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How to Cure Common Shooting Mistakes

by Richard Nance   |  December 3rd, 2012 30


As any new shooter soon discovers, shooting a handgun accurately isn’t nearly as easy as they make it look on TV. Attaining proficiency requires a thorough understanding of the fundamentals of marksmanship coupled with a strong desire to improve. One of the best ways to better your skills is to analyze your targets routinely and listen to what they’re telling you.


Assuming your handgun is properly zeroed, sight alignment issues will show up quickly on target—as in these examples. At far left, proper sight alignment: Top of the front sight even with the top of the rear sight, front post centered in the rear notch.

Of the seven fundamentals of marksmanship, sight alignment, sight picture and trigger control are most critical to handgun accuracy. Sight alignment is the relationship between the handgun’s front and rear sight. Sight picture is simply a matter of superimposing the aligned sights onto the intended target. Trigger control refers to the depression of the trigger to the rear until the shot breaks.

To align your handgun’s sights properly, you must confirm that the top of the front sight is level with the top of the rear sight. This ensures proper elevation, meaning that your aim is neither too high nor too low. Of course, you must also align the sights horizontally.

When your sights are aligned properly, there will be equal distance between the front sight and either side of the rear-sight notch. If there is more of a gap on the right side, the pistol is pointing more to the left than you intend, and rounds will go that way, and vice versa.

Sight alignment becomes more critical as the distance between you and the target increases. Handguns field editor Dave Spaulding, founder of Handgun Combatives, and other prominent instructors will tell you that if your sight alignment is off by just 1/16th of an inch at 20 feet, the result will be a 4.5-inch separation between point of impact and your intended target.

How do you know if you’re dealing with sight alignment issues? If, say, your groups at the five-yard line are pretty much on the money, but at 20 yards they’re printing considerably farther left, you may need to work on alignment. However, also have someone else shoot the gun to rule out the possibility of the sights themselves being misaligned. If your zero is off, that too will really start to show up at longer distances.

Trial and Error
Keep in mind this is only one possibility. These results could also be indicative of the gun shifting in your hand as you shoot. Analyzing a target is like diagnosing a problem with a vehicle. A qualified mechanic can narrow the field of potential causes based on the way the vehicle is performing, just as you can eliminate certain shooting errors based where your rounds impact the target, but there is bound to be a degree of trial and error involved in either endeavor.

As with most shooting problems, sight alignment can be improved through dry-fire practice. With an unloaded handgun or a designated training gun, simply punch out the weapon until it intersects your line of sight. Then look for that proper placement of the front sight within the notch of the rear sight.

Rather than merely glimpsing this proper sight alignment, force yourself to stare at it for approximately 30 seconds. This will help imbed the image of proper sight alignment into your mind so that it’s more recognizable for you when you’re on the range or, more importantly, during a personal-defense situation.


Groups scattered? It may be that you lack front-sight focus. The front sight must be the sharpest object in the sight picture for consistent, accurate shot placement.

Achieving a proper sight picture requires nothing more than placing those perfectly aligned sights over your intended target. By combining proper sight alignment and sight picture, you have successfully aimed your handgun. As long as you maintain that proper aim throughout the process of firing your handgun, your point of impact should be very close to your point of aim—and your targets should reflect that.

If your rounds are scattered, the problem could be that you’re focusing more on the target than the front sight. As you can imagine, this is a serious concern when facing an armed assailant in the real world. By default, if you’re focused on the threat, you’re not focused on the front sight of your handgun.

For optimal accuracy, you should be focused intently on the front sight when the trigger is depressed. This means both the target and your rear sight will be slightly blurred. Many shooters are aware of the importance of front-sight focus, but I wonder how many actually focus on the front sight at the exclusion of both the target and the rear sight.

It wasn’t until I had carried a handgun on duty for several years that I truly understood what it meant to obtain that elusive crystal clear image of the front sight. One day at the range, something finally “clicked” and the front sight became more pronounced than ever before. Prior to this revelation, I had merely looked at the front sight when shooting, but I hadn’t focused on it as intently as was necessary to obtain maximum accuracy from my handgun.

In order to hammer home the importance of front sight focus, many instructors encourage their students to look for a tiny imperfection on the front sight and focus on that as opposed to the entire front sight. (You could also use a permanent marker or even nail polish to make a tiny dot on your front sight.) I have used this approach with students to great effect.

Another drill I use is to have a student draw an unloaded firearm and punch out to a two-handed, sighted fire shooting position. From there, the student is instructed to focus intently on the front sight. After approximately 30 seconds, I will have the student bring his or her gun down out of the line of sight. After several repetitions of this drill, most students seem to pick up what took me years to develop: an intense front-sight focus.

A clever drill that I picked up from National Training Concepts owner R.K. Miller is to have the shooter hold a pen and extend his arm out front. The shooter can pick a target in the distance and practice transferring his or her gaze from the tip of the pen to the target and back again. This trains the shooter’s eye to transition between the front sight and the target. It’s important to remind the shooter that when the shot breaks the focus should be on the tip of the front sight or, in this case, the tip of the pen.

Not even perfect sight alignment and sight picture can compensate for a lack of trigger control. In fact, trigger control is often cited as the most common error in shooting a handgun.

The act of manipulating the trigger has many names. Since the index finger contracts during this process, many naturally refer to trigger manipulation as “trigger pull.” However, some instructors prefer the term “trigger press” because it denotes a more precise movement. Still others use “trigger squeeze” to describe trigger manipulation because they feel the word squeeze accurately conveys the gradual pressure that should be applied to the trigger when firing.

No matter what you call it, trigger control is hugely important. Most instructors agree it’s critical that the rearward movement of your index finger be smooth and steady as it moves straight back to fire the pistol. Two of the most common trigger control problems are to anticipate the gun’s recoil—jerking the trigger—and failing to move the trigger finger independently of the rest of the hand.

Anticipating recoil tends to result in a right-handed shooter’s rounds impacting low on the target. This phenomenon is readily apparent when you engage in dry-fire practice using a pistol equipped with a laser. If, as a right-handed shooter, you jerk the trigger, the laser will slice downward and likely to the left, showing you where your live rounds would have impacted.

Failing to move the trigger finger independently is less predictable because the point of impact is dependent on the movement of the shooter’s hand when the trigger is activated. For instance if a right-handed shooter rotates his thumb clockwise during the trigger press, his rounds are likely to impact to the right. This error is often referred to as “thumbing.”

If your gun is the right size for your hand, you should be able to comfortably place the pad of your index finger on the trigger while maintaining a proper shooting grip with the bore in line with your forearm.


If your trigger manipulation isn’t spot-on, all the sight alignment in the world can’t save you. Shown are some common trigger errors and where they might be sending your bullets.

Too much finger on the trigger is likely to result in “snatching” the trigger, which will send a right-handed shooter’s rounds to the right of his or her point of aim. This occurs because the distal joint bending reflexively causes the hand and muzzle to rotate clockwise.

Too little finger on the trigger is known as “pushing” the trigger because it causes the trigger finger to push the trigger back and to the left as opposed to straight back, resulting in rounds impacting near the nine o’clock position.

Another error associated with trigger control is “heeling,” in which the shooter exerts excessive forward pressure with the heel of the hand as the weapon is fired. This will likely result in a shot group near the 12 o’clock position.

Of course, this pattern could also be the result of an improper sight alignment, where the front sight protrudes above the rear sight. Again, target diagnosis, while extremely beneficial in narrowing down the field of potential shooting errors, is not an exact science.

Trigger Reset
While the focus of this article has been on one-shot accuracy, it’s important to consider that trigger control also deals with “resetting” the trigger from shot to shot. Resetting the trigger refers to the technique of releasing the trigger only as far as necessary for the handgun to be fired again. With most pistols there is both an audible “click” and a very slight forward thrust of the trigger against your finger as it resets.

The obvious advantage to controlling trigger reset is that it affords the shooter a shorter length of pull, which minimizes the time you need to maintain proper aim, and it reduces the distance your index finger travels when activating the trigger.

How can you tell if your trigger reset skills are lacking? Aside from being able to feel that you’re not controlling the trigger, your groups will tend to widen. But there’s no way to predict where your rounds will impact because it depends on the manner in which the gun moves as you press the trigger.

As you might expect, there are myriad drills designed to improve trigger control. One of the easiest and most effective ways to improve trigger control is simply to dry fire. To really enhance your trigger control through dry fire, press the trigger rearward as far as possible without allowing the hammer to fall, then release. Moving the trigger finger back and forth in this manner, taking it to the very brink of the simulated shot breaking can really enhance your feel for the trigger of your particular handgun.


There are several ways to enhance trigger control. One good exercise is the penny drill. You should be able to dry fire a handgun with a penny on the front sight and not have the penny fall off.

Just as a pen can be used to replicate a front sight when honing your proper sight picture, a retractable pen can be used to practice trigger press and trigger reset. Simply hold the pen in your hand so the retractable button is facing away from you, as though it were the trigger of your handgun. Place the pad of your index finger on the button then slowly and smoothly press the button until it clicks, without moving any other portion of your hand.

This motion simulates pressing the trigger to the rear until the shot breaks. Retract the tip slightly then allow it to move forward until it clicks to replicate trigger reset.

Another simple and effective drill to facilitate trigger control is called the “penny drill.” Place a penny on the front sight of your unloaded handgun, then obtain proper sight alignment and sight picture. Apply steady rearward pressure to the trigger until the simulated shot breaks. If the penny is still atop your front sight, you’re as good as gold—or at least copper.

  • errol abrew

    thanks for the tips. yes, at 20 yards it's difficult to gain and mark sight acquisition, especially with older eyes.

    • Erich

      Don't forget, that if Your far sighted as many of us older shooters are, You won't be able to focus on the front sight without glasses, preferable shooting glasses or reading glasses, if You have shooting glasses, as Your eye sight is not improving over the years, You'll have to check with Your optrician wether Your glasses are still correct, when Your shooting gets worse, it might be Your eyes are getting worse!

  • Mick

    Customarily a revolver shooter, I've taken a liking to a Taurus 709, which is a micro-9mm, in my eyes (no pun intended). I found that the common practice of 2-thumbs-up with majority of grip coming from weak hand was OK, but groups stayes left-of-center even with adjustment run out. When I finally let my dominant pinkie relax under the butt I started getting consistently centered groups– that pinkie was a rudder, pushing the gun where it didn't belong. Took a few hundred rounds to diagnose and fix, but broke the gun in and assured me of reliability at the same time. Keep an open mind!

  • Spacedog

    The best way to improve your skills is to SHOOT! Go SHOOT! You need to make your personal firearm your closest friend. It should be so familiar that you don't have to aim to know what you're going to hit. It's just that simple. Don't buy some piece of junk and expect it to be consistent. You get what you pay for.

  • Ditch Doctor

    Thank you for this article, it is very well written with good information. I have to agree with Spacedog, the best way to improve your shooting skills is to get on the range and practice. As a former police officer, I spend many hours on the range. I found that a spotter can critique your mistakes if it's a mechanics problem.

  • Russell Croucher

    I read this article a few weeks ago and have found it to be the most effective piece I have read. I have books that aren't as informative as this short one. Thanks for the great tips.

  • Tom O'Rourke

    Superb and really useful article. As a right hander I was taught the reason for my lower left hits due to jerking the trigger by a helpful range officer. Pushing the trigger, heeling and snatching are new concepts for me . A technique I have found very useful is to save and date targets and compare them over several range sessions to catch and analyze good and bad trends.



    • AR-PRO

      I would love to pick your brain! I bet the information would be invaluable!

  • BOSN4Don

    I find that anticipating the recoil is the new shooters worse problem . They tend to dig a trench to the target (worm burners) or shoot extremely high. (rolling back) I like to take the weapon from them and pretend to load it by releasing the slide release then shoving the magazine in. (no round in the chamber) safely hand it back and ask them to try again. or load 5 rounds in a revolver. Those that claim its the guns fault find out very quickly how bad they are jerking. I've seen them push or jerk up over a foot . A new shooter can be quite nervous and tend to have a death on the weapon witch leads to all kinds of problems. First they shut the circulation of to the hand, knuckles turn white, The stress on the nervous system starts the uncontrollable shakes. it a viscous cycle. The shakes cause the weapon to swing around in a figure 8. next the they jerk the trigger. I explain it takes mental concentration the be a great shot. I demonstrate by firing my .45 auto and shot bulls eyes at 25 yards holding only with my thumb and index finger. a proper grip and stance helps also also. feet shoulder witdth apart one foot forward, You can lean into the recoil and control the rise of t he weapon keeping you balance for multiple shots. proper breathing is a must also. I was a small arms instructor for over 25 years in the Coast Guard and have been shooting since I was 6 or 7 years old . I'm 64

    • David Chura

      OK What is the best way to hold a 44 mag desert eagle with a small strong hand

      If I pull it tight against my palm I shoot more radical

      I need this size of gun minimal for back packing in big bear country prospecting.
      And will change up to 50 call when I’ve mastered this size

      Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated

      And just for your info, being a new person shooting my 44 mag D.E. hand gun, I found that the bullets from A E. brand are 1.610 inch long
      This causes a terrible problem when you will find the gun jams

      I started to use reloads at a length of 1.575 to 1.6 max
      They do not drag on the clip as store bough loads will do
      This is probably the cause to most of D.E. mags sticking on ejecting new shell into chamber
      It looses energy and bounces all over H’s 1/2 acre trying to find the chamber..
      You will know this is the problem more then likely when you have to tap the mag, to set the bullets, or if you put bullets into the magazine and they get stuck after one or two rounds being placed into mag.

    • Underdog

      Front Sight in Nevada need instructors. With what the charge one would think they would pay there instructors well. If your so inclined. I am 66 and if I had your experience I would check it out. They are under construction now adding dozens more ranges and real life experiences in rooms getting the bad guy. lol

  • TXsun

    Good post, very informative. As one just getting back into handguns, I will need to practice these techniques.

    Re: the idea of using a pen and refocusing the eye from pen to distant target and back, this is a technique I read about in a old book to help people avoid wearing glasses. Remember, the lens of the eye is focused using tiny muscles and, like any muscle, needs to be worked. Something I also tell my son if on the computer too long. Similarly, as most drives tend to focus too much in the near distance range, racing driving schools often paint the bottom portion of the car's windshield to get students to focus further out so as to anticipate potential problems or opportunities to take advantage of.

    Re: using a penny on the front sight. This technique is not all that different from that used to train waiters/bar staff. In their case, they use a tray with wine glasses filled with water. There are even street races for wait-staff to see who can walk the fastest without tipping over!

    Lastly, the one thing I wish the author had addressed at least in passing, is how to tell if the problem is your aim/trigger pulling technique and not the sights themselves; i.e. sights not zeroed in. (Which would then lead to another article on zeroing your sights.) As the owner of a new handgun (S&W MP .40) I can only assume the gun is zeroed in. But at what distance?

  • Crystal Power

    Great article.

  • Ironsight

    I see people load their guns to full capacity and just empty it as quickly as possible all the time. They usually hit the target (or come close) on the first shot but the ones after are misses. My wife had this issue, tricked her and loaded only one bullet in her magazine she slow down then. I made her pause in between shots, she has enjoyed shooting ever since. It is a lot more enjoyable when your connecting with your target 99% of the time instead of 10% of the time. Makes her look better too.

  • ort

    I shoot well with a .22 long rifle as well as handgun, and I do well with full size guns. I usually shoot 9mm. But when I tried a smith and Wesson m+p shield, and the kahr
    Cm 9, I couldn’t hit anything. I am a new shooter and it was kind of demoralizing.
    I hope reading this article can give me some good pointers.

  • Emily

    I’m a pretty new shooter…thanks so much! I often can’t get my more experienced Army friends out to the range with me, but I really need the tips!

  • AR-PRO

    Excellent Article!

  • Gregor Beals

    If only you were from Southern Oregon, would love to go up in the mountains and learn a little while shooting!

  • Wheeler

    I did keep the sights aligned but I kepted hitting my target on the lower portion. I’ll continue to work at it but thanks for this.

  • Dan Moore

    They say to focus on the front sight. It works great if you close one eye. If you have both eyes open, it doesn’t seem to work as well. What advise do you have?

    • Daniel

      I’ve been told to never close one eye, my dad was in the military so I can see where he is coming from while closing one eye helps focus its not good for military or hunting because closing it you could miss something.

    • Lucas

      I am a biologist and when we train to use a microscope with only one eyepiece, we are supposed to leave both eyes open and train ourselves to focus on the visual information from one eye only. At first what we see with the “odd” eye interferes with our “work” eye, but soon our brains adapt and ignore the extraneous information. If you tried to keep one eye close for extended periods of time, you would be come very tired. Like every other learned skill, using the focus points on a pistol takes practice.

  • merle

    mid mass dead on upper mass impacts to left 3″

  • Sage Range

    The penny tip is neat! The other thing I heard works well is a water bottle half filled with water for practicing shooting while walking, useful for USPSA matches. Just hold it like you would a gun and keep the water as level as possible while still knowing that even with some slooshing that your shots will land on target.

  • Target Is Moving

    We see poor shooting skills exposed immediately when people shoot our moving target systems. You can get away with poor fundamentals with a static target because you can compensate.

  • peter

    Very informative article. After shooting trap for years I started to shoot my handgun. Boy do I need practice. I started with this article.

  • Andy Nonomous

    The pen exercise is brilliant. You can do it anywhere.

  • Kishor

    Really great article for new comer like me ……………..

  • B Porter


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