During my 4 Day Defensive Handgun course at Front Sight, we took notes for all the indoor lectures, and they gave us notes for those classes. But we didn’t take any written notes on the range, which is a shame because that’s where they taught the nitty gritty of shooting. All of this is from my memory, and from reading Tactical Pistol Marksmanship.
Here are some core principles of good marksmanship.
Focus On The Front Sight
Most beginners focus on the target and not on the front sight. Think for a minute what you are trying to do when you are aiming your firearm. You are trying to align the barrel of the gun in such a way that it hits where you want. You are adjusting the angle of the weapon. If it is to one side the bullet will go to one side. The sights are what you use to make this alignment. They tell you where the top of the gun is aligned.
Therefore you need to be looking for that front sight so you can align the rear sight and be looking where the bullet is going to go. If you focus on the target you are only going to know the gun is pointed in the general direction. The sights will be so out of focus you won’t be able to tell where the gun is really pointed.
One of the reasons a long arm – rifle – is more accurate than a pistol is that the barrel is longer and there for the sights are further apart. With a pistol it doesn’t take much change in angle of the gun to push the front of the gun off target. The further you are from the target, the less off target it takes you to miss. So focus on the front sight.
A question I had and one I hear a lot is, “How do I know where I’m going to hit if I don’t focus on the target?” First let me assure you the target doesn’t disappear if you are focused on the front sight. If it does, you are too far away to make a good shot anyway. The more it goes out of focus, the less accurate you could be anyway. We shot 1 inch squares from 7 yards, and hit them 4 times out of 4 focused on the front sight.
Secondly, you start focused on the target, and move the gun up into your vision. As soon as the gun appears as part of your draw, change your focus to the front sight. When you do this you will already be pointed in on the target and will naturally target where you were looking.
Align the Top of the Front Sight with the Top of the Rear Sights
So you’ve got the front sight in focus, now you need to align it correctly. Make sure you have equal space on either side of the front sight in the rear sight. Obviously if you’ve got less space on one side than the other, you are pointing slightly to that side, so try an even it up.
If the amount of space left and right mean the gun is to the left or the right, then how do you know about up and down? To get your vertical alignment right, align the top of the front sight with the top of the rear sights. Or align the dots if you have dots on your sights. This assures the vertical alignment on target.
Press the Trigger Directly Back
Now you’ve got the sights, and therefore the weapon, aligned on target and you want to keep it there. There are lots of factors that will cause those sights to move as you fire, but let’s talk first about “pulling” the trigger.
The goal is to move the trigger in such a way it will keep the sights where they are while causing the pistol to fire. The way this works is to move the trigger directly backwards, with no lateral movement. You’ll be surprised how hard this is to do. Try it with the weapon empty (Dry Practice). As you squeeze the gun it seems to naturally move to the left or the right. Only with practice can you get it to stay still.
There are reasons the weapon will move up and down, but they generally have more to do with the rest of your hand than the trigger, so we’ll focus on lateral movement right now.
To stop lateral movement you need correct placement of your finger on the trigger. Basically we were taught to put your index finger on the trigger somewhere between the middle of the pad of the finger – right where the swirl is on your fingerprint – and the inside of the first knuckle. The exact placement depends on your trigger. The longer and harder the pull, the closer to the knuckle your finger needs to be.
In the case of my DA/SA Walther P99, I need to be on the knuckle to get enough leverage to ever activate the trigger in DA mode. Given I need to be on the pad for the next SA shot, you can see why I’m looking for another gun. 🙂
If you have too little finger on the trigger, when you start to apply pressure you are actually pushing the gun away from your hand, causing it to move left. If you have to much finger on the trigger, you will pull the trigger and the gun toward your hand, pushing the gun to the right. (This assumes you are right handed. I’m sure you lefties are used to translating).
Practice – with your pistol empty – pressing the trigger directly toward the back of the gun while keeping the sights from moving. If you do this, you are pressing the trigger correctly and your finger is in the right place.
Get the Surprise Break
Firing a handgun is an unnatural act. We as humans don’t like having something explode, spout flame and make a loud noise at arms length. It naturally causes us to flinch. This flinch, when firing a handgun, moves those sights. Knowing this is coming, we naturally start to anticipate the explosion and will actually flinch early.
There are two ways to overcome the problem of anticipating.
First is to dry practice. Dry practice teaches our subconscience this thing in our hand isn’t going to explode. During our long range days, the more we shot the more likely we were to “mash” or flinch in anticipation. The cure for this was to do whatever drill we were doing dry a few times.
Second is to be surprised when the gun goes off. Just start pressing backwards on the trigger slowly. Keep pressing, focused on the front sight and the pressing, until the gun goes off. This is called the Surprise Break. You want to be surprised when the gun fires.
One of the exercise we did was to have you sight in on the target. Then one of the instructors would put their hand over yours and onto your finger on the trigger. Then he’d press and you were to just keep the sights aligned. Eventually the gun would fire and you’d get the surprise. It amazing at how accurate you were.
That is just a beginning. There are lots more factors that we learned, but just doing these things will make you a better shot. Admittedly these are hard to do fast. That is a balance you have to learn, speed vs. accuracy. Dry practice and regular practice will create muscle memory and unconscience habits that will increase your speed. So go practice slow and perfect, gradually increasing your speed.
There is more to come on what I learned at Front Sight
I was interested in reading that the term pressing the the trigger was used rather than pulling the trigger. In almost all applications I can think of – pressing is an act of motion that begins near and moves away much like a “push”. A pull, or pulling is an act of motion begiining away and moves closer to you. Tug of war, both teams “pull” they never say we “pressed” the rope to move our opponents forward. I’m curious how using the opposite word for what we are trying to explain is supposed to make conceptualizing the process clearer to students?? Just an observation.
I think we use press to emphasize not the direction, but the manner. Pulling on the trigger and the gun causes the gun to move. If you press just the trigger, like you press a button, using just the tip of your finger, you only apply pressure directly to the trigger and use as little of your finger as possible.
I learned a lot from your post. Your tips are solid, sensible and no-nonsense. I’ve been having trouble with gun recoil and that terrible flinching habit. I think your tip on focusing on the gun, and not on actually firing it, really makes sense. What usually happens is, I anticipate the sound and the feel of the gun going off before it actually does, so most of the time, I end up squeezing the gun, firing with both eyes closed or with my head swerved a bit to the side.
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