun better
Credit: קובי אלמליח/Wikimedia Commons

This isn’t to say, of course, that double-action revolvers are So Easy A Caveman Can Do It ™ or that 1911 or 92FS pistols are for experts only. The former has a lot of subtleties that can be missed. The latter two are less complicated than one might think if approached with intelligence and good training. Not only that, but people screw up with polymer striker guns A LOT…many of them people who knew better (or should have).

To put that a bit better, a person should pick a pistol that they can quickly learn to operate and handle safely, one they are comfortable with. If that’s a 1911, awesome. If it’s a Ruger LCP, that’s fine too.

If it’s a High Point…we’ll let the comments section debate that.

4) Good Sights

Just about any basic set of sights can be used by most shooters. There are dozens of options out there. Most important, though, is how easily the shooter can see them along with the target.

how to shoot a handgun better
Credit: Sgt. Mike Fletcher RLC/MOD | Her Majesty’s Government | Wikimedia Commons

In general, if they stand out to you, then you have probably have good sights. If you have to strain to see them, you don’t have the right sights for you.

Another old saw: you need sights you can see and a trigger that works…which leads us into the next thing:

5) A Good Trigger

how to shoot a handgun better
Credit: FBI/Wikimedia Commons

Just about anyone can learn how to competently operate a GLOCK or similar trigger fairly quickly. Take up the slop, finish the press, and bang…pretty easy. But that doesn’t mean a pistol’s stock trigger can’t be improved by a competent gunsmith to make it more than just OK.

Even with a good trigger, double-action/single-action semi-autos take a good amount of practice to get truly proficient, by which one means not pulling that first DA shot.

Granted, this is only a general rule; some people can pick up a Beretta or a CZ or what have you and not have an issue. But as a general rule, a good trigger and a system that is appropriate for you and your skill level is going to make good shooting a lot easier. That’s part of why 1911 pistols have stayed so popular; their straight-travel trigger (the trigger bar travels straight back, whereas most triggers are a lever) is very forgiving in that regard.

6) Sight Radius

how to shoot a handgun better
Adam Hill/Wikimedia Commons

There’s a reason why snubbie revolvers are referred to as a master’s weapon. Their short barrel and sight radius make them harder to shoot as accurately as a gun with a longer barrel like, say, a Model 10 or a Ruger Mark IV. The longer the distance between the front and rear sight, the easier it is to be accurate.

Granted, plenty of pistols with relatively short barrel lengths — the M&P Shield, a GLOCK 43 or a SIG P365, for instance — are plenty accurate at their intended distances. They don’t take a heck of a lot of work to get reasonably accurate with them. But as a general rule, the shorter the barrel, the harder accuracy is to come by, especially for newbie shooters.

A shooter is naturally going to have an easier time hitting the target while shooting a pistol that has a longer sight radius. This is also why a good number of police departments are switching to GLOCK 34s and 35s in lieu of the GLOCK 17 and GLOCK 22. That’s why the M&P Shield is now offered with a longer barrel, too.

Does this mean you can’t shoot a 3-inch barrel gun well? No, but it’s easier to shoot a gun with a 4-inch barrel well than one with a 3-inch barrel. So considering a model with a longer barrel and living with it can pay dividends in terms of accuracy.

Anything else that you think makes a pistol easier to shoot well for most shooters? Sound off in the comments.

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      • Or a High Standard (any one of several models).

        The one advantage of the 41 over all of the above is the option of a 7″ barrel.

        But any of them (Colt, High Standard or S&W) work very well.

        Next down the list, I would choose a souped-up Ruger MkII or MkIII.

      • The Model 41 can be had with a 7″ barrel, which lengthens the sight radius, and it’s in .22LR.

        Basically, it hits at least four of the six criteria above. Also, being a blowback action (ie, the barrel never moves relative to the frame, and the sights are mounted on the barrel, which never moves), there’s less mechanical slop to worry about increasing your group size.

      • First time I felt a 1911 in my hand (after tons of plastic bullshit) I immediately knew this was my pistol.

        Like the article says, close your eyes – it was a natural extension of me.

        The fact that modern manufacturing has made them so good (and created the 2011 platform) doesn’t hurt.

  1. I would say of equal importance is an effective (e.g. “proper”) grip on your handgun. Once you have a handgun that fits you well, you need to learn an effective grip.

    Words cannot efficiently illustrate some typical effective grips. You need photos for that. Search and have fun!

    Important Note:
    An effective grip involves more than just hand/finger placement — it requires the right amount of grip strength/firmness as well.

  2. #1 thing that makes it easier to shoot a handgun accurately… PRACTICE. It’s a lot easier after you’ve done it 50,000 times.

    • With enough Practice the other parameters become less of a factor. Most new POTG have no idea about them and learn to shoot whatever they bought or have available. My guess is nearly all of the people who post here learned to shoot. Long before any of these things were thought about. These factors become apparent only after much trial, error and Practice.

      • “My guess is nearly all of the people who post here learned to shoot.”

        i’d wager three or four haven’t. huldrefolk should stay so.

    • Once the initial fundamentals are what is being practiced exactly this. It’s getting to that point where basic fundamentals are not only boringly simple but utterly mindless……. Need to get back to that actually.

        • Haha – one time when Arnold Palmer got a hole in one, someone said “what a lucky shot”. He replied, “the more I play, the luckier I get”.

  3. Ehhhh….it may be easier to learn to shoot a Glock as it has fewer switches than say…. a 1911 or a 92.

    But it is not that hard to learn the manual of arms of most any handgun. I taught a lot of people to shoot well before Glocks. Autos and revolvers

    Most want to start with revolvers as they appear more simple to the novice. After just a little familiarization, it was easy for them to go to a self-loader.

    The main thing asset is a pistol that is not too big or too little for the shooter. And no cartidges that damage nerves on ignition.

    Going small for concealment is what takes effort but that is what most people want. So learn on big and then put in the EFFORT to control a smaller weapon.

    One big advantage of a 38 (duty and snub), are the variety of loads. Lighter loads and light-bullet loads are great to become familiar with recoil. If desired, you can move up to Buffall Bore or Underwood for the most performance.

    I think people make a bigger deal out of “It has a be __________”, because they have not spent the time to shoot other pistols or revolvers.

    Most of the younger shooters I know have marveled at how easy it is to hit with a 4 inch 38 revolver. Even with the long pull, many are more accurate than with their Glock 17, 19, 22, etc.

      • So that the overweight dipshit RSO doesn’t yell at you in some sort of unintelligible retardese where the only thing you can get out of the whole thing is “safety!!!” as you silently thank Christ that eyepro stops spittle, your earpro isn’t turned on and that you weren’t born between ’46 and ’64 with a speech impediment, sense of entitlement and what might charitably be referred to as a “severe learning disability”?

        That’s essentially the only reason I can think of other than that your gun has a safety/decocker.

    • I’ve read when a gun is needed, 15% of people forget to turn off the safety. Berretta has states on which calibers stop what fraction of the time. 45 is lower than 40 and 9mm by a fraction I believe is due to 1911s pulled out with the safety on.

      I recommend newbies striker fired, no safety in guns with trigger pulls heavy enough I consider them safe (P320/365, S&W 2.0, Glock, etc.). If someone feels more comfortable with a safety, I recommend Calvary style (flick down) and large (S&W EZ line, certain 1911), I prefer SA/DA, but that isn’t for everyone.

  4. All good stuff. Whats not mentioned is GOOD instruction from the start. As kids, we shot a lot. A LOT. And developed a lot of bad habits. Im 71 now and have only had real qualified instruction for about the last 20 years. Very hard to break old habits.

  5. So much wrong with this I hardly know where to begin. I fact, I don’t have time. Or, the inclination.

    • You could copy/paste your “need a flashlight.” Trust me, we wouldn’t notice the difference, that’s how important you are.

    • I’m looking through a milk jug, should have had mine in February but C19 shut me down, hopefully this month the 22. I’ve shot my 1911 so much and it points well for me I don’t need the sights but twenty five yards is “What target?”

      • I feel yer pain possum. I was pretty good 8 years ago. Now not so much. Just picked my son up from his job in the dark. Getting scary😩 It’s a lot easier with my AR equipped with a red dot,3X magnifier & light…GOOD LUCK!

        • Just got my right eye done Monday – will do left later this year. I had quit shooting because all I was doing was wasting ammo. Hope to soon be able to try this new lens out and see how rusty I have gotten. Lots of catching up to do!

  6. I have only used sights for long distance shots. Everything within 25 yards has always been point and shoot for me. I hate to think of the number of people that have to take a stance with a perfect grip and try to draw a bead on a target moving toward you before taking a shot. You will do what your habits force you to do. Can I hit a target with point and shoot?

      • I used to shoot IDPA when in TX, but theres no groups here in eastern WA close enuf to play. IDPA will surely sharpen your PRACTICAL skills.

  7. What, you aren’t supposed to start out with a Model 69 Combat Magnum with hot loads?

    It shoots great but you need to build up a calus pad on your thumb.

  8. Went from .22 to .44 mag without any problems. I think the problem people gave with recoil is trying to control it. Hang on to the handgunm hard enuff that it doesn’t go sailing , hut roll with the punches. I’m a little creatures and not to strong hut I can shoot a sawed off twelve gauge with one hand by not fighting the recoil. It’s like boxing. I used to shoot IHSA and my scores really went up when I tweaked the trigger to feather light. A dedicated shotgunner can’t hit with a rifle all that well, a dedicated rifleman ain’t much good with a pistol, but the handgunmer is pretty impressive with them all.

    • I made a very similar point years ago here at TTAG and had people all over me for saying it. What is shown to be the truth in high-speed motion pictures: the bullet is out of the barrel before your hand starts moving from the recoil impulse, so trying to “control the recoil” is a fairly pointless exercise to putting at least the first round on target.

      So: keep the handgun under control, but don’t try to choke it to death to fire it.

  9. When ever I see snide comments about Hi Point I figure it’s like Shakespeare said so well: “methinks he doth protest too much”.

    I’m guessing it’s mostly chagrin on the part of some who have spent a lot of money on a firearms that doesn’t work well for them or works well but was a bit on the expensive side for them and they expected more. A lot more and didn’t find it.

    So when they come across a firearm such as the Hi Points they feel obligated to put them down so that they can feel justified in spending so much more and not getting as much as one gets from a Hi Point purchase.

    What can be said about a firearm that works consistently well and that the manufacture WILL FIX OR REPLACE FOR THE LIFETIME OF THE FIREARM? Can or does any other manufacture make the same claim? We’re talking no questions asked guarantee. How many with a poorly or non working firearm had to spend long hours on the phone with customer service and not be satisfied or after sending it in receive a huge bill because somehow what was wrong wasn’t the firearms manufacture’s fault?

    Top it off with a price that anyone can afford and you have a winning combo.

    Snark aside, can anyone tell me what is wrong with Hi Point? I mean functionally wrong? I have yet to see any real points made on why they’re so beneath the dissess and dismisses other than they’re ugly and plain. (and don’t cost a mint because of some Name Brand snobbery.)

    Me, my only wish is that I knew what I know now when I bought my 9mm (not a Hi Point) or I’d have 3 of my firearms from Hi Point and not just 2.

    But you all keep dissing them while I just smile and keep shooting.

    • The only issue I can see with a Hi Point is what Paul Harrell calls “Program Compliance”. Due to the size and shape and weight a lot of new people, or non gun people who just want one gun for self defense won’t carry one regularly.

      I never met a gun I didn’t like. I’m a milsurp and old gun aficionado, but I like modern tupperware too. But if gun A doesn’t work for me in a particular situation I have plenty of other options. I have a friend looking to get his first handgun. It will probably be the only gun he ever owns. He is attracted to cheap because that is his financial situation. I am trying to talk him into letting me fund something better for him. But I told him if you are choosing between a Hi Point and a Taurus, pick the Hi Point and force yourself to carry it because it will work as reliably as a Glock right out of the box.

  10. Triggers – My Glocks got the “25-cent trigger job”. Cut the group sizes in about half. IMO, the biggest weakness in a Glock is the unpolished stamped trigger components.

    Sight Radius – agree. The subcompact 3.5″ is squirrelly. The 4.5″ prints postcard-sized groups at 20 yards, if I do my part.

    Good article, Mr. Hoober.

  11. One of the first things you said is the key to accuracy: dry-firing… live-fire if you can budget the time and money for it.

    TTAG has a mindset usually centered around defensive applications though. Accuracy doesn’t need to be great; it needs to be acceptable. Speed on the other hand does need to be great. I understand the nature of the article but I think that point ought to be underlined a bit more.

    Personally I am most satisfied when I have tight groups I put on paper in seconds than hitting a bullseye and taking my time.

  12. The equipment is almost always more accurate than the shooter. I agree with all of this, especially caliber and fit, but for newbies I don’t recommend delving too deeply into upgrades and different actions.

    You don’t know what you don’t know at that stage. It’s better to learn on a basic, standard platform and branch out later once you have the fundamentals down. Nothing surpasses the good ol’ .22lr Beretta NEOS 6″ for the brand new shooter. It is to shooting what the sunfish is to sailing.

  13. The biggest secret to buying a first gun, more important than caliber, the one thing we forget to tell new shooters, is that for the same cartridge, the lighter a gun is the harder it will kick. You can’t get around Newton’s Law.
    I hear students saying, “I want a lightweight gun, so it will be easier to shoot.” Nope. Just the opposite.

    • You are absolutely correct. I remember purchasing the Ruger LCR 38 caliber pistol and thought it would be great to have a lightweight pocket gun. I already had the Smith & Wesson 642 which is light enough. But I heard all of the hype about the LCR and decided I needed one. Every time I went to the gun range to practice with that pistol, I can get out no more than about 5 to 10 shots before the webbing between my thumb and forefinger really begin to hurt. Also about the same time I picked up a used Smith & Wesson 686 chambered in .357. The revolver is heavy but you never even feel the kick from shooting. You can shoot it all day long – as long as you can hold the gun up – and your hand never get sore. And because recoil is so much more manageable, you can easily and quickly get back on target for each follow-up shot. As an instructor, I point out to my students that heavier guns are easier to shoot even though you may need a more substantial belt to hold up your holster. Sadly, not many people put much thought into the weight of a firearm – and when they do their usually trying to go lighter rather than heavier. Almost every day I carry a full size Sig Sauer P220 or P226. They have identical frames. They are not lightweight firearms but I wouldn’t trust my life to a lightweight gun. I guess in LCR is better than nothing, but I sold mine and use the money for a better gun purchase later.

  14. I think something else that should be considered by every newbie to handguns is to simply learn how to use the same stance in practice that you would use if someone first shot at you. In the Rob Pincus course “Combat Focus Shooting” we were taught to flinch and duck before we drew our firearm because that’s what would happen in real life if someone shot at you. When someone is shooting at you, you don’t think a lot about making sure that your Weaver stance is correct. So I teach my students to simply face the target and lean forward to shoot and then allow the body to absorb the recoil. I also teach them that after each shot they should look in both directions to verify whether another threat is approaching. And I teach them to be constantly on the move except for the brief moment when they take a shot, so that they don’t make themselves an easy target. All that is to say that we should practice at the range with the way our bodies are going to react in real life when faced with the threat. A lot of new shooters make the mistake of learning three and four different stances for shooting when they really need to only focus on one that works for their body reaction all the time.

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