We've previously discussed a number of topics for first-time shooters, but we have yet to cover what to do when actually shooting a gun for the first time.
It's a fun experience, for sure, but the first time you do it can cause some anxiety. Not to worry: This is completely normal and nothing to be afraid of; everyone experiences some nervousness and excitement butterflies on their first time pulling the trigger. Discover some important points below so the butterflies you feel are from excitement and not fear.
Consider Getting Some Gun Training
Obviously, this guide is not meant to take the place of proper training and physical instruction by a competent teacher. It's highly advisable to seek out and get quality instruction.
But maybe you got invited by a friend to go shooting and haven't done it before. Perhaps you just bought a gun and want to start getting familiar with it before getting training. Or, maybe you're planning to try out some of the guns we've recommended in previous posts at a local range. Regardless of your reason for shooting for the first time — and there are certainly plenty — this guide helps set you up for success.
Understand the 4 Rules of Gun Safety
The four rules of firearm safety were developed by Colonel Jeff Cooper, the creator of the modern technique of handgun shooting. These four rules were created with handguns in mind, but they apply to all firearms:
- Treat every gun as if it is loaded.
- Never point the muzzle at anything you are not willing to destroy.
- Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target and you are ready to fire.
- Be sure of your target and what is behind it.
They are relatively straightforward and use specific language to really drive the point home, but they are phrases you will hear over and over if you're involved with guns.
This repetition is for good reason. Treating every gun as if it were loaded, even if you know it isn't, is good practice because it helps develop discipline that avoids accidents. Not pointing the gun at anything unless you're willing to destroy it, drives home the nature of what can happen in an accident. Keeping your finger off the trigger until you're ready to fire goes hand in hand with the first two. The last one calls to mind that even a clear shot isn't safe; bullets can go through intended targets rather easily, so this rule is a call to awareness. These are all good universal principles to drill into your head when it comes to shooting safely.
Preparation Before Shooting Guns
Make sure your guns are ready to be fired. That means ensuring they're clean and nothing is broken. Obviously, this is predicated on the guns you're planning to shoot being your own. If you're shooting at a range to try out some guns or shooting a friend's gun, this part is clearly on them.
However, having said that, any time you're handed a gun, you should check to see whether it's loaded or not and do a quick functions check. Doing a functions check varies depending on the gun, but essentially you're making sure it's unloaded, the safety is working, the trigger is functioning, and the gun will cycle ammunition. If these are your own guns, it's a good idea to get in the habit of doing this every time you reassemble them after cleaning. Regardless, at the bare minimum, when you get the gun in your hand, verify whether or not it's loaded and double check the safety.
Understanding Ammo Needs
Since we're discussing first-time shooting, it's fairly important to make some points regarding ammunition. If you're going to a range, you may be able to bring your own ammo or purchase it there. If you're shooting with a friend, it couldn't hurt to buy some ammo for that person as a friendly gesture of thanks for letting you shoot their guns. If you don't know how to buy ammo or what they prefer, consider offering them some cash to cover ammo costs.
Of course, if you're shooting your own guns, you'll be using your own ammo.
Which brings us to what type of ammo to buy. While it obviously differs from handguns to rifles to shotguns, there is always some kind of ammunition intended specifically for the purposes of practice shooting (as opposed to self-defense).
You will at some point want to familiarize yourself with how your gun shoots with defense ammo as opposed to target ammo. Hollow points, for example, can change how the gun cycles versus with a full metal jacket (FMJ). But you will mainly want to stick with target ammo for your range time. Typically, this will be FMJ-type rounds for both handguns and rifles. The difference is less for shotguns, but there are specific target loads for shotguns too, so keep that in mind. Most rounds will clearly state that they're defense-oriented or target-oriented on the box.
Practice the 4 Fundamentals of Shooting
These are also relatively straightforward and are designed to help you shoot properly and accurately regardless of what kind of gun you're shooting:
- Steady position
- Aim/sight alignment
- Breath control
- Trigger squeeze
Makes sense, right? Shoot from a good stable position, with a good quality aim, while making sure you're breathing steadily and squeezing the trigger correctly. These four elements make up the vast majority of accuracy. In the large majority of cases, if you're having accuracy issues, it's because one of those four things is suffering.
Shooting Specific Guns for the First Time
Now that you know to check your guns and have the proper ammo — and you're prepared with some basic safety fundamentals — it's time for the fun part. Actually shooting the guns.
Despite what movies and even the ATF may believe, firing a handgun is done with two hands. Find out more about shooting a handgun below:
The Proper Stance for Shooting a Handgun
When firing a gun — any gun — you need a solid base from which to work. With handguns, that base is your stance. There are two basic stances that have been found to be the most effective for shooting: isosceles and Weaver.
The Isosceles Stance
- Stand with your feet roughly shoulder-width apart in a comfortable position.
- Bend your knees slightly and lean forward with your upper body slightly for balance.
- With both hands on the pistol, press the gun straight out in front of you, forming an isosceles triangle with your body and the gun.
The Weaver Stance
This stance is essentially the same as the isosceles but with your feet staggered.
- Right-handed shooters: Place the left foot in front with the rear foot canted slightly at about a 45-degree angle.
- Left-handed shooters: Place the right foot in front with the rear foot canted slightly at about a 45-degree angle.
You still lean over slightly, but for some people this feels more comfortable and stable because the rear foot acts like a counterbalance to your shooting side.
For both the isosceles and the Weaver, your upper body will still be squared to the target. You're trying to form a solid platform from which to shoot and have your body absorb the recoil; to do that, you need to be squarely pointing your shoulders in the same direction as your firearm. Sometimes, especially in the Weaver stance, people have a tendency to shift sideways with their upper body, and this can negatively affect your mechanics and accuracy.
The Proper Grip When Shooting a Handgun
Once you're in your stance, it's time for your grip. Regardless of whether you're right- or left-handed, the process is the same.
- Grip the gun with your firing hand, getting as high a grip as is safely possible and wrapping your fingers around the grip.
- Keep your trigger finger on the side of the frame away from the trigger. In doing this, your thumb and trigger finger will essentially make a U-shape around the gun.
- Tilt your support hand at an angle and place the support thumb near the firing hand thumb. Fill in the exposed space of the gun with your support hand, wrapping your fingers around the others already on the grip.
- There shouldn't be any visible grip space left after doing this, and both thumbs will be pointing forward.
From there, you'll extend the gun and get your sight alignment. Only then do you put your finger on the trigger, giving it a steady pressured squeeze to the rear to fire.
It's important to note that when gripping, you need to be firm but relaxed. It's like a strong handshake, not like you're trying to crush the gun in your hands. Trying to grip too hard can interfere with your aim and trigger squeeze and lead to hand fatigue, causing sloppy shooting.
Another point here is that despite the fact that you will be somewhat leaning into the gun, you aren't hunching or going to the gun. You're bringing the gun to you. You raise it to your visual plane to see the sights; you don't want to lower yourself down to look.
One small caveat is that the previous description is for modern semi automatic handguns with slides. For a revolver, the principles are the same but your gripping angle may change slightly to accommodate the cylinder. It isn't a huge difference, but is something to be aware of.
For shooting rifles, the stances are the same. You can choose to go isosceles or Weaver, but with a rifle, the issue of upper body turning becomes more pronounced. This is something to be cognizant of if you do choose to stagger your stance.
The Proper Grip When Shooting a Rifle
Hold the grip with your firing hand the same as you would a pistol, although depending on the rifle, the angle can vary.
Place your support hand as far forward on the handguard as you can safely and comfortably go. The reason you want to place it as far forward as possible is to aid in overall weapon control and the ability to maneuver and switch between targets.
Apply further grip with your support hand. This is determined by the type of rifle:
- In modern sporting rifles, the barrel is covered all the way around, allowing for grips such as the C-clamp or thumb over bore. In both of these methods, your hand comes onto the top of the barrel in some fashion.
- The thumb over bore is as it sounds: You grip the front portion of the rifle by wrapping your hand around it so your thumb is lined up over the barrel and pointing the same direction as the barrel.
- A C-clamp grip is the same type of grip, except your thumb goes across the barrel so that your hand forms the shape of the letter C. The two methods are very similar, and the names are often used interchangeably. They both offer tremendous control over your firearm and help with accuracy.
- Some rifles have exposed barrels, making these grips impossible. In those instances, your support hand serves as a platform on which to rest the gun. From there, you wrap your fingers around the gripping surface that is available in a modified U type shape. Just like with the handgun, hold it firm but don't crush it.
Next, take the butt of the gun and place the stock in the pocket of your shoulder. Secure it in place by pulling it in to you.
The pocket of your shoulder is the area between your chest muscles and the ball of the shoulder. Hold the rifle firmly in place there and make sure it's not up above your shoulder; the entire surface of the stock should be touching your body. This is to aid with recoil absorption.
Most people have a tendency when tucking the stock into their shoulder to have their elbow out to the side, horizontal to the ground like a chicken wing. To aid in steadiness, you don't want to do the chicken wing. Instead, drop your elbow and bring it in tight to your side, which makes for a more stable shooting platform.
Take Aim and Fire
Once you've gotten in your stance, secured your grip, and raised the rifle into your shoulder, you can take aim. When you're happy with your sight picture, take your trigger finger and place it on the trigger. Apply pressure straight back until the gun fires and let the fun begin.
Variations for Shooting Different Rifles
This is all universal for rifles, however some rifles styles may require slight variations. For example, a bolt action rifle requires that you remove your firing hand and reach up to the bolt, grabbing it by the handle and pulling it backwards and down to eject the spent casing. Then you push it back up and forward again to chamber another round.
Similarly, a lever action rifle requires taking the firing hand off the grip to push the lever forward and move it back to perform the same ejection and re-chambering cycle. Also, some larger sniper-type rifles have bipod attachments on which to rest the gun, but that requires different positioning and would be better served in its own separate guide.
The good news about shotguns is that you grip and fire them like rifles. You will likely not use a C-clamp/thumb over bore grip, as most shotguns have more barrel exposure, but the rest of the process is the same. The biggest difference is in loading and chambering.
For shotguns, there are three main variants for loading and chambering rounds.
- A break action is what is most often seen in the double-barreled shotguns you see on TV and in movies. It's a hinged barrel design where the barrel can rotate to expose the firing end, allowing for ejection and loading of the shells.
- The pump action is the kind where the shells are loaded into a tube under the barrel and ejected. Another one is loaded into the barrel by pulling the foregrip back to the rear of the gun and pushing it back forward. It's also often seen in movies and TV — Terminator comes to mind here.
- Magazine-fed shotguns are also increasing in popularity. The shells are carried in a magazine, just as you would for a rifle or handgun.
While it may seem like there's a lot to think about, don't let the nervousness get to you. Follow this guide, and once you've done it one time, you'll see how much fun it is. Then the nerves will disappear. The processes may seem involved when reading them, but you'll see how it all flows together when you're shooting. Just remember to relax, and happy shooting!