Tuesday, April 8, 2014

"Why are handguns so difficult to shoot accurately?"

Following my post yesterday about gun show goodies, a reader e-mailed to ask "Why are handguns so difficult to shoot accurately?"  She says she's a novice, and is very frustrated because although her boyfriend is very good with a handgun, she can't measure up to him.  His attempts to teach her are apparently not well received.  (Cue thousands of experienced shooters, both male and female, rolling their eyes as they read those words!)  I thought the question was generally applicable enough to deserve a lengthy answer:  so here it is.

In the first place, the basic problem is the stability of the firing platform.  When you're shooting a firearm, you're the platform.  You may brace yourself and/or your gun against the ground, or a tree, or anything else that comes to hand:  but basically it's your body and your arms and hands that provide the fundamental platform from which accuracy is built.  Unfortunately, that's not a very stable platform!  We're made of bone and flesh, the latter sometimes all too abundant (yeah, me too!), and we're more or less limber and able to arrange (contort?) our limbs into positions that will provide the necessary support.

This is doubly true in the case of a handgun.  With a rifle, you have at least three points of contact with it:  your shoulder against the stock, your trigger hand on the 'wrist' of the stock and the trigger, and your support hand on the forearm.  With a handgun, you have one hand on the grip, and (for accurate defensive shooting, at least) your support hand around and adding strength to the shooting hand - effectively two points of contact at most.  Think of it in terms of a three-legged stool.  With all three legs in place, the stool is stable and safe to sit upon.  With one leg removed, it'll wobble and be very unsteady, relying on your legs to keep your body weight centered above the stool's remaining legs.  Get your balance wrong, and it'll collapse under you.  Shooting a rifle is like the three-legged stool:  an inherently more stable position.  Shooting a handgun is more like a two-legged stool - a lot less stable.  (The analogy isn't exact, but no analogy ever is.  This one helps to illustrate the problem.)

The basic instability of a handgun shooting position also magnifies other errors.  There's a very well-known chart showing how your actions and trigger technique cause errors in bullet strikes on target.  Here's one version of the chart, courtesy of the Army Marksmanship Unit, which produced it (thereby putting it in the public domain) and the Encyclopedia of Bullseye Pistol, which hosts this copy.  (Read the whole page at that link - it contains valuable information.)

The chart above is for a right-handed shooter;  Pointman's Galleries has a version for both right- and left-handed shooters, which is very useful.  If you don't understand the terms used in the chart, don't worry - an experienced shooter can explain them to you.  Suffice it to say that all shooters have made many (if not all) of those mistakes, and all of us are at risk of falling into those errors again unless we concentrate on what we're doing and try to avoid them.

The more stable your body position, the more support you give to the firearm, the more steady your firing platform will be and the more control you'll have over your weapon.  Shooting stances such as Weaver and Isosceles, as well as more specialized stances, were developed to enhance platform stability and weapon control.  (By the way, ignore all the so-called 'experts' who try to claim that their 'modified Weaver' or 'modified Isosceles' stance is better than the original.  Here's the blunt truth:  there are almost as many variations on the Weaver and Isosceles stances as there are individuals using them!  We all have different body shapes, heights, weights, athletic abilities, etc.  As a result, it's highly unlikely that any two of us will assume absolutely identical shooting stances.  Mother Nature saw to that a long time ago!)

As for having a spouse or partner teach you how to shoot . . . that's a very difficult question.  Why do so few people learn to drive with or from their partner?  Mostly it's because the interaction between them is of a very different nature to the basic instructor-student paradigm.  I know Miss D. finds it very difficult, and sometimes very frustrating, when I try to teach her something.  As a result, I largely don't try too hard!  We're getting better at it, but it's a long, slow process.  I'd rather ask good friends, whose knowledge and skills I trust, to help her instead.  I've suggested to my reader that she might want to consider that approach.

I won't go into any more detail in a simple blog article like this.  As any experienced shooter will tell you, you simply can't become a good shooter from theory alone.  You need to be on the firing line with the help of a trusted, competent instructor.  However, you can learn a lot of theory from reading about the subject.  Here are three resources for further information.  There are many more out there, but these will get you started on the right foot.

Finally, don't believe those who tell you that you need to focus solely on defensive shooting, ignoring all the other handgun sports.  I've learned a great deal from different shooting disciplines, much of which carries over to others.  (For example, defensive shotgun use is oriented very differently to normal sporting use of that weapon;  but a competent sporting clays competitor will find his training and experience carry over into defensive shooting, enabling him to learn a lot faster and be a lot more competent than a novice.)  I mostly concentrate on defensive shooting, but I'm about to 'go back to basics' and return to bullseye pistol drills for a while, because I've noticed my accuracy is slipping.  There's nothing like forcing yourself to slow down, focus on the front sight, concentrate on breathing and trigger control, and try to shoot one-inch groups at 25 yards, one-handed and unsupported, to remind you what accuracy's all about!  It's even more challenging when your eyes are getting old and losing focus, as mine are.  I still swear in Zulu when I get really frustrated, so I suspect Miss D. will be hearing a lot more Zulu shortly . . .

I hope this introduction to the field helps those who need it.  I'm sure knowledgeable readers will add more information in Comments.



Anonymous said...

Something I found when handling different pistols was the importance of how well the gun fits the hand. If the grip is too large or small for the shooter, it will end up being held pointing to one side or the other. You might be considering the #1 rated pistol or the #75, if it doesn't point naturally for you it will be very challenging to consistently shoot accurately.

Anonymous said...

Going back to basics can be very helpful; I can get frustrated shooting a double action with heavy trigger pull.....so I can boost my confidence by doing a few rounds of "bulls eye" shooting. The typical fundamentals are described here:



Will said...

I suspect that a laser on the gun for dry-firing would help a lot. the ability to instantly see what is happening while pressing the trigger should speed up the learning process. Or, even in just holding the gun.

At SHOT Show one year, a vendor was selling some sort of add-on wrist brace for handguns. To help sell the idea, they had some dummy guns with and without the brace. Most people would point the laser at the quite high ceiling, and not be able to hold it steady without the brace. It was interesting to watch the beam wander around, unsupported.

That was without any trigger manipulation.

We are visually oriented. A quick, visual feedback system should be a big winner in training.

Peter, perhaps you could look into acquiring some handgun lasers for your own training classes? Might save some of that hard to find .22 ammo!

Anonymous said...

I suggest getting Vicki Farnams and Diane Nichols book, Teaching Women to Shoot.

I learned a lot from Vicki on how to teach women in a way that made the process much easier.

I will be the first to admit, my brother taught my wife how to shoot a rifle and revolver.


Anonymous said...

1. In order to teach (properly), one must first know what they are teaching. If you don't, then get her professional instruction.

2. Teaching a loved one with whom you have a "history" can be frustrating for both.

3. If your girlfriend/wife wants to learn to shoot a handgun then see if she has a girlfriend who is also interested. Instruct them both at the same time so that your gf/wife doesn't feel she is the center of attention. Plus, they can then attend a firearms class together where they can receive professional instruction.

4. Do most of your teaching at home. It is difficult to teach the basics at the range.

5. Start with the proper grip (modern combat - thumbs forward - locked support hand wrist). Yes it works even with women with small hands. Plus the proper stance. Stance is not only about the position of the feet. It is about body and head position. If I see another YouTube video of a shooter with the tea cup grip while leaning backwards, I think I'll go insane.

6. Have her watch good instructional videos about grip, stance, etc. I have collected some very good instructional videos on my YouTube channel with this particular issue in mind. My wife was teaching a girlfriend of hers how to shoot, so I started collecting videos for her to watch. My YouTube channel is TatendaZim (ignore my videos, they are mostly crap - but the "Firearms Videos Playlist" has some very good instructional videos).

Inconsiderate Bastard said...

I spent Saturday at one of the gun clubs to which I belong, participating as an instructor in the annual Ladies' Day at the Gun Range event. At Basic Handgun we had 201 women come through for instruction from 8 instructors. This year's guests were no different from the past 7 years I've participated:

Stance. Women immediately adopt what I call the GIAFM stance - Get It Away From Me. Feet parallel, back arched (which locks the knees), arms outstretched but bent, the gun as far away as they can get it. Isoceles or Modified Weaver gets the strong side foot back to provide fore-aft stability, slightly bend the knees, straighten the back and get them to "nose over toes."

Eyes. They don't know their dominant eye.

Grip. They cannot instinctively form a proper solid two-handed grip. They must be shown and reminded frequently.

Gun. It must fit their hands. I've seached for years for a DA/SA steel-framed single stack 9MM semi-auto. No luck, so I've bought a couple Sig P225s to use with women students.

Strength. Almost all women lack the upper body and arm strength, and have weak back muscles, which is why they use the GIAFM stance, to successfully manage a handgun, especially the finger strength to use a double action revolver, or arm strength to rack the slide on a compact semi-auto. I suggest using tennis balls in the fingertips for hand strength, and weight lifting at the gym, with the assistance of a professional trainer, for everything else.

Instruction. Instructing women is different from instructing men because their physical inadequacies must be accommodated. There are several good texts on instructing women - Kathy Jackson has one, so do Gila Hayes and Vicki Farnum. Instructors have to do their homework.

On a Wing and a Whim said...

I long ago learned that someone who shows up for instructing and goes away is far better than someone you live with. One, when you get frustrated about not understanding what they want / how to do what they want / why it's not working, is a temporary, short-term frustration.

The other, well, that frustration gets piled right on top of the trash not taken out, dinner was burned, the dirty laundry piling up on their side of the bedroom, the unpleasant surprise of a toilet seat up at 3am... and that is not a good thing. There are other times to hash out major frustrations mixed with otherwise minor domestic discord than in a cockpit, or on the gun range.