All too often pistol shooters continue to make mistakes that have simple solutions because they are either unsure what error they are making, or how to fix it. The easiest way to diagnose your deficiencies at the range is by paying attention to shot placement. There are several different categories of mistakes that shooters often make. Each type of error will cause rounds to impact specific areas of the target. By merely taking note of where your shots are landing when you miss, you can reveal a lot about your mistakes. Once the errors are identified, you can work on fixing them and improve your shooting exponentially.


Sight Alignment

Ensuring you have proper sight alignment and sight picture before you pull the trigger is crucial. If you aren’t using your sights properly, chances are you aren’t hitting your intended target. When using traditional sights, you want your front sight tip to be directly between your rear sights with even space visible on each side of the front sight. The front and rear sights need to be equidistant both horizontally and vertically. In other words, this means that your front sight tip should be level with your rear sights and there should be even space between your front sight and rear sights horizontally. All three dots on pistol sights should be online and evenly spaced from one another.

There are numerous areas that your rounds can impact if your sights are not properly aligned. If there is less visible space on the left side of the front sight tip, your rounds will impact to the left of the target. The same applies to the right. If the front sight is above the rear sights, the rounds are going to land high, and if the front sight is lower than the rear sights, the shots will fall lower. It is a straightforward principle. The main thing to keep in mind is that there is much less room for error when shooting pistols as opposed to rifles because the barrel is shorter, and the distance between the sights is significantly lessened. Even minimal deviances in sight alignment can throw your rounds off target considerably.

Sight Picture

When aiming at a target, the shooter should not stare at the target. Target fixation is common for beginner level shooters. Initially, it may be challenging to focus on the sights instead of your target, but it becomes more comfortable over time.  The shooter should identify the target, then aim through the sights, primarily focusing on the front sight tip and ensuring that the rear sights are in proper alignment. The target should be slightly blurred in the background. If a shooter has a clear sight picture of the target, but blurry sights, then the rounds will not impact in the intended location. The shooter should be staring at crisp, clear, and properly aligned sights with a slightly blurred target in the background before pulling the trigger.

If you are staring at the target instead of properly acquiring your sights, the rounds will likely land sporadically with no visible pattern unless other deficiencies are present, such as anticipation or improper trigger manipulation. There is no way of telling where your sights are aiming or if they are properly aligned if you are not focusing on them correctly.

Aiming point

Establishing a proper aiming point can make all the difference. Your aiming point should be as small and precise as possible. If you are shooting at an active shooter style target, try aiming at very precise and specific points to ensure your rounds are as accurate as possible. Aiming points should be small like the nose, eye, or button on a shirt instead of the head or body as a whole. The more precise your aiming point is, the more accurately your rounds will impact. If you pick an acute aiming point like the nose and miss by an inch, your round will still impact the face, but if your aiming point is the head as a whole, and you miss by an inch, you may miss your target entirely. Keep your aiming points as small as possible, and your rounds will be much more accurate.

If you are aiming at a broad target instead of aiming precisely, your rounds will either impact sporadically or in an extremely loose group that may not be distinguishable. This is because your aiming point is too large. Therefore your grouping will be widespread. This error is immediately fixed by aiming at a more finite target point.

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Trigger Manipulation

After you have established proper sight alignment and sight picture on a precise target point, it is time to pull the trigger. Improper trigger manipulation can cause a round to impact off-target even if your sights are in perfect alignment. Although there are many different trigger types, the process is the same for firing with each. Always squeeze or press the trigger smoothly and consistently as to not alter your aiming point. You want to focus on pulling the trigger straight back because a slight deviation can have a significant effect on where your round will impact. Only the trigger finger should move while the rest of the hand and arm remain as still and consistent as possible. The two most common mistakes shooters make in regards to trigger manipulation is slapping and jerking the trigger.

Jerking the trigger

Jerking the trigger is when the trigger is pulled rapidly and not smoothly (in a jerking motion). This causes the hand and wrist to move and will typically cause right-handed shooters to miss to the right, and left-handed shooters to miss to the left. If you find that your shots are missing to the right consistency and you are a right-handed shooter, you are likely jerking the trigger. This can be fixed by dry firing your pistol and ensuring that from the moment you begin to pull the slack out of the trigger, to the moment the trigger breaks, both the front and rear sights maintain perfect alignment. You can try dry-firing with a piece of brass balancing on the end of the slide. The brass should remain stable throughout the dry-fire exercise and should not fall at any point. This dry-fire drill ensures you maintain stability throughout the firing process.

When firing multiple shots, the same principles apply. Proper sight alignment/sight picture should be gained, the slack should smoothly be pulled out of the trigger while maintaining your sights all the way through the trigger break when the round is fired. Once the first round has left the chamber, smoothly release some of the pressure on the trigger until you feel a definitive click, this is the trigger resetting, which means you can now fire another round. You will notice that in most pistols, when the trigger resets, there is still more distance the trigger can travel before it rests entirely. It is not necessary to allow the trigger to completely return to the starting point before firing. Keep enough positive pressure on the trigger to enable the trigger to only travel far enough to reset, then take your follow-on shot after you have appropriately acquired your sights.

DO NOT completely take your finger off the trigger between shots. This will cause you to slap the trigger when taking multiple shots in rapid succession.

Slapping the Trigger

Slapping the trigger is essentially the same concept as jerking the trigger but is compounded with several other (difficulties) such as recoil management, quickly acquiring your sights, etc. Only release the trigger until it resets, and fire follow-on rounds.

This problem is extremely easy to pinpoint. If you find that your accuracy is lacking when firing rapidly, either film your hands and firearm or ask someone else to watch you during a rapid-fire drill. If your finger comes off the trigger at all, reset the drill and slow down your cadence.  Focus on only allowing the trigger to travel far enough to reset, then re-engage. Shooters typically slap the trigger for one of two reasons. One, they simply do not know better. They think that to shoot as fast as possible, they should move their finger as quickly possible and do not take into account that they are moving their finger further than necessary, and altering their sights in the process. The second reason applies to all levels of shooters and occurs when shooters try and fire faster than they can fundamentally shoot. They move too quickly and fail to apply the fundamentals.

Developing a cadence or rhythm can be extremely beneficial. Focus on shooting in rhythm to allow all the steps to become second nature. In the beginning, verbal cues can also be instrumental. One verbal prompt that can be beneficial is saying, “sight alignment, sight picture, squeeze.” You can say the cadence as slowly or quickly as needed until the fundamentals become second nature. Ensure as you are saying the cadence, you are doing what you are saying. This aids in the development of positive muscle memory.

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Shooters who have problems with anticipation will often miss the target by a significant margin even if all the other fundamentals we have covered so far are applied. Anticipation is precisely what it sounds like; a shooter is anticipating the recoil of the shot and attempting to brace for it instead of allowing their arms and body to absorb it. Bracing just before a shot will throw off your sight alignment and sight picture and cause your barrel to dip in most cases.

This problem can be easily identified if you find that your rounds are grouping low and left of the target if you are a right-handed shooter, or low and right if you are a left-handed shooter. You can also highlight the problem by doing a ball and dummy drill.

Ball and Dummy Drills

Ball and dummy drills are conducted by having someone else load a dummy round into your magazine and having you perform any multiple round shooting drills as you usually would. Once your magazine reaches the dummy round, and the gun fails to fire, it will be extremely apparent if you were anticipating the shot or not. If the muzzle of the pistol moves forward at all when attempting to fire the dummy round, you are anticipating the shot. The severity of anticipation can vary in degree, but shooters should strive to have no anticipatory movement when firing at all.

Anticipation can only be fixed with practice. Shooters who have problems with anticipation should practice slow fire single-round shooting. Start from the 10-yard-line with the pistol presented. Focus on squeezing the trigger as smoothly and slowly as possible. Exaggerate how slow you press the trigger until it finally breaks and the round fires.  Take the gun off target to reset, then repeat for ten rounds with each round taking slightly less time to fire than the last. By the time you reach the tenth round, it should take no more than approximately two seconds to fire the round once you have begun taking the slack out of the trigger. Reload a magazine and do the same thing but fire two rounds per iteration with no more than two seconds between shots. Once you have fired a total of ten rounds, repeat the drill and fire three rounds per iteration with no more than 1.5 seconds between shots. The drill continues by adding rounds per iteration and decreasing the time between shots until the shooter can fire an entire magazine (at least eight rounds) with one second or less between rounds without anticipating any shots. A random dummy round should be thrown in a few times during this progression to ensure the shooter is not advancing through the drill too quickly.

Leading with the Sights

Leading with the sights is a common mistake that occurs when transitioning between multiple targets. To properly transition between multiple targets, shooters should lead with their eyes, not their sights. By this we mean that after you are done shooting one target do not continue to stare down your sights while moving your weapon to the next target, this is called leading with your sights. Instead, you should identify follow-on targets with your eyes and bring your sights to your eyes. Staring through the sights while transitioning will slow a shooter’s ability to quickly acquire a target and make the rounds much less accurate.

Shooters that lead with the sights will overshoot in the direction their momentum is going. For instance, if a shooter is firing at a target in front of them and transitions to a target 1 yard to the right of the initial target, they will often miss to the right of the intended aim point. This is because it is difficult to stop at the proper aiming point while simultaneously moving the pistol from target to target while staring down the sights.

The simple fix to this mistake is to simply transition very slowly from target to target, ensuring that each target is identified with the eyes first. Do not stare down your sights during the transition between targets. Increase the speed gradually until it becomes second nature. A drill that will facilitate this is the turret drill.

The Turret Drill

The turret drill is conducted by placing two silhouette targets on the firing-line with roughly 1.5 -2 yards between them. Stand directly between the two targets at the five-yard line with the pistol holstered, a full magazine inserted, and one round in the chamber. Draw and fire one round into the left target then transition and fire one round into the right target, then transition back to the target on the left and fire one round, etc. Repeat this until you have fired the entire magazine. The first iteration should be done in a slower exaggerated motion to ensure the proper fundamentals are applied. The drill can be sped up gradually as a shooter gets used to the mechanics as long as the rounds are impacting accurately.