I wasn’t introduced to firearms until I was 23 years young. But even as a new shooter, I always viewed my pistol as another tool in my toolbox of life skills. It’s a piece of equipment, like my 9 iron, that I want to have the utmost ability and confidence with when it comes to taking that shot, whether onto the green of the first hole or to knock down that 25-yard steel pepper popper during an IPSC World Championship.
Learning to shoot pistols and getting into competitions completely changed my life for the better.
Dedicating an enormous number of my adult years trying to master proper shooting techniques in combination with speed and accuracy has been a challenge and a thrill with highs, some lows and wonderful opportunities for travel and life-long friendships. And, as another bonus, I’ve also learned a skill that could one day save my life, Heaven forbid the need ever arises.
Making the decision to enter the world of firearm ownership and learning how to shoot, whether as a hobby, for hunting or home or self-defense, should not be taken lightly, as it comes with huge responsibility and a commitment requirement. To quote the great Jeff Cooper, “Owning a handgun doesn’t make you armed any more than owning a guitar makes you a musician.”
As with any new hobby, craft or martial art, there are rules and essential skills every new shooter must learn. Let’s start with the most important aspect - safety.
Learn the universal firearm safety rules. And make a commitment to follow them from this day forward:
- Treat all firearms as if loaded.
- Keep the gun pointed in a safe direction - never point the muzzle at anything you don't intend to destroy.
- Keep your finger off of the trigger and out of the trigger guard until pointed at the target and you have made the decision to shoot.
- Know your target, what’s beyond your target and what is in the line of sight.
- Always securely store your firearms, keeping them inaccessible to children and other unauthorized users.
GET PROFESSIONAL HELP
I have worked with hundreds upon hundreds of new shooters over the past decade and have witnessed first-hand the challenges that newbies face. Which is why I highly recommend that first-time shooters take a class from a competent fellow shooter or professional firearms instructor as their first step.
There is so much to learn and a lot to actively think about, and the process can be downright overwhelming. So get a recommendation for a good instructor or Google “pistol classes” or “firearms instruction” to get your journey started. (Just try to avoid those Groupon deals with the picture of the woman with the low-cut shirt and improper grip.)
The legalities that accompany owning a firearm are complex, are constantly changing and vary by state. As a firearm owner, it is your responsibility to know the laws regarding purchasing, selling, possession, usage, licensing, carrying, self-defense, etc., that are in effect federally, locally (where you reside) and where you travel with your firearm.
A few good resources include:
- NRA Gun Laws Map
- NRA’s Citizen’s Guide to Federal Firearms Laws
- Handgun Laws Website
- Alan Korwin’s Website
MASTER THE LINGO
Before you attend your first class, take time to understand the terminology as it relates to your pistol and peripherals. Learning to shoot is a process, and part of the process is learning the nomenclature. You can reference your owner’s manual or the manufacturer’s website if you’re not already familiar with the proper terminology.
Pistol parts & pieces (the basics)
- Slide, Frame, Action
- Grip, Tang, Backstrap, Frontstrap, Hammer/Striker, Grip Safety
- Magazine Well, Magazine Release Button
- Takedown Lever, Slide Stop/Release, Safety
- Trigger, Trigger Guard, Trigger Safety
- Ejection Port, Chamber, Barrel, Muzzle
- Rear Sight, Front Sight, Chamber Indicator
- Extractor, Ejector
- Ammunition (Not Bullets): I know, I know - a lot of people refer to a cartridge or round of ammo as a "bullet." But since you’re new, you may as well learn the proper terms. A round of ammunition or cartridge is composed of a case, a primer, powder (propellant) and a bullet (projectile). The bullet is just one part of the round / cartridge.
- Magazines: And what do you load your pistol ammunition into? Modern pistols use magazines, not clips. Simplified, a clip holds cartridges together as a unit. A magazine holds cartridges inside of it, and, when inserted (seated) into a pistol, feeds a cartridge into the chamber every time the slide cycles forward.
It’s also extremely important to understand how your semi-automatic pistol operates:
- How to properly load and safe/decock it (if applicable)
- How to check that it is in battery
- What happens when you press the trigger
- How to properly unload it and check that it is empty
Being taught the right techniques from the get-go can make learning to shoot so much more enjoyable. Good technique also increases the likelihood that you will progress more quickly. Once you develop bad habits, they can be difficult to break, leading to poor results and possibly frustration.
Find your natural shooting stance
There are many opinions on stance, and what works for one may not feel right for you. What’s most important when you begin learning to shoot is that your balance is forward and you don’t lean back (or get pushed back) as you are firing the gun.
My natural (right-handed) shooting stance is:
- Standing with my feet hip-width apart
- Left foot positioned slightly forward
- Knees slightly bent
- Relaxed shoulders, forward of my hip bones
- Both arms extended fully toward the target
- Wrists firmly locked
Get a grip
I cannot stress the importance of a good grip enough. As you’ve heard from me before, I always grip a gun the same way, whether I’m picking it up out of the safe, drawing from my holster or shopping for a new addition to my family of firearms. I am always reinforcing my good shooting grip. If you are not properly gripping the gun, you cannot control the shot or recoil as well as you can with a perfect grip.
For more detailed info on how to achieve the perfect grip, check out our blog Mastering Grip: 5 Ways You're Holding Your Gun Wrong.
And one more gripping tidbit for you newbies - train yourself to hold onto the gun more tightly with your support hand, as it is the hand that will likely move out of position or loosen as you shoot.
Do you know if you are right-eye-dominant or left-eye-dominant? This matters, especially when shooting a pistol with iron sights. You most likely will have to close one eye to see a proper sight picture on the target. Knowing your eye dominance will help you determine which eye to close (your non-dominant eye), if needed.
Note that if you are cross-eye-dominant (i.e., right-handed but left-eye-dominant), you may need to make a slight adjustment when aligning the gun, as it will naturally point under your right eye.
You know where your front and rear sights are on the slide, but do you understand how to properly align them? Here is where a picture is worth a thousand words...
When learning to align your sights, this is what you should see:
- Front sight centered in the rear sight notch with equal space on each side of the front sight
- Top of the front sight level with the top of the rear sight
Sight Picture and Trigger Press
Now, all you have to do is place that perfect alignment of sights on the target where you would like the bullet to impact (that combination is what I refer to as the “sight picture”) and press the trigger without moving the gun/sights out of position. Simple as that, right?
Actually, this is one of the more challenging parts about shooting and the technique that you will probably spend the most time on once you’ve got a good, basic foundation.
WORDS OF WISDOM
During my last practice session at the range, I asked a few of my fellow competitors what the best advice was that they received as a new shooter. Here is some of the wisdom they wanted to pass on:
- "Accuracy is the most important thing, besides safety. It’s not how fast you can pull the trigger. A gun is useless in any situation if you cannot hit what you intend to, whether in competition, hunting or self defense." —Anissa
- "Remember to breathe, and don’t close your eyes. :) " —Ramona
- "Own it - be aware and in control of everything that happens when you are handling a firearm, because you are always the responsible party." —Deb
- "Hold onto the gun tight! Control the gun, and see the sights on every shot." —Steve
- "Never become complacent with safety, regardless of how skilled you are, how much you shoot or how often you handle firearms." —Kollin