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Training methodologies vary tremendously among instructors, training schools, and professional institutions. No two training curriculums are the same even when it comes to the basics. When I teach students “how to shoot” a handgun, I focus on five crucial fundamentals. Before we dig in, allow me to preface my teaching strategy with this caveat – I don’t teach people how to pass a qualification test – I teach people how to use their guns to defend innocent life. I teach gunfighting – not how to score more points than the dude shooting beside you at the range.

Proper grip – If you grip your pistol properly, the rest of your body will naturally fall in line without much further instruction. A proper firing grip is conducive to establishing one’s natural point of aim. Former US Army Special Forces operator, Pat McNamara, defines natural point of aim as “Comfortably on target, without muscular input.”

A proper grip on a semi-automatic handgun involves getting the “web” between the thumb and forefinger of your dominant hand high into the tang of the pistol. The tang is the area at the top of the backstrap, just below the slide. The fingers and palm of the dominant hand should apply pressure to the front-strap and back-strap of the pistol grip, respectively. The fingers and palm of the support hand should apply pressure to the sides of the pistol grip, and the thumbs should both be pointed the same direction as the muzzle – on the support side of the pistol – with the dominant thumb on top of the support hand thumb. Lastly, squeeze the hell out of it – especially with the support hand.

Proper sight alignment – Sight alignment is rather self-explanatory – simply line up the front sight with the rear sight. Doing this properly, with a traditional notch & post sight system, calls for “equal height and equal light” when looking at the front sight post through the rear sight notch. Basically, center the front sight within the rear sight and keep them level across the top.

Sight picture – Sight picture is what you see when you line up the sights and impose them over the intended target. The human eye can only focus on one thing at a time. Therefore, when generating a proper sight picture, your focus should be on the front sight – not the target. So, if the target appears fuzzy when you aim, that’s normal. We shouldn’t be aiming guns at anything or anyone we unless we’ve already determined that person or thing to be a threat.

Trigger control – There are generally two schools of thought when it comes to proper trigger control with a semi-automatic pistol – trigger reset and constant contact. I’m a proponent of using trigger reset, although the constant contact method certainly has some favorable applications. On a semi-automatic pistol, when the gun is fired the trigger doesn’t have to be fully released or allowed to travel all the way back to its original position for a subsequent shot to be fired.

Simply learning to control the trigger back to the point of reset – which can be heard and felt – will enable the shooter to perform faster and more accurate follow-up shots. If you never master the trigger reset, at least maintain constant contact with the trigger until it’s time to stop firing. A universal firearm safety rule tells us to keep our finger off the trigger until our sights are on the target and we have made the decision to fire. However, once the decision to fire has been made, your finger should stay on the trigger until it’s safe and necessary to stop shooting.

Follow through – In terms of shooting, follow through equates to maintaining a good sight picture and front sight focus during and after each shot. For every round you fire, you should acquire an additional sight picture before you take your weapon off target. For example, if you fire a string of five rounds, you should have six sight pictures. Always establish another sight picture before disengaging a threat and assessing your target.

Notice I didn’t mention anything about stance or breath control. I really don’t care what your feet are doing when you shoot your gun. If your stance is good, that means you’re not moving enough or using cover correctly. What stance are you in if you’re on your knees, or if you get knocked flat on your keister? After all, the ground is a likely place to wind up in a fight.

It’s great to breathe slowly and press the trigger at the bottom of an exhale – when your body is at a natural point of rest. You’ll certainly be steadier when you bust caps following this method.

However, I’m not talking about zeroing a deer rifle, or taking a 500-yard sniper shot. I’m talking about putting multiple rounds on target in an instant, when your heart rate is 180 BPM, you have tunnel vision, and there’s a stain in your shorts. The last thing you have time for in that moment is focused breathing.

When it comes to fighting with a gun, marksmanship is important, but it’s far from the MOST important aspect. Learning to move and becoming proficient at manipulating your firearm are far more valuable skills than being able to take a head shot at any substantial distance. Furthermore, marksmanship is the easiest part of gun handling to learn. I can teach anyone with at least one arm, one hand, and one eye to shoot a handgun and hit their intended target – assuming they’re willing and able to learn. Teaching someone to win a gunfight is another animal entirely.

Albert Einstein once said, “If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

Fundamentals, by definition, are basic and should not be complicated. If you want to be a good marksman, train with a firearms instructor. If you want to be better prepared to defend innocent life with a gun, train with a gunfighting instructor. That’s about as simply as I can explain it.

Remember – Avoid what you can. Defeat what you can’t.


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(Ryan Barnette is not a licensed attorney or a medical provider, and no information provided in “Slicing the Pie,” or any other publication authored by Ryan Barnette should be construed, in any way, as official legal or medical advice.)