Becoming a Better Marksman (Part 4 – Basic Marksmanship and Pistol Techniques)

sight picture

In the final post of this series, HomesteadDad is going to provide you with some lessons on safety, basic marksmanship, and pistol techniques.  If you’re interested in homesteading, survival, parenting, helpful household tips, or just reading about interesting things, check out his website when you get a chance!


Duncan had alluded to some well respected blogger being able to guest post about pistol marksmanship, I guess that fell through and he was stuck with me, Homestead Dad.  So I will do my best to impart what knowledge I have on the topic of pistol marksmanship.  First off, I am an NRA Instructor certified to teach Basic Pistol, and Personal Protection in the Home.  I am also a certified Range Safety Officer.  Because of this my knowledge base comes largely from being an NRA instructor.  I don’t claim to be an expert pistol marksman, frankly at this point in my life I don’t have the time to devote to shooting to become one, but I know the fundamental practices for becoming a good marksman and that is what I hope to share with you in this blog post.

The first thing we need to talk about with anything that includes firearms is safety.  A pistol is not in and of itself dangerous.  It can’t shoot, move, or aim itself.  Using or not storing a pistol in certain ways makes it dangerous.  It is the person holding or storing the firearm that has the responsibility to keep it safe.  Safe storage of a pistol means storing it such that an unauthorized user can not obtain access to the pistol.  As such, storage will depend on your situation, but most commonly keeping the pistol unloaded in a safe is a sufficient manner of storage.

After we have stored the pistol safely we need to talk about safe pistol handling.  In the NRA they stress the three ALWAYS rules.  ALWAYS keep the gun pointed in a safe direction.  A safe direction depends on where you are located.  If you are retrieving your pistol from the safe and have the pistol pointed at the drywall that separates you from where your family is located, you are not pointing the firearm in a safe direction.  A bullet can easily pass through the drywall and strike someone on the other side.  Even pointing your pistol at a target may not mean it is pointed in a safe direction if there is someone down range.  Pointing the pistol at a cement floor may be the safest direction offered to you, but you also must be aware of ricochets.  This is to me, the most important rule.  If all else fails, if the gun is pointed in a safe direction even if there is a negligent discharge no one will be hurt.  The second rule is ALWAYS keep your finger off the trigger (and outside the trigger guard) until ready to shoot.  The text in parenthesis is added by myself and those I have been instructed by, the reasoning is that if you keep your finger inside the trigger guard and were to be bumped or trip your finger could press the trigger.  Rest your finger along the slide of the pistol above the trigger guard.  The third rule is ALWAYS keep the firearm unloaded until you are ready to shoot.  As this is a post on pistol marksmanship and not concealed or defensive principles this is how we will approach this subject.  This could be as simple as keeping the loaded magazine or a revolver speed loader out of the firearm until you are at the firing line ready to shoot.  Another rule that I would add is that all firearms should be treated as if they are loaded at all times.  Along with these rules you need to know your target and what is beyond it.  If you are shooting at a target that has no backstop you need to remember that a bullet doesn’t stop when it hits the target.  Make sure you know the trajectory of you firearm’s bullets and make sure you are shooting at a safe target and background.  If you follow these rules you can enjoy your shooting sports safely.

In this post I will assume you know how to operate your firearm safely.  This includes manipulation, loading and unloading, care and maintenance, ammunition selection, and safety equipment such as eye and ear protection.  If you just purchased a new firearm and are not familiar with it’s operation start with the owner’s manual.  You can also go to many gun shops, including the one you purchased it at, and there will more than likely be someone happy to help you.

Now we can get on to marksmanship.  The first thing you must learn is how to hold, or grip, your firearm.  When you hold your firearm you want to hold it firmly enough to have total control, but not so tightly that you will get fatigued.  It should be similar to a firm handshake.  When you take hold of your firearm with your dominant hand you want to take as high a grip as possible.  The higher your grip, the closer it is to being behind the bore of the firearm and the more control you will have over recoil.


Proper grip with one hand, notice the webbing between my thumb and fingers is as high up on the grip as I can get it while still being below the slide.


An exaggerated example of improper grip. My hand is too low and should be filling the space at the top of the grip. This grip would offer very little control of the firearm.

Now that one hand is properly gripping the firearm you need to add your second hand.  Look back at the first picture of proper grip.  Do you see all of that uncovered black space on the grip between the tips of my fingers and the flesh of my hand?  That needs to be filled with your other hand.  You want to put your left thumb(if you are right handed) underneath and pointed in the same direction as your right thumb and put the fleshy part of your hand on the uncovered part of the grip.  Then wrap your fingers on top of, and around, the fingers of your right hand.  This grip is sometimes called a “thumbs forward” grip as your thumbs will both be pointing forward.  It also allows maximum contact with your firearm and therefore maximum control.


You can see both of my thumbs are pointing forward and my left hand is filling up the space on the grip left by my right hand


Here you can see the fingers of my left hand wrapped around those of my right. Finger off the trigger.

One of the common mistakes that I see people make is that they take a decent grip with their dominant hand, but then set that on top of their off hand.  It is called “cup and saucer” because it looks like your dominant hand is a cup set on your left hand’s saucer.  It is a weak grip and should be avoided.

Now that you know how to properly grip your firearm you need to know which is your dominant eye.  This is difficult to explain with words so through the magic of the interweb you can click on this link and watch a YouTube video that shows you how to find your dominant eye.  For those of you who have slow internet I will do my best to explain.  Take your hands and bring them together with your fingers and thumbs overlapping and make a small hole with the webbing between your thumbs and fingers.  Now hold your hands out in front of you and look through that hole at a small object in the distance.  While keeping your eyes open and focused on that object pull your hands back to your face until the hole made by your hands is in front of one of your eyes.  This is your dominant eye.  It is important to figure this out before shooting because this is how you will aim your firearm.  Your dominant eye does not always coincide with your dominant hand and can change over time.  Now that we have determined your dominant eye let’s move on to aiming.

Aiming is the process of aligning the firearm so that when the bullet leaves the firearm it strikes the intended target.  To aim correctly we need to have proper sight alignment and proper sight picture.  Without the combination of both we will not have an accurate shot.  Sight alignment is the process of aligning the firearm’s sights correctly.  Every modern firearm will have a rear sight and a front sight, our job as a shooter is to properly align the two in relation to each other.  When aligning the gun’s sights you want to have your front sight lined up in the center of the rear site with the top of the front site level with the top of the rear site.  It is really hard to take a picture of proper sight alignment while holding a firearm in one hand and camera in the other.  This picture of proper sight alignment was found here at

sight alignment

After you have the sights properly aligned you will need to get a proper sight picture.  Sight picture is taking your properly aligned sights and placing them on the target you intend to shoot.  Again found at this is the proper sight alignment combined with proper sight picture.

sight picture

Notice that the front sight is in the center of the rear sight and tops of the sights are level, indicating proper sight alignment.  Those sights are then placed on the target with the top of the front sight over the middle of the target.  Now all you need to do is pull the trigger right?  Seems easy, but proper trigger pull is critical to marksmanship.

Now that we have a properly gripped gun, that is properly aimed at the target we need to pull the trigger properly.  This is called trigger control.  This constitutes the pushing of the trigger rearward with ever increasing pressure such that the trigger breaks in a surprising manner.  If you were to simply mash the trigger back, your sight picture would most certainly be ruined.  The reason you want it to be a surprise is that if you anticipate the trigger breaking and the gun firing and creating recoil, you could flinch as you pull the trigger.  That flinch would most likely cause you to pull the front sight down and shoot low.  Proper placement of the finger on the trigger also helps in accuracy.  For single action shooting, which most semi-automatics will be shooting, you want to place the pad of your trigger finger on the center of the trigger.  The trigger should also be pressed straight to the rear, not downward which could also cause you to shoot low.

After the trigger is pulled and the shot has broken, you want to make sure you hold your follow through.  Just as a shooter in basketball holds his follow through, as a shooter you want to hold your follow through after your shot.  While any movement you, as a shooter, make after the bullet has left the gun will have no affect on the bullet, by holding your follow through you give yourself the best chance that you have held your fundamentals before, during, and after the shot has been fired.  It also allows you to re-acquire the target if follow up shots are required.

Proper trigger control and follow through take practice, fortunately there are ways to practice without spending a lot of money on ammunition.  Dry fire practice is practicing without live ammunition.  Obviously all safety rules still need to be followed during dry fire practice.  As a general rule, all pistols that are not rimfire are safe to dry fire.  If you have any questions as to whether it is safe to dry fire your pistol, check your owner’s manual.  While dry fire practicing, practice maintaining all of your fundamentals.  If your sights leave your target at any time you can assess what action on your part caused that occurrence and remedy it.  There are ways to enhance dry fire practice, one of which is placing a coin on top of your sights and practicing breaking the trigger without the coin moving.  Start with a quarter and as you improve decrease the size of the coin until you reach a dime.  You could also use a laser sight system trying to keep the laser on a spot on the wall through the trigger pull.  As you get better move farther and farther from the spot on the wall.

Now that you have become adept at manipulating your firearm you need to make sure that you have a good base.  We will briefly discuss proper firing positions.  When firing your pistol while standing there are two basic shooting positions.  The first position, and the one I prefer, is the isosceles position.  With your body you create an isosceles triangle which has two sides of equal length and one side of a different length.  The equal sides are created by your arms, and your body creates the third side.  Your feet are placed shoulder width apart, knees slightly bent, and the bulk of your weight on the balls of your feet.  Your arms should be straight, but not rigid, and your firearm should be lifted to eye level.  It should be an athletic stance.  The second basic position is the Weaver position which was created by Los Angeles County Sheriff Jack Weaver in the 1950’s.  In this position you are taking an almost boxer-like stance.  The foot of your strong hand should be slightly rearward of your other foot with your shoulder and your weak hand shoulder pointed slightly at the target.  As with the isosceles position your knees are slightly bent and your weight is on the balls of your feet.  In this position your arms are slightly bent.  While you maintain your normal grip your strong hand pushes outward from your body while your weak hand pulls into your body.  This push-pull should offer great stability.  You should experiment with both positions to figure out which you are most comfortable with when shooting.

There are many other positions that you can shoot from, but with regards to pistol marksmanship standing will be the most likely.  No matter if you are standing, kneeling, prone, or leaning around a corner, the fundamentals still remain the same.  If you practice these fundamentals you can become a proficient pistol marksman.


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