Shooting a pistol is the most difficult form of shooting.  This is true for a variety of reasons.  Pistols have a short site radius, no ability to brace the weapon against your torso, and comparatively high recoil forces which drastically affect follow on shots.  To compound this difficulty, the pistol is the type of firearm most often carried and consequently most likely to be used in a life or death situation.  This article will show you practical methods to improve your pistol shooting ability based upon scientific research.

Before you even think of carry or shooting a weapon you should understand the four safety rules at a bone deep level.  Treat every weapon as if it is loaded.  Use the safety if so equipped. Do not touch the trigger until you are ready to fire.  Do not point your weapon at anything you do not wish to destroy.  I believe the last is the most important. Muzzle control is king in a tactical environment.  The next factor we must consider is grip.

Lets assume that most readers of this site are shooting automatics, and consequently, should be shooting with their dominant hand as high as possible on the back strap, with their weak hand covering as much of the frame as possible, thumbs pointed forward.  See the video below for an excellent explanation of shooting grip.


Next, we must obtain the correct sight picture.  To do that you need to focus all your attention on the front sight, leaving the rear sights and target out of focus.  See diagram.


Lastly we must have solid trigger control, being able to pull it smoothly and surely to the rear without interrupting its course of travel.  The speed is generally irrelevant.  A fast trigger pull can be just as accurate as a slow pull, all other factors being equal.


1. Grip – High and firm on the back strap, covering as much frame as possible

2. Sight Picture – laser focus on that front sight blade

3. Trigger Control – smooth uninterrupted pull

Once we reach proficiency with these basics we then need to focus on the most important factors holding us back from becoming better tactical shooters.  Recent research has studied these very factors and come up with some surprising conclusions.

1. High Heart Rate does not affect pistol shooting

2. Cardiovascular Fitness is key for tactical pistol shooting

3. Grip and Finger flexor strength significantly affects accuracy

Heart Rate

This seems the most counter-intuitive from the research findings.  In this study, researchers compared police officers shooting with their duty pistols at rest and in a fatigued state.  In the fatigued state, the officers completed a 4 min warm up on a stationary cycle and then cycled 60sec of work with 30 sec of rest until 85% max heart rate, as predicted by age or volitional exhaustion, was achieved.  They then moved to the range, immediately adjacent, and shot the first test within 15 sec of the last cycling interval.  They each shot 3 strings of 5 shots at a target 10 yards away.  Their groups and shot placement were the measured factors, as well as their heart rate, for the duration of the trials.

The officers worked hard on this test, reaching 183 beats per minute on average.  Astoundingly enough, this had no effect on accuracy or precision (grouping).  In fact, no aspect of heart rate effected their shooting ability, not their resting heart rate, nor the rate it slowed to while they were shooting their three strings of fire.

Anecdotally, this seems almost impossible.  Researchers believe that several factors are causing this to happen.  First, they posit that since a pistol is not braced against a torso that is rapidly expanding and contracting to breathe, this factor is not degrading accuracy.

Secondly, they noted that external focus on the sights allows the body to temporarily reduce its movement, related to the recent exertion, while shooting.  They believe this effect is enhanced through practice.  Simply put, the officers were able to ignore the movements of their body, and physically steady themselves, long enough to shoot as accurately as they had at rest.

It should also be noted that researchers do not believe that the officers had superior levels of fitness that allowed them to shoot accurately.  Their average VO2 Max (maximum oxygen usage rate) was 34 ml/kg/min.  This is poor to average.  A recreational triathlete or Rugby player is in the 50 range, with elite endurance athletes in the 60-80 range.  So it seems that overall cardiovascular fitness does not effect shooting accuracy, or does it?

Cardiovascular Fitness

This study  measured factors relating to Heart Rate Variability (HRV) as they affected tactical shooting performance.  They shot a course of fire requiring various quick tactical movements in different positions, standing, kneeling etc.  They found that those officers who had the least variability, their heart rates did not shoot up during the maneuvers, were most accurate.  It was further discovered that officers who had the biggest decrease in heart rate throughout the course of fire, completed it the fastest.

We can safely assume that someone who’s heart rate does not increase significantly during this type of shooting is in better shape. Likewise, we know that returning to resting heart rate faster also indicates a higher level of fitness.  This leaves us with a bit of a conundrum, how can cardiovascular fitness affect shooting ability in one test and not in another?

The key to understanding these two findings is to look at the shooting task they performed.  In the first, they had a short course of fire completed after intense exercise.  In the second, the test itself was approximately 90 sec in length and was, itself, physically different.  Practically speaking, if you are only expecting to shoot a quick course of fire, you can do so with no change compared to your at rest shooting ability; however, if you are expecting a protracted engagement with various tactical maneuvers, your cardiovascular fitness is key.  You can be out of shape and shoot bulls-eyes all day, but you better be in shape once those bulls-eyes start maneuvering back.

Grip Strength

This study looked at a variety of factors that might effect Olympic caliber air pistol shooters.  They specifically tested grip and finger flexor strength, as well as other other factors, to determine which most prominently affecting shooting ability in a competition.

They measured finger flexor force and grip strength with a hand dynamometer, basically a tool that measures your clamping force with your hand.  They found that those with a higher peak, and average strength in their fingers were more accurate.  They also found significant correlations between training hours and competition experience.  Those with more time practicing and competing did better on average.

This study highlights some important factors, but is not without its limitations.  It does look at air pistol shooters exclusively.  They only shoot one handed and are not required to complete any tactical maneuvers in their competitions.  That being said, the fundamentals do not change between shooting platforms.  A good shooter is a good shooter.  Now that we know what factors affect our shooting ability, what can we do to improve them?

Tactical Pistol Infographic

If we boil down the studies discussed above, they indicate that there are really only two factors that affect tactical shooting ability, gripping strength and cardiovascular fitness.

Most often pistol shooting literature and even scientific studies recommend hand grippers to develop specific shooting strength.  I’m not saying that won’t work, but it seems a very inefficient use of your time as well as slightly reminiscent of the thigh master. Doing pullups with only your fingers around the bar can increase your finger strength significantly.  Likewise, heavy deadlifts, with a timed hold at the top of the lift, will also work your grip and will get you sweet traps as well. Keep in mind, there’s nothing ladies like more than traps.

Sweet Trap Meat
Sweet Trap Meat

For cardiovascular fitness, there are a variety of things that can be done, with most folks recommending running or cycling.  Again, this is not very efficient.  I recommend you read my post about a tabata protocol with weights.  This will increase your cardiovascular fitness and strength, and it only takes 4 minutes to complete the protocol.  Remember, there is no point in doing something to increase a single aspect of fitness if you can do something else that will increase multiple aspects.


The basics are the most important factor in a pistol shooters repertoire.  You will be best served to develop a solid understanding of them before you attempt to focus on these other secondary factors.

Cardiovascular strength and finger flexor / grip strength are the key components to further improve your shooting ability.  You can still shoot quite well if you are not expecting to engage in a prolonged course of fire, but if you might be expected to maneuver and shoot, you will need to be in good physical shape to do so effectively.

Spend your time developing your overall strength, with some slight modifications to emphasize your grip strength.  Also, use a tabata protocol to develop your cardiovascular fitness.   A solid workout program will do wonders for your tactical shooting ability, and it couldn’t hurt on Tinder either.