Friday, August 3, 2012

Just the Basics – I Just Can’t Hit A Darn Thing With This Thing . . . .


Firing first shots is always interesting to watch. Having sent more rounds down range over the past 40+ years than I can count, it’s easy to forget that “first time”. Teaching the NRA Basic Pistol course is a nice reminder that, while for many of us it’s “old hat” – there are many folks in our country have never fired a handgun.

I always do a lot of prep work prior to taking the folks out to the range. They practice loading all the firearms I bring with plastic rounds. Single and Double Action Revolvers, .22, 9MM and .45 ACP Semi-Automatic Pistols, Single Stack and Dual-Stack Magazines. All of them. Multiple times.

Then we walk through their stance – I use what I term a “modified Weaver” – dominant leg’s toe even with the heel of the support side, feet shoulder width’s apart. Knees slightly bent. Shooter leans slightly forward into the firearm using a two-handed grip.

We discover each person’s dominant eye (actually had two cross-dominant shooters this last class). Then we work on grip – dominant hand high on the grip, Grip well into the “V”, trigger finger lying on the top of the barrel, support hand palm firmly planted in the gap, fingers wrapped over the dominant hand, thumb pointed down the barrel/slide. A “firm grip”, not a “death grip”. Aggressive stance, slightly forward.

We do all this in the classroom. Then we dry fire – work on trigger press. This is followed by an in-depth discussion of sight alignment, sight picture and how this allows them to aim their firearm. I try to work in a wall drill or two to have them watch movement/anticipation as they press the trigger.

Finally, after lunch, (I want them well hydrated and not hungry), we hit the range.

I do first shots with one round only in the magazine. I do that because I have no idea how they will react when their firearm goes BLAMMMM!!!! I want to watch them first.

Once that’s done they have 10 rounds of “practice” on the first target I give them. 10 rounds, 21 feet, slow fire. 99% of the time this is a piece of cake – but every once in a while I have a new shooter that finishes the 10 rounds and has only 1 or 2 hits on the paper. Usually followed by an embarrassed grumble that sounds something like:

“I just can’t hit a darn thing with this gun . . . . “

I had just such a shooter this past class.

There’s a lot working on the mind of a new shooter in their first class. Many are a bit apprehensive, some are frightened, some are only there because their mate/friend pushed them into coming. Most don’t want to look stupid in front of strangers – and not hitting the target only amplifies this fear. It’s the instructor’s purpose to keep them safe, reduce their fears and teach the skillset that will allow them to hit the paper. This is usually the point, with a target that’s empty of holes, that I have everyone just relax, take a deep breath, and go over taking aim with their handgun one more time. I do this at the loading tables as they get ready to reshoot their practice targets. Everyone reshoots, not just the shooter that needs an extra hand. And, it sounds something like this . . . .

Aiming – Sight Alignment, Sight Picture – the elements of Aiming your firearm.

Sight Alignment

This is the skill of properly aligning the rear and front sights so that the round you fire hits your expected target. There are all kinds of sight sets available for handguns, rifles and shotguns. For our purposes we are going to show a simple “notch and blade” sight system and discuss their use for a handgun – though the mechanics remain unchanged for a rifle or shotgun with rifle sights.

A proper sight alignment looks like this:


The Rear Sight Notch is usually mounted at the rear of the handgun. It is a simple block of metal with a notch milled out of the exact center. It is slightly wider than the width of the Front Sight Blade which is usually mounted on the very front of the firearm, just rear of the Muzzle. Above you see what proper Sight Alignment looks like – the Front Sight Blade’s top edge is exactly level with the Rear Sight’s top edge. The Front Sight Blade is exactly in the center of the Rear Sight Notch (an equal amount of light is seen on both sides of the blade).

Since both the Front Sight Blade and the Rear Sight Notch are exactly centered on the centerline of the barrel, you can be assured that when you Aim your handgun in this manner, your firearm with strike the target in the intended spot. This process is what is involved when you Aim your firearm.

A couple other items come into play as well. It is physically impossible for your eye to focus on the Rear Sight Notch, the Front Sight Blade and the Target at the same time. The physics of the lens in your eye will simply not allow this to happen. Yet, you still need a point of focus. For aimed fire, the Front Sight Blade becomes your point of focus. With the Blade in focus, the rear Notch will be slightly blurry but clear enough to gage equal light on either side of the Blade in the Notch. The target will be blurry as well, but clear enough to you to properly place your aligned sights on the target forming the Sight Picture.

Sight Picture

There are two common Sight Pictures that are seen when you Aim your firearm . . . .

Point of Aim


The top of the Front Sight Blade, centered in the center of the Rear Sight Notch, is centered on the bull’s-eye of your target. You Sight Picture looks like this. This is a factory setting – or if you have adjustable rear sights – a shooter setting.

There is a second Sight Picture that can be seen in firearms when you Aim them . . . .

The “Lolly Pop”


Here the top of the Front Sight Blade, which is centered in the Rear Sight Notch, is placed just below the bull’s-eye of your target. Again, this is either a factory or shooter setting for this particular firearm.

So, if you acquire a good Sight Alignment, see a proper Sight Picture for your firearm, you’re going to hit your target – plain and simple. Anything else – any miss – is all shooter. And there are dozens of little things involved in grip, stance, trigger press that can affect your hit placement. It takes time, persistence, attention to the smallest detail – to resolve these things. But, once you “feel” what it’s like to get solid hits, it gets much easier.

So, back to the class and the new shooter with only 3 hits or so. Everyone reshoots – it keeps their discomfort down (and can new shooters really shoot “too much”??). This time, with focus on Sight Alignment and Sight Picture – all 10 rounds are on the paper. The beginnings of a new skill are learned – and the qualification target for this shooter – the one I keep for my records, has all 10 rounds within the 8” outer circle of the qualification target. Not bad for her first 31 rounds ever fired.

But, but, but – wait . . . . . . .

Aren’t you always harping on this being an entry point for defensive shooting for personal protection?? How the heck do I have time to take such careful Aim if some bad guy is coming at me???

Good question!

For personal defense, the “standard” for training has become 21 feet. This comes from a study that showed the average bad guy could cover 21 feet in 2 seconds – hence the training distance of 21 feet and the 2 second “draw and engage” goal. Honestly, there’s plenty of meat here for a whole other post. However, I do want to chat quickly about the “quality” of the Sight Picture for a threat that’s at 21 feet or less.

At those distances, perfect alignment is simply not needed. If you can “see the blade” in the rear notch, you will put rounds on target. The Sight Alignment looks something like this . . . .


Blade High


Blade Low


Blade Left


Blade Right

If you are Blade High, you will hit above the center of the target, but on a 8 x 11 piece of paper at 21 ft. If you are Blade Low, you will hit below center, but on the paper. Blade Left will be left of center and Blade Right will be right of center – but both will be on the paper. This drastically reduces the acquisition time for your target. Just see the blade in the notch – and you will get a hit!

So . . . . really . . . . with a little work, an understanding of Sight Alignment, Sight Picture and a willingness to invest the range time to commit this to muscle memory . . . .

You can hit any darn thing you want!!!


  1. I can unless I'm trying to shoot an XD... sigh... I REALLY have to work at that gun.

  2. Yeah, know what you mean. My 1911 has a fondness for "getting out of alignment" every once in awhile too. :)

  3. You need to organize this on the side bar for new shooters. Very good series of posts.

    1. I've been trying to do that in the "Blog Index" link on the right side above the postings list. What do you think about that approach? Always open to suggestions. Honestly, I don't care for the capabilities of Blogger or Wordpress, so I've been trying to do that on a link off my company page.

      Let me know what you think.

      Thanks for the complement, sounds like I'm headed in the right direction!


    2. OK, Just for YOU AGirl!! Thanks for the feed back!

    3. You did good. I'm going to send people here and now they will easily be able to find all your brillance easily.

    4. OK - makin' be blush!! Thank you!