Every year I am fortunate to perform Handel’s Messiah at least twice.  As long as human beings abide, Messiah will be performed and cherished.  The work is second nature to me.  I’ve performed it so many times I can do it virtually from memory, including solos not in my voice range.  With that level of familiarity, it is often easy to forget that whenever the work is performed, many will be hearing it for the first time, and some, for the last time.

So it is with firearm skills.  I’ve fired so many thousands of rounds through so many different firearms, including handguns, shotguns, rifles, submachine guns and light and general-purpose machine guns (as well as the occasional grenade launcher and other interesting toys) over so many years it is easy to forget that it’s always a good idea to periodically return to the basics of shooting.  Many will be experiencing it for the first time, but even the experienced understand the value of reviewing basic procedures.  In this brief article—the first of a two part series–my intended audience is the new shooter, someone who has purchased a firearm for the first time and has yet to spend any real time on the range.  I trust others may find the information herein useful as well.

Readers might find my recent seven-part series on the rationale for gun ownership, which also discusses the basics of handguns, handgun choice, ammunition, holsters and related subjects, useful.  The first article in that series is available here, and the rest follow in the SMM firearms archive. 

TARGETS:  I’m making the assumption that new shooters have purchased their firearm for personal protection.  While there are any number of types of targets available, one might do well by nothing more formal than shooting at standard sized paper plates.  The primary difficulty with such targets, and any similarly sized target, is it’s difficult to see where one missed, and by how much.  For that reason, I recommend what are commonly called silhouette targets, or man-sized and shaped targets.  They are readily available in a variety of sizes and configurations, but over the years, I’ve developed a very inexpensive means of target making.

This is a cardboard target I made that requires nothing more than a target template, a magic marker, a sufficiently large piece of cardboard, and a utility knife.

This is the template, made of ¼” thick plywood.  One might easily make a template out of cardboard, but it obviously would not be as rugged or long-lasting as plywood.  After cutting out the two panels with a saber saw, I spent a little time on all the edges with a coarse sheet of sandpaper, followed by medium and fine papers.  As this is not fine furniture, one need not be too fastidious, but it’s a good idea to make the edges slightly rounded and reasonably smooth.

Here are the measurements for anyone wishing to make a similar template.  Appliance stores, or any business that stocks furniture, large screen TVs, or any other large item provides a ready supply of cardboard, and with cheap masking tape, one can shoot and cover hundreds of holes in an individual target.

Notice that the rectangles in center mass and the head are marked lightly.  At greater distances, the lines can’t be seen, which is as it should be.  Some people express a bit of squeamishness at shooting at vaguely man-shaped targets.  One wonders about the advisability of those holding those views owning any firearm, particularly for self- protection.  As I note in the seven-part series, carrying a handgun isn’t for everyone, particularly those who cannot, honestly and without hesitation, say that they can shoot another if such shooting is legally and morally justified and necessary.  No rational person wants to shoot others.  No rational person wants to harm others.  However, those purchasing firearms for the defense of themselves and others have likely resolved these issues and are ready to take personal responsibility for the safety of themselves and those they love if the worst-case scenario comes to pass.

Therefore, we shoot at man-sized and shaped targets to condition ourselves to reality, however unsettling it might one day be, and we hope that the skill and visible confidence we gain will help to ensure that we never have to use our skills.  We do not draw huge, thick lines and bullseyes on those targets because if it ever becomes necessary to shoot, attackers will not have such lines and bullseyes drawn on their bodies.

AIM POINTS:  As I also note in the seven-part series, one must not succumb to Hollywood thinking.  If one has the legal justification to shoot, there is for them no such thing as warning shots or shooting to wound.  One shoots to stop only.  This means firing the number of accurately aimed shots necessary to cause an attacker to immediately cease whatever he was doing that gave the defender the justification to shoot.  If the attacker dies as a result of being stopped, bad for him, good for the defender, but one shoots—always—only to stop.

Center Mass:  Think of center mass as the area surrounding the sternum and encompassing the heart, the lungs, and the large arteries feeding both.  It is represented by the larger rectangle on the target.  Missing a few inches from dead center one way or the other will still likely have the desired effect on the target.  Practice focusing on that center of mass rather than looking for target lines.

There is also a smaller box in the head of the target corresponding roughly with that area of the head most likely to cause immediately incapacitation when hit.  Particularly when beginning, it’s best to avoid this.  Accurate head shots are very difficult.  The target area is much smaller than the center mass area, and is likely to be bobbing and weaving much more violently in any deadly force encounter.  When one is more skilled and confident, when one can reliably place all of their rounds in the larger target area from a variety of distances, only then spend time on the smaller target area.

SIGHT ALIGNMENT:  The illustrations demonstrate improper and proper sight alignment on a silhouette target.

If one skews the front sight to the right, the rounds will strike to the right, and if the front sight is skewed high—it obscures the aiming point (in red)—one will obviously hit high.

With proper sight alignment (I’m assuming your weapon is properly sighted in), these two examples will produce on-target hits.  But to do so, keep these things in mind:

(1) If possible, keep both eyes fully open.  Some will find this difficult and will find it easier to close the weak eye (usually the left eye for right handed shooters) and focus on the sights only with the master eye.  Do this if necessary, but work toward being relaxed and keeping both eyes open.  Always use eye protection when shooting!

(2) Focus on the front sight; it must be sharp and clear.  This will, of necessity, make the rear sight and target somewhat indistinct or blurry.  This is normal and absolutely necessary.  You will not be able to make the front and rear sights sharp, and any attempt to make the target sharp will render both sights fuzzy.

NOTE:  When handling any firearm–in the home or on the range–always practice safety first, last and always.  This includes always removing any magazine, emptying the cylinder of any revolver, and checking the chamber of any firearm to be certain it is empty.  This must be done visually and manually, actually inserting the tip of a finger—usually the pinky—into the chamber to be certain it is clear.  If you have any doubt at all, run the check again.

Never point a firearm—loaded or unloaded–at anything you don’t immediately intend to destroy.  Always be absolutely certain of your backstop.

Always keep the trigger finger “in register,” or out of the trigger guard, kept straight and in contact with the frame of the weapon until just before pulling the trigger.

Whenever anyone hands you a handgun (or any firearm), in the gun store, at a friend’s house, or on the range, you must immediately assure yourself and others that it is safe.  You do this by:

Revolvers: Keeping the muzzle pointed in a safe direction at all times (it’s ridiculously easy to point the muzzle of a short-barreled weapon where it does not belong; learning muzzle awareness is vital to gun safety), open the cylinder and check, visually and manually, that the weapon is empty.

Semiautomatics: Again, keeping the muzzle pointed in a safe direction at all times, remove the magazine and cycle the action to eject any chambered round.  Lock the slide to the rear and visually and manually inspect the chamber.

If you’re not certain how to make safe a given weapon, ask those who have handed it to you to do it.  If they hesitate or attempt to make you feel foolish, leave.  They’re not the kind of people you want to be near when firearms are present.  Responsible, smart–and uninjured–shooters always appreciate safety and those who are serious about it.

Because I can’t be present when you’re dealing with firearms, I obviously assume no responsibility for your actions.  I present this information as a public service in the hope that you’ll deal safely with firearms and help to experience and pass on one of our most important rights and responsibilities.

Final Thoughts:  In the second part of this series, I’ll present the Weaver position, arguably the most stable and effective handgun shooting position, provide tips on trigger control, and also present several drills that will help to rapidly build shooting skill and confidence.  That article will be posted on September 26, 2012.