Top 7 Performance Tips for Practical Handgun Shooting

Top 7 Performance Tips for Practical Handgun Shooting

by Benjamin Weiser Jackson Hole, February 2024

Shooting pistols to high standards is very difficult. Through my coaching position at the Jackson Hole Shooting Experience, I have had hundreds of first-hand experiences with novices discovering the challenges of handgun shooting. As a beginner, improving your skill with a pistol can seem daunting. Over the past year, I’ve had the pleasure of working with a small group of regular clients to build their proficiency in pistol shooting. It has been a deeply gratifying and fun experience for me. It has also been informative regarding which ideas and concepts are most valuable to intermediate shooters looking to take their skills to the next level. Here are seven practical ideas that have proven helpful based on my frequent experiences while coaching shooters of all skill levels. 

  • Make your grip consistent.

  • Find an orientation for your firing hand (dominant) and control hand (non-dominant) to grip the pistol. The modern thumbs-forward grip is indisputably the most effective strategy here. Still, many high-level shooters employ slight variations of this pattern to good effect. The exact positioning of the hands is less critical than adopting an effective grip and sticking with it.

    When taking a firing grip, the hands should be arranged the same way every time. Think strategically about the grip pressures in your hands and how this affects your ability to pull the trigger quickly and consistently. Try to apply these same grip pressures in your hands every time you build your grip on the pistol. 

    Consistency in the grip is among the most challenging aspects, even for advanced shooters. However, having the right solution only matters if you can present it on demand. Spend plenty of time practicing by picking up your unloaded pistol from a table or drawing it from a holster. Focus on efficiently and consistently building a solid grip whenever you handle the gun.

  • Make your grip durable.

  • Another challenge regarding grip is keeping it the same every time the gun is drawn and the same throughout a string of fire. Once we start shooting multiple targets quickly, incorporating reloads, or moving between shooting positions, the grip may deteriorate in quality and consistency. 

    In training, paying close attention to what is happening with your hands and the gun is essential. Newer shooters are sometimes unaware of degradation in the grip because we are focusing on many other things throughout a course of fire. It is critical to notice when progressive degradation in the grip is responsible for poor performance and to be diligent in training this element. 

  • Make your stance comfortable.
  • Instructors say many things about how you “should” stand while shooting a pistol. The basic Isosceles Stance is a good starting point. Still, many favor a Modified Isosceles Stance, which can allow for a more natural and stable positioning of the feet. Regardless of what stance you find most conducive to practical shooting performance, your positioning should feel natural and intuitive while meeting some performance criteria (more on this in the next section).

    Something I often notice with novice and intermediate shooters is a fixation on meeting a perfect idealized stance to the detriment of shooting performance. A common problem that comes with this is excess tension in the body. A good litmus test to diagnose this is to try to speak in a regular and relaxed tone while holding your gun at presentation to a target. If it is difficult to talk and breathe while in your shooting stance,  you are likely too tense in the body. 

    Excess bend in the knees is another element that can make your stance uncomfortable and challenging to sustain. Lowering the center of gravity can aid control, especially while shooting and moving. However, some novice and intermediate shooters default to a stationary squat or lunge position with an extreme knee bend. This stance can become uncomfortable very quickly. The following section will discuss desirable elements of a strong stance. 

  • Make your stance adaptable.

  • The practical shooting context is often highly dynamic. Shooters expect to move between shooting positions and sometimes will need to take shots while on the move. This dynamism makes the proposition of a single unchanging stance hard to entertain. I conceptualize simple criteria that do not constrain us to an overly narrow pre-defined stance.

    We want our feet positioned such that we have stability in all directions. Feet should be at least shoulder width apart and ideally staggered forward and back. Imagine you are about to take off running. Bend in the knees is acceptable if it is sustainable and natural.

    We want a forward lean at the waist so the shoulders are in front of the hips. Again, a more exaggerated bend in the knees with the hips pushed further backward is acceptable in the context of aggressive shooting and moving. My usual stance involves a slight lean forward so my nose is over my toes, and I can feel my weight on the balls of my feet more than the heels. 

    Shooters should ideally meet these criteria regardless of what standing position they find themselves in. The exact positioning of the body must change in response to the situation. Still, we want to leverage as much mechanical advantage as possible with a stable positioning of the feet and a forward lean at the waist. 

  • Aim with your eyes, not the sights. 

  • Sighting systems for pistols are undergoing rapid innovation. Red dot sights on handguns are becoming much more popular at an accelerating pace, partly due to the highly advantageous aiming scheme they allow. When shooting with a red dot, we use a both-eyes-open aiming strategy with a hard focus on the target, not the dot itself. Aiming with both eyes and looking where you want the bullets to go is more effective and intuitive than focusing on a front sight. It’s like driving your car and staring at the hood instead of leading the path of the vehicle with your vision. 

    Despite the rapidly growing popularity of dot sights on handguns, many have yet to understand or embrace this aiming paradigm fully. To ensure target focus is maintained while shooting with a red dot, many shooters train by occluding the sight or blocking the front aperture. One can achieve this simply by laying some tape across the front of the window. This occlusion strategy lets the dominant eye see the dot but not the target. The non-dominant eye collects target information, and the dot is interpolated into the target image only if one is appropriately target-focused. Try this diagnostic strategy if you shoot with a red dot!

  • It’s okay to press the trigger fast.

  • Many instructors teach novice shooters to press the trigger slowly to avoid excess movement while shooting. This strategy works decently well for inexperienced shooters but has many drawbacks. A slower trigger press will be necessary for shots that require more precision. A target 25 yards away with a small scoring zone will need a more careful trigger break to ensure the bullets go where they need to. However, in shooting sports like IDPA and USPSA, most of the shooting you will engage in involves hammering fast pairs of shots on targets 5-10 yards away or even closer. The standard for extreme precision diminishes the closer the targets are, and it becomes essential not to “over-confirm” your sight pictures. 

    All high-level shooters press the trigger fast to put rounds on these targets quickly. Unlearning “slow is smooth and smooth is fast” can be uncomfortable and confusing. Still, we can simplify it by understanding the actual goal of trigger management. We only need to press the trigger without inducing excess movement in the rest of your firing hand. Training to press the trigger quickly and independently is a continuous challenge for shooters of all skill levels. We can train this skill through livefire or dryfire drills, one of which I will discuss in the next section.

  • Almost everything can be trained through dryfire.

  • Finally, I would like to discuss the secret superpower of all high-performance shooters: dryfire. Dryfire refers to all training with your firearm in the absence of live ammo. We can train sight alignment, trigger control, reloads, movement, and more without firing a single round. A shot timer or dummy rounds (snap caps) can make your dryfire routine even more effective.

    I’ll discuss one drill you can perform through dryfire called Trigger Control at Speed. This exercise is designed to build confidence and diagnose problems when pulling the trigger fast. 

    Ensure that your pistol is unloaded and all ammunition is clear of your training area. Aim at a small target, such as a strip of painter's tape or a light switch. Begin with your finger off the trigger, and on the cue, press the trigger to the rear in one quick movement. Note how your sight moves in response to the fast trigger press. Relax the firing hand and use less force if your sights are dipping or pulling off the target significantly. Study your results and modify your technique until you can press the trigger quickly without deviating the sights from the target. 

    These concepts have been helpful to me throughout my time learning to shoot at a more advanced level. Sharing them with my clients has helped them elevate their skills and become more comfortable with practical shooting. When you have questions, feel free to email me at