Defensive Shooting Fundamentals

You must practice and, ideally, you should work with a qualified shooting instructor.

In my practice as a defensive firearms instructor, I work with many students of all ages on a private basis.

Over the years, numerous students have come to work with me to learn advanced defensive shooting techniques. In many cases, initial evaluation of their shooting skills revealed that they were terribly incompetent with a handgun and often unsafe as well. In almost every case, these people had never gotten the basics down. This is remarkable given the fact that many of these students reported that they had attended multiple tactical shooting schools before coming to me. This phenomenon left me wondering how they had missed the boat. I was also left wondering how it was that some “big name” firearms instructors with whom they said they trained, in some cases privately, never straightened them out.

In each of these cases, it was necessary for me to take them back through the basics. A shooter must understand and be able to perform the basics before he or she can expect to move on to develop competence in advanced shooting skills and tactics. In addition, if you are going to carry a concealed handgun, you must develop advanced competence. The purpose of this article is to provide a blueprint for learning the basics well so that you can then move on to develop advanced competence with the defensive handgun. However, recognize that you cannot learn this material from an article. You must practice and, ideally, you should work with a qualified shooting instructor.

Noted police and civilian firearms instructor and writer Massad Ayoob has been a pioneer in teaching people the fundamentals of defensive shooting in ways consistent with what happens physically and psychologically when you are fighting for your life. In the 1970s, he developed the Stressfire system, and it has evolved and been refined over the years. Ayoob’s Stressfire books are highly recommended reads.

Ayoob studied what happens to the human mind and body in the “stress flood” of a fight-or-flight scenario. Based on what he learned, he created techniques that not only wouldn’t fall apart under stress but, instead, would feed off the effects of the body alarm reaction and become more effective under stress.

The Stressfire shooting program emphasizes techniques that depend on simple gross motor skills as opposed to complex fine motor skills, since fine motor skills deteriorate under life and death stress. Also, gross motor techniques can withstand the tremors and increased physical strength attendant to the body-alarm-triggered adrenaline dump into the bloodstream.

You Must Learn The Basics Well

Think about it. In order to produce accurate hits with a handgun, you need to do all of the following: grip and hold the handgun securely and firmly; maintain a stable and balanced stance; keep the muzzle on the target — that is, aim the handgun properly and maintain good aim for follow-up shots (this is called follow-through); control and flow with the handgun’s recoil; and operate the trigger in a controlled manner.

Massad Ayoob’s Stressfire System emphasizes a five-point checklist that comprises the fundamentals for accomplishing the above: power stance, high hand, hard grasp, front sight and smooth roll of the trigger. This checklist provides a blueprint for practicing the fundamentals of marksmanship.

1. The Power Stance

Defensive handgunning is about fighting with a handgun. To gain the advantage in a fight, you need to adopt a stable, balanced and mobile stance. Your stance needs to be stable and balanced so that you are not thrown over by the gun’s recoil or anything else. Your shooting/fighting stance needs to be mobile so that you are not cemented or planted to the ground. You must be able to move to achieve dominance and to avoid being the recipient of blows or shots from your opponent.

More times than not, when I work with shooting students, I have to correct their stance. Many initially stand with a backward lean. Many stand too rigidly or too floppily. Some stand like a pole, and many stand square to their target with both feet parallel. None of these stances are aggressive fighting stances. Sure, you may have to shoot in a rapidly unfolding dynamic gunfight from an unorthodox and non-choreographed position; however, you must start from an aggressive and powerful stance that gives you a solid foundation.

A power stance gives you a wide base for stability and balance. It keeps you from being pushed backward by the firearm’s recoil or by your opponent. It entails leaning aggressively forward from the hips (head in front of shoulders and shoulders in front of hips). Knees should be slightly bent to absorb shock and facilitate mobility. The non-dominant foot (the one opposite your strong shooting hand) should be forward; and your dominant foot should be rearward, digging into the ground.

This power stance can be applied while static or while moving. It will be familiar to anyone with experience in wrestling, boxing or the martial arts. As stated by Massad Ayoob, “… it allows the fighter to deliver and receive impact without losing balance or the ability to continue strenuous physical activity.”

2. The High Hand

The lower a handgun’s bore axis, the easier it is to control the gun during recoil in order to deliver accurate follow-up shots. One can make the bore axis sit lower in the hands by gripping the handgun with one’s master hand as high up on the back strap as is possible. This increases your control over the gun whether you are shooting with one hand or two.

3. The Hard Grasp Or “Crush Grip”

You cannot grip a handgun too hard or too strongly. In real combat, defensive shooting means you are fighting for your life. Are you going to be relaxed at such a time? The answer is, of course not. You are going to be holding onto your life support system, your weapon, as if your life depends on it — and it does. Get used to it now. A crush grip or convulsive grip will make your handgun more difficult for your opponents to take away from you. A crush grip will help you control a powerful handgun’s recoil or the snappy recoil of a not-so-powerful mouse gun. Additionally, a crush grip will help you better isolate the movement of your trigger finger so that you have more trigger control. Conversely, a light grasp on the handgun encourages milking, which is likely to make a right-handed shooter’s shots go to low left.

As Ayoob points out, the crush grip or hard grasp may be applied with the thumbs in virtually any position, but it will benefit most when the thumbs are curled tightly down. When you curl your thumb down over your other fingers — as when you make a fist — you can squeeze harder. Try it and see for yourself.

4. The Front Sight

The bullet will go where the muzzle is pointed. To assure that the muzzle is pointed where you want the bullet to hit, you must have a reliable way of indexing the muzzle on target. That is the purpose of the front sight. The front sight helps you align your handgun’s muzzle with your point of aim on the target. This is usually accomplished in coordination with the rear sight. Verifying that the front sight is centered in the rear sight notch is called sight alignment, and superimposing your aligned front and rear sights onto your point of aim on the target is called getting a sight picture.

The more precise your shot or shots need to be, the smaller your target; or the greater your distance from your target, the more precise your sight alignment and sight picture need to be and the more time you will need to take those precise shots.

Sight alignment and trigger control are the two most important features of marksmanship. Trigger control helps the shooter maintain sight alignment and, therefore, muzzle alignment as the gun is fired and immediately afterward. Afterward is called follow-through. It means giving the bullet enough time to exit the barrel by keeping the gun directed at the point of aim while breaking the shot and, subsequently, recovering your point of aim after the gun travels through its arc of recoil so that you can prepare for a follow-up shot.

“… a firearm is a remote-control drill, and must be indexed or the hole it produces will be drilled in the wrong place…”

The goal of defensive marksmanship is to achieve combat accurate hits as fast as possible. Combat accurate hits are defined as shots that inflict disabling damage on the opponent. In any fight, the fighter who lands the first good hits on his opponent has the edge. In a gunfight, this translates into shooting well-placed bullets into your opponent before he hits you. It is foolish to sacrifice accuracy for speed. You can’t miss fast enough to win a gunfight.

Factoring out the variable of a shooter’s confidence in his shooting ability, the closer the distance, the faster the shooter can afford to shoot, and the less reliance is needed on a perfect sight picture. At close (bad breath) distances, point shooting is the way to go. To learn to shoot for combat accuracy in a gunfight (defensive shooting), the shooter must learn to shoot both with and without sights — the latter being point shooting.

As Ayoob points out:

… a firearm is a remote-control drill, and must be indexed or the hole it produces will be drilled in the wrong place. The index may be precise or coarse, depending on the nature of the shot that must be taken. Distance, target size and speed are all factors in that determination. The shooter may have the precise sight picture of the conventional marksmanship manual. They may have a similar image in line of sight, seen quickly and less than perfectly (Col. Jeff Cooper’s concept of ‘flash sight picture‘). Out to roughly seven yards with a handgun, the front sight sitting above the rear sight is adequate for a heart-area hit and can be indexed even in secondary or tertiary focus when the shooter is focused primarily on the threat (StressFire’s “StressPoint Index,” champion Todd Jarrett’s concept of “shooting out of the notch”). In poor light at extreme speed, it may suffice to simply see the silhouette of the handgun superimposed over the area of the threat that the officer wants to hit (Jim Cirillo’s “gun silhouette” concept).

5. The Smooth Roll

Good trigger control is the most important aspect of getting good hits. It becomes even more important under stress. Poor trigger control is one of the biggest reasons for dropped and errant shots. It is logical that to keep the muzzle on target, the shooter needs to smoothly operate the trigger. Erratic trigger control will drive the muzzle away from the shooter’s point of aim.

The goal is to smoothly press the trigger all the way rearward without hesitation until the shot breaks and then to ride the trigger forward as the trigger resets for the next shot. As Ayoob points out, “… each activation of the trigger is done with a single-stage movement. We use the term ‘roll the trigger’ to convey the smooth, even, uninterrupted, straight-back rearward pressure on the trigger which we seek.”

If the handgun fits the shooter’s hands, poor trigger control is typically caused by a combination of factors. These can include: poor isolation of the trigger finger (also known as “milking” the gun), inadequate placement of the trigger finger on the face of the trigger, an inadequate or unstable grip on the handgun (poor form, gripping too loosely, having to re-adjust the grip after each shot), flinching, anticipating the shot, jerking the trigger, trying to stage the trigger, and not keeping the finger on the trigger throughout a string of shots.

Trigger control can be practiced through dry fire in addition to live fire; so can the other fundamentals of marksmanship. An excellent dry fire drill for practicing all of the fundamentals is the Wall Drill.

The Wall Drill

Grasp the handgun high on the back strap so that the tang of the handgun pinches into the V-notch of your dominant strong hand.

This dry fire drill requires sustained focus and concentration. This drill builds a muscle memory or motor memory of the key marksmanship fundamentals.

Make sure that the handgun is unloaded, that there is no ammunition in the room, and that the backstop is safe and in a safe direction.

Pick an aim point on the wall or surface in front of you and point your triple-checked, unloaded handgun about an inch away from the aim point such that your front sight is right over the aim point.

Go through your pre-flight checklist of marksmanship fundamentals as discussed earlier: power stance, high hand, crush grip, front sight, sight alignment, sight picture and smooth roll of the trigger.

Think to yourself front sight, keep your sight alignment and sight picture steady and say to yourself smooth roll” as you smoothly press the trigger all the way rearward and then let it reset for the next shot. Your aim is to keep your gun steady as you press the trigger.

When you maintain a maximum strength, crush grip or “gorilla grip” on the handgun, you may see the whites of your knuckles. That’s how you know you are gripping hard enough, thumbs curled down, thumbprint over thumbnail for greater strength.

Live Fire Focus Drill

Live fire practice of the marksmanship fundamentals is essential. The following live fire drill is called the One Hole Drill. This drill makes use of the principle that if you aim small, you will miss small.

Start out at a reasonable distance from your target. Don’t be ashamed for this to be three yards; that’s nine feet. Pick a small spot on your paper target as your point of aim. You can draw a 1-inch circle in black magic marker to mark the spot.

Go through your checklist of marksmanship fundamentals as you focus on your aim point. Punch your handgun out toward your aim point as you focus intently on your front sight and acquire a sight picture. Your front sight should be in sharp focus as contrasted with a relatively slightly blurred target and rear sight. Recognize that you can only focus sharply with your eyes on one object at a time.

Keeping your gun steady (you should be in a power stance, with a high-handed, two-handed hard grasp on your handgun), smoothly roll your trigger rearward as you stay focused on your front sight. Watch your front sight as the shot breaks and through the gun’s arc of recoil. Don’t peek over your gun to see the shot.

Hold your trigger to the rear as the gun recoils and then ride your trigger forward until it resets as the gun settles back on target. Now, prepare for your next shot by taking up any slack in the trigger.

The front sight should be in focus; the rear sight and target slightly blurred.

You can run this drill in either one of two ways: One way is to take a string of shots without checking where those shots went; after shooting the string, lower the gun to a ready position and check the results of your work. The other way is to drop the gun to the ready after each single shot or pair of shots.

Your goal is a perfect 1-inch group. You want to exercise your fundamentals at the target distance at which you are working until you attain a perfect one inch group, and when you do, you can then move backward to a greater distance (e.g., 5 to 7 to 10 to 12 to 15 to 20 to 25 yards, and so on). You keep moving backward (increasing the distance) until you can no longer shoot a perfect group at a given distance, and then you stay and work at that distance.

This drill will increase your accuracy and marksmanship skill in live fire.


Without a solid foundation in the fundamentals, advanced shooting techniques fall short. Defensive and combat-oriented shooters need to create the discipline to practice their fundamentals regularly in order to keep their edge and maintain their advanced skills.

–Bruce N. Eimer, Ph.D.

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