The marksmanship fundamentals are the first key tasks taught to new shooters, and are below only safe weapons handling in importance. Whether you were a recruit at the rifle range, a cop in the academy, or a young kid learning from your dad or uncle, these fundamentals were drilled into your head:
3. Sight Alignment/ Picture
4. Trigger Control
6. Follow Through
The purpose of the fundamentals, ostensibly, is to place a shot at the intended point of aim (POA) on a target (steel, paper, or flesh doesn’t really matter here). Let’s ask ourselves what, exactly, is required to complete that task?
The sights need to be aligned on the target when the shot breaks. That’s it. I can do everything else wrong, but if my sights are aligned on the target when the bullet leaves the barrel, it will impact at my POA.
So where does that leave the other five (four really, but we’ll get to that later) “fundamentals”? Are they all of the sudden unimportant? No. If we think about this task in a practical shooting context (whether it be combat, competition, or self-defense), we may have to place another round at the intended point of aim very quickly, maybe multiple times. Now the calculus begins to change. If my goal is to put a single round on a single point on the target, I can get away with a lot as long as I can break the trigger without influencing the gun’s alignment on the target. Everyone has seen the video of Jerry Miculek shooting a revolver upside down at a balloon 400m away, pulling the trigger with his pinky, and having a generally great time. This is a perfect representation of the classic fundamentals. He aligned the sights on the target and pulled the trigger without influencing the sights, but if he tried that 3 times in under a second, he probably wouldn’t have been as successful… probably. This where we can see the importance of the other fundamentals, they allow us to accomplish the specific task of aligning our sights on the target, and keeping them aligned, as efficiently and quickly as possible, over and over again.
Sight Alignment/ Sight Picture
“I’m low left…must be these damn sights.”
Let’s start with the easy stuff. Sight alignment, being the only fundamental that actually dictates where our shot is gonna go, is a pretty straightforward one. Line up your front sight in your rear sight and then line those up with the target. Nothing to it but to do it. Now let’s talk about sight picture, or more accurately, where are our eyes focused? There are three focal planes at work here, (rear sight, front sight, and target) and we can only focus on one at a time, so which one? Well, that depends. How far is the target? How much time do you have to make the shot? How accurate do you have to be? How competent are you? See? It all depends. I’m not going to be prescriptive here, remember, if the sights are aligned then it doesn’t matter what we’re focused on, I’ll only tell you to dedicate some time at the range to testing this out at varying distances and time constraints, and make up your own mind.
“Stop slapping it! Does it owe you money?”
The trigger is our direct interface with the weapon system, our decision point. We have to manipulate the trigger without moving our sights out of alignment. You’ll often hear corrections like “don’t jerk the trigger” or “you don’t have enough finger on the trigger”, but are these really the causes of our shots not impacting the intended POA? Not exactly. Here’s an example. If you were to place your handgun in a vise and align the sights on target, you could press the trigger however you wanted; slap it, jerk it, too much trigger finger, not enough, the bullet is still going to go where the sights are pointed. So it’s not really how we press the trigger, but how our grip changes and moves the gun while we press the trigger. Does that mean we should just carry on slapping the trigger? No! Our hands are not vises, it is a complex system of muscles, tendons, ligaments and firing neurons that runs from our brain to the tip of our trigger finger, there will be sympathetic movement. However, the more stable our grip, the less it will affect the sights. There are some fantastic tools that can help you determine gun movement during your trigger press that warrant an article of their own, but nothing beats good old dry fire. The ugly truth is this is where the thousands of hours of focused practice can’t be gamed. Do the work.
“I may have to punch someone in the face with this thing”
This one should be easy, but I can’t think of a single thing that most shooters could improve upon more. The purpose of a good grip is to maximize leverage on the gun in order to stabilize it during the firing sequence and return the sights back to the target as quickly and consistently as possible. In other words, a good grip keeps our sights where we want them and gets them back as soon as possible after the shot. In an ideal world, we’d be able to hold the pistol in line with axis of the muzzle, which would essentially remove all sight movement, but since that’s not how this works we must bow to physics. The primary force at play is the slide moving backwards at high speed, stopping violently, and then returning to battery (all of this occurs in about 50-70 milliseconds). Since there is resistance under the axis of motion, the slide will attempt to rotate to disperse its energy (muzzle flip). We can’t stop this. Recoil IS going to happen, but can we predict it? Yes, and a good grip helps us do just that. There’s an old bullseye shooting technique where the pinky is out like a fancy tea party… that won’t fly here. To maximize leverage, our grip must be firm, especially in the ring and pinky fingers (remember, the further away from the point of rotation, the more efficient leverage becomes). This also has the added benefit of limiting sympathetic movement of the other fingers as the trigger finger moves to the rear. Our firing hand should be as high on the beavertail as we can manage. We also need to maintain as much contact with the surface area of the grip as possible; “filling the gaps” is a common way to say it. The support hand should be as high on the frame as it can go without interrupting the operation of the slide. Support hand wrist should be locked forward, camming against the rotation of the gun. It’s important to note, we aren’t fighting the recoil, we’re going to channel it in a predictable way that limits movement of the sights and maintains consistency in sight tracking. Consistency is speed.
…it is necessary to maintain the combat stance in everyday life and to make your everyday stance your combat stance.” — Miyamoto Musashi
I hate talking about stance. Stance has become one of the most insanely bastardized aspects of effective practical shooting. My theory for this is just how close it is to the word “stand”, and what does stand make us think of? Our feet. A good stance has very little to do with foot placement, but this is always the correction you’ll hear instructors make. Put this foot here, that foot needs to be this far back. Bullshit, all of it. I recently taught a class attended by several deputies from a large Sheriff’s Department’s firearms training unit. One of their old instructors would say “Fix your feet” to students, because that’s all the advice he had. Missing high? Fix your feet. Bobbled a reload? Fix your feet. It had become a meme for them, a joke… “Fix your feet”. That’s not advice. When you start moving, your feet are going to start doing all kinds of funkiness, and we’re not allowed to shoot hostages just because we’re moving. A good stance has nothing to do with shooting a stationary target at 7 yards while you are also conveniently stationary; a good stance simply gives you options. The perfect stance allows you to maintain maximum mobility and apply force on command. We all too recently dispensed with the Weaver style, which was a holdover from outdated police training. There is also what is commonly referred to as the “groucho” or Ranger dump. It looks like an aggressive “fighting” posture, but the forward lean of the torso and the exaggerated bend in the knees pushes the hips behind our center of gravity. It looks as if we were braced to shoot a burst from a 240 while standing… but now try moving. Grab your unloaded rifle and assume a super “aggressive”, crouched, stance. Now try to move laterally. Then try moving backwards. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Didn’t work out, did it? Then what does a good stance look like? I hate to even say it, because it sounds so cliché, but we want a relaxed, athletic stance. Think like a boxer. It starts with your weight on the balls of your feet, knees comfortably bent. Now bring your hips forward over the balls of the feet, which is your new center of gravity. Torso should be upright and relaxed. Any excess tension in the shoulders and back is going to slow us down and limit mobility. Bring the sights to your eyes, not the other way around. What we don’t want is head hunched down, arms locked straight, back tight and shoulders aggressively rolled forward. You’re not a turtle. Any time you “lock” anything in your positioning, you have to unlock it to move… that’s not very efficient, and it’s definitely not fast.
This ain’t bullseye shooting. I’m going to steal a line from my former boss, affectionately known as The Old Man, “Be the one breathing at the end of the fight”. As Forrest Gump says, “That’s all I’ve got to say about that.”
“…or how I learned to stop worrying and check my work through my sights.”
Every time we shoot we need to ask one simple question, “Do I need to shoot again?” Yes, no, maybe so, we should have already prepared to shoot again. This means our sights must be realigned on the target and the trigger must be reset to a position from which another shot can be taken. When we get caught up in the range theatrics of snatching our gun back, especially after a fast single shot from the draw, we rob ourselves of developing good follow through and post shot procedures. So good follow through looks something like this:
1. Take the shot
2. Realign your sights on the target*
3. Reset your trigger*
4. Determine if another shot is necessary
5. Repeat as needed
*2 and 3 occur simultaneously
This whole process all happens very quickly and should become second nature. Remember, the gun is always waiting on us.
Re-framing how we think of the fundamentals will allow us to structure what is usually very precious training time in a way that prioritizes what’s important and cuts out all the noise. For many of you, none of this is new information, but what I’m hoping to contribute to this discussion is a critical view of everything we’ve ever heard and to question conventional wisdom. Competition shooting and the last couple decades of sustained combat have taught us a lot about what’s truly important in sho0ting. It’s time to cut out all the bullshit, trim the fat, and start using our training time efficiently. Never stop asking “why?”