Shooting handguns can be a frustrating hobby. I describe it to my friends as being much like golf, some days you turn up to the range and everything goes perfectly, other days you turn up and nothing is working and you have no idea why.
It’s a paradox, because, when you break it down into its constituent elements, shooting handguns is mechanically a very simple process. You line up the front sights and rear sights onto the target and you squeeze the trigger, trying not to move the gun while doing so. What’s so hard about that?
Then you check your target and your grouping looks like you were firing a machine gun on full auto, or worse. So you concentrate, going through your checklist for the perfect technique: stance, grip, trigger finger position, point of focus on front sights, concentration for every shot.. Check, check, check, check… Fire, you’re feeling pretty confident that you nailed it this time. So you check your target, nope, worse than last time.
So here’s the paradox, shooting handguns is easy and hard at the same time: It’s easy because it’s a simple process to squeeze the trigger while aiming. Then there’s the mental checklist you can go through before you shoot to make sure your technique is correct: feet shoulder width apart, slight bend at the knees and elbows to absorb the recoil, competition grip, pad of the trigger finger on the trigger etc. etc. There are also plenty of personal checks you can add. My personal checklist includes, for example, the position of my thumbs against particular features of the handgun and the position of my supporting hand’s index finger against the trigger guard.
It’s difficult because it doesn’t seem to make a difference how much you break it down, you still have good days and bad days, even though you go through the same checklist each time.
Many people who are frustrated with their handgun shooting performance will firstly search the Internet for advice. Here the most common advice, it revolves around a version of the correction chart below, where the feedback on your technique errors depends on where your rounds are landing on the target relative to the centre. I’m not a fan of this correction chart.
By following this chart, you can waste months or even years making little adjustments to your technique, believing you’re on the right track with the right advice. But your groupings still don’t improve…
The irrelevance of this chart occurred to me when I was coaching both myself and others for shooting competitions. It was a number of different factors, but the main proof that this chart is irrelevant is to observe your sights while you dry fire. How much do your sights really move when you squeeze the trigger? Even when doing it as fast as possible? I would say less than 2 inches from the aiming point on a 15-yard target. So why are some of my rounds landing 10-12 inches away sometimes, when the previous round and the next round land within the 4-inch circle?
The truth is that technique is the easy part; it only takes about 15 minutes to teach. As long as you get the right advice, you’re set for the rest of your shooting career. So what’s the difficult part? Well that’s complicated!
Handguns are the hardest of all small arms weapons to fire. The handgun itself is accurate to 200 yards or more. If you clamp it in a vice you will get a good grouping from 200 yards. However when you put it in the hands of most humans it is only accurate to about 15/20 yards! It is the human behind the gun that is the cause of inaccuracies. With handguns, most people are capable of achieving about 10% of its real accuracy. With rifles, most people can achieve about 90% of its real accuracy.
Unlike other weapons like rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles, machine guns etc., a handgun is not braced against your body while you shoot it making it harder to control the recoil. You hold it out 18 inches from your face and when you squeeze the trigger, in 1 millisecond the round has left the barrel and the handgun itself is accelerating rapidly towards that pretty face of yours.
For most people, the first round they fire from a handgun will be their most accurate shot for a long time afterwards. This is because the first time they shoot they may not be aware of what happens with the gun after the shot. But as soon as that first round is fired, the body is learning to deal with the recoil.
Recoil anticipation can be dirty words with some people when discussing their shooting skills. Some people will not accept that their shooting woes are down to their fear of recoil, and in a way they aren’t but that’s for a separate post. But because of the popularity of the correction chart, people don’t accept they’re flinching unless the shots are landing in a certain portion of the chart area. But here’s the truth, if your shots are landing more than 2 inches away from the centre from 15 yards, this is the chart you should consult:
The real problem is learning the proper motor skills. Motor skills are motions carried out when the brain, nervous system, and muscles work together. You will start to notice this once you reach a certain level of shooting ability. If you have 1 minute to shoot 5 rounds, you will use the “surprise break” technique and you will have a nice tight grouping. Good shooting! However, if you have to shoot those 5 rounds in 10 seconds, they may be all over the target, especially if you introduce movement between those shots. So why the difference, especially if you’re using the same technique both times? Well, because you didn’t have enough time to implement the “surprise break”, your brain knew exactly when the gun was going to explode back towards your face and it reacted accordingly!
And here’s another myth I’d like to bust about recoil anticipation: It’s not just being afraid of the guns recoil, like in the same way that we try not to blink if someone throws a shadow punch just in front of our face; a big part of it is how developed your motor skills are for this particular task. We are trying to get control of something that happens over 0.02 seconds. The more eager we are to be accurate when shooting quickly, the more we want to control the recoil of the gun, the more we are likely to try to control the recoil before it’s even happened. This is because it happens in such an inhuman amount of time, so we often try to start to control the recoil before the gun has even fired.
So why can’t we learn to overcome these issues? Why do we still have bad days? It’s a lot like the “10,000 hours” theory of becoming an expert at something; and funnily enough most forums say you have to shoot 10,000 rounds to overcome these movement errors.
But do we? When shooting handguns under time and movement pressure, the major problem most of us have, is that we have no idea whether any particular shot was good or bad. We can look at the target afterwards and see that we had a few good shots and a few bad shots but we usually have no indication which were the good shots or which were the bad ones. Even if we had a system of knowing that my 2nd, 4th and 9th shots were the ones that let me down, it doesn’t help much to be presented with that information when I’m reviewing my scores. It’s the equivalent of making someone swing 10 times at golf ball and telling them afterwards: remember your 2nd swing, you made a mistake on that. The time to learn was at the moment you made the mistake, and knowing that you made a mistake afterwards, doesn’t really help you at all. This is part of the basic psychology of learning new motor skills. More on that later…