10 On-Target Tips for Rifle and Handgun Shooters
The secrets to shooting success.
Image Courtesy of Henry Spencer
Whether shooting formally in a match or just plinking at improvised targets, shooting fundamentals remain the same. Smith & Wesson’s Victory model .22 LR semi-automatic is a modular, easily modified pistol that can introduce a novice to target shooting and evolve with the shooter as they improve. Of course, it can also be kept stock as a “fun gun.”
There are many reasons why shooting is such an addictive pastime, not the least of which is the level of difficulty involved balanced against the potential for perfection. From rank amateur to seasoned professional, the thrill of hitting the target never diminishes. Whether it’s an official slow-fire bull’s-eye target or an old tin can leaning against a dirt berm, putting your shot exactly where you wanted it brings a smile of satisfaction.
To use a food analogy, the problem is we crave another taste of success, but often don’t know the particulars of the recipe for making it happen again. Even with diligent and careful practice, there are those times when it just seems your shooting is missing something, that secret ingredient for putting the bullet right there.
That secret ingredient—the one thing you need to complete the recipe and satisfy the craving for success—often takes the form of a tip. In seeking that tip, we turn to coaches, classes, books (and, often woefully, the internet). All can be good choices, but sometimes all you need to suddenly make serious progress is a well-considered phrase that lets you understand what you’ve been doing wrong—or simply how to do something right. We memorize it, we recite it, we sometimes shorten it to an acronym to make it even easier to remember. And, because we’re shooters, we share it with our compatriots. What follows are some of the best tips I’ve gotten over my many years of shooting rifles and handguns, many from pros, but also those most appreciated by my friends who shoot and shoot well.
Image Courtesy of Henry Spencer
Bone support is important in rifle shooting, where fatigue can become a factor. Muscles strain and quiver under prolonged use. Bone-on-bone support allows for more accurate shooting over longer periods of time.
- Think of your sitting or kneeling shooting position as a carefully assembled platform from which to fire the gun. You want it stable, solid, and resistant to fatigue. That means you need to support the rifle with bone, not muscle. Muscles fatigue, bones don’t, so soft tissue doesn’t really offer the stable platform you need. For sitting shots, sit cross-legged and rest your elbows on the inside of your bent knees. Don’t merely touch your elbows to your knees, really lean in for surprising stability. For kneeling shots, have the elbow of the support arm positioned just past your weakside kneecap. The bottom back of your upper arm just before the elbow should be supported by the knee. Both positions offer not only stability, but reference points for repeatability.
- Imagine that the front sight of your rifle or handgun is a new expensive car and you are pulling it carefully through the virtual “garage door” of your rear sight with your trigger finger. This allows you to imagine what you need to do by visualizing something wholly unrelated, yet relatable. You want to move slowly and smoothly, making corrections as necessary, and you want to pay close attention to maintaining even spacing on either side of that front side. There are consequences to rushing. In the case of the fancy car, it’s a mirror torn off or a scraped fender. With shooting, it’s a shot yanked off your point of aim.
- Consider your natural point of aim—NPOA for short. This refers to where you’d most naturally point the gun given how you’ve positioned your body. Every position your body takes results in a direction your body naturally wants to point the gun. Never struggle against it, rather, identify and embrace it. Here’s how: With the gun pointed safely downrange, close your eyes and slowly raise the gun to your firing position. Open your eyes and see where the gun is pointed. Adjust and readjust your positioning until the gun comes up naturally on the target. That’s your NPOA.
- Establish and maintain a proper shot process. A shot process is a sequence of actions taken prior to, during and after the shot that assures consistency and, in turn, accuracy. It includes first achieving a good stance, correcting to NPOA (see #3), having a proper and solid grip and having correct sight alignment. During the shot, you strive to refine your sight picture, control your breathing and break the shot without otherwise disturbing the firearm. After the shot comes follow-through and recoil management. Each component of this process can be explored and worked on in greater and greater detail until you’ve perfected your own process that you then employ consistently.
- Focus on the front sight when using iron sights. Why? The human eye cannot clearly see multiple focal planes. In other words, we can see objects at one distance at a time. The problem with shooting, then, is that the rear sight, front sight and target are all at different distances—different planes—from the shooter’s eye. Going back and forth between them simply doesn’t work. What does work is committing to the front sight while accepting that both the rear sight and target will be somewhat blurry and out of focus, and this is true for both rifles and handguns.
Image Courtesy of Henry Spencer
It used to be that precision pistol shooters were instructed to use the pad of the trigger finger. Now, using the first joint of that finger is coming into vogue with some competitors.
- Have a flinch problem? Perform ball-and-dummy drills on the range. Best done with a revolver, insert a dummy round or two into the cylinder among the live rounds. Spin the cylinder and quickly close it without looking to see where the live and dummy rounds came to rest when the cylinder locked in place. Proceed to shoot. When the hammer falls on a dummy round and you flinch, you’ll see the problem. A semiautomatic may be used, too, but you’ll get your best results when a friend loads your magazine so you don’t know where the dummy rounds are. Remember, too, that you’ll have to rack each dummy round out when the pistol doesn’t cycle (and that has the added benefit of being good training for dealing with cycling malfunctions).
- Stay oxygenated. When shooting, take two breaths and, on the third, let your breath out halfway. Hold on the target for only for to 10 seconds before releasing the breath and starting again, otherwise your eyes become oxygen starved and you will lose focus (on that ever-important front sight).
- God gave you two hands. Use them both. With trigger control critical to accuracy, we tend to pay great attention to our strongside hand. But don’t forget the duties of the off hand, which provides counter-tension to what the gun hand is doing. For right-hand shooters, the gun hand is pushing out and left, while the off hand should be pulling in and pushing right (obviously, this in reverse for southpaws). Thus, you have tension in all four directions, and maintaining those tensions equally is what helps you maintain trigger control.
- Don’t use the tip of your trigger finger. Use the thinner part just ahead of the joint. Now, this one is not a universal. If you are firing a gun with a particularly light trigger or if your hand size simply does not allow you to place any more than the middle of the pad of your finger on the trigger, well, go with what works for you. However, a lot of shooters are starting to realize that by placing the portion of the finger just ahead of its joint on the trigger, they have better leverage on lightweight guns with heavy or gritty triggers, and they resist the tendency to push the gun to the off side.
- Don’t admire a good sight picture when you see it. Pull the trigger! A good sight picture is hard to achieve and rarely gets better with time. In fact, it usually degrades as the microseconds tick away. When you see the sight picture you know you want to see, don’t stand there, don’t double check the front-to-rear-sight alignment and don’t keep breathing. Quickly but smoothly add additional pressure to break the shot without disturbing the sight alignment.