If you own a firearm, especially if you carry one at home or in public, responsibility requires that you train and practice with it on a regular basis. The alternative?…

Imagine that you’re suddenly called upon to give a public piano concert. If you’ve never been trained to play the piano well and never practiced a complex concerto over and over and over—or even if you’ve practiced sporadically—how well do you expect that would go? The answer is: you would flop. If your public concert is with your pistol, your lack-of-practice failure could mean that you or innocent bystanders get hurt. The human toll aside, that will get very expensive for you in both a financial and legal sense.

By Andy Rutledge

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Gun handling and marksmanship are perishable skills with a short shelf life. Everything about gun handling and marksmanship comes from fundamentals and you can never stop working on those fundamentals without losing skill. So you should have a training and practice regimen that at least allows you to maintain what you have and, at best, allows you to build a stronger foundation and more skill.

Many responsible gun owners want to practice, but simply don’t know how. And not all of us have access to a range where all sorts of dynamic training are possible. We may be relegated to the strict confines of an indoor range. Even with that constraint, there is plenty you can do toward effective training and practice.

How to Practice

Before you start devising a practice program for yourself, get training from qualified instructors. I don’t mean take a course. I mean take many courses; get instruction on a regular basis. There is no substitute for quality training, especially if you are not already an expert gun handler and marksman.

I recommend that you take at least one training course every 3 months. Monthly instruction would be even better. Not every class needs to be a weekend-long or day-long intensive course. There is great value in 1- and 2-hour classes when taught by good instructors. And no, it does not matter if a course is “below your level of skill.” While you should take on courses of increasing difficulty over time, instruction is valuable no matter the difficulty level of the course. Just do it. Keep doing it.

Having established an instruction-based regimen, here are some advisable tips for effective, efficient, ongoing self practice:

Go to the range with a specific plan that includes no more than 2 things to work on.
Having only one objective is even better. Your objective should be simple and granular. “I’ll work to be more accurate” is neither simple nor granular. That’s not a practice objective. Some good, candidate, practice-day objectives might include:

  • I’ll concentrate on maintaining proper grip, with an eye toward muzzle/recoil control
  • I’ll work to more quickly acquire a proper sight picture as I press out
  • I’ll work to more quickly reacquire a good sight picture after each shot
  • I’ll work on acquiring and maintaining focus on my front sight
  • I’ll work on maintaining proper posture or upper-body and arm position
  • I’ll work on maintaining a good sight picture while transitioning between two targets
  • I’ll work in pressing my trigger straight back without moving my sight picture
  • I’ll work on speed-reload-to-sight-picture technique
  • I’ll work on maintaining a good cheek weld while cycling the bolt in my rifle
  • I’ll work on prepping the trigger as I press out and breaking when I have a good sight picture
  • I’ll work on clearing (some specific) malfunction(s)

And so on. If you have access to a practical outdoor range, the list of techniques and drills you can work expands greatly. Take advantage of that if you can. If you properly work just one or, at most, two fundamentals in a training session, you should see gains. If you try and do too much in a single session, you’ve most likely wasted your time. In practice, concentration is better than dilution.

Concentrate on the details of your drill and make a point to periodically evaluate and re-evaluate your effort.
Practice makes permanent, so don’t take too many reps before critically evaluating your results and ability to maintain focus…or whatever is required of you in your particular drill. Regularly assess your ability to meet the standard you’re aiming for, adjust as necessary, resume, repeat.

Take only one firearm.
Taking more than one firearm to the range is conducive to shooting rather than practice. So take one gun only. If you carry concealed or openly, your training weapon should almost always be your carry weapon.

Prepare targets specific to your planned drill(s) or be able to create them at the range.
Regardless of the fundamental component you’re working on, you’ll want to see the results of your work on your target. Unless you have the ability to make one coin-sized, ragged hole in your practice target with your drills, you need multiple targets to work with. A shot-riddled target makes it impossible to tell success from failure. Therefore, it is usually best to have an array of similar targets on your paper so that you can perform a drill or a sequence on one of them, then for your next attempt use a new target, and so on.

dot-torture target

Above: Here’s a “dot torture” target, useful for all sorts of fundamental drills.

You might select a target sheet that has multiple targets of the appropriate size and dimensions or you can simply turn a large target over and draw what you need on the plain back of the paper with a marker. However you decide to do it, use targets that allow you to see the results of each specific shot-sequence effort.

Run the gun, not the drill.
This is a hard one to consistently get right, but even though you’re concentrating on a specific drill for a specific shooting fundamental, don’t get lost in the drill. When something unplanned happens (you unexpectedly run empty, your experience a malfunction, etc…) immediately focus on quickly and efficiently getting your gun “back in the fight” (back in working order, ready to fire). If you’re running a 5-shot drill, but somehow only 4 rounds happen to be in the mag—or if you accidentally put 6 in the magazine—don’t pause or stop and confusedly fiddle around with things or look at your gun like it messed up. Just run the gun and continue: perform a speed reload to get that last shot – or – notice that your slide is still in battery and shoot one more time to finish the magazine (if that’s what you’re supposed to do).

This sort of flow with your weapon is something that takes a while and many unexpected events for you to get the hang of. Commit to running the gun and you’ll be on your way toward developing realistic, lifesaving habits, no matter what drills you work.


Ammo is expensive. If you’re going to buy ammo and spend it shooting holes in paper or ringing steel, you should probably make most of those rounds count toward your increased skill. Otherwise you’re throwing money down the toilet in exchange for creating the chore of having to clean your gun again.

There are no advanced shooting techniques. There are only different kinds of and different components of fundamentals. Get into the habit of practicing fundamentals every time you go to the range. And do this often. If you want to evaluate your progress, start competing in GSSF or IDPA or USPSA matches. They’re fun and they reveal the truth about your training and practice (maybe more on this exciting aspect of shooting in a future article).

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About The Author
Andy Rutledge is a design professional, competitive shooter and avid road cyclist. He trains at Eagle Gun Range and elsewhere a few days a week to hone his shooting and defensive skills.
Eagle Gun Range

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