handgun shooting range practice pistol training
[CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Previous Post
Next Post

Shooting a handgun isn’t hard. Shooting one well can be difficult. The pistol is a master’s weapon, it’s sometime said, and many a person’s confidence has been shattered over the space of a few magazines when they switch to a handgun at the range.

But what to do about it?

Don’t be afraid to enlist the help of a professional. Professional training is one of the best things you can do for you and your handgun shooting (I’ve got a training session coming up, and I expect to look like a total incompetent) so don’t shy away from it.

How, though, can one improve one’s handgun shooting on one’s own? Here are three solid tips to get you started. First . . .

Dry Fire Practice

If there’s something that all the great shooters do or have done, it’s dry fire practice, specifically concentrating on your trigger press. The proper grip and the trigger press are the cause of most shooting problems, and as it happens, the cure is usually doing more dry fire.

But just dry firing the gun isn’t enough; you need a dry fire exercise that helps you see the problem in action AND helps you fix it. There are two fantastic drills that are known to help a great deal.

First is what’s often called the “wall drill.” The wall drill is pretty simple. You already have all the tools you need to do it.

Safety first, though, folks. If we’re going to tout ourselves as responsible gun owners, then we damn sure better act the part. Take your magazine out of the pistol, and clear it of all ammunition. In fact, put all your ammunition in another room, and re-check that the handgun is clear before proceeding.

Find a spot on the wall, something easily identifiable. Get your front sight close enough to where the muzzle is only about a half an inch away. Align your sights on the spot you chose.

Pay attention to your front sight. Keep it aligned on that spot, but keep your eye on your front sight post. Focus on it and squeeze the trigger.

Did the front sight move? Then you’re doing it wrong. The sight shouldn’t move with a correct trigger press, as you’re only moving the bang switch and NOT the gun. Diagnosing a bad trigger press is practically a book-length exercise, so we won’t get into that for now.

A similar exercise is a balance drill. You don’t necessarily have to pick a spot, but you definitely still need to make sure the pistol is clear before doing it.

Take a small object and balance it on the slide near the front sight. You can use an empty cartridge case, a coin, a small battery, a small screw, whatever you want or can find. Keep the sights aligned and press the trigger. Done correctly, the object should stay put.

Again, diagnosing a trigger pull problem is a larger topic, so that can wait for another time.

Use Good Sights

Another top tip: change the sights if needed.

There’s a reason people hated these sights. Credit: Ecrelin/Wikimedia Commons

It doesn’t take much for a handgun to be accurate; they are inherently more accurate than the shooter. It also doesn’t take much for a gun to be usable. It needs sights you can see and a trigger you can use.

The bar for the latter is lower than most people think; you don’t need a 3.5-pound competition trigger. It helps, but the truth is just about any shooter can make even a lackluster trigger work.

Sights, on the other hand, either work well for you or they don’t. This is partially subjective, of course; some people find a lot of factory sights to be perfectly fine and some people have the complete opposite experience. An entire aftermarket industry exists precisely because of this.

There’s a reason Ruger put Novak sights on this 1911. Credit: Attribution details [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
New sights is one of the most common upgrades gun owners make to improve their handgun shooting.

For instance, the factory white dots on my Remington R1 1911 are fairly big and as a result, I’m not too tempted to change them. It isn’t a competition gun, I don’t carry it that often and I shoot pretty decent groups with them as it is.

XS Big Dot sight
XS Big Dot aftermarket sight (Dan Z for TTAG)

However, I’ve finally come to the conclusion that the dots on my TriStar C100 need to go. I have to focus really hard to find that front sight, so it will be getting a new set in the next month or two.

If you notice something similar – that you have to really try to find the front sight – you need to get new sights. Granted, if you carry a tiny .380, little sights are just part of the bargain…though some of them actually come with decent sights or can at least be fitted with them.

If you carry a snubby with a fixed front sight…you might have to live with what you have. This varies by make/model/manufacturer, of course, so don’t write it off just yet as you may be able to get a new front sight installed.

In fact, if you’re willing to spend enough money, you can get just about anything done by a good gunsmith. If you don’t want to drop a lot of money you can always paint the front sight blade – an old-school trick for easier indexing.

Get a Better Grip

Lastly, examine your grip. Too loose, too tight, and poor use of the support hand will throw your handgun shooting off.

If your grip is too loose, the trigger squeeze will pull the gun off-target just before the trigger break. If you’re gripping too hard, you’ll push shots wide. Typically, too much thumb will push shots right and too hard a grip with the fingers will push them down and left.

You want firm, uniform pressure. You need to hold the gun as stable as possible, so the trigger press moves the gun as little as possible. There’s a fairly easy informal test of how you should grip the pistol.

Take your pistol in hand. Tighten your grip until your hand starts to shake, and start releasing until the shaking stops. That’s about the grip pressure you need to use.

You should also evaluate the use of your support hand.

Don’t use the teacup grip; nobody teaches it anymore because it doesn’t really do much for accuracy. “But the vertical support,” you say? If you need vertical support for an object that only weighs a couple of pounds, your issue is that you need to go to the gym.

The most popular support hand grip is to wrap the support hand around the gun hand, with the distal (last) knuckles tucked against the meat of the thumb and the middle of the palm. The shooting hand thumb should tuck just behind the support hand thumb.

There’s some debate over how to cant the thumbs, but this is the shooting grip that basically every shooting instructor will teach you – or at least somewhere in the ballpark.

Now, how it works is the support hand provides left-to-right pressure (or vice versa, if you’re a lefty) and the shooting hand will naturally be pushing right-to-left, or vice versa if you’re a lefty. The goal is to balance the tension and hold the pistol steady.

How do you gauge whether or not that your grip is off, if your hands are positioned correctly?

Well, if you notice your shots are pushed right or left, it could be that you’re using too much or too little support hand pressure. How you diagnose it to a certainty and fix it?

Dry fire. Same procedure as above, but you have to rule out the trigger press. How you check this is by dry firing with your dominant hand only. If your sights don’t move, or your balance object doesn’t move, your trigger press is fine. If they do once your support hand comes into the equation, then you have a support hand problem.

If you go right, it’s too much from the support hand. Left, and it’s the trigger hand. And vice versa for lefties.

A good thing to invest in, therefore, is something like the Mantis X system or a similar tracking software for dry firing, though Mantis X can be used with live fire as well. It tracks your shots and gives you the telemetry, tracking motion, placement and helping you diagnose and fix issues with handgun shooting. You can also purchase a laser cartridge and get a number of smart phone applications that do much the same thing.

Why stay low-tech when you can bring 21st century tools into the equation?

Anyhow, these are common ways to improve your handgun shooting. Anything else you think the newbie or novice needs to pay attention to? Sound off in the comments!

Previous Post
Next Post


  1. Hitting a tweaker at parking lot distances is not hard. Most folks can spit and hit him. If you want to get better results than that then it becomes the way to Carnegie Hall. Practice. Practice. Practice.

  2. Although I don’t keep a laser on my guns, I employ one with my dry fire drills. You can really see the wobble you have when pulling the trigger so much easier, that I have one specifically for each of the three guns I’m likely to be carrying. At $20 for these cheap rail mounts that are out thrre, it’s worth having a few around.

  3. Gotta be able to shoot without my glasses. Laser…yes. Light…yes. Closed eye practice. All the time.

  4. Hmmm, Pretty good advice but I don’t see safety glasses on the man in the blue shirt showing how to shoot up close and personal. Why not? May I add two tips to yours courtesty of the US military Special Operators…..1. USE SNAP CAPS to keep from damaging your firing pin and 2. every time you pull the trigger, take one step back and shoot. Follow directions as you printed them about watching the sights. I have taught more ladies to shoot using this technique and all of them were hitting the target in the center of the target at least seven or eight out of ten at rapid fire. For women whose hands shake and are afraid of guns, this is a great drill and teaching method.When walking back, use your toe or the front of your foot to check that there are NO OBSTACLES behind that could trip you up. In a classroom there isn’t this necessity but in the field there may be. Keep these coming – good knowledge! P.s. I am a “retired” small business owner who closed her firearms training business in 2016. My website may or not still be up.

    • Helen,

      You lost me with this statement:
      “2. every time you pull the trigger, take one step back and shoot.”

      I simply can’t figure out what this means…are there words missing there?

    • “…but I don’t see safety glasses on the man in the blue shirt showing how to shoot up close and personal. Why not?”

      Perhaps because that exercise didn’t involve actual firearm discharge?

      And it more closely replicates a real-world likely experience?

    • 2. every time you pull the trigger, take one step back and shoot.

      Ya lost me there as well. If that was the case for basic training, I would need a football field behind me, which puts the same distance in “front” of the 180 rule which then presents a danger to anyone to the left or right of the training individual. Even theoretically, THINK as if the gun is LIVE ALWAYS. This point is untenable in a basics class.

    • The snap caps thing is generally false for centerfire guns. The pin isn’t hitting anything without a cartridge/cap in the chamber. It’s probably not going to be damaged from hitting air instead of a cap. If it is, you probably need a good gun.

  5. jwm, a simple statement, but well said. Shooting is a diminishing skill. Practice is key, but only after proper technique is mastered. The author is spot on with this. Taught shooting for decades. I’m a huge believer in dry fire. I remember one student that looked like he lived under a pile of steel. He couldn’t hit a pepper popper at 7 yards if his name was hit me. He was shooting a Sig P-226/228? Something like that. Not the pistol’s fault. Although, lots of people like to blame them. Anyway, I put the rest of the shooters at ease and had him begin dry firing. I could tell he was embarrassed and a bit angry. I also knew he questioned if I knew what I was doing. Body language can tell you a lot. With a little coaching on sight alignment, trigger control and grip as we went along. After a while I said, “Load up.” Low ready. On the signal. “Beep!” Bang. Ding. Again and again. Slide lock. “Reload!” Bang. Ding. Repeat until slide lock. Shooter looks at me with a huge grin. Me, “I’ve been doing this a while. I might know what I’m talking about. Other shooters, on the line!” I’ve told this before, but hard lessons often need to be relearned. Author, great article. Dan Z. This is one you can rerun without complaint.

    • I bought my j frame new. The way I smoothed and settled the gun in was simple. I bought snap caps at the same time and spent many a night in front of the tv, snap, snap, snap, snap…….

      My wife is a patient woman.

      • The best trigger I ever knew was on a department-issued S&W revolver. Due to the way things worked there that firearm must have gone through dozens of recruits at the academy, each with a full firearms training routine, plus quarterly quals- and it was as smooth as butter. I only wish they’d auction em off so I could try and buy it.

  6. XS Big Dot aftermarket sight (Dan Z for TTAG) Picture.

    Put these on my G19 carry gun but the yellow/greenish ones. Made a difference with my old eyes.

    • Manse, I caught that to. I mentioned last night that I’ve been considering a G43 and retireing my old Smith 442. Bit like putting down a favorite dog. Hard to do. If I do I’ve already got a guy lined up to install XS Big Dot sights. Tritium front and rear. Mitch Rosen Pocket Softie of course. Spare mag. Spyderco. Surefire. Thank you very much.

      • I swapped out my work carry gun about four months ago. Went from a g43 to a diamond back db9 gen4 in a sticky pocket holster. Ive ran almost 2,000 rounds since then and the little gun just keeps running. I also carry a spyderco endura 4 as well as a SF 6px defender and a blow out kit along with 2 spare mags. When i get home i throw on the g19 with a tlr7. Knife and light stays the same.

    • Trijicon HD with yellow outlined front are my go to sights. They’re tritium tubed sights and my eye picks up the bright yellow front really fast. These are on my G17,G19X, Ruger SR1911 and my M&P9 Pro Series. Usually $150 or so anywhere and a rugged steel sight. Normally you can’t go wrong with anything by Trijicon. They’re also available with a bright orange front. A great investment in my opinion. Try em!

  7. To get into the groove at the range, I always begin by dry firing. Also, every gun handles differently, therefore, when you switch guns at the range, again, begin by dry firing and save wasting a mag or two. Lastly, when replacing magazines at the range, do not relax your grip hand. Oh yeah, have at least a couple of magazines to switch. When you have to release your grip to reload magazines, pay attention to your first few shots after resuming shooting. If your hits are off from your previous hits, you changed your grip. A consistent grip is as important as your trigger pull, sight picture and positioning of your support hand and both hands squeeze. No charge.

    • Great idea, and it does save money on ammo and time at the range. I do the same for new shooters or when an experinced shooter tries a new gun. This pre-familiarity session, in a comfortable, quiet environment, like home, makes learning much easier. I practice dryfire at least every 2 weeks, try for 50 trigger pulls per gun, which includes unholstering.

  8. I recommend using a laser cartridge when practicing dry firing. I bought a Cheapshot one for $30 on Amazon and it works well. I don’t use a phone with it. I dry fire at a target or other object like a light switch and it is easy to see a brief laser burst. I have used it at 15 yards in the basement and the laser dot is still easy to see.

    I agree grip is very important too. I have a firm grip that works well for me but I don’t need to grip just before the point of shaking. Any exercises that strengthen the shoulders, arms, and wrists can also do wonders for handgun control. I like the video on grip by Shanon Smith.

  9. My first pistol was the somewhat derided S&W SD9, (in)famous for its long, heavy trigger. Turned out when I got good with that (I always used to hit low and left) that other “better” pistols were easy to shoot. I’m actually glad I learned on a good quality but not *easy* gun because it taught me a lot about trigger control.

  10. LOL, I want to see video of anyone who can do the balance drill without a partner. Not to mention,some of the best dead eye handgun shooters I’ve ever seen never quit moving the gun.

    • Would tying a string (an inner strand of paracord?) Between the empty brass and the trigger guard help?

      • We used to do it in the Army. Never worked easily without a partner. Too much changing positions. Even with handguns you’d have to reset every time. There are also times where it just falls because the slightest pressure was applied and it was off center.

        Not very practical. You’d be better just finding the point and minimizing movement that way. Less of a reset on your position.

  11. Drew, no one can stop moving the muzzle. Your exerting 3.5 lbs of pressure against an instrument that weighs less. It’s called physics. Your job is to keep that movement to a minimum.

  12. ‘Shooting a handgun isn’t hard. Shooting one well can be difficult.’

    I believe the expression is, ‘Shooting handguns is simple. It just isn’t easy.’

      • I think that was missing the /s tag.

        Forward-looking infrared cameras, typically used on military and civilian aircraft, use a thermographic camera that senses infrared radiation.

  13. Dry fire. Dry fire. Dry fire.

    Practice. Practice. Practice.


    I always get tritium sights too. Night sights are important to me and they truly are easier to see. But dry fire is key. Practice everything dry fire thousands of times. Then practice at the range. Can’t get to a range that week? Dry fire.

  14. Training roulette. If you’re finding that you tend to miss shots in a particular direction (especially down!) and have a shit grouping, before you start messing with the sights, try this: get a revolver. Load five chambers with live rounds, leave one empty. GENTLY rotate the cylinder (none of that movie spinning shit) so you don’t know what is where. Fire at the target. Watch what happens when you unknowingly drop the hammer on the unloaded chamber. Dollars to donuts you’ll find your flinch.

    Actually, this is more useful in training others so you can show them what they’re doing wrong.

    • Exactly right. I did that and was amazed how my wrist jerked up on the empty chamber’d one. Not sure but my head probably moved too.

    • The guy next to me at the range, last time I went, did the “same” with a semi-auto handgun. He loaded a couple snap caps randomly in each of his several mags. Mix up the mags before shooting. I asked him if he was having fail-to-fires and he said no, just trying to cure a flinch with snap caps.

  15. Good article. Only thing I disagree with is the claim that the handgun is always more accurate than you are.

    A competition shooter said his dry fire practice included a laser on the gun, AND a video camera zoomed up on the target. Replay the video, watch the laser dot and listen for the trigger click.

  16. First off, it’s dry /practice/, not dry fire (‘dry’ and ‘fire’ are mutually exclusive). Drop the bad habits and start calling it what it is.

    Second, you are violating Rule #4 (know your target, and what is in line with your target, both in front of and behind). Unless you are shooting a ballistic wall, you don’t know what is behind, and an ND will certainly go through an ordinary house wall. You need to ensure that whatever is behind the wall (and behind that, et cetera) is something you are willing to destroy.

    Third, whatever ‘spot on the wall’ you are using as your target had better be removable, not a permanent fixture, and definitely not something you are not willing to destroy. A post-it or a taped-up target is a good choice. Put it up when you start dry practice, take it down when you are done. If you practice with a permanent fixture, you run the risk of falling into the ‘one more time’ trap at a later point (after dry practice) and you happen to have a loaded weapon. No click, but boom this time. Just use a temporary target.

    Let’s be smart. Let’s be safe. The 4 universal firearm safety rules ALWAYS apply, even during dry practice. Even when your gun is unloaded. ALWAYS.

  17. After almost 30 years in the Army and being an Ordnance Officer, I have to say, you press a door bell button, you squeeze a trigger. Enough said.

Comments are closed.