Years ago, when I was a new shooter, I had the good fortune to shoot at the Phoenix Rod & Gun Club’s public range. There I met a man who changed my life: “Coach” Pat Dolan. He was a Bullseye shooter, Korean War vet, Air Force Pistol coach and an Olympic rifle coach. According to his scrapbook, he still held the title for 100 yard pistol shooting. He modestly attributed the accolade to the fact that they’d stopped shooting that course of fire when his name stood at the top of the rankings . . .
If Coach Pat saw someone struggling with a gun, he’d give them a free 15 minute lesson. I received that lesson. In my years of shooting at the Phoenix Rod & Gun Club, I saw him give it to dozens of people. Within a matter of minutes most of them—the ones who listened—transitioned from flailing (barely able to hit the target with their shots) to phenomenal (keeping the bullets in the black). Young, old, men, women, cheap guns, expensive guns. It didn’t matter. If you did what Coach Pat told you, you hit the target.
The world lost Coach Pat Dolan in 2005. Many of his students are still trying to “pay it forward.” I appreciate the opportunity to do it here on The Truth About Guns. Shooting pistols is actually rather simple, but without these fundamentals, it’s easy to spend thousands of dollars on guns and ammunition with very little satisfaction in return. There are three fundamentals to shooting accurately, and a trick.
1. Sight picture
Ever since humans started throwing rocks at food, it’s been natural instinct to focus on the target. But with a handgun, the front sight determines where your shot will land.
Line the sights up with each other, and with the target. Place the front sight in the notch of the rear sight. Line-up the top of the front blade level with the top of the rear sight. Clear and even amounts of light should be visible on either side of the front sight blade. Focus on the front sight. The target and the rear sight will be slightly blurry, but that’s ok.
For target shooting use a 6 o’clock hold on a bullseye target. If the bull was a clock, you’d be just touching the bottom at the 6 o’clock position with the top of your front sight. Holding the sights against the white part of the target gives you more light, higher contrast, and finer aim.
A combat pistol will generally be zeroed for a center hold, so to hit the bullseye, you will want to cut the black in half with the sights. However, it’s easy to let black sights wander against a black target. So, when shooting for groups, use a 6 o’clock hold anyway, and simply accept that the group will be centered on the bottom of the target. Or use a small (1″) black Shoot-N-C sticker or black dot drawn with a Sharpie on a plain white piece of paper as a high-contrast aiming point.
The point is not necessarily to hit the aiming point, but to put all your shots through the same ragged hole. Once you can accomplish that, adjust your sights so that hole is on the aiming point.
Too many people start cranking their sights around before they can shoot a precise, repeatable group. Watching someone continually fiddle with their sights was one of the cues Coach Pat would take to step in and offer a lesson.
2. Trigger control
Press the trigger with the pad of your index finger. Not the tip, not the joint. Take up the slack (most triggers have some) and then smoothly press the trigger straight backward, parallel to the barrel. Do not try to make the gun fire. Just smoothly add pressure until it breaks. As Coach would often say, “Smooooth, not smoo-OOTH!”
3. Follow through. When the gun fires, you should be so focused on the front sight that it takes you by surprise. You will see the muzzle flash. Hold the trigger back. Regain your sight picture, then reduce pressure on the trigger until it resets. Do not look at the target to see where you hit, keep your focus on the front sight. Go to #1. Repeat.
You have to do #1 and #2 at the same time. Most people will obtain their sight picture, and then apply pressure to the trigger in two separate steps. In the process, they will lose the sight picture, either blinking and jerking, or allowing their focus to slide out to the target. You must maintain the sight picture while applying pressure to the trigger.
That’s it. That’s all there is. You do those three things, and do the first two simultaneously, and you will put your shot right in the 10 ring every single time.
As an added bonus, if you are practicing proper follow-through, letting the trigger up just enough to reset it, and not allowing your focus to drift to the target, you will find yourself shooting rather rapidly. There is a natural rhythm. “Front sight, front sight, front sight.” As you become more comfortable, this becomes “Front, front, front,” with each shot breaking as you find it.
As another great shooting coach, Jerry Miculek says, “My front sight is my throttle.” The speed at which you can find your front sight determines the speed at which you can accurately shoot. Don’t try to outrun your front sight. Just find it faster. This is where fiber optic and other high-visibility sights are invaluable.