Understanding How the Body Affects Accuracy, and How to Improve Your Shooting Foundation
Marksmanship is like building a house. A really nice house. For this analogy, we will group the gun fundamentals (trigger, sight alignment, sight picture, etc.) together and call them the roof.
Now, you’ve been practicing the gun fundamentals a lot. You’ve dialed it all in and really feel like you’ve got a really good grasp on them. In other words, you’ve made a really nice roof for your hypothetical house. Maybe one of those clay tile ones with the gabled ends and weather vane. Super nice.
Only problem is, you’ve spent so much time making this really nice roof that you neglected to work on the building under that roof. Your stance. Now, your super nice roof is sitting up there on a really shaky, stick-built, ramshackle barn. How long do you think that roof will stay up there? And how nice does the roof look sitting on the dilapidated barn?
Don’t neglect the building under the roof. Develop a solid shooting stance.
What is a Shooting Stance?
In short, a “shooting stance” is merely a fancy way of saying “arranging your body in a way that makes for accurate shots”. Like most things firearms, there seem to be a thousand different ways to do something, and you often find people who swear that a particular way is the only way. Well, when it comes to shooting stances, I will try to expand your understanding.
Before we hit that road, let's cover the components of a good stance.
A good shooting stance provides the shooter with balance, support, maneuverability and the ability to manage recoil. And much like the other components to good marksmanship, your stance needs to be repeatable and practiced, i.e. consistency. Changing your stance every time you go to shoot will wreak havoc on accurate shooting.
A solid shooting stance can be anatomically divided into two parts at the waist: upper and lower body. Imagine a tank. The main gun of the tank is mounted to the turret which can turn 360-degrees. This turret is mounted to the body of the tank which is responsible for supporting the weight of the turret and all necessary movement.
The turret of the tank can move independent of the tank body, regardless of what direction the tank body is moving. As long as the tank body is solidly on the ground, the turret can accomplish its task.
A shooting stance is much like that tank. The lower body is responsible for movement, flexibility, and supporting the upper body. The upper body is the turret, and it can turn to address targets regardless of where the lower body may be facing (obviously humans have a physiological limitation that tanks do not, but the point stands).
The shooting platform formed by the upper body is remarkably effective with a wide degree of movement, provided that the movement does not detract from the upper body. You can have a very solid upper body platform, and that still won’t help you get accurate shots at a sprint.
Let’s look at it this way. I establish my shooting stance for a target directly in front of me. After engaging that target, a second target presents itself 45-degrees to my left. Because my upper body platform is solid, I do not necessarily need to move my feet to address the new target. I can simply turn at the waist and present my upper body turret to the target.
The more experience you get with pistol shooting, the wider degree of movement you will be able to effectively shoot with. Experienced marksmen are able to take the movement a step further and lean out from behind a solid object to fire at targets. The takeaway point here is that accuracy can be achieved in a huge range of situations as long as the upper body platform is stable and solid.
Now that I’ve mentioned ‘solid platform’ a variety of times, how about I actually tell you what goes into it.
Components of a good stance starting at the ground:
- Feet – your feet should be firmly planted, about shoulder width apart. Foot placement is up to the shooter and their comfort, and I will get more into different foot placement options further down. Regardless of foot placement, the shooter should be leaning slightly into their gun, with their weight on the balls of their feet.
- Knees – Knees should be slightly bent, not locked.
- Hips – Hips should be oriented towards the target.
- Abdomen – The shooter should be standing up straight, not hunched over and not leaning backward unnaturally.
- Shoulders and arms – The shoulders will be slightly rounded forward, arms extended. Arm positioning will depend on the shooter’s comfort. I will get more into arm positioning further down.
- Head – the head should remain relatively upright, and the gun should be brought in line with the shooter’s eye. The shooter should avoid hunching their head behind the gun, as this can cause the shooter to look through the top of their field of vision. While not inherently wrong, this fatigues the eyes quickly and can introduce a certain amount of visual distortion.
While we’re in this aisle, I’ll touch on where the gun should be in relation to your body.
Natural Point of Aim
A key component to any shooting platform is understanding Natural Point of Aim. Natural Point of Aim is a fancy way of saying: where your body naturally wants to point your pistol.
Clear as mud, eh?
The best way to explain natural point of aim is to have you test it. Before we do that, unload your firearm and visually and physically inspect that the weapon is unloaded. Then select a safe direction to do the following test.
Assume a good standing position. Bring the weapon up and aim it downrange, as if you are about to engage a target. Align the sights at a fixed point in the distance, as if you are prepared to fire at that item. Remember this item. Now, close your eyes.
Take several deep breaths and allow yourself to relax into your shooting stance. Don’t drop the gun; keep it aimed in but let a little of the tension out of your muscles. Now, open your eyes.
Did the sights move off the distant object? More than likely, they did. Where your sights are now aimed is your natural point of aim. Close your eyes again and repeat the test using where your sights are now as the new reference point. Did the sights move?
Anatomically speaking, your body will have a position where it is most comfortable and natural while aiming your pistol.
Alternately, try this test. Assume a good shooting stance and close your eyes. With your eyes closed, aim your pistol downrange as if you are about to engage a target in front of you. When you open your eyes, your pistol will be at your natural point of aim.
See, anytime a shooter is presented with a target, the instinct is to draw your pistol and aim it at the target. I know, I sound completely crazy now. Trust me. Now, if we aren’t examining our natural point of aim, we can actually be fighting ourselves to stay on target.
For instance, you may have assumed a shooting stance for a target directly in front of you, but didn’t realize your shoulders were slightly off-square to the target. You draw, and by using the target as the reference point, you make tiny sacrifices and force your shooting position to make a correction for the shoulders. Will the gun get on target? Of course. Will you have the best accuracy? Nope.
Or, you assume that shooting stance but lean far forward at the waist. At this angle, your natural point of aim is somewhere in the ground. Not factoring that in, you bring the arms up to get the sights on target. The platform is not anatomically natural and therefore, accuracy will suffer.
“But wait! You said I can turn and shoot!”
Yes. While your entire body has a natural point of aim, your upper body independently does too. I am of the opinion that you should practice your marksmanship for a variety of scenarios. Unless you intend on only shooting targets directly in front of you, you should place a majority of your practice into ensuring the upper body’s natural point of aim is solid. Like we’ve discussed, the turret works independently of the body; present the turret’s natural point of aim to the target, and you will be accurate.
OK, we’ve beaten this natural point of aim bit down. How does it fit into the picture?
Let’s talk upper body platform. The shoulders, arms, and head all want the pistol in a particular position. That position is nearly straight out from the chest. Let’s test it.
Assume a good standing stance. Take your time getting a good two-handed grip on your pistol. Once you feel your grip is acceptable, bring the pistol up to where the back of the grip is precisely in front of your breastbone. P
While maintaining the grip and keeping the head upright, push the pistol straight out in front of you until the arms lock and the sights are in line with the eyes. This is where the body wants the pistol to be.
Carefully take note of where the pistol is in relation to your chest and head. Take note of how the pistol feels in relation to the ground, neither dipping into the dirt nor shooting into the sky.
While we're at it, grip is a fundamental piece of the marksmanship equation and plays a major role in accuracy. Pop over to this article to find out how to properly grip your pistol.
I’m sure you’re starting to get the feeling that there might be something to this stance idea.
Stance Means Shooting Foundation
A good shooting stance is the foundation for your marksmanship. The fundamentals of marksmanship are all part of a greater formula that needs all its pieces to function properly. For instance, you can be a master at sight alignment and sight picture, and that won’t help you at all if you try to shoot with one leg in the air (totally overblown hypothetical but why not).
Aside from making sure we don’t fall on our faces at the range, a good shooting stance provides the foundation for repeated shots.
I would imagine that no one goes to the range to fire only one bullet at a time before putting the gun down and surveying your target. Surely we all like to engage in firing at least two bullets in short succession. Just me? Oh well.
When the pistol is fired it produces recoil. The recoil is absorbed through the hands, arms, shoulders, and abdomen. While the body is absorbing that recoil, the sights are no longer on target. The process of the pistol rising with recoil, transferring the energy to the body, before settling back on target, is called follow through.
A good shooting stance will allow you, as the shooter, to have good follow through. This means you aren’t restricted to firing one bullet at a time without having to completely re-adjust yourself. Ever seen the internet videos of someone firing a shotgun when they aren’t prepared? Those videos are examples of poor shooting stances not providing support for effective follow through. One shot and they’re done.
As for the stance itself, the most important parts are skeletal support and muscular tension.
The skeleton holds us all up right? Otherwise, we would all be floppy bags of tissue. The musculature attaches to the skeleton and makes it move. Anatomy 101. These two aspects work together, with key respects, to form the shooting stance.
Let’s get into it.
How long can you stand on your tiptoes? How stable are you? Unless you are a world-class ballerina, probably “not very long” on either question. An important aspect to your stance is allowing the skeleton to do its job as often as you can. Bone is rigid and does not fatigue. So, the feet need to be firmly on the ground to allow the skeleton to take the weight of the body (though as previously mentioned, you should be slightly leaned forward).
Additionally, the arms need to be straight out (except for the Weaver stance which we will cover below). Straight arms transfer the recoil of the pistol to the bones. How well do you think you would shoot if the arms were only partially extended? In that instance, the muscles in the arms would be absorbing the recoil, leading to rapid fatigue and poor follow through.
Muscular tension is the other half of the equation. In the hands, the muscles provide the grip that allows the bones to support the pistol. The muscles in the shoulder lock the shoulder joint in place to better transfer recoil to the lower body, and the muscles in the legs provide balance and shock absorption through slightly bent knees.
Though it may seem otherwise, I am not simply telling you how the body works. Forcing the body to alter any of these processes will shift responsibility to a body part that isn’t the most efficient at performing that task.
As I said, you could stand on your tiptoes. A standing shooting stance is exactly that, right? On your tiptoes is still technically standing. The problem is, the muscles in the foot and lower leg will have to maintain that unnatural position, leading to rapid fatigue and poor balance.
There are 27 bones in each human hand, and those bones can definitely support a pistol. But how accurate will the shots be if the muscles in the hands don’t provide the ‘grip’?
Good shooting mechanics is a complimentary dance between muscles and bones. Knowing how to use each system to its comparative strength will go a long way towards effective shooting.
Most Common Shooting Stances
Let’s talk about the most common shooting stances. There are likely dozens in use, but for the purposes of this article we will discuss:
- Center Axis Relock (not traditionally a stance but worth a mention for a specific reason)
What is the Isosceles Stance?
The Isosceles stance draws its name from the triangle formed by the chest and arms. A shooter's arms will be pushed straight out from the chest, forming the equal legs of a triangle.
The shooters body will be square to the target, and the shooters feet will be slightly wider than shoulder width apart. Traditionally, the feet will be directly next to each other, however, having the strong foot a half-step back is certainly acceptable.
To complete this stance, the shooter will slightly bend their knees and lean slightly forward.
The advantages of this stance are exceptional mobility and recoil management. As I mentioned earlier, the turret (upper body) can rotate on the base (lower body) and allow the shooter to engage targets without moving their feet. The Isosceles stance, by virtue of the fact that it is a symmetrical stance, allows the shooter to have equal movement to the left and right.
The major disadvantage to the Isosceles stance comes into play if you are in a defensive gun situation and are not wearing body armor. By standing square to the target, you give the bad guy maximum ‘frontage’ at which to shoot; you present the biggest target this way.
That said, if Isosceles is the stance you are comfortable and accurate with, then put this thought away. If that day ever arrives, the best possible option is always to get rounds on target accurately.
What is the Weaver Stance?
The Weaver stance is a shooting stance variation that imposes a “push-pull” force on the pistol to create opposing forces to control recoil.
The stance is named after its pioneer, Jack Weaver. It is focused more on limiting that ‘frontage’ I alluded to earlier. Jack Weaver was an LA County Sheriff in the 1950s and developed this stance as a means of protecting deputies during gunfights. Back then, no one wore body armor so limiting exposure was the name of the game.
This stance involves ‘blading’ the body away from the target and thus limiting the ‘frontage’ exposed to the bad guy. The lower body portion of this stance closely resembles a boxers stance.
The strong leg will be back and the support leg forward. The shooter’s knees should be slightly bent and their weight forward onto the support leg. The abdomen, chest and shoulders will be turned at an angle to the left or right of the target (depending on dominant hand), limiting the shooters exposure.
The strong arm will be mostly extended, with just a slight bend in the elbow. The support arm (weak hand if you will) will have a distinct bend in the elbow, and the elbow will be pointed almost directly at the ground.
A key distinction with the Weaver stance is the shooter will apply a “push-pull” type of grip with the hands. When firing, the strong hand will be “pushing” the pistol forward while the support hand will be “pulling” it back. The idea is to create an equal balance of force that locks the gun in place.
The major advantage of the Weaver stance is a clear uptick in balance. There is a reason I mentioned it resembling a boxer’s stance. The Weaver allows a shooter to absorb a shock (like someone pushing them) as well as transition to movement quickly. Also, as I previously mentioned, the bladed Weaver means lower profile facing the bad guy.
For disadvantages, the shooter is severely hampered in turning to address a target on the weak side. Because of the bladed stance, the shooter has to move that much further to address a target on the support side of the blade, costing time.
Ironically, because the Weaver was developed for non-armored shooters, it harbors a disadvantage for shooters who are wearing body armor. By blading the body, the armored shooter is presenting their side towards the target. To keep mobility high, manufacturers limit the amount of armor found on the sides of bulletproof vests. So, by presenting this lightly armored side to the threat, the armored shooter is actually somewhat defeating their own armor by using this stance.
What is the Chapman Stance?
The Chapman stance can also be referred to as the “modified Weaver stance”. The Chapman stance is the same as the Weaver stance with the exception of arm placement.
In the Chapman, the strong arm will be locked straight out in front of the shooter. With this arm locked, the shooter can lean their head down and form a ‘cheek weld’ with the upper arm. The support arm will form the same bent-elbow approach as the Weaver and the ‘push-pull’ grip method will apply.
The advantage of the Chapman is the cheek weld aspect of the locked strong arm will provide the same shooter experience every time. The Weaver stance calls for two bent arms and that can mean slight variations in stance every time the shooter presents their firearm. By locking one arm, these variations are severely reduced as the arm does not get longer or shorter by itself.
The locked arm also aids in recoil management, as the recoil is transferred directly to the bones of the arm. Traditional Weaver transfers the recoil to two bent arms, which means the muscles transfer the recoil to the shoulders. As we discussed above, there are anatomical differences between having muscle do the work vs bone.
The disadvantages of the Chapman are the same as the Weaver. The bladed stance means support side targets are more difficult to address without major movement.
Also, the cheek weld aspect of the Chapman is very difficult for cross-eye dominant shooters.
What is cross-eye dominance and why does it matter? Good news! That topic is covered in depth in our Sight Picture article!
Center Axis Relock
Now, I’m going to cover Center Axis Relock because it is extremely evident in the very popular Hollywood blockbuster and sequel, John Wick and John Wick 2.
First, Center Axis Relock was developed by law enforcement trainer Paul Castle (who unfortunately passed away in 2011). Castle’s main desire was to develop a stance that would allow a law enforcement officer to accurately engage a bad guy in a very short distance firefights.
The Center Axis Relock stance is very similar to the Weaver stance, as far as lower body is concerned. The support leg is forward and the strong leg back, knees are bent and the weight is forward.
Upper body, however, is completely different. The pistol is held in a two handed grip close to the body. Both arms are bent and the pistol is held in line with the shooter’s eyes. To achieve the proper sight alignment, the weapon is canted inward.
The two-handed grip is also unique. The strong hand will grip the pistol in a normal fashion, high on the back-strap, fingers around the grip. The support hand will be brought more forward, thumb pointed up and against the frame of the gun, fingers wrapped around the strong hand fingers.
Keep in mind, Center Axis Relock was pioneered specifically for surprise gunfights inside of a few yards. It is a specific stance for a specific purpose. This will not be the stance for target shooting on a Sunday morning, or for defensive shooting at 10 yards. This might be the stance for defending yourself while sitting in a car though.
I covered this specifically because Keanu Reeves spends a few hours killing what seems to be a million bad people using this stance, and most people assume it’s Hollywood magic. In actuality, Keanu Reeves spent many hours training 3-gun shooting competitions, so the shooting scenes would look as realistic as possible. You can even watch videos of him training online; the guy is good and his weapons handling technique is real.
Can I Make My Own Stance/Which Stance is the Best?
Early on I mentioned that I was going to try to break the mold with shooting stances. After having spent countless hours behind a gun, I can fairly confidently state, “yes, you can make your own stance.” And therein lies the key to which shooting stance is the “best”.
The best shooting stance, or your own stance, is the one that correctly fits the situation while encompassing the necessary fundamentals of a good stance (all those things I mentioned above). As long as your stance allows for good support and good recoil management, the sky's the limit.
That said, I’m fairly certain the three aforementioned stances will cover a majority of the variations you could come up with. I am pointing this out based on my own usage.
I personally shoot Isosceles a majority of the time, however my personal preference is to keep my strong foot a half-step back. Additionally, I roll my shoulders further forward than most people and like to get more behind the gun with my head. All personal preferences.
One-Handed Shooting Stance
So how will our stance change if we want to shoot one-handed? Let’s check it out.
As far as I’m concerned, all shooters should practice shooting one-handed. First, it's a great way to identify flaws in your marksmanship fundamentals, second, it’s fun. More importantly, though, we won’t always have both hands available to use our firearm.
You may need to defend yourself while holding onto a loved one or even, god forbid, a baby. You could find yourself fending off an attacker with an injured hand. There are many different situations where one hand is all you have.
For one handed shooting we really only have two options: straight arm or canted off.
Before we hit this, a word of caution. Practice one handed shooting stationary with a very slow draw, or no draw at all. Attempting to do rapid one handed shooting draws without practice can easily lead to muscle confusion and you may inadvertently shoot your own support hand. PRACTICE SLOWLY.
This stance is exactly as it sounds. The shooter will square up to the target and the shooting hand (remember, it can be either and you should train with both), presents the firearm with a straight arm. The unused arm should be clutched to the chest (because it's either injured, full, or you will use it to defend yourself).
At the shooter’s option, the weapon can either be straight up and down, or slightly canted to the inside. Both are acceptable. Keep in mind, recoil will generally want to drive the muzzle of the gun up. If the weapon is canted towards the inside, that is now the direction the muzzle will want to climb. Be careful.
To shoot canted off, the gun will be aimed at the target with a straight arm. The shooter’s body however, will be facing left or right (depending on the hand currently holding the gun). To explain it another way, it's as if the shooter squares up to their target, before making a right or left turn. The shooter draws and aims downrange, which is effectively to their left or right. P
I find this method highly impractical, however it is an acceptable one-handed method.
Transitioning from a Standing Position to a Kneeling Position
While we’re on this topic, lets cover transitions quickly. Sometimes, a shooter is engaging a target from a standing position and they need to move to a kneeling position. This process is simple, but takes some practice.
First, which knee goes on the ground?
Barring a medical condition which prohibits bending one knee, the strong side knee is the one that goes on the ground. This transfers the strong side support directly through the knee and into the ground. Also, if there ever came a time when you needed to shoot from behind a piece of cover (something that is bulletproof), then having the strong side knee down minimizes the amount of your body that will show. P
When actually making the transition, make sure your pistol stays pointed downrange. Occasionally, I see shooters who get so engrossed in kneeling that they will lower their pistol to actually kneel down. What they don’t realize they are doing is the barrel of their gun ends up pointed at themselves or someone else. MUZZLE AWARENESS.
Standing is simply the reverse of kneeling. Again, keep your muzzle pointed downrange.
Stance While Shooting and Moving
Shooting and moving is a lot of fun, but make sure you've spent a lot of time training in a stationary position before adding movement. If you want to take your shooting on the move, the only modification you will make to your chosen position (aside from actually moving your legs) is a slightly deeper bend to your knees. To move, you will walk like you are holding a cup of water with water up to the very brim. The bent knees are there to cushion your steps and prevent your muzzle from bouncing.
Walk like you don’t want that water to spill.
Stance While Using Cover
Going all the way back to my tank analogy, shooting from behind cover means using the turret. Cover is something that protects you from incoming gunfire, and therefore, shooting from behind cover means you want to expose as little of yourself as possible.
With your shooting stance of choice, simply lean out from behind cover to engage your target. The key is keeping the upper body turret as intact as possible to preserve the shooting platform. Remember the turret works despite what the body is doing, so leaning out will still preserve accuracy.
Now, keep in mind, using cover may require you to modify your shooting stance. Attempting to use a Weaver, for instance, with cover that only permits leaning out on the support side will make the cover impractical. The situation may dictate switching stances, or switching the gun to your support hand and mirroring the stance as if you regularly shot with the support hand.
Common Stance Mistakes
Now that we’ve covered how to properly use a shooting stance, how about some common mistakes?
All too often you see the shooter at the range leaning backwards with their weight on their heels. What happens when they shoot? They have no balance and the gun pushes them back.
The proper shooting stance always involves leaning forward, with the weight on the balls of your feet. When the gun fires, the recoil will transfer back into your body. You have to be balanced in a manner to absorb that recoil without falling backwards or shifting.
Think of football players. When the offensive and defensive lines square up, they are both nearly squatting down, with all their weight forward on the outstretched hand. These players are anticipating the recoil created by the opposing player hitting them. Guns, while much smaller, also generate recoil. If the shooter is leaning back, then there is no weight to absorb that force.
Similar to leaning back, shooters who stand with locked knees have no ‘bounce’ in their stance. Locked knees transfers the kinetic energy straight to the ground, with no ‘spring’ to absorb it.
I can handle this lesson with a short analogy. Imagine jumping off a short object and landing with locked knees. I rest my case.
Constantly Changing Your Stance
This common mistake may not be as obvious. Like every other aspect of marksmanship, a shooting stance is part of the repeated equation. While practicing, it’s normal to try out different aspects of a stance, but once you become comfortable with a particular stance, avoid making small adjustments every single shot. To put this a different way, make conscious efforts to maintain the stance the same way every time.
Not paying close attention to your stance is how your feet end up in different spots shot to shot, or the shoulders are back, then forward. The elbows locked, then slightly unlocked.
All these aspects affect the placement of your bullets. Dialing in your marksmanship is partly a matter of eliminating as many of these variables as possible. By keeping your stance the same you can eliminate a majority of those variables and promote better accuracy.
The ‘Tactical Turtle’
I know you are imagining a ninja turtle tricked out in SWAT gear right now… But that’s not what the tactical turtle refers to.
The Tactical Turtle is a fun moniker referring to shooters who hunch their shoulders and try and get their head between them. True to form, they look just like a turtle. So what’s the problem with the turtle? Two main reasons: your eyes and mobility.
If the shooter hunches their shoulders and drops their head, they will have to strain their eyes upward to properly align the sights, which is not optimal. Let’s illustrate this with an example.
Keep your head straight up, and focus on a target directly in front of you at eye level. Maintain focus on this target while lowering your chin. Your vision should begin to lose clarity and focus, along with your eyes starting to fatigue. If your shooting stance places your head in a position where the eyes lose clarity, you need to reevaluate your stance.
The mobility aspect of the tactical turtle will be much easier to explain. Raise your arms directly in front of you, as you would for an isosceles shooting stance. Lower your head down between your upraised arms. Now try to look at a target 45 degrees to the left or right.
A good shooting stance should not limit your ability to turn your head and maintain situational awareness.
The ‘Tactical Lean’
Earlier in the article we discussed a slight lean forward, with the shooter’s weight predominantly on the balls of the feet. Notice how I said a slight lean forward?
Occasionally, shooters will take this forward lean to an extreme. Perhaps they feel it helps their recoil management. Unfortunately, an exaggerated lean makes the shooter less stable.
Remember from above, a good shooting stance should help you shoot, move and remain balanced. Not only will leaning too far forward detrimentally affect your balance, but humans cannot walk with an exaggerated forward lean. So, in order to move, the shooter has to stand more upright before moving. Why not stay upright from the start?
Get Out There and Practice
As always, marksmanship is a learned skill. That learning takes practice; a lot of it. Applying the essential techniques described in this article will help you dial in your shots and improve the other fundamentals of marksmanship (like sight alignment, sight picture, trigger squeeze, etc.).
All too often I see shooters trying to perfect their sight alignment, and completely neglecting their stance. They may be able to get the sights aligned, but their shots will still lack accuracy because they do not have a solid platform.
Give your shooting the solid foundation it needs. Move and shoot. Have fun!
The further you fall down the rabbit hole of marksmanship, the more you realize you have yet to learn. Head over to our Pistol Forums and ask questions of our experts!