How to Shoot a Pistol to Save Your Life

If you own a handgun for self-defense, you probably put in a fair amount of time at the range burning up ammo and shooting groups. You have perhaps even taken a class or two, funds allowing. Basic marksmanship is certainly an essential part of running a gun well enough to save your life, but alone hardly considered proficiency in gun fighting.

Understand this: a fight is what you’ll be in, and you must be able to fight well, not just shoot well, with your pistol. There is no magic to this, learning how to fight with a handgun is only a little different that learning to fight with your fists. By getting appropriately trained on the necessary techniques and mindset and then practicing your newfound skills, you will be far more prepared for a life-or-death struggle than you would by simply shooting bullseyes all day.

Understanding a Fight

Shooting is not fighting. At least, not shooting as you understand it. A real fight will be dynamic: movement will be a certainty, both you and your attacker(s). The location and onset of the fight will be at the attacker’s choosing, and it will not be a clean, nice, well-lit range. You may or may not have safe backstop. Unlike your poor, defenseless target at the range, your assailant gets a vote in the outcome of the encounter. He may not be the least bit worried about your gun. He may have been shot before, and none the worse for wear. He may have used his gun on someone else before. He may be good at it.

The first lesson is that you will probably not have much, if any time to react to the attack. The fact that you are being attacked at all most probably means you were selected by the bad guy to be his victim: understand that he noticed your lack of attention in general, or a gap in your awareness that permitted him to close in on you.

It is for this reason that speed will be paramount, and not just your split times shot to shot. The ability to clear your garment, acquire the shooting grip, draw the gun and fire an accurate first shot is absolutely critical. Even so, the chances that the attacker will come to grips with you are very high. It is not enough to know how to shoot from a traditional position: you must know how to fight at contact distance while protecting the gun from a takeaway attempt.

If your attacker has a gun of his own, you must act in order to make yourself a hard target. Standing proud and unbent in the middle of the street exchanging bullets with your adversary makes for fine television, but also makes for a trip to the morgue. You need to move, at a minimum, and preferably move to a place of cover, cover being something that WILL stop the bullets heading your way as opposed to just some object you can place between you and them.

The ability to shoot fast and accurately at on a static range is not enough. You must be able to do the same in a variable environment while still making good decisions moment to moment under profound stress. It is not easy, and so you must tailor your training and practice accordingly.

Fundamental Marksmanship Elements

You must be able to shoot accurately enough to save your life. How accurate is that? Accurate enough to strike the vital anatomy of a human attacker at close range, when they and you are probably moving. The most consistently effective targets are the heart, lungs and brain, together comprising the classic points of aim in the chest and head. The accuracy problem is compounded by the mandate that you must do so as quickly as possible as many times as required to induce the desired effect on the target.

A 3×5 index card placed with the long edge vertical and centered over the sternum of a silhouette or other humaniform target with a second one placed horizontally centered between the eyes makes for a demanding and simple target for frontal profile shooting practice. Consider a hit in either a good or “A zone” shot.

Do not enamor yourself with the falsehood that enough accuracy or speed alone will make up for lack of the other. Both attributes are essential to prevail in any fight. Force must be delivered accurately and it must arrive in time. This may need to be accomplished after drawing the gun from concealment. Nothing else will assure a satisfactory outcome unless you trust to the most fickle of patrons, Lady Luck.

Higher Standards

Once basic competency with safely operating and firing the gun is established, you must not be content with shooting groups at the range. Introducing time standards by use of a shooting timer is an important step in forcing growth. Achieving speedy and accurate hits under the pressure of a time limit is not a square range construct: you will not have all the time in the world to save your life in a fight.

As skill and certainty improve the time standard should be made more difficult, and complexity of the task increased. Complete the same drill while drawing from concealment or with only one hand. Introduce shoot/no-shoot decision making, or drills where more complex sequences of fire must be completed involving multiple shots on different targets of various shapes, sizes, colors and labels.

Anything that forces your brain to allocate processing to solving a problem besides marksmanship fundamentals will be very illuminating as to your automatic level of competency with the gun. Barring very difficult shots, you should be reaching for an “automatic” level of competency. If you find you are having to devote too much of your frontal lobe to solving the marksmanship component of the problem on a given drill, you are probably not at the level you should be.

Adding Stress

Assuming you are a competent, safe gun handler, you should seek to engage in some type of action-oriented competition and/or force-on-force training. Do not get taken by prudes and naysayers who would have you believe bad habits learned in competition will get you “killed in the streets.” Far from it; while nowhere close to the stress level of an actual armed encounter, the stress of putting your performance and reputation on the line in front of observers will be the most trying test of your skills thus far.

A great many of the founding fathers of modern pistolcraft themselves participated and advocated competition for its benefits. A few of them actually created and codified what we know today as action pistol or multi-gun competition. There is no doubt where these great ones stood on the matter, and it was not a negative opinion.

There is a valid argument from those who caution against competition for building proficiency, but it is about what competition omits from your development, rather than what it instills as bad habit: most competitions will completely neglect proper use of cover save the most rudimentary, and further will always have an artificial gaming element about them where certain gear setups or guns rule the day. Often these guns and rigs will be in no way ideal or even practical for self-defense. If you make it a point to compete with your “real world” carry gun and gear, though, and don’t get sucked into a win-at-all-cost mentality, the refinement of skills from competitive endeavor is priceless.

Your other stop on the road to building life-saving levels of competency should be force-on-force training, that is live, man against man scenarios. Using special training guns shooting either safe marking bullets or BB’s, the best forms of this training will allow a student to make decisions on their own in an open ended scenario to achieve a good or bad outcome.

Other variations will utilize protective gear to allow students to wrestle and grapple while trying to bring weapons to bear or protect against their gun being used against them. These are exhausting and sobering assessments of your physical and mental conditioning, as well as your skills. Many an overconfident gun carrier has been humbled after such an exercise left them “dead” on the ground, their gun in the hands of an assailant who took it from them.


Massacring paper or clanging steel is not a marker of readiness for deadly confrontation with a pistol. Not on its own. To ensure one is able to employ their pistol with the swiftness and certainty the situation demands, advanced and difficult skills must be mastered if you are to survive the brutal calculus of a fight for your life.

9 thoughts on “How to Shoot a Pistol to Save Your Life”

  1. Excellent post. I know too many gun owners who think merely owning a gun and shooting it occasionally at a range make them highly proficient gunslingers. There are so many more components to gun fighting for Self-Defense!

  2. This is a good article with well made points and brings to mind a short statement from Bruce Lee in his movie “Enter the Dragon” where he states: “Boards Don’t Hit Back” . In the same vein, most targets on a range do not shoot back.
    Unless you are engaging in practice with Simunitions or at least paint ball, most people will likely never have anything shot back at them; however, one can practice in realistic ways to make you more prepared for an engagement under stress, even if that stress is just a timer. For those with Smartphone’s, shot timer apps are available, so you need not purchase and carry extra gear to the range. Practice drawing and firing from a holster while on the move. Practice at varying distances and at moving targets both in the clear and behind cover or concealment, and know the difference between cover and concealment. As a practicing martial artist for 50+ years, a shooter for longer than that, and an NRA certified instructor for nearly 30 years, I can tell you that all of these skills can be complementary.
    Most people have heard the maxim “Practice makes perfect”; but, we tell students that only “Perfect Practice makes perfect”, meaning that time at the range, slinging lead at paper targets, might be a lot of fun; but, real practice takes concentration, practicing on various targets at various distances from various positions, on occasion against a timer.
    While my aged eyes don’t allow me to shoot the events and distances they once did, events like IPSC (International Practical Shooting Confederation) or IDPA (International Defensive Pistol Association) can be valuable training for real world situations. Another thing my eyes have forced me to use is called ”Point Shoulder or Natural Point of Aim shooting, meaning use of the firearm (primarily handgun) against close in (1-7 yards) target situations without engaging the sights. Make sure you practice the varying distances including the close ones. I’ve seen people who do well with handguns at 20-50 feet, who get all tied up on a target @ 2-3 feet.
    To draw the handgun, we teach a 5 step process with the following steps:
    1. Grip
    2. Pull
    3. Rotate
    4. Smack
    5. Engage
    All of which may be seen in the following short video:
    Draw or “The Presentation”: Handgun Tip – Gunsite Academy Firearms Training
    Try these steps one at a time with an unloaded gun until you get the hang of it and on the range take these same steps slowly until you have them working smoothly without paying as close attention to hitting the bull’s-eye as performing the sequence safely. We call this technique BSA (Balance of Speed and Accuracy) first working on speed in a safe manner and then working on accuracy.
    Perhaps the most important lesson in the article is summed up by: ” understand that he noticed your lack of attention in general, or a gap in your awareness that permitted him to close in on you.”, since avoiding the fight is always preferred to engaging if possible. As an older guy, I’m not possessed by my gadgets; but, I do too often see people walking with their Earbuds in place, or reading their phones, texting, or other distracted behavior, perhaps not realizing that the wolves generally look for the sheep that isn’t paying close attention.
    Your use of index cards as targets is a good way to do things; but, a pair of 9 inch paper plates set at the height of the chest and head also makes good practice targets
    Practice often using realistic training and always be aware of your environment, since situational awareness may be your best overall defense.

  3. Great article. For many years I was involved in law enforcement pistol competitions going through hundreds of stages and training scenarios. Most were based on the run and gun idea of competition. With that being said now many years later I enjoy plinking at targets from a variety of distances and some movement drills. Although my movement drills are a great deal slower than in the past just getting to the range and practicing drawing from concealed carry, firing and hitting your target is invaluable training.

  4. Marksmanship is only one aspect agreed.

    Practice clearing type 1,2 &3 jams.

    Room clearing slicing the pie of the room and don’t forget the mermen…..

    Concealment and cover.

    Reloading from cover.

    Weak hand strong hand.

    Low light.

    And last but not least….running and then shooting to simulate stress. Good advice.

  5. My son is house setting this week. Someone tried to break into the house. (My son is 6’2″ and a body builder/wrestler.) The home invader didn’t get in. But my son tagged him a good one on the front porch but the crack head got away. He lives out of state. We are going to set him up with a shotgun.

  6. The best way to survive a gun fight is to avoid it. The second best way is to use situational awareness to anticipate and prepare(or avoid) what is about to happen. Shooting too soon gets you to the jail, while being too slow or inaccurate gets you to the morgue. Master the basics and the basics will get you home. If you have to engage then get it done. When the threat is down, neutralized, or incapacitated, reload and check your surroundings to make sure his/her buddies are not sneaking up on you.


Leave a Comment