shooting range training practice
(AP Photo/Frank Jordans)
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I see it all the time. A student’s shooting skills suddenly and steeply degrade. They immediately blame their equipment. There is a time and place to look at your equipment. Has something gone wrong? Is it performing up to specifications? Does it suit you?

But when things go south at the range, the first place you should look is within.

Embrace the suck

If you want to improve as a shooter/armed defender, you have to accept, indeed embrace failure. You have to see your inability as the key to your future ability. After all, how can you know the limits of your shooting skills if you don’t push those limits to failure?

For example, consider practicing shooting center mass for self-defense . . .

If you’re shooting a really tight group, if you’re stacking rounds on top of each other, you’re shooting too slowly. If you’re shooting too large a group, if your target looks like a large hunk of Swiss cheese, you’re shooting too fast.

If you’re shooting the perfect center mass group, you need to chase failure, not success.

Move the target further away. Move and shoot (where it’s safe to do so). Shoot with your weak hand. Remove your prescription glass (and replace them with standard safety glasses.) Challenge yourself to fail, so that you can practice to succeed.

Stop and think: why did I fail?

Understanding why you failed puts you on the path towards improvement.

As I indicated above, begin by checking your ego at the door. Take a step back, be as impartial and objective as you can.

Ask yourself, why did I miss? Narrow it down to the specific reason for the failure — trigger press, grip, lack of practice, nerves, tiredness, unfamiliarity with the firearm, whatever — and then focus on correcting the flaw.

What if I don’t know why I failed?

A recent student impressed me. “Watch me shoot and tell me what I’m doing wrong,” he asked, before firing a shot. He operates on the principle that there’s always room for improvement, and that we don’t know what we don’t know.

Seek out a truly objective and informed opinion on where you need do better. If you have access to a professional instructor, use it. Take that shooting class. Consider a private lesson, even if it’s just one. Put everything on the table: grip, stance, breathing, everything.

Live in the present

Not everyone can experience rapid, positive growth during firearms training. There’s a lot of frustration as you learn what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong. What you can and what you cannot do (yet).

One big problem: sporadic performance. Sometimes a shooter gets just enough positive feedback to give them the impression that nothing’s wrong. Denial much? Shooters often ignore their failures even when they outnumber their successes.

When we push people during diagnostic or precision drills, some students are open to corrective strategies. They make incremental progress. Others are stay mired in their former selves’ performance reminiscing about that one time they really nailed it. Why, they’re just having a bad day!

No, you’re not having a bad day. Your technique is filled with flaws that you don’t want to recognize. But until you do, you’re going nowhere fast. 

And now, finally, equipment . . .

Lights, lasers, better triggers, different sights — there are all sorts of bells and whistles that can enhance your shooting experience. Students want to know: are they worth the money?

I ask the student if their technique is solid. Without a solid technique foundation — one that is observable, measurable and repeatable — how will you know if a new piece of equipment is helpful or not? And speaking of a solid foundation, yes, gun selection can lead to failure. Or least, stymie success.

A good example: double action pistols. I don’t care how smooth a particular revolver’s trigger pull may be; the shooter must master two different actions. Close range is notorious for hiding the challenge. Precision work at distance brings it to the surface.

Which brings us full circle. Unless you test to failure, you won’t know whether or not you’re doing what you need to do to succeed, especially when shooting accurately suddenly becomes a lot more difficult — and important (i.e. during an adrenaline dump, when shooting skills degrade).

So go out there and fail. Learn. And fail again.


Jeff Gonzales is a former US. Navy SEAL and preeminent weapons and tactics instructor. He brings his Naval Special Warfare mindset, operational success and lessons learned unapologetically to the world at large. Currently he is the Director of Training at The Range at Austin. Learn more about his passion and what he does at

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  1. This is how I figured out I needed glasses was when I started missing shots I knew I could make.

    • My moment was when I asked my friend if the light I was approaching was red or green. True story. When I got my drivers license, I failed the eye exam, and she let me try again! I literally guessed and passed the second time. Kids, amirite?

      • What I teach is…learn to ignore the recoil. Recoil will happen everytime, guaranteed. You need to learn to ignore it…let it do its thing…what you need to concentrate on is what you do after the recoil.

        The gun will generally come back to where it was…what you need to concentrate on after you pull the trigger is finding your sights after the recoil.

        Pull trigger…let recoil do its thing…reacquire sights.

        When you hear me say “pop” pull the trigger. Pop……pop……pop……pop….pop….pop..pop..pop.pop.pop.

        Come back after 5000 rounds. LOL! not really…come back after 200 or so.

    • I can’t clearly see my sights. I can clearly see the target. I wear reading glasses to see my phone text.
      I could improve at the range by wearing glasses to sharpen the view of my sights, but I refuse.
      If and when I have to shoot in a DGU, I will not have glasses on. Train the way you will fight.

  2. On a range day a few years ago my 14 year old Godson wasn’t happy with his shooting skills. Not many bullseyes. I peeled the target off it’s backing and pasted it to the front of his shirt. Which bullet hole didn’t hurt I asked him. Swiss cheese is good!

    • Ha! I like that. Hitting the target is never a bad thing. And from there, you can always figure out how to hit it better.

  3. Never agreed with the “small groups – too slow” thing.

    Even during practice for speed, I want the smallest group I can muster.

    In a DGU those groups will almost certainly open up and your firing cadence will increase.

    I agree with looking for what you’re doing wrong.

    For me it usually pulling the trigger before everything is lined up or focusing on the target instead of the sights.


    • Specialist38,

      I split the difference so to speak on the speed/accuracy conundrum.

      I make something like an 7-inch x 10-inch rectangle on a target and then practice firing as fast as I can and still land all bullets within that rectangle. (That 7-inch x 10-inch rectangle represents the “vital” target area on a human attacker that is likely to incapacitate an attacker as quickly as possible.)

      I have heard people refer to that as “combat accuracy” which simply means firing accurately enough — and only accurately enough — to be effective in combat. While accuracy is critically important in combat, speed is also critical. Thus, “combat accuracy” represents the simultaneous optimization of accuracy and speed.

      So, if I shoot as fast as I can possibly pull the trigger and all bullets land within that 7×10 inch rectangle, I am all set. If some bullets land outside that rectangle, I have to decide whether that has to be good enough or if I should slow down my rate of fire until all bullets land inside — and then decide if that is good (fast) enough or if I should continue to practice and enable faster fire while still maintaining the requisite accuracy.

      • Sounds like a plan. And I dont disagree.

        My point was about focusing on small/large groups and the speed factor.

        If I can post a 1.5inch group at 5 yards in less than 5 seconds….great. opens up some at 10, 15, or 25. Regardless of speed ….you always want the smallest possible group.

        It’s a game of trade-offs.

    • iz to joke: Hitting the beer can when it just touches the ground is good, hitting it in the air is better. iz to bad gunm ranges do not supply beer, people would become better shooterz

  4. Remove your prescription glass[es] …

    Ooh. Now there is an interesting idea. I am an excellent marksman with my prescription glasses. I have no idea if/how that would change if I am not wearing my prescription glasses.

    • Same here. My spectacle lenses are of the proverbial Coke bottle type, and I’d be hard pressed to count fingers on an open hand at 7 yards without them on. I will have to give this some thought, because I don’t relish the idea of resorting to echolocation for placing my shots. Especially if there’s return fire to deal with.

    • Paul Harrell talked about that in the Miami FBI shootout. One of the agents who was an exceptional shot lost his glasses and that caused the expected problem.

      I use reading glasses in my daily life. I usually practice without them (handguns) and the groups are as we say “close enough for government work.” I practiced with them awhile back and the groups were noticeably better.

      Funny thing…when I was getting some Army training before a little trip about 12 years ago, the instructor was going over the fundamentals and said “keep the front sight in focus.” I knew him well enough at that point to joke with him and told him “if you want me to have the front sight in focus on this M9, you need to hold it because my arms aren’t long enough!”

  5. Missing the target was the first major clue that I have cervical spine problems. Even with a proper two hand grip after two magazines through my Springfield XD-S .45 my arms are twitching and flailing about 8 to 12 inches from center aim. It’s terrifying for anyone to watch this, let alone be within a mile of me. Yes, I stop shooting when I approach that point of scariness.

    Planning on some vertebrae fusion in the near future.

  6. It’s one thing to read (and completely understand) articles like this. This is a good article with some insight. But, there are places on the web where people are not very forgiving. If your new, your thoughts (even your humor) are likely unwanted. Pick your sources wisely.

    As for me, towards the beginning it was a Beretta 92A1 giving all kinds of malfunctions. After spending time with it I found I had a bad magazine AND I dirty extractor that was sticking. Lessons learned…number your magazines so you can keep track of what’s what and never over oil a Beretta extractor. It will attract gunk.

  7. For me I’ve never worried about the small groups theory. I practice on a target 8″ wide by 12″ tall with a center line along the vertical axis. This is Minute of Man. Double and Triple Taps in this area will generally deal with the Threat. For me it has always been about putting as many consecutive shots in this area as fast as possible from different shooting positions. I’ve always worked on the time from recognizing a threat thru the draw and placing the shot. Hitting Minute of Man will bring the needed accuracy with practice, Just don’t get hung up on tight shot placement. In a SHTF DGU muscle memory will get you there.

  8. Back when I could, I did IDPA for some practice with this. My wife also helped me with some dirt cheap Turkish 9mm that had about 2-4 Failure to fires out of a box of 50. While I certainly wouldn’t carry it, it helped me realize that I was quick on the failure drill and able to recover very quickly. My carry ammo doesn’t have that problem.

  9. I did some on a SRT group a while back and our captain was a 2 tour Vietnam SF sniper. Most of the team was fairly decent in sertile range qualifications but on the month familiarize shoots he would introduce physical discomfort so add some add ,”suck” factor . Shooting with your heart pounding, face covered in sweat glad in body armor is definitely a different experience.

    • Plus the current agency has introduced as much you can, a yearly shoot with uncomfortable shooting positions, on the floor laying to simulate shooting behind a wheel on a patrol car, low light shooting with flashlights etc. Its unfortunate that we are doing this in a indoor range cause there only so much you can in regard to angles and not damaging the infrastructure of the range itself.

  10. Great article, Jeff – and well in keeping with the philosophy you were teaching to us many years ago up in Washington.

    BTW – your writing has improved since those days, too! Wasn’t bad then, but even more focused now.

  11. Whether it’s golf or shooting it’s always the Indian, not the arrow. If you aren’t satisfied with the accuracy of your Hellcat a trigger upgrade won’t fix it.

  12. The double action revolver is a good gunm. You said up close in a dgu the double action wasn’t that big a deal( more or less) then you say it’s a hinderence to longer range.( more or less) . You forgot for long ranges you can cock the hammer , trigger pull is about as good as it gets.

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