View CartCheck OutNews LetterNews Letter Sign-upWolfe Publishing Company
Wolfe Publishing Company
Handloader MagazineRifle MagazineSuccessful Hunter Magazine
Magazine Subscription Information
Wolfe Publishing Company
HomeShopping/Sporting GoodsBack IssuesLoaddataMy AccountAdvertisingGun Links
Online Magazine Login:    Email:    Password:      Forgot Password    Subscribe to Online Magazine
Big Game Rifle
Rifle Magazine
December - January 2000
Volume 35, Number 6
ISSN: 0017-7393
Number 208
On the cover...
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
Rifle Magazine
Rifle Magazine Wolfe Publishing Company
Rifle Magazine Featured Articles
Table of Contents
Product Tests
What's New
Rifle Magazine

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 graduate level.

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 radius).

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 book.

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 urge.

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 second.

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 accurate.

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 potential.

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 wounded game.

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.

Keith's "reclining" 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."

Awesome Art
Home  |  Magazine Subscription Information  |  Shopping / Sporting Goods  |  Back Issues  |  Loaddata  |  Advertising  |  Contact Us  |  Gun Links
Wolfe Publishing Company
Wolfe Publishing Company 2180 Gulfstream Suite A Prescott, Arizona 86301    Call Us Toll-Free 1.800.899.7810