The Handgun Skills Triad – The Key to High Performance Shooting

The Key to High Performance Shooting

This article has some key points that are certainly outside of the “box” for some of you that are locked into traditional handgun shooting methods. But, these points might help make you a dramatically better handgun shooter, and elevate your understanding of how to shoot faster and more accurate.  Some of the material in this article is covered in previous articles as well. However, I have learned from teaching thousands of students that sometimes (ok most of the time) people have to hear things more than once to actually get it.

I just finished teaching a class with a motivated group of students and once again observed what makes a shooter a good shooter versus a not so good shooter. Every single shooting related error can be found in one of three areas in the handgun skills “triad.”  A triad is defined as a “set of three.”  In handgun shooting, there are many skills that are important to understand, practice, and master if you ever want to excel. Three of them are the real keys to success.   When teaching, I find that the real failure to perform for many students is their lack of ability to manage these three key areas successfully. 

Can you guess what they are?  You might say manipulation skills like drawing, reloading, or clearing malfunctions.  Nope! Maybe you’re thinking something more advanced like movement skills such as pivoting, stepping offline, shooting on the move.   Once again, wrong!

The skills triad is way more simple than that, yet are absolutely the key to handgun shooting success.   Without understanding and mastering them, nothing else matters.   They are:

  1. Recoil Management (gripping the handgun)
  2. Trigger Management (making it go bang without moving it)
  3. Sight Management (keeping the gun aligned on target)

Think about it for a second. If you can’t hit the target, It doesn’t matter if your draw is blindingly fast, or if you can reload quicker than The Great One – Rob Leatham, or even if you can shoot on the move as well as World Champion Eric Grauffel!   Managing those pesky three things is everything when it comes to actually hitting something.  

Now, if you have read ANY of my blog posts, you already know a bunch about grip, sights, and trigger. In this article I will remind you of what is important and try to introduce some key points that you must know to move to your next level. 

But first, a war story…. This weekend, I had a motivated student in class.  This particular student was digging what I was presenting and in my opinion had every intention of doing what I told them to do.  But, as day two of the class started, this particular person could not accomplish the goals set in the specific drill we were doing. When I brought the group together to set about fixing their individual issues, the problem we needed to fix was one the student completely understood.

More importantly, they thought they were doing the skill correctly!  But they weren’t and this failure to apply the material was causing them to miss the goal in the drill.  Once I made them apply the technique that they already knew, they immediately improved.   They moral of the story?  A) You might not know what you don’t know. B) You might not be doing what you know to do.   

Be careful you don’t get caught in the trap of repeating the same wrong technique over and over because the subconscious mind has programmed that routine (although wrong) from countless repetitions.  How do you know if you are doing something wrong? Shoot video! You will find your errors (assuming that you know what is correct) once you review the video of yourself. I have found myself making mistakes in my technique that I did not realize I was doing.

So lets break down the triad one by one. My goal is not to write another fundamentals of marksmanship article, but rather teach you some things that you might be missing, or misunderstand.   

Before we start though, we need to understand the basic goal of our triad: To develop the ability to shoot faster and more accurately.   This goal can be applied to both the defensive and competition arena.   With this goal defined, let me break the skill triad down in order of importance. Keep in mind that the three are always interrelated.  

Manage The Recoil

If I had to pick one key that will give you the single most measurable improvement in your handgun shooting, I would pick a proper grip, hands down.   I have done countless videos and written numerous articles on this subject alone, and yet still find students in my classes that are not managing the recoil as good as they can.

Managing the trigger, while important, does not make a significant difference if the grip is not correct.  Managing the sights, while very important, is not the key as long as we are talking distances that the handgun is best used in (3-25 yards).   But developing a proper grip, now that is the real secret!  I would guess roughly 95% of all of the students I have trained are not gripping their handguns as good as they could to maximize their shooting speed while maintaining a measurable level of accuracy. 

So how do we obtain that level of control on a handgun?  The answer is simple. Pay attention to the physics that actually cause recoil. Then work on minimizing those forces with proper leverage and friction.

High Performance Grip Definition:  The method used to hold the gun with both hands to create “positive, neutral, maximum control.”   

Positive= We control the handgun versus it controlling us.

Neutral= The muzzle recoils and returns to the exact same spot it started without us pushing it in any direction.

Maximum= The most control possible with leverage and friction in relation to our current level of strength.

Lets break down the key points:

  1. First, the gun hand should grip high on the back strap directly underneath the tang of the weapon. This gives the advantage of having more leverage against the weapon.  The KEY to getting the hand (very) high on the back strap is not just by placing it there. It’s by driving the gun hand high up on the grip during the draw process by coming into contact with the handgun from slightly behind it.
  2. Second, try to get the support hand palm in as much contact as possible with the rear portion of the grip.  I start my support hand index process by chopping under the trigger guard with a specific place on my index finger. Then I lay the rest of my palm onto the grip. In order to get your support hand in the right spot, you will have to flag your strong hand thumb during the draw process.  This allows the support hand to completely engage that part of the grip.  All four fingers of the support hand should be under the trigger guard with the index finger pressed hard underneath the trigger guard. There should be a distinct fit like the fitting together of two puzzle pieces with the gun and support hand. 
  3. Third, lock the wrist tendons.   Locking the wrist tendons is a critical component of controlling recoil. Failure to lock the tendons will result in the gun “bouncing” above and below the line of sight (kind of like the movement a dolphin makes when they swim).   Lock the wrist tendons in both wrists to maximize recoil control.  Additionally, lock the elbow joint in one place, but make sure you keep a slight bend in them to allow recoil to travel to the rear (versus up)!  Hyper extended and locked elbows will only allow the recoil to travel straight up. This is bad.

Applying pressure on the rear (backstrap) of the grip will be the most effective way to control recoil. This area should receive as much pressure as possible from the heels of the hands.  Think about the way you might crush a walnut if I placed one or two between the palms of your hands while your fingers where interlaced.  Simply think about squeezing your palms together to increase the pressure on the back of the gun as you extend it toward the target.  Don’t forget that a full extension is required to maximize your recoil control. Be careful not to hyperextend your elbows. Instead, keep them slightly bent to absorb more recoil rearward. 

Key Tip 1: For those of you that have been taught to role your support hand forward [“to lock the wrist tendons”] and point the fingers down at a 45 degree angle when the hand is open, consider this: Rolling the support hand too far forward will take the palm away from the rear portion of the grip.  Think about that for a second…if the gun recoils that direction (to the rear), would it not make sense to have some pressure there??  You don’t need to role your support hand forward to lock your wrist tendons. You can lock them in any position. 

Key Tip 2:  Simply gripping the gun hard with both hands gives an immediate improvement in recoil control.  To improve upon this more, focus on grip pressure slightly greater with the support hand. This allows the gun hand to remain more relaxed for smooth, quick operation of the trigger.

To get a better explanation of building a proper grip, please watch this YouTube video:   (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BrCfHYdyhw0)

Manage The Trigger

Pulling the trigger properly is one of the most discussed techniques you will find on any range. The concept is described by most as the key to success.   It’s thought of as the holy grail of hitting the target. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard someone say, “you missed because you jerked the trigger.”   You better sit down before you read the next line:

How you pull the trigger is irrelevant in most cases as long as you build a proper grip (hint, solid unmoving vicelike grip) and maintain it during the shooting process! 

Whoa, now that is something most of you have not been told before.   Bare with me for a few minutes while I explain.   The key to hitting any target with relative speed is learning to keep the gun still while pulling the trigger.  Imagine if you took your handgun and locked it down in a vice that was securely mounted to a bench.  As long as the gun was aligned (aimed) at the target you were trying to hit, you could slap or jerk on trigger as hard as you can and still hit the target.  Why? Simply because the gun is securely locked down and unmoving during the trigger pulling.   So, the point is:  If your grip is build correctly, YOU are the vice!

And guess what the first thing this article taught you is….you got it, to learn how to build your own “vice” on the gun by gripping it properly.   Following me so far?!

So let’s say that you have viced the gun down right with the proper grip. Now you have the ability to pull the trigger pretty much any way you want and still hit the target. However, let’s refine the process a bit for the variety of shots you might have to take.

Definitions:  In my training programs (Competition | Defensive), I break trigger management down into two concepts to allow students a common language when referring to which concept they are using at the time. These two concepts for trigger management can be thought of as being on opposite ends of the trigger pulling spectrum with lots of potential variation in between. 

Want to watch some trigger pulling tips on video (worth a thousand words right!?)? View here: Trigger Tips

Accelerated Pull:  A fast, straight rearward trigger pull that is done as fast as you can move your finger to the rear.   If you ever owned a squirt gun (remember the non-electronic ones?) and could shoot a stream of water in a relatively straight direction, you can accomplish an accelerated pull effectively.  The key details in this one are:

  1. Pull the trigger straight to the rear without moving the gun.
  2. Pull the trigger as quickly as you can.
  3. Immediately reset the trigger once the gun goes bang (during recoil).
  4. Repeat as necessary. 

Controlled Pull:  A more deliberate (slow), straight rearward pull that is done as fast as you can WHILE correcting the sights at the “prepped” point of the trigger pull.  This trigger pull is for a harder target or one with more risk like a potential hostage shot or headshot. The details are:

  1. Find the “wall” or “prepped” point of the trigger as quickly as possible (where all of the slack is gone and the gun is about to go off) and fine-tune your sight alignment as necessary while continuing to increase pressure.
  2. Pull the trigger straight to the rear without moving the gun.
  3. Continue rearward pressure/pressing until the gun goes off.
  4. Immediately reset the trigger once the gun goes bang (race to the wall).
  5. Repeat as necessary. 

Other keys:

  1. Never, ever, EVER “pin” the trigger to the rear on a handgun in hopes that you will be able to reset the trigger quicker by just moving your finger to the click.  This is always a slower method of resetting the trigger simply because you are waiting to reset until after the recoil cycle.   Good shooters begin the reset process as soon as the recoil cycle begins, allowing them to reset the trigger earlier and be ready to shoot again earlier. 
  2. Use the right part of your finger on the trigger.  Look at it now and notice where the center of your fingerprint loop is on the pad of your index finger.  That is about where you want to touch the trigger.
  3. !! IMPORTANT: Grip the gun hard first, and then pull the trigger.  The gripping fingers (bottom three) must be firmly in place with a good grip and unmoving before you pull the trigger.  IF you pull the trigger and grip the gun at the same time, this will move the muzzle off the target (usually low left for righties and low right for lefties).  
  4. Pull the trigger fast.  Trust me, you can still miss the target if you pull it slow.  If your goal has any speed element that is relevant, then teach yourself how to pull the trigger fast without moving the gun.  If you want to be able to shoot fast, practice pulling the trigger fast while maintaining your grip.   My buddy Rob Leatham says it best: “You can’t learn to run by trying to walk fast, they are completely different movements!”   

Manage The Sights– 

This one is the simplest of all.   Most of you were taught to use a traditional sight picture by focusing on the front sight and getting near perfect sight alignment with the rear sight before shooting.  The reality is that this level of alignment is a waste of precious time for most shooting solutions with a handgun.   Think about your most common requirement for defensive purposes, the 3-7 yard range, and what it takes in terms of sight alignment to hit a target at this range.   The answer is, not much.   

The Truth: Sit down for a second, cause this may surprise you again.  I almost NEVER look at and focus on the front sight when shooting.  Instead, I see the front sight, but also see the rear sight and target at the same time with relative equal clarity. My focus point is somewhere between the gun and target, and most of the time more on the target than the sights.

Try this sometime. Take your carry gun to the range and measure out five yards (15 feet).   Draw a one inch circle in the center of the target as your aiming point.   Now aim at that circle, and then deliberately misalign the sights to the left, right, up, and down.   Misalign them so far that you can barely see the front sight in the rear sight notch and then slowly fire a shot.   You will find that even a significant alignment error will only move the shot out slightly. The impact of the bullet will still be a relatively effective hit.   What does this teach you?  That you don’t need to waste time with extreme alignment for most shots.   Remember, time is a valuable commodity that you do not want to waste.

The key is to use as much sight focus and alignment as needed and nothing more.  More alignment and focus = more time used and in a gunfight every millisecond counts right!  In the end, focus your training on the aspect of learning how much is enough, and what is too much (focus and alignment).  

And there you have it, the keys to good shooting with a handgun.  Spend time on each key area. Remember, there is no such thing as too fast and accurate.  

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Until Then – Train Hard!

Mike S.

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