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Congratulations! You’ve joined millions of Americans who’ve exercise their natural, civil and Constitutionally protected right to keep and bear arms. Provided you observe The Four Rules of Gun Safety, you’re about to enjoy a lifetime of safe shooting. Assuming, that is, you go shooting. While there’s nothing to stop you from putting your handgun away and never touching it until you need it, that would be your first mistake, the first of three bad habits to avoid like the plague . . .

Mistake 1: Not shooting

A gun is a tool. Like all tools, the more you use it, the better you are at using it. While a gun’s basic operating principle is easy enough — load the gun (bullets face forwards), aim it at your target and pull the trigger — hitting what you’re aiming at is fiendishly difficult. It requires practice.

How much practice you need depends on how good you want to be at hitting your target. If your primary goal is self-defense, chances are you won’t need a whole lot of practice. Most attacks happen at what’s called “bad breath distance.” The closer you are to a target the less likely you’ll miss. Yes but —

There’s no guarantee an attack will happen close-in. Equally, the further away you are from the bad guy or guys when you shoot, the better. There’s less chance of physical contact and more time to escape. [Note: there are a lot of ways a gunfight can go very badly wrong. Get force-on-force training.]

So practice as much as you can, remembering that shooting skills degrade over time. If you can’t be bothered to practice, if you can’t afford practice or it’s not easily available, I’d recommend shooting practice at least once a month — no matter what your situation or the reason for owning a gun.

Mistake 2: Shooting badly

To maximize shooting proficiency, you must grip the gun properly and assume a good stance. You need to know how to aim, squeeze the trigger, clear a malfunction (for a semi-automatic pistol) and (if self-defense is on the menu) move and shoot.

If you start with good instruction, you’ll avoid developing bad habits, such as “slapping” the trigger or failing to achieve a proper sight picture. Generally speaking, it takes 1000 rounds to correct a bad habit. That’s expensive, time-consuming and easily avoided.

Start as you mean to finish. Get professional instruction before you start shooting on your own. Even a single hour of initial instruction will keep you from developing bad habits that may permanently hobble your shooting skills.

Mistake 3: Shooting at marked targets

New shooters tend to shoot at paper targets with a bullseye or a picture of a bad guy with a “kill zone” [as above]. That’s a mistake.

Because new shooters are just learning, their ability to hit the center of a target is limited. Not to put too fine point on it, they suck. Sucking — not hitting the target dead center — is incredibly frustrating. Even if you’re convinced that simply hitting the paper is a victory (it is), failure to drill the bullseye can be demotivating.

Turn the target around and shoot at a blank piece of paper. Try to group your shots as close together as possible. wherever they land on the paper. Start shooting as slowly as possible. Unless your goal is “pure” marksmanship, as your confidence grows and your shot groups shrink in size, increase your speed.

If you’re shooting for self-defense, remember that a too-large group means you need to slow down. A too-tight group (yes that’s a thing) means you’re not shooting fast enough. Ideally, you should shoot as fast you can where you shots land in an area about the size of a standard paper plate. (Paper plates make excellent targets.)


There are other bad habits that afflict new handgun shooters. Don’t worry about them right now. Avoid these three mistakes and you’ll build enough shooting skills to git ‘er done.

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  1. “Sucking at something is the first step to becoming sorta good at something.” — Jake the Dog

  2. The whole trigger slap thing is an old timers myth. Most competitive shooters slap their triggers and do just fine.

    • Meh I disagree with you on that one. Trigger manipulation is one of the most important aspects of shooting.

      A lot of competition folks use race guns wth extremely light trigger pulls and resets so they perhaps can get away with it. But for the average person shooting an average pistol, effectively using a smooth trigger pull and reset will help you shoot much better, especially on follow up shots.

      Competition shooting is great and those people are very skilled, but competition does not automatically translate to self defense shooting.

      • Ummm, I don’t think any action shooting competitor that is of even moderate skill is “slapping” the trigger. I have fired hundred of rounds in long strings simply to minimize trigger movement while maximizing firing speed. It’s called riding the reset, and you can do it at any speed, you just need to practice in order to do it quickly.

        The people with red dots that miss a part of their double-spaced at 7 yards, they are probably slapping the trigger, and probably not watching the sight.

        Even when shooting as fast ares you can, trigger control is still the highest priority, even above the ability to hold hold a perfect sight picture. If you can quickly and smoothly pull the trigger when you sight DOES go over your target, you aresbove better off than being able to hold aresbove perfect sight picture but need 2 seconds to pull the trigger there.

      • Competition shooting absolutely translates to self defense shooting. Who do you think pioneered the RDS on pretty much all military rifles? Who developed the “thumbs forward” grip and optimized how you run a handgun? Who put the modified weaver stance out into the pasture? Who continually raises the bar on race guns netting better production/service guns, enhanced ergos, etc? Who pushes the boundary of design and material science to ensure durable long lasting blasters? It’s not just gear but technique as well. Competition shooting is ALWAYS performed under pressure, independent SD “practice” rarely is. “The Best” way of doing something with a hand gun will typically be the best way regardless of situation. Competition shooters are power users and the “self defense” guys are generally 2-3 years behind the “best practices” that emerge in competition. When we’re talking about fundamentals of running a hand gun, it’s equally applicable.

        None of the “big guys” in the competition world ride the reset, pretty much everyone advocates coming all the way off the trigger, regardless of platform. Dudes like Mike Seeklander, who shred in both arenas actually advocate letting the trigger all the way out (in his Rock Island Armory videos on YT, he says if you want to shoot fast and accurately the finger comes off the trigger during recoil).

        Dudes who think Glock’s bore axis makes them the best gun for competition with the lightest recoil impulse think that you should ride reset, meanwhile in 2016 we’ve all moved on from that.

    • What sort of competitions are you talking about? Slap the trigger a few times in a bullseye match, and you’re done for, in terms of placing anywhere useful.

      • Yup. The only place where I could see someone “slapping” a trigger and competing successfully might be in shotgun sports.

      • Bullseye doesn’t count. Action pistol disciplines the top talent generally preaches a “controlled slap”.

      • Don’t ever forget that competitions are all GAMES, and NOT real. Games have rules and referees, fights don’t. Games all have rules, and whatever the rules are will tend to favor one thing or style over another. As the rules change, the top competitors will change to fit themselves into those rules as well as they can. Those who adapt the best to a certain set of rules will be the winners under that particular set of rules.
        SO, just because someone is a master at one set of rules, does NOT mean he is a master of that particular weapon, but that he is a master at that particular game. Some of that will transfer over, but never ALL. This is why the IPSC champion, the bullseye champion, and the cowboy action champion are all very different men with very different styles.
        It’s because they are all very different games. But NONE of these are a fight, only games. The only way to prepare for a real gunfight is to be in a few, and mostly that is not possible. But if you bother to talk to combat vets(and shoot with them) you might come to notice a very interesting thing. Most of them are not exceptional shots or champs of any shooting games. Most of them will talk about shootouts not as something to WIN, but to survive. And they tell me one thing the most; The one with the greatest awareness, and the most willing to do whatever it it takes to survive(plus LUCK), is the one who will be left standing, when the smoke clears.
        So don’t worry so much about which champ does what, or which YTer to follow, or what set of gear and gadgets you need. Spend some money on ammo instead, and go out and shoot, shoot, and shoot some more. Shoot at anything, at any range. In the words of Dick Marchenko, pull the trigger with your cocks for all I care, just shoot a LOT!.
        The more familiar you are with your weapon, and the more you use it, the greater your situational awareness, marksmanship, and vitality will get. And it seems like the ones who practice the most tend to be the luckiest, too…

    • Well, I classify Grandmaster in Open easily, and yes I do slap the trigger, like, really hard, and so do the other GMs i know.
      The key to consistency is, consistency. That means slapping the trigger consistently, every single time. Every person differs on how they do this, but my way is I’m pushing in on the trigger with the same force every time and my weak thumb is compensating for the push from the trigger finger. It takes a lot of practice and it doesnt work when shooting single handed. But it works regardless whether i m shooting a pimped out 2011 or a stock Glock. You need a very solid, consistent grip. One way to test it, (suppose you have a fine tuned gun with amazing ejection consistency) is to only load one round, and fire to lockback. Mark the exact spot the brass falls onto. Repeat the process, the next brass should fall EXACTLY on the mark, not a single bit of deviation. When you can do this, go ahead and figure out your own way of slapping the trigger fast but consistently.

  3. Great List. I’ve been shooting a long time and learned something. Next time I take a new shooter, I’m putting them on a blank piece of paper first. Thanks!

    • Maybe we can produce an official TTAG silhouette target of a Bad Guy with a Deagle in one hand and balancing a paper plate with a burger, beans and a pile of potato chips in the other.

  4. I remember in college introducing some new shooters. Their first targets were used textbooks that couldn’t be resold because the course had switched texts. Sure,they’re a little larger than a paper plate, but the fun of shooting a textbook was a great motivator.

    • One of my favorite plinking sessions involved a .22 rifle, a lever-action .30-30, and my hated old lit-crit textbooks from grad school. Man, it was fun turning those bloated tomes into confetti one bullet at a time. Plus, catharsis!

      • Foam cups make great targets for a rimfire. Throw em out downwind and try to hit the bottom edge so they bounce in the air. They will get harder and harder as the wind blows them further away. Then try to call which way you will make them bounce. Then start following the cup through the air and hit it again as soon as it lands.
        You’ll be surprised at how fast you’ll get and soon you will be shooting them in the air. It will just happen naturally, because as you are tracking it in the air, the sights will sometimes line up perfectly, and you will pull the trigger automatically. And soon after that people will start saying things like, I’m sure glad you aren’t shooting at me!
        It does require an open range. Make sure that you don’t shoot it out of the air when it’s over the backstop, unless you have almost unlimited space like we do here in Montana.

  5. In my younger, dumber years I caught a brutal case of scope bite from a buddy’s .44 Mag Marlin after popping off .22’s all day. The subsequent flinch took years and a lot of ammo $$$ to tame, even with snap-cap drills. Double check your eye relief and weld that rifle butt to the pocket of your shoulder. Or you could be even smarter than I and just pass up firing scoped big bore rifles as a very green shooter : P.

    • I tried for several minutes one time to convince someone he wasn’t in a proper prone firing position, and that the .300 WM rifle he was borrowing from me would not care how good he was with a .22, but he wouldn’t listen. Still has a nice scar.

  6. For folks really on a budget, plain white printer paper works just as well as paper plates at 1/5 the cost or less.
    I shoot .22 at plain printer paper for this reason. I have a Colt 1911-22 and shoot on average 200 rounds a week. I couldn’t afford to do that if I was shooting 9mm.

  7. Many, many years ago, during my misspent yute. I served time in the Navy. At one base, I was part of the 50 man auxiliary security force responsible for physical security. We trained with M-14’s (both semi and full auto) and S&W M&P 10 .38 cal. revolvers. I had the dubious honor of being the best shooter on force, so the senior chief in charge gave me the job of teaching a lot of really green newbies how to shoot (meaning I no longer got to shoot but had to walk the line and correct everyone else). There were all the typical problems that you would expect to find. Not knowing how to aim, jerking the trigger, throwing the muzzle down while shooting, even keeping their eyes closed while shooting plus a lot more. Teaching rifle basics wasn’t too difficult. Shotgun was bit more difficult but not impossible. Handguns…Oh dear lord!

    So how to start someone who knows next to nothing about shooting a pistol. Step 1: just get them used to shooting. I would have them just shoot the pistol not expecting them to hit anything. As they shoot, correct their stance, grip, and aiming. Work on smooth trigger pull. Follow the rules, “front sight, breathe, squeeze”. This worked for about 90% of the shooters. Get them used to the gun, then correct problems one at time and show them how to tighten up their groups. The real problem shooters were the ones with ingrained fears of the weapon or “the guy that knows it all and I don’t need yer help, thank you”. I had to deal with each personality first. Break down the barriers of bad learning then start at square one again. It was a very interesting time in my life.

  8. +1 on the paper plates. Cheap and you can get them for pennies each. Use a spotting scope or a rifle scope to see the hits. I use a black marker and place an X in the center. Clay pigeon’s are alot of fun placed at 200-300 yards on the berm of the backstop are wayyyy fun too.(rifles)

  9. Presumably this list is targeted to first time/new shooters (like me)? Who have no idea what it means to “top up”.

    I’m sure it’s incredibly frustrating to write an article having to spell out jargon, lingo, phrases that you’ve known for many years now. But please keep it up so that we newbies can learn more.


    • I am a highly experienced shooter and highly experienced commenter on this and other forums. I would like to think that I have a vast wealth of knowledge with respect to all things about firearms. Having said all that, I do not recall ever seeing the term “top up” and I also have no idea what that means.

      • I can’t find that phrase in the article right now, so I am assuming it was changed/deleted.

        • You are correct. One of the admins apparently deleted that phrase and/or sentence from the article.

  10. HANDLE THE WEAPON, make sure it is safe and handle it ! It must become an extension of your hand. Can you point your finger at something twenty or less feet away and know the line will hit it ? That is how shooting should become. SAFETY AT ALL TIMES ! Then handle the weapon, your life may some day depend upon it.

  11. I use paper plates with a 2 1/2″ bulls eye on them at distances from 10 yards to 15 yards and up to 52′ ( I know that is an odd distance).
    I do like to hit the center but anywhere on the plate represents a stopping hit in most cases and multiple hits in that area are well….

    • Yes, that’s one of my beefs with this “don’t shoot at targets” business.

      When people are shooting at some unmarked target, it is very difficult to help correct mistakes. You don’t know where the shooter was aiming, you have to start making guesses about what their problems are.

      When I put a shooter onto a bullseye target, and I start seeing where they are putting the shots when they’re aiming at the bullseye, I can start to make diagnostic analysis of what they’re doing as they pull the trigger. Is their group to the right of the bullseye? They might be gripping the gun more heavily with their thumb(s). Group high? They’re heeling it. Way low, and inconsistent? They’re trying to pre-compensate for recoil, etc.

      When I’m shooting bullseye, I occasionally get strings of 3, 4 or 5 shots where I drop them all in the 10 ring on the slow fire stage. More rarely do I get three in a row in the X ring on the timed/rapid stages. But when I do I try my best to memorize the sensation, grip, mindset, trigger pull, everything about those shots as much as possible, and then try to “do that again.”

      • I agree with both of you.

        I have no problem with large blank sheets of paper, but you still need a single aiming point to diagnose errors of shot placement and shooting fundamentals.

        A sheet of plain white paper or paper plate with a small colored dot drawn or stuck in the middle (like a bright red/green/blue adhesive pricing sticker) works well, in my experience. I have a supply of 1″ pricing dots (from Walmart, in the office supply area, I think), and a couple of hundred 3″ dots that are bright green (from my last job) that work very well in these roles.

  12. For anyone just starting out who doesn’t have the time, the money, or the inclination to seek out professional training- unless the laws of your state say otherwise, don’t feel like you should be limited in your right to defend yourself or bear the arms of your choice. More training is always better than less, but how often do you see stories about a 70 year old widow shooting someone with a .38 revolver that sat unused in a drawer for years?

    Training gives you skill, and skill fills in where luck lets you down.

  13. Hmm… I’ve had some green as grass new shooters do very well the first time out. And possibly no target would be discouraging if the instructor didn’t make it so. I love to draw all kinds of target figures, and my students like it too. A blank paper doesn’t give anyone a place to focus that “front sight,” so seems silly. The CBM of an attacker certainly gives one that focus – several of them!

    I don’t teach target shooting, so any round hitting the CBM or head area is a good shot. In an emergency, moving, dim light, a million other things will reduce the chance of a good hit… I think that’s why we generally think it a good idea to keep shooting until the threat stops… 🙂

    Practice is good… and it is important to first decide exactly what you plan to practice. And why. But let’s not over engineer this thing, gentlemen. I’m always amazed at the stories of the folks who pull a gun out of a drawer or whatever, no training and no practice… and manage to defend themselves anyway. I wouldn’t take that chance again, but that’s pretty much what happened to me. Amazing.

  14. Another problem I see some new shooters do is when they decide that they hit the targets a couple times at 4-7 yards so they decide to set the target quite a bit further. They end up missing all or most of their shots because they don’t have the fundamentals down.
    The other problem I see is that they rush shooting at the target, firing all their rounds in quick succession rather than taking their time.

    • I used to go to a range that had computer controlled targets. I developed a drill that marched the target 1 yard at a time from 10-25 yards. I found it very effective training for improving long range accuracy.
      Many, if not most, self defense trainers don’t put much emphasis on shooting beyond 7-10 yards but for those of us who carry in the woods it is important to learn to shoot accurately at longer ranges. Most four legged predators are capable of closing the distance from 40 yards as fast as a human does from 10 yards.

  15. The blank target is a great idea, even for experienced shooters. Most people get insulted in a subconscious way when you tell them to just hit the paper. Have to keep reminding them it’s not the case at all.

    For self defense practice, the goal is simply to get all your shots onto a typical blank 8.5×11″ paper.

  16. Disagree. 8inch black circle on white background is the most effective feedback to pull stance, grip, and squeeze into tighter groups. Rounds 12/6 grip, 3/9 trigger. Pattern body alinement.

    When I observe the shotgun pattern, within 10 minutes can pull a beginner into that 8 inch circle. And that, TA DAA makes them effective and want to returned to the range.

  17. Paper plates are great for target practice. They’re cheap, they’re white (providing good contrast) and they’re of decent size. Once a new shooter understands grip, stance, sight alignment and trigger press, they will hit a paper plate with great regularity. Success builds success.

    Another benefit: shooters who are striving toward their NRA Distinguished Expert Rating will do their shooting at paper plates.

  18. I’ve got to disagree with #3 – you should always have a “target” to “aim” for.

    Shooting at a blank piece of paper won’t help create groups.

    If you’re shooting at the “center” of the piece of paper, you have to guesstimate the center and that doesn’t help you learn good sight use.

    I explain it to people as sort of a kind of statistics. Just because you’re aiming at the center, it’s a matter of statistical luck that you get a bullseye. Every shooter has a “cloud” that their shots fall into – lots in the middle and fewer at the edges. Improvement happens not by getting more bullseyes but by practicing and making your “cloud” smaller. Good shooters have a much smaller “cloud” or group and it tends to look like the hit the bullseye a lot more.

    To do that you do need a target – a simple black 2″ or so dot with a magic marker suffices. You don’t need the distraction of rings with numbers.

    You can make the dot bigger but that gets more into estimating the middle rather than pointing at something.

    I shoot pretty well now but that bit of advice from a more experienced shooter early on was the single best thing to improving my shooting.

  19. OFC, one could further simplify these three mistakes down to just one, the most common of all human mistakes, in all endeavours, and all walks of life: “being happy in a state of ignorance”.
    Having bought a first firearm and knowing nothing, not shooting it is ignorant. Assuming it will work properly, simply because it is new, is ignorant(I think we are all aware of automobile and many other product recalls). So is assuming that shooting badly is normal. So is assuming that a target must be the proper thing to shoot at, because it has the word “target” printed on it.
    We are all ignorant of a great many things. Ignorant only means; lacking in certain information. It is not an insult. No one’s head can hold more than a tiny fraction of 1 percent of all of the information that is known(much the less the giant mass that remains unknown).
    We are all ignorant, and we all need to become less so. Accept it, everyone(and not just new gun owners).
    Therefore, since the greatest problem faced by humanity is its own ignorance, becoming less ignorant about a field that we have chosen(and cultivating contentment in our ignorance of fields we are not interested in) should be every humans goal.
    If one has purchased a firearm, then one has decided to enter that field, and so the greatest mistake any newbie can make(and it is made by many) is to assume that the purchase of that gun has miraculously brought them some knowledge of, or technique in use of, said gun, some way, some how.
    Obviously ridiculous, as no one would assume they are a musician simply by purchasing a guitar, or a tennis player because they found an old raquet in the attic, or a golfer when they inherit their uncle’s clubs! Yet that is exactly the mistake many newbies make in the realm of firearms, assuming some knowledge of a thing, simply by possession of said thing.

  20. No mention of starting off with “too much gun”?

    I’d wager that most folks would benefit by getting a .22 (or even a heavy 9mm) and work on basic skills and building confidence. My 22 is still my “reference gun”–20 rounds of .22 every 100+ of 45acp helps expose any bad habits I might be adding into shooting the big bore.

  21. I practice once a week I may use 40 S&W, 45 ACP and every time with my everyday carry Glock 9mm. Once a month with my AR15 I use splatter targets because I could quickly see where I am at on the target. I practice shooting one handed left and right. Practice makes perfect and remember a paper target does not shoot back. I know a few unorthodox shooters that hit their target with ease

    • Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.
      Have a plan before you even head toward the range. Don’t just waste ammo throwing lead down range. It’s not the number of shots you take but the quality. Work on something specific. Take your time. I use 10 round mags instead of my standard capacity mags. Use snap caps very often. Every time if you go once a month or longer.
      Practice the draw. Smooth is fast.

      • What makes you think I don’t know the proper techniques for shooting a handgun? I practice the draw standing and from a sitting position

        • When I reply to a comment, it sometimes means I am spring boarding off that comment to continue the thought. I was enhancing your point rather than contradicting it.
          It was meant for new shooters to read and not you specifically.

  22. Rule 1: Don’t learn by watching other shooters at the range. They may not know what they’re doing either. Be sure. Get some instruction time with people who DO know what they’re doing. Or put more simply, what value do you place on your life, or the lives of your family and friends?

    • Last time I tried to “ride the reset” on my Glock to shoot fast, I wound up short stroking it which caused me to miss getting a shot off at one point in the string.
      I can see where it would be advantageous to let the trigger all the way out between shots. What’s it going to cost you time wise? Not much since it is such a small movement. Maybe 0.12 split becomes a more consistent 0.14. Not sure if you should let the trigger all the way out but you need to go past the reset. Maybe the reset point was never intended to be the end point between shots as many instructors are teaching today.

      • I have a plain jane 75B, if I try to ride the reset on it, I short stroke it. Controlled slaps I can get within a tenth on a bill drill on my best performances. That’s not a lot of time. Plus, riding the reset, IMO, contributes to milking the grip since folks tend to address the trigger differently. A controlled slap makes you isolate the movement of your trigger finger from your grip. Which is a grip issue, not a trigger press issue.

  23. I’d be interested to know about a real study of the physics of the “slapping” versus squeezing debate. Theoretically, if your stance and grip is strong enough, a 4 pound pull, jerk or squeeze shouldn’t actually have that much impact on point of aim. Perhaps weaker grips from beginner shooters are more strongly affected while seasoned pros with iron-vice grips don’t suffer at all from jerking the trigger because nothing else moves?

    One article on the issue is at luckygunner here:

    Just food for thought.

  24. Hubs took me shooting to ‘face my fear.’ Ended up doing pretty well, and my fear is gone (my respect isn’t), but I still consider myself a beginner. But something just didn’t feel right last time, so I actually switched hands (grip). I’m right-handed but decided to try with my left. Bingos & bullseyes! Logic that out for me!

    • Luck. That’s about as logical as I can get with all the information I have.
      Some will say eye dominance is the issue. I’m left eye dominant but I don’t let that determine which hand I shoot with and I can hit everything inside 15 yards.
      Could be you press the trigger more carefully left handed. I would suggest sticking with the right hand and working on trigger press.

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