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Accuracy with a pistol – advice on how to improve

If you’re looking to improve your performance and accuracy with a pistol, Jonathan Young reckons you need to learn the proper techniques to shoot unsupported

A shooting rest can be useful for testing a pistol, as well as for long-range plinking. However, it is more of a crutch for any other form of handgun shooting. Back in the day, the only shooting rests in our old pistol club were those for sitting on. In order to improve with a pistol, what’s really needed is to get some solid shooting experience under the belt at shorter, more realistic target distances. (If you’re interested in plinking, read our picks for the best air rifles for plinking and the best targets for plinking). 

Practising with anything is better than not practising at all, but a pellet-firing air pistol is best. Despite being a collector of BB guns, with the best will in the world, most of these cannot come close to the performance of a pellet pistol for more serious shooting. More important is using a pistol in single-action mode, cocking the hammer back and setting the trigger first. With double-action mode there is too much unnecessary movement.

Any calibre can be used to help develop accurate shooting techniques, unless you’re wanting to enter formal competition shooting in .177. Trying out a few pistols for feel and weight down the local club or gun shop will help filter those that feel too heavy, too light or too uncomfortable to use. All these factors will affect your ability to stay on aim.


This Umarex Single-Action Army revolver is more accurate than most BB guns because it shoots pellets and is operated in single-action mode


Getting a grip

In choosing an air pistol whose weight is in proportion to the shooter’s ability to hold it steady, how the gun is held is very important. If the frame and grips are too broad for the user’s hand, their hold on the gun will suffer, and concentration will then also suffer as a result.

All effort should be on sighting the target, and grip plays a big part in this. When holding the pistol in the shooting hand, the trigger finger should lie to the side of the frame. Obviously, this is part of basic safety. 


These two Crosman 357s offer both single- and double-action modes, and the pellets are loaded into a rotary magazine

However, the trigger finger should be forced to do nothing other than touch the trigger towards the end of the shooting cycle. With an unloaded gun, testing the grip and the pad of the trigger finger on the trigger blade will give the user some assurance that the finger is comfortable in its ‘do very little’ role. In competition shooting, improving the grip can mean making custom handmade anatomical grips in wood or resin shaped to the user’s hand for that perfect fit.

Gripping tightly does not give better stability, and can destroy your aim. If they’re under tension, the muscles in the forearm and wrist will be twitching due to lack of oxygen as they are being worked under load. The result is muscle fatigue. This means the frame can twist, and pellets leaving the muzzle will be pulled off target to the side. Fingers have to be trained not to try to wrap themselves around the frame. The frame should be gripped more by the length of the fingers against the inner palm of the hand below the thumb, with the fingertips asserting much less pressure, otherwise they too can pull the muzzle out of alignment with the point of aim on shot release.


This is the best way to take hold of a pistol – the thumb and trigger finger are there for guidance only, as there is no need for a death grip

Lastly, there’s the thumb. The opposable thumb creates grip, but here we need only enough to steady the frame and not to drag the gun off aim. As with rifle shooting, the thumb can be overused. The real grip on the frame is secured by the palm against the back of the fingers. Gripping too tightly would be like holding a clenched fist. 

A lot has been written about grip when shooting an air rifle, especially a springer, but pistols are no different. Gripping a frame firmly by the palm of the hand and the length of the fingers, while leaving the fingertips and the tip of the thumb free to move over the surface, is a technique that really works.


These Gamo R-77s operate with the same efficiency as the Crosman 357s, but the pellets are loaded directly into the rotating cylinder


Getting technical

Adjusting the pistol’s sights and dialling in the zero for the specific distance involved will be the technical side to the human aspects of accuracy. How the body is positioned plays a big part in adopting the correct stance for optimal shooting too. Standing with legs apart and the body angled to the target gives a more stable platform. Books have been written about stance and how to position the body, how wide the legs should be and where the feet should be placed. A search online will reveal many ideas and aspects that, if comfortable, can be used. (Read more here about advice on zeroing an air rifle)

Posture is also important for more relaxed styles of shooting, such as using both hands as with the Weaver stance or its derivatives. This part of the shooting routine is to promote stability for more relaxed shooting, irrespective of whatever style is used. 

Shooting a .44 Magnum cartridge in a real S&W Model 29 a very long time ago had a physical effect, very unlike that of shooting one of Umarex’s new Model 29 air pistols. Despite this, the very powerful centrefire setup was perfectly good for single-handed target shooting, although that specific pistol was personally a tad too heavy. Despite the absence of recoil, the same principles apply in airgunning.


While all may look well at first glance, this is a bad hold – the shooter is holding on far too tightly, and this will pull the muzzle off aim

The free arm is often placed in the small of the back, tucked behind the waist belt. It just feels right there. Placing it to the front in a front trouser pocket is another method. It feels out of balance to me, but each to his own. With the elbow locked straight, the shooting arm is raised. Getting the sights aligned and then on aim is difficult when time is of the essence. 

There should be no need to rush, but even a lightweight pistol will start to feel heavy on the end of an outstretched arm. Aligning the sights beforehand as the pistol arm is rising is the best way to avoid this. If after some time the aim is not correct, then simply abort and repeat the whole process. Make sure that the trigger finger is out to the side of the frame and lower the arm for a breather and then try again.

The arm is locked, the sights are aligned, the grip is secure, but not tight, with the fingers correctly positioned


Taking a breath

Breathing control is also important for accuracy. Shooters calm their breathing and slow it down before taking aim. The shot is never taken during the breathing cycle, as aim will be thrown off target by the body movement. When on aim most shooters take the shot after exhaling as the chest muscles are then relaxed. 

But holding your breath to take the shot does not mean turning blue for lack of oxygen and collapsing onto the floor! It’s all in the timing. Getting the timing wrong once when shooting a Colt 1911 in .45 ACP meant missing the target by inches and losing control of the pistol so badly on recoil that it nearly cost me a chipped tooth.

After all this effort, pulling the trigger will seem like the easy part. Again, books have been written on how to tickle that trigger blade, with far too much talk about squeezing things. Certainly the finger must be moved with some fluidity rather than a jerking motion. 

A light touch is really all that is required – the fingertips are relaxed and the thumb is not pressing down on the grip

If the finger is not positioned to the side correctly and then drawn into the trigger area behind the trigger guard, the finger can pull the trigger sideways, twitching the muzzle in the direction of pull.

Cartridge shooters often advocate practising shooting without ammo, or dry-firing, to assess their trigger release. Not all air pistols can be dry-fired, though. Trying this on a spring air pistol is a definite no-no, although the British-made Hy-Score springer does let you reset the trigger mechanism partially, without compressing the spring. But with enough practice, your stance, hold, breathing and trigger release will all improve.


Getting in practice

One last trick to improve accuracy that was taught back in the pre-handgun ban days was the importance of follow-through. On pulling the trigger, the actual release should never be the end of the shooting cycle. Instead, the pistol should be kept on aim after the shot. Why, when the pellet has already left the barrel? 

Follow-through is simply a mental exercise in patience. There’s no mystery to it. If the mind is prepped for another stage in the firing cycle after pulling the trigger, then it stays in target mode for longer. Long enough for the speeding projectile to leave the barrel before the muzzle twitches, anyway. This technique can be of even more benefit when using low-power air pistols.

Good practice does not need to mean good scores at this early stage. Simply shooting onto a blank card can be used to show how pellets are grouping in a session. When practising with air pistols back in the club we would sometimes use up half a tin of pellets in a session. Our arms got tired, and our brains too, so stopping for a break is just as important. Keep at it, enjoy your practice sessions and better accuracy will be guaranteed.