02 August 2013

Anybody Down Range?

In the Hollywood version of our Old West, the movie makers would have us picture the hero stepping out into the dusty street of some cowboy town to face the story's villain. The two opponents stare at each other for a while to increase tension, and then the bad guy draws first. Naturally, our hero draws his weapon faster and shoots first. If he's really good, it only takes one shot to polish off the soon-to-be-deceased. And, the entire scene occurs at a distance of several paces between the combatants.

In reality, from what I've read in non-fiction, many of the Old West gunfights took place in a local store or saloon with roughly about ten feet separating the two arguing parties. In their anger/excitement/adrenaline, a nearby stove or innocent slow bystander was as likely to get plugged by the first shots as was the opposing shooter. How you ask, could this possibly happen at such close range?

Well, I'm glad you asked that question. In reply, here are a few antidotes and anecdotes to help tighten up your own shot group.

As most of you who have fired a handgun know, you line up the notch in the rear sight with the blade of the front sight. The top of the rear sight should be on a level line with the top of the blade of the front sight and there should be equal daylight on both sides of the front blade in order to make a correct sight pattern. The target to be shot then goes on top of the front blade, depending upon the distance to said target. Simple, huh?

Now we get into various factors affecting this simple process.

The Length of the Barrel

In 1971 when BNDD Class 15 graduated, all trainees were issued a S&W, .38 caliber, subnose, six-shot revolver. The short barrel was supposed to make the weapon more concealable when going undercover. Experts -- I have no idea who they were -- had determined that most shootouts in undercover situations took place at about the distance of six feet. Therefore, a short-barreled weapon should be suitable. Naturally, this did not help in situations where your opponent was at a greater distance. You see, assuming the same error deviancy in sight pattern between the rear and front sights, means a short-barreled weapon will increase the width of your shot grouping a lot more as the distance increases than will a long-barreled weapon. And that is if you are doing everything else correctly. For that reason, many agents soon changed over to personally owned weapons such as the Colt Combat Commander, and later to the larger of the Sig Sauers and Glocks. True, the larger calibers of these weapons had more knockdown power, but the longer barrels also provided more accuracy.

The Twitch of a Finger

One summer day, a law enforcement buddy of mine was off-duty at a lakeside park when a pickup truck drove up to where he was standing. The truck driver, a felon, appeared to suddenly recognize my friend. Whereupon the driver said a few unkind words and drew a pistol. Fortunately, this felon was drawing from an awkward sitting position. My friend beat the felon to a shooting readiness and blew three holes through the driver's side door at a distance of about six feet or so. Luckily, one round hit the felon in his shooting arm and the situation was concluded without further violence. How did the other two shots miss his intended target? Well, let's see, there's excitement/adrenaline, anticipating the shot and the position of the trigger finger for three possibilities.

Adrenaline coursing through a person's veins allows some people to lift a car off a loved one, or some soldiers to storm an enemy position without feeling the effects of wounds until the action is over, or lets some humans conduct super human efforts for a short time period. This naturally produced chemical in the body also affects the nervous system and makes for twitchy movements. A trigger finger does not do well with twitchy movements as you will soon see.

Anticipating the shot means you know the recoil and loud noise are coming, which usually means you react in advance by flinching and yanking the trigger. This reaction pulls up the nose of the barrel and your shot goes higher than you want. To see if you have this problem, dry fire your weapon (no ammo in the chamber or magazine, please). If you flinch when the hammer falls, you're anticipating a recoil and need to relax. Keep dry firing until the flinching stops.

Now we come to the position of the index finger on the trigger. Look at your shooting hand. The pad of the index finger, from the fingertip to the crease of the first knuckle, should be evenly centered on the trigger. If the fingertip portion pulls on the trigger, then the barrel gets pulled to the right and the round goes to the right of target center. However, if the crease of the first knuckle pulls the trigger, then the barrel gets pushed left and so goes the shot. The finger pad also needs to be centered up and down on the trigger. Put the finger pad too high and the barrel gets pulled up when fired; too low and the barrel gets pulled down. So, how do you correct these problems?

Practice, Practice, Practice

Go to the firing range and work on your anticipation and trigger finger position. When you have acquired a tight shot group, then start drawing and firing your weapon. Always practice as if you were in a real life situation. Use the same weapon you will be carrying and keep it in the same position on your body that you will be drawing it from. If from a holster, then always use a holster. For undercover purposes, most of us did not use holsters, the weapon went in the back of the waistband. For muscle memory and to help counterbalance the effects of adrenaline, keep as many circumstances the same as is possible, time after time. Then, when the action starts, your movements become automatic and natural.

In the early years, our range officers, to keep their firing ranges neat and tidy, would have us clean up as we went. When we finished firing from behind barricades (which simulated reality) the range officers would tell us to empty the casings from our revolver cylinders into nearby brass cans. Problem they found out later was that agents reacted in the field as they had been trained in the academy. When field agents got into a shootout, they would look around for the brass cans to empty their guns before they reloaded. You don't have time for that in a shootout.

Moral: Practice for reality. Train the way you will use it.

Now, go out and have some fun with paper targets. Hope you never need to shoot at the real thing, but if you do, do it right for your own safety and for those around you.


  1. Very interesting. As you know, R.T., I am writing about a guy who is a bad shot. Maybe I will have him make some excuses now...

  2. R.T. did you ever try the "instinctive shooting" method? It can't be used to qualify on the range, as it's practically worthless on targets that aren't within "bar room distance", but it's a lot of fun. Just don't get downrange of any other shooters as the results can vary wildly. Basically, it's just draw, point, and shoot. There's no attempt at sight alignment beyond bringing the gun to eye level and fully extending the arm prior to pulling the trigger. For me it didn't make for tight shot groups, but I did hit the target where it hurts most of the time.

  3. Back in my wild youth, when I attended the occasional dynamite party and did some practice shooting, what I learned (small woman, big gun) was to aim for the knees. That way, when I flinched and/or the gun kicked up, I might hit something I was sort of aiming at.

  4. I was told that when using a handgun at close range you don't have the time to aim -- or the room to do it. If you raise and level a pistol to aim at someone close to you, they only have to grab the barrel to pull it out of your hands. I am sure, from what I have read of shootings in the late 1800s, especially after the repeating pistols came out, that people in gunfights drew and shot from the hip without ever taking aim. Aim was for distance fire, the longer the distance the more necessity of -- and time for -- taking good aim down the sites.

  5. David, we called that Point Shooting. With practice, you can get pretty good at it.

    Eve, sorry I missed the dynamite parties.

    Anonymous, you make a good point. To avoid the risk of having the opposition grab your pistol, is also why the range officers taught us to come around a corner with the pistol held slightly down (instead of pointed up like in the old Miami Vice series), so that if an opponent did grab for or try to block your pistol, you could at least disable him by shooting him in the leg or foot. However, if your pistol is pointed up, then your shot will go into the ceiling.

  6. Nice article, R.T.

    Practice for reality. Train the way you will use it.

    Great advice! We used to say, “Train like you fight, and fight like you trained.”

    I think some of the best “advice” I got for this was in SOT school. There, they’d have us gear-up, then they’d take us on a very fast 2-mile run. Immediately upon hitting the range – still huffing and puffing from the run, heart beating like a trip hammer – we’d engage targets. It’s pretty tough to control your breathing, and keep your arms from jangling, under such circumstances (plus you’ve got sweat in your eyes! lol), but I later found the training I’d gained there to be quite advantageous.

  7. Not a funny article, but it reminded me of two funny things.

    The Irish comedian Dave Allen had his forefinger partially amputated. As a child, when he and his little friends played cops and robbers, they told him he couldn’t play because he couldn’t form a ‘real gun’ with his stubby finger. He said, “Oh, yeah? Snub-nose .38.”

    In one of the King of the Hill episodes, an armed and paranoid Dale bursts in on armed and paranoid bounty hunter. Both immediately throw down their guns and reach for the sky… and whenever the rest of the episode peeks in on them, they’re still in that Mexican standoff with pistols on the floor and arms raised. Okay, okay, you had to be there, but it was a marvelous send-up of those television cops and Western’s standoffs.

    My dad was an amazing rifle shot and for some reason seemed to know the last of the shooters from the turn-of-the-century old-time Western shows, guys who could shoot coins out of the air, etc. (I wondered how they trained for that.) I personally witnessed one who could draw, shoot, and reholster faster than the eye could follow… well, my eye, anyway. His stance was unlike anything on television Westerns, turned about 1/8 from the target, right leg forward, knees slightly bent. It occurs to me that while the stance partially lined up the weapon to the target, it also may have prevented him from shooting himself in the foot.


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