|December - January 2000
Volume 35, Number
This issue is only available on CD-ROM.The Winchester Model 70 and Browning A-Bolt are chambered for the new .300 WSM. Purchase the CD-ROM here
Hitting things with handguns is
difficult but not impossible. I believe many people disregard handguns, treating them as
something useless because they cannot hit with them. Others, who want to like handguns,
are frustrated because the bullets do not obey their wishes. Our goal is to get them to
obey. What this is all about is simplicity, the very simplicity of hitting with a handgun.
There are only a few basic tools, tools that almost anyone can command. If you learn the
correct ways to ask a handgun to be your friend and practice them, you will be happily
surprised. Believe it or not, you can probably hit a gallon jug at 100 yards - with that
little monster you thought would not hit the barn door.
To make hits with handguns, you need
the basics. The best way I can describe the importance of these basics is to say they are
the only thing that will make a tough shot. If you are going to hit at 200 yards, or in .2
second, you will have to get really basic about it. This means controlling the sights and
trigger. If you align the sights properly and then turn the bullet loose while they are
aligned, you will hit. First, we have to get the barrel pointed at the target.
Elmer Keith proved years ago that
almost any sight could be made to work when he made long-range hits with revolvers ranging
from fine target-sighted pieces to little snub guns with virtually no sights at all. What
he did not tell you was that he was almost supernatural, that he was playing beyond
Within reason, better sights make
hitting easier. We are not going to include optical or electronic sights beyond using them
to illustrate the point. They are much easier to use than iron sights, provided the
optical sight is compatible with the shot you are trying to make. Optics eliminate
sight-alignment error. A shot with optics is perhaps twice as easy as with iron.
Similarly, good iron may be twice as easy as bad optics. "Good" sights are
defined by two qualities: the sights themselves and the distance between them (sight
The best handgun sight is the
classic, square rear notch and square front post. Generally the very best sights will
offer your eye the least complication. A flat, black, serrated front post combined with a
flat, black rear sight with the notch in it is best. This is a description of a classic
target sight. Bo-mar set the standard for a long time, while the similar "look"
from the new Bowen sights has the same effect. Your eye sees a very simple thing, a black
wall, two equal lines of light beside the front post and the top of that post aligned
perfectly with the top of the rear.
The sights need not and should not
be small or fine. In fact bigger is better. A front sight that is .100 to .125 inch wide
with a rear notch of the same width and depth will be about right. These sights are large
enough for your eyes to see easily. The generous width of the rear with its large amount
of light seen on either side of the front sight actually makes perfect alignment easier
than little, narrow notches and front sights.
Other kinds of sights make the job
more difficult. The tiny sights on a G.I. .45 Auto are next to impossible, while the
rounded surfaces of Colt single-action sights are okay but far from ideal. Another kind of
sight that has seen some presence lately is the bead-and-V notch as used on express
rifles. These are usable with the long sight radius of a rifle but basically a bad idea on
a handgun. They are not faster than square ones and are far less precise.
Sight radius is also very important.
Anything less than about 7 inches makes hitting more difficult than necessary. This
translates into a 5-inch barreled auto pistol or a 4-inch barrel on most revolvers. Up to
a point, longer is better. Something like the 7 1/2-inch revolvers are perhaps the easiest
kind to hit with. Snubbies with barrels less than 3 inches are real tough. These little
guys do have a purpose, as teachers. To hit, they make you do everything perfectly. While
a slight error with a long-barreled piece may result in a small miss, the same error with
a short barrel will be embarrassing. The little guns are a perfect way to refine your
technique after you have good results with barrels that make it easy.
While we are on the subject of sights, let's
think about sighting in a handgun. Yes, the sights on any handgun must be zeroed, zeroed
with the same precision as a rifle. You might be surprised how many would-be handgunners I
have encountered who have absolutely no idea where the bullets were pointed relative to
the sights. It seems to be a catch 22: "Well, I can't hit anything, therefore
sighting in is just a waste of time."
A correctly zeroed handgun will make
the bullets touch the center of the top of the front sight. Where that sight is, is where
you will hit. The only real decision is "How far?" Virtually every one of my
guns is zeroed at 50 yards. With most cartridges this puts the bullet about an inch high
at 25 yards and somewhere between 4 inches and a foot low at 100, depending on the
velocity. To get one zeroed you must be able to shoot a consistent group, and just like
rifle shooting, some form of rest or supported shooting position is a good idea. The
bullets will move on the paper in the same direction as you move the rear sight. It is as
simple as shooting a group and clicking the sight until the bullets hit the front sight.
Adjusting fixed sights is mechanically more difficult. There are three things you can do
to adjust the zero: change the load, file the sights and turn the barrel. This is a
complex subject for another time. Just do not overlook the importance of a good zero. Now
we will move forward to that nagging question: "How do we shoot that group?"
The trigger combined with sights
completes the handgun. This is the tool that either helps or hinders the process of
sending the bullet away while the sights are in the right place. Make no mistake, a
quality trigger pull is extremely important. Some shooters are less
"trigger-sensitive" than others. A great shot can overcome a bad trigger, but
even for them, hits are easier with a good one. The classic "perfect" handgun
trigger has a pull weight of 2 1/2 to 3 pounds. It feels rock solid to the touch, and then
with virtually no movement or creep, it breaks. I suppose the best way to experience this
kind of pull is to try an old Smith & Wesson. Those wonderful guns had triggers like
the proverbial "breaking glass rod." But, believe it or not, this kind of
trigger has a built-in trap. We will get to that in a moment.
Another kind of pull may actually be
best, especially in the learning phases. This has the same weight but has some discernable
creep. The movement must be smooth and certainly should not be huge, but if you can feel
the trigger slide a bit before the hammer falls, it may actually make you a better shot.
To understand we will now blend the sights and trigger together.
The first and probably last
frustration every handgunner experiences is the darn thing won't hold still. No, you are
not alone. Try as we might, no one I know can hold his pistol sights rock still on the
target. With experience and increased skill, some will hold more still than others, but
everybody's sights run around. Hits depend on understanding that wobble and getting it and
the trigger to agree with each other.
Begin with a very important concept:
The alignment between the front and rear sights is much more important than where those
sights appear to be on the target. Put another way, if you have the sights perfectly
aligned, you can move the gun in a 6-inch circle and theoretically shoot a 6-inch group at
100 yards. Turn the tables and hold the front sight dead still on the target, but now
allow the daylight on one side of the front sight to appear to be twice as wide as the
other and you miss by several feet.
So, this is what we want to do. Hold
the gun and concentrate your vision on the front sight, then strive to see perfect sight
alignment. All the while the gun is going to move, wobble about the vicinity of the
target. Concentrate, keep those sights aligned. Now, begin to press the trigger, increase
the pressure, coaxing it to move enough to fire the gun. All the while do your best to
crowd those aligned sights toward the place you want to hit. Because you are staring at
the front sight, the target may blur. That is fine. You can flick your focus from sight to
target and back again to regain your confidence in the target's location. Just be sure the
last thing you see before, during and after the hammer falls is the sights. Sometimes when
you do all this just right, you will still miss. There is a huge monster enemy lurking; it
is the flinch.
Everybody flinches now and again,
more or less. Those who do not lack a heart beat or bend the truth. What a flinch really
is, is a grab at the trigger, or whole gun, that destroys that perfect sight alignment.
(Here is where that little creep in the trigger pull is better than the breaking glass
rod. That little movement, the miniature double-action pull, helps you press instead of
jerk.) A flinch can be very very secret. Your mind denies it, recoil hides it, but misses
continually prove its existence. The reasons for and psychology of flinches might fill a
For now we will simply try to avoid
them. The best method is one described earlier. Do not try to make the gun fire at any
given moment. Instead, concentrate on the sights and push them toward the target, while
you gently increase the load on the trigger. It is very important to resist the urge to
make the gun fire at one of those fleeting moments when the sights cross the target.
Snatching, grabbing at the shot, will almost always send the bullet wide. As your skills
and experience grow, you will reduce the wobble and also be able to cause the shot to go
more on demand.
Even the best shots alive, however,
have to play by the basic rules. To help discover and defeat your flinch, like an
alcoholic, you must first admit you have the problem. To do this, use a revolver with some
empty cases and some live rounds. Turn the cylinder without looking, so you do not know
whether any given chamber is live or empty. When you hit an empty and the sights jump
about three feet, you have seen your monster. Now you can work mentally to defeat it. The
process is relatively simple. During the shot, tell yourself (mentally) to press, squeeze
or whatever other visualization will equal anything but the flinch. Fight it, resist the
Now we come to the business of holding
handguns to best advantage. The basis revolves around a balanced, two-hand grip. It is
used for almost every shooting position. Begin by placing the grip (stock) in your right
hand (unless you are a lefty). The barrel should be perfectly aligned with the bones in
your forearm, and your second finger should crowd tightly up, under the trigger guard.
Curl all your fingers around the grip, then wrap your thumb around the left side and down,
until it laps over the end of your second finger. When it is right, your thumb should
actually be able to pull that second finger more tightly around the grip. With your right
hand in place on the gun, grip that hand with your left hand. Left-hand fingers should
fall into the grooves between the fingers of the right hand. I like to put my left index
finger on the front of the trigger guard. This helps alignment and recoil control.
Finally, your left thumb crosses over the top of your right thumb and pulls it downward.
The end result is two hands that are perfectly mated to the gun and to each other. They
mould together as a unit that has a very tight, secure grip on the gun with the least
amount of work. This apparently complex hold can be achieved in small particles of a
The various shooting positions have
certain advantages and are adaptable to different kinds of shots and terrain. The plan is
to use the one that gives you the best "edge" for any given shot. Offhand is the
most obvious and probably the most used way to fire a handgun. It begins with the basic
two-hand grip, feet about shoulder width and your weight just slightly forward. Some like
to lock their right elbow, while I prefer just a bit of bend in it.
If there is a big trick to offhand
it is to use opposing pressure between left and right hands/arms. That is, push forward
with the right and pull backward with your left (or vice versa for lefties). With a
light-recoiling piece, you "play" with the pressure until you find the amount
that gives you maximum steadiness. With heavy recoil I usually apply tension between my
hands that is just short of creating a tremble. Any time you can brace the side of your
left shoulder or the back of your left hand against something, a tree or rock for
instance, you can slow down the wobble. Offhand is the most versatile shooting position,
one that works over or around the greatest variety of obstacles. It is also the least
The opposite end of the spectrum is
held down by prone, or more accurately roll-over prone. Here we have most of ourselves
touching the good solid earth. You lie facing toward the target with your body angled
about 20 to 30 degrees left of center. "Roll over" implies that you somewhat
roll onto your right side instead of being perfectly flat on your belly. Employ the same
grip, extend your right arm fully and let your right cheek lie on your right biceps. This
one is almost as solid as a benchrest. The downside is that you must have virtually bare
ground, or shoot from an elevated position, so you have a clear line of fire. The plus
side is, when my form is good, I can shoot a pistol or revolver right up to its accuracy
Sitting with cross sticks is a
really good way to get the most from a handgun. The whole idea is to gain maximum
advantage over the gun. Sit flat on your backside, lean slightly forward and place your
elbows on your knees. This is very important, the knees and legs create contact with the
ground. If you leave your elbows flailing about in the air, you might as well shoot
offhand. When your elbows are firmly and comfortably supported by your knees, adjust the
sticks so they are the right distance from you and also the correct height for the shot.
You can rest either the frame or the barrel close to the frame on the sticks. Sitting
without the sticks is similar but gives up lots of advantage.
Kneeling is my most used support,
especially when I am hunting. It is quick to get into, leaves you pretty well concealed,
is versatile relative to terrain and obstacles and can be very steady. I probably have
taken about 80 percent of my big game from the kneeling position. This one takes the most
practice but is worth the effort. Again the basis is the two-hand grip, and like offhand
you have the choice to lock or bend your right elbow.
To get there, place your right toes
about 8 inches behind and a little way to the right of your left heel. Now, simply sit
down, placing your right hip on your right heel, while your right knee folds down onto the
ground. Your left foot and leg do not move, leaving your left knee elevated. Fish around a
bit with your left elbow, placing it on your left knee so the flat places of both parts
match up. Some tension between left and right hands is good, but now instead of pulling
straight backward with your left, as we did in offhand, the pressure is backward and down.
The gun and your hands should be
almost directly above your left knee. The kneeling position forms a series of triangles,
just like superstructure of a bridge. Solid is the best description. You can melt into it
as you draw or slide into it from a dead run as I have many times when I was pursuing
Once, long ago when I was an
apprentice hunter, a fellow wounded a big kudu bull. To complicate matters we were on the
way to an appointment with a lion. The hunter had my rifle, I only a .45 Colt. He hit the
bull, who ran more or less past my position. When he loped by, there was no shot, so I
went after him in high-speed pursuit. Just before he reached an impenetrable thorn
thicket, he stopped to look back, from about 90 yards. I had just run a flat-out sprint
for about 300 yards, making offhand out of the question, so I dumped myself into kneeling
and unleashed a bullet at his shoulder.
The bull whirled away and
disappeared into the jungle. I was kicking myself. If I had remained quiet, out of sight,
the boss and his client might have gotten a telling shot with my .375. As it was, all I
had done was hasten his departure. There was nothing to do except go to where he had
disappeared and take up the tracks. We were going to miss the appointment with the lion,
the kudu was probably going to be lost in the dark, and I was going to be unemployed.
Imagine my surprise when, instead of tracks, I found the old bull in a pile about 3 feet
inside the thorns - with a hole dead center in his shoulder. This kind of hit makes me
believe in kneeling. We got the lion too.
There are a couple other ways to
take advantage of handguns, both stemming from Elmer Keith. One is his back rest. To use
this you must have something to lean against with your back. Simply sit down, lean back,
take the normal grip and then grip your hands between your drawn-up knees. This is rock
solid, but you must study the point of impact. It usually causes bullets to strike lower
than normal. Also, be sure the cylinder gap is in front of your knees to prevent the blast
from burning your pants, or worse.
position is also very useful. Now you lie backward, feet toward the target. Rest on your
left side and elbow and for this rare instance, hold the gun only in your right hand. Draw
up your right leg and cradle your hand and the gun in the hollow formed just below your
right knee. This is pretty versatile and very sneaky, allowing you to stay low but still
giving you some elevation over obstacles. It is a good way to make hits.
After having considered the ways to
take advantage of the guns, we should consider guns that are easiest to take advantage of.
As mentioned earlier, good sights and a reasonably long sight radius are important. You
should look for a gun with grips and frame that are about right for your hands. For most,
the tiny round butts found on the concealment revolvers are very difficult. Equally tough,
in the opposite direction, are the fat, high-capacity auto pistols. Do not hope for
unusual, oversize grips to help you hit. Standard ones found on the S&W
"target" style K or N frames, Colt 1911, SAA and the Ruger single actions and
especially the Bisley grip will make hits easy. Very small, lightweight guns are difficult
because they do not have mass that helps dampen the wobble.
All these factors add up, but there
in one more very important gun-related factor: power. Lots of noise and recoil make hits
more difficult. The easiest caliber to master, by a wide margin, is a .22 rimfire. This is
the one you should learn the basics with. Light loads in .38 Specials, .32s or even mild
loads in the .44 and .45 calibers can be friendly. Just know that screaming loads in the
"magnums" are going to work against hits. The racket and pounding intimidate
nervous systems - all of them. When you combine the intimidation factor with the necessity
to hold the gun "harder," it is just plain tougher to shoot them well. When you
move to the cannons, five-shot .45s, .475 and .500 calibers, you have a tiger by the tail.
These are for seasoned masters who have learned to overpower the guns with their minds.
Even then, wise men will only fire a few rounds a day.
What should you expect of yourself? That
varies from individual to individual. If you start with the premise that most handguns
will group in an inch for each 10 yards range, 5 inches at 50, or 10 inches at 100 yards,
you have a base line. A handgunner who can hold for twice that offhand is on the right
track. With practice, using one of the supported holds, you should be able to actually shoot groups that
approach that "inch for 10 yards." True masters can almost prove the potential
of the gun. Remember, nothing will help you make a tough shot more than the basics. Talk
yourself through every shot, "Sights-trigger-sights-trigger-sights."