Fine-tuning Your Handgun

Many people think that learning proficiency with a handgun is as simple as

  • buy a gun
  • buy some ammo
  • start shooting

While that will work, up to a point, the optimal accuracy is achieved by fine-tuning the performance of your gun.  This will almost always involve ammo choices, and may involve upgrades to the gun itself. Let me discuss those in a little more detail.

Choosing the right ammo for your gun is very effective, and very easy, although a little tedious.  A semi-auto only fires whatever caliber it is designed for, so you don’t have any choices there, but those cartridges come with bullets of different weights (usually at the same cost).  Depending on your gun, the caliber, and the length of the barrel, different weight bullets can have a significant impact on accuracy. Here is how you can resolve that issue:

I will explain the process for a 9mm handgun, but it would be similar for other calibers.  9mm ammo comes in bullet weights of 115 grain, 124, and 147.  Grain does not refer to gunpowder, but is a unit of weight.  A heavier bullet will typically travel slower, and a lighter bullet faster. A lighter bullet will often wobble or tumble in flight, which has an effect on accuracy, while heavier bullets tend to stabilize better.  Buy one box of each bullet weight.  If they can be the same brand, that is a plus, but not required.  Use a target with multiple circles or bullseyes, set out to 10 yards.  With your hands resting on a bench or sandbag, fire 3 shots of each weight, using a different circle/bullseye for each group of 3.  Take your time, and get the best group you can.  Repeat the process, but make sure you know which ones are which.  By this time, you should be able to tell which bullet weight works best for your gun.  Note that self-defense (HP) ammo does not usually come in multiple weights, so this process would involve different brands.

Upgrades to the gun may involve sights, grips, triggers, or other internals.  Some of these are relatively easy, and some more complicated, so I will discuss them in the order of increasing difficulty/expense.

Grips.  Some guns have easily replaceable grip panels or backstraps.  Changes here can have a small effect on accuracy, as the guns will fit your hand better, and you may have better recoil management.  A more common and serious problem is when you cannot get your little finger on to the grip.  In that case, you can buy magazine base plates that extend the magazine further down, to solve that problem.  It is very important that you can get your little finger on the grip.

Sights.  Most non-competition pistols do not have sights that are adjustable for elevation.  If you really need that, there are aftermarket sights available.  Usually, the only adjustment you might need is windage.  The rear sights can be moved (not easily) with a drift punch, or easily with a sight-mover tool.  Even if the sights are correct, everyone’s eyes are different, so if you consistently shoot a little left (or right) (and this is not a flinching issue), adjust the sights so that you can consistently shoot to Point-of-Aim (POI).

Other internals.  Every time you clean your gun, you have to remove the guide rod and recoil spring.  If the guide rod is plastic, replace it with stainless steel.  That keeps the parts from moving laterally during cycling, and will make a huge improvement in accuracy.  If the guide rod and spring are one unit, it is easier to replace the whole thing.  This is especially an issue with Glocks.  In addition, replacing the safety plunger with one that is chrome-plated will remove some friction from the system, and help the trigger action (and accuracy) slightly.  The difficulty of doing this depends on your make of pistol, but there are many videos available to help.

Triggers.  Most semi-autos under $1000.00 have mediocre triggers, but these can be improved considerably.  There are trigger kits available for most popular makes of pistol, like the Apex Tactical kit ($150+).  These are quite easy to install on Glocks, but often a little trickier on other makes.  The kit manufacturers will have videos available to help you.  Some of these kits will include a new connector and safety plunger (referenced above), and will reduce the trigger pull by 1-2 lbs.  This helps accuracy a good bit, because you are not having to pop the trigger to get it over the break.

NOTE: if you take any actions resulting in a “hair-trigger”, that could be viewed as reckless in a legal setting, like a jury trial.

Attention to ammo choice and some other features of your gun can make a big difference in baseline accuracy.  Don’t forget to practice!


Getting Results at the Range

I have taught hundreds of people how to shoot a pistol, and thousands have gotten their Concealed Handgun License under me. Many of those people were very good shooters, but many of them, possibly a majority, would have difficulty defending themselves in a crisis. Why is that?

Many people make the mistake of thinking of shooting a handgun as an activity that is learned once (driving a car, painting a wall), instead of a skill that depreciates (playing a musical instrument, surgery, golf). Shooting well requires practice, focus, and attention to detail. It has a short shelf-life. If one is going to develop those skills, one should get a membership at a local gun range, and go often. Every two weeks is good; every week is better, at least for a few months.

Now that that is settled, and the motivation is set, how do we get results in our range trips? If you have never had private instruction, do that first, so you know what to work on. It is well worth the modest cost. Next, start building a library of targets. While local ranges will have a few for sale, there is not enough variety, and they are marked up 200-300%. Get these online. When you buy 25 of each, the cost comes down dramatically. I buy targets from two sources:

Here are some targets I like to use, with comments:

6 or 7 inch circles, for precision shooting. Use this at 3-5 yards, slow fire. Develop focus and consistency.
The same usage. These are a little larger, colored, with an aiming point, so these can be used at a little more distance. Also switch between targets during the same string of fire.
This NRA B-8 target is used at all distances out to 25 yards. At 10 yards or less, rapid fire can be tested. Don’t stay too long in the aiming position.
This QIT target is used by the FBI and other Federal agencies for training. There are no scoring zones, but the two small boxes can represent head and body shots.
This is a competition target, commonly used by organizations like IPSC, IDPA, and others. Interior zones score higher. Used with a shot timer, these are used to develop both speed and accuracy, as one without the other might get you killed in a self defense situation.
This FBI B-27 is the type of target usually used by states for handgun license qualification. Again, interior zones score higher.

People often start with the last target above when preparing to take the Handgun License Proficiency, but that is counter-productive. In reality, for that situation, the scoring zones are so big that passing that test doesn’t prove anything. Instead, work on small targets at slow speed, working up to larger targets at faster speeds or longer distances. Remember that the most important of the fundamentals is working the trigger slowly and easily, without changing your grip strength. Always keep your goals slightly above your skill level, and you will see your confidence and skills improve.

Train With Your Carry Gun

As of this writing, there are just over 1,000,000 Texans who have a License to Carry (formerly Concealed Handgun License).  It is not known how many of them carry a firearm daily.  Of those that do, some of them carry a full-size handgun, like a 1911, Glock 17, or CZ 75, but most people probably carry something more concealable, especially women.  Manufacturers use different terms to describe their products, like compact, sub-compact, or micro-pistol, and everyone has a different opinion about what constitutes a “concealable” pistol, but the handguns typically in use as a carry gun can range from moderately large (Glock 19, CZ 75 Compact) to tiny (Ruger LCP .380, S&W Bodyguard .380, Beretta Bobcat .32 or .22).

As a general rule, the bigger the gun, the easier it is to handle and shoot.  The longer it is, the easier it is for accuracy at 10 yards.  According to the FBI, most self-defense happens at 5 yards or less, so even a person with limited skills can probably save their life with a small or tiny gun, right?

Doubtful.  That does not take into account the Panic Factor.  In a true emergency, due to physiological changes to the body brought on by fear, people will typically lose half of their skills.  This also happens to police officers, who typically miss their target 75% of the time.  This is not a knock on police, as their is no training that will solve that problem.  There are ways to mitigate those effects, but the best solution is to simply set a higher standard for yourself.  Police officers sometimes come to me for training, not because I know tricks that their trainers don’t know, but because they can progress faster in a 1-on-1 session than they can on a firing line with 29 other people firing.

Add to that the fact that carry guns are often not much fun to shoot.  People often get in the habit of carrying a gun they can slip in a pocket, but go to a range and practice with a Glock 40 (large 10mm bear gun) or 1911 .45.  The theory is that one can develop skills with a bigger gun, and apply those skills to a tiny gun for up close and personal events.  I don’t disagree with that, but at some point, you need to face the fact that you may need more skills with that little gun than you possess.  Can you draw from concealment and hit the Bad Guy with one shot at 10 yards, in 3 seconds?  Without a warm-up?

My suggestion: train with your carry gun.  Go online and print out some drills, ranging from easy to quite challenging.  I like the Winchester Series of self-graded skills tests, the FBI Agent Qualification, and the 5×5 Handgun Skills Test (IDPA).  Before trying these, use the Texas LTC Proficiency.  When that is easy, do it one-handed.   Then do it with the support hand.  Some of these call for special targets, but you can find those online.  If they call for drawing from a holster, and your local range doesn’t allow that (most don’t), then start from low ready, or from the mid-stroke of the draw.

In all cases, you probably won’t do as well as you good with a bigger gun.  The point is, can you do well enough to save your life in a parking garage?  That is the goal.  Fun has nothing to do with it.

Buying and Selling Firearms

I am often asked about the details around buying or selling firearms in Texas.  While there is a lot of uncertainty among native Texans, that is even more true among among the many people who have recently moved here from out-of-state, refugees from gun-unfriendly locations like California and New York.

Buying a gun:

There is no license required, and no waiting period.  You must be 21 (18 for long guns), have a TX driver’s license, and be able to pass a background check (Google that for details).  The process takes about 20 minutes, less if you already possess a TX License to Carry.  You can often get even better deals buying through an online retailer.  In that case, you have to have it shipped to a local gun dealer (FFL) for pick-up.  They will run the background check, and charge you a small fee.  Of course, you don’t get to handle the gun first, so know what you want before going this route.  Gun shows are a good way to handle a lot of guns in a low-pressure situation.  While their prices are not necessarily lower, they will often bargain near the end of the show, as they don’t want to pack them all up again.  Wherever you pick it up, it is legal to transport it to your vehicle, and in your vehicle.  Just keep it out of sight.  In your home, it does not have to be unloaded or locked up, except that you must ensure that children under 17 cannot get to it.  Get proper training before doing anything at all with a new gun.

Selling a gun:

In Texas, there is no gun registration, so selling a gun does not involve paperwork, fees, or background checks, as long as the sale is local, face-to-face, and between individuals.  The buyer must have a TX driver’s license, and be at least 21 (18 for long guns), or you could be in legal jeopardy.  I recommend you fill out a Firearm Bill of Sale for your protection (2 copies),  and complete the sale in a public place, like inside a gun range.  Many police depts have a designated area for private transactions.

People often find out that their first gun was not the best choice, so after awhile, they will buy another (with advice), and sell the first one.  Sometimes they will do that again, as their interests change (fun, home defense, carry).  A carry gun is seldom fun to shoot, and a home defense gun is seldom practical for carry.  You are allowed to have more than one, and a surprising number of people have more than 5.  Or 10.  Have fun with this.

Thoughts about the .380

Ah, the ubiquitous .380!  They seem to be everywhere.  The firearms industry is seeing enormous growth with this little pocket gun.  That growth is driven, in large part, by the ever-increasing numbers of people, especially women, getting a Concealed Carry license, and wanting a small, light, easy-to-conceal firearm for personal protection.  But is the .380 really a good choice?

In the 1950s, most police in Europe carried sidearms chambered in either .32 Cal (AKA 7.65 Browning) or its big brother, the .380 ACP (AKA 9mm Short, 9mm Browning, and others).  As the name implies, the .380 was a scaled-down 9mm.  The diameter of the bullet is the same, but the cartridge is shorter, which means less gunpowder, less muzzle velocity, and less energy transfer to the target.  Police would not consider carrying a gun like this today, but 60 years ago, men weighed 160 lbs, and were seldom in the psychotic condition caused by today’s drugs.

Fast forward to today.  Clearly the .380 will cause fatal wounds, as they are often carried by street criminals and drug dealers.  There is considerable debate about whether the .380 will stop someone quickly enough, but good shot placement will mitigate that.  A bigger question is whether someone who is not an expert can handle one of these well enough to protect themselves in a crisis?  Both handling and accuracy are issues with smaller guns.

Handguns are built in various sizes, or form factors, often described by names like Duty, Compact, or Subcompact (Micro).  Sizing is usually relative to the caliber, but you can find exceptions.  Most people understand that a Micro .45 will require strength and experience to handle, while a Duty-sized .380 doesn’t make much sense.  Nevertheless, most people who carry a .380 do so either because they are pocket-sized, they should have less recoil, or both.  But do they have less recoil?

Larger/heavier guns exhibit less felt recoil than smaller/lighter guns.  In the image above, all the guns on the top row have polymer frames, while the two on the bottom are all steel.  The S&W .380 and the SIG are similar in size, and the same caliber, but the SIG, being heavier, will appear to be softer shooting.  The Glock and the S&W Shield are similar in size, and both polymer, but the Shield is 9mm, so it will seem to have more recoil.  The Glock and the CZ have the greatest disparity; the CZ has an advantage in both size and weight, and the Glock, for reasons known only to Glock, will only shoot reliably the lightest of bullets, which minimizes stopping power.

The easiest of these five to conceal are the S&W .380 and the SIG.  The easiest to control are probably the Glock and the CZ.  The most stopping power is the Shield.  The fact is, there is an inescapable trade-off between concealability and usability, based simply on physics.

There is yet another factor to consider here.  The cycling action in a semi-automatic is driven by the rearward force of the cartridge firing.  In a .45, this force is so powerful that hardly anything can stop it, but with a .380, the performance margins are much thinner.  Depending on the make, these guns will sometimes be susceptible to variables like bullet profile, bullet weight, good grip, or lubrication.  “Limp-wristing” malfunctions are not uncommon, and sometimes hard to avoid, based on the size of the grip.

Users often think that a smaller gun is just like a larger gun, except smaller, and that is a huge over-simplification.  Many experienced shooters consider the .380 to be not a serious gun.

This should not be taken to suggest that a .380 is not reliable, but rather to suggest that a user should opt for the largest gun they can conceal (which is not always important, anyway), or the smallest gun with which they will actually practice.  Several companies make a small 9mm which is almost as small as a medium-sized .380, so in that case, there is no benefit to using the .380, unless you absolutely have to have a gun you can fit into a shirt pocket.

If it is small size and high reliability you seek, don’t overlook the 5-shot .38 revolver (I prefer those with a hammer).  The learning curve is a little longer, but they are very safe to carry, as powerful as a 9mm, and, if you pay close attention when loading, they are off the charts in reliability.  While it is true they only carry 5 rounds, most pocket .380s only carry 6-7.  If you are going to be limited to 5-6 shots, they should be as hard-hitting as possible, in order to disable the threat.  The revolver also eliminates the grip-strength problem faced by many women.

When choosing a handgun for personal protection, don’t go overboard making it easy on yourself.


Understanding the Handgun Manual of Arms

I have written before about action types and trigger types, but now we need to discuss the Manual of Arms.  This refers to the actual operation of a gun, sometimes called “running the gun”.  While this relates mostly to someone who carries a gun on their person, it also applies to someone who stores a gun at home.  More than one person has retrieved a gun in an emergency, only to discover that it was not immediately dischargeable, and they weren’t sure how to recover.  There are two questions, the answers to which will vary depending on the type of gun:

  1.  in what condition should this gun be carried (or stored)?
  2.  what steps are necessary to make it dischargeable?

I will start with the simplest type, and move toward the more complex.

Revolver.  Most are double-action (DA), which means they can be fired cocked (single-action) or uncocked (double-action).  It is a common convention to only fire them in DA mode, and they must never be carried or stored in single-action.  Some revolvers are double-action only (DAO).  There is no safety, so running the gun simply means point and shoot.

Revolver (SAO).  It would be uncommon for someone to have a single action revolver (which can only be fired when cocked), and not know this, as these are typically used for competition, but these guns should never be carried with a round under the hammer.

Semi-automatic (striker-fired).  These guns do not have an external hammer, and often do not have a safety.  They should be carried with a round in the chamber, and safety off.  On presentation, take off the safety (if on) and press the trigger.  In a crisis, if you forget the safety, or cannot take it off in less than 1 second, you are in trouble.

Semi-automatic (hammer-fired, SAO).  Many hammer-fired guns are single-action only.  When you rack the slide to charge the chamber, the hammer is cocked, and the gun will not fire if it is decocked.  These are carried “cocked-and-locked” (safety on).  On presentation, take off the safety and press the trigger.  Another option is to not have a round in the chamber (only advisable at home).  Yet another option is to rack the slide and manually decock the hammer (this is dangerous).  On presentation, cock the hammer with your thumb.

Semi-automatic (hammer-fired, DA, with safety and no decocker).  Same as above, except that, when decocked, it is not necessary to cock the hammer.  The trigger will do that.  On presentation, (if safety on), take off the safety and press the trigger.  If decocked, just press the trigger.  It cannot be decocked with the safety on.  **

Semi-automatic (hammer-fired, DA, with decocker and no safety).  Same as above, except there is no safety.  After racking the slide, you must carry the gun decocked.  On presentation, just press the trigger.  **

Semi-automatic (hammer-fired, DA, with both safety and decocker).  Some Beretta models have this odd combination.  After racking the slide, when you put on the safety, it automatically decocks the hammer.  On presentation, you must take off the safety first.  **

**  When firing a decocked, double-action gun, the first pull of the trigger is long and relatively heavy, by design.  Since the gun always resets itself on firing to single-action (cocked), all subsequent pulls will be short and easy.  It takes some training to get used to this, and many people will prematurely discharge the second round.  It is due to this training issue that most police departments use striker-fired guns, where every trigger pull is the same.

It is important that you train around the proper operation of your gun so that you don’t fumble in a crisis.  A drill I recommend is loading your gun, and putting it in the condition you would carry it (safety on, decocked, etc.).  Place it on a bench (on in a holster, if that is allowed), and put a silhouette target at 3 yards distance (later, at 5 yards).  Track the time it takes to retrieve the gun, make it dischargeable, and put two good shots in center mass.  The goal is three seconds.  Repeat as necessary.

Ammo Properties

All types of ammunition share certain properties which can be important to the user, and these are described below.

Primer Type:
While there are several distinctions that can be made here, most of them are only important to reloaders. For others, the only ones that matter are rimfire vs. centerfire, which describes in which part of the cartridge base is the primer installed.  All normal self-defense calibers (pistol and rifle) are centerfire. Only .22 and smaller are rimfire.  Do not dry-fire any rimfire firearm, unless the manufacturer says it is alright to do so.  Very few do.

This refers to the amount of gunpowder in the cartridge, which varies by caliber.  A standard loading has no designation.  If marked +P, the cartridge is overloaded to the first level, which is a somewhat “hotter” firing cartridge.  If marked +P+, that has even more gunpowder, and is hotter still.  Most modern firearms can handle +P without damaging the gun, but they should only be used in defensive ammo, not practice ammo.  The .380 ACP is not rated for +P.  Check your owner’s manual for advisability of using +P.

Bullet Type:
The choice is between expanding bullets (hollow-point, or HP), or non-expanding bullets, variously referred to as full metal jacket (FMJ), total metal jacket (TMJ), wad-cutters, round nose, flat nose, and other marketing terms.  Hollow-points will expand dramatically during flight, or when hitting a solid surface, and the others will not.  Hollow-points will minimize the possibility of over-penetration and danger to the public, and create a bigger wound channel, which maximizes stopping power.  Hollow-points should always be used for self-defense purposes.

Bullet Weight:
This refers to the weight of the bullet, not the cartridge, and is expressed in grains.  One grain is 1/7000 lb.  A heavier bullet will hit the subject harder (more energy transfer), but will also generate slightly more recoil.  For smaller calibers, that difference is negligible, but for .40, .45, or most revolvers, that could be a consideration, in terms of handling that gun.  If accuracy inside 10 yards is not an issue, a heavier bullet maximizes stopping power (except for .40 S&W).  Typical bullet weights are shown below:

.22 rimfire         40 gr
.380 ACP            85, 90, 95, 100
9mm Luger       115, 147
.40 S&W             165, 180
.45 ACP              185, 200, 220, 230
.38 Special         125, 158
.357 Magnum    125, 158

Carrying a handgun: cocked & locked, decocked, unlocked?

There are now over 1,000,000 Texans licensed to carry a handgun in public.  As to how many of them actually do, no one knows.  Some carry every day, every place that is legal; some carry only on rare occasion; and some carry only in a vehicle, and use the license to prove to police that they have demonstrated the required firearm proficiency.

Whether or not one carries regularly, there is never-ending debate on the subject of carry condition: round in the chamber or not; cocked or not; safety on or not.  Those experienced in carrying a gun debate these points mostly for fun, but for those new to carrying a gun, this raises some serious questions.

First, let us set some context.  Some guns are hammer-fired (all 1911s, most revolvers, and some other guns), and some are striker-fired (probably most easily-concealable guns).  While it is true that some guns use an internal (shrouded) hammer that is not the same as a striker, that is a distinction without a difference in this discussion; the real question is whether or not a gun can be cocked with your thumb.  Any gun when cocked is in single-action mode (fireable with minimal effort).  If it has an external hammer, it can be decocked (uncocked), either through a decocker lever, or manually (safety hazard).  If the gun is a double-action model (DA/SA), it can still be fired immediately while decocked (with more effort), but if it is a single-action model (SA), it cannot.  Never decock an SA gun, as it is then useless.  Many of these models are difficult and dangerous to cock manually.  Except for the hammerless models designed for concealed carry, all revolvers are DA/SA, and without a safety, so these should never be carried (or left anywhere) cocked.

To complicate this discussion more, there is the empty chamber issue (this applies only to semi-autos).  While it is true that in many cases, one would have time to rack the slide (hearing reports of an active shooter nearby, for example), in some cases one would not (walking into a robbery in progress, or being car-jacked).  In my view, it is a mistake to carry without a round in the chamber.

Since putting a round in the chamber necessarily means the action is cocked, one must then consider whether the gun has a safety at all, and if so, whether to use it.  Besides internal safeties over which you have no control, and grip safeties which are automatic (1911s), you basically have two types of safeties extant on some pistols: trigger safeties and thumb safeties.  Trigger safeties are really marketing gadgets, and are unlikely to prevent most accidental discharges.  All hammer-fired guns will have a thumb safety, and it is mandatory that you use it.  Striker-fired guns may have a thumb safety, but usually don’t.  If it does not, then carry it as it is; the triggers are usually not so light in pull that this is overly dangerous.  If it has a thumb safety, then use it only if you can take it off easily during presentation, otherwise leave it off.

The bottom line is that you need to be prepared to draw your gun from the holster and get to the High Ready position, with a sight picture, and the gun in immediately dischargeable condition, in about 3 seconds.  If that requires taking off the safety during presentation, then practice that way, and always carry the gun in the same condition.  Pulling the trigger, finding out the action is locked, taking off the safety, and pulling again, could take the rest of your life.