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The Best Drills and Techniques to Practice at the Shooting Range

The adage “practice makes perfect” applies to shooting as well as any other skill. One way many gun owners choose to practice is by going to the shooting range and working through some drills designed to help shooters gain better proficiency in various techniques.

Particularly for new gun owners, the variety of range shooting drills and practice regimens available online or in books can be overwhelming. There are drills for every type of firearm, from pistols to rifles to shotguns and beyond. These drills help meet the needs of concealed carriers, home defenders, hunters, sport shooters and public servants such as police officers, security guards or soldiers. In this post, we’ll focus on tried-and-true drills to help both the new gun owner looking to get their feet wet and the experienced gun owner looking to improve their skills.

We’ll start by looking at disassembly and reassembly drills and dry firing drills. In general, these drills are useful for any firearm. Then, we’ll focus on some live firing drills for handguns and rifles. The techniques we will cover range from easy to difficult. While the advanced exercises are best for more experienced gun owners, more basic drills are helpful for all experience levels. For more advanced shooters, basic drills can provide an effective warmup regimen to use before engaging in more advanced maneuvers.

The Value of Practicing Drills and Techniques

No matter what makes you passionate about shooting — whether it be hunting, sportsmanship or self-defense — you know it is not as easy as it looks. Let’s qualify that statement a bit: Shooting safely and accurately is not as easy as it appears to be. Any responsible gun owner will tell you safety is of the utmost importance. After all, many carry guns to ensure their and others’ safety.

However, a lack of familiarity with your firearm, inadequate training and practice in proper handling and shooting techniques or a shortage of confidence and clarity of thought can create a situation in which the weapon will make people less safe, not more. To decrease the possibility of a catastrophic mistake or failure, responsible gun owners regularly take time to practice proper techniques with their weapons. They do this by completing many types of drills, both at shooting ranges and at home.

Consistent practice can result in some crucial benefits. The four main areas you can expect to see improvement in if you consistently practice drills and techniques at the shooting range or at home are marksmanship, familiarity, muscle memory and confidence. Let’s take a closer look at each of these areas.

1. Marksmanship

The first concern gun owners often have when they consider the possibility of having to use a weapon for their defense is that they won’t manage to hit their target in the situation. This fear is understandable and very well-grounded. When a situation arises that might necessitate using a firearm to resolve it, the stress could very well be the greatest you'll ever experience in life. Stress clouds judgment and may alter perception in such a way as to negatively affect your aim.

Luckily, consistent daily or weekly practice will help any shooter improve his or her marksmanship exponentially. Of course, like any other skill, no one can expect to master shooting accurately with only a few practice sessions. This skill requires a lifetime of commitment. Unlike riding a bike, shooting well won’t necessarily stick with you unless you have the discipline to practice regularly. However, increasing your shooting abilities makes the sport more enjoyable, which will then make practice less tedious and provide an incentive to continuously achieve.

2. Familiarity

Particularly for those who concealed carry, familiarity with your firearm is essential and can make all the difference in a hostile situation. If, when drawing a gun, you are not comfortable with the weight of the gun, the feel of the grip, the pressure necessary to pull the trigger or how to line up the sights quickly, the time it takes you to adjust for these factors might mean the difference between a positive and negative outcome.

Therefore, familiarity with your firearm is absolutely vital. Frequently handling a gun to practice shooting or cleaning, or merely to become accustomed to the weight and handling, offers the benefit of this familiarity that might prevent a disaster. Even if you never use the gun for self-defense, increased comfort with it will also result in more enjoyable and productive practice sessions.

3. Muscle Memory

The vast majority of shooting instructors claim muscle memory is the key to shooting well in any situation, and they are not wrong. If a concealed carrier ends up in a high-pressure setting that calls for the use of a gun, it is far better to rely on instinct and reflexes than the chaotic conscious thoughts most people would be having in that moment.

Having the motions of drawing, acquiring a target, firing and reloading ingrained in your muscle memory reduces the possibility of a mistake significantly. For example, having a proper draw technique drilled into your subconscious mitigates the risk of an accidental firing from an improper draw that could result from being distracted and under stress.

4. Confidence

When gun owners have improved their marksmanship, familiarized themselves with the firearm and practiced to the point that proper technique is second nature, this has the cumulative effect of increasing their confidence. A confident person is better able to keep a level head in a potentially dangerous situation, and thereby might find a way to de-escalate the tension, rather than having to resort to drawing a weapon.

While this may seem counterintuitive, the priority of any responsible gun owner should be to resolve the situation in a way that does not require violence. Often, the fearful and uncertain person resorts to their weapon too quickly when it might have been entirely possible to avoid such a drastic measure. Having the confidence to know you can effectively use your weapon quickly if need be offers the security to pursue other methods of de-escalation first.

Disassembly/Reassembly Drills

Now that we’ve discussed why you should work on drills in the first place, let’s look at some disassembly and reassembly drills you can try. Anyone who has watched a film featuring any boot camp or basic training scenario can likely recall a moment where the soldiers are disassembling and reassembling their rifles with incredible speed, sometimes blindfolded. This practice is not solely to impress viewing audiences.

Part of becoming familiar with your firearm is having a functional, if not intimate, understanding of its operation. Taking a gun apart and putting it back together is an excellent way of improving your knowledge of how it operates, which will help you understand the reason for a misfire, for example, and correct any issues quickly. Here are a few things to be aware of as you practice disassembly and reassembly.

  • Know the steps for disassembly and reassembly: New firearms should come with an owner’s manual that explains the steps necessary to take the weapon apart and put it back together. New gun owners should consult this manual if it’s available. If you purchased the gun secondhand or received it as a gift, you may not have an owner’s manual. If this is the case, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of tutorials and videos available online that detail how to take apart a myriad of weapons, and it would likely be easy to find instructions for the gun in question.
  • Time yourself: Using a timer, you can establish a baseline time the first time you try disassembly or reassembly. Then, work on improving speed incrementally from there. Working on speed ensures you'll know your firearm forward and backward and won't need to take the time to consult your manual, which would be extremely helpful if you're in a situation where you need to perform a quick disassembly or reassembly.
  • Maintain your firearm: While you have the weapon disassembled, this is also a good time to make sure the firearm is clean and that the stress of shooting has not damaged any of the components. Keep a wire brush, solvent and oil on hand to make sure the weapon remains pristine and in peak operational condition. Coating a wire brush in copper solvent and running it down the barrel will remove residue from the copper jackets that may interfere with the integrity of the rifling. Next, use a clean, dry cloth to remove excess solvent and polish the inside of the barrel. Finally, inspect and oil the slide to ensure smooth functionality before reassembling the weapon.

Dry Firing Drills

Dry firing involves going through the motions of firing with an unloaded gun. Dry firing drills are especially helpful as a way of practicing at home and for beginners to establish a solid foundation before moving onto live firing drills. Dry firing drills can help you work on improving your stance, grip, trigger control, sight picture and sight alignment. Dry firing builds familiarity, muscle memory and confidence.

In every dry firing drill, start by making sure your gun is unloaded. Even when you are entirely confident your gun is empty, still follow basic safety rules and don’t point the weapon at any people.

Here are a few dry firing exercises to try.

  • Coin trick: Practice grip and trigger control while you balance a coin just behind or on top of the front sight of your gun. Squeeze the trigger and do your best to keep the coin balanced. If the coin falls, pay attention to how it falls off to see what you did wrong, and keep trying to keep it balanced.
  • Drawing: For concealed carry shooting drills, drawing is crucial. Practice drawing your gun from its holster and correctly aiming at a target. After some time, also practice pulling the trigger at the right moment. The key here is speed as well as accuracy, so, after starting slowly, try timing yourself. If you find you're having trouble drawing, see our FAQ for information about how different types of holsters can affect your draw.
  • One-handed: There are tactical scenarios where shooting two-handed isn’t a possibility. For example, one of your hands may be injured or otherwise occupied. To be prepared for this scenario, it’s essential to practice aiming and shooting one-handed. Be sure to practice with your nondominant hand in addition to your dominant one. Shooting one-handed should be a regular part of handgun shooting drill regimens.

Handgun and Rifle Live Shooting Drills

Now, let’s look at some live firing drills you can try for handguns and rifles. You should only try live firing drills after you’re confident in your ability to handle a firearm safely. These drills should take place either at a shooting range or outside your home, if you have a safe setup and your local ordinances allow it.

The Walkback Drill

This drill is as simple as its name implies and requires only an index card. Place the index card on a target about chest height and take up a position with your preferred weapon three yards from the target. This exercise is particularly useful for new shooters because the emphasis is primarily on marksmanship, and you can increase the difficulty.

Having placed your target and taken a position, check that your firearm is loaded and that the safety is off. Taking a solid aiming stance, attempt to put five shots in a 3" x 5" index card. This task will be challenging for new shooters, but experienced shooters should not find it difficult.

When you can consistently place five shots in the index card, step back one additional yard. Every new adjustment to the distance will require you to reset your stance and reacquire the target.

This exercise will illustrate what aiming adjustments you need to make to account for increased distances. The effect of this will be ultimately to improve your marksmanship, but that includes learning about bullet drop, wind conditions and the general tendency of the gun to err one way or another.

The Failure-to-Stop Drill

A mercenary named Mike Rousseau created the failure-to-stop drill (FSD) in Mozambique, which is why you might also hear people call it the Mozambique drill. The purpose of the FSD is to memorize a shot pattern designed to stop any assailant at close range, making it a great defensive shooting drill. While this is primarily a pistol shooting drill, the pattern is applicable for rifle users, as well.

You will need a target in the silhouette of a person, meaning it must include an upper torso, shoulders and head. Place this target at the height of an average person, and at about seven to 10 yards away for pistol users, and 15 to 20 yards for riflemen.

The pattern you should recreate is two shots in the chest, followed by one shot into the head of the target. Try to accomplish this as quickly as possible, using the double-tap method for the two chest shots. Advanced shooters can make the FSD more challenging by limiting the target area on the chest and head with index cards or playing cards. Ultimately, the purpose of this drill is to improve marksmanship, while also rehearsing a shot pattern designed to disable and eliminate an assailant.

The 5x5 Drill

This exercise requires a five-inch target that features a center dot. Start by placing the target at about the chest height of an average person. Then, with your chosen weapon, take up a position five yards from the target.

With the weapon loaded and ready, place five shots as quickly as possible in the five-inch target. The ideal time to do this in is five seconds, and you can increase the difficulty by beginning with the pistol holstered or the rifle in an unready position.

When you can successfully and consistently place the five shots in the target in five seconds, you can extend this exercise by repeating the five-shot sequence five times, for a total of 25 shots. This drill improves consistency, as well as shooting stamina and familiarity with the weapon.

The Box Drill

This drill uses the same pattern as the FSD, but this time the emphasis is on the ability to engage multiple targets — first to disable, then to eliminate. The box drill should result in improved trigger speed and marksmanship, including the ability to readjust after shooting and acquire a new target.

To this end, you must have at least two human silhouette targets, placed the same distance from you and about a yard apart from each other. Your position should be seven to 10 yards from either target, facing them directly. With your pistol or rifle in hand, you should begin with the target that is easiest to hit with your dominant hand.

With an initial target chosen, place two rounds into the chest area. While a regular FSD would then follow those two shots with one to the head of that target, the box drill has you move horizontally, placing two shots in the chest of the other target. These two shots should disable any assailant. You then follow up by moving vertically to put a shot in the head of the second target, then moving horizontally again to put another round in the head of the first target.

This horizontal, then vertical, then horizontal movement is where the box drill derives its name. Naturally, you should try to complete this drill as quickly as possible, and you can increase the difficulty by decreasing the target area in the same manner as in the FSD.

The 1 to 5 Drill

Perhaps the most demanding drill listed here, this drill emphasizes the ability to engage multiple targets quickly. This exercise is for either rifle or pistol and requires three targets. These targets should ideally have an upper torso and head with identifiable shoulders.

To set up for this drill, you should position the targets so they replicate an average person’s height and are lined up with about three feet of space separating each target. You should then take a position about 15 feet from the target, though advanced shooters seeking an even more difficult challenge could increase the distance.

Having arranged the targets, taken a position and getting the gun of your choice loaded and ready, begin with the target farthest to the left, placing one shot in the center of the torso. Then, place two shots in the center target and three shots in the rightmost target.

With that done, you will then work your way back down the targets, placing four shots in the center target, and five in the leftmost target. The goal for this drill should be to place all the shots accurately within five seconds.

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