How to shoot handguns

Posted: October 14, 2011 in Beginner, Handgun, How To

Now you have a handgun, or you’ve got one you can borrow or rent. What do you do with the silly thing?

First off, you make sure you’re being safe with it. As with any new skill, you want to take it slow while you’re building muscle memory. Eventually you’ll be able to be fast and smooth, but early on you want to focus your attention on being safe, and that will likely mean slow. That’s fine. Be slow.

Second, you have to grip the thing. I’m going to do a whole post on various grips and stances, so I won’t dig into it too much here. Suffice it to say that you want a nice, high grip on the gun. With a semiauto that means getting the web between your thumb and forefinger right up under the slide. If you establish a high, firm grip, you’ll be able to manage recoil more effectively and you can shoot more quickly. You also want to be sure that you keep both thumbs on one side of the gun, if you’re shooting a semiauto. Some people have a tendency to want to wrap both thumbs around the back, and that is not a good idea.

Quick definition time. We’ll use some different terms for your hands in the blog, and you’ll likely hear them from other gun people as well. Strong side and weak side is pretty traditional. Your strong hand is the hand that’s operating the trigger. This hand grips the gun first. Weak hand is the other hand, and it wraps around and supports the firing hand. You’ll also hear them referred to as weapon side and support side. Same thing, there. I think the reason people have started getting away from “strong” and “weak” is partly psychological so it doesn’t make you think you’re doomed to fail with your non-dominant hand, and partly practical, since the weapon hand will do the same jobs, regardless of which hand is the weapon hand at the time. When you start operating your trigger with either hand, it’s helpful to be able to translate everything over instead of having to think “Okay, now when he’s saying strong, it actually means my weak hand, so I do this,” or whatever.

So anyway, you want to put the web of your weapon hand where the arrow is pointing:

Get the web into that little pocket and have both thumbs on the support side of the pistol. That way you shouldn’t have any problems with the slide coming back and scraping your hand. Get a firm, comfortable grip and just keep your limbs underneath the horizontal line that separates the slide from the frame. You don’t need to be scared of it, just don’t ignore it, either.

For a revolver, you’re going to do a very similar thing. Grip it nice and high with your firing hand. The shape of the revolver grip will mean your weapon hand thumb will probably want to curl down. That’s cool.

You want the web of your hand in that little pocket. Too high and the hammer might bite you. Again, don’t be scared of it, just be aware.

So what do you do with your other hand? I’ll dig into that in the other post more, since there are differing theories, but for now, here are some pictures to help you out. When you’re holding the gun with one hand, there will be a gap on the support side between the tips of your weapon fingers (“Weapon Fingers” would be a great name for a metal band) and the heel of your weapon hand. You want to turn your support hand fingers down at a 45º angle (roughly) and press the heel of your support hand into the exmpty space on the grip. Then wrap your fingers around the front. You want your support fingers (probably a good name for an emo band) to rest in the ridges between your weapon fingers. This will give you a very solid, firm, 360º grip on the gun. Like I said, we’ll dig into it a bit more later, but this will be enough to get you started.

I also wanted to show you a picture of a proper revolver grip. Here it is:

Note that the weapon hand thumb is turned down and the support thumb tucks in right over it. That’s where you want your thumbs on a revolver. If you get them too far forward, you risk injury when the hot gas spews out of the front of the cylinder. Oh yeah, that actually happens.

That right there is probably half the battle. Knowing, of course, is the other half. Your trigger finger should be off the trigger right now. I like to put mine nice and high on the frame of the gun, even up onto the slide if you can reach. get it away from the trigger guard by enough so that if you accidentally gripped with your firing hand (you got startled, you sneezed, etc.) your finger wouldn’t accidentally slide into the trigger guard and pull the trigger. This is your “safe” finger position.

We’re talking about the green area, not the red area. When you get your own gun, it’s a good idea to pick one spot on the gun that you can feel with your finger and always put your finger in that same spot whenever it’s off the trigger. We call that a “positive reference point” and your brain deals with that under stress much better than a negative like “off the trigger.” Off the trigger in which direction? By how far? You’re setting yourself up to be inconsistent and that’s not good.

So now you’ve got a good, two-handed grip on your gun. Your finger is on your safe reference point, or at least as far from the trigger as you can get it if you haven’t picked one yet for the current gun. Your gun is pointed in a safe direction, downrange. You are loaded and ready to fire, right?

Wait, you’re not loaded? Who the heck is running this circus? How could you have forgotten to load? Oh yeah, because I’m slacking off. Hang on, we’ll do that part now.

Loading a semi auto is pretty easy. You put the rounds in the magazine like this:

Hopefully that’s clear, but if not, you use the back of the round to push down the follower (or the previous round) and then back under the feed lips. The spring tension will hold it in place. Repeat.

Now that you have a loaded magazine, you just need to load the gun. Insert the top of the magazine into the base of the grip and push it in firmly. It should click into place and stay there when you take your hand away. Don’t baby it, really slam it in there. A lot of malfunctions are caused by improperly seated magazines, so don’t be shy. If your gun is so delicate that you can’t give it a good whack on the butt, you’re shooting the wrong gun. So there’s a magazine in the gun, but no round in the chamber. Grip the slide with an overhand grip like this:

Pull it to the rear and let it go forward. Don’t ride it forward or try to hang onto it for an extended, tearful goodbye. It’s tough. It can handle a real release. Keep in mind that a semi-auto is going to be doing this whole process really really fast just by virtue of the way it works. You’re not going to break it if you treat it like a big hunk of metal. Now that the slide is forward, there’s a round in the chamber, a magazine in the magazine well, and your gun is ready to roll.

For a revolver, it’s even easier. Push or pull the cylinder release on the side of the gun, and swing the cylinder out. Load a cartridge into each hole. Swing the cylinder shut and latch it. Ta-da! Loaded revolver.

 Reestablish your good firing grip as discussed above. Make sure you’re still pointed in a safe direction. Deactivate any lever safeties your gun may have.

Now you need to get the gun on target, right? Take your sights and make them look like this (The red represents your target. Your gun should not have a clown nose on it.):

You want the front post centered in the rear notch with equal space on each side. You want the sights to be lined up straight across the top with the center of the top edge of the front sight post where you want your bullet to go. There are a few guns with different sights. XS Big Dot sights have a big round dot for the front sight and a wide, shallow V for the rear. Steyr M9 sights are like two nesting triangles. A lot of revolvers have really wacky sights, too. Your front post has to find a sweet spot down inside the rear notch, so you don’t want them lined up straight across the top. Crazy stuff. But you’ll figure them out. Just shoot for the same target over and over and once you get about 3-5 rounds in one spot, you can adjust and try it again. It won’t take you long to learn how to shoot your gun.

You’re just about ready to go (It takes me an hour to write this and you a few minutes to read, but it’ll only take you a few seconds to actually do it. C’est la vie.) so you can now take your finger from the safe reference point and put it onto the trigger. You are now ready to fire. Put your finger on the trigger and slowly, smoothly press it to the rear. You’ll probably feel some “take up” which is the distance the trigger travels before it actually engages the mechanism and fires the round. At some point, the trigger will “break” and your round will fire. The gun will recoil and your bullet will hit the target if you did it all right.

Whew! So there you go. That’s about it. Just keep working on lining up your sights and slowly squeezing the trigger and you’ll do fine. I’ll write a post about how to diagnose your shooting problems based on where you’re hitting, but that’s for another day. Thanks for reading and please post any questions you may have on here. I’d love to help you with details if I missed anything.

  1. So the support hand grip means that the pinkie of the support hand pretty much goes over the pinkie of the weapons hand? Or does it go under on the knife edge of the weapons hand? If the hands are perpendicular/90 degrees when holding the support hand like a cup, what angle ar we looking for? 0 degrees? Maybe a picture?

  2. Septimus says:

    Good question! I’ll add a picture series to the relevant section and try to clarify a bit.

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