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Home on the Range

Home on the Range

Why—and how—you should be perfecting your technique with a pistol or revolver this summer.

Brad Fitzpatrick

 

Last week I finished revising the second edition of the book I wrote about concealed carry, and in the process of completing that book I spent a lot of time at the range. I was fortunate enough to grow up around firearms and, more importantly, in a family where gun safety always came first. As I worked on the revised edition of my book I spent a lot of time talking with new shooters I began to realize that many people would like to shoot but don’t necessarily know where or how. 

Here’s a brief rundown of how and why you should spend time on the range. And, like any discussion on handling firearms, our first priority is safety.

Safe firearm handling


There are many types of handguns, but in general we’ll discuss revolvers and semiautomatic pistols—the two most common handguns designs. Regardless of firearm design, there are some key safety skills that you must master before firing your first shot. First, the muzzle of a firearm—any firearm—should never be pointed at anything you aren’t willing to destroy. All shooters need to develop a keen sense of muzzle awareness; you need to know that your firearm is always pointed in a safe direction. Secondly, always treat every firearm as though it were loaded—even if you know it’s not. The finger should not be on the trigger until you are ready to fire, so when you are handling, loading, drawing, or reholstering the gun keep your trigger finger indexed (outside the trigger guard) at all times. Before you shoot, know how to properly operate the firearm according to the owner’s manual (and if you don’t have one for your handgun companies like Ruger provide digital copies online or will mail copies to owners). Be certain that you are shooting in a safe area and know your target and what lies beyond it. Bullets can travel long distances and that can be potentially deadly if you don’t have a functional backstop. Every time you shoot you must also protect your vision and hearing by wearing appropriate hearing and eye protection. 

 

Why Range Time Matters

Shooting is a mechanical skill just like striking a golf ball with a club or playing guitar, and to be good at shooting (or golfing, or playing music) you must practice frequently and properly. There’s no need to shoot quickly at first, so take your time and ensure that you have the proper sight alignment, grip, stance, and trigger control. These skills require a great deal of repetition and mental energy when you first begin shooting, but over time they become more natural. The very best shooters in the world practice often; when I was a member of my university’s trap and skeet team the very best shooters shot up to 1,000 rounds per week to maintain their shooting skills. You don’t need to shoot that often, but the more you practice the more proficient you’ll become, whether you’re target shooting for fun, planning to hunt with your firearm, building self-defense skills or getting ready to compete in an IPSC or IDPA competition. 

Additionally, shooting is safe and fun. Accidental shooting deaths are at an all time low in a period when more people own guns than ever before. If you learn and follow the basic safety rules there’s less chance you’ll be injured shooting than snow skiing or playing soccer or softball. Shooting is also a lot of fun, a relaxing and rewarding pastime that millions of Americans enjoy.  

Revolvers vs Semiautos

Revolvers are very popular in part because they are simple to operate and maintain, very rarely malfunction, and they can handle a wide range of cartridges. Ruger’s lineup contains revolvers that range from the lightweight, compact Bearcat single action .22 up to the more powerful Redhawk and Super Redhawk double action revolvers chambered for powerful hunting rounds like the .44 Remington Magnum and the mighty .480 Ruger. The term “single action” and “double action” refer to the function of the trigger. In single action revolvers, the trigger serves one purpose—to drop the hammer and fire the gun. That means the shooter must manually cock the revolver before each shot. Double actions have triggers that serve two purposes—cocking the gun and releasing the hammer to fire. Many double actions like the GP100 and LCRx revolvers from Ruger have exposed hammers that allow them to be fired in single action (cocking the hammer manually before firing) or double action (pulling the trigger without cocking) mode. Double action trigger pulls are longer and heavier since the trigger is serving two functions. Some revolvers, like the LCR revolver, are double action-only since they do not have an exposed hammer. That means you’ll have to pull the trigger for each shot, and each trigger pull both cocks and fires the gun. Many concealed carry guns are double action-only. Which type you choose is largely a matter of personal taste and the intended end use of the revolver. The revolver’s round cylinder contains chambers into which cartridges are loaded (usually anywhere from 5 to 10 cartridges). The .38 Special and .357 Magnum are popular defensive and target rounds, and revolvers chambered for .357 Magnum can also fire lower-recoiling .38 Special and .38 Special +P (higher pressure loads, often used for self-defense). A .38 Special revolver, however, will not safely fire .38+P or .357 Magnum loads. Other revolver caliber options include rimfires like the mild and affordable .22 LR and the more potent .22 Magnum (WMR) and centerfire cartridges like the popular .327 Federal Magnum. 

Semiauto handguns like the Ruger American, LCP II, SR9, and SR1911 hold spare cartridges in a magazine inside the grip of the gun. The first cartridge is chambered by pulling back on the slide and allowing it to return to its forward position via spring power. The return stroke of the slide lifts one cartridge from the magazine, places it in the chamber and the gun is ready to fire. Once the trigger is pulled, the firing pin strikes the primer, the bullet exits the barrel, and the energy generated by the shot moves the slide rearward. As the slide travels backward, the empty case is extracted, ejected, and the return stroke of the slide feeds another round into the chamber so that the gun can be fired again. When the last shot is fired the slide generally stays open and the magazine can be removed. A fresh loaded magazine can be put back into the gun, the slide is released and chambers a round, and the gun is ready to fire again. As with revolvers, there are single and double action semiautos. The SR1911, based on John Browning’s original design, is a single-action. Pulling the slide back cocks the exposed hammer and the trigger serves a single function (releasing the hammer). Unlike single-action revolvers, though, single action semiautos don’t require the shooter to cock the hammer between each shot because the rearward movement of the slide does so automatically. Double action semiautos have a longer, heavier trigger pull since the trigger is cocking and firing the gun. Striker-fired guns like the SR9 use a striker that is cocked when the slide is moved rearward, so they are, in essence, single action semiautos without an exposed hammer. 

Both revolvers and semiautos have their merits. Revolvers, as previously stated, are very easy to operate, though modern semiautos like the Ruger’s American and others in their lineup are robust and reliable. Semiautos also require takedown to clean and maintain, but Ruger has made that a simple process with their semiautos and it doesn’t take much time to accomplish. Semiautos offer a slimmer profile since they lack a cylinder, a higher capacity of rounds (in many cases) and they are faster to reload. Which type suits you best is a matter of personal tastes. Personally, I use both semiautos and revolvers and enjoy shooting both styles equally well. 

Targets and Training

I oftentimes recommend that new shooters begin with a mild .22 LR. There are a number of options for shooters both in semiauto and revolvers. The Ruger Mark IV is a relatively new take on a classic design, and these guns are extremely accurate, quite reliable and easy to take down. The double action SR22 is another great .22 option, and it’s great both for new shooters and for a low-recoil training session for more experienced shooters. .22 LR revolvers include Ruger’s Bearcat and Single Six single actions as well as the LCR and SP101 double actions. Once a shooter is comfortable with these guns it’s a natural progression to move to more powerful, higher-recoiling centerfire handguns. 

Sight alignment is key to proper handgun shooting regardless of the type of gun used. Human eyes are only capable of focusing on a single plane, so your focus needs to be on the front sight of your gun. Your peripheral vision will allow you to align the rear sight with the front sight and position the sights properly on the target, but always remember front sight focus is key. Many Ruger handguns have white dot or fiber optic front sights that are easy to see in any lighting conditions, and those can help improve accuracy. It’s a good idea to take time to determine eye dominance as well (there are simple tests you can perform in seconds at home). A right eye dominant shooter who is naturally left handed (or vice-versa) is cross dominant, and that can lead to issues with accuracy. If you are right eye dominant and right-handed or left eye dominant and left-handed it’s not an issue, but if you’re cross-dominant you’ll either have to learn to shoot with your other hand, close your dominant eye, or find some other means to properly align the sights. Many Ruger guns offer sights that are adjustable for elevation (up and down) or windage (left and right), and that allows you to center the sights for exact accuracy even at extended distances. 

When you start shooting hold the gun with both hands high on the grip. This allows you to better control recoil. Pull the trigger straight back with steady, even pressure—don’t jerk. After you shoot a few rounds you’ll have a “group.” To adjust the point of impact you can change the sights, but it may be an issue with your shooting technique (pulling the left side of the trigger, for instance, skews groups to the left of the target. Keep practicing until you can shoot accurately. Over time, your mechanics will improve and groups will shrink. You can then shoot from farther ranges, different positions, and add movement to your drills, making you a more well-rounded shooter. 

You can use a wide variety of targets so long as they are placed in front of a safe backstop. Pizza boxes work well, as do cardboard boxes. I sometimes tie balloons to the top of the cardboard boxes to make cheap reactive targets. There are also a number of commercial targets that work well, too, everything from paper silhouettes to rubber reactive targets that wobble, drop, or bounce when hit. The tried-and-true soda can is also an affordable and widely-available option. 

Does handgun shooting make you a better hunter? I believe so regardless of the type of gun you carry in the field. Shooting handguns helps build universally valuable shooting skills like proper sight alignment and trigger control and it also helps you to practice safety skills, which are ultimately the most important part of shooting any firearm.