Can You Shoot Well Enough? | How to Aim a Gun Like a Real Pro

You’ve seen it-the fellow on the range who reels his silhouette target in from the seven-yard line, holds it up to his chest and proudly proclaims, “that’s good enough!,” often with a chuckle of pride. This “minute-of-bad-guy” approach to accuracy might make the fellow feel better, but does it really mean he can shoot well enough to defend himself in a life or death confrontation?

There are plenty of statistics to support the fact that violent encounters, and the resulting defensive use of a handgun, usually occur at a distance pretty close to arm’s reach. This, combined with the perceived large size of the adult torso, make many think that accuracy plays merely a minor role in defensive shooting.

But does it?

It’s long been said that, in shooting, “speed is a function of accuracy and distance.” The longer, more precise the shot, the slower the accurate firing of that shot will be. So to know if we shoot well enough for self-defense in the variety of situations with which we might be presented, we will need to evaluate the likely targets, their probable range and the time frame in which they must be engaged.


IDPA target in perspective

The standard in targets for practicing self-defense continues to improve. When practice with bullseye targets gave way to practice with rough humanoid silhouettes, the ability to judge shooting accuracy in a way that was meaningful to defensive purposes, at least in a general way, took a large step forward. But even silhouettes can be misleading.

Consider one of the most popular silhouettes used today, the IDPA standard silhouette. With a “-0” zone (“Minus Zero,” the primary target area) in the form of a circle measuring eight-inches in diameter, you might say that the designers had done a conservative job in representing the human anatomy in target form. And for a fully grown male, standing still and square to you, they have. But take a minute and look around for anyone facing you that way. Pretty rare, isn’t it? More common is some variety of quartering or side view, even when those around you aren’t taking cover! Any angle at all to the subject can reduce the target area by 50% or more, shrinking your chances of making an effective hit, accordingly. In the real world, human targets move, turn and hide unpredictably.

Another issue with the various silhouettes is that most give points, although possibly reduced points, for hits that, should they occur on an aggressor, will likely fail to produce a cessation of hostilities. Really aggressive people simply don’t stop when they’re grazed by a bullet.

So we need to be prepared to hit targets considerably smaller than the full-size silhouette on which we often practice. In fact, we’d better be prepared for targets obscured by cover, targets near innocent people or engaging targets from inside a vehicle. In these circumstances, the size of our target might be more similar to the old-fashioned bullseye than it is to a “modern” silhouette.


The distance from this front door to the attacker exceeds 50 feet. Could you make this shot?

While it remains true that most defensive encounters occur at close quarters, a number of encounters will happen at significantly longer ranges. How long? Take the recent case in the news of a sexual predator taking a five year-old child as she played in her front yard. If you heard your child scream from the curb in front of your home and had only an instant to thwart such a kidnapping, what type of shot would you have to make? Well, measure your front lawn to your front door, and that’s the distance with which you’ll be dealing. For most people, this will exceed 30 feet, and for many it may exceed 50 feet. And this with your child near, perhaps in the grasp of, your target.

While we certainly should focus on close-range defensive work, adequate preparation for some reasonably foreseeable circumstances dictates that we be able to shoot at longer ranges as well, as dictated by our environment and everyday surroundings.

Do you work in a jewelry store? Your longest realistic shot, assuming Deadly Physical Force is warranted, will be from the curb of your street to the rearmost area of the sales floor. The longest combination of halls and rooms in your home is a distance at which you should be prepared to engage a target. And remember, just because you’re defending yourself with a handgun is no guarantee that the aggressor will be attacking with one. In fact, rifles and shotguns are universally easier to get and less regulated than handguns, and if your attacker is armed with one of these you can expect to take fire… probably effective fire… from a significant distance. This might be especially true when camping or in the wilderness.


Any competitive shooter can explain how time seems to change when the buzzer sounds. Fractions of a second become an eternity as you struggle to locate the front sight and deliver an effective hit, even at shorter ranges. Reloads can be agonizingly slow, and the moments before you reach cover feel long enough to write the great American novel. In an actual gunfight these perceptions can be magnified until you realize that any time is too long. In a gunfight, solid hits as fast as possible will always be your goal… and perhaps your only hope.


"Shooting while seated in a vehicle is a skill that must be developed through repeated practice." (Wayne Becker photo.)

Compounding this three-way equation of target/distance/time is the lack of preparation often given to the realities of where you will be, and how you will be positioned, when required to deliver a life-saving shot. Almost certainly, you will not be standing at a firing range with your weapon in your hand. You will probably be seated in a vehicle, a restaurant, using the bathroom or an ATM. You may have something in your hands; you might be carrying your child. If you are a CCW holder and not on your own property, you will be drawing your weapon from concealment. Are you prepared to deliver accurate and timely fire under these conditions?

Put together, we must consider if the average shooter is really prepared for the situations he or she may face in a defensive encounter. Can you place hits from an defensive caliber handgun on half a silhouette at 50 feet… without hesitation? If your spouse were attacked exiting the supermarket while you pulled the car up, could you engage the attacker with effective fire from your vehicle?

If your answer to these questions is “no,” here’s some suggestions on preparing for the circumstances we’ve been discussing:


"IDPA reinforces the realistic use of cover." (Wayne Becker photo).

First and foremost, look for a practical shooting event near you and enter. The United States Practical Shooting Association (USPSA) and International Defensive Pistol Association (IDPA) have thousands of matches throughout the country every year. While the debate might rage about what is truly “practical” shooting, the skills gained from any of these competitions are simply too valuable to pass up, and difficult to gain elsewhere. They include the ability to shoot under the pressure of time, reloading under pressure, shooting from various positions and at a variety of distances.

But the single most important thing you’ll gain from competitive shooting is becoming familiar with what you can and cannot do with your defensive pistol in a wide variety of situations. You’ll be able, with time, to gauge your chances of successfully making a difficult shot at a distance, target or in a time frame that will test your ability. When confronted by an attacker, this can easily be the difference between successfully defending yourself and a tragically misplaced shot.

Second, spend at least a part of each range session practicing expanding your ability to shoot at greater distances, smaller targets and in shorter times. If you go to the range with a friend, use one of the affordable timers now available to test each other to gauge how quickly you can engage targets of various sizes from a variety of distances.

And while your friend is with you at the range, take turns setting up targets for each other. Even on indoor ranges with restrictions on rapid fire and single firing lanes you can get valuable practice in solving shooting problems quickly and without hesitation. Try partially overlapping two targets to create a “no-shoot,” and set the target at an unknown range while your friend looks away. Then at a signal from you, your friend must look up and engage the target as quickly as possible. This is, after all, what you’ll do in a real situation… come upon a attacker and have to react, plan a course of action, acquire the sights and make the shot without hesitation. (If you really want to practice your decision-making, occasionally throw out targets with only no-shoots-this simulates what will happen in the real world, and requires quick and decisive work on the part of the shooter.)

What we’ve been discussing are not the most likely circumstances for the use of a defensive handgun, not the most probable confrontations that you might face. But they represent scenarios that could realistically happen to any one of us, and for which we should prepare. If you’re not confident you can shoot well enough to survive one of these situations, the time to prepare is now. When the time you hope never comes does, you will know what you can accomplish to defend yourself and those you love.

Larry Pearson is an NRA certified pistol instructor and a member of the American Society of Law Enforcement Trainers, as well as a former police officer, former military firearms instructor and lifelong student of the martial arts. He also felt that he had something of value to share with the firearms community, and wondered which gunzines he should approach with the above essay. The problem was that he was dealing in ideas and concepts, and virtually all of the present gunzines only want articles about products and services so that their advertising department can sell space and everyone can make money. This is the American way. This is his first published work.

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