What follows are bad shooting habits and errors of target, competitive, and concealed carry shooters, as well as casual plinkers. I know about these first-hand because sadly I have experienced most of them, along with my students. Some of these also apply to tactical combat or very close point shooting, but many do not because in combat encounters there is not enough time nor opportunity for sight alignment and encounters may take place at night or in low-light situations and demand instinctive shooting. Focusing on this Checklist of shooting errors is a place to start your shooting improvement, although there are many more errors and bad habits to deal with in various scenarios.
1. Not TRAINING & PRACTICING for Real-World Encounters and Variables in Realistic Scenarios. Rarely do shooters make their training sessions as realistic as possible. For example, if you are training with your handgun to prepare yourself for a critical emergency encounter, you should do some of your training with your heart rate very high, to simulate the adrenalin rush that you may experience during a gunfight. Getting your heart rate up can be as simple as performing some sort of exercise (like deep squats, pushups, or sprints) for a minute or two before you draw and shoot. Adrenalin impacts your coordination and fine motor skills and its affects can be uncertain and dangerous with a gun in hand, so be careful and prepare gradually and physically for this. Another bad habit is PRACTICING the majority of time in one comfortable standing stationary position with only a two-handed, strong-side grip from a ready position (like when target practicing on the Range) or shooting when practicing ONLY from the Bench Rest. During a real gunfight, there is a high probability that you will be moving or in a non-stationary position shooting with only your strong hand (or with only your weak hand, if your strong hand is injured or disabled.), after you had to quickly draw from your holster. You might be shooting while kneeling on the ground. If you spend most of your workday driving in a vehicle, it’s conceivable that you might be attacked while seated in that vehicle. If you have never trained for these possibilities, you are simply not training for reality. To fix this, take time to plan the scenarios where you are most likely to have encounters that require the use of your firearm, and then SAFELY train in those environments or conditions with their likely variables and practice your fundamentals accordingly. Whatever you do, REMEMBER… PRACTICE, PRACTICE, and then PRACTICE… SAFELY!
2. Unsystematic and Lazy MINDSET. You do not orderly and systematically (and quickly) progress through your shooting checklist of proper fundamentals and techniques. (I developed, use, and give my students an 8-point Fundamentals of Shooting Checklist, but you can list your own or use one of several lists of shooting basics.) This error is a lack of discipline and a mental fault more so than a physical one and results in deviations from basic shooting fundamentals. There are NO EXCUSES for this. Accuracy suffers which could be corrected if you were more objective and regularly practiced the techniques, instead of just throwing rounds downrange. Remember, fundamentals and accuracy first, then comes speed. When you rush, you just hope you get a good shot and usually do not because you have NOT consistently and systematically practiced the proper techniques and fundamentals. Take an ANNUAL firearms fundamentals (refresher) of shooting & safety class from me or someone, because these skills are quickly perishable.
3. Loss of FOCUS and CONCENTRATION. The shooter should focus ALL ATTENTION on applying positive, smooth, continuous straight-back pressure on the trigger while AT THE SAME TIME concentrating on ONLY the FRONT SIGHT. A challenge that can be successful with PRACTICE! Remember that loss of concentration starts in the mind, so visualize the shot and hit and relax. If the shooter is not concentrating and pressing sideways on the trigger, there may be hits at three o’clock or nine o’clock. Too little finger contacting the trigger pushes the gun sideways as it fires. Too much finger on the trigger pulls the gun to the side. So the remedy is to concentrate and place the middle of the pad of the trigger finger (up to the first index finger crease) on the trigger and press it smoothly, not intermittently, straight to the rear. Concentrate on the trigger finger only touching the pistol on the face of the trigger, not on the frame.
4. Loss of CONFIDENCE and Anxiety. This occurs when a shooter is overly worried, anticipates, and fears the possible failed result of a shot, building up in his mind DOUBT about the shot being good. Will the shot go where I want it to go? Am I confident enough to get that shot on target where I want it? The focus then is on the negative rather than the positive and there is a loss of confidence. So, you hurry your shot just to get rid of that particular round so you may work on the others. You must discipline yourself to think positive and build your confidence through regular PRACTICE. Negative thinking and self-imposed stress definitely affect accuracy. Overcoming a negative conditioned reflex (e.g. a flinch) is accomplished by positive mental conditioning, practicing, and developing the confidence that you will overcome it.
5. Looking at the Target or Rear Sights and NOT the FRONT SIGHT. The human eye is capable of only focusing clearly on one object at a time. Other objects can be seen, but they are fuzzy and not clear, but still capable of being seen by peripheral, tangential vision. A shooter may be mainly or solely focusing his eyes on the target and it may not be clear, the sights not in alignment and his accuracy is poor. If he looks at the front and rear sights, he will not see the target in clear focus and again his accuracy is inferior. So he must align the sights, place them on the target (sight picture), and then solely concentrate on the FRONT sight. When this is done, the front sight will be clear, while the target and rear sights will be fuzzy but still seen. The result is most of the time a center-mass target hit, or at least on the target someplace, rather than a miss. When you try this the epiphany light bulb will light up for you. Your shot groups will tighten up, as if by magic.
6. Improper GRIP and STANCE. A shooter cannot achieve decent target hits over time with any gun in any situation if he continually changes his grip and/or shooting position or stance. Grip HIGH up and FIRMLY on the backstrap consistently and stay with it from shot to shot. The same applies to your stance or position when shooting. A shooter should find a suitable stable and well-balanced stance which will achieve a high immobility of the body without excessive strain on muscles. You may have different stances for competition, combat, carry, or range shooting. Determine which stance works best for yourself, stay with it, and practice it, whether it is the Isosceles, Modified (Modern) Isosceles, Weaver, Modified Weaver (Chapman), the C.A.R. and 4 stances, or whatever stance you prefer. Best to decide on ONE Grip and ONE Stance and mostly use them for consistency.
7. DELAY with Press-Holding Too Long to Take the Shot. It is said that holding a shot longer than at most ten-seconds is too long. After 10-seconds, the eyes loose focus, muscles constrict, and the arms waver. Any uncertainty or various adverse conditions while seeking correct sight alignment interrupt a shooter’s ability to “hold” and cause him to DELAY his press, waiting for conditions to better. A shooter may not even realize he or she is doing it. The delay will actually cause more movement with less accuracy. So, you must continuously ask yourself “Am I being too cautious and particular seeking a perfect shot?” Recognize that it is natural for some movement to occur and we cannot prevent total movement. So seek to shoot when control factors are optimum, not perfect, within your particular range of movement, to minimize movement and shorten your Arc of Movement as much as possible. This vacillation or target wavering is called the Arc of Movement. A shooter must analyze the usual time it takes himself to be comfortable with his Arc and the amount of time for his approximate minimum Arc of Movement. A guiding rule must be to never fire until you have identified and settled in to your minimum Arc of Movement. Then fire your shots when at the midpoint of your minimum Arc of Movement.
8. STAGING the Trigger for a Framed Shot. Proper Trigger Control does NOT mean “Staging” the trigger. Staging the trigger, pressing half way back and then stopping your press, will lead to a “Framed Shot” problem. A Framed Shot, sometimes called a “Now” shot, is when the shooter stops the rear movement of the trigger until the sights are aligned. This causes movement and a poor shot. When you tell your brain shoot “Now”, you are conditioning your muscles to tense for the shot and you will naturally move, anticipate, and flinch. Flinching and dipping the front sight are all conditioned reflexes as a result of repeated practice of improper techniques, like Staging. If this is happening, you must relearn the proper technique, recondition your brain to it, and practice and practice more to overcome the bad conditioned reflex. Practice proper trigger control with a smooth constant, straight-back “press” of the trigger with minimal finger, hand, and body movement, while maintaining proper sight alignment. The trigger finger moves by itself INDEPENDENT of the rest of the fingers, hand, and body for a “surprise” trigger break bang. So easy to say and challenging to accomplish.
9. JERKING or HEELING. These errors can occur when there is application of quick, twitching PRESSURE either with the trigger finger alone (Jerking) or by pushing the lower part of the backstrap forward with the heel of the hand (heeling) at the same time. “Heeling” the gun, a jumpy squeezing, just as it fires is a main cause of target hits at twelve o’clock. The heel of the hand pushes the lower part of the back strap forward, which elevates the muzzle. To avoid this, shooters should apply pressure to the trigger smoothly, constantly, and straight to the rear (without interruption) and wait for the shot to break. Be SURPRISED when the shot sounds and the trigger “breaks.” Jerking is the sudden or abrupt application of pressure on the trigger. Jerking the trigger most often causes hits at five o’clock or seven o’clock. Snatching the trigger too quickly by jerking it pulls the muzzle down and to the side. To remedy this, take up the slack and then continuously press the trigger straight to the rear smoothly.
10. FLINCHING. This common error, especially for new shooters, is simple anticipation. It is a premature reaction just a split second before the shot is fired, moving the intended aiming point. It normally causes hits low at six o’clock. Anticipation can cause instant muscular reflexes that so closely coincide with muzzle recoil that the shooter may not even be aware of it. Flinching (as a learned response) is an unintended mental and physical response to a negative stimulus (i.e. recoil and muzzle blast) that results in a displacement of the shot from its intended target point of impact. Thus, accuracy suffers. When shooting firearms rapidly, even some experienced shooters develop a compensating push forward just after the gun discharges, in anticipation of recoil or the “bang.” I had this problem myself. Remember only the trigger finger should move. Shooters must learn to minimize movement and HOLD STILL AFTER THE SHOT TO ACCEPT RECOIL without allowing themselves to react to it. Once you have assumed your stance and grip on the firearm you must learn to let recoil happen! What this means is that before you touch the trigger, you must be both physically and mentally prepared to accept recoil. Improper grip and stance exaggerate the effects of recoil and induce flinch. Getting the grip too low on the grip of the handgun accentuates muzzle flip by increasing the leverage the handgun has working against the shooter’s hand in recoil. Accept recoil and Practice; then Practice some more.
11. Lack of FOLLOW THROUGH. Follow Through is the subconscious attempt to continue adding pressure to the trigger until after the shot is fired. Shooters should strive to keep all fundamentals (stance, grip, sight alignment, trigger press, breath control, etc.) intact just as they were at the time the shot broke. In other words, you are continuing to fire the shot even after it is gone. Follow Through is not to be confused with recovery. Recovery is bringing the firearm back down on target to get a second sight picture after you fire the shot. Recovering and holding on the target after a shot does not mean that you are following through. Continuing to maintain trigger pressure, a solid grip, sight alignment, front sight focus, etc. through the shot release and until the firearm has completed its recoil and until after the shot is fired is Follow Through, which will lead to the shot being released without flinch. The Follow-Through process starts when you begin the shot release and continues as you increase the pressure on the trigger, until after the shot is fired. So allow the gun to recoil and keep watching the Front Sight, then assess the post-shot sight picture and then release the trigger pressure to complete the Follow Through. It should be a conditioned reflex and will come with practice.
* This personal opinion article is meant for general information & educational purposes only and the author strongly recommends that you seek counsel from an attorney for legal advice and your own personal certified weapons trainer for proper guidance about shooting & using YOUR firearms, self-defense and concealed carry. It should not be relied upon as accurate for all shooters & the author assumes no responsibility for anyone’s use of the information and shall not be liable for any improper or incorrect use of the information or any damages or injuries incurred whatsoever.