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9 Best Pistol Drills to Become a Better Defensive Shooter

We all want to shoot better with a pistol, but what drills do we need to practice?

9 Best Pistol Drills to Become a Better Defensive Shooter

How do you go about getting trigger time that is relevant to skill-building? There are a few things you can do to improve your shooting, and the best part is, these drills work for any kind of shooting except perhaps Olympic free pistol.

I can hear the tacti-cool crowd grumbling, "These drills don't have any real-world relevance." Yes and no. They are the skill-building basics that you work on. They are the non-sexy aspect of learning, and if you don't have the basic skills beforehand, you will put in a sorry performance in real life.

The following drills don't require a lot of gear or fancy props, but for all these tests you'll need an electronic timer and targets, preferably USPSA/IPSC or IDPA targets.

As for the handguns you use, you aren't going to be doing many of these with a Super Blackhawk in .44 Magnum, loaded with J.D. Jones bear-stomper loads. And don't worry too much about making the par times if your practice handgun is, say, a Smith & Wesson Centennial Airweight.

The simplest drills come to us from Brian Enos. They are each the fastest and the slowest drills you'll do. The slowest one is simple: shoot groups. Sit down, use a bench with sandbags, put a target out at 25 or 50 yards, and shoot the smallest group of five shots you can. Smaller is better.

Here, you're teaching your eye/brain what a proper sight picture looks like. You're also teaching your trigger finger and brain what a proper trigger press is. Score doesn't matter, and you can do this with a plain piece of cardboard. Pick a spot and shoot a group.

Your first measure of success is a lack of fliers--no strays outside the group. In time, your groups will get smaller, and you'll need these skills for the other drills.

The other Enos drill seems pointless to the outsider: You shoot for speed. Here you stand close enough to a backstop that you can't miss. You simply shoot five or six shots into the hill (use a target if the club rules require it) as fast as physically possible while watching the sights.

You can shoot accurately only as quickly as you can see the sights, and this drill teaches your brain to see the sights faster, provided you focus on the sight as is moves. Learn to suppress your blink and flinch responses. Teach your eyes to watch and see the sights. Time yourself if you want to, but here the object is to learn what it is like to go fast and actually see things.

Now we step up in the hierarchy to El Presidente. Developed by the late Jeff Cooper, it was intended as a quick test to check the skill level of a group of bodyguards he was training down in Central America. It teaches basic movement skills and draw-timing, as well as target transitioning and reloading.

At its simplest, you need three targets at 10 yards spaced about a yard apart. Start with a holstered handgun, back to the targets. On the start signal, turn and draw (the order does matter) and then place two hits on each target.

Adding movement to most of the common drills will help you to get into a good shooting position more quickly.


With the clock ticking, reload and place two more hits on each target again. You want all 12 shots to be A-zone hits. If you throw a shot outside of the center ring, you don't pass.

In the old days, if you could do an El Pres in 10 seconds with all A-zone hits you were a demigod. Today, the top shooters can do it in five seconds.

But we're training for real life, not competition, so what you're really looking for in practice are smooth, fast hits. Many people shoot this drill in series of super-fast pairs - pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop - but the best shooters work on as quick a transition as possible, and the cadence is an even pop-pop-pop-pop.

Another good exercise is the Jerry Barnhart Transition Drill. Two targets, seven to 10 yards distant with a yard or two between the targets. You can start from the holster or at low ready. Come up on the left-hand target and fire two shots center of mass. Swing to the right-hand target and shoot once to the head, swing left to the head of the first target and fire one shot, then switch back to the right target and fire two shots center-of-mass.

When you're finished, both targets should have three holes each, all in their respective A zones. As with the El Pres, a shot outside the A zone means you didn't pass the drill.

Track your speed in getting all A hits. Alternate left-right, left-right with right-left, right-left. Here, you're learning to transition at angles and to change gears. You have to "gear down" and "gear up" on the Barnhart drill, as you cannot shoot the two headshots as quickly as you can the four body shots. If you shoot them all at head-shot speed, your time suffers. If you shoot them all at body-shot speed, your head-shot hits suffer.

The classic Bill Drill comes to us from Bill Wilson. One target, seven yards. From the holster, draw and fire six shots in the target. Your goal is six A-zone hits in two seconds. You won't make it at first.

The trick here is again smoothness. A smooth draw is faster than it looks, and spending a tenth of a second getting the sights correctly on the target--instead of simply pointing at cardboard--will get you hits. With a speed holster and gun specifically designed for speed competition, this is very easy. With a carry gun in a concealed holster, it is quite difficult.

The Bill Drill differs from the Enos speed drill in that you are not just watching the sights, but directing them to stay inside the A zone. It also adds a draw to the skills being tested or measured.

A couple of interesting ones with a limited amount of skill-building are the Mozambique and Dozier drills. Mozambique comes from an encounter at the airport in Maputo. The participant fires his Browning Hi-Power twice on an approaching combatant, to no avail, so he transitions to the head.

The Dozier Drill is named after the unfortunate General Dozier, kidnapped by the Italian Red Brigade in 1981. The terrorists tricked the general into opening the door, and once they pushed their way inside, one pulled a submachine gun and magazine out of a bag and loaded the gun while another began reading a political decree.

Best pistol drills
Mike Viogt makes four A-zone hits in less than a second. With practice, someday you, too, can be like Mike.

The drill, distilled to a range session, is simple: five pepper poppers at 10 yards. Can you draw and hit all the poppers before someone could have extricated a submachine gun from a plumbers bag and load it? Generally, three seconds is a good time, four is marginal. If you can do a clean Bill Drill on demand, a Dozier Drill is a piece of cake.

The movement drill comes from Robbie Leatham, developed and tuned by me. (No, I'm not going to name it after myself.) A decade ago I heard Robbie remark: "The fastest shooter through a course isn't the fast runner but the one who arrives ready to shoot." That is, you can sprint to a box or shooting position, but if when you get there you have to slam to a halt, bring your arms up and aim, then fire, you've lost time.

So I practice getting to a box or corner ready to shoot. I'll start a couple of steps away. As I step in the box or to the corner, I'm already raising the handgun, getting lined up on the target. The idea is that as soon as my feet are good to go, I shoot. On really close targets, as soon as my trailing foot is off the ground, I'm on-target and shooting. On targets farther away than a few yards, I bring my trailing foot into the box or underneath me and as soon as I set it down, I'm shooting.

How does this help the defensive shooter? By keeping you ahead in the OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide and Act) loop. You don't want to be caught flat-footed when trouble starts.

The last drill I will name after myself: The Sweeney Drill is multi-faceted. Stand a steel plate or gong up at distance, and shoot at it standing. 50 yards is good, 100 is better. Learn your natural point of aim, a comfortable stance and trigger control. Add stress by shooting against friends.

Scoring is simple: maximum continuous hits out of 10 shots. Ties broken by totals. Hit five, miss one, hit the next four, you score is five, your tie-breaker is nine. If the next guy shoots six straight then misses the rest, he beat you. Shooting on a steel plate at 100 yards for score and soft drinks in the clubhouse afterward makes headshots at 10 yards seem easy.

Some of you may shoot primarily on ranges where rapid-fire shooting is frowned upon or prohibited outright. How do you practice any of these without getting yelled at? Shoot one-handed. You really should practice strong and weak hand anyway, so why not?

If the range will let you (and the angles permit) a strong-hand-only El Pres (without the turn) is really good practice and unlikely to run afoul of the rapid-fire rules on ranges. Make "par" 12 or 14 seconds, and have fun.

Or a strong hand- or weak hand-only Bill Drill, no draw and expanded to four seconds. The other drills you simply can't do indoors except for the group shooting.

These drills alone won't make you a well-rounded shooter, but they do contain the basic building blocks that you'll need to advance. If in your practice session you work on these drills, you'll be in better shape should you decide to take a training class or participate in shooting competitions.

Barnhart pistol drill
The Barnhart drill follows the pattern indicated by the orange flagging. It teaches how transition from location to target size and back again.

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