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DEFENSIVE HANDGUN 101, part 2
Beginning your Training
by Tim Siewert
Effectively employing a firearm whether it be a handgun, rifle, or shotgun, is most definitely a learned skill; the notion that someone is a “natural” at anything, and in particular shooting, is ignorant. Once you have chosen a gun that works for you and fits your hand, as I covered in part one of this series, you should get some instruction in the fundamentals of marksmanship from someone whom you trust knows what he/she is doing. This may prove more difficult than one may think. There are plenty of armchair commandos around. Trust me, just because someone wears a uniform does not mean that person knows how to shoot or even knows the four rules of safe gun handling. The opposite is also true; just because someone has never spent any time in uniform does not negate the possibility that a person knows his/her stuff. This is not meant to cast aspersions upon anyone; I personally know many fine police officers and military personnel that are excellent marksmen and very safe with firearms. I also know some really good shooters that have never spent a day in a uniform. I offer this advice as a word of caution.
I have read a few times that the minimum amount of instruction required to learn the basics is 40-50 hours. There are a number of shooting schools around the country, each one vying for prospective students. I will readily admit that I have never attended any of these schools. Therefore, I can not recommend any of them. I will say this though, none of them are cheap. Different writers espouse the virtues of this or that school based on a number of things. If you decide that you have the financial resources and the desire to attend one of these schools, more power to you. I will recommend this though; do not make plans on attending any school until you at least have some familiarization with shooting. Virtually all of these schools focus on fine tuning ones shooting ability; they expect the prospective student to be beyond the point of being a total neophyte. Different schools focus on different aspects of shooting: some are geared to strict target shooting; some are geared to practical competitive shooting; and, some are geared to more military style training.
Having said all that, in my experience it is best that the new shooter have multiple short sessions with an instructor. When I first learned the basics of rifle shooting in the Marine Corps, we spent two solid weeks at the rifle range. The first week was called “grass week”. That whole week we had classes in the basics and then we did nothing but dry-fire at reduced targets. The second week, we fired the full course of fire for qualification every day and then more dry-fire practice afterwards. The whole two week period was a total immersion in rifle shooting. My point is that the average person does not have that kind of time to devote to learning how to shoot a rifle or a handgun; and, in my opinion, that is what is required for a person who knows nothing about rifle shooting to learn just the basic fundamentals. My suggestion is that a good curriculum would be one day, twice a month, over the course of an extended summer (April to October) with independent practice in-between. In this way the “student” can practice on the off times and then the instructor can critique at the beginning of each successive session and finish by giving some new instruction. By the end of the summer, the student should be well on their way to becoming a trained marksman.
My father liked to repeat an old adage, “Two hands for beginners.” A new shooter should begin by learning to shoot a handgun with both hands. With that in mind, there are five fundamentals a good instructor will have a new student focus upon where handgun shooting is concerned: these are Stance; Grip; Breathing; Sight Picture; and Trigger Control; then, after the shot breaks, Follow Through.
Stance- Just like a building, you must have a good foundation to be able to shoot well. Your stance is your shooting foundation when shooting a handgun; it must be stable. First, your stance should be comfortable and not exaggerated or contrived in any way. Each individual needs to experiment with what works for them. When I shoot my feet are slightly less than shoulder width apart, with the foot opposite my shooting hand slightly forward and my knees flexed. When I shoot weak-handed (left) I have my right foot forward only more pronounced. I have found that it helps me focus when shooting weak-handed. I recommend that beginners not worry about weak hand shooting until they gain confidence with their primary shooting hand. Along with the stance, your shoulders and torso should be relaxed. (The only muscles that should be flexed are your hands and forearms.)
Grip- This is why I said that to begin with you need a gun that fits your hand. It is impossible to get a proper grip on a handgun that does not fit. The upper part of the back strap should be firmly anchored in the web of the hand. The pad of the index finger, your trigger finger, should be on the trigger. The other three fingers should grasp the grip immediately beneath the trigger guard firmly with no spaces between the fingers. The thumb should be folded down on top of the middle finger and against the gun. The supporting hand should “cup” the gun hand with the thumb of the gun hand “spooning” the thumb of the supporting hand. By this I mean the end portion of the shooting hand thumb, from the joint to the tip, should spoon the part of the other thumb between the knuckle and the joint. The grip can be practiced with or without a gun.
(When practicing with a gun make absolutely sure that the gun is unloaded with the magazine removed or the cylinder is empty.)
Breathing- Everyone must breath. When shooting, the timing of your breaths is important. When shooting, your breaths should be between your shots. When shooting, I take a good breath while I am drawing and exhale, then if I am engaging multiple targets, I will take short, shallow breaths in between each target. If you are going to learn to shoot, you should start to pay attention to your breathing cycle. I do this randomly just for practice. I learned to do this from martial arts training. (Note: the subject of the draw is the topic for the last section.)
Sight Picture- Sight Picture refers to what you see when you bring the gun up and align the sights on the target. If you have typical “iron” sights on your gun, that is a blade front sight and a square notch rear sight, then correct sight picture is when the blade is centered in the notch with the top of the blade even with the top of the notch. Then focus on the front sight. Many handguns have fixed sights. That means that the sights are not adjustable for windage or elevation. Typically, a fixed sighted gun should shoot to point of aim, when the sights are properly aligned where the tip of the front sight is pointing, at 25 yards. Most of my handguns are fixed sighted guns. This is more than adequate for defensive shooting and there is less to go wrong. When shooting, focusing on the front sight is the most important thing for proper sight picture.
(Focusing on the front sight gives the shooter the best reference point.)
There has been a trend for a while that has been advocated by some that is referred to as “point shooting”. Point shooting is the practice of not employing the sights while shooting. Many old “westerns” depicted this and was called “shooting from the hip”. Bill Jordan wrote about this in his excellent book “No Second Place Winner”. Bill Jordan also wrote that this technique should only be used to engage targets within 7 yards. I believe that for the average person that the distance should be held to 7 feet. I also believe that the beginner should not even attempt this practice until he/she is thoroughly grounded in the basics. To do so otherwise is only asking for reinforcement of bad habits. (If you ever have the opportunity to read or acquire Bill Jordan’s book, I highly recommend it. )
Trigger Control- A good trigger is 100% necessary to be able to learn proper trigger control. The late, renowned Col. Jeff Cooper described proper manipulation of the trigger as a “press”. I think that this description is fairly accurate. Semantics aside, it is most definitely not a squeeze. When giving a new shooter advice, I like to describe it as constant, uniform, rearward, pressure. Proper trigger control is paramount to good shot placement. If the trigger is not released at the correct time, the bullet will not go where you want it to go, the intended target. Proper trigger control is most definitely a learned skill. Only by repetitive practice can someone achieve this on a consistent basis. Trigger control can be practiced at home with your firearm. This is known as “dry firing”. (As with practicing the grip, insure that the gun is unloaded and safe.) Always follow the four rules.
There is one other thing that a new shooter should concentrate on that is a combination of the first three points. This aspect of shooting is referred to as “Natural Point of Aim”. I have also heard NPA referred to as a shooters “Center”. Some instructors like to lump this in with the other fundamentals. Regardless of what one calls it; I think that this concept should be addressed separately. Granted, it should be learned when first learning how to shoot. My reasons for this are first, the new shooter has enough to concentrate on with the other five fundamentals and second, when shooting a handgun with two hands having a good NPA becomes natural when the other fundamentals are addressed. The best way for me to describe NPA is that point where the gun points when the shooter does not try to point the gun. The way to find your NPA with a handgun is to first assume a good stance and grip with the gun pointed at the target then close your eyes, take a good breath and let it out while relaxing. Then open your eyes; wherever the gun is pointed is your NPA. If the gun is not pointed at the target, adjust your stance. (NPA is much more important when shooting a handgun with one hand or rifle shooting.)
Follow through- After the shot breaks, maintain your stance, grip, and sight picture for at least two seconds. I did not include follow through with the five fundamentals for a reason. It is after the shot. The concept of follow-through is the same as when playing baseball. The batter continues his swing after hitting the ball; he follows through with his swing even though the object of the swing is to hit the ball. The object of shooting a handgun, rifle, or shotgun is to break the shot correctly and hit the intended target. To not follow through and end the process when the shot breaks in essence allows recoil to take over which will result in poor shot placement.
These are the fundamentals on which the beginner should concentrate. Only after mastering these fundamentals should someone start to practice one-handed shooting, weak-hand shooting, and shooting while moving; in that order. I always recommend that beginners start learning with a .22.
There are two other issues that I must address. First is the issue of employing a handgun “sideways”. This “technique” has been depicted in many movies and on TV. I think Hollywood picked up on this because in the late 1980’s IDF forces started to teach this style of point shooting as being a fast way to employ a handgun; and Hollywood thought it looked cool in the movies. In this author’s opinion it is the most ignorant practice out there. Need I say more?
Second is the issue of eye dominance. Typically a person has one eye that is “dominant”. This is to say that one eye works harder than the other. There is an easy test to determine which eye is dominant. Point at an object on a wall with both eyes open. Continue pointing at the object and close one eye. If the object appears to remain stationary (i.e. your finger is still pointing at the object) then the eye that is still open is the dominant eye; if the object appears to move (i.e. your finger is no longer pointing at the object) upon closing one eye then the closed eye is the dominant eye. Sometimes a person will be “opposite eye” dominant. That is to say that a right-handed person will be left-eye dominant. If this is the case, some instructors will have said person learn to shoot with their left hand even though that person is right-handed. Unless the person is totally blind in one eye and only capable of using half of their brain I think that this is a poor solution. In my mind it would be much easier for this person to learn to shoot with their weak eye. If necessary close the non-shooting eye or put tape over the non-shooting eye lens of your shooting glasses or possibly use the strong eye but turn the head more. I think any of these solutions are preferable to overwhelming a new shooter with the necessity of relearning the fine motor skills required with ones weak hand to be able to shoot. I have trained myself to be able to do a number of other things in addition to shooting with both hands. I have learned that considerable patience with one’s self and concentration are required to accomplish this. So, I recommend that a new shooter learn to shoot with their dominant hand regardless of which eye is dominant.
Concerning dry fire practice; I believe that it can be just as beneficial as live fire practice. As an example: in 1991 when I was at Camp Perry, I spent 45-60 minutes every day at the end of the day dry fire practicing my offhand (standing). On the last day of competition, I won first place in my class for the last 200 yard offhand match known as the Navy Cup Match. I beat 185 other competitors to win that gold medal. I know it was because of all the dry fire practice up to that point. My score was a 186/5x, I only shot one 8. Follow through is very important during dry fire practice. It serves to reinforce what you are doing right and illustrate what you are doing wrong.
Drawing from a holster should also be practiced after mastering the fundamentals. (The draw will be addressed in the next article.)
A good beginning handgun training session could go like this:
Start by finding a good stance. Then, with an empty gun, get a good grip. Now practice your breathing. While standing about 7 feet from a target, do some dry-firing. Take a break and think about what just transpired. Was your stance comfortable? Did the gun feel natural in your hand? If not, make some small adjustments and try again. Once you determine your stance and grip feel right and you are sure you know what a good sight picture is, load your gun. While standing 7 feet from the target (I recommend using a full size silhouette target to begin with) shoot one shot at the target. Remember to follow through after the shot. Did you hit the target? Don’t laugh; people do miss at this distance. Once you can put five shots, slow fire (one shot at a time with a break in between each shot) on target consecutively, move back three feet and repeat the process. Continue to move back three feet each time you can put five shots, slow fire, consecutively on target until you get to 25 feet.
Once you can put five shots, slow fire, on target from 25 feet, move back to 7 feet and try two shots in a row. This is referred to as a “double-tap”. Remember to follow through after each shot. Did both shots hit the target? Do not try to shoot fast. Concentrate on shooting and the speed will come. All of this does not have to transpire during the first session. A new shooter is better off stopping after about 100 rounds and then analyzing the results; preferably with your teacher.
Once you can double-tap the target from 7 feet consistently 5 times in a row, move back three feet. Continue this process just like slow fire until you get to 25 feet.
Once you can “double-tap” a target consistently from 25 feet, try three shots in a row, then four shots, and then five. When you can put all five rounds on target from 25 feet, you will have accomplished something. This is not to say that hitting the target from 7 feet with one shot is not an accomplishment because it is. According to statistics, the typical gun fight occurs within 7 feet, and people do miss their intended target; even people who have training.
F.Y.I., when I practice, I still start out at about 15 feet and work back to 25 yards. I still concentrate on the basics and analyze what I am doing. Also, I still start every handgun practice session with a .22. Even after over 40 years of shooting.
One should always wear safety glasses & hearing protection when shooting.
Rule #1 of a gun fight: Have one.
One should think of a gun fight as a mini-war or a battle.
There is only one rule in war: Stay alive.
This is the mind-set that one must have in order to survive a gun fight; this is the mind-set that Jim Cirillo and Bill Jordan said one must have.
In this author’s opinion the best home defense gun has been and always will be a shotgun; preferably 12 gauge.
But, that is yet a topic for another day...