So, You Want to Shoot a Handgun? That's great! Handgun shooting is a lot of fun, and it might even save your life one day. So get out there and shoot, but there are a few things you need to understand first.
Before you can even think about touching a real gun, you absolutely have to understand and abide by all of the rules of gun safety. Failure to do so will result in an unexpected hole in your body, or the body of someone you love.
ALWAYS TREAT ALL GUNS AS IF THEY ARE LOADED.
This means that every time you pick up a gun, you assume it is loaded. Assume that if you pull the trigger, a 130 grain projectile will come out of the barrel at 1200 feet per second and seriously mess up anything in its path. Whenever you pick up a gun, the first thing you should do, each and every time, is check if it is loaded.
NEVER POINT THE GUN AT ANYTHING YOU ARE NOT WILLING TO DESTROY.
That means that there is never a good reason to point a gun at your friend, your leg, your cat or your new plasma TV unless those are things you are willing to destroy. Whenever handling a gun, make sure that it is pointed in a safe direction at all times. If a psychotic meth-head is charging at you with a machete, then the safest direction to point the gun is the center of the psychotic meth-head's chest. Otherwise, it's probably best not to point the gun at friends, pets and valuable objects.
KEEP YOUR FINGER OFF OF THE TRIGGER UNTIL YOU ARE READY TO FIRE.
You know how you always see pictures of American movie star John Rambo chilling with his big M60 machine gun slung over his shoulder and his finger resting in the trigger guard? Yeah. American movie star John Rambo does not know how to properly handle a weapon. When you pick up a handgun, your index finger should be pointed straight forward and rest on the frame of the gun, outside of the trigger guard. Even if you think there is a murdermonster in the house, it only takes a fraction of a second to move your finger to the trigger from this position, but if your finger is on the trigger it only takes a sneeze or a startled jump to fire the gun and put a hole in your five-year-old niece's face. You don't want to shoot your five-year-old niece in the face, do you? Then keep your booger-picker away from the trigger unless you intend to pull it! The appropriate time to put your finger into the trigger guard is when you have your sights on your intended target. Not before.
ALWAYS BE SURE OF YOUR TARGET AND WHAT IS BEYOND IT.
So, you have decided to fire the gun. Great! Firing a gun can be great fun and even save your life. Just make sure of what you are firing at. A bullet can travel for several miles and still have enough energy to kill a man, so make sure that it isn't going to go anywhere you don't expect. If you are shooting targets or cans for fun and practice, make sure that even if you make a bad shot and miss, the bullet will go into something like a hillside or a dirt berm where it has no chance of hurting someone. If you are attacked by lizard people from beneath the South Pole, make sure that there isn't a pile of babies behind them when you shoot. Even if you find yourself in a life-or-death battle, you have to make sure that whether you hit or miss your target, that bullet isn't going to hit an innocent bystander.
Those are the basic four rules of gun safety. It's a widely accepted standard that saves lives when followed rigorously. Failure to follow these basic and simple rules will result in HORRIBLE TRAGEDY. Follow the rules, or you are a fool and should never handle guns for any reason ever. It's really simple, and there is no excuse not to.
Also, you need to always wear proper eye and hearing protection when shooting for recreation and practice. Ricochets and ejected brass cases can easily put your eye out, and gunshots are LOUD. Unprotected exposure to gunshots will quickly result in permanent hearing loss. You don't want to go blind and deaf, do you? Then wear safety glasses and earplugs or earmuffs.
Alright, that is out of the way, so what now?
BASIC HANDGUN OPERATION
Well, now you have to know the basics of handling and operating a handgun.
There are two basic types of handguns in widespread use today. Revolvers and semi-automatics. Revolvers have a revolving cylinder, typically holding five to ten shots, and automatics are fed by a detachable box magazine, typically holding between five and seventeen shots. (though some extended magazines can hold up to thirty shots or more)
First, we will talk about revolvers. With revolvers, you have two main types; single action and double action revolvers.
SINGLE ACTION REVOLVERS
Single action revolvers are the old timey cowboy pistols you see in the movies. What single action means is that pulling the trigger does a single thing; releases the hammer and fires the gun. The gun must be manually cocked for each subsequent shot. Pulling the trigger when the hammer is not cocked will only result in frustration and not the expected loud noises.
They are typically loaded by a swing-out loading gate on the right side of the gun, directly behind the cylinder. Some single action revolvers are loaded by break action, there is a latch at the top of the frame that, when pressed, will allow the gun to pivot open and eject the spent cases to allow for reloading. In our day and age, those guns are very rare. The most common single action revolvers are based on the Colt Single Action Army design. Older models, Colts, and historically accurate replicas must be cocked to the half cock notch to reload. There is a notch halfway between fully cocked and decocked that will allow the cylinder to spin freely and the gun to be loaded. Cock the gun to half-cock and open the loading gate, there will typically be an ejection rod, running just underneath the barrel, that when pressed will knock the spent cases out of the chambers. A single action revolver like this should never be carried with the hammer down on a loaded chamber, and the best way to load these to ensure that is to load the first chamber, leave the next chamber empty, then load the remaining four chambers, close the loading gate, and carefully lower the hammer.
More modern designs, like the Ruger Vaqueros, do not require the hammer to be at half cock to reload. These can be reloaded by leaving the hammer down in an uncocked position and simply opening the loading gate and rotating the cylinder. These modern single action designs can safely be carried with the hammer down on a loaded chamber, but if the gun requires you to cock to half cock to reload, it must be carried with the hammer down on an unloaded chamber.
To check if a single action revolver is loaded, open the loading gate and set to half cock if it is the old design, and rotate the cylinder, visually verifying that each chamber in the cylinder is empty.
DOUBLE ACTION REVOLVERS
Double action revolvers are much more common in this day and age. What double action means is that pulling the trigger will both cock the hammer and release it, firing a round. If the gun is not cocked, pulling the trigger will rotate the cylinder, cock the hammer, make a very loud noise and send a deadly metal slug out of the barrel at a very high rate of speed. Many double action revolvers can also be manually cocked to allow for a very light and crisp single action trigger pull and more precise aimed shots, but you are not Dirty Harry and almost all revolver combat is done using double action only, so I would recommend practicing with the double action only until it is second nature to you.
Most double action revolvers are loaded with a swing-out cylinder. There will be a button or lever on the left side of the frame, just behind the cylinder, called a cylinder latch. Pressing this will allow the cylinder to swing out. There will be a rod on the front of the cylinder which, when pressed, will eject the shells in the chambers and allow you to load fresh cartridges. The cylinder latch on most double action revolvers such as Taurus and Smith & Wesson revolvers will be pressed forward to release the cylinder. Ruger double action revolvers will have a small button in the same location that will release the cylinder, and Colt double action revolvers will have a sort of wine glass shaped latch that must be pulled to the rear to release the cylinder.
To check if a double action revolver is loaded simply operate the cylinder latch and swing out the cylinder. You should be able to see all of the chambers in the cylinder at once and verify that there is no ammunition in the gun.
With semi-automatic pistols, you have three main types of mechanism. Single action, double action and striker fired. Single and double action pistols will almost always have an external, visible hammer, while striker fired guns like Glocks have no visible hammer.
With very few exceptions, these basic operating principles will apply to all semi-automatic pistols.
They are called semi-automatics because, when a round is fired, some of the energy of the round is used to eject the spent case and load a fresh cartridge. The use of the term "automatic" does not mean that the gun is capable of fully automatic fire, like a machine gun, and fully automatic pistols are exceedingly rare, highly regulated, and mostly useless for anything other than just plain fun.
All semi-automatic pistols designed since the beginning of the twentieth century are loaded by detachable box magazine. There will usually be a button on the grip of the gun, just below the trigger guard, to release the magazine, though on some modern European designs the lower part of the trigger guard will have a lever that is pushed down to release the magazine, and on some older designs there will be a latch on the butt of the frame, just behind the magazine, that will release the magazine.
These guns are loaded by fully inserting a loaded magazine, pulling the slide, the upper portion of the pistol, fully to the rear, and releasing it. The slide should never be "eased" forward; it should be released sharply and allowed to fall forward under its own spring-loaded power. How the gun operates from there depends on it's design and will be covered later, but once loaded a semi-automatic pistol should be considered ready to fire.
To check if a semi-automatic pistol is loaded, the magazine must be removed first. Once the magazine is out of the gun, pull the slide fully to the rear so that you can visually inspect the chamber to ensure that it is empty.
SINGLE ACTION SEMI-AUTOMATICS
Single action semi-automatics are becoming a thing of the past, much like single action revolvers, but many people still carry single action semi-automatics for self-defense or duty guns. Like with single action revolvers, pulling the trigger will not cock the hammer, but once the gun is fired it will automatically chamber a fresh round and cock the hammer, allowing the next shot to be fired with a simple press of the trigger. The most common single action semi-automatic is the 1911, which is widely in use today, but the Browning High Power is one of the most popular military pistols the world over and many Tokarev and CZ-52 pistols are in use because of plentiful and inexpensive military surplus supply.
A single action semi-automatic should never be carried with the hammer down on a loaded chamber. Browning High Powers and 1911s have very safe and effective manual safeties that allow the gun to safely be carried with the hammer cocked, a live round in the chamber, and the manual safety engaged. Guns such as the CZ-52 and the Tokarev have less reliable manual safeties, if any, and are generally considered unsafe to carry with a live round in the chamber.
Never lower the hammer on a live round with a single action semi-automatic. Doing so is just asking for a hole in your leg, and I'm guessing that you are happy with the number of holes you currently have in your body. If you are uncomfortable carrying a one of these guns cocked with a round in the chamber, then I recommend you carry it with an empty chamber and a loaded magazine, and pray to the gods that you have the presence of mind, when faced with a gang of cannibal reavers, to chamber a round and fire the gun before they chop off your hands and feed your entrails to your children.
DOUBLE ACTION AUTOMATICS
Double action semi-automatic pistols are very common, and fall into two main categories; double action only and double action/single action. Double action only, or DAO pistols, cock the hammer when you pull the trigger and decock the hammer when a fresh round is cycled, requiring a full trigger pull for each shot in the magazine. Double action/single action, or DA/SA pistols, require the first shot in the magazine to be double action, and all subsequent shots will be single action with a shorter and lighter trigger pull. If it's a modern handgun with a visible hammer, it's probably a double action semi-automatic.
Both DAO and DA/SA pistols may have a manual safety, which must be deactivated to operate the firearm, though many will not have manual safeties, and almost all DA/SA pistols will have a decocker that allows you to lower the hammer safely on a loaded chamber. In many guns, such as Berettas, the safety itself will function as a decocker. On others, such as Sig Sauer handguns, the decocker will be a separate lever that must be operated to decock the hammer. The hammer should never be decocked by pulling the trigger and lowering the hammer manually; this is very unsafe and will result in an unexpected loud noise.
STRIKER FIRED SEMI-AUTOMATICS
Striker fired semi-automatics are easily identified by a lack of an external hammer. Glock handguns are the most common example, though the S&W M&P series, the Springfield Armory XD series, and the Kahr pistols are other very common examples. Some models may have an automatic safety such as a lever on the trigger or a grip safety, which are disengaged by the normal operation of the gun, but others may not. Manual safeties are almost unheard of on striker-fired pistols.
Once loaded, a striker-fired pistol is operated by pulling the trigger. That's it. Pull the trigger and it goes bang. Many police and military agencies favor these guns for their simplicity of use. They are generally considered safe to carry loaded, with a live round in the chamber, but they typically have shorter and lighter trigger pulls than double action semi-automatics, so extra care must be taken when handling them, particularly when placing them in holsters. Many people have put holes in their legs when carelessly holstering the gun and getting a piece of clothing or a holster strap in the trigger guard. Don't be one of those guys. These mechanisms are very robust and generally considered very safe and reliable, just remember that anything that touches the trigger can fire the gun. This should be assumed of all guns, but it is especially pertinent to striker-fired semi-automatics.
Ammunition is pretty darn important, right? After all, guns don't kill zombies; bullets kill zombies.
The first and most important rule of ammunition is to use the caliber that your gun is chambered for. .38 special, .357 sig, .40 s&w, .45 auto, 9mm luger. It can get very confusing, but there is one very simple rule of thumb that should always be followed; the gun's caliber will be stamped on the gun. With semi-automatics, it will usually be stamped on the barrel chamber, in the ejection port. With revolvers, it will usually be stamped on the barrel. Whatever it says on the gun, that is what the gun will take. There is a little ambiguity with 9mm and .45 auto labeling. Some .45 auto ammunition and guns will be labeled .45 acp. It's the same thing. The same goes for 9mm. Some will say 9mm parabellum, others will say 9mm luger, and others will say just 9mm. If it's a modern gun, it's safe to assume that 9mm means 9mm luger, which is the same as 9mm parabellum. If it is a very old gun that simply says 9mm on the gun, check with an expert, but with modern guns 9mm means 9mm luger.
One thing to note is that .357 magnum revolvers can safely fire .38 special ammo, but .38 special revolvers cannot fire .357 ammo, and .44 magnum revolvers can fire .44 special ammo, but .44 special revolvers cannot fire .44 magnum ammo.
FMJ vs JHP vs SWC vs LRN vs WTF
FMJ means full metal jacket. This is a lead slug fully encased in a hard copper jacket. This bullet will not expand on hitting its target and is most commonly used by civilians as cheap practice and target ammo. Militaries use FMJ ammo because of a silly treaty dating back to the first world war, but it is generally considered less effective for self-defense use.
JHP means jacketed hollow point. This is a lead projectile with a copper jacket with a hollow cup on the tip. It is designed to expand when it strikes its target, and create a larger, nastier wound than a standard FMJ bullet. Most police forces use this because it is very effective for killing angry crack heads and other malcontents. If you are carrying a handgun for self-defense this is the type of ammunition you want to keep it loaded with. JHP is for killing stuff, plain and simple.
SWC means semi-wadcutter. It is a flat pointed projectile, typically solid lead with no copper jacket, and it is often used for target shooting and competition. You will see a lot of revolver loads with these bullets, and many people handload semi-automatic cartridges with these for competition because it tends to punch nice, clean holes in targets. It's rarely used outside of practice and competition.
LRN means Lead round nose. These are solid lead projectiles with a round tip, and are common for cheap revolver practice ammo. They see little use outside of the shooting range nowadays, but they are often the cheapest thing you can find to feed your revolver.
+P AND +P+
+P means more power. +P+ means even more power. These rounds go faster and hit harder than the standard rounds, and they also cause more wear and tear on the gun. Do not fire +P or +P+ ammo unless your gun is marked for it or it says in the manual that the gun can handle it. If you are not sure, call the gun's manufacturer. Most modern guns can handle +P ammo just fine, but check first to make sure.
Ammunition does not really have a shelf life. If stored properly, modern ammunition should be viable for a couple hundred years at least. Ammunition should be stored in a cool dry place, out of direct sunlight and as free from temperature fluctuation as possible. It's pretty tough stuff, so just keep it inside and don't worry about it too much and you should be fine.
So, did you get all that? The above information is stuff that you need to know before you ever shoot a gun.
JEEZUS, I GET IT. CAN WE SHOOT ALREADY?
Alright, fine. Let's shoot. But there's more to it than just pointing the gun in the general direction of the bad guys and pulling the trigger.
GRIP AND STANCE
Proper handgun shooting is not instinctual. If you have never been told how to properly hold a firearm, you are probably going to do it wrong and not only look silly, but shoot poorly and have poor balance. We'll start with the basic two-handed grip.
First, you have to understand that there are a few areas on a handgun where, if you put your hands, you will be injured. You don't want to be injured, do you?
First, of course, is the muzzle, the end of the barrel where the bullet comes out. You don't want any part of your body near the muzzle for obvious reasons, but aside from the bullet coming out at bone-crushing speed, you also need to be mindful of the muzzle gasses. A gunshot is a controlled explosion, after all, so keep your hands away from the muzzle at all times.
On semi-automatic handguns, you have to remember that, when the gun is fired, the slide will move back very fast. You don't want any fingers or flesh to get in the way of it or you will be cut. Then you'll bleed all over your pretty new gun and blood causes rust. You don't want your gun to rust, do you? Then keep your hands out of the way of that slide.
On revolvers, you will notice that there is a small gap, a few thousandths of an inch, between the chamber in the cylinder and the barrel. When a revolver is fired the bullet must jump that small gap, and quite a lot of hot, explodey gasses and tiny lead fragments will shoot out of that gap. It goes basically straight out, so as long as you keep all of your fingers behind the front of the cylinder, you will be fine.
Now you need to grip the gun. Wrap your strong hand around the grip of the gun, right hand if you're a righty, and left hand if you're a lefty. You should have a solid, firm grip with your index finger pointing straight forward against the side of the frame or the trigger guard, the bottom of the trigger guard resting on your middle finger, and your middle, ring and pinky fingers wrapped firmly around the grip. Your thumb should be on the other side of the grip and pointing straight forward. You want as much of your palm to be in contact with the grip as possible and your grip should be firm, but not strained, you aren't trying to crush the gun, just hold onto it. The web of your thumb should be high on the grip and resting in the curve that most handgun grips have for it. If it's a revolver, it may not have this curve to rest the web of your thumb in. Don't worry, you will know you are holding the revolver correctly when your thumb is pointing straight forward and your middle finger is resting against the bottom of the trigger guard.
Now, with your off hand, firmly wrap your fingers around your strong hand. The trigger guard should be resting on top of your index finger and your off-hand thumb should be resting just under your strong hand thumb, and pointing straight forward. Your other fingers should be wrapped around your strong hand and supporting it. Nothing should interfere with the free movement of your trigger finger.
Do not use a "teacup" grip with your off hand. That is, do not cup your hand around the bottom of the grip and support the gun from underneath. This is an ineffective and unstable grip, and it makes baby Jesus cry when you shoot like this.
When shooting, you want to stand in athletic posture with your knees slightly bent and your weight slightly forward. You should be squarely facing your target. Many people lean back when they first shoot a gun. This is wrong. It puts you off balance and prohibits you from effectively controlling the recoil of the firearm.
When raising the gun, you should roll your shoulders slightly up and extend your arms directly in front of you so that the sights of the gun are aligned with your eye and the target. Your arms should be fully extended but your elbows should not be locked. From this shooting position, you should find it easy to transition to what is called a low ready position, with your elbows at your sides and the gun directly in front of your chest, pointing in the general direction of your target.
Remember; keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to fire.
Now, lets talk about what you should see when you aim your gun. Almost all handguns have what are called partridge style sights. That is, a square or rectangular front sight post, and a flat-bottomed square notch for the rear sight. When looking down your sights, the front sight post should be in the center of the rear sight notch, and the top of the front sight should line up with the top of the rear sight. With the sights properly aligned, the top of the rear sight should be directly under the center of your target. Your eye should be focused on your target and the sights should be slightly blurry and out of focus. You should be looking down the sights with your right eye if you are right handed, and your left eye if you are left handed. While it is generally considered a good idea to train for shooting with both eyes open, for most beginners I recommend closing your off eye until you get comfortable with aiming and sight picture. A good training aid for shooting with both eyes open is to put a small piece of scotch tape on the off side of your shooting glasses so that it obscures the sights to that eye. This will help you learn to keep both eyes open while eliminating a double-image of the sights.
Alright! Now you've got the gun properly pointed at the target and you know that there is nothing behind the target that will make you cry if you put a hole in it. Let's shoot that sucker!
FIRING THE GUN
You have the proper grip, the sights are aligned with your target and you are ready to fire. Your trigger finger should, at this point, still be outside of the trigger guard and pointing straight forward.
First, if your gun has a manual safety, now is the time to disengage it with your thumb. If your gun has no safety you can just yell something appropriately badass to let your target know that you mean business.
Now you can place your index finger on the trigger. The meat of your fingertip, halfway between your first joint and the tip of your finger should be resting on the middle of the trigger. Squeeze the trigger like you are slowly squeezing a gigantic infected boil until you feel it break and the gun fires. Do not jerk or yank the trigger. Remember that slow is smooth and smooth is fast. If you yank the trigger hard and fast, you will pull the gun off target and your shot will not land anywhere near where you want it to.
The gun should fire and it will recoil. If you have the correct grip, it should not have shifted in your hands. As you bring the gun back on target for another shot, let off the pressure on the trigger until it has reset and is fully forward, and then squeeze again to shoot that beast a second time. Repeat until your target is either full of holes or running away and no longer a threat.
Every gun has a different trigger pull, so getting used to the trigger pull of your particular gun will simply take practice, but that practice will go a long way towards improving your accuracy. You can practice this at home with dry fire practice. That is, pulling the trigger on an unloaded gun. First, and most importantly, you need to make sure that your gun is completely unloaded. Remove the magazine if it is a semi-automatic and open the action, visually inspecting it to be absolutely certain that there is nothing in the chamber. Pick a point to aim at that is in a safe direction, with nothing behind the wall you are pointing at that might bleed when shot, and take the appropriate grip and stance. Now squeeze the trigger until you feel it break. Repeat this about a thousand times, paying close attention to sight picture to make sure that you are holding the gun steady and on target while you pull the trigger. With single action semi-automatics and most striker fired guns you will need to operate the slide or cock the hammer between each imaginary shot to reset the mechanism. With double action revolvers and semi-automatics, you can just keep pulling the trigger, or manually cock the hammer if you want to practice your single action trigger pull. With DA/SA semi-automatics, I recommend alternating between single and double action trigger pulls, and with double action revolvers, I recommend focusing on the double action trigger pull.
WOOHOO! I FIRED THE GUN AND ACTUALLY HIT MY TARGET! WHAT NOW?
Practice. Practice every chance you get. Handgun shooting is a skill that takes a lifetime to perfect and with every shot you fire, your skills will improve. Once you have the basics of shooting down, you can start working on things like reload drills, drawing from a holster, and malfunction drills. There are advanced techniques like point-shooting and off-hand shooting that you should practice with once you are comfortable with your handgun. There is a whole world of information out there and there is always more to learn and practice to be had. So get out there and shoot some more. Practice makes perfect.
Have fun and stay safe out there.
(I have been shooting handguns since I was six years old, but I do not claim to know everything there is to know about shooting. If you feel that I might have left something out or made a mistake, feel free to let me know in the comments.)
An afterword: If the tone of this article offends you, my advice is to lighten up. You'll live longer. Self defense is serious business, as serious as it gets, but if you have read this far, through that giant block of information, then my casual tone has served it's purpose. If anything I have said really grinds your goat, just send me a self-addressed stamped envelope and I will happily send you triple your money back.