Ultimate Guide: How to Shoot a Pistol Accurately

Want to shoot better?

Learn how to shoot more accurately with your pistol/handgun through a review of fundamentals, easy to do exercises at home, proper range practice tips, and helpful gear.

Introduction

If you’re here, you probably realize that…shooting pistols is actually pretty hard!

In the beginning of my shooting experience, I had a lot of sympathy with the Stormtroopers missing everything too.  At least they had the excuse of a stressful situation!

Stormtrooper Miss
Yes, I know they shot blasters

Now I’m not some professional competitive shooter or instructor, but take that as a positive…I still remember how it felt when I couldn’t hit anything and the differences each tip/exercise made in my development.

It’s going to take you a while, but let’s get started in making you a more accurate pistol shot beginning with fundamentals.

Fundamentals of Shooting

Shooting Stance

Some of you might scoff at the idea of how you stand has anything to do with how you shoot.  But think of it as the foundation of everything.  If you have a wobbly base, chances are it doesn’t take much to mess up whatever is on top.  And loud explosions and recoil have a way of messing stuff up.

The main thing is to have a stable/comfortable stance that tilts you a little forward to manage recoil.  Don’t worry if you have ever done that newbie lean (back).  Now’s the time to fix it.

Lean Back, guns.com
Lean Back, Guns.com

If you want to get more technical, there’s the three main types of stances: Isosceles, Weaver, and Modifed Weaver (Chapman).  They are just variations on some foot placement and what arm is flexed a little more.  But just notice how stable the guy below is and the slight lean forward.  You can brush up on those bad boys here.

Isosceles Stance, PoliceOne
Isosceles Stance, PoliceOne

Handgun Grip

My first advice received about handgun grip was from the salesman at my local gun shop.  He asked me to grip his hand with the same strength I’m going to grip my future 1911.  I gave him a nice firm handshake while he proceeded to crush my hand.  A dick move, but a great lesson.

I’m now an advocate of gripping as hard as you can but not so much that you have tremors.  I’ve found that having a crushing grip on the gun reduces the movement of your non-trigger-fingers, which is a good thing.

And how you hold the gun also has a huge effect on your accuracy.  You want the web between your trigger finger and thumb to be as high as possible on the grip to contain the recoil of the slide moving back and forth.

Glock Slide
Glock Slide
High Handgun Grip
High Handgun Grip

And because there’s this piece of metal moving back and forth, you want your forearm in line with the gun to absorb more recoil.

Handgun Alignment, Bearing Arms
Handgun Alignment, Bearing Arms

Now that you’ve got your shooting hand grip correct, let’s take a look at the empty space for your other hand.

Handgun Grip Empty Left Side, Shannon Smith
Handgun Grip Empty Left Side, Shannon Smith

You want to fill it completely up with the other hand so you maximize grip.  I like to double-check by making sure there’s a 45 degree angle between my left hand and the handgun slide.

Handgun Grip Wrist Check, Shannon Smith
Handgun Grip Wrist Check, Shannon Smith

Thumb placement of your dominant hand is personal preference.  You’ll see both up in the air or pointed towards the target.  Experiment to see what you like or just go with what feels more natural.  The non-dominant thumb will run along the frame.

Handgun Grip, Thumb Up
Handgun Grip, Thumb Up
Handgun Grip, Thumb Forward
Handgun Grip, Thumb Forward

And although it might feel a little weird at first, I like to set my wrist at an angle when I punch out both my arms.  This keeps everything steady and helps prevent limp wristing.

Handgun Grip Set Wrist, Shannon Smith
Handgun Grip Set Wrist, Shannon Smith

Sight Picture

You’ve probably heard it before…focus on the front sight!  Well it really does help and in the beginning I was squinting hard with just one eye open and trying to focus on the target.

Front Sight Focus, cheaperthandirt.com
Front Sight Focus, cheaperthandirt.com

I’ve found it immensely helpful to keep both eyes open.  It will be very difficult at first depending on how long you’ve been shooting with one eye open.  But once you master it, it makes everything so much faster with less eye fatigue.  And now you get more situational awareness.  First thing is to figure out which eye is dominant.

If you’re like me, you’ll be seeing some double-vision because both eyes are open.  I’ve found moving your sights closer to your dominant eye (left to right, not closing the distance to your face) makes it a lot easier to figure out which image to use.

This might be just a little shift if you’re using Isosceles, or it might already be perfect with Weaver.  For me, since I’m left-eye dominant but right hand dominant, I like the Chapman stance since it puts the sights more in line with my left eye.

Trigger Pull

Might be the most important part of everything, and what dry-firing practice is all about below.  The best advice is to squeeze super slowly that you’re almost surprised when the shot breaks.  You’re not yanking on it since that will result in jerking the trigger and sending the shot off.

Dry Firing, Sootch00
Dry Firing, Sootch00

It will be hard since it’s your gun and you practice with it, so you know when it will break.

But the slower you pull the better your shot will be.  One of the reasons you might shoot someone else’s gun really well the first time is since you don’t know the trigger (and when all the loud noise and recoil will come).

How about where to place your trigger finger?  It’s personal preference (and something to do with your finger length too) but I would suggest somewhere between the top quarter of your finger tip to right before the first joint crease.

Keep in mind that the ideal pull would be completely straight back with nothing else moving except the first two joints of your trigger finger.  So take a look at your gun and fingers to see what looks/feels the best.

I find that I shoot better when I’m closer to the first joint.  This length gives me good leverage and isolates the third section of my trigger finger (closest to hand) so only the first two joints are moving.

Less is more here!

High Handgun Grip
Glock Finger Placement (Closer to First Joint)

Breathing

One thing I always forget to do when I’m shooting.  Holding in your breath messes you up after a while and so I just try to breath naturally.  You’re pistol shooting, not sniping 1000 yards, so you don’t have to plan your breaths (and heartbeats).

Trigger Reset

An easy mistake to do is to immediately lift your finger off the trigger after each shot and look at the target.

The hole will always be there so take your time.  Whenever you lift your finger off quickly, you’re likely shooting too fast and jerking the trigger, or introducing excess movement to the gun.  You’re also making it harder for yourself the next shot since you’ll have to pull the first part of the trigger again (the slack).

Proper trigger reset is holding the trigger all the way at the end until after the shot breaks (#3 Below) , and releasing it only until the point it resets (you’ll feel the click, #4).  And then if you’re firing again, to start at the reset point and not all the way at the beginning of the trigger pull (#1).

Trigger Reset
Trigger Reset

Dry-Firing Practice

What is Dry Firing?

Dry firing is pulling the trigger on a cocked gun and allowing the hammer/striker to drop on an empty chamber or dummy round.  It’s probably the most effective way of improving pistol accuracy.  And you can do it at home!

Is Dry Firing Safe for My Gun?

If your handgun/pistol shoots centerfire rounds (9mm, .40 S&W, .45 ACP, etc) instead of rimfire rounds (such as .22 LR), then you can dry fire all you want since the firing pin is not actually hitting anything.  Rimfire firing pins hit the mouth of the chamber when there’s no cartridge so you should practice with snap caps that take the hit.

.22LR Snap Caps
.22LR Snap Caps

Why Dry Firing?

The main point of dry fire practice is to develop muscle memory so you consistently produce a great trigger pull and don’t flinch when it’s time for real shooting.  And if you’ve developed some bad habits along the way, it does a great job of rewiring you back over time.

At least for me, I find that after a good amount of time (a week or two) of dry firing a few minutes a day, I become “one” with my trigger and grip.  My grip just feels right, and I can sense all the little nuances in the trigger pull.  And when I focus on the front sight and pull the trigger, the front sight stays super steady.

The One
The One

It takes a lot of practice (and perfect practice) to reach that point.  And it’s a diminishing skill that needs to be kept up to date too.  Even just a few days of not practicing I can feel some differences the next time I dry fire or shoot.

Best Way to Dry Fire

First, always make sure your gun is unloaded and follow the 4 Rules of Safety.

  • Guns are always loaded (treat them as such and don’t have live ammo in the room)
  • Never let the muzzle cover anything you don’t want to destroy (point it in a safe direction)
  • Keep your fingers off the trigger until you’re ready to shoot
  • Be aware of your target and what is beyond

I always check if my gun is empty every time I pick it up, even if it’s between strings of dry firing.  It just gets you into a good habit.

I also like to set up targets or at least small things that are safe to “shoot” at such as a light switch or doorknob.

I focus on the front sight (both eyes!) and remember to squeeze so slowly that I’m surprised when the gun clicks.  I sometimes actually say “squeeze” out loud to make sure I do it.  Once you can do it slowly, you can speed it up a little as long as the front sight still doesn’t move.

One great way in the beginning to make sure the sight doesn’t move is to physically place a small coin on top of the front sight during your exercise.  If it doesn’t fall off, you’re probably doing a great job.

Coin on Front Sight Dry Firing
Coin on Front Sight Dry Firing

Finally, remember to practice both full trigger pulls (with the slack) and trigger reset pulls.  To do a trigger reset pull, leave your trigger finger depressed at the end of the first shot, and rack your slide with your non-dominant hand.  For some guns you don’t have to rack it all the way back, sometimes just a half-inch or so is enough.  Get back into your two-handed grip, let the trigger reset (listen for the click), and shoot.

Trigger Reset Dry Fire
Trigger Reset Dry Fire, Trigger Time

For the longest time I only practiced full trigger pulls and got great at those, but when I had followup shots I started jerking the trigger.  You’ll likely be firing both ways so be prepared for anything!

Range Practice

Too much range practice in the beginning is sometimes detrimental, since you haven’t built up the muscle memory of dry firing, and instead you build up a flinch reaction.

Don’t worry if that’s you already…with some quality dry firing at home you can overcome it.

Angeles Shooting Range Stations
Angeles Shooting Range Stations

I like to always have some dry firing sessions at home in between range days.  And when I get to the range, I always dry fire a couple shots before loading up real ammo.

I start off at short distances since there might be a lot of effects that come into play at 25 yards (wind, ammo, etc) but it’s all me at 3-5 yards.

Sometimes if it’s a new gun or if I’m doing really poorly, I’ll start shooting with a supported position first to get some confidence and set a baseline accuracy.  You can do this by sitting down and placing your elbows on the bench, or leaning into the counter.

I also found this graphic to be immensely helpful in diagnosing my shooting errors.  Just have a target, shoot a couple shots at it, and see where they land in relation to the chart.  If you’re a lefty, you will have to mirror image the findings.  And if there’s no overt grouping (your shots are all over the place), it’s likely your grip is not consistent.

Shooting Placement Diagnosis
Shooting Placement Diagnosis

I usually start off pretty strong and as I get more comfortable I forget some of my lessons, such as remembering to squeeze.  That’s when I start telling myself “squeeze” every shot again.

Lastly, there’s a great drill to run once in a while if you have a buddy help you load a magazine with both live ammo and snap caps.

You need a buddy since they can mix up the order without you knowing.  The point is to see if you have a natural flinch during shooting which will show up when you reach the snap caps and they do not go bang.  It’s a great visual moment to see how you actually deal with the recoil.

It’s one thing to be dry firing and shoot perfectly, but another once real recoil is entered into the equation.  My own natural flinch was a pretty pronounced pull down and to the left.

And for more live training drills, check out Pistol Training‘s huge list of possibilities such as the Bill Drill.

Shooting Gear

Here are some shooting gear and accessories that I’ve found to help me become a better pistol shot.

Snap CapsEssential if you’re shooting rimfire such as .22LR, but also great for other calibers if you want to work on reloads in the future, or do the drill I just mentioned above.

9mm Snap Caps
9mm Snap Caps

Laserlyte: Awesome tool to visually see where your shots are hitting.  It’s a device that fits into your handgun as a dummy round but shoots a laser when the firing pin hits it.  Pair it with randomized targets that detect the lasers to work on target transitions and future competitive shooting moves.  Also a great tool for getting non-shooters interested in going with you to the range!  Kind of expensive but think of all the ammo you’ll be saving.

Laserlyte 9mm with Reaction Tyme Targets
Laserlyte 9mm with Reaction Tyme Targets

Shoot N’ C: Sticker targets you can put on paper targets at the range which show a splash of color whenever you hit it.  Makes it much easier to figure out where you’re shooting when the target is farther out.

Shoot N C Targets
Shoot N C Targets

Hand Strengtheners: I thought it was dumb to get these, but the harder a grip you can get on your gun, the more you can manage recoil.  Consider me a believer.  Just get ready for literally every single person that sees them to try it out.

Hand Strengthener
Hand Strengthener

Talon Grips: Essentially sandpaper/rubber stickers that are cut for your specific gun.  Drastically increases the amount of grip on your gun.  Or you can be really obsessed about grip like me and just stipple your polymer gun.

Talon Grips
Talon Grips

Conclusion

And that’s it…now you’ll be able to work on your fundamentals, dry-firing, and range shooting to become a more accurate pistol shooter.  Remember, you won’t become a pro in a few days.  The guy next to you at the range nailing all the steel targets probably has dozens of hours of dry firing and thousands of rounds under his belt.

12 Comments

  1. Appreciate very much, i’ve learned more.
    Thank you.

    BTW, I prefer articles about glock, glock 19 gen 4 in particular or accessories, or more tips on how to become better.

  2. Great article! Im a new shooter and have learned a lot through some practice, articles and videos. on the Shooting Placement Diagnosis image i saw a section that there is no follow-through. can you illustrate/explain is “follow-through’ and how to correcty do it?… thanks and god bless

  3. Great article. As an accomplished shooter I am always open to refresher articles and training–just what I needed.

  4. Great article, thank you! I’ve now read it thru 3 times practicing as I go. So very helpful, but as a newbie I got a bit confused at handgun grip as my new gun is a revolver. I need a lot more practice but love your help in learning more about guns. Thanks again! I’m hooked!

  5. good stuff the only opposed is the shooter placement wheel to diagnose grip check sob tactical with jhon shriek McVeigh he has a video on YouTube about this

  6. Great article. I’ve been shooting for 50 years and never hurts to read through a good article that helps to reinforce good shooting habits. You’re never to old to learn and yes old dogs can learn new tricks.

  7. Love your articles. Thanks for the clear, concise and practical information. It helps a newbie like me immensely.

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