Handgun Accuracy as a Component of Safety - Watch Your Back: How to Avoid the Most Dangerous Moments in Daily Life (2016)

Watch Your Back: How to Avoid the Most Dangerous Moments in Daily Life (2016)

Chapter 7 Handgun Accuracy as a Component of Safety

While conducting a search for safety rules for handling firearms, I was surprised that none of them led off with “treat all guns as if they are loaded” and “never point a gun at something you are not willing to destroy.” Nor did I see instructions to keep your finger off the trigger until you have the sights on a target that has been identified as a threat, but that would be to paraphrase the original code. However, the NRA website does offer these tips:

1. Always keep the gun pointed in a safe direction.

2. Always keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot.

3. Always keep the gun unloaded until ready for use.

The instructions then change format from numerated priorities to “bullet points” beginning with “When using or storing a gun, always follow these NRA rules: The first rule listed reads, ‘Know your target and what is beyond.’”1

Up until now we have concentrated on recommendations for the safe handling of firearms not necessarily during live fire practice at the range, but rather during administrative handling. But what about safety during an actual firefight? Knowing your target and what is beyond should be of the highest priority.

Every Bullet Strikes Something

The only justification to draw and fire is to prevent the death or bodily harm of yourself or someone else. If you are not striking your intended target, you are not doing an effective job of stopping the threat. And no matter your intention, every bullet is going to strike something. Therefore, accuracy is in itself a safety rule.

The fundamentals of accurate shooting, stance, grip, sight alignment, and trigger control are well known. The purpose of the following is to enhance the student’s ability to master these fundamentals.

The most important thing to know about achieving accuracy with a firearm or in this case a handgun is that no matter what comes before, make sure the sights are aligned when the gun goes off. As much practice as this can require, there is one important physical factor that can help the shooter reach this goal much sooner. It has to do with how the hand, and therefore the index finger, lines up with the trigger.

We have already recommended choosing a handgun for personal defense based on individual dexterity strictly in relation to safe handling procedures. Instructions for specific safe handling methods have been delineated based on the physical characteristics of each type of gun determined by their different operational systems. The reader was advised to choose the type of handgun to which they could most easily apply the recommended hand position in order to produce the greatest margin of safety during administrative handling. Let’s say you chose a pistol operating with the traditional double-action design. There are many such “TDA” pistols on the market but which one is best for you? Again this is a choice based on individual dexterity. This time we’re looking for how the gun fits your hand so that you can work the trigger with the greatest amount of control.

In my view, trigger control means the ability to move the trigger to the point of ignition with the least amount of disruption to the perfect sight picture. (Meaning front sight level with the rear sight and centered within the rear sight notch.) The only way to achieve this no matter what the firing system is to press the trigger rearward in a straight line. But here is the problem. The way our fingers are constructed, hinged via a series of joints, the tip of the finger is unable to move directly rearward when we close our hands. Instead, our fingers curl, resulting in our index finger describing an arc rather than a straight line.

As a result, the shooter must fight to maintain sight alignment throughout the duration of the press.

One method of reducing the curvature of the line drawn by the index finger as it presses rearward is to raise the hand on the grip.

The higher the hand is placed on the pistol grip, the more the index finger tends to drop down on to the face of the trigger. This helps isolate the pad of the index finger as the key point in contact with the trigger. Mechanically, this all but removes flexing of the joint located just below the fingertip, reducing curl. With movement now hinged primarily from the larger second joint, the result is a more direct path with less inherent deflection to sight alignment.

A high grip also offers the benefit of applying more strength to counteract muzzle flip. That’s why competitive shooters prefer using a “high hold” and a gun with less vertical distance between the top of the grip and the center of the barrel, a measurement commonly referred to as “hand to bore axis.” Muzzle flip is the upward movement of the pistol in reaction to recoil produced by each shot. The sooner muzzle flip is concluded, the sooner the gun can be pointed at the target and fired effectively. This means elapsed time between multiple shots can be reduced.


Outlined in salt against a black surface, it’s easy to see that the natural path of the index finger produces an arc rather than a straight line. But in order for the sights to be properly aligned at the moment the shot is fired, the trigger needs to be moved directly to the rear. Gripping the gun high enough so that the trigger finger is forced to drop down from slightly above the trigger enables the fingertip to travel in a straight line. This makes it easier for the shooter to deliver an accurate shot.


Due to the physical mechanics of the human finger, choosing a pistol that offers a higher grip can make it easier to press the trigger in a straight line. This gives the shooter a better chance of hitting their intended target and stopping the threat.

As a result, the second way that individual dexterity can help you choose a gun for personal defense is by determining which handgun offers your hand the highest position on the grip.

Improve Accuracy by Sharpening Instincts

It’s easy to track the sights and respond by steering the front sight to the center of the rear sight notch until the gun goes off when you’re shooting on a bright sunny day. But most assaults do not happen in brightly-lit conditions for several reasons. Most crimes occur under the cover of at least partial darkness simply because criminals know that darkness makes it more difficult for victims to see them coming and for witnesses to get a good look at them. Have you ever heard of anyone slipping away into the daylight? We could add that as the day goes on people in need of drugs become more desperate to purchase a supply. As the day’s drinking adds up, alcohol-driven abuse is also more likely to come into play.

For anyone preparing to defend with a handgun, the ability to take aim is a precious skill readily taxed by a reduction in ambient light. There are many innovations to assist handgunners in “low light,” including night sights that glow, lights that attach to the pistol, flashlights that are small enough they can be integrated with one’s shooting grip, and laser systems that project the desired point of impact. I would recommend training with any or all of these accessories. But what about the human component paired with the handgun? All we have is our eyes and the ability to perceive. In a sense our eyes are machines that need to be maintained, not unlike the gun or the accessories mentioned above. But perception is more fluid. It is at least partially a result of experience. For example, my vision is not really sharp enough to read most street signs at a distance beyond say, thirty-five yards. But if I know the name of the street I am looking for I can find it before the individual letters are clear. Here is one example of how. We were traveling in a car and looking to turn right onto a street named Western Rosharon. I say, “There it is” to the amazement of my companions when the sign has barely come into view. How did I know what the sign said? I couldn’t actually read the name. It was just that up until then all streets had names consisting of single words like Mary, Joyce, and Hope. I just looked for a sign that had two words instead of one.

Identifying a threat is usually easier than taking aim. It’s not hard to locate someone coming at you with a knife, but if you are only trained to see a perfect sight picture before firing, you may someday run out of time before your attacker makes contact. If there’s only about 25 percent of the amount of light you’re used to having in order to perceive an adequate sight picture, the majority of the remaining 75 percent of your aiming information has to come from somewhere else. Just as I trusted my perception of a two word street name versus a single word when the letters weren’t actually in focus, you’ve got to learn to pull together additional ways of confirming safe and effective aim.

I am sure some people would refer to this direction as developing the instinctual ability to aim, but I’d rather concentrate on learning more concrete ways to perceive positive aim. I am not sure he founded the teaching concept, but years ago the late Jim Cirillo asked students to practice shooting without the benefits of the sights on their pistols simply by covering the rear sight notch with black electrical tape before sending them to the firing line.2 Cirillo was a member of the New York City Police Department’s Stakeout Squad formed to counter a series of armed robberies and was the survivor of numerous shootouts at close range, often recounted as being reminiscent of the old west. In fact, his book Guns, Bullets, and Gunfights was subtitled Tales From a Modern-Day Gunfighter. Since then, many accomplished competitive shooters and tacticians have tried to quantify in writing just what happens when speed and accuracy are demanded under great stress.


The rear sight of this Smith & Wesson 9mm M&P pistol has been covered with black electrical tape for the purpose of improving the shooter’s ability to aim the gun properly. But whenever you practice, it is important to use only the most accurate and consistent ammunition available so the results are truly representative of your efforts. My experience as a firearms-test professional has taught me to rely upon Black Hills Ammunition.

Cirillo’s method of taping over the sights is sure to help the shooter develop the ability to aim. I believe Cirillo’s message was not merely that accuracy under fire was more than the sum of fundamental parts, I believe it was that there are in fact more parts to be reckoned with than just the sights. With the sights covered, what else is there to tell if the gun is properly aligned?

The shooter learns not just what it looks like for the sights to be level, but what it feels like for the barrel of the gun to be parallel to the ground. If your rear sight has been taped over and you can still see the top of the front sight then you are aiming (and hitting) unnecessarily high.

If the gun is being held with the barrel pointing down, the front sight will not be visible and the hits will land lower than intended. Holding the gun with the muzzle pointing slightly downward will also promote the practice of “scooping” the trigger, which will result in dipping the muzzle even further with each shot. This can be overcome by internalizing the sensation of locking the wrist at the proper angle.


Practicing with the rear sight taped is not by any means like shooting with your eyes closed. It just means that instead of checking the sights, your vision is somewhat shared between the target and the rear face of the gun. To prove this, we began by mounting a LaserMax Micro II laser to our Springfield Armory XD9 Mod 2 and zeroed it to appear as a sunset just above the front sight.


With nothing more in view than the rear face of our Springfield Armory XD9 Mod 2, the gun is centered on target.


The splash of the LaserMax Micro II laser is perfectly centered but, with the top of the slide visible, the point of impact is well above the center of the target.

Finger position on the trigger can affect accuracy by pulling or pushing one’s aim off-center to the left or right. You can prove this to yourself without firing a shot by participating in laser training. Mount a laser on your unloaded pistol, then try to hold the laser point on the desired point of impact and pull the trigger. If the point doesn’t move at all your trigger press is true. Even if the dot moves during the press but is centered on your desired point of impact when the trigger breaks, you’re achieving your goals.

With the sights taped there is still another visual point of reference available to the shooter. When the gun is aimed directly at the target, the back of the slide should appear with edges crisp, forming a more or less rectangular shape.

If the gun is aimed off-center to the left, a portion of the left side of the slide will be visible.

If the gun is being held or travels to the right side during trigger press, the right side of the slide will be visible and the resulting hits will likewise print to the right.


With the left side of the slide visible, the laser marks a virtual hit to the left of center.


With the right side of the slide visible, the laser marks a virtual hit to the right of center.

Once you’ve become accustomed to reading alignment without the sights, I recommend that you take Cirillo’s methodology a little bit further. The typical range target is printed on white, tan, or an off-white color paper. The light thrown back at the shooter from the target is very helpful in judging alignment. To better help replicate low light conditions, leave the sights taped over but substitute the range target with its lines and circles for a piece of plain black construction paper. No rings and no bullseye. Paper the entire target board. Aim at a spot and fire several shots without stopping. A series of properly aligned shots should produce a group of holes closely knit together.

By denying visual access to the sights, the shooter is forced to look elsewhere for feedback indicating whether or not the shots are going where they want them to. We should all be familiar with the concept of calling our shots. Calling a shot is when you see the alignment of the sights on target at the moment the gun goes off and can accurately predict where the bullet hole will print. If the sights were off low and to the left, the hit will appear on target low and to the left. The bullet holes on target will always provide a map of the results of your alignment. When you can call a shot with a collection of feedback other than a perfect view of the sights, you are truly mastering your shooting skills.

Take A Test Drive

To gain access to a wide variety of guns, contact an instructor or visit a shooting range that rents guns. A salesperson in the typical gun store may also be able to show you a variety of guns but an instructor will be able to spend more time with you and answer more questions. Some professional training groups like Firearms Operations and Responsible Training of Texas (FortTexas.us) offer what they call a Test Drive class that gives each student the opportunity to shoot nearly every type of handgun and receive individual instruction specific to each design. Those who have never shot a gun before have the option of beginning with replica guns that project a beam of light rather than bullets. This helps reinforce safety habits and allows the student to focus on sight alignment and trigger control before having to deal with recoil. The Test Drive classes are popular with husbands and wives as well as small business owners that allow their employees to carry a concealed weapon. It’s not only a great way to choose a gun but group classes ensure that each member of the staff or everyone in the family has the same training. Even if a husband and wife choose different guns they should at least have enough working knowledge to use each other’s guns should one fail or run out of ammunition.


Safety is accuracy. Only hits that strike the intended target are going to be effective in stopping the threat. Only hits that strike the intended target protect the innocent lives in the vicinity of the threat. Accuracy begins with familiarity and a natural fit to the hand. Familiarity can be learned, but how do you find out what gun is going to fit your hands best? Instead of buying one gun after another until you find the perfect gun, you can take a “Test Drive” with expert instructors like those found at Firearms Operations and Responsible Training of Texas (FortTexas.us). Training with F.O.R.T Texas on the scenic grounds of American Shooting Centers in Houston, Texas, you’ll be able to shoot a wide variety of handguns to help you decide.

If you think a road test is strictly for beginners who have never shot or handled a gun before, you are mistaken. The types of guns people are familiar with is often generational. While writing a review for Gun Tests magazine comparing three lever action rifles, I decided to bring them to a casual shooting session with several friends who had just returned from military service. Their issued weapons were primarily the Beretta M9 semiautomatic pistol and the M4 carbine. The M4 carbine is similar in many ways to the civilian-available AR-15 platform but with the option of automatic fire. As it turned out only one of them had ever handled, let alone shot, a lever-action rifle. “My grandfather had one,” he remembered. Furthermore, due to the popularity of the semiautomatic pistol, I wouldn’t be surprised to meet adults younger than forty years of age who have never shot a revolver. Bear in mind that with the rarest of exceptions, every civilian weapon currently available started out as being designed for warfare. If anything, this should make you feel more confident no matter which system or style of gun you choose because they’ve all been road-tested in the heat of battle by America’s best.

Hand Position for More Accurate Shooting

A high grip on the handgun offers more control over every aspect of shooting.

Choose a gun that allows you to hold the grip with the least amount of distance from the top of the hand to the bore axis (the center of the barrel).

A high grip allows the trigger finger to move with less deviation.

The greater the angle at which the trigger finger drops to the face of the trigger, the easier it will be to press the finger in a straight line.


Only accurate shots on a verified threat will end aggression without putting others in danger.