Of all the shooting disciplines, handguns are the most humbling. Compared to rifles, shotguns—even archery—they’re the hardest for new shooters to shoot well. That’s my experience, at least. After countless thousands of rounds on my backyard range, I was so frustrated that my pistols started collecting dust. Then I saw a local ad for defensive handgun class, and met shooting instructor Patrick Masters.
Masters is a retired U.S. Army Staff Sergeant with multiple deployments, a 20-year LEO Corrections veteran, and a certified New York State and NRA firearms instructor. He started AIM Firearms Solutions, with two other LEO vets, after they grew frustrated with popular dogmatic pistol instruction that preached one single be-all, end-all way to run a handgun.
“We wanted to start with the student, and build basics around them,” he told the six of us in the Saturday morning course. Every person has their own set of physical limitations, he said. The goal of the day was to “build a strong platform” tailored to each shooter “to enhance accuracy as we add skills and speed.”
After eight hours of lessons in the basics, training, and some course correction on the range, I went from certainty that all my pistols were broken, to owning the dueling tree.
Here’s a breakdown of Master’s pistol fundamentals program. It starts at the very bottom: your feet.
“Stance is the building block of a solid pistol shot,” Masters told us. “Everything builds up from it.” The key points he emphasized were:
Put your weight on the balls of your feet, with a slight bend your knees. This takes the pistol’s recoil pressure off your back and lets thighs, legs, and upper body absorb the shot.
Of the three main stances, which he explains in the video—Isosceles, Weaver and Chapman—one isn’t more correct than the other. Try them all and go with whatever fits your body best.
Don’t turtle your head. Keep your head up, and bring the gun to it.
There is no wrong way if you’re safe, confident, and accurate.
“To test your stance,” he told us, “hold it static for 45 seconds to a minute. If you shake or become sore, it’s the wrong position for you. You need to be able to hold your pistol stance for the duration of an extended confrontation. Find what works for your body.”
“There are many schools of thought on grip,” he told us. “All of them agree on one thing: The more fingers, hands, flesh on the gun, the better. No one will dispute that.” My grip, I soon learned, needed work.
A good grip starts in the holster, high on the backstrap, like a firm handshake.
Find a spot on your gun away from the trigger and index your trigger finger there, to keep it out of the trigger guard until you’re ready to shoot. On my Glock 19 the takedown tab was a natural spot that was easy to find, blind and fast. With the SIG M17, it was the recess in the frame for the takedown lever.
The non-shooting hand has more to do before the shot. Index it with a slap against the bottom of the trigger guard and firmly wrap it around the shooting hand. Then, it’s all about thumbs. Bottom of the shooting-hand thumb should run along the top and back of the support-hand thumb, with the pad of the shooting-hand thumb resting just behind the large joint of the support-hand thumb.
No gaps! Masters said this again and again. Any gaps in either shooting hand indicates a loose grip. The first shot may be on target, but the recoil will throw a loose grip out of whack and follow-up shots won’t hit.
SIGHT ALIGNMENT/SIGHT PICTURE
This one is all about geometry. The goal is to keep the pistol level and square relative to the target. To do that:
The tops of the front post and rear dovetail should be level, or flush.
Looking down the gun, there will be visible air space on either side of the front post. That air space should be equal in size, or you’ll pull the shots left or right.
Eyes should focus on the front sight, with the rear sight and target slightly blurry. This felt like a Jedi mind trick. By working to concentrate on the front sight, not the target, my bullets flew into smaller and smaller groups.
Masters explained lollipop vs center mass targeting. For defensive handgun shooting, the goal is to stop a threat, not shoot a bullseye, so you aim at the largest center-most spot of the target. If a bad guy is standing square to you, that’s the center of the chest, but if they’re shooting around a wall, center mass might be the high shoulder or right pectoral.
Don’t shoot and look to see where the round hit. Stay in the sights. Without knowing it, I was coming off the pistol after my first shot to see where I hit. “You’re looking!” Masters would say, watching me shoot. “You looked again.” For at least three magazines, he stayed with me until I could mentally and physically stay in the front sight through all my shots. Downrange, groups improved.
Before we got to the range, Masters borrowed my pen. “This is trigger control,” he said, in front of the classroom, then depressed the button on the top of the ballpoint, and slowly released it until there was an audible click. “That is trigger reset.”
On a handgun, the motion is basically the same.
• The goal is to press the trigger, not squeeze it or slap it. It should be a surprise break, that is, the shot should surprise you when it goes off.
• Finger position is important. Place the soft pad of you index finger on the trigger, the middle of the pad, between the tip of the finger and the first knuckle. If your trigger finger is in too deep you’ll pull shots to the left. Too shallow you’ll pull them to the right.
• Don’t milk the grip. Move you trigger finger and your trigger finger only. Don’t squeeze with your whole hand.
• Find your reset. This is the minimal distance it takes to for the trigger to reset. As you can see in the video, reset is easy to see, feel and hear when you know to pay attention for it.
• Masters is a big fan of instructor Travis Haley, and recommends his Feel, Eyes, Fingers drill to dialing in better trigger control. You can watch Haley’s video drill explainer here and download the target here.
In long distance shooting, breathe control often determines when to make the shot. In defense handgun shooting, the threat and sight picture determine the shot. But that doesn’t mean you have to stop thinking about breathing while learning the fundamentals, Masters told us.
He doesn’t say it in the video, but it’s important to focus on breathing normally while learning the pistol fundamentals. This is a way to train out the natural tendency to hold your breath or breathe heavy while shooting.
“Breathe!” this was another order that got barked at me on the firing line more than once. Without being aware of it, I had a tendency to hold my breath while concentrating, so for several magazines, I didn’t worry about my target, and just worked on breathing normally while shooting.
A BASIC 4-STEP DRAW
Knowing the fundamentals, and a few drills on how to improve them, opens the door a huge array of handgun tactics and techniques. Reloads. Shooting and moving. The list goes on. But the most basic and necessary technique, is the draw. At the end of the class, Master’s broke it down to a four beat move:
1. With a good stance, get your shooting hand high on the backstrap and defeat any trigger safety.
2. Rotate the gun up and out, pointing at the target. This positions the muzzle toward the target fast, should someone be on top of you, or closing in. Keep the non-shooting hand it high on the chest, so as to not flag your arm with the muzzle, and in a defensive position.
3. Make your two-handed grip close to your chest.
4. Bring the gun to your head, not your head to the gun. Align the sights and targets while remembering to breathe as normally as possible. When the target presents, use good trigger control to take the shot.
- Practice this in half time until it’s natural, then drill at a regular pace before going for speed. Remember Wyatt Earp who said, “Speed is fine, but accuracy is final.”
I left the class shooting better, feeling good about my form, with three places to focus for improvement: 1. Watch my non-shooting thumb position, 2. Stay in the front sight, 3. Breathe, breathe, breathe!
The other students—from a Grandma airing out her first .22, to a private security contractor—all had similar mantras for improvement.
“Be safe and train,” he told us at the end. “The fundamental are everything.”