The fundamentals of marksmanship

Posted: October 20, 2011 in Beginner, Handgun, How To, Rifle, Shotgun

Today we’re going to talk about marksmanship. Marksmanship is what you do as a shooter to get your shots to go where you want them. It’s a combination of accuracy and precision (more on that later) and it is the key to getting your hits. Different applications will require different degrees of marksmanship, but there’s pretty much no application with a firearm where you literally don’t care where your rounds are hitting.

So here’s the question. What do you do to make this:

Start to look more like this:

And eventually like this?

You work on your fundamentals of marksmanship. Your gun will shoot where you point it, barring outside influence on your bullets (distance, wind, damage to the gun), so the responsibility for putting your rounds where you want them is in firmly in your hands. Actually in your hands, wrists, arms, legs, torso, head, neck, feet, hips, knees, and darn near everything else.

We’re going to break it down into several different areas. Here they are.

  • Grip
  • Stance
  • Trigger Control
  • Breath Control
  • Sight Alignment
  • Sight Picture
  • Follow Through

These will all be on a sliding scale of importance, depending on your particular application. Competing in a slow-fire bullseye pistol competition? You’re going to need to be rock solid on all of them. Fighting for your life at contact distance with a drugged-up walrus? Maybe you only need to worry about one or two. We’ll go through them all and then I’ll talk about which ones are most important for which activities. Keep in mind that these fundamentals apply to all firearms, but I’ll mostly be using them in terms of handguns, since that’s my wheelhouse.


Your grip is your primary interface with the gun. Your grip should be firm and high on the frame, to help manage recoil. There are different schools of thought on it, but everyone agrees that your grip is the best way you have of getting your gun back on target after your shot is fired. It’s also the best way to keep the gun stable while you’re pressing the trigger to ensure a nice, smooth movement. Grip, especially with a handgun, is generally tied into stance. There are two main schools of thought: Weaver and Isosceles. I’ll cover them in more depth when we talk about stance, but the grips themselves work from two different principles. Weaver advocates isometric tension on the front and back of the grip, pushing with the weapon hand and pulling with the support hand. You’re not worried about contact on the sides of the grip, as long as you have good tension front to back. The idea of this is to reduce muzzle flip, so the gun gets back on target as quickly as possible after firing. Isosceles advocates more of a “total grip” method, wherein you try to get as much of your hand skin in contact with the gun as possible. I’ll show how both look, so you can see the difference. A good indicator is “thumbs high” vs. “thumbs low”. Thumbs high indicates Weaver, thumbs low indicates isosceles.

See my thumbs in the top picture? That’s isosceles. I’m getting as much meat on the gun as I can. I have a complete 360º grip on the frame, and my hands are as high as they can be without interfering with the slide.

This is how to get to the good Isosceles grip. get a solid one-handed grip, then turn your support hand down at a 45º angle and put the hell of your support palm into the gap between your weapon fingertips and palm. Then wrap your support fingers around the front of your weapon hand, nesting them between your weapon hand fingers. Make sense? Here it is in visual format. Picture 3 is just to show how the fingers line up.

This is the grip when using a Weaver stance:

*I swear, I will actually get some pictures in here someday. Hopefully soon.*

See the thumbs high on the support side? In terms of the grip itself, this is the primary visual indicator of which style is being used. As far as how it feels when you’re actually doing it, they are significantly different.

Since the grip is tied to the stance, I’ll wait to give recommendations until we’ve had a chance to talk about the whole stance.


Your stance can be anything from standing up straight and tall to being prone. Sound like nonsense? It sort of is. “Stance” refers more to the position of your body around the gun, than to what you would normally think of as a stance. So if you’re standing, where your feet are placed in relation to each other and to your body, how your shoulders are rotated related to your hips, what position your arms are in, everything about your physical position is a part of your stance. When you’re prone, all the same things still apply. You need to be aware of how your body is positioned because it will have an affect on your shooting. Unless I specifically talk about being prone or kneeling or sitting, we’ll just assume I mean you’re on your feet, though.

As I mentioned, the two big stance options are Weaver and Isosceles. These are generally used when talking about handguns, but the same principles apply when using long guns.

So, which is better? That depends entirely on whom you ask. Most military and police trainers I’ve talked to or learned from are now using what is called the “Modern Isosceles” or “Fighting Isosceles” stance. Some people still advocate Weaver, though, notably the trainers at Front Sight and Gunsite. They both teach Col. Jeff Cooper‘s Modern Technique, which includes the Weaver Stance as a component (The Modern Technique was developed in the 1950s, which says to me that it may be time to rename it). It’s worth noting that both the Weaver and Isosceles stances are advocated for both combat and for range accuracy. I would say that the majority of defensive/practical pistol competition shooters use Isosceles these days, and that people concerned entirely with breaking that one perfect shot on the Bullseye range tend to use Weaver. Take from that what you will. I’ve learned Weaver at Front Sight and Isosceles in my other classes, and both have served me quite well.

The thing to keep in mind is that the only time you’ll be standing in a perfect stance of either variety is on the range. If you do IDPA or heaven forbid you actually have to use a firearm to save your life, you’ll be moving, ducking, diving, dodging, rolling, crawling, punching, kicking, and generally flailing about, trying to shoot while not being shot (“shot” in IDPA means being exposed to more than one target at a time).  You are only in a good Weaver or Iso stance if you happen to pass through it while doing something else. So learn the stance, but take it with a grain of salt.

Anyway, so what do these stances look like? I’ll write them down and later when I get a chance to take some good pictures of them, I’ll do that, too.

Modern Isosceles – Feet about shoulder width apart, weapon side foot back about half a step to a full step. Not enough to be bladed compared to the target, but enough so that you gain some front-to-back stability. You want to be in an “athletic stance” and you know what that means if you’ve ever played any sports. Knees slightly bent, weight on the balls of your feet, torso leaned forward. An aggressive forward leans helps you manage recoil, and it makes it easier to move around quickly. This is a very natural stance, and you can drop into it very easily once you get the hang of it. People seem to think shooting needs to be stiff for some reason, so they concoct all manner of bizarre stances. You know how you’d stand if you were playing basketball or tennis or something? Stand like that. Now put your arms out straight. Gun is in front of your face, both arms are extended all the way out in front of you. Don’t lock your elbows, but straighten them just before they lock out. That’s your stance. It’s called an isosceles because of the triangle your arms and shoulders make. Establish the full 360º grip as discussed above, and you’re good to go.

Weaver (Modern Technique of the Pistol) – Your feet, hips and shoulders should all be parallel to each other. Everything should be turned towards the weapon side about 30º or so. This means you’re bladed when compared to your target. Knees are bent slightly, but the back is held straight. You can lean slightly forward (towards your toes) but don’t lean towards the target directly. This puts too much weight on the front foot and puts you off balance. Since your shoulders are rotated, you can’t extend both arms directly towards the target and have them come out even. Your weapon side arm will be straight out from the shoulder, but your support arm will be bent, with the elbow pointing down. Your grip, as discussed above, is one of isometric tension. Push forward with the weapon hand, pull back with the support hand.

Trigger Control

Trigger control is the way your finger interacts with the trigger through the whole pull stroke. You want to pull the trigger in such a way that you break your shot without moving the gun at all. This takes practice, and it’s not overly intuitive. People tend to want to jerk or slap the trigger. Too many action movies, I’m guessing. So how do you want to pull it? Smoothly, and straight back. This means there’s no right-to-left movement at all. Any deviation you induce on the trigger will magnify at your target. Keeping the pull smooth also helps you avoid dipping the muzzle with the force of your pull. A side note: Gun folks these days talk about “trigger press” as opposed to “trigger pull” because they think the word press better represents the movement you ought to be doing. That’s as may be, but calling it a press doesn’t magically make people do it right. Proper training trumps semantics every time. Call it what you want, so long as you’re doing it right. You will also hear people telling you which part of your finger should be pulling the trigger. I think that’s up to you. I like the middle of the first pad of my index finger on my primary handgun and my rifles. On smaller guns with heavier trigger pulls, I may use the first pad right next to the crease of the first knuckle. You get a little more leverage there, so it’s easier to pull heavier triggers. It’s going to depend on your preference and the gun you’re shooting. “Reach to trigger” is the measurement of how long the distance is between the backstrap and the front of the trigger. Some guns have different inserts so you can increase or decrease this number for a better fit. In any case, once you get a good grip on the gun, get your finger on the trigger where you want it, you actually have to pull. Practice pulling very slowly. I’m talking “1 Mippipippi…2Mippipippi…3 Mippipippi” from when you start the stroke to when it breaks. Slow slow slow. You want that smoothness to become muscle memory. Once you develop a good smooth pull, you can speed it up. Dry practice can also help with this one, as you get to practice a whole lot for free, and without dealing with recoil or anything.

Breath Control

This is primarily a concern for rifle shooting and maybe extreme handgun accuracy. At normal handgun ranges and accuracy requirements, breathing isn’t worth worrying about. Essentially, your breath moves your ribs, your clavicles, your shoulders, etc. Since all of that is connected to your gun in some way or another, it has an effect. Some people say to take a big breath and hold it, some people say to try to expel all the air from your lungs, some people say to breathe in one time, then out halfway and hold it. Which is right? None of them, in my experience. None of those are reliable levels, though. How full is full? How empty is empty? You’re never really at 100% or 0% short of mechanical assistance, so you’re not getting a consistent level of breath. The way I learned at Appleseed (and that worked very well for me) is to shoot at your natural respiratory pause. You breathe in, you breathe out naturally, and there’s a pause of a second or two before you breathe in again. It’s just natural. That’s your shooting window. You can hold your breath there for a little longer if needed, and you don’t get the same negative effects as holding empty(-ish) or full(-ish) lungs, like increased heart rate, etc. Your body is used to getting to that point, and it’s relatively comfortable there. It’s also remarkably consistent, so it’s the ideal way to go.

Sight Alignment

This just means aligning your sights properly. Depending on your sighting system, that could mean any one of these things:

So aligning your sights depends on what sighting system you’re using. You’ll figure out your point of impact pretty quickly once you spend some time at the range. Of all the fundamentals, this is probably the easiest. There’s a right way and a wrong way, and most sighting systems are set up so you have solid feedback to know if you’re using them correctly.

Sight Picture

Sight picture is about what you see through your sights. Essentially, you want to put the center of the top edge of the front sight post on the spot where you want your bullet to go. So if you want to hit a red dot, you make the sight picture look like this:

Easy enough? I lied. This is the easiest one. Really, they’re both so easy it’s tough to say which one’s easier. Suffice it to say that once you know how to align the sights, actually aligning them is no great shakes. Just do it, and worry a whole lot more about all the others.

Follow Through

This is an important one, and one that most shooters forget. Your shot doesn’t end when the gun goes bang. You are fast enough that you can change the direction of the gun while the bullet is still in the barrel. Yes, you are faster than a speeding bullet. Stop it. You’re driving your poor mother crazy. So what to do to avoid screwing up that perfect shot you just made? Easy. You pulled the trigger to fire the shot, right? Don’t unpull it until you’re good and ready. We call that “trapping the trigger” and it’s really helpful. You pull the trigger all the way to the rear to fire the shot and keep the trigger pulled all the way back until you’ve gotten your sights back on target. That’s the other thing. Every shot has two sight pictures: One before the shot breaks and one after. You get your sight picture, pull the trigger, ride the recoil, keep the trigger trapped, and get your sights back on target. Then release the trigger to the reset point. Now you’re ready to fire again. Once you’ve done it a few thousand times, this becomes very smooth, very fast, and very automated. You don’t even think about it, it just happens. You want to get to that point.

So there you go. Everything make sense? This is all you need to know about the fundamentals. There’s nothing fancy, really. Just keep practicing them until they’re second nature. Then, even when your heart is pounding and you’re gasping for breath, your muscles will still know what to do. That could be on the competition range or in a dark alley somewhere. Speaking of which, stay out of dark alleys. Does anything good ever happen there?

  1. […] still, between Weaver and Isoceles. I talk about them both and give my thoughts in my post on the fundamentals of marksmanship, if you want a refresher. Anyway, one of my recent trips to the range involved a wait for a lane, […]

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