Despite what Hollywood would have you believe, shooting a handgun with precision requires balance, technique, and practice. Even if you’re an experienced shooter of shotguns or rifles, shooting a handgun accurately requires an entirely different set of skills. Read on for a basic primer on handgun safety and accuracy.

Part 1 of 4: Learning Basic Handgun Skills

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Distinguish between a revolver and a semi-automatic pistol. These are the two basic types of handguns. A revolver is what you think of typically from cowboy movies in which someone has a “six-shooter.” A semi-automatic pistol operates with a sliding mechanism and a magazine of pre-loaded ammunition. Operating techniques for each pistol differ slightly, so it’s important to clarify terms before handling the gun.
  • Revolvers operate with a revolving cylinder for a magazine, in which you load the ammunition and from which you must remove the empty shell casings. After each bullet is fired, the cylinder rotates to line up the next shell with the firing pin. These guns are primed to be fired when the hammer is cocked back into firing position with the thumb. Pulling the trigger activates the firing pin, discharging the weapon. A release pin opens the cylinder and rotates it out from the barrel of the gun.
  • A semi-automatic pistol automatically advances each shell into the chamber from the pre-loaded magazine, and ejects the empty shell after it has been fired. The slide on the top of the gun is used to advance the first shell into the chamber, and can be locked in the back position with a button or pin on the side. The removable magazine is removed and loaded separately.

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Choose the right handgun and ammunition for your needs. Handguns come in many varieties with a seemingly endless array of ammunition options. Consider your body type and your needs.

  • You probably don’t need a .357 Magnum to try out target shooting at the gun range. Avoid buying an overly large high-caliber gun if you’re interested in getting started, and instead get a small-caliber reliable gun, like a .22. Talk to dealers and others experienced with firearms for recommendations.

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Always protect your ears and eyes with proper safety gear. Headphone-style ear protection and earplugs will protect against the noise of the gunshots. Safety goggles will protect the eyes from flying shells, hot gasses, and lead particulates as they’re ejected from the weapon.

  • If you already wear glasses, it’s still important that you wear safety goggles that fit over the top of them.

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Always handle a handgun safely. When you’re handling the gun, always keep it pointed downrange. Imagine a magnet connects the front of your barrel to your target and keep it pointed in the general downrange direction the whole time the gun is in your hand. Always fire your handgun at a gun range or club set up with the safety backdrops for firing a handgun.

  • It’s very common at the range for people not properly trained to inadvertently point their gun to the side when they go to “rack the slide” or when they flip the safety on or off. Lots of beginners struggle to pull back the slide with just their thumb and forefinger, especially if the weapon has a strong spring or your hands are a little sweaty. If you need to use the palm of your hand (or your whole hand) to pull back the slide, you should turn your body sideways to the weapon, while keeping it pointed downrange.

Part 2 of 4: Holding the Gun

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Check to see if the gun is loaded. Any time you pick up a handgun, you need to check and see if it is loaded. If you just brought it home from the store, check to see if it is loaded. If you just got it out of the closet for the first time in ten years, check to see if it is loaded. If you just unloaded it, check to see if it is loaded.

  • In a revolver, make sure the safety is on and release the cylinder and rotate it to the side. All the chambers should be empty. In a semi-automatic pistol, remove the clip from the gun and pull the slide back to look into the chamber, making sure there isn’t a shell loaded. If there is, racking the slide should eject it.
  • Keep the slide in the back position while you practice holding the gun to be sure its unloaded and to get used to keeping your thumb out of the way of the slide’s action.

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Carefully pick up your gun, keeping your finger outside the trigger guard, extended straight and flat on the side of the guard. Whenever you handle it, make sure the barrel is pointed downrange, which should be clear of people.

  • Never point your gun at anyone even if it is unloaded, and even as a joke. Pointing a gun at someone is a crime in some states. Practice holding the gun at the range with the gun unloaded.

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Hold your weapon in the firing-ready position. Open your dominant hand (the hand you write with) to expose the webbing between your index finger and thumb. Taking the pistol in your other hand, insert the grip (handle) of the pistol into the web of your dominant hand. With your thumb on one side of the grip, keep your middle, ring, and pinky fingers curled securely around the other side just below the trigger guard.

  • You are really gripping the gun only with the middle and ring fingers, the “pinky” is resting on the gun but is not used to grip; neither is the thumb used to grip the gun. The grip should be very tight. Grip the gun so tightly that your hand begins to shake, like a handshake in which you’re trying to prove something. If you’re gripping it so tightly that the gun shakes, you’re in the ballpark, but relax it a bit from there to stop the shaking.

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Steady the gun with your other hand. Cup your non-dominant hand to cradle your firing-hand in it. It should not be used to grip the gun, but primarily for steadying the gun vertically and horizontally. Align both of your thumbs for support and accuracy.

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Make sure both thumbs are clear of the slide or hammer. This mechanism pops sharply backwards when the gun is fired, easily injuring a wayward thumb. Getting “bitten” by the slide can be very painful as well as extremely dangerous, because you don’t want to react to pain and risk dropping a loaded and cocked gun with the safety off.

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Stand in the proper firing stance. Your feet should be shoulder-width apart, with the foot opposite your dominant hand about a step past the other foot. Lean forward slightly with your knees bent, making sure you’re firmly balanced. The elbow of your dominant arm should be almost completely straight and your non-dominant elbow should be flexed at a slightly obtuse angle.

  • Some shooting matches are done one-handed. In those events, the stance is more “open” with the gun arm and the body in almost a straight line to as much as about 90-degrees, the dominant foot toward the target. A very firm grip on the gun is even more important since only one hand is holding the gun.
  • Never aim the gun sideways or with a bent wrist like in the movies. This is extremely dangerous and unsteady.

Part 3 of 4: Aiming the Gun

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Align the front sight with the rear sight. Ensure that the top of the front sight post is level with the top of the rear sight, and that the rear sight appears evenly centered within the notch of the front sight. This will insure that the gun is even and that you’ll get a good “sight picture” when you aim at the target.

  • It’s best to aim by looking with your dominant eye and closing the other eye.

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Develop your sight picture. When shooting, a common point of confusion is where to focus your eye.The target? The sight? The front sight is the most important part of the sight picture. While the target and rear sight may be fuzzy by focusing on the front post, maintaining this sight picture is the most accurate way of shooting.

  • For an accurate shot, the front sight should be just below the point of desired impact. For most target shooting, the front sight is aligned with the bottom edge of the bulls-eye (the black area) while the point of impact is in the center. Either approach works but you need to know how the gun is adjusted.

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Fix the gun on the target. Bring your weapon to bear on the target, maintaining your focus on the front sight. You should see the sharply focused front sight touching the bottom of the blurry, unfocused bulls-eye. Only now do you insert the trigger finger into the trigger guard!

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Load the gun. When you’re ready to shoot and you’ve practiced aiming and steadying the gun and developing a good sight picture, load the gun to prepare for shooting. Keep the safety on the entire time you’re loading the gun and only remove it when you’re in firing position with your gun pointed at the target. Keep the barrel of the gun pointed downrange the entire time you load the gun. Most shooting accidents happen during loading and unloading a handgun.

  • If the pistol is a semi-automatic, you’ll need to load a round into the chamber by pulling back the slide and releasing it.

Part 4 of 4: Firing the Gun

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Control your breathing. It is best to time firing with your breathing, but holding your breath of keeping overly conscious of your breathing will make you shaky and inaccurate. The best, most steady time to shoot is immediately upon exhaling, before you feel the need to take another breath. Practice this cycle several times, getting ready to pull the trigger at the “bottom” of your breath cycle.

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Squeeze the trigger. When you’re ready to fire, click the safety off and move your finger onto the trigger. Jerking the trigger abruptly will throw off your aim, so you need to squeeze the trigger as if you were giving the gun that extra pressure in a business handshake.

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Follow through. Every sport has “follow-through” and sports shooting is no exception. As you squeeze the trigger, the gun will go off, but don’t release the trigger suddenly or drop your posture and your stance and your arms. Be still, and remember the imaginary magnet that keeps your gun aimed at the target. Release the trigger after you’ve taken a breath and prepare for the next shot.

  • This follow-through action improves accuracy and reduces shot-to-shot variation, just as follow-through does for a golfer or a tennis player.

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Practice firing several rounds. Take your time between rounds. It is better to get a few accurate hits than to get many bad shots. You are at the range to get better, not turn money into noise.

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Unload your weapon and re-verify that it is unloaded. With the gun still in firing position, click the safety back in place and keep the gun pointed downrange while you unload it. Check the cylinder to insure that there are no rounds in it, or remove any that are. Release the magazine from a semi-automatic pistol and rack the slide to eject any shells that may be in the chamber.