8 Critical Handgun Skills and Concepts: Beyond the Basics

Eight Critical Handgun Skills and Concepts: Beyond the Basics

Many shooters take a basic handgun training course and/or complete the fundamental concealed carry licensing or permit class and stop at that point. Sadly, I have learned that several of our beginning students have done this, even after I have encouraged them to continue their handgun training to the next level. And I am not talking about only the mechanics of shooting, like proper grip, stance, sight alignment, sight picture, trigger control, follow-through, and a few use of deadly force laws. I know I felt that I learned so much after my day-long introductory concealed carry course that I felt that I was ready to defend myself in deadly-force situations and did not need further training on the basic mechanics or other skills.

I did not really stop to think that it might take law enforcement quite a while to get to me and I would be on my own and need skills myself beyond the basics to deal with attackers.

One Basic-Level Training Course is Not Sufficient

However, I was naively lulled into a false sense of security and felt that I was at the pinnacle of success for defending myself. I felt I knew how to handle a handgun, the fundamental mechanics, and to defend myself. In spite of my well intentions, confidence, and devotion, I was very wrong and not prepared to the fullest for my personal protection. Of course, knowing and continually practicing the basic fundamentals are extremely important. But, there is so much more to know and practice for our personal protection. Do not neglect understanding when to shoot and not shoot in various situations, the legal aspects, and deadly-force laws.

POINT: I did not know what I did not know and needed to adequately prepare myself for my personal protection in different deadly-force situations.

Many behave in a way that makes sense to themselves based on their abbreviated exposure to the limited knowledge of the basic essential self-defense skills and shooting mechanics. No matter how great and effective the instruction and content were. In particular, we are not prepared for the focus, priority, and blend of speed and accuracy in various self-defense shooting situations and the critical ancillary, supporting skills and concepts we need.

Use a Shot Timer to Improve Performance

A shot timer is necessary to measure and improve quick presentation/draw response times, consistency, and for delivering shots quickly while maintaining accuracy. Par times for completing standard actions and split times between shots are shown, so you can track your status. Rather than looking at holes in targets, you can track your performance and quantify your limitations in different range scenarios. You can better know your limitations. Since we know that most deadly-force scenarios occur at three yards, with three rounds fired, and are over in three seconds, can you survive an attack? Timing reactions is a way to help you know.

POINT: Shooting your .22 LR pistol at a single, fixed paper target from a low-ready, stationary stance with two hands at three yards with no sense of urgency is very different from drawing and facing two bad guys shooting at you with large-caliber pistols from different distances, face-to-face up close, while on the move drawing your gun from a holster while running for cover.

After taking several intermediate and advanced handgun training courses through military, law enforcement, and civilian organizations, through competitive shooting events, and in real-life situations, I have come to recognize some of these mandatory, higher-level, critical skills and concepts for self-defense that I lacked and want to share them with you. For me, this is an ongoing, lifelong learning process. Hopefully, this will help you be successful in the event of deadly-force situations that require special and critical handguns skills to survive. Naturally, the basic skills are very important complements and should also be regularly practiced.

I want to give you my eight recommended upper-level skills and concepts to learn and master, after learning the essential basic fundamentals. These primarily intermediate-level skills and concepts will help you be better able to defend your life and the lives of your loved ones. Use a shot timer to quantify your results. Here are my 8 recommended critical handgun skills and concepts, to complement your introductory skills, fundamental shooting mechanics, and basic understandings.

Eight Critical Handgun Skills & Concepts

1. Shooting With Your Off-Support Hand

A shooter should know how to properly pick up the gun with their support hand and quickly get it ready to fire. They should also know how to properly load and unload single-action and double-action handguns, revolvers and pistols in a timely manner. There may be a battlefield pickup of a gun to use for your defense. Properly cocking and decocking single-action and double-action handguns is another skill to know. A self-defense shooter should know how to safely handle a Misfire, Hangfire, and Squib load… and do so quickly. Of course, safety first always. If problems are encountered, stop firing immediately and keep the gun pointed downrange

2. Shooting One-Handed And Two-Handed

Most of us know the two-handed grip from our basic class. But, when shooting one-handed, put your gun-hand foot forward. And extend your gun hand straight ahead of you. About 60% of your weight should be shifted forward onto that strong foot, with a slight bend in the knees. The rear foot should be firmly on the ground as a solid base for stability. When shooting one-handed, grip the gun with your thumb down and the gun slightly canted inward, for the strongest grip to enhance accuracy. Your other hand should make a fist and be placed across your chest or raise the arm tightly to hip level with the palm facing upward. Is your muscle memory developed to do this quickly in real-time?

3. Shooting On The Move And While In Various Positions

Keeping your feet moving and hitting your target at the same time can be challenging. The movement of your feet at an optimal speed and level of aggressiveness should be directly related to the land terrain and targets you are shooting. So, move faster on level ground and if there are closer, wide-open targets. Then more carefully if there is difficult footing and irregular, rough terrain. Gripping your gun very firmly is important when shooting on the move, so you can steady the sights, help trigger control, and not drop your gun. Try shooting properly and quickly:

  • When Advancing
  • When Retreating
  • From Different Positions
    • Kneeling
    • Prone
    • Moving Laterally from Behind 1 Cover to Behind a Different Cover
    • On Your Back
    • Sitting
    • After Rotating 180 Degrees from Back to Front

4. Shooting From Different Self-Defense Distances

The classic Tueller Drill is based on timing attack distances and how far away a bad guy/gal with a knife has to be to harm you before you can draw and fire. The conclusion is that the average time to draw and fire is about 1.5 seconds, but the average time it takes for an attacker to run 21 feet is also 1.5 seconds. So, if someone has a knife and is 21 feet from you, they can run toward you quickly (in 1.5 seconds) and you should be prepared to use deadly force soon at about 21 feet or 7 yards. This has been often accepted as the distance to be able to effectively hit targets for self-defense and we use this in our introductory handgun concealed carry class for student qualification. But other very general guidelines, like the unofficial 3-3-3 Rule, is that most public attacks happen at 3 yards in 3 seconds, with 3 rounds maximum fired. Another consideration for home defense is how large the rooms in your home are. If you have a large living room or den or very long hallways, being able to hit a target at those distances in your home could be a strong consideration. Some homes have 25-30 foot or so distances with long lines of sight, so training at those distances might be considered. Some recommend going out to 25 yards for self-defense shooting practice, but this distance is probably a little long. Of course, this is a variable, and who really knows. It depends on a lot of factors. Some states even include parameters for lawful shooting distances, so be certain to check with your state’s laws. In any event, practice at different distances that you feel comfortable with for your usual conditions and not always at the same distances. Here are some distances to consider:

  • 3 Yards
  • 5 Yards
  • 7 Yards
  • 10 Yards
  • 15 Yards
  • 20 Yards
  • 25 Yards

5. Shooting Various Sizes And Numbers Of Self-Defense Targets

Of course, there could be one attacker or multiple attackers at different distances. So, just in case be prepared to shoot multiple targets and various sizes of targets to be ready. Here are some ideas:

  • Single Target
  • Multiple Targets
  • Large Targets- 12 to 18 inches
  • Small Targets- 6 to 12 inches

6. Drawing And Loading The Handgun

Drawing and loading a gun can result in tragedy if it is not done properly, quickly, and SAFELY, especially if you are moving and must respond immediately. So it is important to practice these skills. Be certain to always point the gun’s muzzle in a safe direction, keep your finger off the trigger and outside the trigger guard, make sure the chamber and barrel are clear and unobstructed, and load the correct ammunition into the magazine. Reports indicate that the majority of firearms-related casualties occur when drawing or reholstering a gun with a holster. Practicing drawing and loading with an empty gun is important, as is dry fire practice and using a proper holster that is designed for your particular gun, so that you cannot reach the trigger well until the gun is drawn. It is important to practice the motion of bringing your support hand safely to your chest and bringing your firing hand to the gun and establishing a solid grip while the gun is in the holster. Start slowly and progress to faster. Practice drawing and loading a gun:

  • From Outside the Waistband
  • From Inside the Waistband
  • While Moving Forward
  • While Retreating
  • While Seated

7. Shooting Different Calibers Of Handguns

Naturally, handguns are chambered in several different calibers and shooters base their handgun caliber choice on several factors. Some are most concerned with the ease of handling and shooting the gun, while others want the least recoil and muzzle flip because of medical conditions or physical infirmities. Still, others want the very best overall effectiveness in accuracy and reliability for self-defense or personal protection, while some just want to have fun. Also, there may be a situation where your defensive gun has failed or run out of ammo and there is a gun on the field which you can grab and protect yourself with. But, you must know what to expect from different calibers and guns so you can maximize their effectiveness. I like the 9 mm cartridge and gun for my self-defense and generally for our students. It is the most popular self-defense and general-use caliber and is used by many law enforcement and military units, and civilians. It has sufficient stopping power, adequate expansion, and penetration, with very manageable recoil and muzzle flip for control. And it is readily available and moderately priced, although during our COVID times this may not be as true as earlier. The size of this round allows 9 mm handguns to hold 15 or more rounds. I want to say that I do not recommend the .22 LR round and guns for self-defense. Recognize that different types of bullet calibers are meant to accomplish different tasks, and there are literally hundreds of calibers. Some for long-range shooting, some for close-range self-defense, some for large targets or animals, and others for larger, hard-to-take down targets or animals. In my opinion, here are the calibers you should be familiar with shooting and, thus, able to understand their properties, ballistics, uses, and results.

  • 9 mm
  • .40 ACP
  • .45 ACP
  • .380 ACP
  • .38 Special
  • .22 LR

8. Shooting Different Handgun Actions And Features

When examining the different types of handguns, you will discover double action, single action, double-single action, striker-fired, and pistols compared to revolvers. There are many handgun types with several different features, actions, uses, results, and characteristics. It can be overwhelming. Suffice it to say that to help you get the right handgun for yourself, with the best features and characteristics for your specific use, you need to try before you buy and consider some of the many available quality handguns, within your price range. In my experience, every quality handgun manufacturer has one or two lead flagship, quality handguns they are well-known for. And so you can better judge the amount of recoil, muzzle flip, trigger press weights, reliabilities, accuracies, grip fit, training and skills required, and expected results, you should shoot pistols and revolvers with different barrel lengths and actions. A pistol with a 3-inch barrel will operate and perform differently, usually with more recoil, than a pistol with a 5-inch barrel. Revolvers also vary with barrel length. A single-action gun is very different from a double-single action gun. Do you need a decocker and do you know how to use it? Further, there are differences between some 5-inch pistols relative to 5-inch revolvers. For understanding and familiarity, I recommend shooting:

  • Pistols- 3 inch, 4 inch, and 5 inch barrels
  • Revolvers- 3 inch, 4 inch, and 5 inch barrels
  • Several Actions, like Single, Double, Double-Single, and Striker-Fired Actions


There are mandatory, higher-level, critical skills and concepts for self-defense that we must all understand, practice, and use quickly. I have shared my eight critical handgun skills and concepts here to help you be successful in the event of deadly-force situations that require special and critical handguns skills to survive. Law enforcement may not be quickly available to help.

Understanding and practicing these primarily intermediate-level skills and concepts will help you be better able to defend your life and the lives of your loved ones. I hope my eight recommended critical handgun skills and concepts here will complement your introductory skills, fundamental shooting mechanics, and basic understandings for your success.

Be Safe!

* 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.

© 2021 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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"Col Ben" is retired with 30 years service in the U.S. Air Force, with joint services Special Ops duty and training, and is Air Force qualified as "Expert" in small arms. He is a Vietnam-era Veteran. Ben is an experienced NRA-Certified Pistol Instructor, NRA Range Safety Officer, and FL Concealed Carry License Instructor. Ben recently wrote the book "Concealed Carry and Handgun Essentials for Personal Protection" (second printing) with 57 comprehensive Chapters about concealed carry and handgun principles, techniques, and tips for both experienced and new shooters. His reference book is endorsed by several organizations and is available on his website at FloridaHandgunsTraining.com. Contact him at ColBFF@gmail.com.
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Excellent reminder about very necessary skills to help me protect myself and my family.


Yes, I did the same thing. Thought I could defend myself with just my carry class topics and skills. Everyone should open their eyes and realize that they should develop and practice often your 8 critical handgun skills. I neglected the moving and shooting skills and thankfully did not suffer in a deadly situation. Don’t take the risk. Practice these skills and practice some more. THANK YOU for the reminder.


Thank you for a great summary of the skills we need beyond the basic ones. I was looking in several places for a listing of these intermediate skills and couldn’t find a comprehensive list. Your listing was spot on and very helpful. Now I just have to get practicing them.


Better add another one. Knowing, explicitly, the legal requirements of using deadly force. Understanding the legal definitions of terms like “immediate” and “unavoidable” in describing a shooting scene; terms like “intent”, “means”, and “opportunity” when describing a potential threat; legal restrictions of when you can, and cannot, use deadly force. This is not a secondary concern – the money in your bank account will not cover the cost of a criminal/civil trial that results from an unjustified shooting. And everything else becomes secondary at that point.

Col Ben

Thanks for your comment. Yes, legal requirements for using deadly force are very important, like I said in the article… Do not neglect understanding when to shoot and not shoot in various situations, the legal aspects, and deadly-force laws. In our concealed carry class we include about 1.5 hours on the requirements for using deadly force and actual use of deadly force in different scenarios. I recognize that this is not the norm for most cc classes, however. In any event let my 8 intermediate-level skills complement your knowledge and application of the very necessary, basic legal requirements, legal restrictions, and basic legal terminology.
All the Best & Be Safe! Col Ben