Basic Shooting Fundamentals

There are two things new shooters typically learn before ever firing their first shot. Gun safety should always be first and usually the fundamentals of shooting comes next. Depending on whose asked or what class you attend you’ll probably hear several different fundamentals listed out plainly and breezed over. This is what I aim to address. I’d venture to say that over 90% of shooters know the four most common fundamentals are grip, stance, sight alignment/picture and breath control. However, of that 90% how many do you think have a complete understanding of each fundamental, what they mean, or how to utilize them properly? Do you? These fundamentals are consistent across all firearms whether you’re using a rifle, pistol or shotgun, and there’s even some crossover with bows. In this article I’m going to break down each fundamental adding some key takeaways and posing an additional fundamental that I believe meets the modern criteria for shooting. This is by no means a one size fits all breakdown, rather a generalized article to educate people how to shoot and the basics to do so. Grip / Stabilization: Single handedly the most important fundamental in my opinion is a correct grip. A good grip is the foundation. It’s the starting point for proper recoil management, trigger control, sight alignment, preventing failures and more. A solid grip is also the one fundamental that’s not situational. There are instances where one or all other fundamentals can be ignored, going completely unused but never you grip. So, what are some key elements to a good grip? A good grip depends on a lot of factors like the firearm and the person using the firearm, but there are certain takeaways that always apply. Consistency is key! Grabbing the gun the same way every time is super important. Consistency sets the foundation for proper trigger control, preventing malfunctions and even skills like reloading or drawing from a holster. High & tight is the golden rule for recoil. Get as high up on the grip as possible and hold on tight. How tight is generally debated, you’ll hear differing opinions such as “tight like a handshake” or “death grip the gun” but the real answer is somewhere in the middle. A good grip should be firm and even without disrupting the shooter or the firearm. Note that this can vary from gun to gun. For a handgun you might want to have a tighter grip compared to taking a 1000+ meter shot at with a rifle. It boils down to, too tight can interfere with the trigger, cause shaking, fatigue, and more. Too loose can cause inconsistencies with accuracy and poor recoil management. It’s a fine balance but a tight, consistent, and even grip is the goal. Trigger control is also part of a good grip. I want to take a second to clarify what I think is often misunderstood about squeezing the trigger usually because it’s been mis-explained. That is… using the tip of the finger to pull the trigger. A lot of people end up ‘pushing’ the trigger, subsequently the gun, because they were told to use the tip of their finger. The goal isn’t to use the very very tip so don’t be afraid to get a little more finger over the trigger. There is a balance though, another common mistake is caused by placing too much finger over the trigger. This can result in a jerking or pulling motion. Place your Distal Phalanx (the first section of your finger) on the trigger wherever is most comfortable with that gun. A good relationship between your finger and the trigger will increase accuracy and speed. Experiment at the range to see what happens when different areas of your finger are used on different areas of the trigger. Be sure to follow-through with each shot, even when shooting fast. Two major takeaways for trigger follow-through are one: Keep in constant contact with the trigger in between shots. The second: Have intention when resetting the trigger. To squeeze a trigger, pull straight back with even pressure. When the shot is fired, continue to press the trigger rearward, then hold it. The gun will complete its cycle and the sights will realign letting us know to release and take the next shot. Pulling the trigger should be a three-step process: squeeze, hold, release (repeat as needed). I’ve talked about grip so now let’s discuss stabilization and how it relates to grip. Sometimes the gun requires other points of contact with our body and different objects, or a combination of both. Other points of contact with our body include a rifle stock in our shoulder or using an arm and knee for support. Stabilizing objects include bipods, bags, barricades, slings, etc. Part of a good grip is how the firearm interacts with these elements too. The more points of contact used to stabilize the firearm the better. Stabilization is also a natural byproduct of a good firing position so let’s discuss stance and fire positions next. Stance / Position: A good stance or position is important for accuracy and recoil management. It’s also important for preventing fatigue and injury. I did want to limit ‘stance’ to only standing upright, so I decided to include ‘position’ because the rules apply to barricades and other objects. We don’t always get the luxury of engaging targets standing stagnant and perfectly upright, so the fundamentals of a good stance need to apply to all firing positions. I believe a good stance can be boiled down to three main principles. It’s important to know that one or two might not apply in certain situations. One, get wide. Widen your stance, offset your feet, spread your legs (wink seductively). When possible, get low. This will help your center of gravity and the ability to transfer energy during recoil. Once wide we want to consider where our hips and shoulders are in relation to the target. Do your best to square up with the target and in line with the firearm. Two, lean in. Leaning forward helps absorb the recoil from unarguably every firearm. Leaning into barricades and bipods will also help absorb recoil and stabilize both the gun and the shooter. Keep a strong back and lean from the hips, put the weight of your body behind the gun. Three, dig in. Curl your toes like you’re trying to hold onto the earth’s surface. You’re the only thing between the gun and the ground, don’t let the gun drive you into it. Engage your muscles to dig into the gun or into that position. Much like your grip though, digging in is a fine balance between too much and not enough. We don’t want to tense up because it can lead to shaking and fatigue. You should feel relaxed in your position while still maintaining control of that firearm. Breath Control: Breath control is an interesting one because to a degree we have zero control over our breathing, yet we have total control (confusing I know). I think it’s important to pay attention to how breathing is affecting us as the shooter and not so much affecting our shooting. It’s more important to understand basic breathing techniques that can calm us down and slow one’s heart rate instead of focusing on when, during a respiratory cycle, to pull the trigger. It’s far too common for someone to get dizzy or even pass out because they’re too focused on breathing slowly or they’re over-excited and breathing erratically. The speed at which we exchange gases determines how our bodies function and our mental status. How we think and process information, heart rate, movement, vision, and speech are all affected when our oxygen levels are outta whack. Proper breath control is important for all shooters in all situations from the hunter with deer fever, to the police officer engaged in a high-speed chase. It’s important to stay calm during both these situations and breath control is the gateway to success. Don’t want to take a shot mid inhale or mid exhale as this can greatly affect accuracy. Instead, break the shot when there is a pause in your respiratory cycle. When is that exactly? I’ve heard after an inhale; I’ve heard after an exhale. One’s breathing-to-shooting cadence will change depending on round count and several other factors.  I don’t want to dive crazy deep into breath control because I believe in order to be proficient it takes a lot of conscious thought and understanding of one’s body. Breath control requires a manual override of our brain’s automated response to stimuli and sometimes that can be very counterintuitive or uncomfortable.  Figure out what works for you by focusing on your breathing regularly throughout the day, paying attention to how your mind and body react. If you would like to learn a few breathing techniques, here is an awesome link to a podcast with timestamps, and a few articles written by medical doctors who study breathing and how to control breathing to optimize mood and performance. It’s a great link! How to Breathe Correctly for Optimal Health, Mood, Learning & Performance – Huberman Lab Sight Picture: Sight picture is very commonly misunderstood by new shooters and often confused with sight alignment. The differences between the two are straightforward, it’s in their names. Sight alignment is how your sights are aligned in relation to the target, while sight picture is what you’re focusing on while aiming. Both alignment and picture share a symbiotic relationship with one another, and both are required to aim. For pistol iron sights a good slight alignment is when the rear notches and front notch are evenly spaced and perfectly level along the top edge of the sights. With a scope, a good thing to look for is an even shadow around the edge of the glass. This lets us know that we are looking perfectly straight down that weapon or through that optic. You may have heard the phrase “front sight focus” which is basically a fun way of saying proper sight picture. Using the same pistol iron sight example, a proper sight picture is focusing on the front sight post while letting the target and rear sight blur.  When using an optic, ‘front sight focus’ is essentially the same except now shifting focus to the reticle of that optic. Proper sight alignment is the starting point for aiming. If your sights aren’t aligned evenly, how can you expect to hit your target? When everything is inline it will reduce or eliminate the optic illusion known as parallax. Parallax occurs when the reticle is in a different focal plane than the target, and the best example to describe parallax is a straw in a glass of water. The portion of the straw that’s inside a glass of water appears to be misaligned with the portion of the straw sticking out of the water. This optical illusion can have a big effect on our shooting because where we are aiming might not be where the bullet impacts. Setup My addition to the fundamentals of shooting is setup. Correctly setting up your firearm and a good firing position is an essential and continuous process. It can be as simple as tossing a limiting-plug into a shotgun tube before hunting or it can get very complex with mission driven firearms. Properly setting up your firearm tailors that gun to you & you alone and ensure you have the ability to perform all other fundamentals. What are some things we should consider? The stock should be adjusted to control recoil, allow proper sight alignment, and have control over the functions of the firearm without strain. The optic is a big one because there are a lot of adjustments that can be made. The optic should be leveled and at a comfortable yet functional height so the reticle can be used as designed. Take note of things like brightness, zoom and parallax settings as these may need to be adjusted throughout the course of fire. Controls shouldn’t interfere with a good grip or the overall function of the gun. Bipods need to be far enough forward to stabilize the weapon but not so far forward that it’s out of reach, requiring unnecessary movement. To detail every firearm type with every possible accessory would make this blog hundreds of pages long and extremely boring. As I’ve said time and time again the most important thing is to build the gun for your needs. The best piece of advice I can give you is to experiment. Try configurations with different accessories in different places. Figure out what’s comfortable and works best for you, then test it. When buying accessories and upgrades be sure to buy quality products from reputable brands. Firearms are lifesaving (and taking) tools that we don’t want to fail when it matters most. As a tool, a firearm should not be overly complex in its setup. A carpenter’s hammer has two functions, it hits nails on one side and pries nails out with the other.  If a hammer is simplistic in its design so should a gun. When fundamentals go out the window: A few times throughout this article I’ve mentioned that some fundamentals are dictated by the situation. In certain instances, some fundamentals will be ignored or used at different times throughout the engagement. In other situations, all the fundamentals are equally important. I want to give two hypothetical examples. Now knowing the fundamentals of marksmanship, it’s important to understand when to use them. Scenario 1: A law enforcement officer knocks on the front door of a house. The door swings open and there is an individual pointing a gun right at the officer. Like it’s second nature, the officer draws his gun from the holster and engages the individual, firing several rounds rapidly to end the threat. The officer then proceeds to jump on the radio and calmly call for backup and medical support while securing the scene. In this first scenario, grip is the primary fundamental. The officer was able to draw this gun from the holster quickly and end a threat just feet from him. Then he gets on the radio and clearly communicates to dispatch and the other officers on duty. In situations like this the office doesn’t have time to evaluate his stance or proper sight alignment. This breath control was irrelevant during the actual engagement but important for clear communication afterwards. His grip in conjunction with his gear setup allowed him to draw the gun with proficiency, shoot quickly and control recoil. His breathing allowed for good communication and information processing after the shooting, while his stance and sight picture were completely irrelevant. Scenario 2: During a precision rifle competition, the last target of the competition is 1200 meters away and the competitors only get 1 round to engage a 12×12 inch target. The shooter gets comfortable in the prone position and rests his rifle on a bag. He then proceeds to collect ballistic data, adjusts his scope, level his rifle and aligns his sights. After a few breaths he switches his rifle from safe to fire and a few seconds later he takes the shot. What seems like a lifetime goes by until the target falls in his crosshairs and the shooter recovers to claim his winning prize. In this scenario all the fundamentals are key. The rifle is set up for this exact shooter in this exact situation. The shooter builds a good firing position where he’s comfortable and in control of the gun, then uses the tools at his disposal to continually set up his rifle accordingly. He spends time focusing on his breathing, sight alignment and trigger press, following through with his trigger press until the target falls. Each fundamental was checked off giving the shooter the ability to take the winning shot. Closing Arguments: Throughout this article I’ve broken down the basics of each fundamental of marksmanship. Like I said in the opening paragraph this is not a one size fits all because the fundamentals are not a one size fits all, these are just a few key takeaways to focus on when shooting. As you continue to develop your skills you will start to refine each fundamental and take notice of what works for you. Some of these skills we’ve just discussed don’t stop at the muzzle. If you have ever played sports, you will notice that a lot of what I discussed in some way shape or form also applies to sports. Breath control is one example of something that can be applied to all aspects of your life. I hope I have quelled some common confusions and got you thinking about shooting differently. As always, build a gun that fits you and your needs, experiment, and train. Jay