Fundamentals for Practical Shooting Beginners

By Brian Nelson

Champion Shooter

I have found Practical Shooting to be one of the most enjoyable pastimes available. The only thing more enjoyable than shooting a practical handgun match is beating people at a practical handgun match!

This article focuses on the marksmanship fundamentals that, if practiced and applied correctly, will enable you to beat people at your first match. Don’t expect to win your first match, since odds are there will be someone with more practice in fundamentals and familiarity with efficient movement and manipulation – those competitors have put more work in than you. However, it’s entirely possible to finish in the middle of the pack and beat people simply by putting some work in ahead of time. If you spend about two hours of dryfire practice and 150 rounds on the range, I can almost guarantee you won’t finish last!

Aiming is Easy, Holding Still Isn’t

Aiming a handgun with iron sights is not actually that hard – Center front sight within rear notch, place inside desired target area. This is the desired “sight alignment”. A “sight picture” refers to how the shooter sees the sight alignment (i.e. “clear front sight, blurry target” or “clear target, blurry front sight”). Advanced shooters can pick up a lot of speed by recognizing the absolute minimum acceptable sight picture for a given target/distance combination, but for the beginning practical shooter, I recommend focusing clearly on the front sight and seeing it centered within the intended target zone (the “A” Zone in a USPSA target, for example).

The tricky part is, once you’ve created a good sight alignment, triggering the shot without disturbing that alignment. Two factors come into play here: trigger manipulation and recovery from recoil. These are controlled by the shooter using what we call “fire control” – a series of core skills that leads to holding still during a shot and instantly recovering from the effects of recoil.

Fire Control – How to Hold Still, Really Fast

Fire control consists of stance, grip and trigger manipulation. The stance controls recoil, the grip controls “muzzle flip” (the effect of recoil having leverage over the shooter’s hand) and trigger manipulation helps keep everything lined up during the shot. You will notice that a consistent goal throughout fire control is to use things that are free and constant (such as gravity and “set” muscular tension). TPC’s system is predicated on the shooter having to do very little active effort to return the handgun to target.

Stance – Control Recoil through Center of Gravity

First, understand that because we participate in practical shooting, there is not a “proper” shooting stance as far as form – terrain and course obstacles mean that a shooting stance is a living thing that accomplishes a goal, rather than follows a textbook template. What I am describing here is the 90% solution for all of the times the shooter is able to stand on somewhat level ground. The primary mission in stance is to set the shooter’s center of gravity forward. This means that gravity will actively pull forward and down on the shooter who must use some amount of muscular tension in the calves to hold themselves up. This is easily accomplished by simply leaning forward without hinging at the waist. The common mistake for shooters is to pull their hips back and push their upper body forward. While this may bring the head forward, it actually shifts the center of gravity rearward, allowing the shooter to easily be pushed off balance.

To achieve a good center of gravity - forward stance, first stand upright. Place the ball (joint where big toe meets arch) of the strong-side foot in the arch of the weak-side foot. Widen the feet to shoulder width, making sure to keep the hips and shoulders parallel to the target. Holding the alignment of the body, simply lean forward until you feel weight distributed onto the balls of both feet evenly. You are now using balance to hold your center of gravity forward, enabling gravity to fight recoil without you having to manually recover the gun every time. Keeping the hip and shoulder square to the target ensures that recoil hits a perpendicular wall and doesn’t have an easy way to twist or move the shooter.

Grip – Minimize and Return Muzzle Flip

First, let’s define “muzzle flip” – “The upward movement of the firearm in the hand caused by recoil above the shooter’s grip”. Essentially, it’s an effect of the leverage the firearm has over our grip.

Step 1 – Minimize the leverage with both hands. First, with the strong hand, place the web of the hand as high in the “tang” of the grip as possible without causing “slide bite”.(Fig. 1) With the support hand, wrap around underneath the strong hand as high as possible without creating gaps between the two hands. (Fig. 2)

Step 2 – Grip firmly enough to keep both hands on the gun. Apply front/back pressure from the center of the fingers on both hands, without squeezing in with fingertips. This will keep both hands firmly connected to the gun, keeping it in the same alignment with the body and allowing the shooter to use arm muscles to further mitigate movement. (Fig. 3)

Step 3 – Use the arm muscles. First, set rotational force through both wrists to “set” them towards the target. Imagine micro-rotating the gun at the target. Hold this tension constantly set whenever gripping the handgun – this will minimize the amount it can move “up” as well as eliminate malfunctions caused by “limp-wristing”.(Fig. 4) Extend (but do NOT LOCK) the elbows by pushing slightly forward with the triceps. By combining wrist and arm tension, you’ve essentially turned your arm in to a set piece of spring steel. Muzzle flip WILL flex it, but it WILL return to the same orientation without extra effort. (Fig. 5) When combined with a good stance, this grip will enable the shooter to automatically recover from recoil – a manual “pull down” from recoil is no longer required, lessening the tendency to ‘flinch” or anticipate recoil.

Trigger Manipulation – Straight, with Only the Finger

Proper trigger pull is the simplest concept to understand, but probably the hardest to apply. Pull the trigger straight to the rear using only the index finger. The main problem shooters have is that when stressed, they add pressure with the other fingers and move the gun off target. Keys to Proper Trigger Pull: Make sure your grip is firmly set on the pistol. Giving the non-trigger fingers something to grasp during the trigger pull will reduce the possibility to squeeze them during firing. When moving the finger to the rear, imagine pulling it along a straight line towards your nose; this will help keep the finger in straight alignment with the firearm, minimizing the disturbance of the firearm.

Dry-Fire Drill for Success:

“Core Skill”

Target: TPC “Speed Demon” – 5 Yards

Build your fire control platform. Start by offsetting the feet as described (ball of strong foot in arch of weak-side foot). Widen the feet out to shoulder-width. Lean forward from the ankle until you feel the weight distribution shift to the front of your feet (just behind your toes). Bring the handgun up to your eyes, without changing your body posture. Grip the handgun with the strong and weak hand as high as they can get and hold pressure like a C-clamp (front to back) with both hands. Stiffen both wrists and slightly straighten both arms towards the target, stopping just short of locking the elbow. Place the sights inside the center “dot” of the Speed Demon. Touch the face of the trigger and slowly press to the rear. Watch the sights as you pull the trigger and take note of how much they move. When you’ve seen the sights stay within the dot for 10 reps, rest. Repeat the exercise, but now pull the trigger within ½ second (count, “one-and-two”, finishing the press on “two”). Keep going until you can see the sights stay in the dot.

Click Here to download Speed Demon Drill page

Live-Fire Drill for Success:

“Core Skill” -15 Rounds

Target: TPC “Speed Demon” – 5 Yards

Build your fire control platform as described above. Place the sights on the center “dot” within the Speed Demon target. This is your start position.

First, fire five rounds with no time limit. Have the feeling of holding still and accepting recoil. All five rounds should hit within the circle and with proper fundamentals should all be touching.

Next, do five sets of two rounds in a ½ to ¾ second cadence. If using a shot timer, set up a delayed start and strive for a .5 - .75 first shot and .5 - .75 “split”. This can also be done using a counting cadence, “one-and-two-and-three” with shots on “two” and “three”. Recover after each set; the goal is to produce five pairs, not one ten-shot string. If done correctly, all rounds should hit within the outer ring of the Speed Demon with 75% of hits touching the center dot.

Build your fire control platform as described above. Place the sights on the center “dot” within the Speed Demon target. This is your start position.

First, fire five rounds with no time limit. Have the feeling of holding still and accepting recoil. All five rounds should hit within the circle and with proper fundamentals should all be touching.

Next, do five sets of two rounds in a 1/2 to 3/4 second cadence. If using a shot timer, set up a delayed start and strive for a .5 - .75 first shot and .5 - .75 “split”. This can also be done using a counting cadence, “one-and-two-and-three” with shots on “two” and “three”. Recover after each set; the goal is to produce five pairs, not one ten-shot string. If done correctly, all rounds should hit within the outer ring of the Speed Demon with 75% of hits touching the center dot.