How do you learn to shoot? (Part I)

Note:  the following is for people interested in pistol shooting—specifically, people interested in self-defense pistol skills.  While elements of this will be true for rifle, shotgun or bullseye pistol also, that isn’t the focus of this writing.

How do you learn to shoot?

I know lots of people have a friend take them out and teach them a bit about guns.  Or learned from their parents or relatives, perhaps have gone hunting, tried a shotgun, a .22 rifle, or an airgun at some point in time.

But how do you actually learn how to shoot a pistol?  Meaning, what do you need to do to build solid safety habits, learn efficient, effective technique, and build significant competency?  Especially if you want to learn for self-defense purposes?  Or competition purposes?  For any actual purpose that involves more than plinking at aluminum cans at 15 feet with a group of friends?

I get asked this question (or variants of it) quite a lot, and so I thought I’d make a comprehensive reply for once.  In particular, a reply in which I can explain WHY you’d want to make certain specific learning events take place.  Because, quite frankly, most people don’t know how to shoot.  Yes, they CAN shoot—but they don’t really know how.  And then they “teach” other people to shoot (badly, and an in unsafe fashion) when they don’t know how unskilled or unsafe they are–and they tend to also have an inflated view of their own competency, which means that the people that they teach have an incorrect view of what “competency” actually means.  (For people who are thinking I’m too harsh, do a search on “first time shooting” or “new shooter” on YouTube, and watch how people are “taught” to shoot.  You’ll then end up thinking I’m not being nearly harsh enough!)

It is NOT hard to become competent with a pistol, from a self-defense or competition perspective.  (I’m going to focus on those two perspectives, as their goals are easy to describe.  If you have any other particular shooting goal, feel free to substitute it.)  However, the path to competency requires that 1) you realize what you don’t know, and 2) you practice.

Most people aren’t exposed to good shooting skills, so #1 doesn’t happen, and movies, media, and popular culture have misled people to believe that #2 isn’t necessary, that shooting is something you can just pick up and be good at immediately, unlike ANY other physical skill you’ve ever tried to learn.

And the path to competency requires also 3) learning efficient, effective technique for skill-building as opposed to making a habit of poor technique.

So how to you learn to shoot?

In the first part of this particular series of posts (this one) I’ll be talking about how you get started—what do you need to get a solid grounding in safety and fundamental technique so that later learning (in the correct mode, without having to break old bad habits) can occur–in other words, how you start on #3.  After that, in the second part, I’ll talk about how you can manage practice even if you don’t have time to get to the range–and how to practice if you can live fire.  The third installment will be about how #1 can always help you get better–and how not paying attention to it will cause your skills to (at best) stagnate, if not actually decline over time.

So yes, I’m taking those three points in reverse order.

I note that you don’t HAVE to do it this way.  I taught myself to shoot a pistol, and it worked out.  That being said, I know for certain that if I had done it the way I’m about to describe, it would have taken me a LOT less time to reach my current level, and I’d have had many less headaches and restarts throughout.

So, how to start:

First?  Take an introduction to handguns class from an NRA instructor.  Yes, there are other possibilities, other instructors, or your friends really MIGHT know what they are talking about when they try to teach you.  And yet—they probably don’t.  And if you don’t already have experience at shooting, you won’t know if a non-NRA instructor is any good or not.

This isn’t to say that the NRA Basic Pistol class is the best, most amazing thing in the world—it isn’t.  However, it IS a comprehensive, informative course that gives you a solid background in firearms, teaches good safety techniques, and the NRA method tends to mean that no matter what class you take (from whatever instructor you have), you’ll still be exposed to all of the information you need, plus get practice in good safety habits.

That being said, it is true that when I teach the NRA Basic Pistol class I add more practice time with inert practice firearms, plus more time with actual firearms.  In addition, I teach the “NRA Way” with respect to shooting technique—and then I teach how it has changed over time and what is currently considered the more effective, efficient way to shoot.  And I hammer on safety practice throughout.

And yet–the basic class (without any extras) is still probably the best place to start for just about anyone who has no shooting experience.  (And even for those people who already “know how to shoot” because their friend taught them in the backyard one weekend.)

Learn how to be safe every time you pick up a firearm.  Ingrain habits such that safety procedures are normal, everyday things, not things you do just when you “think it might be loaded.”  Don’t let yourself treat the firearm differently if you “know it isn’t loaded.”

Once you’ve got that, plus a solid grasp on shooting nomenclature and history, plus some basic practice at standard marksmanship (all of which you get from the NRA Basic Pistol class) next thing is to get yourself a full-size .22 pistol like a Ruger 22/45.  (And keep it—you’ll enjoy having it for the rest of your shooting career/life.)

Practice with the .22 pistol until you can comfortably shoot accurately.  (You’ll do more later, but for right now, learn and ingrain the fundamentals of safe handgun shooting so that you can hit the target consistently.)  A decent goal for this part, at this level, is to be able to consistently hit a 3″ circle at 10 yards.  This practice might only take you a month, if you go every day.  (Unlikely, yes?)  It may take a number of months of practice if you can only go once every two weeks.  How long it takes is up to you.  But no matter what, ALWAYS practice safe gun handling.

Next:  Buy a common, reliable, full-size pistol in 9mm with a decent trigger.  Pick a Glock 17, a S&W M&P, even a Springfield XD.  Full size.  No compact, no subcompact.  No LC9,  LCP, snub-nose revolver, or anything like that.  Full size, common, basic 9mm.

Buy basic range ammo (Winchester White Box, PMC, or Remington bulk ammo), then go to the range and practice the exact same things you were doing with the .22:  safety and fundamentals of shooting to include proper stance, grip, sight picture, and trigger control.  Don’t worry about speed, draws, or reloads yet.  Work on the ability to put hits on target correctly.  The rest will come AFTER you’ve practiced hitting the target.

Get to the point where again, you can consistently get hits on a 3″ circle at 10 yards using proper fundamentals.  Then get it so that you can do it without taking 3 minutes per shot.

Next:  Buy a decent range holster and some magazine pouches.  (Example:  Buy one of the Blade-Tech Revolution Combo Packs—there was a REASON we had you buy a common 9mm full-size pistol, because there are tons of equipment and accessories for those common pistols.) Buy some extra magazines, too, enough so that you have five or six of them.  Then take a class like the PRT Handgun Technique class, that teaches you how to correctly and safely draw from the holster, reload, and shoot at speed.  Learn proper transition technique, work on your trigger control at a faster rate.  Learn how to dryfire these techniques, so you can practice on your own.  Join a local gun club that allows drawing from a holster on the range.  Don’t just “teach yourself how to draw” — actually learn how to do it CORRECTLY.  (Because there is a right way to do it, and many wrong ways to do it.)

Go practice.  Dryfire.  Then live fire.  Dryfire 3 times a week (more, if you like).  Don’t know how to dryfire?  Well, hopefully that mid-level class you just took showed you how to perform good dryfire practice.  Try to live fire at least once every two weeks.  (Even 50 rounds at the range can be a seriously good training time, if you know how to practice.)   Make sure that when you practice, you are continuing to ingrain proper safety.

Buy a shot timer.  Yes, it’ll cost you $100.  It’ll be worth it.  Sure, you can potentially use a free shot timer on your phone, but it just doesn’t work very well.    Use decreasing par times in your dryfire and live fire practice to push yourself.  Don’t ever sacrifice safe technique for speed.

Once you have solid technique in drawing from the holster, reloading, and shooting, try a Steel Challenge match.  All you do is stand there, draw, and shoot with accuracy at speed.  It’ll test your abilities under a little bit of stress, and give you a realistic appreciation of your skill level.  And probably give you a reason to practice more.  Plus, it is just FUN.

After that—well, it depends on HOW good you want to get with a firearm.  And what breadth of skilll you wish to have.  There are of course additional shooting skills classes you can take, along with concealed carry, close quarters, and defensive tactics classes (from all sorts of people).  You can try USPSA action pistol shooting, IDPA competitions, or Multigun.  (If you are in the Omaha area at all, the Eastern Nebraska Gun Club runs USPSA, Steel Challenge, and Multigun matches.  Check out the Eastern Nebraska Practical Shooters site for details.)

No matter what—practice.  Dryfire.  And periodically practice using live fire.  Like every other physical skill, shooting well is perishable.

AFTER all that—then, (since you now have an idea of how to shoot, how YOU shoot, and what you like to shoot) —THEN go ahead and start thinking about what gun you should get for concealed carry, if you plan on doing so.  By now, you should have some solid experience with shooting, and you know your capabilities–which means you should be able to make good choices regarding a CCW firearm.

Short form:

  1. NRA Basic Pistol Class
  2. .22 pistol — go practice until competent at target shooting
  3. 9mm pistol — go practice until competent at target shooting
  4. Get good instruction on correct technique for draws, reloads, transitions, and movement
  5. Practice more, then push yourself with some competition.
  6. Keep practicing.

Then practice some more.  Continue to get good instruction on further shooting topics of interest to you.

In part II of this series, I’ll talk about HOW to get in good practice, both in dryfire and live fire.  (No, going to the range and just blasting out 100 rounds at a full-size silhouette target at 7 yards is not effective practice.)  Later, in part III, I’ll discuss how to make sure you never stop learning, and never get complacent about how much you know.

Thoughts?  Anything missing from this progression of training?

Other posts in this series:

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6 thoughts on “How do you learn to shoot? (Part I)

  1. Seems like practical advice for getting started. I can’t imagine a new shooter this wouldn’t work for, assuming they aren’t resistant to being taught.

    Looking forward to Part 3!

  2. It’s amazing how one can believe they’re “good” until they meet reality in a the form of competition of some kind.

    Another reason to shoot some kind of competition.

    • Quite so.

      Whenever I hear some “tactical” trainer talking about how “competition will get you killed on THE STREET!!1!” it automatically tells me a lot about that instructor. Either they’ve never tried any competition shooting (and are using that as an excuse to not actually put their skills to the test), or they’ve tried competition shooting and gotten kicked around (and so are using it as an excuse not only for their poor performance but also to make sure they don’t have to do it again), or perhaps they did well—but didn’t perform good practice of their own, so of course their defensive capabilities dropped.

      I mean, if you run an Open racegun in USPSA and don’t ever practice with a normal handgun with a normal trigger and normal sights, of course that is going to be detrimental to your abilities. If you take part in IDPA and actually think their versions of cover and their requirements for reloading make any tactical sense (and thus you practice them that way) then obviously again that is going to be detrimental to your abilities.

      The only other reason I can see someone saying “competition will get you killed” is due to not actually knowing anything about it, and simply parroting some other person/instructor who doesn’t know what they are talking about. Gabe Suarez, Rob Pincus, and some other instructors all talk about how competition stuff is detrimental to your ability to manage self-defense. And because of that, many other people parrot their words.

      Of course, they then ignore the vast number of other trainers and shooters who find no issue there at all–matter of fact, they suggest competition shooting to become better at shooting skills. (Like Bob Vogel, Ted Puente, Jim Cirillo, Shannon Smith, Pat Mac, etc.) But hey, THOSE folks actually shoot well enough to do well in competition shooting–and they don’t see it being any sort of a training problem. Plus, of course, we could mention the huge number of military folks who learned how to shoot better from Jerry Barnhart—but hey, that competition stuff will get you killed on the street.

      [sigh] An amazing number of people don’t want to test themselves, particularly not in public, and particularly not in public when those tests will be graded and broadcast for everyone to see. And so we get instructors who can’t shoot nearly as well as they think they do (but they have survived a gunfight! and hang around with other people who have been in gunfights! and compare themselves to other people who don’t shoot well!) but have amazing opinions of their own prowess.

      I don’t have that problem—I know how badly I shoot. (Matter of fact, it has been REALLY obvious in the last month. I have GOT to get well and back to practicing!)

      I wish more people would at least try Steel Challenge. Draw, and hit targets rapidly. How is that NOT like self-defense?

  3. Pingback: Learning to shoot, part IIB….how to PRACTICE! (live-fire section) | Precision Response Training

  4. Pingback: Learning to shoot, part IIA….how to PRACTICE! (dry-fire section) | Precision Response Training

  5. Pingback: Basic Range Equipment… | Precision Response Training

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