Preppers and survivalists universally agree on the need for firearms as part of their preparation for survival. As I’ve previously mentioned, their selection of firearms can vary widely, with people across the board vehemently supporting their individual choices.

While I have my own opinions about firearms, and about weapons in general, I don’t attempt to force my views on anyone. The selection of weapons is a personal one, with no answer that is right across the board. Each person must pick what they feel will work for them, based on their individual skills, strength, and perceived survival needs.

But I do insist that anyone who is going to own and use a weapon has a responsibility in learning how to use that weapon. The only place you find self-aiming guns that never miss is in Hollywood. But then, they can keep retaking a scene until they get it right; you and I can’t do that.

Firearms have been called “the great equalizer,” because of their ease of use. While I totally agree with that statement, I also recognize that it is imperfect. Yes, anyone can use a firearm, with minimal training. But that doesn’t mean that they can use it well or accurately. For most of us, about the best we can expect to do without considerably practice is hit a target that is close enough that we can throw the gun at them and expect to hit them.

That’s not quite good enough. Granted, most self-defense situations actually take place that close. So if all you are planning on doing is protecting yourself from someone who is in your bedroom and you don’t care how many shots it takes to do so, you don’t need to bother practicing. But if you want to actually hit a target that’s farther away than 10 feet, you need to train, train, and train some more.

Guns are both simple and complex to operate. They are simple in the sense that one can operate them on a rudimentary level, without training past knowing the basic controls. But they are complex in the sense of being able to use them effectively. And the farther you want to use them effectively the more complex they become.

What Kind of Training Do You Need?

Before embarking on any training regimen, it helps to have some idea of what you’re training for. That helps you to determine what kind of training will best suit your needs, as well as provides some way of measuring how close you are to accomplishing those goals.

In the case of firearms training for general survival, this is actually a very complex question. The problem, like everything else in prepping, is that we really don’t know what sort of emergency or disaster we are training for. Therefore, we have to train for a number of different things, hoping that they will cover the needs that we have, when those needs come up.

As part of that, we have to realize that we may not have our own guns to use, when and if a survival situation arises. Even if you carry every day, like I do, there is still a possibility that you won’t have your gun with you when you need it, as well as a possibility that your gun will become lost or inoperative in the midst of the situation. Therefore, you need some general training and familiarization, which will allow you to work with whatever guns you might encounter along the way.

Most military commando type units train with a wide variety of firearms, including those used by enemy forces. That way, they won’t have to take the time to learn how to use an unfamiliar firearm, in the heat of battle. They’ll be able to pick it up and use it.

Fortunately, most of the lessons you learn for one firearm are applicable to other firearms, other than familiarization with specific guns. Each model is unique enough that familiarization is important. But the basics of shooting are considered basics, because they are applicable across any and all firearms you will encounter.

Even so, I will say that shooting pistols is considerably harder than shooting rifles and shotguns. With a long gun (rifle or shotgun), the length of the gun’s barrel helps with accuracy. In addition, holding it at three points (the two hands and the shoulder) provides a considerable amount of stability, which helps you to shoot it accurately. Pistols on the other hand, only have one point of contact, at the grip, even if you do use both hands together at that one point.

So, it’s important to practice with rifles, shotguns and pistols, so that you’ll be comfortable with either, when the time comes. If you have the capability to do so, it might be valuable to practice with some fully-automatic firearms as well, although I am not a real fan of wasting ammunition by using full auto.

In this article, I’m going to concentrate on pistol shooting, simply because it is considerably harder than shooting a rifle. But you should also take the lessons of this article to heart for rifles and shotguns, doing the same sort of practice, even if you find that you don’t need as much practice on these skills with a rifle, as you will with a pistol.

Dry Fire

Most people think that the most important element of shooting is the sight picture; but they are wrong. More people miss the target due to their handling of the trigger, than because of a poor sight picture. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that you can still hit near the bulls-eye without a good sight picture, as long as you can properly control your trigger.

A large part of the reason I say this is that we all shoot instinctively, at least to some extent. Instinctive shooting is where you just point the gun, like you point your finger, and then pull the trigger. It’s the type of shooting that goes along with a fast draw. It’s also what happens when you bring your gun up to your sight line, pointing it at the target. You can actually develop that instinctive skill and shoot instinctively accurately, at least to some extent.

But let me get back to the trigger.

The single most common trigger mistake is jerking the trigger, something that often happens to people who swear they aren’t jerking it. Jerking the trigger causes the shot to go low and to the left (for a right-handed shooter). Since it’s hard to tell what happens at the moment of firing, it’s hard to see that you’ve jerked the trigger. The way to tell, is have a friend load a snap cap (blank round) into your magazine or cylinder and watch to see how the gun’s muzzle moves, when you reach that round. If it moves at all, you have a trigger control problem.

While jerking the trigger is the most common problem, it isn’t the only one. There are a variety of different types of problems associated with the trigger. The chart below shows how these problems will affect your shooting.


You can spend a lot of time on the shooting range, working on trying to overcome these problems, but your time is actually better spent doing dry fire. This means firing your gun, without any ammunition in it. Not only does that save you the cost of ammunition, but you can do dry fire practice at home. Simply draw the gun, aim at a target and pull the trigger, watching to see what happens to your sight picture as you snap off the shot.

Dry fire is also useful for a wide range of drills which will help you with your overall shooting ability. You should practice exercises like:

Exchanging Magazines

Changing magazines is something that we all find a need to do on the range. While that’s not an issue, doing it in a firefight is. Then, you’ll want to be able to change your magazine as quickly as possible, without taking your eyes off target. With practice, you can swap out a magazine in one to two seconds.

This is a great exercise to do while watching television. Since your eyes will be otherwise occupied, you won’t be watching your every move. Simply eject the magazine, allowing it to fall into your lap and replace it with a new one from your ammo pouch. Do this over and over again, till you can do it quickly and smoothly.

Drawing and Bringing Your Gun up to the Sight Line

While the Old West fast draw was something made up in Hollywood, it still has value. Presenting the firearm, commonly called drawing the gun, is an important skill in any self-defense situation. The faster you can do it, the more surprise will work in your favor. But if you are too slow, it will alert the bad guys, possibly causing them to shoot you preemptively.

Most shooting ranges won’t allow you to practice drawing and firing, as it can be dangerous to other shooters. Practicing it at home, during your dry fire time, allows you to hone this skill, without the danger associated with a loaded weapon.

Aiming from Awkward Positions

If all you ever do is shoot standing at the firing line, you won’t be ready when the time comes to use your gun for real. Rarely does an active shooter situation happen where you are standing in a comfortable position, with your legs shoulder width apart, facing the bad guys. You’re more likely to be sitting, picking up something on the floor, looking the wrong way or in a position where your gun hand can’t get into your line of sight.

The key here is to figure out as many awkward positions you might find yourself in and practice drawing and aligning your gun from that position. In some cases, that may require moving your body as well, to get into a better shooting position.

Jam Clearing

We’ve all heard the jam clearing drill – “tap, rack and fire,” but that doesn’t mean we’ve practiced doing it. It can take an amazingly long time, if you’ve got to think about what you’re doing. But if you practice it, it will become automated and take no more than a couple of seconds.

Building Clearing

One of the most complicated and important parts of dry fire practice is building clearing. This means going through your home, room by room, checking to see if there are any bad guys. Building clearing is actually a very complex operation, especially when you are trying to do it on your own.

One of the big advantages of practicing building clearing in your home is that it gives you the opportunity to develop a strategy for clearing and then practice it. Should you ever need to actually clear your home, you’ll already know what to do.

In order to add some realism to the exercise, have another family member tape up some pictures of bad guys, throughout the house. That will provide the realism of not knowing where the bad guys are and having to actually find them. If you can, have them watch your exercise and critique how you handled each bad guy. It’s especially important that they look at how much you expose yourself in that process.

Basic Target Shooting

To most people, firearms practice consists of going to the shooting range and shooting at targets. That’s a good starting point. Target shooting in a controlled environment provides an excellent way to practice basic firearms skills. But there’s a difference between structured practice and just going to the range and plinking at targets.

First of all, you want to work in a progressive manner; specifically you want to be progressive in both caliber and range. The larger the caliber of the pistol, the harder it is to shoot accurately. Likewise, the farther you are from the target, the harder it is to hit the bulls-eye. So, start out with a small caliber pistol and work your way up.

Starting Out

When I was teaching my family to shoot, I stared everyone on a .22 caliber semi-automatic. The nice thing about that is that they don’t have a lot of recoil, which makes them easy for newcomers to shoot. On top of that, they tend to have a light trigger pull, which also makes them easier to shoot.

As they gained in ability with the .22, I moved them into larger and larger calibers, until I reached the ideal caliber for each of them. This means that some family members did not become proficient with larger caliber pistols, even though I made sure to familiarize them with the larger calibers. But as far as serious target practice was concerned, I got them into what appeared to be an ideal caliber for each person and had them spend most of their practice time there.

The philosophy behind this decision was that it is better to hit the target with a small bullet, than it is to miss the target with a large one. Only bullets which actually hit the intended target actually do any good. So, I wanted to make sure that they were the most proficient with a caliber of pistol that they could shoot accurately. This is a judgment call, but it was one I made jointly with them, so that they were comfortable with it.

Improving Accuracy

Once we settled on the right caliber for each shooter, we worked on improving their group size and range. Group size is more important than hitting the bulls-eye, because a small group can always be moved onto the bulls-eye by adjusting the gun’s sights. Even more importantly, when a crisis happens and adrenalin is coursing through the veins, one’s accuracy diminishes markedly.

Typically, this reduction in accuracy means that the average shooter will shoot a group five times as large as what they are accustomed to. That mean that a small group size, say of about two inches, will become a group of 10 inches. That’s still small enough to get lead on target. But a group size of five inches will turn into a group of 25 inches, which will mean that the shooter will miss their target with a lot of their shots.

It isn’t as important to work on speed, as it is to work on accuracy. Speed will come, as accuracy improves. Too many people work on speed, at the cost of their accuracy. So they can get a shot out quickly, but it will probably end up in the floor. That’s not effective. Never shoot more rapidly than you can shoot accurately.

Improving Range

Once you can shoot a small group at a close range, say 5 yards, increase the range slightly, to 7 yards. Work on developing the same size group at that larger range. You’ll find that it’s hard to do that, simply because of the movement of the pistol multiplied over the additional distance.

From 7 yards, the next step up is to 10 yards. It’s rare that a pistol will need to be shot farther than that. But it is possible. So, some small percentage of your shooting should be done at longer ranges, all the way out to 25 yards. Take your time on those long shots, as it is all but impossible to shoot at that range accurately, without having incredible skill.



7/8” group, 9mm, 5 yds. Slow fire


2-1/2” group, 9mm, 7 yds. Timed rapid fire


Group size is measured from the center of the two farthest shot penetrations from each other.

Expanding Your Skills

Basic target shooting is only the starting point for pistol practice. Once you are proficient with a pistol, you need to challenge yourself, adding in various other elements which you may encounter. These include:

Shooting with a Stiff Trigger

I tend to modify my pistols for a light trigger pull. Off the shelf, most pistols have a trigger pull of five to six pounds, which is considered ideal. However, I personally prefer about three pounds. For me, it’s easier to shoot accurately with a lighter trigger. Not everyone likes that though, as a light trigger means that it’s easier to touch off a shot that you don’t intend to.

Since I shoot with a light trigger, I also make a point of shooting occasionally with a pistol that has a heavier trigger. That way, if I am ever forced to use one in an active shooting situation, it won’t be so unfamiliar that I can’t shoot accurately.

Shooting in Low Light

A fairly high percentage of active shooting scenarios happen in low-light situations. The first time you shooting in low light, you’ll probably find that you can’t see your gun’s sights. That’s why I change out the factory sights on all my pistols, replacing them with tritium night sights. Those glow in the dark, allowing me to shoot any time I can identify the target.

One precaution about low light shooting I want to make, is that you must properly identify your target. It’s easy to make the assumption that someone is a threat, when they really aren’t. Train using a tactical light to identify targets and then shooting. Better yet, identify the target with a momentary flash of the tactical light, move and then shoot. That lowers the chance of them being able to shoot back at you effectively.

Shooting with One Hand

Current shooting philosophy is based on two-handed shooting. This increases accuracy, as you are able to make a triangle out of your two arms and your body. But what if one hand gets injured? How do you shoot then? Actually, it’s possible to shoot one-handed and in fact, that was taught for years, before the current philosophy became popular.

You’ll probably find that you can’t shoot as accurately with one hand, but you will still be able to shoot. Practice enough like this, so that you can do it, if you find yourself in a situation where you are forced to do it.

Shooting with Your Off Hand

Speaking of one-handed shooting, you should also practice shooting with your off hand (sometimes called the “support hand”). If your off hand can become injured, so can your shooting hand. If that should happen, your choices are to shoot with your off hand or die. Personally, I prefer shooting to dying.

Shooting at Moving Targets

This is the hardest shooting scenario to arrange, mostly because few shooting ranges have the capability. But in an active shooting scenario, you can’t expect the bad guys to just stand still. They will most likely be moving, making it harder to shoot them. If you don’t practice this, you’ll find yourself at a distinct disadvantage, missing targets that you would normally be able to hit.

The big problem with shooting at a moving target is that you have to move the gun with the target. That’s hard to do, while keeping the gun steady at the same time. Nevertheless, with practice, you can learn to do it.

Shooting While Moving

If it’s a good idea for the bad guys to move, so that they are harder to shoot; then it’s an even better idea for you to be able to move, so that they can’t shoot you. They won’t have practiced this any more than anyone else, and hopefully less than you. So, learning to shoot while moving gives you a distinct tactical advantage.

Once again, the problem is keeping your gun on target, while moving. The key is to learn to walk smoothly, with your knees bent slightly and your body bent slightly forward. That way, your body can act as a shock absorber, helping to reduce the vertical travel of the gun. It won’t be perfect, but it will help.

At the same time, you will find that you develop a rhythm of movement, where the gun is rising and falling at a somewhat cyclical rate. Just like the normal “wobble” that pretty much all shooters have, this can be timed and utilized to improve your accuracy. The idea is to become accustomed to shooting in the middle of the cycle, when your gun is aligned with the target.

Tactical Shooting

Once you become proficient in dong all of the above mentioned shooting activities, you’re ready to move on to tactical shooting. Many shooting ranges offer tactical shooting events, often held one night a week. In them, shooters compete against the clock, shooting their way through a made-up scenario, which is based upon a potential real-live shooting situation.

These events happen in front of the shooting line, so the range has to shut down for other shooters while the event is happening. For that reason, they usually charge extra, even for those who are members of the range.

Rules are established for each scenario, both for safety and to add to the realism of the specific scenario. The idea is to provide a realistic situation, while keeping it safe for everyone in the range. A judge will move with you as you shoot, for the express purpose of knocking your gun out of your hand, if you accidentally turn it back towards the rest of the shooters, waiting behind you. In the heat of the moment, that can easily happen.

In a tactical shoot, you are likely to encounter a combination of:

  • Multiple targets
  • Multiple shots at each target
  • Targets at different ranges and angles
  • Low light shooting
  • Shooting at moving targets
  • Shooting while moving
  • Using cover and concealment to your advantage
  • Magazine changes between targets

All this is happening while having to take out the targets as fast as possible. That does a pretty good job of simulating the stress of an active shooter situation and dumping adrenalin into your system. You’ll find that your shooting is much sloppier than normal, as the adrenalin and push for speed throw your accuracy out the window.

Don’t expect to do well the first few times you go to a tactical shoot, even if you are a good shooter. You’ll have to go for a while, before you settle down and start shooting at your ability. But the good news about that is that it will help prepare you for an active shooter situation. It’s the most realistic training that you’ll probably find.

Dave Steen

About The Author: Dave is a 58 year old survivalist; father of three; with over 40 years of survival experience. He started young, learning survival the hard way, in the school of hard knocks. Now, after years of study, he's gray-haired and slightly overweight. That hasn't dimmed his interest in survival though. If anything, Dave has a greater commitment to survival than ever, so that he can protect his family. Click Here To Read More About Dave

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