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September 17, 2008

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Petzal: Practice Sometimes Makes Perfect

Never mistake activity for achievement.”—John Wooden, arguably the greatest college basketball coach of all time.

I’ve been spending the summer trying to get the level of my pistol shooting from heartrending to poor, and have been reminded of a couple of truths along the way. That 10 percent of you who actually practice their shooting, take heed:

1. As Coach Wooden says, it will not do you any good to go out and fire a whole case of shells unless one of two things happens: a) You finish by shooting better or b) you finish knowing why you’re not shooting better. A pile of empty casings on the ground, by itself, means only that you are deafer and more broke than you were when you started.

2. Unless you are a true expert, it’s almost impossible to diagnose yourself. I’ve had the help of a friend who is a real expert, and he has spotted a couple of things I could be doing differently and/or better.

3. Progress is not linear. You do not get better at a steady rate. There are times when you will feel like you’re beating your head against the wall, and then, for no apparent reason, you break through to a new level.

4. Sometimes, you do have to burn ammo. I just ordered 2,000 rounds of Speer.22 LR Pistol Match from Midway Shooters Supply to replace the 2,000 I’ve burned up over the past several months.

5. As Dirty Harry Callahan said, “A man has to know his limitations.” Eventually, no matter how hard and how smart you work, you will reach the point where you can go no further. That’s fine. You can have just as much fun as a B-Class trap shooter as you can in AA Class.   


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Dave, as one who is a decent rifle shot but a very poor pistol shot, I'd like to hear any advice you have been given that improved your own scores. Handguns are hard to shoot accurately, and my hat is off to those who have mastered them.

Dave Petzal

To eyeball: My heart goes out to you in your hour of need. Here's what I've done since the beginning of this year:

1. Got prescription glasses so I see one red dot instead of three, and can actually see the target clearly.

2. Switched from the brand of ammo that gave the smallest groups to the aforementioned CCI Pistol Match, which slaps the slide back with less force and disturbs your aim less.

3. Changed from facing square on to the target (I shoot right-handed but have to hold the pistol in front of my left eye) to a more sideways stance which lets you use the back and shoulder muscles to support the pistol.

4. Practice from 5 yards farther away than I will have to shoot for record. Makes the real thing look easier.

5. Will probably get new grips with an adjustable shelf for the heel of the hand. I tried one this morning and it helps a lot.

As a rule, there's n single thing that will give you a quantum leap in performance; it's usually half a dozen smaller things. And lots of ammo.


I am attempting to practice my off hand rifle accuracy. I shoot at 100yds standing off hand, scope at 9x, .270 caliber. I shoot into an 8" diameter target. I can normally get 1 out of 3 in the 8", about 1/2 the time 2 out of 3, very rarely all 3 into 8". But I am not happy with not being able to consistently get all three into 8". What are the proper techniques to employ when I am practicing? Should I reduce my magnification to reduce wobble? How do you guide the rifle consistently in decreasing concentric circles to improve accuracy? And lastly, I am a right handed shooter, should I brace my left elbow into my abdomen to help steady the gun, or left it ride free at approximately 90 degrees under the foreend?


p.s. as a hand gun shooter, I've always shot from a side position, my logic is two fold, first and foremost, if I'm shooting at a bad guy, he will have a smaller target to shoot back at, and second I feel that my aim and therefore accuracy is improved when my entire line of sight is oriented with my body, i.e. both arms roughly parallel, legs parallel to each other and with my shoulders and arms pointing toward the target,...just seems natural.

Dave Petzal

To Ripper III: By all means crank down the scope. Take it to 4X and see if you improve. You'll probably find that 4X, 5X, or 6X gives you the best results.

To get the barrel moving in a circle, that comes with practice. Dry fire until you get it. I dry fire a ton.

Do not lock your elbow into your hip. Target shooters do it, but it's a lousy position for hunters, and I assume you are a hunter. Try and get your left forearm directly under the rifle (instead of out to one side, as I cannot but seem to do), but don't brace it against your body. Above all, dry fire.

To eyeball: I forgot some thing. I cut out the bull's-eye from a 50-foot air rifle target and taped it to a way. I practice holding the red dot on the bull from 10 feet and touching the trigger. I do not dry-fire. It's not good for .22s. This develops the muscles that support the pistol.

About volume practice. Ross Seyfried told me that when he was shooting handuns in competition, he shot so much that he would crack the frames on two Model 1911s each year. Of course, he won a lot, too.

My long-time friend Steve Ferber, who reads this blog, was one of the top handgun shooters in the U.S. during the 1960s when he was in the Navy. Maybe he can chime in with a tip or two.


RipperIII: Does your rifle have a sling? If it does use a technique that is called the "hasty sling" to support your arm while shooting off hand. It will use your body and arm to support the rifle much better. Better yet find an Appleseed shoot in your area put on by the Revolutionary War Veterans Association. They teach you to shoot better in all the shooting postions along with a very neat history lesson thrown in. Their goal is to make the USA a country of riflemen again. good Luck!!

Dave Petzal

That's "to a wall," not "to a way."


I used to go thru 1 to 2 thousand rounds per week. Now I'm lucky to go thru 50. Shooting a pistol is definately not like riding a bike. That being said, I always seem to shoot better when I'm teaching someone else like my wife or freinds. I think it's because it makes YOU go back to the basics.


Some pistol sights are designed to have the front bead cover the target and some are designed to rest just below the target, figure out how your pistol is sighted in at the factory. Of course if you have an adjustable rear sight you can choose your preference.

Dr. Ralph

Trigger pressure (not pull) is so much more important with a 2 or 6 inch barrel it's not even funny... I can break clay pigeons with a Ruger MKII 5 1/2" bull barrel pistol about 90% of the time from 50 yards. About 70% of the time with a S&W Sigma .40 Government Model and about .3% of the time with a Lady Smith .38 (my wife's). But let's get real. Handguns are for killing people that are in the same room as you are. If you want to hunt with one buy the T/C, mount a scope and carry a sandbag to your treestand. My brother in law shot a doe from over 200 yards using this combo.


I can speak from the standpoint of someone that shoots about 15K rounds a year practicing for trap. I have been doing this for about the past 3 or 4 years, and it has taught me a ton about shooting.

As Petzal said, very few people can truly diagnose their own problems. It takes tens of thousands of rounds before you can truly tell what you are doing on your own. It's also true that growth in any of the shooting sports is not a steady process. It took me 2 years to shoot a 25 straight, however it only took me a week to shoot a 50. Shortly after that was a 98 and then a 99. This was after having a singles average of 90 for 2 years.

Despite my being a competitive trap shooter, I suck at shooting a rifle. For one, I do not like shooting sitting down. Not sure why that bothers me, but it does. I do not have the time to learn to shoot a rifle well, although I certainly wish I did.

Great post!

Clay Cooper

Hey Coach Wooden!
If you had the same shooting Instructor I had, He would have pinned your ears back for using the word practice!

Great Gobs of Goose Grease, what is this world coming to?

If you want to practice of being a poor shot, go right ahead!

So here’s what you need to do.

First delete the word practice from your own vocabulary.
Now replace the word practice with training. To be the best, you are always in training mode.
How in the world can you
practice what you have “NOT MASTERED?”
I used this technique with all my students and teams I have coached. Take the Dysart High School ARMY RORC Air Rifle Team. They had the worst and most embarrassing equipment to go to any match yet alone to even have position with.
They placed second in their first Regional Match!
Not bad going against other kids with Parents with deep pockets!

By the way, there is only one Master,


Clay Cooper

As Dirty Harry Callahan said, “A man has to know his limitations?
Back in June of 96 who would even thought of a young teenage Girl named Sandra Warman would have a crack in the US Olympic Tryouts and be a mega hit in the Small Bore World in the NRA!!!!

And just think she just wanted to come out learn to shoot Big Bore with us Air Force guys and look where it got here.

Excuse me of sounding off, but I know that a person’s ability is greater than they think and it really torques me off at those naysayers!

james ti

while we are on this subject, dave could you do an entry about getting one's girlfriend to be comfortable owning and learning to shoot a pistol for personal protection? she is a little apprehinsive about it and i haven't got her quite there yet. i would like to help her get her ccp and buy her a pistol before gman and his liberal friends have the opportunity to ban everything!


Dave: Thanks for the tips. I'll try them.

Ripper III: for offhand shooting, in addition to Dave's advice, try to find your natural point of aim. The gist of it is to take your (unloaded!!!) rifle, shut your eyes, get into your correct offhand shooting stance, holding the rifle in the most natural, steadiest position, open your eyes, and see where the gun is pointed. Moving your feet farther apart raises the sights; closer together lowers them. By adjusting front foot position left-right, and fiddling with the width of your stance, you can eventually get the gun to practically point itself at the target without wrestling with it. This is just the barest description, and tells you nothing about how to hold the rifle. There's a lot more to it than this, so find yourself a coach. But this gives you the basic idea.


To Eyeball:
I'm like you, pretty good with a rifle but worse with a pistol. I do limit my civilian range to 30 ft. It's a good defensive practice range, and gives me a chance to work on my groups with shorter barrels. A friend, who is the opposite, used to hit a gallon milk jug with a .45 at 150 yds, but it looked more like using a mortar.

To RipperIII:
You can't eliminate wobble completely. As long as you breathe and have a pulse, you get wobble. The hard part is to control and predict the pattern of wobble to take the shot at the right time. I used to be nervous at off hand, which made my heart pound harder, which made the target twitch worse. I ended up with some strange 45-degree oval, and finally sort of got my timing down.


You guys,
....are great, thanks for the tips. I was afraid to "dry fire" as I thought that would do damage to my rifle. Along with being a new hunter/shooter, I am also a new archer. I practice shooting my bow 5 of 7 days per week, roughly 21 arrows per session. I can now come to full draw with all anchor points and the peep in perfect shooting position in one smooth pull,...just like mounting a shot gun for clays or feathers. Duh?! I should be doing the same with my rifle!
Thanks again for the pointers, I'll start with the dry-firing today, at a target on the wall, unloaded of course.


Does it hurt to dry fire S&W revolvers and 1911 semi autos?


For dry-fire, I found these fake rounds. They have a spring in the "primer". They're red, and you use them to test/practice chambering and firing. A pack of 2 30.06 were $6 when I got them at Bass Pro. Used them for years.

paul Wilke

I've been told that practicing your shooting stance at home with weights(dumbbells) will add muscle and strength to your arms and reduce wobble.
Does anyone know?

paul Wilke

I've been told that practicing your shooting stance at home with weights(dumbbells) will add muscle and strength to your arms and reduce wobble.
Does anyone know?

james ti

dry firing is ok as long as it's not a rimfire. the dummy rounds jeff talked about are used by gunsmiths alot and are good as well. i use them to test chambering on rifles mostly.


There are certain S&W revolvers that advise against "dry-firing". I've had a S&W 610 back to the factory for replacement of the bushing and firing pin. Both due to the previous owner "dry-firing".

In regard to pistol shooting as a whole. The late Colonel Jeff Cooper used to teach the Weaver stance and grip as part of his basic combat pistol course (see American Pistol Institute--API). It's a tried and proven method for target acquistion and repeatable accuracy with a handgun. Colonel Cooper used the term "SPA" which stands for Speed, Power, and Accuracy. He who has the best "SPA" usually wins.

Troy S.

Eyeball, offhanded shooting with a rifle...the key is a good sling with zero "give". Will increase your accuracy considerably when you wrap that sling around your upper arm and stretch your offhand forward to eliminate any slack. You will be amazed how that cross-hair settles down.
I once hit a bullseye at that distance with a borrowed .300 Weatherby Mag. I have three witnesses. Not grandstanding mind you, just pointing out that a sling makes all the difference- at the bench and in the field.

(Can't believe our resident expert failed to mention the centuries old sling as an aide to shooting.)

james ti

i thought he did mention that. might be wrong. didn't have time to go back and look though. it does work.

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