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Five Tips to Improve Your Shooting

When in doubt, remember to keep it simple stupid (K.I.S.S.).


It happens to every shooter, whether competitive, tactical or hunter. You hit a slump and start missing targets you know you should have hit. Perhaps you are relatively new to shooting and are still developing your skills but have hit a plateau. Or maybe you are attempting to broaden your skill base with ambitions of being the next winner of "Top Shot." The good news is that there is always hope for improvement. The bad news is that there really aren't any shortcuts. It takes ammo-lots of ammo-sent downrange, under discipline, to make a superior shooter. Here are five simple sure-fire ways to improve your shooting.

1. Slow Down
Everybody wants to shoot fast-faster than the other guy. But speed always sacrifices accuracy. If your groups look more like an improved-cylinder pattern from a shotgun, the best thing to do is slow down. Focus on sight picture and trigger control. Once your groups shrink back into an acceptable range, then, and only then, should you start to pick up the pace. Several years ago at event hosted by Springfield Armory on a rainy San Diego day, Rob Leatham gave a bunch of us gun scribes some pointers on how to improve our pistol shooting. One in particular stuck with me, and I regularly make it a part of my practice regimen. It is as applicable to a rifle as it is a handgun.

Put up a blank target-no bullseye or aiming point-at close range. If you're working with a handgun, start at 5 yards; rifles can start at 25 yards. Hold center of mass and fire one round. Now, taking as much time as you need, shoot the remainder of the magazine without enlarging the first bullet hole. Tough? You bet! Impossible? Theoretically, no, but the exercise focuses on the basics of shooting: sight picture, breath control and trigger control. This is a slow-fire drill. What this does is reinforce proper muscle memory for accurate shooting. When you are shooting one ragged hole at 5 yards, move back to 10 yards-50 yards for rifles-and repeat. This is also a great drill for curing a flinch.

2. Dry Fire
Plain and simple: There is no substitute for dry-fire practice. It really saves on the amount of ammo you send downrange. The downside is that it is excruciatingly boring. Nonetheless, dry-fire practice is as valuable as live-fire practice in terms of learning and polishing trigger control vis-à-vis sight picture.

Dry firing can be done at home. First and foremost, you must make absolutely sure that there is no ammunition in the firearm before engaging in dry-fire practice. Many instructors insist that all ammunition be removed from the room where the practice is conducted-not a bad idea. You can put up a dummy target on a wall across the room or pick something small-a light switch, for example-as an aiming point. Make every "shot" count. There is no recoil or noise to contend with, so your focus should, again, be on the basics.

Some caveats: Let the rest of your family or roommates know that you are dry-fire practicing in the room you choose. That way they won't come barging in and possibly find a gun pointed at them. In addition, you might want to consider pulling the shades on the windows, lest an excitable neighbor spot you, get nervous and call the police. Finally, resist the temptation to practice your fast draw in front of a mirror. Eventually you'll want to try it just one more time after you have loaded the gun for carry, and the results will be...less than pleasant.

3. Get Off the Bench
Rifle shooters often become wedded to the shooting bench because it makes it so much easier to shoot tiny groups. That's fine for sighting in or load development, but if you want to become a good rifle shot you'll need to be able to shoot from a variety of positions.

If you carry shooting sticks, by all means spend some time using them at various heights on the range. Learn to deploy them quickly so that when the time comes to use them on a nervous buck, you are able to concentrate on shooting instead of figuring out how to set them up.

Practice from all the field positions: prone, sitting, kneeling, squatting and off-hand. Whether rifle or handgun, determine your maximum effective range from a given position. Be brutally honest in your evaluation. That knowledge is extremely valuable when making a shoot/don't shoot decision.

4. Vary Your Training Routine
It can be easy to get into a rut. Shoot this drill, then that one, finish up with another one and head home. Do that and you'll be trained to shoot this, that and another, but when presented with something outside your comfort zone you may just fall apart. Look at the results of some of the "Top Shot" episodes where world-class shooters in a particular discipline look like amateurs in another.

Generally, I break practice sessions into three different stages: basic shooting skills, skills that I have learned fairly well and those skills that are difficult, new or very advanced. The basics take up about 20 percent of the practice session. Its purpose is to reinforce basic skills and provide a confidence base. Roughly 60 percent of the session is dedicated to honing and maintaining the overall base of shooting skills. Then I finish up with practicing advanced or new skills that are more difficult.

Within that framework, however, I vary the exercises so that they do not become boring. Sometimes I'll shoot paper; other times I'll shoot reactive targets. One of the best assets you can have is a shooting partner. He or she can provide variety in training scenarios as well as some inherent competition.

5. Know When to Shut it Down
There are times when it just isn't happening. You may be fatigued from work, your mind may wander toward other non-shooting challenges, or maybe you'd just rather be at the beach. In any case, if your focus is not on shooting, you are wasting ammunition and developing bad habits that will have to be fixed later.

Recently I started to force a range session with my Sharps replica rifle. My enthusiasm to get out and shoot after a long, cold winter and to get the hang of its vernier sight got the better of me. It was nice and warm at the house, but at the range the wind was blowing 25 mph. My first shot was good; the second off a bit. The third shot sealed the deal for me. It was 10 inches off the mark, and I started shivering. So I put it all away and postponed the session.

I wish I could tell you to take a pill, buy a gadget or sing "Kumbaya," and your shooting performance will improve, but it's just not possible. But if you try any or all of these tips and practice with due diligence, I can guarantee that you will see improvement.

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21 Responses to Five Tips to Improve Your Shooting

F. Scott Beranek wrote:
November 05, 2013

I've done more than my fair share of shooting having lived most of my life in the west. One thing I never have heard anyone propound is mentally or actually shooting at the smallest target every shot. Guys that shoot water drops or aspirin do well because no matter how large the actual target they are always shooting at tiny spots. Imagine this, if your target is the size of a dime and you miss every time the grouping may be the size of a nickel. I shoot at the hole made by my last shot. Often when watching hunting show it is obvious that the shooter is shooting at an area the size of my hand not the size of the tick crawling on the animals hide.

Rygh wrote:
October 23, 2013

I love the advice it might help with my hunting crazed brain that makes me think about hunting. I will especially keep in mind the one on concentration. Thank you.

joshua h wrote:
June 25, 2013

Great advice good sir thank you for the knowledge

Randall wrote:
July 25, 2011

I believe in a lot of these comments. I've been taking a break here recently and instead of shooting once or twice a week. I've cut back to shooting to once or twice every two weeks in order to save in cost and since the summer has been so brutal while wearing my training gear. But even still, slowing down is actually some of the best advice out there. Slow is smooth, smooth is slow. That a way, when the time comes to really kick it in to over drive and to actually put those skills to the test, you're muscle memory and training will take over. Also, remember to breath too! I hate when people say hold your breath to increase accuracy because if you engage in the BRASS system, you're bound to get better shots and you'll have faster follow ups. Great advice Campbell.

TJ Manning wrote:
June 16, 2011

For added fine tuning, dry fire with the muzzle of your weapon up close to, but angled away from (for visibility) a mirror. Highly revelatory of tremoring, trigger bumping, jerking, etc.

Dave Campbell wrote:
April 15, 2011

Re: sh: Two things might help your situation. First, as I said at the beginning, slow down. Turn the whole shooting experience into a muscle memory excercise. If you are doing well with slow-fire, get a shooting partner. The pressure of innate competition can help you with your "choking" problem. Lastly, think carefully about why you choke. Especially when qualifying with collegues, some people get "stage fright" and lose some of their skills. Good luck!

BRS wrote:
April 12, 2011

I do not even load my handgun until an hour after dry firing due to the "one last shot" temptation. Too easy to forget right after and "dry fire" a live round. Also I use Snap Caps (dummy rounds) in the gun to help simulate the wieght of a loaded gun.

sh wrote:
April 11, 2011

I normally shoot fine at pratice. but when i shoot to qualifly i just seem to choke! i think because there are time segments.i been told i rush my shots like your talkimg about. what can i do to help me to pratice with that?

Manny G. wrote:
April 11, 2011

None of this is going to matter when they make laser handguns... http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-501465_162-20011041-501465.html

neanderthal wrote:
April 11, 2011

I make a deliberate effort to focus on my cold shot above all else. Many times has it been very humbling.

TL wrote:
April 09, 2011

To Guy, if you hone your skills when you are not.tired or.stressed but practice enough they will come naturally when that situation does arise. And Ted, it is an excellent idea not to have any ammo in the dry fire practice room. Unless having intruders break in is a very common occurrence where you live then there is no reason to. Thank you Mr. Campbell for the excellent reminders!

Ted W. wrote:
April 08, 2011

"Many instructors insist that all ammunition be removed from the room where the [dry-fire] practice is conducted-not a bad idea." To parallel Guy Smith's comment on the fifth tip, I'll go along with that when you can guarantee me that intruders will not break in during the session.

Rick W. wrote:
April 07, 2011

Great piece. I have also found using a laser device when dry firing adds to the fun and usefulness as well as provides great feedback. Additionally, for safety purposes, I would suggest conducting your dry firing practice as though you were using live ammo. For instance, aiming only at a backdrop that would not allow a bullet to pass thru and do harm. Also, swear to yourself to STOP all practice once you have finished your session and rendered your firearm safe. DO NOT go back a short time later for a "little more practice".

Jaguar wrote:
April 07, 2011

Shooting at a blank target is really a good exercise. When I qualified for the expert pistol medal, the gunny, had me shoot at the back of the target.

Guy Smith wrote:
April 07, 2011

I have to disagree with the fifth tip. I would agree if you could guarantee that I would never be forced to use a firearm when I was tired or the weather was not ideal.

Jim Trockman wrote:
April 07, 2011

There are six things you must do to improve your shooting: 1)Acquire a correct grip, 2)Assume a correct position, 3)Obtain an accurate sight alignment and sight picture, 4)Breath properly, 5)Learn and practice correct trigger management, and 6)understand what is meant by 'follow-through' and why it is important. Other commentary is perpheral and will be of little benefit. Philosophy doesn't make one bit of difference. Look to the world's best professional shooters like Max Michel, Travis Tomasie, or Jerry Miculek for tips. They attained world class status by performing all of the aforementioned six basic concepts correctly. Always remember the THREE most important rules of gun safety as taught by the NRA and abbreviated here: 1)Where is my muzzle, 2)Where is my trigger finger, and 3) Where is my ammo? Now get on out to the range and shoot straight!

NorthWoods Chuck wrote:
April 07, 2011

A group of friends shoot sporting clays all winter in northern NH & VT, sometimes on snowshoes because the snow is so deep. And at 12F, hand warmers are essential, but we sure have fun and stay sharp for the "normal" season. Center fire rifle and pistol will have to wait for the snow to melt, otherwise we risk losing too much brass as it melts into the snow. La vie du bois!

WW. wrote:
April 07, 2011

Boy is this the truth,, I live in the mountains of Idaho,, snow is melting and the "chucks" are coming out. Shooting a CZ 452,, (tweeked!) 17 HMR,,with a Leupold 6.5 x 20,, VX III,, varmint reticle All shots were 100 yds.+.. 10-15 MPH wind gusting,, still snow on the ground,, first round,, I worked hard on it,, and got a kill,, next two were easier and both misses,, Hmmm,, it was all me,, got over confident,, didnt work hard enough,,(shooting sequence),, next 7 rounds were kills all,, and more difficult than the first one,, !!,, started at the basics,, (i had not shot in 6 months),, a "legend" in my own mind!!!,, WRONG!!,, worked back up from the basics,,!!,, remember it is never the gun,, always the shooter!!!with (good equipment!!) excellent article!! ww. (Endowment member)

Jon wrote:
April 07, 2011

Good reminder!

JimN wrote:
April 07, 2011

This is some of the most concise and helpful advice I've seen. So good that you can apply much of it to other areas of your life. Thanks Mr. Campbell.

David Wooten wrote:
April 07, 2011

I think I'm going to make copies of this article and give them out when I teach classes.