THE ESSENTIALS OF PISTOL SHOOTING - American Pistol Shooting (2015)

American Pistol Shooting (2015)

Chapter V


GOOD form or a correct position is as essential in pistol shooting as in any kind of athletics. If it is necessary for a golfer to take a good stance while driving or putting, or a tennis player to co-ordinate his service by a proper position of body, arm and racket, it is equally important for a shooter to learn to assume a correct position in order to develop with minimum effort the high degree of co-ordination necessary for successful pistol shooting.

There are certain governing principles that determine a correct shooting position. These may be summed up under two main headings, namely, steadiness and comfort. By steadiness is meant such a position of the entire body that at the instant the pistol is to be fired there is an equilibrium of body and gun approaching immobility. By comfort is meant entire freedom from muscular strain, discomfort or fatigue. Keeping constantly in mind that you are striving for steadiness with a minimum of muscular strain and fatigue, or expressed differently, for absolute steadiness with comfort, you must study shooting positions from this point of view.

It will seem to a beginner, if he studies the positions of many of the best pistol shots, that there is an apparent marked difference of opinion as to just what constitutes a correct position. A careful analysis of these apparent variations in form however, will show that while the positions assumed look different they are based on the principles above stated, and do give steadiness and comfort while firing. Unless one assumes a steady, comfortable, well balanced position, one unnecessarily handicaps himself by straining or tiring more muscles than is necessary. Nervousness and consequent unsteadiness always result from tired muscles. For this reason extreme, unnatural and grand-stand poses should be strictly avoided.

The application of the above principles to practice at once reveals certain factors that tend to prevent the acquirement of steadiness and comfort in one’s position. These are wind, the effects of recoil when using heavy weapons, and the inherent untrained nerves and muscles of a novice which soon become tired and shaky.

Your position must be suited to the particular style or kind of shooting you are to practice. Obviously if you intend to limit yourself chiefly to indoor shooting with small caliber target pistols you might adopt a position that would be comfortable and steady and yet poorly suited to rapid fire with a heavy large caliber pistol out-of-doors, under varying weather conditions. If you intend to practice outside with these last mentioned weapons, you will find that in addition to the ever present tendency of the body to sway, you must combat the effects of wind, which greatly increases the swaying. Again if you practice rapid fire to any extent with weapons such as the .45 caliber service automatic pistol or its equivalent, the .45 caliber revolver, you will find that the rapidly repeated shock of recoil has a tendency further to decrease your steadiness and equilibrium.

Considering all these factors, it is desirable to adopt a position suitable to any form of shooting; in other words what might be termed an all-around shooting position, and use it in preference to one satisfactory only for a special kind of target practice.



The 1924 American Olympic Team practicing at Versailles, France.

This Team won First Place for the United States. From left to right they are: First Lieutenant W. J. Whaling, U.S.M.C., First Lieutenant E. Andino, Inf., Gunnery Sergeant H. M. Bailey, U.S. M.C., Gunnery Sergeant B. G. Betke, U.S.M.C., and Major W. D. Frazer, C.A.C. Sergeant Bailey won the Individual Olympic Championship, with a run of fifty-four consecutive hits on the French Silhouette Target. Sweden took Second Place and Finland, Third. The similarity in the individual shooting positions of the members of this team should be noted.

While it is possible to fire a pistol with more or less accuracy from prone, kneeling or sitting positions, or with both hands, it will suffice here to discuss only the standing position as generally recognized and authorized in national and international competitions. Briefly stated this is with the body erect and free from support, the pistol being held in one hand with arm extended, so as to be free from the body. This position is the most practicable for all-around pistol shooting and is not limited to deliberate target practice. To avoid misunderstandings it is assumed throughout these instructions that pointing and firing are done with the right hand unless otherwise stated.

By studying the form used by our best pistol shots it will be found that they fall into two groups: namely, those who face the target while firing and those who face at right angles to it. Although a few very fine shots face directly toward the target or nearly so, the great majority of experts assume a position in which the body is faced between forty-five and ninety degrees to the left of the target. If the shooting is done with the left hand the position is reversed and the body then faces right or right oblique. Photographs of men in firing positions are often deceiving unless, while studying them, one keeps in mind the probable position of the target when the picture was taken. They are of value in studying details of form, rather than the position of the body in relation to the target. For this reason both diagrams and photographs showing positions and other details of correct form are herewith included in the hope that they will be of value to the beginner who may not have the advantage of instruction under the watchful eye of a good coach.


The first question to consider is the position of the feet, for they are the main factors in determining the degree of body stability. Theoretically the farther you place them apart the better they will be able to resist any tendency toward top-heaviness resulting from holding a heavy weapon at arm’s length. But when you go beyond the limit of comfort and separate your feet so far that you feel strained or uncomfortable, then the advantages of a good foundation are offset by the resulting discomfort and strain. The determining factor then, in deciding how far apart to place your feet, is your physique and especially the length of your legs. The position and distance apart of the feet and the equal distribution of the body weight are all important in maintaining equilibrium with a minimum expenditure of energy. For a man of average height the distance between the heels should be about sixteen inches and between the balls of the feet about twenty-two inches.

Consider next the position of the feet in relation to the direction the body faces while in shooting attitude. Take a shooting position facing directly toward a target, with body erect, heels on the same line and toes turned out equally. Now with your shooting arm extended and pistol or index finger pointing toward the target relax your muscles and observe the tendency of the body to sway toward and from the target. Now face ninety degrees to the left of this position with heels on a line parallel to your extended right arm, relax again and observe that you now sway at right angles to the direction in which you are pointing. A wind blowing from the direction in which you are facing in either case greatly increases the swaying movement.

Now maintaining this second position—facing to the left, feet separated a comfortable space and pistol pointing at the target—move your left foot from four to six inches to your front and turn your right toe slightly to the right. You will now find there is less tendency to sway. The new position reduces the tendency and renders it less disastrous to your score. Continuing the experiments a little further, now try turning the right toe farther to the right until you begin to feel a twisting strain in the muscles of the leg and thigh. Because of this strain it is better to have the toes turned out equally and at an angle of not over forty degrees. Do not attempt to make the right toe point directly toward the target as this may cause excessive muscle strain. The sketch below shows diagrammatically the location of the feet as the basis of a good shooting position.



The legs should be straight without stiffness and except when firing in a wind or during strings of rapid fire with a large caliber pistol the muscles should be relaxed. Toward the end of a long match it is sometimes advisable to tighten up the muscles in order to overcome the trembling that occasionally results from fatigue. The legs and knees are the barometers of a shooter’s condition as regards nervousness and “buck fever.” During competitions and if conditions of a match permit, they should be favored as much as possible by sitting down between strings and even between shoots.


To avoid unnecessary strain the body should be erect with the weight equally distributed on both legs. This of course requires that the feet be on practically level ground. Any tendency to lean forward or backward should be avoided. Holding a heavy pistol at arm’s length has a tendency to cause one to lean back in order to counteract the weight. This should not be done, for the position soon becomes uncomfortable and strained, depending upon the strength and physical condition of the marksman.


The arms are the next members to consider in the problem of position. There again we find a considerable difference in practice. The left arm and hand are of little use to a right hand shot. Some shooters let this arm and hand hang loosely by the side, some prefer to place the hand on the left hip, others put it behind the back, while still others thrust it in the left hip or side trouser pocket. One prominent authority advocated letting the left hand hang by the side with the hand pressed firmly against the side. In recent years there has been a growing inclination among pistol shooters to put the left hand in the side trouser pocket and there is a good reason for the practice. The hand and arm should serve as a balance and should not be left to dangle by the side. It is certain to sway slightly and this affects the steadiness of the whole body. The hand should not be placed so high on the hip that it raises the left shoulder and brings into play muscles that should be at rest. But permitted to hang naturally, with the hand in the left side trouser pocket, a position is assumed that puts the smallest strain on the muscles. Placing the hand on the hip and bending the elbow does, however, assist in counterbalancing the shooting arm provided the body faces at right angles to the direction of fire.

The right or shooting arm should be fully and naturally extended, without rigidity and maintained in this position during the firing of each shot. The work of supporting the arm and pistol should be done chiefly by the heavy shoulder muscles rather than by those of the arm. This is accomplished by slightly raising the right shoulder. The great majority of our best pistol shots extend the arm fully but a few excellent ones use the arm partially bent. From actual count made at different times at our National Matches, during Olympic and International matches in Europe and at smaller competitions throughout the country the writer believes that over ninety per cent of good pistol shots extended the pistol arm fully. It is very likely, however, that for rapid fire with the revolver when the piece is cocked for each shot that an advantage may be derived in the use of a bent arm, in the increased ease and speed of cocking and aiming. If rapid firing is done with an automatic pistol or by using the double action of the revolver, there is not the same inducement to bend the arm. This will be discussed in the chapter on rapid fire.


A comfortable, well balanced shooting position suitable for any style of target practice. The following details should be noted: Distribution of weight and position of the feet; right arm is fully extended without stiffness; right shoulder is raised slightly; grip is high on the revolver and the barrel is nearly in prolongation of the arm; left shoulder, arm and hand are at ease; head is erect and both eyes open.


The head should be erect and turned well to the right. Inclining the head forward to align the sights should be avoided; the gun arm should be raised high enough to enable the aim to be taken comfortably. Both eyes should be kept open.


The manner in which the pistol is held while firing, brings us to the point where muscular effort really begins and the muscles of the shoulder, arm, wrist and hand come into play. If up to this time you have accurately followed the instructions regarding the position to be taken, you will realize that you have done nothing to call for physical effort sufficient to cause fatigue or discomfort. If you are accustomed to ordinary work, and are normally developed in the arm and shoulder, you will feel that the effort to hold a pistol at arm’s length makes no great demand on your strength. If your occupation or habits are such that you do not exercise these muscles much, you will find that the effort required to fire several five shot strings carefully is considerable, especially with a heavy pistol. When you make the attempt you soon find that the muscles tire and there is an increasing shakiness and wobbling of the pistol. This depends largely on the manner in which you grip the weapon and support it and the extended arm. The vibrations caused by the functioning of an automatic pistol of. large caliber may further increase this shakiness. By continual practice in aiming and squeezing the trigger, combined perhaps with regular exercise of a kind that will strengthen the muscles required in shooting, you will soon be able to get off more shots before the effects of fatigue are apparent.


An excellent grip for this S. & W. target pistol fitted with a special stock.


A good method of holding the .38 Colt Officers’ Model or any revolver of similar type. The index finger should be as low on the trigger as possible.


An excellent grip for medium and large caliber revolvers. The thumb is extended along the frame but is low enough to clear the cylinder when the recoil occurs.


This grip is especially suited to revolvers of the type of the .38 Colt Police Positive Special which has a small grip and short space behind the guard. When used with the heavier factory loads, and a short barrel such as shown here, this revolver is unpleasant to shoot unless gripped as shown.

A fine exercise to strengthen and develop the muscles of the forearm and hand and one that requires no special apparatus is as follows: Let the right arm with muscles relaxed hang naturally by the side, palm to the front. With a slow rolling motion upward, beginning with the tips of the fingers close the fist tightly as you raise the forearm to the horizontal, meanwhile vigorously tensing the muscles to your limit. Continue the exercise until tired and by repeating it frequently and at odd times you will soon be surprised at the beneficial results.

In gripping the pistol care should be taken to see that the stock is well seated in the hand. This is especially important with the service automatic, the butt of which does not fit the hand as naturally as does the revolver butt. The grip on the pistol should be as high as the particular weapon in use will permit, with the thumb extended naturally along the left side of the piece, the idea being to bring the barrel as nearly in prolongation of the arm as possible. The tendency with any large weapon is to have the hand too much on the right of the piece so that the barrel is not directly in line with the forearm. This is especially true when using a large automatic. The grip on the butt and its position in the hand should always be the same. Changing the grip from shot to shot may result in changing the elevation of your hits on the target. The pressure on the grip should be only sufficient to hold it firmly, as firmly as one might hold an egg of questionable age; firm enough to be sure of not dropping it and yet not tight enough to crush it. The heavier the caliber and the greater the recoil the firmer must be the grip especially in rapid fire. It must, however, be constantly borne in mind that the tighter the grip on the weapon the greater the muscle strain and consequently the more nervous tremors in the hand.


As a part of the technique of firing with the pistol, the detail of holding the breath has, as a result of experience, become of great importance, especially in very deliberate shooting.

Tests made in psychological laboratories have proved that even in minor acts of precision a person involuntarily holds the breath for a very brief period. During delicate operations in surgery the operator will hold his breath in order to perform better a particular detail of his work. The same thing is true in various other acts of precision, at least until one becomes quite skillful in the art he practices.

Uninterrupted breathing causes a movement of the diaphragm and chest muscles as one inhales and exhales and this causes some unsteadiness of the body. For this reason marksmen in an effort to attain absolute steadiness, have learned to hold the breath while aiming and squeezing the trigger.

The breath can be held in two ways, one, by tensing the breathing muscles and the other, by their relaxation. When muscles are tensed they are put under strain and if this is continued for any considerable length of time nervousness results. If muscles are relaxed they are at rest. Some effort is required to hold the breath, but it should be reduced to a minimum. We accomplish this by relaxing the muscles we ordinarily tense when we stop breathing, and hold the breath by merely closing the throat. This is not as simple as it sounds and it takes practice to do it easily and naturally because we are more accustomed to the other method. If we fill the lungs with air by taking a very deep breath we put certain muscles under strain. An attempt to hold the breath under this condition requires an appreciable effort. If, on the other hand we exhale until we have nearly emptied the lungs we find that we can close the throat, relax the abdominal muscles and hold the breath quite easily. A little careful practice will soon show the novice the advantages of this method.

The following procedure should be practiced until it becomes the natural way to hold the breath: Take an ordinary breath, exhale most of it, then with the lungs in a state of rest, close the throat, relax the abdominal muscles and hold the breath. Repeat this exercise during aiming, holding and trigger squeeze exercises. Holding the breath too long should be carefully avoided.