Pistol shooting technique: Stance

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One of the most important factors that determines how accurately you shoot a pistol is your stance. This applies just as much to shooting air pistols and replicas as it does to firearms. In this article, I’m going to be looking at pistol shooting stances and how these can be used when shooting replicas. I’ll look at both the one-handed stance used in traditional air pistol target shooting and at some popular two-handed stances which are more suited to for multi-shot, action shooting.

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US Police pistol training, circa 1950. Note static, one-handed stance. Ideal for target shooting, but not much else.

Now, it may seem like overkill to talk about stance when all you’re doing is shooting pellets or 6mm BBs at a target, but actually all the lessons that come from the shooting of firearms also apply to shooting replicas. Happily, you aren’t ever going to be using your replica in combat (unless you’re an airsoft skirmisher), but you can’t shoot any pistol accurately and consistently if you aren’t balanced correctly. These stances help to ensure that and help to counteract the simulated recoil that is provided by blowback replicas.

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Contemporary police pistol training. Officers are now training to use a two-handed stance and to shoot while moving.

Getting your stance right is a fundamental part of shooting and yet it’s something that very few replica shooters bother about. Good stance isn’t complicated or difficult to learn and for each stance I’ll describe what’s involved and explain the advantages and disadvantages so that you can choose which suits you best. This article is short on words but long on pictures. Describing the elements of a stance in words is difficult and can sound complicated. In practice it’s very easy – If in doubt, just look at the pictures.

Obviously, stance isn’t the only thing that determines whether or not you hit the target. Grip, aiming technique, breathing and focus all play a role. However, this article is just going to look at stance.

The evolution of the pistol shooting stance

Back in the day, everyone shot a pistol one-handed. Look at any picture of police or military handgun training up to and including the Second World War and you’ll see the pistol gripped in the dominant hand with the other hand held loosely at the side or anchored by being placed in a trouser pocket. This dates back to the first use of muzzle-loading, single shot pistols. This stance allowed a single, aimed shot and provided a measure of protection to the shooter – placing the body side-on to a potential attacker provided a smaller target and the extended arm and pistol provided some protection for the head and upper chest. For a right-handed shooter, this also placed the most vulnerable organ, the heart, as far from a potential incoming shot as possible.

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Seventeenth Century duelist demonstrates the advantages of the single hand stance.

However, as pistols developed and became capable of firing more than one shot, the single handed stance was retained. This wasn’t so good – If you want to control a pistol over a series of shots without being unbalanced by recoil, using two hands to support the pistol is much better.

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A US Army soldier using a Colt M1911 demonstrates one-handed shooting to French Army spectators in 1918.

In 1942, British soldier and Shanghai Municipal Police officer William “Dangerous Dan” Fairbairn published an influential book; Shooting to Live With the One-Hand Gun. Despite the title, this book used Fairbairn’s military and police experience to explain that the conventional one-handed target stance was inappropriate for pistol shooting in combat, not just because it was less accurate over a number of shots, but also because it involved turning the body away from a threat, something that we are psychologically conditioned not to do. Instead, Fairbairn suggested a stance that kept the torso directly facing towards the target while gripping the pistol with one or two hands. The two-handed stance which comes from these ideas of Fairbairn is generally known as the “Isosceles Stance” though it is occasionally also referred to as the “Fairbairn Stance”.

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US Air Force Air Police using a two-handed Isosceles Stance while training with S&W 38 revolvers, Taipei, Taiwan, 1960s

This was followed in 1943 by the publication of another very influential book: “Kill or Get Killed” by US Army officer Colonel Rex Applegate. In addition to conventional shooting stances, both Fairbairn and Applegate discussed what they called “point shooting” – shooting a pistol without using the sights. This technique, now generally referred to as TFS (Threat Focused Shooting), is used when responding rapidly to an unexpected threat. It wasn’t accurate – it was intended solely as a way of getting shots off in the general direction of a threat as quickly as possible.

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Illustration from Kill or Get Killed shows technique for point shooting from the hip. Suit and tie not essential.

In the late 1950s US Marine John Dean “Jeff” Cooper began to promote what has been come to be known as the “modern technique” of handgun shooting. This took many of the ideas first promoted by Fairbairn and Applegate and codified them into a scheme of training that became widely adopted by police and military in the US.

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John Dean “Jeff” Cooper

Amongst other things, Cooper advocated what became known as the “Weaver Stance”, a slightly different two-handed stance first used by Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff Jack Weaver during target shooting pistol competitions during the mid-late 1950s.

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Deputy Sheriff Jack Weaver

In the 1960s another California policeman and well-known competition shooter, Ray Chapman of the Los Alamitos Police Department , developed a modified version of the Weaver Stance which became known as the “Modified Weaver” or “Chapman Stance”.  These three two-handed stances, the Isosceles, the Weaver and the Chapman are still used by most competitive target shooters in multi-shot competitions today and are widely taught to police and military pistol users.

The One-Handed Stance

The one-handed target shooting stance is about as simple as it gets. Hopefully you won’t have to worry about incoming shots while you’re shooting your replica, so there is no need to turn your body completely side-on to the target. Most people find it more comfortable to stand with the torso, hips and feet at about 45° to the target, with the dominant side facing towards the target. Your feet should be about the same distance apart as the width of your shoulders.

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One-handed stance. Body at an angle to the target, feet apart, pistol in the dominant hand and free hand in a pocket or belt loop.

To find the ideal angle for your one-handed stance, stand in front of the target at the range you intend to shoot, adopt the stance then close your eyes and point your finger. Don’t try to guess where the target is and point to it, just point in what feels like the most natural direction. Now open your eyes and look where you are pointing. Adjust the angle at which you are facing the target until doing this leads to your finger pointing in the direction of the target. Note the angle you’re standing at and use this when you are shooting. Fine-tune your stance by doing the same thing while holding the pistol. Close your eyes, raise the pistol and open your eyes. If the sights aren’t pointing at the target, adjust your stance some more. It’s also worth remembering that if your non-dominant hand is allowed to swing free when you’re using a one-handed stance, this can act like a pendulum and cause your aim to waver. To avoid this, put the free hand in a pocket or hook your thumb over your belt.

For shooting single, carefully aimed shots, the one-handed stance is just fine, though it can be very challenging to get consistent results. I tend to use this stance when I’m shooting very accurate single-shot replicas like the Smith & Wesson 78G or the Predom Łucznik Wz.1970. However, when I’m shooting a multi-shot replica, I more often use one of the two-handed stances described below.

The Isosceles Stance

The Isosceles is probably the most natural stance when holding a pistol with two hands. If you ask someone who has never held a handgun before to grip and aim a pistol using two hands, they’ll probably unconsciously adopt a stance very like this. The earliest version of this stance (sometimes referred to as the “Fairbairn Isosceles”) involves the pistol held in two hands with elbows locked and arms straight (so that the arms and torso form an isosceles triangle). The torso and hips are directly facing towards the target, shoulders slightly forward, legs slightly bent and feet widely spread and an equal distance from the target.

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Original Fairbairn Isosceles Stance. Both arms extended with elbows locked, body facing the target, feet an equal distance from the target.

The Fairburn Isosceles is easy to use and feels entirely natural. It’s also good for cross-dominant shooters as it’s easy to align the right or left eye with the sights. However, it doesn’t provide good front-to-rear balance. Used with a firearm with powerful recoil, the Fairburn Isosceles can lead to successive shots climbing and even to the shooter being rocked back on their heels. This is less of a problem when shooting replicas, though this stance still doesn’t provide ideal balance.

More recent thinking has led to a slight modification of the Fairburn Isosceles, where the foot on the non-dominant side is placed forward and the other back with the knees slightly bent. This is sometimes called the “Power Isosceles Stance”. The forward foot should be about the distance of a normal step ahead of the rear foot. Using this version of the Isosceles, the head and torso still face directly towards the target, but the placement of the feet provides better fore-and-aft balance.

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Power Isosceles Stance. Both arms extended with elbows locked, body facing the target, foot on the non-dominant side closer to the target.

Overall the Isosceles Stance is easy to learn whether you’re using the Fairbairn or Power version and it feels natural to most people. This is certainly the stance I use most often when I’m shooting replica pistols. However, anyone with an elbow injury or problems with elbow joints may find it difficult to hold this position and it does lead to the pistol sights being some distance from your eyes.

The Weaver Stance

The Weaver Stance is very different. This involves standing with the torso and hips bladed at an angle of approximately 45° to the target, feet splayed but level with the non-dominant foot closest to the target. Both elbows are bent and the pistol is secured in an isometric grip achieved by pushing with the dominant hand while pulling with the non-dominant hand. The support elbow is low while the dominant elbow is high.

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The Weaver Stance. Body bladed towards the target, both arms with elbows bent. Elbow on the dominant side is high, elbow on the support side is low. Bending the elbows like this brings the sights much closer to the shooter’s eyes.

To most people the Weaver Stance just doesn’t feel as natural as the Isosceles Stance and it takes some practice. However, there are a number of advantages to using this stance. It brings the pistol sights nearer to your eyes, a boon for those of us whose eyesight isn’t what it was, and for the same reason tracking from target to target for action shooting is faster. It’s also better for those who have elbow problems but it generally doesn’t work as well for cross-dominant shooters. The Weaver Stance can be modified to suit the individual shooter – the arms can be only slightly bent with the pistol almost the same distance from the eye as when using the Isosceles Stance or they can be more deeply bent, bringing the pistol sights much closer to the eye.

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The Weaver Stance with elbows less deeply bent

While writing this article I did some shooting using all the stances mentioned here. Although I have tried it before, I was surprised at how effective I found the Weaver Stance. It looks a little odd, but it actually feels good and it’s especially useful for bringing the sights closer to your eyes. The only thing you have to be careful of is that you don’t bend the elbow of your dominant arm so much that you unlock your wrist. This is an aggressive stance which places your weight naturally forward, on the balls of your feet. Holding this stance for an extended period is much more tiring than when using the more relaxed Isosceles Stance. Maintaining the isometric pressure on the pistol is used to counter the effect of recoil on a firearm. Keeping up this pressure can also be tiring after a time, certainly more so than when using the Isosceles Stance. However, when shooting a replica using this stance (even one with blowback) the pressure needed is much less than when using a firearm and shouldn’t cause problems even if you don’t have especially strong arms.

The Chapman Stance

The Chapmen (or Modified Weaver) Stance is identical to the Weaver, other than that the dominant arm is straight with the elbow locked. The non-dominant hand still pulls against the dominant hand to provide isometric pressure.

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The Chapman Stance. Body bladed towards the target, dominant arm straight with elbow locked, support arm bent.

The Chapman Stance offers the same advantages and disadvantages as the Weaver though it can be problematic for those who have problems locking the elbow on their dominant side. Of the three stances described here, this is my least favourite. The combination of locked dominant arm and applying isometric pressure with the non-dominant hand feels awkward to me and I shoot less consistently using this stance.

Conclusion

These aren’t the only possible stances for shooting a pistol, but they’re probably the most appropriate for shooting replicas. For example, I haven’t covered stances for point shooting, mainly because this is intended as a self-defence technique of last resort and I can’t imagine any circumstances in which you’d want to use it when shooting at a target with a replica. If you want to know more about shooting from the hip, watch any Humphrey Bogart or Edward G. Robinson movie.  There are also a number of other two-handed stances out there, but most of them are simply variations of those described here.

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Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) can hit the target every time using this stance but I don’t know anyone who can do it in real life. Hey, maybe you do need to wear a suit and tie to make point shooting work?

Try all these stances and see what suits you best. All you need to do is to find a stance you’re comfortable with and that provides consistent results.

Happy shooting.

Related Pages

Cross-dominance and air pistol shooting

Links

Because it’s now out of copyright, you can download Shooting To Live With the One Hand Gun by William Fairbairn for free at Project Gutenberg here. Fairbairn was a fascinating character and this book is well worth reading for anyone interested in the development of combat pistol shooting.

And the same thing applies to Kill or Get Killed by Rex Applegate which you can find here.

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