The following information on learning to shoot a pistol and revolver comes from The Book of the Pistol and Revolver by Hugh B. C. Pollard. The Book of the Pistol and Revolver is also available to purchase in print.
The tyro or novice who wishes to acquire skill in pistol-shooting must remember that, unlike mathematics or any purely mental exercise, proficiency cannot be acquired by mere book learning alone. The whole basis of shooting rests upon physical efficiency, and it is a matter of training certain muscles and nerves to execute the commands issued by the brain.
This physical training of the muscles is allied with a certain amount of nerve and brain discipline, which are essential to overcome the natural or instinctive faults of incorrect eye-work and flinching from the recoil or report.
In process of time, care in following out the prescribed rules of aiming, trigger pressing, and correct position, results in these being acquired as habits, and later becoming almost instinctive. Practice makes perfect, and a fair natural shot may easily take rank as a first-class marksman after three to six months’ training and practice at suitable ranges and with suitable weapons.
The great thing to avoid is acquiring bad habits during the early period of training, as once adopted these may take years to eradicate.
There are two perfectly distinct styles of shooting: the target shot style, where excessive accuracy and slow but certain shooting at bull’s-eye targets is the ideal; and there is the practical pistol shot style, in which a lower criterion of marksmanship, but a very much quicker rate of fire, is the ideal. This latter style of shooting is the only one of value to the soldier, duellist, or individual concerned with self-defence; but the preliminary training for the two styles is identical, and it is unwise to attempt speed work until a fairly high standard of slow target work has been attained.
Different styles of shooting suit different individuals; and where the massive, deliberate-fire target shot may be a cold, unemotional, and phlegmatic business man, the speed shot is usually of a much more impatient and nervous temperament. The man who is strong and skilled enough to be proficient in both styles is undoubtedly the only perfect type of shot.
Having decided to take up pistol practice, you must acquire a revolver. For a novice a pocket weapon is of no use, and efficient training can only be obtained by using the long-barrelled target revolvers designed for accuracy and serious competition work. A good plan is to start with a .22 or .32 target pistol or revolver, as the absence of recoil and unpleasant features enable one to master the intricacies of aiming, pull-off, and the general handling of the weapon, before passing on to the standard .455 target revolver. If, however, your purse does not warrant the purchase of a small-calibre weapon in addition to your regular competition model, commence with one of the latter.
There are only three makers to choose from—Colt, Smith and Wesson, and Webley; but the latter firm make target revolvers in standard calibre and 7 1/2-inch barrels, with various forms of handle or grip. The whole point of selection of a target revolver is to find the one whose grip is most suited to your hand. If opportunity offers, go to a good revolver range (King’s Gallery off Panton Street, Haymarket, and next to the Prince of Wales’s Theatre, can be recommended), and sample various types of weapon till you find the one best suited to your individual taste.
Do not buy second-hand target weapons without expert advice, as they are probably worn-out pistols reblued to look as if in perfect condition, or old types with sights forbidden by more recent competition rules.
Having selected your pistol, the next process is to get it accurately sighted, as most target arms are sent out with fore-sights sufficiently over-size to allow for the necessary individual adjustment.
There are two types of fore-sight—the plain rectangular section blade, and the bead or undercut type. The back-sights provided with the pistol consist of a plain bar, a U-notched bar, or a square U-notch for use with the square foresight. Higher sights are supplied for longer ranges. Having ascertained by practical trial which form of fore-sight suits you best, stick always to that type, and never be tempted to chop and change about; but be sure that it is of a type allowed by the N.R.A. rules. A beginner must of necessity have his sights altered for him by an expert; but later on, when reliance can be placed on his own shooting, all changes should be determined upon from his own personal practice with the weapon.
The majority of shooting takes place upon the 20-yard range, and it is for this distance that adjustment should be effected.
The great thing to remember is that the front-sight should stand out clear in the back-sight and against the target, and that you should see the same amount of it each time. If at one shot you see one height and at the next less, the shots will not maintain the same elevation. This vertical adjustment is the main and most important point.
A revolver is tested by firing a group of shots at the aiming-point—that is to say, with the top of the fore-sight clear in the notch of the back-sight, and aligned upon the bottom edge of the bull. The direction of shots upon the target is indicated as is the face of a watch; so the bottom of the centre of the card is six o’clock, the centre of the left edge nine o’clock, and so on. The correct point of aim is six o’clock, at the bottom of the bull, and the bullet should strike one inch higher—that is to say, in the centre of the bull.
Supposing that the centre of your group of shots on the card is 2 inches too low, and 2 inches to the left of the centre of the bull, it is obvious that you must adjust your pistol to shoot 2 inches higher and 2 inches to the right. Vertical adjustment is secured by filing the foresight, lateral adjustment by tapping the sliding back-sight into the desired line.
In altering sights, remember the following points: Fore-sight follows back-sight—that is to say, deepening or lowering the U in the back-sight makes you shoot lower, raising it makes you shoot higher.
Filing the fore-sight down makes you shoot higher. A higher fore-sight makes you shoot lower.
The formula to determine the amount to alter is: As range is to sight radius, so is the error on the target to the height of fore-sight, all dimensions being in the same denomination.
As an example of this, if the sight radius (length from back-sight to fore-sight) is 6 inches and the range 20 yards (720 inches), and your group of shots is 3 inches below the bull on the target, then the simple proportion sums (6 inches × 3 inches) ÷ 720 inches = 1/40 inch gives the amount— 1/40 inch—that must be filed off the fore-sight.
Final adjustments should be done with a file rather than by formula; and in widening the U remember that cutting metal away on one side makes the weapon shoot toward that side. Deep rear-sights are undesirable, and the U should be little more than a semicircle; if a square or rectangular notch is used, the depth should be proportionate to the width. In all cases the front-sight must stand clear of both sides of back notch, as otherwise you cannot see if you are not covering more of the front-sight on one side or the other—a fault which will cause errors in lateral direction.
The bead-sight is sometimes called the “Ira Paine” fore-sight, and it is amusing to note that the name of an American has been recently applied to the ordinary square-notch and rectangular foresight, although this pattern was popular and common on muzzle-loading weapons a hundred years ago.
The Winans fore-sight is another ingenious device, which effects the same purpose of seeing always the same amount of fore-sight, as the undercut bead. A short portion of the upper part of the face of the fore-sight is cut vertically, or recessed, so as to cause it to appear black, as if in shadow; the remainder of the face is curved, so as to reflect the light. The standard military or service revolver sight can, by filing, be readily converted to the Winans pattern, without any liability to catch in the clothing or holster.
Target sights should have as sharp and severe an edge as possible, and the edge of the U or notch furthest from the eye should be bevelled or chamfered, in order to prevent any tendency to blur.
The only other point likely to require attention is the trigger-pull. This is usually excessive when sent out from the makers, and should be perfectly sweet and easy, with no trace of “drag” or “creep.” The regulation Bisley pull is 4 pounds, and it is well to have the adjustment made to an ounce or two heavier, in order to avoid being disbarred should wear slightly lower the pull-off till it is below the official standard.
For target pistols, not for competition use, a 2 1/2 pound pull is excellent and sweet to handle, but the lighter the pull-off the more dangerous the arm is in unskilled hands. A target-shot should always accustom himself to the official standard, as, if accustomed to a light pull, it will affect his shooting adversely to return to a heavier one.
Amateurs should never attempt to adjust their own pull-off, as it needs a skilled gunsmith to perform the delicate operation. All tinkering or investigation of the mechanism should be sternly prohibited, and the weapon treated with as much care and respect as if it was a valuable watch.
The correct conduct of revolver shooting is as important a matter of etiquette as correct table manners, and a foolish man handling weapons in such a manner as to endanger himself or other folk, either out of ignorance or foolhardiness, is a pitiable sight. It is not uncommon for boastful idiots to enter a public range and attempt to impress their audience by shooting with a variety of stage flourishes, swinging the revolver muzzle back over the right shoulder in such a manner that a spectator behind might easily be shot. Such a man should be instantly called to order, and, if he continues the practice, asked to leave the gallery. One may suffer fools gladly in many roles, but not when they have loaded firearms in their hands.
A revolver should always be treated as if loaded, never left loaded, and always held with the barrel pointing toward the target.
On picking up a revolver, whether your own or a strange weapon, always swing out the cylinder in order to see if it is loaded. It does not matter what you know or think—make sure.
The danger of the revolver as regards accident is greater than that of any other firearm, except the automatic pistol, which has the same shortcomings, with the added danger of an overlooked cartridge in magazine or chamber. All revolvers and pistols are more dangerous than guns or rifles because of the short barrel length, which enables it to be turned in a very close radius without elevating the barrel, as with a rifle.
The weapon should never, in any circumstance, be left with the barrel pointing anywhere but down the range; it should be loaded in this position and fired in this position, and if lowered to rest on the ledge or counter of the range between shots, held in this position. Sometimes men will cock a revolver with both hands, and in doing so will swing round with the barrel pointing direct at their neighbour. No more dangerous trick can be performed, and double-handed cocking is the hall-mark of ignorance and inefficiency. Learn to cock a pistol by simple thumb pressure of the holding hand, the weapon resting meanwhile upon the ledge in front of you, with its barrel pointing toward the target. Double-action work, or firing by means of the trigger-pull, cocking and discharging the arm, is only to be practised later on. All preliminary target practice is performed, using the weapon as a single-action arm, and cocking must be learnt. At first it may seem difficult, but it is nearly all “knack,” and a very little practice will develop the thumb and forefinger muscles till the practice becomes perfectly natural and easy.
Practise cocking with an empty revolver until you are familiar with the action; also go through the usual motions of breaking the action or swinging out the cylinder and ejecting the cartridges till you are familiar with the arm and can do all the requisite motions, without pointing the barrel anywhere but down the range toward the target. Always cock the pistol steadily, not with a jerk, as if the hammer slips; it is likely to injure the bent and scear. When a pistol is properly cocked, the hammer should come back slightly beyond full-cock, when a click is heard, due to the bent falling into the hammer notch. The hammer should then be released, and will remain in position. During cocking the first finger should be kept well clear of the trigger.
Having mastered these preliminaries, load your weapon, take your position at the range—preferably for beginners at the short or 12-yard target—at which the standard 20-yard card with 2-inch bull is used. Short ranges are best to begin with, as encouraging success is easier of attainment.
The position, or stance, taken up is a matter of great importance, as it is essential to cultivate an easy, natural position, which is yet the best for shooting purposes. The old duelling or swordsman’s position, with the right side held toward the target and the head turned at right angles to its natural position, is now quite abandoned for anything except wax-bullet duelling practice, when the narrower the target presented to an adversary’s pistol the better.
The best position is to stand slightly to the left of the target, with the right shoulder slightly advanced, and the body at an angle of possibly 30 degrees. The right foot should be forward, and in line with the target; the left about 7 or 8 inches to the rear, and almost square to the other foot.
The left hand may either rest upon the left hip or the whole arm hang loose, the hand behind the left buttock. The position should be solid and natural, the weight of the trunk supported evenly by both legs, and the right arm either fully extended or, as is more usual, slightly flexed.
The grip, or correct way of holding a revolver or pistol, is all-important. The best grip is that which brings your hand as much as possible in line with the axis of the barrel. The thumb should be extended as far as possible, and as high up as possible, along the left side of the lock, and the trigger pressed (not pulled) by the first finger.
Different arms have different values for varying hands. In some hands the W.G. Target trigger-guard is too near the stock for comfort. Some people find the Colt handle too big for comfort, others complain of the cutting recoil of the S. and W. on the web between thumb and first finger; but the golden rule is to adopt the weapon that suits you best, and develop a grip to suit it. In the Colt, a favourite position is with the little finger curled up beneath the butt, a position of grip that needs considerable practice before it becomes comfortable. I, personally, prefer the W.G. Target to the Webley Scott, with the new model handle; but the question of grip is one of individual hands rather than individual designs of pistol, for it is obvious that a slender stocked pistol, suitable to a slender-fingered, long-thumbed, artistic hand, may not suit a hand like a leg-of-mutton and fingers like carrots, as well as the big and clumsy grip, of another weapon. The fully extended thumb position is only adaptable to revolvers where the action-lever or catch is out of the way, and in most modern weapons a slightly crooked thumb position is essential.
Take aim at the bottom of the bull, and, holding the revolver upright and perfectly level, take a deep breath, brace all the muscles of your arm and right shoulder, and slowly increase the pressure of the first finger on the trigger, squeezing straight back, not sideways.
The top of the front-sight, resting in the notch of the back-sight, with an equal margin of daylight on each side, should just touch the bottom of the bull; and if the pistol is properly sighted and held, and the trigger properly pressed, the shot should find the bull. Probably you will find that you wobbled all over the place, and, when you did fire, the front-sight jerked off the bull with the fall of the hammer, and the shot went wide. The recoil of the weapon may have left your hand in a shaky state, but even so continue practising for a few more shots.
Always remember that each shot should be carefully and studiously aimed, and that all effort must centre upon getting a steady pull-off. The German Army instruct recruits to stiffen all the muscles of the arm and all the fingers to a tight grip on the stock, the pressure being gradually transmitted to the trigger finger in the form of a slow and gradual squeeze of the whole hand. The usual cause of bad shooting is “pulling-off,” and it can only be overcome by continual practice.
Never allow your nerves to “flinch” from the anticipated recoil; this is the cause of much bad “pulling-off” and bad shooting. Custom will soon get you used to the explosion of recoil, and, if you are physically fit, nervous tension should not be enough to cause flinching when you are accustomed to your weapon.
Never attempt to improve your shooting by varying your aim, by taking different amounts of sight, or aiming at a different point on the target. Centre all your abilities upon getting a good group—that is to say, as close together in one place as possible. When you can reasonably accomplish a group not larger than an orange, then you may begin to practise applying this group to the bull. Get a skilled shot to try your revolver for you, as it may not be correctly sighted; a touch or two with the file and an alteration of the back-sight should soon accomplish this, as it is usually the fault of the revolver, not the shooter, if the group is not in the right place, once a constant group can be made.
As time goes on your groups will get smaller and smaller, and you will begin to do better work at the longer range target, until you develop into a good average shot. If you think that you have reached the limit of good shooting possible with your physique, a course of grip dumb-bells or carrying a steel walking-stick may vastly improve the tone of your muscular system. Good shooting and poor health never go together. A good shot must be moderately free from bad habits, as drinking, smoking, etc., in excess affect both nerves and eyesight; but the best training for shooting is continuous and regular walking exercise. Such relaxations as driving motor-cars or riding motor-cycles leave the arm muscles and nerves too jumpy and tired for good shooting to be done.
Open-air shooting is more difficult than gallery work, as windage, varying lights, etc., double the difficulties. It is as well to practise on an open-air range whenever possible, and a seabeach, or a quarry, or chalk-pit, make good outdoor ranges.
Shooting in enclosed country at a target pinned on a post or tree is exceedingly dangerous, as bullets may ricochet or glance off and wound people a long distance off.
Casual practice of this kind cannot be too deeply deplored, and all good revolver shots should be careful to practise only in the seclusion and safety of a proper range, chalk-pit, quarry, or similar safe place.