shooting conditions to improve accuracy

Diagnosing Bad Handgun Shooting

Not getting the results you want out of your handgun shooting? The occasional bad group happens as does the odd flyer, but what if you're consistently shooting groups that are minute of a broadside of a barn?

That gets frustrating.

However, the thing is that there are a list of usual suspects when it comes to bad shooting. Here are a few handgun shooting tips to help diagnose what may be the problem and fix them so you can start getting shots on target.

First Check The Handgun Sights

check gun sights

While sights aren't necessarily the biggest factor in accurate shooting (they matter less than you might think) the truth is that they still do matter. Just like with a hunting rifle, a handgun needs to be zeroed in order to shoot accurately, so that bullets are landing where you're aiming.

Start sighting in your pistol by using a bench rest from a distance you know you'll hit well at, say 10 to 20 yards. The gun should be as stationary as possible. Align the sights as perfectly as possible. With perfect alignment, you should land shots exactly where you aim them.

Provided good trigger control, this will tell you if your sights aren't zeroed properly.

Fixed sights are the easiest and hardest to fix. You can adjust your aim to compensate, or you can alter the sights to get them properly aligned. Front sight too tall? File it down very carefully and in very small increments. Hitting left or right? You can bend it with a pair of pliers, but again do so very, very carefully and in tiny increments.

Adjustable sights, however, are a trial and error process until you've gotten them dialed in. Start by adjusting only one sight if possible, though you may end up needing to adjust both sights depending on how off your sights are.

However, the sights are not usually the reason you're not shooting well. They can be, and with scoped rifle shooting they are far more often an issue, but typically it's a different issue.

Trigger Control Issues

issues with trigger control

Chances are, your handgun shooting problems are likely due to trigger control as that (along with recoil anticipation) is the usual suspect. Here are a couple of good handgun shooting tips to get a better trigger pull.

First, pay attention to the trigger finger itself.

If your groups are consistent but off target - say you're shooting 1.5-inch groups but they're all to the left or right - then the part of the finger you're pulling the trigger with is either too far to the right (which pushes shots left) or too close to the fingertip, which is causing you to pull too hard on the trigger and putting shots to the right.

Try contacting the trigger with the finger just forward of the distal joint, which is the last knuckle. Use a smooth, consistent pull and you should start hitting dead-center. This gives you the torque you need from the distal joint, but without pushing the gun left.

Next, the follow-through.

Ask golfers about follow-through in the swing and you'll get lectures that last hours. While we won't be doing that here, golf is a good metaphor as a swing is about so much more than just hitting the ball; the arc and follow-through have to be right as well in order to send the ball in the right direction.

Similarly, you should release the trigger in a controlled fashion at all times. Even if you're shooting double-taps or failure drills, you should be letting the trigger return at a controlled rate rather than taking your finger off. Squeeze to the back and let your finger go slack.

Once the trigger has reset, shoot again.

Releasing the trigger will jerk the gun, which will foul quick strings. Instead, allow the trigger to reset without taking your finger off.

If you're having trigger problems, one of the best handgun shooting tips is to start dry firing more. Do the wall drill, and pay special attention to the sights. They shouldn't be moving. If you notice that they are while dry firing, that tells you it's your trigger technique that's fouling your shots. Adjust your trigger pull until you aren't moving the sights.

Recoil Anticipation

anticipating recoil

Another common cause of poor handgun shooting is recoil anticipation, where you're doing something in anticipation of the recoil that's throwing your shots off.

One of the cures is - you might have guessed it - dry firing. Start working on the "surprise break." The surprise break is where you start pulling the trigger without thinking of the break, when the shot fires. In essence, you focus only on a steady squeeze of the trigger. The break should come as a surprise.

Start slow and perfect, and build up to a faster squeeze. Combine this with the wall drill; if you can get a smooth, consistent pull without moving the sights you're on the right track.

Other typical signs of recoil anticipation are shot groups that are low-left and middle-right for right-handed shooters and low-right or middle-left for left-handed shooters. What's happening is you're pulling shots because you're tightening your grip, either with the fingers or the thumb on the shooting hand because of recoil anticipation.

Groups low and to the left (or low-right for lefties) provided your sight picture and alignment is good and your trigger technique is on point, signify that you're tightening your grip to manage the recoil. Not that you shouldn't use a firm grip; you need to in order to avoid limp-wristing. However, what you need to avoid is further tightening your grip as you fire.

Your grip should be firm but consistent. Practice a firm, consistent grip while dry-firing; this will help in that regard.

Groups that are to the middle-right or middle-left (if left-handed) are likely pushed there by the thumb. This is likewise due to tightening the grip in anticipation of recoil. For starters, curl your thumb down towards the fingertips. This way, the thumb isn't actively pushing the pistol to the right. If your groups tighten up, you were thumbing the gun.

Pulling shots high can also occur with recoil anticipation, as this indicates a rigid shooting arm. You need to be firm but also supple. Try relaxing the arm. If you don't pull shots high from a benchrest, that's another likely culprit.

Again, concentrate on maintaining a firm but relaxed shooting stance, while you do more dry firing.

Consider The Handgun You're Shooting

shooting a handgun

Another handgun shooting tip is to consider the gun you're shooting. Sizing up in caliber can end up throwing a person's accuracy off, so don't necessarily get caught up in the caliber wars.

If you bought a .45 or .357 Magnum on the basis that they are more powerful (they are, but faster/heavier bullets aren't everything) and find you can't shoot them worth a darn, try going down a caliber. A person that can shoot 9mm like a surgeon but can't hit squat with a Magnum shouldn't be carrying the latter.

Plenty of rifle hunters have bought a .300 or .338 Winchester Magnum for the ballistic advantages, only to find they can't hit a thing and go back to shooting their .270. Why? Too much gun or not enough time behind it. It's the same thing with a more powerful pistol round. Most people won't have a problem with 9x19mm; you may find you can barely hit with a .44.

Find a chambering that's comfortable for you to shoot and stick with it. A well-placed shot with a smaller bullet is better than a poorly placed shot with a bigger one every single time.

Sam Hoober 

About The Author


Born in southeastern Washington State, Sam Hoober graduated in 2011 from Eastern Washington University. He resides in the great Inland Northwest, with his wife and child. His varied interests and hobbies include camping, fishing, hunting, and spending time at the gun range as often as possible.

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