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.