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Common Handgun Shooting Problems, Probable Causes, and Possible Solutions

Common Handgun Shooting Problems, Probable Causes, and Possible Solutions

Common Handgun Shooting Problems, Probable Causes, and Possible Solutions

I found out a long time ago, and am still discovering, that shooting a handgun accurately is not as easy as it appears in the movies, on television, and by my skilled competitive-shooter friends. Like with anything you want to do effectively and efficiently, you must know the fundamentals, apply them correctly, have a proper attitude, can-do approach, and practice the basics regularly. This certainly is true with shooting, since the related skills are perishable and you can loose them so quickly. In my case, this older-than-dirt shooter must keep at it and diligently not give up, despite medical infirmities and aging. Without a doubt attaining proficiency in shooting requires a thorough understanding and practicing of the fundamentals of marksmanship coupled with a strong desire to improve and perseverance. It is generally said that if your sight alignment is off by just 1/16th of an inch at 20 feet, the result will be a 4.5-inch miss of your intended target. Of course, there are many factors and variables affecting this and many diverse problems and solutions for us to consider.

One of the best ways to improve your shooting skills is to analyze your target hits and groupings and learn from them. Another is to take a very good fundamentals of shooting and safety course under the watchful, eagle-eye of an experienced instructor. Observations of your shot placements and the ability to shoot a group are just two indicators, albeit good ones, of whether you have a firm grasp of shooting fundamentals. Analyzing your groups can help pinpoint problem areas with your trigger control, sight alignment, sight picture, grip, technique, etc. Shooting groups can also help determine if there are issues with your handgun and its sights. A handgun that has historically grouped consistently well might suddenly produce poor groups. This can point to problems with the handgun itself, like an internal barrel issue, lock-up, or issues with your sights. Screws on both iron sights and optic mounts can become loose resulting in erratic groups. A small group located outside the aiming area can indicate that the gun is not zeroed properly for that distance. Of course, you can shoot groups from any position: standing, kneeling or prone. For handgun shooting, you can shoot with both hands or use just your strong hand or only your support-weak hand. I believe that shooting from a bench or prone position with sandbags or a rest are the best methods for testing for accuracy, knowledge of fundamentals, and reducing the possibility of basic shooting problems and human errors. All of my students shoot initially from a bench rest and then move to two-handed shooting, etc. In International Defensive Pistol Association (IDPA) shooting, we shoot from various positions and include strong-hand only and support-hand only shooting. So, keep in mind that your groups are likely to open up at further distances, one-handed shooting, and at more challenging positions.

Shot Groups

Shot Groups

If your trigger manipulation isn’t precise, all the fundamentals and best sight alignment in the world can’t help you be accurate. Of course, accuracy problems could also be the result of an improper sight alignment, where the front sight rises above the rear sight, the handgun itself, or just about any of the fundamentals… or a combination of various factors and causes. So target analysis of shooting errors is somewhat unscientific and imperfect because there are so many variations of individual techniques and several, multifarious variables. However, we should not use this as a cop-out for not seeking to identify each problem and probable causes and possible solutions. So, trial and error are a frequent course of action for shooting error resolution. Be sure and work on solving your shooting problems one at a time, by isolating on just one problem at a time. Then blend all your resolutions of different problems together. This might involve readdressing a specific problem again by itself, then re-blending again. You want to improve your total system.
Another variable that affects shooting problems, accuracy, and grouping is cartridge type, load, weight, velocity, energy, etc. Try shooting a series of groups with your handgun with different weighted loads and cartridge types. I know I have found that certain handguns I own yield the best accuracy and overall performance when I shoot a specific bullet weight and type, e.g. almost all of my 9mm handguns shoot 124 grain hollow point and full-metal jacket rounds more effectively with better accuracy than with 115 grain full-metal jacket rounds. Recognize though that a heavier round tends to shoot higher than a lighter one at given distances and velocities.
Accept that target hits’ diagnosis, while extremely beneficial in narrowing down the field of potential shooting problems and errors, is not an exact science. There is much disagreement about definition of problems, terminology, and even optimal solutions for the same problem. Recognize that difficulty In detecting errors In trigger control, for example, is frequent because the pistol shifted during recoil and errors are not recognized. I regularly see with my students, and with myself, that the shooter has a more difficult time in recognizing, evaluating, and solving a shooting problem than does a coach or instructor with their objective observations. Often my students, and myself as a shooter, do not realize that they are jerking the trigger, blinking their eyes, closing one eye, holding their breath too long, pushing the gun forward at the last second, or gripping the handgun incorrectly. Well, with all these considerations, complexities, and the imperfect analytical process, I want to offer some of my lessons learned (and I am still learning them) to help you. Remember, I don’t have anyway close to all or the majority of answers for you, but hopefully these ideas help some. Here are ten common handgun shooting problems or errors, their probable causes and symptoms, and just some of the possible solutions.

inaccurate-hits-groups-widely-scatteredShooting Problem-Error: Inaccurate Hits/ Groups Widely Scattered

Probable Causes-Symptoms: Focusing on Target or focusing on Rear Sight; jerking trigger; Proper Sight Alignment not combined with Proper Sight Picture; Rear Sight & Target NOT blurred; large Arc of Movement means favorable hits opportunities are of short duration, so rush shots and have more movement

Possible Solutions-Tips: Focus intensely on Front Sight ONLY; Dry-Fire AND Live-Fire PRACTICE; Initially view target quickly, then perform Sight Alignment & Front Sight Only Focus; Review 8 Fundamentals for proper application, e.g. grip, trigger control; breathing; etc. When shot breaks the focus should be on ONLY the Front Sight & minimal movement; no jerking trigger or handgun

Hits Low on Target

Problem-Error: Hits Low on Target

Probable Causes-Symptoms: Anticipating Recoil; Jerking trigger; Gun slicing downward; Slapping trigger; Tightening Fingers and/or grip when shot breaks at 7:00 Left for RH Shooters & at 5:00 Right for LH Shooters; improper grip- low on backstrap & 3 fingers not closed; milking;

Possible Solutions-Tips: Maintain Focus on Front Sight & minimize hand, fingers & trigger Movement- only trigger finger moves straight back & Independent of rest of fingers, smoothly, consistently, not to the side; press rather than squeeze or pull trigger; do not push gun forward or down; do not tighten grip while pressing; isolate trigger finger & only it moves & straight back; do not look over sights at target; follow through sympathetic squeeze of fingers concurrent with trigger finger

thumblingProblem-Error: Thumbing

Probable Causes-Symptoms: Rotating strong thumb clockwise (RH Shooter) during trigger press means right-side Target hits near 3:00 position; Squeezing thumb; too much trigger finger; “snatching” trigger

Possible Solutions-Tips: Rest shooting-hand thumb firmly on top of support thumb; do not move strong thumb & other fingers sympathetically with movement of trigger finger & press; do not bend distal joint reflexively causing strong hand to rotate clockwise along with barrel muzzle; place trigger finger between midpoint of pad & first crease of trigger finger- not at the tip

 

 

Pushing the Trigger

Problem-Error: Pushing the Trigger

Probable Causes-Symptoms: Too little finger on trigger; not controlling trigger press straight rearward; trigger finger pushes trigger back & to the side (left for RH Shooter); rounds hit Target near 9:00 & 10:00 positions; no follow through

Possible Solutions-Tips: Contact Trigger between midpoint of first pad and first crease of trigger finger; do not use tip of trigger finger; press trigger straight back smoothly & not intermittently; do not anticipate recoil; follow through

 

 

 

heelingProblem-Error: Heeling

Probable Causes-Symptoms: Excessive forward pressure exerted with heel of shooting hand as gun is fired; rounds hit up high & right- near 12:00 & 1:00 positions; anticipating recoil

Possible Solutions-Tips: Do not anticipate recoil; do not push heel of hand forward when shot breaks; do not break wrist up

 

 

 

 

Jerking the TriggerProblem-Error: Jerking the Trigger

Probable Causes-Symptoms: Sudden or abrupt application of trigger pressure, followed by muscular action of arm & hand & abrupt tightening of hand on grip; trying to hurry & fire at moment when centered front sight passes under lower edge of bullseye, thus exerting too much pressure on trigger and jerks; anticipation of recoil & loud bang; usually shifting of pistol to the side and down; wider shot groups and shots off to the side; rushing shot

Possible Solutions-Tips: Press trigger straight back directly to the rear, so no shifts to side & down; do not hurry shot; do not anticipate recoil & bang; consistent, smooth, & level trigger press; only the trigger finger moves

 

Breaking Wrist UpwardProblem-Error: Breaking Wrist Upward; Pushing Gun Upward at last second before shot breaks

Probable Causes-Symptoms: Head held up too high & tilted back; body leaning backward; pushing gun forward; strong wrist not locked; no follow through; no solid, firm grip; Flinching

Possible Solutions-Tips: Grip gun very firmly; lock strong wrist; do not tilt head up high or back; do not lean body backward; do not push gun forward just before shot breaks; maintain all fundamentals briefly after shot breaks; emphasize the “surprise break” technique & be surprised when shot breaks (If you see your hands, knuckles, or fingers turn white, then you are gripping the gun too firmly.)

 

 

Breaking Wrist DownwardProblem-Error: Breaking Wrist Downward; Pushing Gun Downward at last second before shot breaks;

Probable Causes-Symptoms: Head drooped down; body leaning forward too much; pushing gun downward; strong wrist not locked; no follow through; no solid, firm grip; Flinching

Possible Solutions-Tips: Grip gun very firmly; lock strong wrist; do not droop head downward; do not lean too far forward; do not push or dip gun downward just before shot breaks; maintain all fundamentals briefly after shot breaks; emphasize the “surprise break” technique & be surprised when shot breaks (If you see your hands, knuckles, or fingers turn white, then you are gripping the gun too firmly.)

Problem-Error: Fighting the Recoil

Probable Causes-Symptoms: Believing that gun must be held down to control recoil; shots hit low; push gun down against recoil

Possible Solutions-Tips: Allow recoil to occur naturally; do not fight recoil- it occurs after shot (not before) so ride the recoil & allow it to go up & recover back down to sight line; do not push down against recoil

Problem-Error: Rushing Shots

Probable Causes-Symptoms: Speedup & hurry shots overlooking fundamentals; miss bullseye ; groups are very wide, diverse and inconsistent

Possible Solutions-Tips: Ensure fundamentals are known & practiced; start with a slow training process then gradually speedup, as a new shooter; shot placement & accuracy first, then speed

Trigger Control, Sight Alignment, & Dry Firing

Trigger control and sight alignment are two of the most important of all the shooting fundamentals. There are several ways to enhance trigger control and improve your sight alignment process, but I want to offer Dry Firing as one of the most beneficial practices for improving fundamentals and for overcoming many shooting problems. One good drill is the Penny Drill which involves dry firing a handgun with a penny placed on the front sight and not have the penny fall off. Place a penny on the front sight of your unloaded handgun, then obtain proper sight alignment and sight picture. Apply steady, smooth, straight-back rearward pressure to the trigger until the simulated shot breaks. If the penny is still atop your front sight, you have done fine.

Penny Drill

Penny Drill

Dry-Fire Practice, is simply the act of practicing handgun manipulations, such as sight alignment, establishing the grip, the trigger press, breath control, the draw, reloading, etc. without ammunition in the gun.

In order to see the most benefit from Dry-Fire Practice, you have to be consistent with it. You’ll be better off dry-firing for ten minutes every day, than for an hour once a week and some believe that you cannot dry-fire too much. Shooting skills are no different from other psycho/motor skills. The skills are developed over time and via repetition. Whether the handgun is discharged is somewhat irrelevant to the creation of the motor skills you need. Most of the fundamental shooting skills can be learned and improved through dry practice. However, a skill that really cannot be learned with dry practice is multiple-shot recoil recovery. For most common cartridge calibers, there are snap caps available to reduce the risk of damaging the handgun’s firing pin. It is generally acceptable to dry fire more modern centerfire firearms without a cartridge or snap cap. However, dry firing a rimfire handgun can damage the firing pin and damage can occur to the chamber mouth of a rimfire handgun. A relatively new tool for dry firing is the S.I.R.T. (Shot Indicating Resetting Trigger) laser training pistol. While costly at between $250 and $450, the claim is that it will not only vastly improve your skills, but it will save you many times it’s cost in ammunition.

The proper procedure for dryfire is simple. Set up a location where you have a safe backstop (like in your garage, attic, or basement.) Unload the live ammunition from your gun and all spare magazines. Triple-check that your gun is, indeed, unloaded and that all live ammunition is removed from your dry-fire area. Set up a target, like a small 1/3-scale IDPA silhouette target or even an 8×10 piece of paper. Start out by establishing a solid grip on your pistol. At your own pace, confirm your sight alignment on the target, and press the trigger so that the sights do not move. Repeat this 10-20 times. If the sights move when the trigger breaks, expefriment with how hard you grip the gun, how much (or how little) finger you have on the trigger, etc. The goal in dry practice is always perfect execution of the fundamentals.

Some Benefits of Dry-Fire Practice are:

  1. allows a shooter in a safe environment to refine his handgun manipulations to a much finer degree than one can when firing live. It is not just something that you do when you can’t get to the range and can be superior to live practice for building many of the skills that make up good handgun shooting;
  2. enables your nervous system to rest and avoid the recoil of the shots. Reflexes and habits which cause shooting problems are avoided (like tensing of the arm to counteract recoil, straining of muscles in anticipation of the shot, blinking from the noise of the shot) and are not being developed. These problems may begin to decrease and may completely disappear. Recognize, however, that dry firing is not a substitute for live-fire, but a supplement to it;
  3. it can easily be combined with regular live-fire training, with Dry-Fire Practice as necessary in the convenience of the home;
  4. by practicing aiming deliberately and noting everything that happens to the handgun when the trigger is pressed in a safe environment, the shooter will more easily discover his errors and eliminate them. It makes it possible to develop correctly and carefully the fundamental techniques of sight alignment, sight picture, pressing the trigger, and contributes to acquiring proper habits In controlling the trigger, breath, movement, and follow-up;
  5. when using dry firing, the shooter learns to overcome the desire to “grab” for a shot when the centered front site is under the bull’s eye. Despite the arc of movement the shooter must teach himself only to press smoothly on the trigger. When the smooth control of the trigger becomes habitual, the shooter can shoot live cartridges more confidently;
  6. is an excellent way to improve your marksmanship without expending expensive ammo;
  7. improves your familiarity with the handling and feel of your personal firearm. In stressful situations, familiarity helps prevent firearm operator error, like clearing a malfunction under pressure without thinking; and
  8. Builds muscle memory, a key element to accurate and consistent shooting. Muscle memory also helps prevent operator error.

I hope this presentation of common handgun shooting problems, causes, and possible solution has helped you, as a starting point. Of course, the best way to overcome your shooting errors and improve your skills is to SHOOT! So Dry Fire Practice at home and practice at the range. PRACTICE and Continued Success!

© 2013 Col Benjamin Findley. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reprinted or reproduced in whole or in part by mechanical means, photocopying, electronic reproduction, scanning, or any other means without prior written permission. For copyright information, contact Col Ben Findley at ColBFF@gmail.com.



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  • RhettButler1

    I have found the longer I stay away from the range, the more I make these mistakes referred to in this article. The more frequent I go to the range, the more consistent my shooting. Maybe I should start using the coin and dry fire exercise more often.

  • docmagnum357

    Col. Ben, I don’t have any of these issues. I shoot one hole groups. My problem is I am old, fat, and slow! Any suggestions on that ?

    • Colonel Ben

      Hi Doc! I understand. I ALWAYS shoot & get one-hole groups… if I shoot just one round one time. Ha! Some say for tactical, close quarters self-defense, it is best to not have all hits in the same one hole, but rather spread your hits around over center mass to hit several vital areas causing more damage. Just an idea to ponder. I empathize with your problem– have a positive outlook & stay young, thin & fast my friend. Continued Success! Col Ben

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  • James Van Valkenburg

    My old gunny taught that the sight picture was the most fundamental item. After that everything else (outside of a malfunctioning weapon) was in the shooters head and can be fixed.

    That and lots of practice.

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  • Rich DeWick

    Good article…. what I thought best was the trick with the penny on the font sight. I just tried it and I guess I better practice more.

  • Bill Hildebrand

    It must be remembered that shooting is a perishable skill. Practice, practice, practice.

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    How to become a proper shooter. I need a guidelines for using that. If you have any links whose guide me general tips for best shooters.

  • Dogbreath

    Col. Ben, my best shots concentrate in the left side of the center circle and into the next ring to the left. Of course, some are farther left towards 9:00 and a few towards 8:00. I try hard not to make any of the errors in your article, but my dominant (right) wrist is fused, and I am missing a bone in the hand and the plate that formerly held the rest of the small carpal bones together due to infection. Any info would be appreciated.

  • LD

    This whole thing is mostly a bag of trash that won’t help you a bit and isn’t even correct as why you’re having the listed problems. It’s a re-hash of a 50 year old lazy instructor thing. Waste of time since it doesn’t help you understand why you’re making the errors and the offered fixes are nothing.