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Handgun 101: Skill Building at and Away from the Range

Handgun 101

You roll up to the range and unpack your gear (including that shiny new pistol). Set up a target, fire off a few rounds, and then head downrange only to find yourself inspecting a pristine sheet of paper. Raise your hand if this describes your first time shooting a centerfire handgun.

I’m going to assume that a lot of you can at least relate to this experience. I remember well my first day out with the Beretta M9 I purchased shortly after turning 21. I had fired a .22 Long Rifle 1911 with a Kimber conversion and had enough success with it that the gentleman who let me try it out commented on how accurate I shot it, visibly impressed. Yet when I moved up to the M9, the results were embarrassing. I could barely hit an 8” steel plate at 25 yards. Frustrated, I packed up and left. So why didn’t that prior rimfire experience translate to the Beretta? Was the M9 junk, or was I just incredibly lucky with the 1911?

The truth is I did experience a great deal of “beginner’s luck” with that 1911. But there are also significant differences between the two handguns. More importantly, I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know how to properly grip the pistol. Proper trigger pull was a foreign concept to me. And worst of all, I simply wasn’t prepared for the increased recoil of the 9mm round. I needed practice – and lots of it.

Today, we’ll dive into several ways you can improve your handgun skills. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it covers most options both at and away from the range.

Classes

In a lot of ways, there’s no substitute for decent training. Handgun classes, particularly those with a defensive bent, teach skills that you can’t easily acquire in solo range sessions. Details like how to carry, when and how to draw, grip, stance, shot placement, and moving with a firearm are all staples of good training. Each of these is vitally important details for those who plan to carry their handgun. Shooters who aren’t ready to jump into a practical shooting course can alternatively find (literally) thousands of NRA-certified instructors throughout the United States offering basic handgun classes.

Just as courses offer some unique advantages, they also come with inherent drawbacks. First is that they’re seldom one-on-one experiences. A good instructor will make time to work with each student on an individual basis, but the instructor has to split that time across the whole group.

Additionally, there are some natural limitations to what instructors can observe, particularly in moments just prior to the trigger break. The fine motor skills that are necessary to consistently drop rounds into the x-ring aren’t always obvious or easily observable in real-time. Instructors with high-speed camera gear boast a significant advantage here, but they aren’t the norm. This condition leads to results-based inferences regarding needed adjustments that may or may not be the issue.

 

Dry Fire

Dry fire, or practicing without ammunition, is the simplest way to hone your skills. It facilitates at-home practice using your centerfire handgun with no additional cost. There are safety precautions that need to be taken in order to avoid touching off a live round in the living room. Having said that properly done dry fire can be an extremely useful tool for practicing trigger pull over and over and over again.

It’s a method that should not be overlooked. As close as other training tools may come, none can perfectly replicate all characteristics of your real handgun. Dry fire should absolutely be a supplement to any other approach, even if it isn’t your primary choice.

Every trigger is unique from several perspectives: profile, weight, break, etc. Dry fire practice is an excellent way to learn that feel without expending live rounds.

Affordable as it may be, dry fire is the most limited method in this lineup. Devoid of the usual feedback associated with actually putting rounds on paper. Dry fire’s utility is limited for new shooters who are as likely to harden bad habits through the practice as they are to acquire good ones.

 

Laser-Based Training

Stepping things up a bit in terms of functionality and price opens an assortment of laser-based training systems. The simplest of these is Laserlyte’s (and similar) laser training cartridges. These faux rounds feature an embedded laser emitter that activates when the firing pin strikes the switch on the back. The upside of these systems is that they offer visual feedback each time the trigger is pulled. The downside is the lack of actionable feedback you’ll receive unless you film yourself, work with a trainer, or purchase a separate laser-reactive target.

The Shot Indicating Resetting Trigger (SIRT) takes the laser training system in a different, arguably superior direction. Whereas Laserlyte cartridges require a manual reset of the trigger and are mostly enhanced dry-fire tools, the SIRT pistols automatically mimic striker reset. This allows the trigger to be pulled repeatedly as if the trainers were true semi-automatic handguns. The trade-off with the SIRT is that you aren’t using your actual handgun. That said, the SIRT pistols I’ve handled, particularly their metal-slide SIRT 107 (M&P replica) and 110 (Glock 17/22 replica) feel almost exactly like their functional counterparts in both overall weight and trigger pull.

I first handled the SIRT pistols at this year's NRA Annual Meetings. I found them impressive and surprisingly similar to their firing counterparts.

Another compelling feature of the SIRT pistols is the take-up indicating laser. These trainers don’t only provide feedback when the trigger is pulled, they also let you know when your finger is on the trigger. This might seem like a silly addition as shooters are obviously always aware of what their trigger finger is doing (sarcasm), but the truth is that it really is quite useful in showing whether you’re late or early on the trigger. This is especially true if you’re filming yourself while practicing or if you’re working with an instructor. The downside is that to get the most of this feature, you really do need something or someone else watching you practice in order to capture the activity of the second, under-barrel laser.

 

With this model of the SIRT, a red indicating laser signals a finger on the trigger. The green dot fires upon trigger break.

Since I mentioned laser-reactive targets, Laserlyte’s own Steel Tyme, Rumble Tyme, Quick Tyme, and Score Tyme targets offer the sort of on-target feedback you’d typically expect from being at the range. They greatly augment the utility of laser training systems. They’re also very expensive. The Steel Tyme isn’t very feature-rich yet fetches $110 for a set of two targets. The Score Tyme is the most expensive at $250 for a single target. Rounding out the package with a SIRT boosts the price as high as $600.

Laser-sensitive targets are fun and provide useful feedback, but they're very pricey.

Rimfire Handguns

Overwhelmingly, you’ll find shooters recommend grabbing a .22 LR handgun as a trainer before stepping up to the bigger calibers. This is generally good advice, but it comes with caveats. Rimfire pistols are absolutely not the end-all-be-all of training instruments for handgun shooters. They’re useful, but perhaps less so than rimfire rifles are to centerfire long guns. Even so, I’m a strong advocate for having at least one .22 pistol in the lineup. Preferably an example that roughly approximates your primary centerfire handgun.

 

The Colt 1911 Gold Cup .22 is much lighter than a .45 ACP 1911, so it doesn't handle all that similarly. Its trigger, however, is an excellent proxy for the centerfires.

Before I harp on the virtues of .22 LR handguns, let’s talk about some of their drawbacks. One of the biggest issues I have as a trainer with using a rimfire pistol is that the anemic cartridge generates a recoil impulse that simply cannot replicate the feel of touching off a centerfire round in a similarly-sized handgun. Moreover, since this lack of power necessitates some design modifications – particularly slide and recoil spring lightening – rimfire handguns balance and shoot differently than their centerfire counterparts. This affects hold, follow-up shots, and even recoil anticipation.

Why Rimfire

If .22 LR pistols differ so greatly from their bigger brothers, why then are they useful at all? First, you can’t ignore the lower price of ammunition. .22 LR ammo has increased in price while centerfire 9mm, for example, has fallen somewhat in recent years. Even with those dynamics at play, the rimfire cartridge is still cheaper on a per-round basis, affording shooters far more shots per dollar.

While not exactly a great training tool for my full-size handguns, the Walther PPK/S .22 is a lot of fun. It still forces shooters to be mindful of the fundamentals.

The second defense of rimfire handguns has to do with their reliability. But wait, aren’t .22 LR handguns far less reliable than comparable centerfire options? You bet, and that’s the point. Assuming the controls of the pistol are similar to your primary handgun, the experience of clearing the occasional malfunction in a controlled, safe setting can be valuable. I’m not talking about going out and buying the cheapest, least reliable rimfire pistol here. Even quality options like the Ruger Mk III or some of the Walther-made clones of centerfire handguns (yes, they’re actually quite decent) will be preferential with respect to ammunition selection and subject to occasional hiccups.

Mantis X Training System

If you haven’t tried the Mantis X system, it’s understandable that you might think it’s a bit of a gimmick. After all, how can this tiny, light-sized thing you mount on your rail tell you everything you’re doing wrong with your pistol? The truth is that the unit is quite impressive.

 

I reviewed the Mantis X a couple of years ago, just after release, and even then, it worked surprisingly well. As a shooter with very little formal training, I had a history of either anticipating the shot and pushing the handgun’s nose down. Or getting too much finger on the trigger, forcing my shots to the left. While I knew both of these issues, through loads of ammo, seeing just how accurately the Mantis X diagnosed even small problems with my hold and technique was amazing.

Operating the Mantis is simple. Attach it to your pistol’s rail (magazine baseplate adapters are also available), download the phone/tablet application, and connect the Mantis to your phone via Bluetooth. That’s all there is to it.

 

The Mantis easily mounts to a variety of rails.

The above is why, in a lot of ways, the Mantis X is a better tool than even a standalone .22 LR pistol. The .22 LR handgun by itself doesn’t prevent you from expending off-target round after off-target round without any sort of valuable feedback. With the Mantis, you’re not just getting actionable information when you mount it to your .22 handgun. You can also move the unit over to your centerfire pistol for the same sort of instruction.

Mantis X correctly identified my shortcomings.

Mantis Final Thoughts

A final point about the Mantis X: it offers different feedback than a human instructor. Human trainers (quality ones at least) are great at helping shooters with things like hold, stance, and presentation. However, the fine motor skills that are difficult to repeat shot-to-shot require either the Mantis X or a high-speed camera to evaluate. Without these pieces of technology, the majority of instructors are going to lean on where the rounds land on paper. Then they work their way back to tell a story as to how the bullet ended up where it did. This involves making some assumptions that may not be applicable or appropriate. 

Mantis might have given me a review unit in the past, but they certainly aren’t paying me to say that their system is my favorite tool or method in this roundup. Classes are important outlets for situational skill-building that can’t be easily replicated by other means. Therefore, I don’t want to dismiss their importance. However, when it comes to fundamental work on accuracy and consistency, the Mantis is difficult to beat. Its compatibility with live fire, dry fire, and even BB pistols make it the most versatile training tool both at and away from the range.

 

Working with the Mantis, I've been able to substantially improve my handgun skills.

Mantis regularly updates its software to add and improve upon features. They’re also in the process of rolling out their new Mantis X3 and Mantis X10 units. The X3 is basically an improved version of their original Mantis X. The new X has a smaller footprint, faster polling (for more accurate readings), and better battery life. The X10 turns things up another notch with advanced features like the ability to assess recoil management.

Wrap It Up

There are loads of ways to improve your shooting and I’m certain we haven’t covered all of them. The bottom line is that learning to effectively use a handgun is a good bit more difficult than a rifle. Long gun work is more like learning to ride a bike (for lack of a better analogy). The skills sort of stick with you even after extended periods away from the range. Handguns require regular practice to maintain your skills – to a degree that off-range options are incredibly appealing, if not critical.

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