Handgun Shooting—4 Ways to Quickly Improve Your Skills

Handgun Shooting—4 Ways to Quickly Improve Your Skills
Photograph Courtesy of Howard Communications, Inc.
The author recommends starting each shooting session with a simple warm-up drill that emphasizes trigger control and sight picture.

If you are a new handgun owner, it’s important that you seek some training in the basics of shooting. Learning the rules of gun safety is also important. But, what’s next?

How do you progress to the next level? The same way you get to Carnegie Hall—practice, practice, practice. But practice can also be fun.

The more you shoot, the better your skills will become. But just going to the range and blasting away is pointless and will lead to bad habits. You need to practice with a focused objective in mind and in a way that measures your performance and improvement.

Here are a few drills that will build your basic shooting skills. These are “entry-level” exercises, designed to build confidence, but they’re also fun. Don’t worry about speed at this point; that will come later. For now, stay focused on the basics of sight picture and trigger control, and you’ll be surprised at how fast your handgun shooting will improve. Here goes.

Precision Warm-up Drill

This drill comes from Dan Smith, the co-owner of International Cartridge Company and a long-time competitive shooter. Dan says it goes back to a tip that Ray Chapman taught him during a shooting school in 1983.

Every top pistol shooter will tell you that fundamentals are the key to shooting well. Sight picture and trigger control are critical for any successful shooting.

By starting each shooting session with this simple, close-range, precision drill, the shooter is “programmed” to focus on the fundamentals of sight picture and trigger control. This drill helps program your mind and helps to set the stage for the rest of the shooting session. It’s also a good idea to end each session with this drill as it will help you to refocus on your trigger and sights. And with the tiny groups you’ll get as a result, it will leave your with a positive mental end to the day.

  1. Place a one-inch target paster of contrasting color on the target. 

  2. Move back to five yards. 

  3. Using a standing, two-hand hold, slowly fire 10 shots at the paster with your pistol.

    Take as much time as you need. Don’t rush. The goal is to keep all 10 shots on the paster and in a single, one-inch (or smaller) group.

    You will need perfect sight alignment, with equal light on each side of the front sight and a perfect trigger pull or the shot will not be on the paster. Even a small error in sight alignment or trigger pull will show up, with a shot out of the group.

    You will see the bullet holes and know where each shot hit. Every time you pull a shot off the paster, there is a reason. Maybe you let the sights wander; the sight picture was bad, you jerked the trigger, or your grip was poor, but something caused that bullet to miss.

  4. Slow down; focus on the fundamentals. Think of nothing else but putting the next bullet through the paster.

  5. Keep trying until all of your shots are on the paster. Then proceed to the rest of your training session knowing that your mind and body are focused on precision. 

Accuracy-Only Drill

Photograph Courtesy of Howard Communications, Inc.
A reactive target like this allows you to shoot each of the targets in succession. Once you can hit all four targets in a row, move the target back 5 yards to build proficiency.

This is a very casual drill. The idea is to use a smallish, reactive target. There are a lot of commercial targets, both synthetic and steel, that will work

But it’s cheaper to use soup cans, clay pigeons, square blocks of wood cut from a 2X4, or anything that is about 3 to 5 inches in size that will react when hit; be innovative. 

  1. Place five targets at 25 yards. Later, as your skills build, move them out in 5 yard increments until you are able to complete the drill at 50 yards.

  2. From the shooting line, shoot each of the five targets in succession.

  3. Shoot from a standing, two handed position. Take your time and work for precision. The goal is to hit all five without a miss.

  4. If you can do that five times in succession, it’s time to move the targets further away.

This drill builds on the fundamentals of sight alignment and trigger control, but at an elevated level as the distance magnifies any mistakes. 

Make Sure You Have The Right Ammo

Photograph Courtesy of Vista Outdoor
To find the right load for your handgun, shoot a series of 5-shot groups using sandbags to support your wrists. By carefully firing different loads this way, you’ll soon discover which ammo works best in your gun.

Most handguns have some preference in the ammo they like. For practice, you will want to buy ammo based on price as much as anything else, but it’s important that the ammo be accurate and reliable in your handgun. It’s also important that the point of impact match the point of aim.

Different weight bullets within a given cartridge can have a dramatic effect on the point of impact. With adjustable sights this is not a problem. Simply adjust the sights until the point of impact matches the point of aim at a given distance, usually 15 to 25 yards depending on the shooter’s preference.

If you have fixed sights on the gun, you may need to experiment with ammo to find a load and bullet weight that matches your gun’s sights. Most fixed sights can be moved side to side to correct for windage, but there is no easy provision for adjusting vertical point of impact. Bullet weight changes the impact up or down on the target so often a specific bullet weight will impact correctly for the sights. Typically, the heavier the bullet the higher the impact.

When testing:

  1. Shoot at a bench from a sitting position.

  2. Use a support like a sandbag to support your wrists, not the handgun.

  3. Fire each shot with precision and careful attention to sight alignment and trigger control.

  4. Always fire a group of three shots, or even better, five shots before making any changes.

Once you have your gun and ammo matched to impact at the point of aim and you are getting good groups of perhaps 2 inches or smaller at 15 yards, you are ready to start shooting these drills.


2X2X2 Drill

Photograph Courtesy of Howard Communications, Inc.
In the 2X2X2 Drill, you engage three reactive targets. Once you can hit all three in a row, try doing the drill a little faster to build your target acquisition speed.

This drill was developed by Kyle Lamb for rifle shooting, but it is a great training drill for handgun shooters as well. The 2X2X2 is a simple drill designed to build speed and accuracy while transitioning to multiple targets. The key is to do it smoothly and to shoot accurately.

In the 2X2X2 drill you fire two “controlled pairs” at each target. A controlled pair is where each shot is aimed and the shooter must see the sights on the target before breaking the next shot. The shooter must also drive the gun from target to target, but stop the sights on target to break the shots. Do not try to shoot as the gun swings past the target.

The cadence should be fast enough so that the split time between the shots will be just about equal to the splits between targets. The result is six evenly spaced shots that can be checked by looking at the split times on the timer, if you are using one.

Only center hits count. Any shots outside of the “C” zone on an USPSA or the -1 zone of an IDPA target will not count. Remember the goals are accuracy and speed, in that order.

  1. Three targets are evenly spaced, side by side and placed five yards in front of the shooter. This drill is usually shot from the holster. However, a new shooter will be safer having the gun in their hands in the low ready position to start. Later, as your confidence and skills build, you can practice the drill by drawing from the holster.

  2. At the start, engage each target in order, firing two shots each. Right to left or left to right is shooter’s choice. The goal is to have both shots hit the target in the scoring ring.

  3. As you master that skill, you can start to go a little faster.

This builds skills in target acquisition as you move from target to target. 

Handgun Hockey Drill

Photograph Courtesy of Vista Outdoor
In the Handgun Hockey Drill, shooters fire at balls or cans, using multiple hits to push the object over a goal line. First one to get their target across, wins.

This is a variation on the old kick-the-can shooting drill. In fact, you can use cans for this rather than a manufactured target. However, the manufactured targets hold up better and roll a bit more predictably.

Make sure you have a safe background to do this shooting drill.

This is a competition, so you need two shooters and two targets.

  1. Mark a goal line using paint or some type of marker.

  2. Place the targets 15 feet in front of the goal line.

  3. Two shooters stand with their handguns at low ready.

  4. At the start, they shoot at the target, moving it with multiple hits it until it passes the goal line.

  5. The first one across wins.

This drill is simple, but huge fun and it’s a great skill builder. 

About The Author: Bryce M. Towsley has been writing about guns for 36 years and has published thousands of articles in most of the major firearms magazines. He has hunted all over the world and is a competition shooter in several disciplines. Towsley has several books available on guns, shooting and hunting as well as an adventure novel, The 14th Reinstated. Signed books are available on his website