Sight-Radius and the Pistol Learning Curve

by Sandy Keathley

The Pistol Learning Curve is my term for the amount of time (or rounds) required for a new shooter to acquire moderately good control and consistency with a given handgun. My definition of moderately good is the ability to hit a paper plate 8 out of 10 times at 7 yards, or 3 out of 4 times at 10 yards. That is hardly an expert marksman, but someone who is competent with a gun, and could defend themselves or family at typical self-defense distances.

The sight-radius, by the way, is the distance between the front and rear sights on a gun. Compare a typical concealable-sized .380 with a .22 target pistol (above) and you will see the difference.

The question at hand is, to what extent does the sight-radius affect the learning time? Note that, in the first sentence above, I said a “new shooter”. An experienced shooter already has a flatter learning curve, due to the experience shooting other guns, and their ability to compensate for the observed differences. The new shooter has no such experience by which to make adjustments.

A longer sight-radius, i.e., longer barrel, makes accuracy easier, because the minute differences in sight alignment become less critical. An alignment error of 1mm on a longer gun has much less impact on accuracy than the same difference on a short gun. New shooters can start hitting that paper plate much sooner with a longer barrel, than with a pocket gun.

Consider this typical scenario:

John Doe is 26, married, with a new baby. He has either never shot a gun, or shot one a few times on his grandfather’s farm when he was 16. He feels the need to provide protection for his growing  family.  He also has to carry cash sometimes for his company, so it makes sense to get a Concealed Handgun License (CHL) at the same time. He doesn’t want to invest in two guns, so he buys the smallest gun he can find, maybe a .380, or a small 9mm. He reads a few articles online, reads the manual for his gun, then goes to a range and teaches himself. It doesn’t go well. He is overlooking some fundamentals, so by the time he can pass the paper plate test, and feels confidant to take the CHL class, he has spent more money on ammo and range fees than it would have taken to buy a second, longer gun in the first place.

My advice would always be for new shooters to start with a full-size pistol for learning. If a concealable gun is desired later, and the finances are tight, then sell the first gun to get the second. It will then be much easier (quicker, cheaper) to learn the smaller gun. I just wish someone had told me this when I was younger!

Breathing and its Effect on Pistol Shooting

by Sandy Keathley

Many people think that shooting a pistol accurately is not a complicated thing; just point and pull the trigger, like throwing a baseball. This has no doubt been exacerbated by what we see on TV. My favorite typical scene is where the good cop shuts down the power to a building by shooting a power line suspended from a tower 75 feet off the ground. One handed. Really?

In reality, shooting involves a complex mix of skills, in balance with each other. None of them are difficult, and can be learned in a few minutes, but managing that mix takes practice. Anything that upsets that delicate mix to impart even the slightest misalignment of the center axis of the bore to the target will cause the shot to miss. Due to the geometry involved, a slight miss at a short distance becomes a much larger miss at longer distances.

The factors most often mentioned that affect the shot are trigger-work, sight-alignment, and anticipation of recoil, but breathing can also have a part. Rifle shooters tend to be more aware of this than pistol shooters, because they have the rifle against their shoulder, and the shoulder moves during breathing, but it is a factor for pistols as well.

Holding your breath is actually not the best approach; it tends to cause tension and stress, especially over multiple shots. A better approach is to “stop” or “pause” the breathing process for about 2 seconds, then resume after the shot. There are two places in the breathing cycle where this happens naturally: at the top (after complete inhalation), and at the bottom (after complete exhalation). Some people like to take advantage of these natural pauses to take the shot. I would tend to use the bottom pause, as there is more relaxation there (and more tension at the top). Another idea is to wait until shortly after the bottom of the cycle, when you have inhaled about 1/3 of your capacity, then pause.

Which way you manage this is a very individual thing, but doing something about it will give you a more stable platform from which to shoot, and better accuracy.

Laser Training for Pistol Accuracy

by Sandy Keathley

The most important factor in accuracy with a handgun is keeping the muzzle from moving before, or during, the trigger break. While dry-firing or live-firing, most people will swear that the muzzle is not moving, and is perfectly still. This is an illusion, caused by the very tiny, imperceptible movements, caused by the muscles, lateral pressures on the trigger,breathing, and just the fact of being human. It is not possible to hold the muzzle perfectly still, as if it were locked into a gun vise. But you have to hold it still to get a good shot. So how do we get around this?

Many experts teach people to not fight this movement, but learn to control it; allow the movement to happen, and learn to time the break so that it happens as the sights align with the target. Tricky, but not impossible. It is a factor of “muscle memory“, not unlike juggling. Not everyone subscribes to this, but many people have success with it.

However, it is worth noting that the more you can control the movement of the muzzle, the easier shooting accuracy becomes, regardless of the approach after that. Lasers can be a very useful teaching aid in this development. If you don’t have a gun with a laser, you can still do this. Get a small laser pointer, like used in a classroom. It has to be one that can be switched on, and left on. Use masking tape and tape it to your gun. If using only for dry-firing, it doesn’t matter if it is aligned with the sights, or taped to the slide. I recommend doing it during live-fire, so make sure it is not taped to the slide, or you will be in for a shock. Also try to align it with your sights as much as possible. Crimson Trace makes add-on lasers for most models of handguns, so for a modest investment, you could add a real laser. I personally think it is worth the cost as a training aid, even if not left on the gun long-term.

Go online and find a target used for rimfire rifles. They will typically have either bullseyes or circles about the size of a quarter, or a dime. Print out, and put on the wall somewhere, or tape to a target at the range. Do this at a minimum distance of 5 yards, although 7-10 yards is even better. Take your normal stance, and try to keep the laser dot in this circle from before you put pressure on the trigger, until the break. Repeat 10 times. Take a break, and do it all again. If doing dry-firing, do this drill every day for 7 days in a row. For live-fire, do it once a week for a month. You should find significant improvement in your ability to hold the muzzle steady. Then again, you’re not really aiming, are you? That sounds like a post for another day.

Is 9mm big enough?

by Sandy Keathley

It is interesting to observe the history of handgun calibers. For many years, the .38 Special revolver was the standard police sidearm. It was powerful, but had substantial recoil. When the semi-automatic pistol became common in the 1950s, many police departments moved to the 9mm pistol. While slightly less powerful than the .38 Special, it was still judged to be sufficient, and it carried more ammo. In recent years, many departments have moved beyond the 9mm, to the .40 or .45 caliber handguns. Many officers in the Texas DPS carry sidearms chambered for the .357 Sig, which is described as a .40 caliber on steroids. In fact, it was an attempt by the firearms manufacturer Sig Sauer to migrate the ballistics of the legendary .357 Magnum revolver to a semi-automatic platform. The .357 Magnum revolver is a massively-powered cartridge, more powerful than the .45 caliber pistol, and arguably one of the most powerful handguns to be found in common usage (yes, there is a .44 Magnum, but who carries a cannon like that around with them?). When you get to the level of the .357 Sig, .45, and .357 Magnum, you are now dealing with a gun that, loaded with a FMJ cartridge, will put a bullet completely through the criminal, through the person behind him, and through a wall into the next apartment (which is why police don’t use FMJ).

Contrast this to an earlier time. In the 1930s and 40s, many military officers carried a .32 semi-automatic pistol. Soldiers sometimes carried a .22, valued for the way it would dispatch a sentry with little noise. The legendary (and fictional) James Bond carried a .380. German officers favored the 9mm Luger, which was considered a big gun at the time.

Why, now, does it seem to be necessary to shoot through brick walls?

One reason is that criminals are better-armed than before. If I were a LEO, facing a gang of bank robbers armed with AR-15 rifles, and only carrying a pistol, I would want a .357 Sig or a .45, with an 18 round magazine and two spares.

A more common reason has to do with the proliferation of drugs. It is a medical fact that a person in an enhanced emotional state, whether high on drugs, or just enraged, does not feel pain in the same way as normal people. These people can be shot several times, even mortally, and still have the kinetic energy to get to the officer trying to stop him. There is a documented case of a man in a drug-induced frenzy, shot 6 times with a .38 Special, who lived long enough to stab to death the police officer who shot him. Stopping power now takes on a whole new meaning in law enforcement.

This does present a quandary for the concealed handgun license holder. Do you equip yourself to deal with a common street thug, or an enraged 300 lb guy on PCP and meth? Or bank robbers with AR-15s and grenades? Or bazookas?

My view is, if you ever need something bigger than a 9mm, you have bigger problems. I suggest you kill the first person, and take his gun. Repeat as necessary.

Semi-Automatic vs Revolver

by Sandy Keathley

The semi-automatic handgun is now the highest level of technology in the pistol world, and has been around for over 50 years. Police were slow to adopt it, initially, but as designs improved, even they were won over. There are several advantages:

  • It fits the hand better, especially a full-size gun, like the 1911-style
  • It can carry more ammo, 12-18 rounds for a service sidearm (6-10 for concealables)
  • The reciprocating action of the slide absorbs much of the recoil, providing either greater accuracy, more available firepower, or both
  • Many different chamberings available, from .22 to .45 or greater

The revolver, on the other hand, is simple, old technology, going back over 150 years. It has few moving parts, but is limited in capacity, has a somewhat unwieldy grip, and sends all the recoil up your arm. They can be painful to shoot, which is a huge drawback for a less experienced shooter.

So why does anyone even use these anymore? Two words: idiot proof.

They never jam, almost never fail to fire (except for a faulty cartridge), and if they do, just pull the trigger again. They have no safety, no release levers, no buttons or switches to learn, except the cylinder release. Point, pull the trigger.

I’ll admit, I was never attracted to revolvers (low-tech) until I bought one. Now it is one of my favorite guns. It is the one I keep loaded all the time, at home. Because I wanted it to be fun to shoot, and accurate, I bought a Smith & Wesson 686 in .357 Magnum (also .38 Special) with a 6-inch barrel. It is very well made, solid steel, heavy as a brick, and easy to shoot well. It’s way too big to conceal, but for a house gun, can’t be beat.

A revolver for concealed carry is problematic, because a short, light revolver is not fun to shoot. It can save your life, but I would prefer a student carry a gun they will actually practice with sometimes. However, there is something to be said for having no doubts whatever that a gun will fire 6 times.

This is not to cast doubt on a semi; an expensive one, with good ammo, might go 1000 rounds without a jam. Others might go 200-300 rounds, but eventually, one of these things will happen:

  • You limp-wrist a shot
  • The slide grooves get dirty
  • The feed ramp gets dirty
  • A magazine spring or slide return spring gets weak

Most people don’t spend time worrying about all these what-ifs, and most people who carry a concealed weapon shoot often and clean often, so it’s not a problem. But what about the person who buys a gun to keep at home, puts it in a drawer, and doesn’t touch it for 6 months? That person, I submit to you, should have a revolver.

Disclaimer: one very popular use for the revolver, not relevant here, is a type of competitive shooting called “Cowboy Action Shooting”, which uses single-action, Western-style revolvers. These would generally not be used for home defense.

Gun Free Zones

by Sandy Keathley

Don’t get me started!¬† Of all the social policies enacted in the last 50 years, this has got to be the stupidest. What, you say? You don’t want to protect children? Read on.

When I was in the Army, I learned the meaning of CYA (Cover Your Ass). It refers to policies that have no real value, whose only purpose is to make it look like you were doing the right thing. I once had to teach a six week summer course for 6-graders, but I had to have a TB test. Fine. The parents appreciated knowing that their kids weren’t being exposed to diseases. However, the school district had us tested after the course was completed, when it was too late. Seriously? I pointed out this logical flaw to the school disctict nurse, and was reported to administration for being obstreperous. They didn’t care about actually protecting the kids, just in being able to say they had this policy.

So it is with “gun free zones” (or “criminal safe zones”). Anyone even slightly familiar with this situation knows that people licensed to carry a concealed handgun are very rigid about adherence to rules about where they can or can’t carry. They will tend to not patronize companies like¬† Minyards Grocery, Chuck E. Cheese, Jared Jewelers, or Sprouts Grocery, since those corporate policies are putting their lives at risk, but they will not ignore the posted signs; they will not risk losing that license.

Crazy people, criminals, and those who have some kind of revenge in mind, have no such standards. Indeed, they welcome those signs. That tells them there will be no one there who can get in their way. The Aurora, CO, theater shooter lived two blocks from a movie theater that was not posted. Instead, he drove over a mile to get to one that was. After all, he was crazy, not stupid.

These corporate nitwits seem to think that someone will get in a tiff about a spilled soft drink, then remember they happen to have a gun, pull it, and start shooting. The licensed person is extremely unlikely to do so, as he wants to protect that license, and has already demonstrated a much higher level of responsibility than the average citizen (in Texas, CHL holders are 7 times less likely to commit a gun crime than a police officer). No, the person who would do this is the unlicensed carrier, who is already breaking the law, and has no regard for it.

The danger these companies should fear is not the presence of a gun, but the presence of a person unwilling to follow the rules of society, and there is no way to screen them out. Instead of making their offices and stores safer, they have made them more dangerous, by keeping out the very class of people who could mitigate a crisis. They have created a false sense of security, which will get some people killed.

While it is true that a crazy pulling out an M-16 in a movie theater is quite rare, here is a typical scenario that is not rare; it happens often, but because the body count is low, it only appears on the news for about 25 seconds, then is gone. A man, estranged from his wife/girlfriend, goes to her work to settle a dispute. He thinks he has no intention of hurting anyone, but because he is determined to have it out with her, and doesn’t want to be ejected by office manager/security, he takes his gun. They argue, he tries to make her leave with him. She slaps him, a manager intervenes, shots are fired. The woman is dead, the manager wounded, and the man takes his own life as police arrive. Someone please explain to me how a sign would have stopped that?

Or do you just want people to think they are safe?

Minyards? Jared? I’ll wait by the phone.

Pull the Trigger, depress the trigger

by Sandy Keathley

Pull the trigger, squeeze the trigger, press the trigger. What is the difference?

It’s a big difference, at least psychologically, and that translates to shot groups. In the same way that 1/16 inch misalignment of the sights will lead to 6 inches or more variance from the bulls-eye, a much smaller amount of muzzle movement just before the break will throw off the shot.  Recoil after the break is not the enemy; muzzle movement right at the break is.

The best advice I ever got, which I also give, is, “be surprised“.  If you are surprised when the gun fires, you won’t be moving anything. “Well,” they tell me, “I know when my trigger breaks.”  Fine.  But you need to pretend you don’t know.

Some people treat a trigger like a light switch: on or off.  If it were a pressure switch, instead of a mechanical device, that would work, but it isn’t.  There is a certain amount of travel in the trigger, and between the start of pressure from the finger, and the break, people do bad things: jerk the trigger, push on the backstrap, apply lateral pressure on the trigger, etc. As the shot groups go wider, panic sets in, and it gets worse.

That’s where those words come in. Squeeze implies less physical muscularity than pull, and press implies even less. You can’t muscle the pistol into hitting the bulls-eye, you have to finesse it.  The best marksmen are like football linemen with 9 fingers, and a ballet dancer with one.

Hold the muzzle still, and “be surprised”, and you’ll be surprised at the result!

Dry-firing for Trigger Development

by Sandy Keathley
Before following any of this advice, make sure your gun will not be damaged by dry-firing (firing unloaded). Most rim-fire (.22) pistols and rifles SHOULD NOT be dry-fired, as damage to the firing pin could occur. However, some manufacturers have made specific provision for that, so it can be safely done. Center-fire pistols are generally safe to dry-fire, but I have read a review of a Spanish CZ clone which pointed out a potential problem specific to that model. Check your owner’s manual first. In all cases, I prefer to use snap caps (dummy rounds) in the gun, just in case.

Dry-fire practice has long been known to be the secret weapon of top level shooters, although it might be seen by some as reserved for beginners. In fact, many skilled marksmen employ it as their warmup before competition. It is a cheap and easy way to improve both your mental focus on the fundamentals, and specific skills like trigger work.

There are really two basic steps in hitting what you are aiming at:

  1. Aim correctly
  2. Keep the muzzle from moving while you press the trigger to the rear

If you don’t get the first one right, the second one won’t help; getting them both right is required. Many shooters have their biggest problem with the second, although it is easier to fix than bad aiming.

In order to make this work, you must practice all the fundamentals, just like you are actually shooting: feet, stance, leaning forward, arm extension, grip, aiming, breathing, trigger work. Your goal is to keep the muzzle from moving any amount at all, from the start of pressure on the trigger, until it breaks. Unless your pistol is DAO (double-action only), you will have to either rack the slide or cock the hammer each time. Do it repeatedly, for 2-3 minutes, take a break, and start again. Commit to 10 minutes a day for 30 days, and see what happens. If the gun has a laser, turn it on, and try to keep the red dot in a circle the size of a dime while you fire. Otherwise, you could get an office-style laser pointer and tape it to your gun.

One drawback, is that many guns only fire in single-action mode.  This is great for live-fire, but since the trigger movement is so small, so is the benefit. If you have access to either a DAO or DA/SA pistol, you will find it much harder to do these exercises, but with greater benefit.

So what makes this difficult? The position of the finger on the trigger. There are many variables here, including the size of the grip, size of the hand, length of the finger, and position and angle of the trigger. There is no one-size-fits-all answer here, but if the trigger touches the finger too close to the pad, there will be a tendency to push the muzzle left. If too close to the joint, there will be a tendency to pull right. Right in between is the sweet spot, where you can press the trigger in a way that neutralizes (or balances) those forces. Lighter guns are also more subject to these forces than heavier guns.

The one thing not factored into this is recoil. Once you start shooting the gun with real ammo, a lot of what you learn goes out the window, but enough of it stays to help you out. The real enemy is not recoil, but the anticipation of recoil, and that is what you can learn to forget by dry-firing. Shoot with real ammo, but like you did when dry-firing, perhaps with more grip, and you will see results.

Concealed Handgun Licensing in Texas

by Sandy Keathley
As we approach July the 4th, it is worth noting that the American Revolution was triggered by the first attempt in North America at government gun control. In April of 1775, the British commander in Boston dispatched a unit of soldiers to Concord, MA, to capture a store of rifles belonging to a local militia group. They were intercepted at Lexington by a group of farmers and villagers. Shots were exchanged, and the war was afoot.

Guns have always been a part of life in America. They were used to settle North America, and to protect a man’s family and livestock from predators (both 4-legged and 2-legged). Generations of Americans were taught at an early age to shoot, either for hunting, or later, target shooting.  There was a code of honor around guns, and it was proof a man had attained the level of responsibility required for adulthood. I remember shooting at wine bottles at the city dump when I was 9 years old, and the pride of being trusted by my father to do so safely.

A few years later, I remember older students driving to high school in pickup trucks equipped with a rifle rack. If they wanted to show off a new hunting rifle to a teacher, they might take the gun in the school and put it in a wall locker for later, or take the teacher out to the parking lot at lunch.

Times have changed. That code of honor, while still there, is no longer seen as the embodiment of the American way of life. The 1970s and 80s were a time of oppression of gun rights, due, perhaps, to several high profile assassinations during the previous decade (JFK, RFK, MLK) (look it up).

However, the public began to revolt against the increase in violent crime. New crimes, once aberrations (car-jackings, home invasions, drug murders, random murders), became the new normal. Responding to pressure, states began to allow citizens without criminal records to be licensed to carry a concealed handgun for protection. A handful of states had allowed this practice, as early as 1923, but Georgia started a national trend in 1976, and by 1986 at least 9 states allowed it. The next decade would bring most of the nation on line, and now all 50 states allow some version of concealed carry. Texas started their CHL program in 1996. Opponents predicted gunfights in movie theaters over spilled soft drinks, and blood in the streets, but the old honor code came back to life instead. In Texas, over the last 18 years, crime statistics show that CHL holders are 14 times less likely to commit a crime than the general public, and 7 times less likely than police officers. Hmmm.

Some states have very minimal requirements to get a license (Vermont, none at all. They call it Constututional Carry), and some make it almost impossible (on purpose) (CA, NY, IL).

Illinois had to be forced by the U.S. Supreme Court to allow it. Texas requires a 4 hour class on state law governing concealed carry of a handgun, a short test, a minimal demonstration of shooting skills, and an FBI background check. Over 800,000 Texans have this license, and that number grows by 2000 each month. There are over 2000 certified handgun instructors who are licensed by the Texas DPS to teach the courses, and most of them have full classes every month.

In addition, at least 33 states now allow some version of Open Carry, where a citizen can carry a holstered sidearm openly, on their hip, with no concealment required. Texas will likely be the next state to allow this as well.

Where will it end? Will it become commonplace for everyone to routinely carry a personal gun, like they carry a cell phone? Who knows. It has been argued that a personal gun is just like an airbag in your car. You may go for years without needing it, but if you do, you’ll be very glad you have it. I know a man who has carried a concealed handgun relentlessly, every day, for 18 years. He has never had to even draw it, but he practices with it regularly, and if the time ever comes, he will be prepared.

Will you?