Skip to main content

The Fundamentals of Pistol Shooting

Pax Pacis is a former NRA firearms instructor with advanced knowledge on the proper handling of pistols.

There are five fundamental rules for proper firearm use.

There are five fundamental rules for proper firearm use.

The Fundamentals

I see a lot of articles all over the internet about specific handguns, new tools, interesting techniques, and unlikely situations that tempt us to go out and buy the latest and greatest thing on the market. It's natural that companies would promote their products, but we as consumers and shooters tend to fall into the trap of "I'll be better if I just had X thing." We forget about the most important part of shooting: working to be good at it. I see very few articles written about how to address specific problems of accuracy, or how to refine our fundamentals of shooting to make us as fast and accurate as we can be. We must practice to increase our skill level so we can apply our craft under pressure; whether that be in a tournament, on the range with our ego-driven friends, or confused in the dark against a deadly foe who is actively working to take our lives.

Those of us who shoot on a regular basis apply the fundamentals of pistol shooting every time we go to the range. We may not know exactly what we're doing in order to get holes in paper, or how we can tighten our groups, but we are subconsciously aware of the 5 step process we must follow in order to shoot accurately and place rounds on the target, regardless of range or shooting position.

The purpose of this article is to take that 5 step process out of the subconscious, put it in the front of our minds, and be able to address key areas of failure in specificity. This will reduce our group size, enable faster follow-ups, and allow us to make aimed fire shots with confidence at and beyond 50 yards with a handgun.

The Five Fundamentals of Pistol Shooting

Most recreational shooters only apply two of the five fundamentals (aiming and trigger control) and are consistently frustrated by their lack of accuracy with handguns. Shooting a pistol is more art than science, but there are rules we must follow in order to get bullets to go where we want them to. Over time, after many boxes of ammunition, shooters become subconsciously aware of the fundamentals and begin applying them. We can speed up the process and waste less ammo by simply learning, and then consciously applying the fundamentals. The five fundamentals of pistol shooting are:

  1. Aiming
  2. Breath Control
  3. Hold Control
  4. Trigger Control
  5. Follow Through

Why not include "Stance"? Because you can be accurate in ANY stance as long as you follow the above 5 fundamentals. There are multiple real-world occasions where you may draw and fire from a seated, prone, or supine position, all of which mandate excellent fundamentals in order to just be safe, much less be accurate.

Much of this article is taken directly out of the NRA's Basic Pistol course, and while I have changed the wording, it is exactly the same information I have taught in the class and have placed into my presentations.

First, a few "fundamental" topics we will not discuss because they deserve their own articles:

  • Firearm Safety
  • Calibers and Ballistics
  • Malfunctions
  • CAP or Child Access Prevention
  • Drawing from Concealment

These topics are just as important as the 5 fundamentals, but since they don't improve accuracy, they should all be discussed on their own.

1. Aiming

The first fundamental is Aiming, which is defined as "The process of achieving the proper relationship between the target, the front sight, and the rear sight." It consists of two steps: Sight Alignment and Sight Picture. The graphic below shows both steps being applied properly.


Sight Alignment

Sight Alignment is the proper relationship between the pistol's front and rear sights. With "post and notch" or "Blade" sights (by far the most common on pistols), the tops of the front and rear sights should be even, with the front post being centered in the rear notch. This can be vastly more difficult than it seems, especially in low light scenarios, which is why many pistols come with tritium-based night sights that glow in the dark.

Sight Picture

Sight picture is obtained when the aligned sights are put into their proper relationship with the target. When the aligned sights are effectively superimposed over the center of the target, proper sight picture has been achieved.

Front Sight Focus

Our eyes are built for binocular vision and are very good at determining depth. This does come with drawbacks, however. We are not able to focus on multiple things at once and are forced to focus our vision on only one critical thing at a time. When we aim, our eyes need to be focused on THREE things (front sight, rear sight, and target). The rear sight is closest to us; the target is farthest away. If we focus on the target, we lose all conception of our rear sight. If we focus on the rear sight, the target becomes almost invisible.

How do we overcome this dilemma? We split the difference and focus on the front sight. This will leave the target and the rear sight slightly fuzzy, but clear enough to establish proper sight alignment and sight picture.

Breath Control Technique


2. Breath Control

Breath Control minimizes the body movement produced by breathing, which can impair good shooting. It is notoriously difficult to master under stressful situations, but in a controlled environment, the concept is very simple to teach:

Take a breath before each shot, let out enough air to be comfortable, then simply stop breathing while firing the shot. Avoid holding your breath too long as this will cause tremors and eventually you will pass out. I say that from experience, having witnessed it happen in basic training at Ft. Knox.

Breath Control is critical to long range accuracy, but becomes less important as the target gets closer.


3. Hold Control

Hold Control allows the shooter to maintain proper sight alignment and sight picture while firing the shot. A proper grip is critical. Good hold control minimizes arc of movement and makes Fundamental #4 much easier.

What is the "arc of movement"? it refers to the unavoidable movement of a pistol while extended in a shooting position. Hold your finger out toward some distant target, and watch your fingertip "dance" around it. That is the arc of movement in practice. Practice decreases, but will never eliminate arc of movement.

Tip: if your arc of movement stays entirely within the target, you can assume it is within effective range of your shot (bullet drop not included). if your sights play at all outside the target, you can assume it is outside your effective range and you should not attempt the shot.


There are many, many ways to grip a handgun. Almost all of them are wrong. I teach the "Lobster" method (in Louisiana it is the crawfish method) to get a perfect two-handed "Thumbs Forward" grip like the one pictured above.

Pretend your hands are lobster claws. The "V" in between your thumb and index finger should be placed as high as possible on the back strap without risking slide bite. It should look like the pistol is trapped in your lobster claw. Then, wrap your lower three fingers around the grip. Your grip pressure should be straight to the rear of the handgun.

Next, bring your support hand up to your shooting hand, wrap those fingers around your shooting hand's fingers, and place the heel of your support hand's palm firmly against the heel of your shooting hand's palm. You now have all four sides of the pistol grip pressed against your hands.

Both thumbs should be aligned down the frame of the pistol, parallel with the barrel.

The two-handed thumbs forward grip is, bar none, the most effective way to grip a pistol.


4. Trigger Control

Trigger control is the method of activating the trigger to minimize movement of the sights. The trigger should be placed between the fingertip and the first joint of the index finger. The trigger should be pressed straight rearward in a smooth continuous movement.

There are a number of issues to address when working on trigger control. Failure points like "Slapping" or "Yanking" the trigger, and "flinching", all occur during the trigger press and are detrimental to accuracy. In fact, when I diagnose accuracy problems in my students, more than 90% are due to poor trigger control.

Poor trigger control increases the arc of movement, which reduces accuracy. It is the most difficult fundamental to master and requires near-daily practice to achieve.

Pistol Correction Chart for RIGHT HANDED Shooters

This chart is for right handed shooters. If you are left handed, the chart is backwards.

This chart is for right handed shooters. If you are left handed, the chart is backwards.

5. Follow Through

The fifth fundamental is Follow Through, and it is a little difficult to explain on paper. I am going to quote the NRA course directly, "Follow through is the continuation of the application of the fundamentals of shooting through and immediately after firing the shot."

It effectively means the moment the shot breaks, you are not finished. Your concentration should remain on the front sight, your grip should remain steady, your trigger finger should come to "reset", and you should restart your breathing to prepare for the next shot. Bad follow through increases the time it takes to set up follow up shots and can break down accuracy through poor trigger control.

What do you think?

Was this article helpful? Let me know in the comments below!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Cassandra Finn on May 22, 2019:

Thank you for sharing, Informative to the point and full of information. Well done. Cheers!

Dr Ebrahim Amanjee on April 06, 2019:

Well written article, very informative, Thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge! on April 18, 2018:

The smith and wesson SW9VE a good gun ?

Merritt Williams on February 19, 2018:

Thought it was great!

Edward J. Palumbo on December 26, 2016:

I enjoyed your intelligently written article and look forward to more Hubs from you! Best wishes in 2017,