Handguns for Teaching a Beginner

By Chuck Hawks


Most reasonably experienced handgunners have been faced with a request for informal shooting lessons. These usually come from a friend, spouse, relative, or youth interested in learning how to shoot, or at least in shooting a "real gun" to see what it's like. Such requests should be taken seriously, as there is no better way to grow our sport. Over the years, I have found that most of these requests come from young people and women, with women constituting the majority.

In many cases the motive behind such a request involves the realization on the part of a woman that learning to shoot is a positive step towards real liberation, far more effective than joining the N.O.W. gang or demonstrating in the street. The ability to protect herself, and perhaps her children, without the necessity of relying on the police or anyone else (who probably won't be available when needed, anyway) is a tremendous boost to anyone's self-confidence. That, after all, is one of the primary reasons that Sam Colt invented his revolver.

Whatever the reason someone decides to give shooting a try, the ball is in your court as soon as they ask you to help. You don't have to be a professional instructor to get someone started right. If you understand the fundamentals of gun safety, gun handling, and handgun shooting (especially stance, grip, sight alingnment, and trigger control), can express them clearly, and possess the requisite patience and understanding to help a neophyte lean a new skill, you will do fine. (If you don't feel up to the task, refer the person to someone who is.)

Obviously, you should not allow yourself to show anger under any circumstance, and don't raise your voice. Teach by example (show and tell), interact with your pupil in a friendly manner, and use lots of positive reinforcement (praise, in other words) when they do something right. If you can convince your student to focus on the front sight (not the target!), and squeeze the trigger until the gun goes off (a surprise break), you will have them well on their way.

Of course, to teach someone how to shoot you must own a handgun suitable for the purpose, which brings us to the point of this article. If you get enough requests for informal lessons, it may be worthwhile to purchase a gun specifically for use as a "trainer." The training handgun, of course, can be a perfectly useful field, plinking, and informal target pistol when it is not being used as a trainer.

The cartridge

For teaching beginners I strongly recommend a revolver chambered for the .22 Long Rifle cartridge. That is the right cartridge and the right kind of pistol for the job.

The .22 LR cartridge is by far the best choice for a new shooter. The report of a .22 is mild and the recoil negligible, crucial factors in a training pistol. It is accurate, widely available, and inexpensive. Remember that initially a beginner will be reluctant to spend a lot of money for ammunition, and while you can probably afford to supply them with .22 LR cartridges, it would quickly become an economic burden to supply them with centerfire cartridges.

The handgun

Revolvers are simpler to operate and safer than autoloaders in the hands of a beginner. They are also very unlikely to "jam" or malfunction, which can be quite upsetting to a beginner.

I feel that the best all-around training revolver is a Colt Diamondback DA revolver with a 4" barrel. The 4" Diamondback is moderate in weight (28.5 ounces), safe, has an excellent action, adjustable sights, and is very accurate. Sadly, it is no longer produced and is therefore available only on the used market. Continuing demand insures that a good Diamondback is expensive and sometimes hard to find.

My next choice would be a Ruger New Model Super Single Six Convertible. As a trainer, this single action revolver is most suitable with a 4 5/8" or 5 1/2" barrel. The Super Single Six is probably the safest (most foolproof) revolver on the market. They are reliable, come with adjustable sights and offer good accuracy. They are widely distributed, and you even get an extra .22 Magnum cylinder in the deal. Fortunately, New Model Super Single Sixes are moderate in price, new or used.

The 6" Diamondback and 6 1/2" Super Single Six barrel options are better for the experienced shooter as they have a longer sight radius and offer better ballistic performance. However, the 4" to 5.5" barrels make for a lighter and more compact gun, and that is important to most neophytes.

If you want a lightweight revolver specifically for very weak individuals, the Ruger New Model Bearcat might be a reasonable alternative. It comes with a 4" barrel and weights only 24 ounces, compared to 32 ounces for a Super Single Six with a 4 5/8" barrel. Unfortunately, however, the Bearcat lacks the adjustable sights that I regard as a practical necessity.

I strongly prefer adjustable sights because adjustable sights make it easy to set up the revolver for the individual shooter and the ammunition in use. Experienced shooters know that it is the group size, not its location, that tells the tale; but beginners like to see groups in the center of the target.

In my experience, practically all beginners are at first startled by the weight of real guns, but they adapt quickly and within a couple of weeks are managing medium weight pistols quite well. This includes the women I have taught to shoot (informally, as I am not a professional instructor).

I feel that learning to shoot is just that--it is not personal protection, combat, competition, plinking, or hunting. Those things come later. For teaching, what I recommend is a safe, accurate, durable, low recoil, medium weight revolver with adjustable sights and a decent trigger. The Super Single Six fills the bill in every respect. (The "lawyer approved" stock trigger can be lightened without resort to a gunsmith if you so desire.) Once they learn the fundamentals of trigger squeeze and sight alignment the novice can easily transition to whatever type of handgun they prefer for their intended purpose.

Other potentially suitable training revolvers include the Ruger SP101 (DA, fixed sights, 4" barrel, 34 ounces), S&W Model 34 22/32 Kit Gun (DA, adj. sights, 4" barrel, 22.5 ounces), and Taurus Model 94 (DA, adj. sights, 4" or 5" barrel, 25 ounces). The Ruger is a nice revolver but lacks adjustable sights. Taurus, a Brazilian brand, has steadily improved in quality over the years, but remains a lower cost knock off of the basic Smith and Wesson revolver design. A copy is seldom as good as the original.

The S&W Kit Gun is probably the best of this group. It is particularly suitable for a person with small hands, as it is light, built on a small frame, and has a skimpy grip. A good used example built in the 1950's or 1960's is probably the best option if you can find one; later production declined in quality. Pachmayr grips are a worthwhile addition for most shooters.

There are, of course, many other .22 revolvers on the new and used markets. Some of these may make acceptable trainers, but most are too heavy, too expensive, or inferior in one way or another to the models already mentioned.

Optical sights

Another useful accessory on a training revolver is a red dot optical sight. These are easy to mount on a Super Single six, as well as several other popular revolvers. Optical sights (scopes and red dot sights) put the point of aim and the target into a single sighting plane and allow the beginner to concentrate on a surprise break trigger squeeze, simplifying the crucial initial stage of learning how to shoot. Red dot sights, unlike a conventional telescopic sight, don't magnify the target or the shooter's tremors and wobbles. The latter is important, as it is very disconcerting to a beginner.

Most people quickly learn to hit the target with a red dot sight, so they get positive reinforcement and a feeling of accomplishment early on, which tends to make them enjoy the learning process and makes it more likely that they will eventually become recreational shooters.

Once the new shooter masters trigger control, then you can revert to iron sights and introduce the problem of front and rear sight alignment on the target as the next step in their shooting education. They will learn faster because they already know how to squeeze the trigger and can devote most of their concentration to the front sight. The fewer new concepts they have to learn at any one time, the better.

Necessary accessories

As a minimum you should be able to initially supply your pupil with hearing and eye protection. That usually means a pair of "earmuff" type ear protectors and a pair of inexpensive shooting glasses (if they don't already wear glasses). If they become interested in shooting they will soon want to purchase their own "ears" and "eyes," but you need to have loaners to get them started.

If the initial shooting experience is to take place from a bench rest, you will need to provide a couple of sandbags or some other sort of rest for your pupil to use. Fortunately, pistol shooting at the introductory level is not accessory intensive.

Final thoughts

Helping a new shooter get started is one of the most important things you can do for your sport. If our fine American shooting and marksmanship traditions are to survive the relentless assault of the mass media and the "politically correct" crowd, they must be passed along on a one-on-one basis. Surely the liberal media will not help us promote the shooting sports.

Ultimately, I feel that it is women who are not willing to become victims that are most likely to be the saviors of our Second Amendment rights. But somehow these potential new shooters must find a way to get started. That leaves it up to those of us who are experienced shooters to make an extra effort to help potential newcomers get started in our sport.




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Copyright 2004, 2005 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.

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