Basic Handgun Proficiently Training – Part 1, by Steve A.

After much thought and research you have decided to carry a concealed handgun. You are of sound mind and have met all the legal requirements to carry a concealed handgun and understand the risks and potential liability. You have some exposure to informal shooting but no structured training.

Your decision to shoot or not shoot is a binding decision. The aftermath of even a justified shooting will include at minimum dealing with the police, your lawyer, and almost always a grand jury. There is much more to this decision on many levels. And never forget that you are responsible for every round you fire.

You must be able to use the firearm properly, effectively, and safely if you make the decision to draw it or use it. For many reasons the exercises suggested here are very basic and intended for new shooters. Experienced shooters will notice the lack of weak hand exercises, reloading exercises, moving while shooting, and malfunction drills. These and other advanced topics are very important skills, but in my opinion only suitable after a student is safe, comfortable, and competent with the chosen firearm.

Before making the basketball team one must first learn the basics such as dribbling, shooting, passing, blocking, rebounding, and so on. These basics are typically learned as separate skills that are then combined when actually playing a game. Ideally these skills become muscle memory, blend together, and don’t require thinking to execute. The basics, then, are the foundation of basketball skills and, if not in place, you might be able to hit the basket once in a while but you won’t be competitive.

This sports analogy holds true for many endeavors. Handgun skills are one. While you can pick up a handgun with no training or exposure and start shooting, your results will almost certainly be poor.

Jeff Cooper said: “The purpose of the pistol is to stop a fight that somebody else has started, almost always at very short range.” We will be discussing some basic aspects of how to safely handle and fire a handgun. The exercises are approached from the viewpoint of a new legal concealed handgun carrier. What is presented here are my non-binding thoughts and observations and just scratches the surface of this very complex topic.

I recommend you do your own research and attend classes to get a more complete picture of some of the many fine points related to concealed carry. For just one example, one often overlooked item is how you will carry the firearm on your person. A proper holster and supporting belt are recommended.

Training on how to safely use both hands to hold the firearm when firing is highly recommended. The Isosceles stance is commonly taught, with both arms locked straight out, the chest square to the target, the feet at least shoulder-width apart with one foot forward of the other sort of like a boxer’s stance.

One of the first modern civilian firearms instructors was Jeff Cooper, who developed the Four Rules of Gun Safety that every shooter should know by heart, and understand:

  1. Treat all guns as if they are loaded.
  2. Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy.
  3. Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target.
  4. Be sure of your target and what is beyond it.

According to Mr. Cooper, in almost every firearms accident one or more of these rules was violated. In addition, in almost all cases the firearm operated mechanically as designed, that is, the trigger was actuated and the firearm then fired. An example of this would be having the finger inside the trigger guard and on the trigger when the firearm was holstered, where the finger is pushed into the trigger as the holster hit the finger during holstering. In this case the firearm operated mechanically as designed, that is, the trigger was moved backward by the trigger finger being moved backward by the holster, and the firearm fired. I believe Mr. Cooper would say that this was a Rule 3 violation.

We are not going to discuss when to use the firearm. or the tactical use of firearms, or how to survive a gunfight, only how to build building blocks so that handgun usage becomes muscle memory, understanding that muscle memory deteriorates with time so we have to continually practice to maintain it. These basics should then be fairly easy to translate into being able to use the firearm.

Before we go much further we should at least discuss the downsides to this kind of initial training and why it is only a starting place. Most live-fire handgun training is relatively stress-free and occurs on a static, or unchanging, firing line. The motor skills developed will reflect this environment, which is fixed, predictable, open, and at a known range with no one attacking you.

Under stress, many people tend to revert back to their training. I have seen stages of fire in competition where the shooter fires the firearm dry and then stands there and reloads, which I do not think is a good practice to revert back to. Also, this type of training almost always has the shooter firing at the target at the end of the drawing cycle. This is not always the case in the real world, sometimes the presentation of the weapon makes the assailant stop their activities without a shot being fired.

Real-world dynamics training, such as the use of cover and when to reload, will be in addition to your basic training. For instance, a vital area of knowledge is when to engage and when not to, as well as understanding the legal aftermath of using a firearm. This is why I stress getting advanced training from experienced, reputable instructors after you master the basics.

These shooting exercises are drawn from my own research, training, teaching, competition, and experiences. Many instructors use similar exercises. The exercises work for me in the sense that I have improved my skills in a competitive environment. I am better able to draw and hit a target on a range as per the competition’s scenario.

As your familiarity and performance skills improve you may wish to take part in an organized competitive pistol shooting discipline, which is generally a good thing. Do remember that this is competition and not training in that it does not address the real-world dynamics of a confrontation.

Beware that In the various handgun action shooting competitions time is weighed heavily along with the score. For these exercises the goal is to be able to hit the target with every shot. Don’t worry about the time it takes. Shoot as fast as you can while always hitting the target. It has been said that you can’t miss fast enough to win. Your speed making hits will improve as your skill improves. Practice does not make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.

Before we fire the first shot we have to have a safe range. The bullet stop or “backstop” must be able to contain any bullet fired into it. No bullets should be able to escape the shooting range. A tall earth berm is one excellent choice. Simply setting up a target stand with no formal backstop is very dangerous and thoughtless. You must know what is beyond the target stand, see “Rule 4” above. Eye and ear protection are mandatory.

A thorough understanding of the handgun’s manual of arms is required before you step to the firing line as well as an understanding of any posted range rules. If possible look up the range rules before you get to the range. Be aware that some ranges require you to purchase ammunition from them or restrict you to specific bullet types to control over-penetration. You should understand and be able to operate any mechanical safety on your firearm if present. Always use the safety, but never trust the safety.

You should be able to safely load, unload, clear, and demonstrate that the firearm is clear to others on the range. Normally if a semiautomatic firearm is resting on a table or shooting bench for some reason it should have the magazine removed and the slide locked back, such that a passerby can clearly see that the firearm is unloaded. A revolver should be empty of ammunition with an open cylinder. Ideally, there will be a range officer present. If not, I highly recommend a second person go to the range with you to assist and if needed point out any potential safety violations.

Target stands should be all wood with minimum metal fasteners. Many are built from construction-grade lumber. Often there will be a large target stand that is in a fixed position, almost always at one edge of the firing range just in front of the backstop. Any shot at the target stand from the firing line should impact the backstop.

Large frames around the paper targets allow a lot of room around the target in case a shot is poorly placed. You may also see smaller, portable wooden target stands that are used if you want to be able to set up targets at different distances from the shooter. These are often made of 2x2s or 2x4s.

When portable target stands are used care must be taken when positioning them so that all shots hitting the target on the stand will then hit the backstop. When portable target stands are used, ensure they are positioned so that when you shoot at them, your bullet will actually hit the backstop. A very short person or a person in a wheelchair may shoot over the backstop since they will be shooting upward relative to a taller standing person. This is unacceptable but can be mitigated by portable target stand placement or just using a lower target stand.

Metal target stands literally will shoot bullet fragments back at you. Ask me how I know this. Shooting at steel targets is inherently dangerous but can be done, however safely using steel targets must be addressed separately.

These exercises are designed to create muscle memory of good gun handling. Remember that only hits count. As Bill Jordan said in his classic book on gunfighting, No Second Place Winner, “The history of gun fighting fails to record a single fatality resulting from a quick noise.” It is critical to remember that you DO NOT HAVE TO FIRE when the firearm is aimed at the assailant. Many times the reality of a firearm pointed at the assailant by someone who appears ready to use it will stop the assailant without a shot fired. Having said that, you are the decision-maker, should you find yourself in that position.

Here is a useful reference article: Building a home shooting range.

You may want to check out these links for some thought-provoking related commentary you might find informative. Please note that some of these are blunt and not necessarily politically correct:

(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)