Colonel Townsend Whelen said, “only accurate rifles are interesting.”
Accuracy is what all shooters chase and strive for when selecting their weapon platform.
Accuracy is simply being able to hit the target aimed at consistently, intentionally, and repeatedly. If you can’t hit the target, you are not accurate.
Handguns are a challenge to master. A rifle has an anchor at the shoulder, the grip, the forearm and maybe a rest or bipod. Handguns are hanging at the end of extended arms with open sights weaving over the target and a whole bunch of noise, muzzle flash and movement the moment the hammer drops. Mastering all the moving variables is the challenge of handgun accuracy.
The common theme to accurate handgun shooting is trigger control. There are other shooting fundamentals we’ll dive into, but unless the trigger squeeze is trained and mastered, the developing handgun shooter will struggle to reach his or her accuracy potential with their chosen firearm. Join us as we dissect the drills that will make you an accurate handgun shooter.
Chapter 1: What is Handgun Accuracy?
Webster defines accuracy as “precise, error-free, well-aimed, on-target.” Sounds like he wrote that definition while watching a shooting match. Quite simply, handgun accuracy means hitting the intended target with each shot. It’s something the shooter can repeat and can do at close range as well as extended ranges.
Why is accuracy with our handgun important? Because if we can’t hit our intended target every time we aim at it, we are not taking full advantage of the handgun we have chosen to carry or hunt with. Not hitting the target in a defensive situation may be the difference between life and death. It may be the difference in being able to stop a threat in an active shooter scenario. Maybe it means not filling the freezer this fall with prime venison.
Regardless of the situation, being able to hit your target intentionally and repeatedly is critical.
Besides, when you go to the range and you’re not putting together great groups or you’re not hitting the spot-on single shot drills, it’s no fun. So, let’s learn how to be accurate with the gun we choose to carry.
Chapter 2: The Challenge of Mastering the Handgun
Being good with a handgun is hard work. If you go to the range and watch folks, you’ll find that very few are consistently good with a handgun. You’ll see them “chase” their group around the target, change point of aim to get a round in the bullseye or shoot only at extremely close ranges for fear of not being able to hit their target at extended ranges.
The handgun is a wonderful tool, but it comes with some shortfalls that take work on the shooter’s part to overcome.
Short sight radius — even with a full-size handgun the distance from the rear sight to the front sight is often only five or six inches. This means that even the slightest error in sight alignment will send the bullet away from the intended target. As the range increases, the distance the bullet misses the target increases as well.
Unstable platform — Handguns are most often fired from a standing position. Couple that with the fact that our handgun is way out at the end of our extended arms. There is no bone-on-bone support like we have when shooting a rifle. The longer we hold the gun out in an extended position, the more unstable we become. Add to that the importance of grip tension, and we have created for ourselves a bunch of variables that make it very difficult to be accurate.
Trigger control — consider that a full-size Sig P220 weighs 30.4oz. Now, the first shot with P220 is double action. The trigger pull on that first shot is roughly 7.7 pounds. The subsequent single action trigger pull is about 4.1 pounds. That means the trigger pull is four times the weight of the gun for the first shot. Your challenge: exert enough pressure on the trigger to fire the gun while not moving the sights from perfect alignment with the target. We’ll revisit trigger control numerous times in the drills below.
The dreaded flinch — a lot happens when we fire a handgun, especially a semi-automatic. First, we have significant muzzle blast because of the short barrel. This comes in the form of muzzle flash and noise.
Next, we have the recoil. Simple physics dictates that the gun moves back and up. It pounds the palms and the web between the thumb and forefinger. The slide moves to the rear and ejects the empty case which flies to the side in our peripheral vision.
With all of this going on at the end of our arms, right in front of our face, the natural tendency is to flinch or anticipate what is about to happen. Most likely we’ll see our shots going low and left for right-handed shooters (and vice versa for lefties).
As you can see, the challenge is substantial, but one we can overcome.
Chapter 3: Handgun Shooting Basics
To shoot a handgun accurately, there are a lot of things that have to be done properly in order to get those shots to hit the sighted target. First, we’ll take a look at some basic mechanics to ensure the drills we work on later will help us improve.
Most of our shooting is done from a standing position. The standing position gives us the ability to absorb recoil and to pivot and move to engage multiple targets.
A good stance begins with the shooter facing the target and in a ‘boxer’ stance. That is, with the strong side foot back a bit and the knees slightly bent. The shooter should be leaning forward just a bit at the hips. With the forward lean and the knees flexed just a bit you’re able to absorb recoil and get quickly back on the target.
Ever wonder how you should hold a handgun for maximum accuracy? A consistent grip is critical with a handgun. We cannot stop recoil, but if our grip is correct, we can get the sights back on target very quickly without having to completely reset our grip and arm position with every shot.
With a semiautomatic handgun our strong hand grips the gun as high as possible. We want as much coverage of the grip as we can with our hand and fingers. Our thumb is going to rest along the side of the slide and will naturally point toward our target.
Our support hand will then cant forward so the thumb is parallel to the ground and pointing forward. The meaty part of our hand contacts the grip between the fingertips and palm of the strong hand and wraps around the front of the grip over our strong hand fingers.
Now we squeeze, HARD! The support hand will generally provide about 60-70% of the grip squeeze, while the strong hand provides about 30-40% of the grip squeeze. We can now push the gun straight out toward our target and begin the next step.
Here we are going to focus as much as possible on the front sight.
It is physically impossible to see the target, front sight and rear sight in focus simultaneously. If one is in focus, the other two will be fuzzy. The sights on most handguns will consist of either a squared or rounded-top front sight, occasionally with a dot on it. The rear sight on most defensive handguns will be a square notch. Some will have a white outline, some will have a dot on each side of the notch.
The proper sight alignment will have the front sight centered in the rear notch with the same amount of light showing on both sides of the front sight. The top of the front sight and the top of the rear sight should be aligned so they are leveled or, if your sights have dots, all the dots are lined up horizontally.
Once you have proper sight alignment, we are going to align our sights to our target. In other words, “where do you place the sights in relation to the target?” What is the sight picture? Do you place your front sight in the middle of the target, at the bottom of the target, at the top to cover-up the entire target, or where?
The answer is, it really depends.
Different handguns come from the factory with a sight picture manufactured into the gun; this is also called the hold. There are three common holds;
- Combat Hold
- Center Hold
- Six O'Clock Hold
Guns which are sighted in for a combat hold typically require the shooter to place the front sight over where you intend to make an impact. Your point of aim will be right over your point of impact. Handguns manufactured with a center hold usually require the front sight to be aligned at the center of the bottom of the bullseye (Six-O’Clock Hold.) Other handguns have a six o'clock hold where the front sight is placed at the bottom of the bullseye.
Your sight picture will really depend on your handgun manufacturer. Some are designed for a center hold, others for a six-o’clock hold, still others will be sighted in for a sub-six-o’clock hold, and even others with a dead-on Hold, etc. It can get confusing and become a problem to deal with your various guns and their manufactured sight pictures.
A shooter must know the proper sight picture for each of his/her guns to shoot accurately.
Our breathing and heartbeat play a big role in our shooting accuracy. If you have ever watched position rifle shooters, you will notice they have a heavy leather jacket and a heavy glove on their support hand. All that padding is to muffle and quiet the effect of their beating hearts on their sight alignment and ultimately the shot they take.
For example. you have a handgun extended at the end of your arms with no support. If you align your sights on a target and just breath, you will see that with each inhale and exhale your gun rises and falls as your chest expands and contracts.
When shooting slowly for maximum accuracy and precision, you ideally want to breathe normally as you bring your sights into final alignment. Inhale normally. Exhale normally. If you try to hold your breath you begin to shake and then rush to get the shot off. Ideally, your shot will break right at the bottom of your exhale.
It’s crucial that as the number of shots in a string increases or we engage multiple targets and add movement to our shooting to keep breathing. We also need to breathe so we are consistently oxygenating our eyes so our vision stays sharp and our front sight focus is as crisp as possible.
Ask any handgun instructor what the most critical component of handgun accuracy is, and you’re going to hear something about trigger squeeze. No matter what we do prior to sending our shot downrange, if our trigger squeeze is not perfect every time, our shots will not go where we want them to go. Our trigger finger has to move straight back with as little pressure to the sides of the trigger as possible. If our grip is correct and we have a firm hold on the gun, we should be imparting as little side-to-side and up-and-down pressure as possible on the grip as our trigger finger starts coming back.
In general, you want to use the center of the pad between your fingertip and first knuckle joint to press the trigger. Too far out on the tip and you tend to push the trigger away. Too far into the crease and you tend to curl the trigger toward your hand. Both result in misses and inconsistent shots. However, please note that your finger placement on your trigger may differ from others as everyone has a different sized hand and guns vary in size, too.
As part of the follow-through process and preparing for the next shot, we have the trigger reset. The reset on most semiautomatic handguns will be a much shorter distance than releasing the trigger all the way to the forward-most position. The reset can be felt as you release the trigger forward after you take your shot. It’s important to move the trigger finger straight forward and keep the sights aligned on the target as the trigger moves forward.
With practice, you’ll be able to move your trigger finger forward just to the reset, and then begin your squeeze for the next shot. This means less movement of the trigger finger and less likelihood of the trigger squeeze moving the sights out of alignment.
FOLLOW-THROUGH/CALLING THE SHOT
You’ve sent your round downrange. But your shot process is not yet over. Don’t just release your trigger and set up for your next shot.
Think about the shot you just made. Keep the trigger depressed and see where your sights naturally settle after recoil. Are they lined up on the target? Did you have to reset your grip? At the moment of the shot going off, could you tell an observer where the bullet would impact on the target?
All of these things are a part of your proper follow through. As your speed increases, these things begin to happen very quickly, but they all have to happen, or accuracy begins to diminish.
Chapter 4: Training with The Handgun
When it comes to training with your handgun, you really have two options available to build your skills:
Dry Fire Drills and Live Fire Drills.
Both are valuable, and both will allow you to build your handgun proficiency and attain the accuracy you are striving for.
Dry Fire Drills
Dry fire exercises are those that are done with your handgun with no ammunition. You can practice your draw stroke, sight alignment and trigger squeeze all without firing a shot. The benefit to dry fire practice is that you don’t have to go to the range. You can practice in your garage or basement or office.
Keep in mind that you are still handling a gun and as such, you should always treat that gun as if it were loaded. For all dry fire exercises, unload your handgun and all the magazines you will be using for your training session. Then, remove all the live ammo from the room you are training in.
As a final reminder that your dry fire practice session is beginning, say to yourself, out loud, “dry fire practice beginning, gun is unloaded.” When you finish your session and reload your magazines and your gun, again, say to yourself out loud, “dry fire practice is over, gun is loaded and hot.” This is just an extra level of precaution that reminds you that the gun is no longer safe for dry fire exercises.
Live Fire Drills
Live fire exercises are those done with real ammo, on the range, sending rounds to the chosen target. Now you get a chance to see how your dry fire practice is paying off.
The real goal is to manipulate the handgun with live fire in the exact same manner as you did in your dry fire practice. Your draw, presentation, trigger squeeze should all be the same. Except now you have all that commotion at the end of your arms; muzzle blast, recoil, ejecting brass, etc.
If you are executing all the basic fundamentals correctly, you should see improvement in your accuracy on every trip to the range.
Chapter 5: The Drills That Build the Skills
We’ve taken a look at the challenge of mastering our handgun, as well as handgun shooting fundamentals and the types of training we can do to begin building solid accuracy into our shooting. Before we dive into the specific drills to improve your accuracy, let’s review the basic safety rules. These rules are necessary if you want to be effective in your training.
Four Rules for Safe Gun Handling
- Treat every gun as if it is loaded.
- Keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction; never the let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy.
- Keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot.
- Be sure of your target and what is beyond it.
By always adhering to the basic safety rules, we ensure that our shooting time is safe and enjoyable for ourselves and those around us.
Drill 1: Dot Slack Torture Drill
This is a dry-fire exercise that comes to us from Sam Middlebrook, Lead Instructor at Redhawk Firearm Training.
As mentioned earlier, trigger control is the key to accurate handgun shooting and this exercise serves to examine your trigger squeeze.
Take a piece of paper and draw 10 dots with a Sharpie about the size of a pencil eraser. Now, tape your paper to the wall or on a target stand. Stand so that when you press your gun out toward the target your muzzle is about one inch from the target.
- As with all dry-fire exercises be sure your firearm is unloaded. Remove all live ammo from your training area and be sure you have a safe backstop.
- Cycle your action so the gun is cocked and ready to fire.
- Press the gun out one-handed with your strong arm and align your sights with one of the dots on your target.
- Now, begin to work the take-up (or slack) out of your trigger and bring it right to the point before it fires. This drill is taught at the Sig Academy and, according to Mike Green, about 70% of our shooting habits reside in the trigger slack. This means that if the front sight is moving AT ALL during the slack take-up, that once we manipulate the trigger to fire, we are building in micro movements that cause us to manipulate the trigger from an inaccurate front sight position.
- Look for any movement in the front sight as you take up the slack.
- Work through all 10 dots from the same placement of your feet and shoulders. This forces you to angle your handgun in different positions.
With bigger dots, you can do this same drill as a live fire exercise. Use a bigger piece of paper or the back of a target, place the target 3 yards away and concentrate on minimal sight movement as you take up the slack and press through to send the shot.
Drill 2: Dot Reset Torture Drill
As in the previous drill, we will use the same page with ten dots on it. However, now we will press through the slack and “fire” our shot.
- With the trigger pinned back against the frame, rack the slide to the rear to cock the firearm.
- Now, extend your gun out, line up the sights on a dot and slowly release the trigger. But only release the trigger as far as the reset. You should be able to hear and feel the trigger reset for the next shot.
This exercise allows you to see what’s happening after the shot and as you work the trigger in reverse. Any front sight movement in this portion of our shooting sequence means we will be slower getting back on target and making follow up shots.
When we master trigger take up and reset, then we allow ourselves to start from true accuracy, instead of having to make up for it as we manipulate the trigger.
Drill 3: Balance the Brass (or Coin)
To continue honing our trigger squeeze, we can move to another dry-fire exercise that will reveal our ability to squeeze and reset smoothly and without movement.
- With your gun unloaded and a safe backstop, rack your slide to cock the gun, then build your grip and press out to the target.
- Once the gun is fully extended and you have the sights aligned on your target, have your shooting partner balance an empty cartridge case or coin on your front sight.
- Now, begin your trigger squeeze all the way through ‘firing’ the shot. Were you able to properly squeeze off the shot without the case or coin falling off?
You can also reverse this process and rack your slide while the trigger is pinned to the rear and then practice your trigger release to reset while keeping the case balanced on the front sight.
Drill 4: One Ragged Hole
As the name suggests, the goal of this live-fire drill is to have every shot go through one hole. Caylen Wojcik, the owner of Kalinski Consulting and Training, has his students begin at three yards with a one-inch dot to aim at.
- Prep your gun
- Draw from your holster
- Press out to the target
- Align your sights
- Slowly squeeze the trigger and send your shot. Try to fire your shot within 10 seconds of getting the gun on target.
- Reholster, and repeat until your magazine is empty.
You can then shoot the exercise from five yards with a two-inch dot, then seven yards with a three-inch dot.
This is a slow, deliberate drill designed to make you concentrate on aiming at the exact same spot, every time and executing a perfect trigger squeeze, sending every shot through the same hole.
Drill 5: The Loved One
This drill can be followed after the One Ragged Hole drill. Here we use two full-size silhouette targets. However, we’re going to fasten one of the targets partially over the other target to simulate an assailant holding a loved one hostage.
Start off with a good portion of the assailant target exposed to the side of your loved one. Take a marker and write the name of your loved one on the front target to induce some stress into the situation.
- Start at the three-yard line with the gun at low-ready or in the holster.
- Set your timer for five seconds.
- At the start buzzer fire two rounds into the assailant target.
As your scores begin to increase you can reduce the size of the assailant target that is visible, increase the range or reduce the time interval or all three.
Drill 6: Chase the Shot
This is a fun drill that Caylen has his students do in pairs in order to focus on sight alignment and, you guessed it, trigger control.
Hang a blank piece of cardboard on the target stand at 5 yards.
- Each shooter starts with the same amount of ammo in the magazine.
- The first shooter fires and makes a hole in the target.
- The second shooter must now aim at the hole and touch the shot of the first shooter.
- If the shooter touches the first hole, that person now fires a shot to establish the new aiming point.
- This continues until the shooters are out of ammo.
A final tip that Caylen offered relates to the grip. Most shooters do not grip the handgun hard enough. This really becomes apparent as shooters begin to go faster. If you notice shots beginning to go low, you can likely attribute it to not enough grip pressure.
As you begin shooting fast, if your grip is not hard enough, the trigger begins to act as a fulcrum and as the trigger is slapped the muzzle drops and your shots go low.
Caylen’s solution: grip the gun hard. Really hard, through your entire shot string.
Drill 7: Half and Half Drill
This is a live-fire drill that I discussed with Kyle Lamb, owner of Viking Tactics. Shoot this drill with a standard silhouette target.
With a handgun the drill is shot in the following manner:
- 20 yards, 10 rounds, 12 second par time
- 10 yards, 10 rounds, 6 second par time
- 5 yard, 10 rounds, 3 second par time
You will need a timer for this drill.
- Set your par time to the appropriate range you are shooting at. If you’re shooting alone, program the timer for a random start signal.
- The drill is fired from Position Three, meaning the gun is out of the holster and you have a proper two-handed grip.
- When the timer sounds, you press the gun to the target and fire ten rounds.
- Move up half the distance, reset the time for half the time and fire ten rounds, and so on.
Every round inside the “A” zone on a silhouette target counts 10 points. For rounds outside the “A” zone, we subtract 10 points. The shooter also loses 10 points for every round fired beyond the par time.
I shot this drill with a Sig 22 LR and a Springfield Sub-Compact 40 S&W just to see how I could perform.
First, when that buzzer sounds, all you think about is getting the rounds off before the time is up. The first couple of runs my shots were high on the target, meaning I was squeezing the trigger before my sights we fully realigned on my target. I found that after a few runs, I could get my shots off in the time allowed, but not necessarily keep them all in the “A” zone.
Kyle reinforced that trigger manipulation is critical in this drill. With a proper grip, the shooter should see the front sight lift off the target and come back on the target after recoil. The biggest challenge is trigger squeeze.
Drill 8: Triple Nipple Drill
This is another drill that Kyle uses to induce stress and force shooters to really think and concentrate on the trigger as they run the drill.
Here we will use the same “A” zone on the silhouette target as our scoring ring.
- 15 yards, 10 rounds, 10 second par time. Draw from holster, two-handed grip.
- 10 yards, 10 rounds, 10 second par time. Draw from holster, strong hand only.
- 5 yards, 10 rounds, 10 second par time. This one is tricky. Gun holstered on the strong side. Draw from the holster with your weak hand (no drawing with the strong hand and switching to weak hand), fire ten rounds. This part of the drill forces you to think through your draw, build your grip then fire ten accurate shots.
When coming from the holster, this means we develop snappy movements through the draw, building the grip and pushing out the gun, then slow down, achieve proper sight alignment and execute a perfect trigger squeeze to send our rounds onto our intended target.
Drill 9: Sig Sauer Academy Quarter Drill
This drill combines precision with speed and perfecting your magazine changes.
Shoot this drill from three yards. You need a target with a quarter-sized dot as your aiming point. The par time for this drill is 6.5 seconds.
- Start with your handgun loaded with one round and in your holster. You will need two additional magazines for reloads with one round in each magazine. The magazines should be in the magazine holder you use for everyday carry.
- When the timer starts, draw and fire one shot at the quarter-size target.
- Drop magazine one, reload, slingshot your slide and fire shot two.
- Drop magazine two, reload, slingshot your slide and fire shot three.
The goal is to have all three shots in the quarter-sized target. Your sight alignment and trigger squeeze must be perfect for this drill.
Adding the stress of the timer and reloading for each shot really forces you to think through each movement, moving quickly during the reload and presentation and slowing down when aiming and pressing the trigger.
Drill 10: Ball and Dummy Drill
This is a drill that is used to diagnose flinching and anticipating the shot. If you notice that your shots tend to be hitting below the point of aim, chances are you are flinching.
- The shooter hands the gun to a partner or lays it on the bench and turns away from the firing line and target.
- The partner then readies the gun either by loading with a single live round or by leaving the chamber empty.
- Shooter turns back to the target, picks up the gun, points in and fires the shot.
- If the gun is empty and there is a flinch, the partner (and very likely the shooter) will see a noticeable dip in the front sight the moment the trigger breaks.
This drill is best done with about 75% of the shots on an empty chamber. Live rounds are introduced randomly to keep the shooter a bit off balance.
As this training progresses, the shooter will eventually overcome the flinch and begin to put more shots on target.
Drill 11: The Five to Glock Drill
This drill was developed in the Glock Sport Shooting Foundation matches.
For this drill, you need 5 targets spaced from 5 yards to as far as 25 yards from the shooter. Each target requires 2 shots.
If you don’t want a penalty, every shot needs to be inside the 8-inch circle of a 10-point ring. You could do the same thing with 8-inch paper plates on a cardboard backer. Every shot needs to be on the plate at every distance.
- To begin, just time yourself and train until all your shots are on all the plates.
- Keep track of your improvement in your journal.
As you improve, begin to add stress by decreasing your par time setting and strive to make every hit within your time limit.
Drill 12: Ready-Up Drill
This drill is used to develop proficiency with your chosen handgun. It’s simple and effective and easy to track your improvement in your journal.
Start with the target no more than 5 yards downrange. Your handgun should be loaded with a round in the chamber and holstered. Begin this training without a timer.
Facing the target, draw the handgun and fire one round as soon as the front sight covers the scoring area of your target.
Reholster your handgun and repeat until the magazine is empty.
Perform a combat reload and continue firing one round at a time.
As your skill develops, your confidence in trusting your front sight increases because you know when the front sight is on the target, your fired rounds will be on the target as well.
For added training, have a partner yell out a number for each repetition. This means you may shoot one round, then 4 rounds, then 2 rounds, then 1 round.
The purpose is to train for the eventuality that you may need to fire more than one shot in a defensive situation and put all those rounds on the target.
Chapter 6: Putting It All Together
The drills above are proven to improve your shooting accuracy with a handgun. But you must walk before you run.
Work on your basics first:
- Grip (grip the gun firmly!)
- Sight Alignment
- Sight Picture
- Trigger Control
Start with the drills that you can work on without a timer and place your targets close. When the groups start shrinking, move the target back and begin placing some time limits on your shot strings. Only work on a couple of drills on each trip out. Don’t make your range time so regimented you aren’t having fun. End each session on a high note and keep track of your progress so you know where you start next time.
Chapter 7: Just Do It – Training Consistently
If you are going to carry a handgun for defensive purposes, you’re obligated to know how to run that gun and how to shoot it accurately. Your range journal may prove to be a valuable tool in the courtroom if you ever have to deploy your handgun to protect yourself or a loved one. Showing that you are diligent in your training and constantly improving means you’re not some vigilante nut job.
Most of us can’t get to the range every week. But all of us have time to dry fire for 15 minutes in our office. Master the drills on this website and when you hit the range with live ammo, your shooting will show definite improvement on every trip.
For example, about a year and a half ago I decided to take up a big bore handgun for big game hunting. At first, it was all I could do to consistently hit at 25 yards. With tremendous muzzle blast and punishing recoil, flinching is a high hurdle to get over. But I was undeterred!
With weekly dry fire practice at home from field positions and sending a few rounds down range every ten days or so, 25-yard shooting is now a walk in the park, and I can place all my shots on a paper plate at 75 yards from a seated field position. I have squeezed the trigger on that big gun thousands of times in my garage. But I know that I can now confidently take any shot inside 100 yards with my chosen handgun.
Shooting well is an obligation, but it’s also fun. The better you shoot, the more fun you have. Like any skill worth developing, shooting a handgun well and improving handgun accuracy is going to take study, training, and practice. I urge you to get really good with your handgun, then share your success with your shooting buddies, help another shooter begin developing their skills, and let us know how it all went in our forum.