Pistol Drills for New Shooters
Drill #1: What Do You See?
Objective: This exercise confirms that new shooters understand what good sight alignment and a good sight picture should look like.
Set-up: Give each student an NRA TQ7 or similar target (or just make your own with a 2” circle at the center of a piece of blank paper.
Procedure: Have shooters draw what the sights should look like on the paper. Many shooters will draw sloppy images with poor alignment (not exactly even white space on right/left of front post and/or imprecise horizontal alignment between front and rear sight images. Have them repeat their drawings until the sight alignment is as close to perfect as possible with their placement as instructed (center of mass, or 6:00 sight picture as instructor directs.)
NOTE: This is an especially useful drill with young shooters. It may surprise you to see how a new shooter “decoded” what you taught them about sight alignment and sight picture. It saves a lot of training time to discover what they understood BEFORE they start shooting and are missing the target altogether.
Variations: Fire first shots from a bench rest position.
Drill #2: Ball and Dummy without the ball.
Objective: This drill helps new shooters learn NOT to anticipate recoil. It also teaches that it is common and perfectly normal to anticipate recoil - therefore it takes awareness and conscious effort to compensate.
Set-up: Have shooter hold their strong arm straight out with palm down at shoulder height with fingers together. Ask if you may hit their hand (pretty hard) with an upward strike of your fist.
Procedure: With permission, swing your fist up from about 8” or more below their hand (so they have plenty of time to see you coming) and hit their palm hard enough to drive their hand up about 3” upon contact. Repeat two or three times. On the next time, move your fist as before, but intentionally miss their palm. Notice that almost everyone moves their palm downward (even very slightly) when they think you would have hit them. Repeat another time now that they know you might not hit them. They will improve. Relate exercise to shooting without anticipating recoil.
Variations: None. NOTE: This only works once with a class of several students. Observers will get the idea without participating themselves.
Drill #3: Eye Dropper Marksmanship
Objective: This drill helps new shooters learn proper trigger squeeze without a lot of discussion. In fact, it in most cases they probably already know how to squeeze without any discussion at all!
Set-up: Put a bull’s eye target (or just about anything with a focal point to aim at) on the floor almost touching the toes a shooter. Give them a medicine eye dropper and a small glass of water. This exercise had the most impact when done immediately after teaching trigger control, but before teaching aiming. (NRA 5 Fundamentals of Marksmanship).
Procedure: Without explanation, ask the shooter to “load” (fill their eye dropper) and “shoot” (drop one, and only one, drop of water at the target on the floor). They will usually try hard to hit the “bull’s eye” and be amused by how poorly they typically do. Again, without comment, have them (and others) try to do better. You might even pretend to have a competition. After all (or at least a sample of your students) have tried … point out that this was a “trigger control” exercise, NOT an aiming exercise. Tell students that you weren’t looking at all for where the drop of water hit the floor. You will notice that (almost always) students slowly and gently squeeze the eye dropper exactly as they should squeeze a trigger – without knowing (or particularly caring) when the drop will fall (surprise break). Almost never will a student meticulously position the eye dropper where they think it need to go (chase the target) and jerk the eye dropper forcefully in one quick movement – even after their first drop helps them better predict where the drop will fall. Tell them “proper trigger control” is just this “natural.” They don’t need an elaborate discussion about all the complicated mechanics of a proper trigger squeeze. Explain – the more briefly the better, that they should squeeze their trigger the same way, with the same “surprise” trigger break. Tell them they just mastered trigger control without even knowing they were doing it. Emphasize that most new shooters jerk their trigger because they don’t trust how well they will shoot with proper sight alignment – even if their sight picture moves around quite a bit (within a normal beginner’s arc of movement).
Variations: Use little bottles of breath drops from the Dollar Store if you can’t find an eye dropper. But they are harder to squeeze so a gentle, slow, evenly-paced movement isn’t as likely as with a good medicine eye dropper.
Drill #4: Pull my Finger.
Objective: To help students understand the “pace” and “force” of a proper trigger pull through the entire range of motion.
Set-up/Procedure: Have your students make a fist with their index finger straight up. Tell them their finger is a trigger. You play the role of a shooter and pull their finger over exaggerating a slow, even trigger pull where you slowly and evenly move their finger towards you about ½” in nearly 5 seconds. Most are surprised to “feel” how slowly a good target shooter squeezes their trigger.
Variations: Have them pull your finger so you can feel how well they learned what you just taught them.
Drill #5: Trace Your Pull
Objective: To teach how a trigger is pulled straight to the rear with absolutely NO lateral movement.
Set-up/Procedure: Have your student draw about a 3” straight line on a piece of paper with a straight edge. Take the time to draw a neat, STRAIGHT line. Draw (or imagine) a 2” to 3” oval at one end of the line. Tell them the line represents the slide with the front sight at the end opposite the oval. The oval represents the grip. Have them pretend to hold an imaginary pistol grip as they would if shooting – three fingers and their thumb on the grip with the trigger finger along the imaginary slide. Have them hold a pen or pencil with their non-firing hand with the point on the front sight end of the line. Tell them to pull the pencil/pen directly to the rear – tracing a second line on top of the original line. The goal is to draw a second perfectly straight line. Typically, they will discover it is harder than it looks to draw a second line exactly on top of the first one. Let them see they can improve with practice. NOTE: It is MUCH easier to draw a straight second line if they move their “grip” away directly over the oval. That’s cheating and defeats the exercise! Pulling a trigger straight back with a proper grip is much harder than pulling a trigger from the side with someone else holding the pistol. Point out that drawing a perfectly straight line in this exercise requires a very complicated adjustment of the arc of their trigger finger as it proceeds from initial contact throughout the full range of motion. They don’t need to design a robotic appendage that will do that, but this exercise will teach them to “feel” what a proper trigger pull needs to be. Then when you observe groups indicating a pushing or hooking trigger squeeze, you can make corrections with a simple reminder to pull as they did with the Trace your Pull drill.
Variations: You hold the pencil for them and let them “shoot” with a two handed grip.
Drill #6: It’s Just Paper
Objective: This drill helps new shooters learn the relative importance of sight alignment vs. sight picture (that good sight alignment is much more important than a perfect sight picture). (Don’t chase the target!)
Set-up: Mount a target down range with the printed side away from the shooter.
Procedure: Have your student shoot 3 – 5 slow-fire shots concentrating on a good sight picture aiming at what they think is the exact center of the paper. Measure the size of shot group in two dimensions – the distance from the furthest shot to the right to the furthest shot to the left, and the distance from the highest shot to the lowest shot. Repeat a few times looking for improvement.
Variation #1: Compare shot groups (not scores) with shots fired with the printed target facing the shooter. This gives you a chance to emphasize both horizontal sight alignment and vertical sight alignment independently. Often a new shooter will do much better in one dimension vs. the other. They will enjoy learning they have ½ of the sight alignment mechanics figured out and just need to work a little harder on the other one. Their success, even in only one dimension, is motivational. IF they have one particularly errant shot, pretend it didn’t happen and measure from the others in the group. Tell them not to stress over one bad shot even after they become pretty good shooters. Over analysis usually does more harm than good – even for Sharpshooters.
Variation #2: Score a target that was fired upon with the printed side away with a second target fired upon with the printed side facing. Often new shooters will do better when shooting at the blank side of the target
Drill #7: Group Therapy
Objective: Groups are what new shooters are looking for at first, NOT scores. Especially when shooting rental/borrowed/ or fixed-sight guns.
Set-up: Mount a 4” circle or target with a 4” target zone (the whole black area?) about 7’ from the firing line. This drill is similar to the NRA Basics of Pistol Shooting Phase II qualification exercise.
Procedure: Have shooters see how many shots they can get in the circle before a miss – or how many circles into which they can shoot 5-shot groups.
Variations: Move targets progressively further back. Chart top scores if you find competition helps. Giving plastic trophy’s/medals from the Dollar Store, candy, etc might be fun for some – but counter-productive for others. Challenge competitive shooters to compare. Pay close attention to reaction of your shooters. NOTE: Avoid using competition with non-competitive personalities. This is an important distinction. Some students enjoy and respond well to competition. For others, it is a serious mistake to use that teaching style. If in doubt, avoid competitions. NEVER compete, and rarely demonstrate your shooting ability. You lose either way. If you shoot particularly well they are discouraged by how far they have to go. If you shoot poorly, well … you know how that looks.
Drill #8: Group Therapy on the Clock
Objective: Retain accuracy while increasing speed of target acquisition.
Set-up: Same as Drill #5
Procedure: Have shooters fire 3- 5 shots as quickly as possible without a miss. Keep track of their time. You will probably need a shot timer. There are a few shot timer apps that work on a relatively quiet range. A miss results in no score and at your discretion, the shooter is “out.” Repeat until they can’t go any faster without a miss.
Variations: Same as Drill #5 – move targets progressively further away.
Drill #9: Keep “Em Tight:
Objective: Improve shot groups. Avoid “Chasing the Target.”
Set-up: Just about any target at 7’
Procedure: Have shooters fire 10 rounds and measure distance from two furthest shots in the horizontal and vertical plane (see Drill #5). This drill works well for shooters who for some reason, including a consistent shooting error, are not hitting their aiming point. It gives students a positive experience in the fundamentals they have mastered (e.g. horizontal sight alignment). It also gives you a chance to work on fundamentals one skill at a time. (NRA Teaching Principle – Break a whole skill into its component parts and teach one part at a time.)
Drill #10: Hollywood Hold ‘Em
Objective: Emphasize the importance of consistency in Hold Control.
Set-up: Demonstrate a proper 2-handed pistol grip. Have students properly grip their pistols. Make corrections as necessary.
Procedure: Mark three anatomical landmarks with a pen or Sharpie as follows: #1 Draw a line in the exact center of the web of their hand between the thumb and index finger of their support hand. Tell students to align this marking with where you instruct them to make contact with the pistol. #2. Have students trace a line with their non-shooting finger down the extended little finger (as if shaking hands). Make a dot on their palm where they first feel a boney protrusion on the heal of their hand (the Hamate Bone). Have them note where this dot comes in contact with the back strap of the pistol when they have a proper grip. #3. Make a dot on the second knuckle of the middle finger of their shooting hand. Tell them to wrap their 3 support fingers so that this dot is in contact with the trigger guard. Tell them that there is only one way they can grip their pistol so that all three of these anatomical landmarks go where they should go. If they grip in that fashion – they will always grip the same way – at least with their shooting hand.
Variations: Teaching placement of the support hand as prescribed by the NRA will be more consistent after students have a consistent placement of their shooting hand as long as you pay particular attention to the proper placement of their support thumb. A dot on their support thumb and a place on the grip where it goes will also help if you see your student crossing their thumbs or wrapping it behind the slide on a semi-automatic. You may allow variations – but do not compromise consistency!
Variation #2: Have students draw from a holster of pocket. Then have them look to see if anatomical landmarks are properly placed on the pistol. Practice until students feel a proper grip without looking.
You will quickly see a pattern in my drills. They are all almost ridiculously simple. You might be tempted to think they are too simple even for someone who has never fired a shot before. My advise is ... reconsider. Here's another reason I call my company "Basic Gun Safety."
If you read what make Basic Gun Safety different you know I've been coached by some of the best in the business. I shared a cubicle at the Pentagon with Joe Berry who ran the Army Reserve's Marksmanship Program for decades. His teams included many Olympians, including Gold Medalist Lanny Bassham. Joe would find guys like Lanny to conduct shooting workshops for teams I led. At one of them he taught me a life-changing lesson: "Simple is a lot simpler than you think." Here's an example from a guy almost NEVER misses. He told me it was WAY too complicated to look at both sides of a front sight for vertical alignment AND at the top for horizontal alignment when you shoot. That makes you look at three different places. As soon as your eye shifts from one place, you loose perfect alignment in that zone. He suggests memorizing the proper vertical gap the same way a skilled mechanic picks up a 3/16" wrench without looking at the markings on the handle. Then he said just look for that gap on the top of one side where it aligns horizontally with the rear sight. That's making a complicated task simple according to an Olymic Gold Medalist.
I'VE DEVELOPED A LOT OF EXERCISES AND DRILLS FOR BEGINNING TO ADVANCED SHOOTERS. HERE ARE A FEW - SOME STILL IN "DRAFT" FORMAT. I' LL BE ADDING AND EDITING REGULARLY. THESE ARE PROPRIETARY INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY. I'M HAPPY FOR YOU TO PASS THEM ALONG TO OTHERS, BUT PLEASE ASK FIRST. I WANT TO KNOW WHO TO CONTACT IF/WHEN I PUBLISH UPDATES.