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  • Writer's pictureBrad Parker

Mastering Defensive Handgun Shooting: Progressing Beyond Intermediate Levels


picture of a defensive handgun on the range during practice
We need to add fundamental skills for our defensive handgun training to move past the intermediate level of shooting.


In the journey of honing our defensive shooting skills progression often hits a plateau where we feel stuck despite our proficiency.


This stagnation can be frustrating, especially when we're adept at certain aspects but struggle with combining multiple skills seamlessly.


During a recent class, I observed intermediate shooters faltering when confronted with performing varied tasks in a single string of fire like:


  • Performing an empty gun reload and continuing the string of fire

  • Clearing a failure to fire and continuing the string of fire


These relatively simple tasks became even more difficult for students when adding the element of moving while performing each one.


While they performed satisfactory in static shooting positions, their performance deteriorated when tasks like movement and reloading were introduced simultaneously.


For many shooters, the challenge lies in integrating individual skills like stance, grip, trigger management, and aiming into a cohesive whole (I'm going to combine 'sight alignment' and 'sight picture' into simply 'aiming'). This becomes particularly evident when transitioning from stationary shooting to shooting while performing different handgun manipulations.


Defensive Handgun: Shooting on the Move


One common struggle is maintaining shooting accuracy while moving, especially diagonally or backwards. The coordination required to shoot accurately while in motion presents a significant hurdle for many intermediate shooters. At the base level, it's not uncommon to see beginning students simply not able to combine both:


  • This is evidenced when they move a few steps, then stop and shoot, then move a few more steps, then stop and shoot.

  • Students that are in the intermediate range can continue to shoot while they are moving, but they are not able to consistently place reliable hits on the target. The most common complaint here is that the sights are bouncing around.


Defensive Handgun: Red Dot Sights


Another uber-frustrating element for many shooters is transitioning from traditional iron sights to red dot sights (RDS). For many long-time shooters, this can feel like starting over from scratch. Concentration that was once dedicated to grip and trigger control now shifts to finding and tracking the red dot. New shooters tend to pick up aiming with RDS relatively quickly because they didn't grow up on iron sights.


To progress beyond this intermediate stage, it's crucial to master each skill individually before combining them in realistic scenarios. This iterative process mirrors learning to drive a car, where mastering basic controls precedes more complex maneuvers like cornering and navigating traffic.


And, still using our car analogy, we want to make sure we keep it full of gas and be able to handle the more complicated elements like cornering and parallel parking.


Defensive Handgun: Basic Pistol Manipulations to Master


Some of the simple manipulations we should be able to do to move to advanced levels in defensive shooting are:


  • Perform an empty gun reload (sometimes called emergency reload) where your slide locks back on an empty magazine. You must be able to remove the empty magazine, insert a fully loaded magazine, and send the slide forward chambering a new round so you have a working defensive handgun.

  • Perform a deliberate reload (sometimes called a tactical reload or a magazine exchange) where you have shot a number of rounds -- but your gun is not empty. You decide it would be prudent to add a full magazine so you smoothly and deliberately exchange your less-than-full magazine with a fresh and fully-loaded magazine. It's like stopping in the gas station to fill up your tank before it runs empty.

  • Perform an immediate action drill when you pull the trigger and get a CLICK instead of a BANG. It's called a failure to fire and is most likely operator error of not chambering a round or a magazine that is faulty or has not been seated all the way into the magazine well. You must recognize this condition and perform a TAP, RACK, BANG or ASSESS. At the advanced levels it is often taught for shooters to step to one side or another while performing this refunctioning the handgun.

  • Perform a failure to extract which is often called a 'double feed'. Take a look at the modern way the instructors at PFC Training are remediating this malfunction.





Progress in defensive handgun shooting comes in incremental steps. Initially, we may struggle to add these basic skills, but we need to dedicate the level of practice to where they should become second nature.


Continuous repetition and refinement are key to mastering these skills.


"Shooting is simple, but it's not easy."

Seeking quality instruction and feedback is paramount in this journey. Positive coaching helps identify areas for improvement and guides focused practice sessions. Remember, consistent and deliberate practice is essential for mastering defensive handgun shooting.


In summary, progression in defensive handgun shooting requires mastering individual skills and integrating them seamlessly. Embrace the process, seek guidance, and practice relentlessly to excel in self-defense scenarios.

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