Modern Handgun Shooting: Essential Tips and Techniques

Regardless of what sort of weapon we’re shooting, we all like to hit that target, don’t we? It doesn’t matter if it’s a slingshot, bow and arrow, rifle, or pistol. Handgun shooting presents its own set of challenges. Unlike a rifle, which has four points of contact with our body, a pistol only has one or two points of contact (depending on whether we’re holding it with one hand or two). The fewer points of contact we’re working with, the more perfect our technique has to be.

So, what are some vital techniques we need to focus on to be good pistol shots? I’m glad you asked because I’m going to give some suggestions. Understand, I’m not a gift to handgun shooting, but I’ve learned some techniques from some truly gifted pistol shooters.

Some factors here are influenced by information such as SOP 9, which was a study done by the New York Police Department of over 6,000 officer-involved shootings. The findings gleaned from this study are still valuable today despite the fact that it took place throughout the 1970s with the data released in 1981. Overall, people aren’t that much different these days in how they fight with guns and other weapons compared to back then. Of course, back then, the NYPD was armed with .38 caliber revolvers.

Factors & Techniques

Sight Alignment

One would assume sight alignment makes a world of difference in hitting our target. Yes and no.

No, because shooting distances came into play in a big way. Let me quote from the study:

  • Contact to 3 feet: 34%.
  • 3 to 6 feet: 47%.
  • 6 to 15 feet: 9%.

90% of all their shooting encounters took place within 15 feet, with the majority being even closer.  That’s close enough where sights aren’t needed for the majority of defensive shootings.

70% of the officers interviewed afterward reported not using the sights at all. In cases where the distance was longer, 20% reported aiming by either using the barrel as an aiming point or the sights. 10% of those interviewed stated that they could not remember whether or not they aimed at all. To put it bluntly, you’re probably not going to use the sights for the majority of armed encounters.

Competition shooters use their sights far more frequently since the distances that competitions are set up for do not mirror real-life defensive shooting. In fact, they’re far longer. It’s not unusual for competitors to shoot at 25 yards or even longer with pistols.

Author in GSSF competition.
Typical competition distances do not mirror real life in most cases. Defensive shootings typically take place at a much closer range. Photo: Author’s collection.

The bottom line is that sights matter at longer ranges where defensive shootings almost never happen. So, it all depends on what you’re likely to use your handgun for. It’s not a bad idea to be able to hit at the longer ranges, but I’d not obsess with spending too much time at it unless you’re shooting competition.


With rifles, we recommend a firm handshake grip. For pistols, we like it a bit harder. In all seriousness, you don’t need a death grip, but an extremely firm grip is good.

The lower the bore axis, the better. Often, you’ll see shooters cup the pistol as far up as their support hand grip will allow. Competition shooters are well known for this. Doing so gets the pistol (and bore axis) as low as possible in the hand, which lessens the effects of recoil.

Author with Glock 34 demonstrating handgun shooting stance
Getting the support hand as high as you can helps to mitigate recoil for faster follow-up shots. The pistol here is a Glock 34. Photo: Sue Davis.

A good grip is not necessarily essential for good accuracy, but it’s vital if you’re going to run the handgun at any kind of speed.

One aspect of semi-auto pistols that’s developed aggressively over the past few years is that manufacturers are really trying to improve grip texture. For example, the Springfield Armory Hellcat line has a grip texture that’s almost like sandpaper. This goes a long way in helping the grip stick to our skin.


Like the grip, the stance is not necessarily crucial to accuracy. You can get solid hits on the target while standing on one leg if you maintain your balance. If you plan on running the gun fast and moving dynamically, then stance becomes paramount. A basic boxer’s/fighting stance will serve you well. Weight should be distributed fairly equally with feet shoulder-width apart, allowing us to maintain balance and facilitate movement.

Trigger Control

Trigger control ends up being a huge factor in accuracy, especially when distance is involved. Okay, simple enough, right? Well, there are a few factors at work here.

Our fingers influence our grip squeeze. What I mean by that is that when our trigger finger squeezes, our hand squeezes sympathetically. On a related note, one hand can influence the other where the squeeze is concerned. I’ll expound a little.

Let’s say we have a pistol (or rifle) in one hand. We trip and fall, and our support hand goes out to break our fall. The action of our support hand could also cause our weapon hand’s grip to squeeze. So it’s possible to have a negligent discharge on our weapon in those circumstances, especially if we have poor trigger finger discipline and our finger is on that trigger. Basically, it’s a sympathetic trigger squeeze, which is one reason why trigger discipline is so important.

The trick to master our trigger finger operating independently from our grip squeeze. We don’t want either to influence the other. We do this by:

  • Isolating the trigger finger from the grip.
  • Conducting a proper trigger press.

Meanwhile, two things destroy accuracy:

  • Trigger slap.
  • Trigger jerk.

The trigger jerk occurs when the finger touches the trigger, and we mash it back as hard and fast as we can. Incidentally, this happens a lot during life-or-death encounters. A trigger slap occurs when the finger is not touching the trigger, and we just slap it against the trigger and mash it down. Doing so usually causes our shots to go low and left on the target for right-handed shooters.

Case in point: a family member recently had to put a wounded deer out of its misery this last hunting season. The animal was down but not dead. She stood a few feet away from the animal and aimed at the deer’s head. She ended up shooting the deer in the heart. From just a few feet away, her trigger squeeze caused the bullet to change from the head to the chest region. Adrenaline can cause some very extreme reactions.

An attacker armed with a baseball bat.
This guy is trying to cave your head in with a baseball bat and he’s just a few feet away. It’s not at all like a shooting competition. This is one reason why the police have an 83% miss rate. This photo is from a police body cam. Photo by El Cajon Police Department.

Now, imagine that’s a shot in a defensive encounter with an attacker. That could cause a complete miss. And before you criticize, let me point out an astounding statistic: police have a hit rate of approximately 17% in actual shootings. Statistically, the closer the target, the higher the hit rate (no surprise there). Still, a 17% overall hit rate for trained police officers is rather telling. That’s an 83% miss rate.

The Solution

So, what are we to do?

Proper trigger squeeze. If your pistol’s trigger has any, take up the slack. These days, most striker-fired pistols such as Glocks, Smith & Wesson, and Heckler & Kock have some take-up. Often, this take-up is light, and we go through it before we hit “the wall.” When we hit the wall, we gradually squeeze until the trigger breaks and fires. If it’s a single-action pistol, there likely won’t be any take-up or creep.

Wow, that’s all? Yeah, pretty much. But here’s the thing — it’s all simple and easy when we’re on a calm range with all the time in the world. Most of us can shoot respectable groups under those circumstances.

Attacker armed with a knife.
Shooting tight groups is easy enough when you’re calm. But how about when someone is trying to kill you? Good luck! Photo: SWAT Magazine.

How about during a competition when there’s some pressure? Or when someone is trying to stab or shoot us? During such times, our mind and body speeds up wildly. We tend to slap or jerk that trigger then, which makes accuracy go to crap.

So, how should we manipulate the trigger under dire circumstances? The same way, except faster. Squeeze until you hit the wall, then gradually tighten the finger until the trigger breaks. You can do it more rapidly but without jerking. It takes a good deal of practice with many repetitions. The main point is to be smooth regardless of the speed at which you’re squeezing the trigger.

In Conclusion

Stance and grip help us deliver accurate shots on target, while trigger control plays a more prominent role.

As we’ve seen, the majority of defensive shootings occur within a few feet, so sight alignment for those purposes is often less of a factor. Where competition is concerned, the sights will become more important because of the increased distances.

9mm snap caps.
Snap Caps can be a good training aid for practicing dry fire. Photo: Jim Davis.

Getting a set of Snap Caps and practicing dry fire will help you to ingrain your trigger pull through repetition. You don’t even have to go to the range for that type of practice (just be sure to have no live ammo nearby).

As we’ve discussed here, several factors at play lead to good accuracy. However, some are more important than others.

Jim Davis served in the PA Dept. of Corrections for 16 ½ years as a corrections officer in the State Correctional Institute at Graterford and later at SCI Phoenix. He served on the Corrections Emergency Response Team (CERT), several of those years as a sniper, and also the Fire Emergency Response Team (FERT). For 25 years, he was a professional instructor, teaching topics including Defensive Tactics, Riot Control and Tactical Operations, Immediate Responder, and cognitive programs as an adjunct instructor at the DOC Training Academy. He was then promoted to the title of corrections counselor, where he ran a caseload and facilitated cognitive therapy classes to inmates. His total service time was close to 29 years. He was involved in many violent encounters on duty, including incidents of fatalities. He is a dedicated Christian and attributes any skills that he has to the glory of God.

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